In his collection of essays Logical Constructions, Bertrand Russel quips the principle of Occam's razor: ‘Whenever possible, substitute constructions out of known entities for inferences to unknown entities.’ This urge toward minimalism, the desire to avoid fussy hypotheses, is primal.
The stone sculpture of Boaz Vaadia embraces and celebrates this primal simplicity. His work reflects heady themes—a history of tools, the collapse of time, the relationship between man and the earth—without being overwrought or hyper-allusory. His stone figures are meditative. They breathe. They're composed of materials Vaadia has known since his childhood and, with just his bare hands and a chisel, he gets the stones to communicate.
“I can feel the vibration from the stones,” he said. “It’s not even a question in my mind. I feel the entire history of the stone, and the vibration is the stone communicating. Can we really understand the millions of years of the life of an object? Not on an intellectual level. It’s physical.”
Vaadia's somatic connection to the land was formed in a village in Israel, where his parents tended a vegetable farm. His father refused to till his fields with machines and believed that tractors rape the earth. This deep respect has informed Vaadia’s aesthetic philosophy throughout his career; he, too, feels that something essential to the core sustenance of the material—be it vegetable or rock—is compromised if a machine supplements his bare hands. Even after his work gained worldwide recognition and he began to produce sculptures on a bigger scale, Vaadia continued to extract and utilize his materials, mostly bluestone and slate, in ways that honor the entanglement between man and stone.
Vaadia attended art school in Israel, and then moved to New York in the mid-1970s, where he settled into a studio in SoHo. After a time of personal and artistic acclimation, he made the decision to sculpt using remnants of the city itself.
“At first I thought I made the worst mistake,” he said. “I left an environment where I had knowledge of every stone, every cranny. This city, at first glimpse, seemed so big and unnatural. I feared I’d removed myself from those forces I was so connected to. And then I realized that the urban environment is actually as natural as my village—here, I can find remnants of the relationship of human to mother earth based on a primal connection, the need for shelter. I found it in the bluestone sidewalk, the slate roofing. What’s happening there is the accumulative knowledge of human beings relating to stones.”
When construction ripped up the sidewalk in front of his studio, revealing ancient rock shaped by glaciers, Vaadia knew he’d found his source material. “These stones are the bone structure of the earth. I actually think about it as something that is changing, something that was shaped by the glaciers and is still being shaped.”
Speaking of shapes: all of Vaadia’s modern work is figural. His gigantic loft studio in Brooklyn (he relocated from SoHo in the early 1980s) is crowded with people and animals, all in varying positions of repose. Each figure is composed of a series of balancing layers of stone chiseled precisely to mirror the soft curves and lines of bodies: a bent elbow, a folded knee, a face in profile. Remarkably, Vaadia sculpts all of his pieces instinctually—once he has a figure in mind, he allows the stone itself to guide his compositional choices. Otherwise, he says, the mechanics would fail.
“I remember very clearly the moment when, instead of my mind telling me what to do, I sort of surrendered to the force that came to me from the stone, and started to work with it as a partner,” he said. “I discovered that there is power in this relationship.”
Vaadia draws power from the laws of physics, too: all of his layered figures are constructed using nothing but the balance instilled by gravity. No glue, no bolts (until the work is installed in its final resting place, as a safety measure). In this way, each sculpture captures a legitimate centering in space, and exudes something meditative. This energy exchange creates a viewing experience that is largely subjective: the figures convey something unique for every individual. Vaadia says his intent as an artist was never to state something specific to an audience.
He loves the open-endedness of the stone, and the way environment plays a role in its identity; he calls the exchange between human and stone a “catalyst that brings something out of the viewer.” A figure standing in his studio affects me in a way specific to the surroundings: I can delight in its relaxed proximity to other sculptures, in the way the space feels like it hosts a family gathered in a living room after a holiday meal. But once that sculpture is installed out in the world—say, in a grassy field, sunlight leaking through the spaces in between chiseled stone layers—its vibrations may be tuned to a completely different frequency.
Vaadia’s sculptures have been acquired by museums and collectors all over the world, and his work is often displayed outdoors—a further layering of body and nature. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has a stone figure, “Shani,” in its permanent collection; the entrance to the Time Warner Center in New York features the sculpture “Asaf and Yo’ah” as a permanent installation; “Asa & Yehoshafat” is permanently installed at the Independence Park in Tel Aviv; and numerous other sculptures can currently be found in public and private spaces all over the world. Vaadia still does all of his sculpting himself, and resists the pull of new technologies that would enable mass production.
“The temptation to remove myself from the process is very strong—it’s an opportunity to make more money, to have more time. But the process is what inspires me,” he said. “When I make a piece, there is a residue that stays with me. I recognize that I myself am formed from layers of understanding that accumulate within me as I work.”
Vaadia stresses that the maturity of his current work is necessarily imbued with the sensibilities of his childhood, that the only way to be spiritually and professionally successful is to be in tune with oneself, to respect and honor the personal truths that guide our interactions in the world. In 1984, when he completed his first figural sculpture, he named it Adam—not as an overt religious connotation, but an instinctive nod to his homeland. After that he named figures based on which cousin or friend happened to be crashing on his couch at the time (there were many in those early years). Only later, at a gallery opening, did someone ask him why all of his figures had Biblical names. Vaadia says he was shocked to discover that he’d done this; his subliminal connection to Israel had emerged through naming. As with all things he feels to be true to his art, he decided to honor this coincidence, and continues to give his sculptures Biblical names.
Recently, Vaadia digitized some 25,000 slides of his work and compiled many into a printed monograph, encompassing a prolific and widely admired career. He dedicates the book to his parents, and says how much their support and encouragement meant to him when he was a youth struggling with dyslexia. They gave him the creative freedom to express himself in a medium outside of language, and the confidence to approach his art with the knowledge that he could contribute something profound. As his father coaxed vegetables out of the ground, so too did the young Vaadia coax sustenance from the earth. Vaadia says he doesn’t see himself as very different: both men produce food, but his is food for the spirit.
In a lovely bit of synchronicity, Vaadia’s most recent commissioned project brings together his formative influences and his modern-day success. A collector visiting Vaadia’s gallery in London made him a dream offer: create something important, it will go in my home, budget is not an issue. Vaadia accepted and is about halfway through the project; right now it rests in his Brooklyn studio, the layers reaching waist-high, one leg akimbo. Vaadia was initially told the sculpture would be installed in Switzerland, and only recently learned that, instead, this collector will build a home in Israel. The young Vaadia, reluctant to leave his beloved village but drawn to the opportunities in New York, would be touched. The folding of time and place molds Vaadia’s work as it molds all of our lives.
“I don’t think I have the capacity to understand the life of the stone in the scale of time—my work lasts just a second in the life of the stone. One second that will take me my entire life to observe,” Vaadia said. “Every moment of our lives, whether we realize it or not, relates to this balance of gravity and time.” He smiled. “Hopefully I’ll die here in my studio, when I’m 110, by a rock falling on my head. And I hope to grow even in that last moment of my life as an artist.”
Click here to visit a gallery of Vaadia’s sculpture.