Learning from Artists: Josiah McElheny 

Written by
Kirstin Ohrt
Oct. 26, 2022

Josiah McElheny Visits HUM 434/ART 404: “Counterworlds: Innovation and Rupture in Communities of Artistic Practice”

Josiah McElheny, the renowned interdisciplinary artist best known for his works combining glass with other materials, recently spoke with students in HUM 434/ART 404: “Counterworlds: Innovation and Rupture in Communities of Artistic Practice,” co-taught by Brigid Doherty and Josephine Meckseper, Belknap Visiting Fellow in the Humanities Council and Department of Art & Archaeology. 

Josiah McElheny presenting to ART 404 students seated around a long table

(Photo/Kirstin Ohrt)

Drawing from a range of disciplines including history, architecture,  astronomical cosmology, philosophy, and literature, among others, McElheny presented his hope for art constituted of “ideas that become embedded in form.” His presentation to the class focused on the ideas of infinity and utopia, presenting work inspired by Louis Auguste Blanqui’s Eternity Through The Stars: An Astronomical Hypothesis,  Jorge Luis Borges’ short story The Library of Babel, writings of German poet and architectural theorist, Paul Scheerbart, and the architecture of Bruno Taut.

Josiah McElheny listening to student feedback

(Photo/Kirstin Ohrt)

“I’m interested in learning from other people,” said McElheny, “and that’s how I’ve constructed my life —from people who are alive or dead.” While acknowledging his critics’ doubt about his approach, McElheny has developed work centered around ideas generated in the past, arguing that their value has outlived their historical moment. From Borges’ and Blanqui’s notions of infinity and the idea of the double to Scheerbart’s and Taut’s doomed utopias, McElheny toured the class through his sources of inspiration and the work that resulted. Among the pieces he presented were Bruno Taut on Mies van der Rohe (1922) (2009), Eternity Through the Stars (2011), The Center is Everywhere (2012), Prismatic Park (2017), Moon Mirror (2019), and his 2021 exhibition Libraries. 

Josiah McElheny's handblown glass vessels with mirrored background
Detail of the architectural installation, “From the Library of Atmospheres,” 2021, architectural intervention, industrial mirrored glass, hand-blown, cut, polished and mirrored glass, electric light  (Photo Phoebe d’Heurle)

Elaborating on the works presented, McElheny spoke of the distinction between truth and knowledge. He pointed out that the pursuit of knowledge could be an expansive frame, perhaps even in relation to the history of slavery and the genocide of Native Americans, suggesting “knowledge is a way of beginning a kind of dialogue.” At a time when truth has been caught in the crosshairs, McElheny sees knowledge as an alternative that allows for “parallel knowledge” or respect for different perspectives. Beyond books, McElheny imagines such knowledge could be contained in “what we breathe, humidities, pressure...” As the perception of color is unique to every individual, so is the experience of space and everything encountered. Recognizing the fragile state of the world today, McElheny suggested, “We understand utopian notions are bound to turn out to be disastrous, but we can’t not try to conceptualize in that direction - because what else can we do? It’s still important to find a way forward.”

Supported by a Humanities Council Magic Grant, McElheny’s presentation encouraged thoughtful discussion among the students, who may organize a visit to the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., to see his Two Walking Mirrors, currently on exhibit through October 30, 2022.

Arkestra performing infront of McElheny's Moon Mirror
As part of Blank Forms Presents, a residency inside Josiah McElheny’s exhibition Observations at Night at James Cohan Gallery: The Sun Ra Arkestra performing using McElheny’s sculptural platform for music and acoustic space, Moon Mirror, 2019, hand-pressed prismatic glass, stainless steel, performance (Photo/James Cohan, New York)