For Tivoli Artist Steven Siegel, Geology Reigns and No Wall is Big Enough

Steven Siegel’s wife, Dr. Alice Linder, with his ongoing project No Wall is Big Enough (photo by Andy Wainwright).

Down a dirt driveway just off Lasher Road in Tivoli, a door hangs open. A wood saw fills the late autumn air with its distinct noise. Sawdust dances downward in suspended swirls, settling on a CD copy of With The Beatles, originally released 54 years ago, in 1967. The Earth, by some estimates, was formed some four-and-a-half billion years ago. There may be little way of fully understanding the sheer enormity of the scales surrounding geologic time, but local artist and geology aficionado Steven Siegel doesn’t think on a small scale. 

The wood saw comes to a stop, the room quiets, and the artist appears from behind wood, paint cans, and a broken bottle of glue. “Hello,” he says, wiping his hands. “This is where the messy stuff happens.” He continues, opening another door. “And this is where the art happens.”  

Siegel’s current project, No Wall is Big Enough, incorporates references to myriad materials, like these small replicas of Martin Johnson Heade’s picture, The Hooded Visobearers (Photo by Andy Wainwright)

A brightly painted floor-to-ceiling collage hangs in square sections on two walls of the artist’s concrete-floored studio. Siegel, 68, started the piece, aptly titled No Wall is Big Enough, in May 2020. It hangs in 40-inch square panels, each composed of paint on cut paper and photographs, each in painted white frames. Just 21 of these panels take up the entirety of one large wall. Many more stand neatly on a large vertical shelf. All in all, there are 81 panels and counting. “It just keeps growing,” Siegel says.

Walking beside the behemoth collage, one spies photographs of chess pieces, hummingbirds from a Martin Johnson Heade painting, and potted plants. Also featured is a photograph of two concrete lions that mysteriously guard a house in Red Hook that has all but burnt down. In the mural, they are positioned beside images of construction sites, garbage fires and images of the artist’s studio itself. The lions have become a mere detail within the vast collage. 

The intricacies of the cut images are mirrored by the geometric intricacies of the paint layered around them in deep reds and bright yellows. Standing back, the images cohere into something else, the framed panels combining to create previously unseen patterns amid the sheer scale of the work. 

To see the piece at its endpoint, its final state, will require one very large wall. How big precisely? It seems there is no way of knowing. “There’s no predetermined end to this, which is how it kind of worked out for me… In fact, it’s kind of my world view,” Siegel says.

Siegel and Alice Linder, his wife of nearly 40 years (photo by Doug Baz).

Westchester Beginnings

Born in suburban White Plains in 1953, Siegel quickly wanted out. He either hoped to live on a mountain in Colorado or smack in the middle of Midtown Manhattan. Thinking back, he says, “The biggest early influence for me was probably going out West hiking and backpacking when I was about 16 or 17, something I’d never done before.” A trained geologist doubled as a bus driver and drove 21 young people, Siegel included, from Madison Square Garden to the Badlands of South Dakota on a yellow school bus with 20 seats. “One of us had to sit on the cooler,” Siegel remembers. “We slept out every night for nine weeks, sometimes all of us under a tarp.” There, he saw for the first time the dramatic landscapes and exposed layers of timeswept rock of the American West. 

Another influence on the visual artist? Improvisational music, Siegel says. “The Grateful Dead weren’t going to allow me in the band,” he smiles. “But, by the time I was 16, I was spending a lot of time in the art studio — which is much more suited to me. With visual art, it’s all about discovery, improvisation, failure, and occasional success. The early influences were great painting, hiking and backpacking, great music, and just the desire to have a creative life.”

 The desire to lead a creative life led Siegel to Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., where he earned his BA in 1976. Then, he attended Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, obtaining his MFA in 1978. For seven years, he earned money as a freelance carpenter and lived in an unheated loft with no toilet on West 29th Street in Manhattan. “I loved it, even though I was poor, and the city was disgusting,” he says. “To this day, I think it’s a great place.” However, he adds, “For the sources of what I do, there’s little access to that living in New York.” Geologic wonder is one of the artist’s primary influences. “I didn’t have access to the Catskills,” he notes. Then came Alice.

Steven Siegel at his Tivoli Studio (photo by Patrick Grego)

“I met this wonderful little woman,” he says of his wife Dr. Alice Linder, a psychiatrist. He was 29 years old. Alice accepted a job offer in the area and the couple was able to afford a property with a garage art studio. After moving to Red Hook in 1984, Siegel continued to work as a carpenter, building kitchen cabinets in his garage for wealthy Manhattanites to make quick money. The carpentry shop doubled as an art studio. The couple lived in that first house for seven years before building a home in Milan, where they lived for 25 years, raising their two children. The pair finally settled in Tivoli, where they’ve lived for three years in an environmentally friendly passive house, an energy-efficient building intended to reduce the couple’s carbon footprint.

“We didn’t know a single person here,” Siegel says, reflecting on his initial move from New York City to Red Hook 37 years ago. “When you leave New York, you stop going to those dinners, you don’t meet those people, go to those openings. I knew that professionally I was probably putting myself at a slight disadvantage, but artistically,  it opened up a whole new world for me. I doubt I ever would have done the work I’ve done if I stayed in Manhattan.”

Through the Decades

Siegel has been creating art for decades with pieces of public art, installation art, collage, film, and sculpture. His studio work has been exhibited at noteworthy galleries, among them New York’s The Drawing Center and Marlborough Fine Art, as well as Montalvo Arts Center in California. A large section of his 156-foot mixed media piece, Biography (2008-2013), is currently on display at Albany International Airport. His films have been screened across the country, and his sculptures and public art commissions have been displayed around the world.

Steven Siegel’s “Like a Hive Like an Egg” debuted in Arte Sella, Italy in 2002. It is made of paper and wood (photo courtesy Steven Siegel).

In 1990, Siegel received a commission for a public art piece at the Snug Harbor Sculpture Festival that would set the course for much of his artistic work. The festival took place on Staten Island, then home to the world’s largest landfill, Fresh Kills. The piece, New Geology #1 (1990), was composed of a 15-foot tall, 10-foot wide cylinder made of stacked recycled newspapers and topped with earth, grasses, and flowers. 

“Humankind is literally altering the face of the earth,” he says, detailing the concept of the Anthropocene, our current geologic moment. Siegel describes this new layer of Earth created by humans: our waste and our activities. “We are literally affecting not only the atmosphere but the surface of the earth, including all the species on it, all the vegetation on it… just by the sheer scale of our intervention with natural resources.” 

Siegel’s Like a Buoy Like a Barrel on display in Providence, Rhode Island in 2009 (photo courtesy Steven Siegel)

Because Siegel is most known for site-specific outdoor work such as Like a Buoy, Like a Barrel (2019), one of his large-scale public art commissions crafted from post-consumer plastics, he is often described as an environmental artist. Siegel bemoans the label. “My interest was always aesthetics,” not labels, he says. “I do art because ultimately the aesthetics are what really matter to me.” Of course, he acknowledges, everything is connected. “I like to think that political activity is outside of the art world bubble of eco-artists.” More than 20 years ago, Siegel served on the Red Hook Central School District Board of Education, and to this day, he actively participates in political campaigns. He says he tries to keep his art and political lives separate.

His most recent work, No Wall is Big Enough (2020-ongoing) is similar to other studio works – say Biography (2008-2013) – created by a process free from predetermination and preconception. This artistic process more closely aligns with the artist’s worldview and to the evolutionary processes of the natural world, as opposed to the tactics used in cabinetry or for public commissions. “People want to know what they’re getting,” he explains of the more heavily designed work.

What will Siegel put into the world next? Sitting across from his newest work, what he pitches as the world’s largest collage, Siegel declines to explain its meaning. “Really good artists,” he says, “are observers more than activists. I want to let the observations speak for themselves. When something leaves this room, I’m out of it, it will have a different meaning for whoever sees it. If I’ve done my job correctly it will be powerful, profound, beautiful… But as far as dictating what it means or something, forget it.” 

Who knows just how big No Wall is Big Enough will grow? Siegel himself is unsure. What is known is that this latest work will eventually, along with all of us, make its way into the Anthropocene.

Steven Siegel with a portion of his masterwork Biography, 2008-2013 (photo by Doug Baz).

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