The Object and You: Fred Eversley in Conversation with Jenny Dally

A Fred Eversley sculpture in the form of a green concave lens.
Fred Eversley stands in the doorway of his white, modern studio surrounded by examples of his colorful plastic sculptures sprawled across a table, on a pedestal, and in front of a window.
Fred Eversley in his Venice Beach studio, 2018 (photograph by Elon Schoenholz; photograph provided by David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles)

Fred Eversley initially conceived of his sculpture as “kinetic art without using kinetic elements.”1 Within seconds of encountering one of his cast-resin or polyester sculptures, the object takes hold of the visitor’s movement, guiding their eyes and body around the work with a visually alluring high sheen that casts a distorting lens on the environment. Eversley has produced such sculptures since the beginning of his career. Diverse in color and scale, they are unified by glossy surfaces and a complex, technical process—involving custom-designed tools and extensive polishing—that serves as a testament to his early scientific training. Born in Brooklyn in 1941, Eversley studied as an engineer at the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) and moved to Southern California in the early 1960s to work as a senior project engineer at Wyle Laboratories, where he developed testing facilities for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.2 He began his career in the art world by assisting his Venice Beach neighbors in the execution of technically challenging projects; he then went on to produce work in his own right in the late 1960s and soon became known as a central figure of the Light and Space movement. His sculptures exemplify the group’s interest in the atmospheric effects of their coastal environment, but they are distinguished by Eversley’s preoccupation with physical energy as a common characteristic of all humanity. Throughout his career, Eversley has sought to use energy as a central force in his work, with the hope of appealing to a universal audience.

Speaking by phone on April 26 and June 10, 2019, Eversley and I talked about his path to becoming an artist, the production of his work, and his ongoing practice of fifty-plus years. Our wide-ranging exchange has been edited for length and clarity, with some of Eversley’s responses reorganized to group similar themes; any text in brackets has been added for clarity. The below otherwise follows the progression of our conversation as it took place. 

—Jenny Dally

Jenny Dally: Your training is in engineering, you had considered medical school, and your professional background is in the aerospace industry. Could you tell me about how you came to be an artist, and specifically a sculptor?

Fred Eversley: Basically, I worked for a company called Wyle Laboratories as an engineer in El Segundo, California, and while I was there I was very involved in the local art community because we [various Light and Space artists and the artistic community of Venice Beach generally] all lived in Venice together. And while I was an engineer, I met a young artist that I fell in love with, and I had an accident. I broke my thigh very badly and they put me on crutches for almost a year. And I was helping my girlfriend, Nancy, make her sculpture. She was an MFA student at UCLA and I used the opportunity—I was getting a disability payment from the state—to essentially experiment with making art myself, and that’s how I got started making art.

At first, the art was photographs encapsulated in plastic. I’d been a photographer for years, an amateur photographer, and so I started encapsulating photographs in plastic, which led to my work in polyester. I was making many layers of plastic to figure out how to get photographs to be flat in the plastic, and I started these experiments as little multilayer rectangles with plastic, which became interesting to me. Robert Rauschenberg came over and really loved my little pieces of sculpture and encouraged me a lot. And my good friend John Altoon—he lived three doors down the street from the studio I was sharing with Charlie Mattox—encouraged me to forget my photographs and just deal with plastic because he thought it was more interesting. So I just started making experiments, mostly making multilayered, multicolored plastic. And I got into a few local shows at a few local museums, and Rauschenberg came over and said, “Forget trying to get a gallery in LA; go straight to New York, the LA scene is just too difficult.”

So in February 1968 or ’69, I came to New York with an attaché case, around fifteen pieces, full of these little pieces of multilayered, multicolored polyester, and I took Rauschenberg’s advice. I met Betty Parsons first, because that’s the gallery he started in. And Betty said, “This is not the kind of work that I show but I love it, I really love them,” and she bought a couple little pieces from me. And from there, I went to see [Leo] Castelli and I was intercepted by his gallery manager, who said, “You have to show them to me before you can show them to Castelli.” I showed them to him, he loved them, but said that Castelli wouldn’t be interested in showing me. I saw Castelli and he loved the pieces, gave me a lot of encouragement, but didn’t offer to show them. And on the way out of the gallery, the first gentleman that looked at the sculptures said, “I’m opening a gallery in downtown Manhattan in December, please come see me, my name is Ivan Karp.” He gave me a card and I walked out of there feeling like a thousand bucks. I walked down Madison Avenue. There was a gallery called Richard Feigen, and I went up to see him, he loved them also and took one piece on consignment and put it in his display case.

And then I was on my way to see Marian Goodman, who had a little gallery called Multiples, and before I got there I came to the Whitney Museum. I remembered that an old friend of mine had become a curator at the Whitney, so I went to the phone at the desk in the lobby and called up to her and she invited me to come upstairs and see her. We hadn’t seen each other in probably six years, and I said “Well, I’m making sculptures.” She said, “You what?” I said, “I’m making sculpture.” She knew I was an engineer, and she says, “Let me see them.” And so I pulled out my little attaché case, she loved them, and she picked up her telephone and basically got the entire senior staff into her office to look at my little sculptures. She called me the next day and she said, “Fred, how would you like to have a show at the Whitney in June?” And I thought she was kidding, because Marcia [Tucker] was a big kidder, and I didn’t do anything. I went back to sleep and she called at two o’clock in the afternoon. She says, “Fred, where the hell are you? You know, the whole senior staff is just waiting to meet you.” I said, “Marcia, you’re not serious”—she said, “Yes!” And so I jumped into the shower, grabbed my attaché case, and ran up to the Whitney and it was late, it was after five o’clock. But the staff was all assembled in the boardroom and was pissed off at me for making them stay late, but they looked at my little sculptures and they discussed. They said, “Do you have any larger sculptures in California?” And I said, “Yes,” which was a lie—I didn’t. I had experimented with big sculptures, I had one big piece that was in a show called Plastic Presence at the Jewish Museum—that’s now in the collection of the Milwaukee Art Museum—the previous year. So I knew I could do big sculptures, and I was offered a show and I went back to California and started working like hell.

And that’s how I got started. Six months later I had my show at Ivan Karp [OK Harris], and then a show in Chicago at Phyllis Kind, concurrent with my show at the Whitney; they both happened one week apart in June of 1970. Yeah, that’s how I got started—it came out of nowhere. It came out of Rauschenberg stopping by the studio and Marcia at the Whitney. So one thing happened after another over six months, basically.

Dally: I imagine you walking through New York in one afternoon and introducing the whole New York art scene to your work and your practice in one fell swoop.

Eversley: I think it was something like February 7 that I went to Betty Parsons, and I think I had my meeting at the Whitney around February 8, and I immediately went back to California the same night. And worked my ass off and produced two shows of work, one for the Whitney and one for Phyllis Kind.

Dally: You talk about working like hell when you got back to California, and I’m certain your work is very labor intensive to produce. Could you walk me through the process of making one of your cast-resin or polyester pieces?

Eversley: Right. I had managed to find one assistant who helped me polish, so I cast and polished and this other assistant just polished. And we managed to get two shows together—more than two shows, because I was also in a group show at Pace, called The Last California Show [A Decade of California Color]—I had three pieces in that show. So, I mean, it was the Whitney show, the Pace show, the Phyllis Kind show, and the OK Harris show, all in six months.

The Whitney show and the Phyllis Kind show were pieces that we cast by spinning—casting multilayered, multicolored plastic into cylindrical forms, using a lathe to spin a large cylinder about the horizontal axis. For the OK Harris show, I switched from spinning them on the horizontal axis to spinning them on the vertical axis, which produced a parabolic shape as opposed to a cylindrical shape that I then cut.

Dally: And how long does it take to produce one of those forms?

Eversley: At least two weeks in casting and polishing, if everything goes perfectly.

Dally: And this was right after you moved into John Altoon’s former studio.

Eversley: Yes; well, the early pieces that I produced—that Betty Parsons saw—I produced in my old studio that I was sharing with Charles Mattox. And John Altoon was a good friend, and I helped him out with stupid little shit like helping him with his air gun or changing a lightbulb or whatever. We became very good friends and saw each other virtually every day; he would walk his little dog down to the studio I was in. So when Altoon died in 1969, his widow, Roberta, gave me his studio and she went to New York and actually lived with my mother for a week or so until she got her own place in New York.

I first met John when I was still an engineer, and his wife, Roberta, was working for Frank Gehry. So when she ran into a problem while she was working, he called me up or went down the street and asked me to come up and help him with something. It all happened very serendipitously—just one thing led to the next.

Dally: It does feel very serendipitous. It really sounds like Venice was overflowing with artists. I read something about you living next door to John McCracken?

Eversley: John McCracken was next to Altoon, so when I took over Altoon’s place, McCracken was just next door. And my black pieces started out from the same can of black pigment that McCracken gave me. It’s a whole long story, but basically he gave me his can of black and started making his multichrome pieces, and that’s when I started making my first black pieces that led to my first white pieces that led to my first mutlicolored opaque pieces.

And in 1977 I got appointed as the first artist in residence at the Smithsonian [National Air and Space Museum], and while I was there—it’s a long story—but while I was there, I could not work in resin because of the fumes, so I started working in acrylics, in multiple layers of clear acrylic and then colored acrylic, basically cut into triangles and stacked up on each other. And so I did that for most of the time I was at the Smithsonian, and then I came back to LA for a week—I was on the founding committee of MOCA, the Museum of Contemporary Art in LA—and I came back once a week for a month to go to those meetings and continue working on polyester pieces, but most of the pieces I did then, in Washington, were laminated pieces. And while I was at the Smithsonian, I got my second large commission, my largest commission, making the forty-foot, double-element parabolic vertical piece for the Miami airport entrance sculpture. I had done a large, multicolored, eight-foot-diameter sculpture for Lenox Square, the largest shopping center in America at the time, in Atlanta, and then the second major piece was my piece at the Miami airport, which was commissioned in ’77 and installed in ’80.

A public sculpture by Fred Eversley, shown on a grassy space against a backdrop of palm trees and blue sky. Two large cylindrical stainless steel forms are sliced on a diagonal (forming parabolas) and overlapped. Neon white light borders the edge of one cylinder.
Fred Eversley, Parabolic Flight, 1980, stainless steel, LED, and plastic, 36 ft. x 13 ft. 6 in. x 12 ft. 8 in. (11 x 4.1 x 3.9 m) (photograph provided by Art in Public Places Trust, Miami-Dade County Department of Cultural Affairs)

Dally: If I might back up for a second, I’m curious about the community of artists you were living and working with in the 1960s and ’70s. You’re obviously well known as part of the Light and Space movement, and I’m wondering if there are other artists you were engaging with or working alongside.

Eversley: Yes, when I was an engineer I did some consulting work for Larry Bell on his vacuum work, and then John McCracken and I were right next door to each other so I was very influenced by John. But I was very familiar with most of the Light and Space people in Venice— Peter Alexander, DeWain Valentine, all those people were in Venice. And all of us bought materials from the same art store in Santa Monica and were all in the same shows together. There was no term “Light and Space” in those days; even that “Fetish Finish,” you know, which is a bullshit term, even that hadn’t been coined yet. I make sculpture. I mean, I don’t think John McCracken ever considered himself a Fetish Finish guy. These terms are made up generally by nonartists—by art historians, or something, to satisfy the need to put a name on a show or a movement. The Light and Space movement has a little bit more validity than the Fetish Finish, but again, I heard it well after I had been doing my work. I’m supposedly a member of this school. I mean, I polished my work, but it wasn’t a Fetish Finish [laughs], what can I say.

You’re just making sculpture. All of us lived by the beach, all of us hung out in the same places, all of us were very much influenced by the light, the sun, and the beach. You know, the physical environment. And LA’s a big city, so the farthest east I went was La Cienega, except for going to visit Ed Ruscha, so I wasn’t familiar with anyone that didn’t live on the west side of town.

Dally: So you weren’t involved with the art movements developing in other parts of the city—the Black Arts Movement that was emerging and the Feminist Art Program, for instance?

Eversley: No, only Judy Chicago (Judy Gerowitz at the time). She had been a very close friend and schoolmate with the woman I was living with when I had my accident. And there was a group put together while I was still an engineer called the Aesthetic Research Center—it was basically a copy of EAT [Experiments in Art and Technology] in New York, of connecting technologists with artists—and I was assigned to Judy Chicago. But nothing ever happened.

Dally: Speaking of New York, were you involved at all prior to 1970 in the art scene in New York or Pittsburgh, before you moved to Los Angeles?

Eversley: No, not really involved, except that my girlfriend for the last three months I was at Carnegie Mellon was an artist, and we spent the summer of 1963 in Mexico, where she was studying art at the Instituto Allende. I mostly hung out just playing banjo and stuff. And so that was my little involvement before then. You know, growing up in New York, hanging out in the Village, you were surrounded by artists, but I didn’t have any particular connection with them. The one thing I had a connection with was the film world, because a very close friend of mine was Wendy Clarke, whose mother was Shirley Clarke, who was the first woman to win two Cannes awards for film, and I was basically the gopher—I went for pizza and that kind of thing, on the weekends and such. In Pittsburgh, not really; Jon Borofsky’s one of my fraternity brothers, but we’d play cards, we’d party together, we’d dance together.

Dally: All right, we can turn back to Los Angeles. You lived in LA for a long time, and I know you were recently forced to leave your studio and home that you’ve been in since 1969.3 Are you based in New York full time now?

Eversley: I just moved to New York full time, after I lost my studio in California, basically in February. I’ve had my studio in New York since 1980.

Dally: How would you characterize your relationship to the city of Los Angeles over time and now?

Eversley: Well, again, LA’s a big city. And now traffic is very bad, so to get from one side of the city to the other side can take two hours. So basically I spent almost all of my time in Venice, and I spent an enormous amount of time in the studio. And I’m pretty local, up and down the coast, up to Malibu or up to Santa Barbara, down to Newport Beach. I don’t go very much into LA.

Dally: Venice in the 1960s and 1970s was certainly a hotbed for lots of radical ideas and thinking. Were you at all involved in any of the social movements during that time?

Eversley: I was involved a bit in the civil rights movement and with the Vietnam War and those kinds of things. I wasn’t directly involved in a heavy sort of way because I was living in Venice, which is on the beach and not down in the ghetto, but, yes, I was involved. I was actually clubbed when I was on crutches at a rally for . . . I can’t remember who was running for vice president then. Yeah, I was involved, but it’s hard for me to be specific because it’s too long ago. But I was involved in the civil rights movement and progressive political movements since I was a teenager. First in New York and then Los Angeles. 

Dally: Back to your work. You have mentioned the parabola is a form of particular interest to you, and I was wondering if you could talk about how you came to the parabola as a central form in your work and its significance to you.

Eversley: As a kid I had a sort of workshop in my parents’ home. My father was an engineer and my grandfather was an early experimenter in photography and electronics. And I had my amateur radio communications license when I was about seven, and so I basically did a lot of photography and a lot of electronics. The parabola was the form I first learned about—I don’t know what age, thirteen or fourteen years old—in an issue of Popular Mechanics or Popular Science, I can’t remember which magazine. It’s the only shape that concentrates all forms of energy to a single focal point, and it was a form that was postulated by Isaac Newton. It’s called the Bucket Theory, since they spun a pail of water around an axis and created this shape. And then it was repeated in the 1800s by people attempting to make parabolic telescopes to look into space. They did it by spinning a pan of mercury around the vertical axis, and this created a perfect parabolic form that was a perfect reflector. The only trouble with that is mercury is very poisonous, so most of them died of mercury poisoning—so that fell out of popularity and very little was done with parabolas for many years. But it got me to just try to create a parabola by putting water into a pie pan and spinning it on an old phonographic turntable, and I could create a perfect reflector doing that.

So when I became an artist, I remembered all those little experiments I was doing as a teenager and attempted to do it in plastic, and it worked. The main use for parabolas, until very recently, has been in telescope reflectors, where they cast glass and then grind it into a parabolic shape. The parabolic shape constantly changes slope as you go around it, so you have to hand-polish a parabola—so telescopes are hand-polished for ten years. This has a very specific advantage in that it’s the only shape that concentrates all energy into a single focal point, so now it’s used in telescopes, in radar antennas—you know, anytime you want to concentrate all energy to a single focal point, you do it in parabolas. And I was interested in energy as a concept from the time I was a kid, first with photography and then with sculpture.

To this day, I still attempt to create perfect parabolas. But as I was playing, I combined the three-layer experiments I’d done with my first series of sculptures—of spinning multiple colors around the horizontal axis—into doing it around the vertical axis, and that’s the basis of my current, my work since 1970. Again, it’s because of the concentration of energy. It creates a very unique form with very specific optical properties and acoustical properties and, if there are metaphysical energies, it’s only reasonable to assume that they follow the same laws of optics as all known forms of energy do.

Dally: You have talked about energy in a lot of your work, in both physical and metaphysical terms. Is there a connection in your work to religion or spirituality, or is it just a greater metaphysical consideration of the soul?

Eversley: Well, not to religion. Spirituality is a difficult one; it’s a difficult term. I don’t think of it in terms of spirituality. I think of it more in terms more universal than that—well, not universal, I guess. It makes people happy in some crazy way. If there’s one reaction I get to my work, it is that it really sucks people in, and that’s what I intend to do, you know, to make an object that is seductive enough that it sucks people in to physically interact with the art object, as opposed to something like a painting, where you stand back from it.

Dally: And do you think that the participation of the viewer and even of the environment as reflected or viewed through your sculptures adds to the work or completes it in some way?

Eversley: Yes, of course. That’s my objective and that is my satisfaction.

Dally: You’ve also said that your work should be lived with for a long time, which requires interaction not just in a gallery setting but in a much more personal, intimate setting.

Eversley: Yes, because it changes drastically in various lighting, and against the wall it’s very different from in front of a window. So I think I’ve been successful in that my work tends to be owned until someone dies—I’ve had very little turnover, very little resale. Virtually all of my collectors are the people that originally bought them, until they die and leave it to a museum or something.

Dally: As the person who has lived with your work the longest, do you think your relationship to it has changed over the course of your career? Does the work still reveal new aspects to you?

Eversley: Well, I live surrounded by my work. Every wall, every window, everything. And I’m still intrigued because I’m constantly learning a new thing. I mean, the change of plants growing outside, the change of light, the change of everything radically changes. And I love living with my own work.

Dally: I’m curious because you’ve talked so much about your background in photography and the interest in the optical properties of your parabolas. Do you think of them as connected to sight and opticality?  I’m wondering because they take the form of lenses, and there’s the connection to your interest in photography and to the telescope . . .

Eversley: No, no, no. The photography was where I started. I haven’t really worked with photography myself in terms of sculpture since 1970. The pieces stand alone. There’s an enormous amount of photography that’s done of my work; I don’t do it myself. But, you know, I am constantly getting pictures that people send to me, when they observe a piece in the museum or someone’s home. And the notes that I get with the pictures are all very positive. People take selfies, they take pictures of their friends, people get engaged with them—and that’s what I try to do in the art is to get people engaged. And the feedback I’ve gotten over the years is extremely rewarding to me.

Dally: I can’t believe I haven’t asked this yet, but how did you come originally come to polyester and resin and plastic?

Eversley: Well, it’s the only material that is easy. I did intend to do a series of works in glass in Czechoslovakia in the 1990s. I spent the whole summer of ’93 or something in Czechoslovakia, the most advanced country in glasswork. And basically, it’s almost impossible to do my pieces in glass, because they crack as you try to go through the process. I had a whole bunch of experiments that I did, and someday I might even be successful. But the polyester gives you the freedom of—it’s plastic as opposed to glass, it’s a low-temperature process as opposed to a high-temperature glass process. It would be almost impossible in glass to do my multiple color pieces, and one day I might be able to—maybe technology will get to the point where I can do them in glass—but right now the plastic gives you much more freedom. And that’s why I use the polyester.

Dally: What kind of work are you doing now? Is it a departure from what you’ve been doing, or do you feel like it’s still in line with your earlier works?

Eversley: No, each piece is different. You try new combinations of colors, you try new combinations of depth of each layer—it’s an endless combination. And each piece turns out to be unique enough. You don’t know what’s going to happen until you go through the final finish. I’m surprised at every piece I make. And I’m sure I could go on forever because it’s intriguing. It’s a never-ending kind of thing. I mean, I have no idea what I’m going to do six months from now, but right now I’m engaged enough in polyester that there’s no real reason to do something else.

Dally: To the point you made about combinations, how do you go about choosing your colors?

Eversley: First of all, I’m still using the same three colors and different combinations of different densities, because it changes radically. Recently I’ve been experimenting using other colors as well, and then using some pearlescent powders in the sculptures. And that is a whole new thing and becomes even harder to control, but it creates even more wondrous surfaces because you can get reflective qualities on each layer, as well as transmitted qualities.

Dally: I’m thinking of your black opaque lens pieces, which in 1978 you wrote were representative of black holes. And now that the photo from NASA of that black hole has been released, I’m curious how you’ve reacted to that.

A round, cylindrical cast-polyester sculpture by Fred Eversley. It is dark black, with no details detectable through the rich color.
Fred Eversley, Untitled (Black Hole), 1974, cast polyester, 20 x 20 x 2 in. (50.8 x 50.8 x 5.1 cm) (photograph by Joshua White, provided by David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles)

Eversley: I got those images and I’ve been talking about black holes for years—I’ve had other images of black holes, also. And you know, I’m trying to figure out exactly what to do; I mean, I also got great images I took myself of the solar eclipse that just happened, and right now I’m working on how to deal with that. I’m intrigued by it; it fits right into what I’ve been doing. And I don’t know if that’ll affect exactly what I’m doing. But I’ve been thinking a lot about it. I got a whole range of pictures of the eclipse and the black hole. There’s also something called the white dwarf, and all of those things sort of fit into what I’m doing. And I’m simply going to experiment more with all three of those things: eclipse, white dwarf, and the black hole.

The most recent picture I took and tried to make an object something like it was of the last lunar eclipse. I was out there on the streets at midnight taking photographs, and then trying to capture the essence of that eclipse in a piece of sculpture. My work is about light and I utilize light a lot. And the universe that we can see is all captured in tons of light. Even that which we can’t see is captured by instruments that are basically measuring light at frequencies higher than we can see visually.

Dally: I look forward to seeing what comes of those experimentations.

Eversley: So do I. Maybe nothing or maybe something, because just playing around—trying to simulate something, whether you end up doing it or not—opens up a whole new range of possibilities. Some will come out as planned, and some will be complete surprises. You know, what I’ve been trying to do—and I think I’ve been extremely successful at it—is for my work to be universal. In other words, I’m trying to reach a very broad audience, I’m trying to reach a universal audience, and I think I’ve been successful. I mean, the feedback I’ve gotten from shows I’ve had in Europe, from young kids to old people, from sort of art-educated people to people that just have no concept in terms of art or very little, have all been kind of universal. And that’s what drives me: universality in terms of appeal. 

I think that the thing that all human beings have in common is energy. Sound, heat, sight, and such. And so I use this, I’ve postulated this as a way of universal communication, and the responses I’ve gotten over the years from not only sophisticated audiences in galleries and museums but from very nonsophisticated audiences in different countries all over the world, they all seem to respond to my sculptures in the exact same way. They don’t need to know about history or art or anything else; they just respond to the sculptures in a very universal way. Be they young people, old people, people knowledgeable about art or not knowledgeable about art, they transcend all the boundaries that usually separate people: Black art, white art, old art, new art, all of the various separations, I think my art transcends. I mean, it’s both old and new at the same time. You don’t need to know anything about language, you don’t need to know anything about anything except the object and you. And your response to it.

Jenny Dally is an art historian currently based in Houston, Texas. She holds an MA in modern and contemporary art history from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and is curatorial assistant for prints and drawings at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

Fred Eversley is a sculptor living and working in New York City. Beginning his career as an aerospace engineer, he rose to prominence as a member of the Light and Space movement and has continued to produce highly technical cast-polyester sculptures for over fifty years.

  1. Frederick Eversley, exh. cat. (Palm Springs, CA: Palm Springs Desert Museum, 1978).
  2. Richard J. Powell and Virginia M. Mecklenburg, eds., “Frederick Eversley,” in African American Art: Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights Era, and Beyond (Washington, DC: Smithsonian American Art Museum, 2012).
  3. An application was filed in 2018 to deem the studio a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument, but as of 2019 the owner of the block of storefronts the studio occupies objected to its nomination.