Head of steam: Harris Diamant retrospective in High Falls

Harris Diamant in his studio on the Rondout (photo by Lynn Woods)

For 30 years, Harris Diamant has been making sculptures, drawings and wall pieces characterized by mysterious, cabalistic imagery and meticulous fabrication processes using materials, ranging from laminated wood and Mylar to gold leaf and found parts. When making his piece, “My mind is filled with facts and vacant of ideas,” he said. “I want [the piece] to reveal something about me I don’t understand. That’s what makes it interesting to me.”

But Diamant is no naïf: He brings to his work a practiced eye, honed from his many years as a dealer of American folk art. His long-felt Steampunk sensibility reflects a fascination with 19th-century mechanics, scientific charts and the aesthetic mysticism of the Odd Fellows and ancient Egyptians. 

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Diamant, a native New Yorker who has had multiple shows in New York City and Los Angeles, is now making his debut in his transplanted locale in the mid-Hudson Valley. A retrospective of his work will open at Wired Gallery in High Falls on September 1 and run through September 23. It will consist of approximately 50 pieces, including his sleek, carved wooden heads and standing figures, abstract steel sculptures and life-size assembled heads, which resemble futuristic automatons.

I recently visited Harris in his loft, located in a former synagogue overlooking the creek in Kingston’s Rondout District, where much of this work is displayed, along with that of his wife, designer Neville Bean. (The couple moved to Kingston in 2015 after they lost their Chelsea studio due to an exorbitant rent increase.) Sparsely furnished – instead of a couch, guests sit on red velvet movie chairs – the loft contains their studios as well as a living area filled with their artworks, suggesting a combination curio store and art gallery. Two of Diamant’s large honey-colored, hollowed-out wooden heads, which seem to be awaiting the phrenologist’s analysis, are perched in the front window, while a cluster of oddities, including a raised hand, are clustered on the floor. Shimmering gold-and-silver-leafed flat wall pieces complement Diamant’s numerous assembled life-size heads, which are fabricated from metal parts, some displayed in Victorian-style glass domes.

One, wearing a metal derby (it’s actually a tuba mute) and facial features partially made from fiberglass mannequin parts, is mostly space; in a reversal of Modernist orthodoxy, it’s the details of the features and costume, rather than the spherical form of the head, that interest the artist. 

Diamant was born in 1937, after his parents – both the children of Jewish immigrants, on one side from Poland and on the other from Romania – moved from Harlem to the Bronx. He graduated from City College, substitute-taught at City public schools and attended graduate school at Yeshiva University for a year, majoring in Communications. In 1966 he opened his first antique store on the Upper West Side, eventually expanding and specializing in American folk art. He began making his own pieces in the mid-1980s and had his first show in 1986 at the Allan Stone Gallery. Here are excerpts from our interview:

Did you always want to make art? What affected you as an artist growing up?

I grew up in a supportive family in the West Bronx. My father was born in the Lower East Side in 1900, and his parents were shtetl Jews fleeing the pogroms in Romania who came here in the 1890s. It was a world of pushcarts and large families. My brother’s task was to fix things, such as wiring a lamp or repairing a broken chair. I was the only one in the family to go to college. I started at City College when I was 16, and for reasons that are mysterious, I chose Veterinary Medicine as a major. I think it’s because I wanted a dog. I soon discovered I didn’t have the aptitude for chemistry and biology, so I fell in with the arts and literature.

When I was a small boy, the father of a kid who lived in the building next to us had this steam boiler that was attached to a lot of miniature machines. I connected with that in a powerful way.

Harris Diamant’s 5 of 08

How did you start out as a dealer?

  I was initially drawn to model steam engines, but my first affair with objects had to do with Art Nouveau, which was rediscovered in the late 1950s and early 1960s. There was a big show at MoMA, and it touched me in a powerful way. I was teaching school as a permanent sub in a junior high school in Bed-Stuy. It was tough. Since I had a salary, I felt secure, and always had an inclination to do antiques, so I opened my shop after school in the afternoon, and very soon after, quit teaching.

How did you make the transition from dealing in objects to also making your own?

  I rented a partition and made a workroom in the back of my store to restore the stuff I bought. I fabricated lamps from particles of antiques, investing energy in changing them and bringing them to the market. As I moved from Columbus and 71st Street to Second Avenue and 52nd to Second and 53rd Street, which was a much larger space, I was slowly converting the impulse to fix stuff to making stuff.

Back then, I assume space in New York City was affordable.

  In 1966, Manhattan was reminiscent of Kingston now. I could open up a store and not put myself in financial jeopardy, since I was paying $500 a month.

 Was there a single event that caused you to devote yourself to making art?

In the mid-1980s, my wife at the time and I went to Washington, DC to see a show dedicated to David Smith’s Voltri series of sculptures, which he made over 30 days at the Spoleto Festival, using an ancient foundry with detritus in it. I was aflame. I went home and made this tabletop sculpture out of shards of iron I’d accumulated in my shop. I brought it to Allan Stone, who had a gallery on 86th and Madison – I’d sold him a lot of American folk art – and he bought it and offered me a show for the next year. The show consisted of abstract steel sculptures. That was followed by another show at the Ricco Maresca Gallery of a bunch of lamps I had made.

You then started making the headless figures?

  Yes. I had a longing to make figurative art, and discovered ways to do it. I began making standing figures, each cut out of a board, with small amounts of laminated wood to create features in depth. I then started making heads. I developed my own method of cutting out shapes of very thin laminate boards with a jigsaw and then gluing them together. It’s a 3-D shape created out of flat pieces of wood. I remove the excess with a carbide burr, which is like a file. It takes a long time to refine the shape. I sandpaper the form and finish it with tung oil. It’s physically demanding, so in the late 1990s I started making the assembled heads.

 What are they made out of?

  They’re essentially made out of repurposed objects. Usually I stumble upon a single iteration of an object and then order it. For example, I saw some aluminum gym rings in a shop window on Bleecker Street one day, and I was drawn to the shapes. I started buying the rings from a playground company. I have a collection of Odd Fellows stuff from the turn of the 20th century, including depictions of the Eye of God, which is a single eye surrounded by radiating lines. I take photographs of the graphic images and then size them to apply to different pieces. [Pointing to one of the heads] The eye here is surrounded by false teeth used by dentists, and the torso consists of a necklace mandrel, which jewelers use for fabricating necklaces. The neck is part of an aluminum canister and the features are parts of fiberglass mannequins. The eyes consist of refined cinder glasses, which are tiny glasses tied onto the eyes of people stoking furnaces to protect them from flying sparks; I take out the glass lens and replace it with mica, which I buy from a stove manufacturer supplier. I showed the owner of a company that manufactures fiberglass mannequins for department stores what I’m doing, and now he makes customized parts for me.

How did the drawings come about?

  After I completed a head, I would photograph it and make a drawing of it as a way of separating myself from the piece and allow my critical sense to kick in. I was enjoying doing the drawing, so I started making independent drawings. I always started with something that exists in the world, such as the “money men”: people central to American currency, like Abe Lincoln, Alexander Hamilton and Andrew Jackson. I did a series of them, enlarging the image on the currency, translating it onto Mylar and using gold, silver, brass and/or aluminum leaf to finish the drawings.

 What is your attraction to lead, which you used to make the cross pieces?

It’s a material that’s easy to manipulate, like leather with memory. It takes a shape, and you can push it and adjust the surface in multiple ways.

 Did you ever take a class to learn the techniques of working with these different materials?

  I’m self-taught. I asked the guy behind the counter in the hardware store how to do something. I taught myself how to solder, braze [a form of soldering with brass], weld, cut metal. I can produce the illusion of precision without being precise. I can do machining I wouldn’t show to a machinist, but it serves my needs.

 As a lifelong New Yorker, has it been difficult to adapt to life in Kingston?

  When we saw this particular place, which was just raw space, we had an opportunity to help define it for our needs – plus, we have a magnificent view. I never had a dishwasher, but now we have one, along with radiant heat and a car. These are things I never thought I wanted, but I like them now.

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You and Neville have been showing your work for the past year in a store window just down the block, at the corner of Broadway and West Strand. How did that come about?

  It’s called Window on West Strand, and each month we alternate our work. I saw a sign in the window that said “For Rent,” and I wasn’t sure if it was for the window or an apartment, so I called, and the owner said we could rent out the window for a price that’s affordable. It resonates with New York in the 1960s: You can rent a commercial space in Kingston, and if it doesn’t work out, you don’t have to kill yourself.

“Harris Diamant: A Retrospective” opening, Saturday, September 1, 5-7 p.m., through September 23, Saturday/Sunday, 11 a.m.-4 p.m., Wired Gallery, 11 Mohonk Road, High Falls; thewiredgallery@gmail.com, www.thewiredgallery.com.