Robert Sestok is a painter and sculptor living and working in Detroit. His work has been exhibited at Cranbrook Art Museum, Museum of Contemporary Art (Chicago, IL), Marlborough Gallery (New York City, NY), and the Detroit Institute of Arts and Wayne State University, where his work is held in permanent collection. He is the recipient of a Pollock-Krasner and Erb Foundation grants, and National Endowment of the Arts. A mentor to young artists, Sestok established City Sculpture Park in 2014, an art park in Detroit’s Cass Corridor for public use and enjoyment. He was awarded the Kresge Fellowship in visual arts in 2017, AXD Grant from Creative Many 2019 to create a slide show of his artistic life in Detroit.
How did you come to work with your specific collaborator? Did you know them before this? Were you familiar with their work?
I’ve known Kurt going back decades. We were both in a mural competition for the wall of the Detroit Artists Market in the early 80s. He won the competition and I was jealous he got that. He was really devoted to doing his artwork. He moved to New York City after graduation from Wayne. I’d visit him in New York and he’d do pop up shows in New York around the city. He made this street-art type of installation work, and that was his thing that was an extension of doing his work. He had shown at the Revolution Gallery in Ferndale as well, so he has a history. When Kathryn Bracket-Luchs, the originator of the show Dual Vision was picking people, originally she picked the group of Detroit Artists from the 70s and included Kurt as well and said “well you could work with Kurt” and I said “thats fine.” Kurt had put on some little Detroit shows in his apartment in New York before he moved to the Bronx, and you know he’d just invite his friends over, it was kind of a party. That happens a lot in New York City, pop up shows. So we’ve been friends all these years. Kurt came to Detroit with his idea for the sculpture and we spent a week collaborating and making the sculpture happen, and then he went back to New York City and I kept working on the sculpture. So it was like his original idea that I combined my idea with. Kurt is not a welder, he makes sculptural pieces, but I think that—I don’t know if you know the artist Red Grooms but Red did these kind of funky installations where he’d do figurines and paint them and cut-outs, and three-dimensional things that he’d combine with paintings— my installations are more about abstractions, I do some narrative work, but Kurt was playing on this thing about relationships between men and women, in my estimation. That was Kurt’s kind of thinking about this. That may not be how he sees it but that’s how I see it.
Before the actual process of making, what was the process of deciding on what to make like? What was the making process itself like?
Kurt presented some drawings to me over the internet that I thought were kind of old school for me. I had done some sculptures that involve cut outs of faces that were kind of primitive and Kurt had this thing with faces on it but it was like a combination of feminine and masculine. I kept taking scissors and cutting them up and sending them back to him and he’d say, “no, no, no that’s not what I want,” and I’d say, “but we’re collaborating.” So what I did was I was very patient with Kurt, I felt as being the older artist I had a little authority over him. I let him do his thing, and then he left town. What we did was we cut the shapes of the figures out of steel, and then the scrap pieces that were left over I incorporated into the sculpture when he left. His idea was complimented in this abstract way of these shapes that complimented his artwork, and that was my part of the collaboration. I also added a base to raise the piece up off the ground and gave it a little more power.
So there wasn’t like a master blueprint for the work going into it.
No, it evolved as a result of looking at the scrap metal and thinking, “this is really interesting and I can’t just throw it away.” And I do that with a lot of my work you know, I’ll cut stuff out and then I’ll say—the negative part of the work becomes a positive section of what I’m trying to make— I’m working with abstract shapes mostly. Around the 90s I had done these head sculptures, and I didn’t really incorporate the cut out pieces that much until later on. I think that this piece that Kurt and I made, it was something I had already visited years ago so I was familiar with the subject matter. But it was like, “how do I revisit that?” And so I just had to let Kurt do his thing and then I was able to not collaborate with him physically but I sent him photos of what I was doing and he would go, “wow, that’s really cool.” So that’s how it came about.
What new possibilities were offered through collaboration that would not have been possible working alone? Did you feel any disadvantages compared to working alone?
I wouldn’t have revisited a narrative like Kurt had imagined. I had to say “Ok I’m gonna go back and do some more work on this type of image and develop it,” and so that exercise led to the outcome of the sculpture.
Did working collaboratively provide you with any insights that could be extrapolated and used outside of art in either a personal or political context? Were there lessons learned that could be used in other aspects of life? What did it teach you about democracy?
You know we tried to come up with a title for the piece, and Kurt and I could not come up with a title that we both could agree on.
It’s interesting hearing you speak about the friction of the collaborative process.
When Kathryn came up with this idea, I had curated a few shows and I told her, “I’m through curating.” So I gave her the lead, this was her idea, and I just went with it. I tried to give her my input on the show, but basically we were shopping the idea around town to various spaces and I said, “we should present this to MOCAD, because the space is a museum and I think the artists are mature enough to be in a museum setting.
Going off of the title of the exhibition, how do you and your collaborator see your specific work differently?
His interpretation I think is personal, whether or not he admits it, I think it is about his ongoing relationships that he has with women or something that led him to kind of dissect the human image into male and female, kind of category. And then kind of splicing the male/female figure together with necklaces and eyelashes and then short hair and a mustache for the man. And so it becomes kind of a cartoon in a way, and so I think that’s what he was about, his personal input into the work.
Whereas I wasn’t being personal at all about it, I wanted to develop the work into a more organic kind of shape, using the scraps which kind of represented a peripheral vision around the sculpture that was complimentary but was still kind of abstract. And it’s not something that is modeled to be smooth and you can touch it. It’s not something you want to rub your hands on. When I work with metal that’s part of—I’m such a compulsive welder and sculptor that I’m in a hurry to see the end product. It makes it really organic and it’s like it came out of the forest.