The "Garbanzo Works" Initiate a Renaissance of Cast Sculpture in the Bay Area

PRIOR TO 1960 it had been the usual practice of Bay Area sculptors who wanted to work in bronze to have the actual casting of their sculptures done in commercial foundries as far away as New York, France, Italy, or even Japan; the result was a considerable scarcity of bronze sculpture in the area. Between the fall of 1960 and the fall of 1962, however, over 10,000 pounds of molten bronze was cast into sculpture in the Bay Area. This phenomenal and rapid development of bronze casting (and the casting of iron and aluminum as well) can be attributed to a single factor: a compulsive desire among an initially small group of artists to become involved in the casting process. 

In the fall of 1960 Don Haskin came to Berkeley, from Mendota, Minnesota, as a newly hired member of the University of California faculty. He left behind a bronze foundry which he had been operating for a year, and he intended to establish a similar one in Berkeley. Also new to the University faculty was Harold Persico Paris, who had already done considerable work in bronze while living in Germany and France, and who was very enthusiastic about continuing work in this medium. Already in Berkeley as University faculty was Peter Voulkos, who had achieved international recognition for his monumental ceramic art and who was restlessly anxious to become involved in other media. It was this trio, with their overwhelming desire to work in cast metal, and their apparently boundless energy, that gave new vitality and further meaning to sculpture in the Bay Area. As the first year of foundry work passed, a growing number of sculptors, painters, art students, (and a few persons who only wanted to watch). joined the original trio in what must have been the most cooperative, most confused, most productive, and most slap-stick do-it- yourself foundry operation on record.

The early days of the Garbanzo works (an early nickname for the foundry) were spent in building basic equipment from scratch, and in carrying out unscientific experiments to determine the practicality and potential of various techniques. A small corner of the Engineering Alloy Foundry in Berkeley was rented from a very sympathetic landlord, and the corner was equipped with a home- made furnace and tools, and a crucible of 190 pounds capacity. The early work suffered from both minor and major misfortunes, and more than once the molten bronze which was poured into the mold poured right out of the bottom and onto the floor, to be reclaimed and used again later. However, commercial foundrymen were impressed by the quality of casting accomplished with the primitive equipment, and intrigued by some of the innovations in technique. Of these early undertakings, Harold Paris has said, “A self- respecting foundryman would have laughed at some of the things we attempted, but we were interested in making sculpture, not in self-resple day. The feedback of the technical process into the creative process was immediate. Voulkos and Paris, as well as others, agree that their idea of sculpture began to change and grow as they became more understanding of the foundry process.

In their second year they were joined by Julius Schmidt, an active and established sculptor who worked primarily in cast iron. By this time some thirty or forty persons had become involved, in one way or another, in operating a foundry which now stretched across most of Berkeley. That is, many of the foundry operations, such as investing the pattern in a mold, burning the pattern out of the mold, pouring the metal and finishing off the cast sculpture, were being carried out in many different places including a number of artists’ studios and the Berkeley campus. This was a time of very close and dependent association between the artists participating.

Ingots and scraps of bronze were loaned back and forth, other materials and labor were equally shared. There always seemed to be the truck, or trailer, or strong backs needed to move the heavy investments or cast pieces from one place to another. Yet, in spite of this intimate and prolonged relationship, sculptors like Voulkos, Paris and Schmidt seemed to grow increasingly individual in their ideas about sculpture. Voulkos recognized more and greater possibilities in his characteristic manner of putting together angular slabs of bronze. Paris’ strong contrasting of broad planes and intense configurations of detail became even more bold. Schmidt’s work seemed to become even more monolithic and richly detailed. The younger and less well established artists, such as James Melchert, David Lynn, and Bill Underhill, also developed primarily as individuals growing into artistic maturity, dependent upon others only for assistance and inspiration, but not for ideas.

It has been wrongly presumed that these sculptors invented or discovered new foundry processes and techniques, probably because their individual and characteristic styles are so extremely different from one another. But the artists partaking in this foundry adventure did not discover new processes, and in fact had little interest in finding new procedures. Every practice employed, including the making of mold impressions from cardboard, string, wood, and plastics, as well as carving negative images directly into the mold, had been previously used in the casting of sculpture in some other place and at some other time. Rather than inventing new processes, these artists were primarily interested in gaining mastery and proficiency in the basic and established processes of foundry work. 

What is of salient importance about the foundry activity in the Bay Area during those two fruitful years is that the foundry processes became an extension of the sculptor’s studio, and that the sculptor himself invested, cast in metal, and finished his own piece. The promoting force was the idea that the traditionally independent activities of the artist and of the foundry be made into one progressive and continuous action. Certainly not every sculptor wants to expend the time and energy necessary to become an expert foundryman, but the artists involved in the Garbanzo foundry knew that this was the only way for them to be able to make the kind of sculpture they wanted to make. One must consider the usual manner in which a sculptor might have a piece cast in bronze. He would make a model in wax or some other similar material, which would be turned over to a commercial foundry. Since the few good art foundries in this country are in the New York area, the model would have to be shipped there. If the foundry accepted the piece for casting, there might be a six- month wait before the piece was done. Under these conditions, work such as Voulkos’ (Vargas), and Paris’ (Voice and Seat, Big Mama) would never have come into being.

The scene of these sculptors breaking away the investment from the freshly poured and still hot metal, with picks, axes, and fingernails, could not have more resembled a group of archeologists digging in the earth for some yet undiscovered masterpiece. As the investment was 

removed and each sculptor saw what he had made in a fresh and different way than he had imagined it, the sense and thrill of discovery prevailed, yet each was looking for a different thing in the cast piece. Paris looked closely for the unexpected things that happened in the pouring and hardening of the bronze that could be used again purposefully, things that he could incorporate into his next idea. Voulkos, who had discarded the idea of casting a complete sculpture in one pouring, looked at each piece for its appropriateness in being fitted into a larger sculpture he would have in mind, a sculpture composed of many pieces bolted or welded together. Haskin examined his newly cast form for ideas in how to transform it further with patination. The greatest revelation would be experienced by Julius Schmidt, who had only an idea of what his finished piece would look like, because he did not make a wax or similar pattern that would be burned from a mold, but would carve a negative image directly in pieces of a mold which was then assembled and filled with molten iron.

The opportunity to cast one’s own sculpture in metal, and the inherent rewards, have grown far beyond the small corner of a building that was the original foundry. Since that early beginning the sculptors involved have established a number of foundries which are currently in operation. Voulkos and Haskin have their own foundry in Berkeley, Paris has a foundry on the Berkeley campus of the University of California, Tio Giambruni on the Davis campus, Stephen De Staebler and Jerome Johnson have a foundry in Albany, Bruce Beasley in Oakland, David Lynn in Canyon, and Bill Underhill established one foundry in New Mexico and another in Connecticut. Obviously it is not the possible saving of time and money which drew these artists into the foundry operation. It is the excitement, the challenge, the romance, the delight, and the potential of casting metal into sculpture that has animated and transformed the ideas of those artists involved.

Source: Pugliese, Joseph. "CASTING IN THE BAY AREA: The Garbanzo works initiate a renaissance of cast sculpture in the Bay Area." ARTFORUM, Aug. 1963.