Bob Schwarz’s Visualizations in Space

Complex three-dimensional works of art
After a four-decade career in broadcasting, Bob Schwarz focuses on the sculptures that had previously occupied him during his downtime. Durell Godfrey

As Bob Schwarz said recently — and many scientific studies have confirmed — “One of the advantages of being dyslexic is the ability to visualize in space. I was very dyslexic, and when I was going to school in the 1940s and early 1950s, they thought I was just stupid. But the minute I walked into a television studio, I understood how it worked.”

And so began a 40-year career in broadcast television as a director on such productions as “The Electric Company,” “Sesame Street,” “Live From Lincoln Center,” “The Ed Sullivan Show,” “Another World,” “Search for Tomorrow,” and “As the World Turns.”

That same ability is perhaps even more vividly manifested in a second career on which he embarked more than 40 years ago as a way to relax when not directing: the creation of complex three-dimensional works of art. A broad selection of the self-taught artist’s sculpture was on view during November at the Amagansett Library.

While working at CBS, Mr. Schwarz saw the work of Naum Gabo, the Russian Constructivist, on his visits to the Museum of Modern Art. “His ability to produce three-dimensional parabolic shapes by the intersection of straight wire appealed to something in my psyche.”

Lucite and monofilament were readily available materials and remain essential to his work. He also uses aluminum, acrylic rod, metal hardware, acrylic inlays, wood, and, in some cases, LED lights. Each piece starts with a ground of contact paper affixed to three-quarter-inch plywood. He marks a dot every three-sixteenth inch and then uses a center punch to depress each dot before finishing the holes with a drill press. Each strand of monofilament passes through a hole and is stapled to the underside of the ground.

Aluminum piers or plinths are likewise drilled at regular intervals and epoxied to the ground. Each strip of monofilament emerges from the base, passes through a plinth, and returns to the base. It takes a week to string a typical work. 

“It’s like Chinese cooking,” he said. “It takes a lot of preparation, but once you get into the rhythm of it, it’s done pretty quickly.”

To describe the process with any concision inevitably involves oversimplification. For one thing, he works with a wide range of configurations; some pieces seem almost entirely constructed from monofilament, while others contain only aluminum and plate glass. Moreover, the exactitude of the measurements is crucial. He drills holes in some of the piers but sends others out to be laser cut. When they come back, he screws them to the ground and starts to string them.

While some of his constructions are made to sit on tables, the works on view at Amagansett were all wall-mounted. To move around each piece is to experience four dimensions. Viewed head-on, each is symmetrical in two dimensions. Seen sideways, the structures jut into the space of the room, often dramatically. The fourth dimension is provided by the mirrored surface that reflects the structure, sometimes making it difficult to determine the boundary between real and reflected space.

Despite their technical precision, the “Starbridges,” as Mr. Schwarz calls them, have a metaphoric dimension. “These works resemble models of titanic vessels the size of Manhattan Island that range far and wide across the vastness of the cosmos, bridging the distances between the galaxies. They move populations to settle distant planets. They transport materials, make voyages of discovery, and patrol the universe to maintain the peace.” 

“I imagine the central plinths to be hundreds of stories high, containing the command and control area, the living quarters, and the cargo. Modules radiating out contain the mechanisms that create the energy that propels the vessels at unimaginable speeds.” 

He also considers the pieces “journeys into the unconsciousness, mandalas, meditations, whatever you want to call them.” The title of the series came from a dream in which a golden arrow embedded itself into his backyard. “A man riding on that arrow said in German, ‘This is a starbridge.’ ”

Mr. Schwarz was born and raised in Massachusetts and graduated from Harvard University with a degree in English literature in 1954. While there he wanted to be a writer, actor, playwright, or perhaps all three, and he wrote some of the Hasty Pudding shows. “When I got out, things didn’t turn out that way.” 

He enlisted in the Army in 1954 and was sent to Germany, where he auditioned for the American Forces Network. “I had a pretty un-Boston accent and could pronounce the names of European composers pretty well. That’s how I got to be an AFN announcer. It was ‘Good morning, American forces everywhere.’ “

He started at CBS in 1957, moving over time through the stages of production assistant, stage manager, and associate director. While serving in the latter capacity on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” Tim Kiley, the show’s longtime director, went to the Smothers Brothers. “Because I was sitting in the next chair, and because I had a very good feel for camerawork, I became director.” 

“When the Sullivan show went off, I freelanced for a while. Then I got involved in soap operas, which I did on and off over the years, working for Proctor and Gamble when I wasn’t freelancing. Soap opera was my bread and butter.”

He and his wife, Mimi, to whom he was married for 56 years before her death in 2014, bought their house in Springs near Green River Cemetery in 1971 and moved there full time in 1997 after he retired. They founded their Rainbow Daylily Garden there in 1989. “We grew 3,000 a year for 10 years. We were famous as daylily growers; we sold them online and won prizes for plants. Then the ground got too far away, if you know what I mean, and now I just look at them.”

Not one to take things too easily, however, in 2016 he published “How Did That Old Fart Get Into My Mirror?” A memoir about aging and his marriage, it is available on Amazon.com. Kirkus Reviews called it “a colorful, bittersweet romp through Old Fartdom.”

Mr. Schwarz now spends three or four months each year in an apartment he purchased in Zihuatanejo on the Pacific coast of Mexico after his wife’s death. “The harbor there is an old volcanic crater whose walls are broken down on the ocean side. I just look out my window from about 150 feet above the harbor. It’s very nice. This year I’ll spend a little less time there because I have to come back to work. I do things in waves, and I haven’t done anything for a long time.”

Looking around Mr. Schwarz’s living room, cluttered as it was with sculptures, some finished, some being reworked, a visitor took that statement with a grain of salt.

A detail of “Tycho” reveals the intricacy of Bob Schwarz’s work with monofilament. Gary Mamay
“Emerald City in Candyland”, left, is a mandala, which can be seen as an external representation of the universe or a guide for meditation. “Horatio Nelson Cruising Toward Famelhaut” appears to hover in space. Gary Mamay