This story originally ran in August of 2012 for my People Watching posts for the NYTimes T Style Online.
I have always associated the Los Angeles artist Steve Roden with collecting. Maybe it’s because the first time I met him, we bonded over a love of the early-20th-century potter Henry Varnum Poor, Roden’s collection of Harry Bertoia monotypes and the rare Wallace Neff bubble house he lives in. But it also might be that every time our paths have crossed he tells me a story about some amazing object he found at a flea market or auction site. His collecting often inspires and feeds his art. Even the research he undertook last fall at the Berlin archives of the German philosopher and literary critic Walter Benjamin was a bit of a treasure-trolling expedition. “I didn’t know what I was looking for,” Roden told me. “I just know I wanted to find something.” This mind-set might be the key to Roden’s art. He isn’t an artist who creates for specific exhibitions; his work continually evolves with the subjects that interest him and the objects he finds. He is a seeker, and through his seeking he creates.
When I visited him in June to photograph his painting studio, something I have been trying to do for a few years, Roden was in the midst of opening three summer shows, in Berlin (at the Meinblau Kunsthaus), in Los Angeles (at LACE) and in Houston (at the Menil Collection). Being in his studio made me all the more aware of the significant role that found objects play in Roden’s work. A group of carefully arranged knickknacks that caught my eye turned out to have come from an uninventoried box of ephemera owned by the late modern dance icon Martha Graham, which Roden bought in an online auction. When he received the box, Roden was struggling to figure out the “instruments” for a sound piece in his show at LACE. “I had all the sound actions laid out and the timings laid out, but I didn’t know what the instruments were.” Graham’s box of possessions held, among other things, sound-making devices — a maraca, a clay bell and a worn leather bell collar — perfect for his needs. “I don’t really question all that,” he said when I commented on this fortuitous synchronicity. “It just seemed like it arrived at the right time.”