Leroy Joseph Lamis was born in Eddyville, Iowa in 1925. After serving in the Army in 1943, Lamis took courses at UCLA, including Modern Art and American Folklore, and made his first sculptures out of metal. He completed his degree in art at New Mexico Highlands University in 1953. Lamis then moved to New York where he enrolled at Teachers College at Columbia University and taught art at a high school in Locust Valley, Long Island, which was attended by the children of sculptor Richard Lippold. Through Lippold, Lamis had his first direct contact with the Constructivists he so admired, though he had corresponded with Naum Gabo since 1951. At this time Lamis made small sculptures and jewelry. Receiving his Master’s degree from Columbia University in 1956, Lamis began teaching at Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa. There Lamis experimented with various industrial materials and found objects, welding figures out of sheet iron and I-beams and creating both static and kinetic works using prisms. Lamis exhibited these works in a one-man exhibition in 1957 at Clark College in Dubuque, Iowa.
In 1961 Lamis accepted a position to teach art and design at Indiana State University, where he would continue to teach until 1989. In Indiana Lamis made his first plastic cube out of Plexiglas in October 1962. He had experimented with plastic as early as 1958-1959 and found the cube an ideal use of this new material. With great skill and patience, he sawed Plexiglas into precisely sized pieces and carefully glued them together. The build up of cubes within cubes created infinite reflections and varying densities of color within a single shade of pre-fabricated color. In these works Lamis strove for perfection in his execution and to create an art of contemplation. He crafted works with great technical precision aiming at surfaces free of “the artist’s hand.” The reflective and refractive properties of Plexiglas enabled Lamis to investigate perception and space as the concentric or twisted shapes he created change with viewpoint and source of illumination.
In the spring of 1963 Lamis traveled to New York to seek gallery representation. With a construction under each arm, he walked into The Contemporaries Gallery which was showing Richard Anuszkiewicz’s work at the time. His work was enthusiastically accepted and Lamis showed with The Contemporaries through 1964. He was then represented by Staempfli Gallery from 1965 to 1974 where he had solo exhibitions in 1966, 1969, and 1973. Lamis also showed with Felix Landau Gallery in Los Angeles, Gilman Galleries in Chicago, and Galerie Denise René in Paris. Lamis’s first New York museum success came with his inclusion in the 1964 Whitney Museum’s annual exhibition of sculpture. He went on to exhibit in the Whitney’s sculpture annuals in 1966 and 1968. Lamis knew and corresponded with some of the leading contemporary artists and traded works with George Rickey, Richard Anuszkiewicz, Harry Bertoia, and Anthony Hill during the 1960s. During his three to four trips to New York per year to deliver his newest work, Lamis visited artists working in related styles, particularly George Rickey, to discuss developments in their work. Between 1962 and 1978, Lamis executed 230 Plexiglas constructions. In his most productive years, 1963 to 1967, he created 144 works. He averaged 60 to 70 hours per construction, meticulously cutting the Plexi and gluing the pieces together with a syringe without any assistants or help from fabricators.
Lamis’s inclusion in the Museum of Modern Art’s The Responsive Eye and Martha Jackson’s Vibrations 11, both of 1965, placed Lamis as one of the top American Op sculptors. Lamis saw his work as a continuance of Constructivism conveyed through the economy and precision of his cubes. The artist’s 1969 solo exhibition at Staempfli Gallery in New York traveled to four museums across the country: Speed Art Museum, Louisville, KY; Herron Museum (now the Indianapolis Museum of Art), Indianapolis, IN; Des Moines Art Center, IA; and La Jolla Museum of Art (now the Contemporary Art Museum of San Diego), CA. A solo exhibition at Dartmouth College was held in 1970 after Lamis had a 10-week term as Artist-in-Residence there. In the 1969 exhibition A Plastic Presence organized by the Jewish Museum in New York and the Milwaukee Art Center (now the Milwaukee Art Museum), Lamis was featured within a wider range of sculptors working with plastic in Minimal, Op, and Constructivist styles. Lamis was the subject of a retrospective at the Sheldon Swope Art Museum in Terre Haute, Indiana in 1979. It was an extensive exhibition with 69 works shown dating from 1956 to 1979. Lamis’s retrospective was followed by an exhibition of his new sculpture at the Swope in 1982.
In the late 1970s Leroy Lamis returned to metal sculpture, this time in aluminum. These works have a sense of figures or totems that recall his 1950s sculptures. In the 1980s, Lamis devoted his time to programming computers to create groundbreaking art. With computers he could virtually construct abstract images rather than physically building them, an idea he continued to develop until 1992. Utilizing early forms of IBM PC basic computer language, which he taught himself to program, he created over 30 kinetic films of abstract patterns. Lamis created 12 sculptures similar in form to his late 1970s aluminum works with the addition of computer monitors that played three to five minutes of programming. The print-out stills of his computer generated imagery from 1985 to 1987 recall Josef Albers’s graphic work of the early 1940s. Lamis used one of these computer generated drawings as his contribution to the American Abstract Artists’ 50th Anniversary print portfolio in 1987. Lamis retired from Indiana State University in 1989.
Works by Leroy Lamis can be found in the following museum collections: Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY; Brooklyn Museum, NY; Indianapolis Museum of Art, IN; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY; Milwaukee Art Museum, WI; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA; Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase, NY; Swope Art Museum, Terre Haute, IN; Speed Art Museum, Louisville, KY; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, MN; and Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY.
Statements by Leroy Lamis
“I agree with Cezanne – it is no the artist’s job to reproduce nature, but to represent it. Therefore, I tend towards abstraction. Exaggeration. I find, better represents emotions and meanings that I wish to convey.”
-Quoted in “Culver Sculptor Wins Acclaim: Leroy Lamis Creates in New Medium.” Star News, Culver City, Calif., 16, (December 1950), 2.
“I am interested in modern architecture and the “I” beam is an intrinsic part of this architecture. So it’s through the “I” beam that I express myself.”
-Quoted in “Cornell’s Metal Sculptor-Instructor Works with Architectural ‘I’ Beams.” Cedar Rapids Gazette (2 November 1957).
“My sculpture has developed in this way due to my interest in the constructivists, especially Gabo. I strive to bring to reality the ideas of my mind. Perfection is unattainable, but I have fun pursuing it.”
-Quoted in “Vibrations: Eleven” exh. Cat. (New York: Martha Jackson Gallery, 1965).
“My work has something to do with perfection, space and contemplation.”
-Quoted in “Recent Works by Three Indiana University Artists.” The Sheldon Swope Art Gallery, (Terre Haute, IN: 1966).
“I consider my sculpture to be in the constructivist tradition.”
-Quoted in Aldrich, Larry. “New Talent USA.” Art in America, vol. 54, no. 46 (July-August 1966), 40.
“In order to understand my sculpture, it is important to realize that as long ago as 1954 I was experimenting with motorized lenses, prisms, and cracked glass; these works were shown to The Museum of Modern Art and other galleries and ignored. At that time, I was living in New York and I left to start teaching sculpture in Iowa where I continued my experiments in light and incorporated direct metal welding and steel I-beams. Toward the end of a five-year period I realized that the sculpture I wanted to create must be free of motors and electrical gadgetry. I then did my first experiments in plastic – late ’58, ’59…
I moved to Indiana in 1961 and it is here that the first cubes were born – October, 1962. Each of the first three were of a different basic construction. Up to the present moment, September, 1968, I have produced 152 variations of my first idea. Yours was the thirty-first and my third twelve-inch cube. It was my second sculpture using blue, yellow, green combination…
Construction #31 was my first piece of sculpture purchased by a major museum. So this is itself is fixed in my memory. Needless to say how terribly sad I was when informed of the unfortunately accident which occurred during your Festival exhibition in 1965.* As it was two years later when I rebuilt it, I made a slight modification which allowed more light to pass through. (The change consisted of substituting two six-inch yellow planes for two dark green ones.)
Regarding my work, I feel I am totally responsible for every piece I have created from the glint of my eye, through conception and final birth. Nobody lays a finger mark on it except me. I am starting to develop the second of the remaining two ideas, but when you do it yourself it takes time, time, time.”
“*Mr. Lamis refers to the fact that a visitor to the Art Today exhibition at the Gallery, part of the Buffalo Festival of the Arts Today, 1965, inadvertently upset the pedestal on which Construction #31 had been installed and the sculpture was broken beyond repair. Mr. Lamis kindly replaced the original withConstruction #31-II. –Editor”
-In reference to Construction No. 31. Reprinted in Ethel Moore, ed. The Buffalo Fine Arts Academy, Albright-Knox Gallery. “Letters from 31 Artists to the Albright-Knox Gallery.” Gallery Notes, vo. VXXI, no. 2 and Vol. XXXII, no. 2, (Spring, 1970),19.
“I began to use plastics exclusively as my medium about ten years ago. As a sculptor I now have the great advantage of being able to work freely with color, which I could not do when using stone or wood. I find also that plastics provide exciting opportunities for a variety of optical and tectural effects…
I would like to do everything myself. If I could, I would make the plastic, too. I find that one danger today is that the artist can receive too much success too soon, and this is bad.”
-Quoted in “Sculptor Exhibits Work at Jaffe-Fried Gallery.” [no source, no date] c. 1970]
“Since my first cube was built in October 1962, my work has been numbered consecutively. The last piece I completed was March 1973. It was number #224. The challenge in art to me includes the production of my own work from start to finish. I have never allowed anyone to assist me I believe very strongly in the constructivist attitude and feel that my work is an important part of that movement.”
-In reference to Construction No. 48. Quoted from Artist’s Biography sheet, 9/4/1973, Artist file at the Brooklyn Museum of Art.
“I am striving for flawless perfection.”
-Quoted in “Illuminations & Reflections.” Exh. Cat. (New York: WMAA, 1974).
“Because it could be glued and developed into three-dimensional forms [and because] it is more technical and formal, as opposed to expressive and thematic…to do something showing how nature works by using industrial materials. The plastic cubes are like looking a nature through a telescope as opposed to the metal figures [where only the outer skin is visible].
I’m part of nature and whatever I create is going to be an extension of nature. I revere nature and evolution in nature. I like the geometric order of growth in nature. I like the rhythm of the ides, the growth rings of a tree, and the valves of a sea shell. Geometry has nothing but what it is – there are no associated meanings for me. My work grows like a seed [i.e., from within to without; the Purist used the analogy of the crystal]; if anything, it’s the idea of evolution and development. I enjoy nature and growth. My work is glorification of technology and its most celebrated product, the machine, as the inventors of non-objective art early in this century discovered]. I’ve tried to erase the human element [and] … present the material as purely as possible, without encumbrances other than the plastic.
Gabo once said that light and space are dominant. Light causes movement – I like that – That’s pretty much what it’s all about; movement with sunlight is still classical.
The only real concerns I’ve had were to make something to satisfy myself. I’m lucky that others have found pleasure in my work and that a couple of dealers were able to market it. Art is a pleasure-giving device. Pleasure is a feeling of well-being, and I want my work to be pleasurable. [reference to L’Espirit Nouveau].
I’ve abandoned Constructivism because Gabo is dead and because the principles of the aesthetic itself have broken down. I outgrew Constructivism, I changed. Constructivism wasn’t a straight jacket, but it was too limiting. I couldn’t cope any longer with the exactness it required. In almost renouncing Constructivism, I refuse to be serious about the profundity of making art.
Our culture offers benefits as well as ills. Artists can protest and glorify.
I couldn’t be as productive again because I don’t have to drive. Maybe art was an escape from not knowing myself. I can’t imagine an artist doing art without compulsion. I’ve outgrown the need for attention. The challenge is to start over again. Perhaps art became too easy or I exhausted it. It would be easy to fake it after a point if you lose your belief in it; it would become a process. Anyhow, you don’t know it’s over until later.
I didn’t decide not to make any more cubes, I didn’t want to change, but I did.
My work has come back to where I started, to female figures…I’ve been terribly serious about my art, seeking a precision and perfection and investing much time in demanding ways. In my new work there’s more freedom. It’s not whimsical or humorous, but a looser kind of activity, which I find relaxing and enjoyable. Before, I was too limited by the aesthetic and by technical considerations. Now I’m involved with the female figure, which is more general as a subject, and with metal, which gives me more room to move. I’m trying to derive pleasure and satisfaction from my work.
There is an element of being a female that transcends even the idea of individual freedom; it concerns the idea of woman as the life-giver and nourisher of mankind.
Birth and death and the light and space in between [are] the most important idea I can think of.”
-Quoted in Robert Kinsman. “Leroy Lamis; Romantic Classicist.” From exh. cat. “Leroy Lamis.Terre Haute, IN: The Sheldon Swope Art Gallery, 1979 based on interviews conducted by the author in the spring and summer of 1979.
“My work is a glorification of technology but is rooted in the tradition of organic development. I’ve tried to erase the human element (and)… present the material as purely as possible, without encumbrances other than the plastic.”
-Quoted in Eleanor Heartney, “Toward an Expanded Regionalism.” In 29 Artists Born in Iowa: The Homecoming Exhibition. (Cedar Falls, IA: Gallery of Art, 1986), 19.