Ray’s third piece in the Marks show is as awesomely imposing as Chicken is delicate. Called Father Figure, it’s a sculpture of a man sitting atop a giant green tractor; the whole thing is rendered in 18 and a half tons of stainless steel. His model for the piece, a toy tractor that artist Kiki Smith, a longtime friend, sent him years ago, sits on another worktable. “I was really interested in the man and his relationship to the machine,” Ray says.
He spent a year and a half scaling up the toy on a computer, using a program that simulated sculpting in clay, in order to get the detailing and perspective just right. Next came maquettes carved in foam, and finally, the finished steel piece, produced by the same kind of machinery that makes airplane parts. Ray has played with scale before—his Fall ‘91 (1992) featured a trio of women outfitted in career attire and standing eight feet tall—and acknowledges that monumentality alone can make a work more powerful. “You know, there’s something about a toy to a child where the relationship is real, where the kid is playing and it’s just really amazing,” he says. “How do I make that experience real for the adult? It’s not so much the size, I think—it’s the weight. I can feel the gravity of it. It’s solid. Immovable.”
Father Figure isn’t Ray’s first tractor. Untitled (Tractor) (2003–05) tackled a different sculptural concern. Initially, Ray had wanted to base a piece on a jungle gym, which he considers a child’s entrée into society—and therefore, our first “civic space”—but, frustrated with its progress, he drove out to see a broken-down tractor that a friend told him kids played on. Ray, too, had played on a tractor as a child. He bought it, hauled it back to his studio and dismantled it, piece by piece. Assistants hand-sculpted the thousands of gears, springs and hoses, and Ray eventually decided to cast the work in aluminum and put it all back together. The tractor’s meticulously sculpted engine is every bit as relevant in Ray’s mind as the exterior. One day, 10 years ago, even before he came across the tractor, Ray was driving on back roads in central California when he spotted a dead oak tree in a field. “It had fallen maybe 30 or 40 years ago,” he recalls. “And it was just collapsing. Maybe another five years and it would collapse. Some parts were hard, some were not.” The sun and rain and wind and insects had had their way with the trunk, creating furrows and crevices along its roughly 30 feet. “It had a beautiful chamber running through it,” Ray says, with more sadness than joy in his voice. He developed an attachment to its physicality as perhaps only a sculptor can. “It was on a winery,” he recalls. “I asked them if I could take molds of it, and they said no. I asked them if I could buy it, and they said no. They were just ‘no’ people.