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One of the most accomplished American sculptors working today, Tom Joyce has opened his discipline to a new scale of monumentality and technical innovation. In the nearly two decades since his MacArthur Fellowship, Joyce has created large-scale works engaged with process and materiality, and underpinned by an abiding interest in the physical properties of his chosen medium, iron. Joyce’s work, at once subtle and bold, ancient and modern, pays homage to the rich heritage of blacksmithing even while extending that legacy.
Joyce belongs to the lineage of great 20th-century innovators of metal sculpture. Predecessors including David Smith, Julio Gonzales and Eduardo Chillida revolutionized the field, creating avant-garde sculptures in the relatively obscure and industrial medium. Like his predecessors, but in contrast to many contemporary artists working in metal, Joyce forges by his own hand rather than employing foundry technicians.
His training as a smith began as a teenager in El Rito, New Mexico. His neighbor in the remote village was a blacksmith, Peter Wells, who invited Joyce to access his shop and apprentice under him. Joyce honed his skills repairing agricultural tools and forging other practical necessities for members of the community. Before long, his knowledge and agility with a hammer were discovered by regional museums that encouraged him to study their storage collections and commissioned him with restoration work. Joyce’s youth spent observing historic artifacts and learning about iron’s innate qualities refined his skills, but more importantly, it cemented his reverence for iron and its storied past.
Today, Joyce creates much of his work from a factory near Chicago. The industrial forge produces parts for heavy machinery, manufacturing equipment, and other components of industry and society. The facility provides Joyce with his raw material––the offspring of their contract work. “I pull offcuts out of circulation, fully aware that they’re inextricably linked to what I consider the parent material they originated from. For me, it’s not about using leftovers for the sake of recycling––it’s about that material’s connection to a manufactured component, churning away somewhere in the world, performing an indispensable task: building our cars, taking us into space, extracting natural resources, producing energy, weaving our clothes, or processing our food.” In Joyce’s Cypher series, these origins are visible in impressions of prototype fragments, industrial fossils that suggest the deep history and long life-cycle of iron.
Recognized for deploying materials with an inherited history, Joyce was invited by the National September 11 Memorial & Museum to create a commemorative artwork. Using steel recovered from the ruins of the World Trade Center, Joyce forged a seventy-five-foot, 8,000-pound text-based sculpture inspired by a line from Virgil’s Aeneid: “No day shall erase you from the memory of time.”
Another large-scale public work in New York, for the Museum of Arts and Design, reflects a different aspect of Joyce’s practice. A series of seven forged stainless-steel sculptures rest on the pavement just off of Columbus Circle. Each is a pairing of two solid cubes that despite their weights have qualities more akin to a supple, clay-like medium than steel. Probing its expressive traits, Joyce presents the material with unexpected animation.
Through folding, twisting, expanding, contracting, eroding and squeezing iron, Joyce reintroduces evidence of its materiality, producing densely layered works with irregular surfaces and rich textures. “I have access to alloyed metals that are among the strongest, densest, most versatile materials in the world. I manipulate and exploit properties that are inherent in iron’s grain structure that allows a viewer to experience it as if one were looking at it through a microscope. Amplifying these characteristics brings to the surface features that one wouldn’t be able to see otherwise.’’
A major survey of Joyce’s work was presented at the Center for Contemporary Arts, Santa Fe, in 2017. Comprised of 45 works produced since 2005, the exhibition explored Joyce’s technical experiments, introducing works in new media alongside his large-scale abstract sculptures. The exhibition and its corresponding catalogue solidified Joyce’s reputation within the world of monumental sculpture and ushered in a new era for the artist.
Joyce’s work has been exhibited in solo and group shows across the United States and internationally. Since 1983, he has taught and presented at over 100 institutions, universities, and college campuses throughout the United States. As an invited U.S. delegate, panelist and keynote speaker, Joyce has also lectured at conferences and symposia throughout Europe and North America. He is the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship and is an alumnus of the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, Art/Industry Residency program. In 2004, in recognition of his contribution to the arts, Joyce was inducted into the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art. His work is in many permanent public collections, including the Museum of Arts and Design; Renwick Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; Minneapolis Institute of Art; Detroit Institute of Art; New Mexico Museum of Art; Luce Foundation Center for American Art; Mint Museum of Art; National Metal Museum; Boston Museum of Fine Art; and the Yale University Art Gallery.