Sculptor's transition to recognized artist has been as surreal as his narrative artwork
Metal sculptor Robert Toll's transition from economist to recognized artist has been as startling and fiction-like as is his featured sculpture in the film, "Pulp Fiction." He is most noted for his sinewy, life-size figurative pieces. He uses oxyaceytlene to heat and bend steel rod, then welds the pieces together.
In a scene from the movie "Pulp Fiction", Uma Thurman's character invites John Travolta's character into her Beverly Hills house. As he crosses her all-white living room, he passes a startling, life-size, copper-hued figure, a sinewy metal sculpture. It is both surreal and lifelike, hard and human.
For metal sculptor Robert Toll, his transformation from economist to recognized artist has been as startling and fictionlike as his featured sculpture in "Pulp Fiction."
Toll said that after he graduated with a degree in economics in the early 1970s, he still felt lost. One day while working at his father's manufacturing company in Philadelphia, he noticed the maintenance crew making repairs with a welding torch.
"I was hypnotized—the sound of the gas, the blue light, the way the metal flowed, and the way they could stick things together. It was just fascinating."
He rented some welding equipment, bought welding rod, and soon began welding.
"I was just doing it for fun; I had no aspirations of being an artist." He began to craft trees, flowers, and Victorian houses like those that he had observed at local art fairs. For about four years he exhibited monthly, and he earned enough from his craft to subsist without any other income.
"Then my parents told me, 'It's time to get serious; get a job.'" He moved to California with them and went into business with his engineer father. There he concentrated on engineering, doing no welding at all for five years.
While working at that job, he saw some welding equipment at an auction. "I missed welding so much, I bought some."
He started welding again, crafting hands, and using symbolism and expression, which he had not done before. He quickly progressed to making life-size figures.
"I was surprised, and a lot of people were surprised at the amount of feeling I could project with cold steel and a welding torch."
Friends encouraged Toll to exhibit, so he entered some pieces in a group show. His work was singled out, and he was offered an opportunity to be in a two-person show in Aspen. That exhibit sold out and generated commissions.
"So, all of a sudden, I was like, 'I'm a sculptor.'"
He since has received several public commissions, and his artwork has been purchased for collections in Beverly Hills, Calif., New York, and Paris.
Although he creates animals, musical instruments, and nonrepresentational abstracts, he is most noted for his figures, whose style is unique and recognizable. "I got calls from friends throughout the country asking, 'Was that your work in "Pulp Fiction"?'"
"To do a sculpture is such a journey," Toll comments. It is a labor-intensive process that requires seven to nine weeks from start to finish for a life-size figure.
He heats 1/8- to 1/4-inch steel rods with an oxyacetylene torch and bends them to form the body of his figures.
"Oxyacetylene is the only thing you can use to heat and bend. You have to have the flame itself. If you look at the shoulders and hands, that's just heating and bending the steel into the position of a muscle. Then I weld steel to steel.
"This medium and the welding allow me to be a little bit sloppy. This is as realistic as I can get with the materials that I'm using, bending steel with a torch. Which is probably good, because if it had to be realistic, like a Michelangelo, I don't know if I have that ability."
Engineering Background Aids Construction
Toll may not have acquired Michelangelo's approach to style, but he has inherited his father's aptitude for mechanical engineering. That has been useful in constructing his sculptures.
"My father was able to visualize engineering problems and come up with solutions in the simplest of ways, which is what a great engineer does."
Toll says that the engineering of his sculptures is very basic. He doesn't use armatures to support the sculptures as he's building them. Instead, he uses internal pieces to hold everything together.
"I'll start with an oval, which will become the chest or stomach, and from there I'll just build out. It's agonizing the first week."
Of course, Toll has to contend with gravity, so the figures must be structurally balanced. In addition, he often stabilizes the sculptures by attaching them to another functional piece he fabricates, such as a bench or chair.
Every Sculpture Tells a Story
"I'll look at the way someone is seated somewhere, and put the figure into that position. As the sculpture develops, I'm looking at him. What's he thinking about? What's going on in his head? I tilt the head this way, or put the hand up, or move the fingers."
The inspiration for a figure can come from various sources, but the sculptures often are based on personal experiences—relationships or hardships.
"Sometimes something I'm going through—I'll see if I can express it through my sculptures. It's almost like I'm challenging myself to see if I can express this thing that's going on."
This dynamic played out on one of his most recent pieces, called "Constant Companion."
"I'm doing the sculpture and trying to create the position that will express my feeling of having to walk around with this problem that was out of my control to solve."
Some of his sculptures are installed in areas where they invite participation. The figure in "Out of Focus" "sits" on a bench in front of the Wells Fargo Bank, where passersby sit and relax or read.
"The guy is reading, and he has a book in his hand. This beautiful girl walks by and he drops the book and turns his head to see her. Every time I'm in Beverly Hills, I have to stop and see that piece."
His titles are almost as much a component of the artwork, a part of the story, as the steel.
"In 'Unwilling Partner,' the figure is standing, his head goes one way, his upper body goes another; he's all twisted, and the chair he is leaning against is also twisted. It's like he's confused about where he should be going. The 'unwilling partner' is he being in conflict with himself."
Toll says that most of his challenges are problems of expression, and he often feels compelled to rewrite the story.
"If the leaning looks awkward or unnatural, I'll rework it. I get upset, and I'm throwing it down and taking everything apart, and then going back to it. I'll go through this process with every sculpture, and I'll forget from sculpture to sculpture how difficult it is."
Toll prefers not to let the metal rust, so he searched for alternatives to paint and other coatings that he considers to be limiting or unnatural.
"I came across a process, a special coating that is used on the bottoms of boats. I have it applied to my sculptures after they are constructed, and they hold up well outside."
Then, in a three-day process, he sprays them with chemicals that create a patina, or aged appearance. The combination of coatings expands the pallet of colors he can apply to include greens, blues, purples, blacks, and grays.
"I'll make it real pastel, and then I'll back it off. And I can highlight certain things by having it light against dark. It's an exciting part of the sculpture."
Other than the coating application, Toll says he does everything himself, including finding the materials.
"I don't know if I make it difficult or not, but I have to find them on my own. I believe this whole path for me is almost like a destiny thing; the way I come across things and incorporate them.
"At the end, I have to move on. Not every piece is what I consider great, but you have to just let it go."
Reactions and Head-turns
Toll's 4,000-square-foot studio, located just north of Los Angeles in Culver City, is in an industrial-turned-trendy loft apartment district. He enjoys the bustle of living in the area. When Toll transports a sculpture in the back of his truck, he attracts of lot of attention. "People are pulling up next to me, yelling and giving me a thumbs-up.
"In our society, people don't really have the time to notice. But if I'm loading a piece onto my truck, people gravitate toward it.
"I find that really amazing. I think that is the special thing about the work, and there's really no explanation for where it comes from."
Defining His Own Success
Toll would like his work to be collected by museums and major corporations, but he's content just to be living in the book he is in.
"The success of a sculpture for me is how well it expresses what I set out to express."
When discussing an abstract piece he recently completed, he enthusiastically describes how beautiful it is with a detached narrator's perspective.
"It sounds weird to say that about my own work, but I still can't believe that I actually did it. It's almost like I'm looking at it from an outsider's point of view."
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