Reuben Margolin Loves Making Waves
The kinetic sculptures of Reuben Margolin are extraordinary mechanical attempts to evoke the natural world.
Reuben Margolin is an preeminent artist, known for his elaborate kinetic sculptures that combine sensuous natural movements with precise mathematical engineering.
Born in 1970, Margolin grew up in Berkeley, California. He graduated from Harvard University with a degree in English and studied drawing at Charles Cecil Studios in Florence, Italy, and painting at the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts in Russia. He began creating kinetic sculpture while on an artist residency at Orchardton House in Scotland, at first drawing inspiration from the movement of caterpillars and butterflies.
By 2005, Margolin was getting commissions for large-scale suspended sculptures. Notably, he designed Nebula, an artwork with 4,500 amber crystals for the Hilton Anatole Hotel in Dallas, Texas. His work has also been displayed at the Museum of Science (Boston), Belasting & Douane Museum (Rotterdam, Netherlands), the Museum of Discovery (Little Rock, Arkansas), the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (Pasadena, California), and at other sites across the globe.
The kinetic sculptor Reuben Margolin has dedicated his life to making waves. His practice brings together his love of math, making, and the beauty of the natural world. He spent the past 15 years working here surrounded by past projects in a shop in Emeryville, California, just next to where he grew up in Berkeley.
Reuben Margolin: And I think I feel at ease that everything’s always changing, and at the same time nothing ever changes. Like the sculptures, they don’t repeat themselves, but, at the same time, they’re always doing the exact same thing. And so I think I just feel comfortable with that sort of level of uncertainty.
With each new project, Margolin’s approach has grown more sophisticated. But every skill he’s learned has only served to teach him how much he doesn’t know.
Margolin: If I’m dreaming about the sculpture, and I see how to make all aspects of it, it’s not nearly as much fun as if I’m dreaming about a sculpture, and there’s some very interesting problem, like, “Hmm, how am I gonna do that part? You know, that’s weird.” More often it’ll be something a lot more mundane, like, I’ll just be suddenly feeling, like, “It’d be so nice to work with some cherry wood. Cherry wood has that really nice warm color. And it’s soft. And I haven’t worked with wood in a long time, and it smells good, and I just really, really wanna work with some cherry wood.” It’s more often something like that.
AJC: Like a craving.
Margolin: Yeah, it’s like a craving. “I have this new lathe and I wanna make something like really precise, you know, to half a thousandths of an inch, that’d be really fun.”
But for as much as he enjoys the process, the most fun Margolin has with his work happens at the very end.
Margolin: The way the sculptures work is that I have to have ’em done before I can turn them on, right. It’s not like as I’m half way through it, I can, like, test it and get a preview. I mean, it’s done. Every last piece is in, and the only thing left to do is to turn that on button on, and all kinds of things have happened at that point. You know, the very first one, the overhead piece, the Square Wave right above us, I turned on after nine months, and it moved, and I was so shocked that it was actually working and running and it looked so good, I turned it off immediately, and I took a walk around the block. And then I came back and I turned it on again for another two minutes and I was like, “Wow, look at that!” I turned it back off again. And here it is, it’s still running, like, 14 years later. I mean, who would’ve thought? I’ve also turned on sculptures and they didn’t work at all. Nothing moves, and it takes me up to a couple weeks to figure out where I messed up something—some torque, some ratio, and having to sort it out.
Margolin: But probably the strangest ones was turning on the Double Raindrop for the first time. And I turned it on, and I seriously disliked it, right. I had this incredible visceral reaction that this was wrong, that this sculpture was bad. And I had designed it to be eight feet wide, with the idea that I could put it on a truck and transport it. But I realized I could just get a big dumpster and just lower it right in the dumpster. Now, a friend of mine, Collin, happened to be over right when I’m turning it on, and he was like, “Reuben, just don’t throw it away. Just see what it looks like tomorrow. I think it’s pretty good, just wait a minute.”
Margolin: And the next day, it looked a little bit better, and it looked a little bit better, and now it’s one of my favorites. And what happened? I think it just didn’t match at all what I thought it was going to look like. There was just such a disconnect between what I was imagining it looking like and what it actually did, that that shock just made me dislike it initially. I know that sometimes that really gut reaction, I don’t entirely trust it. And it’s weird not to trust your gut reaction, but I’ve learned that sometimes if I back away and give it time that it’ll work.
Reuben Margolin is surprisingly easygoing for someone whose art requires so much precision. And he says he’s always been like this. At Harvard he changed majors frequently, bouncing from math to geology to anthropology, and eventually earning a degree in English. Though such a winding path would be stressful for some, not so for Margolin.
Margolin: Those are all great things to study. I mean, how are you supposed to pick one of them?
AJC: But how did you get to do that? Who gave you permission to be this free?
Margolin: Well, I think probably my parents. They’re both artists: my dad’s a writer and a publisher, and my mom’s an artist. And they just instilled in us this sense that a creative life was something that was, you know, really special. And I think I had become something else, like a lawyer or a doctor, I would’ve really shocked ’em. It was just, to be creative was—and to make something beautiful—was really where it was at.
This is probably why Margolin got no push back at home when he announced his intention to take a road trip to write poetry in a car that also doubled as a writing desk. And why these days he’s still making work just for fun. Like this, The Dandelion Wave. It took a year and a half to make, and is one of Margolin’s most ambitious projects. And though he doesn’t know its final destination, he says, for now, he’s just happy to revel in all the creative freedom that life has given him.