pg. 180-181
September, 2001

A Thousand Words: Russell Crotty Talks About His Atlases.


Each atlas has a different feel. One is just the belts of Jupiter. That’s probably the most intense book I’ve ever done. A hundred and eighty-six pages. I’d work on it five days at a time and then leave it for a while, do something else. I looked at all my observations of Jupiter, and then just did it out of my head.

You can’t draw a globular cluster and make it look like a globular cluster. It’s almost impossible. I take the shape of the thing, and the rest is sort of like creating it from the process of drawing. I’m resisting much of the technology. I think it takes away from observation, what your eye can pull in. The Jupiter belt was spinning like a flattened planet sphere, a ver­sion of the planet spinning. On certain nights when Jupiter rises at sunset and sets at dawn you can see the whole planet rotate—it rotates fast— and that was the idea, to get that going. It’s not a flip book, but you can turn the pages and get a sense of things moving across the page in a way that’s really quite cinematic. It’s a minimalist system with a maximal process. There’s a lot of information going on. Donald Judd would turn over in his grave if you filled a big, beautiful blank book with this stuff. But I like his systems. In a way I’m kind of exploiting that. Agnes Martin is one of my favorite artists. I was using that grid system.

I started collecting these books, his­torical stuff. Here’s a guy, Pannekoek, who drew the Milky Way. He and his wife would go out and camp. He’d do it in the dark, maybe by candlelight. Completed in 1928. It took him thirty years. This is Krieger, a German who drew the moon. He worked himself to death. Today, half those amateur astronomers up there in the mountains

are probably ex-hunters. You can’t hunt as much as you used to, so they’ve turned to the astronomic field. They do get something similar there— the reward is incredible when some­thing comes into your field of view; you fall off the ladder looking into the eyepiece.

On that ladder alone up there I actually feel creeped out. I feel like I’m looking at something I shouldn’t be looking at. That light, there’s some­thing sacred about it. It’s traveled so far. It’s amazing, like eavesdrop­ping. Experiencing Saturn through the eyepiece. You can’t believe it’s real. It’s so perfect. Looking at a supernova remnant in Cygnus in the summer—it’s like a very faint veil of gas. I can’t put it in words, but I can attempt to draw it. It’s almost a feeling. The really old light, this faint object, something cataclysmic we can’t even imagine that happened 40,000 years ago is just drifting through the galaxy, and it happens to look really beautiful.

I think the text I use has a way of bringing back the reality of this kind of stuff. Weighting and unweighting. That’s how the books function—they sort of breathe that way. You can go from density to something really light. I’m doing a huge book for my New York show at CRG Gallery next year. it’s going to fold out to seven-by-thirteen feet—a sculpture basically, with drawing. Massive. I’m going to have to build a bridge in my studio to get to the middle of it. That’s scale again—push it to the limits. You heard I was doing a drawing of the universe. That’s so great.

This is the finder scope, just to see where you are. I open the roof, pull the truck up, drop the tailgate, have coffee, snacks, and people just come over and hang out. The ideal viewing for any observatory in the northern hemisphere is facing south. So you get the ecliptic where all the planets travel. The moon. The scope is aligned with Polaris, the North Star; it counter­acts the earth’s motion so we stay on track, on target. What you look for depends on the time of year; right now, on a spring evening, it’d be galaxies. A little later the Milky Way, the edges of the northern Milky Way, would be coming up, and we’d see globular clusters, which are on the fringes of the galaxy.

It’s all about movement, time, and loca­tion. Location on a massive scale and location on an intimate scale. That’s the fundamental thing really, and sort of finding yourself in it somewhere. You’re up on a ladder and you’ve got a clipboard—I have a red flashlight (so you don’t hurt your eye), and I have the little flashlight I’m holding in my mouth, and I’m sitting here drawing, like that. 

“First the outline of pines… oak and sumac darkened..~ backlit by the full moon rising in capricornus… talk radio company… coffee on the tailgate… the gloaming twilight to the west.” —Atlas of Lunar Drawings, 1996

A lot of the pleasure in Russell Crotty’s pencil-drawn vision of outer space is the commonplace grandeur of it. He draws— and captions in “bad poetry”—a sky we know, a contemporary LA sky with the problems of light pollution and the toll of encroaching development and the weirdness of nature itself jutting into the horizon: radio towers, ponderosas and palm trees. Crotty’s vision moves through large-scale drawings of individual “Items”: nebulae or comets that somehow look like a dumbbell or a creepy pumpkin (Crotty admits to giving resem­blances a push); alternatively he glues his skies on Lucite spheres that hang like planets from the ceiling of a gallery. But his project has increasingly become that of making bigger and bigger atlases. Annals of the Solstice Peak Observatory, 2001, is a kind of takeoff on annual reports sent out by major observatories. One page of the book details the presence of the Santa Ana winds, marks for the traveler the grade and ravines of the mountain, and, like a treasure map, even gives visual clues to show where the bobcats hide out.

I visited Crotty at his house in the Malibu hills. He showed me the observatory he built out of corrugated steel and plywood six years ago and demonstrated his process: Look Into the eyepiece, sketch, render (often much later) a drawing in the atlas that holds the captured knowledge. “The Universe from My Backyard,” a show of drawings and books and globes, was recently installed at Art Center College of Design. As I left the gallery, the guy behind the desk announced to me that Crotty was now working on a drawing of the universe. Crotty laughed when I told him this, but he didn’t deny it.