The Apolymon Story

main_apolymonIn 1967 Bruce Beasley took a break from his normal program of yearly exhibitions to explore the idea of transparent sculpture. He soon ruled out glass as a medium, finding that it was impractical for the large sizes he wanted to work in, and learned that he must use plastic. Over and over he was told that acrylic was the only plastic that remained truly transparent when made into objects more than a few inches thick, but that acrylic could not be cast into the immense, complex forms he wished to make without bubbling and cracking.

Despite secrecy in the plastics industry, Beasley managed to cast a few sculptures that were several inches thick–close to the maximum size that anybody in the industry could cast–and his eagerness to make large transparent sculptures grew steadily. Yet it seemed he would either have to abandon the idea or somehow invent a new way to cast acrylic. Just at this time the State of California initiated an invitational competition for the state’s first large outdoor sculpture, and Beasley was selected as a semifinalist on the strength of his earlier cast-metal work. Thus it was a surprise to the jury when he submitted an acrylic sculpture for the competition, and he took quite a chance in doing so. He knew that his acrylic casting technique was far from perfect and that it would be hard to convince the jury that acrylic was an acceptable material for a monumental sculpture, but he was too excited about working with acrylic to return to metal sculpture should he win the competition. The jurors were intrigued by what they saw, and Beasley won.

The jury did not fully realize that the technique Beasley planned to use to scale up the model was still being developed and was entirely untested. He now had to make a cast-acrylic sculpture that was thirteen feet wide and four feet thick, but the largest casting he had managed so far was forty inches wide and four inches thick. In fact, the sculpture he was proposing would be the largest acrylic casting ever made as well as the largest transparent object in the world.

Beasley hoped that winning the commission would generate some help from the plastics industry. He met with DuPont, who manufactured the raw material, seeking technical and material support. DuPont was stunned that Beasley, an artist with no training in chemistry, had managed to cast such a complex and thick acrylic sculpture. The company agreed to supply the material for the sculpture but said candidly that since Beasley had already taken the technique beyond its own capabilities, DuPont could give no technical assistance. In learning how to cast four-foot-thick acrylic, Beasley was on his own.

Cast acrylic has to cure under high pressure in a heated chamber called an autoclave, so Beasley’s first step was to acquire a massive autoclave. He had viewports installed in it, hoping that by observing the bubbles when they formed he would be able to invent a process for thicker castings. One night, through the viewport in the autoclave, Beasley observed the bubbles just as they formed, and he understood immediately how he could cast acrylic of any thickness. His next experiment was twenty-four inches thick with no bubbles and no cracks, proving that the new technique worked. The next casting was Apolymon , thirteen feet wide and four feet thick, and it was perfect.