To see more of Alex Masket’s art, visit utne.com/Masket.
Visual artists are often disinclined to talk about their work. In fact, many refuse even to try, claiming that the art should speak for itself. But what if discussing one’s work is virtually impossible for an artist? What if that artist can’t articulate why—or even by what means—he wanted to create it in the first place?
Such are the challenges faced by Alex Masket, a severely autistic 23-year-old who lives with his family in the suburbs of New York City. Alex is functionally nonverbal, but he has been fortunate enough to have a family willing to do everything in their power to help him find his voice in other ways. As crucial as this support has proven to be, it is ultimately Alex’s extraordinary artistic gifts—and his equally extraordinary force of will in wielding them—that have led to the works, built out of everything from Legos to duct tape, that are featured on the following pages.
Esopus editor Tod Lippy interviewed Alex’s parents, Elaine and Steve, to learn more about the young man behind this remarkable work.
When did it first become apparent to you that Alex was artistically inclined?
Elaine Masket: One of the first signs was after we bought one of those wooden Chinese checker sets with colorful pegs. We noticed that Alex would lay the pegs out next to the wall—lining them up, but not in a traditional way. They were in these very complicated color formations. Steve, who was much more aware of Alex’s talent early on than I was, would say, “It’s beautiful!” And all I could think was, “He’s lining up objects: Autism Symptom Number 6.” [She laughs.] All I knew was that wherever he went he needed something artsy to do; I didn’t take the time to figure out whether what he was doing actually was art. By the time he was 8 years old, though, both of us realized the intricate patterns he was making with Legos were very unusual.
Why do you think Alex gravitated toward Legos?
EM: The Legos were in the house already, just like duct tape. There was not a piece of tape in the house that we didn’t have to lock up. It didn’t matter if it was Band-Aids or Scotch tape or masking tape—even adhesive stamps.
What did he do with them?
EM: Alex stuck them on his wall, he stuck them on the floor—he covered everything. . . . It’s hard to imagine, but when Alex was young, he was not the Alex we know now—the one who is so beautifully behaved and socially comfortable. He was frequently completely out of control. He just could not make sense of the world, and he was a danger to himself. He constantly tried to leave the house—once we found him sitting in the middle of the street—so we had to live with a lot of locked doors. This was autism. It took him a long time to make sense of his environment, and I’m sure if any of us spent even one minute in his shoes it would be clear why it was so tough for him.
Which material did he incorporate after Legos?
EM: He created this giant clay pile on the floor of the basement. He stuck everything he could find in it. You remember that Lite-Brite toy? He used all of the pegs from that. He took an entire Scrabble game and buried the letters in the pile, along with every coin he could find in the house. Once we had a sense of what he liked, we would always be on the lookout for mosaic-like materials—anything that had a little color or shine or texture to it. And again, I’m thinking, “This is weird.” And Steve’s thinking, “This is cool.”
When did he first start doing works that incorporate peel-and-stick numbers and letters?
Steve Masket: We went to Staples one day and he wandered off, and when we found him, he had several packages of them in his hands. So we bought him a few, and he started using them right away.
Is his choice of sticky letters—and the duct tape, too—partly due to their tactility?
EM: Absolutely. If you watch him work for 10 seconds you see how important that is. When he applies the stickers, it’s almost like he’s drumming as he affixes them to the surface.
How much time does Alex spend working on art every day?
EM: If we count the Legos, at least four or five hours most days. I’ll set him up with a project by essentially giving him a choice of materials. Some days it’s the canvases and the markers and the stickers, and other days it’s the paper collages.
SM: And on the weekend he’ll maybe just nap or watch TV.
EM: Right. It’s not obsessive. The Legos are a mental exercise for him, because you can see how often he reworks them. But the other works of art are immediate, active expressions. Of course, we have no idea how long he thinks about a composition before he starts working on it, and in the case of the letter stickers he’s producing endless variations of something, so that’s clearly thought out as well. He’s very careful about laying out his materials and places each sticker very precisely. There’s nothing haphazard about anything he does, which you might not think from looking at the finished work of art.
When do you think Alex became aware that art was something he wanted—maybe even needed—to do?
EM: Alex has been waiting for us to catch up with him. He’s got visions in his head that he wants to get out there, and he’s had to wait for us to figure out what to buy for him so he could do it. [Both laugh.]
Now that you’ve caught up, do you notice changes in him?
EM: Absolutely. He’s standing taller; he’s much more confident. He’s always been like the “dance of the seven veils,” and a whole other veil has come off. . . . In general, he’s taken a lot more ownership in this. He now stacks and arranges his finished pieces and places them in acetate storage bags on his own—we used to do that for him.
Does Alex enjoy looking at other artists’ work?
SM: Sometimes I take him to the galleries in Chelsea. The Yayoi Kusama show with all of the lights and colors and mirrors was fascinating to him; so was a recent Richard Serra show. But it’s hard to know what he will respond to. We would take him to the Whitney and he would just walk right through. I really hoped he would like Jackson Pollock, but it was Jasper Johns’ work that he seemed to be most connected with. . . . [One] day we went to the Olafur Eliasson show at the Museum of Modern Art, with all of the mirrors and the hallway where everything in color converted to black and white in one room, including the people . . .
EM: That he really liked. At first I thought it was just an autistic thing. You know, “autistic people like flashing lights” and all of that stuff. And perhaps some of it is, but his taste is much more nuanced than that. I have to tell you something: Judging from the way he walks around these places, I get the sense that he doesn’t feel like he has a lot to learn from anybody.
Excerpted from Esopus (Fall 2009), a twice-yearly arts magazine that features artists’ projects, critical writing, fiction, poetry, visual essays, and interviews. A 2010 Utne Independent Press Award nominee for arts coverage. www.esopusmag.com