development area

An Interview with Saint Clair Cemin

Internationally renowned artist and sculptor Saint Clair Cemin speaks to People and High Society about his beginnings as an artist, his travels and the New York East Village art scene.

Please tell us your story. 

It was 1974 when I, in company of my brother, took an ocean liner from Santos in Brazil to Cannes. Our destination was Paris.

We were young and curious and my idea was to stay in Europe to study art. That is what I did; I stayed in Paris for 4 years and enrolled in the Ecole de Beaux Arts. I was drawing constantly; already in Brazil I was making surrealist drawings with pen and ink. I was also creating illustrations for magazines. My ideas on art were limited and I was more interested in philosophy, anthropology, religion, mythology, rather than in the “Avant-garde” art of that time. I was, on the other hand, well acquainted with it since I frequented artists in Sao Paulo; I used to “hang out” with them during the Sao Paulo Biennials. 

In Paris I learned the art of etching and became very good at it. At a certain point I felt that I need a more stimulating atmosphere and I moved to New York in September 1978.

In New York I had a chance, after only a few months, to meet a group of artists and other people involved in art, all friends of the art critic and writer, Alan Jones, a good friend of Leo Castelli and also with all the crowd that very soon became my own. I quit etchings and began making sculpture in 1983.

We understand you were first inspired to become an artist through conversations with intellectuals, whilst a teenager in Brazil. What was it about those conversations that moved you?

Between the ages of 15 and 17 I was best friends with a young man, my class mate, Jose Augusto. He was a real genius in math and also in music. I became friends with his father as well, who happened to also be friends with my parents. Gilberto, the father, with whom I used to spend many afternoons, was a farmer (which was quite normal in the city I came from), but also a polymath philosopher and highly eccentric intellectual.

He introduced me to philosophy, to the German idealist tradition of Kant, Fichte, Hegel and Schopenhauer. He knew a number of languages, including ancient Greek. He enjoyed reciting Sappho poetry while playing traditional “Milonga” on his “Bandoneon” (an instrument like an accordion). His influence in my intellectual formation was crucial, but not really in what concerns sculpture, that came later.

In the 80s you were an integral part of the New York East Village art scene. What was it like being in a close circle with artists such as Jeff Koons. Was there a great deal of idea exchanging and collaboration?

I lived on 9th Street, between 1st and 2nd Avenue. My friends, besides Alan Jones, the writer, were Jeff Wasserman, a wonderful painter disciple of Hoffman, Jeff Plate, a sculptor, Jeff Koons, and many others. Jeff Koons was a good friend. One thing that struck me about his personality was his relentless pursuit of perfection. One time, visiting his apartment, which was impeccably clean (at least to my standards) he excused himself profusely for the “mess” in which the apartment supposedly was. At that time I met Peter Halley, the painter, Jonathan Lasker and Not Vital. Subsequently, after my first exhibition of sculpture in 1985 at Daniel Newburg Gallery, I didn’t cease to meet artists, many of who are still my closest friends today.

Which one of your works are you most proud of and why?

There are nuances in the word “proud” and they have to do with the public. There are works that, let us say, are discovered over and over again by the public, on which I have received many compliments. This is the case for my work with the Musee de la Chasse in Paris (2006), where I made all the bronzes, reliefs, bannisters, candelabra, etc.

Another work is the large fountain I made in Reston, Virginia, called The Mercury Fountain. This fountain, one of my largest public works, was inaugurated in 1991 and is made of Carrara marble and bronze. It looks like a work from the nineteenth century. One day, I was visiting The Mercury Fountain with my parents who hadn’t seen it yet. While I was taking some photos of it, an older gentleman approached me and said: ‘This is a magnificent fountain!’ to which I said, distractedly: ‘Do you like it? I made it…’ He only said, ‘Yeah, sure!’ and left, quite irritated, thinking he had spoken to a mad man.

Of course I’m always most satisfied with my latest works; ideas that I’m developing now, and when they work well, they make me happy.

What new works or projects are you working on currently?

I’m now preparing a show in my gallery in NYC, Paul Kasmin Gallery that will take place in the fall.

I have some large pieces that are going to be in the show, some in stainless steel and some in marble. They all have to do with ‘Love and Mathematics’, which is the title of one piece in the show.

Saphira Turrell, Pearl Publicity, - Not specified -

Saphira Turrell