Fred Eversley is nothing if not diligent. In his more than 50 years as an artist, he has been making luminous, literally eye-catching resin sculptures that consistently have landed in museums and private collections, as well as on public property with scant attention from galleries or the press. Now, at the age of 81, Eversley is trending.
In May, the artist’s latest body of work appeared in his first solo gallery exhibition since 1975 in New York, his hometown. This month, the city’s Public Art Fund gave him maximum visibility by putting one of his tapering pastel monoliths on yearlong view at the entrance to Central Park opposite the Plaza Hotel.
Next year, following a thematic group survey in Copenhagen and a sweeping retrospective at the Benton Museum of Art at Pomona College, in suburban Los Angeles, Eversley will unveil the biggest public commission of his career: “Portals,” a suite of eight transparent violet polyurethane stelae that will front One Flagler, the commercial tower currently under construction by the Related Companies in West Palm Beach.
For any artist, that would be a remarkable volume of activity within a single year. For Eversley, a Black man who played snooker with Princess Diana; traced his own heritage to the English peerage; stared down Vladimir Putin; nearly lost a leg in a car accident; designed laboratories for NASA; and grew up with a “nebbish” named Bernie Madoff, finding himself in a spotlight that has eluded him for decades is, he says, “Just one of those things.”
But they are incredible things, and he knows it. Which is why, when the garrulous Eversley tells such stories, he is likely to interject, “It’s all true!”
Like the one about finding his path through life in a dish of Jell-O.
Eversley was a freckle-faced, precocious 13 at the time, the eldest of four children living with their ambitious parents in a racially diverse neighborhood of East New York, in Brooklyn. His father, an aerospace engineer who later led the city’s most successful, minority-owned construction business, had a basement electronics workshop where young Fred tinkered after school. (His mother, a teacher, forbade television.)
An article in one of his father’s science magazines inspired the boy to test Isaac Newton’s “bucket theory” of velocity in absolute space. It involved suspending a pail of water by a twisted rope and letting it unwind at its own accelerating pace. Using materials at hand, young Eversley poured liquid Jell-O into a pie pan, set it on an old turntable, and watched, captivated, as the whirling substance transformed itself into an inverted cone. A math whiz, he recognized its U shape as a parabola, the one form known to draw every kind of energy, including light and sound waves, to a single point, as mirrors on astronomers’ telescopes do.
Eversley did not run up the stairs shouting, “Eureka!” Always as social as he is serious, he had other things on his mind, namely girls. And they were in Manhattan.
On a summer break from Brooklyn Technical High School, he met and started dating Wendy Clarke. They went to stylish cafés like Serendipity and stayed overnight at her parents’ Upper East Side townhouse. Her mother was Shirley Clarke, the cinema verité pioneer who cast only Black actors in such landmark films as The Connection (1961) and Portrait of Jason (1967), and she welcomed Eversley to the mix.
“Shirley had all these crazy parties,” he recalls, during a recent visit to his studio in New York. It is not your typical SoHo artist’s loft, but an entire five-story, cast-iron building that Eversley bought for $350,000 in 1980 to nest with a later girlfriend commuting from Washington, D.C. “I mean,” he says, “those parties were crazy.” (He’s still in touch with Wendy.)
The teen Eversley’s evident charm and intelligence, combined with no small measure of moxie, gave him entrée to the art center on Washington Square created by the activist pastor of Judson Memorial Church, ground zero for the downtown avant-garde. On weekends, Eversley worked part-time at the nearby Folklore Center, soaking up Beat culture and selling guitars. None of this got in the way of his studies. Later, at the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) in Pittsburgh, he amazed his fraternity brothers at Zeta Beta Tau by bringing in the Isely Brothers to perform at a party.
Before graduating with a degree in electrical engineering in 1963, Eversley flew to Los Angeles to interview for jobs in an aerospace industry invigorated by the Gemini and Apollo space programs. He was traveling with Stephen Wyle, a fraternity brother whose father had founded Wyle Laboratories, one of the country’s leading aerospace contractors. Frank Wyle not only hired Eversley but appointed him chief of “special projects,” a self-determined position that sent him to Denmark and Sweden to buy parts for NASA and the defense department while introducing him to Scandinavian jazz clubs that further enhanced his nightlife.
By then, home was a second-story apartment in bohemian Venice Beach, where white landlords were willing to rent to people of color. His downstairs neighbor was De Wain Valentine, an artist associated with California’s Light and Space movement, so named for the evanescent environments that proponents like James Turrell, Larry Bell, and Robert Irwin brought to Minimalist, abstract artworks of cast fiberglass or Plexiglas and fluorescent light. They all lived in Venice and industrial plastics were their thing. So was technology, a tool requiring engineering skills they did not possess. The kinetic sculptor Charles Mattox brought Eversley into their circle as a consultant.
When he wasn’t in their studios, he was designing acoustic test facilities for NASA in Houston. In 1967, he returned to Wyle from an extended stay to find the battery in his car dead. While he was push-starting the car, an MG, it tumbled into a ravine, taking him with it and crushing his left leg. The best surgeon Frank Wyle could find attached a metal rod to Eversley’s broken hip with a new procedure that saved the damaged leg.
During more than a year he spent on crutches, Eversley had time to experiment in Mattox’s well-equipped studio the way he once had in his family’s basement. This time his Jell-O was liquid polyester, the most transparent resin. His turntable was the lathe on which he molded it, dying the cylinders amber, violet, or blue—colors Mattox had lying around—that he polished to a jewel-like sheen. When a collector Mattox knew stopped by and bought a three-inch high, translucent, three-color arch, the sale, for $200, launched Eversley’s career as an artist.
Another mentor was John Altoon, a livewire painter who was a central figure on the LA art scene. He lived and worked three doors away from Mattox in a large space on Abbot Kinney Boulevard designed for him by the architect Frank Gehry. In 1969, when Altoon, just 43, suffered a fatal heart attack, his widow gave Eversley the lease. To the lathe Mattox gave him he added a band saw and began to experiment with color, later adding a black pigment from his next-door neighbor, the Finish Fetish artist John McCracken, to make opaque, mirror-like works.
Eversley began to mature as an artist when he bought an industrial turntable, a rotary mechanism for casting molten metals that resembles a pottery wheel and was commonly used in airplane manufacture. The other Light and Space artists cast their synthetic resins from horizontal, stationary molds. Eversley’s innovation was to pour layers of liquid polyester infused with brilliant color into twenty-inch, vertical molds that he spun on the turntable. Casting by centrifugal force, he could produce a variety of shapes with parabolic curves and concave depressions within linear planes.
Some he cut into vertical tapers, but most became his signature “lenses,” perfectly round, highly polished sculptures that, clear or opaque, project an ineffable, otherworldly presence. Once he salvaged and retrofitted an old turntable last used for encasing the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima—a true story—the scale of the lenses increased to 40 inches in diameter. Because their parabolic curves amplify sound and refract light, like a human iris adjusting to changing conditions, the lenses create a fish-eye effect for viewers looking into them while reflecting the environment around them.
“They really draw you in,” says Courtenay Finn, curator of Fred Eversley: Reflecting Back (the World), an exhibition mounted late last year at the Orange County Museum of Art in Santa Ana, California. The show created “a lot of joy in viewers,” Finn noted, characterizing one lens as a “cosmic explosion.” Equally resonant with audiences was the story of how the scientist in Eversley became so metaphysical an artist.
It starts in 1969, when he followed a suggestion from Altoon’s friend Robert Rauschenberg and took a dozen early sculptures that were small enough to pack in a suitcase to New York. His first stop was the Leo Castelli Gallery on East 77th Street off Madison Avenue. A year earlier, the period’s most influential art dealer had rescued a still-hobbling Eversley from drowning after an inebriated Rauschenberg threw him and his crutches into a Pasadena swimming pool. In New York, Castelli waved off Eversley’s plastic abstractions, but Ivan Karp, his gallery director, proposed a one-man show at OK Harris, the gallery he was soon to open in SoHo. Eversley accepted.
A few blocks down the avenue he found Multiples, Inc., a shop adjacent to the Whitney Museum of American Art that sold artists’ prints and editioned objects. Its proprietor, the future international dealer Marian Goodman, was partial to art made with new materials and unusual techniques. She picked out one sculpture and asked if Eversley could reproduce it in multiple. Without knowing how, Eversley said yes.
He also learned that Marcia Silverman, the teenager who had worked beside him at the Folklore Center, was now Marcia Tucker, the Whitney’s most adventurous curator. Tucker took one look at his sculptures and invited him to do a solo show the following year.
Back in Venice, Eversley worked overtime to fulfill his commitments, which soon included gallery exhibitions in Chicago and LA. After he attended the inaugural Art Basel with a collector in his growing network and showed his work to dealers there, more exhibitions followed in Paris, London, and Palm Beach.
By 1975, SoHo had become the world center of contemporary art, but on the advice of a friend, Eversley chose to exhibit his new lenses at a midtown gallery established by a dealer named Andrew Crispo whose backer was Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza, the Swiss industrialist and art collector. (This was well before Crispo became embroiled in a grisly murder and went out of business.) From that show Thyssen-Bornemisza bought a violet-red lens and brought it to Villa Favorita, his home on Switzerland’s Lake Lugano.
The Swiss auctioneer Simon de Pury, Thyssen-Bornemisza’s curator at the time, remembers his boss placing the sculpture in front of a window in his bar, where he would look through it to the lake in what de Pury calls “near-psychedelic conditions,” and insist all visitors do the same. Some bought lenses for themselves, while Eversley became Thyssen-Bornemisza’s “perpetual houseguest,” both at Villa Favorita and at his subsequent home, Daylesford, in England, where Eversley spent his memorable evening with Charles and Diana. On another, he dined alone with Prince Philip at nearby Sutton Place, the former J. Paul Getty estate. At Westminster Abbey in London, he discovered a plaque memorializing Charles Shaw-Lefevre, Viscount Eversley, an 18th-century ancestor who was Speaker of the House of Commons.
As an artist, Eversley is old school. Any other with as many overlapping projects as he has today would hire teams of assistants. He has only one, Maria Larsson, the 52-year-old Swedish-born artist and architect he married nearly 10 years ago in New York, where he relocated after gentrification in Venice Beach forced him out. Larsson took me through his Geppetto-like basement workshop, where his turntable and other machinery share space with a plethora of tools and dyes, lenses in various states of production, and the “recipe” book of minute mathematical calculations by which Eversley determines the shape, size, color, and dynamics of each work.
On plinths throughout the workshop and gallery on the ground floor are sculptures dating from 1969 to the present. Taken together, they look like orbiting planets. It was from here, in 2010, that Alice Walton acquired “Big Red Lens,” one of Eversley’s largest, before the inauguration of Crystal Bridges, the Arkansas museum she founded. As Eversley recalls that lightning transaction, “She walked in with her museum director, pointed to the red piece, said, ‘That one,’ and left.”
He recounted this story upstairs, in the couple’s open living space. It’s pleasant and spare, with original floors and moldings intact, and lenses of varying vintage placed around seating areas to invite conversation. Here, the stories tumbled out:
There was the time he bummed a cigarette from Princess Margaret, who then invited him to escort her to Ascot. He had a more confrontational experience with royalty when he delivered three ten-foot-tall acrylic fountains based on an earlier sculpture, “Pyramid of the Sun,” that Thyssen-Bornemisza’s friend, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, had commissioned for the oil-producing nation’s pavilion at the 1992 Seville Expo in Spain. An uninformed emissary who expected to see black crude flowing down the pyramids from reflective balls at the top was outraged to find them filled with clear baby oil instead. When the fair ended, the sculptures went to Riyadh, and disappeared for good.
Eversley may sound like quite an operator, but perhaps he needed to be. Despite his ease of movement in white society, his exhibitions in commercial galleries slowed in the 1980s and stopped altogether in the following decade. No one had ever made an issue of his race. Not explicitly, though Putin, then a KGB chief in the early ‘80s, gave him a stony reception throughout a three-day conference at the Hermitage that was organized to foment cultural and scientific—as well as political—detente between the U.S. and the Soviets.
When I ask why, with so many museum acquisitions to his credit, Eversley had had no solid gallery representation from the ‘90s to 2018, his curt reply is, “Discrimination.”
It’s a fact. While Turrell, McCracken, Valentine, and others in his old cohort were scooped up by major dealers, none came to Eversley’s door. He was included in museum shows historicizing the Light and Space movement, but was forced to make a living by selling directly to collectors, and by submitting winning proposals to competitions for public artworks. Until the Black Lives Matter movement became a force, most galleries and art institutions had yet to reckon with racial disparities in their ranks and acquisitions, and it was with the support of another Black artist that Eversley’s current resurgence began. In 2016, Art + Practice, Bradford’s community space in South Central LA, presented Black, White, Gray, a striking, sepia-toned exhibition of Eversley’s resin monochromes. The show traveled to museums in Massachusetts and Virginia, and each iteration was a revelation to a younger generation of artists and viewers.
One of them was the dealer David Kordansky. His gallery, headquartered in LA with a spacious outpost in New York’s Chelsea, represents more than 50 international artists of three generations, as well as the estates of the prominent Black artists Sam Gilliam and Ed Clark. After what Larsson admits were some mighty lean years, Kordansky added Eversley to his roster in 2018, filling his booth at that year’s Frieze New York Art Fair with Eversley’s work. It caught the attention of Yvonne Force Villareal, co-founder of the art advisory Culture Corps. Its primary client is the Related Companies.
Kordansky followed up the next year with a full-scale exhibition in his gallery in LA. It drew widespread press attention and strong sales at prices ranging from $275,000 to $1 million. In 2021, Eversley had his second show with Kordansky, and Villareal added Eversley’s name to a list of 40 artists under consideration for the One Flagler project.
He was a shoo-in for Gopal Rajegowda, managing partner for Related’s development projects in West Palm Beach. Before moving there nearly eight years ago, Rajegowda lived in New York near Madison Square Park, where he saw Shake Shack and a program of temporary public art installations transform a shabby no-man’s land plagued by crime into a vibrant family greenspace. Builders, Rajegowda believes, have a responsibility to generate diverse communities around them. “Great public art by world-renowned artists,” he says, “is the way to create great cities.” He also felt strongly that only a Black artist could do justice to the One Flagler site, which sits on land that the company bought from the First Church of Christ, Scientist, agreeing to conserve it in perpetuity.
The neoclassical building on Lake Worth is well known to residents and anyone approaching it on Middle Bridge from Palm Beach Island. It was built in 1926 by the Gilded Age firm of Horace Trumbauer, but its chief architect was Julian Abele, the Black American who also designed the Widener Memorial Library at Harvard and the eight-columned façade of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, among other notable buildings, without getting credit until decades later. (Abele died in 1950.)
Eversley’s proposal responds directly to the eight columns on the church. In renderings, his tapering cast-polyurethane sculptures suggest an ethereal violet Stonehenge among the palms. To make the project happen, Rajegowda partnered with the Cultural Council of Palm Beach Country. Though Related shouldered the larger investment in the property, the municipality is paying for a new, 1.5-acre public park named for Abele, where Eversley’s “Portals” will be installed in a reflecting pool as the gateway to the new, David Childs–designed office building, an outdoor restaurant, and the church it faces.
“Fred had a great understanding of the site,” Villareal recalls, partly because of his own local history. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, Eversley showed in three different Worth Avenue galleries and socialized with Madoff in his heyday. Later, he was a frequent guest at the Bunker in West Palm Beach, where Beth Rudin DeWoody keeps her collection. Because the country’s biggest supplier of polyester is also in West Palm, he even explored the idea of moving there when he had to vacate his studio in Venice Beach.
The other factor that was critical to his selection by Rajegowda, Related CEO Stephen M. Ross, West Palm Beach Mayor Keith James, and Sybille Welter, chief administrator of the county’s Art in Public Places, was Eversley’s extensive resumé of public art.
“Parabolic Flight,” a 35-foot-tall pair of S-shaped, concave flutes in mirror-polished stainless steel edged in neon, has been installed at Miami-Dade International Airport since 1980. Based on a Savonius windmill, it revolves on a rotary platform powered by prevailing winds that also turn on its lights. A winglike, painted acrylic and aluminum sculpture he made at the same time, as the first artist-in-residence at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, hangs in a terminal at the airport in San Francisco. In the early ‘90s, the Internal Revenue Service commissioned a larger piece of the same materials for its headquarters in Washington. The federal government also purchased a clear lens sculpture for the building in Oklahoma City that exploded in the deadly 1995 bombing by Timothy McVeigh. (Only slightly damaged, the sculpture remains on view in the memorial museum near the site.)
Public art has a checkered history in the U.S. as well as abroad. Placed on a site where the artwork complements the aesthetics and scale of its surroundings, it can inspire awe and delight—or cause a scandal.
The esteemed French artist Daniel Buren’s black-and-white striped stumps of Classical columns in the courtyard of the Royal Palais in Paris registers high on the pleasure meter, but it has been an open wound to critics for nearly 40 years, and has been vandalized numerous times. “Tilted Arc,” the rusted steel sculpture by Richard Serra that bisected New York’s Foley Plaza in 1981, created so much vocal and litigious animosity that it was removed, never to be seen again.
Most successful by far is “Puppy,” the four-story flowered topiary by Jeff Koons. Though owned by the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, it has become as symbolic of its host city as the Statue of Liberty is for New York or Eero Saarinen’s “Gateway Arch” is for St. Louis. “Puppy”’s American equivalent is the British artist Anish Kapoor’s mirroring “Cloud Gate” in Chicago, nicknamed “The Bean” for its kidney shape. Detroit is equally proud of its “Monument to Joe Lewis,” aka “The Fist,” by Robert Graham. “The Embrace,” a monument to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King by Hank Willis Thomas, created unexpected controversy at its unveiling on Boston Commons in January, when some viewers took its folded arms for genitals.
It’s too early to know how “Portals” will affect people in West Palm Beach. Villareal believes it will become a “pilgrimage site” for cultural tourists. That would please Eversley, whose budget for the project was a handsome one for public art, but hardly more than the price for a single one of his sculptures, much less eight of them. Yet, Eversley has no complaints.
“Looking at my whole life,” Eversley says, “I did okay.” Glancing in Larsson’s direction, he adds, “Who would I trade places with? No one.”