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Charles Ray (born 1953) is a Los Angeles-based sculptor. He is known for his strange and enigmatic sculptures that draw the viewer’s perceptual judgments into question in jarring and unexpected ways. Christopher Knight in the Los Angeles Times wrote that Ray’s “career as an artist…is easily among the most important of the last twenty years.”[1]

Early life and education

Charles Ray was born in Chicago. He earned his BFA at the University of Iowa and his MFA from Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University.
Charles Ray, Ink Box, 1986, steel, ink, automobile paint, 36 x 36 x 36 inches

He studied sculpture at the University of Iowa with Roland Brener, who exposed Ray to many of developments of Modernist sculpture, in particular the constructivist aesthetic of artists like Anthony Caro and David Smith. In an interview, Ray spoke of his artistic education and early influences.

"Caro’s work was like a template; I saw it as almost platonic. The formal rules as taught by Brener were a kind of nourishment for me. The actual working in the studio was, in a sense, the expression. I was taught that the finished sculpture was maybe the end of the paragraph. Once a sculpture was completed it was critiqued and put back on to the scrap pile. This way of working taught me to think sculpturally rather than to think about sculpture. At this time in my life the historical context of high Modernism was really beyond my grasp. I saw Caro as super-contemporary. His work was, and is, so alive. It bridges the gap between the inside and outside of my mind. [2]"

Charles Ray with his Fall '91, 1992, mixed media, 96 x 26 x 36 inches

Ray recapitulated many of the developments in twentieth-century sculpture in his first show in 1971 with an installation entitled One-Stop Gallery. The show consisted of a collection of small sculptures, resting directly on floor. Some of the works, in their attention to materials, were clearly inspired by Minimalist artists like Robert Morris, while two small constructed steel sculptures invoke the traditions taught by his teacher, Brener; they were even painted the same red as Caro’s Early One Morning (1962, Tate Modern). One-Stop Gallery would anticipate the tone for much of Ray’s work to come in its plumbing and reinterpreting of the canon of twentieth-century sculpture without having his own work appeal to any particular period or style.


Ray’s work is difficult to classify. Style, materials, subject, presence, and scale are all variable. What is consistent is as critic Anne Wagner put it, “In all his seamlessly executed objects, Ray fixates on how and why things happen, to say nothing of wondering what really does happen in the field of vision, and how such events might be remade as art.”[3] This and the level of art historical awareness behind his works has led many critics to call Ray a sculptor’s sculptor. Nevertheless, his art has managed to find a large audience, thanks in part to its often striking or beguiling nature.

Charles Ray, Family Romance, 1993, painted fiberglass and synthetic hair, 53 x 85 x 11 inches

His most recent work is marked by its extreme labor-intensiveness. With Hinoki (2007, Art Institute of Chicago), Ray had a mold made of a large rotting tree he found in California. He then hired a team of Japanese woodcarvers to essentially re-carve the tree in Japanese cypress (hinoki), a different wood than that of the original tree. In a forthcoming interview, Ray made it clear that the purpose of the piece was not to photorealistically carve an exact replica of the tree. “The tree had that beautiful interior that fallen logs have,” he says. “It happens when bugs eat out the hard wood, so you have this hollow thing.
Charles Ray, Hinoki, 2007, Japanese cypress

All I knew was that I wanted to carve that, I wanted them to have a sense of that interior [of the log] because it’s in there, even if normally it couldn’t be seen. So that was really important. And then I became involved with the outside as well…It mattered to me that somebody had looked at it, and I wanted to make it matter to you.”[4] Hinoki took four years to carve of what was a ten year project: from the initial discovery of the tree in 1997-1998 to its exhibition in 2007.


Charles Ray is the son of Helen and Wade Ray. He has 4 brothers and 1 sister.


1. ^ Christopher Knight, “Charles Ray’s Hinoki: A Wooden Record of Life,” Los Angeles Times, May 11, 2007.
2. ^ Charles Ray and Michael Fried, “Early one Morning…,” Tate Etc., Spring 2005, 5
3. ^ Anne Wagner, “Charles Ray: Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles,” Artforum, May 1999, 171.
4. ^ Michael Fried, and Charles Ray, “Conversation” forthcoming in Charles Ray by the Matthew Marks Gallery


Charles Ray’s art has been featured in numerous solo and group exhibitions in Europe and North America, including a traveling, mid-career retrospective organized by Paul Schimmel for the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, which then traveled to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago and the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Major works

* Ink Box, 1986, Orange County Museum of Art
* How a Table Works, 1986, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles
* Fall ’91, 1992, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles
* Oh! Charley, Charley, Charley..., 1992, Private Collection
* Family Romance, 1993, Museum of Modern Art, New York
* Unpainted Sculpture, 1997, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis
* Hinoki, 2007, Art Institute of Chicago
* Boy with Frog, 2009, Punta della Dogana, Venice, Italy

Selected bibliography

Books on Charles Ray

* Ray, Charles. Charles Ray. Los Angeles: Museum of Contemporary Art, 1998.
* Ray, Charles. Charles Ray. Malmö: Rooseum – Center for Contemporary Art, 1994.

Articles on Charles Ray

* “Art in Review.” New York Times, November 30, 2007, sec. E
* Hainley, Bruce. “Charles Ray at Regen Projects.” Artforum, January 1998, 91.
* Knight, Christopher. “Charles Ray’s Hinoki: A Wooden Record of Life.” Los Angeles Times, May 11, 2007.
* Relyea, Lane. “Charles Ray: In the No.” Artforum, September 1992, 62-66.
* Rutledge, Virginia. “Ray’s Reality Hybrids.” Art in America, November 1998, 96-100, 142-143.
* Wagner, Anne. “Review of ‘Charles Ray’ at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.” Artforum, May 1999, 171-172.

Interviews with Charles Ray

* Bonami, Francesco. “Charles Ray: A Telephone Conversation.” Flash Art, Summer 1992, 98-100.
* Fried, Michael. “Early one Morning…” Tate Etc., Spring 2005, 50-53.
* Storr, Robert. “Anxious Spaces.” Art in America, November 1998, 101-105, 143-144.

Writings by Charles Ray

* Ray, Charles. “Thinking of Sculpture as Shaped by Space.” New York Times, October 7, 2001, 34.
* __________. A Four Dimensional Being Writes Poetry on a Field with Sculptures. New York: Matthew Marks Gallery, 2006.
* __________. “1000 Words: Charles Ray Talks about Hinoki, 2007.” Artforum, September 2007, 4.

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