The Man Who Elevated the Art World

When the world’s most high-concept artists wanted to balance a boulder on thin air or build a portal to the heavens inside a volcanic crater, they turned to a quiet kid from Indiana with a passion for achieving the impossible.

The Man Who Elevated the Art World

John Bowsher, a respected behind-the-scenes fixture in the American art world, died on Sunday, December 29 at his home in Los Angeles. By all accounts a quiet man who tended to offer opinions only when asked for them, Bowsher, 62, was nevertheless associated with many of the most ambitious, monumental artworks completed or attempted in United States since the end of the 1970s up through the month before his passing.

Just three years before his death, Bowsher oversaw one of the most unwieldy, demanding projects in recent art history. It involved transporting a 340-ton granite boulder from a quarry in Riverside, a city 60 miles east of Los Angeles, to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA)’s sprawling mid-city campus. Once there, the rock would sit above a concrete trench on two surprisingly small steel shelves.

One sunny afternoon in September 2011, Bowsher was standing over this trench on a dirt lot behind LACMA’s main buildings. He looked the way he always did: lean and white-haired with the same 1970s bowl cut he’d had for years, wearing jeans and a button-up shirt, the top button undone. The artist Michael Heizer, an uncompromising, solitary visionary who has been making work in and about landscape since the 1960s, initially believed that if such a big rock sat balanced above a trench with sloping ramps, the rock would appear to levitate, or give the optical illusion of floating in air, as people descended further down and lost sight of the ground. Once the rock was on top of the trench, the resulting sculpture would be called Levitated Mass, but getting it there, and getting the trench built properly, would be a multi-year process.

John Bowsher and Bill Hanson during construction of Michael Heizer's "Levitated Mass."<span class="_Credit">(Photo by Ron Elad)</span>
John Bowsher and Bill Hanson during construction of Michael Heizer’s “Levitated Mass.” (Photo by Ron Elad)

A journalist standing beside Bowsher asked a question: “Is Michael Heizer involved in all stages of the construction process?”

“Some things he cares about,” Bowsher answered. “Other things, he says, ‘that’s your problem.’”

“What other things?” asked the journalist.

“Like seismic activity,” said Bowsher. In tremor-prone Southern California, it would be the responsibility of Bowsher and the engineers he enlisted to earthquake-proof a massive boulder under which people were expected to walk.

If one were to spot Bowsher, walking at a good clip through the various buildings and courtyards of LACMA, he would usually appear stoic and focused. But if Bowsher caught the eye of an installer or some other staffer he knew, his face would immediately warm. During press conferences or private exhibition walk-throughs, he would often stand off to the side as charismatic LACMA director Michael Govan explained some ambitious new installation, such as the 2,000 plaster rods sculptor Walter de Maria had placed in perfectly-spaced rows in the museum’s new Resnick Pavilion. But, if a curious visitor knew to ask the right question, she would learn that Bowsher and a small team had actually placed the rods in those rows themselves over long work days, using a laser to get spacing just right. Often, after answering only one or two questions, Bowsher would slip away. There would be no reason to suspect that this soft-spoken white-haired man was actually LACMA’s Vice President of Museum Infrastructure and that his name appeared on the executive staff list right below that of museum director Govan.

Or it did appear there until January of this year, when, not long after Bowsher’s death, the position disappeared from the museum’s website all together. It will likely not be replaced. No other U.S. art museum has a Vice President of Infrastructure. The role existed just for Bowsher. When sculptor Richard Serra needed to ship enormously heavy torqued steel ellipses around the world, Bowsher helped; when artist Robert Irwin moonlighted as an architect, designing the Dia Beacon museum in Upstate New York, Bowsher was his right-hand man; when the late land artist Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, that winding earthwork in the Great Salt Lake, had to be preserved, Bowsher was on the team; when James Turrell wanted to turn a volcanic crater in the Arizona desert into a multi-chamber observatory, Bowsher helped with logistics.

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Bowsher with one of the pieces from the Richard Serra show for MOCA.<span class="_Credit">(Photo courtesy of Susan Jordan Yoshimine)</span>
Bowsher with one of the pieces from the Richard Serra show for MOCA. (Photo courtesy Susan Jordan Yoshimine)

Enterprising museum director Richard Koshalek, who worked with Bowsher at the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles, wonders if the museum’s programming would have as bold without Bowsher. “If John had ever walked into my office and said it couldn’t be done,” says Koshalek, “things would have been different. But John never did.”

Willa Overland, Bowsher’s 28-year-old daughter, moved back to L.A. briefly after college, just a few years before her father’s death. She had grown up around art and artists, and took her dad’s world almost for granted. But she remembers Dagny Corcoran, proprietor of the rare art bookstore at LACMA, pulling her aside one day. “Your father is John Bowsher,” Corcoran said, and Overland realized for the first time what that meant: Her father was highly, highly respected by his peers. It’s just that many people in his field, and many more outside of it, didn’t even know he existed.

John William Bowsher was born on April 14, 1952, in Terre Haute, Indiana, both a college town and a prison town (the Terre Haute Federal Correctional Complex, open since 1940, houses death row inmates). His family had been in Terre Haute and surrounding counties for years. They had a farm in the early 1900s and a bridge, the Bowsher Ford Bridge, named after them. His father, Wayne Bowsher, a former World War II army lieutenant, sold insurance . His mother, Martha Day Hafner, was a homemaker who still lives in Terre Haute. His only sibling, a brother named Jim, served in the air force during the wind-down of the Vietnam War then moved to San Francisco to work on a novel and teach college English.

Bowsher studied art at Denison University, a small liberal arts college in Granville, Ohio. He was in a student-faculty exhibition in 1973, his final year there. Then he and a few classmates moved to Michigan’s rural Upper Peninsula. They did odd jobs, and hung out. “He decompressed up there,” says artist Susan Jordan Yoshimine, who would meet Bowsher a few years later and marry him in the late 1970s. After he had decompressed, he moved to Minneapolis, enrolled in a graduate art program at the University of Minnesota, but dropped out after the first year to become a carpenter at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis instead. The museum had a new building, concrete outside and spiral-shaped, pristinely white-walled inside.

“That fulfilled a lot of what he was interested in,” Yoshimine remembers of Bowsher’s move to the Walker. She worked at the Walker too, and remembers that, once Bowsher started installing exhibitions as well as doing carpentry work, he began staying at the museum late into the night. All the art installers worked overtime, she says, but Bowsher stayed longest. She also remembers the Walker’s director Martin, or Marty, Friedman taking her and Bowsher under his wing — less unusual back then, when contemporary art museums were less hierarchical and the head of a museum might have the opportunity to notice an eager young man on the installation team. At one point, Friedman told Bowsher, “You have to decide. Do you want to be a museum director some day?” Installation work had typically been a stepping stone job and he imagined Bowsher going big places. But art was changing. Artists were digging gashes into floors, staging performances that involved building complicated temporary sets or changing the architecture of buildings. Projects like this, not museum bureaucracy, interested Bowsher.

Sometime in 1976, L.A. artist Robert Irwin came to the Walker to install an exhibition. In the only published essay Bowsher wrote, composing it long-hand on a yellow ledger in the months before he died, he described meeting Irwin, noticing how tall the artist was, how blue his eyes were and how “he spoke of a new perspective toward art and the practice of making it.” Irwin had stopped painting by that point and he no longer had a studio. He now only made what he called “conditional response pieces,” working on-site, like he did at the Walker, stretching a see-through scrim at a slant from floor to ceiling across the length of the room and using flood lights and fluorescents to make the space behind the scrim glow. It looked like it was lit by bright afternoon sun. “I liked Irwin immediately,” wrote Bowsher. “He was open and easy to talk to in the way most people from Los Angeles are.”

When Bowsher and Yoshimine left Minneapolis in 1980, they chose Los Angeles as their next destination. She wanted to go to graduate school for art, and would apply to University California Irvine. He had heard that a new museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, would open soon and that Irwin was helping to start it. Also, the city had just passed an ordinance allowing artists to live in industrial downtown buildings. This excited them too. Downtown L.A. at that point was a rugged kind of no man’s land, with no grocery stores or laundromats, and only a few dank bars. The stretch along once bustling Alameda Street was full of abandoned warehouses and factories. Yoshimine picked out one such warehouse for them to live and work in. “Could you have found anything more destroyed?” she remembers Bowsher asking her when he saw it. Still, he devoted the ensuing months to carefully renovating it. “He didn’t get out of Downtown much,” remembers Yoshimine, though he did take work at local Asher-Fauer Gallery and the Gemini studio, famous for producing prints by pop artists Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein.

Bowsher at the Jurupa Mountains quarry for LACMA.<span class="_Credit">(Photo by Ron Elad)</span>
Bowsher at the Jurupa Mountains quarry for LACMA. (Photo by Ron Elad)

The Museum of Contemporary Art, or MOCA, opened in 1980, although in that first year it was just an office on Boyd Street with a board of trustees. At its helm were a number of artists and collectors who found LACMA, then the city’s only other major art museum, unfriendly to new art. The board hired two directors, the glamorous Swedish art collector and museum professional Pontus Hulten, who was supposed to raise money (though he would ultimately do so badly, and leave after less than two years), and the persuasive, ambitious Richard Koshalek, who would champion experimental art exhibitions. The museum’s elegant main space on Grand Avenue, the first U.S. project by Japanese architect Arata Isozaki, wouldn’t be finished for another few years, so the board decided to lease and then renovate a former police car repair garage and hardware store on a lot in Little Tokyo. They planned to stay in the space for only a few years — the city had given them a five-year lease at $1 per year — and call it the Temporary Contemporary, or TC.

Bowsher came on to help turn those building into proper exhibition spaces, though the story of how he officially arrived at MOCA varies depending on who’s telling it. Sherri Geldin, then MOCA’s associate director, says she was conducting a search for a chief preparator and that she perfectly remembers her first meeting with “the impossibly boyish, yet serious and soft-spoken young man.” As she said at his memorial in January, “it was clear from the moment I met John Bowsher that he was our guy.” Later on in his career, she would describe him as “the strong, silent, unflappable Gary Cooper of the art world.”

Robert Irwin, one of the first artists on the museum’s board, does not clearly remember meeting Bowsher years earlier at the Walker, but he does remember Bowsher simply, almost magically arriving on the MOCA scene as a “consummate pro.” The funny thing about this recollection is that Bowsher was only 27. He’d never had a job like the one he took on at MOCA, which would involve rehabilitating a garage, and removing part of a building’s roof for an art installation by the light-obsessed James Turrell. Still, his colleagues speak as if his competence was inherent. “He already knew what to do,” says Koshalek.

In his first year at MOCA, Bowsher belonged to a staff of just twelve. His main task was to facilitate the redesign of the 55,000 square foot TC. He worked with architect Frank Gehry, then mainly known for the eccentric residence he’d built for himself in Santa Monica, not for fantastically curvy tourist attractions like the Bilbao Museum that would later make him world-famous. “It was the perfect scenario for [John],” Yoshimine remembers — perfect because it was difficult and intricate.

Bowsher at a construction zone for a LACMA project.<span class="_Credit">(Photo by Tom Vinetz)</span>
Bowsher at a construction zone for a LACMA project. (Photo by Tom Vinetz)

Even in his personal life, Bowsher loved tasks that required precision. He was an avid baker. When he would go over to LACMA director Michael Govan’s house for Sunday lunches, he and Govan’s wife, Katherine Ross, would swap cookie recipes. He collected books extensively, focusing mostly on titles about artists and architects he worked with. Dagny Corcoran, proprietor of the Art Catalogues store at LACMA, remembers him as an obsessive book collector whose expertise rivaled her own. If he started buying books about an artist he hadn’t worked with personally, Corcoran would do some digging and quickly find a connection between that artist and Bowsher’s current projects. They had an arrangement: if Corcoran found a volume she knew he would love on one of her rare book sleuthing missions, she would buy it for him. If he found something he wanted in her store, he had to pay full price. “He took better care of his books than I do,” says Corcoran, remembering seeing Bowsher’s collection organized in glass cases in his small, tidy apartment.

The 1981-83 renovation of the Temporary Contemporary involved installing skylights and tearing away plaster to expose wooden rafters. Then, in September 1983, Bowsher oversaw construction of the Gehry-designed set for Available Light, the museum’s first-ever event. Iconic composer John Adams composed the music, Lucinda Childs choreographed and twelve dancers in flowing red and white outfits navigated multi-level raw wood platforms. Audiences sat in specially built bleachers, and photos of the event convey an unruly excitement. “John made an energy,” Koshalek says now. “He understood that we needed momentum.”

The stories of Bowsher’s work at MOCA are too many to recount: there’s the roof removal, the gash he helped artist Michael Heizer dig into the floor; the time he figured out how to send the walls he’d built for a traveling exhibition of architect Louis Kahn’s work overseas along with the models and drawings. But in recounting their memories, Bowsher’s colleagues dwell mostly on the details.

During the Ad Reinhardt exhibition in 1991, Koshalek remembers a wall on which three of the artist’s minimal paintings had been hung together. Somehow, hung in a row like that, they looked like a triptych, as if the artist had wanted them seen all together, when in fact he hadn’t. Bowsher moved one three-quarters of an inch to the left. “No one’s going to notice,” Koshalek told him. “We will notice,” Bowsher responded.

The museum business, at the highest levels especially, is not for the faint of heart, and it’s not always an ideal place for someone who solely cares about art. Irwin still talks about how hard he fought to keep billionaire Eli Broad, a collector with a taste for commercially proven artists over experimental ones, off of MOCA’s board. He lost. Broad, after all, had money on his side. Irwin moved from L.A. to Vegas in the 1980s and cites frustration over changes at MOCA as a factor.

Because of museum politics, figures like Bowsher, who have become exceptionally good at executing complicated projects, tend to remain free agents. Jeff Jamieson, known for fabricating minimalist sculptor Donald Judd’s work, has moved around over the years, following the artists who interest him. But Bowsher, it seemed, cared about the power a museum had to not only fund but also preserve ambitious artwork. “He took great care for the record,” says Francesca Esmay, who Bowsher later hired as the first-ever full-time conservator at the Dia Art Foundation in New York. Esmay would spend much of her first year on staff archiving Bowsher’s own documentation of the work he had done there, because she felt his photographs of in-progress installations and building renovations needed to be on file. She remained a friend until Bowsher’s death and doesn’t quite know how to describe the role he played in the museum world. “It’s almost like there’s no category,” she muses.

Once again, Irwin was the reason Bowsher ended up leaving one museum for another, going from Los Angeles to Dia in 1998. Michael Govan, Dia’s energetic young director, had invited Irwin to do a project as part of the exhibition Homage to a Square. “Bob said there was only one guy he trusted,” Govan remembers. By the next year, Govan was sitting across from Bowsher over breakfast, making a sketch on a scrap of paper, trying to convince him to come to Dia full time. He had sketched all of Dia’s biggest projects in New York and elsewhere. The foundation managed the conservation and construction of a number of large-scale outdoor artworks: Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty in Utah, Walter De Maria’s Lightning Field in New Mexico, James Turrell’s Roden Crater in Arizona, where Bowsher would give his daughter her first driving lesson. Govan had indicated Los Angeles with little waves way off in the distance. After Bowsher’s death, Govan would find this sketch in an archival box labeled “1999” in Bowsher’s apartment. Bowsher had annotated it, numbering projects in terms of priority and adding dates for when projects should be finished (Turrell’s still incomplete Crater was labeled 2004).

By 2000, Bowsher was living in Upstate New York along the Hudson River, working with Robert Irwin, who had moved to Cornwall to renovate a 300,000 former Nabisco box-printing factory. This would become Dia:Beacon, the foundation’s satellite art space. Irwin wanted it to be largely sunlit, and an all-encompassing experience that began as soon as visitors stepped onto the grounds. The renovation took three years. “He must have walked fifty miles a day,” says Yoshimine, imagining Bowsher moving around that cavernous building.

She and Bowsher had been divorced since the early 1990s and she moved to Santa Barbara with their daughter Willa in 1992. She would soon remarry and have a second daughter, Avery, to whom Bowsher would become quite close over the years. During his Dia years, Bowsher visited Santa Barbara often. When he did, he would photograph himself under palm trees and send the images to Govan, saying he was in their “West Coast office.”

Bowsher and daughter Willa.<span class="_Credit">(Photo courtesy of Susan Jordan Yoshimine)</span>
Bowsher and daughter Willa. (Photo courtesy of Susan Jordan Yoshimine)

Bowsher never remarried himself, though he had many long friendships with women. “John always had to have a close lady friend,” in Irwin’s words, though that’s as personal a statement as many of Bowsher’s friends and family will make. Just talking about his work at length seems uncomfortable to some who knew him well; they aren’t sure he would have wanted even that much of a spotlight.

Around the time the renovation of Dia:Beacon was complete, Michael Govan began planning a show of neon sculptor Dan Flavin’s work. Tiffany Bell, who co-curated that exhibition with Govan, remembers Govan telling her, “We have to hurry up and do this. John is getting bored.”

It was during the Flavin show’s long, multi-venue run that Govan, who had wanted to renovate Dia’s central New York City space too, but met resistance from his board, started considering a job offer as director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. He had never seriously considered the West Coast before. It was Bowsher who told him he should go, though not directly. “John told me to just drive down Wilshire from Downtown to the ocean, and then see what I thought,” Govan remembers. “He was a little bit Yoda in that way.”

It was only one year into Govan’s tenure in L.A. that he asked Bowsher to join him. He was working on expanding the museum’s campus and had just commissioned Irwin to landscape the Wilshire Boulevard-facing garden full of Auguste Rodin sculptures.

Govan had also just decided to take on a particularly staggering challenge: Heizer’s rock sculpture, Levitated Mass. The idea for the sculpture had taken initial shape in 1967, when the artist made a drawing of an irregularly shaped boulder hovering over a trench dug into the ground. He had never found the right rock, until a friend who ran a Riverside, California quarry and knew of the drawing, called him in 2005. “Michael,” he said, “I found your rock.” Heizer, who now splits time between New York and Nevada, flew to California. Indeed, the rock, dislodged from a nearby cliff and weighing 340 tons, looked remarkably similar to the one he had drawn. So now all he needed was a place for the trench, and, of course, a lot of money – the project would eventually cost around $10 million. Govan, always a supporter of Heizer’s, wanted LACMA to be the boulder’s permanent home. So after Bowsher returned to Los Angeles, Govan asked, as he had with so many other projects, whether this could be done. Bowsher thought it over for a few days and then said yes, it could be.

It was probably the biggest project Bowsher ever undertook. It involved engineering the trench, building the rig to move the rock 106 miles, and getting the permits so that the rig, which would take up multiple lanes and go at a snail’s pace, would be allowed down city streets. His daughter says she knew the project was big, not because he complained, but because he was simply less available than he typically had been. He appeared in news articles and TV footage more than he had with any previous undertaking, usually explaining complicated logistics, like how it could take a few hours for the 200-foot, specially-built rig to turn a corner. Architect Craig Hodgetts, who had known Bowsher during his MOCA years and now met him routinely for “bacon breakfasts” at the Italian Café Verona on La Brea Boulevard, watched the rock’s transport “as if it was a football game with John as the quarterback.”

Around the time the rock actually left the Riverside quarry for the museum, a journey that would take eleven days, Bowsher began what would be a three-year fight against lung cancer. “We thought at first it must have been the rock making him sick,” says his daughter Willa Overland, who had moved to Montana by that point. The rock was his artwork, she always felt, and told him so throughout the process, an assertion that made him smile.

The night the rock left the quarry, Bowsher was standing off by himself, watching as if he were simply another onlooker. He looked the same way a few months later, when he stood alone near the edge of a crowd outside the Temporary Contemporary, which remains open even though it had initially been scheduled to close in 1988. Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang was about to set of circles of explosives he’d installed on the building’s façade, and Bowsher was simply watching. No one there that day could have guessed that he had helped build the TC three decades before. “He just loved the art, being near it,” Overland says of her father.

Bowsher in the desert near the James Turell project in the late 1990s.<span class="_Credit">(Photo courtesy of Susan Jordan Yoshimine)</span>
Bowsher in the desert near the James Turell project in the late 1990s. (Photo courtesy Susan Jordan Yoshimine)

After Bowsher’s death, his daughter found the methodically dated archival boxes in which he stored documents related to every exhibition or project he had worked on. He had also archived personal correspondence and family photos. “All treated equally,” Overland says, “and treasured.” She isn’t sure if her father ever meant for these to be seen, but in that essay he wrote in the months before his death, he devoted a significant amount of space to the idea of permanence. In fact, he used some variation of the word “permanent” fifteen times and ended with a somewhat strange sentiment. He was speaking of James Turrell and Robert Irwin’s work, and the Panzas, wealthy Italian art collectors who donated much of their collection to MOCA. “They saw that the concept of permanence potentially could have no boundaries,” he writes, “which becomes both the purpose and the reason for how we begin to perceive things differently.” He means that, if adventurous artworks are made competently and preserved over time, then maybe they can change our thinking about what is possible in a sustainable, ongoing kind of way. It seems he was speaking as much about what drove his own work as the artists he admired.