• Courtesy of Bert Green Fine Art
  • Art Works (Sidewalk Plaque) by Stephen Kaltenbach

Stephen Kaltenbach has been among the most influential American artists since the late 1960s, when he helped introduce the movement known as conceptualism. Near the height of his youthful fame in 1970 he left the New York art scene for northern California, where he still resides.

A sculptor, painter, and installation and performance artist, Kaltenbach was in town last weekend for Expo Chicago. On Friday he spoke at the Independent Curators International (ICI) booth about his stainless steel Untitled Time Capsules. (ICI is also touring a group show, “State of Mind: New California Art Circa 1970,” opening October 3 at the Smart Museum, which will feature Kaltenbach’s Art Works, 1968-2005 and Artforum Ads, 1969-70.)

Also last weekend he appeared at the opening of a show of his works at Bert Green Fine Art, where he spoke to me about his career.

AG: The other day when I asked you how long it took art followers to catch up with you, you replied that you weren’t especially approachable when you were young, and had a hard time being serious. You mentioned that early on your supporters were not audiences, per se. Can you expound on that?

SK: I really liked humor in sculpture, painting, and conceptual art, so I was fine with being pretty inaccessible. I had learned a lot in art history classes: if you do art secretly, and you don’t initially have a lot of luck, people will explain what you do, people who can explain it better than, say, I can.

When I was a student at UC-Davis, my professor Robert Arneson was very supportive. Another person who really helped me was my landlord in New York; he practically adopted me. There was so much coincidence involved that I began thinking there really was a God, because everything started falling into place.

What do you mean, exactly?

When I first arrived in New York, I asked the taxi driver to take me to the neighborhood where artists lived and worked. The cabbie took me to SoHo, and stopped on Greene Street. As I got out of the cab, I heard someone asking me, “Are you looking for a loft?” That guy owned a building, and rented me space at a very reasonable rate.

One of your early works was creating the persona and output of an artist called Clyde Dillon. Was that your suit? Seriously?

I bought the suit as a costume, and the wig and moustache. It was a “life drama”; I was still outside, looking in. As Clyde Dillon I would go through that artist’s progression, occupying two careers at one time [his and mine]. More than 35 years later he finally got a one-person show at Another Year in LA.

How did that feel?

Fulfilling, in kind of an empty way. Even though I had to portray Clyde, I was still doing work as an artist doing another artist’s work. More interesting to me really was that I was developing his work sort of decade to decade, from 1970 to 2009 or 2010. You could see the evolution in his work, even if it was in such a narrow way, since he kept going back to the same things over and over again.

Do you have a low threshold for boredom?

Pretty low. I’m always working on two or three things at the same time.

What are you working on now?

[Paging through his Moleskin notebook:] These are some sketches for a series of ‘dumb objects.’ The object sits on a pedestal, in an inset, so that it’s slightly below the top surface of the pedestal. I might be working with lead for this one; I’m not sure yet. I’m constantly getting these images, and try to get them on paper.

I also have paintings waiting in a queue; two will be portraits of my son. I’m going to use two fiberglass and polyester panels I made back in 1971, although they didn’t have subject matter then.

You must have known you were in it for the long haul.

I always had the goal of becoming known as an artist, then disappearing [from the limelight], but definitely with the idea all along of reemerging.

What are your dreams?

I have spiritual experiences that most people don’t have. My faith in God is more like knowledge, because some positive things have happened regularly; they were not just chance. Sensations and a string of events made me feel like I was in the presence of divinity.

I was Lutheran as a child but left the church at 13 out of boredom. I had a strong feeling that God was available; I just had to find out how. In my search, I studied Eastern philosophies. One day, at 38, I was able to impress things on my mind that had a great deal of consistency. Every thing that I had this impression of was what you’d refer to as a good deed. I was encouraged to do my work, and given help when I needed it.

Will any of your works be overtly spiritual?

I have in mind a portrait of the Transfiguration of Christ. It’s going to be on a very big canvas, 10′ x 10′, just a face, so bright, and in pastel colors. There are two aspects to awe; I’ve experienced both of them. I see one as a kind of hyper-respect, and one as terror.