SCOTT SIMON, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.
Edward Tufte, who likes to be called ET, has been called the Minister of Information and the da Vinci of Design. He's an emeritus professor of political science and statistics at Yale who's become an artist. The new edition of Microsoft Office will include and ET creation: sparklines - small graphics the size of two short words that can be embedded in text to depict stock market prices, baseball stats, whatever your imagination might concoct.
Edward Tufte's also been recruited by the White House to join the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, to advise and devise ways to track how the $787 billion stimulus package is being spent. He's authored bestsellers on information presentation, including "Beautiful Evidence" and "Visual Explanations."
But the man known as ET is also accomplished grand scale sculptor. He just opened his gallery, ET Modern, in New York City. We joined him there this week to talk about his career and admire some of his work.
Professor EDWARD TUFTE (Yale University): My main work is big landscape outdoor pieces, abstract pieces. And I think it was Richard Serra who said that the market for big outdoor landscape pieces is like the market for Canadian experimental poetry. And so I can never be accused of being market driven in the art world. I'm driven by just, you know, make crackpot wonderful different - different things. And...
SIMON: ET's gallery in Chelsea has the look of what might be a playroom for children - at MIT. There's a piece called Lunar Lander that looks like an enormous playful steel Schnauzer.
Prof. TUFTE: It's got four legs, it might bark.
SIMON: And a great smile. Two aluminum fish, each twelve feet long, swimming in separate rooms, an homage to a Rene Magritte painting of a fish with a sly smile.
Prof. TUFTE: I smile back every time I see it.
SIMON: In the hallway we met ET's Buddha, one of his table sculptures.
Prof. TUFTE: And the Buddha is sitting on a big piece of metal with some kind of wheels on it - under. And that's the Buddha-mobile. And then I decided to call the wheels the three cylinders of wisdom, in a kind of little prankish thing. And you'll notice there's a bird's nest on top of the Buddha.
SIMON: Yeah, one would notice that.
Prof. TUFTE: There's some stories. The Buddha was said to be able to meditate so serenely that the birds could nest in his hair. And the other one, my story, is that the Buddha is the only one of the great dear leaders that you can put a bird's nest on the top of his - on the dear leader's head, and his fundamentalist followers won't try to kill you.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. TUFTE: And so it says something about Buddha and Buddhism, but also some of the other dear leaders.
SIMON: Forgive (unintelligible) question, but is it here and displayed that way because it's for sale?
Prof. TUFTE: I don't think I can sell it. I have a very big problem selling pieces, because I don't want them to leave. And a part of it is for a long time I believed that any successful piece was a tremendous luck-out, and I would never be able to do it again. So I didn't want it to go away. And my fellow artist friends, who are serious, they told me to grow up. You know, they said, you know, artists make pieces, ET, you know? They and and I figured out what it was, which was it wasn't the piece as a whole, it was the particular elements in the piece that I had found or made that I didn't want to go away. So now I'm make copies not for making another piece but just to have those still - still with me.
Prof. TUFTE: And I don't have to sell pieces. I'm not under the financial constraints of the gallery or other artists. It's a very - I'm very lucky to have the books.
SIMON: They've sold two million copies. So...
Prof. TUFTE: Yeah.
SIMON: Means you won't have to live in a trailer home anytime soon.
Prof. TUFTE: Yeah, or a garret or wherever artists are supposed to live. And I've just been extremely fortunate. And I sincerely believe in the idea that to whom much is given much should be delivered back.
SIMON: Which is what brings ET to public service. He cites his Scandinavian heritage as much as his Ivy League professorship. When the White House wanted to make government spending easier to track online, they turned to ET, a master in making information clear and interesting. He advised them to steer clear of what he calls chartjunk - graphics that look flashy but actually conceal or distort information.
Prof. TUFTE: And I said no. I said your metaphor should be a really - you're reporting, and it should be Google News or�the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal. You are reporting, and that's the model.
SIMON: You can see some of the results of ET's fine mind and hand on the website recovery.gov.
Prof. TUFTE: I'm making some what I hope are really cool accountable transparent data displays.
SIMON: Can you tell us?
Prof. TUFTE: I'm working on some maps and I'm working on things where people can see immediately the hundred biggest projects, the hundred smallest projects, the hundred biggest medical projects, the hundred smallest medical projects. So it's a way of, in one click, getting down to material.
Prof. TUFTE: And also you can put your own zip code in and see the projects.
SIMON: And I want to follow-up on that. Zip code's important because instead of people saying, oh, I want to find what's going on with the stimulus package here in Cooke County, Illinois, which could be, I imagine, overwhelming to the point of not informative at all, they can put in 60610, a local zip code, and find out what might be going on two blocks away.
Prof. TUFTE: Yes. And the hope is that they'll look at the projects, or one hope, and see it says there's being a big school built in the field across the way. I don't see that big school. But also they can see, holy cow, you know, there are 22 projects going on here and there's one pretty big one. I didn't know they're doing that. And if this works, then it would apply to all federal government spending, and maybe state and local. And that's a big a big change in government.
SIMON: Some people in your position would say it gets in the way of my art. What I really ought to be doing is these massive sculptures that take up a quarter block and may not be able to be sold to any municipality but that's what I want to do and that's - I just don't have the time.
Prof. TUFTE: I don't see any tension at all. The Recovery Accountability Board is about, you know, the biggest data problem you can imagine, display problem there is available, and important as all of the things I like. And there's there's plenty there's enough time.
SIMON: Now, people can come in here. You want it to be as much like a museum as a gallery, which is to say if they just want to look, that's okay with you.
Prof. TUFTE: Yeah, if I see them, they'll usually get an earful about the sculpture. I love to show people around. But we've been silently opening - open for about two weeks, and we have to have a party or something or some formal announcement...
SIMON: Oh, they do that with galleries. You've got to have a group of people in here wearing black, passing around trays of canap�s.
Prof. TUFTE: And that's where they look at each other rather than my art?
SIMON: Yes, exactly.
Prof. TUFTE: Oh, gee.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. TUFTE: Maybe we'll have a day-long party where there can only be a few people at a time and they have to look at my stuff.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SIMON: What - it does strike me that all of the various things you do, while to some people would seem to have not a whole lot in common, they do have a whole lot in common to you. And I wonder if you can tell us what that it is.
Prof. TUFTE: There are so many wonderful things to see in the world, and I want to see a lot of different things, make them, try to leave something that's -these things that are forever, and make people see a little differently.
(Soundbite of music)
SIMON: ET, Edward Tufte, at his gallery, ET Modern in New York City. There's more of his work on NPR.org.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.