Ever wonder what it would be like to leave everything behind? To walk off into the distance and never be heard from again? If so, you’re not alone.

“Most men lead lives of quiet desperation,” wrote Henry David Thoreau in 1854, “and go to the grave with the song still in them.” In transcendentalists like Thoreau, the spirit of dropping out is willing, but the flesh is ultimately weak. Sure, we go out. But like wolves who leave their pack for a time, we always return, mostly for reasons we’re never fully aware of.

For even if the structures around us are corrupt beyond repair, breaking off completely from the idea of progress and heading for the hills means giving up, admitting failure, or worse: that we’ve made ourselves crazy for nothing.

Perched from his fourth floor studio in Midtown Manhattan, near the Hudson River, the Swiss-born artist Arnold Helbling has been thinking a great deal about dropping out these days.

Helbling has been in the city of Wall Street, in the throes of American capitalism, for over two decades now, and it’s bound to’ve made him a little crazy like the rest of us. So if Helbling’s work carries with it any unifying theme, it is about how and if we still relate to these structures—architectural, social, political.

Tall and wirey with white hair, Helbling’s work space is neatly cluttered, an appropriate description of the artist’s mind too. He interprets the world almost entirely through an architectural lens.

On a recent visit, Helbling and I walked towards I.M. Pei’s Jacob Javits Center to discuss the nature of structure in relation to his own work. Every few steps, the artist stops to point out the beauty of some exposed beam or joist work in the buildings that line 37th Street. I admit, had he not done so, I’d probably not’ve noticed. But then architecture is clearly at the core of Helbling’s aesthetic vision.

Arnold Helbling; Studio

Arnold Helbling studio

Back at his studio are the artist’s newest paintings, leaned and stacked against every square inch of space. Viewing them, I feel both entrapped and mystically freed by Helbing’s vision of structures, fragmented and paint-splattered, as if simultaneously coming into being and withering away like a dream.

Helbling wants to know what I think of architect/inventor Buckminster Fuller. He says his new series is based on a fascination with the Fuller-inspired Drop City, a utopian commune in Colorado where residents assembled homemade geodesic domes during the late 1960s.

Painting with acrylics on large sheets of clear plastic, Helbling crafts cross-hatched weaves that evoke the symmetry of Fuller’s domes without attempting real geometrics. That is to say, they are not mathematical, despite their theoretical nature.

The works look varyingly like spider webs, primitive huts made of tree branches and stained-glass windows. Soothing pinks and oranges give Helbling’s structures a sense of such beneficence that my eyes begin to think they can trust the structure. That maybe I should drop-out myself and make myself a great circle dome out in the woods. Look long enough at the artist’s visions of alternative domesticity, though, and they start to feel like traps. Like you’re underneath a net from which you can’t get out.

“In the book Drop City,” Helbling says of T.C. Boyle’s fictional account of the ’60s commune, “utopia becomes a nightmare.” Asked why he thinks that is, Helbling says with a shrug, “Human nature.”

It is nothing new to question whether the cosmos is imbued with structure. Where Helbling’s work reaches an emotional breakthrough is by asking whether such structural discoveries, both in science and metaphysics, can give us any information that might actually improve our lives.

Surely centuries of ideological bloodshed have not been in vein. Yet is structure inevitable? Or can we actually ever truly escape?

Arnold Helbling;

Helbling’s paintings—whether directly engaging solid architecture or simply dripping with loose skeins and brush strokes—are each in their own way obsessed with how the universe appears to order itself.

Along one of Helbling’s studio walls leans a huge painting of a black lattice filled in by primary colors of blue, yellow, and red. In purposefully rendering the color scheme of Dutch functionalist Piet Mondrian, Helbling re-addresses modernism’s many attempts to tame the natural world through ideology.

Yet, though the work retains the formalism of modernity, it bristles with a kind of anti-utopianism all the same. Helbling’s black lines are not square and hard-edged, like Mondrian. They eschew the creaking of machinery, mysticism, and idealism, instead criss-crossing over the canvas like fructifying plantlife. It’s as if he wants the budding libertarianism of America without giving up the traditional intellectualism of Europe. As though they must somehow work together to sort this whole mess out.

Another one of Helbling’s new works features two domes painted in loose strokes of orange and magenta. Structures explode from the inside out. At first, the painting calls to mind Ed Ruscha’s “Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Fire” (1968), itself a provocation that questions the relevance of architecture. Yet Helbling’s doesn’t seem quite as reactionary. His explosions are more emotion-based, removing the ‘us-versus-them’ sentiment so that the structures become an extension of the combustible human being, rather than the political animal.

Whatever questions that “things” provoke in Helbling’s work, they seem ultimately to be less about how ideas function and more about how they naturally self-destruct.

Arnold Helbling;

An older painting—titled From a Series of Places I Always Wanted to See and Never Dared Visit (2003)—holds further insight.

Against a white backdrop, Helbling spray-paints bursts of neon hot pink, yellow, blue and lime-green with a loose hand, the symmetry and rhythm evoking something like a molecular science chart.

The colors feel random and chaotic, as if shading in an architectural rendering is no longer even a possibility for this artist. There is no structure to shade in. It’s just a white canvas. The wondrously-colored place Helbling dares not visit is one where ribbons of paint drop freely onto the canvas without the need to justify their useful place in the larger civilization. If something somehow forms, so be it. But Helbling doesn’t force it. Structure, if there is any at all, settles organically, and, as Walt Whitman once wrote: “The shapes arise!”

As night descends over New York City, Helbling tells me a story about the time his father painted a stained glass window for a church in Switzerland. The young Helbling was his handy assistant. What he remembers most vividly is standing in the center of the open nave looking up at the light filtering through the glass, which engulfed the room in a kind of aesthetic awe.

As I look around Helbling’s studio one last time before these paintings are shipped to Los Angeles tomorrow, I too see in them the strange way that life’s many awakenings illuminate from the inside. If you wait long enough, everything changes—structures deteriorate, regimes are overthrown, institutions fade away.

But the one structure we all share is experience. (Brian Chidester)

Arnold Helbling in his Manhattan studio.

Arnold Helbling in his Manhattan studio.