ABSTRACT ART

 

 



PICTURES OF NOTHING



ABSTRACT ART SINCE POLLOCK



 


Contents:


1. Why Abstract Art?

2. Survivals and Fresh Starts

3. Minimalism

4. After Minimalism

5.Satire, Irony, and Abstract Art

6. Abstract Art Now

 

 



MINIMALISM
 


Donald Judd
Blog Archive;  Blog Archive;  Six boxes

 

This is the third in a series of six lectures, so we are approaching halftime, a moment to reflect back on where we have been. In the first lecture, I tried to explain that I was starting fifty years ago, with the death of Jackson Pollock, because it was a moment when people recognized that he had introduced a new kind of abstraction. The wholeness of Pollock's work, the lack of compositional hierarchy, the allover dispersal of paint in his poured paintings—these things seemed to set a new direction for abstraction in America in the mid-1950s. I also talked about Johns' White Flag, which at roughly the same time started a countercurrent to abstraction: the advent of pop art, a new imagery, a revival of Duchamp and Dada that seemed to go against the grain of traditional abstraction. Along with these, I took Gombrich's Art and Illusion, based in his 1956 Mellon Lectures, as a starting point. Gombrich argued that illusionism—the depiction of things in a convincing and credible fashion—was one of the great achievements of Western civilization. My rhetorical question in this first lecture was, Could we ever have an argument for abstraction as good as Gombrich's argument for illusionism?

To construct such an argument, we would have to wrench abstraction away from the traditional arguments about ultimate platonic forms, and also from the Hegelian or historicist argument that the spirit of the times inevitably demands certain forms—a teleological view that has been used to defend the advent of abstraction in the twentieth century. I tried to suggest that one might make an argument for abstraction that avoided both the platonic idea of absolute form and the Hegelian idea of historical necessity. Instead, the argument could be based on what Gombrich called the logic of the situation: an argument that abstract art is connected both to the way we think and to what we are—a modern, liberal society.

In the second lecture, I set out to deal with the 1950s, and particularly with the constructivist or hardedge tradition as it was disseminated from Russia in the early 1920s to Germany and the
Bauhaus—leaving a legacy of pedagogy, basic design, commercial design, and so forth, before being resuscitated in the 1960s in the work of Andre, Judd, and others. Comparing Albers' Homage to the Square in Wide Light of 1953 and Stella's Gran Cairo of 1962, I claimed that I was out to sow confusion, that I wanted to make what seemed simple more complex. I believe I succeeded, because I heard secondhand about an exchange in the audience after last week's lecture. One person said, "I thought it was really interesting that he was saying that, even though these two things look very much alike, they're absolutely different." And the other person said, "Really? I thought he was saying that even though everybody says these things are different, they're really quite similar." They were both right: I said both of these things.

Albers and
Stella represent two very, very different ends of a long geometric tradition. What Albers does with the square or with stripes in his design courses at Yale is very different from what Stella does in his paintings, where he comes to these motifs through the models of Johns and Pollock. Stella is recovering the original impetus of constructivism, as it appeared in the work of Malevich and Tatlin. He is working in an entirely different scale from Albers. And he has no sociological or ideational agenda.

For any who remain confused, I offer as a solace or epigram for last week's lecture, and an opening for this week's, a quotation from Donald Judd. He said in 1964—and many of us blessed him for this comment—"The history of art and art's condition at any time are pretty messy. They should stay that way. One can think about them as much as one likes, but they won't become neater; neatness isn't even a good reason for thinking about them." With that, let us move on.

In 1968 when Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clark made the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, they needed a form that would indicate the presence of something unknowable and ultimate. What they came up with was a great, gray, forbidding slab that first appears to a group of apes at the beginning of the movie and later reappears on the moon, sending out a piercing signal in the direction of Mars. Kubrick and Clark reached for a form that was at once absolute and ambiguous, a form that had a tremendous amount of authority and an unruly indecipherability. Yet the form they found was quickly mocked in Mad Magazine not as having dropped in from Mars, but as something very much in the ordinary: a wall in a handball court, a giant transistor radio, a dawn-of-man tape deck. A form as clear and simple as a monolith thus lends itself to paradoxical interpretation as something absolute and otherworldly on the one hand, and completely mundane on the other. And it sits on the razor's edge between the two.

The proximate source for Kubrick and Clark's monolith was probably a 4.6 meter slab sculpture by Los Angeles artist John McCracken and was part of the widespread vocabulary of what came to be called minimalist sculpture. The term "
minimalism" was adopted from a 1965 essay entitled "Minimal Art" by British philosopher Richard Wollheim, Wollheim's subject, however, was not the art itself, but the minimal conditions that might satisfy the definition "work of art." The term "minimalism" was borrowed from his speculations and applied to the work of artists such as McCracken, Judd, and Robert Morris, to the great distaste of most of the artists thereby implicated. They did not like the name at all, despite the fact that defining minimal conditions for art in the face of these extremely reductive, mute objects did seem apt at the time.

When I look at the installation by Morris from 1965 of two 2.5 meter-long L-beams, or other early minimalist installations, I am reminded of what I would call Kenneth Clark's "Rembrandt problem." In his great television series Civilization, Clark says, You know, here is seventeenth-century Holland, the most philistine, crass, mercantile, money-grubbing society imaginable, and what do they get in the way of art? They get Rembrandt.-I Well, I can say that the reverse, or inverse, seems to be true about the art of the 1960s. Here we are in the age of Kennedy's New Frontier space program, of political assassinations, of Vietnam, of huge student protests, of the sexual revolution—possibly one of the most dramatic and exciting periods in the life of our times—and what do we get in the way of art? We get dumb boxes, lattices that look like jungle gyms, metalwork rugs that spread on the floor, and things that seem to be mute and inert in the face of the insane dynamism of the time. In a provocative and challenging world, we get art that seems as dumb as a post. Now many people must have asked when they went to an installation such as Morris's, "Is this a joke!?" It is a fair question, and while it has been asked many times about modern art, I think it has never been more to the point and more poignant than at the advent of minimalism. To be honest, even art experts were asking the question, couched in another way: Was this a new manifestation of the
Dada tradition? Minimalism seemed like a revival of the kind of anti-art made by Duchamp, who in 1917 purchased a urinal, signed it "R. Mutt," and submitted it to an exhibition of avant-garde art, initiating the long tradition within modern art of the subversive joke, of anti-art—art that deconstructs and disengages the category of art itself. In a 1965 article called "ABC Art," art critic Barbara Rose also attempted to make sense of the then-unnamed art and to respond to its elemental quality. Rose, who at that time was married to Frank Stella, proposed that Duchamp and the Russian avant-garde artist Malevich were the patron saints under which the new art was emerging. But the return of Malevich and Duchamp as patron saints seemed to pair two incompatible models. Whereas Malevich's attempt to find an essence of painting—to reduce painting to its fundamental building block, to its ultimate reduction, the black square— seemed to be part of a modernist tradition of innovation by distillation, Duchamp's art seemed only to be about subversion, about getting outside the narrative of history, getting outside any chain of innovation, any teleology, and instead simply demoralizing and subverting the whole enterprise of art.

So is early minimalism, like
Malevich, trying to purify the spring of modern art? Or is it, like Duchamp, trying to defile it? Is early minimalism saying "yes!" in a hard, concrete, reductive, but affirming way? Or is it saying "no!" as a way to subvert and pull out the rug from under modern art? We find these goals constantly confused in the art of the early 1960s. Take, for example, Flavin's "monument" for V, Tatlin from 1964. Flavin's title links his work to the same Russian revolutionary strain rep-resented by Malevich, to the same idea of high idealism and purity in art. On the other hand, his materials are bought from the hardware store; they are "found" objects, just like Duchamp's urinal. Which is the operative side of the work? Does Flavin mean this to be a contribution to the history of art, or a demoralization and deconstruction of it? Is it anti-art or pro-art? Is it yes art or no art?

It was very hard for people in the early 1960s to find the answer to this question, to say whether or not such art was a joke. It was easier to define the new art by what it was not. (Indeed, that is always the easiest way to deal with challenging new ideas. We often characterize what is new by its abandonment of the things that we know. That is why we have the horseless carriage and the wireless phone.) The surprising thing about this new art is that the few positive terms we might give to it, such as "geometric," "abstract," or "rational," were rejected by the artists who made it.

Kenneth Noland's chevron piece of 1965 and a
Andre Carl sculpture called Redan of 1964 share a common hardedge vocabulary. Like a lot of other art of the time, they have geometric compositions. Yet each artist would have objected to being aligned with geometric abstraction as it had been practiced in the past. They wanted nothing to do with Mondrian, for example, or with the idealization of the square, or with the traditional notion that the union of vertical and horizontal summed up something special about the universe. They wanted geometry for its graphic impact; they wanted it for its visual power; they wanted it as a means to reduce the sense of human gesture and to get a clean anonymous edge to their work. Geometry itself was ultimately meaningless for them, and they wanted to draw attention to its meaning-lessness. Therefore, they rejected their place within a geometric tradition of art history.

Andre would also have claimed, and Judd would have claimed on his behalf, that their art was not abstract, and this takes a little more explaining. Phil Leider makes it wonderfully clear in an early article in Art forum, where he opposes the terms "abstract" and "literal," using "abstract" for Noland and many other artists like him, and reserving "literal" for Andre, Judd, and others of their group. This differentiation involves two different readings of Pollock.

Noland, Morris Louis, Helen Frankenthaler, Jules Olitski, and many other painters of the early 1960s were supported and nourished by a nexus of critics, beginning with Clement Greenberg and then including Michael Fried and William Rubin, who read their art as descending legitimately from Pollock, in the sense that they continued to abstract in the way that Pollock had, continued to pull away from representation. In the eyes of Greenberg, Fried," and Rubin, modern art had an innate tendency to pull away from any literary reference to things outside itself and to refer only to the essential properties of painting per se: flatness, line, and color. By staining their paint directly into raw canvas, Noland, Louis, and Frankenthaler had eliminated any residual sense of space, becoming even more abstract than Pollock. In these critics' view, the artists had taken the next step in a grand tradition.

But others looking at the same paintings by Pollock saw something different. Judd, for ex-ample, wrote, "The dripped paint in most of Pollock's paintings is dripped paint. It's that sensation, completely immediate and specific, and nothing modifies it."' When Judd or
Andre looked at Pollock, they did not see pure opticality; they saw house paint poured out of a can, with no mediation. What was thrilling and exciting to them in Pollock's paintings were the properties of paint as a material: its relationship to gravity, the way that it hit the canvas; its immediacy and physicality. It had a specific, material quality, without reference or metaphor. Pollock reinforced this material quality by stepping on the canvas where it lay on the floor, by stubbing out his cigarettes on it, by pushing his hand against the surface of it. He affirmed that the painting was an object in the world, an extension of the physicality of the world, not a window onto anything else.

The swing vote in the debate over Pollock was the reading of
Stella's work. As I mentioned earlier, Andre had been Stella's classmate at Andover; he, Judd, and the other literalist artists were all closely involved with Stella's work. The literalists, as Leider dubbed them, argued that Stella's stripe paintings, such as Empress of India of 1965, were not merely abstractions distilling some essence of the painterly tradition. Rather, by conforming the stretchers of his shaped canvases to the internal order of his lines, and by making the stretchers of extraordinary thickness, Stella was producing objects that generated space outside of themselves and that activated the space around them. A huge tug-of-war over Stella ensued between the Greenberg-Fried-Rubin school, who wanted Stella for the history of abstract painting, and the Andre-Judd group, who wanted him to be a progenitor of minimalism. This same battle was fought, I think, within Stella's soul. He was ambivalent about whether to bond with the powerful critics and institutions of the established art world or with the radical new edge of a younger generation. By youth and character, he was inclined to be with the artists who were making new work. On the other hand, he was being beckoned in a powerful career sense by the critics and curators who supported Noland, Louis, and others.

An art not geometric, not abstract, not rational. What, then, is this new literalism or
minimalism, opposed to the mainstream tradition of abstract art? It is easier to say what it is not than what it is. Judd, for instance, argues that the chief difference between his work and traditional abstraction is that his work is not "rational." Rationality, as part of the European philosophical tradition, is something that Judd wants to reject. He associates rationality with what he and Stella in a 1964 interview call the "relational" character of European geometric abstraction. As Stella puts it: "Their whole idea is balance. You do something in one corner and you balance it with something in the other corner."

In the United States, this kind of "relational" composition was still being utilized by David Smith, the great sculptor of the abstract expressionist generation. Smith reached a new peak with his geometric work of the early 1960s, which Judd greatly admired. Nonetheless, he felt that a 1964 work like Cubi XIX was still too close to its European sources. Smith, he argued, retained a cubist sense of composition, with a large mass balanced against a small mass, with things in the upper corner matching things in the lower corner. In addition, he noted the residual anthropomorphism of Smith's work, the way that the verticality of his sculpture suggested the presence of a body, with legs and a head. In contrast, Judd,
Stella, and contemporaries like Andre were exploring a new "nonrelational" kind of composition, characterized by symmetry and repetition.

The literalist sensibility that we find in Judd and
Andre seems to derive from the American philosophy of pragmatism. William James, one of its founders, wrote that: Pragmatism is uncomfortable away from facts.

Rationalism is comfortable only in the presence of abstractions... .The pragmatist clings to facts and concreteness, observes truth at work in particular cases, and generalizes. Truth, for him, becomes a class name for all sorts of definite working-values in experience. For the rationalist, it remains a pure abstraction Your typical ultra-abstractionist eairly shudders at concreteness: other things equal, he positively prefers the pale and  spectral. If the two universes were offered, he would always choose the skinny outline rather than  the rich thicket of reality. It is so much purer, cleaner, and nobler.

Rose argues persuasively, I think, in the article I cited earlier, that Judd and
Andre—in their literalness, in seeing dripped paint as dripped paint, in seeing painting as an object that pushes out toward literal space rather than as a window onto something else—are involved in an empirical, pragmatic, American insistence on concreteness and fact. Furthermore, she claims that Judd's famous statements about getting rid of European thought and getting away from the European model have to do with his aversion to the rational and his preference for the pragmatic, literal, and concrete.

It goes without saying that
Andre took a radical step in translating the way that Pollock worked up his paintings on the floor into a literal, gravitation-bound sculpture. Andre's "carpets" of metal plates laid in a grid on the floor are just as literal and symmetrical as Judd's stacks. In their wholeness, their allover sameness, and above all their flatness, they translate Pollock's drip paintings into sculpture without a base, sculpture that hugs the floor in an assertion of its absolute gravity. It is this move—the translation from Pollock's pictorial values into sculptural values—that becomes increasingly imperative for the generation of Judd, Andre, and Morris. In order to produce in three dimensions an art of literalism—of concreteness and immediacy—they needed to get away from painting, from the rectangle that hung on the wall like a window, and also from traditional sculpture, perched on a pedestal that isolated it from the real space around it. Instead, they wanted to get to something that engaged with its surroundings— that "activated" it, as the artists said.

This notion of the activation of the immediate space around the work was anathema to Greenberg and Fried. Fried's famous article "Art and Objecthood," published in 1967, was in response to the sculptures and writings of Judd, Morris, and their contemporaries. Responding to works such as Robert Morris's installation at the Green Gallery in December 1964, Fried agreed with supporters of minimalism that the suppression of internal relationships and the abandonment of composition forced the viewer's attention away from the work and out into the space around it, thereby drawing the viewer into the "theater" of the object. But whereas the supporters of minimalism liked this activation of the space around the work, Fried hated it. It seemed to him to be a residue of the
Dada tradition, turning art into a joke, negating the work of art by turning it into a performance, so that the work itself hardly mattered. Fried condemned the activation of real space as a mere theatrical effect, contrary to the "modes of seriousness" found in the art of Pollock, Louis, and Noland.

Many sculptors of the time were interested in Merleau-Ponty's philosophy of phenomenology, which described experience as constituted by the act of perceiving. For Merleau-Ponty there was no such thing as pure opticality, because the act of looking always depended on the engagement of the body. In contrast to this, you can see Fried as standing for the Kantian tradition of preestablished, fixed categories of perception. Fried argued from a residual essentialism: he believed that formal reduction was a way of getting to the essence of painting, that the more you reduce a work of art, the more it becomes pure and true to its own internal self. In contrast, for the minimalists, the process of reduction rebounds in a completely different direction: by squeezing the work here and reducing there, you end up expanding and activating the space around it. Against Fried's essentialist emphasis on the work and nothing but the work, the minimalists propose a pragmatic insistence that the work is part of the world around it, and that the world is part of the work.

Minimalism presented the art world with a cruel choice. Make no bones about it! Imagine going back to the early 1960s and trying to choose between the painters championed by Fried, on the one hand, and the minimalists on the other; between Morris Louis's fabulous Tet and Robert Morris's dumb gray forms. The Louis is noble, serene, and ethereal, a lushly beautiful statement of humane values, the triumphant culmination of a tradition of modern painting. You are being asked to choose between this and a work that is intentionally dumb and banal, whose only virtue is its quiddity, its insistent "thereness"—and in the case of Andre's lead rugs, the kind of art you can step on. It was a hard choice.

Vet the right choice, I think, was to go for Morris,
Andre, and Judd because, in the long run, their work is the source from which something new is going to spring. Still, you cannot avoid the art world equivalent of the question the kid in the backseat keeps asking: "Are we there yet?" Or, in our case, "Is it art yet?" Let's face it, this is a hard question. Minimalism was an evolving art and, especially in the early 1960s, you could not always tell when it was serious and when it wasn't. Were you looking at a Dada stunt, or at the beginning of some new kind of art?

The most sophisticated critics of the time felt a sense of deprivation and unease. This sense of disquiet was precisely what Judd wanted in his art. He said this about the objects that he was making and about some other painters that he liked: "Ordinarily these things look pretty plain and not important. I think a lot of people want instant importance. They want the importance of several decades instantly, when what you really want to do is get rid of this notion."

The idea of producing something that was religiously and intransigently unimportant, with no redeeming value, was shared by many of the artists that we call minimalists. In that sense, they were doing something very similar. And yet, with the passage of time, it has become clear that there is a world of difference between the temperament of the different minimalists— between the boxes made by Morris and those made by Judd, for instance. Behind the seemingly blank, machine-made look that they have in common, these works are very different. What makes them art, and what makes them different from each other, is the temperament, intelligence, and creativity of the individual artists. Morris, for example, seems to me in retrospect to have been radical in a more academic sense than Judd. Along with his gray forms, he made baroque works with dangling ropes and felt, and after the 1960s he began making wild, painterly renditions of the Holocaust. Morris's work seems to have evolved as a dialogue between a devotion to
Johns and a devotion to pure abstraction. As time passes, Morris's gray-painted plywood forms take on a didactic sameness. They are rarely seen firsthand, in part because they were designed to be constructed for exhibitions and then discarded. A bunch of them were remade for Morris's 1994 retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum, and I have to say that they seemed to me to be completely inert, no more than demonstrations of a certain aesthetic position.

Judd's objects, with the passage of time, seem increasingly quirky, and not at all didactic. They have a wonderful peculiarity that is related to his temperament, and they seem to transgress the limits he set for himself, for example, by being more beautiful than he would allow. Judd was nearly thirty-two by the time he had his first important show in the 1960s. He had already tried out several careers: studying painting at the Art Students League in the late 1940s, philosophy at Columbia night school in the early 1950s, and art history at Columbia in the late 1950s; signing on as a critic for Artnews in 1959; and finally deciding to concentrate on making art in the early 1960s. Like
Warhol, Lichtenstein, and many of the young turks of the early 1960s, Judd emerges suddenly as a mature artist after enduring long years of anonymity.

Judd is a curmudgeonly critic: you feel a kind of frustrated impatience (rather than a young man's eagerness) seeping out of everything he says about the art of his time. He rejects philosophy and high ideals with the impatience of someone who has been there and tried that and does not want any more of it. He knows what it is he wants to reject.

What differentiat es Judd's works from those of his contemporaries are the small quirks that reveal themselves as you spend time with the work: for instance, the odd edge at the top of his Iron Floor Box. Why did he put this little edge here? Because he loves the idea of thinness. (He spoke of it often.) Judd's work is not about mass or weight or volume. He wants to sink that top precisely because it declares right away that the object is not solid but is made out of sheet metal. He does not want to make an inert object. He is drawn to sheet metal because it imparts a greater rigor or sharpness. He likes the precision of that edge.

If there ever were a clear declaration of Judd's resistance to volume and mass, it would be the Plexiglas floor box of 1966, and the many others like it in which Plexiglas sides give a view to the interior of the work. One is constantly aware of Judd's rigor and precision, of his skeletal sense of structure. He is against mass and volume, but he is for a pictorial kind of sculpture. Despite Judd's rhetoric about directness and immediacy—his claim to a "you can kick it" toughness—he constantly pitches an illusionism, as, for example, where the metal edge of a sculpture might seem to extend right through the bottom and into the floor. There is also a kind of slick illusionism about Judd's materials, which redeems and lightens his work.

The material power of these objects separates Judd not only from Morris but also from
Andre, to whom he is very close, emotionally and intellectually. While Andre, as we have shown, translates Pollock's interest in gravity and flatness into sculpture with his carpets of metal squares, he is nonetheless concerned with the problems of sculpture, not painting. For Andre weight—the gravity of Pollock translated—was honesty itself. Sculpture weighs. Let's not have any base; let's not have any mediation between us and the work; let's just declare that the thing hugs the floor and is weighty. His floor piece in steel is true to an ideology that counters what we saw in David Smith, which is the figure raised up, head above the ground. There is a "we don't need any more heroes" kind of anti-idealism to Andre's big steel plates on the ground, and unlike Judd, Andre's ideology is very much related to sculpture.

Judd's classic form, exemplified by his untitled stack of 1968, shares a common internal order with Andre's work. It is not a balancing act like Smith's sculpture, but a composition based on simple contiguity, on the repetition of one thing after another. But Judd does not share
Andre's interest in weight. For Judd, weight, mass, and solidity in sculpture are part of the whole European tradition that he dislikes so much. Judd wants his work to be light and about light in every way. One of his favorite artists, curiously enough, is Matisse. He constantly talks about Matisse's light and lightness, the thinness and fineness of his edges and materials, the transparency of his volumes. There is no place for light and color in the stern rhetoric of much of Judd's writing, but it is an essential part of his work, making it very different from the work of Andre, for instance, although these two artists are constantly and commonly lumped together. The rhetoric of minimalism makes it sound like a simple, sane, organized aesthetic that dictates "a way" to all of its followers. In fact, the minimalists are a group of very different artists, with very different temperaments, bound together by a common desire to make something new. Temperament, more than theory, defines the quality of their work and gives it its resonance in history.

Judd and the minimalists want to get rid of the hands-on ethic of abstract expressionism; they want to get rid of the idea that the character of art resides in the touch of the artist. Think about the way Judd's are made, for example. In his untitled plywood floor box of 1976, the plywood is chosen for its thinness and fineness, but also because he wants a relatively humble material, one not associated with the patina of fine art. Yet I would disagree with those who claim that minimalism in general and Judd in particular have a fetishistic involvement with industry and with industrial materials. It is true that Judd was happy to have his work made by fabricators. But the Bernstein Brothers, who made a lot of Judd's work, were not exactly industrial. They were more of a mom-and-pop operation in Long Island City specializing in galvanized metalwork. Judd did use industrial paints, but they were the kind of lacquers used on cars and motorcycles, and he selected them with a connoisseur's eye.

This body-shop aesthetic is a defining feature of Judd's work. Unlike
Andre, who insisted on the elemental quality of magnesium or lead, Judd was interested in finish and slickness. His use of lacquer and Plexiglas brought him closer to California artists like McCracken and Larry Bell. Indeed, art-world lore has it that Sol LeWitt, visiting a Judd show in the mid-1960s, turned to a friend and remarked, "Well, this establishes Judd as our leading West Coast artist." The fact is that Judd is an exception: on the whole, New York produces rustic, rough-and-ready art (like Andre's metal carpets); tor high, gleaming, sophisticated work you have to go to Los Angeles. You can get a sense of the difference by comparing Judd's Plexiglas box with one of Bell's glass cubes. Despite Judd's glossy materials, his box is simple and straightforward. In contrast, Bell's vacuum-sprayed cube is full of subtleties: the vacuum-sprayed mists of gray change the reflective properties of the glass, dissolving the geometry, creating something veiled and beautiful.

Bell's sprayed glass cubes and McCracken's sprayed lacquers are examples of a "finish fetish" that comes directly out of the L.A. culture of customized cars and choppers (or, as they are called on the East Coast, motorcycles). It is an aesthetic of high color, without the grim insistence of the East Coast version of minimalism.

"Finish fetish" means that an immense amount of labor, multiple coats of lacquer, and a high degree of control are expended in order to get something approaching virginity: that is, an absolute, pure, scratchless surface. On the West Coast this degree of perfection is called "cherry." It makes for a kind of minimalism very different from what you find on the East Coast.

West Coast minimalism starts from a different point: from
Rothko and Olitski rather than Pollock and Stella. And it leads from car culture to things like Robert Irwin's projecting disk of 1967. This is an aluminum disk, slightly convex. Multiple spray lacquers produce a beautiful, pristine surface. Surrounded by light projectors, the disk casts shadows that seem more substantial than the disk itself. In this work the disk appears to lose its solid form, to dissolve into a hole in the middle of the world; in other works from this series, it seems to oscillate between convex and concave. Irwin has controlled and composed the act of perception itself. The finish fetishism that starts with McCracken's luscious, custom car colors has now been ascetically reduced to a virginal state of ultimate whiteness, where the only thing to look at is optical experience itself.

In the Los Angeles aesthetic, reduction does not lead toward pragmatic concreteness, as it does in East Coast minimalism. Instead, it pushes toward a dissolution and disembodiment of experience. West Coast minimalism becomes purely retinal. This sounds like the kind of opticality described by Greenberg and Fried, but it goes way beyond that, because it is not an optical style of painting, it is an actual optical experience. It points toward uncertainty, as opposed to anything essential or concrete. One does not know what is concave or convex, present or absent, tangible or intangible. In Irwin, and in a lot of Los Angeles work, purification and reduction lead to a loss of certainty, a kind of ambiguity and disorientation that is exactly the opposite of Andre's assertive engagement with weight and physicality, with a standard foot-on-the-ground experience.

West Coast minimalism is all about ambiguity. Another way to look at this is to see what Irwin does with that sense of place, that theatrical activation of the space around a work that we saw in the Morris installation or in the
Andre metal rug. In Irwin's installation at the Walker Art Center in 1971, he takes note of an existing large skylight at one end of the gallery and stretches a large scrim of fine white fabric from the ceiling to the floor in order to make a volume of what had been a diffuse input of light. Irwin's work at this point intervenes in found spaces and makes things visible by veiling them, creating something out of nothing, forcing people to attend to the thing they did not see was there. He orchestrates the act of perception, producing extremely rich effects with economical gestures and simple acts of intervention. From one position in the gallery, you can almost see the structure of the ceiling overhead; but as you move up to the scrim, the ceiling becomes lost in a fog and the end of the room dissolves into pure light. The simple gesture of installing the veil points to what is happening at the end of the room.

The version of the minimal aesthetic that you find in Irwin and some other Los Angeles artists concentrates on the empirical act of looking, on seeing what is actually there. In the
Renaissance, the Florentines concentrated on the tougher, more sculptural aspects of art, while the Venetians concentrated on color, on capturing the look of light dancing on water. Similarly, if minimalism in New York is Tuscanangular and hardedged—Los Angeles posits a softer Venetian minimalism. Los Angeles artists are interested in time and movement. Instead of skyscrapers descending into cold water, you get long Pacific horizons, dissolving cloud patterns, slow changes in the long-term weather. The coasts offer two different kinds of reductionism, both typically American: on one coast, we get the pragmatist's insistence on the concrete; on the other, we get the transcendental, Emersonian search for the absolute and the sublime.

Irwin has a considerably younger partner in crime: James Turrell, who is in the late 1960s a student of perceptual psychology. Where Irwin uses light to dissolve solid objects, Turrell uses projected light to create what looks like a solid object. For example, the "cube" in Turrell's Afrum-Proto of 1966 does not exist. It is simply a patch of light projected into the corner of a room. Turrell's interest in perception and optical illusion is related to Irwin's, and in 1968 the two artists come together and begin researching a project sponsored by the Art and Technology Program at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. They collaborate with an engineer named Edward Wortz, who is working for the American space program, trying to figure out what will happen to the astronauts in outer space—or, to put it another way: what is human experience like in a vacuum, with no atmosphere to diffuse light or transmit sound? Wortz introduces Turrell and Irwin to a new world of sensory deprivation. He is working with anechoic chambers, rooms constructed so that no sound can get in, or even resonate within them. He is also working with Ganz fields, spaces filled with a perfectly even light, so that there is no differentiation between up and down, right and left. These are spaces where one is forced to attend to the limits of perception.

Turrell and Irwin break off their collaboration after a year, but it has a profound effect on both of them. Turrell moves into a studio at the Mendota Hotel and turns it into a kind of laboratory for studying perception. He puts curved coving where the walls meet the floor and the ceiling, so that there are no sharp corners, no discernable edges to the space. The studio as a whole becomes a Ganz field of utter pristineness. Turrell then cuts slots into the studio walls that can be opened and closed, orchestrating the intrusion of exterior light and sound into this pure white space.

Turrell has often said that one of his major influences is the music of John Cage. Most of you may know Cage by his composition 4'33", which is essentially four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence: the musician comes onto the stage, lifts the cover on the piano keyboard, sits for four minutes and thirty-three seconds, and closes the top of the piano. All that is heard is ambient noise: people's programs rustling, the wind in the leaves, or rain on the roof. This is Cage's way of forcing you to attend, to take in what is otherwise on the margins, to hear things not usually heard, in the same way that Irwin's scrim installation forces you to see things not before seen. Cage is very much the bridge from
Duchamp into the reductive art of the early 1960s. The difference between them is that Duchamp's anti-art utilized the arbitrary as a demoralizing device, whereas Cage uses chance and the arbitrary as a device of revelation and the marvelous. Cage's 4'33"transforms negation into acceptance.

The openings in Turrell's studio walls bring in a kind of music of streetlights and passing cars. The particular character of this music depends upon the time of day it is performed, but also on larger phenomena: celestial movements, the phases of the moon, or the timing of the summer and winter solstices. The studio is part John Cage and part Temple of Karnak: it deals with both the quotidian and the cosmological, one's place in the mundane world and one's contemplation of higher order. For Turrell and Trwin, the emptiness of the box, the muteness of the slab, is not simply negation or deprivation but an invitation to contemplate, an invitation to look harder, to think harder. They are drawn to the same contemplative power of the void that attracts Cage and so many artists of this generation.

Perhaps the best way to evoke the power of Turrell's later work is to describe my own experience of his 1976 work Laar, which is perhaps the ultimate Los Angeles painting. It occupied the first gallery in Turrell's 1980 retrospective at the Whitney Museum. Here's what it felt like: You get off the elevator. Directly in front of you, on the far wall of the gallery, is a huge gray painting. You cannot quite discern what the surface is, but it is quite thick, it has a visible texture. You are looking at it, and it is very subtle, extremely luscious in some ways. You start walking toward it. As you do, your eye, like the auto-focus mechanism on a camera, continually tries to get hold of the surface of the piece, but somehow it can't. Finally, you arrive at the painting and discover that you can't get a fix on the surface because there is no surface. You are looking at a razorsharp edge framing a second room beyond you. There is no light source visible in this second room, but something is filling it with this eerie gray light so that the empty space looks, from a distance, like a solid surface. What you have perceived as a gray painting turns out to be empty space. Suddenly, in a stomach-turning way, you are forced to change substance for void, reality for illusion.

Think of Judd's distrust of illusion, of his almost ethical rejection of anything that was not concrete. Then think how the Los Angeles minimalists embrace illusion. For them, the way to truth is to understand the power of illusion, to instruct us that what we see is not what we see. By pointing out these deceptions, they make us aware of the confluence between the internal and the external. They too defeat the mind / body split of the European tradition, but in a very different way from Judd.
Turrell comes out of a larger group of artists doing similar experiments, collectively known as the California light and space movement. One of these is Maria Nordman, whose Varese Room, installed in the villa of Count Giuseppe Panza di Biumo, near Milan, offers a similarly mind-bending experience. No still image can convey the effect of this work; again, I can only describe my experience of it: From the stable of Panza's villa, I was admitted into a dark ante-chamber, which led into an utterly dark room. I sat and sat and sat, watching absolute darkness, trying to figure out what was going on. I had no idea of the dimensions of the room. After three or four minutes, when my eyes had adjusted to the darkness, I became aware of a wall at the far end of the room. Now that I understood the parameters of my situation, I felt more comfortable. But when I walked toward the wall, it completely dissolved. I suddenly realized that what I had taken to be a wall was nothing more than a thin sliver of light introduced through a slot in the side wall, daylight falling across the side of the room and hitting the dust motes suspended in the air. Once this "wall" dissolved, I could see into the far end of a room, which was much deeper than it had appeared a few seconds earlier. As with the Turrell at the Whitney, what seemed like a solid plane turned out to be empty space.

Turrell's Wedgework pieces produce a similar disorientation when the diagonal wall dividing the space in front of you suddenly dissolves, and you realize that there is nothing tangible blocking you off from the far end of the room, only a spillage of light from behind the wall at the side. The beauty of a piece like Wedgework IV lies in the way that the reddened air takes on a palpable thickness, so that you feel you are looking at your own blood. Turrell powerfully orchestrates the relationship between the space you are in and the internal awareness of your body as a receptive mechanism.

Tunell's art, like Nordman's and many others', is an art of time as well as space. Some of his most characteristic pieces are observing rooms, where the razor-sharp edge no longer frames an empty room but the open sky. The viewer sits below and watches the orchestration of light as time changes and the light within the room radically alters. What you experience over a span of perhaps four or five hours is the palpability of space, the thickness of color, the sky as it becomes alternately deep space or a flat roof over you.

When we come to a moment like this in reductive art, do we still regret
Rothko? Do we still regret Morris Louis? What have we gained in return for giving up the painterly beauty and sophistication of the art that minimalism killed off? What compels me to choose Turrell and Andre over Louis is that minimalism revives and renovates what it seems to kill. On one hand, it is a radically new kind of art, not a sophisticated variation on traditional modernism. It is satisfying, in part, because it provides the feeling that we are attending to the present, not the past. It is our art. And yet it does not simply jettison the past; it brings it back to life. The minimalists give us a new vocabulary for everything that we formerly admired about high modernism: composition, order, and even painterly values. All of these qualities come back, in new forms. A really attentive observer might have seen already that Flavin's "fluorescent light" installation at the Green Gallery, in November 1964, was not simply low-budget constructivism, assembled from Canal Street cast-offs, but a push toward a new kind of luscious beauty made from everyday stuff—something sublime from the five-and-dime. People think of minimalism as reticent and dumb. But Flavin's later installations at Count Panza's villa in Varese are loud and extravagant. They are hungry for space, indeed imperious in their demand for it. You cannot hang these things next to anything else. They take over; they eat the world around them. Far from being mute and huddled into themselves, they are lavish and operatic. How was one to know at the beginning that this was where Flavin's career would lead? There is a similar transformation in the career of Flavin's contemporary, the composer Philip Glass. His music starts out as something very simplified, reduced to a basic vocabulary of repeated sounds: di-di-di-di-di-di-di-di-di. But with the passage of years, this simplification leads to lavish operas on big, heroic themes: Gandhi, N'ero, Akhnaten.

What I am getting at here is that implicit in the reduction that we have been talking about with regard to minimalism is an idea of expansion. We should think of minimalism's order not just as "stripped down" but as "pent up." It has from the beginning displayed an urge toward compression that wants back out, that has in itself the opposite desire, for expansion. Let me try to make this clear by looking at two very different temperaments again: Walter De Maria in a piece called Cage II of 1965 , a restrictive little environment referring to John Cage and perhaps also to a 1931 sculpture by Giacometti, and Le Witt Sol in his lattice piece of 1966 . At this moment in time these artists' works look pretty similar, but they then go in very different directions.

Le Witt's work is all about logic, module, and repetition. It starts simple but becomes more complex as it proliferates. The planes and cubes of the modular structures overlap until they get lost in a kind of fog; it feels like the analytic cubism of 1911. There is a sense of fugue-like composition; it is like the music of Glass, where the repetition of equal notes keeps building until it becomes mesmerizing, operatic, and sublime. Le Witt has a dry, light touch that produces profusion without losing its sense of precision. There is a teeming, musical delight to his big wall decorations, even though they are built up from simple arcs like the decorations of the Alhambra. Le Witt's work expresses the optimism of mathematics, the clarity and beauty of pure logic. Starting with a very stripped-down vocabulary, he gets complex and then simple again, arriving at the big heraldic decorations of his recent work, which revive the high humanism of the
Renaissance.

De Maria is doing something quite different, Compare Le Witt's Incomplete Open Cubes and All Combinations . . . Lines with De Maria's Bed of Spikes of 1969 . Now we are dealing not with the abstract music of logic, but with the idea of weight, as in "what happens if your body falls on that spike?" Bed of Spikes is a mean piece in a double sense: in its reductiveness but also in its hostility. Where the Le Witt proliferates, the De Maria bristles.

It goes from the isolated spindle spike rising from the first plate in the series to a forest of spikes at the far end. What begins as a single unit of naked aggression ends up suggesting a yogi sleeping on a bed of spikes: the contemplative renunciation of physical sensation, transcendence beyond physicality. The work ends up seeming transcendent and ascetic in a new way.

De Maria's The Broken Kilometer of 1979, a kilometer's worth of brass rods cut into pieces and put into a gallery on West Broad-way in Manhattan, once again starts with a simple idea and then both extends and compresses it. There is a clash between the conceptual and the physical, between our idea of a distance, based on the notion of measurement as a mental activity, and the collapse of that idea, confronted with the fragility and instability of what is in front of us. De Maria's choice of pristine brass rods gives Broken Kilometer a hold-your-breath kind of preciousness. (For all the weight, clarity, and logic of minimal art, much of it is in fact precious.) The sense of orchestration of the body, the sense of fragility, of noli me tangere, around the De Maria, is counteracted by the fact that the copper rods constitute a veritable Fort Knox—or at least the space around them does. If you know anything about real estate values in New York, then you understand the lavishness of the gesture of devoting a huge, ground-floor loft space to a single work of art. The fact that the installation opened in 1979, and that the Dia Art Foundation maintains it to this day, adds another layer of meaning to the notion of extension. There is a powerful contrast between the roundness of the brass rods, which look ready to roll off somewhere, and the protracted stillness of the work. So too is there a contrast between the mute reductiveness of the work and the expansiveness of maintaining it, between the work's logical clarity and the complex social framework that surrounds it.

This is also true of De Maria's The Lightning Field, which the Dia Art Foundation sponsored in 1977 in Quemado, New Mexico. Here is the Bed of Spikes extrapolated into a field one mile deep by one kilometer wide. Instead of spikes, it is rilled with rods that all reach the same height but are shorter or longer depending on the slightly rolling terrain around Quemado. The title Lightning Field is a canard, in that lightning almost never strikes the piece. Many people know the work from a so to speak electrifying photo that shows a bolt of lightning hitting a rod, but in fact lightning more often falls in the fields and hills surrounding De Maria's work.

The real experience of the Lightning Field is about something else. People are taken by car in small groups to a cabin at the edge of the field of rods and left there to view it for twenty-four hours. This is a long time to stare at a single work of art. As the hours pass, you become aware of the broad, flat land around the Lightning Field, and of the way the field of rods changes as the light around it changes. You don't simply gaze at De Maria's work; you allow Lightning Field to make you aware of everything around it—the desert, the sky, the changes orchestrated by time and light. The rods are stainless steel, and they vibrate with incredible oranges and pinks at sunset and at dawn. They stand out in the desert like the pixels on a computer screen or the dots in a Seurat painting. At other moments— at high noon, or at night when the moon rises overhead—they virtually disappear, and you can almost convince yourself that they are not there. The transition from one state to the other occurs in tiny, incremental steps. The experience is mesmerizing.

It is like the effect of Irwin's scrim in the gallery space, only tremendously aggrandized. De Maria forces you to pay attention to what is. He does not simply orchestrate an order within the piece, he orchestrates an order outside it. This is the activation of real space that Fried saw as the negative virtue of minimalism; here it seems like a positive. Other things become clear as you sit and watch. You sense that the sharp spike is a military form—a lance or a javelin. You notice that birds have learned to light on the top of those sharp spikes in order to pursue rodents below; from a Darwinian point of view, you intuit that the birds that did not learn to light there just haven't survived. You realize that putting up pointed stainless steel spikes is not a neutral way of organizing a landscape. You can't help reflecting that, like the loft on West Broadway that houses the Broken Kilometer, this place cost someone a lot of money! Imagine being alone in a desert like this, where you can see for miles, and not spot a single set of lights. The only way to get this kind of absolute command of the landscape is to own it: the Dia Art Foundation owns not just the Lightning Field but everything around it. This is not an example of institutional patronage on the normal order.

I noted before that Flavin's light sculptures require a room to themselves, but what is that compared to the megalomaniacal reach of De Maria's reductive art, which requires a permanent gallery on West Broadway and a private desert in New Mexico (so that lights don't interfere with it). Oddly enough, it Lends to be Europeans who make this all-American art possible. Count Panza's villa in Varese was the great shrine of minimalism in the 1970s. It was a German art dealer, Heiner Friedrich, along with the De Menil family, who provided the first important patronage to Judd, Turrell, De Maria, and others. It is the Dia Art Foundation, created by Dominique de Menil and her children, that maintains De Maria's work and makes it accessible to viewers. So when you hear that minimalism reflects the values of corporate America or the military-industrial complex, think again. This art is more courtly than corporate: the scale is public, but the vision and the support are individual—and without that support, one doubts that art on this scale would ever have been made.

Let us look at two more large projects, Turrell's Roden Crater Project and Judd's installation at Marfa, Texas . Having begun by making rooms with little windows on the sky, Turrell has been working since the mid-1970s to make a really huge window on the sky, which is the Roden Crater in the Arizona desert. Turrell has reshaped the dish of the crater so that it functions as a giant oculus, in which you lie down and watch the dome of the sky as it shifts from twilight into dark. The internal plan for Roden Crater depicts long, complicated channels and tunnels cutting through the mountain, with a central viewing room here, a smaller viewing room there, the tunnel leading to the viewpoint for one solstice on one side of the rock colliding with the tunnel leading to the viewpoint for the other solstice, on the other side of the mountain. Some rooms are dedicated to viewing certain positions of Venus. Turrell is producing his own personal Stonehenge here: what he describes as a kind of ruin for the future. Despite the elaborate technology that it has taken to build it, Turrell wants it to work on its own—to be independent, for exampie, of electricity. What began in Irwin's and Turrell's experiments of the late 1960s as a concentration on the virginal empty field and the individual minute vibration of the retinal nerve, has now become a whopping monument that does not just shape the space in a room but orchestrates an alignment between the viewer and the theater of the cosmos.

We find a similar change of scale in our first protagonist of minimalism, Donald Judd, who in 1973 purchased an abandoned army barracks and camp in Marfa, Texas. Before he died in 1994 he had transformed the industrial spaces of the former army camp into a beautiful set of installations of his own work, and of work by other artists he admired. His aluminum pieces are shown in two former artillery sheds, while his concrete pieces are arranged in the landscape outside them. It is an amazing proliferation of minimalist work in an unexpected environment.

Judd thus adds his own Fort Apache to Turrell's primordial volcano and De Maria's virginal desert. They all come to the open space of the West, whether from Los Angeles or New York, because it is the great American palette, a zone of freedom or emptiness, where it is still possible to become the owner of a vast area, whether it is an army barrack, a volcano, or a big empty field. These expanses are also places where the artist is free to exercise power and control. I have been talking about the ambivalences of minimalism—its combination of power and authority versus its preciousness and fragility, its need for a sympathetic context, its quest for immediacy, and its ambitions for contemplative duration. All of these things come together at Marfa, at the Lightning Field, at the Roden Crater.

The result is a series of spacious shrines to which a lucky few can make pilgrimages. Yet the impact of minimalism is not only felt in these private spaces for the elite; it has entered every part of our life. The very building in which we are sitting—I. M. Pei's East Building of the National Gallery, completed in 1978—is certainly unthinkable without the broad, flat, unarticulated, unfenestrated form that is emphasized in the aesthetic of vastly reductive art of the early and mid-1960s. In the purification and simplification of this art, Pei finds a vocabulary of authority that can hold its own with the grandeur and pomposity of the classicism of the Capitol and the other buildings in Washington. Maya Lin's Vietnam War Memorial, nearby on the Mall, is even more indebted to the aesthetic of minimalist sculpture. What Lin finds in minimalism's wholeness and in its purity is not a vocabulary of authority but a vocabulary of ambiguity. Here we are back to the monolith, to its imposing authority but also to its enigmatic aura of uncertainty. Lin's monument functions as a deliberately ambiguous primal sign. It is not just that reductive, minimal forms—such as the pyramids—are consonant with an architecture of death or memory; it is also that the mute purity of Lin's two triangles, together with the literalness of the names of the dead soldiers inscribed on them, provides both a way of speaking while maintaining a Delphic silence. This was instantly seen as the only appropriate, and possibly unifying or consensus-building, vehicle for a war about which there is still strong disagreement. The radical values of minimalism—the avoidance of hierarchy, the reduction of verticality, the elimination of internal composition in favor of an external wholeness—here moves out of the cult world of the gallery and into a civic arena of the highest importance.

Similarly, if you look at Peter Eisenman's proposal for a Holocaust memorial for Berlin, you can see how he has made use of
Andre's sense of repetition, weight, and modularity, his lack of hierarchy and differentiation, to create a monument about the bureaucracy of evil. Looking at these large blocklike forms, you ask yourself: are these loading cars, are they gravestones, are they barracks in concentration camps? The forms yield no answers, they are anonymous. They remind us how repetition and classification, the tools of twentieth-century rationality, also provide a symbolic vocabulary for expressing the moral ambiguity of rationality, the ambiguity of order itself: on the one hand the virtues of control, on the other hand the extremely negative consequences. What we are left with in this pareddown vocabulary of Maya Lin and Peter Eisenman is immediate sensory perception, which in turn forces one to attend to the relationship with the body. At the millennium, it is this vocabulary that is the preferred style of memory and contemplation; it is our contemporary and almost inescapable language of solemn monumentality. Rachel Whiteread's Memorial to the Victims of the Holocaust, in Vienna, also uses a vocabulary of repeated forms, only in this case the repeated forms are books. Whiteread's Untitled (Paperbacks) of 1997, one of her studies for this memorial, is simultaneously a mirror image of and an antithesis to the monolith of 2001 with which we began . Where the monolith is a massive, mute, but deeply imposing presence, Whiteread's sculpture consists of a series of voids, plaster casts of the negative spaces above books in a library. The voids are where the books were; the jagged edges are the tops of the books. If the monolith seems to sum up all knowledge, to condense into a single block everything that is superior and beyond us, the Whiteread expresses absence and loss. What is absent, in the first instance, is the knowledge embodied in books—earthly knowledge, not knowledge from Mars. At the same time, the absent books function as symbols for the millions of lives that were lost in the Holocaust. It seems safe to insist that Whiteread would not have arrived at this metaphor without the examples of Judd's stacks and Andre's modularity, or without their insistence that blankness, literalness, and dumbness could provide a powerful expressive language for modern sculpture.

Andreas Gursky, in his Times Square, NY, 1997, uses a nearly identical vocabulary of minimalism—the Judd stacks, the modularity, the repetition—to suggest the anomie and the sterility in a computer-organized vision of the soaring atrium of a modern hotel . Gursky's vision is about all that we have lost in a different sense: the inhumanity of logic, the inhumanity of repetition. The two sides are never going to be resolved. One thing is for certain, however. No, this was not a joke.

 

 

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