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

 

 


AFTER MINIMALISM

 


Morris Robert
Untitled, (Pink Felt)
1970; Untitled, felt, dimensions variable, 1968; Untitled Felt


 

 

We have been talking about art of the early 1960s that came to be called minimalism—sculpture such as Morris's installation at the Dwan Gallery in 1966 or Flavin's "monument" for Tatlin Vladimir I of 1964. Work like this did not simply seek to escape cognitive definition; that is, it did not want to look like a dog, and it did not want to look like a landscape. More ambitiously, it wanted to resist classification altogether, simple niches like painting or sculpture. Tudd's now famous essay on this new work of the early 1960s was called "Specific Objects," and in it he argued for a body of work that escaped the standard genres of art, that was "neither painting nor sculpture." The idea was that this work could only be seen exactly for what it was and not be put into some ready-made bin of understanding. Minimalism succeeded, in fact, in confounding categories and leaving people in honest doubt as to whether its guiding spirit was Malevich, affirming and idealistic, or Duchamp, ironic and nihilistic.

Now I want to turn from the early 1960s to the later 1960s, the period roughly from the Warren Commission to Watergate, when it became all the more difficult for artists to escape categories because
minimalism had itself become a category. It was no longer possible to produce a cube that was just a cube; instead, a cube looked like a reference to Judd. The installation of a minimalist tradition coalesced extraordinarily fast, like everything else in the 1960s. Society went through spasmodic, violent mood swings. Just a few months intervened between Woodstock in the summer of 1969 and Altamont in December of 1969, but those few months made all the difference in the world. Those of us growing up then expected a new Beatles album every few months that would change our lives completely; Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Magical Mystery Tour, and the White Album were like several different universes one had lived through in swift succession.

This rapid pace of change was felt in the art world as well. My wife, Elyn Zimmerman, was an artist emerging in Los Angeles at precisely this time, and I owe a lot of my thinking about the late 1960s to her experience as a graduate student. She remembers the overload of information coming to art students through magazines such as Artjorum, the sudden awareness that every twitch on the art network sent repercussions to its outermost perimeters, so that everyone was aware of the latest show at Castelli or the Dwan Gallery and felt pressured by an overheated market to develop the next "new" thing. More intormation, increasing demand for novelty, and faster social change meant that almost before minimalism was born, it had become a tradition, something that had to be addressed.

This pressure in the late 1960s leads to a paradox in the art world. The anti-institutional aesthetic and ethic that affects so many people in this period—a rejection of power and the standard social conventions—turns artists away from not only specific objects in
Judd's sense, but any kind of object. They want to make things that are too big, too ephemeral, or too unmanageable to be collected or exchanged on the market. The odd thing about this movement away from the collectible object is that it gives the upper hand to sculpture. In the contest between Greenberg's painterly tradition (Morris Louis, Jules Olitski, Larry Poons) and the minimal object (Morris Robert, Donald Judd, Le Witt Sol, Andre Carl), the object wins. Sculpture in the late 1960s turns out to be the ultimate "none of the above" category. That is, even in the sense that painting is only painting, it cannot compete with the literalism of, say, the three-dimensional appropriation of real materials in the world. As a category, sculpture is flexible and expandable in a way that painting is not. "Sculpture" can include video installation, earthworks, and performance; it turns out to be a labile term—just as "art" has been a labile term in the twentieth century—a subject that constantly transforms itself by incorporating new things. Sculpture, then, is the dominant work medium of the period we are about to examine because it can take into account the literalism of minimalist sculpture—its weight, gravity, and "kick-it" specificity—at the same time that it can reintroduce the pictorial qualities banished from the "specific objects" of the early 1960s.

This new generation of artists absorbs the formal terms of
minimalism in the mid-1960s but then immediately challenges the basic premises of minimalism in the form of an implied critique of minimalism's claim to blank neutrality. This critique takes hold nearly as fast as minimalism itself had crystallized in the mid-1960s. (The critique is then catalyzed, powerfully, in a wave of social changes and attitudes that emerges during and after the revolutionary events of spring 1968.) The most obvious challenge is once again the return of recognizable imagery, the very thing that artists such as Morris and Judd had fought to exclude. Young sculptors of the mid-1960s and early 1970s found that with just a slight tweaking of Morris's forms, for example, they could be reinstalled within familiar categories like purpose-built architecture and design. For example Joel Shapiro, in his untitled work of 1975, simply places the triangular piece in the background of Morris's 1966 installation at the Dwan Gallery  on top of one of Morris's blocks in the foreground and comes up with a kind of Monopoly house. Shapiro's form has a symbolic resonance with things outside it; it is not merely its own height and width but a form of shelter. At the same time he is also rethinking the specificity of height and width in minimalism, and for this reason the small scale of this piece is very important. Comparing Shapiro's 1976 installation at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, with the Morris 1964 installation at Green, you can see the point exactly.

The idea of corporeal scale is itself being recast so that it generates a new set of associations.
Morris's gray boxes are at the same scale as the viewer's body: we confront them in the present tense. In contrast, Shapiro's little pieces function metaphorically rather than literally. They are like decoys or models that refer to the imaginative reconstruction of shelter and domesticity, of bins and storage, of things that simultaneously make us feel enormous and send us off into distant spaces. Now the activation of the gallery space begins to be associated with memory and metaphor; instead of a kinesthetic stimulus, works such as provide a stimulus to memory and imagination.

Along with Shapiro's little houses, there is a whole raft of architectural sculpture in the early 1970s that rewrites the meaning of minimalism. When Alice Aycock builds a ramp structure in 1978, for instance, we then see the wedge in the background of
Morris's 1966 installation as a kind of ramp and this raises questions as to what that circle in the background of the Morris might mean. Instead of seeing space as neutral, or as something we respond to simply in terms of bodily experience, artists like Aycock and Shapiro see space as a realm of poetic metaphors, often based on associations with architecture. Many artists of this generation are influenced by a book called The Poetics of Space, by the French scholar Gaston Bachelard. For Bachelard, terms like "space," "enclosure," "up," and "down" are not neutral designations but are often suggestive of attics, cellars, facades, doors, entryways, and so forth. This idea inspires a whole body of art that utilizes the modular wooden construction of a LeWitt and the geo¬metric forms of a Judd or a Morris, but that in fact is less about logic than about memory, fantasy, and dream worlds.

At the other pole is the work of Scott Burton and others, who use the forms of
minimalism to revisit the history of design and its interchange with the history of abstract form. For instance, Burton, who comes out of performance art, reinvests pure shape with a social dimension. One of Burton's great heroes is the Romanian sculptor Brancusi Constant, who made his career in Paris. Burton looks at Brancusi's studio and studies the relationship between the symbolic forms of Brancusi's sculpture, the bases he made to put them on, and the furniture he made for himself to sit on. Instead of decategorizing forms, instead of moving away from the functional or purpose-built, as the minimalists tried to do, Burton pushes the forms back into the realm of utilitarian objects, tweaking them in order to assert that the symbolic, the abstract, and the functional are not isolated from but integrated with one another. This assertion ties Burton to the Russian constructivist tradition of Malevich and Rodchenko, who insisted on an intimate link between so-called pure abstraction and the transformation of the man-made world.

In the work of artists like Shapiro, Aycock, and Burton the blank forms of
minimalism are reinscribed and tinted with associations. But instead of exploring the return of imagery and function within the language of minimalism, I want to follow the story of imageless abstraction as it unfolds in the earthworks of artists like Heizer Michael and Smithson Robert. I want to stay with the life of abstraction, imageless abstraction. For some of the same issues we have just visited—of the psyche, the body, and social order—are invested in the reductive vocabulary of Judd, Le Witt, and Morris by a new generation that is in thrall to the powers and permissions of minimalism's new abstract vocabulary, yet pressed at the same time by the world in which they live to speak that vocabulary in another voice, to charge it with unexpected meanings. We find their work of the early 1970s an art that is a thoroughly abstract, self-declared descendent of minimalism, but an art that is also at odds with its parent movement. Their art is a transformed abstract art that is on its way to becoming representational in a much broader and imageless sense. It is more diffuse, and ultimately more powerful, I think, than a pediment or a chair or one image or function assigned to a shape.

Like the minimalists,
Heizer, Smithson, and their peers found in Pollock's drip paintings the model for an art of simplicity and wholeness with no hierarchies and no detachable parts, but instead an allover web of creativity. Its composition was determined in large part by the unmediated literalness of its processes and materials. Simplicity, wholeness, order, process, and materials—these become the watchwords for a new generation of artists who were about to transform minimalism.

In 1972-74
Heizer created Complex One/City, the first of an extensive series of structures in the Nevada desert which he continues working on to this day. Their parentage in the work of Morris is clear: simple geometric forms, no internal parts, a unified wholeness. But instead of opening onto an unfamiliar neutrality, as in Morris's work, Heizer's complex evokes a different sense of the primal. The reductive simplicity of Heizer and his peers has a specifically archaic quality. Heizer's devotion to Malevich and the Russian abstractionists fuses with an interest in pre-Columbian architecture, such as the Mayan ball courts at Chichen-Itza and Uxmal in the Yucatan. In the catalogue for a 1984 retrospective of Heizer's work, he came right out and provided photographs of sources for his work: on the one hand, the architectons of Malevich, and on the other, Chichen-Itza, the step pyramid of Zoser, the heads on Easter Island, the horse carved into the ground at Wessex, the rock-cut sanctuaries of Ajanta, the temples carved in living stone at Mamallapuram in India, and so forth.

In an interview with Julia Brown,
Heizer spells out the distinction between what he calls "megalithic" and "piecemeal" societies, that is, societies that express themselves in single, whole forms, like the carvings in Ajanta or Mamallapuram, versus societies that express themselves by constructing things from little bits and fragments/ He specifically includes modern society, with its assemblages of steel modules, in the latter category, in contrast to the grand solidarity of the old stone cultures. Heizer is drawn to forms linked to the material of the earth itself, and to forms simplified by time: things that have eroded, things that have lost all excrescences, ruins that are stumped down, as are the ball courts, to their basic underlying form.

As the son of an archaeologist,
Heizer grew up surrounded by pre-Columbian work and by other kinds of archaeological forms. Therefore his attraction to simplicity is partly a matter of personal experience and taste. But it is also symptomatic of the mid-to-late 1960s, and then the early 1970s, when Heizer matured as an artist. People of my generation probably all have buried somewhere a library of paperbacks that includes Stonehenge Decoded, The Tao of Physics, The Dancing Wit Li Masters, and, of course, Erich Von Daniken's Chariots of the Gods—books that underscore the popular belief of the time that the most advanced and the oldest forms of understanding were the same thing; that advanced quantum physics and Taoist thought, for example, were one and the same; that Stonehenge was in fact a giant computer, and so on. Accordingly, the future, as we imagined it, was linked to the deep past in a way that sidestepped any idea of progress. In that context, the timeless forms of minimalism, that is, the forms that Morris and others had thought made no reference outside themselves and had only a present-tense exis-tence in the gallery, became timeless in another sense, insofar as they equated the present and the future with the deep past, collapsing alpha and omega. This is what happens in a work like Heizer's Complex One.

A seminal text for understanding works like this is George Kubler's The Shape of Time, pub¬lished in 1961. Kubler offers a purely formalist theory of the development of art and design, eliminating individual artists and their biographies, the symbolic dimension of art, indeed any kind of subjectivity. He is interested only in the way that forms emerge, develop, and vanish in the course of history. Kubler's focus on the forms of things, to the exclusion of everything else, makes his book into a minimalist version of art history. Historians of modern art tend to identify formalism with Clement Greenberg, but Kubler's theory is, if anything, the antithesis of Greenberg's. For Greenberg, the emphasis on form is a way to purify the medium of painting—to get down to its essence. For Kubler, on the other hand, formalism is a way of ignor¬ing the differences between arts, and between the tine and applied arts. Formalism is a leveling device that allows him to treat everything the same way: potsherds, chairs, spears—anything that human beings produce.

Just as Kubler wants to eliminate the barriers between the fine and applied arts, he would also eliminate any biological metaphors of growth. In contrast, Greenberg's theory of form and formal development is Hegelian and leads toward increasing perfection or realization. Kubler's theory is based in anthropology and linguistics. He gives a great, magisterial overview, tracing the development of form in fifth-century Greece, in China, and in Mayan civilization, noting constantly recurring patterns that have to do with what he sees as the eventual exhaustion of choices. While Greenberg's formalism leads toward a kind of perfectionism, Kubler's formalism suggests there is a degenerative or exhausting aspect, a limited prospect, in the possibilities of form. He has a pessimistic belief that the invention of form is a zero-sum game, that what has been made before reduces the possibilities of what can be made now. Kubler speculates—in a way that I think many people in the late 1960s may have found appealing—that instead of the modernist notion that we have in front of us an endless series of options, we may in fact be approaching the end of a set of possi¬bilities, that there may be much more invention behind us than there is in front of us.

Kubler's ideas are in sync not only with the formalism of the minimalist and postminimalist generations but also with the pessimism that becomes increasingly apparent at the end of the 1960s. "Part of my art is based on an awareness that we live in a nuclear era,"
Heizer says in an interview in 1984. "We're probably living at the end of civilization." His project in the Nevada desert, a great monumental series of abstract forms, equates the erosive force of centuries— the blunting of ruins and grand residues of past societies—with the explosive force of the present. He makes clear that Complex One is situated close to a nuclear blast site, and that its angled front wall is designed to serve as a blast shield, deflecting the power of a nuclear bomb." Heizer's elemental forms collapse time into a view colored by a millennial, almost apocalyptic sense of the present. He uses reduction as a way of hunkering down against the forces of history. Heizer's expanded concept of time—of vast eons that will stretch after us and that have stretched before us—is linked to the idea of scale, of making things big and making things in open space. Simplicity, then, becomes associ¬ated with monumentality in Heizer's work in a very specific way.

In much of the art of the late 1960s, the theatrics of space that Michael Fried so disliked about early minimalism becomes vastly extrap¬olated beyond the gallery space.
Heizer is one of the key exponents of moving literally out of the gallery and into a much broader "canvas." He begins by making vast marks in the desert, often drawing huge circles (like something out of Malevich) with his motorcycle, and also spreading dye to make paintings that are only readable from thousands of meters in the air. The most impressive and best known of these markings—and it still survives—is Heizer's Double Negative of 1969-70, on the Virgin River Mesa in Nevada. As you can see from an aerial view, it consists of two trenches incised on either side of an eroded canyon and lined up so that, standing in one trench and looking across at the other, one joins them as if they made up a single slash. It is as if the hand of God had come down from above and cut straight through the canyon, or as if something that was formerly unified had been disrupted by forces of erosion or incursion, creating a huge mark on a vast space. The idea of a great, simple geometric gesture in conflict with the erosive structure around it takes Pollock's expansion of scale, and the idea of moving beyond the borders of the canvas, into an entirely different dimension.

Heizer's work is not to the taste of everyone. In the mid-1980s, when I included him in an exhibition with the British artist Long Richard, I discovered that Long vehemently disliked the kind of work that Heizer was doing. Nonetheless they are often lumped together, and we can see why, looking at Long's Line in the Himalayas of 1975. Like Heizer, Long worked in nature, making elaborate stone arrangements or other kinds of circles with connections reaching back to ancient stone cairns, stone circles, menhirs, and dolmens around the world. This is very much Long's personal vocabulary; inspired by forms of the deep past, he projects the geometry of minimalism out into nature. Personal experience in the form of long solitary (and well-documented) walks in the British countryside—-a kind of Lake Country picturesque tradition merged with an ecologically correct pursuit—was also integral to his work. What Long hated about the earthworks of Heizer and Smithson and others was that they seemed to carry out, on a cosmically destructive scale, the vast American ego and power mania built into minimalism in the first place. Theirs was the cowboy recklessness of Pollock realized in an egregious and destructive fashion.

But I think something more complex is going on in the
Heizer, and I would like to stand up for it and for work like it. In earthworks like Heizer's it is the play between the close up and the faraway, between the view with one's feet on the ground and the aerial view, that is important. The ground view of Double Negative aimed down into one of the trenches is interesting in this regard. The ground view is about embedded layers of structure, embedded layers of geology; in archaeological terms, it represents layers of human development, stratified time, time that is accreted, time that is textured, time that is the cumulative buildup of minute incidents. The aerial view, on the other hand, shows Double Negative as something globally unified, with a brute, unerring simplicity, something that stands out as a man-made absolute against the geological forces of erosion of the canyon.

The idea of simplicity with which we started, then, could be said to depend in these works on just how far back you stand. And that sounds an odd echo of a late-nineteenth-century theory of sculpture proposed by Adolf von Hildebrand. Hildebrand contrasted the experience of viewing sculpture from close up as opposed to from a distance, the fragmented uncertainty and the piecemeal, subjective disarray of viewing sculpture at close range as opposed to the decisive certainty and clarity of viewing sculpture at a distance." For Hildebrand the proper role of classicizing art was to clarify things as if they were seen from a distance, to invest all sculpture with a kind of fernsicht vision, that is, a kind of far, distant vision. This distinction is brought into relationship, it seems to me, by works such as Heizer's, where the grand aura of clarity and simplicity is the privilege of the aerial view, whereas on the ground one sees only the brutality and fragmentation of the cut through many thousands of layers and the crumbling variety and diversity of the earth around it. This contrast presents, I think, not merely a formal problem but one that has social implications as well, these having to do with the relationship between individual experience and that of collective society.

Another work that has both macro and micro aspects is
Smithson's Spiral Jetty, which most people know from Gianfranco Gorgoni's now canonical photograph of the earthwork when it was first made in the Great Salt Lake in Utah in 1970. This photograph, certainly one of the great images of art of its time, has made Spiral Jetty one of the most well-known and least-seen works of art ever made. Smithson also made a film about the making of Spiral Jetty, which is in a sense almost part of the artwork. In fact originally he had thought of having a small theater next to the Spiral Jetty, where the film would be constantly projected.

The film promotes both the micro and macro aspects of the earthwork. On the micro side is the crystallization of the Great Salt Lake: the salt crystals forming on rocks, a kind of incrustation in which the salt of the lake will, like rust, engulf the Spiral Jetty forming a piecemeal blanket over the form that he has made. On ihe macro level, from overhead, we see a primal form in the spiral of ambiguous growth and decay: the helical pattern of a nautilus shell on the one hand, and of water going down the drain on the other. What we do not see in these views of
Smithson's jetty is that it constantly makes intercuts between bulldozers pushing rocks and dinosaurs. Again the relationship between a deep lost and destroyed past and the violence and force of contemporary society—so apparent in Heizer's Complex One— is replayed by Smithson in another way. Close up the Spiral Jetty is power, jumble, violence, and slow, fragmentary accretion; from above it is only a great, blank, desolate, cosmic implacability.

I have written elsewhere about the overhead view in modernity and what it means. In Laszlo Moholy-Nagy's 1928 photograph from a radio tower in Berlin, this earlier idea of the direct overhead view, which is very specific to the twentieth century, involves a kind of optimism, the shock of a new, nonhuman objectivity. Here was something that evaded the pathos of perspective, where things get smaller as they get farther from you, and laid out the world in front of you as if it were from a God's-eye viewpoint. The idea of the overhead view, of detachment from the earth, of impersonality and objectivity, became the emblem of the shock of fresh de-familiarization that would lead to a detached and superior knowledge of the world. Instead of the muddled near-view perspective, where things were blocked off from one another, from overhead one saw the schematic truth of the world exactly as it was.

Today, in an age when artists have been shaped by the first photographs from space of the earth as a lonely blue marble in the middle of a great black expanse, there is less of a shock in the loss of the human viewpoint. Objectivity at a distance and overhead becomes not about the new man but about things primordial, that is, lost civilizations like those who made the Nazca lines in Peru. It becomes not so much about schematic truth in its freshness as about an aged sense of mystery and distance. Whether it is the Nazca lines or the snake mounds in Ohio or
Smithson's Spiral Jetty reemerging from the Great Salt Lake, the overhead view of things unintelligible from the earth speaks to enigma and to mystery.

One cannot have this discussion without bringing in Isamu Noguchi's 1947 sculpture made to be seen from Mars. A little corny perhaps in its orchestration of pyramids and mounds—I mean, there is
Heizer's Complex One at the top, and an Egyptian pyramid at the bottom for the nose; it depends on image recognition—but how interesting that it is made just after the atomic bomb is dropped for the first time. Remember the 1960s saying, that we were either going to get "stoned into the bomb age or bombed into the Stone Age"—that the two things were related and that we were living in an age of imminent extinction? Heizer's interest in the nuclear blast, for example—linked us back to a stone age. That is all that was going to be left of us after the bomb devastated the earth. It is interesting that Noguchi in 1947 prefigures the Smithson in the late 1960s and early 1970s, because there are odd echoes of early abstract expressionism in Heizer's body of work from the late 1960s, in its combined interest in and dread of science and in the collision between microbiology on the one hand and ruins and symbols on the other. We see this in the Spiral Jetty. In some senses the late 1960s re-evoked the world of Rothko, Gottlieb, and Newman in the late 1940s under the threat of the first advent of the nuclear age. In the Vietnam War it all comes back, and with a new fearsomeness.

Let me just briefly recap. I began with the idea of simplicity, or wholeness, as something that the minimalists derived from an interpretation of
Pollock's canvases. I pointed out that the scale and the idea of objectivity were also important to these artists, and that for all minimalists these were purely formal properties, that indeed the early 1960s minimalists claimed to be pragmatic, neutral, and involved in a present-tense experience. But by the late 1960s, under a different set of societal pressures, the anti-individual, antisubjective premises of geometry—simplicity, wholeness—which the minimalists were at pains to claim were not ideal, did not have any of the kind of Utopian flavor of Mondrian, for example, and of former geometric idealism. Now the problem in the late 1960s is that, far from being ideal, these forms are no longer merely positivist or pragmatic but are tied to a millennial pessimism, with a nostalgia for simplicity, and the power of mammoth illiberal societies of the deep past in thrall to monolithic order. Present-tense experience of simple form is replaced by a kind of melancholy of duration. It is as if Claude Monet's Gave Saint-Lazare and its empiricist, present-tense modernity is replaced by Giorgio de Chirico's train stations. There is a reduction here of a different kind, a reduction not pragmatic but having to do with the catastrophic and the epic. I used the word "order"—monolithic order—about the megalithic societies, for example, that Heizer talked about. And I want to turn now to the idea of order proposed by the minimalists, an order taken out of, again, Pollock's webs of painting, an order that was nonrelational, unconstructed, unbalanced, noncompositional, decidedly not ideal. When Stella said about the order of his canvases, "What you see is what you see," it is important to remember that his bugbear was Vasarely. He and Judd battled against Vasarely's idea partly because what they disliked about the European nature of Vasarely's order and geometry was that it seemed to have a social agenda attached. Stella and Judd insisted that there was no social agenda in their use of geometry, in what they were making. This is part of what becomes problematic for artists in the late 1960s, and the most evident shift against the early 1960s geometry—post-1968, say—is the simple rejection of geometry in favor of an organicism. Another contributing factor was the Pollock retrospective of 1967 at the Museum of Modern Art; when the pictures are seen again, their liquidity becomes much more interesting. Early or mid-1960s pieces that had, on the basis of John Cage, involved dispersal and random order—such as Carl Andre's Spill (Scatter Piece) of 1966, or many works by Barry Le Va also—give way in the late 1960s to works like Morris's thread-waste piece, which is owned by the Museum of Modern Art, gift of Philip Johnson; it is a bag of thread waste, and you pour out on the floor in whatever order. This falls into place with an article that Morris wrote precisely in 1968 called "Anti Form," in which he argued that the best new work was going to forsake the geometric rigidity of the early 1960s and be floppy, scrappy, and chaotic, having no edges, being more liquid, more dispersed on the floor.

This simple substitution, organicism for geometry, is perhaps too easy, in the way that turning a cube into a Monopoly house is a little too easy. But more interesting and widely evident in the art of the late 1960s and early 1970s is the staged collision between order and disorder, between geometric rule structures and recalcitrant irregularity and shapelessness. This was not simply a change from one thing to another, but involved an aggressive hostility against the precedent. You know the saying, "It's not enough to succeed; others must be seen to fail." It is not enough for order to be abandoned; it must be dumped on. As a result, order in the work of the late 1960s is something that cannot simply be, it must be shown to be something that is imposed, contrasted, and contested.

One expression of this idea in the art of this time is the widespread interest in mapping and in the dualities maps present: the collision between abstract order on the one hand and factual information on the other, between grid structure on the one hand and fact on the other, between mind on the one hand and nature on the other. A prime example of this new interest is a series of
Smithson works called "Non-Sites," which involved photo-maps with realizations in the gallery of minimalist-like boxes containing rocks and earth from the various points in the "nonsite" . The sites are meant to be utterly banal—Franklin, New Jersey, is one, for example—and the idea is to map out a collision between order imposed by a map and the actual gritty, nonorderly facts of life found literally on the ground. Smithson's is a diagrammatic or didactic collision, which again involves the clarity of the overhead view versus the chaos of ground-level reality, in which minimalism's rigidily is made evident by piling it against the rough chaos that it contains and cuts through.

As a generic comparison to Smithson's "Non-Sites," we might bring in
Richard Long's Whitechapel Slate Circle , in the National Gallery of Art collection, or a work by Tony Smith. The geometry of minimalism seems to emerge in the way that a beaver dam or a honeycomb is made, in harmony with the order of nature. With Long, there is a rough justice about the balance between the diversity and irregularity of nature and the beautiful harmony of the thing created from it that goes back to the tribal notion of stone cairns or circles. Smith's drawing for a linear city, a honeycomb or crystalline structure of 1953-55, barkens back to his training with Frank Lloyd Wright and others. It suggests optimistically that microscopic physicality and biology can be used as a happy precedent for the strong social organization of humankind.

By contrast, Smithson's work is much less optimistic. In fact, it has a dystopian unity, an unruiiness, a chaotic nature, and a fatally rigid man-made order. One of the many illustrations that he used for his essays shows a tank farm, repetitive rows of oil storage tanks, blighting a landscape. Smithson's idea of crystallization (on which he spent a great deal of time) was that it was an inorganic stasis, that simplicity in crystallization involved the end of life. Repetition for Smithson did not represent the happy uniformity of Smith's honeycomb but was more like the repetition in Warhol's Soup Cans—that is, a repetition that spoke of conformity and stultification.

So
Smithson's minimalist order, the order of geometry, the order of repetition, is consistent not with growth and optimism but with entropy, the state attained in heat death. He-wrote a great deal about this concept in physics, ideas that the universe is constantly losing heat and organization and that the stasis or simplicity at the end of it all is moribund death: that is, the end of information, a kind of heat death toward which the universe is inexorably moving. Arguably Smithson's best essay is one he wrote in 1966 called "Entropy and the New Monuments," in which he talks about the life of artists in the late 1960s, spending their time watching B movies in bad movie theaters on Times Square. There's a William Burroughs-like, downbeat experience of seedy urbanism in Smithson that he wants to summon and link to the idea of a cosmic vision of where the world is headed.

I am reminded of a Woody Allen film, Annie Hall in which Woody as a small child is brought to the doctor by his mother because he is obsessed with black holes. He is sure that the world will disappear momentarily, so what's the point of living?
Smithson's work conveys something of this idea that the bleakness of contemporary urban existence is in fact linked inexorably to the truth of macrophysics. He put together the urban and the galactic—the experience on the ground and the experience from the sky—in a way that was uniformly bleak in its suggestion that art, society, and nature were all winding down together. Smithson's modernism shares a certain kinship with T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land.

It is interesting to compare
Smithson to Heizer in terms of what informs their work. Heizer's experience as the child of an archaeologist is a critical factor, whereas what informs Smithson is a kind of lapsed Catholicism. Smithson's early work is full of aggressively expressionist and gory Crucifixions and Descents from the Cross, for example. (He wrote an article on Judd— which must have mystified Judd entirely—in which crystallization was linked to the idea of a series of Depositions from the Cross.) Heizer's personal interest, it seems to me, led to work of a much more general and broader interest, whereas Smithson is more interestingly read as a personal case. Judd himself said that Smithson's science was incredibly sophomoric and that one of his major talents was as a didactic promoter of certain ideas in which his works become illustrative. Smithson is the kind of artist who, if he didn't exist, would have to be invented by graduate students: he's too perfect and emblematic a demonstration of everything that is involved with the Eliotic or pessimistic tenor of late 1960s and early 1970s art.

What I find richer is the work that Richard Serra is doing at about the same time, for example his 1969 piece called Cutting Device: Base Plate Measure [seen here in a 2004-05 installation at MoMA]. The piece is roughly five-and-a-half meters long at its largest dimension. What is apparently a series of rolls of lead, big pieces of timber, a piece of stone, and several sheets of lead are stacked one upon the other, and then, as if two huge cutting boards, or chopping blocks, had come down on either side—-whack!—everything is reduced to the base plate, hence the work's title. Everything in procrustean fashion is cut to a managed core, and the chaos of the thing flies out to the side. Of course, this is not how the piece was truly formed. That is, Serra obviously had to do a great deal of individual work cutting these elements. But the imagery is not unlike
Smithson's in its collision of order and disorder, in its staged, violent theater about the meaning of reduction, measuring, and simplification, about the meaning of all those minimalist ideas put into action. Serra's piece, however, seems to me less illustrative and more performative than Smithson's; without reference to nature, these ideas of collision, reduction, measure, and their violence are realized in more absolutely sculptural and abstract terms.

Serra's Cutting Device is more like
Heizer's trench, a brutal cut through things. But it has its roots in, it seems to me, and derives its title from, Jasper Johns' Device of 1962, wherein Johns has nailed rulers onto the sides of the picture, and then dragged the rulers in circular pivots through the paint on the picture. Again, the Johns is probably not as simple as it looks, and like the Heizer was staged to look this way. But the message that both the Johns and the Serra deliver, it seems to me, has a more complex meaning or implication than the mere opposition of order and disorder. It has to do not with the collision of measurement and chaos but with the fusion of the two things. What the Johns says to me is that creating order creates disorder. That is, by imposing one order, you must efface another, and that all acts of measure and regularity involve destructive force. There is a kind of violence to rationality itself.

This idea of violence is perhaps more evident in Serra. In one of his most famous pieces, done for a warehouse show in 1969, he had a tank of hot lead and a big dipper, and with the dipper he flung the hot lead against the corner of the warehouse. There it formed a cast, and when it had cooled, he would pry the lead out of the corner with a crowbar and begin the process again. Each line formed by the lead casting itself in the corner was prized out and pulled away to become the sculpture.

Now this points to another obvious
Pollock-like aspect of minimalist literalism, and that is the evident declaration of process. In 1969, just after MoMA's Pollock show, the idea of liquidity and the process, the dynamics of Pollock's work, was used against the stasis of minimalism. We see a lot of work in the late 1960s where the promise of shaping by material, and by program and method, no longer means the geometric playing out of possibilities, as in Le Witt's cube, but rather overtly liquid pourings and castings. But I raise Pollock in connection with this Serra piece only to contrast them, because what I want to point out is the difference between the almost lyrical nature of Pollock's choreography, of his dance, and the imagery of manual labor in Serra's piece. Giacometti once made a sculpture called No More Play, and in a certain sense that is the subtitle of Serra's work. It is all about hot metal, toxic materials, dangerous work. And this is personal to Serra-—as archaeology is personal to Heizer—in that he has experience in a steel mill, and that his father worked in boatyards. But it is also, as with Heizer, symptomatic of the time. Heizer and Smithson both work with bulldozers and earth-movers to get what they want done, and now Serra in this lead-flinging piece with its steel-mill overtones seems to say to Judd and others, "To hell with tinsmiths and custom body shops. No more hands-off phoning in the plans for anything." Instead, they literally go to work with an earnest, handson, blue-collar ethic.

There are two ways to look at this. One of them is by way of a remote analogy with
David Jacques-Louis and the stringency of his classicism during the French Revolution. David's classicism, exemplified in his Oath of the Horatii, has a kind of cool, meticulous line quality and a certain austerity. But into his studio come a group of young artists who call themselves the Barbus ("bearded ones"), and they take this archaism all too seriously—wearing togas, not bathing, not shaving, and so on— and they want art that has no color, only line. Compare with this the cool classicism, austerity, and sleek finish of early 1960s minimalism, which is suddenly interrupted in the late 1960s by a hairier, more archaic, primitive, and fundamental view of industry. In both cases the urbane cool of the predecessors is returned to a less refined state by the followers.

The second way of seeing this change is perhaps in the long run more interesting and less frivolous. Think about Serra and his blue-jeans-and-boots industrial imagery as the 'new left" of the late 1960s in its relation to the "old left" of the 1930s. Think loan Baez singing ;"Joe Hill" at the Newport Folk Festival. Think the Port Huron Statement of the Students tor a Democratic Society. Think Sartre supportng Maoist militants at the Renault factory. Think Grateful Dead singing "Working Man's Dead." The whole idea that the New Left would recuperate and renew the ideals and ethos of the 1930s—this idea of a kind of nostalgia for industry—has a strong political implication. By inhabiting the spaces of an exhausted industry in New York—Soho lofts such as the one Serra worked in then and now-—these Yale graduates have moved in with and assumed a blue-collar ethic.

Still more complicated is the element of excessiveness or peculiarity about Serra's work in particular. In a work of 1913-14 called Three Standard Stoppages, Duchamp dropped three pieces of string from a given height to produce rulers that could be used for the creation of new works of art. His was a witty, hands-off, elegant parody of the idea of science. Serra in the same way, with his repeated casting and throwing not of strings but of pots full of hot lead, is involved in a kind of brutal and ironic parody of production, in which the overtones of futility, of pointless overworking, of beating your head against the wall, of dogged frustration to no particular end, are written into the idea of labor that it represents.

The nature of "industrial," then, has changed a great deal since Pollock used house paint. The materials of industry mean something new in work like Serra's Scatter Piece of 1967. This generation is so much against finish, against the tidy completeness of
minimalism, and you can see this in some of their preferred materials: those of scrap and salvage, as in the rubber, belted items that Serra uses for Scatter Piece. Living in Soho, they simply pick up what is left in the streets—felt, rope, leftover rubber. Their materials are the useless end of the utilitarian world, materials with an exhausted functionality, materials that speak the opposite of efficiency, that speak instead of overflow, of a society producing too much, and consequently of waste, detritus, and garbage. These are not just neutral, unconventional art materials; they imply a combination of overflow and excess with pollution and defilement. This is nowhere more diagrammatically evident than in some of Smithson's pieces, like the one he did in Rome in 1969, where he filled a dump truck full of asphalt and poured it down a cliff. In numerous drawings Smithson's imagery of spillage, of wasted industrial materials, is one of destruction and erosion.

You have to remember that this is the period of the Report to the Club of Rome, in which everyone seems to he living in a Malthusian world. It is a time in which people are beginning to get a stereoscopic view of modern society's vast power and its despoliation of the world. The soundtrack for this kind of work is maybe Neil Young's After the Gold Rush, the combined imagery of sitting in a burned-out basement and imagining spaceships flying through a yellow haze. This combination of bleak urbanism with seifi overtones is pure
Smithson: "Look at Mother Nature on the run in the nineteen seventies." This is downer art-—let's face it, it is really downer art—and it is about going down, "all fall down." The imagery of gravity in it is important, and there's gravity in Smithson, again, obviously didactic. He takes a woodshed in Ohio and simply piles enough dirt on the woodshed until the beam cracks at the top. It is about cumulative action: accumulation leads to collapse, leads to destruction.

These same concerns with weight find a different and ultimately more complex place in Serra's work. His Delineator of the mid-1970s is like an Andre below you and above you I. That is, there is one big plate of steel on the floor and another huge plate of steel overhead. For Andre, gravity is a fact—"I've got no base. I've got nothing that elevates me. I'm just going to sit on the floor." Think about the neutrality of Andre's work and what it says about gravity versus the utter terror and intimidation posed by the prospect of walking between these two plates. I have done it a couple of times, but I had to force myself. What is interesting about the energy, and the potentially destructive energy, of gravity in Serra is that, unlike the
Smithson, it is an implied rather than enacted threat. Serra has managed to bring the dynamics of gravity into a minimalist stasis. The pent-up energy that Fried talked about as a theater of space, the dispersal that an Andre produces in the gallery, has now been realized in terms of a kinesthesia of fear and menace, which is particular to Serra's work. The power of stasis, the implied power of things held in check, is something that has to be achieved, like order, in these pieces. Obvious examples are of course the prop pieces, such as Equal (Corner Prop Piece) of 1969, part of a series in which Serra reintroduces the idea of composition in sculpture. Even the idea of balance that had been anathema to Judd and others is brought into play here, albeit by the forces of physics rather than for mere aesthetic pleasure. Serra's corner prop piece has surprising poise and delicacy. For all its overtones of violence and industry, it has a silvery, almost rococo feathering of torn edges, and a delicacy and sheen to its light gray surface. There is a refined side to Serra that I think is underestimated. Here in this piece an almost ballerina-like grace is inextricably wedded to the sense of precarious danger, and this gives the work much of its silent power. The epitome of this potent delicacy is Serra's One Ton Prop (House of Cards) of 1969, which is obviously a critique of the minimalist cube—a critique of Tony Smith's Die, of Tudd's cube—that retains Judd's antipathy to the idea of massive sculpture but still gets back the weight and power in a relationship to gravity that is more dynamic and evident. The title is not without interest. "One Ton Prop" simply describes the amount of weight that is put up by these four sheets of steel balanced against one another to form the cube. But "House of Cards" has a different implication that might send us to look at Chardin's House of Cards of 1737, a young man building a house of cards as a metaphor of fragility, transience, and impermanence.

The Serra cube, like other of his prop pieces and related works, insists that all human-made things work against and with the forces of nature or physics, that they exist in a precarious relationship, in equipoise with the pull of their destruction, fudd wanted from his cubes and his objects a kind of truth; he worked against illusionism, for example. His truth was a pragmatic, immediate, no-nonsense truth. But a different kind of truth, it seems to me, is implicit in the quiet dynamics of the Serra; this truth involves a sense of precariousness and threat that is particular to the artist and to the moment in which he is acting.

Look at the difference, if you will, between Serra's 1969 One Ton Prop and Jackie Winsor's Burnt Piece of the late 1970s. The Winsor too is a critique of Die and the minimalist cube. It seeks a different truth. It was created by a destructive process that leaves scars. Made of cast concrete, it was fired in a wooden cradle, the burning evaporate and remains of which appear as scars. Form is created through a process of loss and is the residue of violent forces and energies. Serra's lead is also a casting, but Winsor turns on its head Serra's insistence on an open transparency of construction. By putting large black holes on all four sides of the cube, she brings an insistence on interiority to her geometry. Burnt Piece is about concealment, inwardness, and mystery rather than transparency and immediacy.

Similarly, in Winsor's Plywood Square of 1973, she covers over geometry, burying it, making it obscure. Whereas Serra's gestures can be spontaneous and sometimes violent, as in his flinging of lead into a corner, Winsor's process is a slow, diligent, patient aggression against order, an aggression that uses order itself—discipline, routine, repetition—as a means. The labor, like Serra's, is repetitive but with a difference. A work such as Four Corners by Winsor is egregiously overdone and impractical, like Serra, but now methodical in a way that is incantatory, ritual, obsessive, and patient .

Winsor's methods are not about cutting, throwing, and breaking, but about binding and joining. As in
Smithson or Serra, the imagery of her Bound Square is of a collision or disparity between a recalcitrant roughness and the will to order, the will to regularity, the will to geometry. But in Winsor's case it seems to have a built-in pathos of shortfall, which is explicitly preindustrial and involves an illogical, almost tribal, pragmatics of making. When we compare Winsor's work with Serra's or Heizer's, we can see different personalities certainly, different temperaments and psychologies, but I think as well that two different ideas of labor arise from the comparison. Serra's labor is industrial and demonstrative. Winsor's labor is personal and private, concealing and muffling. Winsor's is the world of Ruskin John and Morris William and the redemptive value of handwork and craft, whereas Serra's is the world of Walter Reuther, the Teamsters, the AFL-CIO. I refer to a built-in ambivalence on the part of the Left of the 1960s, two parts of its ideal expressed metaphorically in the abstract forms of materials, programs, attitudes toward work, and ideas of order. When you think back about these works of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and about earthworks, it is easy, and it was easy then, to see this as radical art. But are we not also seeing a kind of conservatism in this work: in the monastic palette that runs to grays and leads, to felt, to scrap, to dirt, to tar; in the earnestness it has, even in its absurdities; in the fin-du-monde nostalgias for collective order? There is a romanticism, in other words, about this work that at its worst amounts lo a sentimental nihilism of blank despair.

It is not just that meaning attaches itself to
minimalism in the late 1960s but also that the simple certainties of abstraction that are proposed in the early 1960s become almost instantly, within years, charged with complex ambiguities. The bad news is clearly that despite almost Utopian ambitions and despite programs, abstraction cannot remain pure. It cannot remain empty and void of categories. But the good news is that it can revitalize our ability to embody new ideas in the most complex fashion: new ideas of ourselves, of our personalities, of our time.

1 want to conclude this lecture with Eva Hesse in order to stress the liberating or empowering nature of what to many artists appears exceedingly constraining—that is, the minimalist box, the minimalist order. Hesse is a clear example of what minimalism can do for an artist, positively. Hesse was flailing around in the mid-1960s, trying to find a body of imagery, trying to invent something that was quirky enough, peculiar enough, to contain her odd humor, funkiness,
sexuality, and standing. What she produced was almost consistently klutzy and usually unoriginal. It was only when she gave up this search and accepted the rigidity of a simple program of, for example, drawing circles—when she extracted that odd organic form out of the middle of An Ear in a Pond and said, "That's not a head; that's just a circle, just a circle with a string coming out of it"; when she said, "I'm just going to make things, I'm just going to be disciplined, in fact, make the same thing again and again"—then and only then blossomed the very personality, the very intense intimacy and complexity, that she had sought in her work. All this was released by being pushed through the filter of minimalist work.

You can see her obvious dedication to
minimalism, and her critique, in works such as Accession II. Accession //belongs with Serra's One Ton Prop and the Burnt Piece by Jackie Winsor in terms of a critique of the idea of the geometric enclosure of Judd, Smith, and others. But what a difference! Somewhere between the industrial hardness of Serra and the organicism of Winsor falls this odd piece in which thousands of holes have been threaded with long rubber tubes, which are then cut off on the inside. So what you get on the inside of this cube is neither neutrality nor mystery, but relatedness. The outside and the inside of the cube are related— the outside seeming uniform and nubbly, and the inside evoking fur or cilia, something like a soft rug. The repetition of a simple act produces a work that is more than the sum of its parts. If one were a feminist critic, for example—or even not—one might find that there was a vaginal reference here, the interior being soft and friction-free as opposed to the severity of its exterior.

What saves this piece from being merely an indulgent reference or evocation of early
minimalism is Hesse's use of industrial materials. Accession II has a hard sterility that works against its sensuality and gives it life in both worlds at once. So too the untitled rope piece certainly relates to Morris's rope piece of 1965 and also to his felt pieces and to Oldenburg's soft sculpture. But by virtue of its static repetition, a la a Judd wall  piece, it has a different connotation—of hair, of accumulation, of things that the tectonic Morris seems to avoid. Similarly, repetition in the form of the round knobs on Hesse's rope piece—and in its realization in an Andre-like, if you want, piece called Sequel of 1967—presses the metaphor of these simple things (cast off of tennis balls in latex) as being in the first example breasts, and in the case of Sequel, frankly, turds. The objects in Sequel have a fecal quality—their gravity and surface speak to a different set of metaphors.

Hesse's material is specifically humble industrial material, not chest-thumping industrial material. It is certainly not rustic and organic like logs and twine. Hesse is about latex. And her discovery of latex is not simply a way for her to get from point A to point B in the casting process, but an expressive means, her equivalent of Johns' encaustic. Latex imparts a fleshiness to the object, and in Hesse's case, a creepy sense of nubbly skin. She likes the idea of covering over and layering, as Winsor does; however, the long-range implications of Hesse's painted latex works turn out to be fecal, epidermal—in other words, bodily.

This bodily message permeates a lot of Hesse's work, such as Untitled of 1966, which, depending on how one wants to read it, involves either Diana of Ephesus or a collection of scrota. As a work about bodily gravity, it is very different from, say, the hearty, pot-bellied sag of Oldenburg's sculpture. Hesse's uncertain references are to things not merely flaccid but repellent—yielding to gravity in an unpleasant way. Few artists of this period use the vocabulary that Hesse's work requires: sag, distend, pucker, crease, flap. But it is the minimalist inflection, the repetition, the industrial materials of Hesse's work that save this bodily reference, this organicism, from being a merely corny, merely sloppy expressionism. Intriguingly, the ultimate macho lineage—from
Pollock flinging paint through Serra flinging lead—gave Hesse exactly what she needed to produce a sharply personal vocabulary that has empowered countless feminist artists since.

Look, finally, at one of the last pieces that Hesse made before she died: Right After, dated 1969, These pieces bring us back to where we started, that is, with Pollock's drip paintings. Hesse revisits Pollock's challenge through the minimalist interpretation, which stresses the wholeness and simplicity of Pollock, its nonrelational order, and its emphasis on materials and process. Yet she manages to come closer to certain things in Pollock's work than the minimalists could. She restores Pollock's lyricism and aeration to pieces about the literal weight of gravity, just as Pollock took gravity—by painting on the floor—and turned it vertical so that in his paintings weightless clouds are created from the weightiness of falling things. She has restored this kind of lyricism to the literalism of gravity. In a piece like Right After, elegance and delicacy, a grace of hanging, are combined with a real humility and funkiness—these things covered in latex are strangled, clumsy, knotted, choked. There is on the one hand the catenary perfection, the simple pull of gravity, and on the other hand the disorderly and unexpected web of tied things. All that is complex and interesting about Hesse's work goes into this piece: her antics, her insistence on bodily associations, her linking of minimalist thinking with viscera and sinew and the interior of the body. Here the minimalist reinterpretation of Pollock is extrapolated as something deeply personal. Hesse's rope piece has a kind of double pathos to go with its antic nature: not only the pathos of our knowing that Hesse died before she could complete this  piece, but also that for all the permissions and possibilities that the tradition of abstraction has given her, its powerful model lives with her, that she exists within the framework of an emulation of sornething so strong. The combined constraint and power of Pollock's gift and minimalism's reinterpretation of it is realized in this work.

 

 

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