Kenneth Baker

  • A USE FOR BEAUTY

    CRITICS TODAY STEER CLEAR OF “beauty” and “beautiful” as if they were tainted words. Perhaps for critical purposes they have been damaged, though I think they suffer as much from neglect as from corruption. Circulated incessantly through the media, words such as “beautiful,” “real,” “value,” “love,” and “energy” have their nuances worn away and take on a quaver of authoritative meaninglessness. Nuanced areas of experience to which these words apply are accordingly cast into a darkness of ineffability. But to provide occasions for shedding light on elusive perceptions and feelings, to show that

  • VIJA CELMINS: DRAWING WITHOUT WITHDRAWING

    VIJA CELMINS’ DRAWINGS INVOLVE many traversals. The first is always her own transverse buildup of an image on a page. She tends to work from one corner of a sheet to the one diagonally opposite, and favors graphite because she is “interested in having the image collect.”1 People often remark upon the impersonal qualities of her work, but she believes that “the art is in the making, not in the object,” and that her touch gives meaning to what she makes. Her choice of subjects is guided partly by a desire to unite mark, image, and surface, as they are united in her recent “views” of outer space.

  • Norman Toynton’s Grounds for Painting

    WRITING CRITICISM HAS DISABUSED me of the notion that there is always an “audience” for painting, or for writing about it. Actually, there is almost no connection between what I have written about painting and the observable activities of viewers of paintings in galleries, museums, and studios. Though this appears to be a sociological remark, it really is not. There can be no audience for painting if there is no audience for thinking. To observe someone’s thinking (manifested), you must participate in it. It is part of the function of a medium—whether paint, language, musical tones, or whatever—to

  • Dorothea Rockburne’s “Egyptian Paintings”

    WORKS OF ART ARE TOKENS of an artist’s activity. They are gratuitous in practical terms unless and until we spectators can turn them into tokens of some activity on our part as well. Doing that means learning something of the difference between real and spurious activity in our own lives and in those we witness. We are burdened with this problem of knowledge because we live in a culture that profits from our confusion of action with obedience, and works tend to promote that confusion.

    Central to the concept and experience of activity is the fact that we can refrain from it at will, not just for

  • Breaking the Silence: The Spectator as Speaker

    CARL ANDRE REMARKED IN CONVERSATION some years ago that one way to judge a “good” sculpture is by the sound it makes when you strike it. I’ve long thought there is something right, and useful, in this remark. facetious though it may have been as critical advice.

    Andre probably had in mind some of his own metal floor pieces when he spoke perceptions of sound figure in the experiencing of those works. 64 Steel Square, 1967, is such a piece, one that I happened to see recently. Sixty-four eight-inch-square steel plates were arrayed on an uneven wood floor in such a way that most of them wobbled

  • Ralph Humphrey

    To people unfamiliar with Ralph Humphrey’s art, his recent paintings may look like instances of the trend toward “dumb” images and crusty surfaces. Those who know his work, however, will recognize that its misreading is one of the sources of the currently fashionable pretense of many painters to robust technical ineptitude.

    Humphrey’s recent pictures follow from his previous work with a logic their antic qualities may seem to belie. About a decade ago, he abandoned canvas as a working surface, no longer able to take for granted its viability as a basis for painting. He began constructing his own

  • Ann & Patrick Poirier

    The collaborative activities of Ann and Patrick Poirier cannot be easily categorized whether or not you accept them as “art.” That we should question the conventional senses of “work” that produces works of art seems to be one of their premises. Their use of a given medium seems to be dictated by the nature of the idea they are trying to realize, not by facility. Consistent with these observations was the sequence of photographs shown at The Carpenter Center titled “Homage to Blaschka.” In honor of the creator of the glass flower collection at Harvard’s Peabody Museum. Ostensibly the medium here

  • Reckoning with Notation: The Drawings of Pollock, Newman and Louis

    TAKE AN EMPTY PAGE AND orient it vertically. Draw two lines freehand, from the bottom of the page to the top. Make them arc slightly in opposite directions and cross near the center of the page, to form an elongated X. You can now regard the marked surface according to several different aspects.

    First, think of it as an unfinished map, and the two lines become armatures of a hypothetical aerial view. Suggestions of scale are potentially significant, but as yet only approximate and vague. The page’s surface remains optically flat because it corresponds to generalized terrain, not to the vertical

  • Performing Forms: Notes on Matisse’s Cutouts

    IN ABOUT 1949 HENRI MATISSE made a small paper cutout called The Dancer. It is a relatively simple work, not likely to be reckoned among Matisse’s major productions in a technique that had already preoccupied him for eight years. But it is one of the few cutout pieces in which he made deliberate use of a profile head. Alfred Barr pointed out that Matisse’s work in cut paper owes more to early 19th century silhouettes than to the Cubists’ use of collage. For the most part, Matisse avoided as too obvious the kind of facial profile that seems the natural subject and lurking inadvertence of the

  • Some Exercises in Slow Perception

    NO ONE MISUNDERSTANDS THAT works of art are in some degree willed objects or events. That is why it is natural to acquaint ourselves with works of art by asking what seems deliberate and what seems fortuitous in them. It is because we see works of art so clearly as products of personal human action that they invite understanding in ethical terms. This sounds like a trivial remark unless you consider how little we experience the objects and settings of our material life as the products of human activity that they are. We look at art with the ideological assumption that is has been made by choice,

  • Donald Judd: Past Theory

    SEEING DONALD JUDD’S 15 RECENT plywood sculptures reminded me of another critic’s having once called Judd’s work “anthropomorphic” because it was hollow. That remark assumed that “anthropomorphic” can have only a pejorative use in talk about sculpture. The best sense I can now give the remark is this: that a sculpture’s clear division of outside from inside somehow confirms a misleading image we have of how our knowledge and ignorance of each other relate. The message in the “anthropomorphic” criticism was, I think, at least partly that we should eschew hollowness in esthetic terms if we are

  • Susan Crile

    Susan Crile’s show at Kornblee is the most straightforward gallery show I’ve seen this season. In tracing a path between color-field painting and the New Realism, her work has a crucial, if minor, resonance with that of Matisse.

    The freedom that Matisse’claimed and granted when he freed color from figure was also the possibility of seeing paintings as presenting themselves primarily as paintings rather than views of the visible. Similarly, color-field painting may be seen as seeking the possible role of color in that presentation, which might be described as the meaning of color in painting.

  • James Bishop

    James Bishop’s five new paintings at the Fischbach Gallery are as intense as the ones he showed two years ago were cool. Of the five canvases, all are square, and all but one done in burnt sienna hues. The odd painting is colored deep violet, highlighted with traces of pink.

    In these new paintings Bishop seems more than ever to be trying for transparency of surface without space. In each painting the lower half of the canvas is uniformly empty. The upper half is taken up with a pair of flat square boxes defined more by facture than anything else. In three of the paintings the bands that define

  • Robert Rohm

    The show was made of varied materials and elements: lumber, sandbags, steel reinforcing rods, stained rope, and hook lamps like the ones mechanics use. The pieces were experienced in terms of surface, weight, rigidity versus flexibility, and illumination.

    One had to enter the gallery by walking up a ramp of loose planks onto a plywood platform raised about two feet off the floor and running along a wall to the nearest corner. Another ramp brought one to the gallery floor. The gallery was lighted only by the hook lamps, which were part of three of the pieces, and by a little daylight leaking from

  • Alvin Loving

    As exemplified by Kenneth No-land’s and Barnett Newman’s art, the stripe has attained a kind of privileged presence in paintings. A stripe can be handled in such a way as to convey that it could be contracted into a line (the medium of figuration), or expanded to occupy the entire picture; some of Noland’s horizontal stripe paintings seem to be made up of stripes that compete for command of the painting in just these terms. Also, no other pictorial element so readily affirms the frontality of a picture or shores up large areas of open space in a painting that might otherwise implode; one sees

  • Al Held

    Al Held’s new paintings at the Emmerich Galleries are in the gargantuan geometric mode he has been exploring for several years. Held seems to be bringing an unnecessarily heavy arsenal of effects to bear upon what is apparently the task of reintroducing space into painting. Each picture—most are black on white—is filled with precisely drawn geometric figures, cubes, slabs, rings, wedges, and such. Some of the figures are drawn so as to appear transparent, like classic optical illusions; others read as opaque; and some read as both opaque and transparent, at differing parts of the

  • Lyman Kipp

    I think Lymann Kipp is a relatively minor figure among contemporary sculptors, but I found the new pieces he showed at the City University of New York to be the strongest of his I’ve seen. Kipp has moved from making painted geometric solids to a sculpture of surface. His use of color seems to make much more sense when it is applied to open surfaces rather than to solid volumes. The consistent verticality of the new sculptures works in favor of their abstraction because the surfaces comprising them are painted. As in Caro’s sculpture, color works here to suspend considerations of literal relation

  • Rosemarie Castoro

    Rosemarie Castoro’s ensembles of standing panels look like they come out of an attempt to take painting off the wall. Forcing a painting to stand free (or to lean, as John McCracken does it) is a way of asserting that certain literal elements of a painting are sculptural. She reduces marking on the surface to the most sculptural element in painting or drawing, namely modeling, but a kind of magnified, allover treatment which is more understood than seen as modeling. Each surface is plastered with a layer of gesso and paste and then scored with a coarse brush. When this mixture has dried, it is

  • Ethelyn Honig

    Ethelyn Honig works in encaustic, which is somehow fitting since her last name is the German word for “honey.” She showed a number of recent paintings at the Mercer Street Coop. Her interest in these paintings is in a certain material appearance; she does not intend them to be paintings of a certain kind of material, they are very remote from figuration. Nor does she really want the paintings to deny themselves as paintings, though she is interested, she says, in working on a mural scale so that the surface limits might exceed the spectator’s view. Yet one’s recognition of her works as paintings

  • Lucas Samaras

    Some years ago I saw a book covered with pins that Lucas Samaras had done and I looked up some other things he had done and thought I saw an interesting theme in them. The pin-coated book seemed to be about denying vision as a means of grasping things. Each pin seemed to take a point on the book’s surface and extend it to invisibility; the contours of a book are ordinarily quite clear and graspable, but the contours of this book led one outward in every direction until they disappeared in a shower of pinpoints. The book had been dematerialized in some sense and yet it had a tactile aggressiveness