Douglas Davis, The Last Nine Minutes, 1977, still from the live performance for the international satellite telecast at Documenta 6.

DOUGLAS DAVIS believed in the power of communication. If we would only talk to each other, we could not possibly misunderstand each other: If we could collaboratively communicate—the intriguing possibility offered by his famous work The World’s First Collaborative Sentence, “written” in 1994—we would cure all ills. Davis was an indefatigable optimist, globalist, and idealist, a true believer in the power of the media to unite us, to forge enduring links between seemingly unlinkable individuals—even those with little in common beyond the fact that they could all instantly communicate by way of amazing technology. I remember our “collaborations”: his nonstop, manic talking and my serious silence, taking it all in, nodding in agreement—when I could get a nod in. Sometimes his wife, Jane, would join, compounding my silent listening.

To call Davis a Conceptual artist sells his talents and enthusiasm short: Like Joseph Beuys, whom we both knew and admired, he thought of art as a way of breaking down the “many walls between you and me,” as Beuys had said, alluding to his 1964 “project” to “Disarm the [Berlin] Wall immediately.” Thus, in a pioneering media project—to think of it as the then-newest, trendiest example of so-called experimental art is again to sell its expressive power and social prescience short—Davis, Beuys, and Nam June Paik collaborated on a series of “performances” for Documenta 6 (1977). They were broadcast via satellite to twenty-five countries before satellite communication became standard.

The desperation in the “presentation” Davis contributed to this project—viewers saw him staring into the television while pressing his hands against the screen as though about to break through the wall it represented in a futile attempt to grasp the viewer—suggests that he believed that art was “fundamentally psychological,” as Beuys said. Davis was deeply indebted to Beuys, who believed that art was a way of “warming” the “cold” spectator, thus bringing him or her to life. Beuys’s “shock and awe” tactic was a crucial feature of his spectacle art, but it was meant to shock the participating spectator into awed awareness of “the spiritual crises” inevitable in life, and thus to work them through. Beuys called his early performances “psychoanalytic actions,” and indeed, they were a kind of group therapy, implicitly rooted in object relations and attachment theory. The Davis I knew always seemed to be in some sort of spiritual crisis, awing you with the intelligence with which he worked it through. And he thought anything could be worked in this way if we could all seriously connect, becoming deeply attached to each other, thus solving both our relational problems once and for all. But sometimes the intensity with which he sought to engage you—the sheer velocity at which he came at you—caused you to back away, leaving you in a state of shocked self-consciousness, which no doubt made you feel as alive as he did. It certainly stunned me to attention. Our relationship always had a “transformative” effect on me; perhaps it also did on him, although he always seemed fully formed, full of himself, and obsessively focused on his thoughts and work, with a sort of monomaniacal brilliance.

The Collaborative Sentence began “I did not feel separated I felt very close even though we were thousands of miles apart.” The “thousands of miles” suggests that the closeness was more wishful and illusory than real and significant, self-deceptive rather self-fulfilling, accidental and transient rather than a marriage of “elective affinities.” Davis’s separation anxiety was paradoxically conveyed by his desire to establish a global utopia of kindred spirits—but the two hundred thousand strangers who added to the sentence were not exactly close friends, and certainly didn’t know each other (the “community” they formed was “abstract,” like the media that mediated their relationship). Their sheer number suggests that he also felt like a stranger, and was self-estranged, which is why he had to compulsively and repeatedly reach out to connect through the media in “blind dates” with the viewer.

Donald Kuspit is an art critic and professor of art history and philosophy at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.