PRINT January 1967

10 x 10: “concrete reasonableness.”

IN 1948 HENRI MICHAUX PUBLISHED Ailleurs, a classic of imaginary anthropology which recalls, in some ways, Montesquieu’s Lettres Persanes (rewritten in a post-Surrealist climate) and anticipates, in others, Levi-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques (redone after Lewis Carroll). In the chapter which relates a journey through The Land of Magic, Michaux speaks of an “exquisitely cold light, invented by the Magi and displeasing to outsiders. It has none of the brimming excess and brutality of a sun which simultaneously radiates heat and cold––not to speak of infra-red and ultra-violet rays . . . In their caverns reigns a brightness which is strict and clear, as subdued and gentle to the eye as milk to a baby’s skin, a light one is tempted to call ‘classical.’ It satisfies, never tires the eye, and wards off the shadows of sleep.” Concerning the constructions of the Magi, Michaux remarks that they are disconcerting and cites “a high rampart which protects nothing,” “the crumbling tower whose crumbling is built in,” “the purposeless arch which spans only its own shadow,” “the small staircase standing in the middle of an open field and climbing confidently into the sky’s infinity.”

This clarity, subdued and gentle, this satisfying strictness suggesting classicism, this disconcerting quality, above all, has dominated a succession of exhibitions organized over the past year. A recent instance was the group of painting and sculpture shown at the Dwan Gallery and entitled 10 x 10. This group of work by Carl Andre, Jo Baer, Dan Flavin, Don Judd, Sol Lewitt, Agnes Martin, Robert Morris, Ad Reinhardt, Robert Smithson and Michael Steiner, composed, in fact, a small Salon of the Problematic in art today. Situated in time between last season’s Primary Structures and this year’s Systemic Painting, it prefigured, as well, a range of exhibitions planned for the winter season. At least half the artists involved are scheduled for one-man shows; among these, Steiner and Smithson will be seen for the first time, while Ad Reinhardt’s work is currently presented on the grand scale of the retrospective exhibition, at the Jewish Museum. The advisability of the Salon “review” at this point, seems, therefore, even more than usually doubtful.

It is the series of patent but equivocal relationships obtaining between or among these works which is compelling. For what they share, they also dispute. A common accord is a basis for contention. An example of this is the manner in which Carl Andre’s Field, an assemblage of slate ceramic magnets, both echoes and contests the canvas called Leaves, by Agnes Martin and the untitled sculpture of Robert Morris. Evoking the flat or a-spatial character of the Martin surface, it insists, as well, on the suggestion of depth given by the slightly uneven joining and half-inch thickness of the elements. Field toys, on the other hand, with the notions of scale and size proposed by the Morris structure, yet is detailed enough in its surface to impel a reading or inspection. At the same time, it is so low as to inhibit that exploratory or meditative kind of experience. The series of negations or contradictions generate a dialectic of frustration which stands as the “content” or “quality” of one’s experience. Thrown back by the work upon the analytic rehearsal of that frustration, one encounters a variant, particularly Byzantine in its refinement, of an esthetics of reflexiveness.

Michael Steiner’s freestanding piece most unsuccessfully rivals both Morris (in the neutrality of an aluminum surface which has been treated to eliminate its specific qualities of surface, thereby suggesting contradiction and extravagance rather than neutrality) and Judd (in its wild reduction and inversion of a syntax of gravitational tension and repetition, it produces a rhetorical evocation of crenellation as single form).

Smithson’s Alogon suggests––its quality of visual model or metaphor of a mathematical concept apart––a quasi-sculptural, and therefore deviant, homage to Ad Reinhardt, whose “black” painting does indeed preside, in the subtlety of its iconic order, over the exhibition, suggesting itself as an emblem of a possible esthetics of “concrete reasonableness.”

To say this is to touch upon the manner in which this exhibition evokes two matters of central interest in the situation of art just now: a current crisis of criticism and the increasing inter-involvement of artistic and critical activity. (Of the artists represented at Dwan, four, at least, have been fairly systematically engaged in critical writing.) Symptomatic of both is, of course, the constant reach of artist and critic for the philosophical reference or conceptual precedent which might propose a rationale for an art work or for a shift in the emphasis or contours of an “oeuvre.”

The problem, as I see it, however, is the increasingly urgent necessity of some conceptual or philosophical framework within which criticism can propose a comprehension of the dynamics of art history and of art making. The strength of criticism in this country is a respect for the integrity of the object, which is grounded in a tradition of empiricism. This respect, bolstered by an acutely developed historical awareness, has produced a formal criticism of a vigor and precision unparalleled anywhere. The equally traditional reticence with respect to more speculative modes of discourse is perhaps responsible for the insecurity or rigidity which characterizes critical reaction in the face of recent challenges to prevailing critical methods and to taste. (The syndrome of dissociation so drastically present in the extraordinary ignorance and provincialism of most academic estheticians with respect to contemporary art of any kind is, of course, far more depressing, as it seems almost irremediable.)

If one examined the vocabulary of adjectives generated by the art of Primary Structures or Systemic Painting within the recent critical writing of some of the livelier and more deeply committed critics (and one thinks of “hostile,” “aggressive,” “boring,” “minimal” or “rejective,” among others) one might find that this vocabulary does more, really, than symptomatize the difficulty expressed with respect to the critical task; it may help us to define one general aspect of that task.

If one examines the common ground of experience expressed in this vocabulary, one does arrive at a general intimation (couched, usually, in historical terms only) of a Notion, philosophical in character, of Negation as animating a contemporary esthetic, movement or style. Proceeding from here one might profit by a consideration of the evolution of that Notion––as it moved from a medieval philosophy which held the idea of the non-identity of a thing to be as real as its identity with itself, through the establishment in 19th-century metaphysics of the Notion of Negation, as contestation of what is, seen as fundamental to being, discourse, or “creation.” Within the continuity provided by such a consideration (and its extension into more contemporary terms) an esthetics of “reduction,” “literalness,” “concrete reasonableness”––and that of “entropy,” as recently suggested by Smithson––would be seen as speculative reformulations of the modes of imagination. The articulation of this framework would provide a certain security, partly absorbing the shock and anxiety of new confrontations, leaving the critic free to come to terms with the object, itself, as “thing” or as that ambiguous phenomenon, “a thing of the mind.” Despite its unevenness of quality (ranging from the excellence of Lewitt, who is represented by one of his best pieces, to Flavin’s somewhat disappointing piece in fluorescent tube) this show at Dwan could provide an occasion for an honorable speculation.

––Annette Michelson