PRINT Summer 1968

The Shape of the Art Environment

ROBERT MORRIS’S ARTICLE ON Anti Form* identifies some formal problems that remain unresolved. The first is suggested by the title itself. Despite its dramatic promise, there is nothing militant in either Morris’s words or in his works; nothing that could be construed as taking a stand against form. So, it is not clear what is meant by “anti form,” unless it means “non form,” and if that quieter term is what is implied, it should be obvious that although someone might be “against” form from an ideological standpoint, his non formal alternative is no less formal than his “formal” enemy. Literal non form, like chaos, is quite an impossible condition to observe. In fact it is inconceivable. The structure of the cerebral cortex and all our biological functions permit us only patterned responses and thoughts of one kind or another. For cultural and personal reasons, we may prefer this pattern to that one—say a pile of shit to a series of cubes—but they are equally “formal,” equally analyzable.

Thus, Morris’s pile of felt batting (which I hasten to say I like very much) is an arrangement of uniformly colored, uniformly toned pieces of similar material. Its loops and folds have about the same distribution of gentle curves and hairpin turns throughout. How much Morris caused the felt to assume these forms, and how much the felt simply arranged itself out of its own physical nature, does not alter its evident form. What matters here is that there is an observable theme-and-variation at work, occurring, however, in the absence of strict hierarchies as developed by the all-over tradition of the last twenty years. Furthermore, the whole configuration, viewed in the photograph, is an approximately symmetrical, batlike shape with an A-B-A division at the top, or wall, zone. It appears, also, that the length of this upper zone closely echoes that of the zone on the floor. Consistency prevails and prevails, and prevails; there is neither pretense to anti form nor non form.

It can be argued that this is a “relational” analysis superimposed on the sculpture, that his not holistic enough for our new sensibilities. Yet the answer must be that no one can critically see this sculpture in any other way because of how it was originally made, and how it is now shown in a magazine reproduction. The reasons for this follow, for they point directly to the second, but major, formal problem: namely, how to get free of the rectangle.

Morris’s new work, and that of the other artists illustrating his article, was made in a rectangular studio, to be shown in a rectangular gallery, reproduced in a rectangular magazine, in rectangular photographs, all aligned according to rectangular axes, for rectangular reading movements and rectangular thought patterns. (It is for good and sufficient reason that we are all “squares.”) Morris’s work, Pollock’s, Oldenburg’s, etc., function strictly in contrast to, or now and then in conflict with, their enframing spaces. Ruled lines and measurable corners in such spaces tell us how far, how big, how soft, how atmospheric, indeed, how “amorphous” an art work is within these lines and corners. Rectilinearity, by definition, is relational; and so long as we live in a world dominated by this and other part-to-whole geometrical figures, we cannot talk about anti form or non form except as one type of form in relation to another (rectilinear) type.

Mr. Morris may not have been in New York during the mid ’50s and early ’60s to see the Environments and environmental settings for Happenings, made by Dine, myself, Oldenburg and Whitman. These were akin to his present interests, except that they employed a great variety of media. Following shortly on the sprawling, limitless impulses of Abstract Expressionism, they were composed of a preponderance of fragile, soft and irregular materials such as wire mesh, plastic film, cardboard, straw, rags, newspapers, rubber sheets, tin foil and a good amount of plain debris. Such materials immediately led to casual, loose arrangements. Oldenburg’s current sculpture has its roots in his floppy cardboard, papier-mâché and gunnysack figures of those days.

Unlike sculpture, however, which has a relieving space around it, these Environments tended to, and often actually did fill their entire containing areas, nearly obliterating the ruled definition of the rooms. And although the artists may have had other, more pressing concerns than that of separating their activities from subordination to an architectural enclosure, the thought was in the air and the treatment of room surfaces was pretty carefree. The important fact was that almost everything was built into the space it was shown in, not transported from studio to showcase. This allowed a far more thorough transformation of a particular loft or storefront, and it doubtless encouraged a greater familiarity with the effects of materials and environment upon each other. Nevertheless, it was apparent from conversations at the time that no matter how casual and organic the arrangement of materials might be, a house, a wall, a floor, a ceiling, a pavement, a city block, etc., was there first, and last.

Most humans, it seems, still put up fences around their acts and thoughts—even when these are piles of shit—for they have no other way of delimiting one from another. Contrast cave paintings of paleolithic men, in which animals and magical markings are overlayed, one on another, with no differentiation or framing sense. But when some of us have worked in natural settings, say in a meadow, woods, or mountain range, our cultural training has been so deeply ingrained that we tended to simply carry a mental rectangle with us to drop around whatever we were doing. This made us feel at home. In this connection, even aerial navigation is plotted geometrically, thus giving the air a “shape.”

It will be a while before anyone will be able to work equally with or without geometry as a defining mechanism. That is, I see no necessity to give up one in favor of the other; amplification of different possibilities would seem more desirable. The notion of “anti form” now may mean only “anti geometry,” a rephrasing of the “formlessness” that preoccupied the ancients from the Egyptians onward. As such, Morris’s interest is part of a long tradition. That his new work is first-rate should not obscure the implications this tradition holds out for contemporary art. If artists would really pursue the palpable experience of the measureless, the indeterminate, the use of non-rigid materials, process, the de-emphasis of formal esthetics, it would be very, very difficult to do so in gallery and museum boxes or their equivalents. For this would only maintain the conventional dualism of the stable versus the unstable, the closed versus the open, the regular versus the organic, the ideal versus the real, and so on.

Finally, besides the structure of the room, there is one other important physical component of the art environment, namely the spectator(s). Their particular shape, color, density of numbers, proximity to the painting(s) or sculpture(s) and relation to each other when there are more than one person, will markedly affect the appearance and “feel” of the work(s) in question. This is not just a matter of shifting amounts of reflected, colored light and cast shadows; it is that people, like anything else in a room of art works, are additional elements within the field of anyone’s vision. At best, they are censored out imperfectly. Yet, far from being independent of the art and gallery, movements and responses of the spectator(s) are subject to the shape and scale of that gallery. They can walk only so far from a sculpture, and no farther; and they will govern their walking by a nearly conscious alignment with the art object’s axial ties to the gallery. This can be readily verified by observation. Any casual meanderings on their part will thus be the formal equivalent within the exhibition floor area of, say, Pollock’s drips within the canvas area. The rectangle maintains its primacy in all cases.

If it is common to understand the impact of environmental factors on personality formation as well as on society as a whole, it should be no more unusual to consider their impact on the form of an art work. As a patch of given color changes its identity, or “form,” on different grounds, an art work changes according to the shape, scale and contents of its envelope. Additional considerations of psychological and sociological factors, namely the thoughts and attitudes viewers bring with them to the work of art, while outside the immediate scope of this article, are extremely important, because they, too, contribute to the formal structure of the smallest statue.

It may be proposed that the context, or surrounding, of art is more potent, more meaningful, more demanding of an artist’s attention, than the art itself. Put differently, it’s not what the artist touches that counts most. It’s what he doesn’t touch.

Allan Kaprow

*Artforum, April, 1968