PRINT April 1969

Notes on Sculpture, Part IV: Beyond Objects


. . . on the other hand, painterly-artistic elements were cast aside, and the materials arose from the utilitarian purpose itself, as did the form.
— K. Malevich

JASPER JOHNS ESTABLISHED A NEW POSSIBILITY for art ordering. The Flags and Targets imply a lot that could not be realized in two dimensions. The works undeniably achieved a lot in their own terms. More even than in Pollock’s case, the work was looked at rather than into and painting had not done this before. Johns took painting further toward a state of non-depiction than anyone else. The Flags were not so much depictions as copies, decorative and fraudulent, rigid, stuffed, ridiculous counterfeits. That is, these works were not depictions according to past terms which had, without exception, operated within the figure-ground duality of representation. Johns took the background out of painting and isolated the thing. The background became the wall. What was previously neutral became actual, while what was previously an image became a thing.

The Flags and Targets were the first paintings to use a strict a priori ordering. One of the outcomes of this way of working was to throw a heretofore unimagined weight on the edge. This weight was not one of relational significance to the interior image (Stella later developed this relationship) so much as the assertion of a final, absolute limit which was a part of the experience of the entire work. Painting had previously been a more or less diaphanous surface that ended at the edge. Johns’ works were definite shapes that were flat. The whole process was not one of stripping art down but of reconstituting art as an object.

Johns established new rules to the game. These were general rules and, with the exception of Stella’s work, were not to be applied further to painting. The coexistence of the image with the physical extension of the object and the a priori mode of working are descriptive of three-dimensional objects––what they are and how they get made. Obviously, the acceptance of the art object as a constructed thing and its removal from a depicting ground to a field of real space were more suitable for full development in three dimensions.

The symmetrical internal divisions of Johns, Stella, and much subsequent ’60s painting were not as new or as radical as was the holistic structural feature of making the total image congruent with the physical limits of the work. Conversely, the fully three-dimensional work of the ’60s that perpetuated symmetrical internal divisions maintained painterly, decorative concerns, since these features are applied re-divisions of a more total whole. That is to say, it is a method of setting things beside each other rather than a method of construction which, by its nature, is literally a holistic tying-together of material. It was the structure underlying a constructed object as art that Johns illuminated. The complete manifestation of this structure could never be realized so long as the work remained on the wall. In the most literal way, flags and targets are only half objects: both are flat, targets have only one side. Johns probably never intended the realization of the constructed object. Even the Beer Cans are depictions.

Part of the possibility for the success of the project of reconstituting objects as art had to do with the state of sculpture. It was terminally diseased with figurative allusion. The object mode in three dimensions was a new start. Whereas painting has only been able to mutate, carrying constantly the germ of depiction, sculpture stopped dead and objects began.

There is no question that so far as an image goes, objects removed themselves from figurative allusions. But, in a more underlying way, in a perceptual way, they did not. Probably the main thing we constantly see all at once, or as a thing, is another human figure. Without the concentration of a figure, any given sector of the world is a field. Objects are distinct and differentiated more according to this or that local interest rather than according to any general characteristics. The exception to this is probably moving objects. And this has to be tied to figures again, since they are most always in motion. The specific art object of the ’60s is not so much a metaphor for the figure as it is an existence parallel to it. It shares the perceptual response we have toward figures. This is undoubtedly why subliminal, generalized kinesthetic responses are strong in confronting object art. Such responses are often denied or repressed since they seem so patently inappropriate in the face of non-anthropomorphic forms, yet they are there. Even in subtle morphological ways, object-type art is tied to the body. Like the body, it is confined within symmetry of form and homogeneity of material: one form, one material (at the most two) has been pretty much the rule for three-dimensional art for the last few years.

Even though the object is a form not stressed at any particular focus and in its multiple unit aspect approaches a field situation, it invariably asserts a hard order of symmetry that marks it off from the heterogeneous, randomized distributions that characterize figureless sectors of the world. Symmetrical images are perceived and held in the mind with a distinctness and tenacity not brought to the perception and retention of asymmetrical forms. Once seen, the Model A and the Varga Girl can never be forgotten.

So-called Minimal art fulfilled the project of reconstituting art as objects while at the same time sharing the same perceptual conditions as figurative sculpture. Both objects and figures in real space maintain a figure ground relation. This is not a depicted relation as in representational painting, but an actual one of differentiated subject within a neutral field. When the human figure itself is no longer viable, the continuing impulse to isolate a thing must find another subject. Structural clues for this were supplied by Johns and even certain aspects of an image were given by him—a certain public, common, general type of image. Three-dimensional work seized on the structure of construction which coincided with forms as general and as ubiquitous as the figure: geometric ones from the industrial environment.


Then, the field of vision assumes a peculiar structure. In the center there is the favored object, fixed by our gaze; its form seems clear, perfectly defined in all its details. Around the object, as far as the limits of the field of vision, there is a zone we do not look at, but which, nevertheless, we see with an indirect, vague, inattentive vision . . . If it is not something to which we are accustomed, we cannot say what it is, exactly, that we see in this indirect vision.
— Ortega Y. Gasset

Our attempt at focusing must give way to the vacant all-embracing stare . . .
— Anton Ehrenzweig

IF ONE NOTICES ONE’S IMMEDIATE visual field, what is seen? Neither order nor disorder. Where does the field terminate? In an indeterminate peripheral zone, none the less actual or unexperienced for its indeterminacy, that shifts with each movement of the eyes. What are the contents of any given sector of one’s visual field? A heterogeneous collection of substances and shapes, neither incomplete nor especially complete (except for the singular totality of figures or moving things). Some new art now seems to take the conditions of the visual field itself (figures excluded) and uses these as a structural basis for the art. Recent past art took the conditions within individual things—specific extension and shape and wholeness of one material—for the project of reconstituting objects as art. The difference amounts to a shift from a figure-ground perceptual set to that of the visual field. Physically, it amounts to a shift from discrete, homogeneous objects to accumulations of things or stuff, sometimes very heterogeneous. It is a shift that is on the one hand closer to the phenomenal fact of seeing the visual field and on the other is allied to the heterogeneous spread of substances that make up that field. In another era, one might have said that the difference was between a figurative and landscape mode. Fields of stuff which have no central contained focus and extend into or beyond the peripheral vision offer a kind of “landscape” mode as opposed to a self-contained type of organization offered by the specific object.

Most of the new work under discussion is still a spread of substances or things that is clearly marked off from the rest of the environment and there is not any confusion about where the work stops. In this sense, it is discrete but not object-like. It is still separate from the environment so in the broadest sense is figure upon a ground. Except for some outside work which removes even the frame of the room itself, here the “figure” is literally the “ground.” But work that extends to the peripheral vision cannot be taken in as a distinct whole and in this way has a different kind of discreteness from objects. The lateral spread of some of the work subverts either a profile or plan view reading. (In the past I have spread objects or structures into a 25 to 30 foot square area and the work was low enough to have little or no profile and no plan view was possible even when one was in the midst of the work. But in these instances, the regularity of the shape and homogeneity of the material held the work together as a single chunk.) Recent work with a marked lateral spread and no regularized units or symmetrical intervals tends to fracture into a continuity of details. Any overall wholeness is a secondary feature often established only by the limits of the room. It is only with this type of recent work that heterogeneity of material has become a possibility again; now any substances or mixtures of substances and the forms or states these might take—rods, particles, dust, pulpy, wet, dry, etc., are potentially useable. Previously, it was one or two materials and a single or repetitive form to contain them. Any more and the work began to engage in part to part and part to whole relationships. Even so, Minimal art, with two or three substances, gets caught in plays of relationships between transparencies and solids, voids and shadows and the parts separate and the work ends in a kind of demure and unadmitted composition.

Besides lateral spread, mixing of materials, and irregularity of substances, a reading other than a critical part to part or part to whole is emphasized by the indeterminate aspect of work which has physically separate parts or is loose or flexible. Implications of constant change are in such work. Previously, indeterminacy was a characteristic of perception in the presence of regularized objects—i.e., each point of view gave a different reading due to perspective. In the work in question indeterminacy of arrangement of parts is a literal aspect of the physical existence of the thing.

The art under discussion relates to a mode of vision which Ehrenzweig terms variously as scanning, syncretistic, or dedifferentiated—a purposeful detachment from holistic readings in terms of gestalt-bound forms. This perceptual mode seeks significant clues out of which wholeness is sensed rather than perceived as an image and neither randomness, heterogeneity of content, nor indeterminacy are sources of confusion for this mode. It might be said that the work in question does not so much acknowledge this mode as a way of seeing as it hypostatizes it into a structural feature of the work itself. By doing this, it has used a perceptual accommodation to replace specific form or image control and projection. This is behind the sudden release of materials that are soft or indeterminate or in pieces which heretofore would not have met the gestalt-oriented demand for an imagistic whole. It is an example of art’s restructuring of perceptual relevance which subsequently results in an almost effortless release of a flood of energetic work.


Yet perception has a history; it changes during our life and even within a very short span of time; more important, perception has a different structure on different levels of mental life and varies according to the level which is stimulated at one particular time. Only in our conscious experience has it the firm and stable structure which the gestalt psychologists postulated.
—Anton Ehrenzweig

. . .catastrophies of the past accompanied by electrical discharges and followed by radioactivity could have produced sudden and multiple mutations of the kind achieved today by experimenters . . . The past of mankind, and of the animal kingdoms, too, must now be viewed in the light of the experience of Hiroshima and no longer from the portholes of the Beagle.
––Immanuel Velikovsky

CHANGES IN FORM CAN BE thought of as a vertical scale. When art changes, there are obvious form changes. Perceptual and structural changes can be thought of as a horizontal scale, a horizon even. These changes have to go with relevance rather than forms. And the sense of a new relevance is the aspect that quickly fades. Once a perceptual change is made, one does not look at it but uses it to see the world. It is only visible at the point of recognition of the change. After that, we are changed by it but have also absorbed it. The impossibility of reclaiming the volitivity of perceptual change leaves art historical explanations to pick the bones of dead forms. In this sense, all art dies with time and is impermanent whether it continues to exist as an object or not. A comparison of ’50s and ’60s art that throws into relief excessive organic forms opposed to austere geometric ones can only be a lifeless formal comparison. And the present moves away from Minimal art are not primarily formal ones. The changes involve a restructuring of what is relevant.

What was relevant to the ’60s was the necessity of reconstituting the object as art. Objects were an obvious first step away from illusionism, allusion and metaphor. They are the clearest type of artificial independent entity, obviously removed and separate from the anthropomorphic. It is not especially surprising that art driving toward greater concreteness and away from the illusory would fasten on the essentially idealistic imagery of the geometric. Of all the conceivable or experience able things, the symmetrical and geometric are most easily held in the mind as forms. The demand for images that could be mentally controlled, manipulated, and above all, isolated was on the one hand an esthetic preconception and on the other a methodological necessity. Objects provided the imagistic ground out of which ’60s art was materialized. And to construct objects demands preconception of a whole image. Art of the ’60s was an art of depicting images. But depiction as a mode seems primitive because it involves implicitly asserting forms as being prior to substances.1 If there is no esthetic investment in the priority of total images then projection or depiction of form is not a necessary mode. And if the method of working does not demand pre-thought images, then geometry, and consequently objects, is not a preferential form and certainly not a necessary one to any method except construction.

Certain art is now using as its beginning and as its means, stuff, substances in many states—from chunks, to particles, to slime, to whatever—and pre thought images are neither necessary nor possible. Alongside this approach is chance, contingency, indeterminacy—in short, the entire area of process. Ends and means are brought together in a way that never existed before in art. In a very qualified way, Abstract Expressionism brought the two together. But with the exception of a few artists, notably Pollock and Louis, the formal structure of Cubism functioned as an end toward which the activity invariably converged and in this sense was a separate end, image, or form prior to the activity. Any activity, with perhaps the exception of unfocused play, projects some more or less specific end and in this sense separates the process from the achievement. But images need not be identified with ends in art. Although priorities do exist in the work under discussion, they are not preconceived imagistic ones. The priorities have to do with acknowledging and even predicting perceptual conditions for the work’s existence. Such conditions are neither forms nor ends nor part of the process. Yet they are priorities and can be intentions. The work illustrated here involves itself with these considerations—that which is studio-produced as well as that which deals with existing exterior zones of the world. The total separation of ends and means in the production of objects, as well as the concern to make manifest idealized mental images, throws extreme doubt on the claim that the Pragmatic attitude informs Minimal art of the ’60s. To begin with the concrete physicality of matter rather than images allows for a change in the entire profile of three-dimensional art: from particular forms, to ways of ordering, to methods of production and, finally, to perceptual relevance.

So far all art has made manifest images whether it arrived at them (as the art in question) or began with them. The open, lateral, random aspect of the present work does in fact provide a general sort of image. Even more than this, it recalls an aspect of Pollock’s imagery by these characteristics. Elsewhere I have made mention of methodological ties to Pollock through emphasis in the work on gravity and a direct use of materials.2 But to identify its resultant “field” aspect very closely with Pollock’s work is to focus on too narrow a formalistic reading. Similar claims were made when Minimal art was identified with the forms found in previous Constructivism.

One aspect of the work worth mentioning is the implied attack on the iconic character of how art has always existed. In a broad sense art has always been an object, static and final, even though structurally it may have been a depiction or existed as a fragment. What is being attacked, however, is something more than art as icon. Under attack is the rationalistic notion that art is a form of work that results in a finished product. Duchamp, of course, attacked the Marxist notion that labor was an index of value, but Readymades are traditionally iconic art objects. What art now has in its hands is mutable stuff which need not arrive at the point of being finalized with respect to either time or space. The notion that work is an irreversible process ending in a static icon-object no longer has much relevance.3

The detachment of art’s energy from the craft of tedious object production has further implications. This reclamation of process refocuses art as an energy driving to change perception. (From such a point of view the concern with “quality” in art can only be another form of consumer research—a conservative concern involved with comparisons between static, similar objects within closed sets.) The attention given to both matter and its inseparableness from the process of change is not an emphasis on the phenomenon of means. What is revealed is that art itself is an activity of change, of disorientation and shift, of violent discontinuity and mutability, of the willingness for confusion even in the service of discovering new perceptual modes.

At the present time the culture is engaged in the hostile and deadly act of immediate acceptance of all new perceptual art moves, absorbing through institutionalized recognition every art act. The work discussed has not been excepted.

Robert Morris


1. This reflects a certain cultural experience as much as a philosophic or artistic assertion. An advanced, technological, urban environment is a totally manufactured one. Interaction with the environment tends more and more toward information processing in one form or another and away from interactions involving transformations of matter. The very means and visibility for material transformations become more remote and recondite. Centers for production are increasingly located outside the urban environment in what are euphemistically termed “industrial parks.” In these grim, remote areas the objects of daily use are produced by increasingly obscure processes and the matter transformed is increasingly synthetic and unidentifiable. As a consequence our immediate surroundings tend to he read as “forms” that have been punched out of unidentifiable, indestructible plastic or unfamiliar metal alloys. It is interesting to note that in an urban environment construction sites become small theatrical arenas, the only places where raw substances and processes of its transformation are visible and the only places where random distributions are tolerated.

2. R. Morris, “Antiform,” Artforum, April, 1968.

3. Barbara Rose in her forthcoming article, “Art and Politics, Part Ill,” finds the only way of making the type of work under discussion permanent is through media’s “freezing” it into a static form. Such a conclusion identifies the record with the thing but work involving indeterminacy can have any number of “records”—the work itself does not come to rest with any of them. Its physical presence at any given point should not be confused with the record of it. The present art will be no more impermanent than older art that is already dead, having lost through time all of its relevance. Physical art which involves indeterminacy should be distinguished from “idea” art which intends to exist primarily as media (e.g., Oldenburg’s monuments, Joseph Kosuth’s definitions). The work under discussion has an expansive parameter that is media-like: i.e., the same work might be set up in ten different parts of the world simultaneously. Since much of the work involves non-transformed substances that are readily available or the earth itself, it can be brought into existence through specifications. Work that might exist any time and any place and then literally recede back into the world has the mobility and dispersibility of media. Both media and performance-like, it is neither of these: it is physical; its changes are not performances.