PRINT May 1969

On Being Sculpture

AS SCULPTURE, MOWRY BADEN’S work is nowhere. It lacks elegance, sublety, and the lure of visual involvement. His forms have neither the fey ugliness of Funk nor the austerity of early Object Art. Moreover, I doubt if Baden is making sculpture––or playing any of the arrangement games (painted, pasted, positioned, or dropped) meant exclusively for the eye.

If anything, Baden’s efforts are limited environmental systems, considerably less complicated technically, but akin to the life support simulations used in space programs. Both have the job of telling their participants how they are doing under specific conditions. Like furniture, Baden’s devices are primarily for use rather than for looks.

Also it is important to remember that most modern abstractionist movements have rejected their predecessors on the grounds of anthropomorphism. This has consistently undercut the humanistic intention of figurative work; and it has provided new abstraction with the appearance of greater detachment and objectivity. Yet the absurdity of who is less anthropomorphic soon ends in its own logical cul-de-sac. The more obvious truth is that all art is anthropomorphic—that is, if it is interpreted not solely through appearance but as one of many extensions of human need and thought. In reality, the argument over anthropomorphism is one concerned with the priorities of different sign and symbol systems, not over the limits of mimetic imagery. Symbols, tools, utensils, and created environments—along with art—are all exosomatic devices or external manifestations of human evolutionary capability.

Artistic and philosophical antecedents for Baden’s position are by now thoroughly orthodox. The inability of science to describe experience perspicuously was recognized at least sixty years ago in Edmund Husserl’s perceptual phenomenology. The substance of Husserl’s conclusions, though later modified by Maurice Merleau-Ponty, was to establish the validity of a Lebenswelt, or a world of experienced phenomena, as a counterpole to the abstractness of scientific analysis. While respecting the contributions of science, both philosophers challenged the kinds of intellectual categories by which experimental science, in the name of positivistic precision, “filtered” its data.

Such limited cognitive mappings have carried over into visual esthetics and it has been the responsibility of a few contemporary artists (namely through the writings and sculpture of Robert Morris and Donald Judd) to reexamine the basic precepts of esthetic perception. To a considerable extent their assertions correspond with the conclusions of Merleau-Ponty: that is to say, intellectually we may think we grasp the essence of an object, i.e., its shape, material, and textural characteristics, but as an object of perception unfolding itself in the reality of space and time, the object is never ultimately realized but remains a source of open-ended examination.

Such an operational definition of “seeing” implies that the body knows, not primarily as a receptacle for a visual monitor, but because the body itself is space while defining space through constant corporeal expression. Some of this analysis of knowing, as Merleau-Ponty insisted, is concerned with a “spatiality of position.” It asks us to reconsider the nature of objects in the round as related to ambient bodily consciousness. The body’s self image is still conceived by Morris and Judd as arising out of one object’s relation to another. The element of “subjectivity” is purposely ignored. This is where Baden’s approach parts company with the Minimalists. For Merleau-Ponty the body also defines its world by its tasks in the world. Corporeal spatiality, the body’s envelope of space-time activities, is definable only through the shifting goals of the body. Consequently, Merleau-Ponty sees the body’s relation to the environment as more precisely a “spatiality of situation.”

Thus, for Baden, art is not empathetic projection focused on an object in space, response primarily defined by intellectual filters; rather, it is the self-awareness generated in the completion of a specific task. He first sought to prove this by boring through a very large container filled with extremely light urethane foam. The resulting body space was shaped with electric and hand tools. From the negative mold, thin-shell forms of fibered polyester were made. On this Baden commented: “Boring my way through . . . urethane foam may not have been the most reflective way to confront my body, but it certainly removed all the usual stand off and look t it attitudes which, for me, are irrelevant. The irony of a piece created by this method is that it is really residue, an interesting but indecipherable record of a once active chamber.”

In 1967 Baden constructed Phantom Limb, two gimbal-cast polyester shells. Tailored exactly to the dimensions of the artist’s body (shoulder to shoulder 18“, top of head to collarbone 10 3/4”, shoulder to elbow 16“, floor to eyes while kneeling 48”, floor to elbow 26“, hip to hip 14”, and ear to ear 6 1/2“), the ”activities“ of Phantom Limb derive from passage between its two halves: ”At the crown of each ‘stride,’ my shoulders drive up against the top of the tunnel. At the low point in the stride, my elbows drive down against the bottom of the tunnel. Significantly, there is no concomitant experience for the eyes."

The express purpose of Phantom Limb is to redefine the sculptor’s body image. This refers to Merleau-Ponty’s concept of a complete history of the body as a sensory motor unity, one defining intersensory relationships as they evolve with the changing purposes of the organism. The “phantom limb problem” was one used by the philosopher to explain the body image as the subconscious awareness of all integrated neurophysical activity. Accordingly, an amputated limb may still be felt as an extension of an amputee’s body until such a time that it begins to fade from memory. Phantom Limb gives Baden’s arms specific points of contact and degrees of motility for which it has no parallel visual confirmation. Tactile and kinesthetic information thus define the body image.

I Walk the Line, 1968, in a similar way deals with seen and unseen responses to the body’s upright, forward movement. On a narrow, 20-foot-long course the artist strides the length of a curved ash rail, its upper surface corresponding exactly to his crotch height. Beneath the crest of the rail the floor rises in a sympathetic curve, closely approximating the curve above. Painted black and effectively hidden, the contours of the floor are excluded as visually available data. On the basis of sight alone, passage would seem an impossibility, for the curve in the rail rises well above crotch height. Kinesthetic systems must be activated, and trusted, to traverse the rise and emerge at the other end.

As Baden’s body drives into space created for it in Stop Gap, 1968, it encounters a plunger completely blocking the passageway. Upward pressure by the hand raises the egg-shaped obstacle until Baden’s head supports it. Thereafter forward movement is affected by the riding weight of the plunger as it passes over the back. Again the problem of what is seen as opposed to what is felt presents itself. In Duchampian terms, Stop Gap is “a womb with a view.”

Human factors engineers are beginning to take Merleau-Ponty’s concepts of body sensibility seriously. What was once considered a philosophical alternative to scientific analysis is now regarded as a more reasonable model of bodily response. It seems that humans process many sense channels of input data simultaneously, and consequently response is multi-leveled. It is for this reason that the word mechanical refers to environmental relationships which are too dull, too repetitious, and too narrow in their range of stimuli to merit human involvement. However, in learning the internal geography of one’s body, Baden emphasizes elementary situations:

It is very hard for me to enter that territory between my eyes and my body. I have no doubt that the territory exists: that those two great sensory modalities claim to interpenetrate should be ample evidence. Nevertheless, as those signs of interpenetrative activity increase, clarity diminishes. Keep it simple.

“Indifferent and uninteresting” is the way Baden regards his forms. Efforts toward nonparticipatory contemplation would be “wholly misleading.” The pieces, he feels, are not even physical forms but rather “instructions,” one’s defining body parameters and trajectories of activity. This brings us to a crucial point, namely, who can use Baden’s works except Baden?

There is only one pertinent target for my sculptures: me. You see, I can’t live your activity within the sculpture. That’s something you must do. If you are shorter than I, have a different reach, more flexible joints or more acute vision, you probably will not fit many of the things I’ve made. I do fit these things and that, of course, is crucial. After all, I am the laboratory and, by extension, the art. There is also very little to be learned by watching me go through a given piece. The gestures, postures, and contortions are not particularly interesting—one would fare better at a ballet.

On such grounds Baden’s investigations into sensory interpenetration might be written off as hermetic and conceptual exercises. Certainly they are not headed for the Whitney’s annual homage to optical splendor. Nonetheless they cannot be taken lightly. Consistent wtih Marshall McLuhan’s description of audio-tactile tribal sensibilities, Baden’s constructions inevitably forsake Renaissance perception and the sequential habits of phonetic reading. The applied tactility of modern art is just as irrelevant. Where, as McLuhan insists, literacy has forced the eyes to do the work of the remaining senses, Baden has reversed priorities. In such a situation the Literary-Mechanical culture offers little in the way of relevant information. And yet by structuring experiential situations with a new rigor, Baden’s very linear trips force us to reject ingrained habits of perception.

Raised entirely within McLuhan’s age of instant communication, today’s art students are in a better position to respond to Baden’s approach. In fact this has been my experience. Gradually the line between “media” and the central nervous system is being erased. The best art environments are invisible because they are used or put on like clothes. Even Baden feels the need to depressurize the art context of his own works, to make them, if anything, less iconic. So while most young sculptors are still diligently constructing steel and plastic totems, a few are committed to the creation of situations which are extensions of human activity. In such a format all boundaries naturally interpenetrate; the separation between artifact and bodily senses is arbitrary. Perimeters are elastic. Comprehension of sculpture becomes the act of being sculpture.

Jack Burnham