PRINT March 1971

Looking at the Guggenheim International

WHAT DOES THIS YEAR’S Guggenheim International do, aside from merely exhibiting works by twenty-one artists? If the intent of the exhibition can be reduced to a common denominator, one can sum it up in the following manner: so-called “Minimalism” for want of a better word is surveyed by the inclusion of pieces by Andre, Flavin, Judd, LeWitt, Morris and de Maria. Pieces depending on one aspect of Minimalism, exact site location, and derived from Andre’s piece entitled Lever, include works by Burgin, Dias, Dibbets, Long, Merz, Nauman, and Takamatsu. The sequential aspect of Minimalism, the aspect based on intervals, either visual or numerical, includes work by Darboven and Kawara. Minimalism’s “conceptual” outgrowth is represented by the work of Darboven, Kosuth and Weiner.

The contributions of Michael Heizer, Robert Ryman and Richard Serra share one trait in common; each in his own way recalls the past quite frankly, and each looks toward future possibilities as well. Ryman’s paintings, for example, are built around the notion that paint applied to a support by stroking must contain the feelings traditionally inherent in painting. Each mark bears an internal relationship to the others, much as elements in Serra’s and Heizer’s forms do the same. In other words, each of these artist’s pieces deals with internal relationships quite aside from, or along with, other considerations, such as site, scale, or duration of the object in question.

The question of site or location is of real importance in this exhibition. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum is an aggressive art work in itself, and most of the artists are more than casually interested in location as an issue inseparable from their individual efforts. Judd understood the problem and solved the usually negative interaction between Wright’s architecture and modern sculpture by confronting the space in a head-on way. The walkway within the Museum, used to transport the viewers up or down, is a three-degree circular plane. Judd’s piece is in the middle of the walkway, and is made of two concentric sets of joined sheet metal. The inner circle conforms to the slope of the ramp. The outer circle levels the slope. The piece brilliantly acknowledges the concentricity, slope, and spiral quality of the location, and plays the level base of the building off against the ascension of its forms. While accepting one part of the building’s flatness, Judd was able to counterpose the circular plane, the incline plane, and the relative flatness, to form a tight equilibrium.

Merz’s solution to the site problem within the Guggenheim Museum was one of numerical ordering, in neon, up the outer face of the parapet-like walls, which protect the visitors from falling into the flat lower gallery. Merz’s numerical system is based on what he calls “. . . Fibonacci series in which numbers develop in progressive series towards infinity, starting from number one.” The problem of attempting to display the numbers on the rising spiral walls is that they become visible as sign decoration, since they directly compete, to their disadvantage, with the architecture. Darboven’s numerical orderings, on the other hand, are simply written in a series of one hundred books, laid flat in a continuous row conforming to the inside curve of the rising parapet wall. A further extreme in the choice of site is taken by Weiner who, by negating every visual possibility, issued two statements in the catalog.

At the other extreme, Serra attempts an aggressive reconciliation of site and sculpture. Serra’s contribution to the Whitney Annual, it will be remembered, was located on East 183rd Street in the Bronx, about five miles from the Museum. Evidently inspired by a similar piece he had made in Japan somewhat earlier, the Bronx work was about as exquisite a resolution of the issue of place as I know of in contemporary sculpture. That issue is not nearly as relevant in Moe, the present work, but there are still two ways of seeing the 18,000-pound sculpture that Serra has installed on the main ground floor gallery of the Museum. The first way allows the viewer to see the piece as three slabs of steel balanced one against the next, each unit resting on a notched piece of round bar stock. Each steel slab is two inches thick and eight feet high and wide. It is a classical sculpture in the round, deeply involved with problems of plane and volume, drawing and floor plan. The piece manages to suggest the elegance of Caro as well as the forthrightness of David Smith. But it sits truculently in rectangular no-man’s-land, taped off for safety. The second way of seeing the piece eclipses the first, as soon as the viewer realizes that Serra is involved with a kind of site terror. One loses the notion of formal interaction, as good as it is, and rather concentrates on whether the piece will or will not go through the floor, and if so, when. If the second way of seeing the piece seems unfair, it should be pointed out that the idea of site demolition grows out of a working knowledge of the propensities inherent within Serra’s earlier lead antimony pieces. The present work, Moe, grows directly out of them and is an exalted extension of the series in weight, height, breadth, scale, and material.

LeWitt’s solution in terms of site is every painter’s dream. The peculiar experience of seeing large stretched paintings in the niches at the Guggenheim provides a shudder in any artist as he tries to extricate the painting from the architectural vise. Five such niches are covered entirely by LeWitt’s all-over color hatches. LeWitt has dispatched canvas and stretcher. Each wall is a near perfect foil for the artist’s endeavors and, like the Judd piece, affirms the space at the same time.

Dan Flavin’s contribution to the exhibition consists of bays of pink, green, pink, green, pink, green, pink,green and, finally, blue fluorescent light. Flavin is consistently startling. There is a species of apartment building in Los Angeles which is illuminated at night by washes of light, always colored and often of the same peculiar intensity that Flavin has used to wash Wright’s tightly conceived exhibition spaces. The moment one thinks Flavin has exhausted the possibilities of the fluorescent fixture as a medium of expression is the same moment he uses light in a new way. In this case Flavin’s light celebrates the Guggenheim Museum’s architectural detailing by focusing light from the leading edges of the upright walls separating the niches and throwing it inward.

Of the two pieces planned by Bruce Nauman for the show, only one was installed to his satisfaction by the time of the opening. Spanning an exhibition niche, at the artist’s eye level, is a bar of wood approximately four inches in width. The lighting is such that the center of the bar shades into darkness while the right and left ends butting into the walls are almost white. The bar is an enigma until one realizes that the left side is higher than the right. The bar parallels the earth and the viewer is tilted by the floor underneath his feet. Interested in “information that has to do with how we perceive rather than what,” Nauman’s piece, in addition to whatever other puns and meanings he might have in mind, is an elegant delineation of the rigorously controlled perceptual conditions that prevail in the Guggenheim.

Andre’s floor piece, like Serra’s upright sculpture, has no clasping devices. Each unit is a twelve-inch piece of wire, about one-eighth of an inch in thickness. The pieces of wire are placed on the floor of the Museum to form a hexagon with sides four feet in length. The whole configuration is extremely delicate and must have taxed the patience of whoever installed it. Just as Serra’s piece threatens dispersal by a terrifying collapse, Andre’s work threatens fragmentation by an injudiciously placed vacuum cleaner.

Long’s work, like much of the art in the exhibition, celebrates Wright’s architecture. Eight paths, comprised of a pinkish brown substance called “Brooklyn Clay,” conform to the curve of the viewing ramp and each path ends in the eight exhibition niches at a point in the deep right-hand corner of each niche. Because of the downward progression of the paths plus the curve of the ramp each path varies in length and distance from neighboring paths.

Robert Morris’s current piece is designed to catch the viewer seeing himself on three television monitors. There is a time lag factor which is accomplished by the use of video tapes recording the viewer’s activity and then replaying the activity after a very short period.

And so, what if any considerations, aside from site or location, come into play in the selection of artists for this particular exhibition? A basic task for the curator is the attempt on his or her part to be inclusive within an area of activity. What has been left out, or what is in and should not be, causes curators to have nightmares. If one considers for a moment the dilemma of a will toward inclusiveness, combined with an equally strong desire to mount an “open” exhibition where each work has breathing space, plus the stated desire to be international in scope, one realizes that something must be forfeited. Diane Waldman, who, along with Edward Fry, assembled the exhibition, has said quite frankly that she had no desire to make hierarchical judgments within the context of this exhibition, and reasoned that such judgments would be beside the point anyhow since, at this time, there is not enough information upon which one could base such judgments.

In this case, then, how do curators choose exhibitions of contemporary art? Baldly put, by guesses made on the basis of necessarily fragmentary information. If this is so, then does it follow that many of the artists included in the Sixth Guggenheim International could be exchanged for other artists of equal quality? With some reservations, yes. At the expense of sounding like a member in good standing of the Anglo-American Alliance, all the European and Asian artists could be exchanged easily for others of equal merit. But one must remember that the exhibition is avowedly international in its scope, and so it must be what it says, or forgo its title.

Since scolding curators about who is or who isn’t included in exhibitions is one of the easiest (and therefore most popular) activities around, I’ll state the following without being “shocked,” “dismayed” or any of the things that customarily accompany the discovery that some artist is or isn’t in a show. I think Anthony Caro has a lot more to do with the best work in the show than Richard Long and think he would have proven a better choice from England. An argument for the inclusion of Keith Sonnier is built right into Robert Morris’s piece, which comes out of Nauman, who is in the show, and Sonnier, who is not. Lastly, with so much of the show directly concerned with site problems, where is Robert Smithson? There is no doubt in my mind that his work of the last three years—surely the non-sites alone—has influenced some of the artists included in the exhibition.

James Monte