PRINT January 1972

Chuck Ginnever

CHUCK GINNEVER’S TWO PIECES shown at Paula Cooper are the most interesting new sculpture I’ve seen this year. They are modernist in character, but they do not seem to exploit a common sculptural vocabulary. Instead they appear to be trying to correct something; I think they may have been done in response to the kind of work Morris and Judd were doing in the mid-’60s.

Morris saw that it was possible to regard the factual routine of a spectator’s encounter with art in a gallery as a sort of culturally programmed exercise in primitive phenomenology. What counts in looking at art is one’s consciousness of the object; certainly one’s awareness of other kinds of objects is never irrelevant when one is dealing with them. But in modern art the uses of consciousness, its allotments, so to speak, to the object are already at issue almost constantly. For phenomenology, knowledge about an object is gotten through an examination of one’s consciousness of the object, since no true knowledge of the object is possible without a consciousness of it. In his neutral gray solids, Morris attempted to exploit the exhibition situation as a ground prepared for phenomenological practice. The point was not to make sculpture that would enhance our knowledge of objects, but to make objects that would show us what knowing means by exposing the elements that contribute to our consciousness of objects. Making this kind of object as art was part of an attempt to resituate consciousness in the world. If everything contributing to the intelligibility of an object of experience could be made external and visible, the result would be a sense of consciousness being displaced outward. It would be a matter of convincing the spectator that his consciousness of the object was nothing different from what he was seeing in its presence. But to establish that the essential contents of consciousness are in and of the world is not to free us from the picture of consciousness as a container; the view of experience which Morris’ work promoted, pushed the subject still further into his subjectivity. Nothing in Morris’ object sculptures gave us any assurance about other consciousness: to be convinced that my consciousness of an object can be felt by me to be nothing other than what I see of the object is not really to understand the nature of consciousness in general. There was nothing to be seen in Morris’ works that would guarantee that other people were having, or could be having, my same experience of them. That is the same as saying the work did not assure me that I was seeing the content of other people’s consciousnesses (of the object), no matter how strongly I felt that the determinants of my experience had been made visible. (Husserl constantly came up against an analogous problem in his phenomenology.) Yet it is just that kind of assurance that the work makes us ask for, because our being convinced that the work has or can have meaning depends upon some kind of visible or intelligible guarantee that other people will be having an experience of it similar to ours. The most flattering view of Morris’ work will see it as a constant attempt to find such guarantees of shared experience outside the conventional categories of painting and sculpture.

Ginnever’s work has an important message to convey about modernist sculpture; it is not enough that a sculpture differentiate itself in kind from objects, the differentiation must take the form of an assurance that the experience of the work can be shared. Clearly three-dimensionality itself is no such guarantee, nor is the formal similarity of my movement around the sculpture and that of another spectator. One must be able to experience the guarantee alone with the work. Ginnever’s work solves this problem with a particular kind of illusionism. The stronger of the two pieces in the show is a large steel construction which looks like two interlocking boxes. The boxes are constructed to read as if they were being seen from radically different points of view, one from above and one from below. I tried to draw the sculpture to clarify the illusionism of it and what I got was a design that is optically contradictory on a flat surface and looks like it would be impossible to render in three dimensions. (This kind of optically paradoxical figure has become popular on cheap book and poster designs in the past couple of years.) But, adding a little modeling, I ended up with something that looked more like a Ron Davis composition. And the experience of the sculpture was reminiscent of what it’s like to look at Davis’ paintings too; one has the sense of being allowed to stand in two places at once. Moving closer to the Ginnever is like trying to look down into a Davis by standing on tiptoe, the illusionism does not give way as one expects it to.

The integrity of the illusionism in this piece is what makes one feel that other people must have the same experience of it as oneself. The reason one begins to move around this sculpture, which is felt frontally at first, is to see the distortions in it ironed out, to see the interlocking boxes “as they really are,” as ordinary rectangular boxes tipped at an angle. But that kind of explanatory view is exactly what the sculpture denies us. All one gets is a different view of the distortions. That denial is understood as a denial of my power to determine the experience I will have of this work, and the effect of this is to affirm that other people will experience that same denial. This explains the curious feeling of disappointment I had when I walked around the piece and did not see it resolve itself in geometrically transparent terms. I felt disappointed in myself, not in the work; I had been bested by it.

Ginnever’s pieces seem to occupy a space of representation. When we see them constantly withdrawing into that space, we are likely to be made aware of a particular expectation we have of sculpture. What is missing altogether from Ginnever’s sculptures is a dramatization of our visual relation with objects in real space (something that has been the chief strategy in advertising for years). What we get instead is a dramatization (or a sort of science-fiction rendering) of our relation to representations on a flat surface. The loose end in Ginnever’s pieces is the matter of their bases and I haven’t been able to decide whether that unresolved element really undermines them or not. But I’m inclined to think it doesn’t, because the sculptures direct so much force against the kind of literal reading which necessarily sees the base as problematic.

Kenneth Baker