PRINT January 1972

Los Angeles: Barbara Munger

WHOEVER HAS GAINED FAMILIARITY with a particular line of southern California art—specifically with the work of Robert Irwin, Larry Bell, Michael Asher, James Turrell, and Doug Wheeler—knows a special range of esthetic possibilities for the alterability of space by diffused light. Those artists have generally rejected the manner of physical sculptural priorities formally describable by such binary concepts as outthrusting/implosion, expansion/contraction, opening/closing, effluence/containment, etc. The usages of such oppositions apply most aptly, within the modern framework, to Constructivist sculptural principles and imply objective limitedness. (Minimalism to a large degree addressed itself to that Conceptual tradition.) Without analyzing the various alternatives posed by the artists named above to the superseded mode of sculpture and painting, I want to make some general remarks about advanced insights they have afforded.

Through them we automatically recognize that a relatively “clean” presented space can be inexhaustibly reinterpretable simply from an optical point of view. It is possible to represent qualities of vastness and a sort of universal ephemerality in physical microcosm, while avoiding self-consciousness of the representation, or art work, as microcosm (“example”). It is quite feasible, and often preferable, to set up an environmental construct based on this non-Constructivist esthetic in such a way that the spectator need not—perhaps cannot—bodily enter it in order to experientially enter it. The spectator’s ordinary inclination to size up both the outer parameters and interior detail of a given piece ceases to operate insistently; he needs to comprehend the atmospheric quality of what he sees rather than quantitative relationships. (One doesn’t, for instance, primarily refer to notions of convexity/concavity or emptiness/repleteness.) The issues relate diachronically, ascendantly through Irwin starting as much as a decade ago, to the kind of opticality nascent in the painting of Monet and especially Seurat and brought to extension and finally transcended by these particular California artists–Their works are often so subtle and incorporeal in nature as to defeat one’s ability later to accurately conjure them to mind.

Obviously a great deal more stands to be remarked on this subject: I mainly want to fragmentarily characterize the background for an interesting young Los Angeles artist, Barbara Munger. She has benefited from the arduous process undertaken by Irwin, Ben, and Asher involving the gradual “purifying out” of what Irwin has called “residual imagery.” “Image elements”—whether in the form of line, shape, or spectrally broken down color—can now be fluently handled by an artist like Munger who perhaps could not have worked as she does without the prior establishment of certain precursory esthetic terms. It should be stated firmly that Munger has not necessarily or consciously taken these artists as a departure point (except for Michael Asher, whose influence she emphasizes): indeed her work in many ways signifies a retrogressive tendency, in that she openly uses line to parcel space and, at times, volume. Still, she belongs solidly within the esthetic they have promulgated.

Munger studied at U.C. Irvine from 1965–67. (Her important student work at Irvine incorporated red light bulbs in grid systems on the wall or floor; she was “aware of” Flavin and seems to have shown his influence.) In one Irvine room piece she mounted 25 bulbs on the floor, casting red light into the entire room, which one could peer into but not enter. From 1967 to 1969 she studied at UCLA. In late 1968, she executed a work that involved covering a large white wall with lightly applied, scribbled patches of graphite. The inflections were so light and homogeneously dispersed as to be invisible to the casual occupant of the room; once they were noticed and investigated they “started traveling out toward your eye, and would form and reform into varying combinations. You could make hundreds of different pictures just by repeatedly shifting focus.”

It was at UCLA in 1969 that Munger executed the major experimental work initiating her continuing body of works formed with string or yarn. This piece was extraordinary in several ways; I was impressed seeing it, and am even more convinced of its strength in view of later developments. (Like all of her work to date, it was mounted temporarily and now exists only in the form of photographs.) In a studio space measuring 25 by 18 feet, she attached 150 parallel lines of fluorescent monofilament, spaced one inch apart, from the top of one wall to the bottom of the facing wall. The resulting “sheet” filled half the room. She mounted black lights on the ceiling, imparting a bluish cast to the entire room and illuminating the fluorescent monofilament. As one looked at the slanting, diaphanous configuration from certain points of view, the filaments—as they receded from the light sources—disappeared altogether; thus the plane seemed to hover freely; moreover, the corners and sides of the room itself became ambiguously located. From the side, at center eye level, one saw only a single diagonal line. From “above” or “beneath,” respectively, the work underwent similarly radical transfigurations. This work distinctly presaged effects obtained by Robert Irwin in his several 1970–71 works incorporating stretched scrim material; it also referred in general to a sense of parametrical dissolution that characterizes certain works of Irwin as well as Dan Flavin, Larry Bell in his recent environmental glass pieces, Doug Wheeler, and James Turrell.

It is worth noticing parenthetically that in Munger’s work, as in the situation presented by these other artists, the current connotations of the phrase “spectator participation” are less applicable than might be presumed. With these artists it is almost never a question of acutely self-aware physical participation in the sense, for instance, that Bruce Nauman often requires it of the spectator; after all, with virtually every sculpture-in-the-round and most large-scale painting, some kind of viewer activity is implicitly called for just to see the work wholly. In other words, successive points of view are certainly critical in potentiating this kind of environmental sculpture; but beyond that self-evident fact more emphasis need not be attached to the role of participation.

FOLLOWING THE FLUORESCENT UCLA work, Munger embarked upon an extended period in 1970–71 of experimenting with string and yarn in a long, narrow studio space in Burbank. The first piece executed in this 45 by 20 by 12 foot room were relatively unelaborate. She found that “simply by stringing a single line around the perimeter of the space, a short distance from the walls, I could activate the entire room—the space would begin to palpitate. A little bit of line would completely control and hold up a huge area.” She increasingly felt the need to allow line to function with what she calls an “unconfined sense”—that is, on its own terms and not preeminently in relation to walls, floor, or ceiling. The culminatively successful work in evincing a sensation of line existing “freely and on its own terms” came about toward the end of a series of fence pieces. She began this series by stringing black yarn, attached to the sides of the room with staples, in low, fence-like configurations comprising two, three, or five lines to a plane. The two-line fence piece was two feet high (one foot between the floor and lower line, an equal distance to the second line); identical units were placed at intervals of two feet across the entire studio parallel to its narrower dimension. The three-line work was similarly disposed except for the addition of the line making it three feet high; in the five-line piece six-inch spaces existed between lines vertically, two feet between each fence. The viewer was given a two-foot area at the front of the room in which to stand and view the series of 22 fences. As one looked across the space, the several closest fences could be seen as such. As they receded, they became geometrically unreadable, overlapping and thus appearing chaotically arranged. It was by extrapolating intellectually from one’s perceived knowledge of the nearby configurations that one grasped the modular system.

The work referred to earlier as the most successful of this series was made with white rather than black yarn. It was lighted, like the others, naturally through a three by three-foot opening in the center of the ceiling. The white fence piece comprised 11 vertical rows, six lines to a row, each three feet high, each now placed four feet apart. Several remarkable visual phenomena operated together in this work, combining to strengthen the need to resolve it intellectually, since one was unable to fully comprehend its disposition sheerly from its own descriptive appearance. The sense of the lines’ value was made delusive by the quality of light in the room: the lines furthest away were highlighted white, those nearer appearing gray. The lateral extremities of the lines, as they approached the white-painted staples where they were attached to the walls, faded out entirely, and the rear few fences were nearly invisible. Depending on one’s eye level, varyingly placed planes appeared in the configuration, slanting downward from the top line of the front row to a point on the floor some distance back. In Munger’s own words, “When one began looking at the piece in terms of diagonal planes, [the piece] became removed from the idea of fences. . . . The first [nearest] fence was about the only one that maintained itself. . . . The others were understood to be fences because of information received from the identification of the first one.”

The spectator’s relation to the work in terms of extensiveness was remarkable on several levels. The narrowness of the studio created an illusory sense of exaggerated distance; it seemed in a way to extend virtually further than one could see. Munger remarked that one had a feeling similar to that of “looking over a field of grass.” Because one could not physically enter the piece, one assumed the role of bystander rather than participant; the entire vista was claimed by the piece, leaving no room for really comfortable, “safe” inhabitance.

The fence works were followed by a series of “stacked rectangular” ones in colored yarn. The most elementary consisted of four surmounted rectangular configurations, respectively red, yellow, and green. Color was intended to function only for its power to differentiate. In the color pieces, Munger continued to create various illusory effects, but only as a by-product, as she says, of a “simple, obvious approach. ” She next executed a work with gray yarn, covering the floor and four walls of the studio nearly halfway up their twelve-foot height with a one-foot grid. (There were no suspended elements.) This work had the effect of claiming the space, of destroying the sense of the room as an “ordinary” confine, to an even greater degree than the preceding ones.

In a kind of sudden radical gesture toward the end of emptying her string pieces altogether of geometrically or systematically derived illusionism, Munger then made several zigzag works. The first was executed in black. Starting at the far end of the room, six zigzags were mounted in one vertical plane, four feet apart at the ends, then, forward four feet, six zagzigs; this procedure was repeated 11 times, bringing it to the front of the room. Viewing the work straight on, one saw at eye level a horizontal diamond shape. The denial of geometric illusionism here consisted in the fact that the work was completely unresolvable; in other words, one simply could not definitively figure out, or unravel, the system employed in composing the work, no matter how long one looked at it. Thus the space imposed on the viewer to formidable degree, in that he simply could not intellectually penetrate or “control” it. The succeeding zigzag pieces incorporated string randomly dispersed from the ceiling to a low point four feet downward, starting at the rear with an area of blue string, abutted respectively with similarly proportioned passages in yellow, red, and green.

Munger suggests that the entire body of work done in 1970–71 in the Burbank studio divides itself into two basic approaches: that exemplified in the ephemeral, “dissolving” pieces, preeminently the zigzags; and in the “clear, obviously delineating” ones, like the nonsuspended grid and simpler fence pieces. (The more complex fence works fall, I would say, somewhere in between.) Several extremely simple works, suspending rectangles—“like invisible sheets of glass”—in horizontal planes, belong to the second category. These are among her most successful works to date.

In May, 1971, Munger, executed a work for the “24 Young Los Angeles Artists” exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. This was her first major public exposure and, given the difficulties imposed by the limited availability of space, served well as a statement of her rigorously won esthetic. In a shallow nichelike compartment 25 by 4 by 15 feet, she stapled fine horizontal threads, in tones ranging from black through various grays to white in six dense layers, black at the back toward white on the foremost plane. In order to approximate the feeling she had achieved in large format within this relatively small area, she “bombarded” the compartment with line and varied the distance of each vertical plane in relation to the floor, so that each became successively further from ground level as it progressed frontward. The result of the gradation of value—lighter to darker, front to rear—was to reverse the natural optical appearance of built-up value density so that as one looked straight into the work the planes seemed to lighten, or dissolve, as they receded, contrary to actuality. Thus was imparted a sense of overall dematerialization, felt but somehow unanalyzable as one looked at the work.

Munger’s most recent piece, presently on view at Cal State L.A., is profoundly different in nature from what has gone before. It poses, at least for me, definite evaluative problems having to do with overcoming its overtly designy nature. The work is mounted in an alcove similar in dimension (though only eight feet high) to the one at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, but painted black and lined with an immensely complicated pattern created with white yarn in contact at all points with its walls; there are no suspended elements. In this piece, Munger is for the first time “taking on the architecture itself.” In extreme contrast to her previous work, the Cal State piece has immense physical presence. It is not only literally heavy with yarn, densely configured into a rich pattern of considerable mathematical complexity, but it is optically “heavy” in the sense of vibrating with tension between positive/negative shape. The spatial illusionism here is distinctly recollective of a Constructivistic regard for space as manifest for example in the work of Naum Cabo: it functions through manipulatively distorted perspective, positive/negative interplay, and the fact that shape is used to mark out volume rather than, more simply, line to outline plane. Whereas Munger’s suspended line works sometimes posed barriers to resolution by sheer virtue of extent, this piece is “unresolvable,” or at least difficult to resolve, on the more familiar basis of the complexity of its internal mathematical relationships. It seems to me a somewhat strange eventuality in the context of her oeuvre and presents a turn of affairs that will need to be seen in further development before submitting to confident assessment.

Jane Livingston