PRINT October 1972


A MAJOR ASPECT OF the structure of Documenta, examining the phenomenology of art and the art activity, concerns the genesis and representation of cosmologies. Often sidestepping the conventions of well-defined disciplines like painting and sculpture, the exhibition deals didactically with the significations of activities and the processes of invention. The structure demonstrates the interest of many artists in concepts of perception rather than in perceptual experiences themselves, resulting in the rejection of most illusionism for activities that define the essences underlying external appearances. This is true even of Photo-Realism which deals more with the photograph than the representation of a subject. For the most part, the attitude of the artists involved seems to be cool and objective. The few works that attempt to shock, like Kienholz’s tableau Of a castration and Rudolf Schwarzkogler’s chopped-off penis, seem overly rhetorical. While the functions of the body, the subconscious and the unconscious are explored, the intention of the organizers is not for the Dadaist “dérèglement des sens,” but to use the exhibition as a means for exposing the ways in which thought can be investigated. Throughout the exhibition the work ranges from literal or mimetic representations of activities to nonmimetic abstractions.

All art, even that which records objective factual data, contains various degrees of abstraction—from literal exposition to the use of more general structures that order data into systems of information. Mimetic renderings, whether or not illusionistic, depict the recognizable qualities of objects in the way, for example, a predator might mimic a bird’s color and movement. While somewhat representational pictures may exist at a low level of abstraction, every mode of representation requires a structure of portrayal, and therefore every picture is to some degree abstract. The resulting pictorial system—abstract in its rules—can generate iconographic and formal languages.

In art which does not mimic external shape, but approaches the forces underlying appearances, signs stand for certain qualities without reflecting these features visually. Since signs also possess formal characteristics aside from their meanings, the use of signs in art must involve both the cluster of significations as well as the visual qualities of the sign. The resulting pictorial systems seem to generate languages more formal than iconographic.

Any representational mode obviously tends to be more literal and particular than more abstract art—every work seems to be the resolution of a concrete particular from underlying generic concepts around which the work is structured. The invention of a personal cosmology seems to depend on the creation of a pictorial or conceptual structure extensive enough to allow many formal variations but particular enough to make each concretization unique.

A balance between the singular and the generic seems to characterize much of the best work in Documenta. When works are too specific—either too bound to a particular manifestation or too involuted—they can appear literal and rhetorical. Other works, though sophisticated in geometry or mathematics, may lack differentiation and seem empty because dissociated from the identifying particulars that make “this” or “that” concretization distinguishable.

While there are many substructures in Documenta concerning particular aspects of the artist’s activity, in my view, four major subjects cut across the actual headings of the show: 1) art as invention of a personal mythology; 2) art as the objective investigation of form and material; 3) art as the literal objectification of the world; and 4) art as definition through language and pictographic signs.

Art as the invention of a personal mythology involves a wide range of self-portrayal processes—art as eccentric imagery, as self-discovery, as religious, confessional, or spiritual experience, and the use of the body as field of action. Psychological study is one aspect of this theme. The examples of schizophrenic and insane art in Documenta are meant to illustrate primitive and compulsive forms of artistic activity, the regression of ego-functions and the immersion in gratifications. This kind of work is generally involuted and often incomprehensible, lacking reflection, rigorous self-examination, and the universal structures of more wilful activity. Because it is too particular and pictures a reality meaningful only to the artist, the work exists more as an eccentric curiosity than as art deeply involved with a formal tradition.

Art used for sacramental or antisacramental purposes through conventional religious imagery seems limited in significance today. Symbols like the cross, holy garments, and icons are static votive images, and the desecration of such objects results in truisms, such as Nitsch’s blood-spattered bishops’ robes. The ritualistic aura attained in the work of Nancy Graves is more convincing. As in her show at the Museum of Modern Art, she filled a room with stalks covered with shells, feathers, insects, and flowers. Though these elements are mimetic and naturalistic, the individual pieces are subordinated to the more abstract expression of the teeming, energetic complexity of nature. The idea is both general and precise in articulation—while the work feels deeply personal, the larger formal structures allow it to have greater than individual significance.

Another artist whose mode of vision and method of construction mythologizes ordinary objects and materials is H. C. Westermann, whose works in Documenta include Clean Air, 1964, Strong Man’s Chair, 1970, Little Egypt, 1970, and Box, 1970. The normal functions of familiar objects like chairs, doors, and boxes are subverted because the density of material and the solidity of construction seem intended for some mysterious purpose. The poetry of the titles and the inlaid words give the objects the Magritte-like magic of double-entendre. The forms themselves are simple and uncluttered, in character with the wood he uses.

William Wiley relies on a collage of objects borrowed from the shamanistic rituals of western American Indian cultures. While they seem exotic because isolated from their original contexts, they do not convey the spirit of the ritual for which they originally had meaning. Because Wiley does not recreate or add to these significations, the work seems to be an additive collection of objects, more curiosa.

Ben Vautier exhibits a huge chest of drawers and a room full of objects—silverware, dishes, machines, clothing, plaster food, boxes, and toys. He labels objects collected over the last decade in white writing. The signatures range from the documentation of ideas (“j’ai signé l’art en 1959, j’ai signé les événements en 1959, j’ai signé les maladies en 1960”) to concrete objects (“j’ai signé 2 steaks 1 salade en 1962, j’ai signé les escargots vivants en 1962”). Thus in his activity as an artist, Vautier can indiscriminately “art” everything and claim them as his own. However, his choice of objects seems arbitrary, only the organizing principle of his worn assumption—that everything an artist does is art—unifies the work. Unlike Claes Oldenburg, whose metamorphoses of the world involve entire modes of perception (soft, hard, tiny, monumental, gastronomic), Vautier’s objects present less a vision of the world than a testimony of his own existence.

Yoko Ono’s imagery exists between the formal and the personal. Two of her works, Painting to be Stepped On, 1961, and Painting to Hammer A Nail, 1961, are removed from their intended frameworks, they display only histories of actions. Out of context, they are empty and benign. Since they have no individual characteristics independent of the activities to be performed upon them, they seem to be diagrams in the place of works they represent. The solemn white chessboard, however, is able to generate a feeling of waiting and silence. In this work, the particularity of feeling transcends the generality of the object.

The use of the body as material for art, whether in photography or performance, also ranges from literal and mimetic actions to more abstract concepts of activity. Many artists in Documenta display photographs in which they subject their bodies to various forms of examination and brutality. Lucas Samaras parades before his Polaroid autobiographically, as if it were a mirror, assuming peculiar postures, seducing and repelling himself.The late Viennese artist, Rudolf Schwarzkogler, chops off his penis inch by inch; Herman Nitsch, also Viennese, rips out the bloody entrails of humans and animals; the German artist, Günter Brus, bandages live bodies and corpses; and Arnulf Rainer smears black paint over his string-bound torso. While varying in interest the sadomasochistic violence of these artists seems dramatically indulgent and theatrical.

In contrast to such biographical uses of the body, Vito Acconci’s performances can be regarded as more vigorous investigations of the body in space. Both the subject and the object of his actions, Acconci uses psychological phenomena as controls or as processes—as a structural language—rather than as ends in themselves. His performances, frequently involving video and tape, are polyphonic in technique and effect. His props, often materials like clothing and wood, or at times only the technical equipment, are formally simple and derive their meaning from his activities. But even after the performance has ended, Acconci is able to leave significant traces of his presence—black curtains hanging in front of walls marked with graffiti, against which he has placed several masks facing the wall. The objects are like relics, as potent as the images in de Chirico’s early paintings. On the other hand, objects such as hooks and tubes left behind by artists like Vettor Pisani, Klaus Rinke, and Dennis Oppenheim, are only used for performances and contain no residual significance. Another way for an artist to recreate his presence is by means of a photographic activity, as in the work of Franz Erhard Walther. But these photographs seem like disconnected surrogates in comparison to the performances.

The film activity of Dan Graham successfully creates a feeling of the artist’s presence. His “performance” is not live but consists of himself and another man filming one another, moving around in a circle slowly toward each other. The films are shown on opposite walls in a small room, forcing the viewer into the center of both cameras. The double film-making activates the space, for the viewer becomes a participant compelled to constantly switch attention from one man to another.

Art as the objective investigation of form and material concerns the objects and materials themselves rather than the nature of the artists’ actions upon them. This involvement cuts through a number of subgroupings in the exhibition,notably “Process” (including Eva Hesse, Richard Serra, Barry Le Va, etc.), “Idea” (including Sol LeWitt, Robert Mangold, Brice Marden, Agnes Martin, Robert Ryman, and Richard Tuttle, etc.), and “Idea-Light” (including Peter Alexander, Mike Asher, Ron Cooper, etc.). While the use of these categories by the organizers of the exhibition unfortunately suggests an overall conceptual bias and a limiting view the headings seem useful—they encompass the activity of consciousness as it concretizes percept and concept in the art object.

One way of dealing with forms is through the invention of techniques which penetrate to the heart of materials and their properties. Process art, a metaphor for the nature of conscious activity, deals with the “becoming” of substances and ideas. Because form must be intrinsic to the material, the success of certain works results from their ability to define qualities that are capable of generating many formal permutations. This seems to explain the continued power of Eva Hesse’s work. Both the rope piece Untitled, 1970, and the fiberglas curtain piece Expanded Expansion, 1969, fuse the particular properties of material with more generic concepts expressing softness, hardness, rigidity, and gravity. Though he is not a Process artist, at least one of Alan Shields’ most interesting works in Documenta, Frank P. Biggs (Jailhouse Rocks), 1970, exploits the pliability of cloth through the use of weaving and sewing, though an earlier piece, Alst Wro, octagonal in shape and stained light pink, yellow, and blue fails to do so.

In their use of incidental or informal materials against the wall itself, Nathalie Briser, Jud Fine, and Joel Fisher seem to share the casual, offhanded sensibility of artists like Alan Shields and Richard Tuttle. Briser’s piece, a delicate skein of threads against the wall with small beads in occasional clusters, is like a spider web or the veins of a leaf when the rest of the tissue has rotted away. Fisher weaves stringy twine back and forth around a loom of nails hammered into the wall. While the informality of execution gives the work a certain charm, the elements allow for only a small range of moves within the language. Jud Fine’s vocabulary consists of the use of casual materials like bamboo, chicken wire, and stones. He frequently organizes his work in a relational, pictorial manner—lines of bamboo sheathed in wood, small pieces of bamboo wrapped with chicken wire or attached to stones. His pieces, however, sometimes seem to be agglomerations of material lacking definition and specificity in placement.

Another ’aspect of formal investigation concerns experience of physical relationships as perception yields to conception. Robert Mangold’s paintings, Straight Curved Line X Set, 1971, and White Distorted Square Circle, 1970, deal with perceptual distortions—the phenomenon of seeing shapes as regular in geometry though in fact they are aberrations. Mangold’s paintings seem to just distort familiar marking devices, such as circles and X’s, but imagery is dissociated from the matrix of ideas clustering around a discovered force or concept.

The study of form and material in Documenta includes the attempt to reinvest archetypical form with significance—to reproduce the objective, permanent being of things, to renew the importance of basic shapes and clear forms of early cosmologies instead of just imitating existing models. Richard Long’s sculpture, Circle, uses a configuration so highly abstract that it is extensive in possibilities of reference. Consisting of a flat ring of stones, the piece feels large in scale since the space it encircles has been transformed into a site endowed with ritualistic importance.

The archetypical may be used in complex modes of calculation, as in Al Jensen’s tapestry-like paintings of the properties of a prism, the Pythagorean theorem, and numerical systems of archaic cultures. The representation of concepts such as Goethe’s theory of light and dark seems to indicate an involvement with mystical philosophy. At times, the density of paint appears to be at odds with the abstractness of the concept, for a diagram, or map of a mathematical idea ordinarily has no significant tactile presence in itself. In contrast, Jensen’s investigations of squares and other basic shapes is in keeping with the execution of the work. The attempt to rediscover primitive orders of form in these paintings seems to evoke symbolic and ritualistic meanings. The generalized shapes are broad in extension, significant both formally and iconographically, while the straight mathematical equations seem to signify only themselves.

A concern within the subject of form and material is the use of technology in art—kinetics, light, and machinery. As an entity in itself technology is used successfully in only the participatory neon piece by Piotr Kowalski, in which electrically charged green plastic sheets are placed a few yards from each other. The viewer walks between the sheets holding long pieces of neon tubing, the placement of one’s hands and the position of the tubes controlling the amount of light and color produced.

A final consideration in the study of forms and relationships concerns artists who develop a set of conventions within disciplines in order to create structures for invention. The sculpture and painting they make is not dependent upon a conceptual framework—the form is the content without suggesting meanings outside the sensuous materialization. Innovative abstract ideas seem to possess a “full” emptiness, for they do not contain familiar imagery but generate their own formal languages. In Documenta, the works of Agnes Martin and Dorothea Rockburne are strong examples of complex and extensive personal vocabularies. The three Martins, River, 1964, Garden, 1964, and Tundra, 1967, are all late grid paintings in which slight variations of line create a modulation of the surface, the tremor of the hand-drawn line working against the precision of the module. Dorothea Rockburne’s piece, Syllogism, 1972, has been composed within a long rectangular room. A black graphite line about seven feet high circumscribes the room, and three sheets of white paper at various intervals hang from the ceiling to the floor. One sheet is pasted so that the paper bends slightly out from the wall and back again at the level of the line. The piece has a Japanese-like simplicity that transforms the whole room into a pictorial surface.

Palermo also uses the wall as a pictorial surface by painting it red except for a single white border. The color seems flat and immobile, echoing the structure of the wall without capturing it.

Art as the literal objectification of the world can be regarded as the direct reflection or picturing of the world. The artists in this category deal with external surfaces objectively rather than subjectively—they do not deal with active perception (how we see as we are looking) but with the means of recording phenomena. For example, the realistic sculptures of John DeAndrea and Duane Hanson are precise without being particular, technical models rather than perceptual experiences. The Photographic Realism section in the show deals with the flatness of photography rather than the images portrayed—the paintings do not reflect the distortions that occur when one is looking at objects in life. The formality of much of the work results from the static nature of photographs, which freezes and distances everything. This hardness of surface, like the plastic veneer of the photographs themselves, can be seen in the painted store windows of Robert Cottingham and Richard Estes, in Ralph Goings’ Airstream, 1970, Richard McLean’s Gulfstream, 1971, and in Franz Gertsch’s Medici, 1971. Many of these paintings are named after the products they depict, giving both intention and execution a feeling of glossy commerciality.

Other Realists attempt to make their paintings look more like perceived experiences. In his painting, Cemetery, 1972, Jean-Olivier Hucleux used a wide-angle lens distortion that forces the bottom of the painting toward the viewer. Richard Artschwager’s portraits and his picture of a hall with elegant furniture simulate faded charcoal drawings without subjective distortion as if rendering worn photographs themselves. The work of Gerhard Richter attempts to transcend the literal reproduction of photography. He presents rows of blurred pictures as if blown up from high school yearbooks in order to convey a muffled, nostalgic sense of half-remembered faces.

Rendering images by means of a uniform technical procedure can result in a feeling of hyper-reality—all areas are executed through conventional methods of representation, no account is taken of the idiosyncrasies of natural perception. Untitled (Mapleton) by Paul Sarkisian, a huge painting of the dilapidated front of a shack, is so naturalistic that the illusion is defeated. The convex shingles of the roof, the worn laundry on lines, the pieces of broken furniture, machinery, bicycle wheels, and garbage cans on the porch, are all painted in detailed grisaille, and accentuated so equally that the result is monotonous.

Other Realists deal with schematic distortions in the tradition of trompe l’oeil painting. Howard Kanovitz’s painting One By Threes, 1971, is a formal arrangement of illusions on a flat neutral background, odd in juxtaposition but with no surrealist peculiarity in the combination of objects. Unlike conventional trompe l’oeil, the illusionistic elements exist within the space of the work rather than on the surface of the painting. On the other hand, Stephen Posen’s wrapped boxes protrude out toward the viewer, as if the canvas itself were bulging at the center. The paintings of both Kanovitz and Posen deal with illusionistic devices rather than with illusion.

Chuck Close, Malcolm Morley, and Gerhard Richter use realism as a structure for the investigation of formal properties of painting. Morley uses photographs, postcards, and advertisements as a way of treating the tactile properties of paint, particularly when he marks the surface of the work over the image he has rendered. Chuck Close’s portraits transform the face into a field—as one approaches the picture, the face is lost to the techniques of representation. To see the work as a whole, one is forced away from the painting. The experience of viewing the work overcomes the indirect and distancing nature of the photograph. The interest in formal qualities in the work of Morley and Close gives their work an abstract structure that allows for greater variation than the literal representations of Photo-Realists.

Objectifying the world through the use of photographs themselves involves the recording of objective data. Ed Ruscha’s snapshots of Sunset Strip, present a systematic recording of events in a horizontal, chronological sequence. Bernhard and Hilla Becher’s pictures of water towers are a rigorous study of the morphology of form and a catalogue of function.

Art as definition through language and pictographic signs involves predominantly words and numbers. Language when not intended to convey information, is used essentially to reproduce defined ideational content since signs exist at various levels of abstraction, meaning depends upon usage. Language in art, however, lies outside of these significations, and dynamically involves all forms of perception. While ordinary language also requires audio and tactile participation, it is less concerned with the formal appearance of language. Several artists in Documenta deal with the perceptual shapes of symbolic language. Except for the work of Hanne Darboven, whose numbers and symbols create interesting configurations, much of the work of the other artists lacks commitment to formal, verbal, or numerical particularity. The adverbs of Robert Barry, the catalogues of action by Stanley Brouwn, the graph paper filled with letters of the alphabet by Michael Harvey, depend only on general organizing principles. On Kawara’s dated plaques are also part of an infinite series stemming from a single premise, unchanging throughout the resulting accretion of material. The visual products reveal no more information than apparent in the motivating idea itself.

Languages close to but less well defined than words do not have to overcome existing significations. John Baldessari invents a wry alphabet of string beans in his piece, Choosing: Green Beans, 1972. Mel Bochner also institutes a formal vocabulary in his work, Properties of Between. Sheets of newspaper are taped on the wall and flap over the masking tape marked from 0 to 25. The fixed points and overlaps are listed for each piece, the information resulting from the transformation of a purely visual language into an analytic system. In the work of Baldessari and Bochner, the structural systems provide general rules for the creation of particular linguistic forms.

Although the conceptual framework of the exhibition is damaging to many individual pieces of work, Documenta is finally neither anti-art nor anti-tradition. Its organization is unlike most exhibitions of art which are structured as linear expositions of certain formal traditions. Several independent strains of morphological development can be discerned. One is the transmutation of painting into independent objects. The objectlike painting, canvas on stretcher (Brice Marden, Robert Ryman), is rejected for the material or wall itself (Alan Shields, Robert Ryman), which in turn metamorphosizes into hanging sculpture (Eva Hesse, Reiner Ruthenbeck). The move toward objecthood is paralleled in every discipline, the influences of which are felt throughout Documenta; Yvonne Rainer in dance (all of the performance pieces), John Cage in music (the La Monte Young-Marian Zazeela piece and the score of Yoko Ono’s film, Fly), and Robbe-Grillet’s theory and novels (many of the Information and Language pieces).

These horizontal movements, however, are incidental to the structure of Documenta, which presents a dense schema of forms, intentions, and activities in a vertical or polyphonic fashion. Within this context, the most successful pieces in my opinion are those that define personal conventions or traditions as structures for invention. These works—in painting, sculpture, performance, film, and Conceptual art—give particularity to more generic forms and images. While much of the work in the show concerns the activity of the artist, the invention of a formal or iconographic cosmology seems to depend on the artist’s ability to institute a structural vocabulary that allows for the generation of permutations broad in extension but unique in concretization.