PRINT September 1973



In reading and re-reading Lizzie Borden’s piece on Trisha Brown and Yvonne Rainer (Artforum, June, 1973) I am confronted—as I have been many times in the past—by how writers with an art-historical orientation get closer to issues with which I think my work is concerned than those who write about my work out of dance or theater tradition. Which may prove nothing more than that I have been affected by the art world more than I would like to admit. Or affected by the same sources that have pressure-cooked the art world during the last decade, such as Duchamp, Cage, Robbe-Grillet, et al.

Lizzie Borden’s piece also reveals, if somewhat obliquely, certain ploys that characterize “tough” art criticism of this same decade, though it is not so flagrantly moralistic as some I’ve read (and written). (Somehow I can’t get into a flap about the risk of doing work that is nothing “more than reactionary individualism.”) One of these ploys is the appropriation and questionable use of a term to fit the needs of a particular dialectical position. (Cf. the infamous use of the word “theater” by Michael Fried some years back.) The word “narrative” for instance.

In her introduction Borden say “Dance and theater rejected narrative gesture in favor of a movement and concreteness severed from literary meaning and discursive speech.” With respect to the people she mentions this was simply not always the case. This becomes even clearer when she expands the meaning of narrative in talking about my This is the story of a woman who . . . to include “ . . . psychological and sexual states . . . the theatrical and dramatic . . . elements from the circus . . . historical . . . romantic fiction . . . . autobiography . . . dream, fantasy and the grotesque . . . character . . . (even) cliché.” Aside from the possible error in such inclusion (Is “the theatrical and dramatic” a necessary aspect of narrative?), I don’t agree with the implication (in the context of the whole article) that I alone am now wallowing dangerously close to that 19th-century narrative miasma, and I always did a little bit, but NO ONE ELSE mentioned in the article ever did—not Cunningham, not the Happenings boys, not even my beloved Trisha Brown. The point is that most of these uses of narrative can be applied to the interactions of Cunningham’s more romantic group works and his. intensely psychological solos; to Jim Dine’s Car Crash with its words, costumes and setting all integrated under a central theme; to the comic-strip cliché of characterization in Oldenburg’s events; to Whitman’s nature imagery that at times made for a kind of “pastoral narrative”; and how about Trisha Brown’s Walking down the side of a building for sheer daredevil spectacle?

In my desperate search for company I miss the crux of the matter: Borden says, “The minimization of narrative was most successful when the plastic and physical elements of the arts are favored over psychological aspects.” Ha! Here we go: PSYCHOLOGY. Why has a conspiracy of silence pervaded the avant-garde with respect to this dread juggernaut? Why should the sneaky appearance of the psychological jeopardize the “minimization” of odious narrative? Answer me that! Lizzie never does, so I will take the liberty of putting words into her mouth:

The function of psychology is to dig beneath the surface of overt acts and utterances, to deal with implied or repressed intention and desire that are not revealed to ordinary modes of perceiving the physical world. It would seem that as one moves from the simple observation of a person standing, toward observation of muscular tension as exhibited in that stance, toward articulating metaphors suggested by that tension (“chip on the shoulder”), toward del in eating a character based on those metaphors—one is only a stone’s throw from asking why that person is standing there or introducing another person perhaps of the opposite sex and have that person walk toward the first person and have the first person turn slightly away and then have a voice on tape say “He is pissed off. . . .”

I have just made several kinds of jumps here, and exactly where in the above progression a gap occurs depends very much on your point of view: from fact to fiction, from the avant-garde to show business, from what can be demonstrated to what can only be speculated or invented, from the phenomenological to the imagined, or, finally, from the “concreteness and particularity” of the original event (the stance as separate from how we perceive it) to the conjectural and “interpretable” juxtaposition in the final event (the relationship). I have violated the flat inexplicable surface of Robbe-Grillet’s “being there” with an attempt at reaching a psychological “inside” and creating a chain of events connected from the “inside.” This, in essence, is one characteristic of narrative. In short, I have descended into what Robbe-Grillet describes as “the destitution of the old myths of depth.”

Robbe-Grillet, being French, has no grasp of psychological phenomena or experience, of emotions existing as anything other than flabby, flawed, or reasonless interpretation of observed actions. Emotions, however, whether exposed or hidden, are facts and can be described as such. Unfortunately, insofar as the visual arts are concerned, they can be represented most concretely, or irreducibly, only in verbal form (I am now referring to a range of emotions, especially the “darker” ones, beyond the behavioral spectrum offered by a spontaneous performance “process”), and compared to manifestations of perceptual and kinetic phenomena (shape, weight, perspective, color, strength, speed, coordination, etc.) the word, being closer to symbol, is not at all concrete. Words are not images; they induce images. Neither are emotions objects; yet they can be dealt with AS IF THEY ARE, i.e. placed (albeit in verbal form) in a nonnarrative type of continuity that eliminates “other than sequential connections between parts.”

This brings me to my present platform upon which I vie for a place (at least one foot) in the 20th century (which, I admit, Borden liberally grants me in her sympathetic review): I am using narrative components and materials in sequences that are not always narratively connected. They are either presented in an inventorylike fashion, or—if they do seem to connect momentarily via overlapping of synchronous elements of place or character—the juxtaposition of different media (print, photos, film, live action, sound) serves to create frequent digressions, interruptions, detours, and flipflops in point of view and continuity. Or, I use nonnarrative components (dance, formalized sequences of gesture) in a narrative context (“She shows him her dance”). I must confess I am not entirely satisfied at this point with these means, with this nervous shuffling of components so as to constantly change the connections and thwart overall narrative and formalist or random readings. And apparently This is the story of a woman who . . . was not entirely successful in thwarting narrative-making tendencies on the part of the audience if Borden could say, “The story of the performance involves the violent dissolution of a relationship between a dancer . . . and a man . . . .” This “violent dissolution” (the scenes with the gun) was meant to be one among several possibilities, such as “They decide to continue working together,” and “Now that she understood her feelings she was free to love him again.” (That one was calculatedly placed at the end; yes, that’s right, I wanted a “happy ending!”) Anyway, the whole thing continues to offer terrific problems and I am excited about that.

By this time I have given more attention to the subject of narrative than I had originally intended in the effort to clarify for myself someone else’s point of view. I might just as readily have related some of my concerns to the “play on focus” implicit in some examples of the plastic arts: realistic painting that converges with photography, “old masters” subjected to reproductive techniques, painting that recomposes and “refocuses” references to branches of science or different modes of painting, sculpture that reproduces in one material the details of an object made in another. So my present work concerns itself with “fact” turned into fiction, with the illusion of reality made demonstrably clear by the changes in focus effected by the techniques of the work.

Still, I feel we have only scratched the surface. There is more here than meets the eye. I mean, with regard to this conspiracy I mentioned earlier (which is a joke, really, designed to play on the paranoia of the art world), isn’t it high time to reexamine certain polarities that continue—perhaps needlessly—to raise high moral hackles? Such as formalism vs. “humanism?” Is “objectification” through “lists, sequences, repetitive images and actions” truly antithetical to psychological and social content? And need the emergence of such content automatically “dematerialize” an event and “exceed its formal structure?”

She wondered, even as it crossed her mind that this might all be a very tired issue indeed, comparable to the “abstraction versus figuration” issue of the late ’50s that should have been over by the early ’60s.

—Yvonne Rainer
New York City

On occasions in the past Artforum has provided a veneer of respectability for those who want to feather their own nests. It has recently reached new heights of club-footedness with Kozloff’s “The Trouble With Art-as-Idea” and with public relations “philosophical” fetishes such as “epistemological-ontological.” Now, even more than when it was propagandizing for the Greenbergers, Artforum is, in the pursuit of cheap controversy, serving to obscure, not clarify, the important issues. Last month it added a whole new dimension: James Collins’ article “Things and Theories” was left over from the undialectical stone age.

Collins spent the last two years trying to hang onto Art & Language’s coattails. He submitted articles to us as recently as 1972. These were rejected, not because they failed to spout an Art & Language “party line,” but because they were bad pastiches of previous Art & Language work. That career unsuccessful, it looks like he’s launching a new one. This time it masquerades as a critical appraisal and, to promote his new career as a painter, is heralded by scene-setting rubrics like “post-conceptual painting.”

What a bore. Ordinarily we wouldn’t bother with bullshit like his, especially since replying to his whining grants the article a controversial status it obviously lacks. But, sadly within the current vacuum, Artforum is influential and there is an unfortunate possibility of the article being taken seriously.

Collins has had access to enough Art & Language material for him to have understood better than to try and characterize Art & Language this way. It’s too silly for words, for example, when he infers that the program is “purist,” that we search for the “essence of art”—and then there is the ludicrous idea that Art & Language is a replacement for painting. Also, his view of the market system and the concept of public display is one of childish naivety. Since he hasn’t really thought about any of this, his motivation must be desperate careerism—or sour grapes.

This is not the place, were it even worth it, to go into a methodic reply to his waffle about “theories” and “things,” “theory and practice,” “theories posing as things.” Suffice to say that in order to argue in quite the way he does he has to be completely ignorant of all concepts of information. He also has to simply lack knowledge of the considerable controversies which have surrounded notions of conceptual schemes—like the observed and the theoretical. His ontological hysteria belongs to the sixties. Its effect is simply “noise.”

The Art & Language problematic has repeatedly been assailed from the rationalist/bourgeois nostrums of career artists. As part of the current mythology of specialization, this will keep a stranglehold on all our ideologies unless some more sophisticated notions than the banal ones employed in “Things and Theories” are available.

Art & Language has attributed primacy to “problems” rather than “good ideas” (”Koncept kunst”) or “things in the world” (art objects). So is Coli ins being selfservingly stupid or just stupid? For if he had understood one iota of the implications of this, his essay might not have been so downright silly.

—Art & Language
New York City

James Collins responds:
Art & Language has a history of hysterical outbursts to anything they disagree with or is written about them. I wish instead they would confine themselves to issues rather than vituperation.

Permit me to congratulate you on Max Kozloff’s brilliant article, “American Painting During The Cold War” (Artforum, May, 1973). It is, to my knowledge, the first time that a major critic in a major art magazine has made so objective and penetrating an analysis of political and social implications of American painting from within the system. Artists who lived in Latin America during the ’50s and ’60s saw the New York School infiltrated into cultural circles through the efforts of U.S.controlled organizations like the Pan American Union, the policy of whose cultural program was to support those artists whose styles and/or ideologies were friendly or acceptable to the North American ideal. Harold Rosenberg came to Mexico City in 1 963 to appear on a panel titled The International Style, organized by a USIA-funded cultural organization, and announced on the panel, two hours after his arrival in the country, that Diego Rivera’s murals were “junk,” and that he was happy to see that Action Painting had become a universal style, so that paintings produced in New York, Tokyo, Buenos Aires, or New Delhi, were indistinguishable as to their national origins. When left-wing artists in the ’50s declared American abstract painting to be a tool of U.S. imperialism and the Cold War they were laughed at and despised by the avant-garde intellectuals whose new modes of thinking were promulgated and encouraged by American-funded organizations such as the Ford Foundation’s Centro Mexicano de Escritores. However, the intention of this letter was not to open up a cultural state of siege, nor to add one word to Mr. Kozloff’s courageous and penetrating article, but to express admiration for what is surely a milestone in modern art criticism.

—Arnold Belkin
New York City

In an article on Agnes Martin (Artforum, April, 1973) I linked Martin’s use of grids with the presumed influence of Lucy Lippard on women artists who used grids and were affiliated with the Ad Hoc Women’s Committee. I am grateful to five artists who have provided information that indicates a situation of much greater complexity than this. Early uses of grids, starting from diverse points, are clearly established by the following statements.

LORETTA DUNKELMAN: The use of repetitive forms or modules first appeared in my work sometime in 1964. I made a series of collages which consisted of rows of circles. I was interested in seeing how many times I could make the same picture by using a format and repeating it over and over again. I had seen jasper johns’ numbers paintings and liked them a lot and Ad Reinhardt’s writings and paintings were also sources. In looking through a sketchbook done in December, 7964, I found a drawing using a grid with circles placed in a scattered arrangement in relation to the lines. This drawing was directly influenced by having seen a Larry Poons painting in The Museum of Modern Art around this time.

BRENDA MILLER: My use of the grid as a basic structure or skeleton began around 1964–65 while I was still painting. . . . By 1967 the image consisted of three boxes connected to each other vertically with an object inside one of them. The boxes were always the same size. In 1967 I stopped painting and began to make constructions of boxes. One was a soft white box about 3’ square which was made out of rug fabric. This consisted of uniform loops about 1/2” in length. The fabric was itself a grid, merely a structural element. I was not conscious of the fact that I was working with a grid. Soon afterwards I began to work with string, yarn, latex, and paper without the tedious hooking. Once again the grid appeared as a structural necessity so that the object would physically hold together better. Since then I have consistently used a variety of grid forms, first in my ceiling pieces in which I spaced equal lengths of sisal 1” apart, then for wall pieces. One of these was a 20” x 30” grid in which a 3” length of sisal was placed in each intersection of the grid drawn on the wall in blue nonreproducible pencil. Since that time I have continued to use the grid in one-inch intervals as a basic structure for my work.

MARY MISS: I’ve made sculptures which suggest extendable networks both indoors and outdoors since 1966. My sources for this imagery (only once in the form of a true grid) have been from traces of human contact or manipulation of a space or situation. Five years after this direction was established I became involved with the political actions of the Ad Hoc Women’s Committee.

MICHELLE STUART: My employment as a topographical draftswoman and cartographer in California influenced my use of map forms and the grid. I mapped the surface features of geographical areas for the Army Corps of Engineers. Since this was during the’ 50s it antedates any connection with the Ad Hoc Committee which I joined in the Winter/Spring, 1971, or any awareness of Martin’s work. In 1963 I began using simple unadorned boxes as containers for my sculpture and by 1965 some were used in modular units. In 1967 I used the grid as a ground for a series of detailed diagrammatic drawings that had to do with location, direction, and boundaries. . . . The grid was used as a framework or “scaffolding” for inner experiences that were imposed upon it. Gradually as the figuration was discarded and the work became more abstract, the grid remained with an allover drawing topographical in nature all on the same plane. In some pieces, it was apparent in the structure of the piece itself, i.e., boxes placed in a grid form.

PAULA TAVINS: In 1967 I lived near Canal Street and used to go there frequently. The street, with its piles and accumulations of objects, was a constant demonstration of how repetition both enhances and destroys the identity of objects simultaneously, thus increasing their mystery. It was in trying to establish a visual vocabulary that made reference to repetition, molecular structure, and energy that/ started using a grid to structure my work. The first painting I specifically recognized as using a grid was by Larry Poons in “The Art of the Real” show at the Museum of Modern Art in 1968. By the time the Ad Hoc Committee was formed in 1970 I had been using the grid structure for about a year.

—Lawrence Alloway
New York City