PRINT October 1973

Theater of the Conceptual: Autobiography and Myth

THE POSTHUMOUS REVELATION OF the posthumous revelation of the diorama Etant Donnés gave lie to the canard that Marcel Duchamp abandoned art for chess in 1923, when he left the Large Glass unfinished. For 20 years at least (c. 1946–66), Duchamp had been intensely engaged by the continued elaboration of the mythology that had occupied him between 1912 and 1923—the arcana of the Large Glass. Duchamp scholars now realize that the imagery of Etant Donnés represents a working toward nature from the mechanomorphic elements of the Large Glass—empirical representationalism deduced from diagrammatic terms instead of the reverse.

The title Etant Donnés as an expression indicates those syllogistic premises that are “given” or “granted” in a logical argument. When we say so and so is “granted,” in French we say “etant donne.” In Etant Donnés, the granted elements are identical to those of the Large Glass—the waterfall and the illuminating gas—physical and metaphorical sources of energy.

Significant to the development of Etant Donnés are three small erotic objects of 1951, the Objet-Dard, the Female Fig Leaf, and the Wedge of Chastity. All the titles of these familiar and curiously ambiguous talismans play with literary conceits and/or outright puns. The pun is the touchstone of Duchamp’s thought—a circular process of reasoning that thriftily returns to the same place while releasing fresh insights.

These three sexual objects account for certain inferences that clarify the mode of Conceptual art thatdeals with autobiography and/or myth. The three objects respectively are male, female, and a binary image—a male-female form. The male object is Objet-Dard—in appearance flaccid and vaguely detumescent despite a raised veinlike element running along a curved ridge. This metal object, it seems, was a brace broken away from the mold in which the breast of the violated female nude of Etant Donnés had been modeled. Objet-Dard is marked by an oval plane at one extremity upon which are incised the words “objet dard.” This pun bridges the notion of “art object” and “dart object,” the word “dard” in French meaning “dart.” The dart aspect of the work, as Duchamp acknowledged, intensifies the explicitly phallic implications of this conundrum.

In my view, the implications inherent to Objet-Dard clarify a source of the iconography of early Jasper Johns dating from about 1955, when he first met Duchamp. The appearance of Objet-Dard, a work that on Johns’ first encounter did not remotely look like an “object of art,” led Johns to ask how such an object could have been imagined in the first place. Duchamp’s reply, according to Johns, explained the derivation of the object from the mold referred to above.

The secondary meanings of Objet-Dard are even more elusive. What is the object of a dart? Clearly the answer is a Target, a central icon associated with Johns’ painting from 1955 on. Thus, from the implicitly ironical attitude toward the pun and language in Duchamp’s work, Johns made an imaginative leap which further transposed these implications into an oblique, conceptually multivalent iconography wholly different in type from the character of much American abstraction between 1950 and 1955. Johns’ insinuating imagery displaced such glyphs as were then based on the prevailing fusion of Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline.

Taking Duchamp’s pun literally, at face value, Johns inaugurated an imagery of conceptual ambiguity, one that continues. The Pop artists, working in an ambient situation fed by many sources, were far less hyperbolic than Johns in their approach. To the degree that any were influenced by Johns, they took his work—and Rauschenberg’s also—to emphasize primarily an iconography of the commonplace. Granting the nature of Johns’ evolution however, it seems that his emphasis points to an iconography of conceptual sets that only incidentally engages the commonplace. But another generation of artists sees that it was the conceptual set that was as crucial as the imagery itself—target, American flag, map, numbers, measuring devices, and orthographic signs that identify primary colors.

The sheer perversity of Duchamp’s Objet-Dard, shockingly unclassifiable as art to an Abstract Expressionist taste, is even more paradoxical when the question “what is the object of a dart?” is answered by Johns’ _Target—an oddly specific response to a hypothetical query.

Johns rejects this iconographic connection. He claims he knew no French, though to mouth the word “dard” surely calls the English word “dart” immediately to mind. More viable is his assertion that he did not know of the three erotic objects until after the early Targets were completed. To be sure, there is the matter of Johns’ personal acquaintance with Duchamp, a detail that must be accounted for, or even the access to Duchamp’s mind and persona transmitted to Johns through Cage.

Be this as it may, the artist’s mind, unlike that of the historian, does not thrive on niggling one-to-one details, but on making imaginative leaps and playing sudden hunches that throw the origins of the feat into relative unimportance. Even were Johns not fully cognizant of the potential of these three erotic objects in 1955, surely he was aware of some of their implications. What better confirmation of his fascination than that by 1960 he had personally acquired these works.

The intention of the cryptic Female Fig Leaf becomes clear on learning that is was modeled against the pudenda of the violated female figure of the Etant Donnés, upon which Duchamp had worked so long in secrecy. Modeling against anatomy or anatomically suggestive fragments is a central feature of Johns’ work that begins in 1955, and continues to this day. The Target With Plaster Casts, 1955, for instance, supports a register of boxes filled with colored anatomical fragments—lip, nose, ears, fingers, male sex organ—cast from the body of a friend of the artist.

The use of the body fragment, an essential reliance on graphic values, and an insistent intellectual clutch of paradox indicate that Johns, like Duchamp, evolves from the principles of French Symbolism. As Duchamp was the spiritual heir of Mallarmé, so Johns derives from Odilon Redon, in whose charcoal drawings and lithographs we find both the inspirational matter of Johns—fragments of human imagery, especially the floating or severed head—and his richly self-elaborating graphic technique. But beyond these similarities of image and drawing is Johns’ consistently ironic attitude toward such subject matter and technique. As interesting as it may be to note formal connections between artists, the issue is more resolved by the texture of Johns’ mind itself. Who but Johns so consistently insinuates, so perversely warps the known?

Johns’ relationship to Duchamp is one matter, and widely accepted. It serves to establish a model against which a wider and more contemporary mode of art can be discussed. Three aspects of Duchamp’s work found response in the ranging horizontal and emotional climate of California art: 1) personal mythology; 2) a punning focus; and 3) modeling or casting itself as an irony as well as a method. The absorption of the folksy and homespun pun as typified in the Bay Area work of several artists, particularly Fred Martin, Jeremy Andersen and William Wiley, is the facet from which derives, in the first instance, Bruce Nauman’s introduction to the pun. From such a local usage it was but one step further to explore the physically referential aspects of Duchamp’s art, aspects that had been corroborated in the prestigious East Coast model afforded by Johns.

A telling motif, say, of Nauman’s appreciation of linguistic circularity is the neon spiral, a motif employed by the artist in executing the early Maxims. Their shape obviously approximates the cyclical nature of the pun, as Johns’ Targets duplicates it.

While the very title of Nauman’s Wedge Piece, 1968, inevitably recalls Duchamp’s Wedge of Chastity, seemingly the least rewarding of the three erotic objects, its appearance relates strongly to that work. The Wedge of Chastity presents a rugged metallic element, the male plug, driven into a matrix of dental plastic, the female receptacle. Nauman’s Wedge Piece counters a vaginal chamfering (registered during the industrial fabrication of the wedges) against an elongated phallic shape. Moreover, the redness of the wedges corresponds in hue to the pinkness of the dental plastic used in Duchamp’s piece. There is, then, a close coloristic and structural relationship between Duchamp’s and Nauman’s wedge variations.1

It is also important to note that the form of the wedge had been awarded credentials within Minimalism—the preeminent abstract-reductivist movement of our time—as a form in itself. Among the few alternatives open to abstract-reductivist form is commonly found the triangle—the wedge, the ramp, the corner, the “L.” The icons of Minimalism are few—the square, the circle, and the triangle, as well as each of their spatial projections—cube and oblong, sphere and cylinder, pyramid, and wedge. In the many Minimalist pieces executed by Robert Morris and Donald Judd, for example, we find “L” variations, wedge forms, ramps, and architectural elements that negotiate corner and walls. Imagine a situation that combines the circumlocutionary processes stemming from literary conceits, plus a value system primarily supportive of abstract art, then the sources and latitude of post-Minimalism become clearer.

Recent elaborations of this art manifested themselves in the rise of theatricality—the theater of the conceptual. The problem of drawing a mainstream formalist argument with regard to a conceptual theater, one that acknowledges its elements of dance, music, and behaviorism, lies in the difficulty of isolating those elements germane to the histories of dance, music, and behaviorism themselves, and those which have developed within a more contained view of painting and sculpture.

We witnessed, for example, as part of conceptual theater, work by the so-called body artist, Vito Acconci. He extrapolated the mythical type perfected by Duchamp—the androgyne—onto a behaviorist examination of his own psychology, seen in Seedbed, a work developed during the period of 1970–72.

Despite scandalized outcries, Seedbed presents a bare mise-en-scène. Its setting is a ramp or wedge sloping up the corner of a gallery floor.2 Certainly it was not the external aspect of the work that proved provocative, but that the artist, fed by airholes drilled into the ramp’s surface, isolated himself below the slanted floor and engaged in masturbation. The fantasy accompanying this act was faintly audible in the larger gallery space as it was transmitted through a loudspeaker in the corner of the chamber.

Seedbed takes as its metaphor one that Duchamp earlier had attributed to the Large Glass. Seedbed, like Duchamp’s subtitle for the Large Glass, is “an agricultural machine”—Acconci’s seed, so to speak, now being cast upon the floor.

The Large Glass—the work must here be referred to by its proper name The Bride Stripped Bare by the Bachelors, Even—records an ongoing series of physical changes, effected through the actions of complex mechanomorphic machinery. Owing to the functions of the mechanomorphs depicted on the glass, physical states are at one point seen as gaseous—the cloud, or liquid—the “love juice” dripped from the Bride in the upper portion of the glass into the realm of the Bachelors below. At length, the love juice falls into the Nine Malic Molds and therein presumably solidifies. Among still other possibilities, this altered physical matter may be pulverized by the Chocolate Grinder, as it once again may be turned into light energy while passing through the lenses of the Optical Witnesses.

In arcane lore, the person capable of enforcing the change of physical matter from one state to another is the alchemist or the androgyne—the latter being a fusion of male and female. He-She corresponds to a notion of God, that is, a coincidence of opposites. Throughout highly disparate cultures, such a person is often assigned the role of shaman or seer, the see-er of the future, like Tiresias of Greek tragedy, or the Seller of Salt, the Salt Merchant of kabbalism and alchemy.

By an exiguous and circumstantial argument the salt merchant appears to correspond to the medieval alchemist, i.e., the person capable of effecting the change of matter from one physical state to another. The “salt” of the salt merchant may well be symbolized by the philosopher’s stone of the alchemist—the esoteric catalyst without which such changes in matter cannot be made. The arcane knowledge, the gnosis needed to effect this change—say, for example, the secret name of God—and the actual enactment of these changes constituted for the alchemist, the kabbalist or the magus, le grand oeuvre, the great work of magic. Duchamp’s Large Glass as completed by the Etant Donnés is his great work of magic and his life work as well.

In French the Salt Merchant is called “Le Marchand du Sel,” a transpositional pun on the four syllables of the name of Marcel Duchamp. Duchamp knew the name of the androgyne—Rose Sélavy (the secret name of God?) as well as the androgyne’s appearance—the artist himself in transvestiture. Man Ray photographed Marcel Duchamp in such cross-garb in 1920, when preparing the punning label for the perfume bottle La Belle Haleine—beautiful breath, beautiful Helen. The label displays a photograph of Rose Sélavy, a punning name meaning “life is okay.” She is the female side of Duchamp’s nature.

All of this background is essential to an understanding of Seedbed. Acconci’s earlier attempts to deal with the projection of an androgynous personality were realized through performances of such actions as the burning away of the artist’s body hair, the tugging at his breasts, and the hiding of his penis between his legs. These performances indicate publicly that Acconci projected a notion of the androgyne that had earlier been set by Duchamp within his conception of his mythical alter ego, Rose Sélavy.

It is important to note the difference between the conceptual theater of Acconci’s Seedbed and Dennis Oppenheim’s Adrenochrome of 1973. Adrenochrome, like Seedbed, deals with the emission of chemicals—in Oppenheim’s case, the chemical necessary to reconstitute the normal blood-cell structure of a schizophrenic—in Acconci’s work, human sperm. Adrenochrome illuminates a particle of the chemical at the apex of a pyramid, while at the same time, a slide of the microscopic structure of the chemical is projected against a gallery wall. Both mises-en-scène are lent credibility a parallel support system for abstract forms, the ramp and the pyramid.

While both the above works were generated by personal crises, Adrenochrome remains a pro forma work that insists on a one-to-one relationship to the artist’s biography. Seedbed, by contrast, is a highly nonformal and secretive work whereby the autobiographical element is transposed to the plane of myth on the basis of Duchamp’s lore.

The ontological artist, therefore, as Duchamp had anticipated and indicated, is the one whose work is completed in the public psyche. It must be noted that the psyche is primed by a literature of myth. In the absence of this acculturation nothing appears to happen except the work itself and the viewer’s subjective experience of it.3

The mythical personage of the androgyne, it seems to me, is the exteriorization of Duchamp himself, expressed through the surrogate adventure that began when the Nude Descended the Staircase, became the Bride, was Stripped Bare by the Bachelors—female and male personae who ultimately united in the androgyne as impersonated by Duchamp in transvestiture.

An important “proof” for this, apart from the visual evidence, derives from the French name of the Large Glass: La Mariée mise à nu par les celibataires, même. La MARiée mise à nu par les CELibataires—MAR-CEL, the first three letters of the French word for bride and the first three letters of the French word for bachelors comprise the letters of Duchamp’s first name.

The by now obvious fact that Marcel Duchamp is both Bride and Bachelor at the same instant allows A one to recognize something of a mythical core in, say, Vito Acconci’s work, as well as to understand why Bruce Nauman may have used his name as a Readymade—My Name As If It Were Bounced Off The Surface Of The Moon or My Name Enlarged Vertically 14 Times.

Similarly, as Duchamp had regarded the three sexual objects in terms of morphological transfer—most particularly the Female Fig Leaf—so too Nauman casts against his body in unanticipated ways. It was this aspect of Duchamp’s work that licenses for us Nauman’s move into behavioristic performance, video work, laser stereoptics, and architectural situations. At first, Nauman’s attention focused on the external effect made by his body upon some malleable substance, as in the Template of the Left Hand of My Body at Ten Inch Intervals. From this, Nauman was able to project an art in which no external object was actually formed but which internalized the process back into his body—intangible substances such as space, light, warmth, acting in time—were now reforming his body.

This shift between the mold and that which is molded has influenced much of the open and often seemingly unpurposeful aspects of the conceptual performance. In such instances the distinction between Acconci and Oppenheim may prevail. Those conceptual performances which allow for the consciousness of the mythic may be of a greater interest than those that are purely behavioristic.

Such a judgment is speculative. To insist on this distinction means that I posit a conceptual theater given value largely through an attachment to myth and legend. The converse may as easily be true. The question is still an open one. Conceptual theater may yet prove interesting precisely to the degree that it detaches itself from a mythological frame of reference.

Since literature of any kind has the effect of diminishing the abstractness of a work, a conceptual theater grounded, say, in myth would necessarily be weakened by this connection. But, in the same degree that myth may devalue abstraction, so too does autobiography. In the absence of myth and autobiography the conceptual performance becomes purely behavioral. This appears to be another reason why, in Conceptual art, the behavioral appears to bridge the ontological and epistemological branches of the movement. Contrary to what I have previously thought, behaviorism is abstract conceptual theater.

When Nauman investigated the artistic possibilities of his body or his name as a Readymade, he drew away from an art based on the pun and simple language toward what has been loosely called “phenomenology”—perhaps an abuse of the term, but one that nonetheless has entered art talk.

“Phenomenology,” used this way, indicates a kind of physiological behaviorist activity and self-examination. What is it like to be? To do? To sense? To enact certain kinds of experiences and activities? Many of the experiences thus examined tend to be those attributed to inanimate things—residual Minimalism again—an underpinning derived from abstraction. What is it like to be immobile for long durations? To mechanically repeat physical activities? In such ways, artists as disparate as Nauman, Gilbert and George, recent Keith Sonnier, Robert Morris, and Lynda Benglis can be bracketed, if only momentarily.

Moreover, Nauman regarded his body as a medium—trying to find in his body the very vehicle of his art—in the way that earlier artists had discovered the media of their art in watercolor, gouache, oil paint, etc. This may relate to Johns’ connection between seeing and orality in many forms—speaking, masticating, ingesting.

This enlarging episode in recent art tied post-Minimalism into a loss of distinct species-types—painting and sculpture became “pictorial sculpture.” Post-Minimalism is marked by a loss of typology—the rejection of stretcher supports, framing edge in painting, of base in sculpture, the loss of facture, and the loss of site. Until post-Minimalism, “Art” was indoors and “Nature” outdoors. In this connection Robert Smithson’s Nonsites, Carl Andre’s floor pieces and Richard Long’s walking tours cannot be overestimated. Post-Minimalist elasticity meant that work could theoretically be placed anywhere.

With the loss of time-honored conventions of this kind—once art became part of an infinite continuum ranging from interior to exterior and species to species—painting and sculpture could quite naturally evolve toward and encompass theatricality. Nonetheless, the enactment, for example, of mechanical and repetitive actions and gestures still points to a formal continuity from Minimalism, despite the theatrical nature of such activity. To the painter or sculptor theatricality offered itself as an alternative to the loss of belief in facture, in species-type, in retinality, and in site that had taken place.

Certainly, the sine qua non of art—traces of sensitively stroked surface executed with a paint-loaded brush—has been fundamentally undermined, perhaps irrevocably. While such activity is, can, and does remain art for many, other artists feel impelled to investigate looser modes and media, such as laser beam photography, video and film, behavioral phenomenology, the dance, storywriting and telling. The latter are all being explored as viable in their own right as alternatives to sensibility drawing and sensibility painting, and as an alternative to the structures of thought of the pure Conceptualists.

In part this is why there has been such a resurgence of dance. Not necessarily dance practiced as a classically defined discipline, but rather as an art of rudimentary movement: walking as dance, amateur as dancer, another way of painting and sculpting—an alternative. Painting without painting, sculpture without sculpture.

This may be a polemical generalization. That today we happen to see many dancers performing in ways suggestive of modes of painting and sculpture does not necessarily mean that the dancer is a painter or sculptor. When dance—and music too, for that matter—engages a wide reach in relation to painting and sculpture, it is tacitly assumed that this kind of dance or music is in some sense an expression formed by painting and sculpture rather than one that is formative of painting and sculpture. This is by no means a clear question today.

Robert Rauschenberg’s connection as a dancer and stage designer to the Merce Cunningham Company is well known. Much of Robert Morris’ early career was spent as a dancer working with Yvonne Rainer. Before her desire to become a painter, Dorothea Rockburne trained at length to be a dancer. Certainly, the prestige of Yvonne Rainer among post-Minimalists is high,both as dancer and filmmaker. Similarly, Trisha Brown’s “Accumulations” dance of simple abstract movements is suggestive of many of the visual properties of our art. Yet despite such superficial bracketings and circumstantial inferences, the real question remains unanswered: Does recent dance come out of painting and sculpture or does sculpture and painting come out of dance?

In a parallel vein, about which I feel more equipped to speak, I question whether the emergence of “story art” evolves from the Happening, is a surrogate expression of the conceptual performance, or is informed by the abstract qualities of visual art. John Baldessari presents bitter parables, the morals of which ironically underscore the hollowness of art. Lawrence Wiener, like Kienholz before him, presents statements which are themselves projects and works. Vito Acconci and Dennis Oppenheim, among many, present strong performances in the contexts of behavioral phenomenology. Bill Beckley tells shaggy dog stories, while William Wegman opts for a clear, ironical humor. It is possible to see “story art” as a post-conceptual theater.

However, the methods of “story art” use modes still related to abstract form—halting speech, as if something solid and blocky were being formed in the mouth—terse, iconic words, stubby and solid; non sequiturs abound, breaking down the idea of story as narrative; memorization is used as a means of inducing a sense of rotelike immutability; repetition is used to establish a format of constant structure. These are some of the methods by which “story art” announces its connection to an abstract pictorial and sculptural mainstream, rather than to literature or anything literary.

What of the artists who had typified the pure Conceptualists, the epistemological mainstream? Oddly enough one is witnessing a growing tendency toward more traditional conceptions of art typology. Even those artists who in the past exemplified research into the quantifying elements of art, who questioned the actual physical species of art through borrowed structural systems of knowledge—such artists now appear to be opting for an art of more familiar typologies. Ratification which once came from systems of mathematics or philosophy, is now deriving from nonverbal theories of structure, in which credibility becomes an act of faith in taste and sensibility rather than in cerebral verification systems.

The reintroduction of material processes in the work of Bochner and Rockburne, for example, may indicate a return, but to what? To the conception that art is not necessarily made with notions, but with materials—a position that parallels Richard Serra’s notion of sculpture as a distinct species type. This has always been true, but the shift is one of emphasis and context. It may be that such a return to the investigation of material may have been spurred by the open-endedness of theatricality itself, thus ratifying the cerebral radicality of this position.

Most important, this change or alteration may mean that the most forward and intellectually grounded choice in art may now opt for “granted,” tangible aspects of painting and sculpture, choices made within typologically defined species. This, in turn, surely indicates that post-Minimalism as a movement has come full cycle—from species, to loss of species, to species regained—and in so doing, that a certain period notion style in American art may have ended.



1. In Germany. Nauman found two red wedges and inscribed the English word “like” on them. Our word (or “like” has the same number of letters and incorporates the same letters but in different sequence as the German word for wedge, Keil. On the basis of this “likeness” Nauman formulated the palindromic relationship between the words and shapes of the wedges.

This material was presented in my “Bruce Nauman: Another Kind of Reasoning,” Artforum, February, 1972. In a recent essay on the artist, this interpretation was rejected. lane Livingston protested that at the time of the Wedge Piece, Nauman had never heard of Duchamp (Jane Livingston and Marcia Tucker, Bruce Nauman: Work from 1965 to 1972). Even were this assertion remotely possible, it is unacceptable because no serious art student glancing at the illustrations or reading the commentaries on Duchamp’s work—rife in both specialized and popular magazines—could remain unaffected by Duchamp. In addition, Nauman worked in an atmosphere in which a multitude of Duchamp-inspired variations and (Mutants were to be encountered in studio conversation, gallery cant. and media dispersal. An artist does not have to “know Duchamp” to know Duchamp’s ideas. How many persons familiar in a general way with the notions of. Freud or Marx have ever read Freud or Marx?

2. See my “Vito Acconci and the Conceptual Performance,” Artforum, April, 1972.

3. The recognition, therefore. of “public psyche” does not take place as a mystical necessity—the overtones of Jungian archetypes—but as a conclusion drawn from a liberal education. Were this not so, then I would be sponsoring an art of mysticism and intuition, qualities, if they exist, that are the paths of madness.