PRINT January 1974

Michelle Stuart: a Fabric of Significations

DURING 1973, IN AN EXTRAORDINARILY intensive period of work, Michelle Stuart produced the series of drawings that is the subject of this note. In terms of technique they are drawings, done with graphite on paper, but they are on the scale of paintings, 12’ by 5’, 9’ by 5’. (Drawings, of course, have been recognized since the 16th century, both by artist and patron, as original objects, bound neither to fragmentary notation nor to functional rehearsal for large works. The only drawings on a scale commensurate to Stuart’s were cartoons for murals, but these have a purely preparatory function.) To the connection with painting can be added a literal projection or recession of the surface that might be thought sculptural. This is the rolling of the paper to produce concealed zones within the work or the extension of the paper off the wall and to the floor. As the paper hangs down, tugged by gravity, curling a little according to the paper’s memory of earlier rolling during the work process, it enters the plane that the spectator occupies. Thus the significative function, given by the drawing’s upright position on the wall, becomes environmentalized. The fact is that these drawings require a realignment of our assumptions about techniques as they are changed by enlargement. This combined with the spatial complexity of the large drawings makes one realize that of the big pictures of the ’60s only a very few were produced by artists who took seriously problems of the interrelation of scale and space.

The method by which these works are produced is that of drawing. Stuart begins with a rubbing, taking an impression from a rough surface, a rock, sand, metal, placed underneath the paper, as well as responding to the specific weight and surface quality of the paper itself. By rubbing graphite over the paper she elicits an allover texture which, as it were, is arrived at involuntarily: it is the product of physical activity rather than of intellectual decision. Her surfaces can incorporate random factors, and there is a process akin to natural selection in her solidification of the marks. In a protracted process, she uses blocks of graphite, graphite powder sprinkled or brushed on, different grades of pencil, and an eraser. She works on a table to maintain the pressure that she needs and, in the case of the big drawings, she rolls them up as she fills the surface. The unity of the work is maintained as much by a tactile act of identification as by visual judgment. The first traces are consolidated, points are emphasized, tonal sequences are intensified or interrupted, as the skin emerges. Finally the work is hung on the wall and here it is subject to analytical revision and correction.

The surfaces of her drawings, as we might as well call them, are lovingly and compulsively animated by small marks that invite close inspection, like a chalk drawing by Watteau. However, she sets up an interplay of close focus and distance. The size of the paper and the protracted homogeneity of the surface support distant viewing. The drawings can be viewed, close-up, as a porous matrix or, from a distance, as a black cloud. The delicacy of multiple strokes might appear to dissolve the surface of the paper, but their iteration over a large area produces a resilience of surface. Stuart’s black and dark gray marks are small in area and brief in directional momentum, making the mottled fields of her drawings both vibrant and calm.

The continuous expanse of the drawings is sometimes crossed by clear hard lines, as in No. 4. This diagrammatic element is retained from her preceding work in which grids overlaid an indeterminate surface with cartographical inferences. Since 1967 she has made drawings based directly on photographs of the moon and these pieces, like earlier assemblages, were all boxed in. Scanning Sequence, 1973, for example, combines the regularity of the grid (drawn on the surface but present also in the row-effect of identical boxes) with the porous ground. They resemble terrain viewed by an infrared sensor, so that the speckled field becomes a fabric of significations. In the large drawings that followed, starting in the spring, Stuart dismissed the box and possessed literal space by the extension of the single surface to which is added the evoked space of a hovering field.

The vocabulary of art criticism is weak in terms for characterizing allover surfaces. We are better equipped to talk about the variety of form with internal contrasts of size and boundary than about unitary fields. It is related to the difficulty of talking about color compared to line, which Max Kozloff summarized in the title of an essay, “Venetian Art and Florentine Criticism.” Stuart provides a clue however in the catalogue of her one-woman show, a part of the “Ten Women Artists” series at the Douglass Library, Rutgers University. Referring to the work immediately prior to the big drawings, she gives “a list of words that I like: space, time, currents, continuum, terminals, electromagnetism, gravitation, series, circuits, events, signals, waves.” There is a connection between these words, as the artist has pointed out, and her experience as a cartographer for the Army Corps of Engineers. She no longer makes specific references to topography, astronomy, or weather maps, but these subjects have been assimilated into her imagery rather than abandoned. Stuart’s word list is in one of the most usual ways in which we order the world. To quote Ludwig van Bertalanffy: “In graph theory hierarchic order is expressed by the ‘tree’ and relational aspects of hierarchies can be represented in this way” (General System Theory, New York, 1968, p. 28). Stuart resists the “tree” and indicates a preference for continuous over hierarchic form, for density rather than partition, for gradation rather than steps, for flow rather than climax. These terms are not meant only formally here, but are intended to denote the kind of order with which Stuart is concerned, an order that constitutes the syntax of her work, but at the same time signifies aspects of sensory and ideational experience outside the drawing.

Lawrence Alloway