PRINT February 1974

Maria Nordman

WHEN, A DECADE AGO, Robert Irwin refused to allow photographs of his paintings to be published, he tested the art system’s sincerity about abstract art: if a work is nonrepresentational, how can it be represented by anything but itself (e.g., by a halftone reproduction of a photograph of a partial view)?1 That Maria Nordman conscientiously stamps “FRAGMENT” on illustrations of her universalist (pure space, light) art is only a minor fact in her extension of Irwin’s implications. For Nordman each piece is, if nothing else, specific: largely untranscribable in photographs, drawings, or maquettes; unrepeatable, installed once for the occasion; and dependent for realization on the participation of single observers during necessary time spans. She began at twenty-six in 1969-70 with “room sketches” in her Santa Monica studio (by which time she, a native of East Germany, had acquired an M.A. from UCLA, studied at the Max Planck Institute in Stuttgart, and begun employment as an editorial assistant to Richard Neutra). The sketches and subsequent pieces are difficult (although they’re literally the most accessible things in the world) because Nordman refuses either didacticism or connoisseurship. She doesn’t particularly care that Los Angeles (or anyplace) is studded with nooks, crannies, and incognito vistas giving the viewer much the same “take” as her own pieces; she subscribes to Cage’s thought that ideas are not owned, and occur simultaneously in more than one person at a time. “And people like Cage and Fuller,” she says, “are doubling every minute.”

An exemplary piece, done in November, 1971, in her studio, contains most of the working premises:

A participant walks into a vertical voidal space for the scale of one person. After some time has passed, the room is a horizontal white space which begins at eye level and decreases at a constant rate as it moves above eye level. Below, the space remains voidal black. Miniature for one person.2

The elements are specificity, scale, and time. The experience of the viewer (“subject” might fit better) inside the space is less concerned with the visual (you can’t see much), or with a conglomerate of sensual information (such as hearing street sounds or smelling the dry-walling), than it is with the irreducible being in space—an experience, incidentally, which is hardly translatable into photographs or words. Its specificity (i.e., “you hafta be there”) and completeness (the piece seems to spring only from itself, without history) are the reasons Nordman’s work is often passed over—at least once by myself—as fun-and-games anechoic chamber or cellotex Zen.

Saddleback Mountain, Nordman’s most recent addition to a necessarily sparse oeuvre, is her best because it deals with scale and time without imposing the previous preconditioning (as in the “voidal” space at Pasadena) on the audience (e.g., one-at-a-time, stay for at least 20 minutes, etc.). Built at the University of California at Irvine over an entire summer, as part of Hal Glickman’s menu of rigorous environmental art without a home in the gallery/museum axis, the piece is, quite simply, a room and entry hall with a mirror at the joining. But the passageway in is at a slant (on the floor plan), widens as it goes, curves at one corner as it meets the far end of the chamber, and possesses a vertical mirror (11” wide by the whole 16’ high) which provides a tall, stratified reflection of the entrance, behind which is Saddleback Mountain, the namesake. The room, off square because of the passageway’s disposition, is sliced diagonally by a line of light (from the mirror) which crosses the floor, climbs the opposite corner seam, and traverses the ceiling back to its source.

The room is nominally white (painted so, and visitors are asked to remove their shoes), but the several perceptual experiences are anything but uniform or reduced: 1) from the entrance (ideally plain, but UCI requires a guestbook, attendant, and a sign about your shoes) you look down a long tunnel toward the bright landscape behind you; 2) from the juncture a quasi-Ganz field at first; 3) then, as your pupils dilate, an encompassing cubical space finely but hazily divided into planes of various, grainy grays; 4) to the left or right of the reflected light shaft, “environments” of differing darknesses and densities; and 5) from the far corner of the room, standing in the illuminated line, a glowing pillar at the mirror. Thus, the piece is both intimate and specific for the single visitor in his/her separate area of the work—a quality heretofore forcing Nordman to instruct about accessibility and length of stay; the time the work requires to “unfold” on you is unstructured (as the Pasadena piece was structured, like an airliner toilet with the occupée sign lighted) and personal. Moreover, Saddleback Mountain is practically publicly durable—a requisite if you’re really moving toward anonymity and nonownership. I saw it with my family and we were quiet but conversing, and satisfied; the guy ahead of us was solitary, reverent, and a little spaced; we were followed by four pubescent surfers who yelled a lot, but didn’t damage the work and (I presume, because they stayed five minutes) received something from it.

Nordman’s working method is osmotic and responsive, like the artist’s, rather than linear and assertive, like the technician’s:

I usually will tend to stand still with a place for a while before I decide. Then it’s just a matter of the floorplan and everything is finished. When I came out to Irvine to draw up the floorplan—it happened to be summer solstice when I started—I just walked around a lot. After a while the buildings seemed to recede and I began to see new animals, plants, the unspoiled parts of the landscape and the Saddleback Mountain. There were very few people.3

There was, however, a piece, Negative Light Extensions, at Newport Harbor Art Museum earlier in the year which goes further. An angularly concave dry-wall construction faces out, unannounced, on an alley behind the museum; as it scoops up/flings back the sun’s rays differently as to time and date, it uses time not only to clarify itself, but to metamorphize (but only through light, not physical change). Moreover, its “entrance,” unlike Saddleback Mountain, is the public right-of-way. But as the alley is normally unpopulated, the viewer usually encounters the piece alone (because Nordman uses natural placement, not artifice, to keep the visitor trickle slowed), and by chance, eliminating most of the preconceptions of institutionalized (announced) art.

Although Maria Nordman is clearly related to her friends, Irwin (the senior theorist), and contemporaries like Michael Asher, Jim Turrell, Eric Orr, and (perhaps) Barbara Munger, she is very much her own artist. Perhaps, in the long run, such is the contribution of a West Coast art which began with the latent electricity in Larry Bell’s boxes: an art which, without quoting scripture, without wearing its own dialectic as a badge of style, will get us out of history. Because, you see, an art like Nordman’s is not the history of the demolished piece, but of those who’ve been there, and gone on.

Peter Plagens



1. You could say that part of the big-time print phenomenon of the ’60s consisted of artists supplying, at considerable profit, representations of their own nonrepresentational work; Irwin, to his credit, never made a print.

2. Artist’s notes.

3. Artist’s statement in the catalogue of Saddleback Mountain, 1973.