PRINT March 1974

The New Dialectic

1. Intention and Perceptual Theory

THE CLIMATE OF CRITICISM over the past decade has suppressed all consideration of individual intention by treating problems as exclusively formal. This arose as a reaction against the romantic and existentialistic attitude of ’50s criticism, especially Harold Rosenberg’s writing, where gestures were viewed literally, as feelings or states of mind. Such criticism was a product of current psychoanalytic trends, notably the preoccupation with Jungian archetype and myth. It became stylized art writing, trapped within its own dialectic and unresponsive.

Discussions of motive can be suspected of moralizing, of finding the fact to fit a prejudgment, by substituting speculations about motivation, by judging work by the character of the artist, and by giving every formal detail a psychological overload (as in Freud’s obsessive analysis of Leonardo). If intentions are explained “page by page” in the narrative sense, two fictions are created: the fiction of history as a force existing outside and apart from the individual’s choice, and the fiction that the writer’s view adequately portrays the conscious initial state of the artist from which the final work is derived. But intention is not the “cause” for a work of art, nor does it exist prior to the work for the determination of “meaning.” Meanings reflect the viewer’s experiences and expectations. In the spirit of Cassirer’s aphorism, “the sign transcends itself toward meaning,” artworks generate meanings—meanings do not generate works of art. Intention as motivation points out what has been invested in the works which generate these meanings in order to give the viewer a means of understanding one’s own responses in confronting the work of art. This intermediary viewpoint must also be “corrected” through subsequent analyses, particularly when the viewer is also an art writer, to expose invisible formalist, ethnocentric, and personal biases. Art history, with its antiseptic objective methodology, has always used intentional evidence, such as biographical and autobiographical information. However, any idea of historical objectivity must be recognized as myth. Historical facts are interpretations of relationships between data, and reveal as much about the writer and the culture as about the subject.

Discussion of the processes of perception has become important in understanding the intentional context of the artist, the artwork, and the viewer. Raw sensation and conscious intention are mutually interactive in the relationships between cognitive structures and the perception of what’s out there. The interest in these questions by artists and art writers indicates the remedial necessity of this inquiry to challenge conventional responses. This has led to borrowings from philosophy, set, information, and game theory in art and art writing.

Gestalt psychology was influential through the ’60s, primarily via Rudolf Arnheim. The codified Gestalt laws held that changing patterns of energy in the brain formed the most regular, symmetrical, and economical configurations possible for the field of stimuli. These sensory facts, organized according to the laws of “Prägnanz”—unity, segregation, and balance—were held to be innate and universal. Gestalt theorists claimed that these laws imposed a necessary and convergent logic upon what could be observed. No doubt Gestalt observations are accurate as description, but the attribute of “spontaneous organization of simple shapes” would seem to minimize the role of learning in the perception and organization of form. Moreover, what may be true of learned response to objects in everyday situations cannot necessarily be transferred to the art context, where expectations are loaded and perceptions are thereby vastly different.

Although the premises of Gestalt psychology are somewhat antithetical to those of phenomenology, the vocabularies and methods are often confused in ’60s writing. There was a wide use of the term “phenomenological” which can be, strictly speaking, any description of what is seen—the examination of one’s consciousness to reveal all that can be known about the external world. Some art criticism, notably that of Donald Judd, used the phenomenological approach to describe as precisely as possible what he saw as a way of circumventing then current critical vocabularies. The writing was phenomenological only in method. As a philosophy, phenomenology seeks the primacy of consciousness underneath the structures of cultural conditioning—a self-reflexivity predicated upon the belief that the act of consciousness and its object are subjective and objective aspects of the same thing. Although Husserl terms phenomenology an “a prioripsychological discipline” and a science of nature, it is far from being “ordinary” psychology. The phenomenological concept of “intention” is not synonymous with “motivation” but rather with “meaning.” The full consciousness of one’s intentions provides the only knowledge one can properly be said to know. Though the essential nature of phenomenology has hardly been recognized in art usage (a recent exception is Donald Kuspit’s article in Artforum, January, 1974), the spirit of phenomenology has been important to much recent art, performance, music, and filmmaking. Even when used only as a method in criticism, its use has overcome hitherto conventional modes of writing by a focus on the viewer’s experience of the object, thereby encouraging recognition of the intersensory unity of perception as a prime fact of art.

2. Inductive and Deductive Modes

Gestalt psychology postulates a priori laws of perception; it may be viewed as a deductive science in the nature of logical or scientific systems as described by Karl Popper:

To give a causal explanation of an event means to deduce a statement which describes it, using as premises of the deduction one or more universal laws, together with certain singular statements, the initial conditions.1

In contrast, one might characterize phenomenology as inductive as described by Max Black:

0. Induction stands here for any kind of nondemonstrative argument whose conclusion is not intended to follow from the premises by sheer logical necessity. . . .

6. Induction is an art, not a science or a system of mechanization.

6.1. The art of drawing risky inferences might be compared to the art of mountain climbing. The climber clings to his holds, estimates the security of the next foothold — and leaps. So also for induction.2

Recent experiments in perception suggest that vision may be more inductive than previously thought. This tends to favor Gombrich’s anti-Gestalt position (Art and Illusion) and the phenomenological standpoint whose focus on the transactional aspects of seeing parallels the processes of vision itself. We automatically turn our eyes in a fixation reflex so that the image falls on the foveal region of the retina, where there is a high concentration of photoreceptors, which gives accuracy of vision and color vision. These fixations are not random but purposive, since the eye fixates on what is of interest as glimpsed through peripheral vision. “Saccades” or scanning occurs between fixations, and the succession of retinal images or patterns of excitation (which we do not “see” as image or reproduction) are stored in mental “maps.” Perception is ordered by the processes that guide fixation as well as by those that determine what we remember from a succession of glances as they feed back into memory traces of preceding fixations. Scanning contradicts the Gestalt argument about the innate and primary unity of object perception. The reading of images is holistic when an object is so familiar that the recognition of it from a scan map is spontaneous. This emphasizes the learned nature of perception rather than the Gestalt postulation of an a priori unity.

The value of neuropsychological investigation does not lie in the reduction of art to brain processes, but rather in the rebuttal of traditional problems in philosophy and esthetics. The liberation of the art object from the idealization of critical theory underlines its actual way of working with the viewer. Although some art of the ’60s involved a play on perceptual phenomena, they were primarily extracted from the current rules of organization which favored Gestalt readings. This work either presents information as expected or distorts the expected predictions. Robert Morris’ L-Beams of 1965 operate in the hiatus between what is known and what is seen:

. . . no matter how clearly we understand that the three Ls are identical, it is impossible to really perceive them—the one upended, the second lying on its sides, and the third poised on its two ends—as the same. The experienced shape of the individual sections depends, obviously, upon the orientation of the Ls to the space they share with our bodies—thus, the size of the Ls shifts according to the object’s specific relation to the ground, both in terms of the overall scale and in terms of an internal comparison between the two arms of a given L.3

Jan Dibbets approaches the disconnection between perceived and expected shape from another angle. In his Perspective Distortions, the photographed shape finds and freezes the one mode of appearance of a trapezoid in which it looks like a square. It would take a special effort of thinking about how a camera would portray this shape in order to see the square. Similarly, until recently Robert Mangold’s distorted shapes (which share the deductive modes of the ’60s) work with the tension between familiar representations of forms and abnormal appearances.

The deductive nature of all these works results from the use of perceptual phenomena that “capture” or illustrate what is known or has been observed as perceptual “fact.” In contrast, the phenomenology of the intersensory system is involved with the processes of perception as inductive transactions between the observer and the world. Artwork in this mode elicits an intertwining of thinking and perceiving in the process of the individual’s recognition of what is there. Perceptual information if attended to continues the processes which order the forms that shape reality in our minds.

3. Smithson and the Dialectic

A key figure in the shift in direction toward the phenomenal is Robert Smithson, not only through the actual works he executed but also through the widely ranging arguments of his writing—particularly “Entropy and the New Monuments,” “Sedimentation of the Mind: Earth Projects,” and “Incidents of Mirror-Travel in the Yucatan.” His involvement with the landscape was less transcendental and romantic than reflective of his antipathy for a way of experiencing based on “clear and distinct ideas.” He argued for the “natural”—all of life with its constant transformation of inert into living matter and vice versa, an intuitive continuum of interacting elements whose ultimate fact is Process.

Smithson’s attitude toward the natural allowed him to embrace the so-called unnatural—the decadent, the perverse, and the mannered—as part of the essential life process. Most art strategies seek to impose order on material. He saw the life of art as melding into a symbiotic relation with the actual nature of the environment.

Because decay and death represent an energetic failure of survival, Smithson exulted in periods of culture which were speeding toward their demise, the mirror relation to periods peaking toward their summits. His interest in Catholicism and other forms of religious belief was coupled with his understanding of the sensuality of death as the living out of one’s body in an ironic fervor. However, the omnipresent deterioration of life provides conditions for transcendence—not only through sex and religion but through laughter, the “gateway to the fourth dimension . . . an entropic verbalization” and “secret language of the future.”4 Smithson believed, after Freud, in the liberating value of humor and the joke—that the sudden breakthrough of sexual or aggressive impulses in laughter provides an elevation similar to art in its social and public nature, and in its ability to produce pleasure. Freud’s explanation of this transcendence has many parallels in Smithson’s work:

The grandeur of it [humor] clearly lies in the triumph of narcissism, the victorious assertion of the ego’s invulnerability. The ego refuses to be distressed by the provocations of reality, to let itself be compelled to suffer. It insures that it cannot be affected by the traumas of the external world; it shows, in fact, that such traumas are no more than occasions for it to gain pleasure.5

Smithson was able to translate the world into these terms:

The ordinary laugh is cubic or square (Isometric), the chuckle is a triangle or pyramid (Tetragonal), the giggle is a hexagon or rhomboid (Hexagonal), the titter is prismatic (Orthorhombic), the snicker is oblique (Monoclinic), the guffaw is asymmetric.

This attitude explains the absence of cynicism and pessimism in his view of a world of decay and death. Decadence, in all its aspects—Huysmanism, perversity, sadomasochism, joksterism—is survival in the face of entropy, for the organism lives by sucking low entropy from the environment in order to compensate for its own entropic deterioration. The demand for low entropy makes survival in art and life ultimately economic. Ideas struggle against degradation:

One’s mind and the earth are in a constant state of erosion, mental rivers wear away abstract banks, brain waves undermine cliffs of thought, ideas decompose into stones of unknowing, and conceptual crystallizations break apart into deposits of gritty reason.6

Even if Smithson’s writing and public persona of provocateur and gadfly thoroughly practiced the dialectical method, his actual artwork was dialectical more in concept than in its relation to the viewer or the landscape. Spiral Jetty and Broken Circle and Spiral Hill in Emmen, Holland, use spiral and circular configurations which are graphic abstractions of natural form. Spiral Jetty, however, heightens perception of the panorama. This creates a symbolic interaction between the earth and its objects in earth time as well as in the time of the viewer’s perception. As Smithson wrote:

Floating in this temporal river are the remnants of art history, yet the “present” cannot support the cultures of Europe, or even the archaic or primitive civilizations; it must instead explore the pre- and post-historic mind; it must go into the places where remote futures meet remote pasts.

Smithson’s maps, mirrors, and Nonsites (“three-dimensional maps”) reveal his Borgesian fondness for myth and language: he was involved with literary and labyrinthine involutions of mind rather than with the données of rational experimental psychology. However, his work was essentially anthropological. It posited the living organism as the ultimate fact of nature, in the metaphorical associations between the mind and the universe, in his use of psychological terms to describe nature (“Sadism is the end product of nature, when it is based on the biomorphic order of rational creation”), and even in his love of personal confrontation, frequently in bars, which must not be slighted as a productive part of his thought process.

In his preoccupation with the “criminal” psychology of the artist in society, Smithson asserted that the sublimation of sexual and aggressive impulses into art is essentially no different from neurosis and crime or the failure to sublimate these desires. Decadence and creativity become synonymous within a culture in which the media consume the artist with the exaggerated myth of his own production; that cheats him by declaring commodities “timeless” in order to exploit him out of his own temporal existence; that views him as a mythological creature. While there is some paranoia in this attitude, it is less personal than reflective of the state of the contemporary artist.

As one of the most vital apologists for Minimal Art, Smithson’s writings (particularly “Entropy and the New Monuments”) revealed the hyperrealities of a quasi-science fiction content seldom if ever discussed by other critics or artists. His writings are proof of how his premises differed from those of his contemporaries. Although Smithson’s early pieces (such as Enantiomorphic Chamber, Cryosphere, Plunge) shared the label of “Primary Structures,” his art resisted substantive form and conceptualized definition. He tried to give intransigent materials the power of growth, change, and transcendence in the imagination. That he was finally about to realize projects he had been planning for several years is one of the tragedies of his death.

4. The Inductive in Music and Performance

Smithson’s focus on the phenomenal world is paralleled by auditory and tactile modes of sense perception in some recent music and performance. There seems to be an impetus toward (and a wider understanding of) ways of working that involve a more direct and aggressive sensual manner of presentation. In my view, the energy of sculpture compared to painting of the late ’60s results from the literality of sculpture in space. The intensified subject-object relationship between the work and the viewer was denounced as “theatrical” by Michael Fried in “Art and Objecthood,” in which he criticized the “sensational” aspects of the dramatic confrontation. In confirmation of the dramatic content, some of these sculptures (including works of Ronald Bladen, Sol LeWitt, Don Judd, Dan Flavin, and Robert Morris) are less successful when placed outside because they lose the “staged” tension of an interior architectural space.

Other than in such areas as Happenings, much of the performance as well as the music of the ’60s shared the literality of Minimal sculpture. Movements were objectified and confined to actual time, and deduced from structuring principles such as serial order and repetition. The early work of Yvonne Rainer, Steve Paxton, Deborah Hay, Robert Morris, Trisha Brown, Steve Reich, and Phil Glass, manipulated the body or sound as sculptural elements, structurally programmed in advance rather than exploratory. Dance became involved with tasks and games, with no sexual differentiation in choreography. Rainer has stated in an interview:

It seemed very appropriate for me at the time to use a whole other point of view about my body—that it could be even handled like an object, picked up and carried, and that objects and bodies were interchangeable.7

Only recently has Rainer allowed a strong psychological content to predominate ordinary language gesture. Her earlier work contained these emotional elements, but they were purposely repressed. Consequently, screaming fits or beeping noises (alternately frustrated and funny attempts at communicating) occasionally burst through the mechanical and depersonalized structure of movement. It is noteworthy that Rainer had her first screaming fit in a work with Simone Forti:

That came about through Simone flinging a ragged jacket on the floor and saying “Improvise that!” and I went to town on my end of the seesaw, screaming and yelling. I couldn’t wait. What impressed me structurally about it was that she made no effort to connect the events thematically in any way.

While the psychology of Rainer’s new work involves dramatic narrative situations (Lives of Performers, This is the story of a woman who. . .), Forti’s work has always contained an inductive and improvisatory element that was never under the spell of Minimal sculpture. Some early pieces emphasize the perception of sound for psychological reaction. In one work, she places a performer underneath a wooden box from which a faint whistling can be heard. It is impossible to tell where the sound is coming from; only the knowledge that the performer is under the box helps in its location. In another piece, Forti sings a strange song against the Beatles’ Fool on the Hill so that one is forced to switch attention back and forth between melodies, both of which convey different feelings.

Joan Jonas’ work is similarly involved with auditory perception. One of the most striking elements in her performances (and films) is the use of sound-delay. Blocks of wood are clapped together by distant performers so that space is measured by the gap between the visual gesture and its acoustical consequences. Jonas has also worked with the perception of performers moving in the landscape—the relationship between what is seen and what is imagined from barely visible cues. In Sound Delay, 1970, at Jones Beach, performers walked in a diagonal line so far away from the audience that the axis of the movement could not be discerned. In the same piece, dressed in blue, Jonas carried a red bag, perceived as spots of color in relation to the neutral clothes of the other performers. In a nocturnal piece at the University of California in Irvine, Jonas used a hidden searchlight to beam on three performers whenever they clapped pieces of wood together. It illuminated numbers painted on boards and revealed the distance of the performers from the audience. Because of the rough terrain, the performers dropped in and out of sight as they walked lines and circles, which could not be distinguished in the distance. There is also a strong psychological element in Jonas’ work, ranging from direct and disturbing confrontation (barking at the audience during her 1973 performance at the Castelli Gallery, Organic Honey’s Vertical Roll) to the archetypal content of wood-clapping, which reminds one of the delay between lightning and thunder. The emphasis on the psychology of perception in the work of both Jonas and Forti is predicated upon an inductive interaction between the body and the environment rather than the a priori logical structures of much ’60s performance.

Post-Schönberg music likewise developed two major streams which parallel the distinction between inductive and deductive modes of operation. The former involved strict structuring principles of composition, such as serial order, the 12-tone system, and electronic devices which reduced musical events to basic elements of pitch, duration, dynamics, and timbre. In the work of Milton Babbitt, for example, the 12-tone system is used as an a priori structure that defines all the possible relationships and operations within its parameters. This interest in control is expressed differently in the music of Varese, whose concern is with the clear and formal organization of parts within the entire composition, and the spatiality of sound as solid and static.

In contrast, the music of John Cage involves a diffuse acoustical space that rejected relationships between sound events and a conscious organizational structure in favor of the random production of sounds with no predetermined unity of composition. As Cage has said:

In recent years my musical ideas have continued to move away from the object (a composition having a well-defined relationship of parts) into process (nonstructured activities, indeterminate in character).8

Cage’s work drew the listener into a more active relationship with the process of the music through the use of aleatory methods and “found” objects—familiar sounds from the outside world.

Earle Brown and Morton Feldman are also interested in the dialectic between the music, the performer, and the audience. Of a 1952 piece by Earle Brown called Synergy a statement in his folio reads:

To have elements exist in space . . . space as an infinitude of directions from an infinitude of points in space. To work from right to left, back, forward, up, down, and all points in between. The score is a picture of this space at one instant which must always be considered as unreal and transitory . . . the performer must set this all in motion, which is to say, realize that it is in motion and step into it. Either sit and let it move or move through it at all speeds.9

The inductive and dialectical music of Cage and Brown has been more generative than the structures of Babbitt and Varese for a few contemporary musicians who have been investigating the audial and psychological perception of sound—La Monte Young, Phil Glass, and Charlemagne Palestine. Steve Reich and Terry Riley, on the other hand, use deductive and a priori methods of composition that stress structure and rhythm more related to Babbitt and Varèse.

La Monte Young’s recent work concerns auditory phenomena as universal intuitions of space and time, by using whole number frequency ratios sustained for long durations. His interest in acoustical space was already present in early pieces—Vision, 1959, in which the lights were turned off and musically unusual sounds were made from strange locations; String Trio, 1958, composed entirely of tones sustained from one to four minutes long with silences in between, and a work of 1960 in which the notes B and F# were “to be held for a long time.” The development of the Dream House—“a living organism with a life and a tradition of its own”—and the continuing work The Two Systems of Eleven Categories (originally entitled Vertical Hearing or Hearing in the Present Tense) stress Young’s interest in the total perceptual space of the listener. The continuous environment is a way of transcending the artificiality of measured time, as is Young’s rejection of melody for harmony “. . . the intervallic proportions and acoustical consequences of the particular ratios which sound concomitantly in the overtone series when any simple fundamental is produced.”

As a source for the rational frequency ratios, predicated upon relationships natural to the ear in the reception of sound, Young uses sine waves with one frequency component, tuned by ear and by oscilloscopes that display the generator frequency ratios.

. . . the human auditory mechanism could be best expected to analyze the intervallic relationships between the frequency components of chords in which every pair of components can be represented by some rational fraction, since only these harmonically related frequencies produce periodic composite sound waveforms.10

Young’s interest in natural perception has been radical in rejecting mathematical scale structures of musical systems which only approximate what is heard. “Just intonation” is the innate quality of the ear to hear natural intervals which can be characterized by the integers. “Just intonation” is not a product of the vibrational ratios of the harmonic overtones; the universal harmonies were discovered to have simple numerical ratios. “Just intonation” presents problems for the mathematical construction of chromatic scales because these scales can never exactly reproduce the just intervals. Young rejects these systems in favor of the natural harmonics of audial perception. The use of the overtone system in the continuous environments of the Dream Houses allows the listener to participate in the creation of the music because one literally displaces sound as one moves around:

When a continuous frequency is sounded in an enclosed space such as a room, the air in the room is arranged into high and low pressure areas. In the high pressure areas the sound is louder, and in the low pressure areas the sound is softer. Since a sine wave has only one frequency component, the pattern of high and low pressure areas is easy to locate in space. Further, concurrently sounding sine waves of different frequencies will provide an environment in which the loudness of each frequency will vary audibly at different points in the room, given sufficient amplification. This phenomenon can rarely be appreciated in most musical situations and makes the listener’s position and movement in the space an integral part of the sound composition.

The physicality of sound experienced by the moving listener also emphasizes the reciprocity between physical sensation and psychological state. The affective power of music has encouraged the reification of ideal states which music is said to describe, the musical events signifying feelings outside of themselves like an abstract language attempting to “say” something. Young’s work, however, connects the sound events themselves with emotional affect—the “feeling” and the particular sound tone are synonymous:

In the tradition of modal music a fixed tonic is continued as a drone or frequently repeated, and a limited set of frequencies with intervallic relationships established in reference to the tonic is repeated in various melodic permutations throughout a performance in a particular mode. Generally, a specific mood or psychological state is attributed to each of these modes. The place theory of pitch identification postulates that each time the same frequency is repeated it is received at the same fixed place on the basilar membrane and transmitted to the same fixed point in the cerebral cortex presumably by the same fiber or neuron of the auditory nerve. . . . The assumptions of place theory and volley theory suggest that when a specific set of harmonically related frequencies is continuous, as is often the case in my music, it could more definitively produce (or stimulate) a psychological state that may be reported by the listener since the set of harmonically related frequencies will continuously trigger a specific set of auditory neurons which in turn will continuously perform the same operation of transmitting a periodic pattern of impulses to the corresponding set of fixed points in the cerebral cortex. When these states are sustained over longer periods of time they may provide greater opportunity to define the psychological characteristics of the ratios of the frequencies to each other.

Young’s observations parallel the suggestion made above that visual perception and ideation are themselves brain processes, denying the philosophical myth of the “ghost in the machine.”

Phil Glass also rejects deductive modes of structure (where an a priori structure remains unresponsive to the performance as heard) in favor of more dialectical explorations of acoustical phenomena. The organization of his most recent work, Music in Twelve Parts, is still very rigorous: one instrument creates a pattern against which other instruments play at varying rates of speed within the total arithmetical structure of the cycle. However, the audial consequences of the music are reinforced as they are heard and predominate the composition. The emphasis on sound differs from the priorities of his earlier work, such as Music in Contrary Motion which develops in a linear expansion, left and right hands in mirror image, as long as Glass can remember the sequence of accretions, and Music in Fifths, which involves a finite circularity of notes predicated upon the pattern created at the beginning. In the more recent work, sound also involves psychological consequences. Glass describes his change of focus:

I began listening to the “sound” of the music and I found that it had become more interesting than the structure. It didn’t mean that I had to abandon the structures. In fact I needed them. However, I had become less interested in purity of form than in the kind of psycho-acoustical experiences that happened while listening to the music.11

Along with Young, Glass is interested in harmonic relationships and sustained pitches although he allows more flexibility in the creation of these relationships during performance. However, one of his rules of improvisation states that a player cannot change a note within a single breath “to avoid the spontaneous creation of melodies.” He rejects the diachronic melody for the synchronic “heterogeneous vertical situation within a figure” which creates a harmonic series of overtones amplified by electronics to increase the density and saturation.

Glass’ music involves the spatiality of sound—the unique space of hearing rather than architectonic structures. One phenomenon in audial perception, for example, described by Helmholtz and James, is the location of the several extents of separate sense data into a single continuum so that they become properties of the same total space. Glass describes this in his work:

Because of the way we perceive—we tend to hear a band of sound, a crush of sound, or a whiff of sound, or a height of sound, or a depth of sound; we tend to hear it as a whole, a wholeness, when in fact what we’re playing is not a whole at all; what we’re playing is individual, separate little figures.

This partial perception probably results from sustaining the vibrations to which the human auditory system is responsive, for silences between parts separate figures of passages into discrete entities if the vibration stops completely. Even with silences, however, a musical totality is experienced as having the shape and space of the room or location in which it is performed. These containers determined the particular perceptual qualities of each piece. Glass’ concerts at 10 Bleecker Street, for example, are denser and thicker than the concert in the Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, which seemed to fill up the space delineated by the surrounding buildings, while the outdoor concert in Spoleto was very diffuse, and extended to the visual limits of the panorama.

Although sound is perceived within a single acoustical space, layers within the sound can be differentiated, particularly amplified overtones, which seem to separate away from the “body” of sound. This may be the result of the tendency, also described by William James, to locate impressions on the same sense organ in a serial order of exteriority within the sound space, thereby creating a “hereness” and “thereness” of relation rather than of precise position. The relationship between the sounds creates the texture of the work—varying with note choices, the stacking of parts, the intervals between sections, and the movements of parts in relation to each other. The texture is the feeling of the work:

If we could reinvent the word “key,” we could say that is the key of the piece—if we could reinvent it to mean almost the emotional color.

Glass’ interest in emotional affect is predicated upon his recognition that the human body is the “ultimate source of our music,” consciously emphasizes the use of the human voice and voicelike overtones created by amplification. Occasionally, however, the loudness of the performance and the focus on persona creates a sensational and theatrical ambience that seems at odds with the music.

The work of Charlemagne Palestine involves the acoustical and emotional consequences of sound as a fluid and ever-changing interaction between performer, instrument, space, and listener. The essence of his music is the investigation of timbre—the subtleties of color produced by instruments such as the piano, the chimes, the human voice, and electronic sonorities. For Palestine, each instrument has a “golden sound,” less an objective reality than his term for the heightened sensitivity of a performer for the particularities of each instrument. The chameleonlike reciprocity between sound (timbre) and structure (rhythm) is demonstrated by one of his central pieces for the piano, 1 + 2 Fifths. A rhythm of two against three is played and seems at first to be purely rhythm. As the sustain pedal is pressed, the timbre begins to overcome the rhythm and finally predominates it until it has become a foreground sonority with an inert background rhythm.

The fluidity of this relationship between sound and structure is the basis of Palestine’s music in both single works and entire concerts, none of which are ever performed exactly alike. Recent performances have begun with an electronic sonority of one interval of a fifth (C/G) reinforced twice, and ten minutes later another reinforced fifth one major third higher (E/B) realized on an electronic synthesizer. The speakers are placed differently for each concert. In a recent performance at Sonnabend Gallery, they were secreted in a closet, a stairwell, and in rooms closed to the audience, so that the sound was filtered by these containers. The sonorities create a space of complex wave shapes with many overtones, of densities varying from place to place. Because there is a multitude of possible readings, the structural configuration of the sound can be apprehended by a listener only after a long period of time.

The subsequent piano pieces, 1 + 2 + 3 Fifths for Piano, begin by reinforcing the fundamentals of a fifth in the electronic sonority. Though structured and varying in duration and intensity, they are very responsive to the energy of the audience—the performer sometimes loudly confronting the audience to quiet it down. The voice pieces, involved with “the different timbral mixtures available with the voice on one sustained tone,” are very emotional. They are plastic in response to the architecture of the room as Palestine moves through the space, walking, running, and banging against the walls and floor. The sound is perceived as advancing, receding, and circling in shifting orientation to the ear. The source of the drone seems primitive and archetypal—his body becomes the instrument with which to tap feelings of anguish and pain. When he returns to the piano after the vocal works to play Pentatonic Study (“five notes in an overlapping melodic style”) and Octave Study (“two notes an octave apart . . . set into motion”), the piano is lyrical and plaintive. He has created a psychological dialectic between kinds of feeling, between the instruments, and between the voices in each instrument. The “purity” of the sound varies with the context—after the intense vocal works, the piano loses its neutrality and becomes a dramatic agent as well. At the end of the performance, Palestine repeats the electronic sonority with an extra fifth (D/A), which spills in upon the audience in a denser configuration.

In contrast to his solo performances, Palestine’s concerts with Simone Forti are theatrical and operatic. While he is primarily a musician in his own work, his personality predominates his work with Forti. Palestine’s movements, sounds, and props enter into a dialogue with her own self-presentation. The psychological overtones are exteriorized and staged through actions either in sympathy or disjunction. While there is never any determined sequence to their work, the response to each situation is not improvisatory but a meshing of sensibilities which comes from understanding the internalized structures of each other’s work.

While Palestine’s work with Forti is looser than his solo concerts, it shares the interest in the location and movement of sound, the creation of sonorities, and the search for a deep source of emotional interaction. These concerns are continued in a work that may take several years to complete, involving the subtleties of pitch in the piano and predicated upon an essential characteristic of the instrument—that each note is composed of three strings never exactly in tune. Palestine will tune the piano himself, playing one of the three strings against the other two in order to generate minute beatings or flutters, concentrating on shades of sound that are not usually heard. In many ways, Palestine’s music operates at the threshold of audibility—he works toward the discovery of structures that will allow sound the primacy of its own being.

5. The Viewer and the Phenomenal World

The intensified interaction between the viewer and the phenomenal world as seen in music and performance has both inspired and been nourished by certain environmental sculptures, as well as close personal friendships with dancers and musicians, even when these works have entered the culture indirectly—through photographs, related drawings, or a transition in the artist’s attitude carried out in subsequent pieces. This is particularly true of Richard Serra’s piece Shift in King City, Canada. Unlike much of Serra’s other work, which seems willed, a priori, and assertively physical, the wholeness or “coming to form” of Shift grows out of the viewer’s experience of the piece rather than being derived from the premises. The qualities of the landscape are important—not only the terrain but the ride to the site, the weather, the texture of the ground, and the color of the sky. The sculpture is a presence in the landscape, but without standing against it because the material registers the temporal and topological changes of the environment. The concrete exhibits weather stains without gashing the earth in the manner of steel. It also gives a suggestion of habitation—the foundations of buildings or walls of a site—without being architectural. There is no optimum vantage point, only subjective and transitory “likings” as one might prefer certain views in a landscape. The sculpture is not an object but a conductor—it seduces the viewer into walking the field along the peripheral extension of the walls which parallel the vastness of the valley as the bottom edges indicate the curvature of the earth.

Shift is a work of ultimate transitivity, for the walls indicate relation and direction rather than bounding areas of space. Vantage points can be recognized but are difficult to remember. They have to be constantly rechecked by walking the ground. Since any single view seems “uncharacteristic,” there are diverse characterizations: some views suggest continuous and flowing lines while other views swing into wide trajectories and foreshortened zigzags. While the six walls of the piece hold together as one piece, there are several synaptic breaks. In the center between the two sets of walls, there is an active stasis as if between two positive or two negative magnets. The disconnections in the fluidity of the piece are surprising and unexpected. Formally, they make the relation to the landscape both horizontal and vertical. The lateral lines function as horizon, while the vertical edges “sight” distant points and provide an integer of measure between the body and the landscape. Psychologically, they encourage and check the viewer’s movement, varying the pace of the sculpture as apprehended.

Shift is like a map that mediates between the visual sign and the physical experience of scale and distance in such a multitude of readings that quantifiable measure is impossible. As the lines of the walls direct the eye into the distance, the optical limits of the piece can be “drawn” or sighted. They exist only as relative distant points to the position of the viewer. But the experience of the piece is also very physical. The walls draw in by empathetic force vast amounts of land as if they were cutting the tangents of circles or ellipses on the ground that can be measured only by walking and looking. The volume of the valley—the walking space of the observer—becomes the volume of the sculpture.

The process of viewing the piece recapitulates the scanning process of vision itself, so that in looking at the piece one is in a sense looking at the process of seeing. Each view becomes part of a memory map built up from successive fixations, as the information becomes denser and more complex without ever being complete. The “unfolding” of the piece in this way is inductive and anti-Cartesian.12

The indeterminacy of Shift makes it seem as if the sculpture is holding something back—a key or meaning that cannot be deciphered—because the clues which indicate the wholeness of the piece do not provide a system for its comprehension. It creates a desire for possession and a frustration at the impossibility. This illusion of a meaning transcendent to the work—the psychic “fringe” of an intuited universal—gives the piece its character of reserve and self-containment. It seems to renounce will and substantive identity in favor of an empathetic and nonresistant dialogue with the environment, suggesting a temporal existence beyond that observable in a single human life.

The use of psychological terms approaches the affect or personality of the sculpture. It seems to be asking: How can man enter into a permanent interaction with natural processes? What are contemporary monuments? How can one celebrate process rather than personality? How can an artist work with the material of the earth? Can a dialectic with the landscape foster a transcending content that religion, politics, and conventional humanism no longer provide?

6. The Psychological Landscape

The value of the dialectic in art as constant doubt and question lies in the creation of a system of values based on the perceiver being in the psychological landscape. The study of perception is essential as epistemic research. Are there a priori structures of perception and cognition? How are propositions made concerning the world? How does neural activity affect desires and values? What does it mean to have an “idea”? How is it possible to choose between ends? That the answers to these questions in neurological terms are unknown is beside the point. Neuropsychologists have suggested that this could be explained by a mathematical theory of complex relations that could bridge the gap between nervous activity and knowledge. The value of art in this domain is to extend the particular perceptual experiences which transform the way we see. Art questions how we see. Intuition and ideation in art are no different than in any other mode—all require the creative “leap” of induction. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with deduction in art. Its importance during the ’60s was to establish the seriousness of art on equal footing with other disciplines. The problem with deductive output at this time is not its lack of originality, but its acceptance of premises which no longer question the reasons for making art. It implies a changeless productivity equivalent to the death of inspiration. Habit fixes these structures into art frameworks until they seem objective, necessary, and moral. The affirmation of life processes as the interaction between the viewer and the world provides a more abstract and vital context of value than do the Cartesian orders of Western thinking.

Lizzie Borden



1. Karl Popper, The Logic of Scientific Discovery, London, 1968, p. 59.

2. Max Black, “Some Half-Baked Thoughts about Induction,” Margins of Precision, pp. 137–42.

3. Rosalind Krauss, “Sense and Sensibility,” Artforum, November, 1973.

4. Robert Smithson’s quotations in this article are all from “Sedimentation of the Mind: Earth Projects,” Artforum, September, 1968, or “Entropy and the New Monuments,” Artforum, June, 1966.

5. Freud, Humor, Hogarth Press, 1961, p. 162.

6. Compare this statement by a prominent if slightly odd neuropsychologist: Moreover man, like his inventions, is subject to the second law of thermodynamics. lust as his body renders energy unavailable, so his brain corrupts the revelation of his senses. His output of information is but one part in a million of his input. He is a sink rather than a source of information. The creative flights of his imagination are but distortions of a fraction of his data (Warren McCulloch, “Mysterium lniquitatis of Sinful Man,” Embodiments of Mind, Cambridge, 1965. p. 164).

7. Yvonne Rainer, Avalanche, summer, 1972.

8. John Cage, “The Musical Object,” quoted in P. Carpenter, Current Musicology.

9. Earle Brown, quoted in La Monte Young, An Anthology, Hewer Friedrich Gallery, 1963.

10. La Monte Young’s quotations are from his Selected Writings, Munich, Heiner Friedrich Gallery, 1969.

11. Phil Glass’ quotations are from Avalanche, summer, 1972.

12. Nancy Holt’s work is central to the investigation of perceptual phenomena, particularly Missoula Ranch Locators-Vision Encompassed and Holes of Light. For a discussion of these works as well as Holt’s videotapes, see Artforum, June, 1973.