PRINT September 1974

Donald Burgy: Participating in the Universe

DONALD BURGY'S WORK WAS INCLUDED in several major exhibitions of Conceptual art in 1969–70 (MoMA’s “Information” and the Jewish Museum’s “Software” to name two), but prior to that time he had already begun to shift his attention away from the descriptive scientific documentation of selected objects. Thus, his sub-sequent work, quite different in spirit, is still largely unrecognized. Abandoning the use of raw data, Burgy has increasingly turned to linguistic abstraction as a means of engaging the viewer’s imagination, with briefly stated but powerfully scaled propositions about the world and the ways we define ourselves in it.

Rock Series #1–5 (1968) and Self Portrait: January 20–30, 1969 are typical of his earlier phase. The former consists of maps, charts, and photographs portraying the mineral content, crystal structure, geological history, and immediate surroundings of five rocks that Burgy found in the woods, to be presented along with the rocks themselves. The latter is a similar array of data describing Burgy’s physical and mental state as revealed in a medical examination at the Lahey Clinic. In each case, the documentation is used to extend the identity of the subject beyond its immediate appearance, acculturate it and bring it into a framework of communicable knowledge. But eventually Burgy’s desire for more integrated and complete descriptions of larger and larger increments of the world led him into a direct confrontation with the limits and uses of description. All these relatively limited projects were extended and subsumed by one work, Order Idea #1, which set the tone of what was to follow.

Observe the order of yourself at several levels of magnitude: atom, molecule, cell, organ, organism, society, species. Select one aspect of organization and map it at each level. Design the maps’ symbols, orientation, and projection to be constant. Scale will vary with level change. The idea will be complete when the maps of all levels are in order.
Donald Burgy, Order Idea #1, August, 1969

Order Idea #1 exists in the first instance as a set of verbal instructions to be carried out by anyone—although, strictly speaking, the task is impossible. Thus, it also exists as a statement of aspiration, a formulation of a goal toward which we are steadily evolving, but which may or may not ever he attainable.

Although most of his work in the past five years has been written, Burgy is not really a writer. His interest in words seems confined to their usefulness in representing “universal principles” in highly compact, accessible form and he rarely writes even as much as a paragraph in any one work. His verbal structures act as schematics which each viewer (or reader) elaborates and completes in his imagination: the viewer must participate in defining the boundaries of the work in order to experience it at all. The effect is more plastic/intuitive than literary/analytical, and one is often brought up short against one’s own cognitive limits as the specific wording of a piece recedes into a deliberate ambiguity of meaning.

Put some of your then in someone’s now.
Take some of someone’s then in your now.
Continue until both have all.

Donald Burgy, Time Exchange #2, May, 1970

Burgy’s brief directives and sweeping assertions project one into a realm of transcendental abstraction where experientially important distinctions are broken down and where physical and mental orders are treated as synonymous. As Burgy puts it, “I and all the things around me are the substance of the earth. From this point of view, what is the earth doing when it is writing statements and making art? What are abstractions if they are the earth reprocessing its own energy?” By asserting the continuity of the artist, his work, and his audience with the common substance of the earth, he reduces the material dimension of art to a pervasive constant and points to the reprocessing or the recognition of constants as an essentially generative act. He also implies that the distinction which one draws between oneself and the rest of the world is largely provisional, more a matter of habit and preference than of fact.

I is inside.
It is outside.
I is inside outside.
I is it I ing itself.
It is I denying itself.

Donald Burgy, Inside-Outside Exchange #3, July, 1969

Since the element of completion provided by each viewer is such a key part of his work, Burgy goes out of his way to engage as broad a sample of viewers as he can. By siting works in unlikely and esthetically unaccredited places, so that they are unprotected by any claim to special status as art, whoever encounters them is free to establish their significance for himself. One of his pieces has been hanging in the Park Square subway station in Boston since 1972. It is a four-by-eight-foot mirror with the statement EACH OBSERVATION YOU MAKE CHANGES YOU printed along the bottom edge in bold, white letters. Grouped among the ads for secretarial schools and funeral homes, it faces the busiest platform in the system where it is seen by thousands of people every day. Reactions to it vary from complete indifference to mild amusement to startled appreciation. (It is most frequently used by self-conscious teenagers as a means of “checking out” one another without the danger of being caught in direct eye contact, and, of course, the piece is as appropriate for this as it is for the more studied contemplation of an Artforum reader.) Burgy’s own setting of Order Idea #1 was shown in the form of photographs, X-rays, etc., at the Third Conference for Planetology and Space Mission Planning held at the New York Academy of Science in 1970, and also at the Jewish Museum’s “Software” show at approximately the same time. His contribution to a show at Virginia Commonwealth University last year was a variety of statements written on windows, buildings, and similar environmental surfaces with a felt-tipped pen. Other works have been presented on the covers of matchbooks, commercially printed, with gold lettering.

These free-wheeling display practices stem logically from Burgy’s elimination of the distinction between site and audience (there is only the earth), necessarily eliminating the finer distinctions that might be drawn between one type of site and another, one type of audience and another. The merging of site and audience has become a dominant theme in Burgy’s work over the past two years, leading to several series of works that share the collective title, The Observer is the Observed. These differ from the purely verbal pieces, which can be inscribed on any handy surface or carried around in one’s memory, in that they incorporate pictorial representations and therefore depend on a fixed appearance. In the version published by the Sonnabend Gallery (Paris, 1972), 20 black-and-white photographs of the earth taken in orbit by the first astronauts are paired with 21-sentence declarations about energy (e.g., “All transformations of energy take time,” “All transformations of energy are irreversible,” etc.) and printed together by photo-offset on extremely thin, slick, magazine-type paper. The one-to-one pairing of dissimilar modes of representation, each aspiring to the largest, most objective views of their respective subjects, creates a sort of binocularity, pointing away from the apparent content within each and toward an interstitial content lying between them. Together they define a world of gross appearances where man is both below the level of resolution, reduced to an infinitesimal detail in a much larger scheme, and above the level of resolution, the resolver himself, extending beyond and around his observations of the world. In mediating between the two modalities of The Observer is the Observed, the viewer not only forms the intersection between the verbal and the photographic elements, but also the intersection between the subjective and objective elements.

Many of Burgy’s works are meant to be completed by the viewer in a more literal sense. Evolution-Completion Idea (December, 1973), for instance, is a quiz-like series of historical progressions whose next stages are left blank for each viewer to complete. As the last terms given are those of the present, one must extrapolate stages that have not yet occurred. By dividing the progressions into intervals of seemingly equal magnitude, Burgy makes the unnamed future seem only a step away, even though tremendous breakthroughs and centuries of “real time” may be required in taking that step; peculiarly enough, one almost feels that in formulating responses to this questionnaire one has added to the teleological pressure that will eventually create these epochal transformations.

The scale of abstraction in Burgy’s work introduces an ambiguity as to the significance of human action in general, and his work exemplifies that ambiguity. On the one hand, the most awesome feat of human destruction, a world war, for instance, has only a trivial effect on planetary history; on the other hand, the dimmest act of self-consciousness is an unfathomably huge breach of physics as we currently understand it. Playing against this, one is never sure if Burgy’s pronouncements are profound or trivial, fatuous or visionary. Usually they can be read either way, depending on one’s receptiveness. There is in all of his work an almost excruciating tension between these two possibilities—which makes it difficult if not impossible to evaluate critically, but which assures us that this is not only intentional but essential content as well.

Impatient with the distractions of technique and with mediating formalisms in general, Burgy has pruned away everything that is not essential to his notion of art as “a model through which man maps himself into the universe and the universe into himself.” As if to compensate for recasting the consciousness of an individual into universal terms, Burgy exercises a scrupulous, almost puritanical self-restraint, refining and generalizing his ideas towards utmost simplicity. His recent work is disarmingly direct, openly metaphysical, and free of anything that might restrict the amplitude of his statement or, worse still, attract attention to the artifact as an end in itself. One looks through rather than at his work: in this sense it is more like a lens or mirror than a finished object. It is as if, to quote Borges, “in certain paradoxes he sensed an expanding intelligence; he was seeking a soul worthy of participating in the universe” (The Circular Ruin).

––Robert J. Horvitz

The works quoted in the body of the article were taken from Donald Burgy, Art Ideas for the Year 4000, published in 1970 by the Addison Gallery of American Art, Andover, Massachusetts.