PRINT November 1974

Jonathan Borofsky at 2,096,974

SINCE 1967–68 JONATHAN BOROFSKY has been making art that is entwined with the evolution of his inner life, or, on the other hand, with “the infinite nature of the universe.”1 Every artist’s work is more or less a continuum, but the three main projects Borofsky has begun over the last five years go on, and on, and on, in a manner which implies fear of breaking the life/art progression, or cycle, of which they are part. Because he is an artist, he has made art out of his compulsive delving into the sources of his identity and his anxieties; were he not an artist, his activities might simply be labeled “self-searching.” If the next question is “should art be used this way?” the answer could be either a desperate “why not?” or a complacent “hasn’t it always been used this way?”

The three unfinished projects are: Counting (from 1 to 2,096,974), the figure as of April 5, 1974; Age Piece (All is One); and a Continuous Painting (The Motion of My Mind). They are all the results of Borofsky’s perception, at the age of twenty-five, that the flow of thought is more important than the individual object; this initiated a fixation on things infinite and incomplete. Age Piece, which sets the others in a chronological framework, is a single work, but also an autobiographical art show, compressing two decades into 30 feet. The way it is presented, it has a certain art-world elegance that vies with its content; 11 objects are neatly spaced along a gray wall, the sculptures set on well-built gray shelves; the age of the artist when each object was completed is painted on the wall above it in bold black letters. (Borofsky was born December 24, 1942.)

The first component is an oil on canvasboard Still Life rather suggestively depicting a banana, a pear and two lemons, made at age eight (“so the piece is born in a still life, but still life equals death”). At age fourteen, Borofsky made a competent fantasy oil––Desert Landscape. Age eighteen is a steel sculpture, Cordate II, recalling Herbert Ferber or the early David Smith; it was made at Carnegie-Mellon University. Age twenty-one is a weird plaster sculpture on a pale pink base, topped by a plaster umbrella that shelters rectangular and fruitlike forms and a dangling branch; it looks as though it were made by a disciple of Archipenko around 1925, but the year being 1963 and Borofsky being at Yale Art School, it also incorporates Pop art. Age twenty-two is a realistically painted fiberglass tree trunk coiled with green leaves and pink and yellow flowers, labeled on a brass plaque “The Downy Woodpecker’s Home”; gifte shoppe or Walt Disney, it looks as though it had some hidden function (pepper grinder? umbrella stand?) while retaining some ingenuous attraction. (Like Age twenty-one and Age twenty-three, this piece is centered on a round hole or concavity.) Age twenty-three is a “tombstone––death to memory,” a homely Art Moderne object with brown speckled surface focused on a photograph of the director’s house at Borofsky’s childhood Camp Alton; it is hollow, the T at the top resembles a cross, and there are three hooks on which “to hang keys to myself”; this series was begun at Yale and finished in New York. Age twenty-four is the centerpiece, separating the objects from the paperwork. A huge phallic lamp, chinese red streaked with gold, a deep yellow columnar shade rising from its “Cubist” base, it rivals Avenue A or the Bowery lighting stores for unmitigated ugliness, and “signifies a major death––leaving the security of family-school for the pain of trying to make my way in the art scene, losing my girl, turning inward, I died and I was reborn and it precipitated a major change.” The lamp is turned on and provides the whole array with a central glow––“a flame––spiritual––reaching for the light.”

After this came the “head” pieces, first manifested in painted wooden objects (a block and a shoe on a board, the shoe labeled “shoe” and the block labeled “Jupiter”); or a long-division problem in cutout wooden letters on the floor, or a sequence of numbers out of context on tall panels––“772773774775776”; these have been left out of Age Piece. Then the works on paper––Taping (Age twenty-five), part of a wall size grid of yellow sheets; a book of “thought processes” and “brain exercises,” number puzzles and “mind-expanding” conundrums (Age twenty-six) evolving from a reclusive way of life. These plays between mathematics and metaphysics and Borofsky’s brain led to a piece shown at Paula Cooper’s in my “No.7,” early 1969. A computer print-out programmed from 1 to infinity, but stopped at two pages, took little over a second to do and is the source of Counting (Age twenty-seven) when the artist decided it would be more personal if his own brain were the computer. Finally, Age thirty is a reflection of the whole cycle, a play within a play––a colored drawing for Age Piece with two more “ages” left blank.

Counting (consecutively from one to suggested infinity) is currently a solid tower of 9,350 pages of 8 1/2’’ x 11" paper which stands 3 1/2’ high.2 The lower portion, all written on graph paper in ball-point, is very neat, while the top third includes different color papers and is ruffled at the edges. As an object, Counting is already esthetically acceptable, but more interesting is the fact that it is a clear symbol of compressed energy, time, and obsession:

When I started it, I thought it would teach me all I wanted to know about myself and the universe if I would just stick to it, go go go to the first million. At the first million nothing happened, no lights lit up. Self doubt set in. I wasn’t goal-oriented any more. The top part, all rough, is part of a different lesson––the difficulty of sticking to one thing. How you’re never happy with what you have.

Borofsky equates Counting with meditation. He writes personal notes on the pages with the numbers; one he feels was “very important” is “You and I are part of the Infinite Spirit of God.”

It is still a daily struggle to continue or not. Usually I count for at least one or two hours during the day. I seem to be most comfortable counting when Benita is doing her needlepoint and we are both watching television although I sometimes like to do it alone and in perfect silence.

He sees Counting as “an exercise in control, and its weakness––knowing every day is the same,” which acknowledges an aspect of avoidance behavior, the busywork part of ritual which may contract more than expand insight.

The Continuous Painting, in process since 1971, consists of many small canvasboards with no obvious relationship to each other; each represents a different “state of mind,” and the scale and materials, as well as the style, circle back to the Age eight still life. When Borofsky was thirty, and could no longer be a child, he went back to find what he could gain from his loss, almost too neatly illustrating the Freudian theory that artists sublimate less successfully than “normal” people and are more reluctant to give up the pleasures of childhood. These small paintings––some single, some in series like a comic strip––are derived from dreams and self-revelations growing out of a type of group therapy combining yoga and metaphysics. In execution, they are deliberately childish, not childlike––an art virtue––but blatantly, even churlishly childish. Within the last year they have opened up from what Borofsky calls “escape paintings”––those with a more abstract and mystical content although several of these had already hit on highly personal content, such as the self-portrait in which the artist’s head is bound to a tree (“my mother”) by a whirlwind of line, while against this darkness stands another self “idealized” in a bright background. Or, one which shows the artist emerging in an aureole of light from the “home,” leaving behind him two arched trees (“my parents”). An often repeated motif is a sailboat, which represents “the possibility of escape, and a voyage and a path”; once it appears behind the center of a brilliant pink-petaled flower. (For several years now Borofsky has been making a steel model––Unfinished Sailboat––“a piece, I guess; it’s something I wanted to make. I’m not sure if it will even be finished.”) In the corner of some panels, like a signature, is the number where Counting stood at the time it was painted, connecting these outwardly disparate activities.

The first painting in which Borofsky felt he had broken through to the point where he was “really wallowing in the pain, getting to the roots of Jon’s anxiety,” is inscribed “Mom, I lost the election”; it shows a car pulling up to a school building and, in the next panel, a small boy getting in the car, head drooping, to tell his mother (also a painter) about his first failure. (“That was when I was eight and it was the beginning of a downward swing for the next ten years, so getting back to it and seeing it, which happened during group work, was really important.”) Another one describes a dream in several panels and analyzes it at the end. One bleak little tableau says “Jana loved Barry Siegle, not me,” and another shows a child playing on the floor, ignoring the father in hat and coat who leans down toward him with arms outstretched, while an amorphous mother peeks from behind the bedroom door; it is inscribed “Dad, I often feel badly because I was so mean to you that morning.”

Except in the most spuriously “avant-garde” sense, these paintings have little to recommend them in terms of esthetic consciousness, Borofsky having decided that personal content was all; “real communication has nothing to do with pretty colors.” The handling is too inept to be naively “good,” and both subject matter and inscriptions are, if often poignant, also embarrassingly corny, only in part because feelings are generally tabu in today’s art. Yet the insistent primitivism is, of course, a willful regression for someone who went to three art schools. The little paintings are actually art about art in the spirit of Roy Lichtenstein, but “without the shield,” though perhaps their most interesting esthetic characteristic is the fact that the artistic intelligence is so well hidden.

For all his colossal and deliberate self-indulgence, Borofsky’s desire to “get rid of cool art, open up feeling and show ourselves,” is part of a broad attempt to find in the cracks and crevasses of current art a way to escape the contentless sterility and monotonous sameness to which much of it has descended. If a good deal of the so-called autobiographical or narrative art now visible seems trivial, it is at least based on the solid notion that every person is different, and if you can get deep enough into yourself, you will at least make art that is not the same as everybody else’s.3

Borofsky’s work holds up despite its attachment to clichés because it is also deeply and unashamedly attached to his own needs; because it is not merely a grab at the golden ring, a bright idea to develop some corner of the art tenement where development seemed impossible; because it is the natural outcome of a large, anxious ego, an introspective mind that has been querying its own motives and workings for so long and within so sure a continuum that his art seems to avoid affectation and dishonesty as much as art of this kind, being art, is able. The balance between sophistication and innocence is not an easy one to sustain. The Age Piece and the paintings should be seen in a dimly lit room with a spotlit, dream like ambiance, forcing upon the viewer the melodrama Borofsky experienced in its making. This might strike the proper note of defiance and sentimentality, but out in the world, the paintings in particular (Age Piece is far more acceptable as art) might provoke no more than a voyeur’s enthusiasm; on the other hand, they might threaten the still solid values of neutrality. Borofsky is using his work “to understand my own pains and happinesses.” That may be the traditional definition of art, or it may be an admission of trivia. However, it is fresh and concrete and is more likely to provoke than to propitiate.

––Lucy Lippard



1. All quotations from the artist are from a conversation with the author on April 5, 1974.

2. Sol LeWitt chose Borofsky’s Counting to be shown at Artist’s Space in Fall, 1973.

3. Of those few who have transcended personalism and made of their experience an expanded metaphor, a number are women, who have their own obvious reasons for emerging “different” from isolation. I’m thinking of Adrian Piper, Eleanor Antin, and Lee Lozano, among others, who have for several years been making behaviorist connections between actions and objects and their own psyches; so for that matter have Lucas Samaras, Robert Huot, Vito Acconci, and others.