PRINT November 1974

On Bruce Boice

IN 1970, BRUCE BOICE ATTENDED the University of Hartford where his wife, the photographer Jan Groover, had received an appointment to teach in the art department. While there he began to study philosophy, undergraduate stuff perhaps, but earnestly worked through. Boice was fired by the loopholes in formalist art theory, vexed by the covert self-congratulation that interlocks the quality/modernist problem originating in Clement Greenberg’s writings and energetically applied by Michael Fried. Boice reexamined the basis upon which one attributes quality in the first place, arriving at the view that there is no such thing as quality, a position that many still find difficult to admit. Boice himself has ceased bothering to argue it. Although he had never written before, and never doubted that he was a painter, Boice adopted a short career as a critic. He saw a positive I ink between criticism and painting: “The quality stuff came right out of my painting.”

When Boice’s empirical pieces challenging the notion of quality in art came to Artforum, he agreed to review. His reviews dealt with specific content, an approach addressed to the visual rather than the interpretive. Unpsychological and analytical, Boice excelled in what might be called pure visual analysis.

A full exegesis of Boice’s critical career is not to the point here. Let a Robert Ryman review (Artforum, September, 1973) stand for an entire attitude. This long account is filled with such informational insight as the following: “But if Ryman has severely reduced the terms of painting to what seems a ground zero similarly reached by Malevich and Reinhardt, ‘ground zero’ means not the attainment of nothing, but the point beyond which painting cannot be reduced while remaining painting and sustaining development.” Or: “Ryman’s insistent use of light paint presents a situation for focusing on color, paint, surface, and how the paint is applied to the surface; his color is a product of the conjunction of those four terms.”

Although he has not altered his view about the untenability of quality ascription, for the time being, at least, Boice has ceased to publish. “I stopped writing because I stopped liking it. And I haven’t written because I haven’t anything to write.”

Since 1970, Boice has been painting in a serialized format. The latest work, dating from 1972, employs three conjoined unprimed canvases, 27” x 31 1/2”, each abutted to form a whole. In the largest group to date, the horizontal canvas to the left is framed in a wood strip flush to the surface, the remaining two are unframed. Like the first, the center canvas is horizontally positioned and the third canvas, to the right, is vertically abutted. The three canvases, including the framed element, form an asymmetrical field. This irregular format is consistently used while the imagery varies from painting to painting. Thus, the format is insistently serialized with an extremely varied imagery. More recently, the framed element has been transposed to the right-hand side.

The work has a high degree of edge sensitivity, an awareness which may be a function of its serial structure. In the total series, the elements work in a modular way––in the individual work, seriality and implicit modularity are subservient to the equivocation of imagery and edge tension. Boice’s use of this schema tends to appear so consistent and rationalized as to falsely render his paintings doctrinaire and didactic, which they are not. There is, beyond this schema, a more open exploration of range throughout the system than any individual work in the series can demonstrate.

Although honoring a grid sensibility and edge tension in the individual canvas, Boice’s regular features are rendered equivocal by the unanticipated––the seemingly canted––ambiguities that arise when such classicizing elements function within and against the larger irregular field and format.

Boice’s imagery provides a contrapuntal alternative to the information embedded in the structural system. The integral play between elements, between imagery and structure, pleases the artist. Despite his focus on “physical situation,” the artist denies that his pictures are necessarily more “physical” than “painterly.” For him, “the structural context parses but doesn’t add up.”

With regard to the larger body of serial work, I take Boice’s structural system to work like this: if we designate the left-hand rectangle A, the middle rectangle B, and the right rectangle C, then the following are some of the meanings that may be adduced to A, B and C. Since A is generally framed by a separate and unique wooden frame, I assume it means or expresses “picture” or “pictorial.” This interpretation is facilitated by the retained convention of the frame itself. According to this convention, the framed is picture. However, it must always be borne in mind that the frame in Boice’s context is not an external decorative device, but an integral part of the structure and imagery. An important paradox: the picture frame as a structure is, in another structural situation, a stretcher support. This multiple role is one iconographically twisted in Roy Lichtenstein’s illusionistic paintings that depict their rear structures on their front faces. Ironically, this illusion in Boice’s painting is actual structure. “What a frame does traditionally is to iso late the outside from the inside.”

The B canvas mediates and the A canvas, the “picture,” that which by contrast must be A’s logical parallel, the C canvas, the “sculpture.” The latter’s sculptural condition, its physicality, is underscored by its objectlike, neat, hospital corners folded across its stretcher supports. These folds are different from the blunt unstudied stretching of the canvas across the B stretcher supports. In each element, then, the physical process of stretching the canvas appears varied; in A, the frame disguises the stretcher-canvas relationship; in B, the canvas is abutted so that the side edges cannot be seen; in C, the hospital-folded canvas at the extreme right-hand edge emphasizes the more physical and objectlike affiliations of the last panel. With some amazement, one discovers while looking at the canvas panels that each element is the same size since, despite their congruence, their sameness of shape and area, they function divergently. In strictly physical terms the “psychology” of each panel therefore appears to be different. In this sense, the individual canvas recalls in part the L-Beams of Robert Morris. Although identically scaled, when tipped into various positions each of these L-figures functions differently in terms of its own spatial, sensory, and psychological apprehension.

Boice’s imagery is an arrangement of basic elements such as rectangles of widely ranging sizes, from large to small, with lines and overlapped effects. The color accounts for primaries as well as tints and tones. As would be expected, this vocabulary stresses frontality, verticality, horizontality, planarity, and tectonics. Boice works with the kinds of shapes that Rosalind Krauss has described as possessing “the flatness of an object––of a nonlinguistic thing . . . . The most primitive sign of an object in space: the vertical of the figure projected against the horizon-line of a nascent ground . . . . ” Not surprisingly, Krauss is discussing the early paintings of Frank Stella (“Sense and Sensibility, Reflections on Post-’60s Sculpture,” Artforum, November, 1973). This means the use of abstract visual elements that first exist in the mind as perfect categories. Since they are assumed to exist prior to their manifestation as form, they will continue to exist after their physical manifestation in painting or sculpture has ceased. The latter are local and temporal; time, place and tastebound; approximations, at best, of their ideal model, and as such, functions of history and taste. All this is a rudimentary exposition of the theory of Platonic categories. This kind of abstraction fleshes out, renders tangible, the theoretical postulates established in the mind––much like spoken or written language incarnates thought.

To the premises of Boice’s painting must be added their pictorial systems, systems which echo and permute structural order––and vice versa. We have seen that the tripartite sequence A B C can be structured A+B=C, A+C=B and B+C=A. This logical permutation stresses the fact that the visual evidence of any single canvas may be understood additively or separately, as unique, or as superimposed visual information. Take a rectangle, add another to it, and the third depicts the sum of the first two; take a red area, add a yellow area, and you get either a red area superimposed on or next to a yellow area, or a yellow area superimposed on or next to a red area, or an admixture, an orange area. What you see counts for as much as––but no less than––the additive or subtractive process involved, although the newer paintings suggest overlapped ambiguities and ironic spatial illusions despite their up-front readings.

Essential to this process is that the abstraction, the depicted, attempts to maintain parity with the mental. Boice never means more than he says. The optical consequences––what we see––are meant to be without metaphorical content. His stress is not on paint or on the physical act of painting, but on a one-to-one meshing of mind and technique. The above is essential to Boice’s effort and to our understanding of it.

An ideological position transposed into an art activity is very different from its governing ideology. The actual making of a mark is in itself a circumvention, the short circuit of an inevitable theoretical conclusion. The hand preserves, the mind rejects; practice maintains, theory obviates. The mark itself, especially in the context of other markings, manifests issues that trouble and stay the inexorable consequences of any abstract system.

Thus Boice’s painting parallels his critical work––the stripping away of fixed anticipation, expected consequences of expected questions. His puzzlement is equally with results as with essential processes themselves. As Boice says, “pragmatic concerns never fully answer dialectical considerations.”

In this intent to locate the parity between the conceived and the seen, Boice exemplifies another emerging generation’s attitude toward abstraction. Clearly the visual models derive from Malevich and Mondrian. Their process of abstraction took on “nature” as an adversary. The geometrical provided them with a syntax for this purpose. Despite the reflection of these forms in Boice’s work––particularly the model provided by Malevich and De Stijl––there is no hint of those artists’ particular attitude toward transcendental content. Characteristic of the current mode is its focus on syntactical analysis rather than symbolic content. It is this stress that separates Boice’s generation from American painting of the 1960s as well.

There is no question that the more formally rigorous American art of the ’60s provided the major impetus for the current mode. This previous generation’s effort to collapse the separate entities of painting and sculpture into a single episode is the exemplar of the current revision in the ongoing painting/sculpture dialectic. The difference between the earlier and the current American generation can be seen in the new generation’s accentuation of the role of drawing. For them, drawing represents almost a separate species. The reason is not difficult to grasp. Drawing becomes in their hands both mark and spatial diagram––a species that mediates painting and sculpture at the same instant.

––Robert Pincus-Witten