PRINT December 1974

Traversing the Field... “Eight Contemporary Artists” at MOMA

IT IS NOW 1974, 20 years after Jasper Johns commenced his first flag paintings. By art-world standards, two decades impress as a very long time. But when I consider the work assembled noncommittally under the title “Eight Contemporary Artists,” at The Museum of Modern Art (its largest exhibition of new art since 1 9 70), an epoch dissolves from memory. I am cast back to the message Johns transmitted then, as if little had intervened. The offerings in the current show, executed by a roster of international artists mostly in their thirties, and the old American flags invoke each other, conjoin in sensibility. Yet the younger artists do not seem to participate in any apparent revival at all. Judging by the close and special variations they play upon his work, they act as if they were quite newly won-over accessories to his program.

Excuse me for making an art-historical allusion at the very start of an essay on current art. Source mongering of this kind frequently serves to give a premature accreditation to untried work, and to replace thought, let alone an esthetic experience. But the modes in question here are very tried indeed, else they would not have been exhibited at the prestigious Modern. And their sources have already been mapped by sympathizers whose writing has appeared often in this magazine. The artists selected by Curator Jennifer Licht include Daniel Buren (French), Vito Acconci (American), Jan Dibbets (Dutch), Dorothea Rockburne (American), Alighiero E. Boetti (Italian), Brice Marden (American), Robert Hunter (Australian), and Hanne Darboven (German). Together, they might be said to comprise a representative team from that small but well-publicized segment of the art world that has been accorded a highly innovative status. Whether because of haste, or through confidence these difficult artists would be accessible to the general public, the Museum has not accompanied its show with an introductory essay. Jennifer Licht would hardly have been obliged to mention Johns as the key reference to much of the material she has presented to us, and, as I say, I have my hesitations about doing that, too. For it tends to imply that the meaning of the works must be sought in the technical way they relate to a model.

But surely the work of these artists invites such a prominent approach. Or, at least, the method has proven very hospitable to it. And what interests me is why the work encourages discussions on this restricted level, and what allusions to value and qualities of experience may filter through because of, or despite its technical processing.

Sandbagging is a poker term that describes the strategy of a player with a probably winning hand who sucks in funds from weaker deals by not raising his bet at a crucial moment. Johns inadvertently sandbagged postwar art. He could have followed suit with the rest of his generation by being an expressive abstract painter; or he could have adopted a figurative style of one sort or another. Instead, he painted American flags straight on the surface, covering them with brushy, wax encaustic marks. No one could say that he was representing the flag, or the later alphabets, numbers, and maps; and no one would call him an abstract painter, either. All this was blatantly undemonstrative, but the intellectually dynamic thing he did—in context—was to invent for painting a thickened embodiment of a flat figure or emblem that was not illusive. He had gotten in, somehow, between the two monopolistic notions that a painting either alluded to the real world, or referred to an invisible one that transcended or substituted itself for appearances. Concerning the effects of this move on succeeding art, some critics employed the term “literalist.” And to describe the condition of such art, others used the word “objecthood.”

Even collage, which earlier had many “literalist” implications, never proposed that numbed, filled up, evened out presence, that shared its complete being with us, in our space, at all costs. A few supporters of advanced abstraction (i.e., Michael Fried), were misled to think they had to deal with a theatrical tendency because the unframeable influence of Johns upon sculpture seemed to be treating the real environment in which it enacted itself as an endless stage. How passionately they defended themselves against this “theatrical” competition with the realm of so-called high art, that is, ’60s abstract painting. But Johns, obviously enough, was a painter, and his ideas could not have been other than those of a painter.

I recount this seven-year-old controversy because it is commonly assumed that painting of any historical consciousness has been superseded in interest by developments in all the other visual arts or modes, and some that are not visual, like music and poetry. Painting is said either to have become a dead issue or to have played no role in the recent expansion of the adventurous arts. By now, anyone can name them: sculpture, theater, dance, video, film, and Conceptual art, many of whose separate distinctions, temporal, spatial, and gestural, seem willing, at elected moments, to collapse into each other. Resident avant-gardes in these art forms are in centripetal intercommunication and comprise a scene in which all channels to each other are open, except those that lead back to the mode of painting. There have been concerts, say, by Phil Glass, or films, such as those by Michael Snow, whose audiences are largely composed of art-world people. It’s evident that these phenomena do not touch upon or even let in the dominant concerns or the historical traditions of the professions from which they seem to emanate. Quite to the contrary, the constituencies of such avant-gardes overlap with those of the avant-garde galleries, when they are not identical with them. By and large, the public has on its hands, not coincident impulses operating in separate fields and affecting them from within, but satellite tendencies colonized by those who have, as I hope to show, a painting orientation, whatever their individual disciplines. What the art world may have appreciated in the poetry of John Giorno or the dance of Yvonne Rainer was not a freshening influx of stimuli from their respective media, but a transposing of its own directives—which couldn’t be less theatrical.

If this has been misunderstood for so long, one large cause may trace back to the argument about “object-hood”—the obdurate, thinglike aspect of a whole class of art works that was considered, quite rightly, to be putting down the paint-livened flatness of the picture plane. Here, unfortunately, painting was thought to preclude all but an exclusively “optical” experience, with no recognition of its more bodily properties. Minimalist sculptors were only too glad to profile their own efforts against this restricted notion of the opponent medium (even as they shared its taboo about the symbolic potentials of art). But Johns, with impeccable logic, saw painting as also composed of inert substance. It had, for him, an indigenously opaque, finite material covering, with a limited capacity for storing information. Such information could not be unspooled in time because painting was a delimited spatial, not a temporal medium. And since paintmarks were literally insensate, there would be no harm, in fact, there was considerable merit, in showing them as such (by grounding them into a design to which they could not relate). The atmosphere at the time was to make this attitude look provocatively disingenuous, an affront to the integrity of art, indeed, an anti-art rhetoric.

By 1959, Johns happened to answer the improbable question: what would a Duchamp Readymade look like if it were a painting? For, one sees in retrospect, that the mechanistic premise of Duchamp (an alienated object could be art), was consonant with Johns’ view that the alienated stripes of a flag or the roundures of a target could be a painting composition. Further, this tied in with the obvious fact that the brush could only go so far, vertically, diagonally, or horizontally, before it met a given edge of the picture, and had to double back, roundabout, or pick up elsewhere. Because they are constant in their pacing, occur in regular sequence, and have parity, each with the next, his early motifs bore out the clear, measurable progression of his hand over the functional canvas field.

Johns’ consecutive ordering yielded some interesting transformations in the work of Stella and Warhol, particularly on the expressive side. But by migrating into sculpture, where it had never been heard of before, it exhibited a flat-footed force that mowed down, even now as it did then, the eloquent volumes and dramatic three-dimensionality with which sculptors were once concerned. One by one, ambitious workers in the field were acculturated to it: Morris, Judd, Andre, LeWitt, Serra, all variously seduced by the excitements of paralysis and inertia. For them, it was a way out from the tired vitalism that had been equated with modern sensibility in the arts. Withal, an increasingly liberal definition of sculpture bulldozed into adjacent disciplines, or converted new technologies. Were there once messy Happenings? They have been replaced by tight, “conceptual” performances. Did we have improvised or narrative camera work? The beady-eyed machine now more typically stays still, or is adjusted to a metronomic swing, producing endless noncuts. And what about the film loop, the slide carrousels, the stationary video pieces, the statistical chart, the philosophical propositions about language, and the mathematical diagrams? Obviously these phenomena tug in different directions and treat of different events. Yet, they have common strategies that seem to be realized in ticking off or traversing the boundaries of a discourse, to consume a given field there in some programmed motion that lays down discrete, partite units. More importantly, these materials unqualifiedly fall into, rather than assume, an artistic order. What we see, in fact, is a structure without hierarchical dispositions, without invented and reciprocating terms. In the most neutral sense, it is a configuration that did not have to be composed, once its rules of assembly were chosen. Often these rules tolerate a high incidence of random event, and anticipate accident as a regularizing condition.

At The Museum of Modern Art, in their separate galleries, a goodly number of the works referred to nature. For example, at the time I visited Vito Acconci’s “recording studio,” entitled Sounds for a Second Sight, the silence was regularly punctuated by what came on as the chirping of crickets. Hanne Darboven calls one of her works—eight framed sections each containing 42 pages of German numbers written in longhand—Four Seasons. Jan Dibbets gives us color photographs of uninhabited Dutch beaches, arranged in gradated forms that he aptly names Comets. Some of Brice Marden’s one- or-two-sectioned blank canvases are labeled Nebraska, Summer Table, and Grove Group. To Bring the World into the World—such is the name of a blue ball-point pen on paper field drawing in panels,by Boetti. Reading the captions under this art, one might almost imagine oneself to have wandered into a show of poetic landscapists. I’ll return to these outdoorsy allusions, which I mention prematurely, in a moment. For what strikes the viewer immediately is that, no matter how much they announce themselves as friendly to recurring natural cycles, the artistic structures of these works could not be more remote from anything smacking of organic creation. And this is thoroughly in line with their respect for Johnsian conventions.

Hanne Darboven counts up “between more or less known and unknown limits” with a broad pen point. When she reaches a prearranged terminus number, she starts over again, with undiminished industry. wherever she may find herself on a page. Jan Dibbets takes photos of horizons from successive angles tipping away from (or toward) the perpendicular, and then recombines them to show as strips of rising and retreating curves. The arc made by his shots, doubled back to back, and slowly reduced on all sides, is entirely abstract when considered as a decorative arabesque on the wall. But it seems to follow, perhaps inversely, the semicircle actually described by his camera, at plotted intervals. Dorothea Rockburne, in her Golden Section Paintings, is absorbed in bisections that run diagonally, that may be arbitrarily cut between, say, corners of a square superimposed on the lower right portion of a trapezoid. “Construct,” she has written to herself, “an investigation of drawing which is based on information contained within the paper and not on any other information.” True to form, she has created a class of seeming bas-relief objects (gesso on sized and folded linen), caught up with stretch, fold, indent, and overlap, more interested in logical yet skewered sectioning than in shape.

Four other artists employ much simpler schemes. One has to do with degrading the contrast of stenciled white, internally crossed rectangles on the gallery wall (Robert Hunter); another decorates a corridor with black and transparent paper stripes, in the same modules as the windows facing them (Daniel Buren). With the work of Brice Marden and Alighiero E. Boetti, there can be no mistake about the single-mindedness of the exposition. The American’s smoothed-out wax-and-oil paintings generally compose themselves of two or three one-color panels, equal in size and flush together. The Italian causes dense fields of ball-point blue to be executed—scores of thousands of marks—varied by the striations brought about when their “bricked” columns of pen lines touch each other. His works resemble Brice Marden’s in their notion of a very reduced field (though they are more high-pitched in color), and Hanne Darboven’s, in their comma-less, incessant proliferation of units. Even Vito Acconci, of whom I suppose it can be said that he is the most expressionist in the group, flashes innumerable slide images of his unclothed self on gossamer screens from distorted angles — and so uniformly quick in succession that he evidently does not want us to retain any of their individual messages at all.

So far, I’ve described only the morphology of these exhibits, to emphasize their considerable agreement on basic issues. On no account must a compulsively unitary format be violated by a freely invented episode or a cluster of stresses (exception: Dorothea Rockburne). Moreover, the system chosen emerges from a primitive emphasis on repeated marking or progressive scaling, literalist enough in presence as to subsume all iconic and psychological references (slight exceptions: Vito Acconci, Jan Dibbets). In search of a process that seems in an exemplary fashion integral to the medium, these artists evidently dissociate themselves from both the representational roles and the abstract modes of art. I cannot recall reporting on how certain related works of art are put together where metaphor was of such little use as it is here. (No one excepted.)

Sometimes the difficulty of framing in words the thrust of an artistic experience reflects more than a writing problem. In this instance at the Modern, we’re dealing with a concerted effort—long ago become second nature for all involved—to eliminate metaphoric sources of response to art. Or, at least, this negative ideal is held as something possible to achieve. The terms on which art would be accepted and discussed are defined as naming terms, and failing that, as nonapplicable. In other words, there can be no more pious interpretation of the mode than one of extravagant, descriptive neutrality. For better or for worse —and clearly I think the worse—an esthesia of this sort has been legislated as a mystic creditation of avant-garde policy.

In that the art solicits a mechanistic inventory of its features, rather than a dialectic between object and viewer, the experience presented is a bleak one. (This itself was not Johns’ import exactly because his art radiated disquiet with mechanism.) But the condition of avant-gardism is that no one policy within it can exist for much of a spell before the premise of another avant-garde supersedes it. A long-lived “avant-garde” idiom, therefore (with no usurpers in the wings), is a contradiction in terms, an establishment style, and if there were any such pretensions to radicalism about this show at the Modern, they are entirely false. The once unusual redundancy of its original models and structures has simply been consumed by further redundancy—by now, a thoroughly routine spectacle.

But I am loath to think any art deficient simply because it no longer conforms to the historicist determinations of novelty imputed to it by its apologists. That an art mode has had its day is no comment on the values and feelings it wanted to inspire, or the needs that it may still satisfy. (This would surely include any mode that subscribed to the cruel idea of the obsolescence of all artistic idioms except its own and those it resurrects.) And on this level—the intelligent and intelligible expression of feeling, the level that counts the most, I find the show horribly depressing.

Above all, I do not accept the equation between the mechanism of its impulse and any theory that this could be cherishable, free or liberating art. For the ideal of freedom has retreated to an implosive, autistic flight from outside stimuli, the warding off of an environment whose demands, we’re led to infer, are an unmentionable threat. Symbolically, the brittle patterns employed by this squad of artists speaks, not of a clarifying order, but of an imprisoned mentality, capable only of operating in dumb response to its internal logic. What really stupefies is to see such an internal emigration exposed in our premier cultural institution. The Modern, physically, is an ensemble of empty, grand spaces and antiseptic walls, illuminated by artificial light. The environment there exists only to redeem itself by homing or hosting works of art innocent of its own sterility (and of that without, in our world). But the togetherness of the “Eight Contemporary Artists” and the museum looks so ill-contrived because it enhances the mutual liabilities of both parties—show-cased through corporate largesse.

It is true that Jan Dibbets, in order not to be dwarfed by the wall, flings up his photo constructions high upon it—an act of incredible, perverse Mannerism since it sacrifices the intimate scale of the point he is making about the rotations of vantage. The work by Robert Hunter effaces itself, and that by Daniel Buren irritatingly clutters a surface—to no end other than exigency. Brice Marden is so overcome by discretion that his Three Deliberate Greys for Jasper Johns seems almost embarrassed to uncover its tastefulness. As for the three-part “recording studio” by Vito Acconci, here, at last, is what appears to be an introspective, self-affirming, politically aware, world-consuming work of art. Do we not, after all, glimpse photos of Mao, Martin Luther King, Ike, Che, and Lenin, etc., affixed to various parts of the artist’s body? Is he not shown cowering or frightened on various downtown streets? However, I confess an inability to believe or disbelieve the artist’s anguish because he has seen fit to mask it through an emphasis on technical filtering that hazes and atomizes everything. Vito Acconci had earlier shown a tendency to exhibitionistic masochism, which one may, or may not, have found arresting. That it is now indiscriminately papered over by the images of political leaders seems, though, a particularly hollow gesture—additive rather than intrinsic to his ritualism.

It would be a mistake to consider such contretemps as errors of rhetoric or misadventures of installation. That would amount to chalking up the individual failures to circumstance—a factor not likely to explain their abundance and regularity. The trouble, rather, is that most of these works deliver themselves over, on principle, to a bind. Insisting that we “read” them on a literal basis, they would not survive in meaning unless we grant them a metaphorical status. So, instead of trying to relate to three one-color panels by Brice Marden, we are urged, by a young writer, to search for “the uncertainty of the material.” Yet, invisible “uncertainties” of substance, and new proposals about language or reality, abstruse as these are, do not haunt this show because it has pledged itself against allusion. Here is where esthetic orthodoxies take their toll, and where feeling dries up. So yoked are these works to the undistractable, uncompletable art-world rule of self-reflexiveness, that they do not know how to behave in public.

Only one artist, to my mind, escapes this dilemma and achieves an indisputable poignance—though at the cost of illustrating to the extreme everything that is unhappy and deformed in the proceedings. Hanne Darboven couldn’t care less for material, or ideas, or analysis, or form, all of which sink away before the irrepressible need to do something. Her endless, number-covered pages diaristically record the way she takes up the time of her life, or rather, passes it away . . . gets through it. The spectacle affords me no pleasure whatsoever, but acquaints me with her pleasure “. . . einszweidrei . . .” Ich bin nicht frei. It is a prodigy of self-hypnosis that, if you wanted to be esthetic about it, could take your breath away.

The writer Philip Slater has a parable in Earthwalk that I should like to quote as an epigraph:

Once there was a man who lost his legs and was blinded in an accident. To compensate for his losses he developed great strength and agility in his hands and arms, and great acuity in hearing. He composed magnificent music and performed amazing feats. Others were so impressed with his achievements that they had themselves blinded and their legs amputated.

It will not have escaped visitors to the show that one of its features has scarcely been touched upon: an aspiration toward grace that here and there seeps through the party line. I mean the hesitant, tremulous acknowledgment among a few of the exhibitors that they are making something to be observed, something which might have to make its way in the future by being good to look at, and for that reason, stimulating to think about. Disbelievers are referred to the titles that recall nature, and those works that want to summon up a certain lyricism. Boetti’s white commas on the blue field might be thought to have a wan, Miró-esque charm. Dibbets clearly would like to see through to an appreciation of landscape. Why else would he have chosen color, an element completely extraneous to the rationalizing of his program? Inklings of color, in fact, should be judged the first signs of a return to life among the self-dispossessed. In this sense, Dorothea Rockburne has an edge over her bleached-out colleagues, not so much in the conservatism of her Golden Section Paintings, but in the fact that they are paintings employing a definite hue, brown. And Brice Marden, of course, starts quite ahead of them all, with his shy, gray and yellow palette. The remedial benefits of chromatic form to these artists can hardly be exaggerated. It might allow them to throw the determinist monkey off their backs. Of course, it is too early to tell whether they shall ever be restored to the understanding that a painting is not only a thing. I MEAN THAT IT IS ALSO PICTORIAL.

Max Kozloff