PRINT January 1977

Beating the System

KEN SILVER RECENTLY TOLD ME of a visit he made to a mutual friend of ours, late of the Yale Art School, at her loft in SoHo. Our friend, who will go unnamed, reportedly spent lunch discoursing on the theories of Einstein and Heisenberg, and on how they related to and inspired her fine-lined, graphlike pencil drawings. Whether she really knew much about the physicist and the mathematician, Silver reflected, whether she really understood their esoteric metier as a competent professional scientist would, and whether they actually had any direct relevance to her art, was not the point. What was interesting and what excused her naiveté was how she “smelled” these thinkers rather than read them, and infused her pictures with an essence she distilled from their work.

Other artists who turn the same trick are ubiquitous; one could say skeptically that it has become a fate of the avant-garde to have to mouth the arcanenesses of science in order to keep a step ahead of an audience all too willing to embrace any and all esthetic revolutions. Moreover, the scientist can claim a degree of authority the artist sorely wants: if his work has the gloss of scientists’ style, an artist can at least pretend to have transcended the morass of subjectivity, taste, and art-politics that is his true habitat. I applaud Gore Vidal who, in a recent article on “R & D” (Research and Development) writers, proposed that the novelists in question were overcome with envy before the formulae the last physics professor had left chalked up for them to see, when they entered the classroom to attend to literature. Or, if we allow these artists some credit, we could say that they have haphazardly adopted the language of science so as to make it into metaphor and render a world whose salient feature is the erudition of its technology.

Such is the case, I think, to one degree or another, with three artists who had recent shows. Let me qualify: Arakawa is the only one of these who actually uses a version of such language, but Dorothea Rockburne and, in his current show, Robert Morris are both preoccupied with systematized picture-making that derives from a similar source. Indeed, for the artist who works according to a system of the currently popular sort, each individual item in his oeuvre becomes, in a sense, one piece of data which stands subservient to the initial hypothesis. He elects a system—it may be reductive or baroque—and he has gotten art down to a science. Such art is distinct from more traditional variations on a generic theme, because its discrete works occur under the arbitrary direction of the system; rather than embellishments and reworkings of an established motif, the works are muted permutations of a superior formula.

As such, they are supposed to constitute a deestheticized breed of art, an art from which the maker’s hand and mind have been removed except in the establishment of the first idea. But of course, the whole notion of an arbitrary art is designated for an esthetic end and is thus submerged in an illusionism of its own kind, its illusion being that of the technocratic Zeitgeist invading the realm of sensibility and usurping the imagination. System-art can be about as boring as virgin graph paper, matted, framed and hung, whether it serves as a refuge for dull sensibilities or constricts living ones with its bland rigors.

Rockburne and Morris, both intelligent artists, perceive this pitfall and avoid it, but not by any perverse convolution of their systems. In their current shows they manage not to paint themselves into a corner, by unexpectedly using cosmetic devices of a quite familiar cast.

I don’t think Rockburne would deny this; in fact, in the catalogue of the latest episode of Golden Section paintings, Naomi Spector describes Rockburne as having abandoned system for intuition in the application of color to those well-known combinations of squares and triangles. Nevertheless, her decision to permeate them with green, gold, orange, blue and tan can be seen as an alternative chosen over simple, repetitive extrapolation of the Golden Section’s endlessly prolific geometry. In other words, Rockburne could have continued recombining those squares and triangles with her original materials; the addition of color is ultimately a choice to pull rank on the system, in favor of a kind of picture in which the artist’s hand and mind are obviously present.

Rockburne has never been quite so uninhibited; never has she so enthusiastically decorated her mathematical camouflage. Although in her pre-Golden Section works she grudgingly allowed her paper to curl and her crude oil to make elegant designs, she denied having any sentiment for these things. In an Artforum interview of 1972 she says, essentially, I don’t care what my materials do—though I choose them, if my paper curls that’s its problem: “The paper curls because it comes on a roll, and I don’t mind that. [my italics] It can have that much license but not too much more, because I’m interested in the ways I can experience myself, and my work is largely about making myself.”

I submit that her work was largely about hiding herself, though her veil was transparent enough. It represented reticence, a retreat from that ground on which purely humanistic ideas are bartered; there artists win or lose solely on the strengths of their individual subjectivities. Rockburne has said as much herself: “I was angered by the fiction I read, because to read novels . . . requires some empathy with the people being portrayed . . . . I couldn’t in any sense identify with them, and started to read books on mathematics. Math, by contrast, was straight and simple thinking . . . ” Now her pictures’ titles, which were once such stubborn esoterica as Set, Gradient and Fields or Intersection, have given way to the evocative: Robe Series, The Discourse. I must allow that Rockburne distinguished her earlier work from faddist system-art and from Minimalism, though system, of course, came into play with the Golden Sections. To me, her distinction seemed an attempt to institute a faction within a faction, for what she shared with these other developments, and what was characteristic of her work, was its reticence.

I wonder what Mel Bochner, who wrote “Her materials never stress their physicality,” thinks now. What is expressive nuance in Rockburne’s current work a hard-line systematizer would probably regard as self-indulgent caprice, but I would not fault her thus.

In The Discourse, 1976, a large diamond composed of eight right triangles splits open two squares and leaves acute schisms in them. One square retains its original angles while the other is abbreviated and bent into an odd angle with itself, but both are identifiable as one-time primary shapes. Yet the schisms, nearly symmetrical and opposing each other across the diamond, are of unrelated colors—one is the same blue as the diamond, the other is tan. This difference in color exists only to an expressive end: the orthodox square, the one which maintains its complete form except for its missing slice, is allowed to borrow blue from the deciding diamond; the truncated, asymmetrical square’s slice goes tan, a foreign color in the elemental community of red, blue and green, as if to mark its irregularity. Perhaps this explains the painting’s title, for certainly we are looking at a contest between eccentric square and conventional one, and the former’s eccentricity is carried all the way out through its hues.

I think pictures that depend on such subtle nuance and complexity are still somehow terribly self-effacing. Yet ambiguity, reticence and hesitation certainly make up a good part of the work’s real content, which, I argue, does not consist merely of some geometrical mechanics from which we are supposed to derive a rarefied satisfaction, but of an argument between intellectual and sensual pleasure in the deepest way. Needless to say, Rockburne has heretofore opted generously for the cerebral side; the redundant presence of the Golden Section may not have been an actual limitation of Rockburne’s as much as a metaphor for limitation. And when it came time to dress the sections up, Rockburne dressed them as wallflowers—kraft paper, matboard and masonite were beholden to their connotations of austerity no matter how much they seemed expedient, transparent means to illustrate the habits of the system. Yet what makes them all interesting is their nagging interest in the other, sensual side, and their dogged progress toward it. Her linen/masonite constructions were rich within their austere means.

I do not know whether Robert Morris is representing himself, as of his current show, as a systems-man. Nevertheless his latest pieces, layered and folded constructions of thick felt, do appear to be permutations of a preconceived idea. Seven of these 10-by-10-foot squares alternate in black and white around the room, their corners folded back to create triangles and sometimes to reveal bare wall through their diamond-shaped openings. Their repetitiveness makes them seem subservient to a scheme to which, as with Rockburne, the use of material is opposed.

Some of Morris’ earlier concerns are manifest here. That opposition between internal and external worlds of which his Labyrinth (1974) spoke is transposed here into a flat picture, although the darkness and confusion which were then on the inside have given way to a blank wall. Blank wall might represent a kind of confusion itself, but I think instead that it speaks here in self-parody. The new pieces bear little relation that I can see to Morris’ earlier felt works. Those voluptuous creatures spilled exuberantly off the wall and hardly needed to hide behind a systematizer’s pseudo-scientific ethos. When they repeated, when there were two or three or several of them on the same wall, it was because there was real strength in numbers, or because one piece was an inversion of another. It was not because Morris was out to show us how many instant replays he could summon.

No more than Rockburne can Morris forego a medium which is rich and luxurious. His felt is soft, creamy white and inviting. It is also resistant to precise folding, so the pieces are never exactly symmetrical or cleanly edged. This sloppiness bespeaks a slight contempt for the system’s strictures. Perhaps Morris’s works are parodies of Rockburne’s—they are her triangles he’s playing with.

The relative softness of his material reminds me of the gauzy constructions Robert Rauschenberg showed last spring. In Rauschenberg’s work, reference was being made to wealth and leisure, and even to how these were desirable conditions for a painter as they transformed his once chaotic and melancholic work. One piece was a large, transparent gauze bag filled with empty silver paint buckets. Morris’ work is not so openly concerned with wealth and its effects, but it does talk with mixed pleasure and disdain about the luxury of making art out of numb geometry. Whether luxury à la Morris is something to be envied in the technocrat’s world, which is abundant with comforts and esteem and sophisticated equipment, or whether it is the simple intellectual luxury of making art by remote control, I cannot say. (However a friend asked me whether I thought the pieces were sexy. They do look somewhat vaginal and recall, very remotely, Georgia O’Keeffe’s flowers.)

I confess to not having deciphered the language printed and scrawled on Arakawa’s paintings. Here is a man, however, who outwardly seems to want to leave art behind altogether for scientific pastures. The gibberish he writes in cursive and stencil-letters is a mixture of physics and metaphysics which would be incomprehensible, I think, to professionals in either field. One of his slogans runs, “A factor of disbelief might lead to or from a sudden drop, itself cleaved to or from a ‘fracture of sudden disbelief,’ until such descending modulation arrives at unrecognizable atmospheres whose moment is that in which ‘BEING GIVEN’ has not yet even been thought of.” Like my SoHo friend, Arakawa talks about Heisenberg (even though his English is none too fluent); he makes pictures that look like a cross between blueprints for complicated machinery and maps of Dante’s cosmos. They may or may not have a sound basis in physical or metaphysical fact, but they are pretty. They do summon strongly an ethos of science and philosophy, and that is probably most of what they are meant to do.

The prettiness is what is intriguing, for in every other way this painter seems to be talking about some mystic effort to reach that state in which perception is pure, unadulterated, spontaneous and unconditioned—that “moment in which ‘BEING GIVEN’ has not yet even been thought of—or, if he were to say it clearly, that moment which is free of names and connotations, where there are no givens and everything is fresh. Yet Arakawa’s art, which must want to be a mere stepping-stone to the higher state, is dreadfully labored and mannered and dependent on such ”archaic“ means as colors, lines, squares and circles. Arakawa can afford still less than Rockburne and Morris to leave expressionist strokes and blips behind; without them, his art would be vacuous. He is good at dandying up his schemata with such details, but he also tends to get smudges of color which would look accidental in other people’s paintings. He probably intends these smudges as derisive grumbles about his having to use color at all to get his point across. His science fictions are finally solipsistic; and they are annoyingly proud of the arcaneness and inscrutability of their privileged ”knowledge."

Leo Rubinfien is a photographer who lives in New York City.