PRINT Summer 1977

‘Words’: When Art Takes a Rest

SOMEWHERE ALONG THE LINE we got used to the idea that an art object could be a lousy object and a great work of art, as long as it was interesting to think about. Since Duchamp, the idea has commanded a great deal of our attention, but rarely has the idea come to fruition in a truly crummy-looking object. With those few works, however, the “artistically” or visually uninteresting object has passed from idea into fact. The consequence was that art became “immersed in words,” as Rosenberg has said.

In the last few years, however, we have begun to accept works which are not only non-objects but which are conceptually simple-minded as well—completely dumb as ideas. Not just physical embodiments of dumb ideas, but the dumb ideas themselves. This is a definite change in sensibility. Now, no one in modern times expected artists to be good people or thinkers of good thoughts. We have not even asked that they be brilliant thinkers at all: that is one difference between artists and scientists. It was enough that we be visually stimulated even if we knew the intention or framework was silly or unsound or even immoral. Yet when the object fell by the wayside, we hoped that ideas, as the center of interest, might be interesting. But that did not happen.

While Conceptual art was words, we took it as art, not literature. The pamphlets of Art and Language were not works of literature. Non-object art appropriated words as vehicles even though there was no literary intention per se involved. Mostly, the more tractlike writings were others’ ideas restated in the most mystifying rhetoric. If there had been any literary or poetic quality, the “artists” might have risked being mislabeled “writers.” Observing the sacred categorical division of art and literature, artists who used words didn’t want to cross boundaries. In any case, literary people would not have paid any attention to these writings. A number of artists used only one word per artwork, so that we might want to call that “poetry,” especially in opposition to the wordy, philosophic-linguistic oriented artists; but both amounted to about the same thing. Writing is no doubt the easiest way of filling up time, of doing something, anything. It is very difficult to make a sculpture, and probably harder to make a decent painting. But the kind of writing that visual artists used was a record of themselves talking or thinking alone. And talk is cheap. As an art teacher said, in conversation with Judith Adler:

If someone claims to be a tap dancer you can at least ask him to dance, but if he claims to be an artist, who knows what to ask him to do!

The curators of the “Words” show, at the Downtown Whitney, didn’t really care about whether or not something might be visual. In this exhibition, they glorified the idea that the artist need not do anything, but just record that he or she has, or might have, done, or not done, something.

Artists do a particular “something.” With this large show, a certain taste emerges with certain characteristics that signal words as art. The criterion is brevity: the brevity of the pun, the one-liner, the label, the name. One might accuse Duchamp, but Johns keeps popping up. Many of the pieces are simply Johnses without the painting: such lassitude would make a painting look like an act of God. The Johns literalism is very much in evidence, especially in calling something what it is. The artists seem to try to freeze the words, keeping them from a context, and emptying them of associative content. (To feel a tingle of association is to feel one is violating the “spirit” of the work.) Since they are nothing more than what they are, to read—no, to glance at—the words is enough.

The fast glance that facilitates this shortened experience is something which we get used to quickly, and it was the most striking thing about “Words” as a whole. To say that art in the ’60s was “fast” is to say something about our culture at that moment, including the artists’ conceptions of who would see the art. The viewer was busy; he was on the run; and things had to move quickly. We did not stop to savor things. The newer, ’70s-style brevity is something different, a reaction to (and the opposite of) the old energy. It is a sign of fatigue, of a rest from art, and of art itself taking a rest. These artists make an attitude out of laziness, without the social edge which great earlier lazies, such as Duchamp, gave it. This rest is not averse to materialism, nor is it an indication of a Marxian resistance to the commodity (which can provide a justification for doing nothing). It is not even an attitude of cultural irony. It most suggests an avant-garde Sunday painting—leisurely and altogether nonthinking.

When Bill Beckley writes about something that (might have) happened to him, it is as if he were jotting down a journalistic aside. This is not far removed from the teenager who keeps a diary of every insignificant occurrence in life. What is lacking is need or motivation. One finds, instead, a nonactivity that passes the time. (Some artists pass the least possible amount of time this way, while some relentlessly pursue such activity. For instance, Hanne Darboven, a relentless artist, is not included, in keeping with the taste for rest and brevity.) In Beckley’s case, we feel lucky to have a moderate amount of information about a potentially thoughtful incident, and a photograph to boot.

Joel Fisher’s entry, Apograph Alphabet no. 41, doesn’t even bother to make the letters he presents spell anything. How it is that his work counts as “words” is unclear. Although the dates of execution are given as 1972–76, it is difficult to see how it would take that long to complete the twenty-six letters of the alphabet, one on each small piece of paper. The only conclusion is that Fisher does one every once in a while, that he is not much interested in the stuff and has no attachment to the possible meaning of what he does outside its just being something to do. On Kawara’s canvases, August 11 1975 and August 12 1975, are from a one-canvas-a-day series done over an extended period of time. But why show these particular two? Again, it looks like a way to pass the time with the least bit of effort, with the least possible involvement. Kawara presents a diary so empty that it consists of nothing but the date entries. Lucio Pozzi contributes Nothing Today, a drawing with that phrase written in pencil in the middle of a very large sheet of paper. To differentiate between Pozzi’s “art” and mere literature, one might say that literature suggests Heller’s Something Happened, and “art,” “nothing happened.”

Ben Vautier sums up the worst aspect of this attitude with his painting What bothers me in this writing is its esthetic side. Of course, he presupposes that it has an esthetic side. This lay-down-and-die acceptance of things is silly and pretentious, uncritical and unhumorous. Actually Vautier is not bothered in the least with the esthetic side of a painting (otherwise it would have never found such a form). His is not a painting that is so traditionally art that one would even think of doubting its esthetic side, and is not esthetic enough to bother questioning its esthetics. Robert Morris has already made an art gesture out of esthetic withdrawal of quality and content in his Litanies, but that was a gesture suffused with an irony that supersedes mental laziness. I can see others responding to Kawara and Pozzi and Vautier as artists expressing the boredom of life, the emptiness of existence, the alienation of modern man, etc., but what do we have here that is convincing proof of that? Only artists who are probably too afraid to follow Duchamp and stop making art. But then, in order to give art up, one would first have to make it.

Lawrence Weiner hedges a little with another one of his portentous directives:

Having a relation to progress (of a sort):
left here
put there
for a limited time

One could write reams about Weiner’s importance-signalling brevity and the special meaning of this particular sentence fragment. Does the (possibility of) action and progress refer to the transient nature of the work itself, or to its existence in this show, or in our minds, or to its progress in other contexts, or our minds, etc.? What sticks with me is the qualification “(of a sort).” Does Weiner really think that his phrase might have anything to do with progress, if we understand that word to have any meaning? “(Of a sort)” is a cover for the fact that Weiner knows that anyone’s exposure to this attempted executive ruling is bound to fail. And ambiguity and underdefinition are not the same as haikulike concentration and compactness. The only interesting thing about Weiner’s fragment is that it is presented “courtesy of Leo Castelli.” An unspecified—but no doubt very large—number of offset printed copies of this piece were unselfishly made available. We can only speculate as to what courtesy the dealer is extending to us.

By now it should be clear that since this art contains nothing much more than words, reading the checklist of works is not so different as an experience from seeing the works themselves. In this way, we have finally reached that legendary point where the works themselves become unnecessary. Furthermore, on the checklist we also have measurements and descriptions and media, even owner, which is more than we get from the works alone when seen on the walls. In fact, it is most important to realize that these works are their own documentation. Then it is easy to understand why they should have been shown together at that particular museum.

The Whitney Downtown is a museum where university graduate students learn to curate shows. They explore the necessary connection between curator and artist and learn all the institutional things they will need when they enter the larger and more prestigious palaces of culture. The Downtown is the place for these future custodians to learn how to institutionalize artworks. So here they picked perfect subjects: works as words, works which are already practically institutionalized. To read the list is to experience the works, to “have” the list is to “have” the works. To put together such a show, all you do is type up a list, like typing a term paper. None of the art is explicable anyway; its literalness circumvents discussion. Art content is kept to a minimum, so what is left has a paper existence, as pure documentation and labeling. Art at rest is neutralized art. The museum doesn’t even have to apply its own usual neutralizing procedures. This art functions on the museum walls like footnotes in a seminar. The students collate the material and present it on paper; the stuff on the walls is there in case you want to check the sources.

If many of these works are Johnses without the painting, such a curatorial attitude is art history without the history. Revealingly, the oldest piece dates from 1965, while more than half of the works at the Whitney were from 1976 or 1977. Even Kosuth’s 1965 One and Eight—A Description doesn’t exist as historical precedent. Like most of the other work, it proclaims its own “description” as a thing, claiming its own place and meaning. Robert Morris’ crib from Rauschenberg is more past-conscious: Re-do the Chicago Fire, 1871. Like Rauschenberg’s telegraphic Iris Clert portrait, it is a telegram sent to a (museum) person. To understand this gesture, you must understand its reference to other gestures; but at the Whitney Downtown, it too was just “words.”

Although such objects and thoughts as these always refer to some past moment, either in art or some other personal experience, they are stranded instances of pathetic alienation. They never engage us in the present or, as things which might stay with us, in some possible future. The only thing to do is categorize, if the works do not label themselves. These are items which need no experiential mediation. As records or documents, they rely on our personal interest in the artist above all things—and not for what the artist does, but for what he doesn’t do. Which amounts to accepting something as art just on the artist’s say-so.

When one lifts the veil of mystification surrounding the artist’s supposed special existence, as manifest in scraps of tame time-marking gestures, one is left with a few funny jokes. The slim and lean statement can work when it takes on the form of the joke or pun, forms which have a double usefulness. For one thing, “brevity is the soul of wit.” Also, humor transcends boredom and leaves seriousness and respectability behind. So the few good pieces really are funny. The things with any resonance at all are puns, not “ideas.” They are not residues of someone’s boredom. They should be seen.

Ed Ruscha’s Colorfast? had color variety—of all the irrational things. Colorfast? asks the question of whether beet juice, onion stalk, and gunpowder can make a drawing with the word “colorfast” surrounded by each substance’s stained “color,” while the word “colorfast” stands in negative, bleached out and not colorfast. The work is visually striking, colorful, thoughtfast, and humorous, like a light weight False Start.

John Baldessari’s entry was not as good—or as visual—as he can be. His Three TV Sentences provided us with words that come together to form ambiguous statements which, in turn, “caption” photographic images from TV. “Fat Man Driving Bus,” “Dead Man Meeting Invitation” and “Couple Fighting Nostalgia” are the three titles and the three sentences. Obviously a “dead man” cannot meet any invitation, and the images are the only thing which hold together the sequence. But at other times, the image has little relation to the word. With Baldessari there is also a “chicken-and-egg” aspect to decipher: do the words label the images, or were the images picked to illustrate the words? The stretching of language, and the ambiguity of the sentences, as well as the admixture of the mundane in a highly charged image, make these works quite engaging. I especially admire how Baldessari’s pieces communicate without leaning on Baldessari as a personality.

Bruce Nauman’s neon Run From Fear Fun From Rear is an excellent Freudian slip/pun about the possibility of being “buggered” and/or the primal fear of being followed (especially in the dark). The Whitney Downtown just about ruined it, however, because as a neon sign it should be seen in the dark, with its hot orange light shining.

Lastly, Laurie Anderson’s Art and Illusion, although it has been around a little too much this year, bears repeating. This work appeals particularly to cynical art history teachers. Anderson tells a story of having her students visit a museum and write an essay about it. One student writes that she can’t remember the name of the museum she went to, and can’t remember anything she saw except a stuffed seal. Ah!, Anderson finally deduces, her student went to the Museum of Natural History. Accompanying the text is a photograph of the stuffed seal. There is also a set of headphones which you can put on; when you do, you hear a pseudo-rock-and-roll song which is little more than one chord with the words “art and illusion” repeated over and over. It is, at least, something to think, and laugh, about.

––Jeff Perrone