PRINT November 1977

Some Exercises in Slow Perception

NO ONE MISUNDERSTANDS THAT works of art are in some degree willed objects or events. That is why it is natural to acquaint ourselves with works of art by asking what seems deliberate and what seems fortuitous in them. It is because we see works of art so clearly as products of personal human action that they invite understanding in ethical terms. This sounds like a trivial remark unless you consider how little we experience the objects and settings of our material life as the products of human activity that they are. We look at art with the ideological assumption that is has been made by choice, and so we have no trouble acknowledging the effort and the quality of effort apparent in it. In this sense, works of art can allow us to feel the ethical pressure of everyday life that we are accustomed to repressing.

That is, works of art can sensitize us to the amount and kind of labor, of human time and effort, stored in everything we use and think we want. While seeing things in terms of the labor they imply adds a peculiar depth, a sense of historicity, to them, it is a demoralizing angle of vision. For there is no considering the labor stored in things without thinking about the social relations that brought about their production. The history of those social relations is, we know, a chronicle of the cruelest economic domination, in which we ourselves participate daily, however helplessly or ruefully. To look at things continually from the perspective I am describing is to take on feelings of helplessness and frustration, for it is to feel the full force of ethical pressure that any detail of daily life may exert. The awareness of the labor stored in everything we use is an awareness of the suffering implied by the social relations we carry on.

In this essay, I want to consider some recent works of art that I think deal deliberately with the art object as one in which stored labor shows with a peculiar transparency. But at the outset something should be said about Duchamp’s Readymades, since they may have been the first art objects to confront the anonymity of the labor process with the personality of the artist. Part of the poignancy of the Readymades is in the contrast they imply between the social and coercive forces of industrial production and the feeble whims of the artist.

There is no mistaking the perception of the artist’s social situation implicit in the Readymades: the artist as producer is no longer necessary, but since the bourgeois idea of life (which capital has pretended is its own) includes the social product “art,” the artist becomes someone whose role is to intend that there should be art, on behalf of those busier with practical matters. Even now, the artist’s intentions remain the popular handle on art. As long as the artist’s intentions, understood as something private to him, are taken for the active ingredient in art, the artist remains an authority on his own work, and his work is seen as issuing from him personally in all its dimensions. In the Readymades, Duchamp simply behaved as if his intentions were indeed a source of authority. As gestures, the Readymades are at once simple wishes (ironically granted by the vagaries of history), and acknowledgments of helplessness or emptiness in the face of 20th-century social life. The Readymades mark the poles of grandiosity and triviality between which modern art has swung since. Those poles correspond to the shifting sense of the efficacy of individual will that today infuses our forms of life. With the Readymades, the artist’s intentions appear as the mythified representative of individual initiative generally that they were to become to popular thinking.

Since the time of Duchamp’s Readymades, there have been various strategies in modern art for the suppression of intention as the motive force forming works of art. The automatism aspired to by the Surrealists and later by the Abstract Expressionists was a way of not exaggerating the significance of conscious choice.1 The relevance of their examples is that they presupposed that the freedom thought to belong to conscious choice is illusory, that the forces forming one’s choices are larger than oneself, and perhaps even unknowable. Today, we must still hold in mind this assumption, for the increasing worldwide domination of capital has meant, at least in American life, the systematic misrepresentation of the reality and efficacy of conscious choices. To be reminded of this fact in detail, watch any half hour of commercial television.

In recent years, many works of art have surfaced with the apparent aim of combating the concept of intention as an inward phenomenon, privately experienced. The work I want to consider as an example is the series of standing lead constructions Richard Serra showed at the now defunct Castelli Warehouse in New York, in 1969. The elements of the series were four-foot-square lead plates and bars of rolled lead sheet. With these elements, Serra made a series of defiant constructions. They accepted the challenge of the idea that sculpture must honestly be reduced to flat horizontality because of the need to acknowledge gravity. They were a symbolic reconstruction of the art of sculpture because they showed that vertical form was possible without any illusions regarding gravity or material. (The reference of the lead squares to Carl Andre’s work was inevitable.) In the context of that time, they were almost optimistic works, because they seemed to reverse an irreversible reductive logic. The visible weight of the material in Serra’s pieces served not only to exhibit their defiance of gravity, but to suggest a massive effort needed to dislodge the prejudice that sculpture must ultimately reduce to one format. Serra’s ingenuity was to contrive a way for gravity, an entropic influence, to act as the fastening force in his sculpture’s construction.

Each sculpture in the series was such a contrivance. In each piece, one or more lead plates was held vertical, on edge, by the weight of a rolled bar of sheet lead pressing from above. The procedure of the work’s construction was clear, and it clearly implied cooperative effort. As the lead plates were raised in the right position, a lead bar was placed so as to rest on the top edges of the plates, holding them vertical and connected, but only precariously. The literal danger in those works identified seriousness in sculpture with the use of gravity. Serra’s lead constructions were demonstrations of the way material becomes articulate. The delicate balance of these pieces was a metaphor for the delicate existence of every piece of understanding.

As constructions, Serra’s pieces were metaphors for the condition of the constructions we put upon what happens. It is no accident that they look as if they could not be assembled by a single person—that was part of the rightness of their scale. By their means of staying vertical, these sculptures referred to the spectator’s own erect posture as a state of awakeness, and hence to the possibility of articulate perception. The work identified the vertical axis with articulation, clarity, communicativeness, and the horizontal with disarticulation, obscurity, unconsciousness. It comprised proof of the difficulty of making something clear and of maintaining a clear vision of reality.

Serra’s pieces were not idealist in spirit. They insisted upon the fact that the idea of each was completely inherent in its actual precarious construction. They asserted that an idea’s only existence is its actual articulation, its existence in terms that make it shareable, such as a phrase, a text, or a sculpture. Yet in carrying this assertion, these sculptures became the inadvertent objectification of an ideal condition of things, a condition in which things and events deliver meaning unequivocally, or a condition of corresponding confidence in one’s own perceptions.

Ambiguities as to the artist’s intentions scarcely figured in this work. Its structure was so transparent that it said Serra himself must mean by this activity what anyone would mean by it. The grounds for inference of intention arise from a way of seeing objective, material circumstances. Serra’s constructions exhibited the fragility of the clarity they exemplify, and they suggested a limited number of possibilities to the principle of their construction. These aspects, plus their overweening respect for gravity, gave Serra’s sculptures their pessimistic side.

The reason I discuss them in this context is that these works by Serra are arguments for concentration on present details as a way of life lived against a background of unconsciousness, lack of meaning, and nonexistence. But they argue for a tense concentration, for the kind of vigilance with which one walks a New York street, a combative concentration that seems appropriate to the tenor of everyday social dealings.

Now, you may say that all works of art are tacitly arguments for the value of concentration, since they demand it. But I think few works argue as openly for concentration as a value as the examples I’ve chosen (not that many others couldn’t be added). I have the highest opinion of the works by Serra I’ve been discussing, but I want to take issue with their argument for concentration by remarking upon some work I know that has a different sense of the argument to offer. Serra’s work proposed one idea of the effort that makes clear vision possible. It is an idea I find compelling, especially in the work’s presence, but not bearable, because it implies despair. Serra’s lead constructions were Sisyphean projects, always intimating collapse and the need for reconstruction. From the present perspective, they seem to align metaphorically individual psychological frailty and a precarious social condition.

Serra’s lead constructions now seem foresightful in the way their attitude implies that the problem is not only seeing reality clearly, but in bearing clarity. The conjunction of clarity and danger in Serra’s pieces cannot be ignored. Those pieces represented clarity as thrilling and exhilarating but finally intolerable, like the tension of precariousness that arose from looking at them. I’ve noticed a number of works in various media in recent years that associate different feelings with clarity, and yet seem less responsible to material facts and procedures than the work by Serra that I just discussed. In talking about the verticality of Serra’s lead constructions, I meant to suggest that the clarity they exemplify connects with feelings of, and about, embodiment as an aspect of the human condition. (These feelings change with age, and with the blows of a form of social life that punishes age.) The works to which I now turn have an obsessive quality, but it is not with simple obsessiveness that they fend off the despair that Serra’s work intimated. The repetition they involve demonstrates a confidence in the unforeseeable that harks back, ironically, to Pollock.

Anthony Thompson, who has recently moved to New York, worked in Boston for many years. In 1975, I saw in Thompson’s Boston studio a group of wall drawings he had been working on. The drawings reflected his thinking about how to make drawings proper to physical space rather than pictorial or optical space. He had been looking for something like a site-specific mark or image that would acknowledge its physical setting and yet be readily recognizable as drawing. Thompson’s solution was so simple and so natural to drawing that I can easily imagine other artists hitting upon it and rejecting it as too obvious or not sober enough. The image he uses is the outline of his own outspread hand traced in pencil on the wall. The hand image refers to the surface it occupies, and it documents a momentary, local, and non-visual perception of the wall. The hand is a sign of the wall’s actual impenetrability to the mark. Drawing on the wall meant to Thompson composing in time—by successive operations—rather than in depth—at whim of gesture. The hand image works perfectly in this respect. It further allows the artist to involve his body directly in the work without resort to “expression.” The grain of the graphite mark on the wall communicates Thompson’s indifference to the “sensitive” line, while the work restates again and again the artist’s identification with his hand. Finally, though Thompson’s wall drawings repeat the same operation, they never repeat precisely the same form, because the artist’s hand is not a template.

To say more, I have to consider a typical early drawing in the series, referred to simply as Six-Foot Piece. It started with a horizontal line in blue chalk on the wall at about eye-level. The line is an overt compositional axis. To do the piece, Thompson put his right hand to the wall, below the left end of the line, and traced it. Then he edged the same hand along the line at brief intervals, tracing its outline in each position. The result was an array of overlapping hand profiles so dense that complete hand images emerge only at either end of the line. Yet once you see what the component image is, you also see the use Thompson has made of it. What you know to be accumulated hand shapes, you see casually as patterns of recurring details jostling for prominence, but not resolving themselves into a pattern of hands without an effort of concentration on your part. The central sensation of the work is the recognition that the patterns you perceive in the work at any moment depend upon the workings of your own attention in ways you cannot make explicit.2 The force of this sensation is in its implication that seeing the drawing “for what it is”—an accumulation of hand profiles—will itself depend upon unknowable and uncontrollable tacit choices. Thompson’s wall drawings argue that clarity is itself an abstraction founded on choices that might as well be arbitrary (if they aren’t) because they are tacit rather than conscious.

The affinity of Steve Reich’s music with the activities of certain contemporary artists has been remarked on often, but let me add another observation, even though there are philosophical difficulties in comparing works of music and art that I haven’t occasion to address here. What I want to point out is a parallel in the experience of some of Reich’s music and of the several visual works I’ll have mentioned. To simplify the task of description, I’ll consider Reich’s piece “Clapping Music” as, for my purposes, typical of his sensibility. So far as I know, this piece has not been recorded. I have heard it performed twice in concert. Reich has said the piece was written “out of a desire to create a piece of music that would need no instruments at all beyond the human body.” The piece begins with two performers clapping in unison in a 12-beat cycle. After a few moments, one performer moves abruptly from unison to one beat ahead of the other, who maintains the same tempo. Gradual and audible structural changes come about as one rhythmic line shifts in relation to another, for one performer continues to advance a beat at a time until the two are in unison again. At various points in the piece, you can hear that the shifting rhythmic line is actually the same pattern as the stable one, begun again and again at a different point in its sequence.

Like nearly all of Reich’s music, this percussion piece presents the listener with an experience whose principles are audible at every moment of the performance. The absence of instruments in the performance makes the musicians look open-handed and somehow cast upon their own resources. The structure of the music seems all the more transparent in consequence. Yet in perceptual terms, Reich’s music always presents more information than you can absorb in any one listening. Again you are made aware that what you experience at any moment in the music is an uninterpretable function of where your attention happens to focus. You know you are always choosing what you experience, but you cannot say how or in what degree. I think Reich’s music is an idea of reality, although I don’t think he intends it to be. In performance, Reich’s music produces phenomena in the way the perceptual experience of it exceeds its rational structure. Something of the same thing happens in visual terms in the other work I am referring to. In each case, repeated operations or procedures give rise to effects that seem to tell you they could not have been intended because they could not have been foreseen. Perhaps it is not too far-fetched to say that the kind of work I’m discussing reveals a phenomenal aspect, an aspect of dumb nature, happening of itself, within human activity, including the activity of concentration.

Another Boston artist, Fritz Buehner, has been making wood sculptures that construct in elaborate ways the sensation I have been using to link the works described here. Buehner’s work also results from the interminable repetition of the same set of procedures and structures. The material he uses in larger works is one-by-one-inch unfinished lumber. With the lumber he constructs the modules of each work’s structure, regular flat polygons of, say, 10 sides, with “spokes” converging at their centers. These wheellike units are pegged together in sequence, so as to describe a regular spiral path through space. The result is a sculpture of utter regularity but of such complexity that it has an almost atmospheric quality. The structure of Buehner’s sculpture tells you two things: that there is no mystery in their construction, and that the artist could not have foreseen the shower of detail that his procedures produce.

Buehner’s large sculptures, such as Tyngsboro, have clearly opposed side and end views. From the side, the spiral structure of the work is apparent and legible, all the operations clearly in evidence (the polygonal units are assembled with a brown glue that is easily seen against the blond wood). The end views of the work present a drastically different aspect. From either end, the sequence of polygons winds backward, forming a thicket of struts and joints that ambient light almost fails to penetrate. Again, this is work that uses decipherable procedures to produce a plenum of information. It makes possible the smooth transition from knowing the structure of what you’re seeing to knowing that you see more than you can bring within an idea of structure.

From the side, Buehner’s sculptures can be grasped “conceptually,” but the end views require you to look at what’s there, and to sense how much you cannot be conscious of seeing. It should be obvious that Buehner’s work, like the other works I have mentioned, demands time, and must be perceived gradually. Buehner’s work allows you to take pleasure in feeling what you know outstripped by what you see, then reabsorbed in it, then outstripped again, as you walk around the sculpture. The concentration Buehner’s work recommends is the meditative concentration, the relaxed concentration typical of the labor involved in making it, when that sort of labor is undertaken freely. In fact, Buehner’s work suggests a parallel between the kind of attention required to make it and the kind of attention needed to see it in detail. Like the rest of the work I have in mind, Buehner’s sculpture questions the principles by which certain perceptions govern others—the meaning of the authority certain perceptions have over others. And in its questioning of the relations between perceptions is implied the questioning of relations between perceivers.

I don’t mean to suggest that the works that I have cited, and others I might have mentioned,3 amount to a trend. I have grouped them because they exemplify a kind of ethical resignation. Their use of very limited, repeated operations may be taken to express a suspicion of the meaning of any activity that cannot be undertaken with the relaxed concentration they embody. Such works discover a freedom in the unforeseeable effects of repetitive, deliberate activity, although they seem also to accept the impossibility of knowing what you are doing when it is anything but the simplest activity. They allow us to acknowledge the feeling that the meaning of our actions is determined by realities larger than we can perceive directly. They accept that feeling as real and fundamental, or they allow you to accept it if you happen to have it. Since I think that that feeling is a reasonable response to the present social condition, I see these works as ethically concerned with freedom from that feeling, understood as a matter of focus and patience. The obsessive element in the works cited is the element of refusal, refusal to obey a compulsion not chosen.



1. For the past decade, Philip Guston has been practicing a drawing style that seems to exhibit, mark by mark, the fact that the artist’s conscious awareness of the drawing process is only one among an indefinite number of factors deciding how you see his images. I discussed in detail the significance of Guston’s drawing style in “Philip Guston’s Drawing: Delirious Figuration,” Arts Magazine, June 1977.

2. Robert Morris’ recent wall drawings, using his graphite-smeared hands as a marking tool, do not yield this sensation, I think, because the marking operation, though recognizably repetitive, cannot be unravelled by your deliberate attention. That is, you cannot recover evidence of the number or order of operations from the graphic density they produce.

3. Other works to which the perspective of this essay might apply include certain floor pieces by Barry Le Va and Cecile Abish, some of the “ground” paintings of Neil Anderson, and some of Donald Judd’s recent plywood sculptures. The watercolors of Tonia Aminoff , my wife, equally fit the purposes of this essay.