PRINT April 1978

Richard Nonas: Boundary Works

RICHARD NONAS’ WORK USES MINIMAL forms and working procedures for the realization of goals radically different from those of the artists who developed that formal language in the mid-’60s. Unlike other post-Minimalists, Nonas did not feel compelled to jettison an established vocabulary and, in reaction, to forge an entirely new one. The choice of remaining partially within a Minimalist mode held out to him the prospect of achieving a more disquieting and subversive overturning of the original meanings of its terms. His work thus involves an undermining of expectations, an erosion of certainties and stabilities. We frequently encounter his work in terms of tensions between the immediate legibility of his forms and how he inserts them in a given space to generate a web of effects that is not decipherable: how they set up a spatial field that is disorienting and polyscenic. From the beginning of his career, he has concentrated on the effects of an object on space and on the subsequent emotional and physical experience of that interaction. Nonas’ is an art that is affective; meanings reside not so much in the object itself, or in how it is formed, as in what it does.

Nonas makes two basic types of pieces. One category encompasses configurations of wood or steel in which beams or plates make up a square, rectangle, triangle or other easily readable shape. He began his career with sculptures of this kind, and they are probably the pieces most widely associated with him. These are works, like his recent No-Water-In, 1977, that enclose or mark off a space; they disclose their own center and also become a center in relation to the surrounding area. Although Nonas often makes these objects for a specific location they can function equally well in any site, given a certain openness of space.

The other kinds of pieces that Nonas has done, particularly in the last few years, are linear works that in themselves are like open linear boundaries. They are lines, made up of units of steel or wood, laid out in simple arrangements that, instead of enclosing an area, delimit fragmentary zones in indoor or outdoor settings. Larger in scale than his other works, these linear pieces interact with space in a new way for Nonas; we experience them much less as isolated objects and more as active spatial elements. Like very low fences, they become constitutive of experienced spaces; consequently, the sculptures are present as places as well as as objects.

One of Nonas’ first linear works was Boundary Man, exhibited in late 1974. He worked with two parallel rooms connected by an open doorway; in each room he set out a straight line, in sections of steel, that was diagonal in relation to the rectangle of the room. If the lines had been extended they would have intersected in a right angle near the doorway. The steel lines, then, denote the edge or boundary of another area that overlaps the two adjacent rooms, comprising one corner of a larger, also rectangular, area that coexists with the two rooms. Nonas is not designating a theoretically possible space but has marked out in steel the limits of a physically affecting, experienced space. His boundary lines, rather than linking the two rooms, create a situation in which conflicting spatial readings intermingle. We don’t just get alternative readings but rather circumstances in which we inhabit two spaces simultaneously. We feel the steel lines both as diagonals in relation to each room and as two sides of one rectangle, as though they were locked into 90-degree and 45-degree angles at the same time. It is the kind of indeterminacy that Nonas has continued to explore in subsequent work.

Clearly many sculptors in the ’70s have attempted, in a variety of ways, to transform the space of a gallery situation, to change the way a room feels. Artists like Robert Irwin, at times, and like Fred Sandback, have achieved results that relate to the indeterminacy of Nonas’ work but through fundamentally different strategies, working without objects and using explicit vertical divisions of space. For others the object is central to a modification of interior space, as in some of Robert Morris’ recent installations. Morris deploys objects so formidable and imperious that the room is thoroughly transformed, annulling any sense of the space before the imposition of the work: it effectively becomes another place. Now, one aspect of Nonas’ achievement is the production of objects that paradoxically change the space of a room and at the same time preserve an experience of its original character. This is a situation in which we seem to be in more than one place at once, subject to a convergence of effects and confronted with an amalgam of possible spatial interpretations. Again it is not a question of oscillating back and forth between different readings but of sensing their interconnection and entanglement. By staying on the floor and aligning his pieces with the ground plane, Nonas both integrates his work with existing space and simultaneously disrupts it, interweaving and scrambling the codes by which space is felt (not just understood). His steel line, for example, is poised between being a flat horizontal strip and a vertical boundary, between being the inside limit of one zone and the exterior border of another area. The work plants us in a threshold position where provisional and disconnected perceptions can be seen to coincide.

In what may have been his most important show to date, at P.S. 1 in the spring of 1977, Nonas exhibited five sculptures, of which two are large linear pieces in steel. Both are T-shaped forms, one of them, Giotto’s Lunch, extending through the space of three rooms. Like Boundary Man, its lines never touch a wall, always allowing the possibility of walking completely around it without having to step over it. By not linking it with any existing vertical barriers Nonas establishes new zones that are incompletely mapped out, so there can be a flow in and around areas that are felt without being fully indicated. There is no point from which we can see the whole piece in one view, and strikingly different readings of it present themselves in each of the rooms through which it passes. The work is an extremely coherent and simple arrangement of steel beams, but there is a discontinuity between an understanding of its formal clarity and an experience of its different subdivisions of interior space. Nonas’ concern has been to activate an inert object by playing it off the contours of its surrounding space(s), so our attention is less on the work itself than on the reverberations of that play.

Both Giotto’s Lunch and its companion piece Montezuma’s Breakfast are charged with a certain velocity of line; we feel their shapes as taut, sleek, multidirectional vectors shooting out across the surface of the floor. The use of steel is crucial here: these works depend on their quality of edge, on a clean hardness of line, for their effects, for the way they pull us visually and physically. Otherwise similar wooden constructions would have worked very differently, owing to wood’s relative softness and less sharp edge. But Nonas also tempers the velocity of his lines by assembling them out of a number of noticeably equal units. Giotto’s Lunch consists of 12 strips, and the cracks where the units abut, however smoothly, are enough to prevent the work from being a statement about the sheer extension of metal.

Nonas currently works in both steel and wood; in the last few years his indoor pieces have tended to be mainly in steel and his outdoor ones in wood. Both the crispness and weight of steel are usually weakened in an open space. His use of metal, beginning over four years ago, has more or less ended discussions of his work that attributed to his wood pieces rustic or primitivizing meanings, somehow associated with his background as an anthropologist.

Nonas began working with old wood primarily because it was cheap or even free; when he could afford to work in steel or in new wood he did so. What has been consistently important for Nonas has been the weight of his materials, and from the beginning of his career much of his work has been about gravity, about the reality of a certain quantity of pressure exerted on people and objects all the time. Often he concentrates on the way one thing is propped up by another, how one beam or plate supports or leans on another. Although Nonas always curtails verticality, it is still a key feature of the work in that it is never completely eliminated. He seems to focus on the moment when something that is being pushed down, forced flat, rises back up slightly. In his book My Life on the Floor (1974) he sketches a link between his use of the ground plane and the experience of the body: “No way up. Even words sit flat, push down. Spread flat. Ankles too weak to build on. Knees somewhat better. Back flat out, strongest of all.” Carl Andre’s floor pieces announced a kind of co-identity of sculpture with the floor plane in which weight and gravity, though not denied, were neutralized as active terms of the work. Nonas, in an almost romantic sense, imposes on us an awareness of gravity by not completely acquiescing to it. Though much more restrained than Richard Serra’s work, Nonas’ pieces often produce the same kind of seriousness, the same theater of tensions and antagonisms.

Giotto’s Lunch and the other indoor pieces at P.S. 1 were not involved with problems of support or propping. They seemed more directly about a lateral expansion of form and horizontal appropriation of space but nonetheless still joined to the question of weight and gravity. The lines seemed to rush out horizontally as a reaction to immense pressure weighing down from above, an effect possible only because of our sense of the mass of the steel. The use of metal was important for another piece called Agua Frio, exhibited in January of 1978. This cross-shaped work lay diagonally in relation to its surrounding room, and the intersection of the two lines seemed to be a pivot around which the piece swung. So in addition to demarcating boundaries, the cross, because of the heaviness of the steel, created an effect of rotating around the room, sweeping us with it. And any zones set up by the work seemed transitory, subject to forces of drift and pull.

When working on a large scale Nonas always uses small, manageable units of wood or steel, so that the physical assembling of a piece will not appear to have been an engineering feat of any kind. He forestalls the question “How did he do it?” by not undertaking anything awesome with his materials. All his formal decisions insist on making the work obvious, on eliminating distractions or complications in either its construction or content. He uses cut lumber and steel because they connote only the most generalized, familiar associations. All his boundary pieces consist of equal units, and if there is an intersection of two lines it is always at a 90-degree angle. Throughout Nonas’ work we find almost exclusively right- and 45-degree angles, relationships that are immediately recognizable. He repeatedly works with a square, a double square, a rectangle or a right triangle, and with ratios that are double, half or quarter, all easily readable. Agua Frio was an irregular cross of which one line was two units, the other four. But his work has nothing to do with modular systems; instead it simply allows all decisions behind the work to be transparent. Even the placement of the boundary pieces becomes self-explanatory: they are set on straight lines between existing structural features of a given space, such as corners, doors, or piers.

Internal relations are important in Nonas’ work, but relation for him is remote from a concern with composition or adjustment of abstract parts. The relationships he sets up, far from being primordial, are simple to the point of being “dumb.” He drains away the need for any analysis, but unlike a unitary form, a Nonas piece does not become endowed with any wholeness or constancy. By eliminating distracting features from the work, he creates a clearing, an open moment in which the work is exposed, made vulnerable in a sense, and put into question. The very transparency of how it is made becomes the condition under which its internal relations emerge for the first time as ambiguous and uncertain. Nonas’ piece No-Water-In is a good example: it is a right triangle consisting of three wooden beams, a simple arrangement—utterly clear relations of above and below—of what is supported and what supports. But the instant legibility of the work begins to dissolve as one stays with it. The one beam that touches the ground at one end and is off the ground at the other end is not reconcilable with the horizontality of the other two, and it becomes a source of doubts about how the piece is formed. The simple ambiguity of something that is both above and below acts to destabilize the work. While seeming to outline an elementary constructive logic, No-Water-In folds in upon itself, cutting off access to any reasoning that generated its formation. And by eluding a fixed reading of it the piece won’t allow us to impose on it an illusion of permanence or equilibrium.

Indefinite but important affinities exist between Nonas’ sculpture and his books. For each of his major exhibitions he has produced a book to accompany it, although not for the purpose of explication or clarification of his objects. There is no apparent link between the books and the sculpture except for the relationship of proximity, which is deliberately established, and for the fact that many of Nonas’ titles also figure in his texts. Certain significant recurring features can be indicated: (1) forms of syntactic disruption in which visual or verbal units rhythmically overlap or repeat themselves; (2) the designation of situations in which multiple spatial, temporal, and cultural positions are occupied simultaneously. Some of Nonas’ recent books, such as Lost in Spoleto (1976) or Montezuma’s Breakfast (1977), have the surface of a first-person narrative. They are built up out of brief sections of prose on each page, each sketching the experience of a certain moment or place. And these individual units all have roughly drawn rectangles pencilled around them. The text emerges as an assemblage of blocks of type, organized within the linear order of the book, yet discontinuous and potentially interchangeable. Often highly lyrical, the books disclose a narrator in constant flow, existing in different spaces and identities simultaneously: experiences of tides, of sailing, tracking, waiting, drifting become central. There is a blurring of boundaries and narrative frames, and the sense of any one moment or place is always subject to fusion with the apprehension of other moments. Nothing is knowable in isolation from a dense texture of disjunct events.

It would be misleading to describe Nonas’ concerns as epistemological. If knowledge is a means of seizing hold of objects or things, then he, on the contrary, fashions his work to loosen our grip on them, to put in question that we really know them. Knowledge is usually a process by which something alien and elusive becomes familiar and manageable, but Nonas reverses this procedure and makes strange what seems patently knowable. If his years of anthropological field work tie into his current activity, it is in terms of his contact with profoundly different systems of organizing reality, of understanding how conceptions of space and time are essentially cultural productions. While living in northern Mexico he discovered that what for him was an undifferentiated desert area had for the local Indians a complex structure, like an invisible series of rooms. It demonstrated how totally different ideas of space can coexist, each pointing to the precariousness of the other, and with his work Nonas, in effect, brackets the notion of “real” space. He achieves a depositioning of the object by refusing to clarify its spatial situation, by allowing it to be at the same time an autonomous object, a boundary marking off a separate space special to itself, and a subdivision of existing space. Immune to categorization, the sculpture straddles these possibilities.

Critical frameworks for 1960s Minimalism presupposed “real” or “literal” space as a commonly held substratum, continuous and homogenous for all subjects, an arena in which art objects presented themselves simply as things. Continental phenomenology contributed to a valorization of concrete situations, of an experience of the world in which the body defined itself through contact with other bodies and objects. Merleau-Ponty’s thought was bound up with the deeply held conviction that there could be a primary comprehension of reality, a new objectivity through which we might know the unity of the perceivable world. But for Merleau-Ponty our perceptual activity was always connected with the perception of distinct objects, and he conceived of the world as a totality of things. Perception, he wrote, “is our presence at the moment when things, truths, and values are constituted for us.”1

Crucial for Nonas and other ’70s artists, however, is the moment when things and truths are deconstituted, when the disunity and distortions of our perceptions are revealed. Nietzsche wrote that “thingness has only been invented by us owing to the requirements of logic with the aim of defining, of communication (to bind together the multiplicity of relationships, properties, activities).”2 Nonas’ work, in a sense, is the unbinding of an object’s cohesiveness and the exposing of its discreteness to be a fiction, a mental production. We experience his objects and the space in which they lie as an interlayering of opposing but not mutually exclusive interpretations, and we apprehend the work as it hovers, evading concretization, in a decentered territory of superimposed and shifting perimeters. If much Minimalism now appears to have been an enterprise of transcending the reality of multiplicity, Nonas aims at expanding the number of possible avenues to and from his work and at making these routes intersect. This is a project of intensifying multivalence, of staying on the edge, at the boundary where surfaces merge and blur, where objects become places, where meaning “reestablishes its flux at the limit of words and things.”3

Jonathan Crary



1. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Primacy of Perception, trans. Carlton Dallery, Evanston, Illinois, 1964, p. 25.

2. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will To Power, trans. Walter Kaufman, New York, 1967, p. 302.

3. Michel Foucault, Language, Counter-Memory, Practice, trans. Donald Bouchard, Ithaca, New York, 1977, p. 174.