PRINT October 1978

Cecile Abish: Building from the Ground Up

CECILE ABISH IS INTERESTED IN the way art reveals information about itself. In fact, one might say that this concern is the content of her art. “Information” may seem like a pretentious word considering how little of it is contained in art as compared with, say, a newspaper or a mechanical drawing, both of which disclose information about things other than themselves. Nevertheless, art does contain information, even if, with most contemporary art, that information is about the art object or the art-making process rather than about the outside world. Still, concern with how that information is revealed is a refinement over a concern with the mere information itself. Since the information is usually of little intrinsic interest, it focuses more concern on the method of its revelation (which is also its link with the world outside).

How does one of Abish’s works disclose information about itself? Through its materials, which, being ordinary and unaltered, evidence a desire to present ideas as lucidly as possible; through its low degree of physicality, which suggests (correctly) a heightened degree of intellectuality, and its low-lying nature, which indicates the work’s concern with the surface; even through its title, which may have layers of meaning that become apparent only as the work’s own meanings become apparent.

When Abish was studying art at Brooklyn College, the two dominant, and warring, esthetic influences there were Abstract Expressionism and Bauhaus modernism. She felt no affinity for Abstract Expressionism and consequently began her professional career, not in art, but in architecture and urban planning, in New York and Israel. After returning to New York from Tel Aviv in the early 1960s, Abish continued to work in urban planning, until 1965, when she gave up a successful career in that field to make art full time. To some extent, her abandonment of urban planning may have resulted from disillusionment over the urban planner’s inability to change the world simply by organizing space. As an artist, she has continued to work with space, but on its own rather than as a means to an idealized end.

By 1966 or 1967, when Abish became aware of what other artists were doing, Minimalism was at its peak in New York. The Dwan, Fischbach and Bykert galleries were all showing Minimal art, and in 1966 the Jewish Museum summed up the new sculpture with its important “Primary Structures” show. In their attempt to purge art of the artist’s expressionist psychological involvement, the Minimalists stripped it down to its barest essentials, eliminating (in various works) color, drawing, gesture, texture, shape, scale, politics, emotion, history, and finally the art object itself. Actually, the art object was one of the first things to go. Yves Klein’s exhibition of an empty gallery in Paris in 1958 was the reductio ad absurdum of Minimalism and should have been the culminating point of the movement that actually followed it. But the fact that this Dadaistic climax of Minimalism occurred before the movement had barely begun is hardly surprising, considering that the logical, albeit absurd, extreme of a reductivist art could have been foretold at the start. The only sustainingly interesting thing about much of this art is how different artists differently rationalized doing it.

By the middle and late 1960s Minimalism had purified art to the point where it could go no further in a reductive direction. There were all-white paintings, all-black paintings, all-red paintings and all-blue paintings. It was either repeat or retreat. Or find a way to build a new art on the land that had been cleared, which is where Abish came in. Although she had felt little sympathy toward Abstract Expressionism in the late ’50s she didn’t need to rebel against it, as the Minimalists had had to do, because by the late ’60s it had been supplanted. Whereas the Minimalists had inherited Abstract Expressionism and jettisoned it, Abish could inherit Minimalism and build upon it. For this reason, Abish’s sculpture, like that of a number of so-called post-Minimalists, is additive rather than reductive. The challenge for these artists is to create an art of greater visual interest and complexity without losing the purity of Minimalism. Abish has been influenced by artists of previous centuries, principally the great Italian manipulators of space such as Giotto, Leonardo and Palladio; on the other hand, her work would be totally different had she begun making it 15 years earlier or later.

In a recent conversation Cecile Abish said that in looking back on her work she could see three distinct periods. From 1965 through 1969 she made low-lying, broad works which suggested a continuation in space beyond their actual limits. In 1970 and 1971 she made long, linear works which rested on the ground but did not suggest their continuation into space. Then, in 1972, she began to use the ground or floor, not simply as a surface on which to rest her art, but as an element in her work. It is these works, of the past six years, that concern us here.

Incorporating the surface has led to two different but related types of piece: the “marbles works,” for which the artist has become best known, and small earthworks. Abish did three earthworks in this period: Field Quartering, 1972; Four into Three, 1973–74; and Shifting Concern, 1975. All were done as temporary exhibitions and no longer exist.

Field Quartering became a seminal work for Abish, providing ideas for several later works. It consisted of 360 four-foot-tall steel rods stuck in the ground and snaking 75 feet across a lawn in four opposing and connected 90-degree arcs. Its underlying conception, however, was three geometric shapes—a square surrounded by a circle surrounded by an octagon—quartered and stretched out on the ground. The 360 steel rods represented the 360 degrees of a circle, which exemplifies Abish’s desire not to hide information about her work, since the viewer could verify the quartering of the circle down to the degree. As a form, these quadrant arcs eventually recurred in several marbles works done in the studio in 1976 and in Near/Next/Now, of 1977, as well.

The lawn on which Field Quartering was installed had not been cut for several weeks, and Abish left it uncut, except for a section around the work which she mowed to indicate the shape of the quartered square and octagon. In mowing the section of lawn, she not only indicated the geometric shapes, but also revealed two aspects of the lawn: long and textural vs. short and flat. This foreshadowed a somewhat similar revealing of the floor in the marbles works.

The other two outdoor works were geometric excavations in which sections of lawn and a few inches of topsoil were carefully cut away and placed near the cuts. In Four into Three, four five-foot squares were dug seven inches deep in the ground, with the dirt from the cuts piled in three pyramidal mounds between the cuts. In Shifting Concern, a 4-by-50 foot cut eight inches deep was made in a lawn, with the dirt piled in a line the same size crossing the cut at a 90-degree angle. The “concern” of the title was the ground surface, and it corresponded to Abish’s “concern” with surfaces. The “shifting” referred to the 90-degree shift in the line of dirt as well as to the shift of the dirt from below the surface to on top of it. Since the dirt being shifted was topsoil, and therefore part of the surface, the “surface” was actually placed on top of itself.

Abish’s first marbles works, done in her studio in 1973, consisted of multicolored cat’s eye marbles on a floor that was dusted with baking soda to neutralize the gray concrete. In the first of these, the marbles were closely packed in a small square in the middle of the floor, but in succeeding works they were scattered across the floor like billiard balls after being “broken” by the cue ball at the beginning of a game. Some of these studio works, which were like sculptors, sketches or maquettes in that they were tentative explorations of the application of ongoing concerns to new materials, also incorporated square panels laid on top of the marbles, plus 2-by-2s either laid horizontally or leaned against the wall. Such panels have since been incorporated in most of Abish’s later works, but the 2-by-2s have reappeared only in Surface Clearance, 1974, in which a field of marbles surrounded a cleared square. In this work four 2-by-2s, which had first acted as barriers for the marbles during the installation, were removed but leaned against the walls at the four corners of the room—still giving information about how the piece was constructed.

Near/Next/Now, done three years after Surface Clearance, was a single marbles work in three parts. Considerably more complex than Abish’s earlier works, it was perhaps her first work for which drawings were required in order to understand fully the system underlying the work. Each of the work’s three parts began with an imaginary grid of four-foot squares over a 16-by-24-foot area. The grid was then compressed to 15 by 22 feet by overlapping certain squares toward the center of the work. Marbles were spread across the floor, and eight of the squares were either cleared of marbles or covered with four-foot-square panels of particle board. One-foot-wide arcs were cut in the panels, and it was the measure of these arcs that determined the compression of the original grid, not any arbitrary decision. In each of the work’s three parts the four panels occupied different squares, and their arcs continued implicitly through the cleared squares.

The beauty of this work was in the logic of its system, in the way the arc-shaped cuts determined the shape and size of the entire piece. Although the field of marbles was limited by the size of the room, it was implicitly expandable; however, the extent of the action (panels, clearance and cuts) taking place on the surface marbles was limited by the structural system Abish devised for the work. Another system could have resulted in a larger or more extended piece, but almost all of Abish’s work of the last six years (Four into Three and Face Lift, 1974, are the exceptions), have been structured by systems which precluded infinite repetition. In this respect, her work is closer to Sol LeWitt’s open white cubes than to, say, Carl Andre’s Lever, 1966, to Donald Judd’s rows of boxes, or to certain of Robert Smithson’s works (e.g. Alogon No. 2, 1966), all of which emphasized their potential for infinite extension.

In March of this year Abish installed her latest marbles work, an untitled piece at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, that was so complex, yet so logical, that it was surely her most brilliant work to date. This work showed a continued interest in the more sophisticated geometry evidenced in Near/Next/Now. Composed of colored marbles and 4-by-8-foot sheets of particle board, it was installed on the first floor of a gallery on a ground floor with a four-sided balcony above. It was entirely integrated into the space, since its dimensions were based on those of the second-floor balcony. Actually, Abish first saw the space only when she went to Dayton for the installation; eight months of preliminary ideation and design work were based on a plan of the gallery that had been mailed to her by its director, William Spurlock.

The gallery plan showed a two-story space—a 34-by-49-foot ground floor with an open staircase leading up to a balcony that ran around the entire space leaving a 19-by-21-foot opening slightly off center. Although at first it might have seemed natural to use the ground floor for an installation and the balcony for say, drawings, Abish decided to use both levels for a single work. She used the ground floor explicitly by installing the work on it, and she used the balcony implicitly by taking its measure as the determining shape and size of the work below. She closed off the downstairs entrance to the gallery, so that viewers had to enter by the balcony door and walk down the stairs to reach the work. There was a logic and rightness about this: since the balcony had provided the idea for the work, Abish had the viewer approach it in much the same way as she had—idea first, work second. The open, two-level space provided an ideal and rare opportunity for her to integrate her interest in architectural space with her esthetic concerns about surfaces. The balcony also allowed viewers to enter Abish’s work for the first time, since when one was on the balcony one was literally in (or on) the work.

When I first saw this piece I felt there was a system behind it, but couldn’t tell what it was. Only after Abish showed me her nine sequential working drawings did I understand how inevitably this work grew out of the gallery’s architectural space.

Drawing No. 1 was a simple architectural plan of the two-level gallery. Drawings No. 2 through No. 8 showed an imaginary grid imposed on the floor, with the balcony’s shape imposed and shifted 45 degrees on the floor, with four pairs of panels positioned on the grid and intersected by the form of the balcony. Drawing No. 9 showed the finished work with all “imaginary” lines removed.

After seeing the drawings, it was hard to imagine Abish having arrived at anything else in that space. There were numerous points in the development of this work where she could have made different decisions, since the systems she devised for it were flexible enough to allow some choice within them. But in every case her decision seems to have been the one that was most logical within the system.

What does this Wright State work tell us about surfaces? First, by incorporating the shape of the balcony’s opening into the work below, it makes us more aware that this space has two horizontal levels. Secondly, since we can’t walk on the surface of marbles, the marbles turn the floor into a unique surface and something other than what it was originally intended to be (i.e. art). Each of the three surfaces is different. The floor is two-dimensional, impenetrable, unmovable and well suited to its task of supporting people and objects; the marbles, supported by the first surface, are omni-directional, penetrable (both visually and physically), movable and almost dadaistically unstable as a support surface. However, they do support the panels, which constitute the third category of surface. These are two-dimensional and visually impenetrable, although their having been cut suggests a degree of physical penetrability. Unlike the floor, which is immovable, and the marbles, which are movable individually but not as a whole surface, the panels are definitely movable, and their placement on top of spherical marbles almost invites moving.

Abish has also explored her ideas about overlapping surfaces in several series of works on paper, including a “Declination” series, 1973–75, made of folded kraft paper overlaid with several layers of clear vinyl having drawing in ruling tape and pencil on them. But her major work on paper so far is an artist’s book, Firsthand, published this summer. Firsthand was actually completed in 1973 as a linear photographic work consisting of 28 altered photographs, in four related series of seven plates each. Two photographic shots of a house in New Jersey have been abutted, inverted and cut; they have had a grid imposed on them, and have been altered to the point where they are less the representation of a specific house than the firsthand source of an art of classification. The first plate shows the two shots joined and then cut into a grid, like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. In the second plate, all pieces with apertures (doors and windows) have been retained; in the third plate, those have been removed. In the fourth plate foliage is retained, and, in the fifth, that is removed. In the sixth plate shadows are retained, and in the seventh they are removed. Similar classifications occur in the book’s three other series of plates.

Walter Abish, the writer and husband of the artist, wrote in the book’s introductory essay, “The Shape of Absence”:

The gridlike cuts introduce a heightened awareness of the surface or surfaces that somewhat dispels the idea of photo likeness. The cuts indicate a preparation, perhaps for a future dismantling, a future categorizing, a future inventory of details . . . Of the classified signifiers, the first in this photographic world of gray, white and black indicates what is synthetic and man-made [apertures], the second pertains to nature [foliage], and the final is the most ethereal, the most elusive, namely the shadow of a tree. . . . The information made available for classification is only available in this form on these pages. Apertures, foliage, shadows claim and share the surface of the house. Retaining or removing one drastically affects the appearance of the other.

The materials Abish uses are found objects in the sense that they’re ordinary and without art connotations. The house in Firsthand is unexceptional and was chosen more or less at random; marbles, standard-size boards and baking soda are all commonly available, although not at art supply stores. Even the dimensions of her works and the systems underlying them are often “found” since they’re frequently determined by the materials (as when the Wright State work grew out of the dimensions of the balcony above it).

Referring to her floor-bound marbles works, Abish has stated that the “duration of the sculpture is possession of a surface.” Since these works consist largely in the unique arrangement of common materials on other people’s floors, they exist for only so long as the floor’s owner (gallery, museum, other) is willing to relinquish the floor qua floor to Abish, who transforms it into floor qua art by making it part of her work. It is this feature—the temporary possession of a surface, and its joining with nonart materials to become art—that most relates Abish’s work to Andre’s and Le Va’s, rather than the fact that the works of all three are low-lying.

One might imagine that a retrospective of Cecile Abish’s work since 1965 would look like a group show of half a dozen artists who thought alike but worked differently: earthworks, soft vinyl sculptures, marbles distributed on the floor, photographic works, foam rubber floor sculptures looking like room-size jigsaw puzzles, folded paper works, and sketches for still more seemingly varied works. We recognize most artists, works by a familiar handling of certain materials, but with Abish this is less the case. What puts her stamp on a work of art is not the look of the thing but the clarity and logic of the thinking behind it. This clarity—of both intention and execution—is the strongest element in her work, and it is significant that the clarity achieved in relatively simple works, such as About Face, 1974, and How Four into Four into Three, 1975, has been maintained in such considerably more complex and less accessible works as Near/Next/Now and the untitled Wright State installation.

These works reveal themselves subtly. Obviously Abish could have posted a sign in the Wright State gallery saying in foot-high letters: “The work’s dimensions derive from the balcony above you.” Or she could have exhibited her working drawings, which would have explained the work quickly. But her sculpture is not about quick explanations, which anyway wouldn’t suit it. Abish’s work points a way out of what has often looked uncomfortably like the dead-end street of Minimalism. For her, Minimalism has not led to the artistic nihilism anticipated by Yves Klein 20 years ago. Rather, it has provided a cleared piece of ground on which she carefully, slowly, tentatively builds up an art of clarity and reason.

Jeffrey Keeffe