PRINT December 1978

Illusive Spaces: The Art of Mary Miss

IN A SHORT TEXT, “Of Exactitude in Science,” Jorge Luis Borges recounts the tale of an Empire where

. . . the craft of Cartography attained such Perfection that the Map of a Single province covered the space of an entire City, and the Map of the Empire itself an entire Province. In the course of Time, these extensive maps were found somehow wanting, and so the College of Cartographers evolved a Map of the Empire that was of the same Scale as the Empire and that coincided with it point for point.1

For more than a decade Mary Miss has conceived and constructed a variety of singular works that in certain respects are akin to the life-sized maps of Borges’ mythical Empire. Such works are really situations, in that they do not depend on visual perception alone but chart a more thorough multisensory experience, the apprehension of space.

In the mid-1960s Miss began to explore and discover a sculptural vocabulary involving material densities, weights, strengths and other physical properties. One of these early pieces, an untitled wire mesh screen, 1967, suggests the direction in which Miss would later operate, using, in that case, the specific physical characteristics of the wire mesh to address other issues. Thus the screen sets up a translucent barrier outdoors, allowing us to appreciate several spatial dichotomies simultaneously: the nebulous mesh wall can be looked at and through, tracing a broken line even as it remains a flat vertical plane. In a powerful manipulation, the artist folds the plan of the wall back onto itself, creating a single form that is both inside and outside, this side and that side, an impenetrable translucency and yet a perforated solid.2

Relatively simple objects, these early works seem to have been linked visually to Minimalist dogma, but Miss disdained an interest in critical theories and philosophies.3 While her later activity did not shift toward more sensate spatial concerns, this choice of physical rather than abstract or conceptual priorities to work with has remained a constant in her career.

Projects and pieces completed after 1968—like several interior fence structures built in a roughly finished basement studio where Miss worked in the late 1960s—afford a confrontation between viewer and space. The viewer-participant finds his path blocked, the space filled by reduplicated forms—picket barriers, leaning ladders or chicken-wire structures. As an intentional and controlled undercurrent, this confrontation encourages her audience to deal with the space, to consider its parameters and to regard its potential for movement. Enclosed space is easier to handle, articulated space easier to read. Miss makes her constructions as a means to an end: they are the vehicle for drawing attention to a given, that is, the environment within which they are built.

A few outdoor works from this time—like several stake and rope pieces on Ward’s Island, 1969, or a series of “V” markers placed at 75-foot intervals in a New Jersey field, 1969—echo this same theme of path and obstruction, extending it into open, less defined natural spaces. The material used during this period was ephemeral: others have noted the “temporary, quixotic, vulnerable” look that much of that work evokes with mundane strips of wooden lath, corrugated cardboard or twine.4 These materials were chosen as much for economic reasons as for their esthetic characteristics. Hence to see the works only in terms of materials is to place them in the very esthetic-critical system of Minimalism (which the artist herself denies). More significantly, however, to do so undermines the import of situations which the artist is setting up, for her works do not read as single images (precious objects) but instead engender diachronic linear consideration, as they are experienced through space and across time.

A famous, if short-lived, project erected in Manhattan during the winter of 1973 on Hudson River landfill was a particularly effective example of how the artist used static elements in an ensemble that changed visually as a viewer walks around and through the elements. Shifting viewpoints, multifaceted situation, ever-changing audience perceptions are all factors that continually inform this artist’s work. Sometimes, this participatory fluidity is enhanced by the nature of the site. In both the New Jersey field piece and the Hudson River landfill project, open, unbounded flat sites further enhanced the freedom of viewers to see the pieces on their own terms.

The landfill sculpture consisted of five heavy plank walls, arranged one behind the other at approximately 50-foot intervals. Each wall had a circular cut-out, all centered left to right but varying from a full circle whose top was tangential with the upper edge of the front wall, through a series of intermediate positions, to the last wall with its low, semicircular opening barely above the ground. From the side we might read straight lines or coarsely hewn barriers; from the other vantage points new experiences were evoked. Some of these were wonderfully described by Lucy Lippard:

This piece happens when you get there and stand in front of it. Its identity changes abruptly. . . . The experience is telescopic. As the modestly sized holes (and the adjacent walls that these holes incorporate into your vision) are perceived, they expand into an immense interior space. . . . The plank fences, only false facades nailed to supporting posts on the back, become what they are—not the sculpture but the vehicle for the experience of the sculpture, which in fact exists in thin air, or rather in distance crystallized.5

Such crystallizations, whether rough wooden beams or the temporary fragility of cardboard strips, are only conduits for the communication of physical and psychological experiences—looking, seeing, walking into and through. We return to the common denominator of space and its myriad perceptual possibilities whatever the nuances of a particular piece. This is the use of space as a positive factor, a dynamic presence, a generator of sensibilities—rather than a negation of mass—that distinguishes the work of Mary Miss.

Occasionally, the space itself metamorphoses as the viewer proceeds to investigate a piece, in an unveiling that is strongest in such recent work as an untitled environment created for a “projects” exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, 1976, or a structure built at Artpark, Lewiston, N.Y., during the summer of the same year. At the Modern, the viewer was allowed to enter a discrete, intimate chamber slowly conflating through a series of adjusted plywood baffles. Raising the structure a few inches off the ground and painting it a metallic color set it off from the rest of the museum interior, so that, although it obviously had no kinetic elements, the piece could activate the space as we moved through it (here too Miss concentrated on the internal dimensions of the piece). The shiny silvery sheen, reducing the sense of mass and solidity, together with the front opening, makes our entrance into the interior almost inevitable as we initially read the entrance surface as a pierced plane rather than as a volumetric solid.

This same perceptual metamorphosis is found in the stepped descent of the large Artpark structure, Blind, built during 1976. A participant walking into and out of the pit of concentric circles is allowed constantly changing views of his environment. At the lowest level, only the sky above is evident; later, as one steps up, triangular channels cut into the lip of the circles offer gun-sight views on some surrounding details. Finally, the entire panorama of the landscape becomes visible on the uppermost tier. Having space within thus correlated with space without causes parallel shifts in our awareness.

Another theme reflected in much of the recent work entails the definition and enclosure of refuge spaces that are partially segregated from the rest of their surroundings—private places separating the viewer from the environment.6 These may be as succinct as Sunken Pool, a walled metal cylinder built on an overgrown path in Greenwich, Connecticut, 1974, or as open as the Artpark site. “In the center of the garden let there be a pavilion in which to sit, and with vistas on all sides”: this is how Miss herself describes one such sanctuary in her notes. Rooms are defined within rooms (Modern project), or spaces distinguished with natural material in the open air, like the trench and wall in Cut-Off, 1974–75. These works strongly suggest a place for the contemplative, mental activity required for considering Miss’ own works, just as they are the passive complement to the climbing, walking, exploring or stretching which we are asked to perform in these spaces. “I guess the combination of a battlefield and a garden would be my ideal space.”7 The contemplative and its antithesis—the active, the threat, the real world—these artful sanctuaries are the artist’s finishing touches applied to the natural landscape. They provide respites from external diversion, controlling what the viewer sees in addition to Miss’ created space, with, so to speak, acting, choreography and camerawork rolled into a single visual directive for her audience.

The metaphor of cinematic action aptly captures the experience that Miss wants for her audience. This is evident to the artist as well—her notebooks are filled with directorial notations linked to specific works—either imagined or executed. Several pieces, including Cut-Off, 1974, and Blind, 1977, were actually created to be filmed.8 In Cut-Off, the process of digging a ditch and using earth from the trench to fill a wall of snow-fence cylinders can only be seen through time. The finished elements—positive-negative of ditch and wall—are only the static remnants of the whole procedure. Since the theme here is process, the work can only be fully appreciated through chronomotive reproduction. This cinematic experience—camera as viewer’s eye, assuming myriad angles, moving through, into, peering out of Cut-Off—gives us what the “insidious trivializing of experience perpetrated by photography” can never give its audience.9 These cinematic excursions provide the closest resemblance to both the intent and the sensibility of the actual works.

Much of the richness in her structures is drawn from two interrelated mental activities: perceptions of space and conceptions of remembered images. The peripheral imagery is sometimes evoked by the vocabulary of forms chosen for a subject. This is true of the Greenwich Sunken Pool, whose metal sides and skeletal gridding are reminiscent of the far larger storage tanks lining industrial highways, and equally so for the Artpark observatory, where Miss parallels or distills a spectrum of sources including Indian medicine wheels (part of the landscape imagery of the Western United States, where Miss has lived much of her life), neolithic structures in Europe and other interpretations of similar contemporary artists.

Still other pieces like Sapping, 1975, and Cut-Off recall military imagery, engineering techniques, or building configurations familiar to Miss since early childhood, as she listened to stories recounted by her career officer father. Travels around Europe and elsewhere further complicated the artist’s vocabulary. From those trips are recalled historical sites, old German keeps or forts whose sense of enclosure informs much of Miss’ approach to space. Her notebooks are full of key words reflecting these disparate sources—the architecture of Italy, Islam or Sixth Avenue, Japanese gates, Chinese wells, camouflage, crenelated walls, bastions, homestead gardens, castle windows, parks, quarries, Northwest Coast vernacular structures, barricades and embankments. These encyclopedic motifs are her raw expressive forms.

Such images/referents are not facile one-to-one reiterations of places and things that interest the artist, but are operational elements, functioning as do the shapes and surface in this description of images by the child psychologist, Jean Piaget:

The visual image of a plane figure, a tri-dimensional shape seen in perspective, a projection, a section . . . involves, when it is at all accurate, many more movements on the part of the subject (viewer) than is generally realized. It is really an image of a potential action relative to these shapes rather than a purely visual intuition.

Even in the case of everyday images, is it at all possible to imagine a landscape, a house, or other familiar object without the aid, as essential components, of the scheme of the various roads traversed, the actions performed, or the changes of position commanding different perspectives?10

And so it is with the images of Miss. Her chosen shapes, materials, details and volumes work in concert, embellishing her spatial notions, just as they do in the mundane sphere.

“Layering,” a term frequently mentioned in Miss’s speech and notes, evokes the subliminal, stratified aspect of her imagery (it is even part of the artist’s gestures as her hand moves parallel to the ground at several heights, suggesting an overlap in forms or ideas). Layering becomes literal in many works, often occurring beneath the surface of her site, as in a small Oberlin project, 1973, where lath strips are crisscrossed into a grid pattern across a ditch exposing only a section of a much larger system extending in all subterranean directions. Spaces are layered horizontally, vertically, or within the depths of individual pieces by plywood baffles (Modern installation), circles of gravel (Artpark Blind), slotted wooden steps (Sapping), or concentric cardboard rings (untitled work, 1971).

In an entirely different fashion, the space between and around her structures, the site, the natural or man-made environs, the details of construction, and all their interrelationships, are the dovetailed phonemes enticing us through our own memories—personal, private, communal. Our recollections of other places, different times, are triggered by our rational awareness of Miss’ space as much as they are informed by our viewing the interlocked shapes and motifs that she has chosen.

In her most recent project, constructed on the grounds of the Nassau County Museum of Fine Arts in Roslyn, Long Island, Miss has developed an ambitious ensemble of structures. As her physically largest, most visually complicated, piece, Perimeters/Pavilions/Decoys would be notable by its presence alone. So many of the themes flowing through her earlier work are available in the Long Island complex that it should inevitably come to be considered the artist’s own intentionally self-reflective expansion of her major concerns to date.11

In order to see the work at all, a viewer must find it first. A small dirt road cuts through a thick screen of bramble and trees ringing the site. Once on the other side of the dense foliage, the viewer stands at the edge of a rolling, grassy slope, about halfway between a lower area to the left and a higher plateau on the right, both encircled almost entirely by the tree wall. The discrete complex has distinct parts interacting visually and spatially in, and around, the natural arena. A semicircular embankment of dirt, some five feet high, is immediately apparent from our initial vantage point of entry; this divides the upper plateau from the rest of the field, and from three prominent elements in the lower field: wooden and screen towers of various sizes that support multileveled platforms; these are placed in the near, middle and far distance.

Far more understated at first glance is the flat upper field, visible only through a walk-channel cut in the dirt embankment. Toward its center, if we look carefully, we can see the top of a ladder, sticking (so it seems) out of the sod itself. Although the upper lawn is unarticulated, except for the subtle ladder-projection, this serves visually to herald what is the third major feature (and perhaps the most complex) of the entire set—a partly covered subterranean enclave with an atriumlike central pit about seven feet deep.

Miss began to think about the constituents of the Long Island complex on her initial visit to the museum-estate in January of 1977. She saw a variety of extant forms, some natural, others manmade, and noted them in her spiral bound book. Besides the prominent Beaux-Arts main house, she records the following list of features from the old Frick estate: tennis courts, clumps of trees, pine grove, old fire tower, bear pit, bird cage (both remnants of a private menagerie), formal gardens, teak trellis, layers, stairs, rooms. She even remarks that the idea of some structures “up on stilts off the ground is appealing.” She was naturally attracted, with her other interests, to the gardens; vernacular structures and natural surroundings provided on-site material from which she would eventually distill her final product.

Another notebook, dated May–October 1976, reveals much of Miss’ concerns as she was about to embark on the Long Island project. Different from her other notes (which tend to be loosely jotted phrases and sketches in a stream-of-consciousness linkage), the May–October journal reflects a deeper, denser pattern of thoughts and plans. Loaded with both references and concepts, the book provides surprisingly succinct clues on both the artist’s approach to, and the expressed meaning of, the tripartite Long Island ensemble.12

On several crucial pages, designated by the phrase “Another kind of construction,” Miss explicitly lays out the evolution of her thoughts just prior actually to beginning the Long Island piece. She writes of what will become the multi-elemental format:

Putting several short sequences together, so that a total narrative come thru. this avoids having to come up with a single construction/structure

(As in changing stage sets)

Circular Japanese set—different “scene” in each third

Miss jots down further thoughts on the relationship of constructed elements to the chosen site:

Using camouflage—apparatus sort of like stage sets

On its setting naturally into the environs

Something slowly becoming apparent—blending in from a distance, at close range the artificial is very apparent

Dispersion vs. grouping

Orderly rows vs. random layout

In the completed work, her site and its contents are secreted from open view, nestled into a quiet corner of the museum-estate, far from the main house, surrounded by the foliage screen. Even when we are standing on her field of activity, some of the elements remain surprisingly hidden from casual sight (ladder and pit), while others retain their manmade, artificial presence at any distance (towers).

Ideas, preconceptions and issues of illusion and perception are woven throughout the artist’s work and dovetail with her choice of site and of structure orientations, her use of materials and her particular forms. Camouflage/stage sets/becoming/appearing/blending/dispersion constitute a perceptual vocabulary: many of these concepts are activated in the focal arena of her site—the subterranean structure.

This pit is, in many ways, the crucial image of the piece. The towers are, however, more prominent, being above ground, in an open field, accessible to all. They gauge our abilities to appreciate size and relative scale at various distances, with and without other measurement cues. Their primary rationale would be, however, as the logical, lofty complements to the manifestly complicated below-ground structure where Miss concentrated her planning and construction efforts and which, in turn, demands the most from her audience’s energies.

We approach the excavated area through the blind of the dirt embankment. Initially appearing to be a clean-cut hole out of which the top of the entry ladder projects, by the time we peer over its edge, we realize the expected packed earth walls are cut back beneath the ground on which we are standing. A much larger subterranean space is thus defined under a cantilevered roof of earth and wood. Once on the bottom rung, we see that the roof projects over two areas, distinct from the open pit itself—a series of orderly vertical members supporting the cantilever and a corridor behind a plain wood wall. And within this wall are cut central openings (doors? windows?) on each side, allowing us to see through or walk into the space behind. Dimly lit, except at the points of entry, this corridor circles the entire structure. Its back wall has additional slots that connect the walkway space with black, empty voids. We can see into these rear openings but they are too small for entry.

The pit reveals its complexities as we stand in the center of the open area or proceed to move through its various phases, perhaps cautiously at first. It is a structure filled with fluctuating dualities—dichotomies that are commingled in our perceptions. We have seen these before if we know Miss’ earlier works: inside/outside, above/below, light/dark, open/closed, nature/artifice. Other experiences are fluid, ever-changing senses reacting to a vantage point that changes up and down, cut off now by the edge of the overhang, clearing sightlines, to the sky and treetops above, of dimming view in the darkened inner corridor. Space and its plural manifestations thus act directly upon our visual capabilities.

What Miss provides in the excavated pit is nothing less than a multiplicity of layers—three-dimensional stratifications back and forth, up and down, left and right. Only in the center of the pit is there any sense of stasis or repose. Her quadripartite composition directs us cardinally in any of these directions—out of the pit or toward one of the dark slots cut into the blank wood wall that surrounds us. We are left alone in this central open area, to decide on the future course of what we will experience. Do we climb out of the underground chamber or explore it further, moving toward areas which are even darker, less known, still less accessible? The final effect, then, is a cerebral condensation, as we stand on the focal point of a Mary Miss space and choose how it will in turn affect us. The pit must be seen as the crux of the ensemble, as it heightens our sensitivity to all spaces—given, remembered, created or natural.

What finally are these disparate yet connected structures about? While many passages from the artist’s notes trace the course of her designing process or remind us of her myriad interests, there is a singular page in her notebook that, perhaps more than any other, reveals the fundamental significance of her motivations, ideas that are ultimately best expressed in that wooden and earth enclosure on Long Island. She writes of American Indian games played in silence or accompanied by singing and drumming.

The Indian chance games may be divided into dice games and guessing games—that is, into those in which the hazard depends upon the random fall of certain implements employed like dice, and those in which it depends on the guess or choice of the player; one is objective the other subjective.13

Miss invariably presents us with situations that are very like the theatrical games she describes. Her scenarios are the pretend stage sets of very real spaces combining randomness of format (her choice) with the open-ended decision-making each individual player/actor/viewer is capable of achieving. Hers is a space of praxis, not of theory. She gives us the parameters, the cues, the opportunities that allow us to tap our own memories, to hone our awareness, to re-create our own repertoire of idiosyncratic spaces. When fully developed in size and area, like the Manhattan Landfill piece or the Long Island complex, such works span the active and passive spheres of human perception, blazing a trail that is both objective and subjective for her audience. That they do so primarily through the dynamics of a spatial dialogue may make them more difficult to perceive, since like Borges’ Empire-sized maps, they are at once created and natural, each point encapsulating reality and artifice.

In all her art, Mary Miss focuses on space as a primary physical reality. Hers is not the illusionistic-symbolic depth of painting, the primarily metaphoric space of sculpture, or the functional enclosure of architecture. Although her work partially partakes of all of these, her space is real before it is anything else. Real in that it is experienced directly by our senses as a facet of the spatial continuum existing around each of us; real in that our reading of referential imagery is much less emphatic than our innate comprehension of situations created for us with walls, doors, fences and ditches. In the artist’s own self-reflective words—

When I keep talking about reality—questioning its limits—I guess I’m also saying that I want these works, seeing them, to be a real, absolute, concrete experience—not just mental tracking, story-telling—even though that experience may be a very illusive one.^^14

Once these illusive spaces are entered, ambiguities dissolve as her work becomes reshaped in the senses, her intentions conveyed through our own cognition.

Ronald J. Onorato



1. Jorge Luis Borges, “Of Exactitude in Science,” A Universal History of Infamy, New York, 1972, p. 141.

2. Other materials employed at the time by Miss included canvas awning fabric, heavy metal grating, thin wire cables and tubing. Many of these formative pieces (1966–1968) involve hanging or suspended elements. The wire mesh screen is Miss’ clearest statement but by no means her only attempt at spatial articulation

3. Lucy Lippard, “Mary Miss: An Extremely Clear Situation.” Art in America, March–April 1974, p. 76.

4. Laurie Anderson, “Mary Miss,” Artforum, November 1973, p. 65.

5. Lippard, p. 76.

6. I owe the concept of the refuge space to Nancy Rosen, who cogently suggests it occurs in the work of others working on the same architectonic scale, like Richard Fleischner and Alice Aycock.

7. Mary Miss, correspondence with author, March 29, 1978.

8. The Blind piece was the basis of a recently completed film by Miss, “Blind” Set. Although one might find similarities in format or surface between the Miss structure and Robert Morris’ observatory in Holland, it would seem that the observatory theme (like other themes of house, bridge, labyrinth, etc.) comprises a repertoire of formats used by contemporary artists. I would maintain that the intentions, interests and priorities that dictate the final manifestation of these apparently similar works are as different as those, for example, that informed the creation of a Last Supper image by Leonardo and Tintoretto or a female form used by Gericault and Degas.

9. Robert Morris, “The Present Tense of Space,” Art in America, January–February 1978, p. 80. See this amplified discussion of photography and its relationship (or is it nonrelationship) to space, pp. 79–80. Morris has written a body of work on spatial esthetics; see also his “Aligned with Nazca,” Artforum, October 1975. Morris remains one of the few contemporary artists who continuously attempts to explicate his interests through provocative essays.

10. Jean Piaget, The Child’s Conception of Space, New York, 1967, pp. 41–42.

11. One of the reasons for the expansive character of the Long Island piece is that Miss was able to work on the site for a long period of time. The former curator at the Nassau County Museum, Jean E. Feinberg, and the former director, Ward Mintz, were instrumental in cultivating an atmosphere at the museum-estate where artists could let their plans gestate over a relatively long time span. Miss first visited the site in early 1977 and it would be another 18 months before the project was completed. Along with the usual problems encountered by artists who build large Outdoor structures (i.e. weather delays, engineering complications, funding for work crews. etc.) the museum underwent a change in administrations and Feinberg left the staff. Thus because of an external political shift which the artist could not foresee or control, additional delays occurred affecting the eventual stale of the complex.

12. The following excerpts on the Long Island project are all taken from a spiral-bound notebook of the artist dated on the first page May–October 1976 and designated “Notebook 1” on the front cover.

13. Mary Miss, Notebook 1, quoted from Steward Culin, Games of the North American Indians, p 44.

14. Mary Miss, correspondence with author, March 29, 1978.