PRINT November 1979

Ideas and Earth

For the flaneur, in whose shadow Proust walked, is also a thing of the past, and it is no longer possible to stroll through museums letting oneself be delighted here and there. The only relation to art that can be sanctioned in a reality that stands under the constant threat of catastrophe is one that treats works of art with the same deadly seriousness that characterizes the world today.
—Theodor W. Adorno

June 3rd. It doesn’t seem possible—the Pacific Ocean! I have ordered sixteen million tons of blue paint. Waiting anxiously for it to arrive. How would grass be as a substitute? cement?
—Kenneth Koch, “The Artist.”

THE SUMMER EXHIBITION ENTITLED “Contemporary Sculpture: Selections from the Collection of the Museum of Modern Art” was not a restless and inventive thing like last spring’s “Planar Dimension” at the Guggenheim. Nor was the Modern competing with the amazingly demotic sense of collaborative advance witnessed at Documenta 6, in the 1977 summer show at Kassel, with all the splendor of site-specificity. Here the garden harbored a brilliant, folded essay in shadowless color by Ellsworth Kelly, (Green-Blue, 1968), and the indoors sported a system of quirky fiberglass tubes by the late Eva Hesse (Repetition 19, III, 1968) so the exhibition was not in any great danger of bland bathos. Yet the museum’s enormous and equitable holdings do suggest some of the dangers of propriety. Every practitioner knows the advantage of a “working dogma” over all other forms of justice, but the museum sometimes has as its dogma a slightly paralyzing eclecticism.

Kynaston McShine’s catalogue introduction to this capable survey indicates many of the problems that a curator faces today in assembling a vital anthology in the grave genre of sculpture. First of all, the genre itself has been questioned and disarticulated in the 15 years that the show covers—not simply in public earthworks and architectural projects but in theatrical investigations and other kinetic or entropic modes. McShine states plainly that many large or complex works could not survive or compete in the museum’s space, but that he hopes that the show will still “demonstrate the radical and often eccentric sensibility . . . of recent time.” The Modern, always a bit too centered and centering, attempted to reflect the dissolution of rigid genres through corollary presentations of video tapes, films, discussions, and drawings, and one must congratulate it on that decision. However—and perhaps necessarily, owing to the archival tone—the show lacked the savage bite of a more open installation. It seemed to make sculpture a bit closer to belles-lettres than to the earth. One questioned some of the juxtapositions even more than any omissions. While the Modern, in its smaller Projects rooms, has been trying to yield a bit to site-specific constructions, “Contemporary Sculpture” tends to isolate each work in an almost idealistic space that is anathema to many of the more nominalist practitioners. Some sculptures did not seem to mind a deracinated posture; others insisted in every way on a web or network of relations. While this anthology attempted to underline both, and even all, kinds of work, the parade of individual icons was not so much pluralist as confusedly benign.

The posthumous collection of essays by the sculptor Robert Smithson, The Writings of Robert Smithson, just recently published, can perhaps be read as an introduction to the exhibition, though not exactly a peaceful one, Smithson savagely criticized Anthony Caro and the American “formalist” critics. His brilliant paradoxes concerning entropy and crystalline structures are quite a knocking at the gate. Smithson accepted museum and gallery limitations, of course, and he was indeed represented within the museum show by drawings and a Borgesian pyramid of mirrors, but his reevaluations of so much “normal” sculpture continue to sting. Sometimes one feels that Smithson has become the secret, or none-too-secret, curator of our last 15 years of sculpture—or, at least, of a dominant school. As a matter of fact, Ronald Bladen’s untitled sculpture, 1966–67, seen in the garden at the Modern, is used in Smithson’s volume as the first illustration of the poetics of entropy. Despite daylight and tourists, the three enormous tilted slabs of painted and burnished aluminum in identical parts reiterate a mordant acceptance of the funereal. They are forms that impede an easy reading: Minimalism’s adagio without strings.

As Smithson weaned himself both from Abstract Expressionism and from Pop varieties of collage, he entered a phase that had the most drastic results for sculpture and for this show. His projects for an air terminal culminated in an unyielding acceptance of the site: a work that could be comprehended solely from the air. His Spiral Jetty, non-sites and architectural fantasies have become models for a novel and materialistic sculpture. His constant “investigations of a specific site” have had the revolutionary effect that Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams (who was Smithson’s childhood doctor) had in poetry. These investigations are a sculptural analogue of the specificity and openness of a poetic collage such as Paterson. The New Jersey rocks and quarries celebrated by the poet were cherished by Smithson in the most deliberate fashion, all this colloquialism and landscaping promulgating a fierce attack against certain forms of reduction.

Smithson had his particular enemies, but they need not detain us forever. While American “formalism” may have needed some sustained opposition, particularly as it underlined what to Smithson was a madly puritanical antitheatricalism—a neo-Kantianism of wet painterly or sculptural self-reflexiveness—our own generation has rediscovered the more fruitful formalism of the Russians in the Opojaz group. Victor Shklovsky’s formalism, with its insistence on devices, displacement, dislocation and strangeness, is very close to Smithson, who quotes Malevich on abstraction with some glee. The most mature of the Formalist group, Roman Jakobson, may also offer us a way to consider Smithson’s contribution and that of his more distant colleagues under a single sky or roof. Jakobson sees poetry—and, we may say, sculpture—as dominantly self-reflexive palpability, with an irreducible dialectical tension between fabricator and audience, and also between context, artistic material and particular codes. Smithson may thus be seen as placing an enormous and new burden on the contextual axis of the referential, which would account for his thinking even of extreme geometric abstraction as a mimicry of crystalline modes of matter. The context became his text, and this shift in emphasis is explosive, although we may still grant other sculptors the privilege of playing upon the axes of the sculptural. No doubt a certain variety of seeming nonreferentiality may become connotatively encrusted and no longer yield much beside a habitual response. Disciples of Smithson’s brand of contextualism, nevertheless, are fated to suffer a species of normalcy, and to lose strangeness and strength.

Entering the show, one was greeted, after all, with some old pleasures. Claes Oldenburg’s Giant Soft Fan, 1966–67, still has a hilarious strength of uselessness, and his comic formalism is the visual analogue of the outrageous ottava rimas of Kenneth Koch. Next to this electric puppy with floppy blades for ears and sullen screws for eyes, Paolozzi’s welded Lotus, 1964, even with its wit concerning the industrial and its sudden two breasts in back, seemed a tame symbol, a hint of the deficiencies of the English art of this period. Artschwager’s Tower, 1964, in painted formica, has little to offer except its severity and its pierced top—a hole that reminds one of cinematic diversions since the steps of the sculpture almost yield a “viewing” machine. John Chamberlain’s crushed car parts (Tomahawk Nolan, 1965), seem as cracked and yet peaceful as a Navajo rug or poem: the Futurist vision of a car as powerful as the Nike of Samothrace comes true in this ruined but vivid form. While McShine writes of “the virtual rejection of the figurative,” George Segal’s ghostly Sidney Janis touches a Mondrian painting (Portrait of Sidney Janis with Mondrian Painting, 1967), more colorful and alive than the figure of the dealer himself, which is one way of dealing with taboos against the body.

To veer away from the sculptures for a moment, one discovered with gratitude a prodigious display of drawings, both by precursors and by contemporaries. After all, sculpture is, in certain hands at least, spatial drawing, and in others an invective against drawing. Brancusi’s 1913 study for The First Step reduces but maintains the figure as comical tubes and circles with a delightfully domesticated absolutism (one thought of Brancusi throughout the show in his insistence on the significance of base and baselessness and his zeal for repetition). A Rodin watercolor of 1900 is more gently genital, but a closer look revealed intense premonitory activity, as if the model were about to run away from all delicacy—like Rilke, Rodin’s secretary. Epstein’s 1913 study for The Rock Driller stresses the science-fiction topic of the shapelessness of things to come, but here every shape is all too clear. A rock-drill phallus seems to bore a hole in the frame: this driller is not about to slouch into the landscape gardening of the picturesque, and his strained or dislocated neck could well be that of our contemporary earthworker hero. Boccioni, too, in his 1913 Muscular Dynamism, yields an important early example of kinetic utopianism, as if the nerves themselves had given a schema of electrical transmission. Strongest of the precursors is Tatlin in a sketch For a Counter Relief, 1914 (the Guggenheim’s “Planar” show underlined once and for all the vigor of the Russian Cubo-Futurist sculptors). Tatlin has a clear cutting line, and his telephone-box-like shape with wires floats in space chastely and securely. Next to this, most of the drawings seemed loosely constructed or all too humane—though, surprisingly, a good Calder simplifies some circles, and a fabulous decomposition of Giacometti showers a city with spectral washes and glimpses of figures as forlorn and paratactical as anything in Adorno’s prose.

Among the more recent drawings was a very free but slightly trivializing colored pencil study by Alan Saret, a species of chromatic conceptualism. Fred Sandback’s 1971 study looked more reticently mesmerizing, as if Giacometti’s palace of associations had been cleared of everything but strings and these strings were rendered as rays of eidetic white light. The Museum of Modern Art has had an exhibition of Sandback, but in the recent show one missed a room of his intensely unifying string constructions. Donald Judd’s relentless drawing of 1966 looked rather positive in this crew. Carl Andre’s collage of floating words makes an Apollinaire calligramme look coherent, while another of the sculptor’s poems, “Impulse Driver” (1965), with some inverted words, modulates from seven- to three-letter words with an analytic arbitrariness. Andre knows how to treat words like wooden blocks. “Law” and “net,” “zigzag” and “medium,” “echelon” and “glimpse” have never seemed so intimate: one thought of Smithson’s famous Heap of Language drawing, with words piled up in strata like fossiliferous ledges of the river Alde. Barry Le Va contributed a collage, but one would like to have seen him represented more explicitly for the radical adventure he has played out in room installations using random materials, and detective fictions with perspective problems. Some very complex Robert Morris drawings of evergreen plantings with negative ion emitters and other bizarre details conjure up that virtuoso’s energy, but my favorite Morris labyrinth pictures were not shown, though one Section of an Enclosure, giving a piece of a maze, stands for sculpture as enclosure, even an incarceration, in a desperately flat mood. (How Morris’ new mannerist mirrors would have enlivened things elsewhere, even more than his strong rope piece!) All the drawings naturally reminded one, again a bit bleakly, of what sculpture could be, and has been, outside the museum. The crude Smithson drawings—oxymoronic, realist fantasies—have now the most dazzling, expressive charm, although the artist might have resented underlining their charismatic, caricatural qualities. But they are records of a struggle toward the sublime of a supreme nonfiction, and one feels the pathos of the enormous project. Here, they stood up well next to the strong calligraphy of David Smith, and even a Nude of Matisse from 1901–03.

At noon, one descended for the movies, those kinetic sculptures most readily conserved by the museum. I saw a hermetic and thrilling group of works by Richard Serra. In one, a dirty hand grasps and loses leaden objects, falling into the movie by an invisible force and ejected out of our line of sight. The muscular hand is blackened by rain of scraps, and the whole exercise in prehensility is as nominalist as a Beckett play and as bare. The audience gave way to giggles; it may have hoped that this was a slightly witty introduction to a less Sisyphean task. The next, and longer, film, of a railroad turnbridge, is a lesson in removing usual connotations. We look into an intricate system of girders, but suddenly all this stasis is chillingly changed. The inert train track becomes a swiveling movie camera, the end of the bridge a vast device for framing effects. As the bridge glides by, we have a series of landscape views glimpsed in an excruciating torpor of many-colored grays. The audience was more or less chastened, since the bridge dazzlingly splits in half in a masterpiece of disjunction. Then, to no music but the sound of the nearby subway, one saw details observed without sentimentality but with all the dignity of Alexander Nevsky. The dark shots are not simply reminiscent any more of the pleasures of erector sets. Like Smithson, Serra has burned out any technological complacency in favor of a paratactical palpability. When the top of a boat slides past, mostly mast and ropes, the silent dislocation is so extreme one wonders for a moment what one is seeing and, later, whether one has ever really seen a boat before. Films, not models or blueprints, are the best pedagogical tool for architectural and sculptural studies.

After such films (and also after having seen Frank Stella’s recent installation of a storm of baroque maquettes here), the small prefatory room of the main exhibition disappointed. The sculptures here seemed predominantly whimsical. Robert Graham had erotic nudes that present a mere mimesis of one form of magazine art. Joe Goode’s carpeted steps to nowhere (Shoes, Shoes, Shoes, 1966), are more compelling in Alice Aycock’s humiliated diction. Christo’s packaged museum and the Joseph Beuys sled, 1969, are mementos of greater projects, ironic certificates of respectability or unrespectability. One begins to think about hordes of omissions: Cecile Abish, Michael Heizer, Richard Nonas, George Trakas, Michael Singer, Robert Grosvenor—some, perhaps, too recent in their work, others, perhaps, too sprawling in scale, but all a bit more uncompromising and even more sculpturally shrewd than this etiolated and Surrealist bin.

The larger sculptures do not prove as grave or graceful as one might have hoped (as Smithson’s prose sometimes appears more ponderous than any steel). Anthony Caro’s Frognal, of 1965, does indeed seem as picturesque as Smithson once deposed, while elegant and accurate in its angles. Moreover, one felt horrified by the too close contrast between the colors of Caro’s glossy, green finesse and a laconic green Judd nearby. It is as if a poem about trees by Phillip Larkin were suddenly brought next to a piece manipulating the word “tree” by John Ashbery. Whereas Judd says nothing in his five rectangles (Untitled, 1968) and says it quite well, over and over, the balances and sweet tensions of the Caro seem to demand a Cambridge lawn.

It was not only Caro who suffered here. Even Sol LeWitt’s cubes—architectural austerities—began in this gang to look a little saturnalian and not all that relentlessly indifferent. LeWitt is one of our significant sculptors, and his city of cubes, (Serial Project No. 1 (ABCD), 1966) plays out a dance of solidity and absence in a rigorous system. But here gray and white seemed another colorful mannerism. Paradoxically, the same piece worked much better last year in his amazing show of unbroken “geometric grammaticality.” Richard Long’s Cornish Stone Circle, 1978, of 52 slabs, seemed horrified by the floor itself. These stones, sad as Druids in Denver, tried to impeach the museum and give it no pardon. Long, the best sculptor in the new English sublime, showed his strongest specimens in photographs of lonely Scottish boulders. Charles Simonds’ clay works take an inventive approach toward sculptural archaeology, but under glass here they became a locked and sentimental toy model. Again, even compared to Smithson’s prose. they are ruins without vengeance, an homage to neoprimitivism. The title of Simonds’ piece—People Who Live in a Circle. They Excavate Their Past and Rebuild It Into Their Present. Their Dwelling Functions as a Personal and Cosmological Clock, Seasonal, Harmonic, Obsessive, 1972,—seems larger than the piece itself. Yet Simonds has much craft, and he knows how to place these archeological fantasies outdoors in unexpected sites with some shocking effects, as if one had spotted stout Cortez and all his men on one’s windowsill. In the museum, stripped of contextual force by displacement, Simonds’ piece is inert: a piano onstage is not a piano in a park. Luckily, Alice Aycock’s sculpture, (Project Entitled Studies for a Town, 1977), has a little room in back to create a melancholy anechoic condition. These stairways to nowhere, blocked off anyway by boards, work well within their stunted space. The whole is solipsistic and a bit enfantine, almost evoking memories of tree houses and hide-and-go-seek, but it is redeemed by a circling rigor, like a symmetrical Tatlin in plywood.

Some sculptures are more relentless than others; some simply found the proper niche. Dan Flavin’s pink light shines in a corner, (Pink Out of a Corner-Jasper Johns, 1963), and, while I prefer a leaning pink piece of his, in which at “waist” level green light shoots out from the back, this unleaning piece is a fine critique of “idealist” works, and accepts the most demotic fixtures and electrical conditions of its era without remorse or irony. Flavin knows how to divide the world with a single line. Like an Alain Kirili piece, which demands and accepts its corner, the Flavin holds on to local place with an analytic glare born of Occam’s more electric razors. Joel Shapiro presents his reduced house (Untitled, 1974), slightly wrenched out of line on a metal-ruler base that suddenly turns 90 degrees into a funny descent. This house resembles Johns’ dense bulbs and beer cans, but its shift in scale indicates a new figuration in sculpture. The hermetic hesitation of this sculpture is a passionate theme. One remembers Walter Benjamin’s saturnine love of toys and tiny graphesis. Benglis’ Knot Victor, of 1974, in aluminum screen, cotton bunting, plaster, sprayed zinc, steel and tin, droops on a wall, but as a most vigorous excrescence. Benglis is one of the most interesting of our sculptors and video artists, and she is constantly investigating the biomorphic. Despite the very purgatorial, artificial color here and elsewhere in her golden “mermaid tails,” she is always resolutely against reduction. Next to her the Andre and Bladen are exercises in a zero-degree vocabulary. With a certain love of fate, these sculptures work with constant italics but even more with a hymnlike insistence, without deviation. While Benglis, Kirili, and McCracken have all played well with a variety of erotic puns, Saret has adduced a bare prison—a dented cage of wire mesh. A prison worked well inside a prison.

In what may be called the spirit of Smithson, except that it is so much a body and of his own making, Richard Serra has presented what seem the two central pieces of a show without a center. They subvert any thin eclecticism around by their own ferocious neutralizing strategy, much though they seem to accept the limitations imposed by the institutions. In their autonomy, they accept Adorno’s strategy for an autotelic but intransigently political art. Lead, wood, stone, and steel are distributed parsimoniously in one work on the large floor, (Cutting Device: Base Plate Measure, 1969). The ensemble is not a Bauhaus learning device, but a ruthless presentation in sculptural prose on texture and weight. Three wood blocks, three paler stones, three gray rolled sheets of steel, large and small pipes, and two piles of imbricated rectangles make up an abstract “creature” splayed on the floor. One is struck by a “cruciformality,” recently analyzed by Joseph Masheck, with a tremendous, resting aggression to the cross form. It is a display of geometry and grammar, but one ripped apart and sullenly exhibited in its elementary propositions. Serra has here created his own museum, and masterfully mocks the macrocosm. His Corner Prop Piece, 1970, of lead plate and tube rolled around a steel core, seems also a dangerous caveat. This sculptor is well known for the precariousness of his works—or, at least, the constant suggestion of precariousness. These two of his sculptures are poles of rest and risk and show that Serra has burned out all false irony and is arguing with Michelangelo, as Barnett Newman said we should. Where other sculptures seem pushed into passivity, these meditate wisely upon passivity. One may either congratulate the museum in placing these works or think of the works as a never satisfied critique of any museum.

The museum—if we may personify, like a figurative sculptor—did its job fairly well. The video installation was wide and telling, with works by Benglis, Sonnier, and the ubiquitous Serra, among others. The drawings, films and symposia were more than parenthetical: they were necessary. One realized after spending a long time with the motley array of disparate items that the museum could have done no better and might have done a lot worse. It is up to the viewer. as Adorno puts it bitingly in his “Valery Proust Museum,” to become less of a loiterer. By concentrating on a few of the works intently, by looking at the Serra, the LeWitt, the vivid crushed car of Chamberlain, and the unfolded primaries of Kelly with “deadly seriousness,” one is no longer merely permitting oneself to be gratified—an evil that Adorno warned against perhaps too stringently. A milder pluralist will accept the mildness of this moderate show, and a sculptural radical will here and there find something like a quarry, more Paterson than Carrara but perhaps both fruitful and frightening: sculpture must be kept up, as a lover of statuary (Keats) said of the English language.

David Shapiro