PRINT December 1981


The value of an idea is proved by its power to organize the subject matter.


FROM THE ’20s TO THE ’70s, the gallery has a history as distinct as that of the art shown in it. In the art itself, a trinity of changes brought forth a new god. The pedestal melted away, leaving the spectator waist-deep in wall-to-wall space. As the frame dropped off, space slid across the wall, creating turbulence in the corners. Collage flopped out of the picture and settled on the floor as easily as a bag lady. The new god, extensive, homogeneous space, flowed easily into every part of the gallery. All impediments except “art” were removed.

No longer confined to a zone around the artwork, and impregnated now with the memory of art, the new space pushed gently against its confining box. Gradually, the gallery was infiltrated with consciousness. Its walls became ground, its floor a pedestal, its corners vortices, its ceiling a frozen sky. The white cube became art-in-potency, its enclosed space an alchemical medium. Art became what was deposited therein, removed and regularly replaced. Is the empty gallery, now full of that elastic space we can identify with Mind, modernism’s greatest invention?

To present the content of that space leads to Zen questions: When is a Void a plenum? What changes everything and remains itself unchanged? What has no place and no time and yet is period? What is everywhere the same place? Once completed by the withdrawal of all apparent content the gallery becomes a zero space, infinitely mutable. The gallery’s implicit content can be forced to declare itself through gestures that use it whole. That content leads in two directions. It comments on the “art” within, to which it is contextual. And it comments on the wider context—street, city, money, business—that contains it.

First gestures have a quality of blundering, indicating an imperfect consciousness. Yves Klein’s gesture at the Galerie Iris Clert on April 28, 1958, may have been in search of “. . . a world without dimension. And which has no name. To realize how to enter it. One encompasses it all. Yet it has no limits.” But its implications for the gallery space were profound. It was a remarkably complete event, as complete as his image of himself as mystic and angel eating the air, promise-crammed. He arrived (in his famous photograph) in free-fall from a second-floor window. From judo he learned how to land without injury. What he really alighted upon was, perhaps, the rather complacent pool of French painterliness. Time gives method to his madness and illustrates how modernism recreates, from photographs, some of its most influential touchstones.

For avant-garde gestures have two audiences: one which was there and one—most of us—which wasn’t. The original audience is often restless and bored by its forced tenancy of a moment it cannot fully perceive—and that often uses boredom as a kind of temporal moat around the work. Memory (so disregarded by modernism which frequently tries to remember the future by forgetting the past) completes the work years later. The original audience is, then, in advance of itself. We from a distance know better. The photographs of the event restore to us the original moment, but with much ambiguity. They are certificates that purchase the past easily and on our terms. Like any currency, they are subject to inflation. Aided by rumor, we are eager to establish the coordinates within which the event will maximize its historical importance. We are thus offered an irresistible opportunity to partake in creation, of a sort.

But to return to Yves Klein suspended over the pavement like a gargoyle. Klein’s gallery gesture had a trial run at the Galerie Colette Allendy in Paris in 1957. He left one small room bare to, as he said “testify to the presence of pictorial sensitivity in a state of primary matter.” That “presence of pictorial sensitivity”—the empty gallery’s content—was, I believe, one of the most fatal insights in postwar art. For his major gesture at Iris Clert’s, “He painted the facade on the street blue,” wrote Pierre Descargues in a Jewish Museum catalogue, “served blue cocktails to the visitors, tried to light up the Luxor obelisk in the Place de la Concorde, and hired a Garde Republicaine in uniform to stand at the entrance to the gallery. Inside he had removed all the furniture, painted the walls white, whitened one showcase which contained no object.” The exhibition was called The Void, but its longer title, developing the previous year’s idea, is more instructive: “The isolation of sensibility in a state of primary matter stabilized by pictorial sensibility.” An early visitor was John Coplans, who thought it odd.

On opening night, three thousand people came, including Albert Camus, who wrote in the book: “With the Void. Full Powers.” While offering itself as site and subject, the gallery primarily hosted a transcendent gesture. The gallery, the locus of transformation, became an image of Klein’s mystical system—the grand synthesis derived from the symbolists in which azur (International Klein Blue) became the transubstantiating device—the symbol, as it was for Goethe, of air, ether, spirit. In a conceit reminiscent of Joseph Cornell, Klein had touched space through the sputnik flight in 1957, which he surrounded with a mystical halo. Klein’s ideas were a nutty but oddly persuasive mix, stirring mysticism, art, and kitsch in the same pot. His art raises again, as the work of successful charismatics does, the problem of separating the objects of art from the relics of a cult. Klein’s work had generosity, utopian wit, obsession, and its share of transcendence. In that apotheosis of communication that becomes communion, he offered himself to others and others consumed him. But like Piero Manzoni, he was a prime mover, very European, rife with metaphysical disgust at the ultimate bourgeois materialism: the hoarding of life as if it were a possession on the order of a sofa.

Outside blue, inside the white void. The gallery’s white walls are identified with spirit, filmed over with “pictorial sensitivity.” The blanched display case is an epigram on the idea of exhibition; it raises the prospect of serial contexts (in the empty gallery, the display case contains nothing). The double mechanism of display (gallery and case) reciprocally replaces the missing art with itself. To insert art into gallery or case puts the art in “quotation marks.” By making art an artificiality within the artificial, it suggests that gallery art is a trinket, a product of the boutique. What is now called the support system (a phrase that became popular with the maintenance of life in space) is becoming transparent. As time goes by, Klein’s gesture becomes more successful; history obligingly curves into an echo chamber.

The theatrics—the Garde, the cocktails (another comment on inside/outside?), the Luxor obelisk inscribing the void above like a wrinkled pencil (this one didn’t work out)—brought that attention without which a gesture is stillborn. This was the first of several gestures that use the gallery as a dialectical foil. These gestures have a history and a provenance; each tells us something about the social and esthetic agreements that preserve the gallery. Each uses a single work to draw attention to the gallery’s limits, or contains it in a single idea. As the space that socializes those products of a “radical” consciousness, the gallery is the locus of power struggles conducted through farce, comedy, irony, transcendence, and, of course, commerce. It is a space that rides on ambiguities, on unexplored assumptions, on a rhetoric that, like that of its parent, the museum, barters the discomforts of full consciousness for the benefits of permanence and order. Museums and galleries are in the paradoxical position of editing the products that extend consciousness, and so contribute, in a liberal way, to the necessary anesthesia of the masses—which goes under the guise of entertainment, in turn the laissez-faire product of leisure. None of this, I might add, strikes me as particularly vicious, since the alternatives are rampant with their own reformist hypocrisy.

In proper teleological fashion, Klein’s gesture produced a response at the same gallery, Iris Clert’s, in October 1960, the same month that the New Realists formally composed themselves as a group. Klein’s Void was filled with Arman’s Le Plein, an accumulation of garbage, detritus, waste. Air and space were evicted until, in a kind of reverse collage, the trash reached critical mass by pressing against the walls. It could be seen pressing against the window and door. As a gesture it lacks the ecstasy of Klein’s transcendent nostomania. More mundane and aggressive, it uses the gallery as a metaphorical engine. Stuff the transforming space with refuse and then ask it, grotesquely overloaded, to digest that. For the first time in the brief history of gallery gestures, the visitor is outside the gallery. Inside, the gallery and its contents are now as inseparable as pedestal and artwork. In all this, there is a bit of what Arman himself called a tantrum. Modernism with its rigorous laws often exasperates its own children whose very disobedience acknowledges parental rule. By rendering the gallery inaccessible, and reducing the excluded visitor to peering through the window at the junk within, Arman initiated not just divorce proceedings, but a major schism.

Why should the early gallery gestures have come from the New Realists in the late ’50s and the ’60s? Infused with social consciousness, their work was coming to an influential denouement. But it was undercut by international art politics. “It was the tough luck of the Parisian avant garde,” wrote Jan van der Marck, “baptized by Yves Klein’s presentation of the Void at Iris Clert’s in Paris in 1958 and institutionally enshrined in Nieuwe Realisten at the Haags Gemeentenmuseum in June 1964, to coincide with the demise of Paris and the ascendancy of New York. In the struggle for international attention ‘Frenchness’ became a liability, and young American artists believed that the tradition from which it drew was bankrupt.” Americans capitalized on their idea of the raw in contrast to Europe’s haute cuisine. Yet the New Realists’ perception of the gallery’s politics was more astute. The early New Realist gestures, apart from Klein’s marvelous hocus-pocus, have a savage edge. But then the European gallery has a political history dating from at least 1848. It is by now as ripe as any symbol of European commerce that may present itself to the jaundiced eye. Even the most amiable of New Realist gestures has a hard center. In Stockholm at the Addi Køpcke Gallery in 1961, Daniel Spoerri arranged for the dealer and his wife, Tut, to sell groceries just bought from the store at “the current market price of each article.” Stamped “CAUTION: WORKS OF ART,” each item bore Spoerri’s “certifying signature.” Was this parody of commerce visible to the dealer? Could it have happened on the Milan/Paris/New York axis?

The New York gesture that charged every particle of the gallery space had a more amiable complexion. One of the sights of the ’60s was entering the Castelli Gallery in 1966 and seeing Ivan Karp shepherding with a pole Andy Warhol’s silver pillows as they floated and drifted in that historic uptown space at 4 East 77th Street. Every part of the space was active, from the ceiling—against which the pillows bumped—to the floor where they occasionally sank, to be agitated again. This discrete, changing, and silent artwork mocked the kinetic urgencies buzzing and clanking in the galleries of the day, laid claim to pedigree (allover space) and united happiness with didactic clarity. Visitors smiled as if relieved of a deep responsibility. That this work was not a fluke was clear from the Cow Wallpaper papering a small adjacent room. From the heroic ’40s and ’50s, phrases like Harold Rosenberg’s “apocalyptic wallpaper” still hung in the air. Reducing the prime symbol of energy to wallpaper––etiolated further by repetition––brought matters of high seriousness into the precincts of interior decoration, and vice versa.

Warhol’s astute relation to wealth, power, and chic is deeply implicated in the fictions of American innocence—very different from the European’s instinctive ability to locate the enemy. American innocence is sustained by a variety of delusions which recent successful avant-gardes have tended to share. Arman’s assassination of a white Mercedes attacked a materialism very different from that of the Americans. Anarchic gestures in America do not do well. They tend to refute the official optimism born of hope. Accumulating below the threshold of good form and acceptable style, they tend to be forgotten. I think of Tosun Bayrak’s “banged-up dirty white automobile on Riverside Drive in New York City, stuffed full . . . of animal guts . . . a bull’s head peering out the front window . . . left . . . until the neighborhood stank” (Therese Schwartz).

Whatever its excesses, the American avant-garde never attacked the idea of a gallery, except briefly to promote the move to the land, which was then photographed and brought back to the gallery to be sold. Materialism in America is a spiritual thirst buried deep within a psyche that wins its objects from nothing and will not give them up. The self-made man and the man-made object are cousins. Pop art recognized this. Its blurred fusion of indulgence and criticism reflected the bourgeois’ material pleasures enhanced by a little spiritual thirst. The satiric impulse in American art, apart from Peter Saul, Bernard Aptheker, and a very few others, remains without its object, somewhat unfocused and insecure as to the nature of its enterprise. In a country where the social classes are imperfectly defined, and the rhetoric of democracy makes their separation suspect, criticism of material success often appears as a form of sophisticated envy. For the artist, of course, the avatar of all this is his or her product. It tends to be the agent of his or her alienation, to the degree that it enters the social matrix. In an operation that never fails, it has its meaning lifted. The site of that operation is the gallery. So Arman’s visitor, denied entry outside the stuffed Galerie Iris Clert, may recognize some of the artist’s anger in his own.

The excluded visitor, forced to contemplate not art but the gallery, became a motif. In October 1968, the European artist most sensitive to the politics of the gallery space, Daniel Buren, sealed off the Galleria Apollinaire in Milan for the duration of the exhibition. He glued vertical white and green stripes on fabric over the door. Buren’s esthetic is generated by two matters: stripes and their location. His theme is encouraging the world’s systems to vocalize themselves through his constant stimulus, his catalyst, monogram, signature, sign. The stripes neutralize art by depletion of content. As a sign of art they become an emblem of consciousness—art was here. “And what does art say?” the situation asks. As a sign, the stripes represent a recognizable aspect of European avant-gardism: a cool intelligence, politically sophisticated, commenting on the social agreement that allows art to be made and yet demeans it. So the stripes bring to the door of the gallery not art so much as a monologue in search of an argument.

This gesture was preceded, as Yves Klein’s was, by a modified trial run. In April of the same year, at the Salon de Mai held at the Museum of Modern Art in Paris, Buren offered his “Proposition Didactique.” One wall of an empty gallery was covered with green and white stripes. Stripes were placed on 200 billboards around the city. Outside the gallery, two men with striped billboards paraded. One is reminded of Gene Swenson walking up and down outside the Museum of Modern Art in the early ’70s, carrying a sign emblazoned only with a question mark. (Swenson and Gregory Battcock were the two New York figures with a political intelligence comparable to that of the New Realists. No one took them very seriously. Life, however, did; they both died tragically.)

Buren’s Milan stripes closed the gallery in much the same way that public health officials close infected premises. The gallery is perceived as a symptom of a disordered body social. The toxic agent isolated within is not so much art as what—in every sense—contains it. Art is also contained by another social agreement (in my opinion, external to it) called style. The stripes, which identify a personality with a motif and a motif with art, imitate the way style works. Style is constant, so Buren’s constant stimulus is a grotesque parody of it. Style, we know, extracts from the work an essence which is negotiable cross-culturally. Through style, as André Malraux demonstrated, all cultures talk to you. This idea of a formalist Esperanto goes with the placeless white cube. Formalist art in placeless galleries stands, like the medieval church, for a system of commerce and belief. Insofar as style succeeded in identifying meaning with itself, the work’s content was devalued. This connoisseurship facilitated the assimilation of the work, no matter how bizarre, into the social matrix. Buren understands perfectly this form of socialization. “How can the artist contest society,” he asks, “when his art, all art, ‘belongs’ objectively to that society?”

Indeed much of the art of the late ’60s and the ’70s had this theme: How does the artist find another audience, or a context in which his or her minority view will not be forced to witness its own co-optation? The answers offered—site-specific, temporary, nonpurchasable, outside the museum, directed toward a nonart audience, retreating from object to body to idea—even to invisibility—have not proved impervious to the gallery’s assimilative appetite. What did occur was an international dialogue on perception and value-systems—liberal, adventurous, sometimes programmatic, sometimes churlish, always antiestablishment and always suffering from the pride that demands the testing of limits. The intellectual energy was formidable. At its height it seemed to leave no room for artists who were just good with their hands—inviting subsequent fictions of dumbness and a return to the canvas. Artists’ revolutions, however, are bounded by the inexorable rules that include those implicit in the empty gallery. There was an exhilarating run of insights into the cycle of production and consumption; this paralleled the political troubles at the end of the ’60s and the beginning of the ’70s. At one point, it seemed as if the gallery’s walls were turning to glass. There were glimpses of the world outside. The gallery’s insulation of art from the present while conveying it to the future seemed for a moment deeply compromised. Which brings us back to Buren’s closed doors. “. . . the artist who creates silence or emptiness must produce something dialectical: a full void, an enriching emptiness, a resonating or eloquent silence,” wrote Susan Sontag in “The Esthetics of Silence.” “Art” forces the void behind the closed door to speak. Outside, art is saved and refuses to go in.

This conceptualization of the gallery reached its ultimate point a year later. In December 1969, in the Art & Project Bulletin # 17 (its pages were a floating artists’ space), Robert Barry wrote, “during the exhibition the gallery will be closed.” This idea was realized at the Eugenia Butler Gallery in Los Angeles the following March. For three weeks (March 1-21) the gallery was closed; outside, the same legend was posted. Barry’s work has always employed scanty means to project the mind beyond the visible. Things are there but barely seen (nylon string); process is present but cannot be sensed (magnetic fields); attempts are made to transfer ideas without words or objects (mentalism). In the closed gallery, the invisible space (dark? deserted?), uninhabited by the spectator or the eye, is penetrable only by mind. And as the mind begins to contemplate it, it begins to answer. As art-in-potency, the gallery begins to ruminate about frame and base and collage—the three energies that, released within its pristine whiteness, thoroughly artified it. As a result, anything seen in that space involves a hitch in perception, a delay during which expectation—the spectator’s idea of art—is projected and seen.

This doubling of the senses—advocated by such disparate characters as Henry David Thoreau and Marcel Duchamp—became in the ’60s a period sign, a perceptual stigma. This doubling enables sight, as it were, to see itself. “Seeing sight” feeds on emptiness; eye and mind are reflected back to engage their own process. While this can produce interesting forms of perceptual narcissism and quasi-blindness, the ’60s were more concerned with eroding the traditional barricades set up between perceiver and perceived, between the object and the eye. Vision would then be able to circulate without the impediment of traditional conventions. Such a perceptual Utopia was consonant with the radical sensory transformations of ’60s culture. In the galleries, its most cogent expression was in Les Levine’s “White Sight” at the Fischbach Gallery in January 1969. On entering the gallery the spectator, deprived of color and shadow by two high-intensity monochromatic sodium vapor lights, attempted to recreate the space. Other viewers became visual cues, points of reference from which to read the space. The audience thus became an artifact. Without sight, the audience turned back on itself, attempted to develop its own content. This intensified the experience of being alone in any empty white gallery, in which the act of looking, coached by expectation, becomes a kind of instant artifact. So, to return to the white space, the twin contexts of anticipation—the gallery and the spectator’s mind—are fused in a single system, which could be tripped.

How could this be done? The minimal adventure reduced the stimulus and maximized its resonance within the system. In this exchange, metaphor died (this was minimalism’s major contribution, shutting the door on modernism). The containing box, the white cube, was forced to declare some of its hidden agenda, and this partial demythification had considerable consequences for the installation idea. Another response was to literalize life or nature within the gallery; e.g., Jannis Kounellis’ horses, intermittently occupying art spaces from 1969 on; Newton Harrison’s doomed fish at the Hayward Gallery in 1971. Any transformation that occurred at these extreme points was more alchemical than metaphorical. Transformation became the spectator’s rather than the artist’s role. Indeed the artist’s role became a kind of de-creation, providing a stimulus for the spectator to take into his or her art-making system (art as the opiate of the upper middle classes).

In transforming what is present in the gallery—which resists transformation—we are becoming the creator, painlessly. In that process we are ourselves artified, alienated from the work even as we transform it. Spectators in a gallery begin to look like Kounellis’ horses. The confusion between the animate and inanimate (object and spectator) reverses the Pygmalion myth: the art comes alive and reifies the spectator. Consciousness is the agent and medium. So the possession of a higher consciousness becomes a license to exploit its evolutionary inferiors. In such ways does the gallery situation reflect the real world outside it. The confusion of art and life invites gestures that would push it to the extreme—a murder in a gallery, perhaps? Is it art? Would that be a legal defense? Would Hegel testify to its dialectical relation to the gallery space? Would Jacques Vaché be called as a witness for the defense? Could the work be sold? Would the photo-documentation be the real work? And all the time, in Barry’s empty gallery, the meter ticks; someone is paying the rent. An enlightened dealer is losing money to help make points about the space that sells things. It is as if a Bedouin were starving his horse or an Irishman suffocating his pig. In Barry’s closed space, over the three weeks, the space stirs and mutters; the white cube, now a brain in a bowl, does its thinking.

These gestures seek, in short, transcendence, exclusion through excess, isolation through dialectic and through mental projection. They found their opposite in a work done, accommodatingly enough, in the southern hemisphere. Lucy R. Lippard in her Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972 (one of the great books of the ’70s) describes it thus: “The Rosario group begins its ‘Experimental Art Cycle’ . . . October 7-19: Graciela Carnivale . . . a totally empty room, the window wall covered to provide a neutral ambiance, in which are gathered the people who came to the opening; the door is hermetically sealed without the visitors being aware of it. The piece involved closing access and exits, and the unknown reactions of the visitors. After more than an hour, the ‘prisoners’ broke the glass window and escaped.” The occupants of the empty gallery assumed the condition of art, became art objects, and rebelled against their status. In an hour there was a transference from the object (where’s the art?) to subject (me). The artist’s anger—and this is, I think, a hostile gesture—is switched to the audience’s anger at the artist, which, according to the classic scenario of avant-garde transference, authenticates the artist’s anger at the audience. Is this making too much of people being locked in a room and getting mad at the locker? The room in which they are locked is, if my information is correct, an art room. They were insulated by the great transformer. Locking people in a room without reason, with nothing in it, and giving no explanation, has, I would suggest, a sharper resonance in Argentina than in Soho.

Whole-gallery gestures came in a rush at the end of the ’60s and continued sporadically through the ’70s. The apotheosis of such gestures, in terms of scale and richness of readings, occurred in Chicago in January 1969. The subject was not the gallery but the institution that possesses not one but many galleries—the museum. Christo, a colleague of Klein and Arman in Paris around 1960, was asked by Jan van der Marck to do an exhibition at the new Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. Christo, who was doing a show for a nearby commercial gallery, suggested something special for the museum—the topological task of wrapping inside and out. The practical problems were formidable; these problems test the seriousness of a gesture, but they are usually forgotten—the inconvenience of being there is mislaid in time. The fire commissioner objected, but proved tractable. Mayor Richard Daley was an unseen presence. Following the 1968 Democratic National Convention, violence had been the subject of an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art. This, tile most successful political exhibition of the ’60s, joined the board of trustees and the staff in the same posture of liberal outrage. (In addition, at the Richard Feigen Gallery across the street, Daley was the subject of a savage artists’ protest; notable among the works shown was Barnett Newman’s Lace Curtain for Mayor Daley.) To everyone’s surprise, Christo’s wrapping was accomplished without city harassment. The thinking is that the late mayor, once bitten by the national media, was content to let sleeping art lie. But what of the work itself?

Unquestionably, it was the period’s most daring collaboration between an artist and a director. The only comparable occasion was the Hans Haacke/Edward Fry collaboration at the Guggenheim Museum in 1971. The museum was American, but the collaborators in Chicago were both European, one Dutch, the other Bulgarian. Van der Marck’s tenure at the museum is now a fabled era, unmatched by that of any other curator of the ’60s, with the possible exception of Elayne Varian’s at Finch College in New York. Van der Marck became in part the co-creator of the work; offering the museum as a subject for examination was in perfect accord with modernist practice—to test the premises of every assumption and to subject them to argument. This is not the tradition of the American curator, nor of his or her trustees.

Christo’s wrappings are a kind of parody of the divine transformations of art. The object is possessed, but the possession is imperfect. The object is lost and mystified. Individuality of structure—the identifying morphology is replaced by a general soft outline, a synthesis that like most syntheses furthers the illusion of understanding. Let us confine ourselves to just a few gatherings from the harvest offered by The Wrapping of the Chicago MCA (process) or The Wrapped MCA (product). The museum, the container, is itself contained. Does this double positive, artifying the container that itself artifies, produce a negative? Is this an act of cancellation, discharging the accumulated content of the empty gallery?

Christo’s work presses esthetic issues to their social context, there to engage in political brokerage. A position must be taken not just by art folk but by the immediate public, to whom art is usually as remote as the phyla in an aquarium. This is not a consequence of the work but its primary motivation. It is both avant-garde (traditionally engagé) as well as post-modern (if the audience is fatigued, get another audience). It is also remarkable for the firmness of its ironies, which play for keeps—the loss of vast amounts of money, the one thing the public always understands. But what gives the work a political dimension—a closely reasoned argument with prevailing authority—is the way in which its process is conducted. The corporate structure is marvelously parodied: plans are made, environmental reports sought from experts, opposition is identified and met, energetic debate is accompanied by its share of democratic madness (public arguments on a local level bring out a free society’s strangest mutants). All this is followed by the hard-hat technologies of installation, sometimes revealing the incompetence of various suppliers and of American know-how. Then the work is realized, to be quickly withdrawn as if its witnesses could bear no more than a glimpse of beauty.

These public works are of Robert Moses scale, but their awesome acquisitiveness is perpetrated with the most gentle, tolerant, and insistent grace. This combination of advanced esthetics, political subtlety, and corporate methods is confusing to the audience. Siting gigantic artworks in the midst of the body social is not a part of the American tradition. The Brooklyn Bridge had to be built before Hart Crane and Joseph Stella could get to work on it. Large-scale American art generally draws the Adamic artist to remote areas where transcendence is immanent. Christo’s projects mimic in scale the good works of government. They provide the useless at great expense. What he chooses to wrap involves expenditures of such magnitude ($3.5 million for the Running Fence) that it seems irresponsible to those working on their heart attacks. Yet in the imperial tradition of Ayn Rand selfhood, he raises all the money through sale of his work. Despite such serious business, I am always surprised when sophisticated people think he is having fun. Some fun. His projects are one of the very few successful attempts to press the rhetoric of much 20th-century art to a conclusion. They force the utopian issue in the country that was once Utopia. In doing so they measure the distance between art’s aspirations and society’s permissions. Far from being the Russian dream of an advanced art at home in an advanced society, they use the methods of an imperfect society and its myths of free enterprise to impose a will as powerful as that of any corporate board chairman’s. Far from being folly, Christo’s projects are gigantic parables: subversive, beautiful, didactic.

The choice of the Modern Museum as a subject for wrapping was evidence of Christo and van der Marck’s deep seriousness; they sensed the malaise of an art often smothered by an institution that now tends to be, like the university, a corporate venture. It is often forgotten that Christo, in wrapping the museum, was also symbolically wrapping a staff and its functions—the sales desk (that little repository of bricolage), the docents, the maintenance staff (blue-collar workers serving an alien faith), and also, by implication, the trustees. Paralysis of function also demanded that floor and stairs be wrapped, and so they were. Only the sensitized walls remained untouched. The nature of this wrapping has received little commentary. There was no neatness to it; it looked like an amateur job. Ropes and twine found notches to swing about, knots were vast and tied with thumbs. Slick packaging would make no comment on the American genius for such, which of course includes the packaging of people. So Christo’s packaged museum (explicit) and staff (implicit) proposes that containment is synonymous with understanding. With the museum packaged, is the way to understanding open?

Like all gestures, the project has an expectant quality, an openness that for satisfactory closure requires, like a question or a joke, a response. By definition, a gesture is made to “emphasize ideas, emotions, etc.” and is “often . . . made only for effect.” This deals with its immediate impact. For the gesture must snare attention or it will not preserve itself long enough to gather its content. But there is a hitch in a gesture’s time, which is its real medium. Its content, as revealed by time and circumstance, may be out of register with its presenting form. So there is both an immediate and a remote effect, the first containing the latter, but imperfectly.

The presenting form has its problems. It must relate to an existing body of accepted ideas, and yet place itself outside them. Initially, it tends to be perceived—or misperceived—somewhere on a spectrum from outright hostility to just fun. In this, the “art-likeness” of the work is a liability. If it is perceived within an existing category, the category tries to digest it. Successful gestures—ones that survive their presenting form—usually abort the dialogue out of the accepted universe of discourse. In game-playing this is rule-modification. But in art the modification takes place over time and with uncertain—indeed unpredictable—results. Thus gestures have an element of charlatanry and fortune-telling. A bet is placed on an imperfectly perceived—but wished-for—future. Gestures are thus the most instinctive of artworks in that they do not proceed from full knowledge of what provokes them. Indeed, they are born out of a desire for knowledge, which time may make available. An artist’s career (if artists have careers) cannot suffer from too many of them, for they jump it oddly about. A gesture is antiformal (against the agreement that art reside within its category) and it may be at odds with the smooth teleology of the rest of its perpetrator’s work. An artist cannot make a career of gestures unless, like On Karawa, his repeated gesture is his career.

The Christo project is rare in that its presenting form and subsequent content are consonant, though of course the “fun” aspect was initially emphasized. Christo’s wit and humor are indubitable, but their complexities (laughter is not a simple subject) are far from fun. The project certainly negotiated a deeper understanding of a major theme of the ’60s and ’70s: the isolation, description, and exposure of the structure through which art is passed, including what happens to it in the process. At this time the gallery received a lot of lip-service hostility, while being used by artists in that tolerance of their split-level existence necessary to survival. This, of course, is one of the marks of advanced art in the postcapitalist matrix. Rendering to art the things that are art’s and to the Collectors the things that they buy often happily coincide. Too much consciousness leads to embarrassment, the blush of the closet revolutionary. It is the particular glory of some ’60s and ’70s artists, including Christo, that they met the implications of their own insights and polemics.

All these gestures recognize the gallery as an emptiness gravid with the content art once had. Coping with an idealized place that had preempted art’s transforming graces gave rise to a variety of strategies. To those already mentioned—the death of metaphor, the growth of irony, the comedies of assigning value to the useless, “de-creation”—should be added destruction. Frustration is an explosive ingredient of late modernist art as options close off briskly in a converging corridor of doors and mirrors. A minor apocalypse forces itself upon us; it easily mistakes its dilemmas for the world’s. Only two exhibitions formally acknowledged this free-floating anger. “Violence in Recent American Art” came from Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art in 1968 under van der Marck; and Varian at Finch College, New York, put on a show of “Destruction Art”, 1968, that the gallery spaces wrapped themselves rather uneasily around. No one trashed a museum, although alternative (to the museum) spaces took a beating. But various methods were used to reduce the placelessness and timelessness of the gallery’s hysterical cell. Or the gallery itself could be removed and relocated to another place.

Brian O’Doherty is an artist who exhibits under the name of Patrick Ireland.

This article is the first of two parts; it is adapted from a Franklin Murphy Lecture given at the University of Kansas at Lawrence in the Spring of 1980. ©1981 Brian O’Doherty.

In 1976 Artforum published a three-part article by Brian O’Doherty entitled “Inside the White Cube.” Part I, “Notes on the Gallery Space,” appeared in March; Part II, “The Eye and the Spectator,” in April; Part III, “Context as Content,” in November.