PRINT Summer 1982


I am against painting and sculpture and what they stand for . . . The studio mind is better abolished. . .

I’m interested in the stuff you don’t see but it’s really there.
—Eric Orr1

ERIC ORR FIRST EXHIBITED as an artist in 1964, in the student center of the University of Cincinnati. The work was a Colt .45 automatic pistol mounted on a stand at eye level for a seated person, facing a wooden chair. The hammer was in cocked position; the trigger was wired to a treadle where the right foot of a person seated in the chair might comfortably rest. Seated there, one gazed down the muzzle of the gun about two feet away.

Some viewers experienced the work as a threat, some as an invitation; no one sat there for long. But while seated in the chair one felt strangely unnerved about the intentions of the artist. He was absent, hidden behind the ice-cold gesture of this diabolical machine.

Colt 45 was an act of naked aggression against the art experience as usually known and as handed down in university courses; against the triviality of the exhibited object it opposed the momentous fact of bodily death. It was an outlaw declaration of war against the viewers’ expectations of finding pretty objects in an art setting. Instead of being esthetically stroked, the viewer was threatened and devalued. The artist was a gangster, with his audience shoved up against the wall by his work.

In a sense the defiance expressed in this work was the defiance of a prisoner; it announced that the overwhelming plethora of art objects amassed, catalogued, and disseminated in our culture has come to imprison the living artist. Long ago a surfeit was reached and satiety melted into a bitter aftershock. I was once given a tour of the Metropolitan Museum of Art by an artist who showed me only the harps and armor.

I’m an agent for a robot factory which has no people and no lights and runs full tilt at night, robots making other robots in the dark.
—Eric Orr2

Orr moved to Los Angeles in 1966 and has lived there ever since. In California he found an art-historical stream that he could enter comfortably, not least because at that time the various West Coast movements were regarded by their adherents as constituting a new beginning for art, cut off from European art history. For a decade or so he has been grouped with James Turrell, Doug Wheeler, Maria Nordman, Robert Irwin, and others loosely called space-light or phenomenological artists; in work by these and related artists, our perceptual situation is manipulated in order to focus attention on the vagaries of the perceptual process itself. Within this category Orr’s work is conspicuous in its use of deliberate allusions to ancient religious and magical traditions.

In the late ’60s Orr extended the direction of Colt 45 through a series of other gun and weapon works (Vandenburg Letters, 1967; Tracer Bullets, 1968; 357 Magnum, 1969) which redefine the art object as a danger to the viewer, as a force which threatens our continued existence and explodes our complacent habits of relating to passive and ingratiating objects. But this period of pressing against the life-death boundary soon modulated into an intuitive exploration of the other side of that boundary; the absence in front of the exploding gun was reified and exhibited. Orr adumbrated this phantasmal realm through hidden works, underground works, vanishing works, and negative presences. The theme of aggression was unfolding itself to reveal an inner life much softer and more open than the blue-steel body of a gun.

In Room Company #2 (Los Angeles, 1968),3 walls of dry ice were installed in a gallery and vanished before closing time. The transition from corporeal to disembodied, from positive to negative presence, was emerging as Orr’s first resolution of the theme of pure aggression. At the same time the piece is a satirical reduction of the museum-mind art worship expressed in Seneca’s famous line, “Vita brevis, ars longa” (Life is short, art is long).

In Volumetric Sound (Los Angeles, 1969) a device producing a low sound was installed in a gallery, which then was sealed shut. Phenomenologically the work exemplifies the problem of the relationship of object-existence to subject-experience—the problem of the tree falling unheard in the forest. In terms of Orr’s more passional exploration of negative presences and metaphysical boundaries, it relates to the project of shaping invisible realities, as the volume of sound waves was shaped by its containing room.

Related works explored silences and shadows. In Sound in Shape of a Pear (New York, 1970) a standing wave—an acoustical phenomenon in which two sound waves intersect in such a way as to partially cancel each other out—was set up in a gallery. At a certain spot in the room one found oneself suddenly in a kind of netherworld, a zone of eerie silence in which ambient noises faded inexplicably into the distance. In other pieces (e.g., Wall Shadow, Los Angeles, 1969) structures were built, and the afternoon shadows they cast were painted gray-black; then the structures were removed, leaving a silent and unmoving world of frozen shadows. In Sound Tunnel (Los Angeles, 1969) one walked blindly through a black-walled, lightproof tunnel where voices from hidden banks of audio speakers circled one constantly, whispering, “Life, dream, shadow; life, dream, shadow; life, dream, shadow.”

In most of man’s history art was made by the living for the dead. The finest Egyptian art was made for the dead, buried, and lost.

I wasn’t supposed to mention this, but I live in the void and consider death my oldest friend.
—Eric Orr4

In 1971, in a work called Blood Shadow, Orr and a friend (the artist John McCracken) carried a sheet of tempered glass (3 by 9 feet) onto the Venice, California, beach on the night of a full moon. One side of the glass had been covered with the artist’s blood, blown on by mouth and straw, as paleolithic painters are thought to have done. The glass was laid at waveside where McCracken’s moon-cast shadow fell upon it; Orr scraped away the blood outside the shadow, leaving a human silhouette. The glass was now, by sympathetic magic, a kind of “person,” made of Orr’s blood, McCracken’s shadow, moonlight, and wave-sound. This entranced or moonstruck person was now to be launched out of space-time, across the boundary signified by the exploding gun, back to the primal beginning. The glass was crated and transported to the plain of Giza, just south of modern Cairo. When the moon rose Orr uncrated the glass by the Mycerinus pyramid. Calculating the position, he dug a pit (3 by 9 by 1 feet) in the sand where the shadow of the pyramid apex would fall at moonset. The glass was laid face up in the gravelike pit. As the moon approached the horizon the shadow of the pyramid apex (from which the soul of the pharaoh Mycerinus was to launch itself into the eternity of the circumpolar sky) glided slowly up the blood-self on the glass and tapped lightly at the brainpan just before moonset, summoning its spirit. When the moon disappeared, taking the destiny of the shadow-self with it, the glass was buried.

Blood Shadow was a ritual involving sympathetic magic, mingling the stream of Orr’s art with the ancient past. With this piece Orr began layering his work into a complex cultural archeology which, designed to free him from European art history, would ultimately restore him to it. Hereafter the Egyptian stratum of this archeology would surface frequently. Egyptian art, after all, was both eerily “Modern” and deeply concerned with the sense of negative presence, of the transition to the bodiless Prior which is, in the language of an Egyptian coffin text, “the universal primordial form of life.”5

From Egypt Orr traveled eastward, spending time in India, Burma, and Japan. Back in Los Angeles, he began a series of installations inspired as much by the reverberantly empty spaces that archeologists have found in the plundered tombs of ancient Egypt as by the indefinite and somewhat transcendental spaces of Robert Irwin’s scrim installations and related space-light works of that time. From these ancient Egyptian burial places the soul was to flee through the crack of time to the Place of Eternity, becoming one of “those glorious beings who dwell in the beams of light.”6 Orr works with the conscious ambition of creating spaces that will focus the viewer’s sensibility on infinity.

Infinity Space (Irvine, California, 1971–73; later exhibited, with some variations, as Zero Mass Space) was an oval room whose floor, ceiling, and walls were made entirely of paper; it was dimly lighted to bring night vision into play, and to create the impression of a sort of spatial melt-down within. Phenomenological in the sense that it toyed with the project of altering perception in major ways through minor shifts of situation, the work was a striking accomplishment of space-light art. Yet its ancient roots may be more relevant in terms of the work as a rounded cultural object, existing in a web of associations, references, and intentions, than the de rigueur display of perceptual shifts. The great point of the piece was its creation of a space beyond (or before) boundaries—an analogue to the realm of Chaos described by Ovid, the Primal Abyss of Egyptian mythology, or the world-edge realm of Ultima Thule, reported in Greco-Roman texts as a state between mist, liquid, and solid. From inside, one could not identify a wall, or limit, anywhere. The boundary-forming, and hence limiting, property of space had been dissolved into an indefinite light-substance surrounding one with equal density on all sides. A certain transmogrification analogous to those described in ancient funerary cults, mystery religions, and enlightenment texts was briefly glimpsed.

Why is space active and the object passive?
—Eric Orr7

Orr’s art, with its predilection for the esthetics of infinity, is based on the religio-philosophical tendency of space worship, found in Platonism, Hinduism, Taoism, Cabala, and elsewhere. These traditions regard materiality as primarily a limitation and aspire to a state where gravity and spatial boundaries will have been left behind. Within such a horizon, space is not regarded as dead emptiness. The Chandogya Upanishad, for example, says (111.8.1), “Space [Sanskrit akasa] is to be worshipped as the absolute source [Sanskrit brahman].” “It is space out of which all these creatures proceed and into which they are again received” (1.9.1). Space, in other words, is worshipped as the root-ground of all life; it both produces and later reabsorbs the apparitions that seem to inhabit it. So conceived, it is all-powerful and all-creative and, above all, supernaturally alive, crawling with hidden life and bursting with universal feeling. Newton, in a similar spirit, called space “the sensorium of God”: in Platonic terms, the screen on which the world dream or thought process is projected. Newton’s contemporary, the 17th century Platonist Henry More, spoke of space in the theological terms appropriate to deity, calling it, “One, Simple, Immobile, Eternal, Complete, Independent, Existing in Itself, Subsisting by Itself, Incorruptible, Necessary, Immense, Uncreated, Uncircumscribed, Incomprehensible, Omnipresent, Incorporeal, All-penetrating, All-embracing, Being by its Essence, Actual Being, Pure Act.”8 Earlier forms of such concepts are found throughout the Egyptian art and mythology by which Orr was inspired: the abyss of primal indeterminate space, regarded as the womb of the universe; the primal and self-renewing space above the world ocean just before the first sunrise; the Place of Annihilation in the afterlife, typified by the Gates, Caverns, and Mysterious Doors behind which darkness is reprocessed into light.9

Early Buddhism didn’t have the figure, and it didn’t have any of that kind of stuff. They just worshipped empty space. And that lasted about three hundred years, and then you have ten million, scrillion, jillion figures of this character named Buddha. And he was dead against the figure.
—Eric Orr10

In Theravadin Buddhism, a religion whose cultural and psychological ambience Orr had experienced in Burma, the emphasis on empty space is combined with a rejection of the ordinary sense of self, almost an aggression against it. In this tradition, the first of the higher meditation states (Pali, arupa jhana) involves the incorporation into one’s own being of “infinite empty space.”11

A related image that affected Orr deeply and is implicitly involved in much of his work is the empty throne by which the Buddha is represented in the cave art of Ajanta and Ellora. In Buddhist terms, the throne is empty because the Buddha has realized not-self: though he is indeed there, no self is present. Seen in light of this image which was to enter Orr’s life years later, the Colt 45 piece of 1964 suddenly opens into a softer and broader semantic dimension. The empty chair is the empty throne, the pointed gun activated by the sitter’s own foot is his voluntary self-destruction through realization of not-self.

I want to make the best place on the planet. The most extraordinary. What I really want is that when you enter that space you’re completely changed—you experience ecstasy or something . . . I altogether have no idea about not liking change.
—Eric Orr12

In the mid-’70s Orr became increasingly fascinated by science. Its combination of esthetic elegance and an ability to exert an effect over a great distance makes science our closest analogue to the ancient traditions of magical art.13 The mythological/esthetic power of such concepts as space-time curvature, black-hole singularities, and cloning, gives them archetypal status. “Beta decay,” “red shift,” “white dwarf,” “cosmic ray,” “event horizon” are poetic phrases startling in their combination of strangeness and immediate recognizability.

Orr’s installation Sunrise (Los Angeles, 1976) began to knit together the scientific and Egyptian strands of his intentionality. It introduced silence, alongside space and light, as the third primary material. And it offered an oddly powerful but disjointedly complex revelation. A room 9 by 9 by 18 feet in exterior dimensions was built inside the Cirrus Gallery, its outer surfaces sheathed with sheets of lead which by screening out most radiation created, inside, a partial cosmic ray void. The dimensions of the interior space were arithmetically related to those of the King’s Chamber of the Great Pyramid. A ceiling channel at one end of the interior of the room extended through the rooftop of the outer building; on the roof, a tracking device followed the sun from dawn to dusk and reflected it, through the channel, onto the back interior wall of the lead-sheathed room. Each sunrise, an upright silvery panel set into the rear wall of the black, lighttight inner space, would catch a thin strip of light at its bottom edge. This swath of light would grow through the day, holding tightly to the edges of the silvery ground, until sunset, when it would fade quickly. In late afternoon the bar of light palpably throbbed in the darkness, like a solid gleaming substance floating several inches in front of the wall. Heavy insulation of the interior walls created an acoustically dead zone; in the unrelenting silence one’s interior body sounds, as well as the quiet and fragmentary thoughts which usually go unnoticed, bubbled to the surface.

Sunrise was a kind of sacred monster in the space-light tradition. It was also Orr’s most Egyptian-influenced space, with its references to the King’s Chamber; the flight of the ba bird through a small channel in the tomb to the sun; the sunrise of the dead, when Osiris rises into the morning sky as Re; the obelisk as source of sunrise, and sunrise as the primal moment reconstituted each day.

But above all the “lead box,” as it came to be called, was a laboratory situation for certain refined avenues of exploration. After its stay in the Cirrus Gallery Orr disassembled it, took it to his studio on the Venice beachfront, and reconstructed it. It remained there for several years, during which countless people investigated it. While the cosmic ray void seemed imperceptible, and the slowly changing bar of light enforced a type of attention that many found fatiguing, the box offered profoundly interesting experiences at night, when its darkness and silence were almost absolute in terms of human senses. The sense of one’s body, in that black silence, became overpoweringly present and absorbing; at the same time the sense of one’s material boundaries receded. Sleep was unusually deep, and dreams seemed strangely distant and bright. Orr’s goal of producing spaces that will transform everyday experiences was mildly fulfilled here. Yet no one flew out the door as a bird. Rather, one walked out as one went in, but with a certain mental aura, as of secret ambiences and veiled promises of transcendence.

I started out believing that object art suffers from infantile paralysis or old age, something that had to be gummed by the toothless. Now object or space has no difference. Both sustain themselves in memory.

(Is there clear memory?)
—Eric Orr14

In 1976 Orr began making flat rectangular objects to hang on walls. These usually involved sheets of lead wrapped around wooden supports and treated with various other materials. They fall into several groups.

The earliest series (begun in 1976) showed illusionistic (rather Magritte-like) windows and doors embossed into lead surfaces. These mysterious apertures suggest hidden dimensions of reality which cannot be entered physically. Chemical formulas adorn the windowsills like hieroglyphs: Phi (the Golden Number: an irrational number, approximately 1.618, on which the overall dimensions of the piece are based); the chemical symbols denoting the transformation of uranium into lead; Enrico Fermi’s formula describing the beta particle decay process that is involved in this transformation; parts of Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty formulas; Orr’s own name in runic characters; and a traditional runic blessing on the object itself, repeated three times. Science, with its black holes and antimatter, functions as gatekeeper to other realms.

The wall pieces called Chemical Light (Los Angeles, 1979) reveal a strong alchemical stratum in Orr’s cultural archeology. The series is named after a 17th century alchemy book, and the subtitle, Works in Lead and Gold, spells out this intention. These works are delicate and luminous explorations of the properties of the materials, in conjunction with Orr’s preoccupation with pushing against the limits. Gentle, diagonal striations of the soft lead surface merge into a mist of gold which thickens and solidifies at the bottom edge, suggesting landscape swept by soft rain or the edge of the realm of form, where solidity melts into shapeless but still driving force.

I’m interested in figurative art; but [in the sense that] I’m interested in putting a figure in the art [directly]—I mean like blood or hair or whatever. If you’re going to make figurative art, put the fucking figure in it. Put the stuff that makes up humans in it, I mean put the bones and the hair and the skull or whatever it is . . . Don’t try to represent it; use it. When you try to represent things, they lose. They lose, you lose.
—Eric Orr15

Beneath the phenomenological, alchemical, and Egyptian levels of Orr’s cultural stratigraphy is a root stratum of primitive magic or shamanism; already present in Blood Shadow, it came increasingly to the fore thereafter. His ambition is to reconstitute the fullness of the shamanic role in the art realm, to re-establish the artwork as the locus of magical and therapeutic force, like the power objects of the shaman. Twice in recent years he has traveled to existing shamanic cultures (the New Hebrides and Zaire), located practicing shamans (sometimes with great difficulty), and swapped stories and materials with them (giving them gold leaf, and lessons in its application).

His wall objects of 1980 and 1981 employed complex, pseudo-shamanic recipes in an attempt to combine the artwork with the power object. The task involved a challenging merging of two codes, that of the inner powers of the materials and that of their outer visual properties.

This relationship to his materials, with its implied belief in sympathetic magic, is unique and involved Orr in a set of decisions, in addition to formal decisions, that most artists eschew. Recent works have involved combinations of various substances including lead, gold, wood, meteorite dust, ground lion tooth, dust from the King’s Chamber of the Great Pyramid, volcanic ash, human blood (Orr’s), human bone ground to powder, human bone burnt to carbon and ground to powder, human skull burnt to carbon and ground to powder, human skull broken into jagged fragments by being run over by an automobile, and a radio burnt to carbon and ground to powder. His method is to grind these substances (by hand, with a mortar and pestle, if possible), combine them with a liquid binder, and apply them to the lead ground with a spray gun, in upright bands of delicately varying dimensions. The disposition of areas derives from esthetic feeling and is based on the formal properties of the materials; but the initial choice of materials was not based on their formal properties but was, in a loose and intuitive way, magical.

The process of pulverizing objects like a radio, a skull, a bone, deprives them of their identity as objects; all are ground down into a primal and featureless sand in a process of oceanic dissolution. The project of alchemy is similar: to reduce the separate elements back to Prime Matter again. Yet in Orr’s intentionality, the process of reducing his materials to dust or ashes does not drain out their separate identities altogether; rather, it hides them, renders them occult or negative presences. Their powers still operate.

From a formalistic point of view, of course, the original object-identity of a material, with its cultural associations, is quite irrelevant. If the art viewer sees two vertical bands of varying gray-black, it makes no difference that one is radio and the other human bone ash. What matter are relationships of color, shape, texture, and so forth. To Orr, on the other hand, while formal values are increasingly refined and successful in his work, the magical value and cultural associations of the original form of the materials work in interpenetration with the esthetic values of the present surface. While standing in front of one of these pieces we react to color values; but we also react (or so the artist feels) to the invisible or vibratory presences of the original radio, skull, bone, gold, ash, and so forth. What emerges is a kind of double code, in which each element can be read in two different ways, either esthetic or magical. The viewer is invited to work with more than the visual sense when relating to these works; he is invited, in fact, to use (or discover) senses he may not have been aware of before.

I like to hunt the void. I have used silence, emptiness, and night vision to apprehend my undifferentiated friend. . . .

I made contact with shamans in Zaire by using my shadow finger against their shadow arms.
—Eric Orr16

Silence and the Ion Wind (Los Angeles, 1981) was a huge installation which filled the entire Hammer wing of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. It consisted of three chambers along a single axis, each treated in several different ways, with a clear progression of mounting interest from the first to the last. In the dimly lighted entrance chamber, one end of the axis was marked by a door-shaped rectangle of light projected on a wall, in the proportions of the Golden Section (1.618:1); the irrational number, with its endless decimal places, leads to infinity, and something similar was implied about this door of light. Like the doors and windows on the lead surfaces, it suggested an entranceway to another dimension. About fifty feet from the light door was a lead wall with a central doorway, also of Golden Section proportions, leading to the second chamber.

The second space was very dark. Facial recognition was impossible, and the sense of personal identity quickly faded. Behind the white scrim walls, layers of fiberglass insulation absorbed sound; the human voice flattened out and disappeared immediately. As one walked toward the third chamber—a tiny golden room which glowed invitingly at the end of the long dark space—three coordinated changes took place: (1) the darkness was progressively dispelled by golden light; (2) the silence increased, as the wall-insulation thickened; (3) negative ion generators near the golden room created an ion wind which increased in strength as one drew nearer. Negative ions, like the cosmic-ray void in Sunrise, are one of the invisible materials in the recipe. They increase in nature after a rain or near a waterfall; they are reputed to be invigorating and stress-reducing.

The tiny room at the end of the axis was electrostatically coated with 24-carat gold; the polished surface had been slightly clouded so it would reflect only light, not form. Warmly lighted from above, the little room glowed with a transcendental sheen. Entering its bright embrace (which could hold two or three people but was more comfortable for one) and gazing outward, one’s eyes fixed on the light door at the other end of the axis, framed in the central leaden aperture—somehow the moment had a certain completeness, or peace.

Silence and the Ion Wind was innately awesome. One reviewer called it a Gothic cathedral of the interior; another, “a space-age abstraction of some ancient ceremonial burial place.”17 It seemed filled with phantom presences from mythology, like the tombs in the Valley of the Kings west of Luxor, or the hall of initiation at Eleusis, or the dark chamber of the third act of Mozart’s Magic Flute. Like those other sites, it was a kind of architectural-iconic allegory of the alchemical process, as one walked from leaden wall to golden room, from darkness to light, from speech to silence. In this sense the piece had much in common with Stations of the Cross and related religious icon complexes meant to be walked through with a special focus of attention. Mystery initiations usually feature a symbolic death and rebirth, and here too the funereal connotations were present, with their promise of fleeing through the crack of time into a stronger force flow of the universe.

Such analogies are useful in unlocking the overall cultural coherence of the art event, which includes the artist, the work, and the world. But they are only analogies. The artwork of this type cannot confer the gift it points to. It confers its own experience, while pointing beyond itself. Silence and the Ion Wind was an imposing, lyrical homage to the mysticism of space and death-as-transformation—a grandiose unfolding of the same themes that had been present in hard kernels in the empty chair and gun of 1964.

Why is light the rosy path for both physics and art?
—Eric Orr18

In Time Shadow (Los Angeles, 1981), one opens a lead-wrapped door in a lead wall to enter a short, dark corridor insulated for silence and lined with gray scrim. Walking toward a lighted space at the other end of the corridor, one finds an empty seat in a recessed niche; the source of light is directly ahead, at eye level. One seems at first to be looking out a window, but quickly realizes that it is not a window: its skin is too smooth and sleek; and furthermore it shows only the sky. One is gazing in fact into a highly polished gold mirror which reflects upward through channels in the ceiling to the open sky. In the dark, silent space the light lies on the golden mirror with a fascinating solidity and peacefulness.19

The piece is distinctively Orr’s, and echoes aspects of many of his earlier works: Colt 45, where also one is forced to sit on a chair and gaze directly ahead; Sunrise, in which also one enters a darkened and silenced space to gaze at a phenomenon of outdoor light guided in through roof channels; and Silence and the Ion Wind, where also one approaches a lighted space with a highly polished gold surface through a dark and silent hall. In fact, this series of installations is both extremely coherent in itself and unique in the space-light tradition, which has been so concerned with shifting our perceptual flow through a kind of primer of skepticism.

The guy who was the shaman . . . he’s called the doctor too, you see. The artist had a much bigger job then. The guy who does the stuff on the walls [in shamanic cultures] is probably also the guy you go to when you’re sick.
—Eric Orr20

Orr is attempting something ambitious and less likely to be achieved than skeptical insight: spaces which permanently alter the visitor in a therapeutic direction, like a shaman’s isolation hut, or some mad scientist’s box in a movie, or Wilhelm Reich’s Orgone accumulator (which once impressed Orr greatly). Similarly the shaman’s art objects and art spaces are designed as medical tools rather than museum relics. The ancient practice of “incubation,” or sleeping in a sacred place for its inherently curative power, was practiced in Egypt at least as early as the 15th century B.C.; transformative withdrawal into a power spot, often a cave, is attributed to Pythagoras, Epimenides, and many other subshamanic figures.21 The Tibetan Buddhist tradition in fact includes a practice called “space therapy,” in which the patient is put into a room of a certain shape (five shapes are used) and while in the room maintains a certain posture.22 (Orr’s spaces, too, often enforce posture: standing up only, in the gold room of Ion Wind; sitting down only, in Time Shadow; there is a strong tendency to lie down in Sunrise.)

At the very least, Orr’s poetically evocative spaces provide an esthetic pleasure and at the same time return us to ourselves as directly as does a solitary dark cell (whether in a jail or a monastery), but more gently. While radically intimate, the spaces are expansive and inviting; they shimmer with suggestions of noble antiquity from the intuitive unpacking of their cultural archeology which the visitor’s mind performs at once and automatically.

I want to create a cultural sign as simple and influential as the zero.

I want to get the sense of void inside an object.
—Eric Orr23

Orr’s wall pieces had always hinted at secret spaces—the leaden windows and doors that open into tidal depositions of radioactive change, the dissolution pieces that point at the uncertain boundary between form and chaos. Other pieces contain voids directly: elegantly crafted square holes installed in wall or ceiling which, like some of Turrell’s work, play with the depth/flatness dialectic while focusing attention on emptiness. Still others are narrow slits installed vertically in walls in sheets of naval bronze (9 by 88 inches); brought directly into one’s home or work space, these create tiny laboratory situations for the study of light, altering the ambience with subtle and often surprising effects which vary with setting, climate, and time of day.

Blue Void (Los Angeles, 1981) was a black granite slab installed high up in a wall with a nearly square hole at the top opening onto the sky. Daylight flowed brilliantly over the edges and corners of the frame and locked one’s gaze on the bright emptiness of the distant sky—a “piece” of infinity framed in granite as an icon of itself. At the same time, the Egyptian references (granite, vision directed through sighting holes or channels, the sky as destination) while muted, swim vaguely in the viewer’s consciousness.

Double Vision (Los Angeles, 1981) is an enclosed void about 8 by 8 by 12 feet, with a skylight overhead which has been covered with a blue gel. The inner corners of the space are rounded and all inner surface painted a sky blue. Two eye-level square windows or “holes” face each other in opposite walls, one framed in alabaster.24 While walking around this “void” and gazing into its “holes” from various angles “double vision” occurs. The blue interior (especially just before sunset) loses all sense of surface and draws one’s vision into a floating ocean of space-time. As the second responding frame comes into view, one sees through it to ordinary life again. There is a moment in viewing the work when time seems to reverse; chaos flips over into form, and form back into chaos. This piece, like the installed absences, is a mediation of Orr’s two streams of work. Not precisely an environment, because it cannot be entered, it possesses simultaneously both volume and suggestions of pictorial flatness (the two windows).

The most recent wall objects have effectively fused the two streams into one. Turning away from the complex shamanic recipes, Orr has concentrated on the compaction into two dimensions of the three-dimensional indefinite space of the large installations. In Mu 2 (1982) (in Japanese art a mu painting is a painting of zero) a central monochrome area of gray-white fades floatingly from top to bottom, ringed with a thin dark border and framed by two narrow, gold-leaf-covered uprights. Seated at a proper distance from Mu 2, and gazing at the central field, one finds that it is a threshold which opens gradually, but not particularly slowly, into a three-dimensional space; when the threshold appears, then opens, the viewer is in a perceptible way pulled into that space and the mind glides briefly into an alert but empty response. Mu 2, though a two-dimensional object, has the Infinity Space captured within it. For their complete compaction of the artist’s major themes into a single solution which, while extraordinarily simple, is immediately successful, these new pieces are Orr’s most powerful object-works. So complete is their formal integrity that one hardly notices that the floating white cloud in each is human bone ash and the narrow dark border a painted stripe of the artist’s blood. In this series the formal values grasp the viewer so directly and satisfyingly that the occult coding of the materials recedes into the background. Still, the conceptual point of the materials is profound: we see the void within our own bodies. The materials are drawn from the living matter of immediate human experience—from a shaman’s cave rather than a chemist’s laboratory.

Plato said that the weakness in art is that it imitates an imitation. Redress Plato by using no-questions- asked materials, e.g., fire, shadow, light, wind, radio, 8 and so forth.
—Eric Orr25

Time Switch (1977) is a match book created by Orr and artist Gus Foster, with four elements of decoration: (1) on the front, a photograph of a City of Los Angeles electrical box reading “Time Switch”; (2) on the back, the red-shift formula from Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, describing the seizures that time undergoes at the event horizon of a blackhole; (3) inside, a celestial map locating Cygnus X-1,the official directional pointer for the first black hole discovered; (4) advice from the makers: “You can’t get there from here.”

Like the doors and windows of lead, the doors of light or shadow, and the voids, this piece points toward a journey and arrival that cannot be experienced in the body, or at least not in the normal sensory range. Science and mythology mingle as the black hole becomes an instantiation of Martin Heidegger’s “open center” which “encircles all that is, as does the nothing, which we scarcely know.”26 And this piece, like the dry-ice works of earlier years, has its own immolation built in, as its fire burns across thresholds and leaves only a negative presence at the open center.

Art works of fire initiate out-of-body experiences.
–Eric Orr27

Somewhat later, fire became a primary element in Orr’s art as he continued to seek materials that were basic to life. Fire as Prime Matter (Claremont, California, 1981) was a column of fire rising from a ploughed field to a height of about 12 feet. Prime Matter (Los Angeles, 1981) was an upright girder with vertical ranks of gas and water nozzles; a sheet of flame was produced in the center of a cloud of mist, the elements mutually annihilating one another in a creative union. These and related works attempt to locate art in natural experience—an electrical storm, a grove by a waterfall, a sunrise, the lighting of a cigarette, the threat and invitation of death—rather than in the specially crafted object sheltered (and isolated) in a museum.

See, I think art’s going to grow up eventually and we’re not going to have so much of the dealing with special objects. It’ll be more like an appreciation of what’s here . . . I think it definitely, maybe, will eventually get to the way you look at things rather than the things themselves. . . .

Does transient afternoon light on the wall look better than art?
—Eric Orr28

If art consists in the way of experiencing rather than the type of object experienced, then the artist-shaman’s job is not to create art objects but to cleanse perceptual equipment or attitudes; at the very least, to create a suspension of past and future awareness which wipes out the viewer’s systems of memory and expectation and presents a glimpse of the here-and-now shining in its implacable factuality.

It seems obvious that the maximum level of this artist’s ambition is unlikely to be achieved. Nevertheless, the intention is integral to the work, as Orr clearly perceives. It is in fact a (conceptual) material in the work. Anthropologists have observed that the shaman generally believes his own magic sincerely at the same time when he is obviously aware of his own sleight of hand. This type of pious repression is, along with other elements, essential to the authentic shamanic performance. That is, the shaman purveys this intentionality itself, along with his other wares, to the audience, as an actual substance. Something similar is the case with Orr’s art.

In this sense Orr’s work, like much work that has not been at the forefront of attention in recent years (but which is perhaps more interesting than much of that which has), lacks the cold sanity of the Modern. But of course the classical Modern is long gone now; it is just another stratum of cultural archeology now. Ars brevis, vita longa.

How long will we suffer for modern art?
—Eric Orr29

Orr’s current projects include: a luminous gold infinity space; a room of fire opening at the top to a rectangle of open sky; a déjà vu space, in which various manipulations of the visitor’s situation will create the distinct feeling of having been there before; a quaking-tree work, in which a line of trees (gingko or some other delicate leaf) will be planted to respond, throughout their growing period and their maturity, to existing ambient winds, which will be channeled in esthetically devised directions by an architectural “wind lens.”

Finally Orr’s art, though rooted in the most fundamental human past, points with a kind of wild enthusiasm toward the future. He has expanded his primary modes and themes through the most varied expressions, attempting to link the art realm more directly with culture in general. This path has led, and will lead, into terrain not previously conquered by art. As Orr expresses it:

The future of art depends on artists not copying art, but finding it.30

Thomas McEvilley is a professor at the Institute for the Arts, Rice University.



1. Eric Orr and Kent Hodgetts, “Safe Food for Tigers,” Mt. Adams Review (Cincinnati, Ohio) May–June 1964, pp. 21–22; conversation with author.

2. Conversation with author.

3. Made in collaboration with Judy Gerowitz (Judy Chicago) and Lloyd Hamrol.

4. Statement prepared for 1982 Documenta: statement to accompany the exhibition of Double Vision at the Lonnie Gans Gallery, Venice, California, 1981.

5. R. T. Rundle Clark, Myth and Symbol in Ancient Egypt, London: Thames and Hudson, 1959, p. 141.

6. Rundle Clark, p. 145.

7. Statement prepared for 1982 Documents.

8. Cited by Giorgio de Santillana, Prologue to Parmenides, Cincinnati: University of Cincinnati, 1964, p. 24.

9. See, e.g., Alexandre Piankoff, ed., Egyptian Religious Texts and Representations, vol. 1, The Tomb of Ramesses VI, New York: Pantheon Books for the Bollingen Foundation, 1954; and vol. 3, Mythological Papyri, New York: Pantheon Books for the Bollingen Foundation. 1957.

10. Typed transcript of tape-recorded conversation between Eric Orr, Ron Cooper, and Larry Bell, Taos, New Mexico, January 3,1982.

11. The locus classicus is Bhadantacariya Buddhaghosa, Visuddhimagga: Path of Purification, third edition, Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society, 1975, pp. 354–360.

12. Conversations with author.

13. See Judith Wechsler, ed., On Aesthetics in Science, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1981, on Henri Poincaré and other scientists who have emphasized esthetic elements in both procedures and results.

14. Statement prepared for 1982 Documents.

15. Conversation with Cooper and Bell.

16. Statement for Double Vision; statement prepared for 1982 Documenta.

17. Christopher Knight in the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, November 23, 1980, and William Wilson in the Los Angeles Times, December 5, 1980.

18. Statement prepared for 1982 Documenta.

19. This installation is still in place, at the time of writing, in the Neil G. Ovsey Gallery, Los Angeles.

20. Conversation with Cooper and Bell.

21. See, e.g., E. R. Dodds, The Greeks and the Irrational, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1951, p. 100.

22. Chogyam Trungpa, “Space Therapy.” The Middle Way, Journal of the Buddhist Society 50:3 (November 1975), pp. 107–111, and unpublished material by the same author.

23. Conversations with author.

24. This installation is still in place, at the time of writing, in the Lonnie Gans Gallery, Venice, California.

25. Statement prepared for 1982 Documenta.

26. Martin Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art,” in D. F. Krell, ed., Martin Heidegger, Basic Writings, New York: Harper and Row. 1977. p. 175.

27. Statement prepared for 1982 Documenta.

28. Conversation with Cooper and Bell: statement prepared for 1982 Documenta.

29. Statement prepared for 1982 Documenta.

30. Statement prepared for 1982 Documenta.