PRINT November 1988


TONY TASSET’S SCULPTURE REPEATEDLY materializes the differences between his own works and the historical models he has chosen for his inheritance. Hirsch Perlman’s photographs analyze the differences between the visual and the linguistic processes by which we come to understandModernist architecture, invoking “the possibility of an endless manipulation of the grammar and the syntax of architectural signs.”1 Both artists comment on the historical, cultural, and commercial institutions that contain their and their predecessors’ work. Tasset transforms these institutions into ideal containers; Perlman translates them into ideological frames of reference. Tasset builds soft bodies around the skeletons of Minimalism’s steely boxes,while Perlman constructs visual and textual allegories for a reading of the places of Modernist architecture.

Self-critical and self-conscious, these artists have benefited from a problematic of doubt: whether to try to salvage Modernism’s political and esthetic principles, or to abandon them for the relatively resigned post-Modern agendas. In its discourse of appropriation and quotation, their work shares affinities with various neos of post-Modernism, but their renovations and revivals invest in Modernism in a particularly cerebral and pragmatic way. They take Modernism as a readymade, a corpus to be examined from a distance, and they translate its representations into allegorical texts and rhetorical models. Unable to suspend enough disbelief to fly backward into the future like Walter Benjamin’s by-now-exhausted Angel of History, Perlman and Tasset produce work that resides on a dull edge.

The work of these artists addresses two particular attitudes and styles through which the strands of Modernism have unraveled into post-Modernism—Minimalism and Conceptualism, apogees of cool, self-reflexive art practices. Conceptualist language is an active precedent for Perlman and Tasset. They are also influenced by Minimalism’s logic of geometric seriality, proceeding by repetition and difference, or repetition with difference. And just as Minimalism’s reduction of embellishment called upon viewers mentally to animate its fabricated objects, seducing them into a theatrical contact with the work ,2 so these Chicago artists ask their audience to construct its own position in reading their art, by a similar process of implication and absorption. This work depends on its viewers’ ability to recognize, and to misrecognize, the models to which it refers; to paraphrase the literary critic Barbara Johnson, it “gives them more to do.”

Perlman’s photographs distance meaning, forcing an audience to read between the lines for clues and signals in images whose subjects are recognizable but whose purpose is obscure. They openly confess their inability to communicate resemblance or identity, and so admit their deconstructive role. Perlman takes pictures of symmetry, slippage, and redundancy. Although he is fluent in the theory of literary criticism, one resists placing him in that category of artists whose work is obedient to theoretical recipes or scripts: his approach is admittedly academic, but his use of the dictionary, or of the archives of architectural history, is not so different from the way other artists use the museum. His work has the aura of Joseph Kosuth (definitions as objects), Lawrence Weiner (language as sculpture), and Michael Asher (concealment as revelation). Johnson has provided an analogy for the sort of complex interpretative response Perlman wants to provoke in his visual texts:

By seeing interpretation itself as a fiction-making activity, deconstruction has both reversed and displaced the narrative categories of “showing” and “telling,” mimesis and diegesis. . . . deconstruction considers anything the text says about itself to be another fiction, an allegory of the reading process. Hence, the privilege traditionally granted to showing over telling is reversed: "telling” becomes a more sophisticated form of “showing,” in which what is “shown” is the breakdown of the show/tell distinction. Far from doing the reader’s work for her, the text’s self-commentary only gives the reader more to do. . . . [Thus] a text subverts the possibility of any authoritative reading by inscribing the reader’s strategies into its own structure. . . .3

When Perlman attaches his generic-looking gray photos of Midwestern landscapes to matching-gray shelves or lecterns, he superimposes the depth of a visual (perceptual) field onto flat surfaces that are places for reading, for signification. Perlman has attached landscapes to curving sheets of Mylar, and has sloped photographs on shelves against the wall, emphasizing their perceptual and conceptual instability, making literal their slippage. Other photographs are printed fairly small on the lower third of large sheets of paper, as if they were captions for the blank spaces above. The scenic becomes signifier; the designation or definition becomes the image, underscoring the critical difference between reading and seeing.

A key piece, from 1987, for the reading of Perlman’s landscape is a full-size line drawing or diagram of a lectern, taken from a dictionary. Leaning against the wall, it represents a place for the viewer to read, speak, talk back, but the image is set a little too high for any of these functions—and, of course, it is flat, and could support no book. Even though the picture describes something clear and recognizable, the relationship between it and the spectator is made contradictory and distanced. An invitation is offered and immediately withdrawn. The lectern becomes the initial point of a narrative that shows but does not tell.

Perlman’s images generally operate this way, calling attention to themselves as figures other than representations, growing unapproachable, uncomfortable, and cryptic, despite their appearance of clarity and often casual positioning. For the artist, this acknowledgment of the discontinuity and abstraction of illusory reality becomes allegorical: it stands for a performance that is merely possible, expected but absent. The nature of reading folds over into nature as reading. Meanings wander and are unstable.

Perlman’s works from 1987 alternately take on the public sites of Modernist architecture and show us casual, modest images of Modernist places for reading, writing, and work. Some of these photographs are reproduced from architectural histories, others the artist takes himself. One enlargement is cropped around a Gerrit Rietveld chair at a desk; another is a sun-filled interior by Walter Gropius. On the lower portion of a picture of the unadorned, symmetrical facade of Adolf Loos’ Steiner House, 1910, in Vienna, a structure often illustrated in architectural histories, Perlman inscribes a rectangular bracket, as if to mark the place of an absent verbal inscription that would locate or explain the mute architecture. No further caption or title identifies the building. Perlman’s re-representation criticizes and undermines the conventional textual and visual instruments by which we learn about and discuss Modernist or any other architecture. The critique addresses not so much the ideology of the texts we read as the relationship of language to image, and the contemporary status of the Modernist heritage.

Some of Perlman’s works are enlargements of casual musings that locate the subjectivity of master Modernist architects whose mission was innately public—the creation of buildings that embodied a social and political program. He may magnify a small sketch—really a doodle—by Rietveld, for example, of a desk that looks like a cartoon bathtub, and in another piece he presents a pair of enlargements of a small Mies van der Rohe sketch: two easy chairs flanking a fireplace. Both works include empty spaces for captions, suggesting not only that the designation and inscription of these or any subjects must always remain incomplete, but also that the subjectivity, and the full understanding, of Modernism are lost in its documentation. The humbleness of these sketches is a poignant reminder of the failure of Modernism’s utopian vision.

Sometimes it seems that Perlman is asking just how slight a change constitutes difference, or how difficult it is to locate the precise point when difference begins. The black and white tonalities of the two Mies reproductions, for example, are different in each panel of the pair, and Perlman has a habit of making series and editions of two, showing the same images twice but ever so slightly slipped apart from each other. The viewer almost automatically compares the images to determine their difference, but is also made aware of the power of copies to mystify and distance rather than clarify. When the copies in question show standard icons of architectural history, the effect is to interrogate the processes by which that supposedly objective history is transmitted. More broadly, we bump against the frustrations and inadequacies of representation.

Enlarged so that the mark of the printing screen is visible, the photographs from books are obvious translations, like photos of memories. They are reticent images, reminding us of places where Modern architects sat and worked. Perlman’s photographic pieces refer to and evoke the romantic history of Modernist architecture. Documents of other documents, fragments of other pictures of other times, the images are cropped to highlight, albeit quietly and subtly, the emptiness of those Rietveld chairs, the vacancy of the windows in a Loos facade. Making a series of his own prints of a kind of canon of Modernist Chicago architecture—Mies’ 1956 Crown Hall, at the Illinois Institute of Technology, for example, which embodies Modern thought both as architecture and as educational institution—Perlman presents his images casually, in an imperfect grid, say, to suggest a deferral of the canon, a lack of closure, a questioning of Modernism’s vitality. His work evokes a nostalgia for the ideal place or language of architectural memory, and casts that historical place as an ambivalent, elusive moment of unrealized promises, of events that have since evaporated into photographic and allegorical traces.

Interestingly, Perlman contradicts his own restraint and economy when he presents his purposeful illegibility in carefully crafted white-lacquered frames, by his own standards rather aggressive and overbearing. These read as reconstructions of Modernist frames—as figures for Modernism. Their elegant detailing, and their precise calculations of proportions and materials, suggest their significance to Perlman. The frames, which he designs, are not stylized. Protruding from the wall, they link the architectural context to the image of Modernism they contain. They exist as both part of and supplement to the object framed, and, like all frames, they separate interior from exterior, the valuable (art) from everything else. Like the Conceptualists and the Minimalists, Perlman makes his work in his head; his frames are his architectural signature, but they are made by fabricators. They are fetishes apostrophizing their own presence and nature rather than their cryptic, fragmentary contents.

The viewers of Perlman’s work are asked to locate their own patterns of reading, to become self-conscious as readers—to register the difference between the ordinary present and the “presence” of the present, the present as an element of awareness. In a sense, Perlman’s subjects are his readers and their responses, and thus his discourse expands to include its context, its architectural setting and historical precedents. At the entrance to a Perlman installation this year, a life-size representation of a door lay on its side, clearly proposing that in going on to the show one was entering a world turned askew. Inside, a framed photograph showed two manila envelopes floating sideways and displaying contours that rhymed with the detailing of the columns in the exhibition space. A photo from 1987 is an image of vertically stacked twin blank envelopes, which are metaphors for architectural containers, and for frames, and for all the slippages between what represents and what is represented. Deconstructionists such as Jacques Derrida have written of letters and messages that never arrive, but Perlman’s modest white sheaths at least have been re-presented. A possible reading is that Modernism, having arrived, is misplaced over and over again in the works of artists such as Perlman and Tasset, and also of Haim Steinbach, Jeff Koons, Barbara Kruger, Sherrie Levine, and Peter Halley.

Perlman explores the relationship of real to imagined or conceptual space—and, more important, the area between—in a 1988 work that juxtaposes large photographs of rooms separated by history and epistemology. An enlargement showing part of a room in Stonborough House, Vienna, designed in 1926–28 by Ludwig Wittgenstein, carries a deadpan, cryptic inscription/prescription across its top border: “The doors are much higher than the average size.” Whether or not one recognizes the room as Wittgenstein’s, the spatial discrepancy is apparent. Similarly unsettling is the authoritative, judgmental nuance of the inscription. The image is juxtaposed with a smaller photograph of a piece by Gordon Matta-Clark in which the walls of an empty room have been sliced into sections through deep cuts. Perlman pairs these differences and misproportions in a linguistic philosopher’s Modern monument and a Conceptual artist’s literal deconstruction.

For his exhibition at the Renaissance Society, Chicago, this fall, Perlman again “reads” Stonborough House. Other artists, notably Günther Förg, have also used images of this architectural monument, but Perlman “inhabits” the home differently. Drawing on Wittgenstein’s discussion of linguistic and pictorial representation, he combines texts from Bernhard Leitner’s descriptive history of the house4 with images of other Modernist icons—Mies’ Haus Lange and Haus Esters, 1928, in Krefeld, for example, two homes today preserved as museums. Thus unframed text panels representing a particular Modern interior are paired with framed color photographs of the exteriors of other Modernist dwellings and institutions. Juxtaposing different modes of presenting interiors and exteriors, private homes and public institutions, recollections of the past and presentations of the present, Perlman displaces the sequence of reading. He casts the pictures of architecture in history books as pictures of the language of canonization, and makes his audience self-conscious of how its own reading of space is permeated by the rhetoric and allegories of Modernism. Cut loose from direct reference, the captions from the Leitner book could apply equally to the blank spaces of the large, empty panels in which they appear, the adjoining photographs, and the surrounding architecture. The exposed raw edges of the panels themselves—honeycomb board sandwiched between white sheets of Sintra, plastic PVC—suggest that they too might have been cut from the context of a wall. Thus the installation intersects Wittgenstein’s space with the structure of the Renaissance Society (where exhibitions have ranged from Henri Matisse to Daniel Buren and Dan Graham), and also, through Perlman’s own Polaroids, with other Modernist monuments by Loos, Le Corbusier, and Mies. Enlarged and reprinted, the photographs become velvety, atmospheric, and odd, at the same time that the multiple reproductions shown tend to demythologize both their subjects and the process of dissemination in which they form a part.

Perlman’s interests in frames of references and containment are physically realized in this ambitious installation, in which he alters the architecture by adding walls and doors, and by slightly realigning one 26-foot-long wall to create a diagonal that breaks the grid of the gallery’s spatial organization. In this latest work, Perlman is the reader rather than the author of a complex network of spatial, visual, and textual relationships. No longer explanatory, the Leitner captions instantly become figural; they are also footnoted, underscoring their relationship to other references. Though they describe interiors, in one of their dimensions they seem to refer to photographs of exteriors, establishing a hypothetical space whose indeterminacy makes demands on the audience’s response. The simple typeface, Gill Sans, was designed in 1928–30, in the same period as the Modernist icons photographed, adding a typographic element to the semantic and rhetorical play. One enters the installation through a vestibule whose seven doors and simple iron latches broadcast architectural adjustment. A space of multiple entries and exits, it is the mediating boundary of a dialectic of representation and reality, text, image, and architecture.

The thickening frames of Perlman’s photographs are paralleled in Tasset’s fleshing out of Minimalist skeletons or containers. Tasset is more substantial in his inspection of Modern models: although he refuses to deliver authoritative meaning, he produces authoritative objects. Elaborating on his “Domestic Abstractions” series, 1986–88, of framed sections of animal hides, his newest pieces extend the high moments of Minimalism. Sometimes they also become relics in museum cases, both deferring and enacting the death of (Modern) art through museum packaging. Tasset once worked in a commercial gallery, where he installed objects by Donald Judd and assisted in the drawing of Sol LeWitt murals. He recuperates the theatricality of Minimalism in his own installations, repeating some of the structures of his predecessors’ art, but refusing their authority. Where Koons’ work depends upon hysterical shifts among kitsch, art, and fetish, and Steinbach’s upon spectacle, Tasset is relatively comfortable with the presentation of “high” art, if not with its promise. In its self-conscious repetition of a particular recent style, his work recalls Halley’s, but he enlists no theory as justification. These witty renovations may be closer to mannerism than to simulation.

In 1986, Tasset and the artist Jeanne Dunning organized an exhibition at the Randolph Street Gallery, Chicago, whose premise, in Dunning’s words, was that “the avant-garde’s practice of seeking the new in that which opposed convention was self-defeating: the new was necessarily disseminated and commodified, thus rendering it conventional. This repeated dulling of the cutting edge has led to a recognition that art will always operate within convention; specific conventions are escaped only to be replaced by others.” Tasset has an intuitive understanding of the social dynamics at play in the history-making process of commodification to which we expose the objects we call art. Rather than directly challenging that process through an attempt to devise objects it will be unable to absorb, he explores it from within. His products are negotiated in between the pressures of patronage and artistic imagination.

In the “Product Paintings” series from 1985, Tasset matched the name of a color to a mass-produced material—“sunshine,” for example, to a sheet of yellow plastic—which then became the surface of a work. The exaggeratedly deep bevels of the frames make them almost cartoonish in appearance. Altered readymades, these pieces are deliberately dumb one-liners, whose serial expansion into many colors and surfaces wryly acknowledges Modernism’s definition of the meaning of a work through the material of which it is made, marrying tactility to opticality. The idea of the bankruptcy of the authentic is also raised, though in so baldly obvious a way that theoretical elaboration of it seems preempted.

Tasset’s first “Domestic Abstraction” is a framed rectangle not of canvas but of cowhide, which happens to upholster the Corbu chaise longue of collectors in whose home Tasset once installed a piece. The distance between interior decoration and art is bridged though not effaced. Works such as this aggressively impinge upon multiple contexts, art-historical, social, and economic, in an extension of Daniel Buren’s critique of the exhibition space into the role and home of the collector. But Tasset has also explored the material and metaphoric potential of animal skins. His media allow him to comment not only on expenditure, preciousness, and commodity fetishes, but also on the appearance of painting, and on the role of the painter. In 1986, he began a group of works that use domestic skins to question the culture’s mythology of the artist as a kind of tamed noble savage. Through strategic choices of leather and fur, he composed works that look like more tactile, sensuous versions of paintings by Hans Hofmann and Cy Twombly. Other pieces, amorphous, poetic translations, suggest the vast horizons and swirling landscapes of Turner. Like certain of Perlman’s works, they confuse deep space with surface in a recapitulation of an old Modernist debate.

Some of Tasset’s “paintings” seem more original than ersatz. Those made from the black-and-white patterns of zebra skin conceptually acknowledge a wealthy, fashionable market, but they also seem animated by the artist’s desire to make objects with a visual power of their own. The most recent “Domestic Abstractions” frame dark, glossy, rich-looking fur patterns closely evocative of bodies, not only our own but also those from which they were stripped. The recognition of the corporeal shapes of these animals who have lost their skins shifts our response away from the comparatively objective one in which we relate the works to art history, and toward the body, and an acknowledgment of our participation in a system in which these relics of living creatures become commodities, fabrics, upholstery, art.

Any necrophilic associations in these hides are exposed more overtly in works such as Comfortable Abstraction (Eight-Part Button Variation in White), 1988. Here each of a group of elements differs from the other in the placement of buttons—in the middle, along the edge, at the corners—that slightly pucker the leather, making it evocative of flesh or clouds. Seductive, abstract, and fluffy, unframed white cushions mounted on a wall create a contemplative atmosphere. They are fleshy, practical versions of classic American models of Minimalism, references to Robert Ryman’s paintings or Judd’s boxes, and they hover between homage and an inverse, vampiric desire to keep their models going and alive‚—inverse, because those works are already embalmed in the museum. Systematically continuing this move toward three dimensions, and shifting his focus from the private home to the grander public scene, Tasset has begun focusing on the benches that museums position before the paintings in their collections. Usually austere objects, almost as geometric and unindividuated as a Minimalist box, in Tasset’s work they are upholstered in soft leather and punctuated with buttons—Minimalism made comfortable. Tasset also contains the benches under Plexiglas cases, and gives them titles. Like a frame, the vitrine makes the bench art, limiting its functional value and amending its meaning. Pedestals are similarly fetishized. The effect is of a kind of petrifaction.

Tasset’s constant invention of systems both recalls and reduces the processes of Minimalism, as well as its forms and strategies of theatricality. Emphasizing procedures that conform to a certain logic as a substitute for the psychological motivation of expressionist art, he masks subjectivity; like the objects of his Minimalist forebears, his sculpture is fabricated for him by others. The perfectly crafted frames of the wall pieces are themselves a logical system, an instrument to identify and so to domesticate art, literally framing nature as culture. As with Perlman, they have a consistent significance in Tasset’s work. And he also uses primary colors, mathematical sequences, and geometric variations, subjecting the bench in Bench Progression, 1987, for example, to facture in a calculated series of sizes, from a perfect cube to a slice. Often the first pieces of a series refer to a precedent: the four colors of Cushion Variation, 1986, mounted on the wall, recall the colors of LeWitt murals, and in Bench Stack, 1987, three rectangular benches, covered in red, yellow, and blue leather, are arranged one above the other on the wall like a Judd. Tasset showcases the intellectual and ideological systems of Minimalism in juicier versions that move smoothly into the collector’s home, camouflaged as expensive furniture. But he also fills these systems with extraesthetic connotation.

Recent variations are becoming formally more simple, with each piece more complex and complete in itself, more self-reflexive, so that the initial “looks like” response is amplified into a more intense interaction with the art object on its own terms. In a 1988 exhibition devoted to the influence of Richard Artschwager, for example, Tasset orchestrated a chair balancing an upholstered panel painting. His critique of and commentary on his predecessors is tempered by his own estheticizing impulses—he too, after all, makes objects that rock on the boundaries between furniture, art, and architecture. But his user-friendly Minimalism illuminates at least one system that those original containers and cages could only hint at: “Trying to make commodities that look like a Donald Judd,” as Tasset says, his work reiterates the assimilation and demystification of most art by the commercial system.

Like the humor of Vito Acconci, Bruce Nauman, and Richard Prince, Tasset’s jokes can be a bit cruel to his models and patrons. Combining irreverence with elegance and serious luxury, the artist loves Minimalism to death. A new work, Open Sculpture Bench, 1988, transforms the materials and meanings of Judd boxes into an inverted wooden hassock cushioned with leather upholstery, and it is unnerving to peer into this object’s dark, sensuous red interior. The blatancy of the precious surfaces and of the desire for material pleasures is so straightforward that any Freudian reading seems unnecessary and after-the-fact. Although he retains the glamor of his models, Tasset’s incorporation of different materials and intentions produces sculpture suggestive of the airless comfort of the coffin. Many of his pieces are scaled to human proportions, including Display Sculpture (With Leaning Plank), 1988, a John McCracken-type slab wrapped in maroon suede and encased vertically, like an Egyptian mummy. With Koons’ “Vacuum Cleaners,” 1981–87, it invokes Minimalism’s tomb.

Tasset has developed a series called “Display Sculptures,” geometric variations on a cube, some mounted on pedestals, some in wooden cases installed on the wall. These dark green wedges resemble Monopoly-game houses and architectural models—symbolic stand-ins for property—as well as the velvet mounts on which jewelry is displayed. Art is replaced by its support. Of course the forms and the mathematical progression also belong to a geometric Minimalist syntax, but this is an illustration of one of the inherent paradoxes of seriality: repetition can be as obsessive as ordered, as regurgative as systematic. By emphasizing the limitless possibilities of mathematical variation, Tasset undermines his systems’ objectivity. One is reminded of Derrida’s observation that “serial practice is pushing the putting-to-death of the paradigm or the downfall of the model.”5

By representing Minimalist precedents as a system of models, Tasset suggests that they have lost their ability to signify as anything more than historical examples. Thus he encases them, with respectful skepticism, as art for art’s sake. Wishing to inhabit the empty spaces of Minimalism but unable to assume their politics, he can at least update and renovate their ambitious agendas, though he alters their meaning in doing so. Tasset’s objects are motivated by desire. Refusing to give up the possibilities of Modernism, he memorializes some of them in clear boxes, like splinters of the true cross, to be admired, even if no faith survives in their miraculous capacity. Tracing the transgressive steps of Marcel Duchamp, Tasset’s work will be recontextualized in institutions, alongside the history to which it refers. Like Perlman, Tasset questions the benefits of Modernism; both artists ask their audience to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Judith Russi Kirshner is a critic who teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.



1. Manfredo Tafuri, “L’ architecture dans le boudoir,” in The Sphere and the Labyrinth: Avant-Gardes and Architecture from Piranesi to the 1970s, trans. Pellegrino d’Acierno and Robert Connolly, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1987, p. 269.

2. See Michael Fried, “Art and Objecthood,” Artforum V no. 10, Summer 1967, pp. 12–23.

3. Barbara Johnson, “Rigorous Unreliability,” A World of Difference, Baltimore and London: the Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987, pp. 18–19.

4. Bernhard Leitner, The Architecture of Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Documentation, New York: New York University Press, 1976.

5. Jacques Derrida, The Truth in Painting, trans. Geoff Bennington and Ian McLeod, Chicago and London: the University of Chicago Press, 1987, p. 205.