PRINT November 1988


In its very style, the exposition of dialectical theory is a scandal and an abomination in terms of the rules and the corresponding tastes of the dominant language, because when it uses existing concrete concepts it is simultaneously aware of their rediscovered fluidity, their necessary destruction.
Guy Debord1

CONCEPTUAL ART IN THE 1980s has fallen victim to its own historicized dogma. Drawing upon various poststructural literary and psychoanalytic theories, most dating back to the late 1950s and early ’60s, conceptualism has ceased to question established ideological and academic values, preferring instead to either illustrate or reify them, or to authority as endorsing footnotes. History thus serves to reinforce discourse, instead of discourse dismantling history. Douglas Huebler’s conceptual project of the past 20 years has attempted to avoid such historicist tautology by deliberately scavenging itself, recycling its own time-specific propositions through a variety of dialectical insurrections. As Huebler has constantly changed and mutated his work’s esthetic and situational context—destroying its established semantic premises only to reconstitute them as fluid linguistic games—he has been able to escape the traps of closure that consistently threaten work irrevocably tied to theory.

An explanation, whatever it may be, can only be superfluous when it comes face to face with the presence of things.
Alain Robbe-Grillet2

By 1971, CONCEPTUAL ART had reached saturation point. In an overcrowded field where even once-serious painters were jumping on the dematerialization bandwagon, everyone seemed to be pointing their Nikon at the world in the name of the new dogma—documentation. Huebler, a conceptual pioneer since 1968, felt handcuffed. Having seen his dialectical strategies appropriated and trivialized to the point of inane parody, this artist’s response was to begin a project so absurdly utopian that only a masochist would dare emulate it. Thus began Variable Piece #70, (In Process) “Global”, an all-encompassing work in progress introduced by Huebler’s deadpan statement, “Throughout the remainder of the artist’s lifetime he will photographically document, to the extent of his capacity, the existence of everyone alive in order to produce the most authentic and inclusive representation of the human species that may be assembled in that manner.”3 By undertaking such an obviously impossible project, Huebler effectively outflanked his “opponents” by out-parodying the parody.

At the same time that this hyperbolic all-inclusiveness furthered Conceptualism’s attack on high Modernism’s narrow exclusivity—particularly Clement Greenberg’s artificial distinction between transcendental formalism and the dialectical materialism of real objects in the real world—it also, through a carefully articulated “production program,” entered into a ludicrous battle of wits with its own ambitions. In an addendum Huebler stipulated that “editions of this work will be periodically issued in a variety of topical modes: ‘100,000 people,’ ‘1,000,000 people,’ ‘10,000,000 people,’ ‘people personally known by the artist,’ ‘look-a-likes,’ ‘over-laps’ etc.”4

Clearly such a limitless project creates a major problem of interpretation. How and where does one enter into a work that by its very definition has no formal boundaries and seems, as Lucy Lippard once put it, to be “everything about everything”?5 If all the world is your conceptual oyster, how can a critic discern a discrete meaning? This problem must have occurred to the organizers of a survey of Huebler’s work at the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art earlier this summer.6 Curator Ronald J. Onorato refused to fall into the trap of attempting a definitive, chronological career statement. Huebler’s seminal site and location pieces of the late ’60s and early ’70s, then, were represented by a mere six works, while the rest of the exhibition was devoted to 45 manifestations of Variable Piece #70 from the 1980s. With the early pieces providing an ideological and historical context, the show wisely and successfully opted for an informal mapping of Huebler’s oeuvre, allowing the viewer to cross-reference varying approaches (structural, phenomenological, poststructural) in much the same way that the artist’s own project loosely and often hilariously circumscribes and recontextualizes its own history alongside that of the world at large.

Things are only things the same way words are only words. No thing is art! Anything, of course, may join with other things in a relationship that may be regarded as art. It is human intelligence that constructs such relationships or, put another way, produces languages.
Douglas Huebler7

LIKE JOSEPH KOSUTH, ROBERT MORRIS, Lawrence Weiner, Robert Barry, and other conceptual peers of the late 1960s, Huebler rejected an art based on the notion that its language system was an absolute. Meaning could only be found, these artists believed, in the tension that results between perception and the language employed to communicate it on the one hand, and the phenomenal world as it exists outside of human epistemology on the other. This insight offered the Conceptual artists of the time two primary methodological options.

Artists deploying an option derived largely from the early phenomenology of Maurice Merleau-Ponty concentrated on the possibilities and limitations of the creative act itself—what Robert Morris was to call “the phenomenology of making.”8 Thus writers such as Marguerite Duras and Nathalie Sarraute, as well as most Minimalists and Earthworks artists, rejecting both a priori assumptions about the work and rigid interpretations of it afterward, produced “documents” that emerged from and then returned to a semantic void, establishing their significance only in the moment of creation, in “that interaction of body and materials as they exist in a three-dimensional world.”9 As a result, meaning was to be derived purely from the phenomenological experience, not from predetermined cultural encoding.

Artists deploying a second option, epitomized by French nouveau roman writers such as Alain Robbe-Grillet, produced works that reflected the notion that subjective discourse replaces, becomes reality; produced art that, inevitably dislocated from the exterior world, would only comment upon itself and the language system that produced it.10 Thus one finds in Robbe-Grillet’s early novels—Les Gommes (The erasers, 1953), Le Voyeur (The voyeur, 1955), La Jalousie (Jealousy, 1957)—an elaborate, seemingly subjective description of the phenomenal world, yet a world radically detached from the characters’ actual perception of it. These characters’ “reality” is hamstrung by the limitations of the language used to describe it, so that the reader’s attention is deflected away from the story itself to Robbe-Grillet’s somewhat repetitive telling of it.

Heavily influenced by Robbe-Grillet’s notion that objectivity is a chimera,11 Huebler, by 1966, began producing a series of self-reflexive graphic works that pushed this structuralist rhetoric to an extreme, using text as image to create opaque informational exercises that were models of perceptual tautology. The installation that greeted the visitor in the La Jolla Museum lobby, then, a grand-scale manifestation of this early strategy, seemed utterly self-descriptive:


At first glance, Huebler appeared to be presenting a 1980s “souvenir” of a dated structural model that renders signifier and signified indistinguishable. But a closer reading revealed a sly doubling (even tripling) of texts that served to undermine the work’s seemingly hermetic tautology. The blue ground on which the words appeared proved, in fact, to be an integral part of a neighboring wall text that appeared equally self-descriptive:


All very self-explanatory, and self-contained, except that Huebler’s additional (concealed) intention was to satisfy the museum curators’ desire for an eye-catching installation, visible from the street, that would attract the passerby to the exhibition. And having done so with the first text, Huebler then drew the “more sharp-eyed observer” further into the exhibition with the second text. Huebler’s 1980 discourse, then, suggests that structural exercises may not necessarily be exclusively tautological; that in certain contexts, even the “cleanest” hermetic text might also double as seductive advertising.

. . . seeing is a “theory-laden” undertaking. Observation of x is shaped by prior knowledge of x.
Norwood Russell Hanson12

AS WE CAN SEE FROM Huebler’s slippery movement back and forth between the self-reflexive rhetoric of the past and its more problematic status in a wider dialectical discourse, he quickly recognized structuralism’s limitations as a pure perceptual model. Like that of Robbe-Grillet, and, to a degree, of Joseph Kosuth and the Art & Language group, Huebler’s work, by the late 1960s, was moving from a closed, hermetic system toward a more fluid analysis. In this he was strongly influenced by the writings of physicist Norwood Russell Hanson.

In Patterns of Discovery, an influential text for many Conceptualists, Hanson argued that visual perception is contingent upon an established cultural knowledge; that context thus dictates all interpretation. Hanson pointed to simple perceptual games to illustrate his point. Most viewers, presented with a particular outline drawing that Hanson reproduces in Patterns of Discovery, will see a bird with its beak open, and be convinced the image cannot possibly signify anything else. However, presented with the same image—but multiplied—in another illustration, the viewers will see a herd of antelopes; each open beak suddenly appears as a pair of horns, and the back of each bird’s head suddenly reads as an antelope’s mouth. The image hasn’t changed, we still “perceive” the same thing, yet the context tells us to interpret the drawing differently.13

Huebler applied similar principles to simple graphic illustrations as his basis for deconstructing cultural assumptions. Take, for example, the point placed in the exact center of a page, illustrated in the catalogue to Huebler’s 1979 retrospective in Eindhoven,14 and Huebler’s later explication of it: “In order to foreground the self-sufficiency of things—of objects—I try to change the reader’s perception of that point . . . as often as a change of the language changes anything. For example, I can say that the point is situated in the exact center of a given surface, which can be the literal truth, or that it is the ‘end of a line oriented to the plane of the surface at a 90-degree angle, and extending away from its percipient toward infinity at the speed of sound,’ etc. Both points are phenomenally the same—therefore constant—while the text, the ‘cultural,’ is fabrication, and therefore ‘variable.’ What is natural/cultural can also be said to be that which is constant/variable.”15 If we “interpret” Huebler’s dots (or his wall texts, for that matter) in the same way as we perceive Hanson’s birds and antelopes, we discover that the visual image cannot have innate meaning divorced from cultural context. For once Huebler changes the latter, the “definition” of the former inevitably collapses.

Huebler’s work in the late ’60s thus came to concern itself with the dialectical relationships and interrelationships that impinge upon and fashion perceptual experience, specifically the terms of time and/or space.16 In Location Piece #17 “Turin, Italy”, 1973, for example, Huebler arbitrarily chose a street corner suggested by, but not visible in, a photograph he’d taken from a nearby site, and then walked directly to that location. He took one picture of the street corner and left. On developing the photograph he discovered the image of a man staring directly into the camera, a man bearing an uncanny resemblance to Huebler himself. Location Piece #17 documents the entire procedure with maps, the actual photographs Huebler took, and detailed blowups of the artist and the man. Like the dot/infinite line of Huebler’s earlier graphic work, the connective meaning between this arbitrarily photographed man and the artist/photographer are dictated solely by Huebler’s specified formula. It is only within the contextual parameters of the piece itself that there is any significance. Otherwise we are simply left with a coincidence of appearance related to location. What perceptual ramifications Huebler’s “story” has, if any, is a question viewers must decide for themselves. Although the artist has set up the phenomenological framework, the viewer’s participation—his or her interpretation and extrapolation—is in fact essential in constructing the meaning of these perceptions.

Variable Piece #70 could thus be seen as a broader paradigm of the same methodology. Documenting a specific “reality” through such chance discoveries gives way to cataloguing a total “reality” by photographing everyone alive and then organizing them into the artist’s own absurdly arbitrary sociological groupings. Of course, every category can easily be circumscribed by any other, so that Huebler’s art becomes a project of never-ending information gathering and ordering, each signifier sliding neatly into the next in a syntagmatic double helix chain.

But what if language expresses as much by what is between words as by the words themselves? By that which it does not ‘say’ as by what it ‘says’? And what if, hidden in empirical language, there is a second-order language in which signs once again lead the vague life of colors, and in which significations never free themselves completely from the intercourse of signs?
—Maurice Merleau-Ponty17

BECAUSE VARIABLE PIECE #70 is all inclusive, it has allowed Huebler to incorporate a variety of intersecting narratives within its “boundaries,” as well as to utilize its cataloguing function as a springboard for other projects. The often hilarious results have ranged from a series of wall works that juxtapose photographs with printed texts and paintings, to a conceptual comic strip based on an unproduced screenplay from 1981 entitled Crocodile Tears that Huebler originally wrote following a meeting with producer/director Roger Corman. And it is Crocodile Tears—which evolved out of a Variable Piece #70 edition of 1976 featuring an FBI wanted poster of the criminal William Leslie Arnold—that has served as the catalyst for much of Huebler’s work of the 1980s. In Huebler’s screenplay, Arnold, renamed Woody Wright, is trying to kill the film’s protagonist, death-defying performance artist Jason James. Jason has blown Woody’s cover by painting, in the style of Vincent van Gogh, a likeness of the killer “as he might look today.” In a series of black and white storyboards, Huebler juxtaposes scenes from the script with photographs from the “Everyone Alive” series captioned by the artist’s habitual aphorism “Represented above is at least one person who . . . ,” followed by an unspecific cliché (or, as Huebler puts it, a “cultural readymade”), such as “ . . . is as pretty as a picture.” Huebler thus weaves through the distinctive linguistic signs of film, novel, art production, and exhibition to offer us a kaleidoscope of constants and variables that once again whimsically link the rest of the world to Huebler’s esthetic project.

Huebler serves up another seductive entry point into these narratives when, by 1983, he starts adding “fake” paintings to his wall ensembles. In Crocodile Tears II: The Great Corrector, 1983, art teacher Eric Lord takes upon himself the self-righteous task of “correcting” sublime works by Mark Rothko, Piet Mondrian, and Pablo Picasso, “showing his audience reproductions of works of art flawed by poor drawing, color, composition, etc., alongside of which he displays his version of how the work should look.” And in his “Crocodile Tears II: Buried Treasure” series, 1984, for example, character Alec Gregory heads an international group of (con) artists whose forgeries in the style of such artists as Fernand Léger, Monet, and Seurat they then pass off as long-lost masterpieces.

In the context of the wall ensembles, Eric’s corrections and Gregory’s fakes exploit painting’s acculturated aura to draw the viewer into a semantic exercise altogether more elusive. While “in real life” Huebler’s “forgeries” can be seen as an outstanding demonstration of his technical expertise, within the fictional scenario they clearly assert a triumph of reifying a literal-minded pedanticism over creative inspiration and unmediated pleasure. And though these “masterpieces” serve as the central visual focus of each ensemble, they simultaneously act as secondary signifiers in the interlocking chain of concrete signs that is Huebler’s oeuvre—for they must also be read as footnotes to a previous scenario, whether it be the Crocodile Tears screenplay, Variable Piece #70, or, by extension, life itself. For each piece to approach anything resembling completion, the viewer must fill in the semantic gaps, an impossible task given Huebler’s predilection for reconstituting his parameters without warning.

One is dealing here . . . with a sort of metonymic montage: the themes . . . are combined, not “developed.”
—Roland Barthes18

IN THIS LABYRINTHIAN, BORGESIAN UNIVERSE, Huebler forces us to treat fiction and documentation on an equal footing, while source, footnote, and label become, in effect, interchangeable with the main plot itself. One is reminded in particular of Barthes’ discussion of text and image in “The Photographic Message”: “Formerly, the image illustrated the text (made it clearer); today, the text loads the image, burdening it with a culture, a moral, an imagination. Formerly, there was reduction from text to image; today there is amplification from the one to the other.”19 Huebler’s thrusting of marginal elements—captions, footnotes, fragments of screenplay, photodocumentation—to center stage, and the lead actors—paintings, the traditional art object—to the wings, echoes Jacques Derrida’s deconstructive strategies, drawing attention to not only the spaces between signifiers, but also their corresponding absences.

Like Derrida’s, Huebler’s semantic gymnastics tend to be more playful than dryly didactic (indeed Huebler seems to be parodying the latter by pushing it to conceptual extremes). In this respect, his work seems to echo the Situationists’ subversive call to override spectacle with pure play. In the catalogue for Huebler’s 1979 Eindhoven retrospective, for example, an essay by René Denizot presents a free-form paean to play, claiming that “To play is to drop the spectacle—without fuss; let images rebound in the world; catch meaning on the rebound; inscribe present without erasing the world; describe space in the world’s inscription. To play is neither to win nor to lose; it is to live the world.”20 For an artist who grounds his work on the underlying premise of an unproduced Roger Corman–inspired movie, this seems to be a perfectly apt association.

In linguistic terms, Huebler works connotatively rather than denotatively, metonymically rather than metaphorically.21 In metonym, one sign implies another—the way smoke suggests fire, for example—creating contiguous relationships. Huebler’s photos, texts, and paintings, similarly, are incomplete, floating signifiers perpetually referring to other, equally incomplete signifiers: their traditional denotative hierarchies have been broken down in favor of this free interplay of signs. For most of his career Huebler has played on the metonyms constant/variable, natural/cultural. Because perceptual experience must be mediated through arbitrary language systems, the form of documentation is by necessity culturally encoded. “In Huebler, sociology—events in the real world—becomes a sort of phenomenological linguistics—language in the real world.”22

The identity of what is “represented” is ceaselessly deferred, the signified always displaced (for it is only a series of nominations, as in a dictionary), the analysis is endless; but this leakage, this infinity of language is precisely the picture’s system: the image is not the expression of a code, it is the variation of a work of codification; it is not the repository of a system but the generation of systems.
—Roland Barthes23

HUBLER’S “PHENOMENOLOGICAL LINGUISTICS” BECOME all the more complex when his work is presented in different contexts. The Crocodile Tears comic strips, for example, were designed to be published in the comics pages of daily newspapers,24 while the wall works and story-boards, failing their destined role as prototypes for a film, are equally at home as reproductions in catalogues and art magazines. By dismantling the components of his oeuvre into ever-changing contexts, Huebler forces constant reinterpretation, so that the works take on the characteristics of shifting information rather than concrete production by a discernible “author.”

This means that every analysis or reproduction of Huebler’s work advances the discourse one stage further, annexing critic and reader to the dialogue, so that we all become part of the dialectic. Of course we are free to interpret Huebler through theory or any other ideological premise, yet his work is hardly predicated upon it. It functions more successfully as an ideological sieve, in which received ideas stick to the framework, while contradictions pass neatly through the holes. As a result Huebler remains frustratingly and amusingly difficult to pin down, encouraging one to summarize his career as follows: “Represented above is at least one person who. . . . ” You can fill in the rest yourself.

Colin Gardner, a writer who lives in Los Angeles, is a visiting lecturer at the Art Center, College of Design, Pasadena, and the Otis Art Institute of Parsons School of Design, Los Angeles. He contributes regularly to Artforum.



1. Guy Debord, La Société du spectacle, 1967, Eng. trans. Society of the Spectacle, Detroit: Black & Red, 1977, p. 205.

2. Alain Robbe-Grillet, Snapshots and Towards a New Novel, trans. Barbara Wright, London: Calder and Boyars, 1965, p. 69.

3. Douglas Huebler, quoted in Ronald J. Onorato, Douglas Huebler, exhibition catalogue, La Jolla: La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art, 1988, frontispiece.

4. Ibid.

5. Lucy Lippard, “Douglas Huebler: everything about everything,” Artnews 71 no. 8, December 1972, pp. 29–31.

6. The exhibition ran from 27 May to 7 August 1988. It was accompanied by a catalogue that included an essay, “Douglas Huebler: A Responsibility of Forms,” by Ronald J. Onorato. In many ways the exhibition took up where Huebler’s 1979 survey at the Stedelijk VanAbbemuseum in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, left off.

7. Cited in Arthur Rose, “Douglas Huebler,” an interview, in Crocodile Tears, Los Angeles: Museum of Contemporary Art, 1984, p. 10.

8. Robert Morris, “Some Notes on the Phenomenology of Making: The Search for the Motivated,” Artforum VIII no. 8, April 1970, p. 62.

9. Ibid., p. 63.

10. For a further discussion see Charles Russell, “Toward Tautology: The Nouveau Roman and Conceptual Art,” Modern Language Notes, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, October 1976, pp. 1044–60.

11. Compare Huebler’s statement quoted at the beginning of the section, for example, to the following: “Cultural fringes (bits of psychology, ethics, metaphysics, etc.) are all the time being attached to things and making them seem less strange, more comprehensible, more reassuring. . . . But the world is neither meaningful nor absurd. It quite simply is. . . . All around us, defying our pack of animistic or domesticating adjectives, things are there.” Robbe-Grillet, Towards a New Novel, pp. 52–53.

12. Norwood Russell Hanson, Patterns of Discovery: An Inquiry into the Conceptual Foundations of Science, Cambridge: at the University Press, 1958, p. 19.

13. Ibid., p. 13.

14. Douglas Huebler, exhibition catalogue, Eindhoven: Stedelijk Van Abbemuseum, 1979.

15. Cited in Rose, p. 10.

16. See Douglas Huebler, catalogue statement, Seth Siegelaub Gallery, New York, 1969.

17. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “Indirect Language and the Voices of Silence,” Signs, trans. Richard C. McCleary, Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1964, p. 45.

18. Roland Barthes, “The Struggle with the Angel,” Image-Music-Text, trans. Stephen Heath, New York: Hill and Wang, 1977, p. 140.

19. Roland Barthes, “The Photographic Message,” in ibid., p. 26.

20. René Denizot, Douglas Huebler, Stedelijk Van Abbemuseum, n.p.
21. For further discussion of Huebler’s metonymic strategies, see Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, “Douglas Huebler’s Recent Work,” Artforum XII no. 6, February 1974, pp. 59–60.

22. Ibid., p. 59.

23. Roland Barthes, The Responsibility of Forms: Critical Essays on Music, Art and Representation, trans. Richard Howard, New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1985, p. 151. Quoted in Ronald J. Onorato, “A Responsibility of Forms,” pp. 39–40.

24. They eventually ran in the arts section of the entertainment newspaper the L.A. Weekly, 29 June through 30 August 1984. Huebler’s original intent was to allow them to rub shoulders with Doonesbury, Dennis the Menace, The Far Side, etc., so that they took on the guise of populist conceptualism. By presenting them as art, the Weekly thus defeated the object of the exercise.