PRINT November 1997


Douglas Huebler

I WAS INTRODUCED TO Doug Huebler in 1968 by Seth Siegelaub, a soon-to-be former dealer who at the time was showing Robert Barry’s and Lawrence Weiner’s paintings and the work of a few others as well as Doug’s Formica sculptures (as these artists’ work changed, so did the nature of Seth’s activity). Doug had strength, grace, and a kind of wizened humility, all qualities that I, at twenty-three, frankly lacked. He also had maturity—when I was born in 1945, Doug was serving as a sergeant in the US Marine Corps. The image of him as a Marine fit in with the strong impression he made physically. He had an actor’s good looks and a deep voice that matched his convictions, which were, paradoxically, spoken in a somewhat hesitant way.

We had a curious relationship. On the one hand, I was the nasty kid and Doug was the steady adult, then with three children, and dedicated teacher. Yet he had an almost naïve curiosity about and distance from the practical process of getting art into the world. His ambition was not of the normal variety. Perhaps because so much of his “work experience” as an artist-teacher began and ended in discourse, the struggles that a life in the New York art world entailed may have seemed, well, vulgarly secular and conducive to a jaded attitude he wanted nothing to do with. Although I was much younger, he made me feel like the more seasoned art-world player. As a result, our expected roles often seemed reversed. Although he often visited New York, Doug was actually never a part of the New York art world. At the same time, this outsider status was what made his company enjoyable: for him, things were simply too important to become at all cynical about them.

Like many of the best artists in this century, Doug’s life was organized around his teaching. When I met him, he was teaching at Bradford Junior College just outside of Boston; he later taught at Harvard and for more than twenty years at CalArts, where he was dean of the School of Art and influenced a generation of artists from Mike Kelley to Christopher Williams. As a teacher, it seemed, he had seen it all, and it gave him a grounding. Artists who don’t teach, I’ve always thought, lack a certain rigor when evaluating their own thoughts and works, which the constant scrutiny by another generation provides. Without it, one’s more private conversations about work are almost completely limited to fans, family, friends, and employees.

It was through Doug’s influence as a professor at Bradford that Seth was invited to organize an exhibition of Robert Morris’ work and mine at the school’s Laura Knox Gallery in March 1969. Morris had been responsible for works that were part of the constellation that, it seemed to me, made possible my own practice of art. I was, needless to say, honored to show with him, and it was Doug, with Seth, who had made it possible. It was also through Doug that I met Sarah Charlesworth, my cofounder of the Conceptual-art journal The Fox in the mid ’70s and companion for many years. She was a student of his at Bradford and had come to hear him in a panel discussion on Conceptual art in which I was also participating.

As difficult as it was to find a way to work with others in the context of his art, Doug managed to do so. His humanity was always present in one’s contact with him, and it informed his work to a large degree. He was always the less-dry conceptualist. Unlike some, my characterization of his work in “Art after Philosophy” (1969) as essentially too influenced by formalist sculptural concerns didn’t simply make him angry; he was first hurt, then confused that I could suggest such an apparent lack of sympathy for his project. He was right, of course; in my messianic need to write that agitprop text, essentially directed against the prescriptive conservatism of Greenberg, Fried, Krauss, et al. on behalf of the philosophical sea change I felt Conceptual art represented, I didn’t successfully conceal my “purer-than-thou” self-assessment. This was unfortunate. After all, the difference within his work—the difference between its origins and the way he reorganized work strategies—said a lot about our shared moment. In fact, he was among the first to use time and process as part of his work. One might consider Doug’s art alongside that of On Kawara or Jan Dibbets. For Kawara, the work is always personal, always referring to the story of his own existence: time is passing, with him at its concrete center. As for Dibbets, while at first it seemed that he and Doug shared many concerns, it became clear fairly quickly that they had reached similar solutions to quite divergent problems. For Dibbets, to my mind anyway, what was at stake was the limits of vision. In the best of his work, there is always a tension between the subjective experience of the viewer and the social meaning of what gets seen. By contrast, one of Doug’s earliest desires, one that goes back in fact to the Formica sculpture for which he was first known, was to do work that had “no inside or no outside.” This meant in the photo-based projects that the fictive space of the narrative—which a work employing time unavoidably constructs—had to be subverted. Doug’s work has a narrative so flat it comes without a story, without even narrative desire. Time on the table, a tableau of parts, no meaningful beginning, middle, or end, just the organizational texture of the passage of time, which naturalizes the construction. If there is a story there, it’s too big, one is too close to the screen to read it, one can make out an arm or a table, only being brought to life by each viewer’s inability to forget his or her own story.

For many of us sharing that generational ideo-space, formal concerns were strictly “presentational”; we wanted them neutral, with no more visual information/experience than the conveyance of the idea necessitated. The history of art just preceding the second half of the ’60s—Abstract Expressionism and Pop art—was for the most part something our generation no longer had any use for. It seemed at once semiotically excessive and semiotically impoverished. Although Minimal art was intellectually a kindred precursor, its “paring down” only served to emphasize the object in its reduction, keeping the conversation within narrow formal limits too easily experienced, and marketed, as a style of sculpture—even while it proclaimed to be something else. Seeing formalist art (Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski) as bankrupt—the theory always read better than the art it explained—some of us simply decided to leave that universe of formal concern altogether. So, what art looked like didn’t matter outside the ideas it was meant to serve. The point was, artists work with meaning, not forms and colors.

Doug’s work began to be shown around the same time that photographs of “land art” appeared in the galleries. As a result his photo-based location pieces were compared with such work. This is not a big surprise, of course, given that art was still seen in terms of media. It may be difficult to understand now, but the very placing of a photograph where previously only a painting had been permitted to hang had content as a gesture. What was being photographed was a much more subtle issue. And whereas “land art” was essentially a physically expanded, formal stand-in for traditional ideas of sculpture given new cultural life via photography, Doug’s work attempted to shift the area of concern to relations—relations between time and space, between the viewer and the context of the viewing as well as the kinds of meaning generated by that context. The underpinning of his work was the valuation of process, the process of documentation to represent time. He underscored this by treating the banal the same way he approached that which would suggest a more meaningful “content.” Everything was equal—there was only an approach to that world he documented, only the traces of his process. There were many things that Doug and I didn’t share, but we both understood the agenda for art as a signifying process, rather than the prevailing one of decoration or relicry; we both made art a verb, not a noun: the meaning of a work of art is completed by the viewer. With work that contained the vast variety of parts his did, its “whole” really only exists in the mind of the viewer/reader. One cannot talk about the “integrity of the art object” or, even better, the autonomy of art. The kinds of systems Doug used took one into the world, allowing virtually anything to come into play.

It is difficult to understand that Doug is no longer with us, gone in a summer that death will keep famous. The departure of someone like him certainly is that difference we experience as a passage. His contribution was singular, and his body of work says a lot about what art at the end of the twentieth century sought to achieve. Douglas Huebler, the artist and teacher, was also a father of four children who were committed to him and his work, and it will be interesting to see what this legacy will bring. One of his children is a young daughter to whom he was very attached. She needs to know that the world will appreciate her father, not just as an important artist, but as the fine person that he was.