PRINT March 2002




To the Editor:
David Joselit’s review of “Into the Light: The Projected Image in American Art 1964-1977” [Focus, January 2002] is so off the mark in some of its statements regarding the purpose and content of the exhibition that, as its curator, I feel moved to respond. Joselit’s critique concerns the success or failure of what he claims to be the making of a “history of media art.” As both the exhibition wall texts and catalogue essays clearly state, “Into the Light” is precisely not a historical survey of “media art.” It has been curated in deliberate opposition to that anachronistic concept, making instead a specific curatorial argument regarding the projected image’s role in the process-based artmaking of ’60s and ’70s post-Minimalism, with particular reference to new definitions of physical and psychological space.

Joselit’s failure to address this central argument is unfortunate, since a critique addressing the curatorial premise of “Into the Light” would have moved forward a discussion that is only just emerging, having been suppressed until recently in every book and exhibition on this period, from process to Conceptual art. The reasons for this suppression are the same as those that appear to underlie Joselit’s own reading of “Into the Light”: a profound mistrust of temporality and the resulting need to contain and critique work involving moving images within a separate category and automatically connect it to “media,” popular culture, and television. As a result, Joselit rehashes the tired argument that has echoed in the press every five years from the ’60s to the present. Every substantial exhibition involving moving images (though few of the works in this show involve video) is similarly hailed or damned as the exhibition that is going to provide the final, definitive history of the “field,” as though, once that is done, everyone can forget about moving-image works at last and finally get back to the serious business of objects.

Joselit’s conservative stance is particularly puzzling given his excellent scholarship on Duchamp, whose undermining of the object and concern for immateriality, transparency, rotation, and mechanical production provide the historical underpinnings of so many of the works in the exhibition, a fact Joselit inexplicably fails to mention. How interesting it would have been to hear his arguments regarding Duchamp’s preoccupation with the rotating machine and the body applied to Bruce Nauman’s gigantic Spinning Spheres, Robert Morris’s vertiginous Finch College Project, and Michael Snow’s Two Sides to Every Story, whose double-sided structure emerges directly out of the Large Glass. Not only are the three works profoundly linked; they were all made in direct response to Duchamp, whose work, as Joselit knows so well, was being rediscovered and reassessed during this period.

This makes even more puzzling Joselit’s assertion that the installations in “Into the Light” have been “arbitrarily arranged,” in a sequence that offers “neither a synchronic moment nor diachronic narrative.” Quite the opposite is true. There is nothing arbitrary about the encountering of Whitman, Warhol, then Jonas, each of whose installations dismantled traditional readings of film (Jonas’s piece was made at, and as a direct response to, Anthology Film Archives). The resonance between the inquiry into retinal perception by Nauman and that of Paul Sharits in the next room is palpable. The works of Dan Graham, Robert Morris, Anthony McCall, Michael Snow, Gary Hill, Mary Lucier, and Peter Campus all demonstrate the process of their own making. If this, and the overwhelming preoccupation with circularity that informs the spatial experience of most of the works in the show, does not comprise a synchronic moment, I don’t know what does. Joselit completely ignores the syncretic viewing that defined the post-Minimalist space and the breaking out of the rectilinearity of Minimalism through circularity—two strands that run through the exhibition from beginning to end.

As for the diachronic narrative Joselit seeks, it is right in front of him, in the trajectory from the earliest work by Whitman, in which the self-contained object is first punctured by the moving image, to the latest work, Campus’s aen, in which the viewer has taken the place of the woman in the shower and stands under the video camera as the single present subject.

Joselit wishes that such connections had been demonstrated by introducing history through contemporaneous works that could have demonstrated Whitman’s association with Happenings, Warhol’s associations with Pop, and Jonas’s relation to body art. But “Into the Light” is an exhibition, not a textbook. Further, to limit Whitman’s importance to his contribution to Happenings is to ignore his role within the larger art-historical picture, which includes a relationship to the collage work of Rauschenberg, the historical trajectory of film installations, the radical experiments with technology he worked on with William Klüver at EAT and in his later installations. To limit Warhol's relevance to Pop art is to completely misunderstand the context of his films. Joan Jonas’s central role in the history of body art should not eclipse the importance of film and drawing in her work.

Such didactic contextualizations, had there been room for them, would have served only to distract the viewer from the palpable physical experience of moving through spaces in which their presence, movements, and engagement folded them in as part of the piece. The delight of the “lay viewer” with which Joselit seems so preoccupied was evident in their discovery of McCall's cone of light, their rapt attention to Warhol’s unfolding double narrative, the search for the image in Simone Forti’s Striding Crawling, their hypnotic confrontation with Nauman’s spinning spheres, and the voyeuristic pleasure of encountering Whitman's showering woman and the Hitchcockian moment of red and black paint running down the drain. Numerous visitors with no previous knowledge of these works confessed to finding the pieces accessible, to their surprise. So much for the layman’s dilemma.

Joselit begins and ends his review by citing television and its vexed relationship to history. Paradoxically, given the works’ depth of inquiry into the nature of the object and perception, “Into the Light” is a classical exhibition that has no argument with history, nor any pretension to map its trajectory through aesthetic separation, but instead uses its lens to reassert our corporeal experience of space, at a moment when our relationship to materiality is in deep crisis.
—Chrissie Iles
Curator, Whitney Museum of American Art New York

David Joselit responds:
Calling for an exhibition to construct a version of history as I did in my review of “Into the Light” is not the same thing as asking for a historical survey, and just because visitors enjoyed an exhibition does not mean that it possessed a coherent and self-evident thesis. If “Into the Light” is not exclusively engaged with media art (I retain the term despite Iles’s censure), why did it focus on works made with film and video? Why not give museum-goers a chance to test the curator’s provocative and worthwhile thesis by including other kinds of process-based practices alongside those undertaken with film and video or by exploring the complex role of film as a tool in post-Minimalist oeuvres like Robert Smithson's or Gordon Matta-Clark’s? In the end, my difference with Iles is simple: I do not feel that her show made its case. But I remain glad that she brought these artworks to the Whitney, allowing debates like this one to take place in public.