PRINT Summer 2004


“I DON’T LIKE THE INCORPORATION OF THE NAMABLE IN SCULPTURE.” Carl Andre’s observation from a 1968 interview reflects on the absence of image or allusion in advanced art of the period, but it remains pithily ironic: It is one hallmark of American art between roughly 1960 and 1975 that objects and installations were attended by massive quantities of artists’ words, texts that fall across the artmaking landscape and settle like a heavy discursive drift. For one thing, artists were critics: Donald Judd reviewed dozens of exhibitions in New York galleries from 1959 to 1965 and composed several essays, such as “Specific Objects,” in which he attempted to describe and account for the changing ontology of painting and sculpture; during the late ’60s and early ’70s, Mel Bochner covered exhibitions of new art in the critical press; both Bochner and Robert Morris composed defining theoretical texts—concerning seriality and “anti-form,” for example—of post-Minimalism. But words—concrete verse (Andre), transitive verbs (Richard Serra), logical propositions (Bochner), “statements” (Lawrence Weiner), quasi-absurdist formulations (Sol LeWitt), the transgressive attenuation of banal speech (Bruce Nauman), the scientizing harangue (Robert Smithson), the magazine piece (Dan Graham)—were also often inseparable from the art itself. A proliferation of writing and other applications of language clearly distinguishes this generation. If we include avant-garde filmmakers—and considering how important film was to, say, Smithson and Serra, we probably should—the number of writers mounts even further. What does all of the activity betray? Is it a practice or a syndrome?

Above all, writing is thinking, reasoning through. Exegesis can also signify the voice of authority: By setting the discourse, the artist as critic means to situate himself in the position of preemptive arbiter of ideas. That is, running commentary can serve as a cover. “No thought exists without a sustaining support,” Bochner wrote in 1969 as an epigraph to a preparatory sketch for his inscribed wall drawing Theory of Boundaries, 1969–70, which posits the inseparability of any inference about the coordinates of space from its real or thinkable visualization (the “support,” a pun on the conventional role of the canvas) or its symbolic relationship to the world through language. He might as well have been describing the physical and symbolic role of the written or printed page as a ground of risk, even uncertainty, during the ’60s, for that is also what it is. Where the wall or the floor or the full coordinates of a room had been newly and assertively negotiated as art spaces that were coextensive with the physical space of the body, the page might be said to have functioned instead as the receptacle for something like an anxiety of interpretation.

This is not a case of the manifesto; protest rhetoric is as old as the idea of the avant-garde, although the distinction is somewhat difficult to quantify. The new writing was more often didactic and theoretically aware, and the energy level—demonstrated by sheer volume—peculiarly intense. Significantly, many of these artists’ texts have been collected and anthologized. Over the past decade, subjects of published volumes have included Judd, Morris, Serra, Smithson (in separate English and German editions), and Graham (as well as Frank Stella, whose lectures postdate the period in question). Much more recently, in the past year or so, writings and interviews by Bochner (a bilingual French edition with many of the essays reproduced in facsimile), Nauman, and Ed Ruscha have appeared. At least two artists are still awaiting proper treatment: Letters and statements by Dan Flavin, composed in an exalted and sometimes caustic voice, are long overdue for a critical anthology; they only intermittently appear in old exhibition catalogues. Perhaps more important, Andre’s object-like poems—manuscripts, typewritten sheets, and collages, which together would come to serve as a form of drawing in his work—are almost impossible to find, while his remarkable interviews are scattered in obscure periodicals and known mostly through excerpts (the most recent example, which appeared in the posthumous edition of interviews with artists by David Sylvester, challenges almost everything we thought we knew about this complex figure). Only Andre’s early “dialogues” with Hollis Frampton have been published, in a pioneering series of artists’ writings from this period published by the press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design that is long out of print. With regard to the appearance of recent anthologies, it might be possible at first glance to identify a publishing coincidence—one that represents turn-of-the-century historical perspective on a generation that has now entered its late phase—rather than a coherent generational devotion to art writing and the relevance of the word. But, notwithstanding important exceptions—such as Henri Matisse, Kasimir Malevich, Marcel Duchamp, and Alberto Giacometti, as well as Ad Reinhardt and Barnett Newman, two key figures from the previous generation (long represented by anthologies)—a writing phenomenon of this kind in the visual arts is, in fact, unique.

The phenomenon did not go unremarked at the time. Smithson, for example, wrote an essay in Art International in 1968 entitled “A Museum of Language in the Vicinity of Art.” It opens with an unflattering claim: Writings by artists—and he cites Flavin, Morris, Andre, Judd, LeWitt, Graham, Ruscha, and Reinhardt—are “paradigmatic reflections in a looking-glass babel that is fabricated according to Pascal’s remark, ‘Nature is an infinite sphere, whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.’” Smithson is describing artists’ language—“linguistic surfaces that surround the artist’s unknown motives”—as a medium for the construction of “bottomless fictions,” and, broadly speaking, his premise (filtered through some abstruse historicism and a smart-ass tone) is that these writings are composed of rhetorical devices and constructions rather than presumed truths. In fact, Smithson’s argument can be taken to reflect the conflicted historical position occupied by artists of his generation, in which the inheritance of the formal ambitions of high modernism was subjected to a deeply self-conscious internal critique prior to—and, arguably, precipitating—the coming postmodern collapse.

For Morris, writing with disapprobation in these pages during the early ’70s (“Some Splashes in the Ebb Tide,” February 1973), that collapse had already occurred: The advent of multiple tendencies such as Minimal, Conceptual, process, and body art, along with performance and film, exposed a “present environment of pluralities of expressions and a lost historical faith.” To this effect, he cites the emergence of procedures for artmaking—“self-completing strategies”—that were themselves often language based (thereby immune to the need for a “responsive discourse”) and emptied of objects or individual identities, inhospitable to “transcendence” of any kind; in relation to modernism, this “pervasive development of the automated came to infect so many areas of art and to join in the mutual task of undermining the heroic.” Yet Morris hedges; in reference to the rise of pluralism, he refers to the “strategy of automated making” as, conversely, an “underlying commonality of means.” Surely such a strategy represented a condition of late-modernist criticality, and that condition could be said to account for the need and desire to write—to create what now, thirty years on, resembles the very thing Morris pronounced dead: “discourse as a communal text.” Shouldn’t we say that, through the devices of indeterminacy, seriality, duration, or perceptual wholeness, artists were able to reimplement but not mimic or repeat the language of high modernism? In this way, the artist-writer became inevitable, for these devices also begged description as principles; they could be rationalized and quantified, and the very act of explaining—or even listing—them was enough to establish their preceptive function. Ultimately, art moved much faster than the formation of an audience for the work, one that could keep up with the level of risk and change, and writing about the paradigm shift was a way of processing it on the run.

Morris himself describes the artist-writer of his generation as a construction that subverts the notion of a “transcendent individual identity”: “The artist as journalistic antihero ostensively locating his art replaces the Romantic artist who would draw his art out of himself as he resists absorption by either nature or culture.” Artists became their own best witnesses, then, not just because artists were the insiders (they always are), but because the nature of the new work was almost programmatic in its appositional relationship to modernism, and this lent itself to theorizing in prose. Further, being inherently critical, the art was also often knowingly grounded in a linguistic revolution (Ludwig Wittgenstein and Samuel Beckett, among others, were routinely cited after 1960) in which the very viability of terms and discourse can be said to have been at stake. Such a relationship not only rationalizes the recourse to writing text; it is one of the reasons why a language-based or propositional art (Bochner, above all) could emerge roughly in tandem with work by artists such as Andre or Serra, which is in its means and its content radically phenomenological—and it accounts for Nauman’s work, which is both: The two tendencies together were conditioned by the premise that physical (even existential) experience is structured or occasioned by the very inadequacies of language or speech, along with other systems, as forms of symbolic expression. “The Beckett tension is between the person and the mathematical zero,” wrote the late literary critic Hugh Kenner in his groundbreaking Samuel Beckett: A Critical Study (1961), “hence his preoccupation with series and permutation, with the unique tenacities of declarative syntax, which so order and encase mute agonies, and with silence. The Beckett plot is simply an encounter between persons: hence the journeyings, the waitings, the confrontations. And the resolution of the Beckett plot? Either an infinite series, or else an impasse.” Another reason is that, as the philosophy of language also attests, the critical nature of the new form intrinsically applied—in terms that were alternately implicit or confrontational, at times politicized—to values and institutions, even insofar as the work was often, by most existing standards, uncollectible (although patronage did eventually come to play a significant role in its making). In this regard, the destabilizing indeterminacy of language games and hoax is noteworthy, although easy to overlook; for example, Bochner and Smithson intended “The Domain of the Great Bear,” a compilation of found texts and installation photographs from the Hayden Planetarium that they composed for Art Voices (Fall 1966), to be a mock-serious “intervention,” co-opting the institution of the art magazine by disguising secondary source material as an original work.

The self-conscious polemic that courses through artists’ texts of the period draws its urgency from a rapid longing to stake the territory and to declare the terms; the historical condition of the art was expressed through the implications of the work but was explicitly and collectively argued—named—on the page. This is not to say that writing could not, at bottom, simply be something like an act of trial and rumi- nation. “Art writing isn’t only a forum for one’s ideas, it’s also a process for discov- ering them,” Bochner remarked in a recent interview, speaking of the ’60s. Until he wrote “Specific Objects” in 1964, Judd produced nothing like a Progression or a Stack; published in Arts Yearbook the following year, the text, perhaps together with his essay on Barnett Newman (also written in 1964; published in Studio International, February 1970), now reads like a prolegomenon to Judd’s proper career. When he emerged with the beginning of a credible body of work, he more or less stopped writing, turning to it only intermittently over the course of the next thirty years. Conversely, Serra, who never composed art criticism per se, has chosen to write at defining moments throughout his career, notes and statements concerning topics—the significance of the process of drawing, weight as a value, the principles governing the dynamics of various individual works—that lock and define essential concerns he would subsequently elaborate in interviews (his primary genre of text). Serra’s writings are almost idiomatically phenomenological; in 1973, for example, he accounts for the way a site-specific work such as Shift, 1971–72, is contingent on one’s “awareness of physicality in time, space and motion,” almost as if that aspect were part of the basic logistics of installing the piece. Serra conceptualizes Shift through the practice of description. This is partly the way the artist thinks, of course, and it concretely reflects on the process and materiality of his work; but the description is also a narrative, one that means to guide our experience of the work as an intensification of our experience of being in the world. Concerning the very suitability of language in this context, the artist duly records his skepticism: “Space systems are different than linguistic systems in that they’re non-descriptive,” he explained in 1976; as opposed to philosophy, art is not a “descriptive discipline,” and “any linguistic mapping or reconstruction by analogy, or any verbalization or interpretation or explanation, even of this kind, is a linguistic debasement, in a sense, because it isn’t even true in a parallel way.” Nonetheless, his recourse to descriptive language is strategic. The use of metaphor is therefore extremely rare in Serra’s statements (and, in a 1977 interview, metaphor is explicitly claimed to have no place in the literalness of the work). Still, one early figure is indelible: “elevating, lowering, extending, foreshortening, contracting, compressing, and turning. The line as a visual element . . . becomes a transitive verb.” Despite the limitations of language, as a medium its operations still provide the most convenient formal approximation of—if not a “parallel” to—the process of the work.

The last place line had functioned as a transitive verb was in the work of Newman, who died in 1970. Newman is probably the most important precursor of the artist-writer, partly because so many developments in the art of the subsequent generation were grounded in his oeuvre. Newman set himself apart from his New York School contemporaries by composing numerous texts and giving lengthy interviews throughout his career. He was not interested in theories of language per se, although he was deeply concerned with articulating the meaning and significance of his work—with arguing his way through the motivations and implications and refining interpretations that were being imposed on it by others. His interest in philosophical and sacred titles for his paintings throughout the ’50s and ’60s also distinguishes his ambition from that of Pollock, Rothko, and Still. Following Newman’s model, can we say of the onslaught of writing after 1960 that the quantity of words is meaningfully proportional to empty space—to actual space as the new medium? Can we characterize this space—which was declared and then articulated, even inscribed, by line—as a space of drawing and, by extension, of writing? The compulsion to write would, then, represent a displaced urge to fill the space that had been otherwise evacuated and staked out (mapped or plotted but never filled) by the art. Writing on the wall, to extrapolate from Bochner’s practice, would be a manifestation of this. And if writing reflects the compulsion to speak, then the proliferation of language could also manifest itself in an internal monologue: Nauman’s early works, which take the body and the name of the artist (along with negative space) as their primary subjects, emerged from the condition of isolation in an empty storefront studio where, too poor to afford materials, the artist recalled, “I was forced to examine myself, and what I was doing there.” Above all, in art after 1960, language not only filled space, it was concretized; language had become variously a condition, a medium, even a thing. “The definitions are phenomenological,” Bochner wrote of the art in the “Primary Structures” exhibition at the Jewish Museum in 1966, identifying Andre, Flavin, LeWitt, Judd, Morris, and Smithson. “Even the definitions are phenomena.” That year, Smithson created the calligrammatic word drawing A Heap of Language: a list of more than one hundred synonyms for “language” and related expressions written out, on graph paper, in the shape of a stratified pyramidal mound.

In writing, distinctions will rightly be made among genres: letters, journals, and interviews; statements; criticism and theory; propositions; language as object. The restless attention to words overall still remains clear. Most important, the relationship of the language to the governing premises of the art—how, for example, language in the form of lists, inventories, tables, and lexicons supports the whole-cloth replacement of forms of personalized expression with task-related practices and techniques in artmaking throughout the period—should tell us that the time has come to recognize the inadequacy of categories (mere rubrics, really) such as “Minimal” and “Conceptual” and establish new narratives. But plain communication—regardless of the conceit that such a thing is theoretically impossible—was also at stake. Writing was itself a loaded practice, even when it boiled down to the urge for dialogue and exchange. Bochner in 1971: “We take our thoughts from the accumulated rubble of any single moment of our mental state, and enter them into forms suitable for discourse.” He was speaking, of course, in general terms. Yet if it is the potential for a collective discourse that largely motivated and distinguished the generational proclivity for language, it may well be nostalgia for the prospect of shared debate that accounts for the recent surge of interest in artists’ texts. In other words, the pre-postmodern condition of skepticism and uncertainty looks, in retrospect, like a unifying force. In an era when virtually every contemporary art space, from the biennial to the MoCA to the magazine (and, at times, the studio itself), is thoroughly indistinguishable from the domain of a global market supersaturated with media-based visual distraction, the empty spaces—once actual and now mostly recalled or imagined—of art after 1960 have become utopian in their openness, even in their authentic desolation. Absent the viability or relevance of a coherent historical faith, they are, as well, charged with pathos.

Jeffrey Weiss is curator of modern and contemporary art at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.