PRINT Summer 2004


Despite the tone of ambivalence that haunts Tony Smith’s famous account of driving at night on a then-unfinished section of the New Jersey Turnpike, its citation in Michael Fried’s “Art and Objecthood” (1967) serves a strict rhetorical purpose. Fried turns Smith’s concluding words—less a suggestion of what remains to be done than what may no longer be done—on the innate superiority of such an experience, at once everyday and overwhelming, on their head. To Fried, the fact that “there is no way you can frame it, you just have to experience it,” as smith says, means precisely that it lies outside the categorical boundaries of art. Fried is, of course, arguing against what he sees as the “literalism” of Minimalist sculpture, an “inartistic” quality that heralds the inevitable return of the found object under Conceptualism. Joseph Kosuth could be responding directly to both smith and fried when he writes, “I began to realize . . . that the intelligent and sensitive people in my environment had experiences with nonart portions of their visual world that were of such quality and consistency that the demarcation of similar experiences as art would make no appreciable differerence.” This is perhaps the only point on which Smith, Fried, and Kosuth might agree: for art to cross that dividing line would mean its end as an autonomous concern.

But what if it didn’t? I return to the aesthetic debates of the ’60s between an increasingly defensive modernism and its emerging Minimalist and Conceptual antagonists because they are directly constitutive of Taft Green’s aesthetic sensibility. Obviously, the Los Angeles–based sculptor is not alone in his search for an ideological loophole that might enable a return to theoretically rigorous production without engaging its earlier endgame context. What is remarkable, however, is that Green’s work doesn’t entail taking sides; to the contrary, the artist has found a way to synthesize some of the most representative and unyielding aspects of this once rancorously riven field into a consistent sculptural modus.

Green’s most recent piece, Reaction Facets: international Airport, 2004, currently on view at Richard Telles Fine Art in the artist’s first solo outing, is an object lesson in the value of compromise. Though made of shaped lengths of wood rather than steel beams, from a distance, at least, it resembles an Anthony Caro, instantly recalling the sort of emphatically composed sculpture championed by Fried and Greenberg. the first thing one notices is the immense complexity of its design and construction: this is a work of many parts (as opposed to just the one part of Minimalism and after). At the same time, the overall application of a chilled designerly palette of white, blue-gray, cerise, and ocher holds it all together as a gestalt, a floating, brainlike mass.

Closer inspection bears these impressions out, to an extent. The work is divided, along its central axis, into four quadrants. These appear roughly (though not quite) equivalent, but as one works one’s way around the sculpture, the subtle irregularities stand out, for these are indices to a process of making that turns out to be far less systematic than one might have initially suspected. Clearly, the artist did not move swiftly from the big decisions to the smaller ones, since the quadrants are all intricately interrelated by a set of twisting lines of painted wood that run through all four sections and end up at the same exact point at which they began. These lines must ultimately connect. There is no way for Green to premeditate it, it simply has to be done, and the doing of it—the process of thinking simultaneously backward and forward from each individual point, the leeway narrowing steadily as one moves toward resolution—has to be factored directly into the work’s meaning.

These twisting lines form an armature that Green describes as a kind of pedestal that has dissolved and infiltrated what it might otherwise support. An earlier series of works figures this development in almost incremental fashion: the cubic base rising upward, becoming increasingly differentiated, coming apart. In Continual Distance: checkout counter, one object, 2003, for instance, the sculptural bottom and top of the piece are envisioned in the locked embrace of a checkout counter and register at your local Staples. The ensuing piece, Continual Distance: more than eleven ways to consider at least four directions, 2003, draws a related analogy from an intersection near the artist’s studio: The street, stereometrically rotated, becomes a pointedly aesthetic support for the apartments and shops that line it.

Within individual works, such underlying relation- ships are subjected to a succession of structural permutations, and much the same appears to be happening between respective works and whole bodies of work. All are connected by a distinctly legible logic of development, but all are also complete and autonomous accountings of everything that has transpired thus far. By the time we get to Reaction Facets: international airport, the pedestal/armature has become the entire structure, forming a series of four individual frameworks as well as the “narrative lines” that run between them. In the most superficial sense, one could say that the “object” on display is the Los Angeles International Airport, but more substantially, what is being shown is the phenomenological experience of movement through this literally borderline space. The frames unfold as a vignettelike sequence of reduced architectonic impressions, each one vaguely familiar as a station or stopping point: the entrance to the airport, the gate check, the baggage check, and finally, the airplane cabin.

Aligning the airport’s entryway with that of the gallery, Green draws a parallel between their distinct “scriptings” of space. Like the airport, the gallery provides an experience that is always partly known in advance; in each case, this aids the rapid circulation of bodies in and out. At the same time, and owing precisely to this shared quality of generic near invisibility, both airport and gallery encourage a uniquely fluid, speculative sort of attention, an inwardness that gets projected outward onto every obstruction along the way. In the gallery, of course, it is the work of art that is the primary recipient: this sculpture that actively blocks movement, holding us rapt, in order to describe its own mental circumnavigation.

According to Fried, the problem with Smith’s turnpike—and much the same could be said for Taft Green’s airport—is that it is a space, a setting for art as opposed to an object of art. This criticism is all the more acute when it comes to sculpture, which presents itself not so much as a view but as a thing in the view. Green’s solution is to follow the example of his former Art Center instructor Liz Larner, whose work is characterized overall by the grafting of a specifically photographic frame of reference onto the dense materiality of the sculptural object. With Reaction Facets, it is clear that what is being materialized is in effect a perception. Each of the work’s four frames contains an image, a mental impression of the airport as such but sculpturally augmented, “thickened,” by information carried over from the previous frame and information prefiguring the ensuing frame. Where Larner tends to arrest the image in time and space, in Green’s work the image unfolds like a film.

The persistence of vision, the psychophysiological phenomenon that accounts for movement in film, is here proposed as a condensed figure for our fundamental lack of presence, our inability to exist in the moment, to see what is right there in front of our eyes. The gallery, the airport, this sculpture: All are inevitably buried under skeins of memory and anticipation. At the same time, all three are conducive to reflection on that fact, which might be described as the pointed misregistration of inner and outer worlds. This is precisely where Reaction Facets takes shape: in the space of the distracted moment, but one so painstakingly reconstructed that it becomes a renewed opportunity for worldly engagement.

Jan Tumlir is a critic based in Los Angeles.