PRINT September 2006


SOMETIMES AN EDITOR JUST NEEDS TO FILL THE PAGES. Or so Mel Bochner recently remarked, explaining how his collaboration with Robert Smithson, “The Domain of the Great Bear,” found its way into Art Voices magazine forty years ago this month. In this case, the fact that the publication’s editor, Sam Edwards, took a dim view of the artistic community’s increasingly theoretical peregrinations during the mid-’60s only helped the duo’s chances. The vague sense of befuddlement Edwards apparently felt at their idiosyncratic proposal to look at “cultural architecture and museums” was, according to Bochner, one that the skeptical editor was all too happy to pass along to his readers. And, it turns out, his attitude was not entirely out of keeping with the underlying spirit of the project: The artists’ desire to work within the magazine format reflected their awareness of the increasingly significant role of discourse in artistic circles—a rising tide of language in which the belle lettristic style of earlier criticism was giving way to more penetrating, formalized endeavors. As Rosalind Krauss recently observed, speaking of sentiments that emerged during the ’60s, “Dealers . . . used to feel that the work of art didn’t exist in a discursive vacuum, that it was given its existence in part by critical discourse.” Or, as Bochner put it, recalling the bottom-line mind-set of a couple of twenty-something artists in 1966, “There was the sense that if a show didn’t get reviewed, it didn’t exist.”

But why, given such a concern with the evolution of art criticism, turn to New York’s Hayden Planetarium as a subject? As taken up by Bochner and Smithson in “Domain,” the site was clearly attractive for its evident obsolescence: a dark and hushed arena cluttered with the unmistakable technologies of one era—and its corresponding worldview—yielding to those of another. In the reminiscence that follows here, Bochner describes their interest in the architectural and ideological rift between the bleak cosmology of the building’s 1930s design and the “expansionist” vision of a ’60s technocracy and industrial complex, manifest in the institution’s ongoing renovations. Yet the recalcitrant presence of the obsolete (embedded in the planetarium’s structures and displays, to say nothing of its cryptlike archive, perused at length by the artists) undercut any notion of progress, rendering the newest intellectual program of the universe merely the latest addition to a frigid terrain of failed ideas. While one should not look past the contraptions and comic-book-type illustrations of “Domain” as sources of simple amusement for two friends revisiting the antiquated scene of so many proverbial high school field trips, the seriousness of the endeavor and its implications—Max Ernst, we might recall, returned to the engravings of his parents’ time to make such collage novels as Une Semaine de bonté—should also not be underestimated. In the context of art magazines and the emergent discourse of the mid-’60s, the specter of the outmoded served to playfully defuse any dialectical view of modern art, recasting its story as merely a journey of so many styles.

Nevertheless, only a handful of Bochner and Smithson’s friends and colleagues were likely ever to make such a connection. In turn, one must recognize today that their undercover approach had a slightly different and perhaps more provocative relationship to art-critical discourse than that often attributed to then-nascent Conceptual art, which presumably questioned or even annexed the role of the critic by rendering an artwork’s connection to its underlying ideas more literal or transparent. “Domain,” by contrast, may be more correctly said to deploy a kind of deadpan poetics (the quasi-fictive likes of which are discerned today in projects ranging from Pierre Huyghe’s El Diario del Fin del Mundo to the Center for Land Use Interpretation). Proffering a compilation of texts yet never providing the framework for any specific reading, the collaboration revolves on an opacity of intent, and so forces readers to think both within and about ideas of what should appear in the pages of an art magazine. It introduces a kind of blind gap between language and content. It fills the pages. Or, to borrow Bochner’s characterization of three-dimensional objects in his “Serial Art Systems: Solipsism” (1967): It “‘takes up’ space.”

In this light, there is a certain appropriateness to Bochner’s recollection that he and Smithson favorably compared an old mathematics text to a poem by Mallarmé, regardless of their “mock solemnity.” For it is precisely at the intersection of math and poetry that Alain Badiou, in his Handbook of Inaesthetics (2005), locates the project of contemporary philosophy. Suggesting that any operation within those other disciplines inevitably contains a “vanishing point” in its discursive field— what the philosopher terms “unnamable”—Badiou writes that philosophical thought can exist in all its multiplicity only if it abstains from dissolving this mystery, or “delineat[ing] from the outset the limits of the power of language.” Forty years after its creation, then, “The Domain of the Great Bear” seems a supremely philosophical critical ellipsis, one whose play was not to reveal the “secrets of the domes” during the rise of artistic discourse, but to secure their very possibility.

Tim Griffin


WHEN ROBERT SMITHSON AND I FIRST MET in the spring of 1966 we were young, ambitious, and full of mischief. We soon discovered that we had come from remarkably similar intellectual breeding grounds—two provincial wise guys independently formed by a combustible stew of Beat poetry, existential philosophy, Abstract Expressionist painting, New Wave cinema, Barthes, Borges, and Nancy Sinatra. What attracted us to each other was not only our exotic mix of interests but also our mutual recognition of kindred cantankerous spirits. We both loved a good argument, and argue we did. Bob was a formidable debater. An autodidact and polymath, he was in command of a prodigious range of sources. Wickedly, brutally, bitterly, laugh-out-loud funny, he could turn any situation, any discussion, upside down with a withering aside, punctuating it with one of his darkly perverse chuckles, which I can still hear after thirty years.

One of our favorite ways of hanging out was to do the rounds of the Village bookstores. (It’s hard to remember, but there were once more bookstores than shoe stores on Eighth Street.) For us, foraging for books was like a treasure hunt: New and used, lost and found, read and abandoned, there was a mountain of culture on the remainder table, an infinite world of ideas to be sifted through, talked over, and, long before the term was coined, “appropriated.” A particular passion was abstruse math books. It didn’t matter that we couldn’t understand them; it was their layouts and diagrams that turned us on and that we cannibalized. We took delight in finding a page covered with indecipherable numbers, or a river of equations spilling across the gutter of a spread. I remember one book that we compared with mock solemnity to Mallarmé, agreeing, however, that the math text was better because it had the advantage of being unintentional. We took a giddy pleasure in these discoveries, because we sensed that we were mapping out a new world of reference points.

By the time we met, Bob and I had each already begun publishing art criticism. His “Entropy and the New Monuments” and my “Primary Structures” were among the very few positive articles written about that landmark 1966 exhibition at the Jewish Museum. At that time, artists who wrote were looked at suspiciously, as if writing somehow tainted their visual practice. (After my “Primary Structures” review came out, a painter friend attacked me publicly for “joining the enemy.”) But for Bob and me, the precedent for the artist/writer had already been firmly established by two major practitioners. The first was Ad Reinhardt, whose caustic critiques of the art world took the form of “cartoons” but were actually complex collages of found images and quotations. The second, and most important, was Donald Judd, whose work and ideas represented to us a limit condition. If you wanted to establish your own identity, you had to find some way over, under, or around the “specific object.”

In the halcyon summer of ’66, Bob lived in the West Village, and I was subletting an apartment uptown. We would often meet for lunch at a little dive across the street from the American Museum of Natural History. One day we were bitching, as young artists do, about how impossible it was to get dealers to come to your studio. They all said the same thing: “Could you just send me some slides?” We started speculating that if slides were all anyone wanted to see, and if they were already a form of reproduction, was there any need to make actual works? In other words, why bother with production when you could go directly to reproduction? And wouldn’t this go a long way toward subverting the marketing system that held artists in its iron grip? But the question remained, What to actually do? This is where the literary hoax, a form perfected by Borges, came into our conversation. Why not camouflage the work as a magazine article, then surreptitiously slip it into the media stream? Without there ever having been an original, the reproduction would become the work of art. (This, remember, was a moment when Marshall McLuhan’s ideas were very much in the air.) By co-opting the art magazine as our vehicle, we would completely bypass the galleries, transforming a secondary source into a primary medium. We realized, however, that the magazine had to be an unknowing partner, because if attention were drawn to our project as an “artwork” in quotation marks, its subversiveness would be compromised. We chose the planetarium as our ostensible subject for a number of reasons, not least of which was that we were looking at it out the window while having lunch, but primarily because it provided a perfect decoy, deflecting attention from our real purpose—to plant an intellectual time bomb inside the art system’s machinery.

We presented the idea of an article “about” the planetarium to the editor of Art Voices, Sam Edwards, a crusty “new leftist” who had little or no real interest in art, which is probably why he was willing to publish us. He found our idea interesting (although, of course, we never told him what the real idea was), and he gave us eight pages and agreed to our condition that we do the layout ourselves. Now, armed with press credentials, we were able to gain access to the planetarium’s archives, where we harvested an amazing cache of historical photographs, exhibition posters, and publicity material. Then we split up the writing chores. I was to write the first two pages of text and Bob the last two.

One focus of my text was the relationship of architecture to the historicity of ideas. The planetarium, built during the Depression, was a gloomy labyrinth of concrete and granite. In the mid-’60s it was being updated and plugged into a corporate-sponsored, “user-friendly” format of slick plastic and shiny Formica. This represented the collision of two radically antagonistic worldviews: the isolationist, paranoid ’30s vision of outer space as the domain of the other (so vividly propagandized in the Saturday-afternoon serials I devoured as a kid, such as Flash Gordon, whose archenemy was an Asian/Martian named Ming the Merciless) and the ’60s expansionist fantasy that saw space as the next frontier of suburbia (a vision that was soon to implode when Ming took his revenge in Vietnam). In the layout, the juxtaposition of the photograph of the old planetarium’s morbidly lit Art Deco entrance hall with the bright, single-vanishing-point shot of IBM’s “Astronomia” said it all.

Buried in my text were also a number of inside jokes. For example, a graphic of a pointing hand based on an actual sign hanging above the main staircase was a tongue-in-cheek nod to Marcel Duchamp. But the most personally significant gibe was my parody of Judd’s writing, an homage to his influence but also an assault on the “specific object”:

The next opening along the [Viking Rocket’s] fuselage proceeding from left to right is the oxidizer tank. It is a vitriolic green in color, cleaner in appearance, and bored through centrally by a standpipe. . . . The whole apparatus is set into the posterior orifice behind a cylindrical casing with nine plugs attached to the end of it terminating in a series of stranded white wires that disappear somewhere off to the left behind a lateral appendage clearly marked Yaw Servo.

Bob’s sections captured his fascination with the science-fiction, or the science-as-fiction, aspects of the planetarium. His view of the world, his personal cross-referencing system—from J. G. Ballard to John Rechy—was distinctly literary. His writing, like his conversation, reveled in clashes between the cosmic and the commonplace, between topsy-turvy metaphors and grand rhetorical flourishes:

The problem of the “human figure” vanishes from these illustrated infinities and prehistoric cataclysms. Time is deranged. Oceans become puddles. . . . Disasters of all kinds flood the mind at the speed of light. . . . A bewildered “dinosaur” and displaced “bears” are trapped in amazing time dislocations. . . . This is a bad-boy’s dream of obliteration, where galaxies are smashed like toys. Globes of “anti-matter” collide with “proto-matter,” billions and billions of fragments speed into the deadly chasms of space. Destruction builds on destruction.

After we had completed our respective writing, we sat down with all the visual material we had gleaned from the archive and worked on the layout. The title was taken from a ’50s “sky show” poster that we used as the opening illustration. The center spread was composed of quotes from planetarium literature, with ellipses added at the end of each fragment to match the portentousness of our heading, “secrets of the domes.” The numbering and boxes were a pastiche of the serial progressions that were rapidly becoming the period’s formal trope. The final design took only about a day, but once completed, it had subsumed the text. The work was now an inextricable fusion of word and image—an eight-page work of art masquerading as an article about the Hayden Planetarium.

In the summer of 1966, completely unexpectedly, the art magazine had presented itself to us as a site for an artwork. Yet, as we should have expected, the typical response outside our small circle of friends was befuddlement, as in “What the hell is this thing doing in an art magazine?” Nothing could have delighted us more, since it meant we had succeeded in flying under the radar. In the process it seemed that not only had a new medium been discovered—the magazine intervention—but also a new critical strategy for using the context against itself. Most important, we had claimed the freedom to unify our practices. Depending on the artist’s intention, there was no difference between a text published in a magazine and a work made in the studio. Anything one could think of doing, in any context one could think of doing it, could be one’s art.

Around this time, three related challenges to the art system took place in very close succession: Bob’s earliest drawings for outdoor pieces, made in conjunction with the Dallas/Fort Worth airport project; Dan Graham’s “Homes for America,” which was published in the December 1966–January 1967 issue of Arts Magazine; and my own Working Drawings And Other Visible Things On Paper Not Necessarily Meant To Be Viewed As Art, which was presented at the School of Visual Arts Gallery in December. Taken together, these works signaled that the rules were changing, that artists were taking control of where, what, when, and how their ideas entered the public domain. There would be no more sitting back and waiting for dealers, curators, or critics to “look at your slides.”

After “Domain,” Bob and I headed in very different directions, but our subsequent work always bore the project’s imprint. He went on to write “Quasi-Infinities and the Waning of Space” and “The Monuments of Passaic,” while I later wrote “The Beach Boys—‘100%’” and “Alfaville, Godard’s Apocalypse.” In 1973, right before Bob took off on his fateful trip to New Mexico and Texas, we began planning another collaboration. Donald Barthelme, one of the great progenitors of postmodern fiction, told us one night at Max’s Kansas City how “The Domain of the Great Bear” had influenced his own writing when he first read it in Houston in 1966. He commissioned Bob and me to write something about “humor in art” for an issue of a new fiction magazine he was editing. We were excited by the prospect of working together again, and although the project would be cut short by Bob’s tragic accident, we immediately began some preliminary readings on the subject: Baudelaire, Freud, and Marx (Groucho, not Karl).

Forty years later, what remains? Perhaps only the irony that “The Domain of the Great Bear” has come to resemble the subject of its own epigraph—a sphere whose center is everywhere, but whose circumference is nowhere.

Mel Bochner is a New York-based artist.

An earlier version of this text was presented at the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Robert Smithson symposium in September 2005.