PRINT September 2012


Cover of Artforum 1, no. 1 (June 1962). Shown: Jean Tinguely, L’Araignée (also known as Marokko and Krapotkin), 1961.

THOUGH IT MAY LOOK LIKE an abstract play of shadows, the image on the cover of Artforum’s 1962 debut issue is, in fact, a kinetic sculpture—a jittery, vaguely anthropomorphic contraption of springs and spare parts—by the Swiss artist-provocateur Jean Tinguely. Why would the editors of an ambitious new art magazine choose an image of crepuscular ambiguity when the occasion seemed to call for perspicuous assertion? Considering this question, art historian Pamela M. Lee proposes that ambiguity may have been the point. Tinguely’s automatons spoke to the rise of a hybrid technological media, one that had plunged modernist medium specificity into a murky impurity. Art was now irrevocably embedded in media circuits and labor regimes. Linking this postwar shift to the contemporary work of Sam Lewitt, Lee elucidates the perennial relevance of the issues—-around medium, media, and their paradoxical convergence—-toward which Tinguely’s machines were only beginning to gesture.

THE COVER OF THE INAUGURAL ISSUE of Artforum might not, in retrospect, appear particularly auspicious. For an upstart magazine promising in its opening pages to “search for the enlightening statement on art,” the image gracing the front telegraphs a strikingly murky agenda.¹ A kinetic sculpture by Jean Tinguely is set in sticky relief against an ambiguous yellowish background, as if one of the Swiss artist’s notoriously frenetic machines has been trapped in a dismal amber. Tinguely had been stirring up controversy since the late 1950s. The art world’s embrace of kinetic art has always been highly ambivalent (see page 526), and Tinguely, the genre’s impresario, was both celebrated and reviled as an avant-garde trickster and Duchamp manqué. His European critics were especially exercised by the motorized drawing machines he called Meta-matics—works that, with the insertion of a slug and the seismic registrations of a pen, churned out expressionistic scribbles by automatic means. If this arriviste publication meant to clarify debates on the artist, the cover hardly seemed to advance the cause.² In short, the shadowy picture (taken by the photographers Harry Shunk and Janos Kender) did less to communicate the magazine’s stated ambitions than it did to obscure them.

But perhaps the illegibility of the image was to the point, signaling how Tinguely’s infamous drawing machines might actually be testing the limits of artistic inscription, and in so doing offering an alternate editorial subtext for the magazine than “the enlightening statement on art” as such. (To be sure, the text also speaks to the magazine’s commitment to publishing “divergent and contradictory opinion.”) The Meta-matics were nothing if not timely in their amphibious relationship to contemporary media and technology. Indeed, Tinguely had concocted a method of drawing—or, better, writing—that could only make sense after the fact of two radically different kinds of midcentury innovation: the action painting of a Jackson Pollock, on the one hand, and the revolution in automation technologies, on the other.

So if the status of inscription was central to the Meta-matics, questions of reading the work of art followed suit. Less than a generation before Artforum’s debut, Clement Greenberg could justify Pollock’s expressionism according to the laws of medium specificity: what was inerrant, proper, and restricted to the materials and activity of painting. Tinguely’s venture into automated “expressionism” and the writing that followed it could scarcely conform to such proscriptive terms. As if to illustrate the point, the artist and critic Arthur Secunda would describe the schizophrenic attitude of Tinguely’s work as “activated sculpture” and Tinguely himself as an “action-sculptor” within the pages of the debut issue.³ In an article comparing the Swiss artist’s practice with the pseudo-Constructivist locutions of George Rickey, Secunda would simultaneously opine on Tinguely’s “Rabelaisian sense of humor” and his “dissonant expressionism,” such that the artist’s kinetic output (and his peculiar approach to automatic writing) remained a critically indecipherable affair, at once neo-Dada provocation and jet-age extension of gestural abstraction.

Flash forward fifty years, and analogous issues persist for both contemporary art and its criticism. That such questions often turn, ironically, on medium—and on its convergence with the media, a phenomenon that had barely been investigated circa 1962, when Warhol’s career was barely getting under way—is in many ways anticipated by Tinguely, whose progressively more outrageous dalliances with the media cast him as art-world ambassador to the new information society. Consider the relationship between art and its media his work suggested: how a technically crude, even laughable, drawing machine might augur something genuinely sinister about the coming automation of creativity—not merely the rise of the cognitive laborer and the “creative class” but also the development of a culture industry increasingly hungry for easily branded, photogenic, reproducible product. In 1962, the controversy for Tinguely’s critics was what position he took on his own joke. Was this form of drawing as roboticized inscription continuous—or, more pointedly, complicit—with automation and its pernicious impact on the labor required in producing art at midcentury? Was creative expression to succumb to the looming technological menace that made automation possible: the computer?

Jean Tinguely, Meta-matic No. 17, 1959. Installation view, Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. From the 1st Paris Biennale. Photo: Charles Wilp.

In 2012, when the rhetoric of “creative” economies may license any number of speculative excesses on the world market, critical worries such as these might seem hopelessly naive, if not touchingly quaint. Which is exactly why an updated version of such questions needs to be posed repeatedly of contemporary art—namely, what kind of work does art perform under the pressures of global media and its technologies? Early in the five decades separating Tinguely’s moment from our own—a period in which the global art world has grown as exponentially as the digital media that has partially enabled it—the Greenbergian divide between artistic medium and communications media had long been in fatal eclipse. What has emerged in its stead, from within art history, anthropology, and art practice, is a pronounced interrogation of art’s materiality. This endeavor diverges radically from the interests of medium specificity—or even the “post-medium” condition—but is that much more invested in questions of technics, process, and the social and ideological worlds organized around art’s plastic possibilities. It’s no coincidence that a preoccupation with the thickness of things grows ever more emphatic with our habituation to the virtual sphere.

I was reminded of such issues recently on encountering Sam Lewitt’s contribution to this year’s Whitney Biennial, Fluid Employment, 2012, an oddly agglutinated and elegant system. You could not find an artist more different from Tinguely than Lewitt, but the latter has long engaged questions of reading and legibility, systems of graphic and readerly notation, and technologies of communication old and new. With Gareth James and Cheyney Thompson, Lewitt was a cofounder of Scorched Earth, a research and publishing project that reflected on drawing in its myriad aspects—whether as benchmark of artistic facility or as system of rudimentary notation—in order to analyze a potential claim to its practice as a form of critical knowledge. In Lewitt’s series “Paper Citizens,” 2010–11, chromogenic prints mounted on aluminum blow up the artifacts of letterpress technology to monumental scale, aided in their crystalline presentation by the digital tools thought to render such print technology obsolete. These exacting portraits of typographic lockups, consisting of a steel frame (a chase, in the printer’s lexicon), individual type forms, quoins, and other props, are, at least at first blush, a kind of media archaeology. As noted in the press release for a 2011 exhibition of the work at Miguel Abreu Gallery in New York, “This equipment was retrieved from a print shop that was exchanging its heavy metal for the light information of pixels in a bid to convert operations to what one employee described as an ‘Imaging Center.’” Here, then, an echo of a past debate sounds, not unlike the noisy clashes Tinguely’s work set into motion.

But the temptation to regard such images as merely reportage, a visual record of media dead on arrival, needs to be levied against the messages constructed from the technology the artist collects and surveys, messages that initially seem legible at a distance. The typography of the “Paper Citizens” prints coalesces into a series of anonymous citations, drawn from a variety of sources, which require an inverted practice of reading if they are to be decoded. In the viewer’s destabilized relationship to this process of reading, structural to the mechanisms of letterpress technology itself, our rituals of communication are quite literally reversed, and the peculiar faith placed in the transparency of the messages is similarly obscured and effectively estranged by the artist. In one work from the series, Paper Citizen: Face Forward, 2011, the banner EGYPTIAN THINGS (like all the text, spelled backward) caps a block of type describing the magic—that is, the technology—of ancient priests: how their conjuring powers resided with “a sort of primitive steam engine” deployed during rituals at the altar. On the right side of the image, a block of type is headed by a stack of words: MANUFACTURING, PLANT SUPERVISION, SERVICE TASKS. In its oblique recommendations for new workers under automation, the text thematizes the very status of the media Lewitt represents: “Automations must be able to learn from their experience and become more adaptive and communicative. The loop between the automation’s perceptions and its actions must narrow on several levels of abstraction. The development of signal-to-symbol systems is integral to these challenges.”

If “Paper Citizens” addresses a problem of legibility tied to older media and the habits of mind that naturalize our relationship to processes of mediation, Fluid Employment takes on the base matter of more recent technology as something both formal and undecidable, exploring a material endowed with its own peculiar agency that resists the easy read while lubricating forms of contemporary communication. Visitors to the Whitney found a series of plastic tarps placed on the floor of the gallery over which magnets were scattered and a viscous brownish fluid poured; in the corner, a collection of plastic bottles stood at the ready. At the perimeter of this mysterious field, fans stirred the air lightly. The principal stuff of this work was ferrofluid, a colloidal liquid consisting of magnetic particles, the structural instability of which enables a remarkable process of self-organization. The fluid acts as if it were itself automated, driven by some hidden internal logic beyond the reach of the artist’s manipulations. In the presence of the magnets, it coalesced to form surprisingly beautiful and uncanny shapes, spiky little islands of viscosity marooned in an oily field. What’s especially curious about the medium is its ambidextrous behavior: It traffics between liquid and solid and appears both mechanical and organic, integrated and dispersed. For the duration of the Biennial, Lewitt refreshed the liquid every two weeks, continually reanimating the material as it separated, congealed, and evaporated.

Jean Tinguely, Méta-matic No. 1, 1959, metal, paper, motor, felt-tip pen, 37 3/4 x 33 1/2 x 17 3/8".

Understood in these terms, the work is a fascinating exercise in process, in which the unique properties of the medium are exploited in the perpetual modulation of form. Evoking Pollock’s technique by way of Tinguely’s penchant for automation, the work swirls on the spectator’s horizon like an action painting writ large. But the title of the piece and a print hung on an adjacent wall introduce a question of material history that frames the virtual and actual deployment of the liquid in excess of its startling aesthetic capacities. Ferrofluid, we are informed, was developed by NASA in the early 1960s as a kind of sci-fi technology apropos of the space race. Commercialized in the late ’60s, it has found myriad technological applications in areas as diverse as computer engineering, military aviation, and biomedical research. The pliability of the medium, in short, enables a striking degree of technological flexibility.

And through this notion of flexibility, we confront an order of labor and a scalar logic that Tinguely could only begin to imagine in 1962. Lewitt calls ferrofluid “a liquid workforce”—a lubricant greasing the wheels of communication and consumption both. In this sense, Fluid Employment might well read as an allegory for and a performance of multiple, and politically incongruent, models of work: of labor unfixed to any one object, directive, or end; or work that refuses borders, whether semantic, material, formal, or geographic; or work of an acutely motile dimension, restive and unsettled, attractive and attracted. To update that old Abstract Expressionist saw, the arena in which Lewitt’s medium acts, performs, and works is ubiquitous and all-encompassing, but it is paradoxically the case that it remains largely invisible, whatever the material’s critical role in the circulation of contemporary media and technology. As if rewriting the lessons of the Meta-matics for virtual times, Fluid Employment stages the self-inscription of ferrofluid as both structurally shapeless and ineluctably material, with a relentless capacity for transformation that does not mirror but in fact inscribes its own contemporary politics.

Pamela M. Lee is a professor in the department of art and art history at Stanford University.


1. Artforum 1, no. 1 (June 1962): np.

2. Likewise, the business of identifying the sculpture on the magazine’s cover is complicated by the fact that Tinguely was in the habit of changing the titles of his works. According to the Tinguely Museum in Basel, the piece was first called L’Araignée but was also known as Marokko and (in 1975) Krapotkin.

3. Arthur Secunda, “Two Motion Sculptors: Tinguely and Rickey,” Artforum 1, no. 1 (June 1962): 17–18.