Arnold Rockman

University of British Columbia

Does art need artists? The excuse most often given for calling a Duchamp “readymade,” or for that matter a Jasper Johns bronze flashlight, an object of art is that it was selected by an artist and placed on a pedestal by him. The archaeologist, on the other hand, who presumably is not an artist also “finds” things from other or earlier civilizations and places them on pedestals; and we call them “art.” What if a non-artist, non-archaeologist, were asked to “find” some everyday things from our contemporary civilization and to place them on a stand? This was the gist of the innocent question posed by Arnold Rockman when he devised the exhibition Random Sample, N=42, for the Fine Arts Gallery at the University of British Columbia, during the University’s Festival of the Contemporary Arts in February.

In order to remove every vestige of human decision that might creep into the choosing of the objects to be displayed, Arnold Rockman, sociology teacher, artist, critic, and idea man par excellence, had a group of his students at Toronto’s York University exploit a variety of chance devices to determine which objects would appear in the show. The “choices” were registered on camera film in cameras which were pointed according to chance determinants at chance portions of inside and outside environments; and when the photos were developed, the final selection of the objects within them was made by the use of methods such as coin flipping, dropping bits of paper on a grid (the Monte Carlo Method), the employment of a random number table, and so on. But this was not all. The photographs, together with indications of what objects in theory had been selected were sent to Vancouver, and a treasure hunt began by U.B.C. students who had to match only cursorily what fate had decreed in Toronto.

Now the gathered objects had to be displayed in the gallery; and even here Rockman insisted that as much chance arrangement as possible be imposed. For instance, although he made the one conscious decision to display some of the objects as “paintings” (that is, hung on the wall) and others as “sculpture” (either freestanding or on pedestals), which objects became “paintings” and which “sculpture” was chance-determined. As it turned out, a telephone booth had to be suspended on a wall as a painting equivalent, and a pair of trousers, already clipped to a clothes hanger, had to dangle over a four foot pedestal. Some objects got stiflingly bunched together, while others appeared sporadically along the walls, with large gaps between them.

However, at some point according to Rockman’s plan, gallery and object had to meet; and although the wattage of the lamps which were directed upon the things displayed was again determined to some extent by chance, the things were lighted. In other words, this was the point where they had to appear on stage and start to perform.

For those initiated into the mysteries and sensitivities of art gallery experience, the results were predictable, but nevertheless full of satisfactions. The trouser “sculpture” became an echo of Oldenburg; a dusty factory window was a William Harnett waiting to be put on canvas; an oscillating electric fan was transmogrified into a kinetic sculpture, hypnotic and Surrealist, as it stood alone, nodding slowly from side to side, endlessly stirring the air while neither freshening nor cooling anything. These were the effects that Rockman expected; and however randomly it was all created, one knew that these were the effects that he intended.

One would have thought the average visitor to the show would have responded with no surprise, and with dispassion, if not indifference. Not at all. In spite of the careful inclusion on the walls of all the notes and correspondence which led to the show’s development and execution (these made up the contents of the catalog) in a sincere attempt to remove any sense of mystery or artiness which might put off the unsophisticated, the reaction from the crowd was hostile. Rockman had demonstrated yet another point. The gallery indeed was sacred. The blasphemous intrusion into it of profane objects was intolerable to those whose personal experience could not reassure them that, somehow, a purification rite had taken place, that these ordinary outside objects deserved to fill a space reserved for the sanctified. Their presence was simply not acceptable. Those who did accept these objects did so because they saw the things as “art,” or sacred, and not just as a pair of pants, a pile of bricks or an old flush door.

Rockman’s experiment set the mind to wondering. Among the possibilities that were wondered about by Rockman himself as well as by the viewers of the show were these: what if one of the randomly selected objects had turned out to be a commonly accepted work of art? What would be the effect of placing it among the other “non art” objects now turned into “art”? Another nagging question asks if it would have been possible to see the pumpkin turned into a coach of gold if artists like Duchamp, Dine, Rauschenberg, and Oldenburg had not already trained our inner eyes? Perhaps the results of Random Sample, N=42 were nothing newer than the old phenomenon of nature imitating art.

While Rockman was producing art without the aid of artists through a species of psychic prestidigitation, in another part of the gallery lain Baxter was making every effort to remind us that the artist’s hand was not completely indispensable.

The theme (and title) was Piles; and Baxter plunged into it like an 18th-century essayist, compiling, turning examining, observing, reporting, comparing, musing, and philosophizing in an obsessive effort to treat every possible facet of his subject. Although Baxter’s materials were also found common objects, they were found as a result of an intensive search. A pile of salt, a pile of hair, of eggs, of twigs, of sewer pipe, the very mountains that surround Vancouver. But unlike Random Sample, Piles was all “art,” all artist, all Baxter. The results: a poem, a song of piles, a pruned and polished paean to the pile, white and grey and silver, set on subtly graduated pedestals that formed a carefully worked out geometrical progression, from a smallish pile of salt set high on a narrow stand, through some spaghetti on a lower, squatter one, through paper, hair, white lingerie, a thousand eggshells, concrete blocks and scraggly twigs, laid within a broad frame set on the floor. Some miles away, sewer pipe and a few other voluminous piles were dropped dramatically on the campus of another university (Simon Fraser) sitting on a mountain.

Baxter’s epic environment was antedated by his first important production in this field, Bagged Place (U.B.C. Gallery, February 1966). For it, a four room apartment was built within the gallery, fully furnished with Contemporary Speckled Rococo Boogaloo, in which everything—furniture, rugs, flickering TV set, water at the tap, pouter pigeon paperbacks on the bed, bath, toilet (unflushed), and coffee in the cup—was wrapped in plastic. Every sense was fully engaged on entering Bagged Place, not the least of which was the sense of smell, as the plastic wrapped hamburger beside the plastic-wrapped sink began to get high—the effect of which was later echoed by the broken eggshells in Piles, which offered something of a challenge to olfactory esthetics.

There was, in Bagged Place, less of the lyricism which pervades much of Baxter’s earlier and later work; it was the high point of his funky polarity, which is not as marked nor as consistent as his impulse toward a more chaste poetry. There is certainly a large gap, in both time and concept, between Bagged Place and Piles; and in between, much has happened, although seldom does he wander far from his intense admiration for Morandi. This was quite clear in his vacuum formed series, in which Perspex bottles and other objects taken from supermarket shelves and garbage cans found themselves transformed into delicate bas relief still lifes; and, although recently he has turned toward large scale air filled plastic sculpture, much of the delicacy remains. Starting from enormous sausage/phallic shapes, peppermint striped or brightly colored, his most recent prize-winning plastic sculpture (Vancouver Art Gallery Annual, December 1967) came on as a restrained and extraordinarily simplified, clear, transparent, air-filled lingam, displayed beside a yoni of gunmetal grey in inflated plastic.

Alvin Balkind