New York

Anthony Caro, Dan Flavin, and Larry Poons

Sculpture LXIV from Anthony Caro’s recent New York exhibition is parented by almost three years of work with small base-related sculptures. Caro’s decision to work with a base may seem surprising in the light of his very early commitment to placing sculpture directly on the ground, thereby refusing to it the guarantee of a status in space separate or apart from the viewer’s own. In re-opening the issue of the base, Caro seems to intend a re-examination of the essence of the uniquely sculptural object. For, one of the important preludes to the Minimalist conception of sculpture was the kind of gesture which declared that literally any object that is placed on a base is automatically identified as sculpture––its location at that interface is enough to make it such. Sculpture is felt as reduced to or essentialized in the simple juxtaposition between the axis of the carrying field (whether it is the horizontal of the upper face of a base or plinth, or of the floor, or the vertical support of the relief plane or wall) and the axis of the presented or carried object. Further, the minimal condition for an object’s being present is that it have an axis in space independent of the axes of other objects. Now, it is against the natural grain of this condition that Caro’s base-oriented sculptures can be seen to work.

Unlike the earlier pieces, which were uniformly finished in highly polished chrome, Sculpture LXIV is painted a completely non-reflective and muted ochre. The work is comprised of flat strips of steel, cut into arcs, and lengths of pipe and tubing. Because of the insistent feeling of separateness of each of its parts, the sculpture does not impress one with having any analyzable whole shape, although the two splayed outer arms of the piece angle against the front edge of the base to suggest the presence of a major axis which is on a tilt to both the horizontal plane of the viewer’s ground and the vertical plane of his body. The sense of this axis is both heightened and re-inflected by the major central element of the work––a semicircular band which, though visually interrupted at several points, moves left and downward from the rear of the sculpture to hang off the base in suspension below it. The impression that is thereby generated is that the body of the sculpture––its axis––passes through the base itself. The illusion created by the work is that although its parts exist totally free of, and unimbedded in, any other object, its major axis does not. And this impels the recognition that because this axis is purely visual in nature, it does not need to possess the kind of freedom necessary to physical objects. The relationship of the sculpture to its support serves, then, to identify the work not simply as a “sculptural object” but as a different kind of cognitive object. For the coherence of the sculpture is stated as an essentially visual coherence which makes its intelligible impact by overriding the intervention of the physical mass of the support. Further, the illusive sense of axis in Sculpture LXIV is felt as having the same power to cohere disparate parts of an image that a pictorial field has when, through its own continuity, it can bring graphic marks into some kind of relationship with each other. Although the tubes, arcs, etc., of the work are emphatically felt as separate, they all seem to be responsive to its continuous axis––an axis which they, of course, are responsible for one’s feeling in the first place.

In Trefoil, one of the three superb, large-scale pieces included in the exhibition, the base is incorporated into the body of the work by a plane which passes through the seven-foot height of the sculpture at a point about two and a half feet off the ground. Insofar as Trefoil issues from the inquisition on the question of the base pressed by the earlier sculpture, it points to the visual fact that while the base stands in need of a logic of support, sculpture itself does not.

The four years of Dan Flavin’s exploration with the fluorescent tube as “image-object” sets up inescapable parallels with those fanatically patient teaching manuals that came out of the Bauhaus during the 1920s. I am especially reminded of Klee’s Pedagogical Sketchbook, where a point set in motion becomes a line, and then . . . and then . . . until the page resounds with the full orchestration of graphic illusionism. Flavin seems to be doing it all over again only this time mindful of the admonition about there being no line to be found in nature. As Flavin deploys it, the fluorescent tube is clearly a graphic device. It possesses both the figurative density of a line, and the inherent ambiguity of its position in space. It can build images, the interiors of which are different in quality from the space outside them; it can differentiate or divide space either alone a frontal surface or in depth. Finally, it can produce stable illusions, as when corners of rooms are eradicated by even lighting, or skewed by contradictory cast shadows.

But unlike a drawn line, which is itself an edge or boundary, Flavin’s instrument produces an edge at some level of remove or disjunction from the fluorescent tube. For edges in the wall-hung works appear as the unilluminated sides of the pans carrying the tubes, and the shadows they cast. Modeling is as important to Flavin as it ever was in traditional drawing––for it is the changing value of luminous diffusion which produces the effects of Flavin’s images: their floating appearance, their contradiction of the known structure of the space they inhabit––and modeling too is made the product of the physical line rather than something which line itself carries or incarnates. It is as though Flavin’s tube, in its various combinations, were dramatizing again and again the mysterious capacity of line itself to reproduce visual conditions and was asking where in the line this power resides. That he thinks of this power as secreted somewhere at its core, like a kind of essence which one can never arrive at no matter how fine one makes the line, no matter how carefully one dissects a substance, is suggested to me by his initial choice of the fluorescent tube. For the tube literalizes the notion of essence by means of a stream of electrons which is in fact contained at the line’s core. In the two large images set up by Flavin in his latest gallery show this whole drama was extended by turning the tubes away from the viewer so that the cause of the visible effects was even further masked behind the opaque barriers of the metal pans.

The first image was an eight-foot square spanning across one corner of the gallery. The top and bottom edges were established with white light, while each side was composed of two abutting units––the interior ones pink, the exterior yellow. The even suffusion of pink light into the corner of the room almost obliterated it, by canceling the distinction in value between the two wall planes. Unlike his earlier proposals for the corner-frame image, Flavin set the bottom edge of this version directly on the floor instead of suspending it at some distance above the ground. The intrusion of the floor area into the visual field of the image appeared like a pictorial device––almost a collage element––to disrupt the illusion by reasserting the actual shape of the room.

The other large-scale image––a sequence of nine vertical, eight-foot tubes, spaced at equal intervals in the doorway between the two gallery rooms and completely barring access to the luminous space of the room beyond them––seemed equally to gesture toward the pictorial. Its particular reference for me was the simultaneous depth and physical inaccessibility of illusionistic space. But, of course, the space “in the room beyond” is not illusionistic. It is real; and as such it cannot be brought to bear on the conventions of painting. It can only be juxtaposed with them, to an end that I see as being as conceptually trivial as Flavin’s declarations about line. All of this of course imputes to Flavin intentions which may not have been his. However, the pictorialism is there; and along with it the gothic sense of hiddenness and mystery.

In his newest paintings Larry Poons has aligned his art with Noland and Olitski’s in the search for a release from the kind of frontality which has gripped abstract painting in the 1960s. It is a frontality which threatens both to rigidify the painting surface into an inert and object-like relationship to the wall against which it hangs, and alternately, to force a reading away of that surface, through the uncontrollable implications of a bottomless, naive illusionism. For Olitski the illusion of obliqueness has meant that he can make the surface of the picture visible without allowing it to read simply as the forward plane of an object; so that in Clement Greenberg’s words, the surface “together with color . . . contrives an illusion of depth that somehow extrudes all suggestions of depth back to the picture’s surface; it is as if that surface, in all its literalness, were enlarged to contain a world of color and light differentiations impossible to flatness but which yet manage not to violate flatness.”

For Poons, the flight from the kind of frontality his own earlier pictures conspicuously exhibit still seems to rest in a content which the painting contains rather than a totally authoritative formal statement.

In Night Journey, the scumbled washes and stains of deep brown-green suffuse with yellow toward the center of the work and finally interlock with a red-violet field which possesses the right side of the picture. One both identifies the granular color with the surface which supports it and sees that surface in a sequence of relationships to the cluster of variegated ellipses suspended near the picture’s center. Because the ellipses themselves appear to be turned at different angles to the viewer’s plane of vision, but at the same time seem––no matter the degree of their illusioned turning––to be continuous with the flow of color in which they are immersed, the color surface itself reads in places as turned or slanted.

In this way the role that figuration (the ellipses) plays in these works is not different in kind from the role the much smaller color discs performed in Poons’s earlier work. There he used the contrast between points of color and a continuous, luminous field to heighten the kind of fluctuation present in the unmodulated expanses of color, which, in Barnett Newman’s art, created the illusion of an exclusively optical space. Characteristically there were two classes of these discs; the first was established by extreme color contrast; the second by a closeness in which he made any difference between the discs and the picture surface nearly invisible. (In the earliest pictures this second class was produced simply by the after-images elicited by the simultaneous contrast; later, it was actually registered by painted discs.) The two sets of figuration, by mutually inflecting each other––by seeming to change places with one another in front of or within the color-ground––pointed to the maneuverability of vision within the optical space, without resorting to a description of anything that resembled physical space. The discs, then, seemed to send out signals about how to read the almost totally unmodulated color field. It seems to me that in the new paintings, the ellipses retain this sign-character; and that what has changed for Poons is his willingness to accept and work within a resolutely frontal zone of color.

In the latest of his new paintings, Open Country, the field is divided into three sprayed and stained close-valued color areas: a yellow-orange panel on the right laid next to a zone of hot pink on the left, which gives way at the lower left corner to a rather clearly delimited wave of intense lavender. In Open Country, Poons is careful to locate his clusters of ellipses only at or near the two breaks, or areas of division, within the interior of the work. In this way the fictive positions of the large field of color can be manipulated as wholes rather than by an impulse toward illusion that is evenly nuanced throughout the painting and needs continual reaffirmation by drawing. Yet I found myself unconvinced by the painting which, in coming as close as it does to Olitski’s own work, seemed to be a kind of program for issues Poons is deeply involved with but of which he is not yet master.

––Rosalind Krauss