New York

“Process”, Theodoron Awards, Richard Van Buren, David Paul, Lynda Benglis, Chuck Close, Dan Christensen

Whitney Museum, Guggenheim Museum, Bykert Gallery, Emmerich Gallery

The Whitney Museum’s two new Associate Curators, Marcia Tucker and James Monte, assembled a show called “Anti-Illusion: Procedures/Materials” during May and June which was initial evidence of the Museum’s updated interest in giving a more specific showcase to radical contemporary work (aside from the institution’s regular painting and sculpture annuals). Included in this programmatic-sounding rubric was a week of extended time pieces—films, electronic music concerts, and motion-time performances—related in concept or method to the sculptures and other works installed in a (somewhat appropriate) clutter on the fourth floor of the Museum. Included were such diverse people as Robert Morris, Carl Andre, Bill Bollinger, Bruce Nauman, Barry Le Va, Robert Ryman, Keith Sonnier, Neil Jenney, Richard Tuttle, Robert Rohm, Eva Hesse, Rafael Ferrer, Lynda Benglis, John Duff, Michael Asher, Robert Lobe, Richard Serra, Joel Shapiro, and filmmakers Michael Snow and Robert Fiore, as well as composer-musicians Philip Glass and Steve Reich. Materials included flour dust, hay and grease, steel, poured latex, neon and glass, lead, styrofoam blocks, ice and dry leaves, invested money, dog food, rock, rubberized cheesecloth, and the human body. Above all the show was provocative, and since it was committed to so many younger, unknown artists its aim was certainly not to present a conclusive view of a cohesive movement. Such a welter of concepts and formal manifestations are bound to look confusing, and only certain features are shared, sometimes very marginally. There was an attempt to include so many people in so broad a view, that space did not allow for a really clear-sighted, organized installation.

One of the interesting problems in viewing the show was how the building itself affected the look and strength of the work. The dense structural integrity and the grand elegance of scale and material of Breuer’s building made some of these more humble works—with their deliberately inelegant, flimsily adhered, or bunched and distributed substances—look paltry, dumb in a small way, or merely insignificant.

In their catalog essays the curators point to one of the major differences between this and other museum shows: much of the work could not be seen in advance of the show. The venture represents a new kind of risk on the part of the exhibition directors, since they had to trust the creative instincts and conceptual confidence of many young, and some previously unexhibited artists, who place more importance on the act of conceiving and executing a work, than on the exact nature of the materials used or the object quality of that work (as Mr. Monte points out in his introduction to the catalog). Thus, it was not the specific work that was chosen in most cases, but, in effect, the artist—how he works within the context of a particular space, time span, or location, based on a projected (perhaps untested) esthetic position.

Historical figures whose precedents or influence are discerned behind these younger artists are not lacking, however. Robert Morris, who in his writings and teaching provided some of the theoretical foundation for connections between Pollock and a literalized use of materials, had organized an earlier showing at Castelli’s uptown warehouse, featuring several of the people also included here. Rauschenberg’s and Johns’s varied approaches to using materials in unorthodox, expanded formats are called to mind, as are Oldenburg’s soft sculptures and his environmental workings, as background for this currently anarchic-looking new work. Overall, these pieces are much less distinct as “stylistic” offerings, in that the artists choose to “slip around style” as Mr. Monte remarks, focusing more specific attention on time and place. This reliance on substance in situ, or on temporality, dissipates the traditional kinds of effects which mark the degree to which the art may be read as illusion, and therefore as styled.

A displayed act of execution leaves no room or time for illusionistic effects to intervene. Serra tosses molten, spattered lead against the wall and floor juncture; Ryman tacks big sheets of cardboard to the Museum wall and streaks them with white paint; Le Va spreads flour carefully onto a designated section of the floor; Ferrer heaps hay along with grease and steel slices against wall and floor; and Joel Shapiro staples coils of black dyed nylon filament directly onto the gallery wall. Materials may also disintegrate or change over a period of time, as Ferrer’s leaf and ice block piece melted at the entrance to the Museum, Morris’s documented money piece traced the interest accrued on funds borrowed for the duration of the exhibition, or Le Va’s flour dusting was slightly shifted by drafts or the movements of viewers in its vicinity. Michael Asher’s work was not even visible; its curtain of blown air forced one’s tactile perceptions to replace the anticipation of seeing something concrete. The artists’ refusal to objectify, to order and to construct permanently or solidly alters the conventional expectations for sculpture as something durable, discretely formed or built, balanced from part to part, or substantially refined in numerous ways. Though such a priori frameworks are being undermined or eliminated, curiously enough, the material itself may now demand a very personalized working, as Mrs. Tucker indicates in her essay. Direct, practical or functional relationships become more vital to the imaginative effort (since they are often denied, collapsed, or dissolved, as well) than the salience of formal, structural ones. Serra only leans his heavy sheets of soft lead against each other in a precariously balanced house of cards; Hesse molds and weaves latex and fibrous extrusion, or she drapes rubberized gauze over fiberglass poles in a tall gawky curtain which has a strangely anthropomorphic look; Lobe joins rubber matting, boards, springs, and fringes of rope into totally non-practical conglomerates; and Sonnier adheres lint-like flocking to a sagging sheet of latex, or he wraps neon tubes in spirals around glass or silver spotlight bulbs, radiations of a state barely embodied before it’s dissolved in counter-reflections or light.

The more gestural aspects of some of the works are also demonstrated in ways that emphasize again how few unifying esthetic propositions may be deduced from the exhibition as a whole. Bollinger simply had a one-and-a-half-ton boulder (from the World Trade Center excavation site) deposited on the gallery floor. Duff’s lightweight, amateurish bent wood and nylon tied structures have an athletically gestural resilience to their arcs and cross-weavings, while Nauman asks the viewer to experience his own body passing through the narrow channel formed between two wallboard flats. Jenney, who has previously combined several unesthetic materials into environmental contexts, was allowed to indulge in a rather self-consciously novel setup incorporating his own humorous metaphoric paintings in series, and bowls of dog food (the media sensationalized it gleefully).

The tougher features of the exhibition appeared in works that seemed to be more aware of themselves as conceptual vehicles for materials and time. Jenney’s loosely conceived bizarre “environment” looked a little infantile, in spite of its oddity, when compared to the sophistication of the concert performances by Glass and Reich, or the powerfully affective film experience provided by Michael Snow. Both composers are concerned with actual time in their music—Glass, with his extremely beautiful-sounding electric organ pieces, Reich with his tensely repetitive pendulum, microphone, arid keyboard pieces—which have no formal beginnings, ends, or middles. The music is heard, as Mrs. Tucker expresses, with the heightened “sense of an isolated present.” In Snow’s film (he has also been seen in New York as a sculptor) the real duration of simple events and persistent, single-minded views of a scene manipulated to a limited degree do away with the illusion of time created by normal narrative exposition. His use of the movie as a medium makes the viewer perceptively aware of the film itself, and of its specific function as a moving and pictorial record, in the most acutely physical and cinematic manner. Nauman’s films of himself walking in circles playing a mal-tuned violin, walking back and forth in the studio, or balancing along a drawn line, and his performance of three people bouncing out of separate corners for an hour at the Museum, concentrated on the repetition of a physical gesture, the weight of the body as a thing, or on a sensation of sustaining something over a monotonously extended period of time. His uninflected use of these gestures can make even a minute seem endlessly unenhanced, yet also oddly more interesting for this outlook on the body as an object moving in very conscious, particular ways through and in time.

The rate at which trends and developments change in art is frighteningly quick and recognizably volatile these days. It has usually been left to the museums to follow up on new work or radical concepts long after their vitality has been spent or their substance transformed or discarded. On the one hand, this allows for history and consensus to make their long-term, well-considered evaluations, but on the other, it turns the museum into a too-familiar morgue for acceptable mediocrity. The Whitney hasn’t been innocent of this pattern in its years of conservative direction, but that its new curators were able to coordinate, within a rather short time after their arrival, an exhibition which was relevant to the most current preoccupations of a considerable group of artists, is credit to a boldness and awareness beyond mere trend-following.

With the exception of sculptor Richard Serra’s lead sheet and prop setups, the Guggenheim Museum’s showing of nine young artists selected for Theodoron Awards was a feeble looking affair. The Theodoron is an anonymous foundation “committed to the promotion of young and relatively unknown (international) creative talent.” The choices were made by Edward Fry and Diane Waldman, Associate Curators at the Museum. Five sculptors and four painters were included: Serra, plus painters Dan Christensen and Peter Young, James Seawright and the elusive Bruce Nauman from the U.S.; Barry Flanagan, a British sculptor, joined by painter John Walker; Gilberto Zorio, an Italian concerned with process and phenomena demonstrations; Gerhard Richter with his trompe l’oeil pictures from Germany. It is granted that almost nothing can overcome the steep incline of the Museum’s uppermost ramps, and the cramping of the exhibition space, but when the work is weak overall, the issue of quality is almost deadened before it can be given a chance. Even Serra’s more impressively assured pieces looked awkward and crowded on the leveled-out platforms which he was obliged to construct in order to install the work properly. Although I returned to the exhibition several times, I never found out what Bruce Nauman’s entire contribution was (it seemed to be largely defunct), except for a small square of steel drilled with a centered hole, resting almost unnoticed on the floor. Several videotape films listed in the catalog were not shown, for some reason. What was most disappointing was that much of the work, while it looked genuinely interesting, even provocative at first sight, seemed to fizzle out after extended viewing.

Flanagan and Zorio shared that kind of instant initial spark, but then I found the pieces oddly flaccid, almost puerile in their vacuity and bland pretension. Flanagan piles and stacks loosely stuffed hot-dog-shaped tubes of burlap in colors like mustard, purple, blue, and orange—folding flat sheets of the fabric, tying it into small neat bundles, or standing it up in the form of stiff, cartoonish trunks scattered on the floor. The materials are decoratively used to trump up so-called anti-formal or casual arrangements (which they are not). Zorio, on the other hand, demonstrates a functional or materialistic machismo that never quite fulfills its own hefty promise. Cinder blocks wired with heavy electric cord and spotlights, an iron grillwork “bed” draped with a sheet of hammered lead, or two roughly formed lead pans containing acid solutions which provide an electrolytic ion exchange through an arch of copper fed from one to the other, are the devices which supposedly allow natural processes to evolve and react with little control by the sculptor himself. A very self-conscious approach to using such materials robs them of that desired self-timed or inherent “happening” which is supposed to occur within the pieces. So that if they are meant to assume another state of their own accord, what Zorio has done merely to set them up is experienced as a rather heavy-handed and a priori overdevelopment.

That Serra had to work against contextual gravity seemed to offer him a challenge which he relished for its contrarity; the way in which the lead sheets and rolled poles had to fight against themselves as well as the slant of the building structure to maintain their formations stressed the particular volatility of both process and state which are at the basis of the acting relationships holding the works together. Though the lead flats and poles are arrested in what looks like a single step in a concentrated effort of motion (they are not soldered or jointed together permanently), they are active on the space around them, often, through that sensed possibility of imminent formal disintegration. The seven works, whose titles are most descriptive of what they do (Sign Board Prop, Floor Pole Prop, Shovel Prop, Plate Pole Prop, Close-Pin Prop, Two Plate Prop, and Right Angle Prop), illustrate in a graphic way the variations of force which can be applied and obtained with in the uniformity of the given material. The look is uningratiating, and largely unimportant—it is the execution which is programmed in the most lucid, permutable manner. The work in itself—the sense of the thing as an art object, a demonstration of forces, a Zen-like axiomatic proposition—is less significant than the fact that a statement about the temporality of that work has been made, though the statement does not remain in a purely conceptual or diagrammed state. The piece is only material information, which deliberately makes the viewer aware of its dispensability, of its impermanent embodiment, and of the further potential or limitations of the substance, used in a variety of active conditions.

What becomes perplexing to me about this evidence of process and exposition is that very sense of acting out, which is both skeleton and flesh in Serra’s work. One feels that something is missing, not just minimized, in spite of the forcefulness with which relationships and invention have been represented. What seems to be lacking in these enactments is the sense of the work being crucial to or inside of itself. What I mean here is that although one often sees that the artist’s intention has been elucidated in a tough, and really quite beautiful way, the works themselves are insinuated as merely shells of information. They threaten to devaluate their own objectification to a degree that questions, and may denigrate even the propositional nature of their formation. The work disdains itself, so that a state of matter or energy to which it refers may have no reason for actualized presence. While Serra’s pieces have not quite reached this extreme, he seemed to recognize the impending dilemma when he and the composer Philip Glass executed an anti-environmental “situation” piece on a plot of land in Loveladies, Long Beach Island, New Jersey, during July, 1969. A simple word recorded at intervals and distributed over the 30 acres was used to cancel out the overall experience of the place (and vice versa), so that a positive assertion of a self-negating dialogue was made. This is one way that the lead prop works seem to operate in his thinking as well.

John Walker’s paintings, the big Lesson 6, and the other, smaller, more horizontal trapezoid hung low on the wall, Two, both looked uncompromising and tough in their complexity. Combining scraped, stroked, sprayed, and textured surfaces with partially three-dimensional and partially flattened images and areas on shaped, almost blackboard canvases, Walker calls attention to the surface of the picture. The clearly demarcated painting-as-object is then seen as a modulated topography of characters and textures, rather than as primarily an ambiguous space. But he works in a manner which ends up being a bit confusing and even studied; the apparently loosely spontaneous paint work stiffens, and the conflict between the varied materiality of surface, and the painting itself as a thing gets obscured through its own extrapolation. Where Walker seems to work by the trial and error of a painterly instinct trying to keep pace with a shaping probably alien to his own sensibility, Gerhard Richter exhibits a cerebral, intellectual penchant in his use of surreal expressionism. Passage, one of the more fascinating paintings in the exhibition, is a set of window-like panels framed in white, with ghostly reflections or shadows of these framed divisions appearing within the confines of the same panels. More photographically derived are his Alpine and Moon Landscapes, abstracted black and white fragments which seem to reproduce sections of scenic views of geological formations filtered through frigid, colorless dreams.

In late May and June the Bykert Gallery held one of its most drastically varied and exciting group shows to date, with some new multi-part fiberglass wall sculptures by Richard Van Buren, sprayed vinyl paintings by David Paul, poured latex by Lynda Benglis, and a photo-realistic painting by Chuck Close (the latter three exhibiting for the first time in New York). All of these artists share a certain overt concern with the literalized exposure of process in their work, and as such, relate to the young sculptors featured in the Whitney’s “Procedures/Materials” show (Benglis was to have shown one of her pieces in that show, but it proved impossible to install there). These artists are also involved in an attack on the traditional view of painting and sculpture as distinct or discrete media. Their work represents some rather interesting (though not uniformly successful) alternatives to the use of the conventional fields within which these media have formerly operated. Three-dimensional space, orientation to floor or wall planes, pictorial space, representation, and devalued objecthood are a number of the things which are explored and reorganized with freshness and innovation here.

Miss Benglis spills skeins of liquid rubber in a freely flowing, twining mass directly onto the floor of the exhibition space, mixing fluorescent oranges, chartreuse, day-glo pinks, greens, and blues, allowing the accidents and puddlings of the material to harden into a viscous mal. The outer contours trace the natural flow of the latex and define the amoeba-like but self-contained field of this strange and startlingly colored spread. The method by which the piece was (non)formed is thus actually objectified, while the events and timing of its process are congealed. But somehow, the piece does not quite manage to fully justify its own material objectification or procedure—either as an ambivalent kind of object, or as a tangible painting which seeks to establish its own independent field. It is not strong enough as that protoplasmic mat, even though the matter and method have been so strikingly singularized; nor does it hold its own as a kind of painting entirely freed from an auxiliary ground or armature. But still, its impact remains as disturbing and stubbornly challenging as much of the other work in the show. Its irresolution suggests some of the conceptual and methodological problems which concern Miss Benglis: aiming to reconstitute one’s perception of the art object, she has not yet clearly realized her own conception of exactly what it is that she is making to elicit that radical reorganization of visual, mental, or somatic responses. This is the general weakness of the other works also, as much as they do manage to unsettle.

One of the initial confusions one encounters in viewing Van Buren’s multi-part wall piece is whether to perceive the whole as a complex all-over pictorial image, or whether to avoid such configurational reading, and to simply experience the many separate suspended fiberglass sections as distributed matter. The natural variations in the color of the translucent material (clear, caramel tan, graphite and charcoal grey, dark resiny brown) woven through and hung on fibrous strands, as well as the erratic and free shaping of these loopy, crawling forms, contribute to the effect of material emphasis. Now that he has developed a more satisfying way to work with the inherent qualities of fiberglass, Van Buren seems to be finding his way back to the San Francisco funk type of expressionism that animated some of his earliest stuffed and painted works, exhibited on the West Coast shortly after his art school days. It is difficult, however, to read this mass of quirkily contoured and randomly distributed fragments as the related pieces of some picture-like whole. These irregular and variegated parts extend the artist’s previous moves away from the solid-state, inert geometric mode in which he had worked for a few years while involved with the Park Place Gallery, and with a more Minimal style.

David Paul crumples, folds, and twists a sturdy clear vinyl sheeting, then sprays one side of it with colors reminiscent of picture postcards glorifying the sunsets over the Grand Canyon or the Southwest’s picturesque geological strata; or at their most ethereal, they suggest the iridescent linings of clouds or the hot pastel blues and oranges of prints by Maxfield Parrish. Somehow, this oddly delicate color sense does not lack a sense of humor, and it is well integrated with the artist’s evident at traction to the artificiality of the plastic as a surface and as a material with which to work. Stretched out flat machine stitched around the edges of their large, vertically rectangular formats, and stapled directly onto the opaque white wall, these paintings create the subtly layered illusion of a topographical space. That is, one knows quite certainly just how flat this painting-object is by its obvious (though unarmatured) tautness, and by its installation flush with the wall plane, but the reflectivity of its surface, its sheen, and the slightly volumetric effect of the sprayed crumpling, combine to question and readjust each reading or viewing of the work.

Some of the paler paintings seem to crackle or flicker gently like heat lightning, others are denser and more manneristic in pattern and coloring, and some seem to flutter like chiffon drapery. The perceptible activity generated in such an obviously shallow, compressed, non-atmospheric space is intricate beyond the actual and recognizably simple material condition of the vinyl, stitched, then stapled onto a wall. The plastic reflects light so bluntly, and even glaringly, that it has a way of pulling one’s eye away from the sensuous, swirling configurations very suddenly and abruptly, as if to reassert its presence as just a piece of plastic tacked onto a flat plane. Paul is still experimenting with a variety of ways to use the vinyl with different paints, dyes and patterning, so that the synthetic thinness of some of the works is only testimony to this early uncertainty and trial. His conception of the painting as an ambivalently defined, even recessive object is ahead of the total means he has found to really claim that area of definition. It is as if the execution (as fine, carefully considered, and lovely as it is already) has not yet caught up with the implications of the artist’s bolder conception of the art he is making. Considering that this is the painter’s first showing, one isn’t too worried about this last point; the indications of an intelligent sensibility at work are ample.

Equally encouraging, and as startling as Lynda Benglis’ volcanic flow of colors on the floor of the same gallery room, was the one painting by Chuck Close, a giant black and white portrait-copy of a photograph. It depicts the face of a tousle-haired boy wearing glasses, a scruffy beard, and a myopically impassive expression on his face.

Close’s method is the converse of the (naive) historical aim of making painted realism as accurate as the photograph’s. Instead, he approximates the realism of the photograph itself as closely as possible. But in this painted verisimilitude of the snapshot close-up, now fantastically blown up to gigantic proportions (about 8 feet high), he still reverts to a curiously typical Americanism—the reliance on the photographic to carry the conviction of the image. And yet this new literalism is an interestingly inverted (if second-hand) conversion of that particular aspect of our indigenous tradition. Because the effect of the scale has so transformed the impact of the photographic print image, one gets lost in the profusion of markings (not as action brushwork, nor as sensuous surface) on the canvas at very close range. When one moves farther back the visage becomes more distinct and sensible, the method-markings dissolve, and the sheer size of that still, impassive face encompasses the viewer in a different, yet more gripping way. Distance does not make for distance. That is the most intriguing thing about the work: the closeness of the image is insistent at any point near or far away from the canvas itself. The viewer’s depth of focus is not allowed quite the same differentiations as the camera/painter’s own distinctions.

The exhibition is symptomatic of the variety of options young artists are affording themselves currently. Though each of the people featured here has produced an entirely different kind of art, they are all significantly dedicated to the continuing vitality of both painting and sculpture—whose boundaries may be crossed and blended provocatively, to evoke a new, sometimes lyrical or slightly evasive, sometimes blatant kind of expressiveness. Considerations of style become less important than material affect and conceptual emphasis. If the works sometimes suffer from an imbalance of these factors, it is simply because they do offer some puzzling, not yet resolvable problems to the resourcefulness and imagination of both the artists and the viewer.

A sizable cross section of DAN CHRISTENSEN’s work from the past season has been available for viewing in several recent exhibitions: the Corcoran Biennial in February and March, his first one-man show at the Emmerich Gallery in May, and in the Guggenheim Museum’s May and June Theodoron Awards group show. I found many of the works disappointing in their qualitative decline from the assurance and well-heeled lyricism of earlier sprayed loop paintings like KS, 1967, at the Guggenheim, and also seen last May at the Goldowsky Gallery. The newer works evidence a softer, relaxed approach to the use of air-gun drawing, but their more discernible weakness appears in their “off the top of the head” superficiality, which is nevertheless distinct from the deliberate pictorial aim of buoyancy and lightness. White primed or colored grounds in flushed hazy blends like purple/teal/viridian green are oversprayed with floating filaments which seem to lie in an alternately magnified and distanced, but also shallow space. Christensen’s virtuosity lies in the way in which he can interweave these voluptuous serpentine fibers (or sometimes bars and blocks) with the drifts of color, so that a weightless but thinly layered atmospheric space is evoked. This interplay between the image/configuration as a hallucinatory facade, and the field as an effulgent space is admirably achieved in the big red-blue rectangle Serpens (at Emmerich), where the soft-focus of the spraying and the vaguely dissolved linear edges contrast so beautifully with the lush, even biting brilliance of color. The looseness and indistinction of the trails with their aimless asymmetry is still nicely controlled here, as it is in Mira, a yellow-grounded vertical picture in which the searing color of the field makes the diffident filaments tingle with a slow electricity.

Taking off from the radiance of Rothko’s box-like light containers, and no less from Pollock’s all-over dripped lines, Christensen prefers to juggle more erratically and freely with the roles of figure-ground or those of color-light, constantly obliterating the distinction between them as separate (or even palpable) entities. However, some of the pictures tend to look fragmentary in spite of the general commitment to an all-over (but more off-hand) distribution of image. Several recent works have concentrated more obviously on the manner in which the fibrous fuzzy lines relate to, touch, or run off the edges of the fields (though they have nothing to do with Olitski’s exploration of the edge in relation to a sprayed expanse of color). But these more exclusively linear pictures, like Dorado (May ’68) or Caph (at Emmerich, ’69) look either compulsively tangled, or so eased out that the image does not manage to hold to the large scale of the canvas with confidence, while it also fails to thoroughly engage (or congeal within) its space. The dissolution of contours and ground plane which can work so successfully in paintings like Serpens, in these or other works leaves a field awash in its own vacancy; a drugged and lovely expressionism is thus set adrift, a kind of homeless headiness in search of its own pictorial cause.

Like many other younger painters working currently in New York, Christensen is involved with a reformulation of and reaction to the more aggressively organized and colored abstract paintings of the sixties. His many paintings exhibited so far this year display a talent which is richer and more subtly complex than much of what I have seen in galleries or studios during the past season, though it is still not always under intelligent control. The apparently fluid ease with which Christensen can paint sometimes allows him to slip into a merely passive, unstable-looking expressiveness. And it is deceptive because it is so sensually attractive, and because even the precarious nature of the images and their soft pastel coloration seem more intentional than gratuitous. It is obvious that he has many veins of work in progress simultaneously, and one hopes that the necessity or pressure to exhibit will not get in the way of a restless and confident imagination.

Emily Wasserman