New York

Bruce Tippett

Betty Parsons Gallery

Bruce Tippett arbitrarily loops and buckles yards of wide, rubber floor-matting all around the gallery. Seen purely formally, as a colossal uncoiled strip, the work suggests that the giant artist “responsible” for Lichtenstein’s playful giant Brushstrokes has been at it again, his material this time not paint but a slightly more sinister black ribbon.

Tippett’s work also has less gargantuan connotations. It draws mildly on the urge we have to follow those brightly colored sidewalk footprints into the store. Since commonly used as an indoor path, matting implies the experience of walking, is read as “evidence” of walking. When that evidence is literally twisted and kinked far out of the ordinary, we read the experience as twisted and kinked too. In low-keyed fantasy our feet travel the matting’s path, in one eerie case straight up the wall to the ceiling.

Some might merely link Tippett’s use of a common object to Pop and his formal simplicity to Minimalism—and leave it at that. But his work raises a larger issue, the current restricted use of the term abstract. Until recently it was possible to ask a single time whether, granting the shadings, a work was abstract or figurative and get a useful answer. But now things have changed; the question must be asked twice. A Tippett is both abstract and not. Its final form is abstract—it lacks a referent in the real world. But its material is not; it is a full-fledged object in that world. The same can be said of, say, a mashed-car Chamberlain or a Flavin.

As currently used, the term abstract, applied as it is to form alone, is beginning to show its age. This is only natural, as it was first and long used at a time when the materials of painting and sculpture were largely given and neutral. But now, amid much healthy confusion, materials as an arena for wide choice are beginning to come into their own. The question “to what extent abstract” must be asked of them as well.

Jean-Louis Bourgeois