New York

Ken Greenleaf

Ken Greenleaf, like Michael Steiner, is one of a large number of artists for whom art history seems to stop in the mid-’60s. Or, if that’s not the right way to put it, for whom Anthony Caro’s example—a modernist, pictorial elimination of real space—remains a viable option for sculpture in the 1970s. I have suggested elsewhere that it doesn’t, and that Caro’s own most recent work tells us why (Artforum, September, 1973). Briefly, I feel that the sort of sculpture now made by Greenleaf and the others turns out, after the articulate ambivalence achieved by Caro in his work of the mid-’60s, to be entirely about self-enclosure. It is my opinion that this represents a retreat from a more ambitious view of sculpture developed, at the same time as Caro’s, by Andre, Judd, Serra, and Smithson.

One can see why Carovian art should get a good press from a writer like Kenneth Baker, who seems to take Stanley Cavell very seriously indeed. Cavell says that co-presence with a work of art is very like co-presence with a person. Both works of art and people are “discrete”—intact, self-sufficient—entities,which seem to “intend” meaning in a related way. There is a sense in which one couldn’t disagree with this, but one may draw different conclusions while doing so.

If sculpture is at all “like a person” then—to go to Krauss rather than Wittgenstein—it is imaginable that, like people, art can become alienated with rather than from its class. Greenleaf’s work is successful in what it seeks to do. His sculpture is more directly allusive to the figure than Caro’s, and involves a more equal distribution of horizontal and vertical tensions because of that. The work proposes an entirely abstract manipulation of the space it occupies, achieved through a Cubist rhetoric of angled planes. The system is self-sufficient in a way that involves drawing one’s attention away from the material emphasis of the steel—in the course of one’s contemplation of the planes—so that the space of the sculpture, too, may be detached from our own. Unfortunately, the effect that this has on one in a time educated by the American sculpture of the—later—’60s is to make Greenleaf’s work look discrete in another sense, which is to say self-effacing—tasteful—and, thereby, ornamental. Greenleaf’s work, and that of the artists to whom he asks to be compared, undertakes the manipulation of a vocabulary irrevocably undermined by the work of—in particular—Robert Smithson. Geoffrey Hartman, in Beyond Formalism (New Haven, 1970, p. 160), says that “If we insert [Weekend] into a history of the concept of form, we would have to say that, for Godard, form was less important than its violation.” And one could adapt this remark to fit Smithson virtually by direct substitution. Greenleaf, on the other hand, is concerned to maintain an idea of formal resolution which has now acquired the look not of a universal but a particular, a social myth that employs a language of illusionism—a class of thought that looks increasingly like the thought of a class.

Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe