Princeton

“Line As Language: Six Artists Draw”

Princeton University Art Museum

Robert Morris exhibited a piece in “Line as Language: Six Artists Draw,” at Princeton, which seems directed toward a further elaboration of his concern with the metonymic reflexiveness of space and time, and of institutional impersonality and autobiography. Light-Codex Artifacts 1 (Aquarius) (1974) is a wall-sized drawing made in a way analogous to the method employed in the new drawings he’s currently exhibiting at the Castelli and Sonnabend Galleries, that have to do with temporal measurement. Imposed on the surface—in the form of an arrangement of pushpins—is a map of the Aquarius constellation, Morris’ astrological sign. Biographical signification is in this way juxtaposed with the work’s literal parameters, added to it but still separate from the surface insofar as the location of the pushpins isn’t a response to the drawing itself. This is what I mean when I say that Morris is concerned with the reflexiveness of an institutional terminology, on the one hand, and autobiography on the other. Even when he keeps the two emphatically separate, as he does here, a sort of Wittgensteinian connection between the two emerges, the connection I’d propose by saying that, for Morris, the individual is the product of an institutional vocabulary.

The map provided by the pushpins reads as a personal document that goes beyond Morris’ biography to refer to the work of Jasper Johns, an important figure in his development and, as such, an important institutional resource. As one recognizes the pushpins as a map, one is reminded of Johns’ dymaxion map. The vaseline and graphite—a combination which may or may not stand for an iconographic juxtaposition of sexual and artistic, personal and institutional, ritual—that Morris uses approximate the materiality of Johns’ encaustic surface; and they are applied with a squeegee in a way reminiscent of that artist’s Devised Curve. The separateness of the performer and the space in which he performs is for Morris a separateness that doesn’t erode or qualify communicability because, for him, the individual voice is no more than a particular product of speech. The tension in his work is between a specific and a general publicness, not a private self and a public institution. This makes it possible for Morris to maintain an interest in temporality that doesn’t erode the atemporality necessary to sculpture. “Sculpture” thus becomes a manipulation of metonym—of the alternation of correlates—which occurs in real space and depends on the equal—simultaneous—access of both alternates. This, too, seems to mean that Morris can pursue a rhetoric able to publicly subvert itself in the interests of a more comprehensive clarification of its own terminology, and by extension, of the terminology of the world at large. I recently read that: “[Erich] Fromm tells us that human character is never insulated from the society in which character is formed, but he has no way of describing how this transaction between a person and his milieu occurs” (Richard Sennett, New York Review of Books, April 18, 1974).

Morris, perhaps, is interested in using an institutional vocabulary to provide a model for that transaction.

The other five artists in the Princeton show were Sol LeWitt, Mel Bochner, Dorothea Rockburne, Richard Serra, and Richard Tuttle.

LeWitt’s piece can’t be fully described here because it relies on an accompanying text that’s irreducible, not to say a bit impenetrable. A cross is drawn on each of two adjacent white walls. One cross is made by finding the center of the wall, the other by an incredibly complicated inductive measuring of the wall that’s described on the card pinned alongside to the tune of a sentence 436 words long. The work is called, The Location of Points: 2 Wall Drawings.

LeWitt has always been a problem for me because of his work’s absolute identification of sculpture and drawing with architectural space and syntax, at a time when architecture’s—apparently obligatory—continuing commitment to an idealist formalism has turned the discipline into a reactionary protagonist rather than the mother of the arts. Or, as some of course might say, perhaps that’s what a mother is. Nonetheless, it’s precisely this—for me—problematic aspect of his work that confirms LeWitt’s importance, which derives from the ability to apply an open system to a specific and literal space, to equate drawing with an act of measurement in the real world. The relationship between the system and the space, though, is disconcertingly analogous to that between a fresco’s composition and the architectural specifics of the wall in the High Renaissance—there is the suggestion. that drawing depends on architecture’s prior mediation of the context. Even though that prior mediation may propose a set of constraints that can’t be challenged within the work itself.

Interestingly Bochner and Rockburne’s adoption of a closed system—perhaps initially a response to the openness of LeWitt’s—doesn’t sever the work’s connection of their work with an idealist logic that I’d want to call Classicist. Even though it neutralizes the architectural space in which the works are located rather than—as LeWitt does—drawing one’s attention to it. And I’d want to say that there’s something problematic about the adoption of a way of working that seems uncritical—at some level—of the general idea of classicism. Classicism is a product of history that wants to think ahistorically—nowadays, through tautology—and is in that respect profoundly antimaterialist. Because of that, it is to some a mythical vocabulary of dwindling credibility.

Not that this point detracts from the more salient one that these artists represent the most conventionally “high” ambition around, exactly because of their fundamental allegiance to a classicist position. Their work has been thoroughly discussed in these pages over the last several years by Robert Pincus-Witten and Rosalind Krauss. Krauss organized the Princeton show and wrote a catalogue essay for it that follows from the one she published in this magazine last November. I differ from these writers only in that I think the Minimalism or post-Minimalism, as it’s represented in the work of LeWitt, Bochner, and Rockborne, has a problematic aspect which the critics most responsive to their work have chosen to ignore, no doubt because it isn’t very important. I feel that the work of these artists amounts to a Classicist subversion of materialism, a tacit resurrection of the notion of universal values in opposition to the provisional ones of history, in terms whose physicality suggests impermanence. Eg., the graphite and carbon paper of Rockburne’s Milan Piece, the scattered newspaper of Bochner’s Theory of Painting. One reason why my point may not be very important, though, is that to some extent it can be turned around. The juxtaposition of an idea—a tautology—with a real space is itself fundamentally disruptive of perceptual assumptions that expect ideas to be made of a different kind of stuff than things. That’s the sense in which LeWitt, Bochner, and Rockburne may be said to criticize the Classicist position from within.

Richard Serra’s contribution to the show, Drawings from Circuit (1971), is interesting for its use of a kind of cinematic organization of frames—separate and sequential points of view—to map out the variety of sight lines contained in the sculpture of the same name. Serra’s work depends so much, however, on the visual communication of a specific materiality—his application of Andre’s example—that his drawings, beautiful though they may be, don’t usually hold my interest for very long. A schematic account of spatial displacement doesn’t have the ability to dislocate perception that the displacement itself does, when it’s real space that’s being displaced.

To return to what may be a function of my personal critical myopia, I seem to disagree with just about everyone whose opinion I respect when it comes to Richard Tuttle’s wire pieces, first planned a couple of years ago. They use a length of wire, a drawn line of the same length which begins and ends at the points where the wire touches the wall, and the wire’s shadow to provoke one into consideration of the conventionality of linear tension. In other words, Tuttle employs a pun to remind one that pictorial use of linearity presumes, traditionally, the absence of real space, but in a way that’s academic rather than profound. Tuttle, in these works, seems to me to be engaged in an attack on a paper tiger of his own creation. A tradition that aims to deconstruct the conventional discontinuity between the virtual space of line and the real world in which line doesn’t exist—although things that are linear, like wire, do—has now advanced too far for Tuttle’s synthetic response to Leonardo’s famous observation that line doesn’t exist in nature to be read as much more than the concretization of a truism. To me, Tuttle’s wire pieces indicate only that our current interest in tautology—which is used to unite a conventionalized impersonality with an ideologically loaded claim for ahistoricality—is as inherently liable as any other interest to generate a new orthodoxy. And orthodoxy is always the opposite of authenticity, while—as Adorno has shown—inclined to share its jargon.

Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe