New York

Hanne Darboven

Sonnabend Gallery

Hanne Darboven, to paraphrase the title of Lucy Lippard’s article on her work, is still “deep in numbers.” In the combined spaces of Castelli (downtown) and Sonnabend Galleries she exhibited 24 songs on each floor, each group with its own index. The indexes took up about one wall each, the 24 songs most of the remaining space. The index only lays the process out, the songs fill it in. 24 Songs: Form B, the piece at Sonnabend, is based on 19, the curve of 100. Each index deals with three pairs of number which are 19 units apart; the seventh song for example deals with 8/26, 17/35, and 26/44, the eighth with 9/27, 18/36 and 27/45. Although I cannot explain here what goes on, it is possible to see all kinds of connections throughout the indexes and to begin to figure it out. The most obvious facts in this piece are that Darboven works with the first 24 letters of the alphabet, with the numbers 1–24 and with drawing, a repeating upward stroke like an unending “w” with a line drawn through it horizontally. There is a shifting balance between these three kinds of marking, and in the indexes in particular they alternate, one taking over the other. The alphabet loses out in the songs themselves and the shifts seem to be between drawing and numbers, with each song tending toward more drawing and the elimination of the numbers. It is as if the index sets up a procedure for each song, which in being carried out completes a circle and returns to the beginning, appearing at the end of each song to be a clear “staff” of sorts.

Regardless of how much can be grasped by persistent scrutiny, you only begin to figure it all out; it is impossible to decipher the piece conceptually within any reasonable length of time. Furthermore, it is impossible to see the entire piece at once either, to grasp any structure visually. You are forced, therefore, to skim through a narrative that cannot be completely followed and which forms a whole that cannot be completely perceived; frame after frame of Darboven’s fine beautiful handwriting, a rhythmic pattern, repeating blocks of letters, numbers and drawing. So you give in, are carried along and left hanging, implying a condescending mysticism: you are never allowed to get through and understand what has happened. The work has an obsessiveness which becomes hermetic and expressionistic, in the uninteresting sense that it seems to be done for the artist’s benefit and no one else’s. LeWitt’s work has sometimes seemed obsessive, but never really obscure because his ideas are single and obvious; the work is accessible. Furthermore, as I indicated in the previous issue, LeWitt’s recent wall drawings have achieved a structure which is more finite and comprehensible than before with a visual clarity which leads one directly into the conceptual nature of the piece. The most accessible sensation in Darboven’s work is the endlessness, the enforced, accumulating obscurity. The piece is actually not endless, but it does not suggest synthesis or concentration; all it does is reflect the activity itself. We remain more involved with Darboven than with the work, with what she does rather than with what the work, free of her, does.

Lippard’s interesting article on Darboven closed with the suggestion that, whether one likes or understands the processes or not, “the mesmeric sincerity and vigor of Darboven’s work can’t be avoided.” The “sincerity and vigor” are convincing, but I think the work must develop toward a more synthesized, accessible structure. What I find most disturbing about Darboven’s work is not the current lack of development, but the feeling that Darboven may, in fact, be getting exactly what she is after, that the obsession, being local, will not be absorbed or subverted by a larger ambition.

Roberta Smith