New York

Brenda Miller

Whitney Museum of American Art

Ordination or counting has characterized Brenda Miller’s sculpture for the last six years. Her earlier work was conceived in two parts—first, as a diagram or drawing, then the work was executed on the wall. Rope or sisal was cut in lengths corresponding to the numbers in the diagram and resembled a shag rug of thick and thin densities as the varying lengths of rope overlapped. Eventually she discovered that she no longer needed the sensual three-dimensionality of sisal spilling into space. She realized that her work had two major concerns: literal density and the process of making.

In 1973 she turned to the alphabet, one of the most complex, limited systems available. She chose commercial rubber stamps in a Roman typeface with their evocation of old-fashioned printing because of their linear qualities. She says, “I wanted to see what would happen if I used all these marks—a circle, a curve, a diagonal, a horizontal.” The plans or diagrams which generate the simple dark/light diamond or triangular quadrants within squares are an important aspect of the work. The lightest areas are designated by letters at the beginning of the alphabet and the darkest, through regular gradients, by letters at the end. Miller explains:

First, I use the alphabet in its own order, so there is A–Z in normal sequence. I then start again. On the second impression Z is eliminated. I keep eliminating the last letter until the entire alphabet is stamped in one place from A on top to Z on bottom.

One aspect of this type of work is the viewer’s credulity or belief that there actually are 26 letters laid on top of each other, though in the densest area this is not visually possible to ascertain. When I was helping Miller to execute a piece at the Graduate Center of the City University, I was terrified that I would make a mistake and stamp the wrong letter in a square, although I knew the square could be whited out and the layers rebuilt. At worst, it could be ignored in the hope no one would notice. When I could ignore the fear, stamping the piece on the wall became a rather meditative act. Like saying a mantra or any other repetitive activity which involves self-mesmerization, the moment arrives when the act of stamping comes to be about something more than a mere marking process. Viewers receive a finished product. If they are able to meet the demand of identification with the process of construction which the pieces place on them, it will have its intended impact.

The difficulty for me in this kind of work is that even knowing the making processes does not give a satisfying complexity to the work. Knowledge and experience do not prevent me from reading the final images as simple, seemingly light-struck, geometric shapes. Although it is an intellectually accepted truth that the invention of a system is equivalent to other forms of composition, as a viewer I rarely experience its validity. Making the piece was different. While putting it up, with thread plumblines sectioning off the areas to be stamped and the 26 rubber stamps in my hands, I felt it had as much vitality as any other form of artmaking. In receiving the final product, however, the viewer obviously has less to go on.

––Ann-Sargent Wooster