Nothing, it seems, can stop American art’s flirtation with function. Stylistic bankruptcy or some obscure collective passion has already produced mock furniture, unwearable clothes and uninhabitable buildings. One of many justifications for Janet Kardon’s important “Machineworks” is a shift of emphasis. Implicit in “Machineworks” is the proposition that in the ’80s the Duchampian rite of passage will constitute an analysis of the notes to the Large Glass, and that the way forward will be found less in what it says than in what it does.

Apollinaire believed that Duchamp could reconcile art with its public. Resembling sets for street theater, Vito Acconci’s recent works seem to share this ideal. After registering and exploring his own physical existence. Acconci traced his own motives for narcissism by means of public risk-taking. His latest sculptures deal with the self in society. They interpret “politics” in a general sense—not whom to vote for but whom to trust. Machine for Living in Philadelphia is a house in five sections, lifted in three stages by a pair of swings. Black with a pink interior, the structure rises into the air like a triumphal arch, exposing the word “fuck” spelled out inside. One of an informal series, it takes its place alongside Mobile Home, 1980, and Movable Floor, 1979, and Instant House, Trailer Camp and Sliding Doorway, 1980–81, each presenting a visual proverb. Mobility is offset by permanence, work by play, use by uselessness. Yet definitions fluctuate constantly. Finally a nomadic, troubleshooting ethic is expressed in a series of taunts. Though these new works recall Beuys, his work is based on a systematized philosophic schema, while Acconci is struggling to reintroduce revolutionary politics and the ideal of the artist-hero at a time when the avant-garde seems to have renounced its political beliefs. Though Acconci is a necessary artist, it could be that his refusal to move beyond the role of agent provocateur is a mere compromise. Admittedly he has moved from navel-gazing to muscle-flexing, but perhaps that is not such a giant step after all.

According to Robert Smithson, his sole conversation with Duchamp was restricted to a single remark. Smithson said, “I see you’re into alchemy”; Duchamp said he was. Regarded in Duchampian terms, Dennis Oppenheim’s Occasion for Expansion—A Combat of Structural Projections takes as its theme the alchemical pneuma. Plastic piping connects a box, a balloon and a pile of inner tubes. In addition Oppenheim marshals battalions of chimneys and drains, drones and flageolets, cylinders and turbines; some inflate the balloon, which reaches a state of pathetic flaccidity before expansion ceases and the air is dispersed. Making machines has revealed a formal inventiveness previously untapped in Oppenheim’s work. It has also permitted him to summarize earlier preoccupations—an obsession with invisible forces directed through constricting passageways or template; a need to locate inspiration, itself a breath metaphor; a desire to splice together gross physicality and the evocation of ecstatic experience; a morbid fixation with the death of the body and the loss of the power of art. His odd switches of scale; his double and triple focus, evident in multiple titling; his hit-or-miss approach and utter disregard for rationality make him a disturbing figure, more prophet than artist. Occasion for Expansion shows him in an unusually jokey mood, paying homage to Claes Oldenburg. Little “combat” is evident. Nor is the literary program that accompanies the machine—the supposed use—easily perceptible. It exists primarily as a rhapsody on thin air.

Henri-Pierre Roché said that Duchamp’s greatest achievement was his employment of time. The same could be said of Alice Aycock. Her greatest machine is her career, a last-ditch distortion of Minimalism by the addition of fiction, quotation, content, illustration, high emotion, expressivity and additive—though also arbitrary—progression. In her installation From the Series Entitled “The Miraculating Machine: Mock Suns and Halos ’Round the Moon,” an enormous spiral track towers over a construction that contains three glass disks, one horizontal and two vertical; two rotating, wired cymbals; images drawn from atom smashers; and a flywheel revolving crazily, high above the heads of onlookers. They operate either by electricity generated from within or by mesmeric power; since 1979 Aycock has taken a particular interest in that phase of history when the outdated, fallacious concept of “ether” was believed, since it made certain equations turn out correctly, and was even thought to be responsible for spiritualist phenomena. Aycock is a master of what Ezra Pound called phanopoeia, the “thrownness” of images one upon the other, which he considered the prime characteristic of poetry. Aycock combines references to machines used for the treatment of the insane during the 19th century with early experimental electrical generating systems, as well as primitive chronometers, arrangements for grinding lenses—Duchamp’s “glass work”—and a lot more, to make her own machine. In her fictional universe, the barriers of life and death, history and individual identity, are suspended by a power to which her machine corresponds. Its movement is art—a memory, an incantation and a prayer.

Parodying both the spurious containment of formalism and the humdrum existence of the humble lever, all these machines are preeminently masturbatory—all a machine needs is a little regular attention and a lot of grease, wrote Carl Sandburg—recalling Duchamp’s obsession with spermatic waste and his equal though opposite distaste for mucky paint. For Acconci, Aycock and Oppenheim, the status of the machine parallels that of the artwork. They both exist on any variety of levels—as maquette or scale model, aid for demonstration or a conflation of any of these. Just as important is the status of the machine as visual equivalent of a thought process, as a point of stasis in the sequence of thought that will produce superseding devices.

Having broken every rule of minimalism in favor of a range of opposed activities, the choice for all three artists is to deploy some eclectic combination of existing forces. One of an artist’s prerogatives is to comment ironically on the relationships between the planes of meaning of which their work is compounded. In a machinework these are aligned with the planes of the work’s own existence. Thus Acconci provides what seems at first a tool, then an allegorical statement about the relation of work to profit and leisure, by means of an enactment of this relation. By tilting invisible reflecting mirrors he can both promote audience reaction and comment on it from within the work. Since Oppenheim (for whom the machine gestalt offers a welcome stay to his natural impetuosity) constructs a tone-poem for which the obvious accompaniment is a written explanation, his subtext is the solid as scapegoat, doltishly unaware of powers that can shoot, annihilate or change it. It is the banana skin for pratfalls. Though these are best avoided, detours take us a farcically long-way around, drawing attention to the skin at every point as we go.

Aycock, the only artist working at full tilt in “Machineworks,” can only improve her ground, having set in motion the most conceivably complex “spectrum of categories”—her term, borrowed from Yvonne Rainer. Her subtexts are legion. One is a witty update of Gotthold Lessing’s Laocöon, encapsulating other updates as well. The relation between object and drawing, fiction and autobiographical fact, dream and the workaday world, and the relation of each of these to the other—in short, between an idea embodied and an idea stated—is a topic that can take a lot of punishment. Secure in her faith that all art aspires to the condition of narrative, Aycock will whip it and whip it good. William James wrote of reality as an ascending scale of levels; Aycock wants all levels simultaneously. The Duchampian principle of use, not meaning, decrees that definition is the sum of definitions, including one’s own definition. So Aycock’s odyssey involves every preceding stage. Support or denial, an internal dialectic, is brought about by constant reshuffling. The machines for miraculating deny the machines for making the world, since they destroy matter, not create it. And in her sculpture the machines themselves neither make nor unmake, but exist as neutral apparatuses that do as they’re told.

“Machineworks” has the air of a collaborative effort. Yet differences outweigh purely visual similarities. If the term “machineworks” is to gain the currency of “earthworks” or “bodyworks,” the role of sheer historical coincidence should not be underestimated. Nor should the real significance of the machine form. These exhibited here have something to do with work and have only the most obvious sorts of connections with machinery. Like Duchamp’s masterpiece, these cogs and wheels are to be looked through.

Stuart Morgan