New York

“The Box Transformed”

Imposing artificial limits as metaphysical truth, containment is the ultimate fiction of control. Alfred North Whitehead notes that for Plato the Receptacle is one of the seven irreducible concepts that constitute our basic sense of the world. It signifies “the essential unity of the Universe conceived as an actuality, and yet in abstraction from the ’life and motion in which all actualities must partake. If we omit the Psyche and the Eros, we should obtain a static world.” (Psyche is “Soul,” and Eros is “the urge towards realization of ideal perfection.”) The problem addressed by the sculpture in this essentially perfect group exhibition—perfect in that each work seemed to stretch, in a different way, the basic idea of the exhibition to its limit—is how to infuse Psyche and Eros into the static Receptacle without losing the sense of encompassing abstract cosmic unity that is its main import.

Psychologized and eroticized, the space of the cosmic box becomes either good, evil, or trivial. Whitehead states that “good resides in the realization of many feelings fortifying each other as they meet in the novel unity . . . evil lies in the clash of vivid feelings, denying to each other their proper expansion . . . triviality lies in the anaesthesia by which evil is avoided.” From this perspective the exhibition’s most brilliantly evil work was that of Lucas Samaras, its most brilliantly good work that of Joseph Cornell, and its most brilliantly trivial work that of Donald Judd. There were numerous in-between positions. Richard Artschwager’s piece elegantly de-essentializes the closed box by giving it the open look of a table. Similarly, Sol LeWitt converts axiomatically given form into an ordinarily, if ironically, experienceable object. Robert Smithson’s Non-Site struggles (successfully) to convert the essentially trivial container into an evil form, while Louise Nevelson’s restricted but well-orchestrated vocabulary of shapes makes the Receptacle feel good.

Nevelson’s use of the curve points us to another perspective on these works, that of Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Space. Images of “full roundness,” wrote Bachelard, “help us to collect ourselves, permit us to confer an initial constitution on ourselves, and to confirm our being intimately, inside.” Nevelson’s use of incomplete roundness—curved sections—points to a general problem in all these works: the necessarily incomplete merger of the constituents of the box. For however much the artists are motivated by a horror of its vacuum, its power to create a void into which everything may dwindle and disappear, they implicitly know that to fill it, to be lured by the “receptiveness” that makes it a Receptacle, is to be defeated by it. The insatiable Receptacle that reduces whatever it contains to its own dimensions must be resisted as well as acknowledged; its embrace must encounter fragments that it can’t digest. It must be made to seem like an artificial unity imposed on the intransigent token of a process; this eroticizes it without presupposing its static perfection.

Whether the box is converted into a nest, a shell, a room, or an intimate immensity, to use some of Bachelard’s spatial classifications, it remains in subtle disjunction with the empirical elements it shelters. It is a necessarily temporary shelter, for the reckless materiality of its contents finally has nothing to do with its conceptual meaning. While the box unconditionally articulates a certain kind of intimate space which holds its contents in togetherness, it also signals the absolute exterior space that transcends the interior space. Sculpture based on the Receptacle, then, is the “antidote” to the relative, secularized space discovered by Cézanne, which makes experiential rather than axiomatic sense.

Donald Kuspit