“Process and Product”

With the exception of the emergence in the 1960s of process art, which tried to present creative activity as the product, most artists, historians, and critics have been content to let this aspect of art production remain submerged in mystery and intrigue. The continued obsession with the finished product requires no explanation in a market-driven world, but the illumination of the creative process is still an important area of research, especially in light of the dramatic changes that have occurred in art in the past fifty years. The materials are frequently new and different, the issues have changed, and the definitions of art have expanded to accommodate other disciplines and information. How artists work, how ideas are generated, and how specific and ambient sources are used for inspiration are questions that stimulate speculation about what, if anything, is inherent in the creative process and what is unique to each artist’s approach to work.

For “Process and Product,” an exhibition curated by Donald Kuspit and Linda Weintraub, eight artists were selected: Jennifer Bartlett, Louise Bourgeois, Sue Coe, Leon Golub, Alex Katz, Robert Longo, Mimmo Paladino, and TODT. The exhibition included recent work (or works) by each artist or group, as well as documentation of how that work was created. Although the presentation of process in the exhibition varied significantly (giving a comprehensive idea of how some of the artists work, and a thin, symbolic treatment of the rest), a very clear range of approaches was apparent among these eight, extending from the traditional methodology and practiced studies of Alex Katz to the free-form, ad hoc, collaborative procedures of TODT.

TODT, a group of four artists whose technology-inspired work has both apocalyptic and utopian qualities, was represented in the exhibition by a project entitled TODT, 1987. This multipart installation consisted of the following elements: a plastic TODT sign (much like a Pepsi logo) back-lighted with a red lightbulb; a foreboding text mounted on a large, freestanding wood-and-Formica panel; and three asymmetrical wood-and-Formica tanks filled with fermenting milk and other detritus. TODT’s process in making this work was documented by some computer drawings of one of the milk tanks, other modest notations, and photographs of their studio/living environment that showed the integrated, slightly chaotic nature of their collaboration. The installation here seemed subtler, less agitated, and more quietly brooding than some of the group’s earlier projects. The discrete elements lacked the explosive chemistry of those pieces, which were more vigorously constructed and technically compulsive. Their work is an act of cultural observation and prediction, and the environments that they have created raise important and nettlesome questions about technology’s fallibility in the face of inevitable decay.

In contrast to TODT’s expressive investigation of systems and natural phenomena, Sue Coe’s work resides in a more traditional area of expressionistc art, based on her observations of human folly, the fragility of human rights, and the impact of cruelty on consciousness. Though inspired by actual events, the drawings and mixed-media paintings that she makes are never limited by the specifics of those events; the work always expands to embrace general questions beyond the particular narrative source. Featured here was her collage drawing Pinochet 1973–19, Chile, The National Stadium, 5,000 Murdered, 1987, a densely layered, vividly imagined work, along with several preparatory drawings plus some photographs of her studio. What we see in her studio—various 18th- and 19th-century prints (Goya, Munch, etc.), newspaper clippings, an open sketch pad, and lots of books, including at least four on Goya—suggests a process of exploration that is as involved with esthetics and ideas about art as it is with political events and injustice.

Most critics are wary of looking at work through the lens of the artist’s intentions, but it is very difficult to avoid when examining how the art was made. The problem was dealt with intelligently here, for process was never offered as a justification of the finished product; logical progressions and inconsistencies were left for the viewer to ponder. Clearly, the creative process is not linear and always combines calculation with intuition. It is the particular balance of these factors that begins to frame questions about process in a meaningful way. This exhibition brought some of the evidence of creative invention out of the studio and into the gallery. Its strength was that instead of trying to analyze or explain process, it illuminated the many variables for our consideration. In its examination of the difficult subject of creative and critical thinking, the only fact clearly established was that reality, like the work, is a constructed and invented phenomenon.

Patricia C. Phillips

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