Los Angeles

“Reconsidering the Object of Art, 1965–1973”

Museum of Contemporary Art

Seemingly fixated on the ’60s, artists have lately resuscitated the idioms of Pop, scatter art, identity-based performance and activism, various modes of Conceptualism, not to mention the serial syntax of Minimalism; even earth art and the early manifestations of institutional critique live on in contemporary explorations of site. Scholarship has also turned to that decade, as graduate art-history students rush to write dissertations historicizing the practices their professors once addressed freshly as critics. “Reconsidering the Object of Art: 1965-1975” is a key episode in the ’90s assimilation of ’60s culture. The first large-scale historical show of Conceptual art to appear in this country, it is the most noteworthy presentation of its kind since “L’Art conceptuel: une perspective” (an exhibition held six years earlier at the Musée d’art moderne de la ville de Paris). I should say straight out that the curators Ann Goldstein and Anne Rorimer have produced a remarkable and ambitious show, far broader in scope than the French installation, with 55 instead of 38 contributing artists. Rather than placing their show under the rubric of “Conceptualism,” they characterized their venture in relation to the discourse that surrounded the “dematerialization of the object” in the late ’60s. This decision had the advantage of opening up an understanding of what might be viewed as Conceptual art. Documentation of performances and film could be included along with the more “orthodox” text-and-photo–based works of those years.

While this approach made for a richer and more historically textured show, the downside was a certain looseness in the overall conception. From the introduction to the catalogue, it was impossible to glean exactly how the “post-object” idea, which had admittedly been a somewhat unstable notion from the start, was understood. Lucy Lippard’s and John Chandler’s famous essay of 1968, “The Dematerialization of Art,” included in its purview such activities as the “Anti Form” of Robert Morris, Eva Hesse, Barry LeVa, etc., and even the late-’60s sculpture of Minimalists such as Carl Andre, none of which played a part in this show. On the other hand, Ursula Meyer’s account, “De-Objectification of the Object,” 1969, focused mainly on “Anti Form” work. Thus the equation of Conceptualism with a radical rethinking of “the object,” the principle that animates this show, while understandable as a strategy, would at this point necessitate a rigorous elaboration given these various precedents. If I seem to be pressing the point, it is because this lack of focus made for some confusing choices. A video of Yvonne Rainer performing her Trio A (The Mind Is a Muscle Part I), 1966, was a case in point. Trio A is certainly a key work for the history of ’60s dance; Rainer’s performances at Judson Church in New York were attended by numerous artists at the time, and her collaborations with Morris clearly affected his project. But Trio A belongs more properly to the history of avant-garde dance than to that of Conceptual performance. While the boundaries between artistic activities were fluid during these years, it is important to recognize the historical specificity of these genres.

Still, what the exhibition sometimes lacked in discrimination it more than made up for in breadth. The enormous Temporary Contemporary, which reopened on the occasion of this exhibition, was filled with revelations. William Wegman’s early video work and drawings reveal that his humor was once surprisingly fresh and intelligent. Eleanor Antin’s photo piece documenting the “sculpting” of her own body by means of a stringent diet is a landmark of ’70s feminist work. André Cadere’s round bars of wood—temporary markers of space which the artist, during his lifetime, transported from gallery to gallery—were perfect expressions of the period’s “post-object” ethos. John Baldessari’s early work explored this theme specifically in terms of a critique of art-historical and critical narratives. His THIS IS NOT TO BE LOOKED AT, 1968, depicts the November 1966 Artforum, which featured Michael Fried’s famous text “Shape as Form: Frank Stella’s New Paintings.” The cover of this same issue pictured Frank Stella’s Union III, a work from the “Irregular Polygon” series of 1966 that is now part of MOCA’s permanent collection and that aptly was displayed in an adjoining gallery. In that essay, Fried praised Stella’s rejection of the format of his early, striped monochrome canvases (the paintings that led to the Minimal object) in favor of a bright-hued abstract illusionism. Stella’s new work, Fried suggested, had assured him a place in the canon of Modernist painting; Baldessari exhorts us to turn away from this narrative and the optical model of vision it presupposed. With language entering art, the exploration of visual form no longer seemed sufficient.

Like the Paris show, “Reconsidering the Object” devoted much attention to the work of Joseph Kosuth, Robert Barry, Douglas Huebler, and Lawrence Weiner—the language-based American Conceptualists championed by the dealer Seth Siegelaub. I was unprepared for the visual elegance of Kosuth’s early work; the leaning pieces of glass, One and Three Chairs, 1965, and neon texts reveal a strong formal sensibility, soon to be rejected in his 1969 essay “Art after Philosophy.” Alas, Weiner’s wall texts, many of which refer to actions (e.g., Firecracker Residue of Explosions at Each Corner of the Exhibition Area, 1968) were not accompanied by any evidence of their materialization. This was, evidently, Weiner’s choice. The artist views his works primarily as texts and his credo states that “the piece need not be built,” but I have always found his pieces most compelling when presented with the strange residue of their actualization, which preserves the collision of text, action, and referent that animates his best pieces.

If the language-based works of these years were well represented, the serial strain of early Conceptualism received less than its due. To be sure, the wall of Dan Graham’s magazine projects like Homes for America, 1966–67, and Schema, 1966, culled from the Daled Collection in Brussels, was impressive, and Hanne Darboven’s songs from 1974 filled an entire room. But where were the early serial works of Sol LeWitt and Mel Bochner, among the first to replace the Minimal object with its dematerialized schema? LeWitt’s participation was confined to a single wall drawing; the addition of his statements “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art” and “Sentences on Conceptual Art” (which, LeWitt notes, “comment on art but are not art”) did little to redress this oversight.

“Conceptual art,” as LeWitt observed, “is good only when the idea is good,” and indeed one of the services of this voluminous show was to reveal how dull much Conceptual work really was. Stephen Kaltenbach’s “interventions” in art magazines (pointless one- or two-word advertisements) and William Leavitt’s tableau of a California patio with an Ann Beattie–like text describing an imagined party scene were especially weak. Huebler’s works recording the duration of events in descriptive language may be noteworthy examples of photoconceptualism, but their exploration of real time is far less compelling than countless other examples of work that depended on this strategy, such as Michael Snow’s Tap, 1969, an excruciatingly repetitive but perversely fascinating presentation of the artist tapping a microphone. Projects such as these prompt us to reflect on the shelf life of these “dematerialized” artworks which contested authorial mastery and courted ephemerality. From a position of distance, it becomes clear that some works hold up better than others—performance is especially vulnerable to time’s passage. Take MOCA’s Joan Jonas installation. Designed by the artist for the Stedelijk Museum, the room attempts to reconstruct the ambiance of what were, no doubt, groundbreaking performances. Yet the costumes and masks of Jonas’ alter ego Organic Honey—which were strewn around the same room where Jonas’ Vertical Roll, 1972, and other tapes played on video monitors—took on a kind of pathos, as if one had walked into a Karen Kilimnick homage to Jonas rather than an actual Jonas. The heady days of early-’70s “radicality” could not seem more remote.

Hans Haacke’s installation projected a similar feeling. Adjoining his famous phototext piece documenting the holdings of Leon Shapolsky et al., a New York slumlord, was a statement condemning the practices of the corporate patron of the mock show, Philip Morris. Noting this company’s suppression of medical research that pointed to the deleterious effects of nicotine, and the huge number of fatalities caused each year by cigarettes, Haacke’s text also condemned the decrease in the NEA’s funding by the current Congress, which renders corporate support all the more necessary. Other artists endorsed his statement, including LeWitt and Adrian Piper. (Unlike Haacke and LeWitt, Piper withdrew her work from the show altogether.)

Philip Morris is a problematic sponsor; who can disagree? But the situation is rather complicated. As is well known, Philip Morris is a generous patron of contemporary art and performance. In fact, it was in perusing the MOCA catalogue that I discovered that none other than Philip Morris Europe underwrote “When Attitudes Become Form,” the early Conceptual/process art show mounted at the Kunsthalle Bern in 1969, in which Haacke himself participated. And it is unclear whether “Reconsidering the Object” could have occurred without this benefactor; to date no other institutions have agreed to host this extraordinary show. At this point, to simply denounce Philip Morris after one has been patronized—and continues to be patronized—by Philip Morris seems a totally expected, avant-gardist gesture. A more nuanced, dialectical reflection on the contemporary dependency of “progressive” culture on corporate sponsorship—the kind of research Haacke himself has pursued in such works as his Guggenheim Trustees or in an earlier project on Philip Morris, Helmsboro Country, 1990—would have been more compelling.

The catalogue itself is a mixed affair. The entries on individual artists are informative and well-written, but (no doubt due to the number of contributors) brief. The cumulative effect of this vast array of information is to mask the specificity of each artist’s practice, as well as its relationship to other activities within the exhibition. I found myself longing for the kind of essay Benjamin H. D. Buchloh contributed to the Paris catalogue, which by addressing key works in that show was able to provide a powerful overview of the Conceptual phenomenon while acknowledging Conceptualism as a field of difference, a set of strategic positions formulated around the artistic exploration of language, and the eventual intersection of this venture with sociopolitical critique. Perhaps this performance could not be repeated, but apart from a remarkable text by Jeff Wall on the specific topic of photoconceptualism, the MOCA catalogue suffers from a lack of sustained historical analysis.

The opening essay, a contribution by Lucy Lippard, was a potentially interesting choice. It was Lippard after all who coined the phrase “the dematerialization of art” in the 1968 essay of the same name, a theme she would later develop into a book, and who curated the important Conceptual show “557,087.” Unfortunately, her text is a rambling walk down memory lane. Endearingly autobiographical (“The mid to late sixties was one of the most exciting times of my life on every level”), overflowing with asides, it is short on analysis: “If Minimalism formally expressed ‘less is more,’ Conceptual art was about saying ‘more with less.’” Wall’s contribution “‘Marks of Indifference’: Aspects of Photography in, or as, Conceptual Art” is an authoritative and often brilliant text. Wall masterfully traces the transition to ’60s photoconceptualism from the photojournalism of preceding decades, and moreover articulates the important and heretofore repressed link between the generation of Edward Ruscha and Baldessari and the “Pictures” artists of the late ’70s and early ’80s. If there are certain omissions in his narrative (Robert Rauschenberg’s serial photography of the ’50s, or the conventionalized imagery of early Pop), and if his account of the phenomenology of the photographic image as inescapably illusionistic can certainly be contested, he has nevertheless provided the most substantial discussion of the subject to date. Here alone the diverse activities represented in the exhibition were subsumed into a coherent formulation.

James Meyer is Assistant Professor of Contemporary Art and Criticism/Critical Theory at Emory University.