New York

William Anastasi

The Drawing Center

For perhaps four decades, William Anastasi has been a sort of New York art-world secret: a conceptual artist who in the early 1960s began to generate extremely original ideas that seemed to predict a range of later works by other artists but at the same time to have been only tangentially influential, for while those later works made it into the journals, textbooks, and museums, Anastasi’s own did to a far lesser degree. Yet artists and critics who saw his shows back then tend to remember them well. For others who came to New York later, but who have met Anastasi and talked with him about his work (the best, sometimes the only way to learn about it when it wasn’t widely on view), his story has seemed a cautionary tale and his career an enigma: Here was a man who seemed to have done all his time could have asked of an artist, and to have done it early, yet who had somehow failed to make for himself the name he deserved.

Anastasi has lately been getting some overdue recognition, of which this recent show was hopefully just a small part. Except for one sculpture and a couple of drawings, all of the works here re-created pieces that Anastasi first made in the early to mid-’60s. All started with a verbal prescription: in Displaced Site, 1966, for example, Anastasi wrote, “Construct a corrugated cardboard box. Remove sufficient plaster from a wall to house half of the box horizontally. Fill box; insert.” Supplied with this linguistic recipe, anyone could make this work, including the different, older Anastasi of forty years later. In his present realization of it, the box of plaster rubble is three or four inches wide and high and is slotted into the hole made for it in the wall at about chest height. Other pieces—a work of two rectangular aluminum elements propped against the wall, a mural of carefully poured black paint, another piece involving the removal of plaster—were equally reproducible by others, as was Sink, the only object here with preexisting longevity: The work consists of a solid steel plate on the floor, onto which, since 1963, Anastasi has regularly poured a film of water, replacing it when it evaporates. The pitted and corroded result certainly has auratic presence, but it is more that of a rock in a streambed—aged, impersonal, and tactile—than of any conventional sculptural skin.

The show evoked a number of New York artists of the ’60s: Sol LeWitt and Lawrence Weiner, in the idea of the verbal instruction; Robert Smithson, in the displacement and display of raw material (in this case plaster); Richard Serra, whose Verb List of 1967–68 harmonizes with Anastasi’s basic sculptural and painterly actions of propping, relocating, pouring; and so on. Even as Anastasi shares interests with these others, though, the metaphor of the rock in the streambed points in another direction that differentiates him and perhaps unifies these aesthetic impulses, at least in his handling of them, and that is toward a kind of artistic anonymity, a denial of signature, a relaxation of authorial control. Indeed, for the show’s catalogue Anastasi selected a number of quotations referencing Eastern philosophies and religions such as Buddhism, of which the most terse and dramatic—“The moment you open your mouth, you’re wrong,” from the fifth-century B.C. Chinese philosopher Mo Tzu—seems quite strange for a conceptual artist pushing art toward linguistic precepts. And here one remembers an earlier New York generation, notably John Cage (with whom Anastasi used to play chess daily), and his interest in the I Ching—whose method of getting out of one’s personality is to surrender oneself to chance. A rewritten history of conceptual art in which Anastasi featured more prominently might discuss a broader range of spiritual influences (in every sense of the word spiritual) than is currently associated with the form.

David Frankel