December 15, 2006

Reflections on the Playground

As Logocentric Playground comes to a close, and before I make some general comments here on my experiences and the knowledge gained during the installation, I should provide a brief background on the history and purpose of the work:

My art practice has evolved from original text written on panels, using my particular “text-bisection process” and resulting in a dense veil of fragmented sentences, works that addressed the difficulties of meaning in this system of representation that we call language. Around a year ago I began to write a proposal for an installation of blackboard panels to be presented as “inactive” and open to public interaction, this interaction to take the form of “deciphering” my writing with provided chalk. The reason that I called these proposed blackboard panels “inactive” was that only with the hands-on action of a site-visitor would the interactive process actually become a literal "questioning" of the fragility of meaning in the written word.

One impression I have gained is that there were two distinct possibilities for the interactions, not the types of actions, i.e., deciphering, writing, drawing, etc. but the essential directions a visitor interaction could conceivably take:

1) There is a perceived sense (wall text, museum press release, website) that I am engaging in a conversational discourse if I present sentences on the blackboards that are bisected with reduced recognition, then there is a game afoot, with the realization that there is a possible “understanding,” deciphering or recognition to be gained. There is also the possibility of misrecognition or an ignorance of the original text. These interactions have to do with understanding that something is written there and acquiescing to the perceived importance of what is written, and comprehending that the artist is wishing the interaction to be directed along his own lines of inquiry or his “preferred” direction.

2) However, there is the equally real possibility, with actual proven instances, that the original words are of secondary importance to a visitor, that the words are ignored or overlooked (in some cases literally over-written) to promote and further personal agendas, said agendas taking the form of personal thoughts, philosophical musings, “tagging” or signatures for recognition, even interpersonal conversations between individuals.

This means that there are two avenues to traverse [one of which alludes to “logocentricism,” not only the questionable belief that ideas exist outside of the words we use to express them, but the logocentricism of the “author’s” original bisected text]. If the artist’s intention is recognized as the essential purpose, then the deciphering of the bisected words takes on paramount importance. However, if one chose to ignore, avoid, or not yield to the artist’s intended direction then one could privilege one’s own interaction (and text) over the artist’s.

Mystery of Interaction
The additions or contributions to the panels by visitors became quite mysterious to me as the installation progressed. Clearly this was because rarely was I able to “witness” the act of people writing – the interactions only appeared when I made a site-visit. I am undecided whether this should remain a mystery to me, as well as to “repeat visitors.” There is the obvious possibility of including a technological aspect to the installation, i.e., closed-circuit video or stop-action cameras. Yet perhaps the intrusion of technology would shift the emphasis from the original conception of the work to the performances of individual visitors, which seems to be a very real desire, as articulated by the . . .

Power of the Platform
By providing a “stage” or a platform upon which unknown individuals can engage in a culturally sanctioned “conversation,” I have entered the provocative “arena of public discourse.” If one decides not to play my “game” of deciphering text then it is tantamount to declaring that one’s “choices” are going to be more important than the platform. The fact that the platform has been erected in respect of the artist’s intentions bears little or no importance in this “power-play” as the sequencing of power yields to the “public” stranger. This stranger’s persona is quite practically an unknown individual who has an invitation to “collaborate” with the artist on this platform, but the opportunity to collaborate is obviously not enough to counteract the personal desire for power.

This particular four-week installation at the Katzen made me acutely aware of an approximate ten-day incubation period for the “peak” of the discourse. Within three days, I had positive, clear contributions that began to “fill-in” missing fragments of words. This occurred quickly but soon the panels became inexorably consumed with visitors' catch phrases, self-promotions or ironic humor. By the end of the second week there was an accumulation of detritus, a networking of lines, scribbles, and other writing, that began to obscure the original bisected texts. If I continue the project, whether with these particular panels or new ones, I am certain that I will determine the most effective duration to optimize the discourse.

I am concerned with the immediacy of a discourse between artist, viewer and the artwork, a discourse that is essentially self-aware, self-critical and self-reflective about the process of viewing and “interacting,” whether passively or actively, with the work. I am making work that comes from a conceptual position, i.e., concept over object. This installation was conceived as an expansion of the artwork from a "precious object" to a "living" thing, to focus the visitor's attention on where art actually resides - in the discourse itself instead of "in" the object.

December 7, 2006

Authority of Historicity

It is unfortunate that we had to end our discussion yesterday, as I was just beginning to enjoy what would surely have become our long critique of Pluralism: The Tyranny of Freedom. Suzi Gablik’s essay is problematic for a couple of reasons that I want to quickly mention here, and I expect that I may not use this particular reading in future Theory NOW coursework as the scant insights of the piece are plagued by her insistent premise regarding a moral imperative that she assigns to the postmodern artist.

Gablik’s position is at least partially based on her misrepresentation of Aristotelian principles regarding ethics, as evidenced by the following:

To us, productivity means efficiency of output – works of art coming off an ethically blank assembly line like automobiles – but not the individual’s potential for creating himself, for becoming, as Aristotle proposed, an excellent person.(1)

In my own humble and academic understanding of Aristotle’s practical intellect I recall a definite separation of doing and making, as we taught “doing is to human conduct, as making is to an object.” This established that in Aristotelian art theory the activity of making art was concerned only with the “good” of the work, not the “good” of mankind. So those assembly line autos are rightly non-ethical as determined by Aristotle and this principle was continued at least through the Medieval period by Aquinas as recta ratio factibilium, i.e., “the right [straight] making [reason] of the thing to be made.”(2)

Clearly Gablik has used this principle incorrectly to suggest that postmodern artists ought to make art that is ethical to set an “example of high spiritual devotion” and to give “one’s mode of life an ethical stamp.”(3) Gablik’s confused supposition may reflect her personal hope that we cast-off the “anything goes” character of the current pluralistic modus operandi but it muddies the true issue of pluralism which is its utter disregard for art history and its discourse as the validating “higher authority.”

Let us first begin with one good point, however. I will agree that our present “unlimited freedom of expression” has weakened the “importance of what is expressed,” and that the “overavailability of options actually lowers the degree of innovation possible.”(4) This makes perfect sense, in that without an authoritative comprehension of what has been previously validated as substantive art, any and all artworks apparently are granted a “pass” under the “freedom of expression” rule, albeit temporarily. Gablik then puts forth an indefensible suggestion that with the “accommodation” of these expressions the “plausibility of tradition collapses” and, further, this “disintegration is not merely of this or that aesthetic assumption, but of the overall pattern of meaning.”(5) Remarkably, she appears to believe that art still has a “meaning-giving” role, and this essay was written after the “linguistic turn” of the poststructuralists quite successfully evaporated all definitive signifieds, in art as well as in that other system of representation - language. That this is a postmodern trope ought to be quite evident to any student of visual art of the last twenty years.

Continuing this line of thought, Gablik derides the “contingency” of modernism as “mere self-expression.”(6) Clement Greenberg’s work would disprove that assumption, given that the modernist painter was chiefly charged with critical awareness of the medium and its possible uses. Greenberg felt that the “essence” of modernism was the “use of the characteristic methods of a discipline to criticize the discipline itself.”(6) Certainly self-expression was allowed but the theoretical thrust of “literality” was an adherence to “medium-specificity” as an aesthetic directive, an “authority higher” than that of the individual painter. Yet it “needed the accumulation over decades of a good deal of individual achievement to reveal the self-critical tendency of modernist painting.”(7)

I am only suggesting that Gablik revisit recent art history to recognize that it is that “higher authority” that she wishes for the postmodern artist to follow. The history of art and the constant discourse about art has an as yet unrealized potential to enable a full reassessment of the pluralist and myriad styles, possibly even leveling the field to a few essential trajectories that may prove to have significant historicity. If in Greenberg’s view “modernist art develops out of the past without gap or break, and wherever it ends up it will never stop being intelligible in terms of the continuity of art,”(8) then postmodernist art, or certainly one or two of its movements, would have a lucid thread that can be traced forward from that initial modernist narrative.

I am not saying that history is infallible – only that it has infinite and enduring duration over stylistics as well as individuals.


1. Suzi Gablik, Has Modernism Failed?, New York, 1984, 82.

2. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I-II, 57, 3, c, replies to Obj. 1-3, translation: V. J. Bourke.

3. Op. cit: 82.

4. Op. cit: 75.

5. Op. cit: 76.

6. Clement Greenberg, “Modernist Painting”, Art and Literature, No. 4, Spring 1965, 193.

7. Ibid., 200.

8. Ibid., 201.

November 30, 2006

Figuratively Speaking

Although I cannot fully endorse the “resurrection of the figurative” heralded by many since the rise of Neo-Expression, as my own proclivities lean toward the conceptual, linguistic and interactive in art making, I will take issue with Peter Halley’s assessment that “these artists, and the art they produce, fail to recognize the complexity of the transformations that have taken place within the social.”(1)

On the contrary, I suggest that certain contemporary artists working with the figure have been informed by the eruption of investigative knowledge on the “social order,” including but not limited to the construction of the subject (Saville) and cognitive perception (Baselitz). These artists continue to make figurative painting relevant because of the supplemental and extraneous “fields of knowledge” they bring to the studio and their work bears a much more concise examination, possibly using the general parameters which I will outline here in this limited essay.

The approach to “upside-down” figures in the paintings of Georg Baselitz generally takes the tack of “gimmickry over talent.” I fundamentally disagree with this critique, partially because “talent” has meant so very little in art making since Modernism, but chiefly because I feel that his working methods are genuinely obsessed with distancing his cognitive perception from his art making. That is to say, recognizing that the human eye initially perceives reality as an inverted one and that “we know no other reality” (2), then we have to at least consider one possible entry into Baselitz’s work ought to be the supposition that he may be attempting representations of pre-conscious cognition, which has a very rich tradition in historic art theory. Then again, we might also surmise that his inverted paintings may in fact be an attempt to reproduce the “bracketing” of reality proposed by Edmund Husserl in his phenomenology, wherein:

empirical subjectivity is suspended, so that pure consciousness may be defined in its essential and absolute Being. This is accomplished by a method of ‘bracketing’ empirical data away from consideration. ‘Bracketing’ empirical data away from further investigation leaves pure consciousness, pure phenomena, and the pure Ego as the residue of phenomenological reduction.(3)

Jenny Saville’s figuration, however, revolves around representations of the “ideal self,” an image perpetuated certainly by the “social order,” and specifically by the idealized images of women’s bodies projected by the advertising industry. Saville’s paintings of herself are brutal, topological mappings of obesity in her consideration of the imperfect form supplemented by the critical guise of a post-feminist outlook. She comes armed with the writings of Luce Irigaray to deflect and reject the “male gaze,” fully prepared to further encode the French author’s words in mirror reverse text written in her Propped (1992) as she paints “a staged contemplation of the role played by gender in authoring, viewing and critiquing the body of woman.”(4)

Whether it is emergent cognition and pre-conscious perception of retroactive figuration, or a conflation of identity construction with Lacanian psychoanalysis, the human figure holds the keen interest of a scant few painters of vision. In any case, the “cost of the romantic return they advocate”(5) may well be worth a reprisal of this kind of figurative work.

Reading for 6 December: Suzi Gablik’s “Pluralism: The Tyranny of Freedom” in Has Modernism Failed? (on reserve).


1. Peter Halley, "The Crisis in Geometry", Arts Magazine, Vol. 58, No. 10, June 1984.



4. Isabelle Wallace, "The Looking Glass from the Other Side: Reflections on Jenny Saville's Propped", Journal: Visual Culture in Britain, Vol. 5, Issue 2, Winter 2004.

5. Halley, op. cit.

November 17, 2006

Contradictions in Supplemental Discourse

Much of contemporary art needs the supplement of theory to be approached, yet often a particular critical reading of an artist is rendered inaccurate by its theoretical position. Singaporean essayist Lee Weng Choy questions the privileging of “only one reading” of an artist’s work and suggests that it is the contradictions in artwork that “make it possible to speak to the work critically in the first place.”(1) I propose that even contradictions within a misguided critique of an artist can open the possibility of a different reading under close scrutiny. If we are to expand the discourse on contemporary art theory, we must question previously held yet problematic beliefs, always at the ready to re-write art history with supplemental critiques based on more stringent or diverse critical perspectives, especially points of view that counteract accepted and published critical positions.

For instance, one accepted critical perception on the performance art of Paul McCarthy has to do with the desublimation of masculinity and this will serve to demonstrate the inherent weakness within theoretical supplements that function as a validated art historic assessment but may possess misrepresentations that have not been fully explored.

According to this exemplary theory, McCarthy’s effort “to expose that which patriarchal culture represses in order to reverse the sublimatory effects of civilization” has resulted in performances of orgiastic frenzy with the artist simulating castration, sexual abuse, menstruation and childbirth.(2) Using Freud’s psychoanalytic theories, including castration anxiety, this position maintains that McCarthy “desublimates masculinity” by “reversing the processes of sublimation and repression.”(3)

While this critical position certainly exhibits scholarly research, there is the simple contradiction of McCarthy’s performances, which manifest an insistent and embodied phallocracy. In actuality, McCarthy’s work does not “reverse” sublimation as much as reinforce the patriarchal hierarchy, investing his stereotypically abject actions with an aggressive sexuality that supports male dominance over women. One might find it additionally disturbing and contradictory that McCarthy’s putative desublimation of masculinity has been couched within feminist frameworks, i.e., masculinity as “fundamentally dependent on that which it must exclude.”(4)

Judith Butler has argued that “gender is a cultural meaning that is ascribed to human bodies” and “does not derive naturally from the biological sex of the individual.”(5) However, McCarthy’s performances are wholly dependent upon the biological sex of his body (male) and the workable frisson his transgender “play” provokes. In Sailor’s Meat (1975), McCarthy wears a wig (female) while engaging in intercourse with a pile of meat; in Bossy Burger (1991), he plays chef (woman’s work?) while fornicating with various holes and doors in the set; in Heidi (1992), McCarthy plays Grandfather and penetrates a knothole while voyeuristically spying on Heidi (incest?). All of these acts are staged within the parameters of masculine biological function, based on gender identification defined by genitalia. McCarthy does not desublimate the “prohibitory apparatus of culture”(6); he denies it as a workable definition of gender, preferring instead to rely on the semiotics of essentialist difference. This kind of contradiction in a critique of an artist absolutely requires our attentiveness to the nuances within the supplemental discourse.

McCarthy’s work obviously begs for a thorough reading, possibly based on the “frustration experienced under the phallocentric order,”(7) yet it is not only male artists who have been misrepresented in the theoretical supplements. The paintings of Marilyn Minter have been viewed for some time as recalling “Jacques Lacan’s theory of the mirror stage, in which our identities are built around the desire to attain the whole and unified body we saw in the mirror as infants.”(8) True, Minter’s paintings do typically depict fragmented feminine form as body parts (feet in high-heels, toothy-mouths biting pearl necklaces) but this would seem to recast the erotic object of film theory as a static and fragmented fetish, rather than propose a longing for a unified perfection of form. Any functional display of women in a fragmented, objectified image can also be interpreted as the furtherance of the phallocentric “symbolic order in which man can live out his phantasies[sp] and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of woman still tied to her place as bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning.”(9)

Readings for 29 November: Chapter 2: Peter Halley’s Notes on the Paintings and Deployment of the Geometric; Chapter 4: Gerhard Richter’s interview with Rolf Günter Dienst and Interview with Rolf Schön.


1. Lee Weng Choy, Authenticity, Reflexivity, and Spectacle in Theory in Contemporary Art since 1985, Z. Kocur and S. Leung, (eds.), Oxford, 2005, 251.

2. Amelia Jones, "Paul McCarthy’s Inside Out Body and the Desublimation of Masculinity" in Paul McCarthy [exhibition catalog of Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art], New York, 2000, 126.

3. Ibid., 127-128.

4. Judith Butler, Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex, New York, 1993, 51-52.

5. David Macey, Dictionary of Critical Theory, London, 2000, 52.

6. Jones: 128.

7. Laura Mulvey, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema", originally published in Screen 16:3, Autumn 1975, 7.

8. Joshua Shirkey, New Work: Marilyn Minter [exhibition brochure of San Francisco Museum of Modern Art], 2005.

9. Mulvey: 7.

November 9, 2006

Signs Within Signs

I have written elsewhere about the more controversial issues of appropriation, i.e., authenticity and authorship, so it may prove helpful to approach our topic from the viewpoint of semiotics, to grasp the appropriative technique as a play of images. The use of images dominates advertising and the first wave of photo-appropriationists (Kruger, Burgin, et al) re-formed the quoted sign (coupled with text) as new referents to foster markedly different readings about ideological structures of wealth, power, sex and politics.(1)

Art history is rife with manipulations of borrowed imagery (from Braque and Duchamp, to Prince and Hirst) and I would like to differentiate earlier appropriative practices before proceeding. Modernist painters like Braque, Picasso and Schwitters used a formal ordering of borrowed imagery within their compositions. Indubitably, later theorists would proffer Marxist and/or socio-cultural views of these works, yet these painters treated newspaper clippings, cigarette wrappers and other bits of capitalist detritus as formal devices, particularly in Cubism.

But it is those artists who invest their borrowed imagery with different signifieds that I wish to discuss. By using borrowed signs to refer to new meanings, often directly contradicting their original signification, these artists truly engage visual art’s role as a vehicle for cultural meaning.

First, let us consider, in brief, the system of representation that is language, and let it stand in for another representing system - art. Using the structuralist views of Saussure, we can see that each sign (word) in a language gets its meaning because of its difference from every other sign, i.e., meaning arises from functional differences between the elements within the system of representation.(2) (Red means red because it’s not blue.) Thus, if we substitute this structuralist view for painting, we could also agree that certain configurations of color or brushwork will have meanings based on their recognized differences from other color themes, etc.

In this way, structuralism set in motion a process of inquiry that eventually undermined empiricism (what’s real is experienced) by questioning the acceptance of any structure based wholly on convention (not observation). Meaning, in essence, is not conveyed by the intention of the speaker (painter) but is determined by the language system.

A bit later, the poststructuralist position emerges, wherein the means are revealed as insufficient proof of the ends, i.e., meaning is never fully present in any signified (concept) but is infinitely deferred. And more importantly, the poststructuralists saw meaning as contextual, affected by related words.

Roland Barthes had written:
"We shall therefore take language, discourse, speech, etc., to mean any significant unit or synthesis, whether verbal or visual: a photograph will be a kind of speech for us in the same way as a newspaper article; even objects will become speech, if they mean something."(3)

This is what the best appropriationists will contend with, a way in which to subvert representation as an equivocal, rote system of images, and cast it in new subliminal, deconstructive ways. To intervene within the spectacle and invest it with a near unconscious misrecognition of meaning. As Hal Foster notes:

"[Barbara] Kruger has suggested that image appropriation, rather than question ‘the original use and exchange value’ of representations, contradict ‘the surety of our initial readings’ and strain ‘the appearance of naturalism,’ may in fact confirm them. Her later work evades this closure, for in its oscillation ‘from implicit to explicit, from inference to declaration’ neither photograph nor text, neither connotation nor denotation is privileged as a stable site or mode of truth; in fact the usual coordination of the two (as employed in the media to fix unstable meanings) is undone."(4)

Readings for 15 November: Chapter 8: Hermann Nitsch’s The O.M. Theatre; Laura Mulvey’s "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" in Art After Modernism (on reserve) or here.


1. John Welchman, Art After Appropriation: Essays on Art in the 1990s, Amsterdam, 2001.

2. Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, London, 1959, 15-17, 65-70.

3. Roland Barthes, Mythologies, New York, 1972, 113.

4. Hal Foster, Recodings: Art, Spectacle, Cultural Politics, Seattle, 1985, 221.

November 3, 2006

Lack of Command in Looking

In continuance of our class discussion concerning Victor Burgin’s video projection work, Watergate, and following lines of inquiry informed by Burgin’s earlier essay, “Looking at Photographs”, we might begin with film theory’s paradigmatic looks of the photograph.

As distinguished from the overt formalism of “point-of-view,” the “look” of the camera as it photographs a chosen scene establishes the apparatus as the other, this recording “eye” that we recognize as the camera. The second essential “look” that will be relevant to this discussion is that of the viewer as he /she looks at the photograph. I propose that we “bracket” (set aside) the remaining two “looks” of film theory – those exchanged between people, if present, in the photograph, and their “looks” at the camera – to focus our attention on the “look” of the camera and the “viewing subject.”

According to Burgin, photography “at once depicts a scene and the gaze of the spectator, an object and a viewing subject” (his italics). Burgin further equates the camera’s “P.O.V.” with the position “bestowed upon the spectator,” and delineates this “system of representation” as extending “the agency of the frame” as an ordering device representing the world’s “coherence which it actually lacks.”(1)

First, a brief description of the work, taken from the Corcoran website:

“. . . Burgin has created Watergate, a new video projection work in which he has used a computer to modify and animate images he made with a 360˚ digital panoramic still camera. Frederic Edwin Church’s famous painting Niagara serves to link the space of a Corcoran installation of American Romantic art with a modern Washington hotel room.”(2)

I propose that Burgin’s Watergate video at the very least expands upon his earlier conceptual theories regarding the frame and the viewing subject’s "lack of command" when looking. He uses the “pan” technique of film to brilliantly divert us from the “drive to master” our looking, ironically seducing our viewing act with a combination of frustration and anticipation.

Twenty-three years previous, Burgin had pointed out that “photographs are deployed so that we do not look at them for long; we use them in such a manner that we may play with the coming and going of our command of the scene/(seen).”(3) Certainly, our "lack of command" is obvious when viewing video; but the creeping, clock-wise pan of Watergate inures us to this fact, as we seem to be watching a “single image,” and this, as Burgin wrote in 1977, puts us in jeopardy of losing our command: “To remain long with a single image is to risk the loss of our imaginary command of the look, to relinquish it to that absent other to whom it belongs by right – the camera.”

Watergate teases the viewing subject with its false “postponement” of the “rule of the frame,” i.e., we seem to be “moving the eye from the framing edge,” but the edge crawls away relentlessly to the right. And we anticipate something or someone to be there, just out-of-frame, and to appear soon, so we remain frustrated, yet still looking. Burgin simultaneously steals our attention and our command, substituting his camera’s authority over our looking. In doing so, he has manifested his previous concepts of “retarding recognition of the autonomy of the frame, and the authority of the other it signifies.”(4)

Readings for 8 November:: Ch. 8: Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Statement and Interview with Els Barents; Ch. 4: Sherrie Levine’s Five Comments; plus Nicolas Bourriaud’s “The Use of Objects” and “The Use of the Product from Marcel Duchamp to Jeff Koons” from Post-Production: Culture as Screenplay (on reserve).


1. Victor Burgin, “Looking at Photographs”, in Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art, Berkeley, 1996, 855-856.


3. Ibid., 857.

4. Ibid., 857.

October 31, 2006

Lecter's Lecture

"Della Vigna was disgraced and blinded for his betrayal of the emperor's trust through his avarice," Dr. Lecter said, approaching his principal topic. "Dante's pilgrim found him in the seventh level of inferno, reserved for suicides. Like Judas Iscariot, he died by hanging. Judas and Pier della Vigna and Ahithophel, the ambitious counselor of Absalom, are linked in Dante by the avarice he saw in them and by their subsequent deaths by hanging."

"Avarice and hanging are linked in the ancient and the medieval mind: St. Jerome writes that Judas' very surname, Iscariot means 'money' or 'price', while Father Origen says Iscariot is derived from the Hebrew 'from suffocation' and that his name means 'Judas the Suffocated. . . "

Dr. Lecter resumed his podium voice. "Avarice and hanging, then, linked since antiquity, the image appearing again and again in art." Dr. Lecter pressed the switch in his palm and the projector came to life, throwing an image on the drop cloth covering the wall. In quick succession further images followed as he spoke:

"Here is the earliest known depiction of the Crucifixion, carved in an ivory box in Gaul about AD four hundred. It includes the death by hanging of Judas, his face upturned to the branch that suspends him. And here on a reliquary casket of Milan, fourth century, and an ivory diptych of the ninth century, Judas hanging. He's still looking up."

"In this plate from the doors of the Benevento Cathedral, we see Judas hanging with his bowels falling out as St. Luke, the physician, described him in the Acts of the Apostles. Here he hangs beset by Harpies, above him in the sky is the face of Cain-in-the-moon; and here he's depicted by your own Giotto, again with pendant viscera."

"And finally, here, from a fifteenth-century edition of the Inferno, is Pier della Vigna's body hanging from a bleeding tree. I will not belabor the obvious parallel with Judas Iscariot."

"But Dante needed no drawn illustration: It is the genius of Dante Alighieri to make Pier della Vigna, now in Hell, speak in strained hisses and coughing sibilants as though he is hanging still. Listen to him as he tells of dragging, with the other damned, his own dead body to hang upon a thorn tree:"

Surge in vermena e in pianta silvestra:
l'Arpie, pascendo poi de le sue foglie,
fanno dolore, e al dolor fenestra.

Dr. Lecter's normally white face flushes as he creates for the Studiolo the gargling, choking words of the agonal Pier della Vigna, and as he thumbs his remote control, the images of della Vigna and Judas with his bowels out alternate on the large field of hanging cloth.

Come l'altre verrem per nostre spoglie,
ma non pero ch'alcuna sen rivesta,
che non e giusto aver cio ch'om si toglie.

Qui le strascieneremo, e per la mesa,
selva saranno i nostri corpi apessi,
ciascuno al prun de l'ombra sua molesta.

"So Dante recalls, in sound the death of Judas in the death of Pier della Vigna for the same crimes of avarice and treachery. Ahithophel, Judas, your own Pier della Vigna. Avarice, hanging, self-destruction, with avarice counting as self-destruction as much as hanging. And what does the anonymous Florentine suicide say in his torment at the end of the canto? Io fei gibetto a me de le mie case. - - And I - I made my own house be my gallows."

"On the next occasion you might like to discuss Dante's son Pietro. Incredibly, he was the only one of early writers on the thirteenth canto who links Pier della Vigna and Judas. I think, too, it would be interesting to take up the matter of chewing in Dante. Count Ugolino chewing on the back of the archbishop's head, Satan with his three faces chewing Judas, Brutus and Cassius, all betrayers like Pier della Vigna."

"Thank you for your kind attention."

From Hannibal by Thomas Harris, New York, 1999, 221-234.

October 23, 2006

The Logocentric Playground

I will be installing my Logocentric Playground at American University Museum at Katzen Arts Center in Washington, D.C. on November 14, 2006. AU's site has more information about my installation and I plan to post weekly reports of my progress In the Studio on my official artwork web site.

During the exhibition span (Nov. 14-Dec. 15) I will write more about the genesis of the piece, logocentricism and the response of the university /art community to my installation.

October 19, 2006

Performance Art:
Recreation or Emulation

Performance art, which gained dominance as an art practice in the 1970’s, was definitively about duration and presence. The performance act is time based certainly, and thus expresses itself in the duration of those actions by the performer(s), and our focus is on the physical body (presence) of the performance artist(s). The fact of the art object’s superfluity was already in the discourse, as stated in theoretical propositions laid out by Lewitt, Kosuth and other conceptualists. This paradigm shift from “commodity objects” to a dematerialization of those objects may have been a factor in the move to performance by many young artists during this era.

Marina Abramovic was one of those original performance artists of the ‘70’s generation and she is practicing her art today. Her "Seven Easy Pieces" performance project undertaken at the Guggenheim Museum last year represents the most visible project of “re-interpretation” of what can only be termed archival performance art “pieces.” What I would like to discuss here is the conflicts that will undoubtedly arise in future re-enactments of previously performed works that were time-based in a specific place, encompassing a particular presence, and existing within a long-past socio-economic and political episteme.

First, some background. In the Dialogue with Heidi Grundmann conducted in 1978, Abramovic says:

". . . no documentation can give you the feeling of what it was, because it cannot be described, it is so direct, in the documentation, the intensity is missing, the feelings that were there. And I think that that is why performance is such a strange thing – the performance you do in fixed time and in that fixed time you see the whole process and you see the disappearing of the process at the same moment and afterwards you don’t have anything, you have only the memory."(1)

Operating presumably from “memory,” but fortified with photographs, video footage and “eye-witness” accounts, Abramovic sought to recreate some of the 1970’s era performances, a “greatest hits” collection, if you will, of vintage Acconci, Beuys, Export, Pane and Nauman performance pieces (with two of her own for good measure). For brevity’s sake, I will only critique her recreation of the infamous Seedbed piece, for it is the most revealing divergence from the original performance work and the “particular presence” of Vito Acconci.

Acconci’s 1972 performance, in which he surreptitiously “planted” his “seed” beneath a wooden platform built into Sonnabend Gallery, was an invasive yet hidden ritual. The visitors to the gallery could not see his actions but they heard him on speakers in the space as he masturbated. He referred to the visitors as “my aid. . . my fantasies about them can excite me. . . the seed ‘planted’ on the floor, then, is a joint result of my performance and theirs.”(2)

The obvious distinction between Acconci and Abramovic is one of gender, which clearly validates the original ’72 performance as more worthy, as the “planting” of semen is biologically impossible for Abramovic. Her “cover version” of Seedbed, then, is a travesty, purely reliant on the sensational and voyeuristic modalities that performance has now become. The ’72 piece was clearly not about achieving orgasms, so why would Abramovic chose it to replicate in ’05? Where Vito negotiated the dangerous terrain of sexual power and threat, Marina’s Seedbed seems relegated to the realms of soft-core arousal and empty spectacle.

After Abramovic’s week of performances, in a public dialogue at the Guggenheim monitored by Nancy Spector, a question was raised about “the perhaps insuperable difficulty of preserving a performance’s meaning in a totally different social and political context.”(3) It was noted that Abramovic appeared to “bridle” at this query, and possibly that is “the tell” that would suggest to us that Abramovic had not fully considered all the implications of this performance-appropriation series. For if she sought to emulate the performance pieces, to actually “strive to equal or excel”(4) the earlier works with her re-presentation of them, then she was ignoring her own dictum that “the performance you do in fixed time and in that fixed time you see the whole process and you see the disappearing of the process at the same moment.”


1. Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art, Berkeley, 1996, 759.

2. Nancy Princenthal, “Back for One Night Only!” in Art in America, Feb. 2006, 91-92.

3. Ibid., 90.

4. Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, Springfield, 1984, 408.

October 13, 2006

Constructs of Representation

After conceptual art, minimalism and anti-form, artists began to realize that the materials and process of art making, the location and placement of objects, must be considered not only as elements of visuality but ruled by the conventions of a system of representation. Under the newly translated influence of theorists like Barthes, Derrida and Lacan, representation was further revealed as existing within institutional power structures, thus authenticity, meaning, sexuality, identity, even “reality,” were revealed to be socially constructed and in perpetual flux within various institutional ideologies. Artists like Hans Haacke and Marcel Broodthaers would attack powerful interests by, respectively, exposing the complicit nature of wealth and power, and reflecting on the status of the art object under the reign of institutional commodity production.

Mary Kelly embarked on a six-year quasi-scientific project that “challenged conventional senses of the appearance and unity of the work of art”(1) in her Post-Partum Document (1973-1979). Kelly set about documenting her newborn son’s “evolution from birth through to the acquisition of language and the ability to write his own name.”(2) Comprised of more than one hundred items, including scrawled writings, footprints, soiled diapers and daily food intake, the Post-Partum Document is much revered as a benchmark work for its wide-ranging epistemology. Showing admiration for the work of Jacques Lacan, Kelly utilized the psychoanalyst’s theories and charts to express her own lived experiences as both mother and artist. As she wrote in her preface about her unwieldy accumulation of “mother’s memorabilia”:

“All these are intended to be seen as transitional objects; not in Winnicott’s sense of surrogates but rather in Lacan’s terms as emblems of desire. In one way, I have attempted to displace the potential fetishisation of the child onto the work of art; but I have also tried to make it explicit in a way which would question the fetishistic nature of representation itself.”(3)

It is additionally relevant that Kelly addressed the idea of a work of art as a text, and her intellect was clearly informed by post-structuralist views of “meaning” as a social construct, as she suggests that “every artistic text is punctuated with an unconscious significance that cuts across the constraints of medium or intentionality.”(4) Her work epitomized the routes and interests that would fuel artistic growth as artists ventured forth in a “post-medium” condition, exploring taxonomy, socio-economics, psychology and gender issues, to develop a new art that “relies very heavily on the viewer’s affective relation to the visual configuration of objects and texts.”(5)

Readings for 18 October: From Chapter 8: Marina Abramovic and Ulay’s Dialogue with Heidi Grundman, Vito Acconci’s Steps into Performance (And Out) and Chris Burden’s Untitled Statement.


1. Paul Wood, Conceptual Art, New York, 2002, 72.

2. Ibid., 72-73.

3. Mary Kelly, “Preface to Post-Partum Document” in Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art, Stiles and Selz (eds.), Berkeley, 1996, 859.

4. Ibid., 858.

5. Ibid., 859.

October 5, 2006


Photography has two functions in the discourse of art. First, it is an “art form” itself, although Frederick Jameson seems to dismiss it as a true “medium”; and second, it is the “mass medium” by which other art forms are reproduced. Photography reproduces the art that we look at in magazines and books, and it helps us structure an identity for the art work through these reproductions. Setting aside Jameson’s argument for the moment, we might accept photography as an “art form” briefly if we consider the photography of Stieglitz, Adams, Strand and Brassai. These photographic works were supremely descriptive or anecdotal, with their depictions of beauty or candid “decisive moments,” respectively. This kind of “high art” imagery might be theorized as a direct extension of Modernist ideals. Modernist art was premised on medium specificity and explored the expressive qualities of a medium. Modernism’s “truth to materials” credo would be coupled with the above photographers’ delivery of their individual expressions of “subjectivity” into their chosen medium.

Photography’s further relation to the printed page resides in the captions that describe a reproduced image. With “news” photography, the “story” is additionally embellished by more words written by a journalist to establish a relation to the reproduced image. The story-telling nature of photography delivers this “literary” quality that is championed as photojournalistic, to be extended further from “reportage” in the work of photographers like Joe Rosenthal and Robert Capa. The use of photographs by the media to “illustrate” news and events is sacrosanct and rarely transgressed by artists. We can explore the manipulation of “images” another day, as I would like to pursue the relationship of photography to conceptual art.

In the late 1960’s, Douglas Huebler began to use photography to make “location” and “duration” pieces, works that specified random spatial and temporal rules for the production of photographic documentation, i.e., shooting the same space at one minute intervals, or a series of spaces a fixed distance apart. This functioned as a kind of “conceptual cartography,” or mapping. The photographic documentations of Huebler’s pieces were accompanied by his often dead-pan descriptive text that outlined the assignments. In staging and documenting his “meaningless,” non-newsworthy actions, as photographer-critic Jeff Wall notes, Huebler engages “two simultaneous negations, which produce a ‘reportage’ without event, and a writing without narrative.”(1) To be sure, Wall’s insightful critique directs our focus to the essential elements of Huebler’s work:

"The more the assignment is emptied of what could normatively [be] considered to be compelling social subject matter, the more visible it is simply as an instance of a structure, an order, and the more clearly it can be experienced as a model of relationships between writing and photography."(2)

Wall suggests that Heubler’s work is an extension of Modernism, i.e., “the idea of an art which provides a direct experience of situations or relationships, not a secondary, representational one.”(3) Thus, "depictivity” itself is contemplated and Huebler’s conceptual art “permits photography to become a model of an art whose subject matter is the idea of art.”(4)

Readings for 11 October: From Chapter 9: Mary Kelly’s Preface to Post-Partum Document and Hans Haacke’s Museum: Managers of Consciousness.


1. Jeff Wall, “Marks of Indifference: Aspects of Photography in, or as, Conceptual Art” in Reconsidering the Object of Art: 1965-1975, Cambridge, 1995, 258.

2. Ibid., 255.

3. Ibid., 257.

4. Ibid., 258.

September 28, 2006

Minimalist Theater

A preliminary synopsis of Michael Fried’s influential and controversial essay, Art and Objecthood would outline these points:

1. The emergence of a new, “illusionary” visual mode in painting (Pollock, Newman, Louis) that acknowledged the literal character of the painting’s support, i.e. its flatness. Greenberg: “Optical illusionary as opposed to sculptural illusionary.”

2. Neutralization of that flatness by the literalness of the experience of pigment, foreign substances, etc.

3. The arrival of a new mode of pictorial structure based on the shape of the support (Stella, Noland), i.e., shape determines structure.

4. Primacy of the literal over the depicted; depicted shape became dependent on the literal shape.

Fried’s analysis takes us to around 1965 and is a workable study of the seemingly “positive” and “logical” progression of an admittedly limited handful of painters working in the United States. But the real nugget of this essay comes in the seventh and final section, wherein Fried says:

“At this point I want to make a claim that I cannot hope to prove or substantiate but that I believe nevertheless to be true: theater and theatricality are at war today, not simply with modernist painting (or modernist painting and sculpture), but with art as such . . . ”(1)

He then proceeds to break this “claim” down into “three propositions”:

1. The success, even the survival, of the arts has come increasingly to depend on their ability to defeat theater.

2. Art degenerates as it approaches the condition of theater.

And his final clincher:

3. The concepts of quality and value – and to the extent that these are central to art, the concept of art itself – are meaningful, or wholly meaningful, only within the individual arts. What lies between the arts is theater.(2)

If we return to section three of Fried’s essay, we can read his attack upon the work of Robert Morris, specifically with reference to the idea of a “literalist sensibility” which Fried considers to be “theatrical” because “it is concerned with the actual circumstances in which the beholder encounters literalist work.”(3)

Irregardless, Morris had already invoked gestalt theory as a hitherto uncharted “element” of artistic exploration. Essentially, Morris felt that once the “primary structure” was “recognized” and all information about it was exhausted (scale, surface, proportion, environs) then the viewer was free to consider the perceptual “experience” itself and other aspects of the object in relation to its fundamental unity:

“The better new work takes relationships out of the work and makes them a function of space, light, and the viewer’s field of vision. . . One is more aware than before that he himself is establishing relationships as he apprehends the object from various positions and under varying conditions of light and spatial context.”(4)

Perhaps one can forgive Fried’s obvious protectiveness of his mentor, Clement Greenberg, who wrote stridently throughout the 1940s and 1950s of the need for a “self-criticality” in painting and for painters to focus only on “medium specificity,” i.e., the specifics of what painting is capable of as medium. However, the fact remains that the consideration of “perception” would prove worthy of intense investigation by visual artists. (See Merleau-Ponty’s The Phenomenology of Perception.) Moreover, Fried’s characterization of minimal art as “degeneration” into “theatricality” is simply ironic, as we continue to realize today that the perceptual experience is truly one of “an object in a situation – one that virtually by definition, includes the beholder.”(5)

Readings for 4 October: Chapter 9 introduction, Language and Concepts; from Ch. 9: Douglas Huebler’s Untitled Statements and Joseph Kosuth’s
Art After Philosophy.
(available at


1. Michael Fried, Art and Objecthood, Chicago, 1998, 163.

2. Ibid., 163-164.

3. Ibid., 153.

4. Ibid., 153.

5. Ibid., 153.

September 19, 2006

What Not To Paint

The idea of the “academy” of art in the seventeenth century, of “aesthetics” in the eighteenth, of the “independence” of art in the nineteenth, and the “purity” of art in the twentieth, restate, in those centuries in Europe and America, the same “one point of view.” Fine art can only be defined as exclusive, negative, absolute, and timeless. It is not practical, useful, related, applicable, or subservient to anything else. . . The art tradition stands as the antique-present model of what has been achieved and what does not need to be achieved again. Tradition shows the artist what not to do. . . The first rule and absolute standard of fine art, and painting, which is the highest and freest art, is the purity of it. The more uses, relations, and “additions” a painting has, the less pure it is.(1)

In his 1953 essay, ”Twelve Rules for a New Academy”, Ad Reinhardt made his defiant, arrogant and sometimes contradictory stand against the “New York School,” the dominant model of abstract expressionism. He envisioned a new direction for painting, based primarily on negation and reduction, stating that a painting’s frame “should isolate and protect the painting from its surroundings” and that “space divisions within the painting should not be seen.”(2) With his infamous “black square paintings,” Reinhardt would define “space” as the elimination of color, where color becomes an ancillary property, a non-essential element expressed as negation.

In his “black paintings,” Frank Stella closed the gap between literal shapes and depicted shapes, as his “stripes” appear to be generated by the framing edge, an image interdependent to the object. This denial of balance and ordering (“relational painting”) was a conscious avoidance of the traditional ideas about a painting’s composition held-over from an older European rationalism and rejected by “early minimalists” like Stella:

“I had to do something about relational painting, i.e., the balancing of the various parts of the painting with and against each other. The obvious answer was symmetry – make it the same all over. The question still remained, though, of how to do this in depth. A symmetrical image or configuration symmetrically placed on an open ground is not balanced out in the illusionistic space. The solution I arrived at . . . forces illusionistic space out of the painting at constant intervals by using a regulated pattern.”(3)

To many observers, Stella’s stripes and Reinhardt’s squares seemed “empty,” engineered and impersonal, prompting art critic Richard Wollheim to describe these new paintings’ monochromatic and obdurate direction, as having “minimal art content.” The label stuck.

Sol Lewitt’s contribution was the module. Lewitt saw the potential for serial repetition of a modular unit and began a series of cube-based drawings and sculptures. The module precludes that other conceit of traditional art – taste – as it allowed an arbitrary formal arranging of the individual parts. As an ordering principle, the module does away with relational, momentary and whimsical decision-making.

Carl Andre would continue the exploration of the module’s possibilities with his own self-imposed modular system, i.e., one and only one kind of object (brick, zinc plate, railroad tie) was used as a module and modules were “arranged” rather than composed, one thing after another, the exact nature of the “finished” artwork unknown before-hand.

Readings for 27 September: Ch. 7 introduction, Process; from Ch. 7: Eva Hesse’s Letter to Ethelyn Honig, Untitled Statements (1968, 1969, n.d.) and Richard Serra’s Rigging; PLUS: Michael Fried’s “Art and Objecthood” in his Art and Objecthood, Chicago, 1998.


1. Ad Reinhardt, Art-as-Art: The Selected Writings of Ad Reinhardt, New York, 1975, p. 204.

2. Ibid., p. 206.

3. Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art, p. 113.

September 14, 2006

Art Practice of the 1960s

As the décollagist works of Jacques de la Villeglé attest, artistic practice in post-World War II Europe would be relocated in urban, collective, consumerist space as his grifted street posters embodied artistic intervention via the appropriative act. The random vandalizing of the ubiquitous posters by anonymous Parisians gained a new life of gestural repetition in Villeglé’s hands, as his disintegration of the pictorial relationships in the cinema /concert /product adverts gained a seriality and structure that also implied a cancellation of a “completed” work. Further, the torn text of the posters was subject to an erasure of its semantic context, expressing different significance in fragmentation.

Benjamin Buchloh has distinguished Villeglé as one of those post-WWII Parisian “New Realist” painters who would seek a “total dispersal of a centered Cartesian subjectivity and the discrediting of conscious control”(1) by making paintings beyond their intentional composition. Further still, these paintings would “refute the last residues of a visual hedonism, seducing its viewers either by the virtuosity of its graphic, gestural, or chromatic execution or by an enigmatic iconography that pretended to lead to the deepest recesses of the mythical and the pre-linguistic unconscious.”(2)

This search for an “enigmatic iconography” would prove to be relentless and fruitful for the next twenty years or so, producing innumerable unintentional compositions, perhaps none as thrilling or nuanced as the Frenchman Yves Klein’s anthropometries. Klein’s actions transformed his models’ nude bodies into “living brushes,” in a kind of Duchampian disengagement from the “hand,” through a series of prophetic and public performance works, putatively as the logical extension of Pollock’s “choreography.”

Essentially problematic for abstract expressionist painting was how to maintain an equal emphasis throughout the surface of the painting. Back in New York, Jasper Johns’ solution was simple; cover the canvas with alphabets or numbers, sustaining this “all-over” emphasis but also reinforcing the Duchampian “thingness” of the paintings. Eventually, representation would become further intertwined with advertising and consumerism. That great French iconoclast, Francis Picabia, “had already submerged drawing and painterly design within the vulgarity of the mass-cultural photographic matrix,”(3) while the American Andy Warhol used repetition as motif; commodity objects reiterated as codified representation. But throughout the 1960’s it would be the German, Sigmar Polke, who would fully exploit and develop the idea of transgressive, codified citations of commodity culture. Often utilizing the “ben-day” dot pattern of industrial reproduction, he would then negate this commercial representation technique through his manual execution, in an ironic snubbing of Duchamp’s “detachment.” Even more brilliantly, he stretched “found” printed fabrics (bed-spreads and sheets) as his “canvas,” subversively juxtaposing the consumer codification structures with painterly gestures of Modernism.

Readings for 20 September: From Ch. 2: Ad Reinhardt’s Twelve Rules for a New Academy, 25 Lines of Words on Art, The Black-Square Paintings and Frank Stella's Pratt Lecture; from Ch. 9: Sol Lewitt’s Paragraphs on Conceptual Art and Sentences on Conceptual Art.


1. Benjamin Buchloh, Neo-Avantgarde and Culture Industry, MIT Press, 2000, p. 250.

2. Ibid., p. 250.

3. Ibid., p. 249.

September 6, 2006

Prequel: In Advance of a Broken Arm

Artist-theoretician Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe has boldly suggested that Marcel Duchamp’s readymades “culminated a tradition of defamiliarization which runs throughout the art of the nineteenth century.” Gilbert-Rolfe selects Gustave Courbet’s 1850 painting, Funeral at Ornans, to explain how far Courbet strayed from “the Academy,” by eliminating under-painting, using sign painting techniques and borrowing his composition from a political pamphlet. Moreover, Eduard Manet’s Bar at the Folies-Bergere continued the trend as Manet “uses a technique reminiscent of the lithographed labels to be found, by then, on wine bottles, and obliges us to acknowledge that the painting is a thing, into which we breath space by way of conventions which we have learned, by using two perspectives instead of one, and in so doing, eliminating the possibilities for illusion which the audience had, over the course of the preceding four hundred years or so, come to expect.”(1)

Thus, when Duchamp exhibited his snow shovel (In Advance of a Broken Arm, 1915) and other readymades, he was extending these earlier, pre-Modernist conceptions of a painting as thing. What Duchamp notably added to the discourse concerning art was the idea that “things become art by being put into places where one expects to find art, namely museums,” and that this validating “context” of art galleries and museums established a work’s identity as “art” as “entirely a matter of convention.”(2) Duchamp simply assigned an “exhibition value” to “use value” objects. This de-contextualization of objects by dysfunction parallels their semantic disassociation, as the shovel or urinal became a “non-functioning” referent through his “choice” and its appropriation.

The avant garde of 1915-25 faced a distinct set of problems; the contradictions of “high art” and “mass culture,” the impact of technical production processes on the “uniqueness” of the work, and the gap between elitist practices of “high art” production and the hopelessness in attaining a mass audience’s comprehension.

Duchamp proposed that art should become once again about ideas, not an art of sensation or purely “retinal” stimulation. He professed a “non-accumulative creation,” advocating a distancing from the Modern approach of “thought, then action,” preferring instead a “delay” (like breathing) before considering whether something is art. Duchamp eliminated the three succeeding movements of “initiation, termination, repetition” by engaging in a continuous block of “thinking with the eyes.” The gesturing, hedonist hand was replaced with a manual technique (craftsman) in dry mechanical drawings.

Duchamp minimized the “artist’s hand” by “selection” instead. Further, the objects were selected for their neutrality, the absence of “good” or “bad” taste, what Duchamp termed a total “anaesthesia,” not attraction. If the artist was to maintain neutrality, to avoid specific likes /dislikes, the work generated was unlikely to be specific to the original desire (initiation). In a speech that he gave in 1957, Duchamp elaborated on the “creative act” itself:

”The result of this struggle is a difference between the intention and its realization, a difference which the artist is not aware of. Consequently, in the chain of reactions accompanying the creative act, a link is missing. This gap, representing the inability of the artist to express fully his intention, this difference between what he intended to realize and did realize, is the personal 'art coefficient' contained in the work."(3)

Duchamp went on to specify that the “art coefficient” was an “arithmetical relation between the unexpressed but intended and the unintentionally expressed.” Therefore, the “art coefficient” increases in proportion to the difference between what you intended to realize and what you did realize.

Readings for 13 September 2006: Chapter 4 introduction, Material Culture and Everyday Life; from Ch. 2: Piero Manzoni’s For the Discovery of a Zone of Images and Ives Klein’s Ritual for the Relinquishment of the Immaterial Pictorial Sensitivity Zones.


1. Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, Beyond Piety: Critical Essays on the Visual Arts 1986-1993, Cambridge University Press, 1995, pp. 14-15.

2. Ibid., p. 15.


August 30, 2006

Theory NOW: A Continual Discourse

I am initiating a little experiment with my Theory NOW blog to announce regular weekly discussions on specific topics of art theory, along with suggested readings for further investigation. My intention is to provide readers of this blog a better grounding for discussions on our topics, as well as outside sources. Since you are always welcome to join the discourse, I hope this weekly discussion will perhaps offer you a sense of intimacy within the framework of “virtual reality.”

For those of you who have the desire to do additional reading, I will provide a list of readings from the text that I ask my Corcoran College of Art + Design students to read. Of course, I would love for you to attend the Theory NOW course which I teach at Corcoran for you to gain the full experience of a structured course. This is not, of course, in any way an attempt to duplicate the “Corcoran experience” or to attempt to offer a virtual class, but to establish a more directed approach to the ideas envisioned for this blog as a “discursive site about art theory.”

I will ask that those readers who wish to participate in this weekly discourse become fully “registered users” of this blog. At this point, I will not “monitor” discussions as we proceed in democratic fashion, self-governed by our intelligence, courtesy and "blog-iquette.”

Suggested Textbook: Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists’ Writings, (Peter Selz, Kristine Stiles, editors), University of California Press, 1996.

Suggested readings for week of 01 September 2006: From Chapter 9: Marcel Duchamp’s The Creative Act, The Richard Mutt Case and Apropos of Readymades; PLUS
Benjamin Buchloh’s “Hantaï/Villeglé and the Dialectics of Painting’s Dispersal” in Neo-Avantgarde and Culture Industry, MIT Press, 2000.

August 17, 2006

Discursive Practice and the Positivity of Knowledge

“In analysing a painting, one can reconstitute the latent discourse of the painter; one can try to recapture the murmur of his intentions, which are not transcribed into words, but into lines, surfaces, and colours; one can try to uncover the implicit philosophy that is supposed to form his view of the world. It is also possible to question science, or at least the opinions of the period, and to try to recognize to what extent they appear in the painter’s work. Archaeological analysis would have another aim: it would try to discover whether space, distance, depth, colour, light, proportions, volumes, and contours were not, at the period in question, considered, named, enunciated, and conceptualized in a discursive practice; and whether the knowledge that this discursive practice gives rise to was not embodied perhaps in theories and speculations, in forms of teaching and codes of practice, but also in processes, techniques, and even in the very gesture of the painter. It would not set out to show that the painting is a certain way of ‘meaning’ or ‘saying’ that is peculiar in that it dispenses with words. It would try to show that, at least in one of its dimensions, it is discursive practice that is embodied in techniques and effects. In this sense, the painting is not a pure vision that must then be transcribed into the materiality of space; nor is it a naked gesture whose silent and eternally empty meanings must be freed from subsequent interpretations. It is shot through – and independently of scientific knowledge (connaissance) and philosophical themes – with the positivity of a knowledge (savoir).”

- Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge, Pantheon, 1972, pp. 193-194.

Image: Notecard TN3 (Prequel) in studio; © Copyright 2006 by Mark Cameron Boyd. All Rights Reserved.

August 9, 2006

Meaning and Definition

If the recent memorial postings on this site have seemed a rather somber tone for summer months, this post may prove a remedy as I have escaped my suburban confines to a sandy seaboard and sense a renewed contemplative mood stirring as I gaze out at the flat Atlantic's horizon. . .

A young artist recently asked me to expand on the “meaning of a work of art” and whether the addition of a text or "explanation" would "enhance the interest or expose the mystery of the piece?”

These are legitimate questions and frequent readers of this blog, as well as my blogosphere sparring partners, doubtless realize that I consider these important if not essential issues to engage. Eschewing my usual citations and quotations from the entrusted sources, I shall simply address these two questions directly.

The meaning of a work of art is both relative to the sensibilities of the viewer and obscure to the artist who created it. Various techniques, strategies and theories have arisen to delay, distract or deny this, but the fact remains that a work of art will convey no consistent and “true” meaning to the multiplicity of viewers who will happen upon it during its exhibition life-span. To escape this dilemma, artists naturally drift into the “it-means-whatever-you-wish” mode, abandoning their responsibility for the continuation of a discourse that constructs the theoretical and rational support for the work. This is why I have previously written that ”the meaning of art is defined by the system.” The discursivity of that “system” facilitates “meaning” and, as such, is the generative factor in any putative meanings a work of art may represent.

The other question posed by this artist is a very personal one for me. Those familiar with my art are aware that my work “explores text as a language for painting, literally using my original writings about art as the subject.” Thus it is obvious that in my particular practice, text absolutely enhances the “interest” of the work because of the specificity of my process. However, this is where my own unique process diverges from traditional representation, because that process literally creates the form the work will take; there is no illusory image, no aesthetic “ordering of elements.” This way of making art is directly related to one’s own theoretical approach to a definition of what art is, or should be, and is not for everyone. Yet to add a textual “explanation” that “talks about the intention of the work” may also help to define one’s definition of art, and certainly assist in the purveyance of an active discourse about these ideas as mentioned above.

Above image: "What does this say?" (3rd state detail) Copyright 2006 by M. Cameron Boyd; on exhibit at DCAC's Wall Mountables until August 13, 2006.

August 5, 2006

In Memory: Arthur Lee (1945-2006)

Yeah, I heard a funny thing
Somebody said to me
You know that I could be in love with almost everyone
I think that people are
The greatest fun
And I will be alone again tonight my dear

from "Alone Again Or" (1967)

July 20, 2006

In Memory: Mickey Spillane (1918-2006)

"The Zero Zero Club was a cellar joint off Sixth avenue that buried itself among the maze of other night spots with nothing more than two aughts done in red neon to proclaim its location. But it was doing a lively business. It had atmosphere; plenty of it. . . that's why they called it the Zero Zero. Both visibility and ceiling were wiped out with cigar smoke. . . Yeah, the atmosphere was great, what you could see of it. The Zero Zero Club took you right back to the saloons of a Western mining camp and the patrons loved it."

from My Gun is Quick, 1950.

June 20, 2006

The Dungeon and the Graveyard

"The master discourse which is the common sense of ‘Art’ is in the thrall of an antique, ‘nominalist’ view of language – believing that because there is a singular word, ‘art’, then there must be some singular thing, some ‘essence’, which the word names. History (to say nothing of modern linguistics) is the enemy of this illusion; real history therefore – mutable, heterogeneous, indeterminate – is kept prisoner in its own dungeons while a more coherent imposter (a more plausible narrative) takes public command, and displaces judgments. Our art museums are most often machines for the suppression of history,

substituting for concrete historical locations the fictive backdrops of an autonomous history of art or an unquestioned, and perhaps inexpressible, standard of ‘aesthetic excellence’. Where historically remote work is being displayed, instead of the massive historical work of recovery necessary to re-insert the ‘dead’ signs in the complex moments within which they once resonated with meaning, we are all too frequently offered the ‘scholarship’ of the family tree, the spectacle of the cemetery with its monuments and relics. (1)

The contents of this graveyard is the canon of established ‘masterpieces’; to be admitted to it is to be consigned to perpetual exhumation, to be denied entry is to be condemned to perpetual oblivion. The canon is what gets written about, collected, and taught; it is self-perpetuating, self-justifying, and arbitrary; it is the gold standard against which the values of new aesthetic currencies are measured." (2)

Conceptualist Victor Burgin’s keen observation on the theoretical and art historical positioning of artists and art theories within the “graveyard” of academia provides us an incisive and prescient alert that remains topical since publication of his above quoted essay in 1986. The erection and maintenance of the (modern) art history canon is continually supported and corroborated with curatorial and critical acuity by those with abiding interests. To whit, cozily nestled in’s notice about Bard College’s new Hessel wing is a revelation about the structure of their "curatorial studies program" and the further promulgation of the “graveyard” agenda by the emergent MA candidates:

"Bard’s curatorial studies program [founded by Marieluise Hessel, along with her then-husband, Richard B. Black, back in 1990] has long depended on the resource of Hessel’s collection, with candidates for the program’s MA required to draw from it for their "first-year collection show" in order to prove their curatorial chops. The new facility will present three exhibitions a year, rotating works from. holdings of significant pieces by Carl Andre, Janine Antoni, Louise Bourgeois, Anne Chu, Francesco Clemente, Dan Flavin, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Thomas Hirschhorn, Isaac Julien, Yayoi Kusama, Robert Mapplethorpe, Paul McCarthy, Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter, Pipilotti Rist, Doris Salcedo, David Salle, Kara Walker, Christopher Wool and others.

The new museum’s inaugural exhibition, "Wrestle," homes in on issues of self and identity in the Hessel collection, via 200+ works by the likes of Robert Gober, Roni Horn, Paul McCarthy, Richard Prince, Cindy Sherman and Rosmarie Trockel. The extravaganza is organized by Bard curatorial studies director Tom Eccles and Trevor Smith of the New Museum, who, presumably, will show the program’s would-be curators how it’s done."

Were it possible to take issue with such a “plausible narrative” by the Center for Curatorial Studies that includes, for example, Janine Antoni, Robert Gober, Nan Goldin, Thomas Hirschhorn, Raymond Pettibon, Rosemarie Trockel and Kara Walker among the acknowledged “blue chip” artists, one might ask, “How do these lesser artists fit within the trajectory of the (modern) art history canon?” And, more disturbingly, since the curatorial program at Bard requires that its MA candidates must “draw from” their own sanctified collection to “prove their curatorial chops,” does not such incestuous scholarship place unnecessary limits on the scope of the "study" of art history?

1. John Tagg, ‘A Socialist Perspective on Photographic Practice’, in Three Perspectives on Photography, Arts Council of Great Britain, 1979, p. 70.
2. Victor Burgin, ‘The End of Art Theory’, The End of Art Theory: Criticism and Postmodernity, Humanities Press International, 1986, p. 159.

May 26, 2006

Commodity Cult: Cloak of Mediocrity

The world is full of objects, more or less interesting; I do not wish to add more. I prefer, simply, to state the existence of things in terms of time and/or place.
- Douglas Huebler, 1969

When he wrote the above statement in the catalogue for the January 5-31 exhibition at Seth Siegelaub’s gallery, Douglas Huebler was a young man seeking a way out of the dilemma of art production based on commodity and capitalism. The heady theories of conceptualism were already in the air, in Sol Lewitt’s Sentences on Conceptual Art (1968) and Joseph Kosuth’s Art After Philosophy (1969), and one possible answer, or a response, to the “art market” would be a moratorium on the production of art objects. Under the conceptualist credo, to avoid placing one’s works among the many other innumerable objects destined for art world “consumption” was a primary motivation NOT to produce art.

This possible “dematerialization” of the object was more than a threat. Complete theoretical discourses were being mounted to support the idea that words and the realm of linguistics were equivalent to “art objects.” The discourse about art soon became the “work” itself, i.e. Art & Language, October, The Fox, as the printed word in magazines and quarterly art journals replaced the art objects, eventually becoming the cherished icons themselves. But, as Mel Bochner ironically noted in 1970, “Outside the spoken word, no thought can exist without a sustaining support.”

[Parenthetically, there is now the possibility of rendering art objects, or any other object, practically invisible with this cloaking device.]

To cease making “things” and focus instead on the temporal and/or spatial aspects of the “existence of things” shifted the emphasis from production to documentation. This defining moment for Douglas Huebler could serve as well for a renewed and potentially cathartic moment for art in the 21st Century, for we are making far too many “things.” There is a glut of mute object production, cluttered installations and mind-numbing hours-worth of digital film imagery being made. Global in scope, this overabundance of “useless” stuff is churned out daily. If Huebler’s original warning had been heeded we would be in a far less postmodern position of the negation of objects through the dominance of “the image” and fiscal solvency. That said, it is surely ironic that Huebler’s and other original conceptualist’s documents have become marketable objects in and of themselves, possibly revealing the insidious consumerist nature of the “art world.”

Regardless, what are the motivating factors for the production of art? “Art objects” are either “useful” or not, in the sense of whether or not they provide a function. Some of the things that we make do fulfill a “need” and also may be visually appealing, as utilitarian objects can still be well-designed. The “privileging of use” has been previously discussed on this site but we will circumvent that debate at present to propose that art is not purely an individually conceived “creative” endeavor, that is to say that one's individualized “creativity” should not be the sole motivating factor for the production of art.

We will grant only a cursory view of vanitas here. Without sufficient individual psychoanalysis of test case artists we have no conclusive evidence that vanity is the “chief motivation” for production of art, except to suggest that perhaps the idea that one makes things purely for the boost of “producer-ship” is latent in all art making.

Still, critical positions must be assumed with regard to the continuation of art object production. I hold that each and every discipline of art making must properly educate the novice practitioner in the history and chronology of their specific field, for no other reason than an establishment of a clear understanding of previous accomplishments, directions and conceptions with which to continue the discourse of art. Moreover, before each artist begins their own production of objects, they should sufficiently research, through the use of prototypes, studies and trials, the feasibility and authentic uniqueness of their proposed concepts and art objects.

I believe that the creation of objects strictly as production for capitalist consumption is antithetical to the precepts of art making. Transforming fine artworks, theoretically “useless” and purely contemplative objects, into commodities to be lined up on the shelves in the “White Cubes” like so many supermarket items is a premise destined for mediocrity. To place one’s artworks in the realm of consumptive production is to function under the reign of the mercantile art world. As Ursula Meyer wrote in 1972:

The shift from object to concept denotes disdain for the notion of commodities – the sacred cow of this society. Conceptual artists propose a professional commitment that restores art to artist, rather than “money vendors.”

We ought to clearly distinguish now between art that is being made in the pursuit of artistic goals that marks a positive continuance of earlier concepts and visions, and this other art made merely to provide “inventory” for the “culture industry.” Let us promote ideas that significantly “carry on” previous concepts or theories of art, be they in painting, sculpture or film. Let artists “make” only when they have developed a unique conception in their fields of art. Of course, the final sobering option for "fine" artists who hunger only for money is to merge one’s ideas with the world of design, thus acquiescing to capitalism in full comprehension of all of its pitfalls and provenance.

("99 Cent" photograph by Andreas Gursky.)

May 19, 2006

The Gift of Memory

About twelve minutes into Plans, Death Cab for Cutie’s current CD, the listener realizes that Benjamin Gibbard must be a post-structuralist trapped in an “alt-rock” limbo as he intones his second verse to “Different Names for the Same Thing.” Ostensibly a song about travel to other lands, we cannot rule out the possibility that this deceptively simple pop tune engages the fragile essence of linguistics as it flirts with the ambiguity of language. The sparse piano arrangement (which vaguely recalls John Lennon’s “Isolation”) diverts one’s attention as Gibbard sings:

"the boundaries of language I quietly cursed
and all the different names for the same thing"

The post-structural understanding of language contends that “meaning” is never fully present in any one concept, or word, and in fact is “infinitely deferred.” This “deferral” exposes a limitless “excess” of meanings, “different names,” or signifiers, for the same “things,” or signifieds. It is probably no coincidence that Gibbard’s chorus reverts to a simpler and more ominous, line, which I hear as "deferring names, deferring names" as the song fades.

Gibbard’s naked grasp of these kinds of limits for communication under post-structural rules also reveals his stark perception of the vacuity of identities within “pop” culture, as well as the emptiness of individual identity within a “pop music” model.

The establishment of one’s identity as an “artist” in popular music is relative to one’s chosen “vehicle.” Conventional models such as “singer-songwriter” and “pop vocal group” are further divided into sub-categories, i.e. "alt-rock," "urban contemporary," etc. Working within a group setting, a writer of songs subsumes his individuality to the group identity and becomes a “cog in a wheel,” part of a team effort. This does not deny one’s unique perceptions or projections of ideas within this framework, as the now-familiar “sole” songwriting credits will attest on numerous liner notes. Nonetheless, this work is done from a perspective of denial, from the invisibility of a lone “voice” awash in group sound. This is the emptiness of which Gibbard sings, the “boundaries” of speech and denied ownership.

There is duality afoot here, as well. In “Soul Meets Body” the singer cries out for feeling, a desire for an emotive connection to something other than post-modernity and slacker irony, for “a chance of finding a place where they’re far more suited than here.” The struggle between ego and id gives fresh expression to the singer’s identity crisis in "Crooked Teeth” as he realizes that his conscious “self” will be inevitably usurped by his wilder and untamed "soul":

I’m a war of head versus heart and it’s always this way
my head is weak and my heart always speaks before I know what it will say

The “head” stands in for the “presence,” the conscious self-awareness of one’s authenticity; the “heart,” as its polar opposite, “speaks” through actions motivated by the impulse of instinct, often prior to knowing or control. The “recording artist” inhabits a darkness of “invisibility,” at once “here” through the audible recorded sound, yet “absent” from our space. This dual nature is part of the “magic” of recorded music, as its “existence” is based on our memory of the discontinuous notes, one after another, in a narrative of melody. So it is that, as uneasy inhabitant of a “vehicle” called Death Cab for Cutie, Ben Gibbard accepts the limits of his “pop” language with charming angst, to craft his “deferrals” of identity as a testament to the “pop songwriter” as the binary opposites of the “presence” of performance and the “absence” of the recorded art.

May 14, 2006

New York Minutes: Perfection, Compromise and Process

The recent sale of 65 Donald Judd sculptures at Christie’s Auction House provided a rare post-humous solo viewing of an original Minimalist. This experience was somewhat diminished, however, by the sudden realization that many works on view at Rockefeller Center were severely damaged. For example, an untitled 1989 Douglas fir plywood piece (Lot No. 11) had badly “chewed-up” edges, yet sold for $352,000. An untitled 1989 Cor-ten steel work (Lot No. 19) had obvious gaps in the joining corners, still sold for $553,600). We offer our condolences to the collectors who undoubtedly must invest additional thousands of dollars to repair and restore these pieces. Such an oversight by the Judd Foundation, which placed the Judd sculptures for sale by Christie’s, suggests a suspicious intent to “unload” defective works from their collection. Regardless, it was disturbing to see such imperfections in Judd’s works, particularly since Judd was known to have extremely high standards of perfection and would never have allowed these damaged works to be exhibited, much less sold.

More oversized steel boxes and mazes were on view at Gagosian Gallery in Chelsea. Richard Serra’s “desire to create works that respond to a specific site” has been somewhat compromised over the years by his public grandstanding over the “Tilted Arc” litigation and accusations that his “site specificity” may be perhaps contingent, as he has apparently allowed pieces to be “re-located.”

One of the original ideas of site specificity was that a work built in a particular place inhabited that space for the duration of the exhibition, to be dismantled after the exhibit. The specifics of “place” where the work existed shifted the experience of art back to the viewer experiencing this work in a particular place, unlike earlier, modernist sculpture, that sought to cart these works from museum to museum. Yet somehow the discourse surrounding “site specific sculpture” has grown lax and now seems to describe the earlier traditional forms of pedestal sculpture:

As only parts of these works can be seen from any one vantage point, they require that time be spent walking, looking, anticipating, and remembering. Moving in, around and through them, they change configuration with every step.
(From press release at

When Walter De Maria installed his “Broken Kilometer” site-specific “sculpture” of brass rods using a mathematical progression of distances between the rods, he was engaging the idea of the “process” of producing a work of art defining the form of the work itself. Since 1979, the DIA Foundation has preserved this work within a ground floor space at 393 W. Broadway in the Soho district of New York City, their commitment to the ideals of site-specific sculpture embodying a unique “institutional" validation of this kind of work, minus the obvious lack of a commodity to sell.

“The Broken Kilometer” is composed of 500 highly polished, round, solid brass rods, each measuring two meters in length and five centimeters (two inches) in diameter. The 500 rods are placed in five parallel rows of 100 rods each. The sculpture weighs 18 3/4 tons and would measure 3,280 feet if all the elements were laid end-to-end. Each rod is placed such that the spaces between the rods increase by 5mm with each consecutive space, from front to back; the first two rods of each row are placed 80mm apart, the last two rods are placed 580 mm apart.”

“Broken Kilometer” represents a union of site-specificity and “process.” The work exists in a seemingly permanent and specific “place,” a space solely devoted to its “presence” and preservation, created through a configuration of measurement that defines art as a procedural action carried out according to predetermined, conscious instructions. This is conceptualism with clarity of intention, an idea that could exist as “art” merely on paper, but an idea whose elaboration in space empowers our perception of the arrival of form through process.

Recently an L.A. artist named Liza Lou hired twenty Zulu women to apply glass beads with tweezers and glue to a large barbed-wire cage for her exhibit. Disregarding for the moment that these Zulu workers received no credit for their contribution to Lou’s “art” because she “didn't want to call attention to the fabrication process,” we dispute Lou’s characterization of “process.” Lou said, “Art has two lives, the process and the finished product. What an artist goes through to make the work is not necessary for understanding the finished work.”

This is exactly wrong for so many reasons. The process is the “life” of the product, significant to the “action” of making. Understanding the “process,” or the conception, or the idea, of an artwork is of paramount importance to the “understanding” of the “finished work.” This is one of conceptualism’s primary tenets, that the object is simply supplemental in our approach to the idea of the work itself. Walter De Maria’s “Broken Kilometer” has no “meaning” without a comprehension of his “process.” Our grasp of any Donald Judd sculpture requires an education about his principles of measurement and modularity. Without an appreciation of “process” an artwork is only an empty shell, devoid of the essence of its cognitive being.

April 27, 2006

Interpellation as Metonymy

As I half-seriously wrote to Tyler Green, in response to his over-zealous attempts at “defining” Dada on his "Modern Art Notes" (, “To say that Dada is art about World War I is like saying minimalism is art about cubes.” The tendency of retrospective critiques of art history is to construct “realities” or theories about the “style” or “movement” in question that are generally based on an over-abundance of individual viewpoint, conjecture, “academicism,” innuendo and half-recollected auto-biographical anecdote.

In our reading of Laura Kipnis’s "Repossessing Popular Culture" this week, she paraphrased Peter Burger’s Theory of the Avant-Garde, in which he goes to great pains to split the origins of Modernism into two oppositional components. On one hand were the original aestheticists, who developed an art of “purity,” where form was the “supreme” content, an art that possessed “autonomy from the concerns of everyday life.” Rising up against this were the “original” avant-gardists, with their brilliant use of “shock” and contestatory manifestoes, seeking to return art to an engagement with the people, to “rebel against the enforced social impotence of art determined by institutional status.”

This break was precipitated by more than war. Marcel Duchamp first exhibited his bicycle wheel as a “readymade” in 1913, before the start of World War I. This simple act of “choice,” Duchamp’s answer to the dreaded “retinal” images of aestheticism, would gain strength through the 20th Century with its engagement of the intellectual realms of “context,” commodity and the institutionalization of art. The Dadaists had implored Duchamp to join them (he lived in Munich for awhile) but he steadfastly refused – always the iconoclast – preferring instead to carve his own niche in the tumultuous “history” of “modernist” art.

But it is the “avant garde” dance with “mass culture” that interests me here. By “taking” the imagery of advertisements and posters, to make a “collage” of existing newspaper and magazine texts, the Cubists and Dadaists created an art that “arrested” the attention of both prole and bourgeois. Raoul Vaneigem, who admits his Dada influences, extends Louis Althusser’s idea of interpellation into a condemnation of this “address” of advertisements that provide individuals the “universal images” with which to “recognize themselves,” effectively becoming “actors” in the “spectacle.” It is this “address” that the original avant-gardists had anticipated and manipulated so well, imbuing their art with an absolute immediacy and recognition that did provide a “social” engagement.

I am proposing that it is this idea of an interpellative address that has become the defining metonymic factor in post-conceptualism. If the “part is made to stand for the whole,” then that element, or part, benefits from the “arresting” confrontation of advertisement. To enable “the subjects” to better “recognize themselves,” this appropriation of a commodified image or object allows the artist to engage the “whole” (avant-gardist “social” potency of politicization) with metonymy (Richard Serra’s “Stop Bush” drawing, Carolee Schneemann’s World Trade Center “jumpers.”)