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.


craig P. Webb said...

I would like to hear people's views on the Turner Prize nominations. Specifically I am interested in what my more informed peers have to say about the works of Mark Titchner.

Chris Rywalt said...

Of course you know I'm going to chime in to argue against your main point, MCB. I agree wholeheartedly with Liza Lou: Knowledge of the artist's process is not necessary for understanding the finished work. Let me refine that: Knowledge of the artist's process should not be necessary for understanding the finished work.

Perhaps that's unnecessarily narrow. I'll say it's my feeling that art which relies on supporting text -- descriptions of process, explanations of technique, details of manufacture and measurement -- is deficient.

Art is the object created.

I know this isn't fashionable right now, but I sense the pendulum swinging....

M. Cameron Boyd said...

My position is from the vantage of a “post-conceptualist,” i.e. chronologically and philosophically seeking to broaden concepts and tenets surrounding the original conceptual artists, with a view to extending both these ideas and the discourse concerning conceptual art theory. Naturally, the “traditional” approach of “Art is the object created” relates to recta ratio factibilium, or the “right making” designating an object’s worth in relation to art. Whether one or the other belief, theory or definition of “art” is “fashionable” is of little interest to me. What I am stressing is in right there in my original post: 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.”

If I may “unpack” this, I mean that the process “produces” the “art,” hand-in-hand with the act of making the object, but that object does not contain the “art.” Your admission (and clarification) that “Knowledge of the artist's process should not be necessary for understanding the finished work” further supports my premise, as the “understanding” of a work of art more often than not requires specific education, critique or analysis of the artist and the work. This “understanding” may be further benefited by the artist’s explication of the process of the making. Rarely, if ever, does a work of art relinquish the putative “meaning” without supplementary material of this kind. I went even further to state that the “object is simply supplemental to the approach to the idea of the work itself.”

Contrarily, art which does not rely on supplementary material is the more deficient, as the “understanding” or “meaning” that it generates is ambiguous or open to vast differences of conjecture. The intent of process as a generational method of art making seeks to meld the “form” with the concept.