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.