September 27, 2007

Conceptual Process

Is Card File by Robert Morris the “first ‘purely’ conceptual work of art?”(1) At least two art theorists have weighed in on this 1962 artwork’s self-reflexive character and its “predominately linguistic nature”(2) that continues the inexorable attack on objects, “seeming to parody the modernist obsession with the autonomy of the art object.”(3)

The 44 index cards contained in the file document the “steps the artist followed in the conception and making of the work”(3) by using another system of representation, i.e., language. The linguistic advantage would be thoroughly exploited by others fairly quickly (Yoko Ono, Mel Ramsden, Joseph Kosuth, Lawrence Weiner, John Baldessari). Yet Card File subtly introduced another art concept that would remain somewhat dormant for a few years before erupting as process.

That the form of Card File is fully manifested through the process undertaken by Morris in its conception and making is clearly the essential element of the work. We understand the artist’s intention to be the documentation of a pre-conceived idea for an artwork through a series of actions and “thought processes” which result in the production of the work.

I absolutely concur that this work is indeed exemplary within proto-conceptual history and that it indicates the importance of process in the future development of the form that art would take. However, I must remind my fellow art theorists that Duchamp’s readymades paved the way for all post-Duchampian “assisted” readymades. Therefore, I nominate Marcel’s In Advance of a Broken Arm (the snow shovel readymade) as the first “purely” conceptual artwork. Predating Morris’s Card File by nearly fifty years, Duchamp's snow shovel (along with the Bicycle Wheel and Fountain) unveils the basic premise of art’s institutionalization as flawed or, at the very least, suspect. Duchamp proposed that the definition of art relied fully on its context and this is the initial thrust which later propeled Morris, Piero Manzoni and even Bob Rauschenberg to thier unnerving acts of conceptualism.(5)

Parenthetically, I wonder if the Centre Georges Pompidou allows visitor interaction with Card File whenever it’s shown? If not and they exhibit it in one of those hermetically-sealed and compulsory glass display case, then I respectfully ask Robert Morris to draft another of his legal documents officially withdrawing “all aesthetic quality and content”(6) from Card File. Its systemic relevance is best accessed by a participatory experience, therefore, as just another “art object” under institutional control it is effectively neutered under glass.

Image: Card File (1962); metal and plastic wall file mounted on wood, containing 44 index cards; © Copyright by Robert Morris.

1. Osborne, Peter. Conceptual Art,, London, 2002, 68.

2. Ibid., 68.

3. Wood, Paul. Conceptual Art,, New York, 2002, 26.

4. Op. cit., 68.

5. Rauschenberg’s famous declarative telegram that asserts, “This is a portrait of Iris Clert if I say so,” thus extending the definition of what constitutes art begun by Duchamp.

6. “Statement of Esthetic Withdrawal” was Morris’ legal declaration that he had rescinded the “aesthetic quality and content” from the Litanies artwork after payment had not been received from the purchaser, Philip Johnson.

September 20, 2007

A Stretcher Named Desire

Whether it was Ad Reinhardt’s space as the “elimination of color,” or the anticipatory and subtle “presence” of Anne Truitt’s monochromatic slabs, the art being made by “late Modern” American abstractionists of the heady 1950’s had a bold breakaway feel of “the last advanced painting.” But a 23-year-old New Yorker named Frank Stella would shrink the gap between the literal shape (of the stretcher) and the “depicted” shape within the painting’s framing edge. It was his brash and impassioned consideration and heroic pursuit of an interdependent image to object that would stress the relationship of image and object as a unified thing.

Stella accomplished this simply through process. In his mind, the older ideas “about relational painting, i.e. the balancing of the various parts of the painting with and against each other” were “problems which had to be faced.” His “solution” was to eliminate “illusionistic space out of a painting at constant intervals by using a regulated pattern.”(1) His “regulated pattern” involved a “house painter’s” brush of a certain width and a single color (mostly and best with black) and Stella’s methodology delivered a series of paintings that although inherently featuring “stripes” have come to be called the “black paintings”. The stripes appear to be generated by the framing edges of the canvas and its support and yet also relate to the edges through Stella’s harmonious and logical solution of process.

“What the evidence shows is that in 1958 Stella painted himself into and out of a world, a body of work so complete that he could turn his back on it. This doesn’t seem like a phase, but rather a defining moment when Stella learned that he did not want to do what he could do, and went on to paint the black and gray pinstriped and notched paintings that, by the end of 1959, had secured him representation by Leo Castelli and a place in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art.”(2)

Through his reinforcement of the stretcher shape Stella provided the history of painting with a new method of structuring the content of the work that is wholly based on the shape of the support. In other words, the shape determined the structure and this was “arrived at” through his “regulated pattern” of brushworked logic. Stella’s radical use of the literal over the depicted would invest painting with a new radicality and energy that would carry it through the next decade. Moreover, his solution of using a process to determine the art object’s form would surface again during the “process art” of the Anti-Form movement, ironically itself a reaction to the Minimal Art that Stella helped to create.

UPDATE: Image deleted by unknown person or entity. (Sorry, Frank!)
UP-UPDATE: Replaced image: Stella painting in his studio, 1959; photographer unknown.


1. Selz, Peter, and Kristine Stiles, ed. Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists’ Writings, Berkeley, 1996, 114.

2. Corbett, William, Frank Stella 1958, Brooklyn Rail, March 2006.

September 13, 2007

Transaction Voided

“Having rejected nothingness, I discovered the void. The meaning of the immaterial pictorial zones, extracted from the depth of the void which by that time was of a very material order. Finding it unacceptable to sell these immaterial zones for money, I insisted in exchange for the highest quality of the immaterial, the highest quality of material payment — a bar of pure gold. Incredible as it may seem, I have actually sold a number of these pictorial immaterial states . . . Painting no longer appeared to me to be functionally related to the gaze, since during the blue monochrome period of 1957 I became aware of what I called the pictorial sensibility. This pictorial sensibility exists beyond our being and yet belongs in our sphere. We hold no right of possession over life itself. It is only by the intermediary of our taking possession of sensibility that we are able to purchase life. Sensibility enables us to pursue life to the level of its base material manifestations, in the exchange and barter that are the universe of space, the immense totality of nature.”(1)

When Yves Klein wrote these words in his “Chelsea Hotel Manifesto” in 1961, he was possibly still despondent over the theatrical release of Gualtiero Jacopetti’s “shockumentary” Mondo Cane, an inane and exploitative pseudo-documentary that was supposed to feature one of Klein’s infamous Anthropométrie de l'Époque bleue performance works. Yves apparently had been misled into believing that his “actions” featuring nude models swathed in his signature “International Klein Blue (IKB)” would have a respectable position within the film. The Walker Art Center’s Philippe Vergne has noted that it was Klein’s “mistaken belief that the filmmaker would do for him what Hans Namuth did for Jackson Pollock, what Henri-Georges Clouzot did for Picasso.” The resultant film barely touches on Klein and his visionary performance is sandwiched somewhere between savage hog slaughter and New Zealand mating habits.

Klein died of a heart attack a year after writing his manifesto. Yet his prophetic art paved the way for the conceptual art to come and continues to provide unique theoretical ground to explore. One of his most significant contributions to conceptualism is the idea of these “immaterial pictorial sensibility zones” which he “exhibited” and “actually sold.” Klein describes the “sensible pictorial state” in 1959:

“With this endeavor I desire to create, establish and present to the public a sensible pictorial state within the limits of an exhibition gallery for ordinary paintings. In other words, to create an ambiance, a pictorial climate which is invisible, but present in the spirit of what Delacroix in his journal calls ‘the indefinable,’ which he considers as the very essence of painting. The invisible pictorial state of the space in the gallery should in every respect be what has so far been offered as the best definition of painting in general, that is, invisible and intangible radiance.”(2)

The year before, Klein had spent forty-eight hours alone within Galerie Iris Clert painting the walls white. When this exhibition opened, there was nothing to see but Le Vide, or The Void, and chaos ensued as gallery visitors searched in vain for the “art.” Klein believed his physical act of painting the walls white had not only removed all visual emphasis on art as an “object” but that the gallery had been imbued with “immateriality.”

Klein further extends this “conceptual logic” in his “Ritual for the Relinquishment of the Immaterial Pictorial Sensitivity Zones” that virtually outline how a transfer of the “ownership” of said “zone” would be “relinquished against a certain weight of fine gold.”(3) It was this transaction of gold from new “owner” to Klein that seemingly authenticated the immateriality of the “work” as art, although “there was no proof that they had ever owned the invisible work. The making, purchase and ownership of the work of art had become a mystery, or ritual.”(4)

“Every possible buyer of an immaterial pictorial sensitivity zone must realize that the fact that he accepts a receipt for the price which he has payed takes away all authentic immaterial value from the work, although it is in his possession.”(5)

Because the putative “ownership” of the “immaterial” work of art is both authenticated and negated by a transaction or exchange of gold, Klein offers us two insights concerning art; art is not necessarily wedded to materiality, and the transaction focuses attention on art’s exchange value. Thus, Klein further complicates and elaborates upon earlier Twentieth Century ideas concerning art’s definition begun by Duchamp.

Klein’s introduction of “immateriality” and “ownership” into the discourse of art has been relatively overlooked as his blue monochromes and anthropometries have taken center stage. It would become quite clear in later conceptual art of the 1960’s that art can be as intangible as an idea. Lucy Lippard believed that conceptual art enacted nothing less than a de-materialization of the art object. There is also recent conjecture that the immateriality of Klein’s work is identical to the aura of Klein himself: “In 'Zones of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility,' it is the aura of Klein which is being sold and exhibited, rather than a painting, drawing or sculpture.”(6)

This may perhaps misinterpret Walter Benjamin’s clarification of the aura of a work of art when he wrote: “It is significant that the existence of the work of art with reference to its aura is never entirely separated from its ritual function. In other words, the unique value of the ‘authentic’ work of art has its basis in ritual, the location of its original use value.”(7)

We ought not confuse Klein’s conceptualization of the immateriality of “art” with the “spell of the personality.” Klein’s genius was to position the “work” of art as both a commodity and conceptual “object” by conferring an exchange value on an intangible “idea” through a ritual transaction. This presumably would reinvest the art object with its intrinsic yet frequently “lost” use value.

Image: Yves Klein and Dino Buzzati transact a "Ritual" on January 26, 1962. © Copyright by Yves Klein Archives.

1. Klein, Yves. “Chelsea Hotel Manifesto”, 1961.

2. Klein, Yves. “Conference de la Sorbonne, June 3, 1959,” reprinted by Editions Galerie Montaigne, 1992.

3. Selz, Peter, and Kristine Stiles, ed. Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists’ Writings, Berkeley, 1996, 81.

4. Godfrey, Tony. Conceptual Art, London, 2004, 81.

5. Op. cit.

6. Grant, Jennifer. “Yves Klein's Zones of Immaterial Space: The Questioning of Ownership, Exhibition and Aura”.

7. Benjamin, Walter. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, 1935, 5.

September 6, 2007

Villeglé's Re-contextualized Meaning

The mid-Twentieth Century work of décollagist Jacques Villeglé (often in collaboration with Raymond Hains) provides a glimpse into appropriation as both technique and art movement. Forgetting for the moment 1980’s appropriation art (Levine, Kruger, Pettibone, Sturtevant, et al., after the seeds of citation sown by Warhol, Lichtenstein, Rauschenberg and Johns), Villeglé’s earlier “use” of posters torn from Parisian walls signaled a bold intervention into the “social order” that further disrupted the fragile aesthetics of visuality that were under siege by the 1950’s.

Abstract expressionism had already peaked in the New York School and other ideas about how to extend abstraction were undergoing intense analysis in multiple quarters. The “unconscious” mark or the random incidents of chance were notable art theories of resolute effectiveness but were beginning to lose their avant garde sheen. Meanwhile in post-war Paris, Villeglé had already begun to relocate his “art practice” into the urban space. As Benjamin Buchloh quite aptly notes, Villeglé would join Simon Hantai, Mimmo Rotella and others from the Nouveaux Réalistes group to discover new ways to create “designs outside of an author’s intentional composition.”(1)

In an urban environment littered both literally and figuratively with the detritus of consumerist desire, Villeglé would appropriate the previously vandalized “propaganda” of cinema and theatre posters, play-bills and product advertisements by cutting whole jagged and ripped areas off the Parisian walls to use as his “medium” to construct “paintings.” Villegelé’s brilliance was to seize upon the implicit violence of these vandalized posters, torn with contempt by nocturnal, roving bands of disaffected urban youth, wrenching the fragmented images and letters from their “street” context to re-codify them as “high” culture through his singular actions.

Villeglé’s relevance to art history is not only his “borrowed” chromatic forms that clearly function as structural ambiguity within a two-dimensional frame. Rather, it is his re-framing of the “signs” in a “new realism” that disintegrates and erases both visuality and conventional semantics. Villeglé toyed with these raw signifiers, re-siting the images and words of advertising from the “rightful” gaze of consumers, to create a brutal and ritual “negation.” It is a negation not only of desire but of meaning as well, as his re-contextualized works evoke a multiplicity of meanings beyond their previous capitalist incantations.

Image: 66, Rue de Vaugirard - bas Meudon, 28 mai 1990, décollage mounted on canvas, © Copyright by Jacques Villeglé.

1. Buchloh, Benjamin. Neo-Avantgarde and Culture Industry, Cambridge and London, 2000, 245.