October 4, 2007

The Matter of Immateriality

The focus on materiality and the form an art object would or could take underwent a transformative period during the late 1960’s. The work of Robert Barry, Lawrence Weiner and Bernard Venet each would explore the tendency of matter to transmit both determinate and indeterminate meanings.

Robert Barry’s experiments with gases like argon and helium reveal his evident fascination with the idea that the use of certain materials as “art” can show us that art need not be visible. If the Modernist ideology suggested that art should be reduced to its materials, its medium specificity (see Clement Greenberg), then artists like Barry were engaging the conceptual dimension of materiality. In creating actions like Inert Gas Series (1969) where he released 2 cubic feet of helium (“a material that is imperceivable”) in the Mojave Desert to “infinite expansion”(1), Barry points out that visuality is irrelevant to art and art could be as much about invisible physio-chemical constituents. Interestingly, Barry’s “theoretical entities” require indication through language since they were “invisible” to the naked eye. Unlike a lot of conceptual art of the period, Barry’s actions were not merely linguistic “events” whose “existence” relies on eye witness accounts or other documentation but were materially actual events that express the conceptual dimension of materiality in art.

Lawrence Weiner had also proposed that the material properties of the art object were becoming obsolete. His “36" x 36" removal to the lathing or support wall of plaster or wall-board from a wall” was a witty reversal of the additive logic used in constructing an art object.(2) His legendary Statements would determine the materiality of the artwork yet the work “need not be built” to become art. This seemingly dead-pan neutrality predicts an indeterminacy in art’s “spatio-temporal specification” and yet further envisioned conceptual art as both “timeless and placeless.”(3) Like Sol Lewitt, Weiner would not require fabrication for the idea to become art but Weiner insisted that his ideas became “pieces” when he described them in words, i.e., when they became linguistically determinate.(4)

A similar interest (or disinterest) in the determination of meaning in art can be found in the work of Bernard Venet. Besides his remarkable series of Indeterminate Line sculptures, which elicit an expressivity which appears to contradict their conceptual basis, his iconic Heap of Coal (1963) used raw matter not to convey form but as form itself. His resolute pile of coal chunks presented its indeterminacy without composition or ordering by the artist to convey anything other than the specifics of coal - how the material behaves. Venet has revealed his interest in the semiologist Jacques Bertin and his graphic sign-systems, particularly the monosemic sign which is strictly denotative and whose meaning is not determined through interpretation. Bertin’s monosemy is a kind of tautology and thus similar to the analytic proposition of Alfred J. Ayer(5) whose work would have profound influence on Joseph Kosuth. In conversation with Carter Ratcliff in 1998, Venet noted that the monosemic sign “offers but one semantic level” that permitted him “to leave the field of the expressive image and to investigate that of the rational image.”(6)

A code that might provide for the pure function of the transmission of a message, like a mathematics formula, understandably seduced and intrigued conceptual artists. Whether their messages (or ideas) were actually constructed or fabricated, or even written down in words, it was their ready interest in creating artworks with varying levels of determinacy and indeterminacy that provoked charges that conceptual art was engaged in a “dematerialization” of the object. Yet it would remain clear that materiality was not required to convey an idea:

“That is, the idea is ‘read about’ rather than ‘looked at.’ That some art should be directly material and that other art should produce a material entity only as a necessary by-product of the need to record the idea is not at all to say that the latter is connected by any process of dematerialization to the former.”(7)

Image: Heap of Coal © Copyright by Bernar Venet.


1. Meyer, Ursula. Conceptual Art, New York, 1972, 38.

2. Celant, Germano. Art Povera, New York, 1969, 83.

3. Osborne, Peter. Conceptual Art,, London, 2002, 30-31.

4. Ibid., 31.

5. “. . a proposition is analytic when its validity depends solely on the definitions of the symbols it contains. . .”; from Ayers' Language, Truth and Logic, New York, 1952, 78.

6. Ratcliff, Carter. “Bernar Venet” in Sculpture Magazine, Vol. 18, No. 2, March 1999.

7. Atkinson, Terry. Letter to Lucy Lippard and John Chandler concerning their article “The Dematerialization of Art”, reprinted in Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology by Alexander Alberro, Cambridge, 1999, 52-58.

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