November 29, 2007
“The formalist project in geometry is discredited. It no longer seems possible to explore form as form (in the shape of geometry), as it did to the Constructivists and Neo-Plasticists, nor to empty geometric form of its signifying function, as the Minimalists proposed. To some extent, the viability of these formalist ideas has simply atrophied with time. They have also been distorted and bent to conform to the bourgeois idealism of generations of academically-minded geometric classicists. But the crisis besetting geometric art for the last two decades can also be viewed as characteristic of the crises that have beset formalisms of all kinds in the postwar era: those that precipitated the transition from literary formalism to structuralism and from structuralism to the post-structuralist re-examinations that have taken place in the work of such figures as Barthes and Foucault . . . the crisis of geometry is a crisis of the signified. It no longer seems possible to accept geometric form as either transcendental order, detached signifier, or as the basic gestalt of visual perception (as did Arnheim). We are launched instead into a structuralist search for the veiled signifieds that the geometric sign may yield.”(1)
One could not find a better post-structuralist champion of geometric form than Peter Halley. In 1984, with appropriation in full swing and chants of “painting is dead” in the air, Halley published his essay “The Crisis in Geometry” in Arts Magazine and attempted a vital resuscitation of abstract painting. He denied the Formalist mantra of “geometry’s neutrality” and Minimalism’s achievement of an “intellectual neutrality,”(2) and the results, including Halley’s own paintings, were dubbed Neo-Geo. Whether he revived our interest in form or geometry as a “search for the veiled signifieds” will have to stand a further test of time. Meanwhile, we can quibble with his casual dismissal of Minimalism with regard to geometric form and its intellectual neutrality.
Halley proposed that a “reinterpretation” of geometric form (inspired by his readings of Foucault and Baudrillard) require us to reconsider the “curious claim” of the Minimalists that “geometry constituted neutral form.”(3) Halley’s view is that the “crisis in geometry” begins with Minimal artists positioning their work as intellectually “neutral.” However, Foucault notwithstanding, at this point in his essay Halley drops his line of reasoning on Minimalism’s putative “intellectual neutrality” and proceeds to link Minimalism’s use of industrial production techniques to the capitalist agenda. Before we get to that, a closer reading of Halley’s words might help us to understand his interpretation of Minimalism’s “intellectual neutrality.”
The Minimalists were far from being intellectually neutral. In fact, they were exceedingly intellectual, some would even say, “to a fault.” Arnheim’s Art and Visual Perception was no doubt on their bookshelves, as were Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception and Ehrenzweig’s The Hidden Order of Art. The Minimalists’ ravenous interest in outside fields of knowledge fueled their thought and their work, paving further explorations by future artists using theories and methodologies outside the limited purvey of visuality.
The Minimalists presented their objects as a visual and psychological experience that began with the perception of the object’s (geometric) form. Inspired by theories such as Arnheim’s, they used essential forms, i.e., the cube, to effectively convey the gestalt (the wholeness) of the object and its structure in totality. This opened up the visual experience of the object to additional “theatrical” readings (4) within the context of the site and necessitated a more rigorous perceptual and intellectual experience for the viewer.(5)
Halley’s characterization of Minimalism as flawed theory couched in “rhetoric” must be read as a non sequitur because in his next two sentences he discounts the “conscious intents [sic] of its creators” and says that Minimalism’s use of industrial fabrication constitutes an ideology: “Minimalism first ideologically linked geometry to the material production of contemporary industry by employing industrial materials and finishes without endorsing them (as the Bauhaus did).”(6)
We can probably accept that Donald Judd’s use of sub-contracted fabricators to make his sculptures demonstrates Judd’s acquiescence to the “material production” of industry. Thus, the ideology of material production and the capitalist order become Halley’s “veiled signifieds” coded within Judd’s plywood, sheet metal and Plexiglas boxes. However, it is well-known that Judd (and Andre, Flavin and Morris) adored industrial materials – is their adulation not an endorsement?
There is not enough time to fuss properly with Halley’s other paragraphs but perhaps one more glaring citation taken out of context should be noted. In discussing the “circularity” of the sign, Halley quotes some Baudrillard (“ . . . a simulacrum, never again exchanging for what is real, but exchanging in itself, in an uninterrupted circuit without reference or circumference”) yet neglects the full context of that quoted passage:
“Thus perhaps at stake has always been the murderous capacity of images, murderers of the real, murderers of their own model as the Byzantine icons could murder the divine identity. To this murderous capacity is opposed the dialectical capacity of representations as a visible and intelligible mediation of the Real. All of Western faith and good faith was engaged in this wager on representation: that a sign could refer to the depth of meaning, that a sign could exchange for meaning and that something could guarantee this exchange - God, of course. But what if God himself can be simulated, that is to say, reduced to the signs which attest his existence? Then the whole system becomes weightless, it is no longer anything but a gigantic simulacrum - not unreal, but a simulacrum, never again exchanging for what is real, but exchanging in itself, in an uninterrupted circuit without reference or circumference.”(7)
Knowing that Baudrillard invoked the Supreme Being in his dissection of the “capacity of representations,” Halley’s conception of the sign as “characteristic of meaning in contemporary society” becomes somewhat incomprehensible.(8) Is Halley proposing that one of the “veiled signifieds” of geometric form might include the ultimate transcendental signified?
All quite intellectually taxing, of course, but we might find some closure by returning to Arnheim in one of his last interviews (at the ripe old age of 97):
“The essence of an image is its ability to convey meaning through sensory experience. Signs and language are established conceptual modifiers; they are the outer shells of actual meaning. We have to realize that perception organizes the forms that it receives as optical projections in the eye. Without form an image cannot carry a visual message into consciousness. Thus it is the organized forms that deliver the visual concept that makes an image legible, not conventionally established signs.”(9)
In this statement by possibly the most influential theorist for Minimalism may be a rebuttal to Halley’s critique of geometric form. It bears repeating: “It is the organized forms that deliver the visual concept that makes an image legible.” That is, the legibility (or meaning) of an object proceeds first from its elemental form perceived through our senses. Granted, our legibility may be conditioned by our knowledge of extraneous text, for example, Halley’s own essays about his painting in relation to art history. However, the object (image, sign or photograph) maintains its fundamental essence (or gestalt) based on its denotative form. This may be ignored, superseded or exaggerated through the “circularity” of meanings based on the supplemental knowledge we ascribe to the object but the primary signified of a geometric form exists independently of any connotative meaning we might attribute to it. Red bars do not a prison make.
Image: Red Bars (2007) © Copyright by Peter Halley.
1. Halley, Peter. "The Crisis in Geometry," Arts Magazine, New York, Vol. 58, No. 10, June 1984.
4. Minimalist Theater, September 28, 2006.
5. For more on the post-sculptural, see Rosalind Krauss’ “Sculpture in the Expanded Field” in Postmodern Culture, London, 1985, pp. 31-42.
6. Op. cit.
7. Baudrillard, Jean. "The Evil Demon of Images and the Precession of Simulacra" in Postmodernism: A Reader, New York, 1993, 194.
8. Op. cit.
9. Grundmann, Uta. "The Intelligence of Vision: An Interview with Rudolf Arnheim", Cabinet Magazine, Issue 2, Spring 2001.