June 30, 2009

Critical Fragments: Documentation

“Since the mid-1960s, conceptual artists have denied any interest in photography per se. To hear the artists tell it, photography was only useful or interesting to them insofar as it was instrumental in conveying or recording their ideas. Time and again artists describe the photographs themselves as either brute information or uninflected documentation.”(1)

As ironic as it was necessary, the photographic archiving of conceptual art provides a test case for documentation as a separate and relevant critical issue. When conceptual artists began to consider what it is that artists do, their consequential investigations lead to exercises in information theory and epistemology, measurements and statistics, actions and situations. All this knowledge produced “documents” that embodied the art but not the “art” itself. This premise would become a conceptual dictum of such pervasive and evidentiary power that few academic overviews of conceptual art do much more than re-state this mantra of “art is the idea not the object.”

Within its limited aesthetic, object production was a low priority for conceptual artists. However, some conceptualists realized that other than following Fluxist maneuvers of indexical, momentary events that may or may not be witnessed, their documentation of staged actions and situations would be easily photographed to provide documentation. This gave rise to a term known in art theory as “de-skilled” photography. This early photographic documentation of conceptual art, without aesthetic pretense or intention, has been lifted from its down-played status through an elegant sleight-of-hand by museums and curatorial practice. Museums have manipulated these conceptual art photographic documents as “fine art” in their own right, and represent it through accepted formalist language previously established in the appreciation of “high art” photography.

In a cobbled-together exhibition currently at the Whitney Museum, we see the “greatest hits” of “Photoconceptualism” as represented in work by Bruce Nauman, Gordon Matta-Clark, Robert Smithson, Mel Bochner, Dan Graham and others. Apparently the curators propose that these photos yield a double-appreciation as photographs that may be superficially pleasing as objects as well as manifesting a concept. Matta-Clark, Smithson and Bochner can be eliminated from such a theory, as their photos clearly represent first order documentation of other work, i.e., a “cut,” a “Mirror Displacement” and a book about photography.(2)

Nauman and Graham fare better as “photoconceptualism” since their work really has little to do with formalistic issues such as framing or tonality. Graham’s selection, in fact, has been excised from his well-known “Homes For America” and loses all potency of context. Nauman’s multiple examples either visually document his fascination with pun (“Waxing Hot”) or dead-pan actions (“Burning Small Fires”). They provide an expanded methodology of “documentation” as we simultaneously view them as conveyance of the idea and address how documentation may function critically and not aesthetically.

Image: “Burning Small Fires” (1968); artist book; © Copyright 2006-2009 Bruce Nauman / Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York; Courtesy UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive.


1. Soutter, Lucy. “The Photographic Idea: Reconsidering Conceptual Photography”, Afterimage, March-April, 1999.

2. Charming as it is, the questionable inclusion of Bochner’s book demonstrates the curatorial haste of this show; notes about photography by famous people are not exactly photographs: “Bochner’s handwritten quotes on the power of photography are attributed to such indisputable sources as Marcel Proust, Mao Tse-tung, Marcel Duchamp, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and the Encyclopedia Britannica. It turns out that Bochner has made up three of the quotes, although he never reveals which ones.” “Persuasive Images: Selected Works from the Art Collections at the University at Albany”, University Art Museum, Albany, 2000, 12.

June 20, 2009

Critical Fragments: Anonymity

“In all respects the traditional artist devotes himself to the good of the work to be done. The operation is a rite, the celebrant neither intentionally nor even consciously expressing himself … [W]orks of traditional art, whether Christian, Oriental or folk art, are hardly ever signed: the artist is anonymous, or if a name has survived, we know little or nothing of the man. This is true as much for literary as for plastic artifacts. In traditional arts it is never Who said? but only What was said?”(1)

The necessity of establishing a relationship between an artist and artwork became significantly more focused when paintings became portable. The advent of easel painting signaled the beginning of artworks traded as a commodity that was readily identifiable with an artist. Thus, the identification of individual artists with an artwork recognizable by a subjective style helped solidify the ready exchange of paintings.

Clearly the seduction of fame stoked the exchange value of art. Coomaraswamy notwithstanding, we would be unworthy lovers of art if we were not able to rattle off names of major artists by gazing mere seconds at the referent paintings or sculptures.

Like many institutions during the 1970s, the art world was given a brutal critique. Having undergone over one hundred years of excessively focused attention on the mystique of the artist - whose guise was often paired conveniently with “movements” by critics, i.e., Fauvist, Impressionist, Bohemian – it was understandable that young practitioners took a dim view of the commercial aspects of art marketing. These conceptual artists eliminated the making of objects as their concepts began to designate what medium or form would become the carrier or conveyor of the idea.

It is remarkable to consider now that conceptual art was once persona non grata in the commercial art world. Eventually, with increased critical support through essays and lectures by art theorists (and artists themselves – a welcome attitudinal change from the AB-Ex position of “the work speaks for itself”) commercial galleries would acquiesce to critical pressure and begin showing these text-based works, de-skilled photographs and sometimes even anti-aesthetic objects.

The possible use of anonymity as an additional way to address issues of fame as a capitalist construct was side-stepped by most conceptualists; given the opportunity to pair their name with a gallery was a nice substitution for having a recognizable “style.”

One artist in particular who purposely sabotaged his “stardom” was Christopher D’Arcangelo. In the late 1970s, D’Arcangelo used “utilitarian carpentry” as his art practice, making “works” characterized by the “input of labor and materials rather than by any phenomenal aspect they might possess.”(2) In “Thirty Days Work”, D’Arcangelo built an anonymous wood stud and sheetrock wall for a 1979 show at 84 West Broadway, New York. This otherwise nondescript wall was not identified as his.(3)

The practice of making art ought to bear no allegiance to one’s subjective ego. In its emphasis of concept over object, conceptual art may have re-introduced this egalitarian fascination with anonymity. What better way to heighten the theoretical focus than to eliminate the putative “self” behind the work. The conception then becomes more an ethereal thought that floats in the minds of both artist and viewers; “artworks” as ideas that launch discourse through intellection.

Image: “A Brief History of Art”; from Suicide Blonde.

1. Coomaraswamy, Ananda. Christian and Oriental Philosophy of Art, New York, 1956, 39-40.

2. Crow, Thomas. “Unwritten Histories of Conceptual Art” in Art After conceptual Art (A. Alberro, S. Buchmann: eds.), Vienna, 2006, 62.

3. Ibid., 62 [D’Arcangelo’s willful anonymity was earlier evidenced by his “contribution” to a 1978 exhibition at Artist’s Space where he merely removed his name from the installation, catalogue and from all publicity about the show.]

June 11, 2009

Critical Fragments: Content

“The seemingly strict separation of the photographic series – buildings not people, or individuals in private not public spaces – thus belies [Thomas] Struth’s larger project of separation. By dissociating the various elements of knowledge produced within each archive and reassociating them in a newly formed complex matrix structure, Struth’s matrix multiplies the important piece of information within each image. Multiplied, those bits of information that had once been used to define the subject of the archive can now be reassembled and contradicted to form other constructs of knowledge. This process of reassociation exposes the inseparability of these constructs both within and between images and archives, questioning the archival categories themselves. […] Acted out by the museum and defined and depicted by these photographs are the operations of archive construction and collecting themselves, and with them, the complex mechanisms behind the construction of knowledge, boundaries, and spaces.”(1)

In contemporary art practice, at least since the pioneering directions of conceptualism and minimal art, there has been a shift in content. Rather than the content being about what is visible or visually obvious in images, sculptural objects or installations, the locus of meaning of an artwork now lies outside these images and objects and instead concerns the social and cultural construction of art. Moreover, the content of a work of art becomes a cipher, a riddle that requires deducing through exterior, supplemental materials and research.

This is the unavoidable conclusion drawn by Nana Last in her astute assessment of Thomas Struth’s photographic practice. The surface content of Struth’s photographs manifest multiple “bits of information” which occupy a position of temporary visual observation. This contemporary avoidance of simple aesthetic pursuits has precedence in conceptual art’s insistence that an artwork’s meaning exists independently of the object and, indeed, even the objects themselves are secondary to the content.

This poses intriguing problems for art criticism. Discernment now is summoned through an understanding of contemporary art history and theory, plus a particular comprehension of the various social and cultural constructions that govern the making and address of art. Apt critics approach images and objects carefully, with a view to their placement within the dominant sociological and cultural narratives. More importantly, critical readings of artworks are influenced by the visual first, yet critics must be wary of the fact that the superficial, surface aspects of the work might misdirect their interpretation. The potential for misapprehension is especially challenging in photography where the “look” of the camera purports to not only embody the “eye” of the artist but to encourage the passivity of the viewing subject. The object photographed can never be assumed to be its content.(2)

Last’s perception of Struth’s “matrix” correctly reads the content of Struth’s art to extend beyond those objects and figures contained with the photographic frame. The essence of his ultimate content remains outside the image but is manifested textually by the information within each of the photographs. Struth’s body of work becomes less about the documentation, less about the archives, than it is about his grasp of the manipulation of visual, archival knowledge by the caretakers of our social and cultural world, the museums. Thus, control of the address of art, how it is presented and represented institutionally, is paramount to its ultimate reception, to its historic validation, and positions it for successful marketing to determine its value, both artistically and commercially.

I would propose that all of the best art encourages a self-reflexivity by both artist and viewing public to consider its presentation and to critique its control by those institutions of visual address. That the nature of contemporary art practice has evolved outside of the image to encompass investigations of art’s construction within the social and cultural spheres is a testament to the issues and concerns of conceptualism.

Image: “Musée du Louvre IV, Paris” (1989); © Copyright by Thomas Struth.


1. Last, Nana. “Thomas Struth: From Image to Archive to Matrix,” Praxis 7, 2005, 86.

2. “The characteristics of the photographic apparatus position the subject in such a way that the object photographed serves to conceal the textuality of the photograph itself – substituting passive receptivity for active (critical) reading.” From Victor Burgin’s “Looking at Photographs”, in Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art, Berkeley, 1996, 856.