BY Helen Molesworth in Reviews | 11 NOV 99
Featured in
Issue 49

Afterimage: Drawing Through Process

BY Helen Molesworth in Reviews | 11 NOV 99

'Afterimage: Drawing Through Process' is an exhibition of deftly chosen drawings that relate in varying degrees to the loose category 'Process art'. Process art, in this instance, doesn't describe a stylistically coherent body of work, but rather a mode of thinking about how one goes about actually making an art object. Hence the show includes artists usually affiliated with other 'movements' such as Conceptual art (Sol Lewitt, Mel Bochner), Minimalism (Robert Morris) and Earth art (Robert Smithson, Michelle Stuart), as well as 'proper' Process artists (Eva Hesse, Richard Serra). This is also a drawing exhibition with an impressive film/video component, ranging from Yvonne Rainer's Continuous Project Altered Daily (1970) to Gordon Matta Clark's Splitting (1974). The porousness of drawing as a medium and the plasticity of Process as an organising principle turn out to be a productive reconfiguration of the current interest in 60s and 70s art practice.

The exhibition suggests that artists working in the post-war decades were caught between Marcel Duchamp's abandonment of the studio and Jackson Pollock's use of it as an existential arena. The question that hovers and nags (sometimes poignantly, sometimes humourously) is deceptively obvious: what exactly is supposed to go on in the artist's studio? What is it, exactly, that an artist is supposed to do? Clearly artists needed to slip out from under the burden of Abstract Expressionism's emotive claims, but they wanted to preserve the freedom of experimentation with form initiated by figures such as Pollock. At the same time, these artists desired to continue the cerebral, humorous quality of the readymade tradition, yet Duchamp's refusal to make anything appears to have become increasingly untenable.

Many of the artists responded to this quandary with a series of self-derived assignments. They created a studio practice that mimicked the logic of work (factory work, school work, administrative work), in that the artist set out for him or herself a delineated task that must be completed in either a certain duration (the work day), or under limited conditions (tools of the trade). For instance, Morris made drawings while blindfolded for a set period of time; Bochner measured rooms and right angles; William Anastasi 'drew' holding a pencil while subway trains moved; and Marcia Hafif obsessionally recorded pencil marks during a given day and time (evoking the most treacherous of prison walls). Here the studio is transformed into a work space, measured and monitored like any other - perhaps to legitimate the 'useless' activity of art, perhaps to use the work ethic to highlight art's potential escape from it. In many of the works, drawing is a way of recording the passage of time, yet instead of punching the clock in the name of rationalised labour and capitalist profit, time keeping is stripped of its 'means to an end' rationality.

Other drawings display an acute tension between randomness and order, between entropy and measured time. Eva Hesse's beautiful repetitive drawings of circles on graph paper show her desire for control (over medium, time, the expressiveness of the artist's hand), yet the obsessive nature of the work suggests that such control continually eluded her. This struggle for artistic control is also evident in Richard Serra's film Hands Tied (1968), which begins with his hands tied together and ends when he finally unties them. Michelle Stuart's monumental and delicate landscape rubbings were made by the artist laying down sheets of paper over various outdoor sites and rubbing them with graphite. Here, the desire to convey the scale and experience of nature is rendered indexical, as if the only way such a task could even be considered is on the scale of a one-to-one equivalence. But in keeping with the dialectical strain of the exhibit, this too is impossible. It is an attempt at absolute veracity that points everywhere to that which cannot be contained.

'Afterimage' also subtly works against the still prevailing winds of sexism in the art world. Nearly half the show is comprised of women (when was the last time that happened?), and curator Cornelia H. Butler's catalogue essay is explicit in its desire to complicate the standard boy's club narrative of the period. She does so by suggesting that concerns with time, everyday materials, repetition and what constitutes a legitimate studio practice are all of vital interest to women, both in terms of formal exploration and with regards to then developing concerns with content as an explicitly feminist issue. To this end Sylvia Plimack Mangold's meticulous drawings reproducing the floorboards in her home/studio are emblematic of much of what is so evocative about this exhibit. What once might have appeared as a formal exercise - yet another avant-garde end game - emerges instead as a quirky, slightly sad, fragile and obsessional attempt to encompass, or at least register, something of the everyday experience of art.