After viewing nearly 200 works of art produced by some 140 artists drawn from 30 years of vanguard practice in Central and Western Europe as well as North and South America, it is hard to say what precisely ‘Beyond Geometry’ is ‘beyond’. The pairing of those terms seems mismatched, although there’s no question that abstract geometric form is under examination here. Even Bernd and Hilla Becher’s morphologically concerned Typology of Water Towers (1972) and Eleanor Antin’s slowly shrinking corporeal contour documented in her Carving: A Traditional Sculpture (1972), both included in the show, could be traced back to cultural concerns with form. But why ‘beyond’, as if any of the work assembled under that term ever had to do with mere points, lines, angles, surfaces and solids? Or, for that matter, who is to say that points, lines, angles, surfaces and solids were ever ‘mere’, that is, something to move ‘beyond’? Doesn’t much of the work on view endeavour to show us just the opposite?
Basically LACMA’s curator and department head of modern and contemporary art, Lynn Zelevansky, who conceived and realized this show, has got a bone to pick – perhaps for good reason. Something (call it ‘geometry’ for now) has got to be moved ‘beyond’. It’s just that, despite what appear to be reiterations of aesthetic forms and artistic strategies across decades and continents – the cubes, grids, texts and serial repetitions – the show as a description of a problem doesn’t quite come through clearly. Zelevansky has grouped those forms and strategies into six overlapping categories: ‘The 1940s and 50s’, ‘The Object and the Body’, ‘Light and Movement’, ‘Repetition and Seriality’, ‘The Object Redefined’ and ‘The Problem of Painting’. Despite this pretence of order (which does little to orient the viewer in the space of the exhibition), it remains difficult to know what question this particular gathering of work aims to broach, much less answer, or if the answer it multi-vocally provides can be traced back to a clear problem.
Here’s one stab at a formulation of that problem: the show’s catalogue points us in its direction, but we could just as easily arrive at it by looking across town at MOCA’s concurrent exhibition, ‘A Minimal Future? Art as Object’, and then back at the Guggenheim’s recent show ‘Singular Forms (Sometimes Repeated)’ or perhaps even forward to an exhibition scheduled to open this autumn at the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego, titled ‘Specific Objects: The Minimalist Influence’. ‘Beyond Geometry’ attempts to unseat the precedence often accorded US artistic practices of the 1960s and ’70s, especially Minimalist but certainly Conceptualist as well. Putting like forms alongside one another as Zelevansky has done throughout this show – say, Aluísio Carvão’s Colour Cube (1960), Tony Smith’s Black Box (1962), smaller than but just as evocative as his better-known Die, from the same year, and Cildo Meireles’ The Southern Cross (1969–70), the tiniest cube of all, at less than half an inch per side – what we are left with are questions about the origins of, and claims to, aesthetic strategies and contributions. Of course, as Zelevansky herself admits, ‘in abstract languages false cognates abound’. But in this show, when we see that the American Sol LeWitt has produced a drawing such as Circles and Grids, Arcs from Four Corners and Four Sides (1972), which looks an awful lot like another drawing by the French artist François Morellet produced 12 years earlier, titled 22 Weaves, such appearances of shared vocabularies and methods don’t do much more than foreground those problems of influence, originality and authorship that many artists working in the 1960s and ’70s set out to address in the first place.
In the end it seems that the primary aim of ‘Beyond Geometry’ is historical recovery – restoring to more familiar aesthetic forms and motives those that our varied practices of history-making have tended to overlook, and then reading those idioms side by side in order to see what they might have to say to one another. But which history? The history of every art object is not determined in advance. It presents itself as a question. The object asks: which histories (of ideas, forms, people, places, events, etc.) are the appropriate ones to help read the object? In turn, which histories does the object tell? The object presses us to recover those histories, to find them again within its condensed mode of telling. For all the efforts ‘Beyond Geometry’ makes to encourage such recoveries, it has not done quite enough to direct us in our search.