in Features | 05 MAY 04
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Issue 83

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'A Minimal Future? Art as Object 1958-68' at MoCA, Los Angeles

in Features | 05 MAY 04

'Bleak, numb, severe, hollow, morbid, programmatic, deductive, anti-compositional, not enough art, not enough work, neutral, redundant, austere, static, frozen, deathly, endgame, capitalistic, reductive, comatose ... '

At the conference marking the occasion of the exhibition 'A Minimal Future? Art as Object 1958-68' at MoCA, Los Angeles the pioneering dealer Virginia Dwan read out the stream of adjectives and phrases on the previous page, which she culled from various 1960s critical accounts of minimal art. Perhaps unwittingly, Dwan's list recalled a work in the show, Mel Bochner's Maximum/Minimum (1966), a word drawing whose terms were copied from a thesaurus. 'Minimum' is followed by 'modicum, minim, little, bit, little bit, particle' etc., but it is the words after 'Maximum' that are more suggestive of Minimalism's current status: 'vast, immense, prodigious, enormous, huge, monumental, mammoth, great, grand ...'. After reading her list Dwan asked herself why she had devoted herself to this kind of 'deathly' work. This suggests one dimension of curator Ann Goldstein's challenge. After reading Bochner's list we might well sense another: if Minimalism is so well known as to be, in one critic's words, 'the court painting of the late 20th century', then why revisit it? And how to make the familiar strange again?

And yet how well known is minimal art? Dwan's and Bochner's lists point to others: to the lists of terms that existed in the 1960s to describe the art gathered in this show - 'ABC Art', 'Primary Structures', 'Literalism', 'The Art of the Real'. The difficulties early curators and critics had in agreeing on a term (unmatched by the relatively speedy fit of labels such as Pop and Arte Povera) suggests that there was always more to minimal art than the eventual art-historical category Minimalism could encompass. Indeed early critics such as Barbara Rose and the anthologist Gregory Battcock had an expansive notion of the term. But Minimalism as it came to function in the criticism of Rosalind Krauss, Hal Foster and others was a construction built on its own lists, the 'who's in/who's out' that by the mid-1980s admitted Carl Andre, Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt and Robert Morris, pretty much to the exclusion of others. Since that time, and particularly thanks to James Meyer's scholarship, the original differences of opinion between these major artists have become clearer. If the most canonical disagreed as to the fundamental meanings of their work, why not see what other, less familiar, artists had to say? Which is to say that, despite Minimalism's supposed familiarity, now is an opportune moment to re-examine minimal art in all its diversity.

Goldstein's show opened with one of the most unforgettable rooms seen in recent historical exhibitions. Four early Andres were framed by four 1959 Frank Stella black paintings as well as Delta (1958), from the artist's own collection. This rarely seen canvas is a powerful farewell to Abstract Expressionism. Stella overpainted a reddish ground with thick stripes of glossy black, the brush so loaded that gloopy dribbles spilt into the parallel bands. By the next year all this was gone. The black paintings have no coloured ground - just raw canvas and sober, repetitive stripes. These paintings are still commanding, many years on. The proximity to Andre's work was not just historical (the two were close friends at the time) but formal. Both were using materials as simply as possible, both making works whose process could be easily read. This was Minimalism at its rawest, with expressive composition and added colour banished. But standing in the middle of Andre's massive hot-rolled steel carpet (6 x 6 Den Haag Steel Lock, 1967), a vista opened onto another world - onto California. As if we were gazing west from dank NYC to sunny LA, in the next room were Craig Kauffman's funky curved wall protrusions and John McCracken's liquid sculptures. Though, like Andre, McCracken favoured simple, often ancient forms, the final work had to banish all suggestion of the repetitive processes of building, painting, sanding, repainting. Any glitch in the surface and the magic would disappear. The glossy sculptures are pristine and timeless: McCracken perhaps achieved Stella's aim - to get the paint looking as good as it did in the can - more than the East Coaster. Most of McCracken's work here was in primaries, but my favourite was the grey-blue plank Right Down (1967). If Goldstein set up the East Coast/West Coast distinction as vividly as possible, one achievement of her show was gradually to unpick it. By the time we saw orange light glowing from the units of a Judd wall stack, close by the smoky glass of a Larry Bell box, the New York/LA divide came to seem less rigid than before.

Beyond the LA room lay Robert Morris' L-Beams (1965). Though they have been the subject of many a class I've taught, I'd never seen them. The refabrications are slightly bluer than I'd imagined, but in other ways they worked exactly as expected, the way Morris had described in his Notes on Sculpture (1966). The three identical forms do alert the moving spectator to the contingencies of their position, to the determining functions of situation and gallery lighting as they walk around the identical forms and compare what they see to their knowledge of the three parts' physical identity. But the room showed how Morris had played with different kinds of space. Untitled (Corner Piece) (1964) was a pyramid poking out from a corner, seeming to hover there, with none of the three visible edges meeting wall or floor. The work announced a deceptive sensibility to Morris' work - the volume, after all, is not the pyramid it seems, but must have one flat side resting on the floor, a side the viewer cannot see from any angle. As such, the work pointed forward to later moments in the exhibition where artists, even though using simple forms, played with space and volume. Ronald Bladen's iconic Three Elements (1965) looked surprisingly tricky, with each block seeming to bend away from you, straight edges becoming curved in a way that cut against the force of the work's repetition. When I came upon LeWitt's ground-breaking Serial Project #1 (ABCD) Set B (1966-85), the scale was so well keyed to my height that, while working out the order, the open parts of the work became a space I wanted to enter but couldn't. Given all this, it was not surprising that younger artists could be encouraged to think about space in new ways, something announced most wonderfully in the odd almost fish-shaped floor sculpture of Bruce Nauman, whose boundaries are determined by absent, classic Minimalist volumes. The title Platform Made Up of the Space Between Two Rectilinear Boxes on the Floor (1966) pretty much says it all.

As well as absent space, there were works that suggested hidden or partially obscured space. In the gallery after Morris' works were the much less well-known paintings of Robert Huot. Huot hung ballistic nylon over stretchers he had painted white; the wooden bars show through the silvery weave like a ghost (Nylon One, 1967). It was to the realm of the dead that Morris wanted to consign painting, of course, but the elegant suite of rooms initiated with Huot's indicated how much the medium developed during this period. One vantage point offered a view onto both Jo Baer's and Ralph Humphrey's frame paintings. The apparent structural similarity served only to underscore Baer's radical achievement. While Humphrey's lush canvases, with their pulsating figure/ground reversals, suggested

a mid-point between Mark Rothko and James Turrell, Baer produced object-paintings that banished illusionism without rescinding optical surprise. As you walk past her Untitled (1967) diptych, the thin purple band between black frame and white centre flares up bright before sinking into paleness. This is a painting that catches a mobile spectator unawares, a work where peripheral vision was what counted much more than the empty centre. But my favourite paintings were Brice Marden's. Even where the colour is nearly black, these slabs glow strangely. Marden reserved a thin band at the bottom of each panel, only removing masking tape before the final layer of pigment was applied, so drips and flecks run down the thin space. The result is a record of process but, more importantly, the very least articulation needed to prevent the surfaces becoming infinitely spatial. Above these lines the waxen surfaces are gummy, like fly-paper for the eye, irresistible.

Baer and Marden are the real minimal painters here (Robert Ryman, whose endless material pursuits are close to Andre's in sensibility, is anything but); nearby wall works by Robert Barry, Michael Asher and Lawrence Weiner suggested how useful painting was as a jump-off towards Conceptualism and institutional critique, thanks to the way, once acknowledged, its architectural support could be thought through. We know that Asher's inquiry would proceed from alerting a viewer to the wall behind the stretcher to highlighting (even by removal) the walls of the institution, and yet the narrative of this development doesn't account for his surprising use, in 1966, of fluorescent pink Plexiglas. If one of Goldstein's arguments was to show Conceptualism as a possible 'future' of minimal art, the role of colour in this story has so far gone undiscussed. But her point was neatly made by the inclusion of the slide-show version of Dan Graham's Homes for America (1966-7), which punctured the proceedings, taking us from refined forms to everyday suburbia. This was nicely placed in a corridor, half-way through the show, above signs to the lavatories. Graham's work spoke also to the formal gulf that would grow between abstract painting and sculpture, and the photo-textual character of later Conceptualism, but Douglas Huebler's stunning sculptures suggested a more subtle connection. In 1966 Huebler handmade wooden polyhedrons that he covered in grey Formica, the most perplexing of which was Truro Series #3 (1966), two extremely complex forms (each with 48 faces) placed just beside each other. The light tones of the Formica and the complexity of the shape create a shadow play that makes it incredibly hard to ascertain the precise structural form of one part, let alone the relationship between the two; really, one form just mirrors the other. Later Huebler would continue to pair simplicity of structure against the utter unpredictability of effect, as in Duration Piece 17, Truro, Massachusetts 1968, a sequence of photographs of shadows falling on wood, a work not in the show but coincidentally in LA MoCA's collection.

While Huebler relished the smooth surface and pale colour of Formica, Richard Artschwager deployed the material to mimic everyday objects. His work was deliberately gaudy, but even with quieter works there was a sense in the show of the quirky materiality of minimal art. This is even more noticeable when linear geometry dominated than when artists purposefully made strange curvy forms (Hans Haacke's ice stick, Eva Hesse's spirals of twine on rounded protuberances). Robert Smithson's Untitled (1966) is a stepped pyramid coming off the wall, its side faces mirrored, those parallel to the wall painted white. For all its spaciness, the work looks charmingly clunky, parts not glued well together, paint not quite covering the joins. So too Bochner's tiny serial painted wood constructions: edges don't quite meet, lines aren't quite straight. This was presumably the point: the seriality of the compositions may have been perfect and mathematical, but the realized models served as a reminder of the difference between any plan and its physical manifestation.

Curatorially the show raised many questions. Of course, having opened the canon, Goldstein lays herself open to disputes about the peripheral figures. My only major disagreement is with the inclusion of Richard Serra; his notion of sculpture was such a departure that, without the presence of MoMA's unavailable House of Cards (1969), his presence made little sense. And Fred Sandback - the artist who achieved the most dynamic spatial dramas with the most minimal means - was missed. A more serious question concerned the tendency to show work together because of historical precedent. Judy Chicago's work was paired with Smithson's in the exhibition 'Primary Structures' at the Jewish Museum in New York in 1966, but their reunion here did neither many favours. Most controversial is the Judd room. One tends to forget the capaciousness of Judd's concept of the specific object. Judd had more time for Claes Oldenburg and John Chamberlain than he did for Andre or Morris - and Goldstein chose to remind us of this with a room that joins the three together. Purists would find the juxtapositions jarring, and certainly this is not the most sympathetic visual environment for Judd. But, having recently seen the Tate retrospective and countless elegant installations at Dia and elsewhere, I did not mind so much. I felt it useful to think about the connection of Judd's objects to those which invoke everyday ones more obviously, such as Oldenburg's Leopard Chair (1963), even if this meant viewing Judd's both literally and metpahorically from slanted viewpoints. In terms of the hang, Goldstein's most successful ploy was to have quite a few tightly hung rooms. In the 1960s many of these works were, after all, shown close together, and the hang was a welcome corrective to conventionally sparser museum displays.

And so, the big question. Once Minimalism is expanded to acknowledge the diversity of minimal art, are its aesthetic and political achievements forgotten? Amid all the works here, do we recall the way 'the serial attitude' challenged subjective modes of composition, or sense how radical a challenge the literalist objects were to the Modernism of Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried? Well, there's certainly enough canonical work here to still make these arguments, which survive intact despite the expansion of the field. But, from now, monolithic views of Minimalism will no longer do, at least not after the utter peculiarity of works such as Dorothea Rockburne's Tropical Tan (1967-8): Rockburne's 'wrinkle-finish paint', applied directly on pig iron, appears so much like suede as to draw minimal art close to Meret Oppenheim's fur-lined teacup of 1936. And as for 'A Minimal Future'? Well, for some time the main defenders of a canonical 'Minimalism' have argued that, despite its radical achievements, Minimalism's theatricality opened up to a host of spectacular practices. A grudging line has been traced from Morris and Judd to James Turrell and Bill Viola, albeit one never intended by the former pair. Well, if this is Minimalism's bad future, that of minimal art might be somewhat more cheering. Near the middle of Goldstein's show there was a shaped yellow wall-mounted object by Robert Mangold. Its borders were based on the walls of his studio, so the 'notches' were actually the spaces cut into the walls by windows and doors. The panel is both a memory of his studio wall and a wall in itself, crudely constructed in wood with joins and nails and protrusions. Yellow Wall (Section 1 + II) (1964) was a kind of false start for the painter - Mangold's work became increasingly refined, but the work, a hybrid of painting, sculpture and architecture, suggests an art of the everyday. Like so many of the works gathered here, it demands a critical vocabulary far from the bleak words of Virginia Dwan's list, and points to some of the quieter and more compelling objects of contemporary art.