BY Jörg Heiser in Frieze | 11 NOV 02
Featured in
Issue 71

Emotional Rescue

Jörg Heiser on romantic Conceptualism

BY Jörg Heiser in Frieze | 11 NOV 02

Andy Warhol's film Kiss (1963): the screen lights up and without further ado – no titles, no violins, no cuts – we see a black-and-white close-up of a man and a woman kissing. Real kissing. Full lips, full on. Closed eyes and short, excited looks. They kiss for endless minutes before the image whitens, flickers and falters, as if Warhol had simply let the film in his camera run out (which is exactly what he did). The screen remains white for a brief moment, and then the next uninterrupted close-up of a long kiss appears. Out of the 12 kissing couples several are male on male, Gerard Malanga kisses both men and women, and one is a black man (Rufus Collins) and a white woman (Naomi Levine). In 1963 this was a daring statement, the polymorphous evaporation of sexual (and racial) identity through the serial fulfilment of romantic dreams.

Seeing Kiss for the first time a couple of years ago, I was amazed how sensuous it is. Previously, from seeing stills and reading brief descriptions, I had somehow imagined that the film was nothing but the wry gesture, capturing couple after couple doing exactly the same, banal thing. I had assumed it was all about the concept, not about real kissing: the straight execution of a simple idea, deprived of colour and sound and with the most basic of camerawork. Each of the repetitions is like a work in itself and could be the documentation of an instruction piece - 'embrace and kiss for the duration of a 16mm film roll'. In short, Warhol's Kiss seemed to comply in many ways with what would become the conventions - as contested as these may have been - of Conceptual art. But at the same time, a voluptuous bliss overwhelmed the rigidity of the Conceptual execution.

It is not coincidental that Sol LeWitt, in his 1967 'Paragraphs on Conceptual Art', stated: 'It is the objective of the artist who is concerned with Conceptual art to make his work mentally interesting to the spectator, and therefore usually he would want it to become emotionally dry. [...] The expectation of an emotional kick, to which one conditioned to Expressionist art is accustomed, [...] would deter the viewer from perceiving this art.' 1 At that time, distinguishing Conceptual art from what had become the cliché of artistic subjectivity, the emotional pathos of Expressionism, may have seemed fundamentally necessary. And yet these are still strange and anything but self-explanatory claims: why should a spectator not be able to find a piece 'mentally interesting' and emotionally rich? Why would an 'emotional kick' inevitably deter from perceiving the Conceptual? Could it not be quite the opposite: that charging a concept with an emotional investment, or subjecting emotions to a Conceptual approach, might focus rather than distract?

When 'Sentences on Conceptual Art' was published in the first edition of Art-Language in 1969 - in a context where the gospel was Marxism, linguistics and analytical philosophy - LeWitt countered an understanding of Conceptual art as purely rational. 'Conceptual artists are mystics rather than rationalists,' he proclaimed in the first of 35 sentences, 'they leap to conclusions that logic cannot reach.' 2 But that was as far as he would go: mystically reaching conclusions, yet still emotionally dry.

In 1972 John Baldessari sang, stoically, each of LeWitt's 'Sentences' to a different popular tune. The 20-minute static video is entitled - in the style of pop albums - Baldessari Sings LeWitt. The sentimentality of the songs (among them the American national anthem) and the out-of-tune renditions undermine the deadpan tone and quasi-juridical form of LeWitt's text. Popular empathy embarrasses cool criticality like a Freudian slip.

Baldessari parodied the Conceptual repudiation of sentiment, but it took more than irony for the dogma to implode. Bas Jan Ader's entire, if small, body of work invests the Conceptual with what appears to be its antithesis: romanticism. In the 16mm silent film I'm Too Sad to Tell You (1971) we see the artist weeping. He is not blubbering in a hysterical outburst, but seems racked by a more profound grief. The piece echoes Warhol's Kiss, but this time the one long, single close-up is not displaying the fulfilment of love but what looks more like its aching absence; though, as the title pronounces, we will never know for certain. 'I'm too sad' just signals that it is 'important we know that there is a reason'. 3

We expect Conceptual art (especially its linguistic variety) to tell us something, but Ader just shows. This absence of explanation produces a strong paradox: it is as if he is staging, in the same manner as an educational film on anthropology, a basic human behaviour using common facial expressions. 4 But still his crying is moving and his grief seems earnest. It leaves us with the disturbing feeling that we are witnessing an expression of inconsolable sorrow.

Other works by Ader underline this highly abstracted, formalized concern with the attributes of romanticism historically ascribed to artists, adolescents, women and the insane: feelings of alienation, solitude, unfulfilled longing, self-mutilation and melancholia. In the film piece Nightfall (1971) we see Ader standing in what seems to be a garage studio space lit by two light bulbs. He tries to balance a heavy concrete slab with one hand until it falls and crushes one of the bulbs. He lifts it up again and tries to balance it once more, and again it falls, this time crushing the other bulb - the room turns dark and the film comes to an end. On one level the piece could be described as a formal exercise dealing with the physical conditions of space, light and matter in film - on another it is a tense allegory of fragility, failure and disappearance.

The colour photograph Farewell to Faraway Friends (1971) is the most direct reference in Ader's oeuvre to historical Romanticism. We see the lone artist at the edge of the sea, silhouetted by a beautiful sunset, alluding both to Caspar David Friedrich's scenes and to the kitschy picture postcard tradition that developed after them. It is as if Ader is mourning this history of devaluation itself, as if the faraway friends were the early Romantic artists who once, with fresh eyes, discovered Sublime nature as a mirror of their soul, and whose discovery is now obsolete. In the early 19th century, when the idea of the Picturesque in landscape painting became immensely popular, Europe was in the midst of the Napoleonic wars. From the outset the gaze of the Romantic beholder was contaminated with the viewpoint of the commander looking at the battlefield. (It has been argued many times that one of the reasons why Conceptual art developed in the mid-1960s was a disgust with the beautiful commodifications of art in the face of the Vietnam war.) Farewell to Faraway Friends suggests that the seeming incompatibility of the Conceptual and the romantic goes back to the historical roots of artistic production in Modernity at large.

In 1800 Friedrich Schlegel defined art as 'an intentionally determined utterance, or clearly thought delimitation, [...] an outline and principle of treatment.' 5 In the very same year William Wordsworth (who admired the writings of Friedrich Schlegel and of his brother August Wilhelm) remarked that good poetry, and art in general, was characterized by 'the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings'. 6 Two years earlier Schlegel had written that it is 'equally deadly for the mind to have a system and to have none. It consequently will have to decide to connect both states.' 7 It seems that Ader's work was all about systematically treating the un-systematic: trying to 'mend' the split by admitting its existence - in itself a romantic endeavour. Schlegel had expressed a common view of Romanticism, favouring the open process and the fragmentary over the systematic and concise, in order to be able to adjust the mind to a contradictory reality, rather than the other way round.

The early death of Ader is the unreal fable that completes his work. Some months after he set sail from Cape Cod on a lone transatlantic crossing in 1975 (the conclusion of his piece In Search of the Miraculous), the wreck of his boat was found off the Irish coast; there was no trace of the body. The tragic irony of his final disappearance is that it is the perfect example of the romantic trope of the beloved's death, preferably by drowning. 8 Edgar Allan Poe, in his 'Philosophy of Composition' (1846), infamously said: 'The death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world'. 9 The melancholia and yearning of romantic production are engendered by the tragic absence of the beloved. Applied to art, as far-fetched as it may seem, this absence of the object of affection seems linked to the absence of the art object, from Marcel Duchamp to Conceptualism. Reading Duchamp's oeuvre backwards from his last great piece, Etant donnés (1947-66), with the naked female body eternalized behind a door that can be peeped through but never opened, the urinal (Fountain, 1917) and the other ready-mades become more than anything else the manifestations of the loss of a particular object of desire - the loss of the 'beautiful' artwork in the traditional sense. In Conceptualism, mourning this absence has been successively sublimated into irony, or completely replaced by stern-faced intellectualism. Ader short-circuited the beginning and end of this process of sublimation. This only points to the fact that the process is never flawless in the first place - there are seams and slips. Or as Duchamp wittily put it: 'The personal "art coefficient" is like an arithmetical relation between the unexpressed but intended and the unintentionally expressed.' 10

Once you have your mind set on these co-ordinates, the tension between the romantic and the Conceptual occurs - intentionally or not - where you wouldn't always expect it. This is very obvious in the case of Robert Smithson: his central notions of erosion and entropy are closely linked to the romantic predilection for decay, ruins and ancient monuments - in works such as the article 'A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey' (1967) or the slide lecture Hotel Palenque (1969-72) he applies this preoccupation to the industrial era and playfully analyses the historic burden of the Modern (again, as with Ader, his early death and the ensuing myth threaten to obscure the intellectual gravity of this approach).

Robert Barry's 'Inert Gas Series' can be read in the strict sense of art-referential, quasi-scientific criticism of art-object fetishism: instead of producing another physically present piece, he released, for example, a litre of argon into the air on 4 March 1969 - Argon [from a Measured Volume to Indefinite Expansion] (1969).

But there is also a strongly romantic undercurrent in the way the piece was actually executed and explained. The release took place on a beach in Santa Monica, California, and the documentary photo shows a fragile glass flask against an empty Pacific horizon. In an accompanying statement Barry explains what he likes about the physical qualities of an inert gas: it is 'imperceptible - it does not combine with any other element. [...] It continues to expand forever in the atmosphere, constantly changing, and it does all of this without anybody being able to see it.' 11 Barry's gas behaves pretty much like the romantic soul: ephemeral, alien to the environment, open-ended, fluid, disappearing. 'Gas equals the medium of the soul - the ether of the nerves', wrote Friedrich Schlegel's friend Novalis. 12

If you look for them, you will constantly come across Conceptualized romantic motifs in the work of Douglas Huebler, Hélio Oiticica, Sophie Calle, Rodney Graham, Felix Gonzalez-Torres or Hans Haacke. Haacke's early interest in ephemeral, constantly changing, self-organizing systems was expressed, for example, in Live Airborne System (1965-8), for which he 'appropriated' as art, through the medium of a documentary photograph, a flock of seagulls feeding on crumbs floating on the water. Adrian Piper's Food for the Spirit (1971) brings the tension between the romantic and the Conceptual to an almost ecstatic extreme: for the entire summer of 1971 she stayed in her New York loft and did nothing but read Kant's Critique of Pure Reason (1781). As she described in retrospect ten years later, the more she read about the transcendental subject, the more she felt like losing her physical identity, becoming transcendental herself - probably not least because she held to a strict water and juice diet for the same period. To reassure herself that she still existed, she established a ritual whereby she would photograph herself in front of the mirror and record her voice quoting from Kant. The underexposed photos have an eerie, ghostly quality, as if Piper actually was becoming translucent, ephemeral (she admits she always had a soft spot for mysticism). 13 Thinking of both Piper's and Haacke's later, strongly political work, it becomes apparent that the conceptualization of the romantic artistic condition seems a kind of meditative preparation for - not an escape from - the political.

Artists who emerged in the 1990s have often been accused of being too narcissistic. But bearing the work of artists from Ader to Piper in mind, the concern with one's own (and others') romanticism is not purely individualistic but, at least potentially, a concern with the historic construction of Modern subjectivity.

Didier Courbot's series 'Needs' (1999-present) consists of photos of the artist seemingly acting off his own bat, 'fixing' urban problems. We see him watering flowers on a Rome roundabout, mending a rusty railing with gaffer tape on a Prague pavement, or fastening a bird box to a street lamp at a busy Paris crossroads. Instead of staging a Situationist disruption of urban space, Courbot over-affirms the conservative demand for private initiative in response to public needs, and exposes its ideological character in the sweetest way. The artist turns into a tragi-comic, hopelessly romantic figure who confuses the anonymous urban space with his own garden, someone who hasn't yet heard that Modern society doesn't rest on a little bit of goodwill and a helping hand, but on the ever more complex division of labour.

Jan Timme took a line from wimp Pop hero Morrissey - 'Work is a four-letter word' - and wrote it with fluorescent lacquer on the wall of Galerie Nagel, Cologne, last summer (Five Words, 2001). The sentence could only be read after twilight, when the UV tubes he had put into the regular light fixtures of the gallery space made it visible. The title of the work suggests the kind of Kosuth-like tautology that we expect from a Conceptual wall text, but the content infuses it with an adolescent, melancholic, witty refractoriness that few have embodied and politicized better than Morrissey.

On the occasion of the exhibition's opening Timme invited Dirk von Lowtzow, singer with the Hamburg Punk outfit Tocotronic, to 'complete' another wall piece with the performance of a song. The capital letters, applied with blackboard paint slightly anamorphically so they could best be viewed from one particular angle, read 'Nothing is written'. The line was taken from David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia (1962), a film that is less about battle scenes than solitude, exhaustion and the empty desert sky. The title of the piece, Two Light Ales, Please (2002), broke the pathos of the sentence with a bit of pub reality, which is maybe one referential twist too much. Lowtzow's elegiac song, delivered with pearly chord progressions on an electric guitar, began with 'Nothing is written in the stars/above the desert sand/nothing is written in the palm/of my hand'. The highly abstracted, cryptic message on the wall was suddenly charged with the simple grace of a Pop song verse. It was another attempt to connect the two ends - romantic starting-point and Conceptual endgame - of Modern artistic subjectivity; to break the deadlock of contemporary art (analysis versus beauty, thought versus desire) and turn it into alchemy.

1. Sol LeWitt, 'Paragraphs on Conceptual Art', Artforum, vol. 5, no. 10, summer 1967, pp. 79-84; reprinted in Alexander Alberro and Blake Stimson (eds.), Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1999, p. 12.
2. Sol LeWitt, 'Sentences on Conceptual Art', Art-Language, vol. 1, no. 1, May 1969, pp. 11-13; reprinted in Catherine Moseley (ed.), Conception. Conceptual Documents 1968-1972, Norwich Gallery, Norwich School of Art and Design Press, Norwich, 2001, p. 82.
3. James Roberts, 'Bas Jan Alder: the artist who fell from grace with the sea', frieze no. 17, summer 1994, p. 34.
4. See Jan Verwoert, 'Bas Jan Ader: The Conceptuality of the Grand Emotions', Camera Austria International, no. 71, June 2000, p. 3.
5. Ernst Behler (ed.), Kritische Friedrich-Schlegel-Ausgabe, vol. 2, Munich, 1967, p. 290; quoted after Herbert Mainusch, Romantische Ästhetik, Verlag Gehlen, Bad Homburg, Berlin and Zurich, 1969, p. 11 [author's translation].
6. Nowell C. Smith (ed.), Wordsworth's Literary Criticism, London, 1905; quoted in Mainusch, ibid.
7. Kritische Friedrich-Schlegel-Ausgabe, vol. 2, p. 173; quoted in Mainusch, p. 13 [author's translation].
8. See Elisabeth Bronfen, Over Her Dead Body. Death, Feminity and the Aesthetic, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1992.
9. Edgar Allan Poe, The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Writings, Penguin, London, 1986, p. 486.
10. Marcel Duchamp, 'The Creative Act', in Michel Sanouillet and Elmer Paterson (eds.), Salt Seller: The Writings of Marcel Duchamp, Oxford University Press, New York, 1973, p. 139; quoted in Thierry de Duve, Kant after Duchamp, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachussetts, 1996, p. 319.
11. Robert Barry, 'Artist's Statement', in Ursula Meyer (ed.), Conceptual Art, Dutton, New York, 1972; quoted in Peter Osborne (ed.), Conceptual Art, Phaidon, London, 2002, p. 82.
12. Novalis, ed. Walther Riem, Frankfurt, Hamburg: Fischer 1956, p. 188 [author's translation].
13. Adrian Piper, 'Food for the Spirit', in High Performance, no. 1, spring 1981; reprinted in Adrian Piper. Seit 1965: Metakunst und Kunstkritik, Generali Foundation, Vienna, and Walther König, Cologne, 2002, p. 152-5.

Main image: Bas Jan Ader, I'm Too Sad to Tell You, 1971, photograph, 9 x 14 cm. Courtesy: Patrick Painter Editions, Inc., Hong Konh

Jörg Heiser is director of the Institute for Art in Context at the University of the Arts, Berlin, Germany.