BY Ronald Jones in Reviews | 06 SEP 94
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Issue 18

Sense and Sensibility: Women Artists and Minimalism in the 90s

BY Ronald Jones in Reviews | 06 SEP 94

On the pretext of introducing women whose work has somehow passed through the historical trajectory of Minimalism and Post-Minimalism, 'Sense and Sensibility...' retreads the well-worn art history lesson that many significant women artists were overlooked as Minimalism took shape. For MoMA to roll out this position as if it were some new revelation is too late, too clumsy, and at this point does nothing to enlarge our appreciation either of what Minimalism was, or of the art these women have produced. What is the purpose of insisting that younger work be seen through the gender-myopic lens which Minimalism provides, again? Corrective surgery performed with an instrument as dull as this one does not stir confidence in this patient. It seems to me that the desire to detail the miscarriage of modernism is fuelled by the substance of modernism itself - an optimistic and enduring, if in this case repressed, belief in enlightenment; a belief that the critique deployed is the correct one.

Exhibit A: Zelevansky's catalogue essay tells us that 'because it provided the first truly versatile new set of strategies for art-making since Cubism, Minimalism has had a place in the second half of our century comparable to that occupied by Cubism in the first half.' Having plopped down that blunt piece of history, she garnishes it with the 'three basic minimalist strategies' (Frankly, I could never get this one straight. Weren't there four or was it just two?) The strategies are: 'repetition, the grid, and geometric form.' She then strains to justify her choice of seven women, writing: 'Although men as well as women created precedents for and are currently working with these forms, this exhibition includes only women, so as to underscore the historical interplay between the Women's Movement and Post-Minimalism.' Is this exhibition a memento mori to Minimalism's exclusion of women, affected in 1994 by the exclusion of men, or is it the interpretation of seven women artists and as a consequence the re-interpretation of Minimalism? Is it historical revisionism? The corrective lens? Things seem so confused almost any answer would grant us relief. A little critical attention to histories already written might offer some ballast, even to thinking as loopy as this. My impression has always been that revisionism is about not making the list; that, in fact, lists are the hardened and knotty tumours that clog the body of art history.

My sense is that the story curator Lynn Zelevansky wants to tell is a spin-off of the saga of Post-Minimalism, especially the part where the artistic persona is reintroduced into a style where personality had been deliberately evacuated. This is a story already told with compassion and brilliance by Eva Hesse, Robert Pincus-Witten, Lucy Lippard, and others. In the episode unfolding at the Modern, 80s art, made to play the heavy, assumes the role once played by Minimalism, and prompts these artists to reach back into history. On closer inspection, though, these women reach not to Minimalism, but rather to Post-Minimalism, Arte Povera, and a modest menagerie of other styles in order to carve out their own low production value, personality-laden identity. Such flat-footed reasoning does a disservice to these seven artists as well as the earlier work to which they may have responded.

Exhibit B: Six of the artists. There may be an argument for these artists, but it's not couched within the ahistorical label 'Minimalism in the Nineties.' Nevertheless, the majority of this work, like the premise of the exhibition, is sadly uncomplicated. Rachel Lachowicz's gift for handling feminist attitudes is revealed in her work: Her broken Cinderella slippers are supposed to equate to broken glass ceilings, or something like that. Rachel Whiteread's Ghost (1990) glazes phenomenological work like Bruce Nauman's A Cast of the Space Under My Chair (1965-68) with autobiographical claims of her humble beginnings in North London. The work poses two questions. First, alone with the intangible made monumentally positive, how discernible is her autobiography? Second, what does it mean when Whiteread deploys this style today? That it is evidence of the legacy of Minimalism and Post-Minimalism is as innocent an answer as it is unsatisfying. If I squint my eyes, yes, I can see that stylistic trait - but what then?

On the floor Polly Apfelbaum has organised square patches of crushed velvet stained with bright colours. Her work lives up to the three strategies Zelevansky attributes to Minimalism - 'repetition, the grid and geometric form' - but her historical lineage immediately strays toward pattern painting and decoration. Repetition, geometry, and systems do not a Minimalist legacy make. Think back to Betsy Baker's careful re-reading of Richard Artschwager in an essay written in the early days of Baker's and Artschwager's careers. As much as his work looked like Minimalism, and as much as the prevailing sentiment tried to place him there, Baker intelligently resisted. Stylistic similarities are not prima facie evidence.

Exhibit C: Andrea Zittel. Zittel provides the single piece of convincing evidence that there are differences between current work and what Zelevansky defines as Minimalism and Post-Minimalism. In her modest, portable living units Zittel reinterprets the idea of systems as lived experience and expands on what Pincus-Witten once called 'epistemological conceptualism'. As he brilliantly summarised nearly 20 years ago, the epistemological conceptualist 'tends to make or do things for the kinds of information, knowledge or data which things or activities reveal.' Zittel's thinking is a liberation - a deft, open-ended search which does justice to her work. She describes the invention and re-invention of her living modules as an evolution of repetitious design, behaviourism, and individualism. Forget style as the determining trait, and repetition as mere 'strategy'. Zittel's project is a third thing: revisionism determined through the hands of freedom and the constraints of a real eccentricity.

At best, Zelevansky's exhibition of seven women artists is one hollow symbol of the righteous rebellion against exclusionary histories. Shouldn't an exhibition such as this do more than underscore these histories one more time? Consider the parallel example of Philip Berrigan. Berrigan, a former Roman Catholic priest with a long history within the anti-war movement, vandalised an Air Force F15 fighter bomber doing $27,000 worth of damage. He said that he wanted 'to clog the gears of the killing machine, even for only a moment.' His view was clear: the form of civil protest which he helped to author as anti-war advocacy nearly 30 years before had become ineffective, little more than a model for what it meant to 'protest,' a museum piece if you will.

Berrigan's grim choice was motivated by circumstances which I believe are akin to those we confront in the art world today. I am not advocating violence, but wondering how we can continually be satisfied with this kind of exhibition, a pale model for what has come to mean being 'politically correct'. How useful can it be, nested within a museum whose conspicuous role in the histories concerned is well known? The transparency of the gesture may be profitable in signalling the beginning of the end of the 'politically correct' institutional exhibition. Inevitably something else will be fetched to take its place, but hopefully we will find our own Philip Berrigan first.

Ronald Jones is on the faculty of the Royal College of Art, London, and a regular contributor to this magazine.