in Frieze | 09 SEP 07
Featured in
Issue 110

Studio and Cube

Brian O’Doherty (FORuM Projects/Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture, Columbia University Press, New York, 2007)

in Frieze | 09 SEP 07

After the artist, the critic, the gallerist, the collector and the curator, finally comes the story of that most protean behind-the-scenes player in the art world: the studio. Far from being an innocent space of creation, as Brian O’Doherty (alias Patrick Ireland when he dons the mantle of artist) explains in this fascinating historical study, the studio is a subject in its own right, a veritable agent of creation with diverse meanings and fateful configurations.

In Studio and Cube: On the relationship between where art is made and where art is displayed – the sequel to his seminal 1976 articles for Artforum, republished in 1999 as Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space – O’Doherty proposes to ‘“read” studios as texts that are as revelatory in their way as artworks themselves’. The scope of this slender essay is wide-ranging, encompassing an approximately 300-year period from the representation of the artist’s workspace in Johannes Vermeer’s The Art of Painting (1666–73) to Lucas Samaras’ display of his studio-bedroom in New York’s Green Gallery in 1964. The focus is on the studio’s heyday in the early- to mid-20th century. Among the variants he explores – revolutionary cell, church for a new religion, tradesman’s workspace, cultists’ clubroom, production factory, site of experimentation, lair of the solitary hero – O’Doherty identifies two main types that are definitive of Modernism: the chaotic mess (‘studio of accumulation’) and the empty retreat (‘studio of monastic barrenness’). For the former, think of Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbau (1923–48) or the living collage that was Francis Bacon’s studio. Such sites later gained ‘a legendary value with respect to Postmodern gallery installations that stuff and insult the white space’. As O’Doherty elegantly argues, it was the pristine, empty studio that played a large part in the rise of the paradigmatic white cube; the puritanical studio povera of Piet Mondrian and Constantin Brancusi becoming today’s clean, well-lit exhibition space.

O’Doherty ends by touching on the ways in which developments in new media have had an impact on studio practice. Yet there are other developments on the horizon. Say what you will about Chinese contemporary art, with its kitschy ‘let a hundred Jeff Koonses bloom’ aesthetic, the most radical developments in the studio are taking place there – see Zhang Huan’s enormous 7,000-square-metre, 100-worker-strong production line, a ‘factory’ (or sweat shop?) that truly merits the name. Some time ago, it became popular to speak of a post-studio era, with in situ artists such as Daniel Buren and Robert Smithson leading the way. Yet the studio remains a highly charged imaginative site. Somewhere on the outskirts of Paris, Loris Gréaud is currently building a large experimental atelier, a ‘dreaming factory,’ according to the plans I’ve seen, more stratospheric than Jack’s beanstalk and more distorting than Alice’s mirror. The studio as the ultimate object of artistic fantasy …