06 September 2011

Towards an Aesthetics of Entropy, Part II

Returning to where we left off a ridiculously long while ago. And in the same location, in the newly-sprawling suburbs of New Jersey of the mid 1960s...

It was the suburbs of New Jersey that the aspiring artist Dan Graham found himself in 1965, having moved back in with his parents after a short-lived attempt at running his own art gallery in New York City. Alighting there and trying to figure out his next move, Graham roamed the surrounding community and its streets with his Kodak Instamatic, taking tightly-composed snapshots of the middle-class subdivisions that were sprouting up to fill the landscape. Acres of tract homes, identical in design, lining the streets like rows of boxes, block after block. The resulting photos would finally appear in the pages of the 1966 year-end issue of Arts magazine. Bearning the title "Homes for America." These photos were imbedded in an accompanying text that Graham had also supplied. Inconspicuously wedged in between other features and art reviews, the article read like a stray fragment from a real estate trade publication:

Each house is a lightly constructed 'shell' although the fact is often concealed by fake (half-stone) brick walls. Shells can be added or subtracted easily. [ ... ]

Each block of houses is a self-contained sequence -- there is no development -- selected from the possible accepted arrangement. As an example, if a section was to contain eight houses of which four model types were to be used, any of these permutational possibilities could be used:


Running several pages in length, the "article" continued...

"...This serial logic might follow consistently until, at the edges, it is abruptly terminated by pre-existent highways, bowling alleys, shopping plazas, car hops, discount houses, lumber yards, or factories.

... Although there is some probably some aesthetic precedence in the row houses which are indigenous to many older cities along the east coast, ... housing developments as an architectural phenomenon are peculiarly gratuitous. They exist apart from prior standards of 'good' architecture. They were not built to satisfy individual needs or tastes. The owner is completely tangential to the product's completion. His home isn't really possessable in the old sense; it wasn't designed to 'last for generations;' and outside of its immediate 'here and now' context it is useless, designed to be thrown away. Both architecture and craftsmanship as values are subverted by the dependence on simplified and easily duplicated techniques of fabrication and standardized modular plans."

Presented like copy lifted directly from a brochure picked up at an industry trade show, "Homes of America" operates as a canard. Doubly so, when you account for the way Graham's text -- with its discussion of simplified forms and standardized modularity -- often paralleling the measured, methodical rhetoric of many artists' tracts and statements of its day, especially that connected with the then-emerging Minimalist movement. Take, for example, Donald Judd's essay "Specific Objects," published in the Arts Yearbook in 1965:

"Three dimensions are real space. That gets rid of illusionism and of literal space, space in and around marks and colors – which is riddance of one of the salient and most objectionable relics of European art. The several limits of painting are no longer present. A work can be as powerful as it can be thought to be. Actual space is intrinsically more powerful and specific than paint on a flat surface. Obviously, anything in three dimensions can be any shape, regular or irregular, and can have any relation to the wall, floor, ceiling, room, rooms or exterior or none at all. Any material can be used, as is or painted."

Or from Robert Morris's "Notes on Sculpture," circa 1966...

"A simple, pure sensation cannot be transmissible precisely because one perceives simultaneously more than one property as parts in any given situation: if color, then also dimension; if flatness, then texture, etc. However, certain forms do exist that, if they do not negate the numerous relative sensations of color to texture, scale to mass, etc., do not present clearly separated parts for these kinds of relations to be established in terms of shapes. Such are the simpler forms that create strong gestalt sensations."

Graham's "Homes for America," in its own ingeniously resourceful way, epitomizes a major shift in art that had taken place in the late 1950s and early 1960s -- that it's a prime example of the postmodern closing of the gap between art and everyday life; of an artist responding to his or her present-day "common culture." But steering things closer to the topic at hand, it also serves as a pertinent companion piece to -- if not an inspirational source for -- Robert Smithson's "A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey," which was published in Artforum magazine at the end of the following year.

* * * * * * * *

The 1960s were something of golden age for artists' texts. It was a time in which, for perhaps the first time since the early part of the century -- that period of the aesthetic manifestoes and bombast of early High Modernism -- that an artist's statement of purpose or theoretical ramblings carried significant weight. To some degree, this new situation mostly came about by default. In the wake of recent developments and shifts, traditional art criticism was lagging behind the times, and there was a breech to fill.

The short version: Modernist art and the supremacy of painting and other traditional media had reached the end of an evolutionary arc. Pollock and de Kooning and their fellow travelers had (by some accounts) punched their way out of the conundrum of Cubist spatiality, and in doing so had brought one chapter in the book of art history to a close. (Sure, there was the "post-painterly abstraction" that followed, but not much of anyone found it anything worth getting terribly worked up about.) In the years that followed, art practices splintered off in a number of directions, with a new generation of young American artists producing works that -- in terms of style and materials and content -- fell outside the domain of conventional accounts. New ways of making art required new ways of looking at it, which required new ways of thinking and talking about it; and the old set of critical tools and concepts and terminology wasn't up to the task. Sure, there were a few younger critics who were able to rise to the challenge, but it seemed that -- with all the criterial slippage that was afoot -- the entire art-crit community was going to have to scramble to catch up.

Which is where a number of the younger artists came in. Unlike their brooding and inarticulate Ab-Ex predecessors, they were pretty savvy when it came to stringing words together and methodically working their way through the whys and whatfors of formalism and aesthetic theory. Judd, Morris, and Smithson proved to be the most verbose and cerebral of the lot, and a number of their writings would become primary documents of the era. Graham's "Homes for America" occupies a unique position in this critical continuum, by dint of being an instance when text becomes an integral part of the artwork itself. As such, it was an indicator of things to come. By the time Conceptual Art emerged on the scene in the latter half of the decade, it became a more common practice to supplying text as works of art on their own.

* * * * * * * *

Smithson in his studio, c. 1960

The early half of the 1960s had been a period of artistic floundering for Robert Smithson, a protracted stretch of casting-about and indecision as he sought to find a way of producing work that was relevant, contemporary, and engaged with big ideas. He'd started out painting, producing canvases that were thick with mythological and religious metaphors and heavily modeled after Byzantine iconic imagery. By 1964, he'd transitioned into a brief quasi-"Pop Art" phase -- acrylic paintings of explosions and bolts of electricity rendered in a flat, emblematic style, and a sculpture involving mirrors and neon.

The following year, Smithson showed up at Dan Graham's short-lived John Daniels Gallery in Manhattan, looking for a new venue to show his work. Through his association with the gallery, Smithson began working his way into the network of gallery's other artists -- artists whose work was then starting to gain a lot of critical attention, artists who would soon be ranked as Minimalism's pioneering figures. Graham later recalled his first impression of Smithson as being of "someone who was trying too hard," explaining:

"He was thought to be someone who was politically muscling in,…although his intellectual ideas about the work were compelling and interesting which made me even more guarded, and also made me even tougher on him as I tried to figure out his 'position.' …Bob was trying to make a connection with the Minimal artists we were showing, because he was very adaptable in terms of influence."

Smithson's "compelling and interesting" ideas concerning the work of his Minimalist contemporaries were very much his own, the product of his own peculiar autodidact erudition. This was very evident in his essay "Entropy and the New Monuments," which was published in Artforum magazine in June of 1966. Among the first of Smithson's ambitious writings, the essay is a loopily eccentric text; enough so that the reader can't help but wonder if it wasn't -- like Graham's "Homes for America" -- intended to be something of an artwork in itself. Dense -- some might say over-reachingly so -- with associations and citations from a variety of disciplines and from popular culture, frequently spiraling off into outer-orbit tangents, the text demonstrated Smithson's affinity for connecting far-flung ideas and conceptualizing in oblique and esoteric ways.

Ronald Bladen, Three Elements, 1966

With "Entropy and the New Monuments," Smithson presented his own (highly peculiar) reading of the work of the first wave of so-called Minimalist artists -- specifically that of Judd, Morris, Sol LeWitt, Dan Flavin and a number of other artists, inlcuded those associated with the "Park Place Group" (Mark di Suvero, Robert Grosvenor, at al). Departing from the formalist concerns of Judd and Morris, Smithson foregoes any discussion of "neither painting nor sculpture" or "unitary objects," instead arguing in the essay's opening paragraphs:

"The works ...bring to mind the Ice Age rather than the Golden Age, and would most likely confirm Vladimir Nabokov's observation that, 'The future is but the obsolete in reverse.' In a rather round-about way, many of the artists have provided a visible analog for the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which extrapolates the range of entropy by telling us energy is more easily lost than obtained, and that in the ultimate future the whole universe will burn out and be transformed into an all-encompassing sameness. ...

Instead of causing us to remember the past like the old monuments, the new monuments seem to cause us to forget the future. Instead of being made of natural materials, such as marble, granite, plastic, chrome, and electric light. They are not built for the ages, but rather against the ages. They are involved in a systematic reduction of time down to fractions of seconds, rather than in representing the long spaces of centuries. Both past and future are placed into an objective present. This kind of time has little or no space; it is stationary and without movement, it is going nowhere, it is anti-Newtonian, as well as being instant."

A few paragraphs later, he segues into an extended aside about the High Modernist architecture of Park Avenue (as epitomized by Philip Johnson), commenting:

"This kind of architecture without 'value of qualities,' is, if anything, a fact. From this 'undistinguished' run of architecture, as [Dan] Flavin calls it, we gain a clear perception of physical reality free from the general claims of 'purity and idealism.' Only commodities can afford such illusionist values…"

"Primary Structures" exhibition, The Jewish Museum, NYC, April 1966

Robert Smithson had little interest in methodically dismantling Greenbergian Modernist formalism, a task that very much preoccupied many of his immediate peers. But like a number of artists at the time, Smithson was intrigued with certain ideas that Mesoamericanist art historian George Kubler had put forth in his 1962 book The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things. In his book, Kubler had proposed an alternate framework for contextualizing art history; abandoning the traditional linear model for another (somewhat structuralist) approach that involved diffuse cycles -- or "sequences" -- of development, problem-solving, and eventual dormancy or discontinuation. What's more, Kubler offered a continuum that was more openly anthropological in character, broadening the concept of art history to include a society's "material culture" as a whole (if not extending it to include intellectual culture, as well). Kubler's expansive and interdisciplinary approach was destined to appeal to Smithson, bound to appeal to Smithson, who -- still harboring a childhood fascination with natural sciences -- was similarly prone to thinking in trans-epochal historical sweeps, more inclined to think in terms of geologic time rather than that of specific historic or aesthetic moments.1

It is with the essay's discussion of the element of time (rather than that of formal or spatial concerns) that Smithson most sharply diverges from the theorizing of his peers, and which introduces the essay's core idea -- entropy. By opting for the monument analogy, Smithson effectively likens the "specific objects" or "unitary forms" of the Minimalists to dolmen or stele or obelisks -- to archeological artifacts, of a sort.2 Yet, he counters, these works are monuments built "against the ages" -- embodying the material culture and sensibilities of the immediate present, by dent of being products that owe their existence to contemporary manufacturing techniques and synthetic materials.3 It is, by Smithson's reckoning,this degree of temporal hyperattenuation, this narrowing of reference to the point of instantaneity, that he viewed as a manifestation of entropy -- an "energy-drain" or halting of historical momentum, embodying or signifying nothing more than the material values of the present, mute on all matters of what came before or anything that might come after.

Smithson's brief association with Minimalism marked a turning point in his development as an artist. And as the most significant of Smithson's early texts, "Entropy and the New Monuments" illustrates the artistic ideas that Smithson was formulating at the time, and how theses ideas would -- in turn -- soon cause him to veer in an entirely different direction with his own work.

{ End of part two. }

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1. For instance, when Michael Fried's "Art and Objecthood" appeared in the June 1967 issue of Artforum, it drew a number of cranky rejoinders from Donald Judd and others. Smithson wrote his own response, from which it's difficult to tell if he actually bothered to dissect or fully understand Fried's argument. But given his own concerns as artist, the matter's probably neither here nor there, since Smithson seems to have very little (if anything) at stake in the theoretical debate in the first place.

2. The terminology here ("specific objects," "unitary forms") belongs to Donald Judd and Robert Morris, respectively.

3. This assertion of Smithson's curiously parallels an argument that would become something of postmodernist cliché a couple of decades later, the argument being that the history of Modern art and the so-called avant-garde came to an end with the emergence of Pop Art and Neo-Dadaism -- e.g., when "high art" merged with/was overtaken by the popular culture.

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