Is art material or idea, product or process?
This year’s history of arts majors’ exhibit in the Johnson Museum, Unfolding Process: Conceptual and Material Practice on Paper, showcases artwork that leaves a residue of the conceptual labor of creation inscribed on the body of the work itself. The exhibit suggests that the value of an artwork resides in its ability to function as a conduit between the artist’s conceptual and technical struggles and the viewer’s labors to achieve an aesthetic experience, whatever that may be.
How far can one reduce a work of art to a pivot-point in this transaction, paring down the matter until only the traces of pure inspiration are left? Most pieces in the exhibit come from the late ’60s through the mid-’80s, an era when conceptual art was at the height of its vogue, so the answer insinuated by the exhibit is: pretty far — a scribbled line, a single brushstroke, a few pieces of detritus arranged into a collage. Yet, looking at these works, which may have seemed little more than a ghostly gesture of thought at their initial reception, appear in retrospect to be assiduously concerned with the presence of their formal and material properties.
Minimalist work, like the Pop Art that arose during the same time period, can be read as a symptom of a culture newly overwhelmed with slick magazine photo-shoots and corporate advertising. Whereas Pop Art ironically appropriates that imagery, minimalist art turned its back on such stylistic opulence. Just as the invention of the photograph at the turn of the last century contributed to painting’s increasing abstraction, the sheer technical manipulation available to advertising firms around the middle of the century likewise helped push artists to the brink of abstraction itself.
In order to focus a viewer’s attention on the intrinsic qualities of art (line, color, composition) artists distilled these qualities to their conceptual essence. At the same time, many of these works also critique the commoditization of art: dealers, critics, curator, and often artists themselves attempt to eternize the artwork into a product, removing it from the dialectic of ideas — at least until the moment it can be valued and exchanged in the marketplace.
Jasper John’s satiric piece “The Critic Sees” features a white-on-white embossed image of a box or brick that has a pair of glasses on it. Inside the glasses, the word “mouth” is written on a transparent window. On the one hand, this emphasizes the fact that the “critical lens” through which critics view a work often overlooks the material necessities of the artist — a bad review, and an artist might go hungry. On the other hand, perhaps, our society’s critical scopophilia is being likened to a voracious mouth that can’t be satisfied; is the artwork — or the person who looks at the artwork — empty like a box, or dense like a brick?
Sol LeWitt’s “Untitled” is a screenprint of concentric circles overlaid with two bisecting axis in a square. Its geometrical simplicity makes one think that, given a protractor and a ruler, anyone could have made the piece. In fact, that’s the point: LeWitt often included instructions on how his wall drawings could be erased and installed elsewhere, evacuating the art object of the aura of its author. Nonetheless, the curators selected a piece by LeWitt’s own hand, proving that the cult of artistic genius is still very much alive and dependent on an authentic signature.
Robert Heinecken’s “Polaroid Drawing Tryptich” presents a series of Polaroids that demonstrate and are framed by instructions on how to make good photos from which to pencil images. While it highlights the difference between merely snapping a Polaroid and meticulously creating an artistic photograph or other representation, it also satirically conflates the difference by suggesting that the viewer can make — and not just take — photos, too.
Gerhard Richter’s “Untitled” likewise looks like a piece nearly anyone could achieve: a thick smear of red, blue, white and tan paint. However, on closer examination, one sees how the heavy lines of brushwork are evident and possibly textured by decalcomania to give a wispy or spongiform appearance. Without an interpretive placard, the viewer wouldn’t necessarily be able to situate the piece in Richter’s oeuvre, which ceaselessly ranges over vastly different techniques from absurdly vivid photorealism to op art to a vigorous reinvention of abstract expressionism. In this case, the curators chose to deemphasize the artist, allowing the work to instigate the viewer through the arrangement of paint alone.
Richard Tuttle’s watercolor, “Nine Lines, Eight Colors,” is a kind of milky color wheel that spins out into a palette of pastels, literally blurring the line between the slapdash and the carefully planned, the intention and the chance procedure. Yuken Teruya creates intricate filigree paper sculptures of trees inside the diorama of donut bags, perhaps juxtaposing traditional Japanese practices such as origami and bonsai, which are delicate and precise, against a consumer culture that is disposable, high in fat and ultimately empty in its center.
David Diao’s untitled painting offers a bar graph of works in different media from Barnett Newman’s catalogue raisonné, creating what look like Newman’s signature zip lines. It feels at once like an homage and a critique, making us question the economic productivity of so self-avowedly spiritual an artist. The exhibit also includes plans for earthworks, sketches for exhibits, documents of installations and other items that may be thought of as leftovers or ephemera from a performance by such artists as Robert Smithson, Christo, and Denis Oppenheim and Vito Acconci. There are also stunning works by Anselm Kieter and Vija Celmins, who both use a minimalist, quasi-representational aesthetic for maximal affective resonance, a bare yet powerful mimesis acting as a kind of elegy for representation itself.
The exhibit demonstrates how art — like art history itself — is an ongoing process that does not end with the artist. Instead, it extends into the dialogue that the artwork has with curators, critics and gallery-goers, since artists cannot offer us “finished” product. It is our responsibility as thoughtful gallery-goers to finish the work by contemplating it.
Unfolding Process runs until June 14.