|The Human Stain – In Search of Subjectivity in Conceptual Art of the 1960s and Concept-Related Works
Within the decade of the 1960’s, the West is undergoing a number of fundamental changes on all levels of society. Imbedded in a complex historical, social and political process, a major paradigm shift is taking place: the modern notion according to which the Cartesian concept of the self (Man as being in charge of his own intentions and thinking) defines the entire Western mindset , is cumulatively replaced by the conception of a de-centered subject (understanding identity as constructed and relational).
The transition is accompanied by a shift in the philosophical disciplines towards a language-centered approach with linguistics and semiotics, or, more concretely, structuralism and poststructuralism dominating the field. The shift is generally subsumed under the term Linguistic Turn, coined by Richard Rorty in an anthology of the same title in 1967 . This term marks the rise of language as the decisive denominator in the understanding of reality.
In visual arts, the model of a progressive historic narrative with the subject in its center is unhinged. Facing this destabilization it is a time that would witness a steadily accelerating movement towards the “end of art” – as retrospectively proclaimed likewise by the art historians Arthur Danto and Hans Belting . After this “end”, so to speak, art is still being produced, but the modern model of a sequence of significant interrelated artistic events has been brought to its termination.
The effect is the loss of time-based progression, in which each (artistic) decision can be linked both to the previous and to the successive one and in which things (need to) logically make sense and have a reason. The outcome is an explosion of artistic styles, practices and genres.
Within just one or one and a half decades – one could maybe say in a singular historic “stretto” – emerges almost every movement relevant to art as we understand it today; starting from Pop Art to Op Art, Minimalism, Fluxus, Land Art, Happening, Performance, Video – and Conceptual Art. The parameters they set, both on a level of media and techniques and content-wise, have contributed to the frame in which artists work today.
The exhibition project The Human Stain (as lent from a book title by American novelist Philip Roth ) is not intending to understand the complexity of this historic period as a whole, or even to re-evaluate its specific events. The Human Stain starts with a focus on Conceptual Art, following from there the related movements and paths that were opened and within this framework intends to make visible the paradigm shift of the understanding of subjectivity in the arts. This undertaking is realized in a close reading of a number of selected artworks from the collections of the CGAC and ARCO.
What does it mean for an artist that the model of a progressive historic narrative with the subject in its center is unhinged? That he is “freed” from the burden of art history, but finds himself in the situation of having to define anew what art is or can be (when it can actually be anything) at the same time? If the idea of the artist as a genius is discarded, where then does the artist position himself? If he is not secured in a net of fixed meaning and values anymore, if subjectivity is unsettled, how does s/he deal with this? Which solutions does s/he find in his artistic practice? Which consequences do these changes have for the spectator, how does his/her role change at the same time? – These and more questions are the ones the exhibition and this text try to raise and to give a few preliminary answers to.
Choosing the image of the Stain – as something that sticks to its bearer and follows him wherever s/he goes or whatever s/he undertakes to get rid of it – as a means to visualize subjectivity and the thread that goes through the exhibition can be interpreted as purposely contradicting ideals of “purity” and/or “formal neutrality” which are commonly connected with Minimal and Conceptual Art (see more below).
The central thesis of this exhibition is that the terms “purity” and “neutrality” oftentimes circumvent a deeper investigation of what actually happened to subjectivity (both on the side of the producer and of the perceiver) in the seemingly subject-free art of the 60s and its successors. The Human Stain, thus, seeks to shed light on the place of the subject, focusing on Conceptual Art, extending into its contemporary movements and newer works by artists that have been influenced by Conceptual Art in form and content.
The Human Stain brings some of the central artistic positions in the 1960s – such as Joseph Kosuth, Sol LeWitt, Dan Graham, Donald Judd, Martha Rosler and others – together with successive generations of artists that were influenced by Conceptual Art and its contemporary movements. The intention is to make continuities, but also important ruptures of Conceptual Art visible.
The essay, however, does not illustrate the exhibition or the works exhibited but seeks to clarify the thesis behind it. It focuses on the example of three major artistic positions in the collection. Firstly, the recently acquired Claro, Cuadrado, Cristal, Apoyado (1965) by Joseph Kosuth, secondly a gouache and a silkscreen from the series Forms derived from a Cube and Pyramids (from 1981 onwards) by Sol LeWitt (Untitled, 1989; A Pyramid (Carpeta Joseph Beuys, 1994), and thirdly the Triangular Pavilion (1997) by Dan Graham. The discussion of these works and the artists’ different approaches to idea/concept, material/process and language aims to shed light on the correlations and tensions between some of the key characteristics of conceptual art and subjectivity.
THE ARTISTS - THE TERMS
In the 1960s, Joseph Kosuth, Sol LeWitt and Dan Graham were all living and working in New York, which until today is widely perceived as the predominant site for the emergence and production as well as awareness of Conceptual Art. The three were part of a larger group of artists and other acteurs culturels like Robert Barry, Douglas Huebler, Mel Bochner, Lucy Lippard, Seth Siegelaub, Carl Andre, to name just a few. Artists and theorists knew each other, exhibited together and exchanged experiences and theses on one another’s practice.
Sharing a dissociation from formalist painting and sculpture and thus from a Greenbergian , modernist perception of art, they resist the dominance of still very much present Abstract Expressionism. A common starting point is the consideration of visuality as little relevant to the essence of art, and following the traces of Marcel Duchamp and minimalist abstraction embodied in the work of Frank Stella, Ad Reinhardt and Donald Judd.
As different as their respective artistic practice may be, they all want to break free from the constraints of the object and its circulation – meaning the hitherto valid norms for the possible forms an artwork could take in a capitalist art market. The “idea” thus becomes the preferred site for artistic reflection; the open ended (immaterial) system of language its favorite medium. The advantage of giving the “idea” center stage is to both undermine standardized paths of marketability and to make art the arena in which art itself can be challenged.
This is also where the conceptions of neutrality, respectively de-subjectivation and purity come from: as a backlash against art’s objecthood a couple of artists throw out the baby with the bath water, and from the necessary liberation from the narrow corsets of art history they deduce the imperative of non-subjective and non-emotional art. The two core texts representing this stance are Sol LeWitt’s early article Paragraphs on Conceptual Art, published in Artforum magazine in 1967 , in which he establishes the term against a couple of competing alternatives and introduces the dictum of anti-emotionality , and Joseph Kosuth’s essay Art After Philosophy published two years later that can probably said to be the text that is mentioned most often when talking about Conceptual Art. Kosuth here takes the trouble to introduce the qualitative idea of “purely conceptual art” and defines it as the making of “analytical propositions” – thereby deliberately in-, respectively excluding individual artistic positions as “impure” (for details, see below). The conception of purity here is therefore strongly connected to suspected contaminations by lesser strict compatriots. Nevertheless, this text activates and implements “purity” as a denominator for Concept Art as widely known today.
Turning away from the “why” to the “how” – from the maxims of Conceptual Art and their motivations to the way in which they are carried out – I would like to take a look now at the processes of de-materialization and de-skilling; the former famously coined by the art critic Lucy Lippard, the latter by the conceptual artist Ian Burn (Art & Language). These two terms mark the transition from a focus on the object to production processes.
Both De-materialization and de-skilling are important features for a devaluation of manual skill as parameters for both the field of artistic production and aesthetic judgment.
Artists could now write or send a letter or a postcard, post an advertisement or put a label on the wall, exhibit an empty sheet of paper or just conduct an activity; in short, the process of making the work becomes more important than a final object. It is not the finished object anymore to which attention is drawn (which oftentimes doesn’t exist or is merely documented), it is the production itself, the course of the making, of the activity conducted by the artist and the performative comprehension of the viewer.
Although the term concept takes center stage for most people concerned with conceptual art, paradoxically, there are probably not even two artists who share the same notion of what working with ideas actually incorporates.
It is Joseph Kosuth whose theses achieved the widest publicity and still marks the pivot of many critical examinations of Conceptual Art of the 1960s in New York.
Only 24 years old, he publishes his prominent essay Art after Philosophy in 1969 . Denying the possibility of art objects possessing any metaphorical function, he totally negates that art could communicate expression or transcendental experience. Furthermore, he outright rejects the primacy of individual subjectivity as the locus of art production.
Art after philosophy aims to mark a clear break from formalist modernism – majorly promoted by Clement Greenberg. Following Marcel Duchamp and his concept of the “purely retinal” , Kosuth remarks that the traditional genres of painting and sculpture are dealing with artistic formats – perception and the visual – only. Abstract expressionism and color field painting, particularly featured by Greenberg, are Kosuth’s main targets. Distinguishing art from aesthetics, he degrades the latter to a decorative function. Aesthetics (according to Kosuth) merely mediate beauty and taste, and such are not valid criteria to judge the quality of art. The “real” creative and intellectual efforts art is undertaking, according to Kosuth, is to contribute to the discourse on the definition and understanding of art through making “analytical propositions” .
In 2007 the CGAC has acquired Kosuth’s major work Claro Cuadrado Cristal Apoyado (conducted as a Spanish version of Clear Square Glass Leaning) dating from 1965. It exemplarily demonstrates Kosuth’s efforts to create objectified and disembodied art.
The work is easily described: four square glass panels of 1, 27 m side length each are standing on the floor, leaning against a wall, with a short distance in between every single plate. Silk screen prints of four words, one on each glass panel, repeat the title: “claro, cuadrado, cristal, apoyado”. Each word is printed in black capital letters exactly onto the middle of the glass. The four adjectives exactly and exhaustingly describe the physical condition of each of the four panels: they are transparent (clear), square, made of glass and leaning against the wall. What you see is what you get.
The spectator, thus, is not confronted with a purely visual structure anymore (like with formalist art), but he has to read (pronounce) the words written on the glass and to comprehend the relation between letter and material. That way, the former viewing relationship becomes a performative reader relationship and parallels the transformation of the visual object as autonomous into an understanding of that object as highly contingent, depending as it does on the context of its particular engagement with the spectator.
Both the relationship between the artist and his work and the one between the artwork and the viewer can be analyzed more profoundly with the help of linguistics. In the logic of structuralism, the words printed on the panels, “claro, cuadrado, cristal, apoyado”, are, once pronounced, the respective signifiers (arbitrarily constructed sounds) forming the words which denote the characteristics of the signified (the panel). Although it might seem a simple and fixed correlation, one cannot be sure that everybody will have the same idea about the nature of it, because the signified is constructed inwardly via signifiers. Words can never fully summon forth what they mean, but can only be defined as differentiated from other words. To put it differently, one word alone does not constitute meaning but there needs to be a number of words to relate to.
Jacques Derrida’s poststructuralist theses indicate that this endless chain of signifiers makes any stable and unalterable connection between signifier and signified impossible. Signifiers are described via exclusions, not through determinations. The meaning of 'tree', for example, is understood as being different from other terms. Tree is not shrub, not flower, not animal and so on.
This “impurity” of language is rendering impossible Kosuth’s own claim to “exclude a projection of either themselves or the image, attributes, or qualities of man into their works of art” . This means, at the same time, that the supposed self-contained disinterest of his art in the viewer does not function. The relation between the word and the thing has to be established and comprehended by the spectator – and the way s/he would do this is neither foreseeable nor controllable by the artist. To make an impact, the “human factor” (the stain, subjectivity) is an indispensable ingredient of art and its perception.
Just as Kosuth, Sol LeWitt believes in the power of art: “Successful art changes our understanding of the conventions by altering our perceptions”.
Like his colleague, he also aims at maximizing the neutrality of an artwork. For him, however, an idea is not the result of an intellectual process initiated and controlled by the artist, but rather the contrary is the case. It somehow comes to him, he “may not necessarily understand his own art”, nor can he “imagine his art”. He exposes himself to chance, “Once the idea of the piece is established in the artist’s mind and the final form is decided, the process is carried out blindly” , thus not knowing how the final art work might look like in the end.
LeWitt was fully aware of the uncontrollability of the artwork’s perception (other than Kosuth), stating that “different people will understand the same thing in a different way”, and that “perception is subjective” . Yet, to make art mentally interesting to the viewer, LeWitt states that it should be emotionally dry. He is highly suspicious of the artwork as an expression of the artist’s inspiration and creativity; he wants the production process to be controlled: “To work with a plan that is pre-set is one way of avoiding subjectivity” .
Such emphasizing the spectator’s subjectivity and at the same time diminishing the role of the artistic subject as a creator, LeWitt’s investigations mirror his uncertainty /indecisiveness towards its positioning. He is elaborating on the shifted perception of the self, focusing on structure (like Kosuth) and processes (unlike him).
In terms of structure, LeWitt is rarely dealing with language itself, only a few early works in the beginning of the 60’s incorporated words in painting. In Red Square, White Letters (1963), for example, these words are describing the basic qualities of the painting such as the colors red and white and the shape, respectively quality square / letter. By reading these letters, the spectator is actively engaging with the painting, understanding it as such also through his reading.
Nevertheless, formal, nonverbal structure is an important concern for LeWitt and inevitably comes up when analyzing and understanding his work.
LeWitt investigates perception mostly through the conception of proportions of shape, color and space. Conducted after strict and sometimes logical, sometimes deliberately arbitrary rules, he brings these different constituents of a work together in distinct combinations each time. The process, as well as the accomplishment of the work becomes visible, it can be even conducted by someone else under his supervision. That way, his works dispose of a serial character, but are never repeating themselves. There is not one work existing twice out there.
LeWitt’s approach to his own production therefore can assumedly be described as lead by curiosity and experimentation. He is less concerned with intellectual concepts than with finding out what kind of artwork could possibly come out of a good idea.
In a way, he changes fronts (de-centers himself) and makes himself his first viewer.
The fund of CGAC’s collection again provides two works for The Human Stain, both of which stem from the series Forms derived from a Cube and Pyramids (from 1981 onwards), executed in diverse media, such as drawings, watercolors, wall-drawings, wall-paintings, sculptures, prints and books.
The two-dimensional versions – of which the museum owns a gouache and a silkscreen – consist of additions of mostly acute-angled triangles of various colors. One or two of its longer sides are tangent to each other. These touching sides are of the same length and not shifted relationally towards each other, thus, the resulting forms can be interpreted as pyramids when contemplated three-dimensionally. The coloring system is – in contrast to the open syntax of forms – a closed and limited set of possibilities: the four “basic” colors, yellow, red, blue and grey form an index of 15 possible colorings, singular and combined with one, two or three of the colors. Each “basic color” can be applied once, twice or three times layered on top of each other. Within this set, colors for the single fields of the Pyramids can be freely chosen; the impact of the final result is not foreseeable. The discrepancy between the closeness of the color system and the openness of the system of forms is not logical. LeWitt himself characterized this shift from strictly constructivist methods towards an opening to chance as a “blind jump” .
The Pyramids displayed cannot be understood fully as three-dimensional bodies at first sight. The spectator first has to make use of some abstractions to think his way from the immediately perceivable shape up to a three-dimensional form, the pyramid. This is necessary, because the recipient can grasp the pattern in two dimensions more easily than that of the three-dimensional corpus.
When looking at the Pyramids, the recipient is confronted with the task to support the form on display with some cubic or non-cubic construction (in his mind), no matter whether or not this construction is consistent with the immediate impression of plasticity in the space. Looking at LeWitt’s works, s/he can always establish direct and indirect relationships between the signs in three-dimensional space. The twofold semiotic function of signs, acting autonomously in the work, and virtually communicative in the viewer's reception, can thus be made evident. In the Pyramids, as well as in the Forms derived from a Cube, a tension between the two- and the three-dimensional ways of reading is imminent to the works, interacting between a direct and a constructive way of reading, needing the viewer to make this decision, involving him in the artistic play, completing the piece, constituting its poetics.
Dan Graham’s artistic practice is rooted in his concerns with social, cultural and political contexts. Both Graham’s later architectural pavilions as well as his language based works from the 1960s are concerned with the artist and art as being embedded in and reacting to a concrete historical situation.
Although being engaged in the movement of the Art Workers Coalition , which is advocating artist’s rights, a more open exhibition policy – including women and African-American and Hispanic artists – , free museum access, and also taking a stand against Vietnam War, in his art work, Graham focuses on criteria internal to the art context. For example, he reintroduces the category of artistic quality (including aesthetic features), against the positioning of Kosuth and in part LeWitt, who only admit qualitative judgment of their production / an art work on the level of the consistency of its idea.
Starting the 1969 meeting of the AWC with the claim “The subject is the artist, the object is to make art free” , he expresses his criticality towards the constraints in the artists’ self-determination through corporate needs and commodification within the art context. As his entry into the art world had by chance made him a gallerist for a year (until the gallery went bankrupt), he is both aware of the financial necessities of an artist and of the restrictions the market is imposing on creativity. Instead of demonizing the market root and branch, though, he supports appropriation and infiltration of the system, using it for one’s own purposes/interests.
Conceptual art then becomes the medium to blow up this corset: “The conceptual artist conceives of a pure art without material base, conceived simply by giving birth to new ideas – an art that would ideally mean and not be of baseball or Monopoly in the den, a game without ball, bat, gravity, dice or money” .
Getting out of the logic of the object and its marketability enables him to expand his operating range to all media and techniques for his production. One of his early works, for example, Detumescence (1969), just existed as regular advertisements in a newspaper, in which he was looking for a writer who might be able to describe “in clinical language the typical emotional and physiological aspects of post-climax in the sexual experience of the human male” . Graham wanted “the ‘piece’ to be, simply, this psycho-sexual-social ‘hole’” , and in fact never received responses. The remnant, therefore, is just a piece of paper describing his activity.
Against the background of ideas of the Canadian literature professor Marshall McLuhan, who claims the new mass media to cause a qualitative change in human consciousness in terms of accessibility, information and connectedness , Graham infiltrates (and infects it with a human / artistic stain) the system of the supposed “enemy” – popular culture – to examine the condition of male subjectivity.
As before mentioned, another key interest of Graham’s are architecture and public space. Since the construction of his first pavilion in 1978 , he has been working with that form in various projects. Mainly connected to baroque garden architecture, the pavilion allows Graham to experiment with bringing public and private space, construction and nature together.
From baroque times also stems the illusionist linkage between inner and outer space through mirrors, which expanded in 19th century architecture into the dissolution of a whole house into glass. The inhabitant becomes part of the domestic space and nature, at the same time. Finally, glass in the 1980’s becomes a preferred material in metropolitan construction, reflecting urban living in the vitrified facades of the high rises.
In 1997, Graham is commissioned to develop a site-specific pavilion for the rooftop terrace at CGAC. He decides to realize a new version of his Triangular Pavilions – a series of architectural sculptures in which he is examining specificities of triangular shapes – which directly refers to the museum’s architecture and Santiago de Compostela’s cityscape. The architect Álvaro Siza had built a first pyramid out of the same stone as the museum on its roof. Completed in 1993, the CGAC is the first brand new piece of architecture of the World Heritage town – declared in 1989 –, so it had to deal with the status of the major historical buildings in Santiago, all somehow connected to the tomb of the apostle. With the pyramid shape being associated to the ancient Egyptian tombs, Siza is referring to city’s history while at the same time marking his authorship.
With the Triangular Pavilion, Graham continues his own investigation in triangular shape that he has started a couple of years before. Like on several occasions before, he builds an accessible structure (one side of the pyramid has a sliding door, one person can justly stand upright inside) that is reflecting the skies of the strange Babylonian mythical labyrinth of the town’s rooftop terraces. The position of the viewer changes significantly, depending if s/he is outside or inside the pyramid. Inside, s/he suddenly re-enters the institutional space, is outside and inside at the same time, can see the other visitors on the terrace through the one-way mirror, but cannot be seen by them – is with them but simultaneously separated. From the outside, one cannot see what or who might be inside the structure, it is hermetically closed from all three sides, does not reveal its secret. But, all visitors outside form a community – all are in the same situation, mirroring themselves and seeing the other and their surrounding in the glass.
The pyramid relates to Siza’s monument in shape and size, being exactly of the same height, but the vertex is cut: a perfect contemporary grave which contains nothing but is showing all. Graham himself describes his pavilions as "producing a sense of uneasiness and psychological alienation through a constant play between feelings of inclusion and exclusion” . Needing the subject – human interaction – for its completion and taking its progressive contamination through its use as a given, Dan Graham could be called the prototypical conceptual artist in the understanding of The Human Stain. Thus, the Triangular Pavilion can be seen as one of the focal points for the exhibition, extending it from the inside into open air. Here on the terrace, Conceptual Art becomes a testing field, an experiment on social interaction and architectural impact on the human body. Graham does not understand “concept” as a definition, but rather as a thesis, to be very-/falsified in the course of its execution. The beauty of the pure form is immediately counteracted by the purpose of it to be used.
To recapitulate: I have interpreted the emergence of Conceptual Art on the basis of the linguistic turn in the 1960s (marking the beginning of the end of the historic concept of modernity). Its common features “purity”, “neutrality” and “non-emotionality” have become understandable as a response to the shift from a self-centered (artistic) subject and a self-contained, autonomous art to an unsettled self in a structural and relational understanding of the world: it had become necessary to replace the Daedalean image of the artist leaving his imprint on the painting with the stroke of the brush with differing conceptions of art, mirroring the shifted understanding of subjectivity.
It would be a misunderstanding, though, to assume that the intentions to objectify and make transparent the artistic labor would in return generally aim at eliminating subjectivity as a whole. Rather, by focusing on the process of its making and its materiality – in terms of both production and perception – subjectivity is rather taking a back seat for a while, giving way to the explosions of styles and genres (as introduced above) and thus, enables artists to elaborate new models for artistic practice – including a differentiated understanding of subjectivity.
Once the centered subject is unsettled, suddenly a whole new world outlook is taking shape. One could exemplify the importance of this rupture with the well known historic example of Galileo Galilei who claimed that the Sun is actually not spinning around the Earth, but vice versa: suddenly it becomes clear that it is not the world that is arranged according to and made by Man, but Man is a decisive, but not the in-control-part in the structure we call reality.
Thus, seen from today – with the distance of four decades –, it has become easier to describe some artists’ urge to cross out subjectivity, respectively to get away from the idea of the artist as genius, as a parallel movement or reaction to the processes of destabilization happening at the time.
The image of The Human Stain has served in this text to follow the traces of subjectivity in the works of three exemplary artistic positions and concrete works from the collection: From a heightened effort to define the role of the artist and thus to preserve the position of control in the case of Kosuth, to LeWitt’s playful and process-oriented experimentation on a de-centered subject and Graham’s conscious anthropological-architectural elaboration of shifting notions of subjectivity.
This image will also be the guiding thread through the short descriptions of the works selected for this exhibition and presented in this catalogue – from these artists’ peers in the 1960s to changing positioning in the succeeding decades, in which subjectivity surfaces again with renewed self-confidence and implicitness towards the artistic gesture amidst the by now established variety of artistic practices.
The Stain is like a smudge, like highly resistant dirt; it can be located where it is difficult to access or to see, it can conceal itself, one can try to wash it out, but it will never fully disappear, there will always be a shadow, a rest. Of course, it can also stick straight on the chest. But a Stain also is a defect, something that we carry with us since birth or even before, something that is insisting and cannot be crossed out. It persists both in the artwork itself, as well as in its perceiving individual.
The search for The Human Stain has become the guiding principle for the adventure of taking an unusual look at works from the collections of the CGAC and ARCO and I very much hope it opens up the space for viewers and readers to time and again take a step aside the usual viewing habits and knowledge about well-known artists and artworks. I would like to encourage daring a fresh and open glance at familiar as well as new and unfamiliar pieces.
Published In: The Human Stain. Conceptual Art within CGAC’s Collection. Exhibition Catalogue, CGAC / Spain, 2009