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Monday 02.18.08

« Affair at the Jupiter Hotel, RIP | Main | Considering Johns in Gray »

On Form (or from Polykleitos to Janine Antoni)

Mark Rothko

When we look at art, are we only seduced by what we think is beautiful? Do we only respond to things that resonate with our sensibilities, our taste, or our history? As an artist is it our role to make beautiful things (paintings, sculptures, film, ideas etc...)?

Dan Flavin
Untitled, To Donald Judd

Everyone has their own path, so everyone will have to choose for themselves but for me, I do not think that art has anything to do with the beautiful. In my own experience, my tastes are constantly evolving as I am interacting with the world and learning new things. How can I stand in judgment of what is beautiful and what is not? What I find ugly today, I might that I find that is urgently needed and beautiful tomorrow. At the least, I would have to conclude that my taste has to be fickle and arbitrary at best, because it is never absolute and it is always changing. Now this an example of my personal experience, but what if we apply these questions across to a group of people? A community? A whole profession? Am I the only one? Maybe, but probably not.

450-440 B.C.

How often do we find something that we think is absolutely beautiful, only to get tired of it a few weeks later? Are we like the Greeks always striving for the beautiful form, looking for the absolute embodiment of perfection? Kenneth Clark tells the story of the famous Greek sculptor Polykleitos. He made two sculptures of human figures, one made according to popular taste, read naturalistic, and one according to his own needs as an artist. The first sculpture was ridiculed while the latter was admired. Of course he also thought that the body made of perfected proportions could transcend the real thing. I think that he felt that the form of our bodies and the things that we make are the most perfect expression of ourselves.

Is that really what art is about? Is art about what we know or what don't know? For me, one of the greatest things about twentieth century art is that we finally came to grips with understanding the best things in art are the things that we do not know, maybe it is what we can't know. When we go into our studios, do we go to work on things that we already know and reinforce our perceptions about the world?

Jasper Johns
0 Through 9

I think that when we strive only for the beautiful form or the beautiful object, it is only about ourselves, our preconceptions of beauty at a single moment in time. It is not really beautiful but only a dull reflection of ourselves, but we love it because we see ourselves in it. That is what makes beauty so unsatisfying when it is the goal of the process, there is not a sense of life and the unexpected. It reflects back everything that we already know. We aren't nurtured and we do not grow from the experience. Frank Stella always believed that as soon a part of canvas was really beautiful you had to paint it out immediately. It is the whole painting that has to work and not just one part. If you try and paint around to highlight that one spot the result will probably be a disaster. I think that this is a common misunderstanding in art, that the beauty has to be protected. In the best works of art the question of whether something is beautiful or ugly is irrelevant. When you are confronted with a Pollock, the question of whether or not it is beautiful is beside the point.

Rachel Whiteread

The best art, as an artist and as a spectator, is that which helps us transcend our own limits. It separates us from our preconceptions and our fixed ideas about the world. It helps us grow and to become more than what we were before. It might make us more aware of our surroundings, or our experience as human beings. That is a very different experience than just looking for the beautiful form. When you are confronted with a beautiful form, it is like advertising, either you like or you don't but it short circuits a deeper experience.

Mark Rothko
White Center

Barnett Newman was famous for saying that aesthetics for artists must be like ornithology is for the birds. Almost across the board, the best artists of the twentieth century did their best work when they finally got by their own preconceptions about art. More often than not they eventually moved awayed from beauty. Take a look at an early Rothko, especially his multiforms. They are beautiful but they are full of all his ideas about painting: bright colors, interesting technique, great composition. A few years later he learned that all of that was not necessary at all. Each painting was not a demonstration about everything that he knew about painting, it was a way of getting away from his own preconceptions. The same transformation occurred not just in the work of Rothko but in Newman, Pollock, De Kooning, Reinhardt and Kline just to name a few. How did they all figure out the same thing if it wasn't true? In each case, they made the process more difficult to get themselves out of the painting. De Kooning drew in the dark, Pollock dripped his paint so that he had to collaborate with physical properties of the paint on the canvas. The process was not about what they knew but what they didn't know.

Willem De Kooning
A Tree in Naples

This a quote from Chuck Close interview in Art in America from 1972 that is worth quoting at length because I think that it articulates something that is fundamental for a lot of the better artists:

"When everything in the world was a possibility I only tried three or four things over and over... I didn't take advantage of that supposed freedom, and once I decided I was going to have relatively severe limitations, everything opened up... I was never happy making interesting shapes and interesting color combinations because all I could think about was how other people had done it... Now there is no invention at all; I simply accept the subject matter. I accept the situation. There is still invention. It's "how to do it," and I find that, as a kind of invention, much more interesting."

Jasper Johns

When Jasper Johns started working with letters and numbers, it wasn't because he thought that they that would allow some kind of original formal invention. He was working with them because they were common, effectively empty and available to anyone. The American flag literally belongs to every American. Looking back at the late 1950's, Johns' work should have been a dead end, except that he is genius and probably understood the work of the Abstract Expressionists better than they did. I mean what is the difference between De Kooning drawing in the dark or in front of the TV and Johns using stencils of things that are so common that are practically invisible any more. De Kooning found it in separating his eye from his hand, Johns in the objects that we use every day but are so common that we do not see them anymore. In both cases it is about reaching out to something that is beyond the preconceived ideas about art that it allows you to see the world in a new way.

Agnes Martin
White Flower

Agnes Martin took a different path in that she found that she could escape form by using grids and horizontal lines. They are full of feeling but empty of form, empty of the object. There is nothing to hold on to: no ideas, no language, just your experience, just who you are at that moment. What more could you want from art? The art really isn't in the painting at all, it is already within you and the experience of the painting unlocks it in you. Art is the experience, the exchange that happens between you and the work.

Donald Judd
Untitled on the third floor of his studio on Spring Street

When Donald Judd starts using rectangular boxes out of wood and then later out of metal, it is not because he thought that the form was really interesting or that the form itself was some profound idea about sculpture. I think that this where a lot of people having misunderstanding of minimal art. They think that the idea was about stripping down everything except the form of the work. That might be an accurate description of Robert Morris' work but it does not apply to Judd because his work is about how you relate to the work with your body. Judd thought that his great innovation was the removal of the pedestal, or the device that separates a sculpture from its environment. Most galleries are an empty, more or less rectangular room. Judd's work is about how the volume of work measures and defines the volume of the larger space. The large empty rectangles capture the void, the emptiness of the room and changes the way that you perceive the space. Not to sound too Taoist but it is an example of the void, the hollowness, being more important than the form. It also why it is so difficult to separate the object from the installation. In the best contemporary art, the space that you inhabit and the space of the work become fused together. You can't have one without the other.

Walter De Maria
The Lightning Field

Judd's works gets more complex when the material properties of the rectangles are emphasized to clearly differentiate the material differences that exist between the work and the space. The form is the vehicle but the perception and experience of the space is the message. In the work installed in the artillery sheds at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, the work changes along with your perception of the light. In a way, the work is a ruler that allows you a new way measure your experience in the volume of space that you are in.

Roni Horn
Things that Happen Again

Roni Horn placed the two copper tapered cylinders in an empty barrack at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa. The cylinders are identical but are placed at opposite ends of the barracks and they are placed at different angles, so that when you first see them you are not sure if the cylinders are similar or are exactly the same. When you are looking at one of them, you are always comparing it to the other one with your mind's eye. It is more difficult than it seems because the tapering tends to exaggerate the perspective so you are never exactly sure if they are the same object. Your own memory and the way that you recall the experience of a space is the whole point of the work. While the cylinders are very beautiful, they could have been any shape, although because they are attractive you might look at them longer, and hence have a better recall, than if they were ugly. I think that Judd liked the work because it uses a language that is similar to his own but to completely different ends. Each and every viewer is an integral part to the experience of the work. No one else could remember it for you.

Felix Gonzales-Torres
Black Rod Licorice

When Felix Gonzalez- Torres places a pile of candy in the corner or places a pile of posters on a wall of an exhibition space he takes the idea of viewer interaction to a new level. He literally lets you take the art home with you, or eat it there if you are really tired of walking through the museum. The work is a little bit of head scratcher because everything that you thought you understood about art and the formal object goes out the window and you have to start over. The work is formally beautiful because it is all wrapped up in silver foil and it looks good up against the wall. But what happens when one person takes a piece of candy and then so does the next person and so on until they have to pour more candy on the pile. How can the art be in the object if you can take it with you? How can it be art if it is continually dissolving as people walk through the room? Where is the art in that? The answer is that it is in lots of places but probably in his gift of candy to you. It is the exchange that is important. It is the expression of generosity at the literal expense of the formal object. When I ever come across one of his pieces, I always feel like he is pulling back to the curtain on the mystery of the museum. He is subverting the Victorian authority of the idea of a museum in a subtle way. I also think it is funny that whoever buys the work, is buying the right to effectively give away candy and the right to continuously replace it while it is on view.

Janine Antoni

The last work that I wanted to talk about is Janine Antoni's Saddle from 2000. I thought it was fitting to end an essay about form with a work that is about the emptiness in form. Saddle is about presence and absence. You can feel her presence in the work but she is not there. It is a little strange that you associate the contours of her body with her skin, but in the work you do not see her skin it is the skin of a cow. So there is a spatial and tactile dislocation that is central to the experience of the work. It is not a representation of skin but real skin, except that it is not hers. The skin was part of a living breathing animal not long before it came part of this sculpture. So you thought that the work was about her body but is it really about this cow, whose natural shape that you don't see but whose skin defines the work. Never having touched the work, I can imagine that it is very stiff like a dog's chew toy. So sooner or later you realize that you really do not understand about the human body. Once we understand something, we change again. Is the expression of ourselves about the form of the body or our memories and associations of it? If what we value does not have a form, how can it be perfected?

Jason Rhoades

The best work has always been about freedom. Freedom to explore, freedom to see the world with fresh eyes, freedom to be more than what we were yesterday. Sometimes if we are very lucky we feel like particular work of art seems like it was made espeically for us, for who we are at that moment. Unfortunately, I think that most art that is based on form and aesthetics is the opposite of that experience. It is about closure, nailing down, perfecting an idea that like Polykleitos might not be able to exist in the real world. Ultimately, it is about the artist and not the viewer. There is nothing for the viewer to hold on to, nothing that they can make their own. Art that is based only on its formal properties is about the end of a process while the best art has always been about finding new ways to begin again.

Posted by Arcy Douglass on February 18, 2008 at 18:19 | Comments (6)


De gustabus non est disputandum. After nearly 5000 years of reasonably vibrant intellectual activity, we can finally agree that when it comes to matters of taste, there can be no dispute. Perhaps now it is time to move beyond the simple awareness that perceptions are relativistic and ask what our cummulative perceptions - and the fact they change over time - mean. In mathematics, the measurement of a specific instant is often meaningless, but a measurement recorded over time can provide a wealth of meaning. The rate of change (acceleration) of a rate of change (velocity) is far more interesting than the static reality that a car is on a road. That a calculus of aethetics exists is certain, in my mind, even if no one has defined it precisely . . . yet. And what thoughtful writers and thinkers on art (which you clearly are) convey to the rest of the world is their sense of awe at how their perceptions change and transform over time.

What we discover, as well, is how difficult it is to discuss such matters, because they are complex and the terms we use can be so difficult to define. What is beauty? Is it an inate property of the object, or a measured response in a viewer? A 14 year old boy will respond with intense emotion and feeling to a grotesque drawing which adults will find juvenile and immature. Is the image beautiful - to the boy, absolutely. The question then becomes does the object have an intrinsic beauty? Your essay seems to lean towards a post-modern interpretation that would imply that, no, there is nothing instrinsic to the object, it is only about us, or as you suggest, the artist. I would dispute this and say that it is both. There is an intrisic value which is not created by an artist, only revealed; and the only way to discern the value is to observe how the object relates to a variety of viewers over time. The work which evokes a strong response in the widest range of individuals has tended to become the art which people have come to call the "best". I approach such terms with extreme caution, for I cannot help but answer in response, "best for what?" Best for developing a discerning mind? Best for overthrowing a fascist regime? Best for inducing meditative awareness? For art does all these things.

Agnes Martin once chided an interviewer for not asking her what her definition of art was. Her answer - "the concrete manifestation of our most subtle feelings". A perfect definition for her artwork, but Picasso? Not such a subtle guy. The reality is that art is complex, and its production is a physical manifestation of our intellectual wealth. It is also fundamental, a pillar of our awareness of reality, along with its twin, science. Your writing, which contributes to a sturdy support of that pillar, is always much appreciated.

Posted by: Amsterdammer [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 19, 2008 11:25 AM

What I appreciate as a historian is the fact that we have run out of intellectual whipping boys.

What I mean by that is stylistic/ideolgical choices like:

Beauty vs. Ugly (same thing really)
conceptual vs. experieince
social vs. personal
craft vs idea

...are all acceptable simultaneously in any mixture today. I.E. the 70's pluralism that got hijacked by the idealogues of postmodenism is now back. Also, rhizomatic forms of communication like the internet have kept this pluralism alive and all channels have remained open since the interheck got big in the late 90's.

Nobody fears/worships Greenberg anymore... he's useful
Derrida also seems dated in a very useful way

I love it.

Posted by: Double J [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 19, 2008 11:40 AM

Thanks for your comments Amsterdammer. That is an intersting analogy with 14 year old boy. I wonder if the drawing would be unlocking something that already exists in himself, even if he might not realize it at the moment. To continue the analogy, what happens in a few weeks or months and he gets bored and moves on to something else. What happens when the drawing can no longer unlock that same intense reaction?

If the beauty was in the work, wouldn't that mean that it would always illicit the same reaction no matter what the circumstances. I think that it is we who change and not the work. When we respond to art, we are responding to the feelings that it creates inside of us, the actual object of the art is only vehicle.

I have been getting a little frustrated with beauty lately and maybe it is latent in this essay. For me, beauty has become a stick to keep people in line. Beauty has turned into something to reinforce the status quo. Beauty does not exist without the cultural context to go along with it or maybe we keep adding the cultural baggage to beauty. I think that there will be an essay coming up on this soon.

One thing I did learn is that we look at the world very different than Polykleitos did. As beautiful as my wife is, it has hard to imagine that the human body is the embodiement of the highest perfection found in nature. I am not sure that we see ourselves that way any more. Also Polykleitos derived a set of proportions that he thought embodied perfection but could never be found in a living human being, only in a carved statue.

I would like to think that we are more willing to embrace the world and the experience that is around us. The good and the bad. In the difference between Polykleitos and Antoni, although they are both naked I think Polykleitos is more visual and Antoni is more tactile. Maybe we want to see with our hands now. Maybe we do not trust the perfection of our minds anymore.

Posted by: Arcy [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 19, 2008 12:06 PM

It seems to me that this essay is another revisitation of Kantian aesthetic theory with an emphasis on Beauty (form/feeling) and the unpresentable (the Sublime) as theories of aesthetic taste.

Why is it important to apply these theorhetical constructs once again? It simply reinforces a rather reductive discourse surrounding thinking about artistic practice and experience.

In a contemporary society, utilizing the Lyotardian model of the postmodern sublime as a way to think about artistic production; it elminates binaries and encourages the indeterminate.

According to artist and scholar Charles Gaines, the new model for contemporary artistic production relies on a metonymic structure. Metonymy occurs by relating two non-related things together in a new context, which creates new meaning. This is a linguistic structure which can also take part in our visual language of art. Contemporary advertising relies on metonymy to function. So does (in my opinion) the best of contemporary art.

Contemporary art has many interesting concerns and issues (use of the archive, new narrative structures) that by reverting to this old model of discourse seems rather backwards and reductive considering that we are not living in the 18th century anymore.

Posted by: Metonymic [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 20, 2008 06:23 PM

Thanks for taking the time to comment Metonymic.

I was arguing that experience is the primary effect of art rather than beauty or the sublime. I think that aesthetics always reflects the society that it arises within. My argument was that our idea of aesthetics was not permanent or absolute but simply a construct of our society's view of what should be valued in art. The experience of the individual is primary in my opinion.

The dangerous part of aesthetics is that it can be used to close off avenues of thought or experience that could provide genuine growth simply because it is beyond the theory, or it is outside what society tells us good art should look like.

At the beginning of the essay when I explain that my own taste, simply because it is impossible to be absolute, must be considered fickle and arbitrary. I was hoping that readers would also apply this to the art world as whole since we are only human with a limited amount of information to work with.

Because I believe that one's personal experience is primary, I also do believe that metonymy only encourages us to be to distracted from what we are looking at, as if what we are experiencing is not able to hold our attention or worthy of the expereince. I liked what that you said it eliminates and encourages the indeterminate. In your argument it is strength, for me, it is a weakness.

In my opinion, in order for metonymy to be successful we have to separate ourselves from the two sides that they could be see in perspective, so to speak. You have to have distance to be able compare two things. I am arguing just the opposite. I think that the best way forward is complete surrender to the experience so that it can evolve from the intentions of the artist.

Another way to look at is to say the metonymy encourages the ego or the singular identity of the viewer, so that it can have clear separation between the two objects so that it can generate an indeterminate third. In my view, if the viewer surrenders then the ego dissolves, and since there is nothing outside of the present experience there is nothing to compare it to. We are free to experience what the artist has provided for us, unchallenged.

I think that metonymy is what make contemporary advertising so unappealing because after the intial exposure there is nothing for us to hold on to, we are left floating in the indeterminate. There is no doubt that at one point these strategies were successful but I wonder if we are moving away from that now.

Posted by: Arcy [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 20, 2008 10:25 PM

I certainly don't think that revisiting and discussing 'dated theoretical constructs' is inherently bad or can lead to reductive reasoning about the artistic experience. After all, theoretical constructs are similar to many pieces of art in that they are static, and can be viewed with a new eye at a later date. What's more, not everyone is immediately familiar with all the world's past philosophy, as none of use posting here happened to be born in the 18th century. Combine this with the fact that philosophies and aesthetic theories are constantly reapplied and given new context when new artwork is made and I don't think that Arcy's statements come off as regressive at all. The Bible is a metonymic piece of literature. Rembrandt understood the importance of process over product. Ancient Islamic architects understood the importance of aesthetic beauty relating to architecture. Truly gifted artists have come and gone knowing this stuff for hundreds of years, but it never gets old. That's why it's so great!

Aesthetics is a wildly misleading term, and if you really hack it down it ends up meaning, as you stated in your essay, the standard of attractiveness for a certain culture in a certain time. For sure people are trained by society, biology, and past experience to enjoy certain images, representations, and formal relationships. However there are certain visual impressions that are inherent in our chemical makeup, generally those reflecting the biology of ourselves and the world that helped us spring into being. Therefor, some things will probably always remain to some extent, universally beautiful (we men love our naked ladies!). Even if the conceptual elements of the work or the rationale that brought about its existence are completely laughable, the pure visual makeup of it can bring people pleasure on a visceral level.

So, are aesthetics something that must be done away with? Are they simply an intellectually stifling obstacle that prey on our animal nature and obstruct the sublime, intellectual appreciation for the experience of a work of art? No! The best forms of art find a way to use the aesthetic boundaries that define them to speak out their message in a beautiful way so that other human beings can embrace these products of their labor with open arms. Sometimes the bend the rules, other times they break them. But oftentimes when a piece of art is successful, these newly redefined borders help to establish new aesthetic ideas. When aesthetics run parallel to benevolent concepts, the resultant works can foster community, respect, and dialogue within and between cultures. Certainly paring down things to their complete absolutes is a ridiculous concept in the postmodern age. However, to speak of transcending any sort of shared form of visual communication is an equally specious concept.

Where you see artists defeating their preconceptions of art in order to transcend aesthetic tastes and make work that is truly revolutionary, I see artists refining and honing their own visual language. I'm not disagreeing with you, mind you. However, I think that artists are aware of aesthetic and do make use of it, however they make a conscious decision to work within their own personal aesthetic, more commonly referred to as a visual language. A great artist is one who has matured enough to pare down his or her ideas into something that is greater than the sum of its parts. De Kooning painted his first great works with black and white. Why? Because these parts were easier to assemble than the infinite choices that were previously before him. And after all, if you broaden the scope too much, it's all a waste of time anyway. We're just a bunch of little specs floating on a rock hurtling through the void, etc.

Perhaps, if aesthetics and an artists 'style' or visual language are all speaking roughly of the same thing, we should consider the definition of aesthetics to be equivalent to the language of mass culture, reflecting what is arguably the least common denominator. Meanwhile, a refined visual language is like a great novel or a beautiful poem. It takes many a tool we are all familiar with, and redefines it in a way that is somehow elegant, despite containing more ideas than ever before.

Conceptually, or collective awareness is ever-broadening. We've seen an explosion in artistic thought due to the fact that art has only recently been permitted to embrace any and all materials, which all come with their own fascinating and inherent meanings. However, until we're all hooked up to neural networks and don't ever have to open our eyes again, art must still exist in physical space and is therefor a slave to our own animal senses. I continue to embrace beautiful art in the same way I enjoy a delicious pizza - through my romantic, life-loving, hedonist nature.

This is a fascinating topic, and I don't think that any of us could sum it up in a scant few paragraphs. However, I don't think tossing the concept aside as a 'been there, done that' sort of response does any good. It's certainly not the equivalent to backpedaling 300 years.

Posted by: Owen Hunter [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 26, 2008 12:42 AM

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