The black tea of space

If we eliminate the recurring dismissal of women through discredit to avoid any facts they might speak,(1)Leigh Sales, a reporter for the ABC’s flagship news program ‘7.30’, interviewed the then Opposition Leader Tony Abbott who revealed himself to be misleading, ill-informed and contradictory (i.e. dishonest). The following day a leading strategist for the Opposition called Leigh Sales a ‘cow’, on public radio. In the social and public commentary that followed it emerged that women who take tough stances are thought of as ‘shrill’ and ‘aggressive’, when their male counterparts art thought of as effective and thorough. See then what remains?

I ask as I try to figure a lack of understanding by most who hear my frustration at how art history blatantly ignores the creation of space, the space that gave me cause to become an artist.

The type of space I refer to has its genesis in so-called Minimal Art—in the 1960s, in New York. Most turn, here, to a tract on space by Robert Morris in ‘Notes on Sculpture’ (1966) where he explains the new work:

’takes relationships out of the work and makes them a function of space, light and the viewer’s field of vision … One is more aware than before that he himself is establishing relationships as he apprehends the object from various positions and under varying conditions of light and spatial context’.

If the 101 of Minimal Art delivered in tertiary art and art-history courses includes space, it is to this tract that they refer. Its widespread influence cannot be underestimated, for as early as 1969 Barbara Reise describes ‘Notes on Sculpture’ as having single-handedly ’taught a great deal of phenomenology to students and would-be-critics of contemporary art’.

It is why eyebrows generally rise when I express my frustration at the lack of an art historical recognition of space. It is as though I am the wretched culprit who played truant when the 101 of Minimal Art hit the slide projector of my art history class.

The problem is, the 101 of Minimal Art treats the tract on space as 100% of the story when, at best, it is only 20% of the story; which is 20% of nothing given ‘the story’ of space in so-called Minimal Art is missing in the literature on Minimal Art. Whenever I sought an understanding of the space that stimulated a twenty-five-year study in my art, amid the literature aligning library shelves, all I could find was the fact it wasn’t there.

It is not unlike an experience I had when I set up my studio in Waterloo, New South Wales. While in the supermarket Coles, one day, in the tea/coffee aisle, a woman interrupted my deliberations. She explained her daughter had sent her to the supermarket for some ‘Black Tea’. It is the best tea, apparently, and easy to find for being the only black tea available. With this we both looked at the array of over sixty teas on the shelves, dismayed by a variety that did not include the one needed.

Unable to find ‘Black Tea’, I took her daughter’s instruction to mean a strong tea. So I pointed out an Irish Breakfast or a Lady Grey. ‘No’, the woman replied; it has to be ‘Black Tea’. With my fourth suggested-substitute rejected, not only could I see the woman become increasingly frustrated but recognised, in me, an increasing tendency to discredit the woman’s faculties as is our inclination, here in Australia. For surely she could see that a) her daughter’s instructions are wrong; and b) because of this mistake, the broad range should satisfy a choice of a most befitting substitute. But ‘no’, the woman kept insisting, it has to be Black Tea: ‘it is not here’—when most of the tea in front of us was black tea.

With this I made my excuses and walked away, as do people with me. For they insist the forever-extending variety of texts on Minimal Art filling library shelves, surely suffices my need to understand the space in Minimal Art. But ‘no’, I keep saying, it is not here.

Some weeks later, after accepting my budget could ill afford groceries from Coles, I went to Aldi just a few doors further down. There and behold, practically the only black tea on the shelf was ‘Black Tea’. Whatever Aldi loses in variety it compensates for in discernment.

Black Tea

Other than being forever sorry for dispersions I cast the woman’s way—and wishing I could nip back in time to say Back Tea exists, but not here—when finally I found Richard Shiff’s texts on Donald Judd’s art belatedly in 2008 while in Marfa, Texas, and could look at the art firsthand, myself, I had my own yes, ‘Black Tea’ exists, moment.

Admittedly, limiting circumstances in Australia generally reduce us to shop for our art history at Coles. Others, though, who can collect it from the street as it happens, at the time, have no such alibi. We are not the only ones who errantly teach the 101 of Minimal Art disclosed above. It is why, in a text printed posthumously in 1994, Donald Judd expresses a concern that no one addressed the true object of his art: space.

‘There has been almost no discussion of space in art, nor in the present … This concern, my main concern, has no history. There is no context; there are no terms; there are not any theories. There is only the visible work invisible’.

It doesn’t have to be this way.