Withdrawal from ‘Less is More’

On Monday 3 September 2012, ABC art: red cube (2008) was taken off the exhibition wall of  Less is More at Heide Museum of Modern Art before the exhibition’s conclusion, upon my request. This was a drastic and, for me, painful action made necessary given there was no retraction of the curator’s views expressed in the exhibition’s catalogue and, hence, no alternative even though, to this day, I respect the curator very much.

Here, I directly address the misrepresentation of ABC art: red cube.

The section of the curator’s text that frames my art’s inclusion is in Part III, ‘Notes on Contemporary Post-Minimalism’, and entitled ‘The viewer’ — which reads:

It was Robert Morris, more than any other minimalist, who brought the viewer and their field of vision to the fore in his articles about Minimal art. The spectator, more strongly aware than before of being in the same space as the art object, apprehends it ‘from various positions and under varying conditions of light and spatial context’. The object is ‘but one of the terms in the newer aesthetic’, he wrote [in Notes on Sculpture, 1966].

… A shift in emphasis from the art object to its perception by a viewing subject is a key turning point between the modern and postmodern. Artists from subsequent generations, Peter Tyndall and Gail Hastings have in different ways taken this shift to the heart of their practice both focusing on the situational aspects of apprehending art. [p. 67, Less is More catalogue]

… If Tyndall’s work in the 1970s was shaped by the analytical approach of conceptual art, then Hastings, who emerged in the 1990s, is part of a younger generation who look back on Minimal and Conceptual art with a fresh perspective. For example, Mel Bochner’s Measurement Series from 1967 (a work illustrated in Pincus-Witten’s book Postminimalism) was formative for Hastings. In a self-reflexive gesture, Bochner mapped the measurements of the exhibition space onto the gallery walls using numbers and arrows, creating a diagram of the room commensurate with the actual room. Hastings enjoyed his conflation of real and pictorial space, but where Bochner used feet and inches, she instead preferred ‘more improbable units such as thoughts, conversations and inconsequences’. [p. 69, Less is More catalogue]

The artwork by me referred to here is Floor plan: Empty, except (1990). It was first exhibited at what is now called Gertrude Contemporary, Melbourne, in 1990 and re-exhibited in the first Primavera exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, in 1992.

Floor plan: Empty, except bookmarked, in particular, New York artist Mel Bochner’s Measurement: Room at Galerie Heiner Friedrich, Munich, where Mel Bochner graphed the measurements of a pre-existing gallery space onto that same gallery space in feet and inches, using letraset and black tape. By bookmarking this piece, Floor plan: Empty, except returned to it at a point in time in Melbourne when it was far from anyone’s mind.

In returning to it, Floor plan: Empty, except did not graph the measurements of a pre-existing space onto that space as did the Measurement: Room but, instead, graphed the measurements of a ‘created’ space onto that same created space.

The created space of Floor plan: Empty, except was between opposites: a square and a circle; a Room of Remembered Mistakes and a Room of Mistakes About to be; the past, the future; the physical entry and exit of a passageway. Uppermost, though, the space was created between the opposites of a two-dimensional picture within which one imaginatively roams (a floorplan), and a three-dimensional geometric rendition of that same picture within which one physically roams (note, this and other works of this nature by me precede Kathy Temin’s three-dimensional rendition of a Frank Stella painting).

This tension between the 2- and 3-dimensions is not to be glossed over as it typifies, for example, my time at the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA), Melbourne, as an undergraduate student in sculpture wherein I encountered minimalism. The sculpture department was, at that time, a non-entity. Not only was it detached from the main art college by being across the road, but traffic between it and the rest of the art college was one way. While we would routinely wander the corridors of our painting, printmaking and photography counterparts, the interest was not returned.

In Melbourne at the time, ‘art’ was synonymous with ‘painting’. The Dean of the art college was a painter. Although the New York art market had already crashed by the time I began at the VCA — the trickle down effect had just reached Melbourne. Painting, therefore, was still the name of the game. If you were a sculpture student, this fact was borne as one massive chip on our collective shoulder.

From within this darkness, then, of the disregarded — where I floundered in what would eventually be my study’s non-productiveness — I first encountered minimalism during an art history lecture. Minimalism made the real space of sculpture matter. Minimalism integrated real space with the thoughtful space of art. Minimalism made space active. I was captivated.

It was as a part of these lectures on minimalism that I first learned of Mel Bochner’s Measurement: Room. Its role, in the story we were told, was duplicitous. On the one hand, it clearly illustrated how minimalism turned the illusory 2-dimensional space of a painting into the ‘real’ 3-dimensional space of a room. We see this in the manner by which the Measurement: Room graphs the ‘x’ and ‘y ‘coordinates of a grid — as per Albrecht Dürer’s renaissance tool, a wooden window inlaid with a wire grid through which he graphed the model on the other side onto his drawing — onto the real space of a room.

The point here, reiterated by my art history lecturer numerously and in different ways, was that sculpture became relevant through minimalism not because of sculpture and its history, but because of its opposite and its history — painting. This, as a sculpture student, was very hard to take.

It is, however, what we see in the black hole of Lee Bontecou’s reliefs of the late 1950s that had Donald Judd write in 1965, ‘The black hole does not allude to a black hole; it is one’.

Here, a black hole bridges the opposition between itself as a 2-dimensional space in a painting, and itself as a 3-dimensional space that is real, the same 3-dimensional space within which we stand to look at it.

As a bridge between opposites, I understood this black hole as intersubjective even though I did not entirely know what that meant until later, after much learning (still incomplete). Intersubjectivity is the opposite of relativism. It is the reciprocal recognition between oneself and the other (the opposite) upon which our ability to reason is hinged. Its one-to-one concurrence of thought and actual space in minimalism was compelling. This intersubjectivity was not between an artist and a viewer, but between a viewer and that same viewer in opposite positions in relation to a work of art.

Mel Bochner’s Measurement: Room took place within this black hole that bridged 2- and 3-dimensional space. That, though, is on the one hand. On the other hand, in doing so, the Measurement: Room stepped away from this black hole into a critique of modernity’s systematic standardisation of space manifested through the pragmatics of measurement.

Against the Measurement: Room, then — in criticism of itFloor plan: Empty, except about faced to step back towards what I perceived as the unfinished business of minimalism. It did so by turning the Measurement: Room‘s empirical measurement of feet and inches (12 inches make one foot, three feet make 1 yard) into measurements whereby thought and space concur: 12 inconsequences make 1 thought, three thoughts make one conversation. Much to my dismay, no one seemed to recognise this difference given no one seemed to recognise the Measurement: Room. This was formative.

In this way Floor plan: Empty, except graphed the measurements of a created space onto that same created space. This is not the ‘phenomenological space’ associated with Robert Morris, but the space of intersubjectivity’s black hole. Yet the curator’s text for Less is More frames my art within terms of Robert Morris’ phenomenological space.

It may at first be difficult to appreciate the difference between this phenomenological space and the space of intersubjectivity’s black hole when both seem to point to the same thing. One could even look at Lee Bontecou’s reliefs and describe them in terms from Notes on Sculpture as having taken ‘relationships out of the work‘ — where the relationships, here, form the space of a black hole within the relief — to make them ‘a function of space, light, and the viewer’s field of vision’ — where the space within the relief is made a function of the space within which we stand to look at it.

Similarities aside, the differences matter. Namely, Notes on Sculpture makes clear that the new art (minimalism) stems from sculpture, alone, without any history of painting. Whether right or wrong, ABC art: red cube did not stem from this understanding but its opposite, as made clear by its inclusion of 2-dimensional elements that, framed by Notes on Sculpture, are rendered invalid.

Furthermore, Notes on Sculpture denounces a relief’s engagement of real space since, amongst other things, a relief relies on the same wall support as painting and is, therefore, locked into the ‘x’ (down, up) and ‘y’ (left, right) coordinates of painting, unable to partake in the third dimension. ABC art: red cube hangs on the wall and thereby, through inference, is grievously impugned as lacking engagement with real space.

To have framed my art’s inclusion in the exhibition through reference to Robert Morris’ phenomenological space is to have seriously and severely misrepresented ABC art: red cube. An informed understanding of this framing cannot help but see ABC art: red cube as incompetent on all counts.

Moreover, by framing my art this way, the curator short circuits the space of intersubjectivity’s black hole, given its historical scaffolding is eliminated in preference of phenomenological space.

On its own, ABC art: red cube is quick to make friends, so why withdraw it from Less is More when, most likely, few have or will read the catalogue?

Even if only one person reads the catalogue, ABC art: red cube is misrepresented. When the next person decides to focus on minimalism in Australia in any way, it is this catalogue they will read. Without indication ABC art: red cube has been misrepresented and without financial support for research assistance, which is most likely, they will take what is written on board even though they realise catalogue texts are the views of the writer and not necessarily of the artist. Artist’s don’t necessarily get it right, either. Nevertheless, misrepresentations so very easily become entrenched as art history. ABC art: red cube has much more to give than that.

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