The Prototype City of the 21st Century
ART INTERNATIONAL MAGAZINE
LOS ANGELES LETTER - KURT VON MEIER
An increasingly frequent speculative notion among artists, gallery and museum personnel, musicians, architects, town planners, and various members of the literary and scholarly communities, holds up Los Angeles as a prototype city of the 21st century. The consensus about this vision is so strong that it implies an obligation of further inquiry. This remains so despite the lack of agreement as to the characteristics or implications of that vision. But within the last few years the mirage seems to have become substance, and the force and direction of California's development (and more particularly that of the Los Angeles scene—or the Los Angeles-San Francisco axis) appears to have become more clear than ever before. It is the arts, of course, that can provide us with the most incisive tools for analysis or prognostication. Good old crusty Ezra Pound : "The artists are the antennae of the race."
Carl Andre, sculptor-philosopher, perceived the essential difference between New York and Los Angeles: they are pointed in opposite directions historically. New York is still a 19th-century city in terms of its geography, its topography, and its profound character. That doesn't mean art in New York is retardataire, nor that it lacks an avant-garde, hippy scene. But the artists and the hippies, for example, are seldom the same people, as they are in Los Angeles. The 21st-century orientation of Los Angeles is perhaps most dramatically reflected in the way it has rejected the 19th-century-directed hang-up on Art itself. Sure, all the big collectors are still in New York ; or they still go there to buy their Art, because all the big art galleries are still in New York. That is just the point: if New York is, with little question, the art capital of America (the world ?), it is for that very reason committed essentially to the past.
Carl Andre's exhibition at the Dwan Gallery in Los Angeles in March demonstrated an element of paradox however. One of the most radical of the so-called minimal artists (such as those with whom Andre showed at the Jewish Museum's Primary Structures exhibition last year), his work is still most possible as Art in New York. Of course it can be shown as Art elsewhere; indeed John Weber has brilliantly organized the installation at the Dwan with Andre. But the artist himself says that it remains most fully and effectively "Art" in and for New York. This is true even though Andre, like many sculptors and other artists, travels rather freely back and forth from coast to coast, living and working in Los Angeles for this show, then returning to New York. Yet the work itself is still essentially New York, 19th century, and Art oriented. "How could I possibly succeed in presenting my work as Art in Los Angeles, when the whole city does what I am doing in my sculpture, only on such a vaster and more grand scale." On the other hand, it is quite possible that the differences between the worlds of Art and Life are all the more clearly juxtaposed by the Los Angeles exhibition. For however "primary", "minimal", or quintessentially sculptural Andre's work may seem in a city such as New York wherein Art is still possible, and however boldly and radically it extends the limits of the world of Art toward the common, pure experiences of Life, Carl Andre's work remains Art from its conception to its presentation. As sculpture, it underscores an increasingly common truth : that with few exceptions the sculpture of this century has been conceived like jewellery. What sets Andre apart is that he is intelligent and perceptive enough to realize this issue. His big Art-objects avoid the usual pomposity and bombast of sculpture with overblown pretensions to architectural scale, i.e., the over-extension problem of most sculpture that turns away from the concept of jewelery.
It may be just this dimension of scale that comes to serve as a practical basis upon which to distinguish sculpture from architecture. Perhaps it makes as much sense to talk of Alexander Calder's forty-foot stabile anchored to the ground at M. I.T. in front of I. M. Pci's skyscraper as macrojewellery, as it does to talk of Le Corbusier's Notre-Dame du Haut at Ronchamp as macrosculpturc. Without introducing the "intentional fallacy", it is important to consider the aesthetic effects of scale, in addition to the factor of mere physical size.
Ronchamp is monumental in its sense of scale although there are many far larger churches. And although it is welded out of heavy, huge plates of steel, the Calder is small in its setting, dwarfed by and completely out of scale with the architecture, conceived in the studio or anyway with the studio mentality, and reminiscent of the jeweler's workbench. The big mobile suspended from the top of the Guggenheim Museum during the Calder retrospective was a magnificent piece, beautifully installed so as to integrate and command the interior architectural space; but it was still an Art object in an Art situation. The Calder mobile in Houston's museum, designed by Mies van Der Rohe, also controls and articulates the extraordinary space and light of the interior. But it is still essentially an earring.
What Carl Andre does is to challenge the conception of sculpture as an Art object, while remaining within the syntax and situation of Art. His method is that shared by many of the other exciting and significant sculptors working today: Robert Morris, John McCracken, Larry Bell, Donald Judd, Dan Flavin, or DeWain Valentine. It involves "zero-ing in" on the problem of what constitutes the purely sculptural statement or experience. This method, and the works of art that are product of it, together suggest a new history of 20th-century sculpture that remains to be written—one which would parallel, in some ways, the history of the idea of "pure" painting sketched in an earlier Art International article (Vol. XI, No. 2). Andre seems to break through the zero-point of "minimal" sculpture like that first test plane broke through the sound barrier. Not the first real test plane, of course, but the one in the British movie version: Life, through our image of Life, always follows Art.
On the elemental level of Andre's sculptural statements concerned with process and relationship, the conventional cultural and commercial boundaries between Art (with all its attendant trappings) and Life (with its pervasive insistence) become largely academic, i.e., irrelevant. The one large piece in the Dwan show that is the most basic (sic !) covers the entire main floor of the gallery with some twelve tons of concrete blocks. Each of the blocks measures a standard eight by sixteen inches, and is two inches high. Title of the piece is "Cuts", which refers to eight voids created by removing combinations of blocks, in various shapes but always totalling thirty blocks. One void is eight inches wide by four hundred eighty inches long (1 x30), and a complimentary space is sixteen inches wide by two hundred forty inches long (1 x 30, with the blocks set the other way). Other voids are created by removing combinations of blocks of 2 x 15, 3 x 10, and 5 x 6, each combination with two complimentary possibilities. In a way, this is a negative variation of Andre's exhibition at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery in New York last year, where the bricks occupied the multiple areas as positive statements. Of course such sculpture is so easy to "make" that one's proverbial five-year-old child could do it, albeit with sore arms at the end of the day. The essence of the piece as a work of art lies, from the artist's point of view, in its conception—and all creative ideas or concepts appear so much easier when someone else has thought of them first. It is important to experience the work of art itself—always quite a different thing from experiencing a concept. Yet for our purposes, it is at least as important to describe Andre's work in verbal, conceptual terms as it is to illustrate it photographically. A ground-plan with directions enables us to recreate the piece anywhere. Hence Andre would be in trouble if he insisted (as he does not) upon the claims of uniqueness and originality so closely associated with the idea of Art and with the 19th-century tradition of Romanticism.
Already over fifty years ago these lessons in sculpture were presented to us by Marcel Duchamp in his Roue de bicyclette and the subsequent "ready-mades". By radically challenging the conventional limitations of the medium, Duchamp became the first great figure in the modern history of sculpture's "extrinsic" development. In counterpoint to the evolution of "pure" sculpture concepts, this tradition sees sculpture exploding out of a narrow world of precious bronze and marble to claim a richer demesne, to include the paper of Picasso, Gonzales' scrapiron, and the elegant effluvia of Kurt Schwitters, together with the common objects of Duchamp, Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol. The sculpture of Carl Andre is historically significant because it articulates a common, essential point of these two traditions, the idea: whether as conception —something to be made in the world of Art out of the materials of Life, or as perception—something made in the world of Life out of the materials of Art.
Far from discouraging further creativity, these new and extreme positions of self-awareness forced upon us and upon the world of artists seem to have stimulated an extraordinary burgeoning of sculptural activity, only uncertainly paralleled by the persistence of painting. If Marshall McLuhan is correct at all in describing what has already happened (forgetting for the moment what direction things are taking, and how fast we are getting there) it comes as no surprise that our attention and energies are shifting from painting (associated with our visual, literate, mechanical world) to sculpture, music and architecture (associated with the tactile and auditory modes of total, instantaneous perception characteristic of our electric/electronic age). In the course of the 20th century, for painting to remain even tolerable, it had to become a thing; it could no longer manage to get by as Art being just a picture of things—although this it had managed to do quite successfully from the Renaissance up through Impressionism. Narcissistically, painting became the subject matter of painting, and then even the content of itself, in "pure" painting as with "primary" sculpture. But both media avoided an infinite regression or reductio ad absurdum by short-circuiting to the world of non-Art (Life). In painting, this happened in formal terms with Pop Art, although many people still belligerently refuse to accept the obviously profound historical implications of the revolutionary developments of the mid-1950's. In the medium of sculpture, people were probably even more seriously disarmed by the wit and intelligence of Duchamp's early creations ; they defied a good deal of what was understood to be Fine Art, despite his exquisitely French taste and sensibility, or perhaps because of it. The world of common objects also implied common materials that became right and proper for sculpture. And as the new technology produced both new materials and new structural possibilities, there were artists around such as Pevsner or Tatlin who used them to pierce through the constricting boundaries of academically conceived Art.
The recent work of a young West Coast sculptor, Steve Kaltenbach, exemplifies the refined elegance, characteristic of many great past ages of Art, that is sometimes achieved through use of new materials like vinyls and plexiglas. Composed of repeated fragile elements, his pieces stand directly on the floor without the conventional base for a clue, looking almost like some forgotten features of a Miesian architectural scheme. Kaltenbach's sensitive sculptural serializations provide an interesting foil to the more gusty and robust fiberglas-reinforced plastic pieces of DeWain Valentine. Independently developing the concept of extensions or multiple-element statements, Valentine adds another form to the basic idea of the "Yo-yo", seen in the recent Whitney exhibition of American sculpture. The imposing size of the work (over five feet high and seven feet long) is important for setting up a visual and perceptual situation in which the statements of careful balance and exacting relationships of mass and balance can be most dramatically conveyed. The title, Silver and Black, is an understatement referring to the pristinely smooth lacquer-spray finish, derived ultimately from the great Southern California tradition of custom car building, following the creative genius of Ed "Big Daddy" Roth and Von Dutch Holland.
These qualities of careful craftsmanship and elegant finish have come to be expected in the work of the Los Angeles Cool School sculptors. What could be more natural than for artists in LA to use plastic, after all ? The young Canadian artist Iain Baxter, who shows in Los Angeles at the Rolf Nelson Gallery, has made profound commentaries in plastic upon the art of our time, and of the past. The idea of a landscape is revitalized for modern eyes by being bagged in plastic. One of Baxter's seascape objects is half-filled with water, and contains small floating ships. Under the title of the N. E. Thing Co. (motto : "Anything Does It"), he has also extended a brilliantly original concept of creating extensions for other works by contemporary artists. The most provocative of these creations has not yet been realized—and this publication will mark the first formal presentation of the work (for the idea is the work). The title is "A Universal Extension for Dan Flavin", and was inspired by the exhibition of Flavin's neon light sculpture at the Nicholas Wilder Gallery at the beginning of the year. The somewhat bald use of neon-tube installations might strike most of us as radical statements when presented as works of Art. That they are, although it is still possible to regard them as keenly-realized decoration. In Baxter's view Flavin is very much concerned with making Art; and it is this Art that becomes content in Flavin's use of the medium (light), although he would seem to be unaware of the nature of the medium of light as such. Electric light might just as well be another technique or instrument, such as painting with oils or using a cold chisel or a sable brush. As a Canadian, very well versed in the texts of McLuhan, Baxter is quick to point out that the function of light as a medium is the transmitting of information. Art may indeed be seen as the "content" of the medium of light, just as McLuhan regards brain surgery or night baseball (Understanding Media, p. 8-9).
One band of Flavin's light is a sentence in the syntax of the medium. And we are here just concerned with one language of light—not even the "foreign tongues" of light used to spell out signs—for the content of a medium always obscures the nature of the medium itself. But the "regular" lights were not on in the gallery during the exhibition. What was so inferior about those lights vis-à-vis the "Art" lights? Hence Baxter's first extension consists in turning on the light switch in the gallery, to make a statement about light. The next step might be claiming an entire lighted street as his work of art—so much purer than looking with an artsy-craftsy eye down a street of lighted signs, or at Times Square or Piccadilly Circus through a telephoto lens. Then define the work of art by a moment in time, say that moment near sunset when all the street lights in the city (any city) are turned on (or off). Then, of course, we can claim all light as our work of art, which it becomes when we regard it as such. Baxter, by the way, has already claimed the sun as a magnum opus.
The really radical implications of Baxter's thought, however, are not so much the result of looking at light as Art, as they are looking at Art as light. In a new terminology brought in by the communications revolution (or by the realization of same, via McLuhan et al.), perhaps our sentimental and 19th-century oriented notions about Art can be treated gently, but firmly, by regarding Art as merely a special case of visual-sensitivity information, or VSI. Immediately the conventional problems about intents, contents, and pretense seem to dissipate when we stand, for example, before a Flavin presented as a work of art. It is VSI, and we only need inquire, "What sort of information does it communicate ?" This idea is tougher than Flavin's original notion of light as Art-decoration.
It perhaps has the toughness of a frontal assault, with something like the impact of a Zen koan on those still enamoured of the idea of Art. But such ideas do not, and cannot ever destroy Art; rather they always preserve instead of threaten its human essence. As with the koan, such a shock may force us to an entirely new vision. The peaches are on the tree; all you have to do is reach up and pick one off.
If, as both McLuhan and Baxter would argue, we are new citizens in an electric age, it is also abundantly clear that the visions of the Prophet Andy are coming to pass—the supremacy of plastic. The electric age came wrapped in plastic: from electrically frozen peas, to your new TV set, to the wires leading out of your telephone. This perception formed the rationale for one of Baxter's exhibitions held in Vancouver last year, where an entire room was presented, with all of its contents individually bagged in plastic, including bagged slices of toast in a bagged toaster.
But again, far from ringing down a plastic curtain on the aesthetic delights of mankind, the electric and plastic age explodes with new joys. The varieties of electric entertainment we may take pretty well for granted; then consider only the relatively recent appearance of vinyls in the medium of clothing. Several examples of plastics in sculpture have already been cited, but it is important to add here some mention of the recent work of Craig Kauffman, shown simultaneously at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles and at the Pace Gallery in New York in February. Composed of differently pigmented examples of a few standardized forms, this new work documents a significant step in Kauffman's sculpture, combining the elegance and precision of former work with a formal simplicity and understated boldness. Leonard Esbensen used the rather old-fashioned techniques of papier-mache for his bulbuous sculptures shown at the Herbert Palmer Gallery in January; but the physical fragility was overcome by treating the pieces with a new plastic resin. Like super bird-shot, or giant hardware of springs and shackles, or megaspittoons, the pieces are deceptively lightweight. The elements of some pieces can be moved freely, and offer considerable latitude for recomposition. In the bright pastel colors, there is also a flavor of gaiety that is refreshing.
Perhaps the most determined confrontation of new materials and structural techniques can be found in the sculpture of Kenneth Snelson. Originally a student of painting at Black Mountain College, under Josef Albers, Snelson was experimenting with geometrical solids when Buckminster Fuller arrived on the campus. After two or three months of fascinated play and research combined, Snelson decided to switch from art to science or engineering, and went on to professional training at the University of Oregon. While playing with weighted toys there he developed a model incorporating new structural techniques—this he sent back to his former teacher, who about three years later coined the term for it, " tensegrity". Contemplating his recent one-man exhibition of such structures, made from aluminum or stainless steel tubes and steel cable, one might well raise the question of whether these beautiful things are engineering models or works of art. As for the artist—or model-maker—he does not claim to know which category the things fall into. They may be art or engineering depending upon what one seeks from them, or according to the attitude with which they are approached (yet another neo-Duchampianism).
A series of fine examples of Snelson's work in the Dwan Gallery demonstrated certain characteristics of Art objects insofar as they did suggest a process of conceptual change, or stylistic development, permitting them to be related art historically. The earliest piece has painted rigid members, of unequal length and thickness, in irregular conformation. Thus it retains most unmistakably the evidence of aesthetic or arbitrary approaches in its conception. It is closest to Art, while apparently lacking that strong, clean and curiously insistent aesthetic attraction of the later pieces, so close to the magical attraction regular geometrical solids or symmetrical complex structures seem to have for us. Rather than presenting forms, Snelson investigates in his work the problems of tension and compression (or pull and push), the natural organization of forces which can cause form to exist. The piece Six # 1, for example, is a statement about the forces operating within a cube—a complementary (and in some ways even more essential) statement about the cube to that of Robert Morris.
The problem of scale receives critical attention in Snelson's sculpture. It is difficult to tell the difference, in photographs, between the full-scale piece Vine Street; almost twelve feet long, and the little aluminum model fifteen inches long. The same structural principles apply at full, or at 1/6 scale; but also the same practical and mechanical problems apply. This is very different from making a small model of a cube, and then setting about construction of that cube at a considerably different scale, say the size of a room. Entirely new construction techniques would be necessary, which in turn would require new (or different) technologies. These enormous problems occasioned by the change in scale doubtless help to explain why so much "big" sculpture somehow manages to look merely inflated, while the models or smaller-scale studies remain compelling. Rodin was no exception, although one or two pieces remain aesthetically intact after the blow-up. Maybe Balzac triumphs because it was one of the few pieces that really was conceived on a grand scale from the beginning (not "planned" as a big piece, but conceived). The structural concerns of Snelson point the way toward an expandable and rich realm of aesthetic experience through the medium of sculpture. He provides at least one viable means by which the sculpture can realize its scale potential within terms of the medium. Here are real possibilities for sculpture to coexist on an architectural scale—where the difference in scale (vis-a-vis jewellery, for example) is great enough to be a difference in kind. That is not to say that Snelson is concerned with problems of architecture—for he is not; he claims no interest in the structure as it is intended to be a gas station. Yet the considerations of perception return to modify those of conception and intent. The 200 or 300-foot truss members in large cranes and derricks he is quite prepared to utilize as elements in a medium of macrosculpture. As they are constructed with compression members on both ends, it is of course technically no problem to use them in lieu of stainless steel or aluminum tubing in a Brobdignagian version of Vine Street. Already he has constructed a three-footed tower to approximately 1/20 scale—the model for a hundred foot tower over the esplanade at Los Angeles' Century City. That size could naturally be trebled, with a few small mechanical considerations. But the closest he has come to an ideal structure is Cantilever, created for this Spring's sculpture exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art : it is thirty feet long and weighs only 52 pounds—as Snelson says, only 52 pounds extra.
Kenneth Snelson, in an intelligent interview with John Coplans (Artforum, March 1967), pointed out that none of the pieces in the Jewish Museum's exhibition Primary Structures was really a structure. Many were simple "forms", just as a cube is a simple form—but this represents a concern with shape, and hence with image. Structure is not concerned with image, nor even necessarily with shape, so much as it is with articulating the forces in any construction. In so far as Snelson remains an artist, however, he still admits to a fascination with form, although this does not contradict a primary concern with force-articulation in problems of structure. The approach of almost all previous sculpture has been to confront space with some idea of how to fill it up. This thinking in terms of mass explains the successful tyranny of shape and image in the history of sculpture—although the approach itself was heavily conditioned by the dense physical materials out of which sculpture could be made (e.g. stone and metal). In addition to the effects of new materials, such as plastics, which have helped to jar us out of our conventional framework, the development of new technologies as well as, finally, the impact of recent speculative and theoretical thought in mathematics and the sciences, have all contributed to a vital realm of potentiality for Art. Snelson is just one of the vigorous, anti-sentimental artists working today who is prepared to accept this gambit instead of hiding in the defensive, constricting, apologetic (and in the end boring) guise of the epigone of Great Art. Like lain Baxter and others, he has raised his head and begun to look around in the world; and he has also begun to create new ways for us, in which we may confront reality. Of course, this is just what all real artists (in contrast to the crank-turners) have always done.
Kurt von Meier
This is the cover of the April, 1967 edition of Art International, in which this article appeared. Art International discontinued publication in 1984. Kurt was a regular contributor during the years 1966-69.