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by Donald Kuspit
Chapter 7, Parts 4 & 5: The Appeal of Popularity, Ideology and Theory: The Objectification of Art and the Abortive Protest of the Subject: The Seventh Decade


With Minimalism, avant-garde art became a matter of diminishing visual returns -- something that Constructivism, which Minimalism claimed as a legitimating ancestor, never envisaged. This devaluation and undermining of the visual became complete with Conceptual art.

What one saw in Conceptual works -- when there was something to see -- was the ashes of visuality. The point is made decisively clear by Joseph Kosuth's 1992 Documenta installation in Kassel's Neue Galerie. Draping a number of 19th-century sculptures in black drop cloths, as though mourning the death of the sculptural object, Kosuth littered the drop cloths and walls with quotations about art. They were from all kinds of sources, and broadly philosophical, with little reference and relevance to particular works of art. Philosophy covers a multitude of ignorances, especially about empirical particulars, and Kosuth's philosophical installation -- he acknowledged his Conceptual art's dependence on philosophy from the beginning -- was a dramatic show of indifference to the empirical reality of art.

It was also indifferent to the human significance -- symbolic import -- of art. Kosuth, who famously said that material objects were trivial illustrations of abstract ideas, and that only the ideas were the art, offered ideas of art that were impossible to illustrate, and preposterous in themselves. Kosuth's conceptual art is a tour de force of nihilism masquerading as profound understanding. Nonetheless, it makes a point implicit in avant-garde art from the beginning: the "impossibility" of art, particularly high visual art in a world saturated with visual information, however lacking in what Jung called "primordial vision." It has been argued that avant-garde art was an attempt to create a new primordial vision of existence to replace the old one offered by religion. Kosuth's Conceptual art shows the failure of this ambition -- the bankruptcy of the ideal of art as an alternative religion.

To put this a different way, if Pop art can be understood as high art's homage and submission to popular culture, in acknowledgement that it was better to join an enemy with which one could not compete than be slaughtered, then Conceptual art can be understood as high art's suicide in acknowledgement not only of its psychosocial irrelevance but also its meaninglessness. Its need to be taken over and supplanted by philosophy -- Hegel thought this was inevitable, that is, consciousness, knowing itself, would become a matter of pure ideas in no need of materialization to become self-evident -- follows from its loss of purpose in the modern world. Art was beside the point of modern life -- it could never feel secure in an age of science and technology -- but philosophy was never beside the point, because it always had the last word, like some deus ex machina. If the owl of philosophy flies at dusk, as has been said, then the philosophicalization of art that occurs in Conceptual art symbolizes the night that is falling on art. Owls are predatory birds, and in Conceptual art philosophy preys on art, picking it to death. Perhaps more crucially, Conceptual art is the form that art's existential neurosis takes, to use Viktor Frankl's term for the sense of meaninglessness that depreciates life -- including the life of art. I am suggesting that Conceptual art is the death rattle of art, an indication that it has lost vitality and inner necessity, to use Kandinsky's term. It began to die with Pop art -- the first example of what Kaprow called "postart" (for him, Warhol was the major example of the postartist or, as Kaprow also called him, the nonartist) -- and achieved intellectual rigor mortis with Conceptual art. Strange as it may seem to say, when art became a consumer good, it became ripe for intellectualization, as though being taken over by philosophy could save it from itself rather than complete its reification.

Conceptual art also signals the crisis of representation that was responsible for avant-garde art from the beginning. The "impossibility" of art is tied to this crisis, that is, the recognition of the difficulty of making a representation adequate to modern life led to the realization that it was impossible to make art, which is at bottom what Conceptual art is about. Traditional representational art is unequal to the revolutionary dynamics of the modern world, which was initially suggested by increasingly raw, pure gesture. However spontaneous and personal, such gesture had a certain abstract intensity, but this missed the representational point: gesture is not a comprehensive, totalizing representation of the modern experience, however much it evokes modern energy. In Boccioni's The City Rises, we see traditional, intelligible structured representation in the process of changing into modern, unintelligible gestural representation. Slowly but surely the representation of destablizing modern movement begins to replace the representation of a stable world. But the result is inconclusive -- the picture is torn between traditional and modernized representation, more generally, between conflicting world pictures. Not only are the two modes of representation incommensurate, just as the traditional and modern worlds are incommensurate, but Boccioni seems uncertain about which to prefer. Although a self-proclaimed modern realist, his works also have a residue of traditional idealism. As he said, he wanted to eternalize modern sensation, but eternity is unchanging while modern sensation is always changing. He was in an impossible predicament -- a predicament that suggested the impossibility of an adequate representation of revolutionary modern life.

It may seem strange to say so, but this predicament is at the core of Kosuth's art, although it takes a quite different form -- the form of the inadequacy and finally impossibility of representation, and with that the impossibility of art. Kosuth's most famous work One and Three Chairs makes the point clearly. There is no preferred, absolute representation of the chair: the chair, its dictionary definition, and its photograph are incommensurate, however much they acknowledge the same thing. They're all equally valid and equally inadequate. The perception of the material chair itself is not an adequate representation of it, and its verbal and visual representations seem to be beside the point of its materiality, however much they seem to denote -- or is it connote? -- it. If perceptual experience, a pictorial record and conceptual language fail the material object, then its representation is beside its material point. Or else its materiality is beside the point of its representation, which is the only way we "know" it. If art is supposed to be representation at its most consummate -- a grand synthesis of perceptual experience, pictorial record and, implicitly, concepts -- then art is impossible, because perceptual experience, pictorial record and concepts are at odds, and at odds with the material object they claim to represent. The perception, picture and concept of the object do not converge on it -- inform its material reality, as it were -- but go their own representational ways. Kosuth's piece is meant to show that art has fallen from its heights and can't be put back together again. He shows its disintegration into representational fragments, all of which attempt to mediate the immediate material chair but none of which do so in an absolutely convincing way. The discrepancy between the experienced thing to be represented and the mode of representation is the starting point for Conceptual art. Conceptual language became Kosuth's metier because it made no pretense of representational adequacy, as perceiving and picturing seemed to. If art was a concept, it need not concern itself with vision and imagination, only with the ironies and contradictions inherent in every effort at conceptualization, and with the differences between incommensurate modes of representation.

Kosuth may be the official inauguration of conceptual art, but the work of Beuys and Smithson is conceptual -- grounded in a certain idea of art -- with no sacrifice of expressivity, materiality and human consequence. Human trauma is implicit in Smithson's earthworks as it is in Beuys' performances. The sublime scale of Smithson's Spiral Jetty (1970) is meant to heal the spectator as much as the intimate scale of the sleds in Beuys' The Pack (1969). Walking along the Spiral Jetty, in effect at the edge of the world, one has a self-transformative transcendental experience. One is in the great beyond, liberated from the cares of the lifeworld. One is immersed in the cosmos, healed by the magic of its delirious colors and recurrent forms. The earth spiral coordinates with the spiral nebula and the spiral that is the cochlea of the ear: the spiral is a universal form, at once macrocosmic and microcosmic. Smithson's work is an abstract American version of what has been called the therapeutic landscape, and Beuys' work is a German version of shamanistic ritual, involving identification with nature, in the service of community health, as the Volkswagen bus suggests. Both artists are nature mystics -- spiritual artists for whom nature is living spirit, indeed, the only source of spontaneous life in the modern world. Whatever their ecological import, Smithson's works signal a romantic return to Mother Earth, the source of strength, as the myth of Antaeus indicates. Beuys is also a romantic, but a modern German romantic: the fat and felt with which the sleds are equipped -- along with a flashlight to see in the dark -- are the animal materials that healed his war-shattered self and body.

What is important about the sculpture of Smithson and Beuys is what cannot be seen in it yet which is implicit, and which can even be understood, from a dialectical point of view, as its secret essence: the life-draining urban environment, whose traumatic effect Smithson's art tries to undo and reverse, and the life-defeating second world war, whose traumatic effect Beuys' art tries to undo and reverse. Their art is rooted in disillusionment with the modern world, represented by the crowded city for Smithson and by total war for Beuys. If, as Greenberg wrote, avant-garde art rose on a wave of materialistic optimism, Smithson and Beuys show it collapsing in spiritual pessimism. There is a strange coincidence between Beuys' near-death in a 1943 airplane crash -- his fighter plane was shot down over the Russian steppes -- and Smithson's 1973 death when his airplane malfunctioned while he was filming the Spiral Jetty from it. To me, Smithson's death signals the end of avant-garde art, at least authentic avant-garde art, which is officially understood to have begun with Manet's 1862 gestural painting of the Tuileries Garden -- a major park in the city of Paris, like Central Park in New York City. For Smithson, Frederick Law Olmstead, who conceived and created Central Park, was the greatest American artist, as he writes in his essay on Olmstead's "dialectical landscape." Beuys, who died in 1986, can be understood as the last great Symbolist. Symbolism emphasized art's dependence on the unconscious and its healing potential.

Manet's painting, which was described in his own day as a "patchwork" of gestures, is disintegrative in import, however intact its figures and spontaneous the gestures. Nature forms a backdrop to the figures, but it subtly informs them, bringing them to a spontaneous life they would not otherwise have outdoors, and certainly not have indoors. Without it, they would fall flat, becoming pasteboard performers going through the motions of life on a social stage -- artificial human beings in all but name. Nature is no longer inhibited by the presence of figures in Smithson's work. It is no longer ancillary to them. Society has disappeared from it. There is no longer any sense of confinement and artificiality. The entropic non-sites represent them -- the mirror is perhaps the most important one for Smithson, as his Yucatan mirror installation indicates (each mirror was in effect a station of the cross) -- while the site-specific works mark the open space of nature, just as the work of Albert Bierstadt and other 19th-century painters of the great American Western outdoors did. The site-specific works take their monumentality from nature's own majesty. They blend into it, and with time -- geological time, which fascinated Smithson, for it was the closest thing on earth to eternity -- they dissolve into it. Smithson expected the Spiral Jetty to dissolve in the Great Salt Lake into which it extended, and in which it was often submerged, even as he regarded its spiral shape -- relentlessly moving yet tightly coiled like a snake about to spring -- as an ecstatic symbol of life in the world of man-made death beyond it.

Set apart like Stonehenge -- an implicit model -- the Spiral Jetty represents the cosmos and, subliminally, the re-absorption of man in the cosmos. For, just as the center of Stonehenge was a place of sacrifice to the gods, so the end of Smithson's jetty, which is at its center -- a snake with a tail in its mouth is an ancient symbol of cosmic completeness -- is implicitly a sacrificial altar. Nonetheless, it remains a sanctuary -- a kind of cathedral of nature, even bizarre hortus conclusus, in which one can commune with oneself as well as the cosmos -- and symbol of existential integrity, like Stonehenge. The Spiral Jetty is not simply a colossal Minimalist work made of earth materials, but a symbol of the self as well as of the cosmos with which it must merge or ground itself to become authentic. The Spiral Jetty symbolizes the transcendental perspective the self must have to realize its potential on earth. Only when the self knows and accepts its place in the cosmos can it become truly creative. For Smithson, the natural cosmos inspires the self, rather than reminds it of its depressing insignificance.

The animal fat and felt in which Beuys' Tartar rescuers wrapped him to restore his body's warmth and keep him alive, emotionally as well as physically, are also symbols of life in a world of man-made death. Like the Spiral Jetty, they imply mystical merger with self-restorative nature, if on a more intimate scale. And like it they have a gestural quality. They are as malleable as Smithson's earth, and Beuys often uses them to make a grand expressive gesture. His placement of a pile of fat in the corner of a chair and in the corner of a room has the same defiant symbolic import as Smithson's earthen spiral. Beuys' installations have a similar enigmatic quality -- there is an oracular dimension to both Smithson and Beuys -- and deliberate gravity, as though to create an introspective mood. Thus, fat and felt are also instruments of psychic transcendence for Beuys. They are as ambiguously universal and personal as Smithson's earth.

As Smithson's essay on the entropic character of Minimalism suggests -- he began as a Minimalist, a very strange one, for his specific objects always had subjective import and conveyed spiritual ambition (they were stepped like the Mayan pyramids, which he later visited) -- he was preoccupied with death from the beginning. The essay led Judd to repudiate him, which no doubt liberated Smithson to pursue his interest in nature. The scale of nature seemed more authentic than the scale of the art gallery or museum, which lent the Minimalist specific object a grandeur and significance it did not always deserve. Indeed, Smithson was more influenced by the Museum of Natural History, as he said, than the Museum of Modern Art, the latest edition of art history. His essay on the Passaic River, one of the oldest on the North American continent, indicates his belief in the self-cleansing or self-healing power of nature, but it fixates on the pollution of the river that killed almost all the life in it. In their different ways, both Smithson and Beuys had near-death experiences, explicitly physical as well as emotional in Beuys' case -- he had a breakdown after the war, working in the fields and making religiously inspired art as part of a program of recovery. Interestingly, Smithson's early Surrealist-Expressionist paintings suggest a similar attempt at self-healing through artistic practice and encounter with nature. Both Smithson and Beuys are desperate biophiliacs working in a situation of universal social necrophilia. In their different ways, they resist society's suicidal tendencies even as they express the depressive tendencies -- the emotional entropy -- evident in life. Their art is a strange blend of the anti-libidinal and libidinal, morbidity and health, death and resurrection. The Spiral Jetty in the Great Salt Lake -- a place that reeks of death and sterility -- is a symbol of both, as are Beuys' more fertile fat and felt. The work of both Smithson and Beuys has a life-affirmative quality even as it dwells on death, and a death-affirmative quality however determined it is to assert life. It is this profound ambiguity that gives their art its great expressive power.

Beuys was brought up in a death-obsessed society. He was a Hitler Youth, and served in the war as a dive bomber pilot, and was wounded five times. At the same time, he had fantasies of himself as a nomadic shepherd intuitively in touch with nature in all its moods -- a romantic conception acted out again and again in his art. After the war ended, he "wanted to take in everything that was forbidden during Hitler's reign," as he said,(9) and what was forbidden was the life of the spirit. He was deeply influenced by the anthroposophist Rudolf Steiner, and read James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake, declaring that "what permeates things with life in Joyce's works. . . is almost always something spiritual."(10) "The process of expansion" in the work is "a spiritual form of movement." Joyce's "attempts to show the coexistence of levels of consciousness or to expose the unconscious realm of dreams"(11) remained a basic influence on Beuys' art. He also thought of his art as a spiritual movement involving self-restoration as well as a kind of dream in which one establishes contact with what is deepest in one's nature. It is the dream or visionary state one has to experience to restore oneself, that is, to be reborn and recover the integrity and authenticity one lost conforming to death-infected society.

Beuys' belief that art could be an instrument of self-transformation and life-regeneration, a way of restoring the warmth of life lost to the life-killing coldness of society -- it led him to repudiate Duchamp's "silence," implicitly his indifference, which Beuys apparently regarded as a fatal coldness -- is evident in his theory of social sculpture, that is, sculpture that brought the warmth of life to society in a kind of Promethean gesture. Beuys' theory is derived from Steiner's 1923 lecture, "About Bees." Beuys writes, "The heat organism of the bee colony is without a doubt the essential element of connection between the wax and fat and the bees. What had interested me about bees, or rather about their life system, is the total heat organization of such an organism and the sculpturally finished forms within this organization. On one hand bees have this element of heat, which is a very strong fluid element, and on the other hand they produce crystalline sculptures; they make regular geometric forms. Here we already find something of a sculptural theory, as we do in the corners of fat, which also appear in certain situations in a geometric context. But the actual character of the exiting heat is a fluid element, whereby the fat is affected by the heat and thus flows off. From this undefined element of motion, by way of a diminishing element of movement, surfaces a form which appears in abstract, geometric configurations. This is practiced regularly by bees."(12)

As Adriani, Konnertz and Thomas note, Steiner's view that "the change of the fatty material of wax to a crystallized system of honeycombs" -- "the absolutely amorphous" into a geometrical form "which looks like the negative of a rock crystal" -- demonstrated the "polarity. . . of life and death" became Beuys' vision of the "primary sculptural process."(13) But for Beuys, like the bee, sculpture was a two-way process: the honeycomb could be melted by what Steiner called "spiritual warmth" into honey -- the purest, most nourishing food of life -- when the colony needed it to survive and flourish. In his performances -- and he regarded every one of his works as a performance (wax and felt were surrogates for his own bodily presence) -- Beuys in effect used his body to melt "cold, hardened" socio-geometrical forms into seemingly "chaotic, flowing," life-radiating and life-giving organic substances. Sculpture, and more broadly art, was about the dialectic of life and death, and the use of seemingly dead, yet "heat sensitive materials such as wax and fat,"(14) that could be warmed to life, to symbolize the possibility of self and social renewal -- the renewal that the narcissistically injured German self, particularly Beuys' seriously injured German self and body, desperately needed.

Beuys became a kind of Prometheus and Christ in one, taking upon himself the sin of being a German -- a Nazi, no less -- while offering the fiery warmth of his living body as a means of salvation. Anointing himself with honey, Beuys resurrects his dead German self even as he cradles it, in the form of a dead hare, in his arms. As Beuys' performances indicate, he is one of the first body artists, and perhaps the only one who offered his body as a sacrifice to a whole society with the hope of restoring it to emotional vitality and human credibility. Beuys was in fact socially active -- his involvement in the Free University in Düsseldorf, as well as his participation in peace demonstrations, are perhaps the most telling example of his social activism -- but he is best understood as a primordial conceptualist, as Karin Lingreen suggests: "Beuys' total creation appears to be a historical attempt to bridge the gap between atavism and scientific achievement, which in reality threatens to explode the world of modern man. He still has the courage to believe in the single free man and in a transformation and integration of archetypal ideas in today's world of ideas."(15)

This is clearly a long way from the Fluxus movement with which he was briefly associated -- Kaprow was one of its leaders, and it was in fact a determined attempt to completely blur the boundary between art and life, indeed, to treat life as art (which seemed to mean to make a kind of spectacle of life) -- and which led him to be regarded as a Neo-Dadaist. He denied that he was one, just as he denied that he was a performer mechanically following a script, which is what he implied Robert Morris was when the two of them performed the same piece at the same time, Morris in New York, Beuys in Düsseldorf. He was, and remains, the major German artist who emerged in the postwar period, in part because he remains the most consistently and seriously anti-Nazi, perhaps because he had directly participated in the Nazi totalitarianism which destroyed Germany. Beuys' art could not help but be haunted by the dead past. It stalked his art, even as he struggled to free himself and Germany from its brutal grip. He attempted to work through the misery of modern German history by regressing to ancient Nordic ideas, as he acknowledged. Beuys' art is premised on guilt as well as the will to primordial or "animal" power - "animal existence" is "a constantly present element" in his art, as has been said(16) -- just as it was in the Nazi regime. No doubt Beuys wanted to reconcile the instinctive and the intellectual in himself -- reversing the loss of instinctive will that Nietzsche thought was responsible for decadence -- but to become an animal is, after all, a way of losing one's humanity.

There is a grandiosity and showmanship in Beuys which suggests that he shared in the fascination with spectacle that seems inescapable in late modernity, as both the Nazis and the Pop artists suggest. But the spectacle he makes of himself is not as infantile and ingratiating as the mass culture spectacle that Pop art takes as its point of departure, nor as intellectually pretentious as Conceptual art -- however intellectual Beuys clearly is (like Smithson). Beuys' performances are psychodramas -- he explicitly calls them "psychoanalytic actions" -- and, as such, redemptive of art as well as of history, for they suggest that art can heal the deep emotional wounds history inflicts, even if art itself looks wounded when Beuys performs it. 

Eva Hesse's Untitled (Rope Piece) (1970) has a climactic place in what Gustav René Hocke called "the tradition of irregularity."(16) Hesse's work -- a kind of space web, which can be understood as a three-dimensional gestural installation, taking as its point of departure Pollock's all-over painting on glass, but without the glass (yet one can see right through it) -- was made in the year of her death, at the age of 34. Spiders that spin eccentric webs are generally thought to be sick and disturbed, and Hesse's web -- one may recall that the spider was originally a woman who dared to compete with a goddess, and was punished for her efforts by being transformed into a spider -- seems particularly sick and disturbed. Its threads are chaotically entangled; it hangs precariously in space, as though rendered at the moment it was falling; it seems to collapse in on itself. Hesse's crazed web has torn itself apart, leaving in its wake incoherent shreds of dangling ligament. It is a disorienting piece, indeed, an embodiment -- but the piece lacks body, and suggests a process of disembodiment -- of disorientation. Horizontally spread in space, it nonetheless remains spatially indeterminate, as though unable to reconcile itself to the existence of space. It articulates emptiness, even as it suggests the horror of emptiness.

Hesse's piece is an expressionistic tour de force carried to disintegrative absurdity. She herself has said that "absurdity is the key word" for understanding her work and life. She is acutely aware of "contradictions and oppositions," indeed, "the most absurd opposites or extreme opposites," such as "order versus chaos, stringy versus mass, huge versus small." The opposites never reconcile in her art -- she seems fascinated by their irreconcilability -- however superficially they seem to. They are juxtaposed rather than integrated, as another 1970 untitled piece -- a series of four geometrical shapes on a wall, two rectangular, two more or less square, each with two ropes dropping from their upper area to the floor -- makes clear. Her art, then, is inwardly conflicted, and bespeaks her own inner conflicts -- the conflicts of a woman wounded by life. Dying young, Hesse became a feminist icon, like Sylvia Plath, but unlike Plath, Hesse was not a suicide, but rather the victim of a brain tumor that apparently was the result of her breathing the fumes of the molten fiberglass she used in many of her works. For me, the important thing about Hesse is not that she was a woman, although that undoubtedly influenced her sense of herself and her body, as Ishtar (1965) -- a rather anorexic goddess of love and fertility -- suggests, but rather that she had an unstable sense of herself, that is, suffered from deep narcissistic problems, indeed, radical self-doubt, not to say annihilation anxiety. Hesse's Untitled (Rope Piece) conveys annihilation, destruction, self-loss, including the loss of any sense of body ego. It is about being ungrounded, feeling groundless or unsupported, disappearing in an abyss, indeed, becoming an empty abyss. It is about panic. 

The work is not a safety net, and this suggests a certain skepticism about art: It could not rescue her from herself, however much it was a means of articulating her sense of self. Her rope is not Ariadne's thread leading one out of the labyrinth, but an expression of her sense of being lost in it. Hesse spent most of her life in psychoanalysis, suggesting that her works, like Beuys' works, can be understood as psychoanalytic performances, that is, material enactments of emotional conflicts. Her anguished objects, like those of Beuys, express her sense of being a victim. Indeed, like Beuys, she was all but destroyed by the Nazis, if for a very different reason: her German parents were Holocaust survivors. In a sense, her works enact what they experienced, including the constant threat of death. For all their latent organization, there is a sense of arbitrariness to her quasi-Minimalist works that suggests the sudden arbitrariness of death in the concentration camps.

The awkward sensuality of her works, with their unfinished latex and fiberglass surfaces, which are like seared tissue, suggests skin ego problems -- an uncertain sense of boundaries, both inner and outer. The Untitled (Rope Piece) is in a sense "unbounded," with no clear inner divisions and outer limits. The work seems to expand infinitely, as has been said, but it is a peculiarly aborted infinity -- infinity without sublimity, unlike the Romantic infinity. Indeed, like the Minimalist works that influenced her -- like Smithson, she understood them in emotional rather than strictly formal terms, as her association of Andre's metal plate pieces with "the concentration camp" suggests (thus implying the authoritarian regimentation Hesse struggled to escape even as she invariably acknowledged it) -- her bizarre Minimalism, however expressive, conveys a sense of the bankruptcy and barrenness of the sublime. Like her early boxes, with bolts protruding on the inside, as though they were torture chambers, they are death traps. Hesse's works are about death -- death as an adventure, as in the chaotic Untitled (Rope Piece); death as a threat to the body, as in the emaciated Ishtar, with her unnourishing, stringy breasts; death as a persistently contingent presence, infecting every object, as in the irregularly placed and misshaped objects that form many eccentric series. Death distorts regularity into irregularity: To show the irregularity in regularity -- the uncanny within the uniform -- is to show death. And the irregularity is always there, as the philosopher Francis Bacon suggested when he said that there was always something strange in beauty. Strangeness underlies beauty, which is an attempt to manage the uncanny. It eventually destroys beauty from within. Death has gotten under Hesse's skin, unnerving and unsettling her.

Hesse was a German-American artist, sharing in the European tradition of disharmony that Hocke thought was inherently metamorphic and regenerative, yet also an inventive American materialist fascinated by synthetic materials that defied and outsmarted nature. Her irregular works are "ingenious mutations of the problematic," to use Hocke's words and, as such, ironically organic. But they are also unapologetically inorganic -- unlike Beuys' social sculptures, which use natural, living materials, Hesse's asocial sculptures use unnatural, lifeless materials (which is why there is an air of pseudo-sentience to her pieces) -- suggesting the anti-naturalistic tendency and technological bias evident in Constructivism and carried to an extreme by Minimalism. Hocke observed that the nonconformist irregular suggests the abstruse, puzzling, secretive and numinous - "primordial truth" and "personal freedom" -- but also implies reckless arbitrariness and self-destructive contrariness. Hesse found her True Creative Self in the expressive contrariness of irregularity, using it to resist the compliant regularity of Minimalism, which implicitly conformed to technocratic modernity, even as she celebrated technology's invention of artificial nature. Thus her art remains stuck in contradictions and oppositions -- in unresolved dialectical expression, which is exactly what makes it representative of the human condition.

Lynda Benglis and Louise Bourgeois convey a similar sense of what might be called female surface and bizarre bodiliness -- but without the sense of inner contradiction and radical absurdity that make Hesse's work convincing. Their sculptural objects have an anecdotal quality that is antithetical to dialectical creativity. While Hesse reveals the negative dialectic of the new expressionism, they maintain the positive approach of the old expressionism. That is, their art offers the promise of subject-object reconciliation rather than the reality of their irreconcilability. They make material seem hopeful rather than hopeless, as Hesse does. Their abstract sculptures have a certain limited expressiveness, even as the abstract paintings of Brice Marden and Robert Ryman seem to strip material surface of all expressive associations. In their hands, material surface becomes an elegantly performed formal act. Marden's surface seems atmospheric, Ryman's surface seems to have depth. But these are expressive illusions: Their work is exquisitely studied -- stylized color field in the one case, stylized gesturalism in the other. We are far from the perverse, dangerous, even tragic surfaces of Hesse's fiberglass and latex, from her unraveling, dangerously dangling rope, from her absurdly visceral structures. The point is that every detail is under control in Marden and Ryman, and, for that matter, in Benglis and Bourgeois -- nothing is left to experimental chance, not even the dense gestures of Ryman and the epic spills of Benglis.

Unlike Hesse, none of these artists risks the loss of control implicit in the radically irregular -- a bizarre accumulation of incommensurates (Hesse's works are accumulations of objects rather than compositions, the series being a found, even nominal composition) -- however irregular their works seem to be. Their irregularity is sporting, as it were, part of the game of painting, unlike the irregularity of Hesse, which has an air of painful, elusive self-exposure. Irregularity is not simply a way of highlighting material for Hesse, but the sign of insight into the tragic singularity of the self. 

It may seem strange to say so, but Marden and Ryman ideologize paint by making it seem completely real, thus undermining its expressive suggestiveness. They do not work it through to make an expressive point, for all the manipulative subtlety of their handling. Denying painting's evocative power -- the power to create subjective illusions, altogether irrelevant not to say unreal from the perspective of objective materiality -- they destroy the dialectic of fresh surface and hallucinatory depth innate to it.

The result is a sacred painting that has lost its gnostic power of illumination. It is painting that has become objectively comprehensible -- lost its mystery by becoming completely secular and positivist, to use Greenberg's word. Their paintings are apocryphal scripture, more pointedly, the shells of a temple of art the living inner god has abandoned. They are splendid constructions but no longer uncanny places haunted by the incomprehensible. However much we meditate on them, they give us nothing but their beauty -- a perfect beauty, since it has lost its strangeness. It is the beauty of a eunuch, rather than Hesse's tragic beauty.                    

          (9) Quoted in Götz Adriani, Winfriend Konnertz, Karin Thomas, eds., Joseph Beuys: Life and Works (Woodbury, NY: Barron's Educational Series, 1979), p. 13
          (10) Quoted in ibid., p. 29
          (11) Ibid., p. 28
          (12) Quoted in ibid., pp. 41-42
          (13) Ibid., p. 38
          (14) Ibid., p. 39
          (15) Quoted in ibid., p. 211
          (16) Ibid.
          (17) Gustav René Hocke, Manierismus in der Literatur (Hamburg: Rowolt, 1979), p. 8

DONALD KUSPIT is professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.

His new book, A Critical History of 20th-Century Art, is being serially published in Artnet Magazine. For an archive of the chapters posted so far, click here


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