Professor Hannah Barrett
Critical Theory Paper- Group 2
Theory for My Preferred Art
In the February 14, issue of 2010 of the New York Times, Roberta Smith complains that New York museums are showing a surfeit of “Conceptual, Process, Performance, installation and language-based art that is most associated with the label Post-Minimalism.” As she puts it, “What’s missing is art that seems made by one person out of intense personal necessity, often by hand”(1). She is looking for exactly the kind of art that I love.
In my alignment with Smith, I lack enthusiasm for the writers such as Michael Newman, Rosalind Krauss and Jacques Derrida, who underpin the work of Post-Minimalist artists. For support of my views, I turn to the philosopher, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and the artist, Robert Irwin. In this paper, I will compare the ideas of Newman and Krauss’s of the historical importance of “the mark” (which has been considered a qualification of art) with the ideas of Merleau-Ponty and Robert Irwin. Secondly, I will look at Derrida and Irwin’s views on concept in art.
I find that the writing of Newman and Krauss are of little interest to me. I am minimally drawn to theories on the history of the mark. In turn, I am intrigued by Robert Irwin’s process: his years of Zen-like contemplation and commitment to his art that produced what I consider to be profound insights.
Both Newman and Krauss are interested in the historical significance of the mark. In his essay, “Traces and Marks of Drawing”, Michael Newman investigates one of the earliest stories of art, Pliny’s saga of the woman who traces the shadow of her lover before he departs in order that she might preserve his presence. This trace around the shadow is a mark; it is art. It is art because it refers to the lover. According to Newman, the “(s)hadow becomes the mark of a presence…” (11).
Newman’s interest in the mark’s history has parallels to Krauss’s case for the index when viewing the art of Gordon Matta-Clark and Marcia Halif at P.S. 1 in the 1970s. She wrote in her essay “Notes on the Index” the following: “ As distinct from symbols, indexes establish their meaning along the axis of a physical relationship to their referents. They are the marks…in this category we put physical traces…cast shadows…” (213). Both Newman and Krauss point to the historical significance of the mark in describing how a work is art.
Personally, I am a great appreciator of marks and mark making. I love the sensuality, the personal touch of the mark. The last way I want to view marks is intellectually to the point that they are reduced to sterile symbols, which is the direction I find that Newman and Krauss are headed.
Unlike Newman and Krauss, Robert Irwin does not consider the history of the mark to be the key to understanding a work of art. He is looking at a bigger picture in an attempt to understand what really is the most significant aspect of art, or what it is that affects him most deeply. He argues that the mark itself has actually become less significant to art over time. Jan Butterfield quotes him in her essay, “The State of the Real” as follows: “…modern art has been a step-by-step disassociation and disempowering of the mark”(142). Robert Irwin elaborated on this idea in his October 15, 2009, lecture at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. He said that: starting with the Renaissance when a work of art (an image, comprised of many marks), most likely a portrait of religious importance, could be recognized as valuable across populations and borders. In the progression of art history, as the images became less literal, as the frame became less important, as the means of creating the art became more personal, the mark became less and less universally important. What remains as the expression of art may not include the mark, in the traditional sense at all. “To be an artist is not a matter of making paintings at all. What we are really dealing with is… the shape of our perception.” (qtd, in Butterfield,141).
Irwin is using the word perception in a specific way gleaned from years of contemplating Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy as laid out is The Primacy of Perception. For Irwin, as for Merleau-Ponty, perception is a deeply felt, embodied experience which suggests that all our senses are involved in seeing. According to Merleau-Ponty, “art radiates from the visible” (182):
There is (a connection in) a human body when, between the seeing and the seen, between the touching and the touched, between one eye and the other, between hand and hand,…the spark is lit between the sensing and the sensible, lighting the fire that will not stop burning. ( Merleau-Ponty 163)
Merleau-Ponty’s theories explain the impact that certain pieces art have on me, a matter that Robert Irwin deals with as well. In Lawrence Wechsler’s book, Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, he describes a certain period in Irwin’s life when he was drifting in and out of galleries, checking what was being shown. Every once in a while a piece of art would “cut through the fog.” In giving a word to what set those pieces apart, Irwin used the term “presence” : It was not the imagery, it was about something indescribable that a person sensed or did not sense. In one such instance, he was deeply affected by a small Philip Guston painting, which was much stronger than a larger work by James Brooks. In Irwin’s own words, “Well, that goddamn Guston just blew the Brooks right off the wall….by every overt measure - size, contrast, color intensity - that shouldn’t have happened… a good painting has a gathering (force)…a pure energy build-up…” (qtd in Wechsler, 64).
It was this kind of experience with art that Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy served to help Irwin to understand. There was more at work that the marks, the color, the other art elements. There was something transmitted through the art work that was felt on a bodily level.
This leads to the notion of concept, what the artist had in mind for a piece of art, and where that fits in to the picture. Irwin questions the notion of concepts for art but in a way very different from Jacques Derrida, whose whole philosophy was based on a challenge to the certainty of any concept. I find the words of David Hopkins apt in summing up Derrida: “Derrida’s deconstructive strategies consisted in revealing how the self’s sufficiency (and authority) of many concepts is illusory.” (856)
Robert Irwin challenges the artists relationship to concepts (Butterfield 147) but, unlike Derrida, argues that that they have a function. For Irwin , no concept is real, but he advocates seeing them as tools that are useful for the artist’s intention. (Butterfield 150) The concept can be an idea or a feeling, a starting point. The concept launches the creation of the art; once the art is created, it has been imbued with the energy of the artist which the viewer perceives with his or her eyes and body and, in an effort to communicate a response, formulates concepts of his or her own. (Irwin lecture, 10-15-2009) Even though concepts are not real, Irwin says they have weight and importance in art and to an artist because ”when we hold a concept, the world appears to have an up and a down …(it’s okay that) this is all an illusion.” (qtd. in Butterfield 150)
I also believe that concepts have a place. I love the concepts put forth by Merleau-Ponty: that art involves all the senses, that we cannot separate ourselves from our whole bodily perception, and Irwin’s idea that art is a means of expanding that perception. I think that Irwin’s reaction to the Guston painting rose out of the intensity and clarity of Guston’s connection to his concept while creating his painting, a phenomenon that Irwin could sense later in his gut response to the piece.
It was refreshing for me to read Roberta Smith’s New York Times piece. It confirmed for me that others also have grown disaffected by excessive concentration on the art that came out of the intellectual writings of theorists such as Newman, Krauss and Derrida. I was already a follower of Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy, and felt fortunate to hear Irwin in person at the MFA articulate theories that further resonated with me. I agree with Irwin’s statement that his, “work has never been about abstraction, it has been about experience” (qtd in Wechsler 66). Experience, deeply felt experience is my goal, as well, and the reason that I enjoy and create art.
Butterfield, Jan. “The State of the Real” and “Re-Shaping the Shape of Things”. Art Theory and Criticism, An Anthology of Formalist, Avant-Garde, Contextualist and Post-Modern Thought, Ed. Sally Everett. London: McFarland and Company, 1991.139-153. Print.
Hopkins, David. After Modern Art, 1945-2000. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2000. Print.
Irwin, Robert. “The Nature of Abstraction”, Boston Museum of Fine Arts, 15 Oct. 2009. Lecture.
Krauss, Rosalind, “Notes on the Index”, Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths. Cambridge, MA, MIT Press, 1985. Print.
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Primacy of Perception: And Other Essays on Phenomenological Psychology, the Philosophy of Art, History and Politics. Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 1964. Print.
Newman, Michael. “The Traces and Marks of Drawing”, The Stage of Drawing: Gesture and Act, London, Tate Publishing, 2003. Print.
Smith, Roberta. “Post-Minimal to the Max”, New York Times, 14 Feb 2010, Arts and Leisure 1 and 23. Print.
Wechsler, Lawrence. Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, Berkeley, University of California Press, 2008. Print.