Abstract Bodies: Sixties Sculpture in the Expanded Field of Gender

David J. Getsy
Abstract Bodies: Sixties Sculpture in the Expanded Field of Gender
(Yale University Press, 2015)

It is radical to propose that abstract sculptures have genders, or rather, can evoke them. In his new book, David Getsy goes even further, arguing that non-representational forms can conjure genders unknown, unforeseen, and unshared by their makers. With such grand ambitions, Abstract Bodies promises the peach light of a fresh dawn: “The first book to apply the interdisciplinary field of transgender studies to the discipline of art history,” as the book jacket proclaims.

Handsomely designed by Yale University Press, Abstract Bodies comprises four case studies on the sculptors David Smith, John Chamberlain, Nancy Grossman, and Dan Flavin. Getsy explains that he chose them “deliberately to show how accounts of genders as multiple and mutable erupt in the work of artists for whom gender and sexuality were not necessarily stated or primary terms of investigation.” He purports to disregard the artists’ biographies in favor of “their artistic practices, repeated methods, and the rhetorics they employed to communicate their priorities.” This distinction seems intended to liberate the physical reality of the sculpture from the gender, sexuality, or political concerns of the persons who made it. But it signals a conceptual instability that trembles throughout the book: namely, its problematic take on how artists’ lives and intentions become meaning for us. Getsy employs a patchwork of biographical research and archival anecdotes—interviews, statements, and gossip—to ground his interpretations. The book’s evidence, in other words, is pieced together from precisely the kinds of personal ephemera its theoretical framework disavows.

To illustrate what I mean, a comparison is useful. In January 1963, at the Green Gallery, Dan Flavin showed two of his eight “icons” from the preceding year—icon IV (the pure land) (to David John Flavin 1933 – 1962) and icon V (Coran’s Broadway Flesh). The first is a shallow, slightly off-square box, mounted on the wall with a fluorescent tube bracketed onto its top edge. Both the surface and the light are white. As the title indicates, it is a memorial to Flavin’s twin brother, who died of polio that year. The second is a similar wall-mounted box, painted a muted salmon and ringed with porcelain sockets holding oblong bulbs—twenty-eight in all. It is dedicated to Flavin’s neighbor, Stanley Coran, who he once described, in an often-reproduced note, as “a young English homosexual who loved New York City.” Here is how Getsy contrasts the two works:

Icon IV is solemn while icon V is sordid. The succession of these two loaded works cannot be seen as neutral. There is a thorough-going inversion of terms from the one work to the next, with the pure land being unsullied and spiritual and Broadway Flesh being burlesque and carnal. […] With his description of the flesh-tint work and his outing of Stanley Coran, Flavin insured that the homosexuality and carnality that was its content could not be misrecognized. This, too, has an inversion in the icon dedicated to his twin brother, which has been—in title and form—purified.

Purified of what, though? In a 2009 interview, Flavin’s friend Dan Graham offered a possible explanation for Flavin’s negative attitude toward homosexuality: “Dan Flavin was definitely a little [homophobic], because I think his twin brother was gay.” This information from Graham helps to bring into focus the inverted relationship between the pure land and Broadway Flesh. If both of these icons negotiated the manifestation of homosexuality, then Flavin made sure that the first was cleansed of its worldly content just as he insured that the second was flamboyant in its form (and that he reminded his readers of the homosexuality of its dedicatee). One could say that this distinction hinged on the stereotype of the homosexual, with Flavin dispelling all of his concern for his twin’s possible difference to the visible flamboyance and telltale exuberance of the foreign, Broadway-loving homosexual. That is, the “purity” of the memorial icon to his twin seemed even more lofty and inviolable next to the company it kept. This pairing, in other words, could be characterized as a rebuttal of suspicion of his twin. The evidence for this denial centered on visibility, with Coran’s Broadway Flesh being obvious in its difference (but not so obvious that Flavin did not need to call out the homosexual content of this work in print.)

Here Getsy attempts a panting exposé. Looking at word-choice alone, almost every sentence is suspicious—the assertion that icon V is “sordid” or “carnal” is both facile and unsubstantiated. This analysis comes after several pages of similar linguistic manhandling, including subjecting the reader to a protracted discussion of the musical Gypsy (1959), based on the equation that “Flavin’s conjunction of Broadway and ‘flesh’ surely recalled one of the most famous musicals of all time: Gypsy.” This musical is “a key text of identification in pre-Stonewall homosexual subculture,” Getsy explains, continuing, “As Coran could have told [Flavin], it was a musical all about the exposure of flesh and the devolution of theatrical artistic ambition into erotic display.” This is a rhetorical maneuver he endlessly repeats: asserting a circumstantial and idiosyncratic connection, which is then taken as a fact and used to bolster the next circumstantial and idiosyncratic connection. Wayne Koestenbaum and Maggie Nelson have demonstrated that subjective, stream-of-consciousness cultural study can be both artistically and intellectually effective, but as the kind of serious scholarship Abstract Bodies presents itself to be, it is intrinsically flawed. The result is a book with an argument so warped, in its notions of sense and meaning, that it is almost impossible to unravel everything wrong with it.

First, there is the issue of the conveniently selective art history that Getsy practices. His claims about Flavin’s icons only hold if the two sculptures are removed from their larger sequence(all eight were exhibited together in 1964), which bear none of these implications. Putting aside the fact that Flavin studied to become a priest (at the Immaculate Conception Preparatory Seminary), and that “icons” have a specific and highly charged theological and formal history regarding presence and representation—if, for the sake of argument, you wanted to accept Getsy’s binary as juxtaposition of flesh and spirit, sinner and saint, living and dead—okay. More importantly, in his account we learn nothing about Stanley Coran or David Flavin as human beings, or about the nature of Dan Flavin’s relationships with them, except for fact that they are both (maybe) “homosexual.” Exactly what this means in terms of their sexual preferences or social lives is never stated. The same is true for the two other Flavin sculptures with “homosexual” dedicatees, Jasper Johns and Robert Rosenblum. Apparently, in Getsy’s discussion all these people are reducible to this one thing—“homosexual”—and it means something to Dan Flavin, and you can see it in the sculptures he dedicated to them. Evidently Getsy is privy to Flavin’s heart of hearts, as when he says: “The homosexual, as Flavin understood him, was characterized by the compulsion to dissemble and to make their difference look the same, and it was through this character that Flavin struggled with questions of visible difference and categorical sameness.” That Dan Flavin would have “understood” what is ascribed to him here would be anachronistic, at best. Problematic beyond the reductive use of identity categories is the cavalier attitude with which Getsy claims intimate insight into the artist’s mind. Did he find Dan Flavin’s secret diary or something?

The strangest thing about Getsy’s writing in Abstract Bodies is that the ultimate goal is so obscure: Were we to take every assertion he makes as fact (Broadway + Flesh means Gypsy; Flavin’s twin brother wasgay; etc.), what would it add up to? That Dan Flavin is a homophobe? That his sculptures both reveal this homophobia and open onto a transgendered capacity (which, again, reveals one of the terminological leaps that are so staggering throughout this book)? Getsy concludes the Flavin chapter this way: “[…] it was Flavin’s struggle with visible difference and categorical sameness that compelled him to develop a practice that valued openness and particularity. He reiterated this in his retention of the act of dedication, allowing his works to open up to an account of personhood resonant with the politics and potentials of transgender history’s critique of determinism.” Isn’t it comforting when straight white guys, already beloved by prevailing market and critical forces, end up saving the day after all! It seems that, in spite of himself, Dan Flavin lighted the way for transgendered lives.

What does all this have to do with transgender? In his introduction Getsy lays the theoretical groundwork, complete with bulleted timeline of transgender issues in American culture from the ’50s to ’70s (beginning, “1952: I Dec: Christine Jorgensen makes international front-page news for having sex reassignment surgery”). He explains that he will use “transgender” as an ideal, “a formation under which diverse modes of gender nonconformity can coalesce”—though at no point within the subsequent argument is there any specificity regarding what constitutes those diverse modes, or how they manifest in the experiences of the art being discussed. Consider the chapter in which he analyzes John Chamberlain’s crushed metal sculptures. After citing instances of the artist describing his sculptures with sexualized metaphors (“With my sculptures the sexual decision comes in the fitting of the parts;” or, “So it all has to do with if it’s sexual, it’s squeezing and hugging”), Getsy gets to the question of how this language connects to the idea of transgender: “In no way did [Chamberlain] espouse a critique of gender when he talked about his work, but he did rigorously attempt to un-anchor and multiply meanings in it and in his process. In doing so under the rubric of the sexual, however, he raised questions about gender in its traditional characterization as static and determined.” So, while the relationship to sexuality is established, the move to gender here can only be by implication, another leap Getsy forces us to make.

It’s hard to explain how intensely I reacted to Abstract Bodies. I fumed for two days while reading it, ranting about it to every friend I saw—including several who happened to be quoted in it. By the middle of the second day I decided that my antipathy was so profound that I needed to meet the author—a man curiously absent from the text, his fantasies of art history cloaked in the bland authority of “scholarly” prose. I wanted to understand who he is and why he wrote this, so that I might try to empathize with him.

David J. Getsy is a perfectly pleasant, white, middle-aged gay man with the genial, non-threatening manner that befits a Distinguished Professor of Art History at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he is interim Dean of Graduate Studies as well as a beloved and influential teacher. I found him enormously sympathetic. He has previously published books on Rodin (Rodin: Sex and the Making of Modern Sculpture (Yale, 2010)) and late 19th-century British sculpture (Body Doubles (Yale, 2004)); edited a truly wonderful and important volume of Scott Burton’s writing (Scott Burton: Collected Writing on Art and Performance, 1965 – 1975 (Sobercove Press, 2012)); and has written articles on many contemporary queer and transgendered artists. “I know that this is the most important work I’ve ever done,” he told me, “I’m convinced of its political urgency.”

We talked for an hour and a half, during which his sincerity and commitment to the cause of transgender as an “epistemological shift” was clear. He had the comfortable air of a teacher who has clocked countless hours of seminar discussion and public conversation.

As our talk progressed, and it became evident that I was critical of his book, I felt the space around us thin, as it does around woodland creatures when they’ve been caught unawares. Ultimately, I wanted to understand two things: 1) why Getsy never locates himself in the book (“I thought it would come off as defensive to foreground my position as a non-trans person”); and 2) why he felt it necessary to use the intellectual and political frameworks of “transgender” to reify a group of white, straight, male artists who are already canonical (“these are simply the sculptures that illustrated my points most clearly.”) Getsy’s answers to these questions were unsatisfying in the same way reading Abstract Bodies ultimately is: he wrangles all the right terms while somehow not getting to any underlying truth. But, listening to him answer, I began to feel mean-spirited and overly aggressive. He’s a good guy, he’s trying to do right by art I love and politics I believe in, I thought, and I started thinking of ways to mitigate my criticism. By the time I got home I had decided to write the most generous review possible.

The next morning I picked up Abstract Bodies again. On this reading, it became clear that, of the four chapters, one is out of place in a revealing way. The arguments the book presents for Smith, Chamberlain, and Flavin are of an entirely different order than those about Nancy Grossman. With the famous men Getsy is proposing an intervention, a kind of “reparative reading” to queer our understanding of their work, but with Grossman he is advocating for her perspective and helping redress the hole in scholarship around her. The chapter begins by analyzing several early abstract leather wall works to re-contextualize discussions of Grossman’s iconic sculpted “heads”—which are not, of course, abstract in the sense that the other case studies are. Grossman is the only artist of the four he interviewed or interacted with, and here you see him assume the mantle of defender. The chapter aims to clear up the persistent “misreading” of her sculptures as related to S&M subculture by gay men who have collected and celebrated her, an association Grossman disavows—“That’s not S&M. That’s the human condition.” This persistent “misrecognition,” Getsy explains, “pitted her against feminist discourse as it developed in the 1970s.” Following the artist’s lead, he attempts to disrupt this link to kink by accepting her contention that the heads, while coded as masculine, sexual, and deviant, should be understood as self-portraits. “Her assertion that these works are self-portraits is thus a performative speech act. When using a performative, ‘to say it is to do it,’ and any artist who nominates one of their works as a self-portrait cannot be refuted.” What? Clearly the stakes of representation and of recognizing the artist’s voice take on a different power here—despite his earlier, fundamental protests about the irrelevancy of biography—and it is important to consider why. Getsy never details the flaming heterosexuality of Smith, Chamberlain and Flavin in the way Grossman’s sexuality is explicated (he tells us she had an affair with David Smith and was the long-term partner of lesbian art historian Arlene Raven). It doesn’t seem like a coincidence that the people in the ’60s, who made the purely non-representational sculptures, that (according to Getsy) open up gender and sexuality in ways that resonate with a transgendered perspective, also happen to be straight white men. He identifies Grossman as a lesbian, and her chapter is a study in the importance of registering authorial intent within the historical record for artists who have even slightly marginalized identities. In its own way, the Grossman section is an indictment of the others.

 “Not reducing other people to characters in bad novels” is as close as I’ve gotten to describing my politics in writing about art. This partly means confronting the unpleasant reality that an artist could, for example, be a racist, necrophiliac, or Republican, and still make compelling art. Or that—just like those of us who write about it—artists can have multiple, conflicting feelings at the same time, both consciously and unconsciously, which are relevant to the things they make and say and do. Getsy gets half way there, but undercuts it by his rhetorical method and ultimately narrow purpose—one he outlined in a panel discussion at the most recent Art Basel Miami Beach titled “Transgender in the Mainstream”:

One of the things that I do in my historical work, for instance, is try to infect the canon. I think of my own practice as re-reading the histories of artists who were not interested in gender, but nevertheless finding ways to re-read them to find capacitating sites in their work. I write about Dan Flavin and John Chamberlain, who have no alignment with trans politics at all, but I try to mine their work for the resources of openness they came to inadvertently propose, through their own pursuit of abstraction, as a way of making sure no one can ever look at a John Chamberlain again without thinking about questions of gender that were not his politics, but are maybe ours.

The first step in not reducing other people to characters in bad novels is to situate your self—your desires, intentions, or whatever—in relation to the story you’re attempting to tell. It seems most honest to make the position of “the writer” as clear and open as possible—a frame to be seen around and through, like the decorative bars on an iron gate beyond which we see into to the garden of other people’s lives, in different places and distant times. In not doing this, Abstract Bodies forces the reader against a cold metal wall of a political, and not an artistic, project. It is true that Getsy’s politics are worthy, but are, unfortunately, too often pursued here at the cost of the art and artists he is writing about. As he said: he is not attempting to illuminate the art, but to “infect the canon,” while strangely leaving the status quo intact.

One of the most powerful things the transgender movement asserts is the importance of self-determination in relation to gender identity—we let people tell us about their gender identities, and train ourselves to stall judgments based on what we can see; seeing itself is affected by extensive cultural conditioning. There might be a transgender-inflected way of looking at or thinking about art, but it wouldn’t solidify into a fixed embodiment, or stay beyond a given historical intersection—a bird gently alighting on a twig. To chart the history of these evanescent meetings between form and sensibility would entail a lot of primary research, tracking down names and narratives that have been hidden from view, and it certainly wouldn’t produce a book exclusively of white people or of names we all already know. That kind of transgendered art history would be an intellectually prescient and politically urgent project—one to which Abstract Bodies fails to do justice.


Jarrett Earnest

JARRETT EARNEST is an artist and writer in New York. He is the faculty liaison at the Bruce High Quality Foundation University, New York’s freest art school (BHQFU.org).