Extending the Universe: Conceptual Art, Women, and the Structuralist Paradigmby Robert C. Morgan
In his book Structuralism (1970), the renowned Swiss philosopher Jean Piaget revealed the affinity between the structure of language and the function of systemic processes in developmental psychology. Piaget’s investigations closely though indirectly paralleled the work of conceptual artists of the same period who were more interested in clarifying their art through structural parameters than in terms of aesthetic form. For example, Sol LeWitt and Hanne Darboven, who began to work directly with language and systems as early as 1966, both challenged the notion that form in art was necessarily the result of an expressive intention. Instead, they believed art should exist within a logical structure, namely, the grid. Although LeWitt advocated that artists were mystics rather than rationalists, he maintained that conceptual art was far more than the imposition of form. For LeWitt and Darboven, the presentation of a structural continuum in art was the overriding issue, not the formalist dictate. They believed that the foundation of conceptual art lay in the search for a method that elided the necessity of formalism.
Piaget’s matrix, based on diachronic (changing, relational) and synchronic (unchanging, static) units, played an important role in clarifying the meaning of what he called a “genetic epistemology,” a study of the origins of knowledge, which might include those structural traces that exist beneath the surface of an artist’s systemic mark-making. While the diachronic variable represents the chronological sequence of an event as it is formed by cause and effect relationships, the synchronic emphasizes a more thematic sequence within that chronology. As conceptual artists work in relation to systems of thought, recurrent thematic ideas within the structuralist paradigm come into play. These ideas have persisted in informing mark-making through various approaches to materials in recent years. Instead of taking a purely formal approach or decoding encrypted signs and narrative strategies, some artists in recent years have chosen to work with this structuralist legacy and to extend the syntax of making art into another direction.
Upon encountering Catherine Lee’s “mark paintings” at her Duane Street studio in 1980, I was taken by the tension that her repetitive acrylic marks within discretely rendered grids engendered between the conceptual aspect of painting and its purely corporeal appearance. While her marks were looser than those of LeWitt, they never reached the point of being expressionist. Their slightly rounded zigzag retained a systemic appearance with slight variations across the entire surface. This is quickly apparent in a large, unstretched work such as “Diminutive Painting #4 (black C-5)” from 1977, which was recently shown at the Galerie Lelong in New York. The geometry in this painting is unrelated to the external world. It is not about the figure, the landscape, or paintings on a cave wall. Although consciously placed, each stroke within each unit of the grid is less a unique modular element than a direct repetition evolved from the artist’s premeditation. They create an allover pattern, but not in the aesthetic sense of “modernist painting.” Rather I would suggest that the mental act of repetition is the foundation of the work’s physical execution. Lee applies pigment systematically in a linear direction, composing her field not by chance but according to a predetermined course. By weaving each modular stroke into a progressive row, back and forth, she transforms her inward intention outward, as a purely visual manifestation of thought. Lee’s structural idea is clearly executed not as a hard-edge, geometric wall drawing as in the early work of Sol LeWitt, but as a lyrical thread more in line with Eva Hesse—a biomorphic pattern that enhances the rhythmic force inherent in an objectively patterned, transformative idea.
The notion of a seriality or sequential progression was, of course, endemic to LeWitt’s early wall drawings as well as in his three-dimensional structures (which he refused to call either “sculpture” or “minimal”). It is also worth noting that LeWitt once cited the New Mexico painter Agnes Martin as a major inspiration in his decision to employ the grid as a basic ingredient in his work. I am fairly unconvinced that Catherine Lee’s “mark paintings” from the late seventies were either serial or sequential. For the most part, her application process is static in the sense that her marks do not evolve or permute through repetition, but essentially remain the same. Her surface, despite its lack of kinesis, is vibrantly infused with the rigor between concept and action, space and time, as the eye moves inward to brain and outward again to the environment. Nothing develops in Lee’s paintings, which contributes to their obdurate intensity.
The concern for seriation, or a gradational movement within stasis, is more the case for Korean artist Ga Hae Park, whose two 18-part works on cut paper filled the entrance of St. Peter’s Church on Lexington Avenue and Twenty-fourth Street through the months of December and January 2008. Park’s cut-paper drawings transform musical notation into compelling, emotionally and intellectually charged works. Given their layers of technical complexity, it is difficult to articulate precisely the manner in which they were executed. Basically, Park deals with intervals of incised marks and geometric forms, literally cut in a progression through the paper. The surface creates a continuous optical movement and a sense of suspended harmony. Indeed Walter Pater’s phrase from two centuries ago —“frozen music”—describes these “Space Drawings” (2007) most accurately. While Park has worked with this method for many years, using mostly white with brief touches of color, this exhibition reveals the artist’s uncanny power to signify time through the horizontal placement of modular squares (measuring 14 × 14 inches), aligned on two registers, one above the other. The optical/kinetic vibrations of Op artists from another era are very much alive and well in Park’s “Space Drawings,” perhaps more timely and refined than they could have imagined.
Finally, I refer to a third exemplary work, shown at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art last November by Mahsa Karimizadeh. Neither painting nor drawing, Karimnzadeh’s “Deep Dark” (2007) was a work constructed from a large sheet of black curled foam filled with long wire pins and suspended from the ceiling in a white alcove. The subtle emotional and analytical aspects of this work evoked the history of great astronomers and poets in twelfth-century Persia. Ms. Karimizadeh has created a work that confronts scientific theories of the creation of the universe. The dense foam—which appeared at first as black rubber—was folded in the shape of a helix, suggesting the universe, and each of the hundreds of long pins sported a tiny white ceramic head. As I circumambulated the suspended shape, I realized that the shape of the helix was held together by the pins. I cannot say for certain that there was a systemic intention guiding the placement of the pins, but it was likely that there was. The big question arose like a lightning bolt – Could it be that infinity is, in fact, a helix held together by the stars? This insight offered by Karminizadeh’s work was no less than profound.
I was always told that the stars filled the universe, and that the universe was unlimited and therefore infinite. Through my experience with “Deep Dark,” I began to consider three alternative possibilities: 1) maybe the conditions of infinity are not unlimited in the sense that they exist beyond any known system of measurement; 2) maybe the electromagnetic force of the stars is what holds everything in place; and 3) maybe the conjugation of astronomy and poetry within the structuralist paradigm offer another kind of speculation capable of expanding our consciousness beyond our realm of everyday experience.
ContributorRobert C. Morgan
Robert C. Morgan is a writer, international art critic, curator, poet, lecturer, and artist. His most recent book is Clement Greenberg: Late Writings (2003). He holds both an MFA in Sculpture and a Ph.D. in Art History. He is currently Adjunct Professor of Fine Art at Pratt Institute.