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Robert Pincus-Witten and Postmodernism

The engagement between subject and reader was the vision-at-large in the writings of Robert Pincus-Witten. Pincus-Witten gave clarity to works of art where language had rarely been given with such attention and sensitivity. Through his extraordinary grasp of history and aesthetics, combined with a formidable insight, the critic began his reviews by exonerating the pervasive presence of the artist’s work. His acutely unbridled accuracy of language focused eloquently on what he saw and on what he believed was the work’s origin. For Pincus-Witten, the role of the critic was to expose dynamic intervals inherent in works of art and then to grapple with the inherent parts before the totality became apparent.

Given the critic’s reputation as an unimpeachable scholar by the late sixties, he would gradually become the fundamental arbitrator for an ensemble of artists soon to become known as “Postminimalists” a decade later. Over the years, Pincus-Witten rarely departed from the qualitative standards he flawlessly wove into the poetic content of his writing. Whether enlisting the immense productivity of higher echelon artists, such as Louise Bourgeois, Lucas Samaras, and James Rosenquist, or investigating the ingenious stratifications of emerging performative visionaries weaned on reductivist aesthetics, Pincus-Witten’s ability to see the linguistic potential behind these works—i.e. Pictorial/Sculptural, Epistemology, and Ontology—could be read as an act of sheer intellectual generosity.

For Pincus-Witten, the major artists who evolved from the stratagems of earlier Minimal Art, included Bruce Nauman, Eva Hesse, Vito Acconci, Richard Serra, Jackie Farrara, Mel Bochner, Sol LeWitt, James Collins, Barry Le Va, Richard Tuttle, Scott Burton, and Keith Sonnier. It was here that Pincus-Witten stood at the cusp of a vastly changing art world that continued to expand throughout the seventies. He delineated the importance of how art defines our understanding of the present in relation to the past, further suggesting that the criticism of the past informs what artists need to know before entering into another form of textuality that would eventually revise obsolescent strands of criteria, in this case, a definitive criterion that would replace formalism.

In reading Postminimalism (New York: Out of London Press, 1977) one may sense that Pincus-Witten’s analytical scoping is on the side of the artists rather than the theorists. There is a passage in his essay on Richard Serra where Pincus-Witten discusses an untitled film document by Robert Fiore involving the installation of the sculpture, One Ton Prop (House of Cards) (1969) at Serra’s studio prior to its first public viewing in the “Anti-Illusion” exhibition at the Whitney Museum. According to Pincus-Witten, the film has a tendency that aspires to the condition of a work of art whereby the work itself exists as a literary idea or a possibility in the artist’s mind. The critic goes on to say:

On one hand, it would appear then that part of the new sensibility is a kind of nihilism, an impulse to supplant a work of art with its own adumbration. Such in the case of artists of more Dadaistic or linguistic turns of mind. The difference between Serra and these figures . . . is that there is no literary focus at all in Serra’s work. Therefore, its meaning cannot be supposed on the basis of concomitant documents.

In a second lengthier essay on Eva Hesse, the critic enters into an analysis of Accession (1967), one of her most inscrutable sculptures,

Even in [her] most serialized conceptions it was the sense of the hand, of making and doing, which took precedence. Compared to more purely theoretical Minimalists (‘Solipsists’ Mel Bochner called them)—LeWitt, Judd, Morris—Hesse’s version of seriality and modularity appears more playful, even ‘incorrect.’ The smaller floor pieces often seem little more than primitive checkerboards, games, childlike counting exercises quite unlike the metal and Plexiglas monuments which we take to be the shining examples of Minimalism during its sway.

In each case, with Serra and Hesse, who were knowledgeable regarding the de-aestheticized orientations of one another’s art, Pincus-Witten examines two specific works that by now would be considered iconic in the lexicon of postminimalism. In either case, his analysis is closely involved both in the materiality and the method of each artist. In addition, the critic contextualizes their works in such a way as to show what is essential to how we learn to read them. Without a context to provide experiential access, the work will suffer a loss in connecting with its prospective audience.

In the essays of Pincus-Witten, he is careful to avoid traps of illustration. Rather he is aware that the linguistic ploys that stood behind postminimalism were at the time of their writing a critical language quite opposite from American style formalism. To reveal the context that supports the works of Serra and Hesse (among others) happens by shifting the context from a background, as in formalism, to a foreground of critical attention. It is curious that his idea concurred historically at a time when Postminimalism and Postmodernism began to intersect. Through the ultimate probability of coincidence, Pincus-Witten discovered a new door in late twentieth century aesthetics that would eventually offer a freedom of passage into the art of the digital age: the twentieth-first century. One can only speculate as to whether Postminimalism provided the necessary linkage for this to happen. Chances are that the artists affiliated with this development offered the radical edge.

Contributor

Robert 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.

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