Over the course of the 1960s the narratives many artists tell about their creative development take a distinct turn. Their work was “without evolution,” as Daniel Buren famously declared of his stripe paintings. Others don’t go quite that far, but speak instead of identifying a path they chose to follow, and then persisting with it. Hanne Darboven certainly falls into this camp. She came to New York from West Germany in 1965, aged 24, and remained for about a year. During that time, she met artist Sol LeWitt, generally familiarized herself with the art debates of the day, then adopted a numerical “system,” unique to her, that she could work on “for her whole life.”
The earnestness of her language is a little frightening. But the singleness of intent is amply matched by the Polish painter, Roman Opalka, who concluded in 1965 that he would commence the task of painting every number between one and infinity on identically sized canvases, and then keep doing just that for the remainder of his life. He died in 2011, and, true to his word, completed around 230 paintings, the numbers reaching deep into the five millions. Maybe he deserves the prize for being the most unwavering in his consistency. Yet the simple principle that you needn’t move away from working with just one set of ideas seemed like an increasingly appealing proposition for a much wider range of artists. Just think, for instance, of someone like John McCracken, or Fred Sandback, or Carl Andre, or Dan Flavin—all artists who return over and over during their working careers to a few core principles.
In one of his autobiographical notes published in 1966, Flavin surveyed his recent output—his drawings, diagrams, and fluorescent light installations—and proudly concluded that his ideas had remained much the same over the past few years. “It is as though my new system synonymizes its past, present, and future states without incurring a loss of relevance,” he exclaimed. His excitement is almost palpable: he can run variations on these themes for as long as he wants! Then self-reflection sets in. “It is curious to feel self-denied of a progressing development,” he muses.
It is indeed curious. It is strange that artists came to realize, mid-1960s, that it simply wasn’t necessary to push your art relentlessly in new directions, constantly re-evaluating everything you’d done before. It is even odder when you consider Greenberg believed that serious art consolidated the achievements of the past, and that artists needed to advance on these successes. Repeating yourself, or simply staying the same, was an indication that you had dropped out of the race. Think of the way he treats Chagall’s pictures from the 1920s (it just settled “down to a routine”), or Léger (the work became “facile and empty, a matter almost of formula”), or Braque (who “began to repeat himself with increasing ‘sweetness’”). In the early 1960s, such assumptions were still prevalent, so much so that it is surprising that any artist would believe that you could get away with just plugging away at just one thing. The fact that artists did is an indication, of course, that the mood was swinging in another direction. The conviction that there was only one collective tradition, with which all artists needed to grapple, was losing ground.
For Lucy Lippard it was clear that it was Ad Reinhardt who deserved substantial credit for helping to initiate this shift in attitude. In an article from 1974, it was he who “made the making of one painting over and over again a triumph instead of a cop-out.” That sounds like an overstatement, until you consider the sheer contrariness of his decision in 1965 to exhibit with three galleries simultaneously, showing different colored paintings at each: black at Parsons, red at Graham, and blue at Stable. Or, indeed, the way he arranged his paintings at his retrospective at the Jewish Museum the following year. Whatever visitors thought of the 60-odd near-identical black canvases that filled those four ground-floor galleries, it’s unlikely that they would have perceived them as showing much indication of a failure of nerve. The relentlessness of the arrangement only seems intent on illustrating Reinhardt’s blunt assertion that the “one direction” in art today was “in the painting of the same form over and over again.”
Reinhardt’s example clearly had a lasting influence on a younger generation of American artists. As Lippard points out in her monograph, he afforded a license for artists to work independently of any grand modernist notions of “progress.” When, in 1974, Lippard wanted to highlight the range of Darboven’s work without implying that this undermines the consistency of her project, she naturally invoked the artist who, in her mind, set the precedent. It’s “all different, all the same,” she wrote, “as Ad Reinhardt used to say.”
Alistair Rider is a lecturer in Art History at the University of St. Andrews, UK.