A Museum of Language in the Vicinity of Art

Art International (March 1968)

Robert Smithson, Quasi-Infinities and the Waning of Space, 1966. Graphite, colored pencil, ink, and greased crayon, 14 × 1 11/16′′. Image courtesy the Robert Smithson Estate.

Ad Reinhardt’s Chronology (Ad Reinhardt—Paintings by Lucy R. Lippard) is a somber substitute for a loss of confidence in wisdom—it is a register of laughter without motive, as well as being a history of non-sense. Behind the “facts” of his life run the ludicrous events of hazard and destruction. A series of fixed incidents in the dumps of time. “1936 Civil War in Spain.” “Bay of Pigs fiasco.” “1964 China explodes atomic bomb.” Along with the inchoate, calamitous remains of those dead headlines, runs a dry humor that breaks into hilarious personal memories. Everything in this Chronology is transparent and intangible, and moves from semblance to semblance, in order to disclose the final nullity. “1966 One hundred twenty paintings at Jewish Museum.” Reinhardt’s Chronology follows a chain of non-happenings—its order appears to be born of a doleful tedium that originates in the unfathomable ground of farce. This dualistic history records itself on the tautologies of the private and the public. Here is a negative knowledge that enshrouds itself in the remote regions of that intricate language—the joke.

The Art World was created in 4 Days in 4 Sections, 40 years ago, and originally 4004 B.C. Today minor artists have 400 Disciples and more favored mediocre Artists have 44,000 Devotees approximately.

Ad Reinhardt, A Portend of the Artist as a Yhung Mandala

The word “teratology” or “teratoid” when not being used by biology and medicine in an “organic” way has a meaning that has to do with marvels, portends, monsters, mutations and prodigious things (Greek: teras, teratos = a wonder). The word teratoid like the word dinosaur suggests extraordinary scale, immense regions, and infinite quantity. If we accept Ad Reinhardt’s “portend,” the Art World is both a monster and a marvel, and if we extend the meaning of the word: a dinosaur (terrible lizard)—a lizard with its tail in its mouth. Perhaps, that is not “abstract” enough for some of the “devotees.” Perhaps they would prefer the “circular earth mound” by Robert Morris or even “a target” by Kenneth Noland. Organic word meanings, when applied to abstract or mental structures have a way of returning art to the biological condition of naturalism and realism. Science has claimed the word teratology and related it to disease. The “marvelous” meaning of that word has to be brought to consciousness again.
Let us now examine Reinhardt’s “Portend,” and take this “Joke” seriously. In a sense Reinhardt’s teratological Portend seems to approach some kind of pure classicism, except that where the classicist sees the necessary and true concept of pure cosmic order, Reinhardt sees it as a grotesque decoy. Near a label NATURALIST-EXPRESSIONIST-CLASSICISM we see “an angel” and “a devil”—and a prehistoric Pterodactyl; Knight calls it “another kind of flying mechanism.” Reinhardt treats the Pterodactyl as an atemporal creature belonging to the same order as devils and angels. The concrete reptile-bird of the Jurassic Period is displaced from its place in the “Synoptic Table of the Amphibia and Reptilia” of the “subclass Diapsida,” and transformed by Reinhardt into a demon or possibly an Aeon. The rim of Reinhardt’s Portend becomes an ill-defined set of schemes, entities half abstract, half concrete, half impersonal fragments of time or de-spatialized oddities and monsters, a Renaissance dinosaurism hypostatized by a fictional ring of time—something half-way between the real and the symbolic. This part of the Portend is dominated by a humorous nostalgia for a past that never existed—past history becomes a comic hell. Atemporal monsters or teratoids are mixed in a precise, yet totally inorganic way. Reinhardt isn’t doing what so many “natural expressive” artists do—he doesn’t pretend to be honest. History breaks down into fabulous lies, that reveal nothing but copies of copies. There is no order outside of the mandala itself.

The center of Reinhardt’s Joke is empty of monsters, a circle contains four sets of three squares that descend toward the middle vortex. It is an inversion of Pascal’s statement, that “nature is an infinite sphere, whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere”: instead with Reinhardt we get an Art World that is an infinite sphere, whose circumference is everywhere but whose center is nowhere. The teratological fringe or circumference alludes to a tumultuous circle of teeming memories from the Past—from that historical past one sees “nothing” at the middle. The finite present of the center annihilates itself in the presence of the infinite fringes. An appalling distance is established between past and present, but the mandala always engulfs the present order of things—ART AND GOVERNMENT/ART AND EDUCATION/ART AND NATURE/ART AND BUSINESS—are lost in a freakish grandeur that empties one’s central gaze. Everything mad and grotesque on the outer edges encompasses the present “Art World” in an abysmal concatenation of Baals, Banshees, Beezleboobs, Zealots, Wretches, Toadies, all of which are transformed into horrors of more recent origin. From the central vortex, that looks like prophetic parody of “op art”—I can’t think of anything more meaningless than that—to the rectangular margin of parodic wisdom— “Everybuddie understands the Songs of Birds and Picasso,” one is aware of a conflict between center and perimeter. The excluded middle of this Joke plunges the mind into a simulated past and present without a future. The original and historical nightmare bordering the “void” destroys its own sanctuary. At the bottom of this well we see “nothing.” The center is encompassed by “The Human Vegetable, The Human Machine, The Human Eye, The Human Animal”—a human “prison house of grandeur and glory,” not unlike Edgar Allan Poe’s House of Usher, or even more precisely his A Descent into the Maelstrom— “Upon the interior surface of a funnel vast in circumference, prodigious in depth.” Poe’s “Pit” (center) is defined by the swing of the “Pendulum” from side to side, thus defining the circumference. Reinhardt’s “dark humor” resembles Poe’s “sheeted memories of the past.” Reinhardt maintains the same haunted mind that Poe did: “a dim-remembered story of the old time entombed.”


Robert Smithson

ROBERT SMITHSON (1939-73) was an American sculptor and writer associated with the Land Art movement.