Language in the Vicinity of Art: Artists' Writings, 1960-1975

By Weiss, Jeffrey | Artforum International, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

Language in the Vicinity of Art: Artists' Writings, 1960-1975


Weiss, Jeffrey, Artforum International


"I DON'T LIKE THE INCORPORATION OF THE NAMABLE IN SOULPTURE" Carl Andre's observation from a 1968 interview reflects on the absence of image or allusion in advanced art of the period, but it remains pithily ironic: It is one hallmark of American art between roughly 1960 and 1975 that objects and installations were attended by massive quantities of artists' words, texts that fall across the artmaking landscape and settle like a heavy discursive drift. For one thing, artists were critics: Donald Judd reviewed dozens of exhibitions in New York galleries from 1959 to 1965 and composed several essays, such as "Specific Objects," in which he attempted to describe and account for the changing ontology of painting and sculpture; during the late '60s and early '70s, Mel Bochner covered exhibitions of new art in the critical press; both Bochner and Robert Morris composed defining theoretical texts--concerning seriality and "anti-form," for example--of post-Minimalism. But words--concrete verse (Andre), transitive verbs (Richard Serra), logical propositions (Bochner), "statements" (Lawrence Weiner), quasi-absurdist formulations (Sol LeWitt), the transgressive attenuation of banal speech (Bruce Nauman), the scientizing harangue (Robert Smithson), the magazine piece (Dan Graham)--were also often inseparable from the art itself. A proliferation of writing and other applications of language clearly distinguishes this generation. If we include avant-garde filmmakers--and considering how important film was to, say, Smithson and Serra, we probably should--the number of writers mounts even further. What does all of the activity betray? Is it a practice or a syndrome?

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Above all, writing is thinking, reasoning through. Exegesis can also signify the voice of authority: By setting the discourse, the artist as critic means to situate himself in the position of preemptive arbiter of ideas. That is, running commentary can serve as a cover. "No thought exists without a sustaining support," Bochner wrote in 1969 as an epigraph to a preparatory sketch for his inscribed wall drawing Theory of Boundaries, 1969-70, which posits the inseparability of any inference about the coordinates of space from its real or thinkable visualization (the "support," a pun on the conventional role of the canvas) or its symbolic relationship to the world through language. He might as well have been describing the physical and symbolic role of the written or printed page as a ground of risk, even uncertainty, during the '60s, for that is also what it is. Where the wall or the floor or the full coordinates of a room had been newly and assertively negotiated as art spaces that were coextensive with the physical space of the body, the page might be said to have functioned instead as the receptacle for something like an anxiety of interpretation.

This is not a case of the manifesto; protest rhetoric is as old as the idea of the avant-garde, although the distinction is somewhat difficult to quantify. The new writing was more often didactic and theoretically aware, and the energy level--demonstrated by sheer volume--peculiarly intense. Significantly, many of these artists' texts have been collected and anthologized. Over the past decade, subjects of published volumes have included Judd, Morris, Serra, Smithson (in separate English and German editions), and Graham (as well as Frank Stella, whose lectures postdate the period in question). Much more recently, in the past year or so, writings and interviews by Bochner (a bilingual French edition with many of the essays reproduced in facsimile), Nauman, and Ed Ruscha have appeared. At least two artists are still awaiting proper treatment: Letters and statements by Dan Flavin, composed in an exalted and sometimes caustic voice, are long overdue for a critical anthology; they only intermittently appear in old exhibition catalogues.

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