Magazine article Artforum International

Charles Ray

Magazine article Artforum International

Charles Ray

Article excerpt


"What I wish to point out here is that the entire enterprise of art making provides the ground for finding the limits and possibilities of certain kinds of behavior."

- Robert Morris, Artforum, 1970

When behaviorism moves into the museum, the result is decisive, or so Robert Morris thought around 1970: The viewer becomes active, the art object passive or passive-aggressive, and the gallery a laboratory where the two collide. Morris went so far as to insist that such activity be more bodily than mental, that the intersection between viewer and object force an encounter that makes "physical and practical" a relation earlier consigned to "empathy and imagination." The quote comes from the catalogue of the 1971 Tate Gallery exhibition where Morris put these ideas to something of a stress test. He found their limits soon enough. For though viewers did have "physical and practical" contact with his work (or better, impractical contact: they dragged logs on rope leashes, labored up ramps, and rolled about inside a concrete culvert), it did not last long. Fears for public safety turned the show into a "proper" retrospective and a de facto declaration of disaffection from Morris's idea of an "art that goes beyond the making, selling, collecting and looking at kind of art" (again the catalogue is speaking) to renovate the artist's public role.

Yet Morris's concerns with behavior weren't so easily closed down. Imagine them migrating along routes established by the more resolutely visual of the sculptural modernisms of the '60s - via Anthony Caro, for one key example - but (to preserve Morris's disestablishmentarianism?) switching signposts along the way. I reckon the exercise eventually leads to the work of Charles Ray: It goes straight to his recent retrospective, right to its core ideas. They had their beginnings at art school in Iowa, under a British-trained teacher enamored of Caro. In homage to their mutual hero, Ray started painting sculpture the same red that Caro had used for his 1962 Early One Morning, behind which Ray stands on the cover of the catalogue accompanying his recent retrospective. The image, a montage, hallucinates an encounter between Ray and the art he once saw as most provocatively deceptive - most "hallucinogenic" - in how it figures space and configures anyone nearby. At Iowa Ray could routinely be heard dragging heavy metal around his studio, balancing brute materials to almost high-wire illusionistic effect (it's as if one of Morris's more muscular viewers set out to make himself a Caro for a change). Still a student, Ray showed the resultant metal and concrete pieces as his first exhibition, a 1971 installation called One-Stop Gallery. It was re-created, pointedly enough, for the recent LA MOCA retrospective.

One stop, as if the show were the local franchise of some sculptural convenience store, where aficionados of both Morris and Caro could find just the thing. The idea may seem unlikely, especially for viewers used to thinking of Minimalist and modernist sculptors as opposite numbers recordable only in separate columns of the critical ledger. No one told Ray. That's the trouble, or the issue: No one told him that art couldn't both behave and instigate behavior - couldn't both satisfy and produce the viewer as someone self-consciously operating in that role. Instead Ray reckoned that any one artwork could do all these things - and do them simultaneously. The only question was how.

Satisfy and produce: If these words match up with Ray's practice it is because they speak to its technical fixations and perfectionism, its concern with logic and system, to say nothing of their opposite numbers, illusion, pun, and conundrum. And in their implicit eroticism they further flag the ways his work signals its distrust of the body and of its appearance as an authentic or final category. Granted, as a description of Ray's project, this characterization may seem unconvincing, particularly where bodily authenticity is concerned. …

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