Last June I met my friend Margaret Crane for lunch at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. We sat outside on a sunny Sunday afternoon, chatting and eating salad. It wasn’t too hot, the air was breathable—a perfect ladies’ date. Then we headed into the museum’s jewel-in-the-crown exhibition, Beyond Geometry: Experiments in Form, 1940s-70s. The show was huge, astonishing, including nearly 200 works by 130+ artists from Europe, North America, and South America. Jesús Rafael Soto’s bright overlays of geometric lines made our eyes blur; Bridget Riley’s wavy stripes made us slightly dizzy. Lucio Fontana’s canvas was sliced, with two gaping wounds down the middle just begging to be poked, but we knew better. We saw paintings in irregular shapes by Manuel Espinosa, Juan Melé, and Rhod Rothfuss; we saw plastic, neon, dangerously sharp metal edges; we saw Mira Schendel’s sheets of rice paper hanging from a nylon cord, all fluttery like parrot tulips. Margaret and I marveled at François Morellet’s diamond-shaped metal grids that squished up and expanded. We stood in front of a three-dimensional painting that shifted almost imperceptibly. “Margaret, am I crazy or did you see that thing move, too?” We delighted in Gianni Colombo’s rows of throbbing styrofoam rectangles. With so many kinetic pieces, the stationary art felt dull, static—like it just sat there taking up space. A number of artists worked with corners, none of them as eerily as when Joseph Beuys stuffed the corners of his studio with animal fat, but we did enjoy Fred Sandback’s single blue elastic cord that created a square of (empty?) space in a white corner and Enrico Castellani’s “Red Corner Surface,” which looked like giant red buttocks. We saw paintings that curved away from the wall, paintings with things hanging from them; we saw mobiles, first-edition concrete poetry books, Bernd and Hilla Becher’s photos of weird water towers, and Carl Andre’s shiny floor tiles that we could actually walk on without a guard hauling us away.
“Spatial Concept-Waiting (59 T 104)” (1959)
Oil on canvas with incisions
With a big show like this, it’s impossible to take it all in. After a while the mind shuts down and visceral reactions take over, greeting the work with grunts and chuckles, or sometimes just the word “cool.” This shift can be intense, as the boundary between viewer and artwork falls away—you enter into a sense of intimacy with the artist, the intimacy of a sort of psychic licking rather than studied analysis. This happened to me at the Eva Hesse retrospective at SFMOMA in 2002, where her work profoundly moved me; but surrounded by so much cleverness and glitz, her pieces in Beyond Geometry felt stripped of resonance. Eleanor Antin’s “Carving: A Traditional Sculpture” is comprised of four long horizontal columns of photos of Antin’s naked body—front, back, and side views—taken over time as Antin loses weight. In the context of all this formalism, it emerged more as an exercise in seriality than a comment on women and body image. Standing before it, Margaret said, “Cool.”
The show’s press release touts the political influences on the work included. Under the subheading, “1945-1979: A Turbulent Time,” mention is made of the Cold War, Vietnam, civil rights, feminism, gay liberation, and “an activist youth culture.” In comparison, the exhibition catalogue (MIT Press, 2004) focuses more on the theoretical than on the political implications of this transitional period between high modernism and postmodernism, when the United States overthrew the shackles of European dominance and became a world-class art power. Though many of the artists in the show practiced a fervent regionalism, curator Lynn Zelevansky argues in her introductory catalogue essay that these works’ “radically simplified form and systematic strategies” comprise a global movement. “The international artists represented in exhibitions and publications around 1970 may have already been aware of one another’s work to varying degrees, but it is more significant that they shared sources and ideas to which they had been exposed locally. As a result, the conceptual basis of their art, often independently conceived, was nonetheless related.”
Emulsion on canvas
Throughout her catalogue essay, Zelevansky argues with artist after artist. Discussing the American minimalists’ disdain for European art, Zelevansky notes that the minimalist embrace of the literal in art was actually a tenet of European concrete art, formulated way back in 1930 by Dutch artist Theo van Doesburg. In response to the minimalists’ disdain for what they saw as Mondrian’s “geometric abstraction,” Zelevansky points out that Mondrian, in fact, created his work intuitively. In response to Swiss artist Max Bill’s assumption that “seeing is detached and rational, a straightforward biological mechanism that functions the same way in all people,” Zelevansky counters with, “As James Elkins makes clear, true seeing is actually ‘irrational, inconsistent, and undependable.’” One comes away from the Beyond Geometry catalogue swimming with information, one’s head stuffed with a vision of insular groups infighting and denouncing each other over rigorous issues such as “ideal” versus “presence.” Zelevansky’s typology of beliefs and oppositions is exhausting—minimalist, concrete, neoconcrete, Grupo Ruptura, conceptual, kinetic, and on and on—a big sense of no forest, all trees. What I longed for in the catalogue was a clearer and more in-depth exploration of what the exhibition’s press release describes as the “common intellectual and artistic concerns” that form the basis for “this unprecedented coming together.” How does this work emerge from its “turbulent time” other than with a vague sense that because of the threat of nuclear holocaust we’d better get rational?
At the beginning of Zelevansky’s essay is a photo of Hélio Oiticica’s Nucleus 6, which is made up of a group of monochrome pinkish paintings suspended at various heights, some of them at right angles to the others, creating a sort of enclosure. In the midst of them stands a guy in jeans and a short-sleeved black shirt, his arms down and slightly out from his body. We see him only from the shoulders down; the top half of his body is occluded by two horizontal paintings. Another long vertical painting wedged at a right angle between these two horizontal paintings appears to slice into and bisect his body in two, separating the left side of his chest from the right. The absolute stillness and stiffness of his stance reinforces this effect. There is a thin gap between two of the paintings, revealing a strip of the guy’s face—the hint of an eye and the corner of a mouth. He’s peering back at the viewer, but his expression is unreadable, ambiguous, as if he were rehearsing for a part in a Robbe-Grillet film. He doesn’t look like he has moved beyond geometry. He looks like geometry has trapped him.
Jesús Rafael Soto
“Almost Immaterial Vibration” (1963-64)
Wood, wire, and paint
In high school when I was a pulsing blob of emotion and intensity, László Moholy-Nagy’s 1947 Vision in Motion was my bible. Documenting the aesthetics of Chicago’s neo-Bauhaus Institute of Design, which Moholy-Nagy founded, the book is liberally illustrated with student and faculty experiments in form, as well as contemporary avant-garde art. I marveled at the streamlined angularity of art and industrial objects, at curvaceous biomorphic shapes that hinted at a titillating eroticism. Beyond Geometry’s catalogue credits Moholy-Nagy several times with being a precursor to some of the artists in the show, so I turned to Vision in Motion again, curious as to how it could speak so deeply to a Vietnam-era working-class teen in Indiana. What I found was an astute, frighteningly timely analysis of the dehumanizing effects of modern technology and global capitalism. In the wake of Auschwitz and Hiroshima, Moholy-Nagy proposes a marriage of art and science in order to secure the heart and morality of the industrial world. Moholy-Nagy cites the US Declaration of Independence as an example of a utopian principle whose realization is limited by “the unconscious dependence upon the previous structure.” New forms of art can eradicate oppressive unconscious structures. “The fundamental concept and concern of the abstract painter does not seem to be involved in the details of ‘social reality.’ Consequently, abstract art is often interpreted by the social revolutionaries as the art of the escapists. But the artist’s duty is not to be always in opposition. He may concentrate his forces on the central problem of visually constituting a better world, yet to be born. . . . In a deeper sense, the interpretation of space-time with light and color is a truly revolutionary act.” “Abstract” art, by reprogramming the subconscious of the masses, will bring about nothing less than a new social order.
Vanguard art such as that in the Beyond Geometry exhibition has spurred us to appreciate increased viewer participation in the creation of the artistic experience. This work, committed to explorations of duration and seriality, an embrace of mathematics, suggests that (all?) meaning should reside in the object rather than the artist pointing to meaning outside the object. These are laudable aims, as are the erasure of the authority of the artist as creator, the prizing of process over product, and the urge to eradicate artistic categories. In the big picture, we can vaguely see artists all over the world working towards a leveling, possibly democratic, way of making art. But where is Moholy-Nagy’s revolutionary fervor? In the catalogue’s final essay, “Reality Rush: Shifts of Form, 1965-1968,” Inés Katzenstein makes explicit connections between Vietnam-era activism and developments in the art of Daniel Buren (French), David Lamelas (Argentinian), Hélio Oiticica (Brazilian), and America’s own Robert Smithson. Katzenstein provides a lively, enlightening analysis of the heroic efforts of these artists to break free of the confines of the gallery and take their formal experiments to the streets.
How this work engages its “turbulent time” feels especially pertinent to our current political climate, as 9/11 and the war in Iraq have propelled many writers and artists into a crisis of aesthetics. How can art address the enormity of such terror and chaos? Should it? Does formal experimentalism still make sense? Gay writers and artists experienced a similar crisis in the ’80s and ’90s in response to AIDS. I’ve been struck by the lack of irony in gay experimental narrative as compared to its straight counterparts—the McSweeney’s crowd, for example—and I’ve wondered if gay writers’ confrontations with AIDS aren’t, in part, responsible for that. Is irony possible in the face of mass crisis? Beyond Geometry may not have provided answers to my personal aesthetic soul-searching, but it did amuse Margaret and me. Perhaps laughter and delight are enough for two serious ladies on a sunny Sunday afternoon.
Dodie Bellamy’s latest books are Pink Stream (Suspect Thoughts Press) and the re-release of The Letters of Mina Harker (University of Wisconsin Press). She lives in San Francisco. This article was originally published in NYFA Quarterly, the arts and culture magazine of the New York Foundation for the Arts.