CHORUS: ‘T is past.
MEPHISTOPHELES: – Past! A stupid word.
J. W. Goethe, Faust II
Following a short-lived euphoria of high expectations and dark fears, it appears that the transition to the 21st century has clearly toned down a certain apocalyptic note which could be detected only shortly before in cultural debates and discussions about art. Up until a few years ago, it was part of the almost obligatory exercises when discussing, reflecting upon or writing about contemporary art, to either declare, complain about or disclaim the end of the traditional concept of art, especially of painting.1 Titles of books dealing with the “last picture” or proclaiming a painting “after the end” or “beyond” painting2 made this genre of art, in as much as it still existed, seem “undead, a zombie, someone unable to die”.3 The idea that Pictura, the feminine allegory of painting, so seductively portrayed in renaissance art, is now old and decrepit, even haunting the world as one returned from the dead loses a lot of its morbid attraction if one only ponders Nietzsche’s dictum: “Let us beware of saying that death is the opposite of life. The living being is only a species of the dead, and a very rare species.”4 Life and death are perhaps anyway more entwined and entangled than we would normally think. This especially applies to concepts and complex cultural practices which may no longer be adequately expressed in the idealizing collective singular painting is, art is. The subject in general, and specifically the artist subject, the author (Roland Barthes), have apparently outlived the much acclaimed “death of the author” and the “disappearance of the subject”. These occurred already in the late works of the most prominent heralds of their downfall.5 The end of painting does not appear to have been final – and this is scarcely because people still paint; it is rather because the notion that the end of painting would consist of revealing its own essence in a final, ultimate painting is losing more and more its persuasive power and relevance. No one has dedicated himself to the apocalyptic tone in the numerous “discourses of the end” and their “going-one-better in eschatological eloquence” with such acumen as philosopher Jacques Derrida.6 And no one knew as well as he did that those who propagate the deconstruction of finalistic thought and proclaim the “end of the end”, in doing so, “whether wanting to or not, participate in the concert.”7 Where no end is final, not even the end of art history, the modern or the post modern,8 the risings from the dead, rebirths, revivals, and new beginnings are inevitable. In the wild interplay of post- and neo-, it has become clear that the development of what is still customarily referred to as “the” contemporary art, may no longer be recounted in a linear history of progress. It is evident that this is rather more like an increasingly complex texture of the most varying aspirations and motivations, competing means of expression and styles, all in a continual process of influences, takeovers, further developments, ideological rejections and exclusions, which form a pluralistic, impossibly intricate network.9 Not only the conceptual definition of art, but also that of the subject has become more complex, differentiated and fragile following so many death proclamations and resurrections. A dialectical concept of subjectivity, a pluralistic concept of art and the intricate relationship between them – this is precisely the conceptual environment of Personal Structures.
“Primary” sounds Platonic.
The title Personal Structures is intentionally ambiguous in meaning. On the one hand, it refers to the individual psychological term of personality structure, which means: it refers to the thoughts, feelings, deeper convictions and idiosyncrasies, which make a person who he is. On the other hand, it cites structures, forms and “constructions” which in some sense have to do with personality, have a personality or indicate personality. Thus, Personal Structures points to the art works as well as the artists. With this close and reciprocal relationship between the person and the work, this title or name – I consciously avoid using the word “term”, since we are not dealing here with a definition, but rather with a cautious approach, with the justification and plausible explanation of a title of a book – points to the fact that, following the much invoked death of the author, i.e. of the artistic subject, one has been observing for a long time already the return of the personal and the subjective in art.
In the name Personal Structures, one can hear a distant echo, the slightly ironic allusion to the title of the famous exhibition “Primary Structures”, which took place at the Jewish Museum in New York in 1966 and which is generally regarded as the show where an artistic movement, later generally known to art history as “minimal art”, became clearly visible to a broad public for the first time.10 The name “Primary Structures” suggested that the decisive characteristic of this art was a reduction to basic form, a limitation to what is most essential. James Meyer traced the process of deciding upon this title “Primary Structures” in his meritorious historical study of minimal art. It is worth our while to take a closer look at his explanation of the expression, because it forms the background, before which the name Personal Structures contrasts all the better. Meyer assumes that, in addition to both of the curators, Lucy Lippard and Kynaston McShine, the artist Sol LeWitt was considerably involved in naming the exhibition:
“For LeWitt a structure implied a three-dimensional art form unfettered by associations with such traditional media as sculpture or painting. It suggested as well a clear tectonic organization, a work built in a factory rather than the subjective product of the artist’s hand. [...] ‘Primary’ [...] denoted a form so basic that it did not have to be invented, so standard that it did not reflect the artist’s personal decision-making. A ‘primary’ shape was socially given; the cube or pyramid was part of a common vocabulary. Younger artists now used these forms in order to purge their work of idiosyncrasy and emotion.”11
Structure – the magic word of the 60’s and 70’s, in which the structural anthropology of people like Claude Lévi-Strauss and the structural linguistics of people like Roman Jakobson became more and more of a leading liberal arts discipline – was regarded as something removed from subjective arbitrariness, something which pointed to the aprioristic, the given, and already existing. The geometric abstraction of the post-war era had already helped itself to a self-definition of this concept, at this point still in an unabashed idealistic perspective, in which “structure” was understood as being synonymous for the inner essence of reality. Max Bill, for example, wrote in 1949 that the “things in today’s art” were not “only form as beauty, but rather thoughts, ideas, and knowledge which have become form; i.e., they are not substance which is present on the surface, but rather structures of the set up of the world, of behavior, according to the view we ourselves have today of the world […]”.12 Here, form, idea and structure become concepts, mutually representing one another, circling around the ideal core of the “unassailable objective solution of the aesthetic outcome”.13
Wherever minimalism formed a strong conceptual component – for example, in the work of Sol LeWitt – many of his critics relegate the aprioristic of the structure very comfortably to the transcendental subject, equating it with the basic state of the intellect – which is also nothing other than that which can also be found in Lévi-Strauss’s structuralist theory.14 The serializations and modulations of a basic form (for example, of LeWitt’s cubes) thus appear like illustrations of the human capacity for thought itself.15 The fact that in the title “Primary Structures”, as well as in a large portion of minimalist critical reception, there was still an idealistic undertone, something Donald Judd noticed very early on. In his typically laconic manner, he later remarked: “I hated the ‘Primary Structures’ show at the Jewish Museum in 1966, both itself and its title – ‘Primary’ sounds Platonic.”16
Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.
Frank L. Baum, The Wizard of Oz
The excursion into a past era of recent art history we are about to undertake would be completely out of line here, where we are dealing with a project of up-to-date contemporary art – if it were the case that this era had actually passed and were only of historical interest! What we grossly simplify by calling “minimalist art” has unleashed an effect which is in no way completed and locked into a place in history. Several decades of artistic and theoretic reception have, however, differentiated, expanded, and changed the face of minimalism and revealed inner contradictions and one-sidedness. Not least among these is a tendency towards the depersonalization of art works which had already failed to convince Peter Schjeldahl in 1984:
“There was always something out of whack about the Minimalist first generation’s cult of impersonality [...]. Minimal works were made by somebody, after all – somebody with motives and attitudes livelier than that shrivelled theoretical residue, ‘intention’. (Judd in his more conventional ambition as a stylist, escapes this objection.) The work of Andre, Morris, Flavin, and even LeWitt often had an eerie, remote-control quality – as of the Wizard of Oz enjoining Dorothy through a fiery apparition, ‘Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!’.”17
The concept of “Primary Structures” has not been able to maintain itself as a designation of the works of art discussed here.18 Historically, the stylistic concept of “minimalism” or “minimal art” has won out, though it is certainly not less debatable, but “Primary Structures” very precisely defines the depersonalized, reductionist view of this direction taken by art, which long determined its reception, fitting perfectly into a widespread discourse far beyond the borders of art concerning the “disappearance of the subject” and the “death of the author”.19
The reason for choosing the name Personal Structures for this book is the intention of finding a relationship, which on the one hand preserves the reminiscences of minimal art and on the other hand, marks very clearly the decisive difference. In doing this, the confrontation with minimal art is, granted, only representative, as a pars pro toto for the “great new missions of the 60’s”, upon which, and here we can agree with Johannes Meinhardt, “painting” – and not only painting – “which has not forgotten its own history”20 must be founded today. The intensive confrontation with the redefinition of art in the 60’s (with minimal art and its most important precursors and successors) may be clearly seen in the works of the artists introduced here. Since I often, and persistently enough, asked in the individual interviews about the most important influences, let it suffice here to point out that the art preceding and surrounding minimalism in a broader sense (for example, of Barnett Newman, Ellsworth Kelly, Donald Judd, Robert Ryman, Richard Serra, to name only a few) is cited again and again as departure point and source of inspiration. Unlike “Primary Structures”, the name Personal Structures points to an inherent relationship of tension, the personal development or adoption of what is by definition the pre-, un-, or super-personal of “structures”. What is presupposed here may, however, no longer be seen as an a priori concept of “elementary forms”, and certainly not as transcendental mechanisms of the intellect. What is presupposed is rather the basic vocabulary of abstraction, which the modern movement has provided: Abstraction “forms that basis of the modern which has survived the change of styles [...], the historical sediment [...], which is repeatedly at our disposal as ‘historical resource’.”21 By structures, we mean here not only the so-called simple forms such as the circle, square, or cube, but also more complex form concepts such as, for example, serialization, monochrome painting, painting as object, painting as process, spatial installations, floor sculpture, etc. as they have been researched in their basic possibilities, above all, since the 1960’s. Personal Structures means taking up this basic artistic vocabulary in an individual and subjective manner and then thinking further, discovering in and with them ever new, surprising, seductive, contradictory, and ambiguous possibilities for statements and expression – in short: allowing them “idiosyncrasy and emotion” once again.
Extreme positions are not succeeded by moderate ones, but by contrary extreme positions.
Friedrich Nietzsche, Unpublished Writings
It was said of the “new abstraction” of the 1990’s that it “celebrated the subjective gesture” and pointed out the “hunger [...] for the ductus of the man-made picture revealing a subjective handwriting”.22 But the return of the artist subject in art, which is hinted at in this quote and which may be designated as an essential element of the project Personal Structures as well, calls for more precise definition. For what does not return in any way is the autonomous, overbearing artist subject, who works in a sovereign manner by his own authority and inner guidance. This concept of the artist as creator – from Leonardo’s designation of the painter as a “signor e dio” to Picasso’s “I am God”23 – seems as far removed from us today as the stories from a mythological time of heroes. The 1960’s were a time of radical questionings of the autonomy of the subject. Especially French post-structuralist thinkers such as Foucault, Derrida and Deleuze understood “the subject not as a fundamental underlying concept, but as subjected or decaying: as a product of power constellations or ideologies, as a plaything of unconscious, libidinous impulses, as a sacrifice of discontinuity and contingence.”24 The individual subject was now viewed as merely the product of given influencing factors (nature, the unconscious, language, social power relationships and discourses, etc.). In the 1980’s, the decade of the debates on post-modernism, it was above all the simulation of reality by the mass media and digitalization, the possibility of human genome manipulation and the globalized economy which were discussed as further arguments for the weakening of the subject.25 The desubjectivization of the art work associated with minimalism and concept art, up to neo-conceptual “appropriation art”, found an ideal field of reception in such a climate of discourse. Art increasingly became the exploration of its own definition, its pre-set rules of discourse, structures, forms, ideologies and institutions.
The thesis of death or decay of the subject was, however, unable to maintain itself in its radical form either in philosophy, the literary sciences or in sociology. Everywhere in academic discourse as well as in the various arts, the topic has been for some time already the reemergence or the return of the subject. In painting, this became apparent for the first time very clearly in the neo-expressionist shows of the so-called new fauves (“Neue Wilde”). The fact that only a few years later their loud and garish self-portrayals looked like “documents of a postmodern which had already become historical”,26 however, had to do with the fact that they acted out their need for heightened subjectivity, for self-expression and expressive gesture without grappling with the state of the discussion of the previous decades. When we speak of a return of the subjective, the emotional and the personal with respect to the artists introduced here, this could scarcely be further away from the neo-expressionistic “submersion in a historical unconsciousness and atavistic immediacy of life”27. Following the dismantling and the deconstruction of the artistic subject in art since the 1950’s (geometric abstraction) and the 1960’s, the personality of the artist cannot be constituted by mere declaration and narcissistic self-portrayal. This expressive gesture very quickly fell flat by necessity. The talk about the end of the subject, art and painting, which this essay departed from, may not be disproved by merely ignoring it. These discourses have called our attention to a very real danger for the subject in post-modern societies and to a very real danger for artistic practices in a world, which has been influenced by mass media’s hypertrophy of the visual. Artistic practice is no longer self-understood, it can no longer fall back on pre-set, social definitions; the artist as subject must in whatever he or she does always create and define himself/herself anew. I consider the strength of the artists gathered together in this book to be that they tie in with the most advanced forms of a new definition of art in the 1960’s and there, in critical confrontation with the most varying forms of de-subjectivized articulation, they find the potential for a new, equally endangered, fragile and reflective self-definition of the artist’s personality. It appears evident that today, on the present level of reflection concerning the postmodern, second modern, post-postmodern or whatever the labels of common attempts of dividing into periods may be,28 the concern must not be to find a connection to an art-immanent, historical logic of development, but to personally account and take responsibility for one’s own creative action within the unlimited possibilities for choice and decisions upon an area, whose borders appear to have been essentially delineated.
“Personality” shows itself in these works of art not in the naïve manner of expressive self-articulation, but rather more conciliatory, dialectic, restrained, and subtle – and is thus just as far away from the cool neo-minimalism of the 1980’s and 1990’s as from the expressive gestures of the new fauves. Most likely, one could – not for purposes of set definition, but rather as a suggestion for interpretation and cautious approach to the works shown here – call attention to the concept of a “dialogical subject”, which Peter V. Zima had suggested in his theory of the subject, where he attempts to provide an answer to the diverse theories of the disappearance of the subject and then, in a critical confrontation with them, seeks to comprehend the concept of subject in a new manner: “The individual subject [...] should now be understood as a dynamic-dialogical instance, which thrives on ambivalence and negation, dialogue and alterity, reflection, narration, and identity construction.29
Subjectivity as a self-sufficient, self-determining, autonomous self-identity has turned out to be an illusion. “In contrast to this, dialogical subjectivity is oriented towards alterity. It lives on despite all distortions, which the dialogue entails, from its other, and also from its opposite.”30 This other may be something like other artistic languages (and other languages in the broadest sense as well), other people and cultures, other places, the other sex, nature as the other, etc. Works which have been created from such a self-perception directed to an other in dialogue allow art to break out from the influence of empty self-reflection. With subjectivity, it will thus become increasingly possible for the reference to the real world to return in art, using neither the figurative nor a metaphysical attribution of meaning of abstract forms. The works of the artists, which are to be presented here in short, are too individual and too different to be lumped together in a rigid (for example, stylistic) category. In the vastly complex weave of contemporary art, they do form a certain strand, however, for which the flexible, cautious, non-concept bound, but rather descriptive and interpretive designation Personal Structures may be a fitting characterization.
1 A condensed survey has been provided by Günter Seubold in: Das Ende der Kunst und der Paradigmenwechsel in der Ästhetik. Philosophische Untersuchungen zu Adorno, Heidegger und Gehlen in systematischer Absicht, Freiburg (Breisgau/Munich 1997, p. 23-51.
2 Peter Weibel, Kaspar König (editors), Das Bild nach dem letzten Bild, Cologne 1991; Johannes Meinhardt, Ende der Malerei und Malerei nach dem Ende der Malerei, Ostfildern near Stuttgart 1997; Gerard A. Goodrow (editor), Malerei jenseits der Malerei, Berlin 1998.
3 Meinhardt [see footnote 2] p. 20.
4 Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, III, no. 109.
5 Peter Bürger, Das Verschwinden des Subjekts. Eine Geschichte der Subjektivität von Montaigne bis Barthes, Frankfurt on Main 1998, esp. p. 213-226 (on Roland Barthes); Franz Josef Wetz, “Wie das Subjekt sein Ende überlebt: Die Rückkehr des Individuums in Foucaults und Rortys Spätwerk”, in: Geschichte und Vorgeschichte der modernen Subjektivität, edited by Reto Luzius Fetz, Roland Hagenbüchle und Peter Schulz, Berlin/New York 1998, Vol. 2, p. 1277-1290.
6 Jacques Derrida, D’un ton apocalyptique adopté naguère en philosophie, Paris 1983, p. 58 f.
7 Ibid., p. 60.
8 Hans Belting, Das Ende der Kunstgeschichte?, Munich 1984, ibid., Das Ende der Kunstgeschichte. Eine Revision nach zehn Jahren, Munich 1995; Gianni Vattimo, Rafael Capurro (editors), Das Ende der Moderne, Ditzingen 1990; Andreas Steffens (editor) (with the cooperation of Christine Pries and Wilhelm Schmid), Nach der Postmoderne. Ein Zeitmitschrift-Buch mit philosophischen Texten zur Gegenwart, Dusseldorf / Bensheim 1992.
9Just how confusing, diffuse, and irreducibly complex the situation has become today, is clearly demonstrated in an ironic painting by British artist Peter Davies called “What goes around comes around – Jackson Pollock Text Painting”, done in 2001. In this painting you can see an all-over surface structure, an arrow diagram which cannot be disentangled, which shows the – real or supposed – stylistic, institutional, personal and ideal influential factors and their interdependencies, which the contemporary art scene is subject to. It is a labyrinth diagram of confusion as opposed to providing an overview. The painting (acrylics on canvas, 78 x 132 in. / 198,1 x 335,3 cm) is in London in the private collection of top-model Claudia Schiffer (see VOGUE [German edition] 03/2003, p. 296-301.
10 A retrospective view of this exhibition has been provided by James Meyer, Minimalism. Art and Polemics in the Sixties, New Haven / London, p. 13-30.
11 Meyer [see footnote 10], p. 22.
12 Max Bill, “die mathematische denkweise in der kunst unserer zeit”, in: Eduard Hüttinger, Max Bill, Zürich 1977, p. 105-116, quote p. 114.
13 Heinrich Klotz, Kunst im 20. Jahrhundert. Moderne – Postmoderne – Zweite Moderne, Munich 1994, p. 162, speaks of the “conclusive calculation of Max Bill, who in an extreme distancing from his ego, in the vehement destruction of ‘self expression’ hoped to find the unassailable objective solution of the aesthetic outcome”.
14 Concerning criticism of Lévi-Strauss’s “ontological structuralism”, which presupposes the “presence of objective thought, an primal code, [...] a structure of structures, which is identical with the universal mechanisms of the intellect, with the intellect, or if one prefers – with the unconscious,” see Umberto Eco, Einführung in die Semiotik, Munich 1988, p. 357-416, and other places, the quote is from p. 369 [italics are the original].
15 Rosalind M. Krauss deserves merit for a brilliant essay on the work of Sol LeWitt, countering these idealistic interpretations (especially those of Donald Kuspit, Suzi Gablik and “Primary Structures” co-curator Lucy R. Lippard), and revealing the highly irrational, obsessive and absurd element to his work. Rosalind M. Krauss, “LeWitt in Progress”, , in: Krauss, The Originality of the Avant-Garde and other Modernist Myths, Cambridge / London 1991, p. 245-258.
16 Donald Judd, “Complaints I” , in Judd, Complete Writings, Halifax, New York 1975, p. 197-199, quote p. 198.
17 Peter Schjeldahl, “Minimalism”, in: Art of Our Time: The Saatchi Collection, Vol. 1, New York, 1984, p. 11-24.
18 Lucy R. Lippard championed the concept “Primary Structures” once more in a text written in 1968, strongly speaking out against the term “Minimal Art”: “10 Structurists in 20 Paragraphs”, in Minimal Art, Catalogue Haags Gemeentemuseum, The Hague 1968, p. 25-31.
19 See footnote 5.
20 Meinhardt [as in footnote 2], p. 9.
21 Klotz [as in footnote 13], p. 155.
22 Ibid, p. 162 and p. 156. The most important protagonists of new abstraction in the “second modern” for Klotz are Sean Scully, Günther Förg and Helmut Federle (see ibid., p. 162-165).
23 On Leonardo’s comparison of the artist to God, see Erwin Panofsky, IDEA. Ein Beitrag zur Begriffsgeschichte der älteren Kunsttheorie, Berlin 1989, p. 121; concerning the core of art theory in Picasso’s statement, verified several times, see Peter Lodermeyer, Transformationen des Stillebens in der nachkubistischen Malerei Pablo Picassos, Munster 1999, p. 232-244.
24 Peter V. Zima, Theorie des Subjekts. Subjektivität und Identität zwischen Moderne und Postmoderne, Tubingen and Basel 2000, p. 4.
25 An informative portrayal of these debates in literature, philosophy and sociology may be found in Zima [see footnote 249, p. 193-364 and passim.
26 Klotz [see footnote 13], p. 103.
28 Klotz [see footnote 13]; Walter Grasskamp, Ist die Moderne eine Epoche? Kunst als Modell, Munich 2002, esp. p. 42-62.
29 Zima [see footnote 24], p. 368 (italics are in the original).
30 Ibid., p. 369.
The text is the abrigded version of the essay in the book PERSONAL STRUCTURES. WORKS AND DIALOGUES, New York City, 2003.
© 2003 by the author: Peter Lodermeyer