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557,087: Seattle

View from the outside of the Seattle Art Museum’s Pavilion on the opening night of '577,087'.

‘557,087’, the show which Lucy Lippard has organised for the Seattle Art Museum, will be recalled generically as the first sizable (i.e. public institution) exhibition of ‘concept art’, but it is in fact an amalgam of non-chromatic work running a gamut from late, funky Minimal to a point at which art is replaced, literally, by literature. The show is a bellwether, consolidated enough to necessitate sifting high-grade bullshit Canal Street art-thinking from genuinely dangerous, substantial material. ‘557,087’ (which was, incidentally, the population of Seattle in 1960; the title changes when the exhibition reaches Vancouver) deals with the idea of ideas as art (roughly quoting Joseph Kosuth, one of the more ideational and difficult artists). Unfortunately the context of exhibition bestows an unmerited exoticism on several ideas which, as with most of the lesser work, rely on the quality of theatre; biology or electronics or typing presented as art, unlike art presented as biology or electronics or typing, inherits the benefit of the doubt (‘What does it mean?’) since art has no measurable practicality – a bad piece stands there just as long as a good one. Ideas have a tougher time considered as ideas than as art:

In any field, some ideas are important and some are trivial. The importance of an idea is measured by 1) the number of things to which the idea applies – its applicability; 2) how often the idea is used in discussion and explanation – its relative frequency; 3) to what extent other ideas flow from it or can be derived from it – its fruitfulness; 4) to what extent the idea benefits human beings – its practical advantages; and similar factors.

The author (Edmund C. Berkeley, A Guide to Mathematics for the Intelligent Non-Mathematician) tenders the theory of evolution (natural selection) as a ‘profoundly important’ biological idea, while the colour classicification of bears, although more widely known, is trivial. While ‘557,087’ has its coloured bears, there are quite a few good, hard, sticky ideas (concepts?) around. (The catalogue is a set of label cards, one per artist, in most instances completed by the artist. The cards are randomly ordered and, in constant reshuffling, constitute a technique for apperceiving the show.)

Bullshit, most of which is found in the catalogue cards, seems a product of ideological fervor and occurs, mainly, in two forms: statements so extended and ersatz-profound as to cancel significance, and specious assertions. Some of the former:

‘…the boundaries of seeing, like the perceptible aspects of nature or outer space, seem to extend as infinitely as man’s experience and experiments can take them’; ‘I’m sure there are a lot of things we don’t yet know about which exist in the space around us, and, though we don’t see or feel them, we somehow know they are out there’; ‘Metaphors for the degree to which an individual exists in the world, the degree to which he asserts himself, asserts his environment’. Some of the latter: ‘Non artists often insist on something along with the art because they are not excited by the ideas of art. They need that physical excitation along with the art to keep them interested. But, the artist has that same obsessed interest in art that the physicist has in physics, and the philosopher in philosophy.’ (One of the con jobs of newer art- thinking is the straw-man scientist who does everything right that the old, garret-style artist did wrong); ‘Because the work is beyond perceptual experience…’ (Darby Bannard has pointed out the forced, hyper-positive use of ‘beyond’ when ‘short ofmight well apply); ‘Artschwager’s blps and Buren’s posters accent urban ecology’.

But there are first-rate idea pieces:1) Robert Morris’s wall, a process piece. The wall suffers a shotgun blast, the blasted wall is photographed and the photograph is mounted over the buckshot crater. The process is repeated at each succeeding location of the exhibition, each consecutive photograph a couple of inches larger than the last; 2) Joseph Kosuth’s series of cards, part of a larger work entitled Art as Idea as Idea [1966]; 3) Robert Huot’s room painted Pratt & Lambert #5017 alkyd flat blue; 4) William Bollinger’s log floating in Seattle Bay and 5) Dennis Oppenheim’s Infected Zone [1969], another process piece: an area of land undergoes bombardments of gasoline, rat poison, grass poison, etc. I did not see Huot’s room (to be done when the show reaches Vancouver) or Bollinger’s log, or, except through ‘photo-documentation’ – a standard mannerism of concept art – Oppenheim’s Zone; nevertheless, the ideas are appealing, and with this I find myself harmoniously level with the exhibition. In these invisible pieces, we are head-on against quality and intent: in place of physical fact, there is a description and perhaps a few clues as to intent. No one, it seems, is quite sure of the staying power of non-corporeality; ‘557,087’ requires a hell of a lot of reading (revolution floats on a sea of words). But, to ‘see’ these pieces as figures of radicalism against a ground of ‘art’ is, once more, to make a necessity of ‘art’; thus, non-present pieces are in the mind, where they are free to be dealt with as ideas. Morris’s wall is significant as an idea (ad infinitum as a physical process) and, concretely, as a static/moving time piece (the form, complete in Seattle, projects itself ahead and behind through the photograph). In Kosuth’s piece, the slender physicality of the cards is reluctant, but the philosophy is honest; Kosuth risks the embarrassment of trying to find answers in his typed outline, rather than merely, hiply, ‘posing questions’. The quality of Kosuth’s thinking is evident when compared to Robert Barry’s gratuity: ‘All the things I know but of which I am not at the moment thinking – 1.36 p.m., 15 June 1969 New York’. Huot’s room and Bollinger’s log have in common a physical, but conceptually extended, connection to ‘art’ which gives rise to multiple possibilities – comments on painting and sculpture, explorations of materials, participation-environmental-time pieces, etc. – while retaining a grittiness in the work (or idea of a work) itself. Oppenheim’s Infected Zone is, among the others, an old master: a slick, mature, finished product (colour photographs, technical specifications, ‘official’ signature).

The relationship of art to objecthood, perhaps the true problem of ‘557,087’, is solved in a literary way, by literature. The concepts in concept art are either so large, general, profound, abstract, permanent or so small, personal, complex, trivial, particular, ephemeral as to mock any rationale for an art object. Into the vacuum abandoned by the art object comes ‘concept’, made manifest by literature (specifications, photo-documentation, formulae and, infrequently, ordinary narrative prose). At its best the art exceeds literature- as-medium, and, in pieces by Morris, [Keith] Sonnier, [Robert] Ryman, Eva Hesse (Accretion [1968], an object consisting of fifty fiberglass tubes leaning in a row against the wall), Ed Ruscha (the book Every Building on the Sunset Strip [1966] mounted as a single horizontal strip so that the south side of Sunset Boulevard is upside down), Robert Smithson’s four hundred drugstore-size snapshots of ‘Seattle horizons’, Mel Bochner’s Territorial Reserve #4 [1968] (which at least anticipated the need for boundaries) and Fred Sandback’s untitled rectangle of elastic cord, the presence is felt rather than read about. When the particular properties of literature dominate, the results become curiouser and curiouser. One of Edward Kienholz’s Tableaus, entitled After the Ball [Is Over #2 (1965)], contains the following first-novel prose: ‘In the kitchen, sitting at a table, under an unshaded light bulb is the father, tired, rigid, menacing. He has been teased into letting his daughter go to the dance (this is her first real date). He doesn’t know why, but right now he hates the young man.’ Dan Graham’s work, a mélange of writing, tape and assorted evidence, contains such heavy Sociology 1A nuggets as astrology considered as a social science, magazines as socioeconomic statements and the possibility of no-point-of-view writing.

And there are indifferent idea pieces (not bad, really, but ailing from predictability): 1) Ian Wilson’s medium of ‘oral communications’ (art-talk, talk-as-art); 2) Robert Rohm’s 40-by-20-foot rope grid in which certain cuts have been made, a whole section falling limply to the base (the effect is palpably visual, the ‘documentation’ is precious window dressing); 3) Bob Kinmont’s Eight Natural Handstands [1969] (photos) which occupies that gap between Deborah Hay and Andy Warhol and debilitated by (in comparison to) Bruce Nauman’s films; and 4) John Baldessari’s and George Nicolaidis’s silver ghetto stickers reading ‘– Boundary – A section of a city, especially a thickly populated area inhabited by minority groups often as a result of social or economic restrictions’, which were placed on the perimeter of San Diego’s black ghetto (fine conscience-tweaking entertainment for culture vultures and, they’ll never know).

Some examples of pretty bad idea pieces were 1) Bruce McLean’s three landscapes of Lake Washington by other artists, selected (one bad traditional, two bad ‘early’ moderns) in Seattle; 2) Richard Artschwager’s blp, a shape similar to his 100 Locations [1968] piece in the Whitney Annual, but here adjusted for ‘concept’ purposes: ‘When you see a “blp” you recognise it as an image of the true blp which is in your mind’; 3) Rick Barthelme’s television set (not present) which ‘instead of making any art, I bought’; 4) On Kawara’s notebooks, I Met and I Went [both 1969] in (medium) ‘people and cities’; and 5) Adrian Piper’s display of two notebooks and a map documenting travels from Point A (New York) to Point B (Seattle), including, helpfully, textbook definitions of point and line.

There is a total style to the show, a style so pervasive as to invite the conclusion that Lucy Lippard is in fact the artist and that her medium is other artists, a foreseeable extension of the current practice of a museum’s hiring a critic to ‘do’ a show and the critic then asking artists to ‘do’ pieces for the show. The most salient aspect of the statement for ‘557,087’ is precisely the lengths to which it refuses to go. For instance, it is explained that parts of the show are not confined by the limits of the museum, Seattle or, indeed, the dates of the exhibition, a hedging which asks why the show was not merely declared without benefit of a World’s Fair Pavilion embellished in the traditional manner, with the untraditional objects and ideas of ‘557,087’. Also, it is noticeable that, in a general kind of art in which there are few, if any, material prerequisites, we have a glut of glossy photographs, notebooks and typewritten copy and, by contrast, very few technical or, more broadly, non-literary statements. Finally, most of the intensely literary work, like Donald Burgy’s loose-leaf, a medical and psychological history, pertains to the hypnotic demarcation between the specific (personal) and the abstract (conceptual). Burgy’s concern for the nature of his own navel, his own head, becomes, successively, relentlessly ordinary, banal, impersonal, abstract and conceptual.

In its parts ‘557,087’ emerges from manifold sources, of varying degrees of relevance (‘relevance’ depends on belief in ‘issues’ in current art, as opposed to endless refinement; ‘557,087’ is about issues). In Allen Ruppersberg’s Hay at the Ambassador [1969], a table covered with, among other things, greenish hay, the allusions to [Marcel] Duchamp’s Fountain [1917] and Man Ray’s Le Cadeau [1921] are obvious, as is the art-historical spectre (Abstract Expressionism to Pop to Minimal to Earthworks to Concept Art) hovering over most of the exhibition. The single most pertinent source is, I think, an almost Puritan, moralistic concern with the threatening, nagging, perverse presence of ‘art’ and, as sub-source, anti-technology. One notebook admits the questions, ‘Are works of art PHYSICAL objects? Are works of art physical OBJECTS?’ Poignant, not strident, the idea pieces in ‘557,087’ ricochet around, figures begging for grounds. The choice of non-technology as modus operandi validates the exhibition (or that part of it concerned with asking) since new media (opposed to non-media) avoid the business of re-defining art; new media ask only mechanical questions; non-media ask almost all the other questions. Miss Lippard’s exhibition is, if not what it might be (concept), at least a compilation of emphatically non-decorative, a-technical art and art-thinking. And, if the quality and force are uneven, if the concept of concept art is unlikely to retain much cohesion before most of the artists are further dispersed, the show effects a bump in the phenomenology of art.

Editors’ Note: This text was originally published in Artforum, vol.8, no.3, November 1969, pp.64–67. © Artforum, November 1969, ‘557,087: Seattle’, by Peter Plagens.