Affectless Minimalism (part one)
Can Minimalism Speak?
Tragedy hits the school and everyone thinks of me. A popular guy died, and now I’m popular because I’m the misery chick. But I’m not miserable. I’m just not like them.
-Daria Morgendorfer, Daria, S1E13: The Misery Chick
Last year I went to an exhibition of Sharon Koeblinger’s work titled “Scars are Question Marks” that had a few sculptural works of varying scale, mute palates and iconic references. In this space was a small work titled Luck Like Lead which set in motion a complicated relation between empathy and silence as it related to the viewer. The work on one hand exhibited a type of internal sadness of fantasy unmet; on the other hand it resisted conversation with its cold and isolated presence, accentuated with the use of its minimalist aesthetics. In sum, the work kept conversation at a distance, holding instead a relationship with the viewer that desired empathy and separation, a work (from my vantage) not invested in discussion.
While writing a review for this exhibition, a friend recounted a story where a painter joked at them, “I can’t speak to you, you probably don’t cry.” My friend, also a painter, makes works with hard lines, grids, and are intensely self-conscious of their objecthood. The paintings certainly have a steely demeanor. Their rigid paintings, at the same time, exude a bit of buoyancy with somewhat bright pallets. This combination of minimalist geometry and playful coloring bring the work to a space of light humor, akin to deadpan or slapstick comedy. My friend joked to me, “Little do they know, I cry all the time!”
With Koeblinger, Luck Like Lead asserts the idea of wishing for luck through the creation of a four leaf clover, allowing art to be a space of lost desire. At the same time, through minimalist aesthetics, the work becomes distant and separation is cultivated, placing autonomy in the position of cultivating unclear empathy. With my friend who may or may not cry, minimalism acts a little different. My friend (or their paintings?) assert a cavalier demeanor that doesn’t register as traditionally exhibited emotions or sensitivity. Autonomy can be read as defensive in this scenario, not engaging those who won’t ask, who will make assumptions.
The mixture of these two events brought me to a reconsideration of minimalism that this series of essays delves into, specifically how are minimalist aesthetics utilized to assert a stance, and how does the work allow autonomy to operate. Firstly, what is asserted, that is – what content is an artwork consciously attempting to place in the thoughts of the viewer? Historically, we can approach the legacy of minimalism with a sense of masculinity in mind. In Anna C. Chave’s feminist text Minimalism and the Rhetoric of Power, she makes several points that place minimalism and masculinity in lock-step, which can succinctly (and comically) be summarized in her reading of Donald Judd, ‘“Some kinds of art are routinely described as powerfully (read: intensely) expressive or emotional, but Judd’s work is not of that sort: if his objects were persons (and I mean this strictly in a fanciful way) they would more likely be described as the proverbial ‘strong, silent type.’” Over and over, Chave makes a strong argument that minimalism asserts dominance working in tandem with quietness, which, for her, registers a tangled and messy relationship with masculinity.
Secondly, how does an artwork rethink a sense of autonomy and to what means does that autonomy become enacted? Minimalism’s foundation was incredibly invested in the desire for autonomy. Donald Judd describes minimalist artworks as “neither painting, nor sculpture.” Robert Morris, in his text Notes on Sculpture, uses Tony Smith discussing the scale of his work to describe tendencies in sculpture.
Q “why didn’t you make it larger so that it would loom over the observer?”
A “I was not making a monument”
Q “Then why didn’t you make it smaller so that the observer could see over the top?”
A “I was not making an object”
Simply put, the foundational investments in minimalism was an interest in defining itself as what it is not. Pick up some of these early texts and they are filled with these types of descriptions. For example, with Judd, “not undeniable and unavoidable,” “It’s not like a movement, anyway, movements no longer work.” With Robert Morris, when discussing wall works, “does not confront gravity; it timidly resists it” to help define how minimalism acts differently. Although both texts lay claim to what the art they were invested in, it consistently and confidently resists and describes how it differs. Autonomy, here, is a tool of actively deflecting advancing categories.
In Queer Formalisms, David Getsy describes how this tendency within minimalism had a direct impact on her thinking of queerness:
What could gray polyhedrons and steel and plexi boxes say to queer politics? For me, it was in the tactics they shared: the outright refusal of the rules of convention and medium (“neither painting nor sculpture”), the hyperbolic performance of those rules as a means of critique or parody, and—most of all—the shift of emphasis from maker to user. Even though there seemed to be little queer politics in Minimalism, I realized I could draw queer politics out of Minimalism, according to its own logic.
It is with the many divergent perspectives on minimalism (a feminist reading, its foundational use of linguistic negatives, and queer reuse) that this series of essays moves forward. There will be two case studies from artworks by Leslie Hewitt and Matt Morris, who exemplify my interests in the artwork as assertion, while simultaneously cultivating autonomy as a place of difference, disconnect, disdain, and disinterest. Can minimalism speak? Often these case studies resort to silence to assert a relation and, as I’ve continuously felt, is less invested in conversing afterwards. They are almost factual in their being, a monologue as opposed to dialogue. In some respect the twists and turns I find myself in with these artworks is not meant to be viewed as didactic interpretations. Rather, the case studies focus on the messy relations these artworks create as it manages the history, tactics, and fantasies of minimalism. In some respect, the essay can playfully be thought of through the (literally) moving title of Leslie Hewitt’s work that will focus our attention in the 1st case study, Where Paths Meet, Turn Away, Then Align Again.
Always the Negative Space
Vested power became embattled on every front with the eruption of the civil rights alongside feminist and gay rights movements. In keeping with the time-honored alignments of the avant-garde, the Minimalists were self-identified, but not especially clear-thinking, leftists.
-Anna C. Chave, Minimalism and the Rhetoric of Power
Most critical writing and reviews around Leslie Hewitt focuses on photography bridging towards sculpture that collapses classical definitions within art, and engage larger narratives of social change alongside personal narrative. These works embrace messiness as they work through diverse histories that are presented awkwardly, and never provide a complete or clear narrative. As opposed to focusing on her photographs, we will look towards another body of work, which hasn’t been delved into as deeply, that present five untitled works constructed in Texas during a residency for an exhibition Where Paths Meet, Turn Away, Then Align Again. The untitled sculptures embrace a history that occurred simultaneously to Civil Rights and Minimalism. They indulge in singularity, sharpness, and flat shapes and most importantly, from my vantage, Minimalist autonomy. They were originally displayed with two small photographs cropped from documentation of Civil Rights actions. The full title of this pair is, Where Paths Meet, Turn Away, Then Align Again, (Distilled moment from over 72 hrs of viewing the Civil Rights era archive at The Menil Collection in Houston, Texas.) The inclusion of images in the same space as the sculpture places distinct pressure on their historical relation, and as I will argue, Minimalism’s relation to Autonomy and mute politics.
Hewitt’s untitled works are two dimensional white forms that were constructed from large sheets of steel. She worked, during her residency, with a San Antonio metal shop. They’re covered with powder coating of stark whiteness that resembles the institutional gallery space. Actually, their 2-dimensionality almost acts like they were detached from the wall, creating new divisions within the space. The powder coating technique is utilized on many materials, but is often associated with the coloring of car and bicycle parts. It seems important to note the differences in processes between the production of the distinct works on view. To invoke the history of Minimalism, she works with a metal shop to involved in the production and finishing of commodities. The photographs, on the other hand, are involved with research at an archive, or more librarian-like pursuit. To begin our reading, it seems worth noting where and how these histories can be put into motion.
The forms of the sculpture create a peculiar autonomy that seemingly responds to Minimalism’s history. They are spaced separately, and don’t create an overall structure in the space, rather, they each exhibit unique gestures – one may lay primarily flat until one fold in the corner occurs at a 90 degree angle, a quiet unassuming form not terribly involved in space. Another may exist more as a short wall, with multiple folds that require the viewer to move around it to understand its shape. This has two effects I would like to consider. First, the irregularity of how they appear and act in space give the work an animated quality as each exhibits a distinct mode of engagement. The frozen and animated appearance of the works, which don’t interact with each other, comes off as almost dithering, self-amused, and self-involved. Secondly, the embodiment of its peculiar autonomy extends to not having a relation to the Civil Rights photographs on display as well. This sets up an unclear and unresolved relationship between the two histories. If we were to agree that the sculptural forms come across as dithering amongst the photographs, they begin to resemble a privileged stance, unable and uninterested in relating to the photographs.
Another element is the object’s physicality which asserts whiteness and two-dimensionality while creating utter negative-space. The forms Hewitt presents seem laced and loaded with political connotations that are applicable to how Hewitt enacts autonomy. The pieces’ explicit formal qualities maintain visual correlatives to certain positionings towards race relations today, namely, the ability to treat it as a non-issue. Although the pieces are thin, somewhat fragile in appearance, they also occupy and control the environment through the creation of negative space. Despite Hewitt’s given limitation (thin steel), the works find a variety of means to pull off the ground and occupy a room.
But then, of course, to align again (the last spatial movement listed in her title) – I have pressed heavily on these works their relation to whiteness and privilege, but in what ways do the sculptures align with the photographs? The two photographs are almost duplicates – the first capturing an anonymous individual in space, the second a cropped detail, which allows the back of a head to dominate the composition. The head becomes an object of interruption, blockage of what can’t be seen. It is here that body is shown as form, turning away from the viewer (back of the head) and looking towards something else. On one hand, Hewitt outstandingly presents works that appear to perfectly define and embody some of Minimalism’s more troubled history, and on the other hand, she extrudes Minimalist strategies to exemplify a body’s use of autonomy, but also shows how that autonomy can go wrong. Autonomy becomes a desire as well as a pitfall.
Kathi Weeks, in The Problem With Work, describes autonomy as needing three characteristics to become politically relevant: self valorization, antagonism, and separation. In relation to Hewitt’s work, self valorization holds concluding thoughts. Weeks states:
“not mere resistance to processes of capitalist valorization but ‘a positive project of self constitution’ … as sites of self valorization, political collectives are recognized as constitutive machines rather than merely representational vehicles. The production of autonomous self-valorization demands on the struggle for a separation from the object of critique”
The project of self constitution demands the struggle for separation, but that separation is difficult. The histories that Hewitt presents are the forces of two movements that have underpinnings in revolutionary and unwavering commitments. They overlap in their desires to remain unmoved, but struggle to find overlap beyond the form of that desire. The presentation of these histories that meet, turn away, then align, shows histories that are densely and tensely awkward, laced with potentialities both positive and negative.