19. The conventions of art are altered by works of art.
– Sol Lewitt
When threatened with its impending obsolescence, the peacock flares out its plumage in self-defense. Just as the peacock’s feathers are always there, but hidden from view until externally stressed, abstract geometric art draws upon its intact archive of material, using it to impress and intimidate its new contemporary oppressors. The peacock has an ugly verbal cry, it is of no use in its defense. Likewise, the current impoverished theory of aesthetic autonomy is increasingly useless; even those who are convinced of its validity are unable to defend it in any articulate way, even while its history is openly available. Any so-called ‘return’ to modern art then is less a repetition or re-presentation of history than it is actual history itself earnestly being shown for what it wanted to be, in the least articulate way imaginable. Contemporary geometric abstraction, diffusing like a dormant virus, is a continual revealing of a modern aesthetic ideology that always aspired to overcome its own form, and presents considerable problems of melancholia over a bygone avant-gardism that doesn’t necessarily need to be, resulting in a condition resembling what might be termed ‘neo-modernism’. In a much needed (but unfortunately needed) corrective appeal, the very existence of contemporary geometric abstract artists speaks to a status-quo vulgarization of aesthetic history that wants to make static something that is truly dynamic, merely by wishing it were so.
After decades of ideologies that seek to liquidate art as a category into culture, it is initially surprising to witness what (at least) one critic casually termed ‘a return to modernism’. The return to modernism should, however, not be surprising at all; its reinvigoration occurs now when its complete disintegration is laid out on the foreseeable horizon by the vulgar turns into immateriality that challenge it. Relational aesthetics and its transformation into the more robust ‘social turn’ today threatens to annihilate once and for all anything even relatively aestheticized or categorical by ahistorical resistance. In this sense, modernism today is more itself than ever, if only because it defends itself by defining its as-yet unrevealed character. The ‘un-dead’ – geometric aesthetics – are more comprehensible when coming into tension with today’s immaterial climate than they were in their own era, because Constructivism for example tended towards its own dematerialism and this becomes illuminated in the ubiquitous idealism of dematerialized contemporary art. However, any immaterialism in Constructivist art paradoxically and crucially emerged through material form itself in a generative interplay of subject and object that is entirely impoverished by such vulgar idealism. Like a Stealth Bomber, geometry as form was materially used as a lubricant to dynamically cut through physical space – geometric abstraction’s dynamic nature is very separate from what has degenerated into its iconic currency. Many artists who draw on iconic modernist forms attempt to progressively clarify something which was never a cohesive identity, in an attempt to redeem aesthetic experience amidst anaesthetized passivity, and intellectually disintegrate what has unfortunately become concretely idiomatic of avant-gardism.
External stress on a particular form happens elsewhere too, for instance in poetic metaphor, which, when threatened with literalist realism, strikes back with an over-amplified use of metaphor that borders on the nonsensical and distorts its own form (e.g. as in lyrics by The Sun City Girls which are entirely, and intentionally non-sensical). Indeed, the historical demands required for an art form still precedes the instances of its defense by a particular artist. The artist doesn’t merely create the form in some petty subjectivism administered from on high, but objective, categorical form creates the preconditions of the necessarily pacified artist. Any art form or category has never been exclusively reflexive to its own concerns, but by external social concerns that generate its category to begin with as a social artifact. Artistic category by very nature is social in ways that the ‘social turn’ seems to unconsciously mime. For example, a widespread return to purely aesthetic geometric abstraction is tangible proof of the decline of the mechanically subjectivized critical artist, even as the critical artist bloats with purpose from the counter-stress put on its form as well from what is ill-perceived as formalism. Acute categorical difference emerges from social ideologies put in tension with each other.
Not only artists return to purely aesthetic work, but curators turn their eyes to historically under-looked ‘formal’ artists, as in recent attention paid to groups like Zero and Gorgona. As such a moment of mutual failure (of separate aesthetic ideologies) geometric abstraction should not be regarded as the attainment of freedom it searches for in its attempts to liberate aesthetic experience from the mechanized pastiche of thought in the vulgar legitimation of ‘critical’ art. In other words, geometric abstraction points to an aesthetic freedom not yet attained, and still struggles in the poverty of social relevance as culture trash. Artists like Florian Pumhosl, Martin Boyce, and Mika Tajima have answered by fusing the critical artist and the abstract constructivist, allowing iconic Constructivist art forms to penetrate and modulate critical art, even if the aesthetic is unavoidably still sublated into the latter. The inadvertent resort to historical ‘analyses’ of geometric abstraction fulfills Sol Lewitt’s 18th conceptual art predicament: “One usually understands the art of the past by applying the convention of the present, thus misunderstanding the art of the past.”
Anyone who regularly visits comprehensive websites like Contemporary Art Daily will immediately be struck by geometric abstraction’s surprising relevance in an era where it should be anachronistic. Down the righthand column on Contemporary Art Daily, where the archives of previous exhibitions are distributed randomly, one can always find at least a couple artists who use geometric abstraction not only in an implicit way, as an agent in the whole of something much more convoluted, but in a manner which is entirely upfront, reductive and explicit, seemingly consistent with its historical motives. This transparently observable situation is odd to anyone who has readily available to them textbook references for slightly older, up-to-the-minute contemporary art like the Art Now series, for example. Flipping through the hundreds of artists represented in the Art Now volumes as emblematic of an era, one is hard pressed to find more than a couple instances of geometric abstraction amidst the profusion of video, installation, interventionist, and conceptually oriented work. This is not merely an editorial or curatorial difference but also a sign of changing ethos in the subtle disintegration of iconic postmodern ideologies, and a meandering fluctuation intended to subconsciously reshape art practices by inexplicably permitting a projected golden age of avant-gardism to emerge from suppression. In addition to Contemporary Art Daily we have daily recourse to kitschy sites like But Does It Float, which more vehemently pushes what is implicitly assumed to be modernist, ie angular, technologically constructive forms paired with modernist maxims by famous thinkers like Buckminster Fuller headlining each submission. This is to say, when geometric abstraction becomes liquidated into kitsch, it’s nature is not self-evident but is an early sign of desperation in a postmodernism perceived to be oppressive and permanently sedimented in contemporary life. To echo Adorno, postmodern reification incites flight into phantasms of modernism.
This isn’t to say that modernism never happened as a very real phenomena. The persistence of abstract constructivist geometric works points to the abstracted persistence, in dormant or unconscious form, of a socialist art. Abstract work today is less about resistance, contra Barry Schwabsky’s argument in a recent article in The Nation, than it is about soberly targeting and redeeming historical failures, regardless of how convoluted or repressed such redemption is. Constructivism, and all the other avant-garde variations were given form by the immediately graspable socialism or barbarism of the moment – social realities still with us today in excruciatingly mutable ways. Without Lenin’s Marxism there would be no Constructivist art and consequently no Philippe Decrauzat, Imi Knoebel, Claudia Weiser, Jonathan Runcio, Martin Boyce, Florian Pumhosl, etc., who contemporaneously leach on the idioms of El Lissitzky and Rodchenko, for example, to varying degrees of self-consciousness and individualism. The obvious question still needs entertainment: What business do today’s non-revolutionary artists have in remanufacturing an ostensibly revolutionary art that has been already negated into ambiguity over time? This is less of a cynical criticism than a hope that something remains to be seen, if only in mutilated or pastiche form, of revolutionary consciousness and the truth value of autonomous art that Trotsky and Adorno theorized. This then leads into a second question: Why do contemporary artists constrain to reach for a bygone avant-gardism when an equally valid proto-avant-gardism was so well theorized. Moreover, it is unclear if recent abstract geometric work leaves the ground of merely boasting the often-fetishized esoteric art historical reference and devises to understand its object of critique by utilizing to the fullest potential the material itself in all its contradictions. What is the tselesoobraznost, or the end goal for contemporary geometric abstraction? Why does anachronism trump technique? These questions can be attended to by a somewhat tacit enterprise: that a return to constructivism and its legacies (concrete art, op art, etc.) is a desperate way of enforcing a more authentic social art in world that increasingly devalues it, in some sort of confusion over purpose that delimits aimless permutation of idiom. Any hope to be recovered in the infinite permutation of geometric idiom resides in such material delimitation that overrides predetermined intentionality and thus attenuates the latter to the former to attain what seems intellectually unattainable from the start.
A return to Constructivism is not self-evident. The After October group exhibition at Elizabeth Dee in 2008 raises similar questions, as well as the Constructivismes exhibition in 2009 at Almine Reich, that when taken together imply a directed curatorial attempt to understand the implications of artistic failure from nearly a century ago as they persist doggedly in contemporary art. Such unnatural attempts ironically occur within the naturalized proto-avant-garde we’d expect to have gotten over such failures by now but instead continue declaring interests in disemboweling a past with less potential than itself. But curatorial statements often do not answer the questions they propose. The art material and aesthetic reflection itself is supposed to do that through a form of critique that is not altogether reliant on secondary closed-captioning of the work or a collapse of the artist and critic that marks failures of material play and furthermore implies a dramatized seriousness. The curator-artist collaboration is poignantly unable to illuminate history in the way desired, and art history as symptom of the world history of freedom is consequently abstracted by an inarticulable connection between contemporary art and Constructivism in this instance. The diverse art on display in these exhibitions, from Haim Steinbach to Claire Fontaine and many others, changes little by professed statements regarding historical imperatives, but rather charades history in a way that shows its inaccessibility; audience, artist, and history are all left untransformed by the work on show. Nevertheless, by showing the tentacular breadth of revised Constructivism, each exhibition instance makes a crucial case for an as-yet un-achieved aesthetic experience amidst an artworld often plagued by immateriality, intangible relations, cults of personality, and anaesthetized subjectivity. It says something about the era that a case even needs to be argued, although it appears timid when shadowed by the chaotic interests of contemporary art. Its not as if these aesthetic interests merely deconstruct a past that is over and done with, but rather implies a constricted attempt to facilitate an aesthetic experience that never happened because it was truncated. Our regressive era makes timidity appear heroic.
Especially in the case of Florian Pumhosl, a critique of modernism seems to predetermine the work’s possibility itself. Much of his work has been reduced to researching the Modernist Japanese avant-garde influenced by Constructivism and representing their pamphlets in custom made wall-hanging vitrines or exhibit panes. In this line of work, the method is to research, preserve, and display, which seems interestingly paradoxical and then nostalgic when the thing being preserved is a futuristic avant-garde. Indeed, in its very existence interests in a dynamic future-oriented art emerge as wish-fulfillments in a historical moment that is as equally undesirable as a century ago. But it is not as if Pumhosl leaves the object of critique entirely untouched, as he linearly translates and reduces the formal shapes and lines of pamphlets into a more minimal framework, the frame itself, by painting sparse, monochromatic lines directly onto the back of glass. Elegance, in this instance, is symptom of a timidity towards how exactly to deal with history, even when the artist knows it is inevitable. Elegant formality in this case advances a T.J. Clark notion of modernist methods that questionably tend to leave material unworked, as the glass frames are generally untouched, excepting a thin black right-angle represented in a corner on one, and a sparse line in/on the other. A grand total of three spare monochrome lines in two works are expected to clarify history; an emaciated representation that shows more of its inaccessibility than illumination. Even formalism tends towards the immaterial, in a Hegelian twist of abstraction that implies the necessity for material to be present in order to implement a truly progressive dematerialization. Dematerialized art without material is merely a ruse. But Pumhosl’s ‘with white gloves‘ approach to disallowing history to dirty the hands, by consciously and literally mimicking canonical forms, void of subjective whims or theorizations of neo-avant-gardes, is a way of keeping art history in a preserved state, behind glass, concealed, abstracted, minimized, and kept at a distance from explicit contemporary change, even as it is paradoxically brought closer through intensive exposure. A puritanical objectivity is the result of an obscure and distant history in the process of being comprehended. This tendency is a natural one for an art world plagued by a singular understanding of avant-gardism as historically specific and exhausted, in the words of John Roberts, who distinguishes the event and then failure of the modernist avant-garde from Adorno’s understanding of a post-avant-garde situation that always looks retrospectively backwards to identify such moments to define its own, but inevitably learns about its progressive non-identity with them. For Adorno, this non-identity is the potential for newness; this provokes the question here then, why do today’s artists tend towards identity, and what curious non-identities are revealed about modernist form? The answer resides in an understanding of recent modernist ‘critiques‘ as being the revelation of modernism’s non-identity itself.
Many artists who make geometric abstract work today are these types of confused historian-artist hybrids, and the quality of the work can only be determined by the reciprocity of objective history and contemporary subjective working methods. Latent historical implications can properly be manifest and redeemed by an artist who adopts the historical object in a manner that changes it, and thus clarifies it by extracting undiscovered potential out from it. Such was the case with John Cage’s adoption of Erik Satie, who had until the time of Cage been a forgotten and intentionally overlooked composer. The historians wrote books on Satie without actually clarifying anything about the work. It took Cage to come along and actually implement forgotten Satie compositions like Vexations that the biographers had no instrumental use for to rescue him from oblivion and simultaneously define the zeitgest of his Cage’s own era, as a delayed redemption. The way into the new was through the old exclusively that relied on overcoming reified notions instrumentality. Or consider Sol Lewitt’s biography from the New York Times: “Mr. LeWitt was meanwhile intrigued by Russian Constructivism, with its engineering aesthetic, and by Eadweard Muybridge’s photographs, sequential pictures of people and animals in motion, which he came across one day in a book that somebody had left in his apartment. From all this he saw a way forward. It was to go backward.” The new always looks like it emerges like magic, mythically springing like Athena from the head of Zeus. There is seemingly no explanation, even while an obviously mundane one is immediately available that announces the present as expression of past and not as platform of future trends.
But the following chapter in The Times‘ biography on Lewitt maps a peculiar reoccurring projection onto the avant-garde: “He decided to reduce art to its essentials, “to recreate art, to start from square one,” he said, beginning literally with squares and cubes.” Why exactly the avant-garde is supposed to have consistently believed that shapes like squares and cubes are the fundamentals of art makes no immediate logical sense. Aesthetically pure, hardened against the trivialities of natural form–these characteristics seem to apply. But reduction of art doesn’t necessarily lead to squares. A somewhat tacit, and implicit understanding of this basic observation in today’s thinkers and artists doesn’t deter them from pushing art that clings to the same arbitrary Euclidean forms and projecting idiomatic form onto modernism, even as we learn through reflection its materialist evasion of such forms. An uncritical coexistence of subconscious recognition of a faulty idea of ‘form’, when paired with the extensive proliferation of that same aesthetic lays the groundwork for pastiche. Ingrained in it also is the potential for its overcoming, insofar as both the intellectual critique is planted inside, only needing to be found, while the material experimentation of that idea is in abundance, externalized, and waiting to be assessed. Interests in overcoming idioms are kept in a subconscious grey area elsewhere too. Consider a gallery-issued description of Philippe Decrauzat’s installation at Secession:
“Philippe Decrauzat’s art is firmly rooted in the legacy of 20th century abstract art, using the formal idiom of Russian Constructivism, the visual effects of Op Art, or the reduced geometries of Minimalism. In spite of this, his works are characterized by their claim to maintain a certain critical distance to all these styles. Consequently, Decrauzat’s position with regard to Modernism is not at all as it appears at first glance. His practice is also associated with the methods and theories of experimental film or pop culture, the cinematography of science fiction, etc.”
Clearly declared interests in a certain style are not permitted to follow their own material progressions into progressive negation without first being truncated by the typical trendy legitimation of a truncated style via a falsely separate “pop culture”. Or, put in different terms, no amount of pop culture references can cover-up the fact that the work is all too exclusively and traditionally Art. Or consider the gallery issued description of Ann Edholm’s paintings:
“Working in extended series Edholm stages large, occasionally even monumental paintings verging on both geometric abstraction and subtle expressionism. The latter reveals itself in barely perceptible details such as small thumbprints and smear marks made by the brush or, more often, by the palette knife, thus destabilizing the seemingly solid compositional patterns of basic geometric shapes. With an elaborate network of cultural, religious and symbolic references, Edholm meticulously merges classical painting with elemental geometric shapes together with sudden painterly gestures.”
Interests and material experimentation are not permitted to run their course into their own non-identity without first being undermined by a preordained resistance that lends too well to passivity. Undermining is a method of avoiding a material-critical assessment of the basically wrong assumption that geometric abstract work over the past century has merely been about reduction or form, as opposed to a reconstruction of aesthetics based in its exhaustion for example. Defense mechanisms are erected by the jargon of “critical distance”. Where art wants to try on certain models, in order to understand, exhaust, and overcome them – and this is the only way to move beyond them – a parody of criticism swoops in to suppress the process. The critical artist, in many but not all instances, is a conservative artist, too timid to trust in the critical potential of the medium itself, resorting to the comforts of deduced idealism and prepackaged principles about ‘society’ void of the material that could truly negate its object and redeem idealism. The very insistence of a ‘critical artist’ undermines the very real developments by previous artists who always relied on a critical examination of history anyway, if only through the confines of their own inherited mediums as a type of microcosm, but also as a way of upholding the highest standard of intellectual reflection through acute mediation of objecthood. Overcoming medium-based tradition does not happen through importing external modes of knowledge and applying them from on high, but only through exhausting and expanding the confines of its own given form on its own terms, even if such terms are heterogeneous from the start.
Constructivism or Minimalism, vague but valid interests needing clarification already, are not enough to suffice as important problems, these curatorial statements clearly declare. A “critical distance” must be kept in order to maintain the semblance of civilized understanding of certain complicated stylistic developments based on problematic theories beyond critical grasp already. The problem with “solid compositional patterns” that are “undermined” by “thumbprints”, is not that these compositions are being undermined, but they are being falsely undermined; constructivist form itself tended towards its own disintegration through abstract methods that took form to its highest possible instantiation: pure malleability. The importation of “pop culture and the cinematography of science fiction” threatens any clarification minimalism, for example, as it desperately comes to aid in a ruse of formal overcoming. As it stands, pop culture and minimalism for example are also kept at an uncritical distance from each other, as if no bleed were possible, even as Edward Strickland has shown that pop culture became absolutely minimalist. Where the potential to work through history is explicitly declared, it is watered down and suppressed by a status quo sobriety which prohibits absorption into the object of artistic critique. Artists don’t offer cases by saying, they offer by doing. But doing, following ideas to their material ends and vice versa, is truncated by streamlined statement-making. In contemporary art meaning represses content. As Decrauzat meanders through the Juddian toy store of history, plucking aesthetic form-content and examining it, the critical artist on his shoulder, not yet freed from the tabooed persistence of petty meaning and policed social relevance, represses the shopping experience and whispers ascetic warnings. As a result, the art is an emaciated compromise of what it wants to be.
If we are talking about Russian Constructivism, or any other avant-garde movement in the same vicinity of that time-period of the early to mid 20th century, there is one generally shared sensibility about meaning. “As the first and most important item upon its agenda, the avant-garde saw the necessity of an escape from ideas, which were infecting the arts with the ideological struggles of society”. With the meteoric demise of disciplines and medium specificity, it looks as though the world of cliche ideas has been permitted to contaminate the arts to its fullest potential; fullest potential, because the contamination is perceived today as the cure. The infiltration of vulgar ‘social critique’ is a regression into a distorted realism. That this happens on the grounds of an aesthetic that aspires to retain an autonomy distinct from didactic social critique only shows how pervasive this regression into identity thinking has become.
Another interesting thing about recent geometric abstraction is the recent primitive obsession with basic polygons as hard evidence of a repeated failure to overcome the Euclidean geometry that Lissitzky and Lewitt aspired to transform. Lissitsky might be dismayed to see so much work today that monumentalizes Euclidean form and simple polygons. The para-cultic fascination and abuse of triangles in both the avant-garde art and album cover art, for example, speaks to this grotesque hybrid of Constructivist material and regressive mysticism. Triangles are designed onto the monolithic cover art of ritualist band Aethenor’s album Faking Gold and Murder, while contrarily dealt with playfully and methodically in the materialist paintings of Claudia Weiser. I will scantly mention the insistence of triangles, squares, and circles in the most ubiquitous of all images: the broken image icon which comes onto a browser screen when an image hasn’t loaded. In the absence of an image we are given what are assumed to be the fundamental characteristics of it: simple polygons. And this banality has its counterpart in the waveforms of electronic synthesis as well, which is founded on the square, triangle, and sine (circle) waves that have purportedly been ‘discovered’, but in reality constructed to be understood as the fundamental basis of all soundwaves in the empirical world.
But there is a very marked difference between the thing as it is – meaning the polygon – and its utilization as an object to be liquidated into a broader artistic methodology of contradiction. At least, that is the way Lewitt saw it, and the way he saw it was clearly influenced by Lissitsky’s Constructivism. “The cubes that I used were the result of the method that I used … It wasn’t that I was designing a cube; it’s been around for a long time. But that would be a kind of formalistic approach – to look at the result of the thing and see what seems to be visually, rather than to look at the content of the thing. And I think that’s to a great degree what’s happening in art today. There’s a whole group of people that are much more formalist oriented.”
“Today” is Lewitt’s 1969, though it seems perfectly relevant today because we look at recent paintings and see the obvious shapes, forms, content, and not the methodologies that were foregrounded and that provide a larger transparent picture of the work. Essentially, Lewitt is describing a certain strain of art judgment as reified, or the faultiness of looking at a dynamic process as a fixed entity. Consider the language; against “designing”, for “method”, pro “content”, against “result”. It is clearly not about the cubes, but their disintegration based on an ingrained potential. In a very crucial way, recent artists who work abstractly show how even on such hard-edged modernist grounds method and technique has been relinquished in favor of results, like a math answer sans proof, or predetermined illustrations or designs of a Constructivist idea based on superficial idiomatic identification or often tend towards mimicry of physics such as explosions in way that keeps geometric abstraction tethered to identity. Lewitt chose cubes because of their “uninteresting” quality, but also how they can be implemented by a system that overrides the predictability of design subjectivity and maximize idiom. But what we see are a mix of different angles taken on the form today, as opposed to seeing the entire historically given object. Aethenor’s cover is clearly a fetishization of the shape, fraught with mysticism projected onto a banal printed material which is left unchanged. Claudia Weiser’s colorful paintings, on the other hand, liquidates the triangle into a grid which problematizes it while utilizing its form as the substratum for something more. The triangle, a unit, is pluralistically implemented with a subjective methodology of color application to create a field where the triangle dissipates and becomes something else, and its previous, iconic significance becomes a part of something much broader. The triangle itself isn’t the thing monumentalized, but rather its ingrained potential to construct something more than itself. The lesson of the triangle is that it is not a triangle at all when utilized to its fullest potential. The active subject is the one to extract and overcome the lamentable representation of ideas, and redeem some other potential.
Lissitsky was interested in 2-dimensional shape because its flatness was altogether new at the time and against the second nature of standardized ideas of mathematical tradition. For example, he thought that the dominant mode of Euclidean geometry limited space: “perspective representation of space is based on a rigid three-dimensional view of the world based on the laws of Euclidean geometry … Perspective limits space; it has made it finite, closed.”
And as far as the so-called newness of the ‘information age’: “…each point, even one infinitely close, can be represented by a number. Planimetric space has produced the arithmetic series. In it, objects are perceived according to the relationship [italics mine] 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 … Perspective space resembles a geometric series, and objects are perceived according to the relationship 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32 … Until our time the sum total of A. has not experienced any new extensions.” Lissitsky goes on about new math systems being brought about through new scientific developments. Art was not really about itself even in the current caricatured purity of high modernism, but rather open to dynamic change, even exclusively so. But newness to Lissitzky included things that are no longer new, but second nature; for instance, Lissitsky was fascinated by the new development of square roots. Such interests were expected to have an absolutizing effect on transforming Euclidean geometry into a more dynamic and open-ended process. This makes it all the more odd that cultural producers rely on basic shapes, and so many critics of modernism cling to the idea that modern artists were about such things exclusively.
Math had its dogged persistence in music as well. Music, as a medium, is much closer to math already in its abstracted reliance on writing that was not altogether linguistically based; Bach was mathematically inclined because writing music was already an abstraction of the source material of instrumentation into pattern. By Schoenberg’s era abstract set theory of systems was sedimented in the non-representative medium in ways that the plastic arts could only mimic. But Adorno was sharp to denote the difference between math and music. He attacks the vulgar simplification that music is a form of math, or vice versa. Musicians have never been mathematicians, and are even often poor at math, he claims. Music is clearly its own category and system that can only borrow from math, or absorb it into a more truthful system that reveals its character. Any ideas that ‘music is math‘ is a repression of music’s own material logic. And yet this idea is rampant today in both artists (i.e. Boards of Canada, who repeatedly admonish us with the truism through their titling), and critics like Brandon Labelle who can only resort to cliches of ‘music is math’ as an attempt to elucidate the impasse that sound, for example, is at. In his essay Performing Geometry; Music’s Affair with Numbers, Systems, and Procedures, Labelle undermines his own purported thesis of music’s affair with numbers, systems and procedures by folding music into math absolutely, even when the Sol Lewitt Sentences on Conceptual Art that he makes recourse to as support clearly indicates that art is not rational or mathematical: “no. 16. If words are used, and they proceed from ideas about art, then they are art and not literature; numbers are not mathematics”. When math is used in art or music, it is transformed from mathematical convention into something else through a presentation of tensions that math is only a constituent of. The inability to spot how other fields or disciplines are liquidated and transformed into art, and not vice versa, is a common misconception today that shows how little art or other disciplines are understood categorically as social artifacts, which clearly indicates an inability to go beyond them in the current defeatism of art via immateriality. When art becomes math or science it relinquishes its own potential and becomes pastiche of “laboratories and textbooks”, as Barbara Rose admonished the visual research groups in mid-century Europe.
That Lissitsky’s inclination towards systems resulted in a new conception of flatness is a matter of how external influences become transformed into something different through an aesthetic intervention that changes it and thus reveals a latent character of it. Flatness, oddly enough, has its roots in Lissitsky’s systematic theorizing of new ‘planimetric space’. Lewitt, consciously or not – though probably so, as his serial methods clearly have roots in Lissitsky’s 1, 2, 4… system – extended Lissitsky’s ‘planimetric’ space into more robust and ambitious configurations in his wall drawings, wherein he explicitly sought to do away with anything three-dimensional, meaning frames, canvases, or anything else that would stick out; his stated purpose was to make the drawing part of the architecture. Flatness was an ideal to work up to, but rooted in a broader cultural potential as evidenced in parallel developments in different fields (e.g. Gauss’ science) and only through exhausting flatness aesthetically was flatness brought into an unexpected tension with architecture. In other words art leads into other modes of knowledge or social categories only when it takes its own material aspect to the highest possible conclusions. Recent geometric abstraction is an accidentally autonomous field because it doesn’t follow its material wherever it may lead, even as it knows it very well could and thus mimes the very idea itself by resorting to idealism. Rather, it is an odd circumstance that the material leads backwards into conserving history. In its constraint that makes itself a concrete entity, contemporary geometric abstraction is modernism hemorrhaging.
cover image by Carmen Herrera
1. translated literally as “formed in relation to, or conforming to, a goal.” Christina Kiaer. Critical Inquiry, Fall 2001, Volume 28, No. 1
2. Clement Greenberg, Towards A Newer Laocoon.
3. Sol Lewitt, interview with Patricia Norvell, 1969. Recording Conceptual Art. University of California Press, 2001.
4. El Lissitzky. A. and Pangeometry.
5. Theodore Adorno, Vers Une Musique Informelle