On the train with Charles Harrison

In Uncategorized on January 2, 2010 at 6:26 pm



In essay two (Conceptual Art and the Suppression of the Beholder) of Essays on Art & Language, Charles Harrison explores the art historical “train” that leads from Abstract Expressionism to Minimalism to Conceptual art.   The “train” as Harrison envisions it, is a train of reductions, namely the reduction of the object from painting and sculpture (abstract expressionism- optical, self-sufficient, high-art objects existing in ambient spaces, to be beheld and privileged), to “three-dimensional objects” or “specific objects” (according to Donald Judd, please see index*), to Conceptual Art objects (paper-based works, ideas, discussions, critical inquiry).

I will follow Harrison’s tracks, stopping at each of these reductions to explore.  To provide a sense of Harrison’s style and approach, I will begin each section with some quotations from the text.  Before starting, it is important to add the following quotation from Harrison:

“Changes in art are generally insignificant unless they involve some form of cognitive change, and unless they impose or presuppose some sort of modification of those processes of triangulation by means of which a spectator, a work of art, and a world of possible practices and referents are located relative to each other.” (p. 30)

Abstraction and Abstractionism

“The high-art object of standard Modernist theory was either a painting or a sculpture, each being conceived under a special kind of description:  a painting as something contained within its perimeter, not just its physical surface framed, but its signifying character contained within the bounds of what could relevantly be said about the properties of that surface; a sculpture as something contained within the ambient space of the stationary spectator’s gaze, its meaning restricted to whatever that gaze could pick out and animate with a responsive emotion…Outside or ‘between’ painting and sculpture lay the likelihood of aesthetic impairment and the virtual certainty of marginalization from the Modernist canon.” (p. 31)

Key terms:

The beholder : a term used by Michael Fried to signify the type of viewer and act of looking that is required to appropriately experience an Abstractionist work.  One had to be “properly receptive” and prepared for an experience “in and for itself.”

Self-sufficiency : A Greenbergian term used in “The New Sculpture” (published by the Partisan Review in June 1949).  Abstractionist painting and sculpture should be autonomous and entirely optical.  This aesthetic autonomy is gained by dismissing any acknowledgement of environmental or social considerations.  Hence the white walled galleries (sanctified, ambient temples to modern art).

Some artists : Kenneth Noland, Morris Louis, Anthony Caro

One of the striking elements about this period in criticism is how thoroughly prescriptive it was.  Greenberg and Fried outlined the whole movement  from what type of objects should be created (painting and sculpture), what should be depicted (abstract, optical works), who was the ideal viewer (an educated, aware beholder), and where the works should be viewed (sanctified, ambient spaces).

Works that fell outside of these restrictions were marginalized from the canon.  This includes the ready-mades of Marcel Duchamp.  As Harrison states, “The interest in Duchamp’s works is limited by an incipient dandyism.”  The harsh precision of Modernist criticism begged for a response, which Minimalism readily supplied, maintaining some of Modernism’s prescriptions, while throwing out the window many others.

Minimalism and the Post-Minimal

“The point is, however, that Minimalist theory was the most coherent and the most powerful avant-garde discourse of the mid-1960s, and that this was so largely because of its cultural adjaceny to the discourse of Abstractionism.  It was for this reason that, until 1968 at the earliest, other forms of anti-Abstractionist practice and critique tended to be sustained under the authority of Minimalism.”

Key terms:

New three-dimensional work:  Although there is a vast variety of types of works that are subsumed under the Minimalist umbrella, the innovation came from the insistence on the physicality and fabrication of materials, namely industrial materials.  Instead of painting and sculpture, artists were creating objects.

The gallery: as opposed to the primacy of the Modernist private collection, these works tended to operate within the institutional gallery, allowing the objects to be both more transmissible and more commercial.  The move to the gallery allowed then for the late 60s refusal of the gallery in that you then could have, “the extension of the museum and gallery into ‘alternative’ spaces; the empty gallery as a form of exhibition; the catalogue as ‘the show’, the closed gallery as ‘the show’, the advertisement of the show as ‘the show’; and so forth.” (p. 46)

Some artists: Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt, Carl Andre, Frank Stella

Conceptual Art and Art & Language

“The position taken by Art & Language in the later 1960s has been represented as the extreme form of a contemporary avant-gardism, as if it were a kind of ‘furthest-out’ version of Conceptual Art and therefore a bid for the ultimate Modernist reduction.  According to one (representative) American commentator, for instance, the Art & Language of the Conceptual movement took ‘the extreme position that there would be no use of material beyond print on paper.'” (p. 50)

Key terms:

The dematerialized object : This is perhaps a misnomer, for in fact Art & Language artists of the Conceptual movement were consciously using materials, such as paper, to objectify their ideas.  The art itself is then the inquiry or idea, while the object may perhaps be viewed as a surrogate.  While the conceptual movement did abandon the object as conceived by Modernist criticism, it is important to acknowledge that the object was not abandoned fully.  It is of interest that the most fully realized reduction in Modernism is a return to one of the most ancient materials of art making and communication.

The eye vs. the mind: One goal of the conceptual movement was to overthrow the prestige of the beholder and to shift how one views work- away from the emotional, auratic and creative, to critical reading and thinking.  Therefore the work was done with the mind and not the eyes.  A new set of terms and tools needed to be created that were not co-opted by a beholders mentality.  As Harrison writes, “These were not mere expressions of an avant-garde recalcitrance and exoticism so much as forms of flailing about – products of the search for practical or intellectual tools which has not already become compromised and rendered euphemistic on Modernist use.” (p. 56)

Some artists: Lawrence Weiner, Dan Graham, Robert Barry, Joseph Kosuth (*See appendix for more information)


So. At the end of this essay, we are left with the Conceptual movement (a movement that Harrison argues lasts only from 1967-1972) hanging in the air.  Moving through the reductions of Abstractionism and Minimalism, we reach perhaps the final reduction, that of  paper, text, language, discourse, and ideas.  Harrison argues that, “while others continued long after 1972 to uphold principles of consistency to their own formative work, but it was only during that five-year period that a critically significant Conceptual Art movement could be said to have been in existence as such.” (p. 29)  Harrison goes on to argue that if anyone remains critically interested in Conceptual Art it is because no other strong “candidates for avant-garde status” have presented themselves.  While some argue that Conceptual Art might not be of critical interest in a contemporary discourse, it remains a revolutionary moment in the history of art and a juncture in which Art and Language became symbiotic practices, subordinate not to each other, but to the idea from which they originated.  We should not forget recent exhibition of Conceptual Art such as the very interesting Quick and the Dead at the Walker Art Center and accompanying publication.

Some questions that arise from this essay are as follows:

  • How was paper viewed in Modernist criticism and how did the status of paper change throughout the Minimalist and Conceptual movement and continuing on that historical train into the present?
  • How does the critical (of Conceptualism) differ from the creative (of Abstractionism)?  How are they defined and how do they operate?  How are they performed and are they regarded as performance?
  • Is there perhaps a further Modernist reduction, past Conceptualism?


*Please see Judd’s essay “Specific Objects,” originally published in Arts Yearbook 8, 1965 (p. 74-82) and then republished both in Donald Judd : Complete Writings 1959-1975 and Donald Judd : The Early Works 1955-1968

*Artists previously unfamiliar to me

There is very little information online about these artists, except that they were all pioneers of Art & Language in the late 60s and were based in Conventry, England.  Hopefully I will find out more in the future.

David Bainbridge

Mel Ramsden

Terry Atkinson and Mel Ramsden, Map not to indicate…(1967).  Letterpress print, 50 x 62 cm, edition of 50.


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