Violence and Sculpture
Violence and Sculpture
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter examines Le Va's invocation of chaotic and violent scatter in the period 1967-1972. The discussion focuses on works such as his installations of broken glass, meat cleavers and bullets. The violence suggested in these pieces is examined in light of a post-minimal thematics of the injured body as explored by Le Va’s contemporaries such as Bruce Nauman, Vito Acconci and Chris Burden. It ultimately argue that Le Va’s violence does not “express” the upheaval of the period so much as comprise a set of specific art historical and political interventions within it
—Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Adventure of the Six Napoleons”
STEP STEP STEP STEP CRASH! Thirty seconds of silence, followed by receding footfalls and a distant crash at the far end of the gallery. Thirty more seconds elapse, and then the recorded steps crescendo again, approaching closer and growing louder until they culminate in another impact with the near wall. The recording ebbs and flows for nearly two hours; the performance continued until its creator was unable to drag himself any further. The work itself is visually spare—a large empty room with a line of tape running its length and speakers placed its corners. There are flecks of blood and skin on the opposing walls.
This is approximately what viewers would have seen and heard of Barry Le Va’s Velocity Piece: Impact Run, Energy Drain, produced and exhibited at the Ohio State University in 1969. To create what is probably his best-remembered work, Le Va recorded himself running through the long dimension of the gallery (fifty-five feet) and slamming himself as hard as he was able into the opposite wall. He would then pause for thirty seconds and begin another traverse, ending it with a crash at full speed into the near wall (Figure 1.1). At the outset, Le Va was completing each run in approximately three seconds. An hour and forty (p.2)
Le Va recounted this ordeal in a 1971 interview with the experimental magazine Avalanche, the only major published account he would give of his practice for decades. He explained that “sometimes I would try to block, but every part of my body ended up being used. … when I hit the wall, slight traces of blood remained. All these physical clues were left as part of the piece, sweat marks, blood.”1 These marks constituted the Holmesian evidence that was increasingly occupying Le Va’s attention, the clues that would permit the viewer to reconstruct an antecedent activity from its exhibited aftermath.
While Velocity Piece grew out of Le Va’s distribution works, (p.3) in which the artist’s gestures were “recorded” in shredded felt, strewn cardboard flakes, and scattered puzzle pieces, it represented something of a break with his previous practice. Velocity Piece became the precursor for a series of Impact pieces in which Le Va sought out materials that, as he put it in a subsequent artist’s statement, were “malicious, harmful and violent in nature when associated with flesh or the body.” He enumerated some of these materials and their attendant properties:
1. Bullets—travel at high velocity, in a straight line in short distance with high impact penetration.
2. Cleavers—extensions of hand, posture, force;—chopping irregular manner.
3. Glass—disperses, shatters; cuts.
4. Stones, bricks,—force, direction, location; crushes.
And though he emphasized that he wanted to “subvert or break down violent associations by emphasizing structure or procedures,” these associations were never fully effaced.2 Despite the fact that Le Va diffused the injurious potential of these materials harmlessly onto each other or against the unfeeling confines of their architectural supports, the psychic residue of their violent associations persisted into the final products.
This chapter will examine the theme of violence in Le Va’s works of the period 1969–72, a span that encompasses the beginning of his professional career and the moment of his greatest visibility as an artist. We begin here in part because when Le Va’s work has been discussed in the historical literature, it has often been in light of the Impact pieces and, by extension, the supposedly violent nature of Le Va’s practice. These are readings, however, that the artist has flatly denied. As he explained in a 1997 interview with Saul Ostrow, an artist and critic who had been a younger peer in the New York art world of the early 1970s:
Violence became attributed to them, but I didn’t think of them as violent. Somewhere along the line, I called them, quite sarcastically, “my violent pieces.”
You were running into a wall.
I didn’t see that as violent, others did.3
(p.4) But we would be wrong to take Le Va at his word. This denial is complicated by other published comments made by the artist, as well as by his unpublished notes, and we should read Le Va’s statement as evincing his dissatisfaction with the spurious conclusions typically drawn by those who read his work as violent—conclusions about his supposed fascination with brutality, fixation on romantic suffering, or role as an involuntary conduit for external upheaval.4 Indeed, outside these associations, the notion of violence can tell us something interesting about the meaning of Le Va’s early art, especially as it functioned as part of larger set of explorations undertaken by peers such as Bruce Nauman, Vito Acconci, and Chris Burden. Burden’s work is a particularly relevant point of comparison; both artists used the residues of violent actions as a means of engaging with the art historical tradition of sculpture, a tradition whose late eighteenth-century roots were being radically reimagined in the 1960s.
At the end of the decade, these aesthetic explorations quickly developed larger cultural and ethical overtones. Many artists saw one aspect of a traditional understanding of sculpture—as a way of making physical, unmediated, truthful form—as a way out of a more problematic aspect of sculpture’s history: the legacy of building obdurate memorials to kings, general, and financiers. Le Va, like Burden and many other artists, used strategies of material destruction, cultivated menace, and self-injury to reinvigorate sculpture. Violence became a means through which he created immediate, direct forms in real time and space while also working against the tradition of hero worship. The violence in Le Va’s art was not a passive symptom of personal angst, nor was it expressive of a particular position with regard to the ongoing social unrest of the late 1960s. Le Va’s reduction of the solid body of sculpture to a disarticulated aftermath should be understood as a gesture against a diffuse constellation of overlapping associations ranging from patriarchy, conformity, and materialism to rigidity, heroism, and empire. In this way, Le Va’s Impact pieces constitute an intervention that was primarily art historical in nature, but one that was nevertheless imbricated within the widespread anti-institutional agitation of the era.
First, however, it is important to attend to the development of Le Va’s Impact series on its own terms. After Velocity Piece, Le Va was interested in extending his investigation of human velocity and architectural resistance, though he desired a return to the creation of explicitly visual arrangements. In late 1969, he began to consider different tools that might serve as proxies for his body in its impact with the built environment.5 Before settling on cleavers, he experimented with knives, which seemed to lack the brute force that he sought, as well as axes, which seemed too melodramatic. He ultimately chose meat cleavers, which seemed to have the right combination of heft, menace, and intimate relationship with the wielder’s hand.6
Le Va bought his first box of cleavers from a butcher supply store in Chicago and began investigating, producing works such as Cleaved Floor (1969) before his Cleaved Wall at the 1970 Whitney Sculpture Annual in 1970 (Figures 1.2–1.3). In describing his preparation for the Whitney show in the Avalanche interview, Le Va related how he developed nearly forty possible cleaver configurations and his apprehension that the piece in progress would collapse and injure him. Ultimately, Le Va decided that
the final placement of the cleavers would depend upon the size and location of the wall, my position in relation to it, the way I was facing, the angle at which I thrust them, and the force. I wanted people to try to reconstruct all this information.7
However, the subtlety of the idea—manifesting the traces of an absent actor—was typically lost on members of the art press. Critic Hilton Kramer denounced the exhibition, and Le Va in particular, in his review in the New York Times, writing that “this year’s rubbish [at the Sculpture Annual] is markedly nastier. … if you are turned on by the sight of 12 meat cleavers stuck into the museum wall, you will get a kick out of this show.”8 Though Kramer, given his reputation as a dyspeptic with a strong conservative streak, was probably biased against Le Va from the outset, his sense that Le Va’s work was fundamentally expressive of a (p.6)
Le Va’s investigation of collisional force was further elaborated in his broken-glass works. While he began envisaging incorporating broken glass alongside his favored felt in installation sketches as early as 1967, he did not actually execute any major glass-based pieces until his first European exhibitions in 1970.9 These first glass works include Shots from the End of a Clear Glass Line (1970), which was shown at the Galerie Rolfe Ricke in Cologne, and On Corner—On Edge—On Center Shatter (1970–72), also known by its alternate titles Within the Series of Layered Patterned Acts and Scattershatter, which represented Le Va both at Ricke’s 7 New Artists show in 1970 and at the 1972 iteration of the prestigious Documenta exhibition in Kassel, Germany.
The former work, Shots from the End (Figure 1.4), consists of a meandering stream of broken glass stretching from near the gallery wall perpendicularly out into the midst of a large room. (p.7)
Just above the point at which the glass would touch the wall, at approximately chest height, a short length of pipe emerges from the wall. This pipe is surrounded by five bullet holes. Le Va enlisted West German policemen to perform the nearly impossible task, to which the title alludes, of firing gunshots from the end of the line of glass shards into the tiny diameter of the exposed pipe. None was equal to the task, which was derived from the opening sequence of the James Bond films, in which Bond wheels to fire a perfect shot into the lens of the camera.10
If Shots from the End alluded to contemporary popular cinema, Within the Series demonstrated Le Va’s interest in the algorithmic explorations of conceptual art. Within the Series operated by permutation—breaking glass in every way that could be predetermined. The works’ original title, On Corner—On Edge—On Center Shatter, describes its appearance at Galerie Rolf Ricke in 1971 (Figure 1.5). Three large plates of glass, stacked on top of one another, are shattered in these various positions: the bottom one on its corner, the middle one on its edge, and the top one in its center. While in this original presentation a reconstruction of process was facilitated by the preserved layering and helpful titling, subsequent versions denied this possibility. The installation of Within the Series of Layered Patterned Acts at Documenta V
(p.9) consisted of an uninterrupted carpet of glass shards that stretched seventy feet (Figure 1.6).11 The plates seemed to embody a kind of perfect disorder. Not only were they shattered beyond hope of physical repair or mental reconstruction, but also their seeming state of total destruction invited defacement from Documenta viewers, who walked carelessly on the glass and even tossed Coca-Cola bottles into the wreckage.12
(p.10) In addition to glass, Le Va experimented with shattering bricks. Criss Cross Shift (Place to Point to Place) develops the procedural logic behind On Corner—On Edge—On Center Shatter but extends it into a systematic intervention within the space of the gallery (Figure 1.7). Prefiguring the complex arrangements of wooden dowels that would characterize Le Va’s work from the mid-1970s (the focus of chapter 3), Criss Cross Shift is based on two overlapping X patterns on the gallery floor, formed by lines drawn from the room’s corners. Le Va placed a gray brick at every step as he walked along the first X and then a red brick along every step of the second. He systematically hurled these bricks at specified spots on the gallery walls and then gathered the shattered remnants and placed them at the original positions the bricks had occupied.13
Violence and Art History at the End of the 1960s
While depictions of war, destruction, and aftermath have had long art historical legacies, the 1960s saw artists beginning, for the first time, to enact literal violence in their work. In the early part of the decade, Niki de Saint Phalle was riddling her canvases with bullets, while Viennese Actionists were staging brutal performances, such as Hermann Nitsch’s 1962 evisceration of a sacrificial lamb. Slightly later in the United States, artists such as Chris Burden, Vito Acconci, Bruce Nauman, Dennis Oppenheim, and Marina Abramović began creating artworks based on violent, graphic, or confrontational interventions with their own bodies, which were presented either directly to audiences or mediated through film, photography, or video.14
Out of this broad range of figures, Burden provides a particularly useful point of comparison for Le Va. Self-injury as a method of art making has come to be seen, fairly or unfairly, as primarily Burden’s territory, and Le Va’s Velocity Piece has often functioned in the art historical literature as an additional and secondary example of this trajectory.15 The comparison between Burden and Le Va seems to have begun in Peter Plagens’s 1974 Sunshine Muse, in which Plagens surmised that the question these artists’ work seemed to be asking, with “masochistically accusatory evenness,” (p.11) (p.12)
of California, Irvine, Burden imprisoned himself in his painting locker, a small metal space only two feet by two feet by three feet, for five consecutive days. In his best-known work, Shoot (1971), Burden had a friend shoot at him from a distance of fifteen feet with a .22 caliber rifle. Burden, not knowing how the piece would end, was wounded in the arm.17
As his career gained traction, he began executing works involving danger or duration in prominent institutional spaces. For Sculpture in Three Parts (1974) at the Hansen Fuller Gallery in San Francisco (Figure 1.8), Burden sat in a chair on top of a standard sculpture base for as long as he could, which turned out to be forty-three hours. A crime-scene-style chalk outline marked where he fell and was inscribed with the word “forever.” At the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, Burden performed Doomed (1975), a piece that consisted only of Burden, a large sheet of glass, and (p.14)
It seems very plausible, though it is hardly certain, that Le Va’s Velocity Piece informed Burden’s art at an early moment in his career. Not only was Le Va’s installation one of the first works of art that demanded the artist endure an extended, injurious ordeal, but also Burden would have likely known of it. After its initial presentation at Ohio State in 1969, Velocity Piece was restaged at the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art in 1970, while Burden was in graduate school only an hour’s drive away.19 However, the often-remarked-on shared interest in artistic endurance is the least interesting of the intersections between (p.15) Le Va and Burden. While Le Va’s twice-performed Velocity Piece was something of an outlier for Le Va, feats of endurance constituted the heart of Burden’s early performance practice. Moreover, in both its duration and its level of danger, Velocity Piece pales in comparison to Burden’s multiple daylong and potentially fatal acts of what art historian Crispin Sartwell has referred to as “derangement.”20
Beyond “endurance,” a number of more interesting parallels emerge between Le Va and Burden. The first and perhaps most obvious is the shared theme of the criminal. Like Velocity Piece, Burden’s Sculpture in Three Parts figures art making as orchestrating the aftermath of a crime scene. The artist continues to haunt the spaces of the work, whether in ghostly footsteps or in a chalk outline indicating the position in which the victim fell.21 And if Burden’s Sculpture in Three Parts suggests a true crime scene, his Doomed evokes the tropes of detective fiction. The smashed clock, which records the exact moment that the work ended and the sheet of glass was shattered, recalls stories such as Agatha Christie’s famed “At the Crossroads,” in which a broken clock at a murder scene is used to pinpoint time of death.22
While Burden’s literal presence at his performances might be argued to undermine the comparison with Le Va (whose cleavers, glass, and assorted wreckage were always presented with the artist in absentia), the art historian Paul Schimmel has argued that, in practice, Burden’s early works were typically also appreciated without their artist present. Most viewers, Schimmel notes, were only “left to imagine or see in photographs the moment the bullet passed into Burden’s arm.”23 Like Le Va’s work, which was always exhibited after the fact of its creation, Burden’s work existed for most of its audience as retrospective reconstruction rather than live performance.
Beyond their shared interest in a kind of reconstructive dialectic of absence and presence, perhaps the most significant link between Burden and Le Va is their conception of their art as a specifically sculptural practice.24 In the catalog accompanying a retrospective of Burden’s work at the Newport Harbor Art Museum in 1988, art historian Howard Singerman characterized (p.16) Burden as a “a sculptor working in the tradition of sculpture as actual, painting as illusional.”25 This same tradition is evident in a different way in Le Va’s artist’s statement of the same year, in which he maintained that the arc of his career was structured by a search for “real time, real space, real locations, real reasons.”26 To explain fully the broader contextual significance of this search for an unmediated mode of art making, however, we must make a brief art historical detour.
Material, “Realness,” and the Theory of Sculpture
Both Burden and Le Va emerged in the art world during the waning of minimalism, the apologists for which maintained that rigid geometries, repeated structures, and industrial materials could subvert problematic, idealist assumptions stemming from both the long history of Western thought and the recent hegemony of New York School painting.27 Donald Judd explained how his work, frequently composed of vertical or horizontally arranged stacks of metal boxes, militated against idealism both recent and historical:
I wanted work that didn’t involve incredible assumptions about everything. … [The work] shouldn’t be concealed as part of a fairly different whole … one or four boxes in a row … is local order, just an arrangement, barely order at all. … both are matters of fact.28
Judd intended for his works to flatten the traditional binaries—for example, between the conceptual arrangement of a sculpture’s parts and the physical parts themselves—into the realm of the material. As he stated, boxes stacked in a row suggest local, contingent facts and thereby seem to move away from metaphysical notions of order.
For Judd, working in three dimensions was an essential component of this project. As he explained in his 1964 “Specific Objects,” “three dimensions are real space. … actual space is intrinsically more powerful and specific than paint on a flat surface.”29 While Judd mobilized the opposition of painting and sculpture in service of a fairly local argument with the reigning practitioners of abstract painting, the specific correlates he staked (p.17) out—material parts/abstract composition, real space/flat surface, truthful objects/dissembling depiction—have roots deep in the history of aesthetic thought. Though these sets of oppositions can arguably be traced to Platonic ideas, the tension between them forms an important part of a pair of texts that are widely considered foundational for the modern study of art history.
In his 1766 Laocoon, Gotthold Lessing sought to differentiate the plastic arts, such as painting and sculpture, from literary forms of expression. For Lessing, while poetry and prose are inherently durational, existing in a diachronic unfolding of narrative, the plastic arts are essentially synchronic, fixed for perpetuity in given configurations.30 As a result, Lessing held that the plastic arts ought to aspire to a condition not simply of permanence but also of timelessness.
The transhistorical fixity of sculpture is an important trope (to which we shall return), but Judd’s own thinking was closer to the slightly different take on this theme offered by Johann Herder’s 1788 Sculpture: Some Observations on Shape and Form from Pygmalion’s Creative Dream. Seeking to refine what he saw as a problematic conflation in Lessing’s work, Herder attempted to differentiate within the territory of the plastic arts themselves—most important, to explicate the relationship between painting and sculpture. For Herder, the differences between these two forms arises from the senses to which they are addressed. Whereas painting is tied to vision, Herder insisted, “sculpture is created for the hand.”31 This distinction, which was tied up with a larger Enlightenment-era debate concerning the primacy of touch over sight, led Herder to argue against the long-assumed superiority of painting over sculpture. He maintained that while both painting and sculpture partake in allusion—both call to mind absent subjects or events—only painting traffics in illusion. As Herder vividly wrote, “We may say that sculpture is truth, whereas painting is a dream.”32 It was this aspect of the Herderian tradition—sculpture seen as material truth against the immaterial illusion of painting—that Judd addressed in “Specific Objects” and through which Le Va (and Burden) undertook the sculptural pursuit of “real space [and] real locations.”33
(p.18) These ideas about the truth of material and the vagaries of perception were also key for the artist Robert Morris. As a pair, Morris and Judd were the most important advocates for the radical reconsideration of sculpture in the mid-1960s, but Morris is a complex figure in this story for several reasons. When he and Judd were not engaged in mutual struggles against shared ideological enemies, they were often at odds with each other. Judd vehemently denied the validity of the minimalist label for his work; Morris accepted it for his. Judd sought to create sui generis specific objects, whereas Morris took up the mantle of sculpture. Where Judd’s objects were consistently and even hermetically pristine, Morris produced work in a wide range of styles, from his geometric L beams to the Dada-inflected Box with the Sound of Its Own Making (1961) and the crumpled fabric installations, such as Threadwaste (1968), that he produced at the end of the decade.
As part of his ongoing disputation with Judd, Morris published an article titled “Anti Form,” in which he outlined the problems he ascribed to Judd’s project to extinguish idealism through factorylike repetition. As Morris wrote, “What remains problematic about these schemes is the fact that any order for multiple units is an imposed one which has no inherent relation to the physicality of the existing units.”34 That is, the order of the arranged boxes has no necessary relationship with the boxes themselves. The ordering schema, therefore, continues to hover above the materiality of the work itself, a ghostly idealism that remains stubbornly difficult to put to rest. Works like Morris’s Threadwaste, composed of soft materials like felt and thread, which initially spurred the confusion over Le Va’s Artforum cover, were intended to foreclose the possibility of any order outside the contingent arrangement of the materials.
Anti-form quickly became the lens through which the works of a number of artists were seen, most prominently those of Le Va and Richard Serra. The identification of anti-form with Serra was a particularly close one. Not only had Morris used Serra’s early work to illustrate the original essay, but he also featured Serra’s work prominently in his first curatorial venture, 9 in a Warehouse, (p.19) a show that was in many ways a precursor to the Whitney’s epochal Anti-Illusion exhibition (discussed at greater length in the following chapter).35 Much like Morris’s work with felt, Serra’s flung-lead pieces were designed to dissolve the traditional, idealist binaries of art making into an unmediated materiality. As Serra put it in 1972: “The significance of the work is in its effort, not in its intentions. And that effort is a state of mind, an activity, an interaction with the world.”36 Along with Morris, Serra was interested in a material and perceptual immediacy, a conception of an artwork as a pure interface for artistic actions, material properties, and perceptual phenomena.
Le Va, on the other hand, actively resisted the linking of his work with Morris. Though his attempts to, in his words, “eliminate sculpture as a finished, totally resolved object” seemed to many to be conceptually related to Morris’s and Serra’s experiments, this was an attribution Le Va would repeatedly contest, insisting that “I hate the term anti-form” and elsewhere referring to it as a “silly notion.”37 While part of Le Va’s reticence likely derived from the mistaken attribution of the Artforum cover, the conceptual stakes of his notion of artwork as aftermath were considerably different. In the Avalanche interview, Le Va pointedly explained that his “works were not a statement about materials or about a specific process. They were relative to time, place and my physical activity.”38 His art was intended not to foreground his materials or processes but rather to search for ways in which material and meaning could be dissolved and occluded, accessible only by means of reconstructed reference to his now-absent physical presence.
This is not to suggest that Morris’s work is not important for an understanding of Le Va, but rather to suggest that in sketching out the ways in which Morris’s writings framed the moment in which Le Va worked, it is essential to remember the distance between their projects on which Le Va has repeatedly insisted. Morris’s significance for Le Va stems less from his later theories of anti-form than from his earlier, more Herderian ideas. Like Judd, Morris was keen to emphasize that sculpture comprises literal presentation rather than an allusive representation.39 However, (p.20) Morris also significantly developed the other of Herder’s major claims, that the essence of sculpture lies in the way in which the spatial materiality of sculpture recapitulates the somatic physicality of the body.
Morris’s ideas about the embodiedness of sculptural viewing are typically related to his reading of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, a French philosopher who would come, through Morris, to exert tremendous influence in the New York art world. Morris’s interest in Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology has been well covered in prior accounts of the period; of interest here is the Herderian aspect of these discussions, the way in which the veristic medium of sculpture addresses itself to an embodied, tactile viewer moving through the real space of the art. As Morris wrote, “It is the viewer who changes the shape constantly by his change in position relative to the work. … there are two distinct terms: the known constant and the experienced variable.”40 Indeed, Le Va placed similar emphasis on the importance of active viewer engagement. “I felt that the viewer was there to partially influence the sculpture and to become part of the experience,” Le Va explained. “And the only way that he or she was going to complete the experience was if the work had a sense of being unstable or was in a state of transition.”41 Le Va further developed Morris’s idea about dependent viewing but deflected its goal. Whereas Morris was interested in the conflict between the “known constant and the experienced variable,” Le Va sought to present nothing but the variable, an entity that—without a gestalt organizing principle—would attain neither perceptual nor physical stability.
As art historian Miwon Kwon has demonstrated, the minimalist emphasis on real spatiality, perceived duration, and embodied spectatorship crystallized a fundamental reconsideration of the relationship between the work of art and its viewer:
The space of art was no longer perceived as a blank slate, a tabula rasa, but a real place. The art object or event in this context was to be singularly experienced in the here-and-now through the bodily presence of each viewing subject, in a sensorial immediacy (p.21) of spatial extension and temporal duration … rather than instantaneously “perceived” in a visual epiphany by a disembodied eye.42
According to Kwon, this reconsideration prepared the ground for reinterrogation of the perceived neutrality of the terms under consideration—space, body, and viewing subject.43 In the form of institutional criticism, as well as process, land, and body art, this reinterrogation sought to expose problematic constructions underpinning art-world institutions, including the conflation of heterogeneity in class, race, and gender into universalized subjects, while moving away from the creation of freestanding objects for commodity circulation.
It is as a response to these factors—the continuation of a minimalist legacy of embodied viewing in real space and time combined with an attempt to work beyond object making—that the work of Le Va and his contemporaries like Burden should be understood. In the Avalanche interview, Le Va explained that these conditions did indeed frame his own approach:
I was impressed by the rigorous structure of minimalist thinking, without necessarily wanting to emulate a minimalist gestalt. At this time, I was also becoming disgusted with the precious object, work primarily concerned with polished surfaces, color, plastic materials, and small size—and the materialistic attitudes that supported it.44
For Le Va, the minimalist search for literality provided a way out of the trap of object making, a practice that he perceived as both problematic and outmoded. Read in this manner, the violence woven into the fabric of Le Va’s early work is strategic; it is pointed toward a reimagining of the possibilities for real action with real material in real space, as well as a real dialogue with a detectivelike viewer. It is not, as some have argued, “expressive.” It does not express the pleasure of sadism, to which Hilton Kramer alluded, nor does it convey a fetish for art born of personal agony, as Peter Plagens implied. Nor, moreover, is it a symptom of wider social unrest—it does not reify collective turmoil into the tortured angst of an artist.
This is not to suggest that the social and political backdrop of the late 1960s is irrelevant to an understanding of Le Va’s work. I have delayed in broaching this topic in order to avoid the trap of reading Le Va’s use of broken glass, bullets, and bodily impacts as passively reflecting contemporary social unrest, whether it sprung from the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. or the escalating conflict in Vietnam. However, the search for a Herderian directness—Le Va’s “real space … [and] real reasons”—provided a way of working through urgent social issues in a manner that had been proscribed by a modernist emphasis on aesthetics apart from culture. Such work could speak to pressing cultural concerns without being reducible to a position statement on geopolitical affairs.
At this point in the discussion, it is worth briefly attending to the question of subtlety in relationship to artwork created in the teeth of the political upheavals of the late 1960s and early 1970s. In September 1970, Artforum ran the first of a multipart discussion titled “The Artist and Politics: A Symposium,” which illustrated the conflicted status of the art world over the question of the proper relationship between art and social activism. Several participants in the symposium voiced the need that they perceived for overt action. Jo Baer wrote that “the time for political action by artists is now and I believe action should be taken in the art world and in the world at large. … in fact all art is eventually political.”45 Though her signature geometric, achromatic abstractions do not appear explicitly activist, Baer maintained that any work of art was framed within the political conditions of its making and reception, and, as such, it necessarily became a political entity. The artist, therefore, could retain more control over the implications of his or her art by making work that was conceived as inherently political.
However, this confrontational stance did not dominate the tenor of the debate. Several participants emphasized the need for consideration and strategy. The artist Rafael Ferrer suggested that “the revolutionary is very careful not do anything that would call for a confrontation between him and the enemy.”46 But it was Robert (p.23) Smithson who, at the end of the discussion, most eloquently voiced reluctance concerning overt activism from the art world:
Sooner or later the artist is implicated or devoured by politics without even trying. My “position” is one of sinking into an awareness of global squalor and futility. The rat of politics always gnaws at the cheese of art. … Direct political action becomes a matter of trying to pick poison out of boiling stew.47
Smithson addressed the same concern as Baer but arrived at a starkly different conclusion. For Smithson, politics is a deleterious force, one that gnaws at the integrity of art. While Smithson agreed that the artist will eventually be implicated by politics, he saw active position taking in such an environment as a dangerous and even impossible activity—one akin to picking out poison that had dissolved into a boiling stew. Smithson argued that the way to make politically efficacious art is, as Ferrer suggested, to avoid direct confrontation and strive for work that can perhaps enact, rather than illustrate, one’s political aims.
To consider this notion of enacting rather than illustrating an ideological position, let us again briefly return to Chris Burden’s work. As Howard Singerman has shown, Burden’s specific selection of ordeals seemed, at moments, to speak directly to the ongoing horrors of the war in Vietnam. While Shoot rehearsed the act of being shot in any kind of armed conflict, Five Day Locker Piece recapitulated the harsh confinement to which captured American soldiers were subject at the hands of the Viet Cong. Singerman explains that Burden’s “dual mission is to imagine and know violence for himself and to return its reality and its specific horror to his audience.”48 For the draft-age Burden, these were not simply abstract atrocities but real horrors to which he might very well be subject against his will. His work did not seek only to present the horrors of war more directly—in the tradition of Picasso’s Guernica, for instance—but also to enact the violence onto himself, perhaps to appropriate it for himself, in order to defuse its terrifying uncertainty.
Rather than simply noting the coincidence of Le Va’s works with contemporary events, one could construct a similar kind of (p.24) iconography for the artist. Saul Ostrow has suggested that Le Va’s broken glass alludes to the periodic riots that shook American cities at the end of the 1960s, and it has gone unremarked that Le Va was present in Los Angeles for the paroxysm of the 1965 Watts riots.49 Le Va’s Shots from the End of a Clear Glass Line, originally exhibited in February 1970, was predicated upon police officers firing into an immobile wall and thus bears a certain resemblance to the police assassination of the Black Panther leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, which took place in Chicago two months before.
However, the search for such deeply implicit, or possibly coincidental, imagery militates against an understanding of the particular relationship between Le Va’s work and its broader cultural context. The scientifically styled investigation of motion force and impact at play in Le Va’s art is much different from Burden’s use of charged spaces, and thus we need a different lens through which to see the intervention made in Le Va’s Impact pieces.
The Politics of Exchange and Control
During the Avalanche interview, Le Va was in fact asked whether he had intended to encode his works with political commentary. He responded:
No, not at first, I was more concerned with the aesthetic issues. Eventually they led me to question the commodity status of a work of art and I secretly enjoyed the fact that my pieces were impossible to own for any length of time.50
Indeed, it was this resistance to exchangeability that Le Va has cited as the impetus for the censure that his early work received. As Le Va recounted in a 1997 interview: “People’s biggest criticism [of the early work] was ‘It’s not art or sculpture.’ I’d say ‘Why not?’ Their reply was, ‘It can’t be owned or sold.’ … That became a big issue to me.”51 Le Va’s resistance to such commercialism was not simply a romantic reticence to value a work of art with a price tag; rather, it functioned as part of an increasingly systematic interrogation by many artists of the art-world systems of exchange and control.
(p.25) A watershed moment in this engagement occurred in January 1969, when the artist Takis Vassilakis—frustrated that curators at the Museum of Modern Art had ignored his demands concerning the exhibition of his work—walked into the MoMA exhibition The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age and “kidnapped” his sculpture from the show.52 This event precipitated the formation of the Art Workers’ Coalition (AWC), a loose-knit group of artists, including Carl Andre and Hans Haacke, who demanded major concessions from the museum and staged numerous protests. In March 1969, several hundred protesters were chanting “Bury the Mausoleum of Modern Art,” and over the course of the next few years, both MoMA and the Metropolitan Museum of Art became the sites of unexpected organized resistance. These interventions, which had begun in response to questions about the rights of living artists, quickly became entangled with larger political issues. Protesters staged a demonstration in front of Picasso’s Guernica, organized a “die in” in MoMA’s lobby, and orchestrated the release of cockroaches during a dinner for the Metropolitan Museum’s board.53 The disparate actions worked to link the museums—institutions with official policies of political abstention but nevertheless charged with the maintenance of traditional high culture—to the conservative and pro-war activities of their most prominent financial supporters.54
Le Va participated in this anti–art establishment-cum-general antiestablishment ferment in relation to the Documenta V exhibition, held in Kassel, Germany, in 1972. This exhibition infuriated a number of artists, including AWC founders Andre and Haacke, and they authored a list of demands, to which Le Va was a signatory, that appeared in the June 1972 issue of Artforum.55 The source of the controversy is complex—curator Harald Szeemann offended artists by constructing an exhibition that was at once too catholic and too agenda driven. By selecting images from far beyond the understood purview of the arts—advertising, propaganda, the art of the insane—Szeemann had hoped to dissolve a separate aesthetic realm into a larger sea of representations that, in their totality, would be transformative for the viewer.56 Artists (p.26) were resentful that Szeemann arrogated to himself the traditional rights of the artist; the critic Barbara Rose suggested he had made himself “the greatest conceptual artist in the world” through the exhibition.57 But the artists’ major grievance with Szeemann’s installation was that its indiscriminate presentation effectively neutered the political efficacy of many of their intended interventions.
Robert Smithson used the Documenta controversy to publish an antimuseum tract titled “Cultural Confinement.” This text, which was printed in the Documenta catalog and subsequently reprinted in the October 1972 issue of Artforum, constituted Smithson’s sole contribution to Documenta V. For Smithson, the divisive exhibition illustrated the problematic nature of art-world institutions more generally. Channeling the sentiment behind the chants of “Bury the Mausoleum of Modern Art,” Smithson wrote:
Museums, like asylums and jails, have wards and cells—in other words, neutral rooms called “galleries.” A work of art when placed in a gallery loses its charge, and becomes a portable object or surface disengaged from the outside world. … Once the work of art is totally neutralized, ineffective, abstracted, safe, and politically lobotomized it is ready to be consumed by society. All is reduced to visual fodder and transportable merchandise.58
For Smithson, the creation of autonomous art objects—the kind resulting from a mode of sculpture Le Va explicitly set out to “eliminate”—necessarily perpetuates the institutional status quo. No matter how revolutionary such an object might be, its exhibition as a freestanding work of art in a gallery setting can sterilize its social efficacy and render it safe for visual and commercial consumption.
As Smithson pointed out, one of the most effective techniques through which challenging works of art can be institutionally pacified is through the unwanted ascription of categorical labels. In the opening lines of his essay, Smithson maintained that “cultural confinement takes place when a curator imposes his own limits on an art exhibition. … Artists are expected to fit into fraudulent categories. … As a result, they end up supporting (p.27) a cultural prison that is out of their control.”59 This fear of categorization and the imputation of extraneous intention to the work not only echoes the jointly authored Artforum statement—which demanded that “a work of art should not be exhibited in a classification without the artist’s consent”—but also resonates with artists’ larger fears about losing control of the meaning of their work into the prevailing art system. These fears are legible in Smithson’s prior metaphor of the gnawing rat of politics as well as in Le Va’s characteristic denial of critical interpretations of his work, from the influence of other artists to the thematic interest in violence.
Violence and the Monument
While artists’ attempts to work beyond the dominant art-world systems for organizing exchange and interpretation no doubt constitute an important aspect of the politics implicit but inherent in Le Va’s early art, I would like here to return to the political aspect of the legacy of sculpture we have been tracing. In a 1997 interview with Saul Ostrow, Le Va explained that although he has consistently identified himself as a sculptor, the term remains problematic for him. “I’m trying to figure out why I started calling myself a sculptor,” he told Ostrow. “Maybe sculpture is only there in the sense of a word. It’s useful and useless at the same time. It means nothing.”60 I would suggest that the discomfort Le Va expresses around the question of sculpture arises not, as he suggests, from the term’s meaninglessness but from the surfeit of conflicted meanings and associations that arose around sculpture in the late 1960s. While the aspect of a sculptural lineage that privileged the search for concrete literality over dissembling illusion was important for Le Va and his peers, this lineage was also tainted by its association with a material and historical conservatism.
These formal expectations of the sculptural label came under increasingly direct attack during the period of institutional upheaval described above. A case in point was the exhibition Anti-Illusion: Procedures/Materials, held at the Whitney in 1969. In her catalog essay, curator Marcia Tucker notes that “it has been (p.28) assumed until recently that sculpture is, by its very nature, three-dimensional, self-contained, and fashioned from relatively durable materials, such as stone, metals, plastics or wood.”61 The associations of permanence, hardness, and autonomy—the crucial terms of Lessing’s argument penned almost exactly two centuries before Anti-Illusion—had been cemented into an art theoretical orthodoxy by the late nineteenth century. The German art historian Wilhelm Lübke opened his 1863 two-volume History of Sculpture with the assertion that “sculpture … separates the organic form from all associations, gives it a basis of its own, fixes it in a moment of existence, and places it before us isolated and complete.”62 It was this same attitude that led the great philosopher of art John Ruskin to castigate the late Renaissance patron Pietro di Medici for commissioning Michelangelo to build a statue out of snow. Ruskin described this event in hyperbolic, splenetic terms—“the perfect, accurate, and intensest possible type of the greatest error”—contending that this glorified snowman was not the harmless play of an aristocrat but a corruption of the notion of sculpture as a bequest to the ages.63
The work mounted in Anti-Illusion interrogated each of these parameters in a nearly systematic manner. Although Bill Bollinger’s installation of an enormous boulder reconsidered the massive, obdurate body of sculpture through the strategy of the found object, most of the artists focused on work that was vanishing or ephemeral. Rafael Ferrer’s ice-based work seemed to speak almost directly to Ruskin’s diatribe, while Joel Shapiro undid the notion of sculptural autonomy through a considered practice of making objects that, in Tucker’s words, “have no independent existence.”64 Le Va contributed Omitted Section of a Section Omitted, a work composed of a sharply delineated layer of flour sifted onto the floor. For Le Va, Omitted Section expressed his desire “to rip out anything that in my eyes made traditional works of art, to get rid of any lingering object orientation by emphasizing horizontal scale.”65 By working with loose, flat, and impermanent flour, he helped to undermine the received legacy of sculptural uprightness and permanence. (Le Va’s powder-based works will be the subject of closer examination in chapter 2.)
(p.29) I would argue that the significance of these gestures—working with the Herderian lineage of material and immediate truth while undercutting the associations of solidity and timelessness so important to Lessing—lies largely in the way in which they constitute an attack on the tradition of the monument. Indeed, the notion of “monumentality” might serve as a sort of placeholder for the heretofore implicit connections among traditional sculpture, heroic masculinity, and political orthodoxy. We can detect the evidence for these connections in myriad sources. This sentiment certainly animates the epigraph of this chapter, the assertion that “no one but an anarchist would go around breaking statues”—an outburst Le Va would have been familiar with through his thorough reading of Sherlock Holmes. The connections are also implicit in the words of Le Va and his contemporaries. Le Va’s insistence on the radical floor-bound quality of his work resonated with Carl Andre’s famed assertion that “in my work, Priapus is down on the floor.”66 For these artists, the idiom of flatness was a reply to a heroic tradition of upright, monumental sculpture.
This argument parallels the case made by Robert Smithson in his important 1966 essay “Entropy and the New Monuments.” “Instead of causing us to remember the past,” Smithson claimed, “the new monuments seem to cause us to forget the future. … They are not built for the ages, but rather against the ages.”67 Rather than taking permanent form to demarcate a site for posterity, the new kind of sculpture was predicated on a fleeting immediacy. While Smithson cited this phenomenon in the instantaneity of electric light utilized by Dan Flavin and the mutability of perceived sculptural form orchestrated by Robert Morris, it would come to frame the work of artists like Richard Serra, Alan Saret, Bill Bollinger, and Le Va.68
The antimonumental sentiments of Le Va and his generation have since come to be seen in light of the sweeping social unrest of the late 1960s and early 1970s, most particularly the agitation against the war in Vietnam. In her 1979 essay “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” Rosalind Krauss argued that these artists seemed to be stretching the cultural understanding of sculpture (p.30) as a fixed monument to a particular place and event—often a martial one—to the point of collapse.69 Only a few short months later, Lawrence Alloway elaborated on the changed relationship between sculptural practice and public memory—claiming that the new sculptural practices that arose in the wake of the late 1960s attested to a “post-heroic age.”70 The turn to soft, diffuse, or ephemeral materials came to be considered an attempt to think beyond the practice of sculpture as the erection of monuments to martial heroism. Le Va’s use of the materials and techniques of violence alongside substances such as chalk, flour, felt, and mineral oil served to subvert the historical understanding of sculpture that Tucker, Smithson, Krauss, and Alloway had both articulated and interrogated.
Though this antiwar reading is in some ways an ex post facto importation, its status as revisionist is in a certain way in keeping with the reconstructive ethos of Le Va’s project. As Le Va put it to me during an interview in 2012, he did not intend for his works to have explicitly activist message content. He was, however, not displeased when they were read in a political light because such readings enabled him to feel as though he had “done his duty” by his generation.71 Le Va attempted to undo the traditional emphasis on stasis and gestalt coherence by cultivating a new kind of dynamic instability based on the viewer’s dependent participation in the work. He sought to replace the material presence and historically inflected stability of traditional sculpture with a sense of continual flux and contingency. His glass, cleavers, bullets, and bodily collisions were part of an attempt to extend the realness of sculpture while working against what he described as sculpture’s “contained mass,” with its attendant status as commercial object and implicit monument.72 The resolute presence of the sculptural object was replaced with the sense of a vanished presence lingering over the aftermath of a destructive act.
(2.) Museum Abteiberg, Barry Le Va: Glass, Bullets, Cleavers, 1968–1970 (Mönchengladbach: Museum Abteiberg, 1988), 4.
(3.) Barry Le Va, interview by Saul Ostrow, Bomb 60 (Summer 1997): 58.
(5.) Elaine A. King, Barry Le Va, 1966–1988 (Pittsburgh: Carnegie Mellon University Press, 1988), 14.
(8.) Hilton Kramer, “Art: Whitney Sculpture Annual Ranges Widely,” New York Times, December 16, 1970, Art-58.
(11.) The variation of Le Va’s glass works within the “same piece” (denoted by the title) is discussed at greater length in chapter 5.
(12.) Robert Pincus-Witten, Postminimalism (New York: Out of London Press, 1977), 125.
(13.) Contemporary Arts Center, Mel Bochner, Barry Le Va, Dorothea Rockburne, Richard Tuttle (Cincinnati: Contemporary Arts Center, 1975), 16–17.
(p.187) (14.) For more on the body and violence, see Lea Vergine, Body Art and Performance: The Body as Language (Milan: Skira Editore, 2000).
(15.) See, for example, Amelia Jones, Body Art/Performing the Subject (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998), 129.
(16.) Peter Plagens, Sunshine Muse: Contemporary Art on the West Coast (New York: Praeger, 1974), 176.
(17.) See Chris Burden et al., Chris Burden: A Twenty-Year Survey (Newport, Calif.: Newport Harbor Art Museum, 1988); 16, 35, 53.
(19.) See Larry Urrutia and Buckminster Fuller, Projections: Anti-materialism (La Jolla, Calif.: La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art, 1970). The suggestion that Burden knew about Le Va is supported by the fact that Burden participated in a show, Body Movements, at the La Jolla Museum the following year, alongside Bruce Nauman. Nauman and Le Va were already close by 1971, having installed their works next to each other at the Whitney’s Anti-Illusion show in 1969. It seems easy to imagine Nauman sharing Le Va’s art with Burden.
(20.) Crispin Sartwell, Six Names of Beauty (New York: Routledge, 2004), 55.
(21.) It is worth noting that Burden’s Sculpture in Three Parts was exhibited along with Le Va’s Scattershatter at Scene of the Crime, curated by Ralph Rugoff at the Hammer Museum (Los Angeles) in 1997.
(22.) Agatha Christie, “At the Crossroads,” Flynn’s Weekly, October 30, 1926. This story was subsequently republished as “The Love Detectives” in Three Blind Mice, and Other Stories (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1950).
(23.) Paul Schimmel, “Just the Facts,” in Burden et al., Chris Burden, 16.
(24.) Rebecca Peabody and Andrew Perchuk, Pacific Standard Time: Los Angeles Art 1945–1980 (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute and the J. Paul Getty Museum, 2011), 188.
(25.) Howard Singerman, “Chris Burden’s Pragmatism,” in Burden et al., Chris Burden, 19.
(27.) Rosalind Krauss, Passages in Modern Sculpture (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1981), 256.
(28.) Donald Judd, Complete Writings 1959–1975: Gallery Reviews, Book Reviews, Articles, Letters to the Editor, Reports, Statements, Complaints (New York: New York University Press, 1975), 196.
(29.) Donald Judd, “Specific Objects,” in Art in Theory, 1900–2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas (Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2003), 827.
(30.) Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Laocoon: An Essay upon the Limits of Paintings and Poetry, trans. Ellen Frothingham (Mineola, N.Y.: Dover, 2005), 17, 92.
(p.188) (31.) Johann Gottfried Herder, Sculpture: Some Observations on Shape and Form from Pygmalion’s Creative Dream (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), 45.
(34.) Robert Morris, “Anti Form,” Artforum 6, no. 8 (April 1968): 34.
(35.) Ibid.; Kynaston McShine et al., Richard Serra—Sculpture: Forty Years (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2007), 26. See also discussion in Yve-Alain Bois and Rosalind E. Krauss, Formless: A User’s Guide (New York: Zone Books, 1997), 98.
(36.) Richard Serra, “Document: Spin Out ’72–’73: Interview by Liza Bear,” in Writings, Interviews (University of Chicago Press, 1994), 15.
(39.) Robert Morris, “Notes on Sculpture, Part I,” in Artforum 4, no. 6 (February 1966): 42; this essay is more easily accessed in reprint in Robert Morris, Continuous Project Altered Daily: The Writings of Robert Morris (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1995), 3.
(40.) Robert Morris, “Notes on Sculpture, Part 2,” Artforum 5, no. 2 (February 1966): 20–23.
(42.) Miwon Kwon, “One Place after Another: Notes on Site Specificity,” October 80 (Spring 1997): 86.
(45.) “The Artist and Politics: A Symposium,” Artforum 9, no. 1 (September 1970): 35.
(49.) Saul Ostrow, interview by author, September 6, 2011.
(51.) Le Va, interview by Ostrow, Bomb (1997), 57–58.
(52.) Jesús Lorente, The Museums of Contemporary Art: Notion and Development (Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2011), 225.
(53.) Ibid., 225–26; John Henry Merryman and Albert E. Elsen, Law, Ethics, and the Visual Arts, 4th ed. (New York: Kluwer Law International, 2002), 1089. For more information on period radicalism in the arts, see Francis Frascina, Art, Politics, and Dissent: Aspects of the Art Left in Sixties America (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999); Julia Bryan (p.189) Wilson, Art Workers: Radical Practice in the Vietnam Era (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009).
(55.) Carl Andre, Robert Morris, Barry Le Va, et al., “Statement,” Artforum 10 (June 1972), 92. An expanded version was published as “Regarding Documenta V,” Flash Art, May/June 1972.
(56.) For more detail on the Documenta controversy, see Jay Chung, “D5 and the Gesture of Withdrawal,” May Review, no. 4 (2010).
(57.) Barbara Rose, “Document of an Age,” New York Magazine, August 14, 1972, 66.
(58.) Robert Smithson, “Cultural Confinement,” Artforum 11, no. 2 (October 1972): 39.
(61.) James Monte and Marcia Tucker, Anti-Illusion: Procedures/Materials (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1969), 25.
(62.) Wilhelm Lübke, History of Sculpture: From the Earliest Ages to the Present Time, vol. 1, trans. F. E. Bunnett (London: Smith, Elder, 1872), 1.
(63.) John Ruskin, “The Accumulation and Distribution of Art,” in The Works of John Ruskin, ed. George Allen (Edinburgh: Ballantyne Press, 1905), 89.
(66.) Originally quoted in David Bourdon, “The Razed Sites of Carl Andre,” Artforum 5 (October 1966); the source is more easily accessed in reprint in Carl Andre, Cuts: Texts 1959–2004, ed. James Meyer (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2005), 57. Also see Anna C. Chave, “Minimalism and the Rhetoric of Power,” Arts Magazine 64, no. 5 (January 1990): 44–63, for an analysis of what Chave argues was the unsuccessful attempt of minimalism to undo the problematic masculinist aspects of sculpture.
(67.) Robert Smithson, “Entropy and the New Monuments,” Artforum 4, no 10 (June 1966): 26.
(69.) Rosalind Krauss, “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” October 8 (Spring 1979): 30–44.
(70.) Lawrence Alloway, “Public Sculpture for the Post-Heroic Age,” Art in America, October 1979, 9–10.
(71.) Barry Le Va, interview by author, January 17, 2012.