“Irrational thoughts should be followed absolutely and logically.”
It is one of the great axioms of art. Part of Sol LeWitt’s “Sentences on Conceptual Art,” this single line encapsulates not only a large portion of contemporary artistic practice, but the inherently contradictory nature of human creativity itself. Arguably, to be an artist is to follow irrational thoughts absolutely and logically. As evidenced by LeWitt’s own work, a strategy founded on this definition can be potent—both as the catalyst for new forms and as an investigation into the internal dynamics of art in general.
Indeed, logic has been a fundamental component of art since the Sixties. By methodically carrying out simple guidelines, rule-based artists have explored the relationship between art making and pragmatic reason. The work of the best logic-artists comments on subjectivity and objectivity, the limitations of thought and technical skill. As the product of self-restricting minds, such work speaks to who we are as human beings, continually in conflict between opposing forces of conformity and individuality, conscience and instinct, repression and desire, laws and liberties. It is the evocation of such tensions that renders Ed Ruscha’s string of Sunset Strip photos poetic, On Kawara’s diaristic date-paintings profound, LeWitt’s white skeletal cubes powerful.
All three of these pivotal works were included in the recent museum-like exhibition at Pace Wildenstein’s Chelsea gallery. Titled “Logical Conclusions: 40 Years of Rule-Based Art,” it progressed through the history of contemporary art, from late-Fifties post-painterly abstraction to the recent modified video-game consoles of the Radical Software Group. As the show’s curator and Pace president Marc Glimcher describes in the exhibition’s catalogue, it sought to examine the “tradition and evolution of rule-based art…defined as art created utilizing one or more logic-based systems to direct and design the creation of the object.”
Mario Merz’s Fibonacci 1202 epitomizes this tradition and its multifaceted effects—those tensions suggested by LeWitt’s theorem. In eleven framed photographs, the work documents the dining area of a restaurant as it progresses from empty to occupied. Blue neon digits above the photos note the number of people at each stage. While it initially appears that these numbers are determined by the arbitrary filling up of the room, it is actually the opposite. As the title suggests, the incremental multiplication of dining patrons conforms to a Fibonacci series—a sequence of numbers in which each is the sum of the preceding two—here articulated by the neon signs. The seemingly random occupation of seats in the photographs is thus revealed as the product of a preordained system. The work hints at an underlying order beneath the apparent chaos of everyday life, an idea confirmed by the Fibonacci sequence itself (it is, in fact, the basis of an array of naturally occurring structures and patterns).
“Logical Conclusions” balanced the relative complexity of works like Merz’s with the extremely simplified rules employed by artists such as James Siena. Also determined by preset progressions, Siena’s process is based on the multiplication or division of elemental forms and patterns, which either expand to his paintings’ edges or diminish toward vanishing points. In each, the system is repeated until the artist can no longer carry it out. These labyrinthine works thus lay bare their own determining principles. However, they also achieve an astonishing degree of expressiveness, achieved through the execution of a mechanical routine by a human hand. The quivers of Siena’s lines and the imperfections of his shapes add infinite intricacy to his basic schemes. As with Merz’s Fibonacci work, Siena’s paintings tap the spaces between logic and intuition, control and contingency.
Another subset of artists in the exhibition use rules to demarcate the body, its appendages, boundaries and limits. Gary Hill’s Conundrum, for example, methodically maps out the artist’s body as it appears to float across a horizontal lineup of six video monitors. In Latitude, meanwhile, Corban Walker literally inscribed his own diminutive size into the gallery space. Across the entryway between two rooms were stretched multiple steel cables at equal intervals, extending from four feet—the artist’s actual height—to six feet high. Visitors had to duck under this physical obstruction—effectively reducing their own sizes to that of Walker—in order to progress from one part of the exhibition to the other.
Such works directly relate to two late-Sixties, rule-based pieces by Bruce Nauman, also exhibited here. The self-explanatory Neon Templates of the Left Half of My Body Taken at Ten-Inch Intervals is an elaborate cast of the artist’s body according to a prefixed, though entirely arbitrary, system. Slow Angle Walk (Beckett Walk) is a 60-minute black-and-white video of Nauman employing awkwardly mannered movements based on the protagonist of Samuel Beckett’s novel Watt. With hands held behind his back, Nauman “walks” along a diagrammed path by pivoting stiffened legs held at right angles to his body. Absurd and mesmerizing, Nauman’s sculpture and video elicited reflection on the human form, its mechanics and relationship to space.
The exceptional quality of the works exhibited at Pace and the centrality of the show’s theme to contemporary art practice did not, however, alleviate the show’s inherent flaws, which were basically twofold. First, it was crammed. Both the art and its visitors were given no breathing room, as nearly every inch of floor and wall space was used. Consequently, no single work could be contemplated without at least three others competing for the viewer’s attention. The closet-sized nook that contained Ruscha’s Every Building on the Sunset Strip was also packed with three works by Marcel Broodthaers, an Andy Warhol screen-painting, a Jasper Johns print and a Frank Stella stripe-painting. Another contained a Richard Serra sculpture, drawing and video, a diptych by Jo Baer, a large Chuck Close painting, videos by John Baldassari and Joan Jonas (two each), and an installation of Mel Bochner’s 36 Photographs and 12 Diagrams.
This would ordinarily have been forgivable (Pace is not a museum, but a gallery—albeit a very large one). Yet, the overcrowding was symptomatic of a much more fundamental problem: only about half of this onslaught of contemporary art actually corresponded to the exhibition’s stated theme. Those works that did are indeed exemplary—the LeWitts, Naumans, Serras and Sienas, for example, as well as the Ruscha, Merz, Bochner and Walker. However, much of the show’s work is only tangentially related, and some of its most important pieces did not really fit at all. An early painted wood sculpture by Donald Judd is a cadmium red, rectangular box with a semi-cylindrical trench divided into various, increasingly larger widths. Though this partitioning suggests some kind of progression, it does not evidence any discernable system. Similarly, Dan Flavin’s Untitled (Monument to V. Tatlin) features a simplified composition of readymade light-fixtures, yet is hardly governed by a preset rule.
At play here was a type of semantic slippage between “logic” or “rules” and simple geometry, symmetry or repetition. This applied not only to the exhibited Minimalist works, but to others as well. For example, Warhol’s silkscreen-painting, Troy, depicts an autographed headshot of Troy Donahue repeated nine times in three rows of three. Adjacent to this work was Broodthaers’ Tour Marilyn, consisting of five layers of eight clear plastic cups, each with a magazine clippings of Monroe’s lips. Piero Manzoni’s Achrome similarly offers twenty squares of linen arranged in five rows of four. The inclusion of such works in this show raised a critical question: is the use of mechanical repetition or simple grid formats necessarily the same as following a predetermined rule to its logical conclusion?
The suspicion that, in fact, such works do not satisfy the exhibition’s premise caused it to seem rather forced at times. Conversely, one wondered why more relevant artists were conspicuously absent—especially considering the willingness of Glimcher to pack his gallery with art. This ostensibly comprehensive survey of “40 Years of Rule-Based Art” glaringly skipped over some of its most significant manifestations—namely, the last thirty to forty years of performance art. Artists such as Chris Burden, Marina Abramovic, Sophie Calle, Vito Acconci, and Paul McCarthy have effectively built their careers upon the execution of rule-based activities.
The show’s curatorial problems were even more pronounced in its second half, as it moved into more recent periods. It was here that the exhibition’s theme was stretched beyond its breaking point. Peter Halley’s 1982 painting, Red Cell with Conduit, is a bright orange panel with simple black bars at the bottom—a work which, as the catalogue points out, the artist claims is not abstract, but “diagrammatic.” Tom Friedman’s Untitled is made from disassembling and reassembling thirty-six S.O.S. Soap Pad boxes into a single giant-sized version of the package. Despite its lattice-structure, and its indication of an extremely time-consuming process, Friedman’s technique is actually not rule-based, but intuitive. Once again, the recognition of symmetry or an apparent grid was used to classify certain works of art as inherently logical.
The reasoning behind the inclusion of other contemporary pieces was even more imperspicuous. Michal Rovner’s Table #2, for example, is a laboratory table of video petri dishes. The work effected a perceptual double-take, as viewers realized they were looking at bird’s-eye footage of walking and jumping people rather than breeding microorganisms. As Glimcher explains, “digital imagery, both still and video, is the result of recording light as a mapped grid of intensities and colors, which are ultimately stored as a long chain of 0s and 1s.” This, he claims, justifies the presence of the Rovner piece, as well as a small video installation by Paul Pfeiffer. Yet, one wondered why these two particular artists were chosen, since according to Glimcher’s rationale, anything digital would be appropriately rule-based.
Similarly confounding was the inclusion of Jeff Koons’s famous Two Ball Total Equilibrium Tank (Spalding Dr. J Silver Series), with its pair of basketballs suspended in distilled water. According to the catalogue, the work fits the theme because the floating balls exemplify the Second Law of Thermodynamics, along with Archimedes’ Principle of Buoyancy. Does this mean that Michelangelo’s David is also “rule-based,” since it clearly evinces Newton’s Law of Gravitation by standing on its pedestal? Indeed, when it came to works such as Koons’s, the show seemed unsure of its own subject. Was it art generated by predetermined guidelines, or art that merely operates in line with universal principles? One assumes that the exhibition’s organizers would argue it’s both. Yet, the latter focus would presumably incorporate any work of art that functions according to the laws of physics.
The essential sticking point was the fact that all art can be understood as the manifestation of a certain logic. By overextending its own reach—labeling artists like Manzoni and Koons logicians—the Pace exhibition limited its argument to this generality. Again, its initial premise was a good one, not only because systematic art strategies have flourished in the contemporary period, but also because the show effectively linked work typically kept apart, balkanized by museums into Minimalism, Pop and Conceptualism, painting, video and design. It stumbled, however, in its equation of “the logical” with a host of sometimes related, though hardly synonymous, qualities—the geometric, the mechanical, the impersonal, the industrial, the modular, the digital—along with artistic techniques such as appropriation, obsessive craft and repetition. It would have, in the end, been much more successful, both aesthetically and conceptually, had it been severely edited. Instead, an otherwise cogent argument became specious, the show’s “logical conclusion” ultimately seeming a bit (ahem) illogical.