Mapping Minimalism

John Haber
in New York City

East and West: Anne Truitt and Mary Corse

The Central Regions: Michael Snow and Kay Rosen

Maybe one thinks of New York as heartless and reductive, but of California as teeming with light. Or maybe one thinks of California as glib and empty, but of New York as the destination for anyone open to experience.

New York made history in 1966 with a group show at the Jewish Museum called "Primary Structures," for the new wave of industrial and found materials. Meanwhile the other coast had a very different Minimalism—or did it? Larry Bell placed glass cubes on their pedestals, while John McCracken leaned one after another lacquered plank against the wall. Were they too boring even for New York, where factory materials still carried history and weight? Or had they transformed found objects into surf and light? Could a map of Minimalism tell them all apart? Anne Truitt's 9 Jan '73 (Matthew Marks gallery, 1973)

The 1960s provide more than enough fodder for either story, with at least two versions of Minimalism. Now shows of Anne Truitt and Mary Corse evoke those old visions of East and West Coast well beyond urban centers alone. And Michael Snow converts gallery walls into windows and a gallery floor into what he has called "the central region"—with his native Canadian landscape. Perhaps Kay Rosen in Chicago, with text paintings and murals, simply supplies the map's legend. But will a map of the 1960s have firm borders or only light? While other reviews here keep returning to the variety in abstraction now, this takes the same story back in time, to a period known more often for theater or for stasis.

In a sense, Minimalism was itself a map. It mapped the structure of the gallery, through geometry and patience. It was also literal, in real space and time, often barely rising off the floor. And to a mathematician, that is itself a kind of map—the "identity transformation," or a mapping of the gallery onto itself. As usual, though, art breaks boundaries. If that makes a map of Minimalism a map of a map of a map, no wonder things so quickly become paradoxical and alive.

Minimalisms and microspheres

The title "Primary Structures" seemed to confirm the formalist ideal of a primary essence to every medium—a structure that great art could make visible. Yet it also put structure over medium, and it seemed to make the lushness of color-field painting or even painting itself a thing of the past. The title even sounds less like art than a math lesson. In contrast, California artists seemed math challenged. "Swell," a savvy look back at those California years in 2010, reinterpreted primary structures as "primary atmospheres." Now Anne Truitt and Mary Corse make it harder than ever to disentangle the stories.

Truitt, of course, stands here for the East Coast, although hardly just the city. Her drawings can be as spare as lines ripped from a notebook, as blunt as black acrylic, or as controlled as deep color on fine paper. Corse's new paintings are a surfeit of white. Larger than life, they alternate between matte surface and glass "microspheres." As one approaches, the matte becomes that much more palpable and the reflections more dazzling. One's field of vision dissolves into the light.

Then again, Corse alone uses hard edges and industrial materials, and the artifice becomes obvious once one gets the point. Go outside, to the street, and they look flatter and flatter with distance and natural light. Truitt, who died in 2004, hardly ever allowed symmetry to interfere with her love of the moment at hand. She tended to date her drawings, like a living diary from the 1960s through the 1980s. In an early pencil and ink, the lines add up to a wood-frame structure viewed corner on. In intense yellow on orange or red intermixed with maroon and black, they conjure up morning sunlight on water.

Truitt's blacks have an obvious parallel in Richard Serra, but with introspection and intimacy instead of confrontation. Her slim verticals on a broad field of color parallel Barnett Newman, but without all that talk of the heroic and sublime. Then, too, Corse's white on white tackles Robert Ryman. Doug Wheeler's PSAD Synthetic Desert III (Guggenheim Museum, 1971/2017)One can see them both as women in a mostly male movement, although age set them apart, too. Truitt was in her mid-forties at the time of "Primary Structures," and she had her first solo show only three years before. Corse was barely of voting age, although the California label of "light and space" has stuck to her ever since.

Truitt came out of Washington, D.C., like Alma Thomas, and was old enough to bridge from color-field painting to Minimalism, including sculpture I could live without. Corse was young enough to outlive "painting is dead" and to hit Chelsea right when abstraction will try anything to make an impact. In fact, if something distinguishes Southern California, it could be excess. With his white room in Chelsea, empty except for those lucky enough to get in, Doug Wheeler managed to compress an entire day's changing light into thirty minutes. He also relied on artificial light, as with his Synthetic Desert, where James Turrell lets sunset speak for itself. People treading carefully, almost as in a pitch-black room by David Hammons, looked caught in a scene from Star Wars—and they lined up out on the sidewalk as for a movie.

Actually, both Bell and McCracken participated in that 1966 show at the Jewish Museum, and so did Truitt. Coastal differences can take one only so far anyway, now that galleries and even artists are global empires. The 2008 Whitney Biennial used a heavily bicoastal choice of artists, and it ended up with confusion and dislocation both sides—but maybe it simply spoke for today. Another Californian, Andrea Zittel, has made trailer parks into installations. Now Corse offers not just painting and theater, but displacement. And Truitt left not only drawing, but a sense of place.

Bringing abstraction to earth

Michael Snow will surround you with an actual landscape, but as geometry, color, and light. Each wall of a Chelsea gallery's largest room holds a single changing projection. One can watch it grow from a slit to a broad field of color, like a virtual Ellsworth Kelly. One can watch as it spreads or tapers from a rectangle to a rhombus and back, before turning one's gaze to another. Snow could be finding the light in painting's hard edges—or undermining its stasis. He could be projecting an infinity of distinct works or changing views of just one.

Back in the day of geometric abstraction, Snow meant a great deal to a lot of young artists. Wavelength, the enigmatic comings and goings in a nearly empty interior in 1967, showed that the visual arts (at least before James Nares in a Manhattan rush hour) did not need a narrative beyond real time and natural light. La Région Centrale, three hours of camera movements from a Canadian mountaintop in 1971, turned earthworks into experimental film. Esthetics, ontology, and epistemology—questions about art, being, and what one knows or can know—became shorthand for an artist's acts of creation, vision, and perception. In painting, too, formalism had dissolved philosophical questions into one. Snow still lingers over those acts and those questions, but the answers are not getting any easier. Michael Snow's The Viewing of Six New Works (Jack Shainman gallery, 2012)

La Ferme, a black-and-white photograph from 1998, spans twenty-three feet of cows, interrupted by verticals. One might be seeing placid animals behind fence posts or a strip of film. In other words, one might be seeing art about stasis or motion—and about nothing or about itself. Snow in fact based the scene on sixteen-millimeter film, and he based those colored quadrilaterals on a viewer's eye and head movements in front of a painting. Then again, no set of eye and head movements could carry one to both sides of the room's central partition. To confuse things further, he calls the result The Viewing of Six New Works, but it has seven projections.

The show's other past work, from 1985, looks the least puzzling at first, because it is also the most dramatic. For an existentialist, self-discovery and personal identity hinge on one's perception of and by others, and here an exchange of glances becomes a confrontation. Exchange contains a natural light hologram, of four unsmiling men in leather jackets. The specters all belong to one person, but the distinction between unity and multiplicity goes out the window, along with distinction between the work and the room. Up close, one can see just one face at a time. Step back, and the dark red light spills onto the floor, in yet another rectangle.

In the Way brings La Région Centrale down to earth. It uses the floor for a shifting view of the ground, from rocks to mud to vegetation. The pace of change is itself shifting, as the camera movements race ahead or slow down across, literally, surfaces. Again, the true subjects are art and perception, and the two are both hard to hold in one's head at once and hard to tell apart. What you see is what you get, but it is not so easy to follow what you see. One might well mistake the projection for a pit in the gallery floor.

All these rectangles have plenty of visual interest. Visual interest is hardly everything, though, especially after Modernism. (Think of trying to pick favorites in all those colored dots by Damien Hirst.) Snow's whole career is about extending one's perceptions by trying one's patience. Others were onto the same thing in the 1960s, like Andy Warhol with Warhol's Empire and the Screen Tests. Wavelength challenged the equation of art and visual perfection that much more with its forty-five minutes of tall windows, hints of a party or a corpse, and little more than a blur. But then In the Way ditches color in favor of opening paths to experience—or getting in the way.

Language as landscape

If the East and West Coasts diverge when it comes to Minimalism, how about conceptual art—and words? On the one side is reserve but also shouting, the ways that people deal with the bustle and anonymity of a city street. On the other side is emptiness and small talk. One coast's version of text art might have Lawrence Weiner and then Barbara Kruger, who grew up in New York and Newark, and the growing political heat from one to the other has something to do with changes from the severity of Minimalism to the culture wars. The other's one might have Ed Ruscha on canvas and John Baldessari on video, where the growing verbosity has something to do with the turn from Southern California highways to academia. The east puts it to the viewer to make choices about what words mean in the present, while the west holds out the possibility that they no longer mean anything at all.

Could art meet somewhere in the middle? Kay Rosen has been texting since the late 1970s, and I do not mean art as new media or an open book. I had encountered her work only once before, where it seemed way too clever and polite, but she thrives in the large space of her latest gallery. It allows her to work large and on the wall, approaching abstraction while tossing off a word or two like a punch line. More often than not, she tosses it off so casually that one has to work a little extra to keep up. Call it Chicago Minimalism.

Her largest work even approaches architecture. The gray wall of the front room gets a nice jolt from a broad arc or two of white, and never mind that they might or might not resemble letters. Like Wiener's text, it presents something of a puzzle—only not at all a metaphysical one. Like Weiner's, too, it functions as sign-posting for how to experience it. It is literally Wide and Deep. It has the comforts of geometry and just enough asymmetry to carry one ahead and into the main display space.

And there one gets the point: these are messages, if slightly cryptic ones. Two geometric jumbles on paper indeed amount to the overlapping characters in Cryptic Symbols. Words may share letters, like that opening wall's Wideep, or omit them. A second wall painting places one within the message, in block capitals, Between a Rock and a Hard Place. I know because I found the title list, which also explains how tawny twin peaks amount to Africa and Asia, while the bulge of River, Hill, and Valley define a Winter Landscape. These textual landscapes set forth a physical space in a three dimensions, but through the two dimensions of painting and one of time.

Not that they are going anywhere fast. They will not unsettle or confront anyone with East Coast urgency or Sol LeWitt rigor and chaos. Works on canvas use enamel housepaint, much as Ruscha worked in commercial art, but they do not point to Hollywood pop culture or Pop Art. Two spell out Mayhem and Stream of Consciousness, but even those stay safely under control. In an earlier show, a black wall interrupted by only a spooky P and B stood for Phantom Limb, but nothing here puts one physically or mentally at risk. Rosen may make text art into fast talk, but at least she keeps Minimalism climbing the walls.

One could expand the map to Europe, as with Hanne Darboven, where Minimalism becomes that much more a part of conceptual art. One could extend its borders, too, to performance art. Is it an accident that the "happenings," as seen in a lively history at Pace, basically went nowhere—in contrast to beat culture free associations or the inexorable chaos of Fluxus? Somehow New Yorkers had force their audience to sit still or to go through hoops, even as they spawned the East Village and, with such artists as Jim Dine and Claes Oldenburg, actual art objects. Maybe the lesson is that the 1960s really were less detached than labels like Minimalism and the Factory would have one believe. If the turmoil on campus or in the streets was as messy as a map by Jasper Johns, why should the geographies of art be any less so?

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Anne Truitt's drawings ran at Matthew Marks through April 14, Mary Corse at Lehmann Maupin through March 10, Doug Wheeler's white room at David Zwirner though February 15, Michael Snow at Jack Shainman through February 11, 2012, Kay Rosen at Sikkema Jenkins through March 10, and "Happenings: New York, 1958–1963" at Pace through March 17. Related reviews look at Wheeler's "Synthetic Desert" and immersive cinema.


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