Gallery Going, by DAVID COHEN          
      A version of this article first appeared in the
New York Sun, March 3, 2005

Logical Conclusions: 40 Years of Rule-Based Art at PaceWildenstein through March 2 (534 W. 25th Street, between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues, 212 929-7000)


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still from John Baldessari John Baldessari Sings LeWitt 1972
black-and-white videotape with sound, 15 minutes
Courtesy PaceWildenstein

No one would say conceptual art was ever laugh-a-minute, but even this driest, most austere and self-consciously cerebral of art movements had its light side. In place of the black humor of Dada, its progenitor, conceptual art came up with what you might call instead a gray humor.

This ultimately had more to do with the Python-esque following through of a dumb idea or laborious strategy than anything intrinsically funny in the content of the work. If Dada humor belonged to the gallows, conceptual humor was toned down to the mildest of School punishments, sitting in detention and writing lines. One of the great ironies of the counterculture is that artists who set out to break with convention should have set themselves so many pettyfogging regulations.

At PaceWildenstein, Marc Glimcher has put together a provocative, revisionist survey of what he calls “rule-based” art. Overwhelmingly, this is dry, cool, “clever” stuff: There’s little color in the gallery; blandness, banality and sterile repetition are the order of the day. With moods that range from the ponderous to the flippant, this art knowingly tests your patience and is content as often as not to elicit no more than wry bemusement.

The works stretch from the sparse anti-painterly geometric abstraction of Ad Reinhardt and Josef Albers right up to the ribald reductivism of Damien Hirst’s dot paintings and Tara Donovan’s ingenious cube arrangements of needles or toothpicks apparently held together only by friction and gravity. But these are forebears and descendants: The majority of the artists belong to the heady days of minimal, conceptual, and systems-based art of the 1960s and 1970s.

This was a time when, as Donald Judd, whose work is included in the show, declared, “a work of art need only be interesting.” Frequently the point of innovation is to probe the definition of art rather than generate profound experiences within it. Rule-based art is relentlessly anti-romantic, anti-expressive, and impersonal. Any jocularity that results shouldn’t be confused with the humanity of the artist seeping through: On the contrary, the enervating silliness of rule-based art is invariably its content.

Indeed, a defining motif of conceptual art is its Kafka-like parody of the bureaucratic: thus the chromophobic gray humor, not to mention the love of typewriter fonts, official-looking forms, documentation, and humorless instructions. Critics who complain about an institutionalized avant-garde — the phenomenon whereby seemingly countercultural manifestations owe their success to the museums that collect and install them — see an unholy alliance between the officious look and feel of the work and the bureaucrats who for decades foisted this anti-aesthetic on the world.

To represent the rule behind Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s “Untitled” (Public Opinion) (1991), a heap of licorice candies arranged in a corner, which viewers are at liberty to eat, the exhibition catalogue reprinted in full the loan agreement form from the Guggenheim. This form contractually covers an “object” that doesn’t physically exist until it is constituted, but which the museum nonetheless “owns” — a conundrum literally to be savored.

No artist ever devoted himself more totally to a bureaucratic rule than On Kawara, who on January 4, 1966 began the ongoing work for which he is primarily known, the Today Series, in which he paints the date against a monochrome ground on one of eight sizes of rectangular canvas. Since the series began he has only changed font once (from Helvetica to Futura), and he remains devoted to a rigorous set of rules: He mixes the acrylic fresh for each painting, in the place where it is being made; he uses the local language and calendar convention; he places the completed painting in a carton with a clipping from a daily newspaper; if he can’t finish a given work by midnight, he destroys it.

Rule artists have an addiction to the grid. It is given, ubiquitous, and both entails and requires a system to be filled-in. Grid-fillers include Jasper Johns, represented here by “Gray Alphabets” (1960); Chuck Close, with “Robert” (1973–74); and Andy Warhol and Bernd and Hilla Becher, who each, by coincidence, present blocks of nine similar objects in a three-by-three block. Warhol’s “Troy Donahue-9 Times” (1962) is variably inked silkscreens of the same stencil of the matinee idol. The Bechers’s “Cylindrical Gas Tanks” (1984) are a set of industrial structures they have photographed with meticulous standardization of scale, lighting, and placement.

A similarly knowing nerdishness informs the strategies of Ed Ruscha, in whose accordion fold-out, “Every Building on the Sunset Strip” (1966), each building is photographed in noon light at the same distance. Mel Bochner’s “36 Photographs and 12 Diagrams,” (1966/2001), another grid, documents the symmetrical patterns that can be created from a system of stacked building blocks. Charles Ray achieves the desired fusions of personal and impersonal, earnest and pointless, in “All My Clothes” (1973), a strip of 16 coolly matter-of-fact and faux-anthropological Kodachrome photographs.

It is incumbent on each artist to devise his or her own rules when art is rule-based (therein lies the art), but this doesn’t prevent patterns among rules, nor references among the canon of “rulers.” In 1972 John Baldessari taped himself singing a seminal 1969 text by Sol LeWitt, his “Sentences on Conceptual Art,” nonchalently and to banal chants. “These sentences have been hidden too long in exhibition catalogs,” he explains. More recently, Vik Muniz set out to transcribe earlier works in odd materials like chocolate, sugar, or dust, as in the case of his reworking of a photograph of a Donald Judd installed at the Whitney. Mr. Muniz even collected dust from the Whitney to make this piece. Its conceptual value (the punchline) is that dust is ubiquitous and made up of anything, a riposte to Judd’s notion of “specific objects.”

You could say rule-devising fills a vacuum left in the wake of the great game of representation. Under the old paradigm artists subscribed to, or deviated from, rules that were proven to yield results — perspective, anatomy, color theory, tonal value. In the new, conceptualist order, the rules are an end in themselves: An adopted rule has the individual, expressive value of the despised, eschewed personalizing features of old art, the brushstroke, the gesture.

James Siena Enter the Faces 1996
enamel on aluminum, 19-1/4 x 15-1/4 inches
Courtesy PaceWildenstein

There are, however, exceptions that prove the rules. James Siena fits perfectly within the terms of this exhibition: He works algorythmically, he creates grids, he is systemic. But his modus operandi, with its self-imposed tantra, doesn’t aesthetically depend on itself for its value: It yields results. Mr. Siena’s rule, as in the 1960 Alfred Jensen included here, heightens, rather than dulls, all-important intuitive decisions. As Mr. LeWitt wrote (and Mr. Baldessari sung) “conceptual artists are mystics rather than rationalists” — a provacative truism that in Mr. Siena’s case happens to be true.

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