Sculpture Magazine April, 1997
Things and Objecthood
by Johanna Drucker
Johanna Drucker has published “Sweet Dreams: Contemporary Art and Complicity” which includes a reworking of this essay. Find this book on Amazon.com.
While large-scale installations have come to dominate the three-dimensional arena of contemporary art, sculptural objects have undergone their own transformation-from the autonomous, self-sufficient works of bygone. Modernism to referentially rich, materially suggestive, “things.” A vivid conceptual logic seems to be emerging from these works and an examination of a few examples of this new “thingness” should serve to elucidate its distinctive characteristics.
In one instance, Daniel Wiener’s whimsically fantastical pieces, defying spatial and attitudinal gravity, stretch their pipe-cleaner and chair-stuffing-meets-playdough arms through space to sketch an informal form. Is it a genetic experiment-cloning a bit of Judy Pfaff with od Dada classics, or perhaps Jean Tinguely and Hans Arp at their most mechano-morphic and anthropo-organic by way of Dr.Suess? Wiener’s work is as hard to digest as it is to characterize: there is just a bit too much of a preschoolers’ play-group feeling in it to allow a serious critical discussion of the work in purely formal terms. Contrasting textures? Delicacy versus stability? The piece itself would appear to mock such academic discussions with a knowing sci-fi creature’s indulgent nod. But there is too much serious investigation of sculptural principles in the work (space articulated through physical means) to reduce it to mere material associations. Bright, almost Day-Glo primary colors reinforce a connection to kids’ activities and play materials, and there is nothing sharp, dangerous, or threatening in either the form or the substance of the piece. The polypod base element, rising like some mutant pajama-clad octopus from the floor, supports a hairy armed something whose tentacles are raised in exploratory alien greeting. At every level of production and execution this work is resolutely non-fine art, its pedigree unlocatable within any historical aesthetic, and it refuses to be classified as a simple sculptural “object.” Even more, it refuses to be classified as a simple sculptural “object” in the terms once so clearly articulated by Donald Judd for the condition of Minimalist sculpture.
It might seem odd to bring up Judd here, but what Wiener is doing (and Elizabeth Turk, Jo Hormuth, Jennifer Pastor, Jill Levine, and Michael Ashkin, among others) references Judd’s idea of a specific object-only to subvert it through means which have as much in common with Jean Tinguely and the Baroness Fretag-Loringhoven as they do with Toys-R-Us and Mr. Potato Head. That the work manages to do this in formal terms-that is, by means of the stuff it uses and the way it uses it, is what makes it so successful. Playful, eclectic, appropriative with respect to materials, this sculpture displays a self-consciousness about the trajectory of 20th Century sculpture-most particularly that crucial moment at which Minimalist sculpture pushed art objects toward the limit of aesthetic identity, eliminating both the anti-art humor of collage/assemblage and the self-authenticating formal autonomy of the abstract formalist tradition. If Minimalism provided the definitive break between modern sculptural investigation and whatever comes after, then the current wave imaginative reworkings takes Minimalism’s premises into a curious and sophisticated conversation with both its notions of “specificity” and “objecthood” and with the traditions against which Minimalism itself gained an identity. The “specificity” which Judd strove to embody in his work was a rejection of the conventional compositional dynamics of internal formal relations in favor of a unified, single object-one which could only “minimally” be distinguished from an ordinary object. But the ordinary objects from which Judd (and Carl Andre, Robert Morris, Richard Serra, and others) wished his work to be distinct were mass-produced, industrially fabricated objects. They were objects without iconic reference, whose meaning-production value resided in their material “stuff-ness” rather than in any semiotic chain of values. A contemporary counter-tradition emerged within or alongside of Minimalism-a spectrum which stretched from Jeol Shapiro’s”minimal” architectural forms to Eva Hesse’s organic sequences and Lynda Benglis’s poured resin works-that evidenced those very properties of association which are now resurfacing with an imaginative vengeance in the work of a new generation.
Even more compelling than the associative values or iconic suggestiveness of Wiener’s work is the forthright association of these sculptural objects with a popular culture context. The “ordinary” object from which sculpture has to be distinguished-or with which it is in a dialogue-is no longer the bland, uniform, repetitive (and let’s face it, boring) forms of industrial material-but rather the eye-seducing, visually distracting stuff of playgrounds, garden supply outlets and party goods stores. Consumables, all vying for shelf space in the public imagination-these objects are as much a source of inspiration for artists as are the inherited terms of Modernist sculpture or even the longer tradition of figurative work preceding it. If one thin edge of this associative wedge was inserted into sculpture through those artists from the 1970s, who allowed iconic suggestions of some meaning beyond the formal in their work then another source for this activity comes from the media-fascinated art activity of the 1980s. Popular culture is no longer the “other” of fine art. it is rather a shadow double, a nurturing twin, or a rival sibling from which the best stuff-as well as the best opportunities-have to be snatched.