WALL RED YELLOW BLUE: THE NARRATIVE OF MINIMALISM
Reproduced with permission from the catalogue for the exhibition, Wall, Red Yellow, Blue, at Artspace, Sydney, 1997
Ross Moore, 1997
Wall Red Yellow Blue , while gesturing, dramatically, towards some "essence" of purity (we think of alchemically distilled elixirs and the bottled accumulation of the mad apothecary's experiments) also alludes to modernism's infatuation with the sleekness of a "minimalism" that would empty out everything considered chaotic or messily embodied - that is - visceral - in the name of a science that would also be a variety of aesthetic hygiene.
In particular it acknowledges the work of artists such as Eva Hesse, Lynda Benglis, Barry Le Va, Bruce Nauman, Richard Serra, Joel Shapiro, Keith Sonnier, Richard Tuttle, Alan Saret and Robert Smithson, to name just a few, who around 1965 began to launch a powerful and sustained critique against minimalist painting and sculpture which they understood as varieties of heroic monumentalism intent on escaping "subjective" history together with the promiscuous if not polymorphous mobility of human erotics. 1 If Richard Serra's Sign Board Prop 1969 - a sheet of lead antimony propped up to form a partial and second wall should mock even as it worships the notion of a heavy male minimalism from one end, Alan Saret's Four-Part Folding Glade 1970 - an elegantly crushed and crumpled length of commercial zinc mesh leaning in the gallery corner, would do so from the other. Eva Hess's Protoype for Contingent 1969 - a latex covered cheesecloth draped over a wooden rod - to form a suspended diaphanous wall which is nevertheless an effective screen or barrier - proposed questions concerning the liminality of architecture or the architecture of liminality similar to those raised by Berkowitz's own suspended walls, except that Berkowitz's utilisation - as building blocks - of thousands of industrially produced test-tubes suspended by nylon thread and filled with solutions of coloured dyes would render even more acute the dilemma of human embodiment at once both opaque and sheer, impervious (to full bodily intrusion) yet somehow also a porous veil, an object of a scientific (medical) gaze yet a space of interior wonderment filled with gleaming - perhaps even ecstatic - aqueous humours - the material of a Medieval mythology.
Indeed, the extent to which Berkowitz's current installation might echo, if not respawn, in terms of both materials and conception, the concerns of the so called "New Sculptors" 2 (as the above artists were generically named following their inclusion in the influential Whitney Museum exhibition The New Sculpture 1965-75: Between Geometry and Gesture), would itself serve to bring up to date the quintessential question: might not a transcendentally or sublimely conceived minimalism somehow have survived - long enough -even the various probings of post-structuralism - to bear witness to the dying moments of the twentieth century?
But Berkowitz is intent on raising an even more subtle question and one with the potential to undo the first: might not the "original" or "originary" purity of minimalism have been already and always a theatrical or performative device by means of which certain narratives of becoming and identity might be all the more persuasively presented? In other words, what if minimalism, despite its claims to have shorn away all encrustations of culture, the distracting knobs and wrinkles of language, be by virtue of this very claim, all the more able to tell or divulge a complex narrative? 3
To better raise this question, Berkowitz doesn't focus on how her current installation might be considered in terms of the anti-formalism, organic abstraction, Bio- morphism, distributionalism etc. that have developed as key critical terms around the New Sculpture, but chooses instead to take a direct step back to the minimalist painting that had even earlier served as its point of departure.
Wall Red Yellow Blue is intended by the artist as both homage to and commentary on the colour field paintings of Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman and Klein. Seizing upon the idea of paint pigment as a liquid stain capable of drenching a canvas so that it becomes a saturated surface that shines, she has entertained its literalization so that her picture planes would be primary colour fields actually composed of gleaming liquid light - colour fields that is, never obliged to make that oftimes disappointing chemical transition into a solid dryness for are they not here afforded the privilege of remaining forever lucid and wet? Via an architecture of mounted water her colour fields are Super-Saturated. Hyper-bolic. Enactments of Yves Klein's bravado statement that he never learned the trade of painting but was born to it, having, as he said, "absorbed the taste of painting from his mother's milk" Their status as performative icons is ensured - or at least secured for as long as a cluster of test-tubes might be protected by the safe haven of the art gallery doubling as (minimalist) laboratory - the proverbial white cube as exhibition clinic.
A whole series of quotations are knowing imbedded in Wall Red Yellow Blue. They have been secreted there in the form of calculated excess. The nuance of a Rothko brushmark finds its echo in a test tube bearing a slightly different density of colour, just as the ethereal impossibility of that famous Kleinian blue is enacted by a layering of blue test tubes until they rival - even as they reflect - the famous marine shades of Sydney Harbour - the spectacle just outside the gallery windows. Newman's signature vertical bar or "zip" has been found - ready-made - in the shape of the gallery's row of internal pillars that Berkowitz has cunningly incorporated as dividers of her three panels. In this way she makes wry testament to Newman's devotion to a mystical Euclidean and Cabbalistic arithmetics (like Rothko and Newman she has Jewish parentage) while exhibiting her altogether clever enough prowess as contemporary exponent of an environmentally "sensitive" installation practice. Likewise, Newman's preoccupation with Gnostic notions of the sphere of Pleroma or the "fullness" of divine light (from the rays of which the first primordial being, Adam Kadmon emerged"*) is replayed by Berkowitz's incorporation of natural sunlight streaming In through the windows as her lighting source, so that the serums in the glass vessels (especially the ones filled with red liquid that could be blood) would appear impregnated by a fertilizing flame from the En-Sof (the Hidden God) represented in turn by the unwatchable or unbearable ball of the sun. 5
Even the fragility and instability of Berkowitz's liquid glass veils invokes and inverts the unimaginative presumption that minimalism comprises an austerity so bland that it could, like Rothko's paintings, provide a "first class wall against which to hang other pictures." In Berkowitz's case, the artwork has jumped away to become itself a wall albeit one that might shatter to the hammer's touch. In ludicrously duplicating, trebling - might they not potentially come in all manner of numbers, sizes and colours? - the original or real wall of bricks and mortar they remind us also of Klein's habit of mounting his canvases not on the wall but some twenty centimetres in front of it so that in this mysterious replication, establishing as it does, a dialogue between simulacra, the architectural certainly of both would be tossed into a shadow realm of indeterminacy. Rothko might be said to have already done the same with two walls - two planes of colour - one receding and one advancing - within the same painting.
But even allowing for a veritable cascade of minimalist associations, only several of the more obvious having been mentioned, the fact remains that Berkowitz's choice of medium would also ensure that her installation returns us deliberately to the debate concerning abstraction and embodiment, certainly well articulated in the 1960s, but now taking even a more potent form in the late twentieth century as "Western" science finds itself painfully confronted by fallibility in the form of a viral pandemic which would render body liquids, especially sexual secretions, toxic. 6
Whilst we may see a curtain of test-tubes more or less chaotically strung together as comic counterpart of a Warholian silk-screened banner of regimented Campbell Soup cans (reminiscent of the organized method of the supermarket aisle constructed as deep consumer canyon) and hence as reference to a scientific oligarchy as multi- national Big Business intent on selling products ranging from flavoured medicines to diagnostic tests, as least for those who can afford them, we are also reminded - if such should even be required - of the sheer vulnerability and potential dishevelment might we call it exquisite? - of the human body.
From this perspective Wall Red Yellow Blue with its careful degree of "random" messiness would intimate the precariousness of not just the humanist subject together with their lineage in a Renaissance discourse intent on rationally and coolly codifying and distilling the monstrosities vomited by a "primordial" nature, but also the liminality - the possible shattering and disappearance over the edge of entire societies.
At the same time, the work suggests a defiant optimism, albeit one that courts, as does Newman, a certain Cabbalistic or Gnostic mysticism in its allusion to the ineffability of radiantly "pure" essences. For it is undeniable that the artist intends her translucent liquids to magically pulsate, sparkle and glow. Just as the Ancient Greeks believed that the eye transmitted as well as received light rays, Berkowitz is proposing that the serums contained within the crucible of the human body might absorb as well as give omni-directional vent to a glorious light. In this way she might rescue from puritanical opprobrium, clinical annihilation, governmental incarceration, the very stuff of life. While so doing she would lend Hesse's famous cluster of individualised (slightly wobbly, slightly eccentric) translucent vessels (Repetition Nineteen 111 1968) a contemporary valency.
If Hesse's concern was to convey how bodies might variously occupy what she called a "wild space" 7 and hence exhibit the freedom of an non-Oedipally disciplined corporeal "feminism," Berkowitz's would be to render a renewed "effability" if we might coin that term, to the bare bones of deconstruction. As an ongoing project it promises to steer the legacy of the New Sculpture between the extremes of a disembodied abstraction and a materialism rudely refusing any status as text.
1. Joseph Cornell, Louise Nevelson and Louise Bourgeois should definitely be added. I have listed above only the names of those artists curated into the influential Whitney Museum of American Art exhibition, The New Sculpture 1965-75 which promoted the title. See the catalogue of the same name, published in 1975 by The Whitney Museum. New York.
2. Of course "Pop" which also burst into prominence just several years earlier, likewise asserted a pungent critique of "minimalism" as a rarefied and high culture. It did this by celebrating - might we say flaunting - the popular and the low. But the issue of the embodiment of minimalism Is still begged - how might Andy Warhol masturbating to an image of Pop-Eye the Sailor Man jeopardize the notion of the cartoon figure as itself a form minimalized to the discipline of an empty outline? If the cartoon might be a repository of libidinous narrative charge, might not also the coloured "minimalist" surface?
3. Critics of Rothko, for example, continue to refer to the surface of his paintings as "unremittingly abstract, uncompromising in its refusal of narrative and mimesis." But as Anna C. Chave observes, "throughout his career, Rothko was wracked by doubts about abstraction...he believed his paintings to be possessed of significant 'subjects' " (Mark Rothko: Studies in Abstraction, Yale Publications in the History of Art, 39, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1989, p.3). She proposes that being both Jewish and migrant cannot be divorced from his notion of surface as moral subject. What if abstraction were itself an embodiment of the territory of being diasporic? Likewise, Newman, also the son of Jewish immigrants, protested that his so called "abstraction" was a voiding of human drama. He wrote: "the insistence of the abstract artists that subject matter must be eliminated, that art be made pure, has served to create a similar result to that of Mohammedan art which insisted on eliminating anthropomorphic shapes. Both fanaticisms force the art to become a mere arabesque. "(quoted in Mark Rothko, 1989:25). Yves Klein, also inspired by alchemy and esoteric literature, particularly the writings of "crazy" saints, insisted that his "monochromy" was a place in which the human body might be inserted. He intended his Blue Revolution to found a Pneumatic Epoch in which an Incarnation of the spirit would be manifested in real and practical life: "To sense the soul, without explanation, without words, and to depict this sensation - this, I believe, is what led me to monochrome painting." (Klein quoted in Yves Klein 1928-62: International Klein Blue by Hannah Weitmeier, Benedikt Taschenm, Koln, 1995, p.7.) But to consider "minimalism" as successful in its sublimation of the personal aura would be to accept that human difference is something that can simply be ironed out into an infinite superficiality, just as any acceptance of its dominion beyond spoken utterance would invoke the painting surface as an ontologically "primitive" or "aboriginal" presence - a tabula rasa set up miraculously before words.
4. Thomas B. Hess, Barnett Newman, The Tate Gallery, Idea Books, Milan, 1972, p. 52. Hess makes a compelling case for Newman's "feeling and taste for the infinite" though he argues he was not a pious man, at least in the orthodox religious sense.
5. See Hess, Barnett Newman (1972: 52). There is no space to fully develop the role of colour symbolism in Berkowitz's, Newman's, Klein's and Rothko's work. However that colours might play a "narrative" role at all would already take us closer to the proposition that the so called "Minimalism" of the earlier artists would mask the telling of a thousand stories. For example, blue is both Newman's and Klein's celestial colour whereas deep red and fiery orange represents, for Newman, the "color for earth, Adam-mankind." (p. 52). Berkowitz clearly considers her liquid colours as redolent of the humours of the human body and hence their revelation in open space would involve the spectacular exteriorization of the inferiority of the human subject just as it would the implication that the inferiority of brightly coloured viscera - foreclosed by Cartesian science as the unseeable stuff of femininity, pollution and shame - would be constituted by an embracing nature composed already of the same effulgent and moist materials. No sooner do we take her yellow liquid as urine - a reference she herself has made - than we are invited to consider the significance of pregnancy tests as well as Andres Serrano's Piss Christ - the image torn to pieces and cast upon the Senate Floor by Senator Alphonse D'Amato in May 1989 and which inaugurated the so-called Culture Wars. See Elizabeth Grosz, Volatile Bodies: Towards a Corporeal Feminism, Allen & Unwin, 1994, Melbourne, pp. 192-210 for a feminist reading of the threat, to phallicism, of a woman's "flows."
6. See Cindy Patton, Inventing AIDS, Routledge, 1990, New York, for an excellent account of the formation of AIDS knowledges occurs around a discourse of fluids -ones that cross sexual as well as racial borders.
7. Quoted in Lucy R. Lippard, "Eva Hesse: The Circle", in The New Sculpture (1975:233).
Copyright 1997, the author and publisher