A.C.T. at Optica (1978)

“A.C.T. at Optica,” Artists Review, 2:1 (September 29, 1978), pp. 3-5.

A.C.T. at Optica – October 9 - 27, 1978  

The following is a reprint of the catalogue essay for an exhibition at Optica Gallery, Montreal.

If one talks of painting in Toronto, or rather of painting as painting, one is forced to discuss the criteria for engaging in that discipline or interpreting its products. The question of painting as painting is a question of value: does one affirm sensibility or methodology, subjectivity or some relation to objectivity? Toronto generally is thought to have a “school” of painting which concentrates on colour, and whose qualities and attributes are lyrical and abstract, with occasional tendencies to expressionism—the “Toronto sensibility” in short. This view is upheld by the newspapers, the magazines, the vested galleries, and one of the universities; and in a more recent and stylish form perpetrates the illusory myths and glamour of the Painters Eleven. The painting is modernist as defined by Clement Greenberg, but now the formalist-ethical vigour, critically elaborated by Michael Fried, is depleted and suspect as a concept and is often replaced in painting by the mere husk of decorativeness. What seemed necessary and compelling in 1965 is no longer relevant today.

At this earlier date, Frank Stella and Kenneth Noland combatted the subjective “self-expression” of Abstract Expressionism through a more objective concentration on structure and the handling of colour and surface in their work. Those following, who tried to maintain the traditions of modernism, saw the objective conditions of production in contemporary art pass to so-called Minimalist art and its progeny. For formalist artists, tradition was closely guarded under the shibboleths of “quality” and “taste.” Above all, their art still promoted the subject in the artist as the originator of expression and in the spectator as the receptor of the act in a pure state of aesthetic sensibility of “cognitiveness-without-cognition.” In Toronto, both subjects—artist and spectator—have been formed by a specific historical reading and by the social conditions of modernist art in general and the Toronto art scene in particular in its capitalist milieu.

If commodity fetishism reproduces social relations in products “whose qualities are at the same time perceptible and imperceptible by the senses,” [1] then art whose process of production and objective materiality oppose reification—or the creation of metaphysical value in an object or form—can only serve knowledge of the objective conditions of reality. This art similarly opposes subjectivity affirmed as subjectivity in favour of observable systems of production and objectivity in a dialectical interaction with materiality (or its equivalents in painting—surface, structure, context, systems of ordering). Under the same compulsions, Conceptual art abandoned the object partially in the belief that it was tainted as a commodity or could not help be turned into a commodity in our market society. But Conceptual art shared other concerns with an object art, Minimal, systems or serial painting, including the work in the present exhibition, namely, the rejection of expression and subjectivity. As Sol LeWitt wrote: “To work with a plan that is preset is one way of avoiding subjectivity. . . . The plan would devise the work”; and “the artist's will is secondary to the process he initiates from idea to completion.”[2]

The four artists in the present exhibition similarly are concerned with the objective factors of their art and with finding means whereby the material itself (whether in its materiality or relation to structure), through the artist’s adhering to and following (in the temporal sense also) certain rules or demands, or developing the work within a certain context, creates its own result or image. Thus for Ric Evans, the composition produces itself given an initial decision that the artist makes and then is compelled to follow according to the demands of composition within this one work. For John Howlin, a set of arbitrary decisions within a structure of syntactical rules creates variable compositions. Regular and knowable forms develop in a physical context in Robert McNealy's work. And Sam Perepelkin’s compositions are the outcome of the systematization of a chance technique. In these concerns and the lack of interest in colour—where colour is simply coding or spatial devices for Howlin or a fundamental necessity for Evans and McNealy since a surface must have colour— the works at hand manifest a basic opposition to that of the so-called Toronto sensibility.

Exact reconstruction of the ordering of the image may be impossible in the chance determinations of Perepelkin’s paintings, but a system is intuited. In Howlin’s New Order, if one does not know the precise syntactical rules, one can at least under-stand the relations. For Ric Evans the procedure is evident in analysis or examination of the paintings. It develops from canvas to canvas in a temporal sequence. Composition changes from canvas to canvas. Initiated by the artist, composition makes itself and the painting. By isolating one component—in this case, composition—the artist does not reduce the painting to that alone. A reductivist painting is impossible because painting remains as painting—as a delimited surface of colour. The intentional content of Evans's work is composition. Yet this intention does not restrict composition to an unchanging ideal of static laws. As internal content—as opposed to hidden overall structure—the composition is dynamic and develops within its context. In the particular examples exhibited here, the large triangle along with the constant diagonal, in each case, generate the smaller triangle in the course of execution and determine its size as the large triangle progressively increases its own area. (Each variation of the series comprises nine canvases.) Although there is a sequence from canvas to canvas, con-sequences are not logical. Contrary to one’s expectations that the small triangle will increase in like ratio to its parent triangle, at one point the progression levels out and the triangles decrease in size but do not coordinate in shape with their counterparts of near equal area at the beginning of the sequence. John Howlin conceives of the structure of his painting as analogous to that of language. The determining of the image in painting by a set of rules is equivalent to an individual speech act occurring within the structure of language, to use Saussure’s model of langue/parole; the expression is individual and particular but contained and conditioned by the greater whole that forms its structure. And the adaptation of developing systems of rules for painting from series to series is similar to the transformation of language as a total system that is complete at every moment in its history. On a simpler level, Howlin posits the abstract elements of painting—line, colour, shape—as a vocabulary similar to language. These elements can be combined according to syntactical rules so that a final image is formed as a coherent “sentence,” to continue the analogy. The totality of the rules inheres within a schema or system. Finally, Howlin conceives that these systems or schema are adapted or incorporated into new systems or schema which at each point in time present a complete synthesis—a synthesis that is comparable to adapting systems of knowledge created by man. Although philosophers of science suggest that these systems develop through epistemological breaks, in everyday experience this accumulation or adaptation of knowledge occurs. Like Evans’s compositions, Howlin’s are unpredictable given the same set of rules from painting to painting or within one work, as in New Order. In each panel of this work, two arbitrarily placed grids, each covering half of the six canvases, along with predetermined rules for the deployment of line, condition the direction of lines and their ensuing overall configuration. Order must be intuited by observing the relations established between the different grids. Each panel with its particular configuration reveals the unpredictable possibilities latent within this system. As in the structure of language where there is a range of possible individual expression, so in this work a whole range of specific forms can arise.

We have been discussing the works of this exhibition as if they were all paintings. Robert McNealy’s work, neither painting nor sculpture, is between both. This is not to maintain, however, that it does not find itself within the tradition of painting. In fact, McNealy has come to the present work through paintings made for a specific context. In this context, placement was determined by the setting, and the paintings’ proportions and inner structure were conditioned by a conceptually imposed grid on the wall of the space for which the work was made. In the present work designed for Optica’s space, the wall has been directly acquisitioned as surface in an absolute contextual relationship. Instead of the canvases placed in different locations on the wall, the wall itself has been used as the ground for painting. And instead of a grid imposed on the wall, a more dynamic orientation has been determined for the lozenge-shaped painted area. The shape of the lozenge itself is something that is immediately recognizable (even in its incomplete state) and knowable, and has a history, as do the geometric relations established on the wall by the shape. The fact of painting on the wall also aligns the work to a long tradition of wall painting. The geometric relations in the work are clearly established and evident; but they are established within the context of this wall and observed in situ by the spectator in a physical space. The context is further actualized by the removal of a triangular area from the lozenge and by its assumption of sculptural form—but it is, literally, the thickness of the wall from which it was “lifted.” The form has the materiality of the wall as surface, and as section. The painted lozenge reveals a sense of surface, the plaster section the sculptural weight of surface.

Sam Perepelkin’s previous work was concerned with the way in which man creates systems to order the transmittal or analysis of information, the necessary reduction of content to form, and the disorder that develops with the information’s disintegration by adaptation to other means of reproduction. The present work again approaches the chaos of experience and imposes a pattern upon it. Except now what is systematized is chance technique rather than an order of representation. A hidden grid exists in the paintings, intuited by the spectator but obliterated by the random structure of lines. (The grid also extends beyond the physical limits of the canvas.) A chance system of relations between numbers determines the length and direction of the lines, and in some cases chance also establishes their width. At issue here is the question of how far can one take order to disorder; or does it order events in some way? The question of chance and entropy is dissolved if one does not look for continuity. Entropy, at each point in a “disintegrating” system, can be considered an order if it is observed outside of a continuity. That is, at each moment it may be considered a total system with particular laws. Some order can be intuited in Perepelkin’s paintings particularly due to the underlying order of the grid.

Mel Bochner wrote on Sol LeWitt that “by controlling so rigidly the conception of the work and never adjusting it to any pre-determined idea of how such a work should look, LeWitt arrives at a unique perceptual breakdown of conceptual art into visual chaos.”[3] To an extent, this happens in Perepelkin’s work, but reducing subjectivity and objectifying technique, idea and material can never produce chaos in any enterprise that has first passed through a man's brain.

All of the works in the exhibition deal superficially with mathematics and geometry and impute a totality to the systems created. However, the systems only exist in particulars and are eccentric to human invention; and their totality in each case is only a structural whole figure and is capable of dissolving into new systems. As LeWitt wrote, “Conceptual art doesn’t really have much to do with mathematics”; and besides “rational judgements repeat rational judgements.”[4] Moreover, as Lukács noted, mathematics and geometry imply “the knowledge of the world as a totality.”[5] Rather than treating the world as a totality in identity with the human subject, the present work pursues reality in a non-identical and discontinuous manner.

1. Karl Marx, Capital; quoted in Georg Lukács, History and Class Consciousness  (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1971), p. 86.

2. Sol LeWitt, “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art”; “Sentences on Conceptual Art,” in Alicia Legg, ed., Sol LeWitt (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1978), pp. 166, 168.

3. Mel Bochner, “Serial Art, Systems, Solipsism;” reprinted in Gregory Battcock, ed., Minimal Art, a Critical Anthology (New York: Dutton, 1968), p. 101. 4. LeWitt, “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art”; “Sentences on Conceptual Art,” pp. 166, 168. 5. Lukács argued against “the idea that the object of cognition can be known by us for the reason that, and to the degree in which, it has been created by ourselves. And with this, the methods of mathematics and geometry (the means whereby objects are constructed, created out of the formal pre-suppositions of objectivity in general) and, later, the methods of mathematical physics become the guide and touchstone of philosophy, the knowledge of the world as totality.” History and Class Consciousness, p. 112.