The Death of Structure (1979)


In a catalogue essay published in Fall 1978, a Toronto writer attempted to qualify painting in that city by creating an opposition. Against the formalist painters of the so-called "Toronto sensibility" (painting "which concentrates on colour, and whose qualities are lyri­cal and abstract, with occasional tendencies to ex­pressionism"), the writer polemically opposed an un­promoted group of painters that subsequently label­led themselves "serial reductivists." The catalogue author, it seems, tried to qualify the situation by dis­tinguishing each group's relation to the notion of the subject - in the way that each affirmed or denied it. Basically, this was a question of ideology with the former group assuming an unconscious position and the latter group a conscious and critical one.

Of the formalist painters, the catalogue stated:

Above all, their art still promoted the subject in the artist as the originator of the 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 modern art in general and the Toronto art scene in particular in its capitalist milieu.

And in opposition, of the serial reductivists:

If commodity fetishism reproduces social rela­tions in products "whose qualities are at the same time perceptible by the senses" (Marx), 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 - surf ace, structure, context, systems of ordering). [1]

The opposition is simplified here. Objectivity is a special case of subjectivity, although critically recognized in its formation. Having written the catalogue essay myself, I now wonder whether the creation of oppositions - between subjectivity and objectivity, sensibility and production - only circumscribes both poles within the structural totality of formalism. For, indeed, serial reductivism aligning theoretically with and having developed from systems painting, process painting, Minimal painting, whatever we wish to call it, is still a reductive formalism. In fact, it is the latter, Minimal art and its heritage extending to Conceptual art, rather than formalist modernist art, that demands our more rigourous analysis in terms of its own formalism. Formalist art (post-painterly abstraction in painting and the constructivist tradition in sculpture), we can leave to "eyesight alone."

More properly, the Toronto painters calling themselves serial reductivists are Post-Minimalists rather than Minimalists. They, themselves, qualified the distinction:

Reductive is deliberately limiting visual vocabulary in each case. But the work can not be called "minimal" in the usual sense, which is com­pletely self-reflexive, implying art for art's sake. Frequent implicit references to social, environmental-historical, formal and stylistic fac­tors show this form (serial reductive) to be more outwardly -looking than contemplative, as is the case of minimal art. [2]

How do the works of serial reductivism or Post­ Minimalism , be they painting or sculpture, make these "frequent implicit references"? Although the part­ whole relationships in Post-Minimalism are more complex, at least symbolically, than in Minimal art, the form of the works, or the structure of their perception, is as contained in identity relationships as Minimal art. [3] Objectivity, the concern for process and the real perhaps remain on the level of the symbolic in these works. On the level of actual efficacy of the works (meaning-efficacy), we could say the symbolic; of their intentional efficacy, we should say metaphysical. [4] Should we attempt to see how these connect ions are made? Do the works show it, or the intention? Do we conclude that if any connections are made they are tautological or identical, produced by the form of the work and its formal context?

An artist who claims similar historical, social and en­vironmental concerns in the structure of his work is the sculptor George Trakas; but his sculpture is con­tained within the tautologies of structure and the metaphysics of the referent. The "implicit references" are no more than metaphysical referents, a formaliz­ing and containing of the external by an internal formal structure. That is, while apparently structuring the work by the external, an identity is created between the internal structure of the work and its external referent. While the artist believes that he bases the perception of the work on external and objective structures, such as nature and the structure of perception, it is the intention that actually creates/simulates an external. This consciousness formalizes the external while believing that it is struc­turally dependent on it, and is, thus, as the artist thinks, a referring structure for the spectator. The spectator, of course, is contained within this pattern of identity. The external, posited by these works, actually is a fabrication by, and at the same time, a veiling of the internal, created and controlled by the internal structure. [5] Perhaps what is needed instead of the unifying totalization of formal identity structures is the play of eccentricity and difference. Eccentric, that is, decentered; different , that is, the same which is not identical.

Eccentricity and difference escape and thus implicitly deny identity and totalizing structures. Eccentricity and difference are aside, peripheral; they are an issue, an acceleration towards dissolution and exacerbation of the same, the same which is not identical.

To make a complete break with the apodictic, the closed circuit of intention and symbolic identity struc­ture is first a question of structure, then of content. [6] The play of difference is the play of structure against itself. Deconstruction is a similar practice. Yet deconstruction in art is still a reductive formalism - not art's ideological deconstruction, but an immanent critique. [7] The break, thus, is not deconstruction. One can avoid formal deconstruction, however, while still using the work's elements: accelerate, play them against themselves. Structure playing against itself producing a difference is différance - the same which is not identical - a slippage, a break in its totalizing and unifying structure. [8] This is not merely a slippage in the sense of the structure out of sync, but a return of the same, a return out of control - the same which is not identical, that is, différance. How does this new break of structure and cleavage of form and structure imply a content, in the sense of so much art where form supposedly becomes the work's content? Or does it imply an oblique issue towards content? Content will become a completely different matter and issue. It will assume a radical non-identical and dis­junctive relation to form.

We want to pass beyond the problem of form, of the relation of matter to form and form to content. First dissolution, then issue, issue towards content, not towards deformalized matter only, which is the condi­tion of remaining within the deconstructive act:

Entkunstung, dissolution of the "work," i.e., the taking upon oneself (reprise sur soi), in its very form of that which appears in reality as a dissolu­tion. The new form dissolves its material, but the material itself is a mere residue of the previous form. [9]

Are there formal terms to discuss the possibility of this new work? For an example, we can take the recent paintings by the Toronto artist Milton Jewell. These paintings concern themselves with neither gestalt nor process-systems, surface nor structure. As forms, not structures, they play apart (aside), a-part, coming apart from a structural totality, freeing parts to play in their multiplicity alongside another form which is the whole, but in itself only another part contiguous to the multiplicity. If they are not structures, structural, can we call these works forms? Is there an opposition of form and structure? Rather than form in opposition to structure, we should say more properly a-formal mat­ter as the conjunction of a flux that is expression. As a­ formal matter we could compare these paintings to Pollock's, but here there are geometric shapes which are less organic than Pollock's paintings, and therefore more inhuman. While the geometry of the shapes allude to form, the individual triangular shapes in Levesque or Break Your TV, for example, do not geometricize the whole. They are ready-made elements which one must treat as parts which are also wholes and which consequently cannot be arranged as to their shapes; one accepts what comes with it - the given of each shape. The works are not even paintings; perhaps wall drawings would be a better term. The shapes seem to come from the outside, from the exterior, not from an interior structure (recol­lect Nietzsche's statement on the founders of the state: "they come like fate, without cause, without reason."). Furthermore, the works are not an extension of Post­ Minimalism, the next "move'', rather a "moving out"; nor are they a critique, but a displacement. They are also a carrying away from the self (from intentional self-constitution in objective work) towards a new ex­pression.

This carrying away from the self occurs multiply. The destruction of the gestalt by the ripsaw blades of con­junctive geometric shapes that spin and accelerate accompanies the disarticulation of structure. While there is an internal circular dynamism due to the development of the shapes, and while the motion is centripetal, the centre is not a substance, but a vortex. The works escape the idea of a substance in the centre, or a subject producing/representing this centre. Even the generative principles of these works, which imply a centre or subject, is denied once these works, these singularities, assume their own conjunc­tions/associations. Like Bachelor machines, they exist apart, without the Papa-Mama progenitors, as anti­ Oedipal machines. [10] They escape identity as presumed by the instructions that set them in motion - that is, if they adhere to these instructions in a visi­ble fashion, which they do not. The principle of generation/degeneration (the   works accomodate these opposites, or they flow from one to the other) does not make each painting a "composition which makes itself", or a work that follows a visible, intelligi­ble or logical set of instructions as in process, systems and serial art. These latter are means to subvert subjectivity, as Sol LeWitt maintained: "To work with a plan that is preset is one way of avoiding subjectivity ... The plan would devise the work." Nonetheless, process and also Conceptual art, while intentionally anti-subjective, can restore a subject,  and this occurs in the relation of the work to both the artist and spec­tator.

This disarticulation, or to accelerate the process, this degeneration and dissolution, is perhaps the death in­stinct. It is the death instinct in the sense that Jean­ François Lyotard suggests that:

The death instinct ... can only be grasped as death, dissolution. It is in connivance with mul­tiplicity. It isn't another instinct, another energy . It is the same energy as an unsettling­ unsettlement. In other words: It is the possibility of increasing or decreasing the potential so as to reach limit-intensities; pleasure (jouissance)  is the model in this regard, to the extent that it con­sists in a pulling apart and a death by excess.

The death instinct is a process and yet a finite issue.

Speaking of the death instinct in relation to the "Return" in Nietzsche, Lyotard further states:

"Death instinct"; not at all because it seeks death, but insofar as it is a partial, singular affir­mation and a subversion of apparent totalities (the Ego, Society) in its very assertion. Any high emotion is a death effect, a dissolution of the completed, of the historical. The will to power as an affirmative impulse o fthe singular results in the eternal return's not being that of the Same, that is of a something (a hidden God) which would represent itself in singularities taken in that case as "intentions." In the center of the return there is nothing. There is no center. Singularities refer to each other without reference to the center, to the Subject, to the Signifier, etc. They refer, that is to say they associate, they come into touch and make contact, they intermingle. [11]

Intention restores the subject and substance . The return is difference, not meaning in itself, not intention. The return as repetition would be identify, structure.


These are the conditions of Jewell's paintings: the openness to death (which is also the death of signs and interpretation) that destroys intention, structure and apodicticity. 12Although Jewell opens himself to this, he qualifies his ec-centr ici\y. While destructuring the centre he brings another structure into play. The mere conjun ction of fluxes may be enough to ensure this, but the slippage, the break is there. Yet perhaps I shouldreservemy judgementabout the a-formal. Form as structure is in suspens ion as a value. Another economy is suggested here - the passage of form through force and content. The necessary correlative of the death of structure (if that death can ever be an­ nounced totally outside a new economy) is the radical non-identical and disjunctiverelation ofcontent to form (content is a process and force of meaning that finds its model in desire). Jewell's subsequent studies exper imentally have approac hed non-formal content (by which I mean content not integrated formally into the work) as texts, notably political texts. This concern is not necessarily a logical outcome of the play of structure against itself (although content is an inten­ sive issue from this break in structure), but another examp le of post-modernist abstract ionists who still wish to develop the abstract form and structure of their work while, at the same time, involving their work withthesocial,  consequentlywithpolitics.  They recognize the loss of the audience in modernism and the inab ility of their forms to carry content. Recogniz­ ing the homelessness of each, they juxtapose formal work and text. Fredric Rzewski is an example in music and there are examples in dance. Yet, we might ask whether the text in disjuncti on with form is not merely didactic (without being representational). pointing to its containment within formal issues while trying to ex­ press itself. It must become an issue outside expres­ sion.  Atanyrate,  Jewellhascontam inatedthe phenomenological purism of Post-Minimalist painting insuchawaythatmightopensomecommerce (production) of painting with the real (social real), and not the real of literalist art.


“The Death of Structure,” Parachute, no. 16 (Autumn 1979), pp. 32-35.