The Death of Structure (1979)

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

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The Death of Structure

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—surface, 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 rigorous 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 cannot 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 Post­Minimalism, 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 connections 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 that 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 that 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 geometrize 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 accommodate 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 of the 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 identity, 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. 12 Although Jewell opens himself to this, he qualifies his eccentricity. While destructuring the centre he brings another structure into play. The mere conjunction of fluxes may be enough to ensure this, but the slippage, the break is there. Yet perhaps I should reserve my judgement about the a-formal. Form as structure is in suspension 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 announced totally outside a new economy) is the radical non-identical and disjunctive relation of content to form (content is a process and force of meaning that finds its model in desire). Jewell’s subsequent studies experimentally have approached 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 intensive issue from this break in structure), but another example of post-modernist abstractionists who still wish to develop the abstract form and structure of their work while, at the same time, involving their work with the social, consequently with politics.  They recognize the loss of the audience in modernism and the inability of their forms to carry content. Recognizing 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 disjunction with form is not merely didactic (without being representational), pointing to its containment within formal issues while trying to express itself. It must become an issue outside expression. At any rate, Jewell has contaminated the phenomenological purism of Post-Minimalist painting in  such a way that might open some commerce (production) of painting with the real (social real), and not the real of literalist art.

What brings us to the disarticulation of structure?: force, which through excess fissures structure, and desire that issues from it. And it is also structure’s own history: the history of the progressive and conscious structuring of structure. This history begins, it is commonly held, with Jasper Johns’s Flag and Target paintings. The Flag paintings established the coexistence of image and the actual object of the painting, while the Flags and Targets permitted an a priori ordering of the work (a compositional program that extended to the grid number and alphabet paintings). These strategies effected both a structural revolution in terms of the look—the physical structure of the work—and the ordering of art (and as well in the conception of the subject—the question of private language and public meaning). Frank Stella’s work, capitalizing on Johns’s, became the absolute/transparent coexistence of form and structure, in that, in a painting by Stella, the structure is at the same time the internal divisions and their extension as a limited form, each—division and edge—the function of the other. Robert Morris rightly said that the logic of this development—of “the coexistence of the image with the physical extension of the object and the a priori mode of working”—had to be actualized within the object art of Minimalism. 13

Process or anti-form art, a few years after Minimal art, collapsed the unity of form and structure, what had until then been perceived as a necessary relationship, leaving a-formal matter free from any structure preconceived on an architectonic model. But in subverting structure in form, the artists merely sublated it. While these Post-Minimalists reacted against the logic of form of Minimal art, their art, nonetheless, still maintained the earlier procedures of ordering and suppressed structure within intention. Structure was displaced to what seemed to be the a-formal as a structuring agency of appearing within perception. An example is Morris’s statement that “Some new art now seems to take the conditions of the visual field itself (figures excluded) and uses these as a structural basis for the work.” 14 Another basis remained unexamined, however: the unacknowledged presupposition concerning perception and consciousness as (phenomenological) self-constitution through intentionality. This creation of identity is a form in itself, an ideal structure as formal as the more objective structures of Minimal art. During the same period, structure became all the more intentional—conceived as intentional—in early theoretical Conceptual art where it was valued as tautological.

This history, as part of the structural revolution of value, forced the loss of content, or rather acted to repress the force/content of the unconscious, in that structure is the formal unity of form and content, but content formalized and subsumed within the structural. Content is brought to another order in its erasure—to the formal, structural—whereas form and structure achieve their “natural” order in transparency. In effect, transparency reduces the gap, the break, which is the locus of the opening to and issue of content.

From where has this demand for death and content issued? Is it from the consequent development of structure to its dissolution, or does it come from outside art—even from the public? We recognize demand as speech, and the public assumes this dialogue for itself. But the public perhaps is better adequated to desire, and, as Jacques Lacan says, desire is constituted by the gap between need and demand. 15 Why today there is need for the destruction of structure is certainly related to the proliferation of desire within the social realm. The deployment and investment of energy escapes the control of exchange value, of signification, of structure. The work of the 1960s, the halcyon days of the avant-garde, was a “relaxation, if not a lapse, of the attention given to force, which is the tension of force itself.” 16

The play of structure against itself is an acceleration of the process of dissolution, not an articulation of process in structure. But the configuration, this particular conjunction of fluxes, stabilizes in a symbolic relationship—on the wall, in front of the spectator. That is, the flux is substantialized formally by viewing or by the gallery setting. The work closes in upon itself and takes its a-formalism as content, that is, as another form. In the case of these paintings by Jewell, do we code dynamics as structure? (Can the excess of force be structured, or does it result from the break of structure, from difference?) Then do we recode this release and openness once more into the symbolic? The break is a release: do not recuperate or redistribute it in another structure. How do we displace this symbolic relationship to one of contiguity, where we are peripheral to the event, sliding along it as a separate but contiguous part, decoding ourselves in this issue? The question is to change the symbolic relationship between work and spectator into one that is contiguous between individuals in a group (serial rather than identical or hierarchical), parallel and symmetrical to the work, instead of direct and identical. It is a matter of the release of a mechanism into the contiguous: a release, not a revelation; an issue, not the thing in itself.

Since the decoded work can be recuperated and recoded in a symbolic, structural relationship (within the symbolic relationship itself, within an intentional relationship, or within the symbolic gallery setting), but also stabilized as an image symbol in its configuration, we should see how the symbol functions in the art process.

The symbol is not just an image; it is a relationship. Setting aside the common notion of the symbol as a mere signifying element, a symbol has a meaning that is present through its own sensuous nature. 17  It does not represent something absent alone, because it actually presents something that is really present. A symbol joins the two spheres of the visible and the invisible, just as the canvas of a painting is that symbolic link, of a sensuous nature, between the spectator and the “content” of the painting. Because the symbol suggests a unity and because it is open to the interpretation of the spectator, a painting is the possibility of a symbolic relationship. Given our contemporary sensibility, it is not a transcendent relationship, but a relationship of concrete being-in-the-world to the work. This is a positive reading of the symbol. The inexhaustibility of explanation, the openness to the outside, to the subject’s horizon, are to be doubted, however. The symbolic relationship ultimately is a relationship of identity: the containment of the experience and resolution in the identity between the work and spectator in the symbolic space of the art gallery. Either the subject is created by the work: identity; or the work is created by the subject: intentionality. The two are brought together in modelling the work on intentionality, resulting in a vicious circle or closed circuit. The otherness of the work or of the spectator is intentional and soon contained/controlled within identity: “tout ce qui d’abord est autre finit par prendre place dans un système de relations, d'identitiés d’opposition reglées.” 18

What is wrong, it seems, is the way we stand in front of a work of art, the way we allow ourselves to stand in front of art, an act which creates an identity and constitutes a subject. The repetition of the structure of the work in the perception/apperception of the spectator and the constitution of the objectivity of the work by the intentionality of the spectator, both are conditions of identity. This objectification is a reflection of the self-constitution of the spectator through intentionality. The subject can assure (create) the objectivity of the work through the self’s own constituted objectivity.

Not only is something wrong with the art gallery setting, whose ideality has been recognized by many, but also the very way we situate ourselves in front of a painting or sculpture—whether virtually or actually.  Even with literalist abstract art we do not escape perspective and representation. Perhaps we can face only that which is opaque, non-engaging and non­communicative. In this gaze towards the future, we confront the face of the monstrous. “To escape: it is force that breaks the identity, fissures structure, and produces the issue of intensive content.”


1.    Catalogue essay by Philip Monk for exhibition “A.C.T. at Optica.” The four artist discussed were Richard Evans, John Howlin, Robert McNealy and Sam Perepelkin. The subsequent grouping as ‘serial reductivists’ consisted of Michael Balfe, Richard Evans, Jamie Lyons and Jaan Poldaas.

2.    Artists’ statement for exhibition “Common factors: 5 artists (serial reductivists)” at Harbourfront Art Gallery, Toronto, 1978.

3.    By identity I mean sameness, the structure of sameness. Identity is that which can be repeated, as in the repetition of the same. ldeality or objectivity (that is, ideality itself), for  instance, are identities that can be repeated infinitely in the identity of their presence. Ultimately, the structure of repetition is dependent on representation. Concerning the work of art, there is an identity on either side of its objectivity, behind and in front, so to speak.  The identity “behind” the work is the sameness of the intention of the artist and the objectivity of the work itself. The identity in “front” of the work is that of the structure of the work and the spectator in the spectator’s experience of the work—an intentional   experience in the phenomenological sense on the part of the spectator. Basically, this is a symbolic relationship as explained by hermeneutics; and an enactment of repetition and representation on the part of the spectator. The objectivity of the work, moreover, ensures the intersubjectivity of the spectator’s experience. That is, the repetition of the work’s objectivity in the objective perception of the spectator supposedly proves both the efficacy of the work and the intentional structure of perception of the spectator. It is the work, in the structuring of its perceptual experience (structured, we must recognize, by the intention of the artist) that forms the spectator in his perceptual experience, that brings the spectator into identity with the work—in a dialectic of the other.  But, inversely, it is the intersubjectivity of the spectator’s experience that ensures the objectivity of the work. This vicious circle that returns the intentionality of the artist and the spectator to each other is a result of the metaphysical presumptions of the artist and spectator. But we must remember once again that it is the artist who is responsible for the intentional experience of the spectator—to the degree that the spectator also is an accomplice to this ideological situation in contemporary art.

4.    Symbolic in this case means acting apart from the real, analogous to the real. The work of the last two decades has been asserted as the real, but asserted as the real within the certainty of a symbolic space (whether within the art gallery, or outside in nature, but even there still within a symbolic intentionality). To assert this work as the real necessitates either a metaphysical assumption or a suspension/suppression of the assumption. Hence, the intentionality behind this valorization of the real must be revealed and criticized. To restore the work to the symbolic (Symbolic) is to restore its efficacy (that of which it is capable); it is not to deny this work nor its efficacy, but to criticize stated and unstated (unconscious/repressed) intentions. This act also understands contemporary art to have been historically constituted and produced. In order to understand this intentional structure, what we need is a genealogy of formal intention, a genealogy of the intentional drives of Minimalist derived contemporary art in their “lust to rule.”

5.    For a discussion of Trakas, see my article “Structures for Behaviour,” Parachute, 12 (Autumn 1978), pp. 23-24. Jean Baudrillard has carried out this analysis on the level of the sign: “La coupure ne passe pas entre un signe et un référent ‘réel’. Elle passe entre le Sa [Signifier] comma forme et, d’autre part, le Sé [Signified] et le Rft [Referent], qui s’inscrivent ensemble comme contenu, l’un de pensée, l’autre de réalité (ou plutôt de perception), sous le signe du Sa. Le référent dont il est question ici n’est pas hors signe que le Sé: il est commands par le signe.” Pour une critique de l’ économie politique du signe, Paris, Gallimard, Collection Tel, 1972, pp. 183-84.

6.    A subsequent article in Parachute will develop the question of content in dealing with Joseph Beuys and Stanley Brown. The apodictic, which I do not discuss in this article, is the possibility of radical nonsignification in abstract and, in particular, phenomenologically oriented art. But with this nonsignification is the impossibility of interpretation; there is allowance only for identity. Although phenomenology is not a positivism and does not deal with “things in themselves” but with their appearing, and although American art concerns spatial and temporal appearing, both the philosophy and art promote the identity of the apodictic. Phenomenology is dependent on a structure of intentionality that makes apperception into the apodictic; American art, dependent on this philosophy, repeats it. American art, however, is also heir to a positivist tradition that treats the thing in itself, the positivist fact. While these overlaid influences of phenomenology and positivism in American art seem contradictory, they mutually reinforce the apodictic as identity.

7.    Jacques Derrida has discussed this practice in terms of the metaphysical discourse of philosophy: “Our discourse irreducibly belongs to the system of metaphysical opposi­tions. The break with this structure of belonging can be announced only through a certain organization, a certain strategic arrangement which, within the field of metaphysical opposition, uses the strengths of the field to turn its own stratagems against it, producing a force of dislocation that spreads itself throughout the entire system, fissuring it in every direction and thoroughly delimiting it.” “Force and Signification,” Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1978, p. 20. For an example of deconstruction in art that is merely formal, see Marcia Hafif, “Beginning Again,” Artforum, 17:1 (Sept. 1978), pp. 34-40.

8.    In Of Grammatology, Derrida defines différance as “an economic concept designating the production of differing/deferring”: differing as not identical, as discernable—a spatializing term; deferring as a temporal detour or delay. While the first points to the non-identical, the second signifies the order of the same. Différance is the same which is not identical. Derrida discusses the term in “Differance,” Speech and Phenomena, trans. David B. Allison, Evanston, Northwestern University Press, 1973, pp. 129-60.

9.    Jean-François Lyotard, “Notes on The Return and Kapital,” Semiotext(e), 3: 1 (1978), p. 50.

10.    See Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus, New York, Viking, 1977.

11.    Lyotard, Op. cit., pp. 48, 51-52.

12.    Derrida suggests that the possibility of the sign is a relationship to death. Speech and Phenomena, p. 54.

13.    Robert Morris, “Notes on Sculpture, Part 4: Beyond Objects,” Artforum, 7:8 (April 1969), p. 50.

14.    Ibid., p. 51. Also: “Although priorities exist in the work under discussion, they are not preconceived imagistic ones. The priorities have to do with acknowledging and even predicting perceptual conditions for the work’s existence. Such conditions are neither forms nor ends no part of the process. Yet they are priorities and can be intentions.” p. 54.

15.    Cf. “Thus the unconscious is always manifested as that which vacillates in a split in the subject, from which emerges a discovery that Freud compares with desire—a desire that we will temporarily situate in the denuded metonymy of the discourse in question, where the subject surprises himself in some unexpected way.” Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, trans. Alan Sheridan, London, Hogarth Press, 1977, p. 28.

16.    The full quotation referring to structuralism is: “In the future it will be interpreted, perhaps, as a relaxation, if not a lapse, of the attention given to force, which is the tension of force itself.” Derrida, “Force and Signification,” p. 4.

17.     On the symbol, see Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, New York, Seabury Press, 1975, pp. 65-73, 136- 37.

18.    Lyotard, “Le 23 mars,” Derive a partir de Marx et Freud, Paris, Union Generale d’ Édition 10/18, 1973, p. 308. There is a rational relationship between the symbol and its referent, whereas the sign is arbitrary. The latter allows for reading the other as plurality with its correlative, the Nietzschean “subject as multiplicity”.