Art Criticism By Artists: A Case Study by Donald Kuspit

 Kenneth Noland. Mach II, 1964. Courtesy of Acquavella Galleries

By DONALD KUSPIT, June, 2018 

                  In “Entropy and the New Monuments,” a now famous article that appeared in the June, 1966 issue of Artforum, Robert Smithson, writing about “the aims of some of today’s new artists,” argued that they were offering “a new kind of monumentality.”  The artists he had in mind, as he notes, were Donald Judd, Robert Morris, Sol LeWitt, and Dan Flavin.  What makes their monumentality new is that it is “a visible analog for the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which extrapolates the range of entropy by telling us energy is more easily lost than obtained, and that in the ultimate future the whole universe will burn out and be transformed into an all-encompassing sameness” (p. 9).  Ingeniously nihilistic, Smithson goes on to argue that “instead of causing us to remember the past, like the old monuments,” the new monuments “seem to cause us to forget the future” (p. 10).  But if the old monuments are the visual analogue for the First Law of Thermodynamics, as Smithson implies, then the energy in them is constant, as it is in the pyramids—perhaps the most exemplary of the old monuments—for the First Law of Thermodynamics is a version of the law of conservation of energy, which “states that the total energy of an isolated system is constant.”  I can think of no more completely “isolated system” than the monumental pyramids, their hermetic self-containment implying that the energy they embody is constant, that is “neither created nor destroyed”—or, in Smithson’s terms, neither “obtained” (increased) nor “lost” (decreased)—but conserved in perpetuity, as the law of conservation of energy states.

Robert Smithson 1969-70 Mirrors and Shelly Sand From Dallas Museum Of Art At New York Met Breuer 

                  In “Quasi-Infinities and the Waning of Space,” an article that appeared in the November, 1966 issue of Arts Magazine, Smithson writes, in a footnote to a sentence referring to “Zeno’s second paradox of ‘infinite regress’”…a “non-Aristotelian logic” asserting “that ‘movement is impossible’,” that “Judd has been interested in ‘progressions’ and ‘regressions’ as ‘solid objects.’  He has based certain works on ‘inverse natural numbers.’  Some of these may be found in Summation of Series by L.B.W. Jolley, a Dover paperback” (p. 35).  In 1965, a year earlier, in the catalogue for an exhibition of “7 Sculptors” at the Philadelphia Institute of Contemporary Art, Smithson declared that “Judd has brought space down into an abstract world of mineral forms.”  “Maintain[ing] a remote distance from the organic,” Judd revolutionized sculpture by completely de-anthropomorphizing space (p. 22).  (Didn’t the pyramids do that two millennia earlier?  Isn’t the desert in which they were built at a more remote distance from the organic than the urban gallery space in which Judd’s abstract sculptures were exhibited?)

Donald Judd: Untitled, 1967, (wall piece), courtesy of Pace Gallery

                  A few months later, in the February, 1967 issue of Arts Magazine, a one sentence letter by Judd appeared, laconically stating:  “Smithson isn’t my spokesman” (p. 217).

                  What are we to make of this somewhat lopsided “exchange,” if it can be called that?  Smithson offers an understanding of the art of a group of artists he admires—he considers himself a member of the group, then young and “new” or emerging artists (now old and famous artists, their place in art history assured)—and one of them rejects it.  Judd wants to speak for himself:  what he had to say appeared in Bruce Glaser’s interview with him and Frank Stella.  It was published in the September, 1966 issue of Art News, a few months after Smithson’s June, 1966 article in Artforum and a few months before his November, 1966 article in Arts Magazine.  In the interview Judd and Stella sharply differentiate their new American geometric art—“Minimalism”—from the art of the old “European geometric painters.”  They single out Mondrian and Vasarely in particular.  Stella dismisses their work—European geometric abstraction in general—as “relational,” in contrast to his own innovative “non-relational” work and that of Noland and Judd.  Relational art is concerned with “balance.”  As Stella says, something in one corner is balanced by something in another corner.  Such a complex balancing act “isn’t important” in non-relational art.  It utilizes symmetry—a simple, predetermined structure, a sort of skeletal form that the asymmetrical use of color fleshes out.  The aim is “to get a kind of force” rather than balance opposites.  It suits Judd fine, as he says in the interview, that “all the structures, values, feelings of the whole European tradition” of relational art have gone “down the drain.”  European relational art is no longer advanced; American relational art is—it’s the new avant-garde, the fresh new abstract art.  It is a sentiment—an attitude—shared by such contemporaries as Barnett Newman and Clyfford Still, both of whom dismissed European art, and in the case of Still, European thinkers, as decadent and obsolete, not to say un-American.  It is echoed in Harold Rosenberg’s distinction between the European Redcoats and the American Coonskinners, and bespeaks the supposedly radical difference between the Old World and the New World, which revolted against it.

Frank Stella, Tomlinson Court Park I, 1959, Matt black enamel paint on canvas, 220 x 280 cm, Acquired in 1973 with support of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia and the Folkwang-Museumsverein, Inv. G 394, © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2017

                  It is a difference reflected, however indirectly, between Smithson’s imaginative use of physical laws and mathematical concepts to comprehend the new monuments and Judd’s and Stella’s understanding of them in routinely formal terms.  They stay on its objective surface, matter-of-factly describing it, while Smithson gives it subjective depth, aware of the symbolic meaning of a monument:  it is a memorial, an expression of memory, even a memento mori, for memory is about absence—the past in the case of the old monuments, the future in the case of the new monuments.  For Judd and Stella a geometrical monument has no past and no future, but only a present—a geometric presence, which is an eternal presence, and as such an ideal presence, for geometric forms are not subject to time, let alone the vagaries of memory, always imperfectly empirical.  Nor are they organic, as memory peculiarly is.

Frank Stella, photo courtesy of Christie's

                  Smithson’s understanding of the new geometrical art as peculiarly realistic—exemplifying physical law—and as such “impure,” is completely at odds with Judd’s and Stella’s understanding of it as “pure art.”  Indeed, radically pure art in contrast to the old European geometric art, with its concern to balance dissimilar parts rather than symmetry, made up of “exactly similar parts,” and as such self-validating.  One might say that Judd and Stella see the banal boring naked truth of the new American geometric art, while Smithson dresses it in luxurious intellectual clothing, paradoxically conveying the painful emotional truth—the truth of absence—its raw material subtly evokes.  For Smithson, the truth of matter is inseparable from the truth of memory, informing it with feeling.  Judd and Stella use geometry to deny memory, dehumanizing abstraction.  The result is a trivially aesthetic, trivially rational, emotionally vacuous, entropic abstraction—a dead-end, alienated, sterile, nihilistic abstraction, viciously antagonistic to “the structures, values, feelings” of European abstraction, to recall Judd’s words, above all to Kandinsky’s seminal abstraction, in which “the only judge, guide, and arbitrator should be one’s feelings.”  Smithson was a visionary intellectual, Judd and Stella were shallow empiricists.  Smithson’s understanding of the new geometric art could not help but be alien to Judd; he instantly rejected it with a tightlipped brevity emblematic of his simple-minded idea of art, not to say his simplistic geometrical art.   

                                    Donald-Judd in 1982 photo by Jamie Dearing                                            

                  Why do Smithson and Judd, ostensibly in accord in their advocacy of Minimalism—excitingly new and innovative when they made it and wrote about it, and equally self-important—have such starkly different, antagonistic, competing understandings of it?  Looking at manifestos by earlier modern artists—Smithson’s and Judd’s magazine articles are in effect manifestos—who proclaim the revolutionary significance of their art, one notices that two features stand out consistently.  First, they proclaim their art to be more authentically (“purely”) art than the art that precedes it—not only different in kind but fundamentally different.  They claim that it surpasses and supplants the earlier art, as though by historical necessity.  Thus Kandinsky thought his abstract art was foreordained to supersede representational art, and discredit it.  Deemed impure, it loses creative credibility, and with that aesthetic consequence and cultural importance, not to say commercial value and social cachet.  Its rule overthrown by the new abstract art, and deemed ontologically second-rate, the old representational art became an outcast, or else a pretender to a throne it no longer was allowed to occupy.  In bad repute—declassé beyond repair—it is relegated to the dust bin of history, or consigned to museum oblivion, or to the textbook.    

                  Second, the innovative artists assert their new art is more deeply meaningful than the old art it challenges, attacks, subverts.  Thus Kandinsky’s abstract art conveys “internal necessity”—expresses fundamental feelings—while representational art responds to “external necessity”—describes observed objects.  His abstract art plumbs the depths of the psyche, while representational art remains on the surface of appearance.  It is descriptive, shallow, and social rather than evocative, profound, and psychological.  Kandinsky all but contemptuously dismisses—certainly haughtily demeans—it.  One might say that the abstract artist is an introverted nonconformist, more attentive to internal reality than external reality, while the representational artist is an extroverted conformist, more attentive to external reality than internal reality.  Is one more to the point of art than the other?  The issue is passé, for abstract art has changed the course of art history, and with that been crowned by critical consciousness.  No longer garnering the serious critical attention that abstract art has come to attract, representational art becomes a cultural relic. 

Kandinsky, On White II, 1923

                   This is typically “avant-garde”:  the higher value a new artist brashly attributes to his unexpected and unfamiliar young art depends as much on his devaluation of a familiar predictable old art as on the values he claims his own “unique” art embodies—perhaps even more, for without an art to discredit as inauthentic and hide-bound, and with that boring and obsolete, the self-proclaimed “advanced” artist is not so sure that his work is truly advanced, engaging, special.  With that uncertainty, leading to self-conscious self-questioning and eventually unconscious self-doubt, he slowly but inevitably loses creative power and motivation, and with that begins to defensively cliché and reify his art, its revolutionary importance now merely “historical”—like the art he repudiated.    

                  We find the same two features in Smithson’s and Judd’s takes on Minimalism—with a crucial difference.  Much as Kandinsky asserts the superiority of his new abstract art to old representational art, so Judd asserts the superiority of the new American geometric art to the old European geometric art.  But Judd goes nihilistically further:  scornfully rejecting “European geometric painters” (emblematic of “the whole European tradition”)—for them the task of creativity is to balance opposites, show that different, distinctly individual forms can be convincingly related if not seamlessly integrated, the result being an asymmetrical harmony, as Stella says—he narcissistically elevates his own (presumably all-American) geometric sculpture, which relies on symmetry, with its predetermined uniformity, to make its pseudo-creative point.  It is an example of what I call the “higher banality”—narcissistic emptiness-- of all too pure art. 

Robert Smithson and Nancy Holt at Spiral Jetty, Great Salt Lake, Utah, 1970. GIANFRANCO GORGONI/©HOLT-SMITHSON FOUNDATION/LICENSED BY VAGA, NEW YORK, NY            

             If, as I think, art is a metaphor for the lifeworld, and pure forms are surrogates for impure feelings—invariably convey them—then Judd’s geometric sculpture tells us that the American lifeworld is composed of feelingless robots mindlessly lined up and marching in step, indeed, in military formation.  I suggest that Judd’s symmetrical sculpture is a metaphor for the military-industrial complex—its parts are mass-produced and it has an authoritarian one-dimensionality—in contrast to the two-dimensionality of relational abstraction, which acknowledges difference rather than advocates totalitarian sameness.  Its antithetical forms convey psychic conflict, but they balance each other—form a dynamic equilibrium, to use Mondrian’s famous term—implying that, with creative effort, conflict can be overcome.  However implicitly, relational abstraction is emotionally expressive, in contrast to Judd’s emotionally defective symmetrical sculpture.  Judd’s sculpture is a perfect example of what the artist-critic Walter Robinson calls zombie formalism.  It is the final step in what the philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset famously called the dehumanization of art.  Cleaning the temple of art of European values, Judd leaves us with a valueless art.   

Jose Ortega y Gasset

                 I want to suggest that the difference between Smithson and Judd has a great deal to do with the difference between their approaches to art.  Judd thinks a work of art speaks for itself—thinks that it can be taken on face value or as Stella said, “what you see is what you get,” that is, what the work physically is is all it is.  In contrast, Smithson thinks that it needs an interpretive script or “meta-physical” context to make sense.  It doesn’t speak for itself, it can’t be taken on face value, seeing it you do not necessarily get it, accord it meaning and value:  it is merely given.  To see a work of art as a “specific object,” to use Judd’s term, is not to see it as art but simply as another object, for all objects are specifically what they are.  To see a work of art as a specific object is to acknowledge its existence without knowing its raison d’etre.  It is to see it blindly, with the false, nihilistic innocence of “it speaks for itself.”  Specificity does not automatically confer significance on an object, but asserts that its “presentness is all,” which ironically suggests that Judd’s specific object is a spurious present.  One doesn’t linger with it, scrutinizing it with contemplative attention, caring for it with one’s consciousness, but instantly gets and forgets it, leaving no trace of itself in one’s unconscious.

                Judd’s idea of art-as-specific-object has something in common with Ad Reinhardt’s idea of “art-as-only-itself.”  “A work needs only to be interesting,” Judd wrote, and what makes it interesting is its specificity, which is what it is in and for itself.  Sufficient unto itself—only itself--it has “credible meaning.”  Judd’s specific objects eschew the incredible meaning Smithson gives them—a meaning that makes them representative of a universal reality and as such undermines their specificity or particularity.  Regarded as emblematic instances of entropy by Smithson they become not only themselves--more than their givenness.  Smithson’s interpretive reading of them—understanding them in terms of physical law--accords them incredible meaning, and with that makes them more interesting than their specificity makes them.  It gives them “surplus value,” which detracts from and overrides their intrinsic value as art, that is, their value as art and only art, which is all the value they need to be credible, interesting, meaningful.  Smithson’s understanding of them makes them something other than and more than art objects—objects that have more to do with nature at large than with art as such. 

View of Ad Reinhardt, David Zwirner, New York

              For Judd specific objects stand outside of and apart from nature, while for Smithson they are inseparable and unthinkable without nature.  Indeed, he regards them as derived from—even symbolically representative and uncannily expressive—of an indisputable fact of nature, suggesting that he has a traditional view of art.  Nature is inherently entropic; calling Judd’s art entropic does not deny its abstractness but reminds us that nature is inherently abstract—and reminds us that “nature is the source of all inspiration,” as the abstract painter Hans Hofmann insisted.  “Whether the artist works directly from nature, from memory, or from fantasy, nature is always the source of his creative impulses.”  More intellectually sophisticated than Hofmann, Smithson argues that the artist can work from a scientifically validated idea of nature such as entropy, implying that the new monumental abstract art is subliminally naturalistic--uncannily realistic, if you wish.

Ad Reinhardt at work

              According to Reinhardt, “Progress and change in art is always a negation of the use of art for some other end than its own end.  An avant-garde in art advances art-as-art or it isn’t an avant-garde.  Art-as-art is neither in this world nor out of this world….It is its own world, own fact, own fancy, own mind, own matter….The one meaning in art is only its own meaning and this always the most meaning, and this meaning is always meaningless to other meanings.”  This tautological idea of art sharply separates the work of art from any meaning its audience might find in it.  Its public reception is beside the point of its self-identity, an incident obscuring its meaning in itself.  In an interview the artist Gary Stephen said something similar to what Reinhardt wrote.  “The great works of art…collapse the inroads of language.  They prevent language from intervening….They have a kind of being, they have a kind of authority on confronting them, they have a kind of rightness, that collapses the linguistic [read:  critical, interpretive] challenges.  What you want from a great work of art is that you find yourself unable to deny it.  It refuses to be denied.  But what most people…popularly want art to do is to give them a story, give them a lecture, they want the linguistic openings.  They want to be able to get in.  And yet the greatest works of art are the ones that refuse entry.  They simply are beings, they exist.”  To which John Brockman, Stephan’s interviewer, responds:  “Gary, this is bullshit!  Without the script, the press release, the philosophical rap, that accompanies an art exhibition, the average viewer has no way of viewing the work in the context which is intended by the artist, and which would make the work meaningful and interesting the viewer.” 

Artist Gary Stephan

              Brockman is saying that Stephan makes the work more mystifying than it is, and with that makes it impossible to relate to—forever out of the reach of the human beings for which it is presumably made—why else exhibit it in a space in which it can be seen by non-artists (unless the artist wants them to blindly admire it, mindlessly submit to its presence, giving it unquestioned authority)?  Brockman’s point is that the work exists for others, for those who can and are willing to relate to it, who take it seriously rather than as just another thing in the world, and the way they take it seriously is by trying to understand it, language being an instrument of understanding.  The script, above all the artist’s manifesto, the written statement of his intention—the history of avant-garde art is inseparable from the manifestos of avant-garde artists, the statements that afford the context for understanding their art—is as necessary as the visual art.  Indeed, it is an inseparable part of it, all the more so because the manifesto spells out the art’s essence, implying that visual art is a kind of language, a kind of writing, using an alphabet of forms and colors to make a visual text.  Without these often philosophical as well as personal manifestos—self-justifying statements of motivation as well as theoretical argument, fraught with conviction as well as ideology--much of avant-garde art is incomprehensible, even meaningless to the modern audience (at least until it becomes habituated to it, usually because it has been institutionalized).  For in modernity nothing can be taken for granted, all the more so because everything is changing, seemingly more rapidly than in pre-modernity, as the great variety and inconsistency of modern movements indicates, in contrast to the seemingly more consistent, slower development of traditional art.                                                 

               Stephan’s view of art is in accord with Judd’s and Stella’s:  art for them is always superior to what is said about it, always beyond the reach of language, always beyond comprehension and communication, always peculiarly unfathomable, always self-evidently what it is, in need of no other evidence to prove and approve its existence.  Art for them exists in a state of silence, a sort of higher pure silence, a silence so absolute and hermetic that can it never be penetrated, sullied by the sound of interpretation, the noise of nosy, busy knowing.  Especially Smithson’s kind of interpretation, which seems to overload and overwhelm the work with meaning, undermine its sheer glorious presence with theory, even theorize it to death, so that it seems like a wax dummy in a museum of unnatural history.  The model for the exchange between Smithson and Judd--Smithson’s sort of comprehensive, penetrating, “profound” interpretation, which seems to swallow the work whole the way the whale swallowed Jonah, and Judd’s let-it-speak-for-itself (even though it doesn’t speak), art being “only-itself,” as Reinhardt wrote, rather than something else in artistic disguise—is the fictional exchange between Walter Pater and Leonardo da Vinci is Oscar Wilde’s The Critic As Artist. Wilde writes:  “Do you ask me what Leonardo would have said had anyone [Pater] told him of this picture that ‘all the thoughts and experience of the world had etched and moulded therein that which they had of power to refine and make expressive the outward form, the animalism of Greece, the lust of Rome, the reverie of the Middle Ages with its spiritual ambition and imaginative loves, the return of the pagan world, the sins of the Borgias?’  He would probably have answered he had contemplated none of these things, but had concerned himself simply with certain arrangements of lines and masses, and with new and curious colour-harmonies of blue and green.”  Leonardo was concerned with making a specific object, not, as Wilde writes, with the “myriad meanings” that “makes it marvelous” and “sets it in some new relation to the age, so that it becomes a vital portion of our lives.”  Left to its specificity, the art object becomes meaningless, and seems unintended, and with that artless, simply one among the many objects in the world, and not as necessary as many of them are. WM


Donald Kuspit

Donald Kuspit is one of America’s most distinguished art critics. In 1983 he received the prestigious Frank Jewett Mather Award for Distinction in Art Criticism, given by the College Art Association. In 1993 he received an honorary doctorate in fine arts from Davidson College, in 1996 from the San Francisco Art Institute, and in 2007 from the New York Academy of Art. In 1997 the National Association of the Schools of Art and Design presented him with a Citation for Distinguished Service to the Visual Arts. In 1998 he received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 2000 he delivered the Getty Lectures at the University of Southern California. In 2005 he was the Robertson Fellow at the University of Glasgow. In 2008 he received the Tenth Annual Award for Excellence in the Arts from the Newington-Cropsey Foundation. In 2013 he received the First Annual Award for Excellence in Art Criticism from the Gabarron Foundation. He has received fellowships from the Ford Foundation, Fulbright Commission, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, Guggenheim Foundation, and Asian Cultural Council, among other organizations.

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