Presented in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for
the Degree Doctor of Philosophy in the Graduate
School of The Ohio State University
Eileen R. Doyle, M.A.
The Ohio State University
Dissertation Committee:
Approved by
Professor Stephen Melville, Advisor
Professor Lisa Florman
Professor Myroslava Mudrak
History of Art Graduate Program
Copyright by
Eileen Reilly Doyle
This dissertation considers the proliferation of mirrors and reflective
materials in art since the sixties through four case studies. By analyzing the
mirrored and reflective work of Robert Rauschenberg, Gerhard Richter, Dan
Graham and Robert Smithson within the context of the artists' larger oeuvre and
also the theoretical and self-reflective writing that surrounds each artist’s work,
the relationship between the wide use of industrially-produced materials and the
French theory that dominated artistic discourse for the past thirty years becomes
clear. Chapter 2 examines the work of Robert Rauschenberg, noting his early
interest in engaging the viewer’s body in his work—a practice that became
standard with the rise of Minimalism and after. Additionally, the theoretical
writing the French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty provides insight
into the link between art as a mirroring practice and a physically engaged
viewer. Chapter 3 considers the questions of medium and genre as they arose in
the wake of Minimalism, using the mirrors and photo-based paintings of
Gerhard Richter as its focus. It also addresses the particular way that Richter
weaves the motifs and concerns of traditional painting into a rhetoric of the
death of painting which strongly implicates the mirror, ultimately opening up
Richter’s career to a psychoanalytic reading drawing its force from Jacques
Lacan’s writing on the formation of the subject. Chapter 4 extends these
considerations to address the role of the viewer and the question of time and
history through an analysis of the work and writing of Dan Graham, which draw
on both Merleau-Ponty’s and Lacan’s theories of vision. And finally, Chapter 5
focuses on the work, writings and aesthetic theory of Robert Smithson,
addressing the way that Smithson explicitly put his art and writing into an
interdependent relationship, insisting that art is ultimately displaced into
writing. Taken together, the case studies describe the way reflection both as a
practice and as material choice defined some of the most notable trends in the
artistic discourse of the last forty years.
For Todd
I wish to thank my adviser, Stephen Melville, for intellectual support,
encouragement and enthusiasm, which made this dissertation possible.
I am grateful to Lisa Florman and Myroslava Mudrak for their incisive
suggestions in crafting the text and for their long-standing commitment to this
I also wish to thank Dan Graham, Anne Rorimer, Gerhard Gruitrooy, Kim
Masteller and Donovan Dodrill for their stimulating discussions about the
contents of this dissertation in its early stages.
I am indebted to my friends and family for their continued support
throughout this project and their unstinting confidence in it and in me. Most
especially, I am grateful to my husband, Todd Doyle, who has served as editor,
proofreader and cheerleader. Without his support and sacrifice, this dissertation
would not have been possible.
November 21, 1968
Born – New Haven, CT
M.A. Art History, University of South
1999 – present
Art Resource, Inc., New York, NY
2000 - present
School of Continuing and Professional
Studies, New York University
E. Doyle, “Dan Graham,” “Robert Rauschenberg,” and “Robert
Smithson,” entries for Encyclopedia of Postmodernism. Victor E. Taylor
and Charles E. Winquist, eds. London and New York: Routledge, 2000;
161-162, 331-332, 372-373.
E. Doyle, T. Timmons, eds. One-Off (exhibition catalogue). Tampa,
FL: Florida Center for Contemporary Art, 1994.
Major Field: History of Art
List of Figures ………………………………………………………………………...….ix
Introduction ……………………………………………………………………..1
1.1 Mirrors and Art ……………………………………………………………..3
1.2 Reflection and Minimalism ……………………….………………………..6
1.3 Mirrors in French Theory …………………………………………………10
1.4 Language, Writing and Vision ………………………………………..…...12
1.5 The Discourse Surrounding Mirrors in Recent Art …………………….….14
1.6 The Reflective Work of Rauschenberg, Richter, Graham and
Smithson ……………………………………………………………………18
1.7 A Short Note on the Terms of the Argument...…………………………..…24
Robert Rauschenberg: Mirrors of Art and Life …………………………….…..26
2.1 Mirrors as a Collage Material ………………………………………...…….28
2.2 Depicted Mirrors in the Silk-screens ……………………………………….32
2.3 Silk-screening on Reflective Materials ……………………………………..37
2.4 Reflection and Viewer Interaction ………………………………………….41
2.5 The White Paintings as Empty Mirrors ………………………………..……45
2.6 Mirrors and Language ………………………………………………….……53
Gerhard Richter’s Mirrors: Memento Mori or Monochrome? …………………..57
3.1 Glass, Windows and Curtains …………………………………….…………59
3.2 The Silvered Mirrors of 1981 …………………………………...…………..69
3.3 Painted Mirrors in the Early 1990s …………………………………….……76
3.4 History, Death and Memory ………………………………………….……..82
3.5 Reflection as an Interpretive Practice ………………………………….……87
Dan Graham: A Theater of Vision …………………………………………...91
4.1 Published Art/Public Viewing …………………………………..………..92
4.2 The Viewer in Time and Place …………………………………………...95
4.3 Theater of Vision …………………………………………………………100
4.4 Photography as Symbolic Form …………………………………………...112
Robert Smithson: The Abstract Mirror ………………………………….…….122
5.1 1964-1965: The Vestiges of Minimalism …………………………...……..125
5.2 1966-1968: Limits and Layers ……………………………………...……...134
5.3 1968-1970: “A Thing is a Hole in a Thing It is not” ………………….…...138
Conclusion ………………………………………………………………..……153
Endnotes …………………………………………………………………………..…....160
Bibliography ………………………………………………………………………..….189
Appendix A: Figures……….…………………………...………………………………201
Lukas Furtenagle, The Artist Hans Burgkmair and his Wife, Anna, 1529….202
The Mirror of Death, from a Book of Hours, c. 1480…………………….….202
Quentin Metsys, St. Luke Painting the Virgin and Child, 1530……………..202
Henri Matisse, Carmelina, 1903…………………………………………..…..202
Marcia Painting her Self-Portrait, 15th century………………………….…....202
Juan Gris, Le Lavabo, 1912…………………………………………………….202
Vladimir Tatlin, The Bottle, 1912……………………………………………..203
Gino Severini, The Bal Tabarin, 1912……………………………………..….203
Constantine Brancusi, Sleeping Muse, 1909…………………………………203
Robert Morris, Untitled (Mirror Cubes), 1965….…………………….……..203
Frank Stella, Empress of India, 1965…………………………..……………...203
Hans Holbein, The French Ambassadors, 1533………………………………203
Michelangelo Pistoletto, Person Seen from the Back, 1962…………….……204
Donald Judd, Untitled, 1968………………………….………………………204
Lucas Samaras, Room #2, 1966…………………………………………..…...204
Adrian Piper, Installation view of Black Box and White Box, 1992…….…204
Piper, interior of Black Box, 1992………………………………………….…204
Robert Rauschenberg, Charlene, 1954…………………………………….…204
Rauschenberg, Minutiae, 1954……………………………………………….205
Rauschenberg, Big D Ellipse, 1990…………………………………………...205
Rauschenberg, Ballast, 1987………………………………………………….205
Rauschenberg, Favor-Rites, 1988……………………………………………..205
Rauschenberg, Soundings, 1968……………………………………………...205
Rauschenberg, Solstice, 1968…………………………………………………205
Rauschenberg, Revolver, 1968………………………………………………..206
Rauschenberg, Audition, from Carnal Clocks, 1968…………………….…..206
Rauschenberg, Illustrations for Dante’s Inferno, 1958-1960……….………..206
Rauschenberg, White Painting, 1951………………………………………...206
Rauschenberg, Retroactive II, 1964…………………………………………..206
Rauschenberg, Press, 1964………………………………………..…………..206
Rauschenberg, Female Figure, 1950………………………………………….207
Rauschenberg, Tracer, 1963 …………………………………………………..207
Rauschenberg, Transom, 1963………………………………………………..207
Gerhard Richter, Table, 1962…………………………………………………207
Richter, Dead I, 1988 …………………………………………………………..207
Richter, 1024 Colors, 1973…………………………………………………….207
Richter, Abstract Picture, 1992………………………………………………..208
Richter, Installation view of Eight Gray, 2001……………………...………208
Richter, Four Panes of Glass, 1967……………………………………………208
Georges Braque, Le Portugais, 1911-12……………………..……………….208
Marcel Duchamp, The Large Glass, 1915-23,………………………….…….208
Richter, Ema (Nude and Staircase), 1966…………………..…………………208
Richter, Woman Descending the Staircase, 1965..…………………………….209
Duchamp, Nude Descending a Staircase, 1912………….……………….…...209
Richter, Uncle Rudi, 1965………………………………………...…………...209
Richter, Installation of Pane of Glass I & II, 1977……….…………………..209
Richter, Double Pane of Glass, 1977……………………...…………………...209
Richter, Betty, 1977………………………………………...………………….209
Richter, Self-Portrait, 1996………………………..…………………………..210
Richter, Mirror and Mirror, both 1981……………………………….……...210
Richter, Mirror, 1981…………………………………...……………………..210
Richter, Two Candles, 1983……………………………………………………210
Richter, Skull 1983…………………………………………………………….210
Richter, Hanged, 1988…………………………………………………………210
Richter, Gray Mirror, 1991…………………………...……………………….211
Richter, Six Mirrors for a Bank, 1991…………………………..……………..211
Richter, Twelve Mirrors for a Bank, 1991……………………....…………….211
Richter, Seven Standing Panes, 2002…………….…………………………...211
Richter, Corner Mirror, Brown-Blue, 1991……………………………………211
Richter, Gray Mirror, 1992……………………………..……………………..211
Richter, Seascape, 1969………………………………………………………...212
Richter, Shadow Painting, 1968……………………………………………….212
Richter, Betty, 1988……………………………………………………………212
Richter, I.G., 1993………………………………………...……………………212
Dan Graham, Body Press, 1970……………………………..………………...212
Graham, Homes for America, 1966-67…………..……………………………212
Graham, Two Adjacent Pavilions, 1978-82…………………………………...213
Graham, Present/Continuous Past[s], 1974…….…………………………….213
Graham, Present/Continuous Past[s], 1974…………………………………..213
Graham, Cinema (exterior), 1981………………………..…………………...213
Graham, Cinema (interior), 1981……………………………………………..213
Graham, Public Space/Two Audiences, 1976……...………………………….213
Graham, Stage Set for Guaire, 1985…………………………………………..214
Graham, Past Future/Split Attention, 1972……………….……….…………214
Graham, Performer/Audience/Mirror, 1977…………………………………..214
Graham, Performer/Audience/Mirror, performance from the mid 1990s....214
Robert Smithson, Alogon II, 1966………………...…………………………..214
Smithson, The Eliminator, 1964……………………...……………………….214
Morris, Untitled, 1965-66……………………………..………………………215
Morris, I-Box, 1962………………………………...…………………………..215
Morris, Box with the Sound of Its Own Making, 1961……..…………………215
Smithson, Enantiomorphic Chambers, 1965………………….……………….215
Smithson, Mirror Vortex, 1965……………………………………………….215
Smithson, Four-Sided Vortex, 1965…………………..……………………….215
Smithson, Ziggurat Mirror, 1966……………………………………………..216
Smithson, Untitled (Map on Mirror), 1967……………...……………………216
Smithson, Mirror Strata, 1966………………………………………………...216
Smithson, Red Sandstone Corner Piece, 1968………………………………...216
Smithson, Mirror Displacement (Cayuga Salt Mine Project), 1969………….216
Smithson, Mirror Trail, 1969………………………………………………….216
Smithson, Eight Part Piece, 1969……………………………………………...217
Smithson, Fourth Mirror Displacement, 1969………………………………..217
Smithson, Seventh Mirror Displacement, 1969……………………………….217
Jan van Eyck, Arnolfini Double Portrait, 1434……………………………….217
Smithson, Roots and Rocks, Palenque, 1969…………………………………..218
Smithson, Spiral Jetty, 1970…………………………………………………...218
Smithson, A Heap of Language, 1966…………………………………………218
In 1965, Robert Morris exhibited a group of plywood cubes faced with
mass-produced mirrors. For him, these Mirrored Cubes represented the perfect
deployment of the new materials in such a way as to bolster his previous work’s
pointed inquiry into visual perception. The mirrors manipulated the viewing
experience more effectively than the painted plywood he had used up until that
point. With this group, he turned his focus outward, visually incorporating the
gallery space, as well as pushing his previous interest in spatial perception into
an unavoidable situation of self-perception. A year later, Morris tackled similar
questions, this time in his essay “Notes on Sculpture,” in which he considered
the visual effect of his sculpture on his viewer.1 His comments in this essay
regarding the viewer’s spatial experience of his work are informed by the
writings of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, a French phenomenologist who used the
mirror as a model in his description of the relationship between vision and art.2
In both the mirrored cubes and the essay, Morris’s work was exemplary of larger
trends that have defined the art world since the sixties. In 1965, not only were
artists experimenting with machine-made materials, but they were also
producing an increasing amount of writing, in marked contrast to the
comparatively taciturn Abstract Expressionists. While both of these changes
have been well-noted, the related proliferation of reflective surfaces at this time
has received far less attention, despite the fact that this trend offers a way of
understanding how these two changes, the increasing use of mass-marketed new
materials and the increasing trend of artists writing about their work, are
related.3 Indeed, the mirror, over the course of the next decade, moved from a
motif frequently employed within the writings of French theorists to a leitmotif
for certain artists in their art and writing. While Morris was one of the first to
read and allude to the writings of one of these theorists and to employ a mirror
outright in his sculpture, he soon abandoned mirrors as a material. As a result,
Morris’ brief but concentrated inquiry into reflection as a model for his viewer’s
(self) perception serves only as an indication of the way French theory and the
discourse of contemporary art in America could thrive in the presence of such
literally reflective works.
This dissertation will consider the work of four diverse artists who used
reflective surfaces and engaged actively in the discourse surrounding their work
in ways that should be considered “reflective” as well. These artists are Robert
Rauschenberg, Gerhard Richter, Dan Graham and Robert Smithson. While all
four were active in the mid 1960s, their commitment to reflection continues to
structure their work today, with the exception of Smithson, whose untimely
death in 1973 necessarily ended his inquiry into reflection. As such, a careful
account of their distinct uses of mirrors and reflective surfaces and their varied
entries into the written discourse surrounding their work affords a glimpse into
the import of the major shifts brought about by Minimalism—a movement in
which none actively participated, but which proved pivotal for all.
1.1 Mirrors and Art
Throughout its history, from antiquity to the present, western art has been linked
to the mirror. In the western canon, the analogy was introduced most
memorably in Plato's Republic and reached a zenith of sorts in the fifteenth
century with Alberti's famous metaphor, which tied the mirror specifically to
painting.4 Such comparisons have historically drawn their force from an
understanding of art as an essentially mimetic practice. At the height of the
mirror’s popularity as a motif in Northern Renaissance painting, its protean
nature, embodying both the positive and the negative, the magical and the
mundane, became clear. 5 Within this context, a mirror included in a painting
would typically be understood in one of two ways: as a "moralizing” mirror or as
a "painterly" mirror.6 For example, Laux Furtenagle's Portrait of the artist Hans
Burgkmair and his wife Anna (1529) includes a convex mirror in a double portrait
of the couple. (Fig. 1) Double portraits were fairly common at this time and
were sometimes divided into two panels hinged together. Furtenagle offers us
an alternative to a diptych of husband and wife gazing at each other across the
space between the panels in his composition by placing the two figures within
the same panel. The mirror held in front of them serves to double their
combined gazes from the edge of the single panel. By virtue of the mirror's
convex shape, the viewer is privileged with a glimpse of the couple's reflection.
Instead of presenting the couple as they appear at the time, however, the mirror
offers a glimpse of their future. Far from the stuff of fairy tales, this couple is
allegorically represented in the form of two skulls. The force of the image's
moral message relies on our knowledge of the mirror's traditionally mimetic
function. Thus, by thwarting our expectation to see those figures reflected on its
surface, Furtenagle underscores the inevitability of their demise. Consequently,
the mirror image acts like a prophesy, reminding the viewer of the figures'
mortality, and, by extension, the viewer's similar fate, thereby, warning us all of
the vanity of worldly pursuits. The Skull Reflected in a Mirror from a fifteenthcentury Book of Hours carries the same warning but with more immediacy. The
anonymous artist accomplishes this by doing away with a pictorial intermediary,
as the Burgkmairs had functioned in the Furtenagle, and turning the mirror to
face the viewer directly. (Fig. 2) Thus, the devotee would be unavoidably
reminded of her own mortality.
At the same time that the looking glass has been used to impart a moral
message, the mirror also sometimes refers to the painter's goal of achieving an
illusionism worthy of a mirror reflection and, as a tool employed to this end,
often appears in depictions of the artist's studio. For example, Quentin Massys'
St. Luke Painting the Virgin and Child (c.1530) gives us a view of St. Luke's
"studio," in which a convex mirror hangs on the wall behind the painter..7 (Fig. 3)
Its prominent position over the artist as he paints at his easel secures its
association with a painter's tools. 8 Frequently, such mirrors were employed to
check the illusionistic coherence of paintings. As Leonardo da Vinci pointed out
in his notebooks, flaws in composition were much easier to notice when they
were reflected in a mirror. The inclusion of a mirror within a portrait then would
carry along with it the invocation of the private space of the artist's studio. With
this association in mind, the mirror in Furtenagle’s portrait of the artist Hans
Burgkmair would also signal the sitter's profession. Indeed, at the beginning of
the twentieth century, the mirror still held a prominent position in certain
painters' studios, as is evident in Henri Matisse's Carmelina (1903). (Fig. 4) The
mirror, depicted within the artist's studio, parallel with the picture plane, offers
the viewer two vantage points from which to contemplate the model who is
presented frontally by reflecting her back. By virtue of its placement, the mirror
also captures Matisse's own reflection, presumably while he paints—a visual
trope which we can trace back as early as 1402 in a French manuscript of
Bocaccio's De Claris Mulieribus..9 (Fig. 5) This miniature, referred to as Marcia
Painting Her Self-Portrait, shows the artist using a small mirror to accomplish her
task. Of course, the presence of a mirror is implied in any self-portrait. As a
result, mirrors not only suggest the artist's studio, but also the artist engaged in
One might expect that, with the rise of abstraction in the twentieth
century, the mirror would no longer make sense as a signifier of the painter's
practice, and consequently, we might expect fewer references to mirrors in
painting..10 Nonetheless, the twentieth century has figured up its fair share of
mirrors in the gallery. Indeed, the great majority of them are not depicted
mirrors, but actual reflective surfaces. There are several instances of artist's
employing reflective materials in the wake of synthetic cubism. Those that date
before the 1960s typically included those materials for mimetic or expressive
ends. For example, the mirror affixed to Juan Gris' canvas Le Lavabo (1912)
conscripts the actual reflective material into a depiction of an ordinary bathroom
mirror. (Fig. 6) After Picasso and Braque forsook trying to represent materials
which they could simply employ in the painting, such as faux wood grain or
newspaper, Gris decided to forgo the futile effort of trying to represent a mirror
by inserting an actual piece of one into his composition.11 The polished metal of
Vladimir Tatlin's painting relief, The Bottle (1913) is marshaled into a more
mimetic service as well, no longer depicting a mirror but instead capturing the
reflective quality of glass in its convex shape (Fig. 7); the curved piece of metal
mimics the reflection one sees on the curve of a glass bottle. At the same time,
the reflective metal, which frames the bottle’s silhouette, emphasizes the
transparency of the space next to it in our ability to see through the implied bottle
where the metal has been cut away. In Gino Severini's Dynamic Hieroglyph of the
Bal Tabarin (1912), the sequins adorning the central figure's dress act both
mimetically and expressively. (Fig. 8) Not only are they understood to depict
the sequins on the dancers' dresses, but they also march across the surface of the
canvas in tightly controlled loops, capturing actual fluctuations of light from the
painting's surroundings in this elaborately choreographed display of motion.
And finally, Constantin Brancusi's use of polished bronze in a sculpture like
Sleeping Muse (1910) smoothes away textural individuations to reveal the
essential and universal gesture of a head tilted in rest. (Fig. 9) The reflection of
the viewer in the metal only underscores for her this universality when she sees
herself within the gesture. Like Brancusi, these artists employed reflective
materials in these cases to evoke effects that were impossible in mere paint.
1.2 Reflection and Minimalism
The widespread and sustained use of reflective surfaces in art arose concurrently
with Minimalism, although not as a central practice within Minimalism. The
only artists often associated with Minimalism who employed reflective surfaces
were Morris and Judd—the former for only a single work; the other more
consistently, if also more subtly, preferring reflective plastics to outright mirrors.
Their sporadic or secondary use of such materials is partly due to the fact that
both consider the addition of color or polish to be extraneous to their aims.12
Nonetheless, because of Minimalism’s dominance in art-related discourse at the
time that mirrors and reflective surfaces became increasingly prominent, the
work and writings of Robert Morris and Donald Judd serve well to introduce the
stakes of incorporating mirrors into art work in the early and mid-sixties.
Minimalism developed as a loosely related rejection of modernist painting
and sculpture, not as a style or movement.13 As a result, the term “Minimalism”
might more adequately define an artistic field consisting of both a practice and a
critical discourse.14 What is certain is that a whole range of concerns was being
addressed in art and the writing that surrounded it, creating a situation where
both were responding to the other, broaching questions about perception and the
institutional nature of the art world, two things that had, to a certain extent, been
taken for granted previously.
Morris’ Mirrored Cubes raised questions about perception that he tackled a
year later in his essay “Notes on Sculpture.” 15 (Fig. 10) The cube’s reflections of
the gallery space and the viewers’ legs pointedly draw the viewer’s attention
both to her own embodiedness and to the gallery situation. As the cubes seem to
nearly disappear into each other, they force the viewer to consider the
disjunction between what she sees and what she knows, questioning the process
of her own perception. Their shape forms an exemplary gestalt that not only
conforms to Morris’ own preference for shapes that could be easily perceived,
but also mimics the architectural container of the gallery. Moreover, the
mirrored surfaces implicate the viewer in a public relationship with the work
simply because they emphasize the viewer’s placement in a public space. While
Morris elides this point in his “Notes on Sculpture,” he does argue that scale
affects the intimacy or publicness of a viewer’s experience. Any object whose
size is comparable to or larger than its viewer creates a public experience because
it implies the space around it in a way that a smaller object does not.16
Analogously, reflective sides not only imply their surrounding space, they
actually incorporate that space into their surfaces; beyond simply mimicking the
shape of the gallery, they also reflect its appearance.
In both respects, the Mirrored Cubes make explicit the perceptual emphasis
of Minimalism, with its concomitant address to the viewer, as well as its
implication of its immediate situation. It was not long before the address to the
viewer within a public sphere extended to imply the broader institutions of the
art world or any social or political institution. This extension introduced
institutional critique into Minimalism’s frame of reference, thus broaching the
possibility of a more generalized social project for these artists.17 Moreover, a
critique of the institutions of the art world that takes the form of actual art works
(as well as a discursive project) ultimately finds itself addressing its own history,
particularly as that history was construed as modernist self-critique. As Barbara
Rose already pointed out in her 1965 essay “ABC Art,” from its early stages this
self-critique carried with it the socio-political utopianism of the Russian
constructivists at one extreme and the irony of Duchamp at the other.18
Minimalism’s engagement with the history of modern painting and
sculpture, specifically with relation to the art criticism of Clement Greenberg,
emerged in part out of Donald Judd’s art criticism. Working originally as an art
critic, Judd had a complicated relationship to Greenberg, as James Meyer has
noted.19 From the outset, the two were in opposing camps, with Judd embracing
the same three-dimensional work that Greenberg rejected. Nonetheless, by
claiming that the Specific Objects he championed were the logical extension of
Frank Stella’s aluminum paintings, Judd implicitly accepted Greenberg’s core
assertion that modernist painting aimed at exposing its essential nature. (Fig. 11)
Stella’s paintings like Empress of India not only let shape determine composition,
but they also emphasized their flatness with evenly applied, nearly reflective
paint. Contrary to Stella’s insistence that these works simply drew attention to
their painted surface, making them emphatically paintings, Judd argued that the
paintings’ flatness, along with their extraordinarily thick supports, announced
their true status as material objects.20 And because these works revealed
painting’s essence to be outside of itself not as art, but as objects, they also
announced the end of painting. It is out of this realization that Judd claimed that
Specific Objects, or Minimalist structures, were the necessary arena for any selfcritical (which is to say, according to Greenberg’s terms, “modernist”) artmaking.
Minimalism was deeply enmeshed in a written, critical discourse partly
because some of its main practitioners, such as Morris and Judd, wrote art
criticism. In formal terms, Minimalism demanded written explication. Coming
on the heels of Abstract Expressionism, which thrived in the rarified air of
psychological analysis and artistic intention, the emphatically machine-made,
serial quality of Minimalism cried out for some explanation. Moreover,
Minimalist artists typically simplified form and composition to geometric shapes,
and similarly avoided all “content”, leaving the interpretative field open wide
enough to encompass a host of possibilities, including oppositional and mutually
exclusive readings. The reflective works which this dissertation addresses face a
similar situation in their critical reception. Either as a result of this ambiguity or
in complete acceptance of it, all engage with their discursive arena in one way or
another. Thus, just as Minimalism should not be understood as a coherent style
or movement, these artists’ commitments to reflective surfaces evince themselves
in different ways, responding to the same discursive field, but emphasizing
different questions and arriving at quite different conclusions.
1.3 Mirrors in French Theory
With the increasing importance of the perceptual experience that art works in the
sixties constructed for the viewer, references to perceptual theory, particularly
that of Merleau-Ponty and, later, that of the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan,
became more frequent among the artists and critics writing about this work.
Both writers employed the mirror as an important motif in their theories of
vision. Merleau-Ponty, who was cited by Minimalism’s champions and
detractors alike, was particularly interested in the role of vision in our
knowledge of the world.21 The mirror was central to Merleau-Ponty's description
of visual perception—a perception he describes as voyant-visible or seeingvisible.22 According to Merleau-Ponty, the sensible world is by nature reflexive;
one consequence of this fact is that it duplicates itself in vision. We are able to
see only because of the world's perceptual doubling. He envisions a folding of
the flesh of the world back on itself as the condition of visibility.23 Not only does
the fold in the flesh create vision, but it also casts that vision as distance, even
while it should be registered as proximity. Thus, the reflectiveness of the mirror,
which visually duplicates the viewer, makes the mirror an apt analogy for a
medium, like modern painting, which concerns itself with visual perception. The
mirror also becomes an emblem of the way painters see. The painter's vision is
invaded by the world which doubles back on itself; both the mirror and the
painter's vision draw their effectiveness from this doubling. Yet the link between
mirrors and painting is based upon their shared project of doubling, not on
historical claims of painting's illusionistic project—an analogy which presumes a
perceivable, palpable world that exists whether or not we perceive it. Instead,
according to Merleau-Ponty, the world produces vision out of its originary
reflexivity by lending to vision tactile associations. As one of the things in the
world, or, as Merleau-Ponty puts it, as part of the Flesh of the World, the painter
is able to see, has vision, only because she already "feels” herself over there, in
the mirror, in the painting, or in the other person. The painter paints out of this
excess of self.
The French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan also discussed the mirror’s role
in self-perception. In his early and often-cited essay, "The mirror stage as
formative of the I," he lays down the foundation for his later writings on the
formation of the human subject within a nexus of language and visual
reflection.24 In the mirror stage essay, Lacan argues that at about eighteen
months the infant is made aware of herself as a finite subject whose limitations
and social relationships do not correspond with the infant's own experience.
This realization comes largely through the child's encounter with her own image
in a mirror and is structured by language which makes the connection between
the infant and the image. "That's you, Eileen" are the words spoken by the
parent that serve to articulate the child from her surroundings, while at the same
time establishing the child's identity over there, in the mirror, which is to say,
outside of the child's body. As Lacan later shows, this external, and importantly
exterior, identity constitutes the human subject.25 The theoretical system that
bolsters Lacan’s account of the mirror stage comes from structural linguistics.
Like structural linguistics, the world Lacan describes in front of the mirror is one
made up of binary oppositions.26 The force of the gaze—that is, not the child's
gaze, but a gaze outside the child, which thus occupies a position similar to
language—lies in the fact that it makes distinctions between things and between
1.4 Language, Writing and Vision
Lacan's appeal to structural linguistics introduces another question into this
study that deserves consideration. Roughly, Lacan suggests that vision's social
underpinnings function analogously to language. The articulations that words
serve to create between two arguably similar things, say a tree and a bush, are
also enacted in vision. Even more importantly, the articulations of vision are
propped up by language. Thus, we begin to see the differences between trees
and bushes only when we know their proper names, just as the child begins to
see herself as distinct from others only when she begins to associate her proper
name with her reflected image. Not all post-war theorists accept this analogy,
however. For example, Michel Foucault’s essay on Velazquez's Las Meninas
focuses on the elision between the visual and the textual, or the linguistic. His
description of the painting centers on the mirror represented at the back of this
group portrait.27 In describing the painting and its spatial positioning of the
viewer and of its subjects, both within and outside the depicted space by virtue
of that mirror, Foucault suggests that the naming so common in analyses of the
work is precisely what misses the specifics of the painting. That is,
These proper names would form useful landmarks and avoid
ambiguous designations...But the relation of language to painting is
an infinite relation. It is not that words are imperfect, or that, when
confronted by the visible, they prove insuperably inadequate.
Neither can be reduced to the other's terms: it is in vain that we say
what we see; what we see never resides in what we say.28
Thus, any description of an artwork delivered in language forces the flux
inherent in visual perception into a static and simplified version of the work.
Jacques Derrida describes a similar problem in his text The Truth in
Painting (1978). This study sketches a theory of painting that is framed within
language.29 But it is important to note that he insists on the fact that he only
circles around the question about the nature of painting. Not only does his
writing function as a frame, but one of the central elements of painting which he
discusses, line, or the trait, functions in the same manner. That is, like a frame, a
line not only divides, but it also holds what it divides together in a spatial
relationship. This trait preserves the fluidity which language has difficulty
duplicating. It is for this reason that works like Stella’s aluminum paintings can
be described in opposing ways by Stella and Judd, even though both are
responding faithfully to what they see.
While the French theory imported into the United States during the sixties
was by not means monolithic, it raised new questions and changed the face of art
and criticism in America. Individual theorists were introduced to the American
art scene sporadically. Those who concentrated specifically on the mirror, that is
Merleau-Ponty and Lacan, had their greatest impact during the decade of the
mirror's largest influence, roughly between 1964 and 1975. In the early sixties,
art critics were beginning to read Merleau-Ponty. Annette Michelson, a frequent
contributor to Artforum, the leading American journal of contemporary art and
criticism at the time, was attending lectures delivered by Merleau-Ponty in Paris,
at the same time that another contributor, Michael Fried, was living in England
and reading Merleau-Ponty's writings.30 Additionally, with the translation of
Merleau-Ponty's writing into English by Northwestern University Press in 1964,
more American artists and critics were exposed to his increasingly important
theories on perception.31
Jacques Lacan's essay on the mirror-stage came into the general discourse
surrounding art through the magazine Screen, which made frequent references to
the essay in the mid-seventies.32 Perhaps the best-known example is Laura
Mulvey's "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" (1975).33 In this essay, Mulvey
stresses the role of viewer identification in narrative cinema, particularly with
regard to the distinct models of gendered pleasure inscribed in popular film.
Ultimately, Lacan's theories provided rich fodder for the feminist perspectives in
art and art history that became more prominent in the late seventies and
eighties.34 The writings of Foucault and Derrida were translated and introduced
into the New York art world discourse at roughly the same time as Lacan’s.35
1.5 The Discourse Surrounding Mirrors in Recent Art
It is surprising, given the mirror's prominence in art and in theory in the second
half of the twentieth century, that the prolific use of reflective materials has
received very little sustained attention in serious scholarship. Of the exhibitions
and articles that have addressed the issue of reflection, most have skimmed the
surface, merely figuring up a long list of artists using mirrors or mirror images in
their work.36 Such surveys have tended to downplay differences among artistic
practices in order to group the various works together as uncomplicated
examples of a general theoretical or social framework. At best, they categorize
the different ways mirrors have been employed, but they still fail to consider the
implications of the ways in which the mirror is caught up in redefining the
artistic practices of late twentieth century Post-Minimal art.37
The exhibition “The Rebounding Surface” (1982) simply collected
different examples of mirroring practices to point out the mirror's popularity in
art.38 Aside from a short introduction in the exhibition catalog that makes this
point, there was no deeper consideration of the issue. Nor was there in any
published reviews of the exhibition.
David Mower’s essay “Through the Looking Glass and What the Artist
Found There” (1979), for all the title’s promise, also presents a gloss on the recent
history of mirror imagery and reflective materials in art. Mower’s interest is in
“mapping the extent of the spread” of mirror practices and not in providing an
analysis of its significance.39 He sees the mirror as broadly encompassing
various attitudes in art toward subject matter, materials and viewers. As a result,
he makes very little differentiation between different artists or between
modernism and post-modernism for that matter. Nonetheless Mower’s article is
to be praised for its effort to extend the terms of the argument regarding
reflection to include practices which are not constructed with reflective surfaces
and do not have mirrors as their subject matter. For example, he considers Sol
Lewitt’s mirror image cubes and Hans Haacke’s institutional critique both to be
part of the general reflective trend. Ultimately though, the most interesting point
he makes is only implied in his title—taken from Lewis Carroll’s story popularly
known as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland—which promises to show an art
world dominated by inversions, as if post-modernism were simply a mirrorreversal of modernism. Unfortunately, Mower fails to make good on this
promise by suggesting that, contrary to what one would expect, such early
examples of including mirrors as the Juan Gris collage discussed earlier are
simply early examples of the trend but are not inherently different from the work
of the late twentieth century.
Mark Francis’ and Michael Newman’s 1986 exhibition The Mirror and the
Lamp delved deeper into the philosophical underpinnings of the reflective trend
in art. The show included a broad range of artists and artistic practices, all of
which addressed “the way in which identity is constructed through vision and
perception.”40 The show’s title came from the eponymous book by the literary
theorist M. H. Abrams, which chronicled the ascendance of expression over
mimesis in Romantic poetic theory.41 In addition to short entries on each artist,
including Gerhard Richter, Newman provides a parallel text, which runs
opposite the entries and outlines the rise and fall of mimetic theories of art.42
While the essay rises to its ambitious intent with grace, and the entries echo
many of the issues raised in the essay, one is necessarily left wishing for a more
penetrating treatment of the works rather than the gloss that provides an
historical and theoretical framework for the artists’ activities. One of the main
points this dissertation will make concerns the relationship of writing to art, in
particular the relationship of the artists’ writings to their reflective works.
Newman’s theoretical gloss, while it occupies the same pages as the artist entries,
merely glances off of those entries and does not once address its own
relationship to the art works.43
Perhaps the most enlightening research into the proliferation of mirrors in
the twentieth century has been conducted by French scholars. The earliest is an
essay jointly written by a literary theorist and an architectural historian.
Valentina Anker and Lucien Dallenbach consider both literary and visual
reflection in their essay "Le réflection spéculaire dans la peinture et la littérature
récentes" (1975). They begin by stressing the modernity of art works about art,
noting as their prime example Andre Gide's Les Faux-Monnaiers (1925), a novel
about, among other things, an author writing a novel. Of course, the idea that
counterfeiting coins is akin to the author's project of representing reality fuels the
many parallels between the fictitious characters and the writer. But, as Gide
points out in his notebooks, the heraldic term that he prefers to describe his
project is the mise-en-abyme, in which an element is repeated inside another
element.44 Anker and Dallenbach use Gide’s work to suggest that there are three
ways in which reflection occurs in modern art: first with the straight depiction
within a depiction; second, with parallels between interior and exterior; and
finally with the unlikely event of dual reflection possible when one turns a
mirror to face another mirror in a perfect mise-en-abyme. They proceed to break
up the works they introduce into groups based on these three categories.
The other significant French work was an exhibition mounted by the
Musée des Beaux-Arts in Rouen. A traverse le miroir de Bonnard à Buren (2000)
breaks the material up into four groups: “Mirrors and Femininity,” “Mirrors and
Self-Fiction,” “The Mirror as an Object of Speculation,” and “The Mirror Used in
the Appropriation of Space.”45 This exhibition and its accompanying catalog
goes the furthest in its exploration of the topic mostly because it includes short
essays by a variety of art and film critics who approach the topic from different
angles; the most important are “The Mirror without Reflection” by Alain Cueff
and “The Mirror and Self-Reflection” by Jaroslav Andel, which mention
Smithson and Graham respectively.46
Recently, the field of cultural studies made its contribution to the mirror
phenomenon with Sabine Melchior-Bonnet's The Mirror: A History. Translated
into English in 2000, it coincides with other studies of the history of common
objects. But its original publication in 1994 suggests its participation in the
height of a second wave of mirrors in art.47 Melchior-Bonnet's book begins with
the history of mirror production from antiquity to the 19th century, focusing
particularly on France from its beginnings as a stolen trade-secret imported from
Italy in the 16th century until the unparalleled mirrored hall at Versailles.
Drawing from philosophy, literature, and moral and ethical guides, MelchiorBonnet paints a picture of an object continually defined by its dual nature. She
traces both the warnings against vanity and the error of illusion, as well as the
suggestion that the mirror provides the best route to self-knowledge and truth.
Occasionally using art that depicts mirrors as examples, typically from fifteenthto nineteenth- century Europe (with the exception of the last image by René
Magritte), Melchior-Bonnet unfortunately does little more than point out the art
work's adherence to some theme articulated in writing.
1.6 The Reflective Work of Rauschenberg, Richter, Graham and Smithson
In focusing on the work and the related writing of Robert Rauschenberg,
Gerhard Richter, Dan Graham, and Robert Smithson, this dissertation aims to
flesh out the connections between the use of reflective materials and selfreflective writing in four specific cases. While the work of these artists differs in
many ways, they can all be described as working along the edges of
Minimalism—an important ground on which to bring them together. Their most
mirror-centric work either hints at the possibilities explored in Minimalism or
relies heavily on the social, political, historical and aesthetic stakes set by
Minimalism. Moreover, their written practices all reflect their visual practices in
important ways.
Like that of the Minimalists before them, the work of these four artists
resists neat medium distinctions. Most raise the specter of painterly illusionism
with their use of mirrors, among other tactics. But aside from Gerhard Richter,
none of these artists is easily described as a painter. And even Richter's painting
practice resists characterization in that it moves freely between abstraction and
figuration.48 Rauschenberg’s work, which began in painting, pushes off the wall
into his combine paintings and later sculpture and even extends to
performance.49 Robert Smithson, who also began as a painter, was creating threedimensional work by the mid 1960s, photo-essays by the late 1960s and, finally,
site-specific earth works before his death in 1973, all of which frequently
broached questions about illusionism and medium specificity, a term very
closely associated with modern painting as it was described by Clement
Greenberg.50 Dan Graham is the only artist of the group who has no obvious
link to the history of modern painting. Nonetheless, his embrace of the media
associated with Post-Minimalism, including his writing conceptual essays for
journals, his performance pieces, video-installations and the small architectural
models and pavilions he continues to produce all place him in an implicit
dialogue with the critical discourse surrounding modern painting and
Like Graham, the other three artists share an interest in writing—an
interest that seems closely related to the dispersal of their activity across media.
This is not to say that all four artists write similarly or for the same reasons; like
their varied uses of mirrors, their written reflections have quite different
manifestations. Rauschenberg's statements reflect the linguistic structure of the
work but remain slippery for those who attempt to pin down their meaning or
intentions.52 Similarly, Richter claims that his writings coincide with the work
but in no way explain it.53 On the contrary, Graham's writing can substitute for
and in some cases better explain the work,54 and for Smithson, the artwork can
be displaced into a printed text.55
This dissertation is interested in the way these artists' mirrored works and
their written reflections are hinged together. Because modern painting has
traditionally been described as developing in opposition to other art forms and
mediums—purging itself of the "literary" above all—the artists' interest in
writing may seem to contradict this study's central claim that their use of mirrors
closely links their work to the history of modern painting. In fact, this
dissertation aims to show how the writings and mirrored works together make
visible a history of modern painting that passes through Minimalism and
ultimately unfolds into the disparate artistic practices often grouped under the
rubric post-modernism.
In retrospect, the predominant use of reflective materials in art since the
1960s appears almost inevitable, for the mirror addresses many artistic concerns
that arose in American painting just prior to the beginning of Minimalism. For
example, the mirror, considered on its own, with its monochromatic, silvered
back, adhered to the modernist prescriptive for flatness and abstraction.56 At the
same time, for artists like Rauschenberg, the mirror was able to negotiate the
terrain between abstraction and the reemergence of figuration. Moreover, the
mirror also accommodated the expansion of both figurative and abstract art into
a temporal dimension, an issue that became central to the work of artists like
Jasper Johns and Rauschenberg.57 Because the mirror’s reflectivity implicates the
viewer’s space as well as her experience of temporal immediacy, it also raises
questions about the relationship of an artwork to its viewer. Such questions are
crucial for Rauschenberg and definitive for Post-Minimal artists like Richard
Serra, Adrian Piper and Graham, among others. It was not long before mirrors
and reflective surfaces employed in art provided the opportunity to throw into
question the mirror works’ identification as art and the role played by art
institutions in that identification by referring explicitly to their physical location,
as they do in admittedly different ways in works by Daniel Buren, Hans Haacke,
Richter, Graham, and Smithson. Ultimately, reflective materials offered
attractive solutions for the goal of objectivity and the use of industrially
produced materials associated with Minimalism.
Given all of these possibilities, it should not be surprising that in the late
1950s Rauschenberg, as well as later artists associated with Pop, such as Roy
Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol, began employing mirrors, reflective surfaces or
images of mirrors within their work. Meanwhile, a host of other artists working
on the edges of Minimalism, were drawn to the use of mirrored and reflective
surfaces in their work; for example, Michelangelo Pistoletto's Person Seen from the
Back (1962) shows a figure painted illusionistically on a mirror to suggest that he
occupies an actual threshold to another space (Fig. 13). Acting as a different sort
of a threshold, Judd's wall pieces often include an interior sheet of polished metal
or plastic that invites the viewer into the work just as the work moves into the
viewer's space (Fig. 14). Morris' mirrored cubes completed that break with the
wall by occupying the floor of the gallery, implicating that space by their
reflectivity (Fig. 10). In Lucas Samaras' Room #2 (1966), the reflective cube
swelled to room-size proportions and was given an interior in which the viewer
finds herself in a dizzying hall of mirrors (Fig. 15). Robert Irwin pushed
reflection to the limits of perception when he hung mirrors in darkened rooms.
And finally, Adrian Piper's room installations, like Black Box and White Box
installed at the Wexner Center in 1992, turned visual perception on itself to
question identity and community, when images in front of the viewer became
reflective with a change in the structure's lighting. (Fig. 16 & 17) Piper also
employed video in installations that questioned racial and cultural identity in
works like Video Corner, which consisted of a video monitor mounted in a corner
against which an upturned table rested in such a way that Piper's image on the
monitor appeared cornered; in the video, Piper discussed the ambiguities of her
racial identity. While Piper's use of video often draws its critical power from its
ability to address the viewer in a relationship of identification, we will see an
even more pointed use of it in Graham for much the same kind of social critique.
The force of much of this work derives in part from the centrality of
reflection in it. Because the mirror implicates its own surroundings as it becomes
more prominent within the composition and conception, it is able to return the
viewer's attention to the work's physical context. Not only are mirrors extending
space within the gallery, as in Pistoletto's work, but in the 1960s artists moved
mirrors increasingly off the wall and onto the floor of the gallery implying or
sometimes even boasting an interior, as Samaras' room does. (Fig. 15) As a
result, these artists emphatically presented the gallery space and its occupants as
their subject with little alteration. In its ability to do this, the mirror makes
explicit Minimalism's main interest in the cube, which, like the mirror, implicates
its physical context. (This is all the more the case when the mirrors are
themselves arranged in cubes.) Moreover, the mirror provided opportunities for
the Minimalists and, even more, the Post-Minimalists to turn a critical eye to the
larger art context, not only questioning the relationship between art works and
the gallery system, but also introducing the possibility of deconstructing the
supporting institutions of the art world such as art journals, as Graham and
Smithson make perfectly clear in their magazine pieces.
This dissertation analyzes the mirrored and reflective work of
Rauschenberg, Richter, Graham and Smithson within the context of the artists'
larger oeuvre and also the theoretical and self-critical or self-reflective writing
that surrounds their art; all of this is done with a view to understanding the
multi-layered, visual and perceptual possibilities introduced with the decision to
employ the mirror. Chapter 2 will address the work of Robert Rauschenberg as a
proto-Minimalist, setting the stage for many of the issues that arise with the
other artists. Chapter 3 considers the questions of medium and genre in more
depth, using the mirrors and photo-based paintings of Gerhard Richter as its
focus. It also addresses the particular way that Richter weaves the motifs and
concerns of traditional painting into a rhetoric of the death of painting, which
strongly implicates the mirror. Chapter 4 extends these considerations to
address the role of the viewer and the question of time and history through an
analysis of the work and writing of Dan Graham. Finally, chapter 5 focuses on
the work, writings and aesthetic theory of Robert Smithson, addressing explicitly
the relationship between his art and writing. Many of these issues emerge and
re-emerge in more than one chapter. In this way, the flexibility of these concerns
and their resistance to containment within one chapter mirrors the protean
nature of reflexive art, at the same time that this study attempts to describe the
way all of these artists draw from the same discourse, not so much to name the
artists or the discourse in a Lacanian imposition, but more to reflect in words
something of the nature of the reflective discourse of the last forty years.
1.7 A Short Note on the Terms of the Argument
As it has already become apparent, the terminology associated with mirrors and
reflection resists easy containment. This is partly based on a long history of use
and partly based on the multi-faceted character of their definitions. Not only is
reflection a term associated with visual perception, but it has also been taken up
somewhat allegorically by the discipline of philosophy to describe mental
contemplation as well. Both common usages are closely associated with the
linguistic sense of the term. Although English lacks reflexive verbs per se
(although not reflexive constructions), French and other Romance languages do
have verbs that are reflexive and imply a duality between the subject and
object.58 That is to say, when one does something to oneself, the action
effectively divides the self into actor and acted upon. When one bores oneself, an
example that Sartre uses, the construction of the sentence implies a split within
the subject that divides the unified identity of the subject. Reflection implies a
similar duality in this sense, which also corresponds to the philosophical use of
the term in a discussion of knowledge or consciousness of self.
Reflection, used as a noun in its purely mimetic sense, derives from its
early scientific usage, where it can also be spelled with an "x" as reflexion, and
this is perhaps the more precise spelling as the bilaterally symmetrical chiasmus
reflects itself. The Latin root "flex," meaning to bend or fold, dominates the
scientific usage. In optics, light bends back. In biology, reflexes name those
automatic responses like bending arms or legs when the elbow or knee is struck,
respectively. But there are other reflexes, namely those associated with vision,
that have nothing to do with bending. Some of them are so subtle they are rarely
observed, such as the dilating of the pupil. Others are much more perceptible,
such as blinking—an act which makes vision possible at the same time that it
interrupts it.
There are also common uses of the word, based on optical reflection as the
bending or folding of vision back to its source. Mental reflection, for example,
implies the bending or folding back of thought on itself. The extension of the
common usage of reflection, when one describes any contemplation, is
instructive. For in this usage, when one reflects on something that is not a self,
the subject, by implication, has identified with his or her object of contemplation.
But it is important to note that this sort of mental engagement, in which thought
is bent back on itself, ultimately drives the subject and object more deeply into
themselves in distinction from each other. Thus, within this common usage, the
irony of reflective contemplation is most obvious. Just when one attempts to get
closer to one's object of study, one becomes more deeply cognizant of oneself.
And so, even as this dissertation attempts a penetrating analysis of the mirrored
and reflective art works along with the phenomenon that made them possible, it
acknowledges the limits to that goal. For a written reflection on visual reflection
will necessarily be driven more deeply into is own writing in the end.
Mirrors and reflection have played an important role in Robert
Rauschenberg’s work since the beginning of the fifties. As a motif, Rauschenberg
has depicted mirrors in his silkscreens compositions and employed actual
mirrors in his combine paintings. Meanwhile, the theme of reflection in his work
ranges from meditations on duplication as the main goal of representation in
works like Crucifixion and Reflection (1950) and the identical Factum I and Factum
II (both 1957), to the use of reflective surfaces as a support in the vieweractivated, technological works of the late sixties and his synthesis of the
silkscreen and combine processes in three series from the late eighties, Urban
Bourbons, Galvanic Suite, and Shiners. The works on reflective materials highlight
Rauschenberg’s social interests with their increased emphasis on the gallery
space and the role of the viewer in that space. The external emphasis of these
works on reflective materials go a long way toward achieving his oft-repeated
goal to work in the gap between art and life. His reflective supports bridge that
gap visually by implicating the viewer in the work. Moreover, Rauschenberg’s
commitment to the viewer hints at his desire to abdicate his own artistic
authority to his viewers, a fact that becomes clear in his written and oral
As an artist working in the fifties and sixties, mirrors and reflective
surfaces held an interest for Rauschenberg that is nearly as complex and multilayered as one of his collages. Historically, the mirror’s association with the
tradition of western painting and one-point perspective, in particular, provided
Rauschenberg with an important ground from which to stretch and reverse these
traditions, at a time when illusionism had been completely discredited by the
avant-garde. Moreover, the mirror’s inherent spatial ambiguities and
contradictions also appealed to his interest in compositional oppositions and
spatial reversals. Ultimately, reflective surfaces functioned for Rauschenberg
both as a stimulus for experimenting with spatial perception and as a model for
working within dichotomies, most importantly the dichotomy he aims to
collapse by working in the gap between art and life.
This chapter addresses Rauschenberg’s persistent interest in mirrors and
reflection, focusing on four key issues. First among them is the artist’s
incorporation of actual mirrors into his combine paintings as collage materials as
part of an early effort to reinstate depth, in the form of real space, into painting.
Second, Rauschenberg’s choice to reproduce depictions of mirrors in his silkscreens clarifies the relationship between his three-dimensional combines and his
foray into purely pictorial space, where layered space and depicted depth square
off in one composition. Third, the combination of the silk-screen technique with
reflective grounds explicitly engages the viewer through her reflection, making
her image and her movement central to the art work. It is here that
Rauschenberg’s commitment to work in the gap between art and life dovetails
with his refusal to limit the interpretations of his work, bringing the argument to
its fourth and final point. That is, by combining reflective statements with
compositions that suggest linguistic strategies, Rauschenberg creates works that
beg to be “read” but which also leave themselves open to divergent
interpretations—interpretations which end up reflecting the interests of their
viewers just as much as the artist’s.
2.1 Mirrors as a Collage Material
The first actual mirrors appear in Rauschenberg’s work as collage material in his
combine paintings beginning in late 1953 and continuing until 1962. The title he
gives to this style of composition foregrounds its artistic roots in painting while it
also acknowledges their intermediary nature with the descriptor “combine.” As
part of his avowed purpose of bridging the gap between art and life,
Rauschenberg attempted to collapse the distinction between painting and
sculpture, or between two and three-dimensional media, in the combine
paintings, making his work an important precedent for the Minimalist rejection
of painting in favor of three-dimensional objects. Despite his influence in this
development, Rauschenberg never abandoned painting and two-dimensional art
completely, preferring instead to work between the pictorial and the real,
combining significant aspects of the two. The early combines begin as twodimensional constructions, which introduce three dimensional passages, literally
combining common objects on the surface, allowing the work to be considered
painting and sculpture simultaneously.
When Rauschenberg first incorporated mirrors into these works, they
played a minor role in his compositions, which were by and large taken over by
the combination of disparate images collaged together with seemingly little
attention paid to their visual or referential coherence.59 For example, the combine
Charlene (1954) includes part of the front page of The Sunday News bearing the
headline “Beyond Mars,” various comic strips, postcards of art objects like
Hokusai’s Great Wave, a Degas dancer, ceramic vases and the Statue of Liberty, as
well as bits of lace and printed fabrics, not to mention an umbrella, an electric
light and a large mirror. (Fig. 18) Rauschenberg’s inclusion of such diverse
materials, arrayed across the support in a haphazard manner, contrasted starkly
with Cubist collages which subordinated their collage materials to a coherent
motif such as a still-life. Rauschenberg’s composition is much more closely
related to the all-over painting technique of Jackson Pollock. In Rauschenberg’s
combines, the viewer’s eye is drawn episodically across the surface, falling on
one and then another image, pausing at the particularly thick passages of colorladen brushwork, with no central focus. As a result of this compositional style,
the viewer may find herself comparing groups of things in an attempt to make
sense of the combine. For example, in Charlene, Rauschenberg included five
different pages of comic strips. However, he aligned the grid format of each
section differently, sometimes squaring them with the frame, at others wrinkling
them to destroy the pristine grid, or turning them on an angle. Thus, while the
images and text of the comic strips might be painted over or simply
incomprehensible, taken out of context as they are, the grid format remains
readable even where it is altered or misaligned. In this way, Rauschenberg
introduced a dialogue of sorts based on similarity and difference among different
parts of the composition. By repeating the compositional device of the grid
format, if not the imagery contained in the comics, the composition encourages
visual comparison across the work.
In a similar manner, Rauschenberg deployed mirrors in his combines as
part of a larger compositional strategy. In this respect, Charlene and Minutiae
(1954) both serve as good examples of his early use of mirrors.60 In Charlene, the
more traditional collage materials already discussed, such as newspaper
clippings and lace, mingle with somewhat less conventional elements such as the
umbrella splayed out in the top right and the functioning electric light placed in
a shallow box on the left-hand side.61 Neither the umbrella, which has been
completely flattened and affixed to the wood panels, nor the electric light focus
the viewer’s attention on any one central aspect of the work. This is partly
because of their placement at opposite ends of a rather large composition. The
lack of central focus is also due to the fact that all individual elements are muted
by the raucous celebration of color and brushstroke occupying the left and the
center of the composition. The mirror, as a result of the brushwork, is even less
noticeable, despite its size. A full-length mirror mounted below the umbrella, it
is almost entirely covered by paint. It is literally overtaken by the dripping pool
of unmixed blue and white paint that covers its top and stretches more than
halfway down its length. Under this layer of drips, a thin wash of white paint
masks the limpid reflectivity of the mirror, creating a light-filled, hazy passage of
white paint.
Across the canvas, the clouded mirror finds its luminary counterpoint in
the electric light placed in a box recessed back into the support. Like the
flattened umbrella with its implied volume and its pendant recession which
reveals the actual volume of the work’s wooden frame, the contrast between the
flat surface of the mirror and the revealed depth of the recessed box introduces a
subtle spatial tension in the work between surface and volume, and between
reflected depth and actual depth. Moreover, the behavior of the light that
establishes their relationship also contributes to the spatial tension. As the
electric light sits recessed into the thickness of the support, it simultaneously
throws light out into the viewer’s space. In a witty compositional inversion,
Rauschenberg deployed the mirror as a reversal of the electric light, by virtue of
the fact that the mirror draws the ambient light of the viewer’s space into the
panel instead of casting light outward. Thus, the reflected light appears to fall
behind the picture plane, introducing an illusionistic depth in contrast to the
actual shallow depth of the recession on the other side.
Like Charlene, Minutiae (Fig. 19) also downplays the mirror in the
composition, although the mirror in this piece, in contrast to the full-length
mirror of Charlene, is much smaller. Hung in the center of the front panel, which
extends out about 2 1/2 feet from the rear panels, the small round mirror,
characteristic of more personal uses such as examining one’s face, is notable for
the way that Rauschenberg employed it, rendering it unusable for its typical
purpose. Suspended within a circular hole in the panel about waist-high, the
mirror seems to encourage reflection on the construction of the piece instead of
self-reflection. In Minutiae, the emphatic three-dimensional thrust of the combine
painting is made self-reflective by the mirror. In its suspended position, the
small mirror can twist to reflect partial glimpses of the viewer’s body as she
stands in front of the work. From another vantage point, it reveals the thickness
of the front panel or, turned backward, the riot of colors in the two back panels.
Thus, in this work the mirror serves two functions, drawing the viewer into the
work while it also holds the two panels together in a visual relay across real
space. In both Minutiae and Charlene, the mirror is used to highlight the spatial
tensions that characterize all of Rauschenberg’s combines, but in neither is its
role a central motif in the viewer’s perception of the works.
2.2 Depicted Mirrors in the Silk-screens
Between the fall of 1962 and the spring of 1964, Rauschenberg set aside the threedimensional combines to experiment with the spatial possibilities of the twodimensional silk-screen, a technique popular in graphic design at the time. But
unlike Andy Warhol, who also took up the technique during this period,
Rauschenberg deployed multiple silk-screened images across his compositions in
much the same manner as his combines did. Rarely did he employ one large,
central element. Instead, the silk-screens pile up across the canvas like a collage,
often with seeming randomness. The resemblance that the overlapping images
share with the way photographs might pile up on a table forms the basis for Leo
Steinberg’s important analysis of Rauschenberg’s work. Steinberg cites
Rauschenberg’s silk-screens as exemplifying the fundamental shift in post-war
art from the depiction of nature to the collection of culture, or from the humanstructured verticality of modern art to the culturally structured horizontal flatbed
of post-modern art.62 Steinberg’s description of Rauschenberg’s canvases as a
“flatbed picture plane,” rather than as a window on to the physical world, also
implies the physical act of pressing down that was instrumental in producing
collages, combines, silk-screens and blueprints. Whether the horizontal action
was the affixing of paper or object with glue by pressing it against the surface, or
the pressure of the squeegee as it forces paint through the silkscreen, or the force
of gravity upon the object left on light sensitive paper, all left their trace upon the
support in one way or another, setting in motion an inevitable chain of events.
The act of pressing down in one place effects an equal release from the flatness of
the canvas in other parts of the composition, rendering the otherwise flat surface
a site of spatial tension. Rauschenberg retooled his collage and combine
technique of physical accretion in the silk-screens, focusing his attention on the
problems of applying pigment to a flat, traditional canvas ground. As a result,
the silk-screen works provide some interesting insights into his understanding of
the nature of the ground as a receptive and supple surface where spatial
reversals play out with profound consequences. Whereas the combine paintings
materially altered the ground, transforming it into a figure by embedding objects
into it, the silk-screens use the technique of applying pigment to the negative
space, while leaving the positive space unpainted. This technique reverses the
traditional figure/ground relationship of pigment to surface, by visually
transforming the unpainted ground into a figure. In the logic then of
Rauschenberg’s figure/ground reversals, the ground reaches out to the viewer.
Rauschenberg’s deployment of the silk-screened images reinforces the
spatial tension already implicit in the silk-screen process. The various images
silk-screened onto Rauschenberg’s canvases are typically of differing scale and
disparate content, and seen from various perspectives, hindering any coherent
sense of spatial recession as a result. For instance, Retroactive II from 1964
features images of John F. Kennedy, a detail of Rubens’ seventeenth century
panel painting The Toilet of Venus, a glass and a crate of oranges, all seen from eye
level. (See fig. 30) A parachuting astronaut, next to the central image of
Kennedy, is seen from above, and a military truck placed above Kennedy is seen
from below. These conflicting vantage points destroy the illusion of a unified
depth, violate the flatness of the picture plane and require the viewer to reassess
each image in order to understand the pictorial space.
In addition, the thick strokes of paint applied over the silk-screened
images rest firmly on the surface of the canvas, emphasizing its flatness in
contrast to the figurative depth of each image. For example, the white paint
surrounding Kennedy’s pointing hand isolates the image, negating the
foreshortening of the photograph from which it was taken and making the hand
appear to hover detached from the rest of the composition. The band of white
paint over the crate of oranges just to the right of the disembodied hand also
breaks up the illusionistic space of the photograph. In an inversion of traditional
technique, Rauschenberg’s thick heavily applied white paint calls attention to the
surface of the painting, rather than creating illusionistic depth. Moreover, where
exposed canvas typically reinforces the flatness of the surface, in Rauschenberg’s
silk-screens the roles are reversed. That is, because the heavy brushwork has
been applied so methodically and so thickly white, it flattens out the paintings.
The canvas that shows through the silk-screening ink, on the other hand, appears
to advance and thereby accentuate the illusionistic three-dimensionality of the
represented images.63 Nor is it a coincidence that the heavily applied paint is
white. The white paint calls to mind the unpainted canvas, and, in contrast to
the actual canvas, the passages of white paint appear more emphatically flat than
the unpainted canvas does.
The use of white to depict solids and to recall the flat surface of the canvas
visually enacts some of Wittgenstein’s observations in his Remarks on Color.64 It
seems logical to argue that Rauschenberg’s close association with Jasper Johns
introduced him to some of Wittgenstein’s ideas, and this seems particularly true
of the philosopher’s reflections upon the nature of white.65 Wittgenstein held
that the color white is opaque, while a color such as green can be transparent. As
such, in Wittgenstein’s opinion, the application of white paint to a surface
flattens out the composition, because the white denies a sense of recession
through transparent colors. Meanwhile, colored inks applied to a canvas often
give the impression of transparency, because they create an atmospheric hue that
begins to recede visually. This theory is brought to stunning realization in
Rauschenberg’s Tracer.
The upper part of Tracer’s composition is dominated by a silk-screen of
Rubens’ Venus, reproduced in blue ink. (Fig. 33) The supporting bars, evidently
left under the canvas during the silk-screening process, leave bands of deeper
blues across Venus’ back. This effect, coupled with the uneven application of
paint through the silkscreen, produces a flickering impression that underscores
the transparency of the blue and the elusiveness of the white support
underneath. The white canvas, still visible through the silk-screening ink, takes
on the blue tone of the silkscreen and remains spatially coherent with the rest of
the silkscreen. In marked contrast, the thick white oil paint framing and mixing
with the blue ink insists upon the flatness and opacity of the canvas. As if to
heighten this effect, Rauschenberg employs a schematic box at the site of the
tension between the white ground and the white paint, its proximity suggesting
that Rauschenberg intended for it to underscore this disjunction. The schematic
box, like the composition of the Venus at her mirror, allows the viewer an
impossible view of both its front and back. While the box does this by virtue of
its transparency, in contrast to the deployment of the depicted mirror in the silkscreens, both share the spatial device of a pivot between the two views. Thus the
box and the silk-screened Venus and her reflection operate spatially to disrupt
the flat canvas ground at the same time that the thick application of white oil
paint reinforces the opacity and obdurate flatness of that ground.
The schematic box occupies an important position in Transom as well, but
this time actually framing the site of that tension. (Fig. 34) In Transom, a red
silkscreen of Velazquez’s Rokeby Venus occupies the center of the composition.
Rauschenberg pressed the squeegee across the screen vertically and horizontally
highlighting the tactile surface of the canvas, at the same time that the movement
suggests hand swipes across foggy glass—a gesture usually employed to reveal
what lies behind the glass—and lends the swipes of paint the appearance of
semi-transparency. Directly over this image, Rauschenberg painted the now
familiar rectangular box shown in perspective. This time one side, the lower
long side, has been filled almost entirely with white paint. Additionally, drips of
white paint run across the image and the box. Rauschenberg introduces the
perception of volume by way of the box, only to cloud that suggestion with the
vertical path of the dripping paint as it stretched down the flat canvas.
Additionally, the white side of the box clings relentlessly to the surface of the
painting, rendering Velazquez’s illusionistic space problematic. The other sides
of the box would continue to give the sense of three dimensions, were it not for
the drips of paint that destroy the illusionistic recession of the box into space.
The schematic box in these works foregrounds the tension between the
illusionistic space of the photographs, from which these silk-screens were made,
and the flat, tactile physicality of the paint, as well as the tension between figure
and ground and transparency and opacity.
Rauschenberg’s focus on the varying degrees of transparency and opacity
that canvas and paint can suggest reflects the dual attributes of illusionistic
painting’s two main analogies: windows and mirrors. Despite their differences,
both the window and the mirror convey the same sense of a framed view into a
space that appears outside the picture plane, just as the mirrors in the Rubens
and Velazquez provide the viewer with a framed view of Venus’ turned face.
Nonetheless, the mirror and window analogies function differently, with the
window providing a view into space by virtue of its transparency and the mirror
by its opaque reflectivity. Rauschenberg layering of transparency and opacity
evokes both analogies by creating a visual experience based on both the opacity
of the white paint and its associated canvas and the transparency of the silkscreening ink. However, by applying the white paint so thickly as to encourage
an analogy between the white canvas and the opaque white paint, Rauschenberg
tipped the scales towards an opaque, reflective experience.66 At bottom, both
paint and canvas are opaque in Rauschenberg’s silk-screens. And by extension,
all vision is defined by opacity. Transparency is only an illusion that
Rauschenberg continually undermines in this works. In this way,
Rauschenberg’s silk-screens favor the mirror analogy for illusionistic
representation and prefigure his later use of reflective materials as a ground.
2.3 Silk-screening on Reflective Materials
More than thirty years after these allusions to the window/mirror dichotomy,
Rauschenberg combined the silk-screening process with the use of reflective
materials, this time as a ground, intensifying the spatial tensions and
figure/ground reversals, as well as the tension between transparency and
opacity that he had begun to explore in his combines and silk-screens. Three
series from the late 1980s, Shiners, Galvanic Suite, and Urban Bourbons, employed
aluminum supports, which were frequently polished to a high reflectivity or
even mirrored. 67 Big D Ellipse (1990), a triptych from the Shiners series, consists
of silk-screened images applied to one mirrored panel and two anodized
aluminum panels, with an object affixed to the mirrored panel. (Fig. 20) In this
case, Rauschenberg included only one main figural element, an ordinary chair
shown in four different orientations across the painting. Each panel features a
chair painted right side up at the bottom, echoing the viewer’s orientation to the
work, with other chairs that are upside down at the top. The mirrored panel at
the left and the central panel, which is white-coated aluminum, also have chairs
shown on their sides with their tops meeting at the seam between the panels.
The chairs on the white and black aluminum appear almost ghostly compared to
the red, silver and white chairs on the mirrored panel. Rauschenberg has
heightened this effect by painting over the chair at the bottom of the white panel
with brushy passages of black and white paint.
As the viewer approaches the painting, her own body comes into view in
the mirrored panel, reflected in an illusionistic relationship to the painted chairs,
as if all occupied the same implied three-dimensional space behind the picture
plane. These empty chairs, one even appearing to sit on the reflected floor of the
gallery, create a visual experience made implicitly corporal by the complex
network of depicted and actual chairs, which present the illusion of a physical
reality in the reflective sections. Although the non-reflective panels and the
presence of heavy brush work deliberately negate the illusion of space, neither
can completely eliminate the sense of physical immediacy and spatial illusion
confronting the viewer who encounters her reflection within the ground of the
painting. The complex spatial construction is reified in the silver chair, an actual
chair (its silver paint echoing the silvered appearance of the mirror) affixed on its
side to the mirror’s surface. Both the white chair, which beckons the viewer into
the reflected space behind the surface, and the silver chair, which shares the
same three dimensional reality as the viewer but is rendered non-functional by
its horizontal orientation, are inaccessible despite their individual appeals to the
viewer’s physical presence, in one case illusionistically, in the other, sculpturally.
Thus the viewer is invited into a space which she cannot enter but on which she
does have a visible effect.
Another work from the Shiners series, Ballast (1987), (Fig. 21) exhibits
similar strategies for constructing spatial ambiguities in the work that attempt to
bridge the gap between art object and viewing subject. To accomplish this, again
Rauschenberg incorporated both three-dimensional objects affixed to the surface
of a reflective metallic ground (in this case stainless steel) and silk-screened
versions of a similar object. In Ballast, the object is a schematic cube consisting of
the cube’s frame and four internal supports. Like the chair, the cube has very
strong spatial associations, and both, in fact, are reprises of chairs and schematic
boxes from earlier works. The actual cube attached to the surface of Ballast is
repeated as a motif in the illusionistic drawing of a square, hollow brick box
reminiscent of a section of chimney, providing a counterpoint to the actual shape
occupied by the cube in the shallow, depicted space of the illusionistic box. A
further variation of hollow boxes occupies the center of the work in the silkscreened photograph of an open food cart with a pitched canopy on top. All
three are either depicted in white or painted white, chromatically unifying them.
Unlike Big D Ellipse, Rauschenberg did not complicate the spatial relations in
Ballast by making the cubes appear readable in multiple orientations. Both
depicted box forms can only be perceived in one way, refusing shallow spatial
inversions. Nonetheless, the play between the real and the represented echoes
the confusion between figure and ground that arises with a mirrorized support.
As the viewer stands in front of the work, her own reflection destroys the
readability of the silk-screens which rely on the surface’s neutrality and stasis for
their visual effectiveness. Thus, the ground of the image undermines the figure
when it is viewed, and, paradoxically, the viewer is encouraged to abandon her
optimal vantage point directly in front of the work in order to better see the
images from a position out of the area reflected in the support. Of course, such
evasions do little to remedy the situation in most cases, simply because other
works in an exhibition or other objects in the same room will invariably enter the
work through their reflections.
Rauschenberg employed similar figure/ground reversals as those noted in
Big D Ellipse when he silk-screened images of sculpture onto reflective grounds
in Favor-Rites from the Urban Bourbon series. (Fig. 22) Made up of two
aluminum panels, one mirrored, one enameled, this work is comprised solely of
silk-screened images. As in his other works from this period, the juxtaposition of
differing vantage points and varying scales destroys any sense of a unified and
coherent painted space. Just as he did in the silk-screens on canvas,
Rauschenberg uses the support to reverse figure/ground relationships.
However, the reflective surfaces complicate the space without needing a
substitute like the heavily applied white paint of the silk-screens. The reflective
surfaces Rauschenberg uses in the eighties reacts with the applied paint in ways
distinctly different from the way paint would appear on a canvas. For example,
on a canvas, passages of unpainted ground tend to assert the literal surface
flatness of the support, while the painted area (in illusionistic paintings) tends to
recede into pictorial depth. When Rauschenberg paints on mirrored aluminum,
on the other hand, the mirror reflects the flat application of paint, highlighting its
opacity and materiality. In contrast to the unpainted area in the center, the paint
clings to the surface or even appears to move forward from the surface.
Meanwhile, the unpainted area recedes into reflected depth. This effect is further
underscored by the emphatic spiraling movement of the raptus group at the left,
which asserts a powerful physical presence. The painted figures’ presence is
juxtaposed to the adjacent reflection of the viewer’s body in the center. That
unpainted area provides the most emphatic recession into depth in the work, as
the reflection of the gallery floor rising to meet the wall near the center of the
composition pulls the space backward. Unlike silk-screens on canvas, the flat
surface of the support is not apparent when that support is reflective, except
where Rauschenberg’s thick strokes of paint are reflected on the surface, drawing
the viewer’s eye back to the surface. Moreover, the presence of the blue grid of a
barred window silk-screened over the place where the two panels meet would
also emphasize the flat surface of the support, except for the slight angle and
bend in the grid. Both of these passages introduce a shallow depth into the
composition. The viewer is drawn into the unpainted space by virtue of her
reflection. Rauschenberg even included the word “personal” across the top of
the bus, perhaps to suggest the personal, even corporal, involvement of the
viewer in the painting. As the painted space by turns recedes, advances and
flattens, the relationship of the viewer to all of these images fluctuates in much
the same way one must change vantage points to view Rauschenberg’s work.
And yet, as the viewer moves in front of the work, she effects changes on the
surface, rendering the unpainted ground figural as well. Through these
strategies, Rauschenberg ensured that the gap between art and life, or more
pointedly between the art object and the viewing subject, is bridged.
2.4 Reflection and Viewer Interaction
The three series on reflective supports from the eighties have another precedent
in Rauschenberg’s career from the late sixties. After Rauschenberg won the
grand prize at the Venice Biennale in 1964, he destroyed the collection of silkscreens that had gone into the works he exhibited there and began concentrating
on the possibilities that technology offered him for bridging the gap between art
and life. Like the works on reflective materials from the 1980s, his technological
works strove to acknowledge and involve their viewer, thus aligning them with
the work of Minimalists like Morris, which dominated the discourse of art at that
time. The technological works were also predominantly constructed of reflective
materials, which encouraged self-contemplation during the viewing experience.
The technological works, however, made the viewer’s active involvement
necessary to viewing. For example, three works from 1968, Soundings, Solstice,
and Revolver, all require some action from the viewer to activate them.68
Soundings (Fig.23) consists of one long partially mirrorized panel, eight
feet high and 36 feet long, behind which 18 panels of Plexiglas are arranged in
two rows.69 The two rows of Plexiglas are silk-screened with images of common
chairs shown from multiple vantage points. These panels are arranged in a
darkened room with a sound-activated spotlighting system designed to respond
to the level and pitch of noise inside the room. When visitors enter the space, the
entire room is dark, allowing the mirrorized panel to reflect the visitors’ ghostly
presence. As the noise level rises and falls different lights go on and off,
revealing the various images of chairs, which appear to tumble through space as
the lights change.
At 120 inches high and 192 inches long and wide, the cubic construction of
Solstice‘s (Fig. 24) mimics the Minimalist cube, so prevalent at the time.
However, rather than having an alienating effect by excluding the viewer and
creating obstacles in the gallery, Solstice attempts to eliminate completely the gap
between art work and viewer. Consisting of five automatic doors mounted
parallel to each other on a low platform lit from below, the work beckons its
viewer to enter into it, activating each door. As the automatic doors open and
close, the images silk-screened on each door are recombined as each layer adds
and removes images in a fluctuating composition that depends upon the
movement of the gallery visitor through its interior. Just as Soundings is best
viewed with a large audience that could produce the broadest variety of lighting
combinations, Solstice is almost entirely dependent upon more than one viewer
because its viewer and participant cannot be synonymous. To witness the
shuffling of images that occurs with the participant’s passage through the work,
the viewer must remain outside the work for the best vantage point. For the
participant, the layers of images become less dense as each successive layer is left
behind. Without a cooperative effort, the viewer’s experience of the work is
The third work from 1968, Revolver (Fig. 25), also employs multiple
movable panels of silk-screened Plexiglas. However, this work is viewed on a
more intimate scale. Only 78 inches high by 77 inches wide and relying on the
ambient lighting of the gallery, the work is technologically less complex, while it
allows for an even greater variety of image reconfigurations than either
Soundings or Solstice. The four panels of circular Plexiglas are mounted one
before another on a base that rotates them vertically as the viewer stands a few
feet away at a console controlling the direction of rotation for each panel. As a
result, the viewer has a greater effect on the work, because she can adjust the
panels at will to display any number of image combinations.
Finally, Rauschenberg produced Carnal Clocks, a late technological work
dating to 1969, consisting of fifteen large-scale clocks with silk-screened Plexiglas
faces. (Fig. 26) Like Revolver, Carnal Clocks is more intimate than Soundings or
Solstice, although the degree of intimacy has more to do with the images chosen
rather than the scale or operation of the work. Reflection plays an important role
in Rauschenberg’s technological works, not only because it provides a surface
which is continually in flux and reflects the viewer, but also because it reflects
the prevalent theme of collaboration.71 While this work does not respond to the
viewer, its face is reflective, and its appearance does fluctuate over time. The
clock mechanisms installed in the works activate different combinations of lights
based on the time, most often leaving the majority of the faces of the clocks dark
and semi-reflective. It is the subject matter that makes them the most infamous
and least discussed works. Closely cropped and enlarged photographs of the
artist’s friends’ genitals interspersed with suggestive photographs of bull’s eyes,
turtles, tulips and Janus-headed stand-pipes are only visible in glimpses through
most of the day; twice a day, at noon and midnight, they are illuminated fully.
To a certain extent, the work functions like a technological peep show. The
clocks’ near invisibility in the literature on Rauschenberg is directly related to the
embarrassment experienced by the viewer, who not only witnesses these very
personal exposures, but also sees herself looking in the reflection on the surface
of the clocks. Indeed, the clocks were made in an effort to use embarrassment as
a medium.72 One would imagine that photographing a friend’s body at such
close range would involve a certain amount of embarrassment for both parties,
regardless of the evident willingness to collaborate on the project. Nonetheless,
it is this spirit of collaboration that produces the works, just as the viewer’s
collaboration is necessitated by the other technological works. It is important to
note that the same spirit of collaboration can be found earlier in Rauschenberg’s
career, not only in his many performance collaborations with John Cage and
Merce Cunningham, but also in a particularly important interpretation of the
White Paintings of 1951.
2.5 The White Paintings as Empty Mirrors
When the White Paintings (Fig. 29) were first exhibited at the Stable Gallery in
1953, critical reaction was decidedly negative. The exhibition was
Rauschenberg’s second show in New York. The first show in 1951 was at the
Betty Parsons Gallery, following a show by one of her better-known artists at the
time, the Abstract Expressionist, Barnett Newman. Rauschenberg’s 1951 show
attracted the attention of John Cage, an experimental composer who visited the
exhibition. After their first meeting, when Rauschenberg gave Cage a collage
from the show which the composer requested, Rauschenberg found a strong ally
in Cage and each had a profound impact on the other. The series of White
Paintings, usually multi-paneled works painted in white house paint with a
roller on canvas, was begun in the summer of 1951, after Rauschenberg’s first
exhibition. It seems likely that they were inspired by Newman’s zip paintings,
which Rauschenberg would have seen at the Betty Parsons Gallery. In her essay
on Rauschenberg’s early work, Roni Feinstein quotes Rauschenberg’s letter to
Betty Parsons from October 1951 in which he describes his paintings as follows:
“They are large (1 white as 1 God) canvases organized and
presented with the experience of time and presented with the
innocence of a virgin. Dealing with the suspense, excitement, and
body of an organic silence, the restriction and freedom of absence,
the plastic fullness of nothing, the point a circle begins and ends...It
is completely irrelevant that I am making them--Today is their
By the summer of 1952, the paintings took on a new significance when they
inspired Cage to write 4’33”.74 The composition consisted of three movements
of silence, lasting four minutes and thirty-three seconds. For the duration of the
work, the pianist, David Tudor, sat at a piano, decidedly not playing it. Cage
had indicated that he had wanted to compose silence. Evidently, his encounter
with the White Paintings encouraged him to do so. Suddenly the paintings were
no longer referring to God, instead Rauschenberg said they were
“...hypersensitive...So that one could look at them and almost see how many
people were in the room by the shadows cast, or what time of day it was.”75
Considering Rauschenberg’s earlier statement that they embodied the “plastic
fullness of nothing,” his new claims about their ability to reflect the mundane
details of their exhibition might seem a far cry from the poetic absence he first
imagined. However, his final statement where he claims that “Today is their
creator” leaves the possibility open that the works are more than simply
Rauschenberg’s intention. Cage echoed Rauschenberg’s later interpretation of
the works as a blank slate on which atmospheric effects were condensed when he
described them as “airports for lights, shadows, and particles,”76 and it seems
likely that Cage’s response to these paintings deeply influenced Rauschenberg’s
own interpretation of them. Thus, an interpretive collaboration between the two
revealed one of the directions Rauschenberg’s art would follow.
The works visual similarity with Newman’s broad fields of evenly applied
color and the White Painting’s flat white color has everything to do with
Rauschenberg’s early influences between 1948 and 1951. During his first visit to
Black Mountain College, he heard Josef Albers’ lectures on color and on
materials, which had a lasting impact on Rauschenberg.77 Rauschenberg also
frequented the Cedar Bar to listen to the Abstract Expressionists debate about
painting as well, believing before his first exhibition at the Betty Parsons Gallery
that his work related to theirs.78 The jump then to Cage’s and Rauschenberg’s
later interpretation of the works may seem a larger one than it really was. As
Dorothy Gees Seckler suggested as early as 1966, Rauschenberg’s use of white
and his awareness of the viewer before that work may have found its roots in
Albers’ lectures on color and its perceptual effect on the viewer.79 The
relationship between Rauschenberg’s statements may best be understood in light
of a third statement, cited fairly frequently, in which he announces his
commitment to work in the gap between art and life. By relinquishing his own
authority and playing up the viewer’s role in perceiving the works,
Rauschenberg paves the way for his works to bridge the perceived gap between
his art and its viewer.
Moreover, Rauschenberg’s two statements about the White Paintings
merely define the edges of the area in which he intends to work, an area
somewhere between divinely inspired art and an aesthetic of the random and
prosaic. Such a perspective also explains how it is that Rauschenberg’s work can
be described by different critics as entirely given over to a Duchampian irony or
to heavy-handed symbolism. Such a divided, contradictory character is possible
within the perceptual emptiness of the whitewashed canvases that make up
Rauschenberg’s White Paintings. By draining the canvases of all associations of
shape and color, even texture, Rauschenberg creates a surface that not only
collects lights and shadows from its environment, but one able to reflect the
movement, and even the interests, of those before it. That is, if one wants to see
these paintings as belonging to the mystical project of the Abstract
Expressionists, continuing a tradition of aesthetic transcendence, then
Rauschenberg’s first statements about the paintings in their purity and divinity
are probably most accurate. But if one wants to imagine the paintings as wiping
that slate clean to begin anew, without the emotional, psychological baggage of
Abstract Expressionism, then a reading inspired by Cage that foregrounds the
work’s emptiness and mutability certainly makes more sense. In their ability to
inspire both interpretations, the White Paintings function like an empty mirror,
reflecting the interests of the viewer, as well as her shadow. It should be clear
that Cage’s reading of the White Paintings as empty and reflective has had
sustained importance throughout Rauschenberg’s career—an importance which
is all the more pointed because the White Paintings inspired the viewer to
collaborate on the work’s meaning, and Cage’s particular collaboration on this
project was embraced entirely by Rauschenberg.
The White Paintings also foreshadow Rauschenberg’s own fascination with
the white canvas and its duplication within his combine and silk-screen
compositions. Seen in light of the later silk-screens on reflective surfaces, the
white surfaces of the White Paintings assert their reflectivity and opacity over the
transparency canvas takes on when combined with color. There is an important
corollary to Rauschenberg’s perceptually opaque and reflective surfaces in the
writings of the French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty. MerleauPonty’s writing on visual perception and art asserts that vision begins with
opacity, and, consequently, the self-knowledge that comes through that vision
before a mirror begins also with opacity. “It is not a self through transparence,
like thought… It is a self…, that is caught up in things, that has a front and a
back, a past and a future.”80
In his late essay, Eye and Mind (1961), Merleau-Ponty asserts that all vision
is essentially seeing at a distance.81 That is, we automatically envision a void of
empty space between us and the object we contemplate. But, as has been
discussed in the introduction, Merleau-Ponty argued that this perception is
wrong. Everything in this world, whether visible or not, shares a single flesh,
which he calls the Flesh of the World.82 A particularly helpful example of what
he means by this Flesh comes from a passage in Eye and Mind where he describes
looking into a full swimming pool and contemplating the tiles on the floor of the
pool. It is through and because of the transparent water, which Merleau-Ponty
would call the Flesh of the World, that we see what lies behind it. Thus, like the
pool full of water, empty space is actually full, despite the fact that we can see
through it.
As a result, for Merleau-Ponty, the question of absolute space, that is,
space beyond one particular perspective, and its relation to painterly depictions
of depth is central to the act of painting, particularly modern painting. As he
points out, Paul Cézanne and Robert Delaunay both sought some way of
representing depth in painting, despite the fact that Renaissance one-point
perspective offered what seemed to some to be the perfect solution.83 Instead,
what interests these painters, and Merleau-Ponty, is the way that each object we
see, even when one partially occludes another, we know to be autonomous, and
that despite the fact that they may appear to be layered into a single space, we
know them to exist in two separate spaces, one further away than the other.
According to Merleau-Ponty, both spatial interpretations are possible
simultaneously because depth is the first and only dimension that contains
height and width.
Depth thus understood is...the experience of the reversibility of
dimensions, of a global ‘locality’...from which height, width and
depth are abstracted, of a voluminosity we express in a word when
we say that a thing is there.84
If we extend this description of a painterly project in search of depth to an
interpretation of Rauschenberg’s work, the layering of the silkscreen images
from 1962-1964 suddenly come to view as conceptually continuous with the
combine paintings’ emphatic three-dimensionality. In this continuum, the
technological works, which followed the destruction of the silk-screens, stretch
Rauschenberg’s exploration of depth into a series of orchestrations of room-sized
environments. Moreover, the works from the late eighties employing both the
silkscreen and combine techniques make Rauschenberg’s interest in a lived
depth more explicit. By employing reflected, illusionistic and actual depth
together, Rauschenberg forces the viewer to analyze her perceptions and test
them with her fluid experience of the work. Thus, the absolute space of the
viewer’s experience is made continuous with painterly space. This spatial
continuity undermines the perception of a gap between Rauschenberg’s art and
his viewer; or, as the artist would say, it works in the gap between art and life,
connecting the two.
In both Rauschenberg’s oeuvre and Merleau-Ponty’s writing, the mirror
functions centrally within perception. According to Merleau-Ponty, the mirror is
a prerequisite for vision.
The mirror image anticipates, within things, the labor of vision...the
mirror arises upon the open circuit [that goes] from seeing body to
visible body...The mirror itself is the instrument of universal magic
that changes things into a spectacle and spectacles into things,
myself into another, and another into myself.85
This passage, written in 1961, could be a description of the viewer’s experience in
front of Big D Ellipse were it not for the fact that it predates the painting by nearly
30 years. The mirrored aluminum in this work both causes and condenses the
perceptual ambiguities Rauschenberg returns to time after time. One can
imagine the perceived distance between the viewer and the art work—a distance
that is at one and the same time reified by the actual chairs affixed to its surface
and undermined, in this case, by the viewer’s reflection in the mirrored panel (by
a literal “drawing in” of the spectator)—as analogous to the perceived dichotomy
between art and life in a more general sense. It becomes clear that one way
Rauschenberg attempted to work within this dichotomy, or “gap” as he puts it, is
through the use of mirrors and reflective surfaces. Seen in this light,
Rauschenberg’s choice of Rubens’ Venus at Her Toilette and Velazquez’s Rokeby
Venus is even more pointed. Both images recall the western painterly tradition
that reached a pinnacle in the works of the Baroque artists represented here. At
the same time, these icons of this tradition cavort with media images of life in the
United States in the 1960s, highlighting spatial and temporal tensions within the
collages. The substantive juxtaposition of “high” art and kitsch is paralleled in
the formal pairing of the illusionistic representations of depth with the modern
valorization of surface-clinging brushstrokes. As an extension of these tensions,
the depicted mirror calls to mind its function to represent depth ironically by
virtue of its flat, monochromatically applied silvering. In the silk-screens, the
painted mirror thwarts the transparent passage of vision by reflecting, or
bending back, Venus’ gaze to the viewer. By contrast, the single image of
transparency in this series occurs in the image of an average drinking glass, filled
with water. While the mirror analogy is represented repeatedly (even presented
out of the context of its original composition), but always with the reflection
intact, the window is transferred to an image of roundness, fullness, and
reflectivity, again replacing the expected passage of vision through a surface,
which necessarily disappears in the process, with a transparency that fills out
and blocks that passage. While Rauschenberg rejects the vertical and transparent
window that structured art since the Renaissance, it is not in favor of a hard,
horizontal picture plane. Instead, Rauschenberg’s surfaces collect the imagery of
culture, as Steinberg argued, doing so typically on a shifting, supple ground, one
which itself reflects the flux of that culture.
In this sense, the silk-screens on reflective surfaces, employed in the
technological works of the late sixties and again in the eighties, are quite distinct
from the collages, which Rosalind Krauss suggests place them into the
simultaneity of past time, by their very materialization, as she puts it.86 Though
the silk-screened images may in fact act as delays (i.e., they are part of a present
that is now past; they have been fixed onto a surface), their placement on a
reflective surface sets them into a space continually in flux, changing with the
presence of a viewer. The images are thus fixed in the continuous present of the
world that faces them, even if only acting as reminders of some past action or
desire. Their relationship to the present will continue to change, not only
reflecting but also necessarily exerting effects on that present. The temporality in
the varying perspectives of the silk-screens and the constant tensions of their
surface has been extended in the reflective surfaces to include the space/time of
the viewer in the much the same way the White Paintings did. In the same
manner that the organizing structure of the mirror provided a space in which to
make the past and the future present, Rauschenberg’s reflective works provide a
space in which to reassess his silk-screens of 1962-1964 and to notice his
continuous attempt to explore depth as an integral element in the simultaneous
attachment of and estrangement between art and life.
2.6 Mirrors and Language
While Rauschenberg has not produced a large body of writing, what he has
produced has been very illuminating, despite its frequently contradictory nature.
As was the case with his own contradictory interpretations of the White Paintings,
Rauschenberg frequently posits different possibilities and then leaves the final
decision up to the viewer, whose responsibility it is to collaborate on the ultimate
meaning gleaned from the work. The works themselves beg to be read.87 Not
only does his use of diverse images invite interpretations to explain their
appearance in one work, but his compositional technique of layering images and
painting over them functions in a manner akin to language. That is, the stringing
together of seemingly arbitrary images echoes the way that language links
together arbitrary marks to create words. These words then refer to something
outside themselves, just as the silk-screened images appear to function as
symbols in some larger allegory.88
In her essay “Perpetual Inventory,” Rosalind Krauss addresses both the
prominence of reflection in Rauschenberg’s works as well as the stimulus to
“read” these works as if they were intended as a veiled message.89 Using Random
Order as a manifesto of sorts, Krauss illustrates how Rauschenberg combines the
index—that is the physical trace of an external appearance as it is marked by the
photographic process or as a reflection in a mirror—and the symbol—the
associations which, she claims, well up from within the viewer. Indexical images
abound in Rauschenberg’s work not only through the photographic process of
silk-screening and light-sensitive paper, but also in the reflections which register
the presence of the viewer. The mark of the silk-screening ink on the canvas and
the silhouette of the nude who once lay on the light-sensitive paper for Female
Figure (fig. 30) all bear the indexical trace of their absent referents. Moreover,
Rauschenberg’s compositional strategy of combining these indexes and his
seemingly expressive brushwork invite the symbolic response in the viewer. In
this way, Rauschenberg’s work layers the exterior and the interior of vision and
interpretation in a way more analogous to allegory than iconography, a strategy
that disguises deeper meaning through predominantly textual references. Thus
for Krauss, the interpretation of Rauschenberg’s work happens between the art
work and the viewer and only involves external references, including textual
ones, if the viewer brings them to the experience, implying a collaborative effort
from the beginning.
The index, that is the physical mark left on a sensitive surface, shares
much with the strategy of reflection as well. Activating the surface so that the
images continue to affect each other as well as the viewer, the works on reflective
surfaces extend their interpretive space into the space of the viewer. It is a
distinctive feature of Rauschenberg’s statements about his work that he resists
definitive interpretation. Instead, he prefers to redirect the question back to the
viewer, just as a mirror redirects the viewer’s gaze back to its origin. 90 By
extension, the process of finding meaning in the work should be understood in
terms similar to those used for the technological pieces, that is as viewerdependent or even collaborative. In this way, the critics and historians of
Rauschenberg’s work become collaborators as well. Like the viewer who recombines images in the layered disks of Revolver or the participant who literally
calls up different layers of imagery in Soundings, Rauschenberg’s critics respond
to and effect changes upon his work when they write about it.91 The reflective
quality of all of these works not only unfixes their surfaces and thus the
meanings of the images, but it also visually implicates the viewer in that
interpretation through her reflection. Arguably, Rauschenberg himself
participates in the unfixing of his own surfaces. Rauschenberg’s later reflective
combines reinterpret the collages in the same manner in which his conflicting
statements about the White Paintings reinterpret that series. Moreover, his
sometimes contradictory statements often function in the same reflective way
that the mirrored combines and the White Paintings do. His statements about the
White Paintings are instructive here. The earlier statement in which he claims
they are “white as...God,” embodying the “plastic fullness of nothing,” is
intended to position these works in view of Newman’s exhibition in the same
space. When Rauschenberg changes this emphasis in light of Cage’s response to
the same paintings, he reveals for the first time his commitment to leaving the
interpretation of his work up to his audience. More recently, he simply answers
questions about meaning and intention by referring the viewer back to her own
While Rauschenberg has eschewed the textual for the visual in his work,
his writing about his work shares two characteristics with the art work discussed
here: the compositional inversions so central to his silk-screens and the
reflectivity of many of his supports. This is evident in his two statements about
the White Paintings, discussed above. The earlier statement about the series’
transcendent qualities firmly connects them to the Abstract Expressionist project.
That is, it establishes their association with the dominant trends in art in the early
1950s. But his later statements about the work’s reflective qualities foregrounds
their position on the side of life in the art and life dichotomy, while it reflects
Cage’s interpretation of the paintings. Thus, not only do the two statements
contradict each other, but they also play up different emphases, one that is
indistinguishable from the art historical precedents that it cites and another that
claims to favor all that falls outside art. With his use of reflection, in addition to
the non-linear, pictorial syntax of collage, Rauschenberg visually achieves his
goal to work within the gap between art and life by posing oppositions and
comparisons that are fluid, moving between the two seemingly opposed realms
through the collaborative agency of the viewer.
In the same way that reflection offered Robert Rauschenberg a way of
responding to Abstract Expressionism with his own abstract, monochromatic
paintings in 1951, while simultaneously working in the gap between art and life,
it also provided a unique opportunity for Richter to respond to the current
discourse surrounding painting. Working in West Germany from 1961 on,
Richter was responding to a somewhat different context. On a fundamental
level, the terms of the argument had changed drastically. This was reflected in
the fact that, in the 1960s, the question was not what or how to paint; it was
whether to paint at all. After his emigration, Richter found himself in the midst
of a major shift away from painting in the wake of Minimalism, whose
practitioners declared painting dead. In the face of such statements, Richter's
decision to paint was perhaps avant-garde in itself, however his themes
increasingly underscored their deep roots in the history of modern painting and
in the longer history of German painting. These themes became evident in the
years following Richter's visit to a Duchamp exhibit in 1965. Scholars generally agree that Richter's exposure to Duchamp at this point
caused an important shift in his work that was most immediately visible in his
change in subject matter.93 Up until that point, Richter had painted figuratively,
copying photographs and describing his work as a German form of Pop.94 Shortly after visiting the Duchamp exhibition, however, Richter introduced
abstract themes into his painting and, notably for this study, began producing
works made of glass, materializing the analogy between painting and a window
or mirror. Since 1965, Richter has covered the gamut of painterly subjects and
allusions, making photographically based and abstract paintings, as well as
works on glass, sometimes in turn, sometimes simultaneously. The variety of his
work has garnered a good amount of scholarly attention.95 What has not drawn
as much notice, however, is Richter's repeated return to mirrors and other works
on glass. While it may seem obvious to point out the mirror's ability to produce
figuration even while it remains entirely abstract, it is useful to consider this in
light of Richter's movement between abstraction and figuration. He has claimed
that photography allowed him to paint without stylistic choices; similarly, the
play of images across his mirror's surfaces release Richter from compositional
choices at the same time that the images appear as styleless as photography.96 Moreover, the overwhelming majority of the artist's mirrors chromatically mimic
his gray monochromes, suggesting their relation to both the photographic works
and the monochromes. Nonetheless, the mirror's function as a mediation
between abstraction and figuration, while important, is by no means Richter's
only motivation. Instead, a complex knot of art historical references informs each
mirror group, with different motivations taking the fore at different times.
3.1 Glass, Windows and Curtains
The mirrors that Richter began producing in 1981 had their roots in glass
constructions from 1967 and 1977, which implicitly referred to the metaphors
that linked illusionistic painting with windows and mirrors, respectively. Given
Richter’s shifts between abstraction and figuration, these references deserve
some careful attention. In 1966, Richter introduced abstraction into his repertoire
with the first color chart paintings. Not only did these color charts reference the
splayed color samples from Duchamp’s Tu M’, but they also referenced the
modernist grid-like compositions of Mondrian in a rigor and flatness more
typical of Minimalist art. Moreover, their use of “ready-made” color, their
standardized style, and their arbitrary arrangement within the grid recall the
industrially produced and serially organized objects of Donald Judd. Coming
after his paintings copied from found photographs, the color charts signal a
significant shift in Richter’s works away from Pop-inspired subject matter to a
Minimalist sensibility that appears to have been instigated in part by Richter’s
visit to the Duchamp exhibit in Krefield in 1965.
After a year-long preoccupation with color charts, a handful of photopaintings based on pornography and a few quasi-photographic, abstracted
depictions of tubes, corrugated iron and doors—of which the first two groups
strongly resembled Frank Stella’s stripe paintings from the late fifties and early
sixties—Richter produced a single work in glass, entitled Four Panes of Glass
(1967). While the work was not followed up with another in glass for ten years,
judging by the twelve drawings which led up to it and the reappearance of the
motif in a recent exhibition, the work provides a single glimpse into an issue
which held the artist’s attention for more than thirty-five years.97
Richter was pursuing two related interests at the time, both of which
inform this work. First of all, the issue of representation, which implicitly
informed his photo-paintings, figures prominently in Richter’s work of this
period. In addition to the panes of glass, two other series reference the metaphor
that links illusionistic painting and windows. The first dates to 1965, when
Richter painted a short group of Curtain paintings, in addition to his photo-based
paintings.98 Consisting of closely cropped views of presumably curtained
windows, the paintings merely suggest the window the curtains cover,
obstructing the view through it. Even as they suggest an illusionistic view of the
world, they deny that view into deep space, providing in its stead nothing more
than the shallow folds of a cloth hung before it.99 Some of the curtains occupy
the entire composition, creating a nearly abstract image. One of these, #163/1 by
Richter’s own numbering system, was painted right after the Four Panes of Glass.
Other curtains were given a spatial referent across the bottom where a dark band
suggests a floor cast in shadow by the thickness of the curtains. In both cases, the
series blurs the boundaries between representation and abstraction. Moreover,
their referent, a curtain, suggests the obscuring of a view, veiling it behind a
The curtains call to mind a historical account of illusionistic virtuosity that
features at its culmination a common curtain. That account originates in the
Roman historian Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, in which Pliny described the
competition between the two great Greek painters Zeuxis and Parrhasius. As the
story goes, Zeuxis painted a still-life of grapes that was so well executed it even
tricked birds into believing the painted grapes were real. Parrhasius was not to
be out-done, however. When Zeuxis came to examine Parrhasius' effort, he
asked Parrhasius to pull away the curtain that covered the painting only to find
out that the curtain was painted, not real, at which point Zeuxis conceded victory
to Parrhasius. The story implicitly suggests that illusionism is closely associated
with tricking the educated eye into believing something is there that is not. As a
result, it was Zeuxis’ previous knowledge that curtains often covered paintings
that fooled his eye. By painting the series of curtains, Richter altered the stakes
by positioning the curtain between illusionism and abstraction, drawing on the
viewer’s knowledge of both the story and the current trend toward complete
abstraction in painting.
Richter returned to a similar line of thought, coupling the shallow depth
of shadows with references to traditional illusionistic representation in 1968,
when he painted a series of windows set just before a wall onto which their
mullions cast shadows. In this series, Richter employs two compositional devices
to refer to oppositions between figuration and abstraction and surface and
depth.100 By allowing a view through the window, in this case implied by the
mullions, Richter reinforced the association with illusionism. However, the view
provided is not into a deep space but is in fact blocked by the abstraction most
favored by the Minimalists, the monochrome. Thus, the windows reveal a fact
that was hinted at in the nearly abstract curtain series; that is, all figuration is
inherently abstract. It is only the shadows in the window and curtain series that
suggest any figuration. The grid structure of the mullions and the
monochromatic plane retain their references to modern abstract art, echoing the
grid format that dominated the work of such high modernists as Piet Mondrian
and contemporary artists like Agnes Martin and Robert Ryman and the
monochromatic planes of artists like Ryman and Rauschenberg. With regard to
the grids, Rosalind Krauss has suggested that every modernist grid represses a
symbolist window and that this window, and ultimately the grid, emblematize
the desire to freeze the flow of “reality” in art.101 As a result of this cessation,
Krauss suggests, the grid also emblematizes a shift in modernism away from the
idea of development, precisely because it resists aesthetic development and its
interpretive narrative. Thus, Richter’s windows couple the grid and the window
in a way that emphatically denies any sense of development or transcendence by
blocking it all with a monochrome.
In a more narrow sense, the modernist grid could also be seen as the
herald of the death of figuration in painting. While it would be a stretch to
describe a Mondrian composition as mourning that death, it does not seem so
far-fetched as a description for Richter’s gridded windows, which open on to
nothing. There is no space that extends or transcends our limited space before
the painting. These windows reveal nothing more than a monochromatic gray
plane set inches from the surface grid. Where Mondrian’s primary colors and
grids suggest the possibility of creating a endless number of color and line
possibilities by combining the elements provided in a single composition,
Richter’s claustrophobic space yields a monochrome that appears more like the
irreversible muddying of all colors, holding no promise of ever recreating
anything. The curtains seem to offer no hint of visual plenitude either. Where
historically curtains in art provided a view into a private sphere because they
were pulled back to reveal this view, Richter’s curtains appear immovable. Their
folds hang down heavily and regularly to the floor. His use of extreme cropping
also discourages the hope that they conceal anything that might satisfy the eye.
In tone, Richter’s windows differ drastically from Mondrian’s compositions. As
Krauss noted, the avant-garde promise of originality and groundbreaking
advancements was only a myth. That fact is evident when one considers that
once Mondrian began his compositions, his work ceased to evolve at anything
near the pace it had up until that point. Instead, each painting merely presented
altered compositional details, while his basic style remained the same for the
next twenty years. Within this context, the larger question regarding Richter’s
shifts between abstraction and figuration makes sense as part of a modernism
that recognized the myth of its own originality, to borrow a phrasing from
Krauss. That is, by accepting the breadth of motifs and stylistic choices available
to the artist, Richter acknowledges the false sense of historical necessity that
drove both Abstract Expressionism and even early Minimalism. Moreover, by
withholding the visual transcendence associated with windows, Richter
acknowledges the false promise of historical progression, forcing the eye to
remain in the time and space of visual perception in much the same way a mirror
Seen in this light, the Four Panes of Glass provides a perfect transition
between abstraction and figuration. Structurally, they participate in the pivot
between the unified tableau inspired by Aristotle, with its single space in which a
cohesive narrative unfolds, and the anti-historical, anti-narrative abstract plane.
The conceptual pivot between these two modes of artistic endeavor materializes
in the spatial pivot that Richter built into the work. All four panes of glass are
mounted on freestanding iron frames and are attached on a horizontal hinge,
which allows the viewer to pivot the glass panes up and down. Depending upon
the lighting and the orientation of the glass panes to the viewer, the glass can
appear either transparent or reflective, allowing for their association with both
windows and mirrors in turn.
Because Richter claimed to have based his paintings on photography in
order to tackle the problem of what to paint—a particularly thorny problem
when many were declaring the medium dead—as opposed to using photographs
to reach a higher degree of illusionism, his choice to represent the metaphors and
metonyms of painting in the form of windows and curtains seems calculated to
explore the illusionistic possibilities still available to painting.102 But in their
actual appearance, these windows and curtains all present themselves as twodimensional hindrances to the unmediated experience of the world that they
would seem to promise. The Four Panes of Glass, like the windows and curtains,
consciously relies upon these invocations of the window at the same time that
Richter’s deployment of the glass undermines certain aspects of its association
with a window. That is, when the Four Panes of Glass are turned parallel to the
viewer’s gaze, they present themselves as tableau in an endless process of
becoming, as Rainer Rochlitz suggests when he describes them as empty.103
However, when the panes are turned upward, they begin to reflect the light, thus
evoking their association with the reflectivity of mirrors. The light obscures the
illusion of a “tableau” behind the glass and renders its surface more nearly
abstract. That is, by virtue of the small detail of their hinges, these panes present
the possibility of both a narrative tableau and an abstract plane.
The second interest, and perhaps the most obvious painterly influence for
Four Panes of Glass, is the work of Marcel Duchamp, in particular the work on
glass, The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) (fig. 44).104
Richter’s knowledge of this work can be traced to the Duchamp exhibition in
Krefeld in 1965 that included a photograph of it.105 When questioned in 1991
about the relationship between the two works, Richter stated,
I knew Duchamp’s work, and there certainly was an influence. It
may partly have been an unconscious antagonism...I think
something in Duchamp didn’t suit me—all that mysterymongering—and that’s why I painted those simple glass panes and
showed the whole windowpane problem in a completely different
It is clear that both the associations with the windowpane (and by extension the
drawings and paintings of windows with their mullions) and with Duchamp are
at work in the Four Panes of Glass. The most obvious difference between them is
the absence of collaged materials in Richter’s glass. In terms of its production,
Richter’s glass is more comparable to Duchamp’s ready-mades, which were
industrially produced rather than handcrafted. For Duchamp, the ready-mades’
categorization as art was bestowed by the artist verbally when he declared them
art and not by the touch of his hand.107 Richter, on the other hand, claimed to
have abandoned choice in his photo-painting technique, evidently to avoid
personal taste by painting found and banal photographs. It is Richter’s hand that
makes them painting, not his assertion. In light of this, Richter’s decision to
present glass panes that were fabricated for him, according to his instructions,
appears to be a complete renunciation of his methods and a sudden embrace of
Duchamp’s ready-made technique. Nonetheless, Duchamp’s influence is evident
even earlier, haunting Richter’s shift from photo-based paintings to abstraction.
In 1966, the last photo-painting Richter produced before he began the first
color charts was a work titled Ema (Nude and Staircase). (Fig. 43) It revisits the
theme of an earlier work based on a photograph in a fashion magazine from 1965
titled Woman Descending the Staircase (fig. 44). Together, they unmistakably refer
to Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, a work which depicts the progression
of a nude down a staircase in successive moments, interpreting Cubism as a style
devoted to depicting movement in time (fig. 45). In both of Richter’s paintings,
the action had already been frozen by the photograph on which the painting was
based. As a result, the suggestion of the woman’s movement is only implied in
Richter’s versions. The actual movement registered by the blur suggests the
accidental movement of the photographer’s hand, not the movement of the
women down the stairs, despite the fact that the blur does not exist in the
original photographs. The movement, therefore, is grafted onto the surface of
the paintings in the space/time of the process of copying the photograph.
Richter, thus, fixed the flow of reality, just as Krauss argues the modernist grid
does, in a controlled and contrived movement born in the space of the artist’s
studio. And the movement emphasizes the hand of the artist rather than the life
of the subject.
Michael Edward Shapiro has suggested that Ema (Nude on a Staircase),
exhausted the possibilities of the photo-paintings.108 It is worth noting that the
work is based on a photograph of Richter’s first wife on a staircase in his studio.
Richter certainly employs photographs that are personal to him, but at this point
in his career they were few and far between.109 The most notable at this early
date was Uncle Rudi (1965), which was painted from a photograph of Richter’s
uncle in his Nazi uniform taken a few months before he died in combat (fig. 46).
The main difference between Ema and Uncle Rudi is the huge disparity in their
temporal immediacy. By 1965, Richter’s uncle had been long dead. Because he
died when Richter was only a boy, Richter’s memories of the man were more
than likely rather distant. Moreover, the political implications of the Nazi
uniform were removed at two degrees from Richter’s immediate situation. By
this point, Richter had lived through the end of National Socialism with the
Nazi’s defeat in World War II and had escaped Communism in East Germany
with his flight to the West in 1961.110 The photograph of his nude wife in the
private space of his studio, however, would have certainly carried more
immediate personal associations with it and as such hints at the increasingly
introspective mood of 1966 and 1967.
Indeed, even the window paintings hint at such a mood. Their illusion of
shallow space defined by the shadows of the mullions suggest a space that is
analogous to the apparatus Richter employed when painting some of his
photopaintings. Positioned with a projector behind him and the photograph
projected onto the canvas, Richter occupied a shallow area between the original
image and his reproduction of it. Additionally, Richter’s studio practice imbues
the finished work with a new depth, that is the depth of the projection. It is
through the limited space between projector and wall that the shadows of the
original fill out around the artist.111 Thus, just as Richter’s main discovery is
that all representation is an abstraction, the related thought that all painted
representations of space are always flat also holds true within these works.112
Because Richter followed up the portrait of his wife with Ten Colors, his
first foray into abstraction, it seems likely that he employed them as ready-made
abstractions, in a conceptual continuation of the choice of photographs as readymade figurative motifs and as a sort of homage to Duchamp. The short series of
photo-paintings based on pornography which follows the color charts, however,
suggests also that the color charts, with their close association with artists and art
supplies, were merely another personal motif which Richter exposed much the
way he exposed his wife in Ema, his complex Duchampian sympathies in his two
versions of Nude Descending a Staircase and even his family skeletons with Uncle
Rudi. Moreover, Richter’s interest in color at this point could be seen as the
exposure of a repressed chromatic desire among the mostly gray photopaintings, which occupied him to that point.
The works Richter produced between 1965 and 1968 set the stage for
Richter’s later works on glass. Just as the curtains and windows evoke the
metonyms and metaphors of painting, the later glass and mirror works all
meditate on the history of painting, as well as reveal more personal concerns,
sometimes with both professional and personal references tinged with a thematic
of mourning. For example, Richter took up the motif of free-standing glass
panels again in 1977 in three consecutive works, two titled Pane of Glass (415/1
and 415/2) and one titled Double Pane of Glass (416). (Fig. 47 and 48) Unlike the
earlier Four Panes of Glass, these three works were painted gray on one side,
rendering the panes of glass even more reflective than before and not at all
transparent. These works were preceded by a short series of landscapes devoted
to Mount Vesuvius (404-410) and a series of cloud paintings (411-414). Shortly
after the painted glass works, Richter painted a single flower still life (425/3) and
two portraits of his daughter Betty (425/4 and 425/5). (This is the first time since
the photo-paintings of Ema and Uncle Rudi that Richter returns to undeniably
personal subject matter to paint photographs of family members.) There is a
melancholic mood that pervades these works devoted to the volcano, which
entombed a Roman town, and the very personal images of the artist’s daughter.
In fact, the second portrait of Betty (425/5) closely resembles in format and
blurring treatment a later self-portrait from 1996 (836/1). (Fig. 49 and 50) In
both cases, the blurring suggests an evasion right at the point when some
presumably telling detail of the sitter’s personality should be revealed. The
blurred quality of the photopaintings from this period is matched in the graypainted glass which returns the viewer’s reflection in a chromatic haze
reminiscent of his black and white photopaintings of the sixties. Like the
portraits, the mirror works produced at this time withhold definition, imbuing
the reflection with a sense of melancholic loss, which had everything to do with
the modern conviction of the impossibility of figuration and portraiture in
3.2 The Silvered Mirrors of 1981
In 1981, Richter employed glass again with emphatically reflective properties
when he commissioned four silvered, industrially produced mirrors. The first
two (470/1 and 470/2) were fairly large in scale, both measuring 225 x 318 cm.
(Fig. 51) The second group (485/1 and 485/2) was somewhat more intimately
scaled, measuring 100 x 100 cm each. (Fig. 52) These two groups were produced
while Richter was engaged in a sustained project of abstraction, interrupted only
by a handful of mountain landscapes and these mirrors. Not long after the
mirror series, however, Richter turned to a new motif, the memento-mori,
concentrating first on a series of candles in 1982 and then adding skulls to the
still lifes in 1983. (Fig. 53 and 54) Robert Storr has suggested that Richter’s
preoccupation with the motif could have been prompted by the artist’s 50th
birthday, which would suggest that the photo-paintings, and perhaps the mirrors
too, had a highly personal resonance for the artist. But Storr also notes the
similarity between the skulls and an early drawing by Richter that seems almost
undeniably a reworking of some of Picasso’s skulls, adding a professional
dimension to Richter’s motivations.113
The candle and skull, as well as the mirror, were all fairly common motifs
in the traditional genre of the memento mori or vanitas painting. Typically
consisting of a painted still-life, these works were meant to remind the viewer of
the transience of the physical world. All living creatures will be extinguished,
just as a candle will, and ultimately reduced to nothing more than a pile of ashes.
The mirror figures within the symbolism of vanitas paintings as a reminder of the
vanity of mere appearances and occasionally acts as the means of warning of our
mortality. Such is the function of the mirror in the Furtenagle portrait discussed
in Chapter One.
As Chapter One also noted, mirrors had a practical function as painter’s
aids, particularly in the painting of a self-portrait, and, in this capacity,
frequently appeared in depictions of the artist’s studio. As a result, they often
carried with them both a general warning about the brevity of life, as well as the
invocation of the private space of art production. Storr’s suggestion then that the
skulls embodied a personal anxiety about the approach of death and a
professional ambition is in tune with the dual aspect of the mirror in Richter’s
work within the early eighties as well, if traditional mirror tropes are any
indication. A passage by the artist from 1983, when the motif of the memento mori
is at its height in his career, is revealing with regard to the increasingly personal
and private nature of these works. Writing about Matisse’s later work, Richter
rails “...most of the paintings are vacuous or positively irritating. They show a
painter engaged in privatizing his work.”114 Richter’s irritation may reveal a
concern about the direction of his own work and its continued relevance.115 It is
worth noting that the memento mori are followed in 1983 with landscapes and
abstractions, both of which could generally be said to have a more universal
appeal and, particularly in terms of the landscapes, suggest a less personal
sphere than the artist’s studio, if only through their photographic referent.
That said, it is important to note that the silver mirrors were not solely
laden with personal concerns. Their reflectivity also rendered their surfaces
emphatically public and universally relevant. Richter’s apparent association
between the mirrors and memento mori and his related attempt to approach his
personal concerns from a more public, universal standpoint, has an interesting
counterpart in the writings of Jacques Lacan, a psychoanalyst whose work was
gaining increasing importance among many artists and art historians at the
time.116 As mentioned in Chapter One, Lacan used the mirror as a means to
describe how the subject finally recognizes herself when she realizes her divided
nature. In his early essay on the mirror stage, Lacan described the mirror
revealing the false nature of the child’s self-perception by delimiting her body
and making her body appear complete outside of herself in a way that the child
does not experience it.117 Thus, the mirror confronts the private imaginary
experience of the child with her public image, encouraging her to fuse those
disconnected experiences into one. This is, of course, what Richter attempted to
do with his memento mori, as he universalized his own private concerns regarding
death in vanitas motifs—a motif with a long history in German and Northern
European painting.118
It is important to note, however, that according to Lacan, the appearance
of these two realms, one private, or imaginary, and one public, and in some
senses real, is structured by a third realm, that of the symbolic. The tensions
between these realms constitute each subject. Within the imaginary realm, the
subject imagines herself whole. The real is the realm that abuts the imaginary
realm, exposing the fallacy of the subject’s sense of completion. With the
realization of this lack of completion and fullness comes a desire for something
outside the subject to complete her—what Lacan refers to as the objet petit a. The
desired thing can take the form of another person or even an object of which
possession seems to ward off feelings of incompletion or even the inevitability of
death. Structuring the real and the imaginary realms, but largely invisible to
both, is the symbolic realm. This is where social structures over which the
subject has no control, such as family relations or language, work entirely
outside the subject, situating her within institutions that transcend her
immediate experience. It is also the realm of the gaze. The gaze, as a structuring
device, is the visibility that envelops the subject and defines her.
When Lacan described the gaze, he tended to rely on examples drawn
from art in order to discuss its power. Situated outside the subject, the gaze does
not originate from the viewer, but instead materializes in inanimate objects, like
paintings. In one example, Lacan discusses the anamorphic skull which cuts
across the bottom of Hans Holbein’s French Ambassadors as functioning like the
gaze. The use of one-point perspective in the double portrait creates a space
visually continuous with the viewers' space. We are meant to identify with the
two figures, positioned next to the possessions of their rank and status. And yet,
the skull painted anamorphically across the bottom of the painting blocks the
viewer's sympathetic entry into the space of the painting and implicates her in
another space before the painting, a space impossible to occupy from the
viewer's privileged position before the painting, but instead set at an angle
dramatically oblique to the painting. This second vantage point has the effect of
disrupting the painting from within, reminding the viewer that she is viewed
and articulated as a subject outside of herself, from a vantage point which she
cannot share. The skull’s invocation of the vanitas motif is important in this
regard as well. For, it is at the moment that the viewer recognizes this other
vantage point that she also becomes acutely aware of her imperfect control over
the situation. When one stands in front of a painting, it is easy to imagine being
one’s own master. However, this alternate view effectively undermines the
viewer’s sense of self-mastery. Just at the moment the viewer acknowledges her
own visual and physical limitations—i.e. she cannot be in two places at once to
view both the portrait and the skull from the prime vantage point—she also has a
hint of her own mortal limitations.
Holbein’s anamorphic skull has stylistic similarities to Richter’s early
work as well as thematic similarities to the vanitas paintings of the eighties. Just
as the skull disrupts the illusionistic space of Holbein’s painting by calling
attention to another vantage point, Richter’s blurring also disrupts the
photographic space of his photopaintings, and his monochromes destroy the
promise of illusionistic space in the windows. Critics such as Gertrud Koch have
recognized the melancholic tone of the blurring technique as well.119 Stylistically,
Richter’s paintings re-cast the fundamental terms of Holbein’s era in a
contemporary warning of the death of “modernist” painting. The historical
necessity of abstraction continues to flirt with illusionistic representation, just as
Krauss suggested. And inversely, photographic illusionism is always in danger
of slipping into abstraction.
In the same way that Richter’s compositional and stylistic obstructions
evoked a general sense of loss, the practical invisibility of Holbein’s anamorphic
skull was crucial to Lacan’s theory of the gaze. Its invisibility to the subject is
what allows the gaze to retain its power over the subject, not because it harbors a
voyeuristic element, but because, once it becomes visible, it enters into the real
and is always susceptible to sliding into the position of the objet petit a, a place
where it no longer articulates the subject in the way it had when it was invisible.
This is not to suggest that the gaze is a fixed position within Lacan’s structure.
The symbolic realm, like the imaginary and the real, is given over to slippage.
Because they are contiguous with one another, the three seep into each other as
well. Within a visual sphere, the realm of the symbolic is that to which the
Subject is compelled, but that which must remain elusive. In an effort to reach
the symbolic, the artist is driven to create pictures that act as a screen for the
gaze, making the gaze visible through a substitution.120 Art can function as a
screen because it functions to capture the gaze in a form that acknowledges the
impossibility of representing the gaze. The skull in the Holbein functions this
way by making the image strange. Its strangeness is affected by its anamorphic
orientation to the rest of the image and to its viewer. That very strangeness
offers the possibility of recognizing an image of that which cannot be
represented. Thus, the gaze is not represented; it is only referred to by the
absence of spatial coherence.
Richter’s silvered mirrors mimic the elusive manifestation of the gaze in
Lacan’s theory. By virtue of their reflectivity, they present an image with which
the viewer is encouraged to identify, ultimately creating a situation akin to the
mirror-stage. While the identification relies on the silvered back of the mirrors,
that material effaces itself in reflectivity. Like the gaze, the tain of the mirror
props up and makes possible the identification between the viewer and her
reflected image. However, it is difficult to see the tain at the same time that one
sees the reflection. Likewise, the gaze can only be revealed in a flash of light, in
much the same way that a glare across Four Panes of Glass disrupts the “tableau”
presented behind each panel in an assertion of the materiality of glass.
The association between the silvered mirror and the gaze calls to mind a
story of visual disruption related by Lacan about his desire to identify with a
group of fishermen with whom he was working for a summer.121 It is ultimately
through a revelation about his own invisibility within the group that Lacan
realizes his inability to fit into the picture. What is important to Lacan is that this
revelation comes from outside, when one fisherman asked whether Lacan could
see a sardine can glinting on the water. When Lacan replied in the affirmative,
the fisherman retorted, to the amusement of the other fishermen, that the can
could not see Lacan. Thus, the can is a gaze that, like the social classes one is
born into, or the names bestowed on children, structures and articulates the
subject. A mirror functions the same way when it reflects nothing but a blinding
light. Once there is a clear reflection, it begins again to offer itself as a screen on
which to project desires. The dual nature of the mirror as a ground upon which
the surface either disappears to reveal an illlusionistic depth through the act of
reflection or arrests the eye on the surface through the use of glare is prefigured
in Richter’s work with his Four Panes of Glass (fig. 40) and in his photo-paintings.
As Pelzer has explained with regard to Richter’s flower paintings (another
vanitas motif), the real passes into painting at the moment of the recording of
original movement, at the trace of the artist’s hand.
Thus the gesture as a movement given to vision is
stoppage—something where a movement has ended. This
temporal progression of haste, momentum, and forward movement
concludes with a frozen gesture, a terminal point, a dimension of
fascinum where the power of the gaze comes fully into play.122
The symbolic crystallizes the flux of the real. In the case of the flower paintings,
the real is evident in the decay that has begun to bend the flowers. With its
representational arrest, the decay becomes eternal and universal. Just as
Richter’s blurring in his photopaintings crystallize movement while they recall
its necessary flux, the photo-paintings stop an individual death on canvas,
referring in this way to death in general. The silver mirrors also participate in a
sort of fixing. However, that fixing does not fix an image. Instead, they aim to
fix the viewer, both situating her within their boundaries and stopping her in her
tracks before her own image. They achieve this by virtue of their ability to return
the viewer, presumably lost in thought about the art she has been contemplating,
to an awareness of her embodied, and thus mortal, state.
3.3 Painted Mirrors in the Early 1990s
Richter returned to the theme of death that was raised with the memento mori
again in the late eighties just prior to his second group of mirrors. With series 18
October 1977 (1988), Richter addressed the highly publicized and politically
charged deaths of imprisoned members of the Baader-Meinhof Group, a terrorist
cell of the Red Army Faction.123 While Richter claims to have approached the
subject with little sympathy for the terrorists or the government, he does assert
that the series condemns the ideologies of both sides.124 As such, the series
functions as part of a critique of the social and political institutions that structure
our lives, particularly when these institutions require or invoke radical
It is notable that one year later, Richter returned to the mirror motif,
producing two large-scale silvered mirrors, titled Mirror 1 and Mirror 2. While it
is tempting to suggest that these silvered mirrors from 1989 were somehow tied
to his ruminations on death, it is perhaps more worthwhile to note that in the
wake of what must have been a difficult and draining enterprise, he returns to
the mirror. This series also prompted Richter to paint another personal
photograph taken about ten years earlier of his daughter, reviving an earlier
series of portraits of her. While these works will be discussed in more detail
below, the retrospective character of this period suggests a personal and
professional introspection that expands the stakes of the mid-eighties.
In 1991, Richter began a new group of mirrors, more closely associated
with his early monochrome series from 1976 and his glass panes of 1977. (Fig.
55) This series includes 31 sets of mirrors, which are mostly composed of a
monochromatic field of paint applied evenly to the reverse side of a pane of
glass. Of all of his series, this group goes the furthest, both in terms of
length—he produced 23 gray mirrors or mirror groups between 1991 and
1992—and in terms of its obvious links to the monochromes from fifteen years
earlier. When he was questioned in 1991 about the mirror paintings’ relationship
to his Four Panes of Glass, Richter states,
It’s about glass again. This time the glass doesn’t show the picture
behind it but repeats -- mirrors -- what is in front of it. And in the
case of the coloured mirrors, the result was a kind of cross between
a monochrome painting and a mirror, a ‘Neither/Nor’ -- which is
what I like about it.125
It is evident from this statement that Richter acknowledged and may have even
intended the reference back to two earlier interests here, the gray monochromes
and the works on glass of 1967 and 1977. The invocation of both the glass panels,
with their dual reference to the Renaissance window of painting and Duchamp’s
ready-mades, and the monochrome, the quintessential abstract motif of modern
art, suggests the complex character of the painted mirrors within a history of
modern painting.
According to Yve-Alain Bois, painting, as a medium, found itself in its
modernist end game with the development of photography and with
industrialization.126 The peril represented by the development of photography
is fairly easy to understand. Photography’s accuracy and comparative speed in
capturing likenesses and ultimately in representing a convincing image of an
event in space posed a threat to portraiture and history painting to be sure. The
threat that industrialization poses is a bit less obvious. As Bois points out, Meyer
Shapiro was the first to describe how industrialization brought about a direct
reaction in art to elevate the mark of the artist’s hand in texture and gesture to
the defining feature of art.127 But with Marcel Duchamp’s first ready-made, the
mentality that valorized the artist’s craft was served the blow that would prove
fatal. The ready-made shifts the art paradigm from a mode of production to a
nominalist mode. No longer is it the touch of the artist’s hand that bestows value
and differentiates art from industrially produced commodities; it is now the
declaration of artistic value by the art profession, whether in the museum, gallery
or studio, which makes the industrially-produced object transcend use-value.
Painters had begun to embrace the benefits and techniques of
industrialization before Duchamp. The fashion of painting en-plein-air in the 19th
century was made possible by the industrialized packaging of oil paint in
portable tubes. And as Thierry de Duve has argued, by employing these tubes,
painters “‘internalize[ed]’ some of the features and processes of the technology
threatening” their craft.128 Even the application of paint was affected. The
Impressionists, to a limited extent, and Seurat, to a much greater degree,
regularized their brushstrokes, as Bois points out.129 Though it takes some time
before both photography and industrialization were internalized in painting, the
process was set in motion very early on and the dominance of abstraction,
according to Bois, was dependent upon it.
Bois outlines three moments in modern art that in turn deconstructed
important aspects of painting. First, art’s claims to authenticity were
undermined by the ready-made; painting’s claims to reach the realm of the real
object were refuted with Alexander Rodchencko’s three monochrome panels;
and finally Mondrian’s utopian canvases deconstructed the hierarchies of the
elements of painting in hopes of carrying a similarly liberating effect toward the
social order. All three moments aimed at the end of painting, but, as Bois points
out, that end continues to be deferred. Simply put, painters continue to paint.
Bois casts the continued practice of painting as a task of mourning, one intended
to find a way to continue in the wake of modernism’s claims. And it is here in
the convergence of the death of painting’s authenticity at the hands of Duchamp
and the mourning of that death in the practice of painting that Richter’s career
begins to yield some interesting patterns.
Not only did Richter embrace the two threats to painting that Bois
discusses by painting from photographs, even employing a photographic style,
and by creating paintings in the form of industrially produced mirrors, but he
continuously probed painting’s relationship to the real. This is one reason why
the thematic of mourning is a leitmotif in Richter’s works, as well as the
scholarship with surrounds it.130 From Dead (1963), to the Helga Matura group
and Eight Student Nurses (all 1966), to the skulls of 1983 and the series 18 October
1977 (1988), not to mention the Venice landscapes (1985) and the views of the
industrially-threatened German countryside (1983-85), the theme of death and
loss is regularly evident in his subject matter.131 Moreover, other scholars have
noted the fact that Richter’s photopaintings force the question regarding the
relationship between photography, painting and the real.132 While every
photograph implies an actual referent, the referent in a painting of a photograph
is not the same. Instead, the referent has shifted from the object represented to
the photograph itself, highlighting the absence of an “original” in the
photograph and even more so in the painting. Richter’s blurring technique
simply emphasizes this sense of loss, where the painting acts as a sort of
memorial to the original object now twice removed. Because mourning,
particularly in its visual aspect, is a way of remembering, Buchloh increasingly
has emphasized the role of memory in Richter’s work, particularly as it relates to
a more general sense of a social or cultural memory in works like 18 October 1977
and Atlas.133 Buchloh in particular takes this issue as his starting point for his
discussion of Richter’s mirrors.134
In his catalog essay for Eight Gray (2002), an installation of eight largescale gray mirrors at the Deutsche Guggenheim, Buchloh couches his discussion
of the mirrors within his earlier interpretation of Richter’s Atlas project. Atlas is a
collection of photographs amassed over forty years from which Richter draws his
source material. Attempting to show the difference of Richter’s collection of
photographic source material from Aby Warburg’s famous life-long atlas project
in which he collected and organized photographs of similar visual motifs from
ancient art through to contemporary design, Buchloh stressed the contradictory
nature of photography, which can both recall the past to mind, as it does in
Warburg’s project, and provide a means to forget it. That is, the photograph
provides the viewer with the excuse to not remember on her own because there
is something to remind her. Or worse yet, the photograph allows the viewer to
remember only in the circumscribed flatness of the photographic image.
Buchloh made a similar claim about some of Richter’s mirrors. Focusing on the
issue of site specificity and the problematic nature of the “specularization and
institutionalization of memory,” Buchloh insists that Richter’s Eight Gray throws
the viewer back on herself to “perform acts of commemoration on...her own.”135
His interpretation of Eight Gray is deeply informed by Richter’s earlier
commission for the Reichstag of 1998. Preliminary drawings for the project
suggest that Richter intended to create an anti-monument to commemorate the
horror of the Holocaust out of which contemporary Germany was formed. His
proposed paintings were to be based on photographs of concentration camps,
but ultimately Richter favored symbolic abstractions, in lieu of the charged
subject matter of the photopaintings. The final works installed were six colored
mirrors in the black, red and gold of the German flag. As a result, Buchloh
argues, these mirrors refused comment on German politics and recent German
history and, as a result, ultimately refused to serve as surrogates for public
memory, thus forcing their viewers to remember for themselves. According to
Buchloh, then, Richter’s choice of mirrors refuses to present his viewers with
images whose reception could prove to be too complicated and, paradoxically,
too easy. If he had painted the photographs of the concentration camps, the
resulting images could be perceived as a political statement—something which
Richter avoided most of the time.136 Rather than opening up a debate necessarily
limited to the question of Richter’s political sympathies, Richter produced the
more enigmatic mirrorized reference to the flag, leaving the task of
interpretation, commemoration, or mourning to the viewer. These mirrors, in
their installation, refuse the viewer even more than a politically fraught image.
They also refuse to reflect the viewer’s image. By hanging these large-scale
mirrors high above the floor, Richter avoids superimposing the viewer’s
reflection on the German flag, obviating the kind of identification such a
configuration would imply. Instead, the colors of the flag reflect the light from
the clerestory high above the entry. Whether Richter intended to suggest that the
mirrors represented a high ideal towards which Germany should strive or that
the idea of Germany towered over its mere citizens is unclear. What is clear is
that both possibilities avoid the pitfall of creating a surrogate for public memory.
3.4 History, Death and Memory
Perhaps it is not surprising, given Richter’s frequent use of memento mori and his
famous invocations of highly publicized deaths, that critics such as Sean
Rainbird have discussed Richter's oeuvre as mourning the impossibility of
painting. It is certainly the case that, in addition to his morbid subjects, a sense
of the history of painting sets the stakes of this artist’s work.137 This chapter has
already noted the ready-made character of the glass panels and gray
monochromes. Some of the colored mirrors also revisit another early group of
paintings, which also have strong associations with the ready-made, the color
chart paintings. In 1991, Richter completed eighteen mirrors in two sets
commissioned for the Hypo-Bank in Dusseldorf. Six Mirrors for a Bank (741)
consists of four gray mirrors flanked by slightly smaller crystal glass mirrors.
(Fig. 56) Twelve Mirrors for a Bank (740) includes four crystal glass mirrors
interspersed with eight mirror paintings of different colors. (Fig. 57) While the
four gray mirrors from the set of six mirrors refer back to the monochromes, the
twelve mirrors chromatically recall the color charts begun shortly after seeing the
Duchamp exhibition, which often have a high gloss to their surface, rendering
them partly reflective as well.
About the same time, however, Richter makes the following statement
about the state of his work in August of 1990:
Since the Rotterdam exhibition [October 1989 exhibition of the
series 18 October 1977], painting has become more laborious...Since
then there have been small and medium-sized pictures—very few
big ones—nothing special, on the whole. Alongside this the work
for the Hypo-Bank design, not very exciting either. A kind of
aimless drifting.138
The ambivalence he expressed about his sense of whether his work was moving
forward is interesting given the highly retrospective character of the Twelve
Mirrors for a Bank. It is hard to imagine that Richter saw this late group of
colored mirrors as an important innovation in his work, despite the fact that
there are so many produced in this period. Instead, the more fertile ground
seems to have been laid just before his Four Panes of Glass and in the early 1980s.
Still, Richter’s return to the mirror in the early 1990s suggests the importance of
the motif, even if it was one through which he cast about for the threads of
previous lines of development to take up.
Recently, Richter produced more mirrors, a new glass arrangement based
on the glass pane drawings from the 1960s and a new window for two
exhibitions. The first, Eight Gray revisits the colored mirrors of the 1990s for an
exhibition at Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin through the autumn of 2002. (Fig.
39) Consisting of eight gray mirrors mounted 50 centimeters off the wall and in
view of the windows in the gallery space which were uncovered for the
exhibition, the work asserts its material presence through its distance from the
wall even while the surfaces themselves begin to disperse among the reflections
of exterior views which permeate the gallery. The second exhibition, at the Dia
Center for the Arts in New York through the Spring of 2003, dusted off some
sketches for the Four Glass Panes for exhibition along with a newly produced
version titled Seven Standing Panes which deployed seven large-scale glass panes
placed one before another in one row, emphasizing the glass’ increasingly
reflective character with each row. (Fig. 58) Richter also rounded out the
exhibition with a new large-scale Window painting. It is striking that these works
follow a high-profile American retrospective, just as the 1991 mirrors were
exhibited in London in a small show titled Mirrors at the Anthony d’Offay
Gallery concurrently with a large retrospective at the Tate Gallery. Both groups
feel extremely retrospective, not to mention introspective, in character compared
with the conceptually inspired Four Glass Panes and the silvered mirrors that
preceded the memento-mori paintings in the early 1980s. Moreover, the Dia
exhibition, subtitled “Refraction,” is actually an exhibition within another
exhibition. The Richters are placed within a gallery space designed by the artist
Jorge Pardo. It is useful to note that the younger Pardo’s retro-style space evokes
the colors and glossy surfaces of the 1960s, the very era to which Richter
(nostalgically, perhaps) returns for material in this show.
Some critics have described Richter’s photo-paintings as engaged in
recording a world so given over to nostalgia that experience in the present tense
is continually haunted by the plus-perfect.139 Nonetheless, for all the
opportunity for self-reflection that the mirror offers, Richter’s mirrors insist on
the public aspect of that introspection. Even while his mirrors refer back to
Richter’s previous works, they also address the viewer entirely within the
present situation. Beginning with the sketches for Four Panes of Glass, Richter
recognized the spatial possibilities opened up with the use of glass and mirrors,
particularly in terms of its physical address of the viewer.140 Four Panes of Glass
took this recognition to the support, mounting the glass in the center of the
gallery space on a metal embrasure with hinges attaching the panels to the
mount. In 1977, Richter repeats the freestanding installation of Four Panes of
Glass in Pane of Glass and Double Pane of Glass. Two of the works produced in
1991 and intended to be shown in a corner are appropriately titled Corner Mirror,
Brown-Blue and Corner Mirror, Green-Red. (Fig. 59) Richter also produced four
multi-paneled mirror paintings at this time. Gray Mirror (765), from 1992, consists
of two panels hinged to the wall so that they can be pulled away from the wall as
if pulling open shutters on a window. (Fig. 60) The arrangement of the panels
alters the effect created by Richter’s choice to hinge the Four Glass Panels on a
horizontal axis, as the later works were hinged on a vertical axis. Where the Four
Glass Panels presented themselves as windows until they were tilted, rendering
them reflective, Richter’s Gray Mirror presents itself as a mirror of sorts, that is
until the viewer attempts to treat them as a (shuttered) window, and all
reflection or transparency is superseded by the material reality of the wall behind
the panels. The installation choice in this case also suggests a conceptual
similarity to the window and curtain paintings from the late 1960s, which
likewise refused to deliver on the promise of a view into depth. In this way,
Richter asks the viewer to recall those earlier interests buttressing the mirror
from behind.
As a professional ambition then, Richter’s references to his own career are
couched within a material that allows him to explore the painterly limitations
imposed by modernism, at the same time that the material operates explicitly in
the present situation of the viewer through reflection. It is useful to note the
difference in spatio-temporal strategies at work here in Richter’s oeuvre, as
opposed to Rauschenberg’s. For Richter, the historically recorded past, in the
form of photographs or visual references to his own work, and the reproduced
present are equally available to him as subject matter not just as a collaged, flat
and ever-present pastiche, à la Rauschenberg, but more nearly because human
experience, which attempts to organize itself chronologically (that is, into a
logical temporal sequence), favors the organized, planar tableau to the depthdependent collage aesthetic.141 Even when Richter approaches the very
principle of collage in his atlas project, the grid structure dominates the
compilation. And when Richter actually experiments with cutting photographs
and rearranging them in the sources for the seascapes of the early 1970s and
again in the late 1990s, he adheres to the spatial logic of the seascape, cutting
them down the horizon, pairing different seas and skies, and then obliterating
the fissure when he paints the resulting photo-montage (fig. 61).142 The logic of
the tableau structures Richter’s work on glass and with mirrors, as well. From
the beginning with the Four Panes of Glass from 1967, these works evoke the
defining analogy at work in historical tableau, that between painting and
windows or mirrors, even as they expose its emptiness.
Spatially, Richter’s tableau often function within the shallow space
defined by the surface and either a monochromatic plane or a photographically
flattened subject. Richter's use of two layers of space in his blurred photopaintings has been discussed above, and that same spatial construction recurs
throughout Richter’s career. The use of the primarily monochromatic field,
however, shows up most often when Richter is producing glass and mirror
works. The window grids discussed above are the best early example of the
concurrence of monochromes and works on glass. (Fig. 62) The grid structure
coincides perfectly with the surface of the painting and, as if to underscore their
association with the ready-made, real-objectness of the Four Panes of Glass,
Richter paints the grid’s fictional shadows on a gray ground, not unlike his later
gray monochromes, that appears to be set at a shallow depth defined by the grid.
The window grids are conceptually in tune with the trompe l’oeil curtains of the
same period. It is their spatial structure, however, that Richter repeats in two
portraits of his immediate family. In Betty from 1988 and I.G. from 1993. (Fig. 63
and 64) Richter employs the shallow space of the tableau defined by a figure
placed at the surface plane and a shallow, mostly monochromatic, ground. I.G.
bears a striking resemblance to the window grids in this respect by virtue of his
deployment of the figure as the horizontal and verticals of the surface grid and
the use of harsh light and deep shadow to highlight the figure’s visual quotation
of the grid structure.
Moreover, the two figures in both of these works occupy a space
analogous to the actual space Richter would have occupied while painting. The
surface plane is analogous to the originating image as it is projected onto the
canvas; the canvas’ spatial counterpart can be found in the monochromatic
ground that serves as a backdrop. Within this tight space of painterly
production, the figures with their heads turned away become the surrogate first
for the painter in the act of painting and then for the viewer in the act of viewing,
who is denied a full view of the object of their gaze.143
Richter’s interest at these points in depicting members of his family only
underscores the very personal nature of his professional ambitions. And it is the
struggle between the personal and the professional impulses driving the work
surrounding the mirrors which ultimately provide the possibility of making that
personal ambition at once fully professional and public in their external
reflections, at the same time that they employ a personal address to the viewer.
3.5 Reflection as an Interpretive Practice
Richter’s brand of mirroring bears some remarking in relation to his writing.
While the mirror, as he claims, probes the relationship between painting and
photography, allowing Richter an objective and disinterested stance in relation to
his subjects, Richter still refuses to relinquish a certain artistic agency.144 That is,
Richter is unable from the beginning to remain completely disinterested. He
needs the mirror, as well as the spatulas he creates for his abstract works and the
cache of photographs he collects for copying, to maintain a distanced control—as
if there were a viable relationship between distance and objectivity. He makes
claims in his writing about the lack of relationship between his writing and his
artwork—claims that fly in the face of art-historical methodology.145 And yet,
that behemoth of art historical method, objectivity derived through distance, is
embraced as a means to Richter’s need for objectivity. His use of techniques such
as choosing from pre-existing images and blurring them, along with producing
mirror works of pure reflection guarantee his own objectivity and the viewer’s
supreme power of interpretation. This interpretation can only take place within
a gallery or museum and not in the artist’s studio. And yet, Richter’s denial
regarding the relationship between his writing and his painting rings hollow,
especially when Richter persistently disagrees with his interpreters.146
Perhaps Richter takes his desire for objectivity a little too much to heart.
As this chapter has suggested, Richter’s use of glass and mirrors has always
carried with it highly personal associations. The first is the artist’s simultaneous
antipathy and affinity for the work of Marcel Duchamp. As such, it expresses
itself in works that question the validity of representation and carry with them
strong allusions to the private space of the studio. With Richter’s mirrors from
the early eighties and their association with memento-mori, Richter’s personal
reflections on death tapped into a more universal concern. By 1990, when the
mirrors appear to comment on his early series of monochromes and color charts,
one senses that Richter’s friendship with Buchloh has finally brought the artist
around to the ironic repetition that Buchloh read in the artist’s choices from early
on. And finally, the most recent works, which recreate earlier works or ideas,
finally fail to address any external considerations. No longer does irony seem to
be the point, because irony requires a certain amount of distance. Richter no
longer is reflecting on earlier work; instead, he is merely repeating it. Perhaps
Richter finally embraced the true nature of the ready-made, which is not just
banal and completely available, but is also infinitely repeatable.
As we know from Freud, repetition is one way of denying death. What is
telling is Richter’s continued attempts, albeit through different means, to hold
death at bay. In a letter to Jean-Christophe Ammann from 1973, Richter
describes death in more compositional terms, associating it with formal fixity.
To cause something to change and flow, to make it relative: this has
something to do with the ‘Informel’--which suits me very well,
because it is the antithesis of death: death being a thing that does
not exist because it is uninteresting...As I now see it, all my
paintings are ‘Informel’ (the Four Panes of Glass included...)147
While Richter goes on in that passage to point out that the Four Panes of Glass
should be followed up, the suggestion is that they will continue to change and it
is the case that they do. But what happens when Richter’s work does become
fixed and even retrospective or, worse yet, repetitive? It is tempting to suggest
that the works of the 1990s and later degenerate into a fixed, repetitive
movement caught in the circularity of denying death—a denial he made in 1973.
However, Richter’s present conviction seems to be that it is necessary to deny
death through the compulsive repetition of the flow he was committed to in
1973, a flow that proved to be limited and perhaps untenable. Put another way,
one might claim that Richter’s mirrors function two ways at once, sometimes as a
straightforward memento mori, or stimulus to remember one’s mortality, and at
other times as an attempt to suppress or forget that very knowledge. Benjamin
Buchloh has pointed out that Richter’s Atlas functions much the same way, both
as a memory aid and simultaneously a mode of forgetting.148 If we see
forgetting then as a way of liberating oneself from the constraints of history, of
wiping the slate clean, even, we might see how the mirrors also open outward
for Richter, allowing him to move on from a logic which provided him nowhere
to turn. The mirrors operate emphatically in the present tense and are incapable
of capturing anything in a future perfect, a will-have been. In such a context,
one’s historical roots and obligations, and the looming specter of the biological
and ultimately conceptual death of the painter, seem far less constricting and
Throughout this chapter, the writing of art historians, the claims of the
death of painting by other artists and the history of modern painting have
figured prominently. It is important to note that Richter’s decision to continue to
paint in the early sixties reveals a belief on his part that his art work could
remain somewhat autonomous from this broader context. Considering his
friendship with Buchloh, his most prolific and political critic—even while Richter
avoided political associations—which began in the late seventies around the time
that Richter produced his first colored mirrors, and his increasing acceptance of
Buchloh’s initial interpretation of his art work, one might say that Richter’s
career reached its own mirror stage in the early nineties. It was at this point that
he acknowledged that his work was produced and received within a wider,
symbolic discourse over which, as with the gaze, the artist has no control, but
through which he might secure his position within the history of art.
Like Rauschenberg and Richter, Dan Graham has employed mirrors or
reflective glass in his work repeatedly, beginning with his Body Press of 1970. (fig.
65) Indeed this artist’s intense production of installations fitted with video
cameras and display monitors in the mid-1970s extends the motif of reflection
into a time-based medium as well. While he constantly alters the visual effects of
reflection, it remains throughout the defining theme of all of his work, whether
or not any reflective materials are actually included. This theme also spans his
medium shifts between performance, film, installation and architectural
Graham’s use of reflective media creates an explicit address to the viewer,
in particular a viewer engaged in a publicly acted drama of perception. The
viewer is confronted with her own image, just as she is in Rauschenberg’s and
Richter’s work, and forced to take account of it in some way. But, unlike
Rauschenberg’s and Richter’s mirror-works, Graham’s video-enhanced
installations and architectural pavilions extend reflection from Rauschenberg’s
and Richter’s references to painting, sculpture and photography, to include
architecture. 149 Graham’s mature work in installation and architecture structures
the viewer’s perceptual experience, creating a theater of vision, into which
Graham introduces temporal or social elements. These added elements disrupt
the antipodal mirror experience of viewer and viewed, opening up explicit gaps
that throw into question the identification between the individual viewer and her
image, as well as between viewing subjects, at the same time that they force the
layering of these positions within the same space. By relegating both the subject
and the object to the same position, Graham puts in motion a complex perceptual
scheme which sets a trap not only for the viewer before it, but also for his work’s
many interpreters, including the artist himself, often leading to hasty conclusions
about the general import of Graham's brand of mirroring.
4.1 Published Art/Public Viewing
While most of the scholarship on Graham acknowledges his use of mirrors and
reflection, very few scholars have addressed at length the effect these materials
have on Graham’s viewer. It is commonplace to note that, in the mirrors,
viewers occupy the position of both subject and object. Some scholars use this
fact as a springboard to claim that this perceptual synthesis leads to others, such
as the synthesis of different media and of past and present.150 One of the most
considered accounts of Graham’s synthesis of different media comes from
Benjamin Buchloh, who claims that Graham’s early magazine piece Homes for
America asserts the possibility that photography could justly be characterized as
Minimalist art.151 (fig. 66) Noting the ready-made quality of the magazine format
and the similarity between the tract houses Graham photographed and
Minimalist objects, not to mention the serial format of the lists included in the
accompanying texts, Buchloh makes a convincing case for this synthesis.
Nonetheless, Graham frequently introduces a public aspect into his work that
tends to undermine any synthesis between a viewing subject and her reflection.
More than simply attempting to appeal to a broad audience and thus transcend
the private sphere of the studio as Richter’s work did, Graham’s appeal to the
public had deeply social underpinnings. One part of this public aspect was
already present in Homes for America, where Graham introduced the public
nature of the “art system in general,” by placing the article in the public forum of
an art magazine.152 “When…exhibitions are reviewed and made a matter of
record in the art magazines, the works shown are guaranteed some kind of value
as ‘art’ and can be sold on the art market.”153 This strategy of making public
informs all of Graham’s work, determining the themes of his performance works,
installations and architectural pavilions as well. Where Graham appears to
collapse subject and object in the works, he frequently does so within a public
situation, analogous to the art and mass culture publications in which his
magazine pieces were placed, that emphasizes the social aspect of art viewing,
thus underscoring the distance between the original positions of viewing subject
and viewed object.154 Moreover, when he seems to be synthesizing different
media, or past and present, he does so with a textual intervention that
simultaneously attempts to suture those oppositions together even while
maintaining their distance from each other.
Perhaps one of the main reasons scholars have emphasized Graham’s
synthesis of subject and object begins with Graham’s own writing about his
works. In many instances, he prompts such interpretations when he describes
the positions set up by the works in binary opposites. This is the case when he
describes Two Adjacent Pavilions, which he installed at Kassel for the outdoor
exhibition at Documenta VII in 1978 and now in the collection of the
Rijksmuseum Kröller-Müller, Otterloo. (fig. 67) The work’s twin pavilions
placed side by side and distinguished from one another only by their ceiling
materials—one made of transparent glass, the other of a dark, opaque material
that does not emit light—encourages comparison between the different
perceptual experiences available to the viewer in each of these pavilions.
Depending on the external light, she is either fully or partially visible in one and
invisible in the other. The play between the public exhibition experienced in one
of the pavilions and the private viewing—just shy of voyeurism—offered by the
other leads some critics to employ a Sartrean model in their analysis of the
work.155 In Graham’s own descriptive interpretation of the work, he plays up a
variety of dichotomies that functioned as inspiration for the pavilions.
Contemporary office buildings use transparent or reflective glass
“curtain walls” to eliminate the distinction—and contradiction—
between inside and outside…Two Adjacent Pavilions reflects on the
materials and forms of the modern city—glass and reflective-glass
with steel supports—in relation to an arcadian (“natural”) or
utopian setting.156
According to Graham, the pavilions were meant to mediate between interior and
exterior, just as the modern glass office building does. Additionally, their
exhibition in a natural setting introduced an urban corporate architectural style
into a decidedly non-urban, non-corporate environment. This dichotomous
experience is encouraged in other works by the artist and in his writing as well.
In his writing, the dichotomies arise from his heavy reliance on Sartre’s
description of a visual experience defined by the polar positions of viewing
subject and viewed object.157 Sartre’s theory of vision implies an inherent power
in the position of viewer that intrigues Graham and appeals to his social agenda.
Nonetheless, one should not lose sight of the fact that Graham usually
introduces a third factor which operates between the two supposed opposites,
typically underscoring their inability to be assimilated.158 In the case of Two
Adjacent Pavilions, the reflectivity of the structures themselves negotiate between
their opposite references. But more often the third position is more ambiguous,
functioning as a publicly social element in the work or through a temporal
intervention as in an appeal to history. One work serves as an important
example of both strategies, the installation Present/Continuous Past[s].
4.2 The Viewer in Time and Place
Present Continuous Past[s] (fig. 68 & 69) from 1974 is one of the most intriguing of
Graham’s video installations employing mirrors. Comprised of a single room
with two adjacent mirrored walls and a video camera and monitor system, it is
one of Graham’s most economical deployments of these media within his oeuvre
and, despite its disarmingly simple construction, produces an amazingly
complex perceptual environment. Within the installation, the viewer is
confronted on two sides with images of herself through the two mirrors, and, on
a third side, a monitor displays the image of the room recorded eight seconds
previously by the camera mounted above it. Initially, it appears that the viewer
is asked passively and narcissistically to contemplate her own image from two
sides. However, it quickly becomes apparent that not all of the images are
equally present. That is, the monitor displays the room eight seconds after the
camera tapes it, producing a lag of eight seconds between the viewer’s actions
and their display on the monitor. Because a reflection of the monitor appears in
the mirror opposite the video camera, this reflection is further caught within the
time delay; each reflection of the monitor within the monitor creates a continual
regression into the past at eight-second intervals. At each remove, the visual
information becomes condensed and, practically speaking, lost, even while the
past images keep returning in smaller and smaller versions of itself. Like the
reflection in the pool that disappears with Narcissus’ advances, the time-delayed
image also recedes and, ultimately, is rendered imperceptible. When Graham
describes the temporal sense he is trying to achieve with the time delay, he calls
it an extended present-time, however, the continuous regression made possible
within this installation builds into the system a temporal drain, which pulls the
present into the past, creating, more accurately, an ever-passing present. 159
The visual effect created on the monitor of views of the room placed
within views of the room is similar to the types of static mise-en-abyme
exemplified by the image of the Morton Salt girl, who carries a container of
Morton Salt with her image on it, carrying a container of Morton Salt and so on.
But, as Thierry de Duve has pointed out, the installation is never a perfect miseen-abyme, because Graham’s installation adds time and movement. These
spatial/temporal dimensions in the installation introduce the possibility for the
viewer to intervene into the recording of her actions. Compositionally, the
earliest images are at the center; through the time delay apparatus, they become
embedded within those literally framing moments set continually at the exterior
of the image on the monitor. The viewer thus occupies the position of viewed
object and viewing/writing subject in turn. The gap created by the time delay
structures these opposing roles by allowing a split in the viewer’s perception of
herself; that is, by virtue of the time delay, the viewer can perceive herself as she
acts before the camera, even if she has turned away from it. Thus, not only has
Graham thrust both roles of a traditional viewing situation onto the position of
the viewer in the mirror, but he also holds open the possibility of dividing that
viewer against herself in time.
Moreover, this division ensures that the viewer has the opportunity to
interpret and rewrite her reaction (or lack of reaction) to the installation.160 As
her image is played back to her on the screen, the viewer continues to be
recorded. Even if she does nothing, she will eventually witness her reaction to
her recorded image. Her continual recording provides a rare opportunity for the
viewer to respond in different ways, as if she is assuming different identities, and
then assess those self-images. She even has the potential to reject her position as
viewer altogether for an active role, overturning the passive role of narcissism.
Thus, in an ironic reversal of Sartre’s voyeuristic scene, the active viewer
consciously seizes the power to act while she is being seen. Conversely, the
viewer who merely sees appears to surrender a position of interpretive power to
her paralyzed desire to look and not act. It is this active response that the
installation inspires that has led critics like de Duve to suggest that Graham
introduces a version of history writing with the video apparatus. That is, as the
viewer reacts to her image, she literally and figuratively reframes her own image
with her responses to that image. With each response, her interpretation of her
previous actions reshapes her past, supplanting it with her reactions. This
process is similar to the process of history writing, in which events are reshaped
and reinterpreted in a textual frame that necessarily supplants the original
In addition to the possibilities for the viewer’s interventions into her
recorded history, the time delay, paired with its reflection, also affects the
installation’s space, making the structuring effect of the architecture more
pliable. According to Graham, the integrity of the architectural structure is
threatened by the video’s time drain.
Architecture defines certain cultural and psychological boundaries;
video may intercede to replace or rearrange some of these
boundaries. Cable television, being reciprocally two-way, can
interpenetrate social orders not previously linked; its initial use
may tend to deconstruct and redefine existing social hierarchies.”161
As Graham sees it, video and architecture are at odds with each other. In
contrast to architecture’s role as a static container and codifier of social
hierarchies, video, at least to begin with, bears the promise of transgressing the
social order it reflects (for example, the static roles of viewer and viewed),
because it allows for greater flux within that order than architecture does.162
Additionally the space/time continuum, which Graham refers to elsewhere, is
also affected by this shift from an architectural code to a video code. Instead of
perceiving past events as fixed and future events as completely given over to
chance, Graham sets up a temporality in which both past and future are
enmeshed in the influence on and interpretation of the present.
Within the context of Present/Continuous Past[s], the social dynamics of the
installation completely change when one viewer (or group of viewers) enters the
installation while another viewer (or group of viewers) already occupies the
installation space. The active responses the installation instigates in the first
group are different enough from typical viewing behavior that the second group
finds itself in the unusual situation of being unable to ignore the first group. Not
only is each group aware of itself, but, with the addition of unconventional
behavior, each group becomes increasingly aware of its relationship to the other.
Because the architectural container forces an identification between the two
groups by virtue of their shared space, the active behavior inspired by the video
time-delay creates a situation where the identification between the two groups is
arbitrary, arising more from their occupying a shared space than from a sense of
shared experience. In this way, Graham hones Minimalism’s implicit contextual
critique to the fine point of specific social critique.
As Graham noted in the passage quoted above, the crux of
Present/Continuous Past[s] lies in the interaction between architectural and video
media. The central problem of medium arises with the shift in American art in
the 1960s from the dominance of painting to the dominance of three-dimensional
objects brought about by Minimalism; but also integral to the question is the shift
in viewer roles—something Graham alluded to when he suggested that the shift
from an architectural to a video code could also reinterpret the social order. Not
surprisingly, medium shifts mark the course of Graham’s career. But, rather
than probing the question of medium, the most recent exhibition catalogs and
anthologies focusing on his work accept medium at face value, tending to divide
his work into medium categories which loosely follow his chronological
development, from conceptual work, to performance, to video, and most recently
to architectural pavilions.163 Admittedly, these classifications do describe fairly
well certain aspects of the appearance of Graham’s explorations; yet, they are
deceptively easy, demarcating somewhat arbitrary breaks within an oeuvre that
tenaciously probes questions of visual and written reflection—motifs that are
central to Graham’s larger project addressing the interaction between perceiving
subjects and art objects.164 Graham’s interest in reflection and social critique
originated within the very specific context of Minimalism and its main detractor,
Michael Fried.
4.3 Theater of Vision
It is no coincidence that Graham’s interest in architecture focuses on perceptual
forums associated with leisure activities. Most often, his architectural pavilions
are related to museums and theaters. As such, they constitute a pointed response
to Fried’s critique of Minimalism, which focuses on the theatricality of the
situation constructed by the exhibition of Minimalist objects.165 Fried condemns
Minimalism on the basis that it tries to occupy a position outside of modernist
painting and sculpture, while the Minimalists claim that they have shed all
relational decisions in their compositions, presumably including their categorical
relationship to modernist painting. And yet, Fried argues, Minimalism’s
defining feature is its relativity. Not only does it define itself in distinction from
other media, but the objects also create a situation that demands recognition
from a viewer. It is this relationship between object and viewer, in which the
object relies on the viewer, that Minimalism is theatrical rather than pictorial.
The experience before a Minimalist object subsumes the pictorial, crowding it out
of the merely spatial situation. According to Fried, painting, and sculpture for
that matter, exist autonomously from their viewers and, thus, imply an
autonomous viewing subject. The situation of viewing in this description is not
constructive of a particular positionality within a subject/object relationship.
Instead, these positions simply exist prior to that situation. Theater, on the other
hand, insists on its audience and depends upon it. Theater constructs a situation.
But, as Fried points out, Minimalism’s viewer experiences the work within a
situation that she believes to exist for her alone. This is an important distinction
that Fried does not push very far. Nonetheless, it is instructive for
understanding just how radical Graham’s installations are. Because Graham’s
viewers are unable to take for granted a shared experience simply based on
witnessing the same events from the same space, they become acutely aware of
the situation of viewing the work, to a degree that would seem absurd in front of
a painting or even a play. This disjunction more fully disrupts the viewer’s
assumptions than the false autonomy that Fried describes in front of a Minimalist
object, a condition he would call “subjecthood.” In Fried’s description of
Minimalism, the subject/object relationship cannot be taken for granted because
both subject and object depend upon each other to situate themselves in
opposition to each other. He designates that lack of autonomy with the terms
“subjecthood” and “objecthood,” rather than subject and object. In fact,
Graham’s explicitly social version of this situation demonstrates that relationality
defines subject and object, as well as subject against subject. This is why Graham
focuses on the public architectural spaces of art viewing and of theatrical and
cinematic performance.166 By insisting on the public nature of their exhibition,
Graham’s installations undermine a viewer’s expectation of experiencing the
work in solitude precisely by confronting her with the fallacy of that belief.
Graham also embraces Fried’s pendant claim that Minimalism’s emphasis
on time is theatrical. “...the sense which, at bottom, theatre addresses is a sense
of temporality, of time passing and to come...”167 On the other hand, according
to Fried, modernist art is “at every moment, wholly manifest...I want to claim
that it is by virtue of their presentness and instantaneousness that modernist
painting and sculpture defeat theatre.”168 But it should be clear that, despite the
unavoidable presence and presentness represented in the mirror in
Present/Continuous Past[s], the introduction of video’s temporal medium
undermines the mirror’s presentness and instantaneousness. Where the
Minimalist cube simply showcases the viewer’s embodiment by crowding her
within the situation of exhibition, Present/Continuous Past[s] returns the balance
of power back in favor of the viewer through the time delay. The delayed
feedback demands that the viewer position, even reposition, herself sometimes in
op-position to her reflection or in relation to other viewers. Once another viewer
is introduced into the equation, the social implications of Present/Continuous
Past[s] are unavoidable. And by virtue of the promise of historical agency
implicit in the time delay apparatus, the question of group cohesion becomes
inextricably bound up with the fact that the viewers share a space, as well as the
shared recent history that is recorded and presented within the work. Through
the work’s temporal and social interventions, Present/Continuous Past[s] subverts
the modernist emphasis on the autonomous art object, viewed in a suspended
state of uninterrupted private contemplation in public. Graham addresses the
nature of private viewing in a public space most explicitly in his 1981 model for a
Cinema and its accompanying essays.169
Because the actual cinema modeled by Graham has never been realized,
one must rely on Graham’s description of the cinema along with his small-scale
model to imagine how a viewer might respond to Graham’s introduction of twoway mirrors in place of two walls in the theater. (figures 72 and 73) Graham’s
essay “Cinema” outlines how he intends the structure to work. The dimming
and raising of lights that typically accompany a movie screening allows Graham
to alter the perceptual information available inside and outside the theater.
When the lights are down, the audience (a group of viewers unified by their
shared activity) watches a film on the screen and also has a ghostly view of the
street outside, depending upon the lighting conditions of the street. Passers-by
see only a mirrored building similar to the many semi-reflective glass office
buildings found in most cities. But, the projected image of the film is also visible
in reverse to those on the street—a fact that virtually determines that the project
will never be realized. Moreover, during nighttime screenings, the audience
members would also be visible from the street. As Graham describes it, the
movie viewer is “’lost’ to his immediate environment in its identification with
the film.”170 Psychologically, the cinema puts the audience into the role of the
voyeur. While viewing the film the spectator projects her own idealized body
into the world of the spectacle (filmic or real) identifying with it. In this
identification, the spectator is released from her real body and rendered free,
perfect and complete. Once the lights come up, the mirrored walls of the interior
insure that she is returned to a visible body determined in its relationships to the
other spectators on the inside and the passers-by on the outside. The oscillations
between subjective viewer and viewed object and interior and exterior revolve
around the alternately reflective or transparent nature of the screen and
screening walls. Graham even states,
In my cinema project it is the screen, instead of the machine, and
the system of voyeuristic identifications that are exposed. It is
assumed that the cinema is prototypical of all other perspective
systems that work to produce a social subject through the
manipulation of the subject’s imaginary identifications.171
Graham’s wording suggests that he has a Lacanian understanding of the
production of a subject. The screen which Graham exposes is literally that of the
Cinema, and yet, Lacan understands the screen as the location of our projections
of our “ideal I”.172 This “ideal I” is a construct resulting from the subject’s
identification with an object of desire. In the case of Cinema, this object would
presumably be the projected image. The displacement of the subject into an
“ideal I” which exists outside the self is destroyed by the audience’s visibility to
an exterior audience and by the changing light within these two-way mirror
walls. Both the audience’s visibility and the raising of the interior lights have the
effect of the Lacanian gaze, resituating the viewer as a body, but one that is
displaced from itself and visible outside itself.
It is this second phase, when the theater lights come up, that interests
Graham most. At this point, all illusions embodied in our identification with a
hero or heroine in the film are shattered, but even more emphatically than usual.
This is because in Graham’s Cinema the mirrored walls, completely reflective
once the lights are up, force us to identify with our own reflected image within a
larger audience, destroying the isolation created by the dimmed lights. Thus, the
alternation between viewing subject and viewed object in this instance explicitly
places the viewer at the juncture of public and private viewing, exposing the
public nature of film-viewing, and art viewing in a gallery or museum by
extension, as was evident in his installation Present/Continuous Past[s].173
The collapse of the distinction between public and private, which in
Graham’s work plagues the process of identification, goes hand in hand with the
critique of the viewer and the problematization of the viewer's perception in
Graham’s performance and early video installations. The perceptual model
apparently at work in Present/Continuous Past[s] is based on psychoanalytic
appeals to the Greek Narcissus myth. Viewers are encouraged to identify with
their own images when viewing the installation privately. But that model is
complicated when another viewer enters the installation space. Like the
audience abruptly returned to the actual public viewing situation of the cinema
when the lights are raised, the viewer of Present/Continuous Past[s] is reminded of
the public nature of art viewing in galleries and museums by her forced social
interaction with her fellow viewers. But even when a viewer is alone in the
installation, the phantom of public exposure is present in the recorded image of
the viewer. Not only does the installation carry the threat of exposure to an
Other embodied in the inhuman gaze of the camera, but also the delayed display
of that recording on the monitor while the image rebounds around the
installation makes that threat real. In all three of the works already discussed,
Graham's viewer is forced to acknowledge her own visibility, either to herself or
to a larger community. And, in both cases, the public, external description of the
viewer brings to mind the viewer's public, externally visible self at the very
instant when she is supposed to lose herself in contemplation of the work. The
supremely private moment of viewing is interrupted by the persistent reminder
of one's public display, much like the work's display. Ultimately, because
Graham makes the implicit identification between the viewer and the artwork
explicit, the viewer’s own visibility and display becomes unavoidable. It is
through this insistence on the public nature of viewing that Graham constructs
his most rigorous social critiques when he tackles the issue of recreational sites of
The emergence of the theater as an enclosed architectural form in
the sixteenth century coincided with the codification of new
perspective laws and with the political emergence of the bourgeois
city-state. For the first time, architecture froze the positions and
seating arrangements of spectators viewing the dramatic spectacle
into an orderly perspective that reflected not only a visual
coherence, but also a new political hierarchy.174
The above quotation introduces Graham’s essay “Theater, Cinema,
Power,” and clarifies his own sense that the history of theater as a built
environment is inextricably linked to particular social and political modes of
visual identification. The essay outlines an episodic history of theater design up
to the emergence of film in the twentieth century, analyzing the political uses to
which these ideologically burdened forms of spectacle have been put. What is
most interesting in the essay is Graham’s insistence that the built environment
structures social interaction and models political realities. The type of one-point
perspective which influenced set design and posited a single privileged vantage
point exactly opposite a central vanishing point takes on political connotations in
Graham’s essay, as he stresses the fact that the prince had traditionally been
given this single privileged position in the audience.175 Moreover, because the
traditional stage setting of sixteenth century plays was the plaza outside the
ruler’s palace, the theater mimicked the vantage the prince enjoyed daily of the
actual plaza from an upper balcony in his palace. All other audience members
identify with the prince as spectators, but from an inferior position within the
By the end of the essay, Graham’s interest in popular spectacle has turned
toward the twentieth century version of theater, film. As such, the artist becomes
less interested in the effect that the architectural design of the spectacle’s staging
has in structuring a political reality than he does in the role film plays in
promoting a particular interpretation of political history. He points out that no
longer is the prince doubled on stage by an actor playing the prince. Instead, in
the actual historical reality of American politics of the 1980s, when Graham
wrote this essay, the American President was in fact a Hollywood actor. Graham
uses this fortuitous (or perhaps instigating) fact to suggest that the roles of
politician and performer, which had occupied positions on opposite sides of the
theater, have collapsed into each other. Meanwhile the real power, which
Graham argues is the corporate defense business, lies elsewhere, invisible, like a
puppeteer behind the ruler.
Graham’s paired insistence on time and on the social nature of vision
makes clear his interests in the processes of perception. This is at the heart of his
concerns with history and with medium. In his writing about the modes of
perception that inspired his work, he cites Jacques Lacan and Jean-Paul Sartre
with little distinction between the two, despite their philosophical differences
regarding the nature of vision. The import of both for his work is the exposure of
the gaze within a viewing situation as a position of power. But Sartre’s and
Lacan’s descriptions of the gaze do little to explain certain early works by
Graham, particularly those works like Body Press (fig. 65). In this work, two
nude camera operators, one male, one female, stand inside a reflective cylinder
and film the perspective from every part of their bodies. They are instructed to
press the back of the filming cameras against their flesh, beginning at their feet
and circling upward to their heads and then downward to the starting position.
At each rotation, the two cameras are exchanged. The films are then projected
simultaneously on opposite walls of a small room.
In a discussion about the nature of the gaze, Merleau-Ponty puts the
question to the reader, “How does it happen that my look, enveloping them,
does not hide them, and, finally, that, veiling them, it unveils them?”176 The
cameras record the perspective from the camera operators’ flesh as if the film
were a seeing flesh, with which the viewer is asked to identify.177 If we
understand vision to be embodied in the cameras, then as it covers parts of the
flesh, it films the camera operators’ bodies as they are reflected in the mirror, or
as they are presented to the opposite camera. With the exchange of cameras
performed at the completion of each circumscription of one body, the camera,
mediating for the viewer, becomes tangled between subject and object. Both are
made continuous with each other in a way that recalls Merleau-Ponty’s
description of the Flesh of the World.
Graham conflates Merleau-Ponty’s flesh-bound gaze with Lacan’s
articulating gaze in another architectural environment. Public Space/Two
Audiences (fig. 72), constructed for the Venice Biennale, consists of a single room
with a mirror on one wall, parallel to which a wall of glass divides the space into
two. Both sides have an entrance which arbitrarily divide the audience into two
groups. Both audiences can see each other through the glass partition, although
they cannot hear each other. Graham insists that the audiences are positioned so
that they must identify with each other, either through their “other” on the
opposite side of the glass (which, importantly, vaguely reflects each viewer
anyway), or through a reflected self in the mirror, thrown with all the other
inhabitants of the space into a single reflection. Within this installation, the glass
partition functions in two ways. First, on its surface, which vaguely reflects one
group while it conveys a view of the other group, Graham captures the essence
of Merleau-Ponty’s flesh of the world. At one moment the groups can imagine
themselves distanced by the glass and at another the glass can appear to be a
physical manifestation of the fold of the flesh of the world that casts vision as
distance, even while it should be registered as proximity.178 And yet, Graham
states that the glass is the site of identification that is not so different from that
described in Lacan’s mirror-stage essay. Nonetheless, the identification is not
simply between an individual subject and her image; it is necessarily more social
than that. By separating the rooms, he intends that viewers on each side of the
glass will begin to form a group identity in opposition to the group on the other
side.179 But, the spectator, then, is not truly hidden behind the glass or even
necessarily revealed by the glass. Rather, the glass, like Graham’s mirrors,
functions as an articulating Gaze. Like the mirrors, it becomes the scene of
external identification, dividing the groups from each other, as well as dividing
the subject from her image. “…in the scopic field, the gaze is outside, I am
looked at, that is to say, I am a picture.”180 Nor is the glass a transparent
transmitter of meaning that lays hidden behind its surface. Instead, the semireflective quality of the glass reveals that the reality of each group’s identification
lies on its surface. Because the difference between the two groups, based on their
location, is constitutive, identification and meaning are played out across the
surface of the glass. The reflective glass refuses deeper meaning. The distance
introduced into the work by the glass accomplishes two things. First, it thwarts a
sense of community across the two spaces. The scene of identification is one
involving displacement and otherness. Second, the glass announces the presence
of the work to its audience, refusing to disappear into transparency. Thus,
Graham unveils the gaze as an agent of separation and displacement. The glass
of the gaze refuses its own transparency by affecting the separation of the
groups, screening them from each other; and the surface of the glass screen is
rendered opaque as the two audiences project their group identities onto the
group facing them.
As Present/Continuous Past[s] makes clear, group dynamics are at the heart
of many of Graham’s installations and performances. Graham explored the
public aspect of subjecthood and its underlying structure when he employed
much the same equipment in a little discussed theater set that he designed for a
play by James Coleman and performed at Dun Guaire Castle in Kinrara, Ireland
(fig. 73). The stage set crystallized the complex perceptual games Graham had
been working with since the early 1970s. Constructed in the former throne room
of the castle, the set echoed the courtly entertainments the kings would have
enjoyed centuries ago. But never content to reconstitute a past without some
tangible reinterpretation, Graham reversed the physical locations of viewer and
performer. Instead of placing the audience where the royal viewer once sat,
Graham set them in the former performance space and placed the performer
where the throne had been. On a purely spatial level, Graham has replaced
whole productions involving multiple troupe members directing their efforts to
entertain one viewer with a single performer acting in the space reserved for the
king and directing her performance toward a group of viewers seated on what
once functioned as a stage. Thus, in a reflection of modern European history, the
royal “we” has been transformed into an actual “we,” although this group
needn’t necessarily function cohesively as a unit. On a structural level, Graham
and Coleman have substituted a performer and Graham’s stage set for the absent
king. In the performance, the actor wears the king’s death mask, making that
substitution explicit. Graham’s stage set, constructed of a two-way mirror and a
video camera and monitor, extends the reference to the dead king into the
Lacanian structure he had been exploring throughout the late 1970s and early
In its position as a backdrop, when the lights were on, the curved twoway mirror reflected the audience anamorphically, rendering them involuntary
(and distorted) performers in the play, able, like their princely progenitor, to
influence the other viewers’ experience of the play. Once the lights are dimmed
for the performance, the reflection of the audience is replaced with the projection
of a live video recording of the audience from the king’s former point of view in
the performance space from behind the two-way mirror. The backdrop
continued to change in appearance during the play. In the second phase, the
view of the throne room from the king’s original perspective behind the mirror
was gradually replaced with a recorded image of the king’s death mask—a mask
that the performer wears during part of the performance. The next phase begins
when the lights are turned on during the performance. The image of the king’s
death mask continued to be projected onto the mirror, but the raised lights
caused the superimposition of the reflection of the audience and the reflection of
the performer over the recorded death mask. In the fourth phase the lights are
dimmed again and the projected image changes to show the performer eight
seconds delayed, recorded from a camera set to the side of the stage. At this
the performer lifted her mask. Turning back to the video image in
the mirror she saw a masked image of herself, and made a gesture
as if she could not bear to look at herself. Then, as she looked back
at the mirror, the image appeared to catch up in time and become
simply a reflection.”181
In this phase, the performer acted as a surrogate for the viewer of
Present/Continuous Past[s] (fig. 68 & 69), in that the role of viewer and viewed
were both by turns forced onto her. Her scripted reaction of turning away,
refusing to see her masked reflection thus takes on a new significance. It seems
to parallel the viewer’s periods of blind action in Present/Continuous Past[s]. Both
seem to choose action over viewing, as if both were not possible simultaneously
(and in the context of the installation and the stage set, that is mostly true.) But,
perhaps more tellingly, it is the masked version of herself that the performer
chooses not to see.
Vision and blindness are important aspects of this performance. The
death mask, with its perpetually closed eyes, does not see, even while it positions
the viewer as seen. Instead, the mask, like the mirror, doubles the viewing
subject.182 The king, that is to say the structuring element, is absent, dead. His
substitutes, in the form of the mirror and video apparatus, which duplicates his
perspective, the performer, who acts in his space opposite the audience, and the
mask she wears double, even triple, his gaze. When the performer rejects her
masked image, it is because she refuses to recognize herself outside of and
divided from herself. In this single movement she occupies both viewer and
viewed, standing in as a performer for the audience, who has been caught within
a similar division from their position.
Like Lacan’s interpretation of the effect of the anamorphic skull across the
bottom of Holbein’s French Ambassadors, the disruptive effects of the mask in the
performance are predicated on a one-point perspective system, which renders
the viewing subject autonomous and complete. By introducing other vantage
points through the mirror and video camera, not to mention the unseeing mask,
Graham and Coleman throw into question the viewing subject’s perceived unity
and autonomy. The subject suddenly finds herself outside herself, displaced and
fragmented. Her new status as a “picture” undermines her perceived autonomy.
4.4 Photography as Symbolic Form
Graham’s installations with video cameras, like Present/Continuous Past[s],
employ video-time to create a similar effect of displacement and loss. While the
installations are sheer presence in one respect, they are continually marked with
a temporal loss. This is particularly notable in the context of a gallery or
museum. One expects to find a suspension of the outside world inside a gallery
or museum. Suspension is the stuff of which galleries and museums are made.
Not only are there physical suspensions within the museum in the form of
paintings hung on walls, but, more importantly, the viewer is caught in her own
suspended reactions to the work. We know we are not to touch and not to
proclaim judgment too hastily; often we feel we should even suspend our
communication with others so that the work can communicate with us. Such
suspensions create a mental distance within the viewer’s experience that
promises to offer objectivity. The figure of objectivity looms large not only
within the museum and gallery context, but also within historical approaches,
providing Graham with yet another ground on which to stage a disruption of the
socio-political order.
To this end, Graham presents time as a series of feedbacks, interruptions,
repetitions and sudden changes in direction, undermining the expected flow of
historical narrative. He creates a narrative alteration of temporality in works like
the performance pieces (Past Future/Split Attention), installations (Present
Continuous Pasts, the Time Delay Rooms) and videos (Rock My Religion). All
undermine the suspension of time normally present in a viewing situation, not
just to make it visible but also to show how vision is caught up in time and how
both disrupt each other. He shows what the Minimalists do not; that is, how we,
as viewers, might want to believe in the suspension of time in a visual
experience. Present Continuous Past[s] at once attempts to secure both the present
and its not so distant past, by using the time-delayed video to cover over the loss
associated with a continually fleeting present.
At the heart of the issue for Graham's work is the explicit swerve
backward to layer the subject onto the object, thus destroying any distancing
maneuvers or mental suspensions necessary for such a traditional historical
project. This destruction is part of a particular turn from one model for history to
another. The models, interestingly representational models that for a time were
considered to flow one from the other, are scientific perspective and
photography. In a scientific perspective model, particularly as understood by
Erwin Panofsky in his essay “Perspective as Symbolic Form,” there was a
measurable distance between a subject and object, which held the two in separate
and distinct roles.183 As Panofsky argues, such a model mirrored, or more
accurately, as we now understand, constructed, the relation of a subject to an
historical object. In a photographic model, however, the distances of Panofsky’s
historical object are rendered close in proximity. This occurs through the
photographic process as well as within the viewing situation of the end result.
Like the indexical process of the medium, photographs serve to bring close what
could be imagined to be temporally, or even spatially, distant partly because of
the medium’s refashioning of temporal and spatial continuity. 184 The subject
then is faced with an object suspended, removed, because sundered, from its
original historical moment by virtue of its photographic marking. Thus, subject
and object are brought into proximity, temporally and spatially.
Although Graham does not mention Panofsky per se, Panofsky’s
understanding of the historian as a privileged viewer within a one-point
perspective system informs Graham’s work in increasingly interesting ways.
While Graham begins his career attempting to represent the present as a
sequence of contextual moments in his work for magazines, his performance and
installation work gives up trying to depict the present, instead using time as one
of its materials. These works become increasingly complex until Graham fully
understands the architectural pressure exerted on time and perception.
Ultimately, Graham abandons the presence of a performer within his
architectural installations, realizing that video deployed in architecture becomes
the best model for showing the absence of any privileged vantage point.185 Also,
Graham’s use of architecture allows him to refer to our desire to see the work
presented within the suspending context of a museum or gallery as timeless at
the same time that he undermines that perception. Despite the fact that the
presence of a performer, who described the viewing audience, explicitly threw
into question the viewer’s position as a detached eye viewing a timeless and
fixed work, that performer’s presence also introduces the possibility that the
performer occupies that position. Such a reversal is not, evidently, what Graham
sought to exploit. Instead his choice of architectural models without performers
in recent years suggests Graham is trying to show the absence of any privileged
vantage point. That position, like time, is always in flux, always on the verge of
loss. Not surprisingly, Graham’s recent pavilions and models favor curves and
reflective panels, which constantly throw the viewer, as well as the work, into a
state of flux. There is no possibility for fixing either the work or one’s experience
of it in the past. When Graham substitutes subject for object, while embracing
spatial and temporal alterity, he mirrors a photographic construction of
The question of history has been a feature of the two of the most
prominent accounts of Graham’s work, those by Buchloh and de Duve.187 Most
likely, their acceptance of Graham’s interest in history stems from a comment
made by the artist. In the late 1960s, when Graham was just beginning to garner
serious attention within the art world, he referred to his photographic practice as
"photojournalism".188 Like many early artist statements, this classification held,
coloring many interpretations of his art work since, whether the work was
photographic or not. One outgrowth of such an interpretation has remodeled the
photojournalism Graham referred to as historical art, in the tradition of history
painting.189 And while it is definitely true that Graham seems to want to address
broader histories of contemporary life, like current housing trends in Homes for
America (fig. 66), a work whose classification as photojournalism is not all that
surprising, far less of his work engages that explicitly with current issues.
Moreover, Graham seems less than interested in documenting for posterity.
Instead, his interest in history, although very real, is strikingly different from
what many would like to suggest. Buchloh’s main interest is in Graham’s early
photographic work, specifically the photo-essay Homes for America. Buchloh
points out that Graham uses photography in a Minimalist (that is ready-made
and apparently documentary) way, ultimately conveying more about art history
than about the society that creates the tract-housing projects Graham
photographs and writes about. Because of the work’s greater relevance to the
history of art, Buchloh suggests that Graham’s work participates in history,
rather than documents that history. However, in contrast to the Minimalists,
who were, according to Buchloh, resurrecting the revolutionary style of the
Russian avant-garde, without the social commitment associated with that style,
Buchloh asserts that Graham does raise social issues about suburban domestic
architecture with the publication of his photo-essay.
Like Buchloh, de Duve insists on the mildly revolutionary flavor of
Graham’s work. Where Buchloh cited Marx, De Duve describes a
psychoanalytically inflected agent of history (à la the Frankfurt School) in
Graham’s installations. According to de Duve, it is Graham’s historical subject
who is caught up within the time regression, in works like Present/Continuous
Past[s], that undermines the conventional narrator, objective and external, who
sees from a distance. Operating on this assumption, de Duve positions the
camera, as an agent of the broadcast media, in the role of the narrator. It is
telling that in de Duve’s description Graham’s apparatus works best when there
is no one in the room. The critic argues that this is the only time that there is no
one to block the view from the camera. The installation, when working perfectly,
displaces the viewer from herself into the monitor or the mirror. But, this
displacement is thwarted by the viewer’s very presence. If the visitor can
interrupt this circuit, then the video apparatus may not make any superior claims
to narration. 190 Instead, the camera becomes nothing more than a recording
device. Meanwhile, any visitor who remains in the installation long enough to
respond to her recorded image finds herself taking on the role of the narrator. In
this way, Graham undermines the role of the conventional narrator, because,
where contemporary broadcast media, which the work invokes, sets itself up as a
conventional narrator, Graham’s apparatus, in striking contrast, establishes its
own space/time into which the narrator is drawn. External objectivity is
impossible in this situation. Thus, the reflections that Graham puts into play
here do not objectively record the present. Instead, they serve to draw in the
visitor, isolate her within a space/time continuum specific to the
installation—frame her, one might say, analogously to the repetition of Venus’
face reflected in the mirrors of Rubens and Velazquez that Rauschenberg isolated
in his silk-screens—and encourage her to respond to the version of the viewer
which the video monitor presents. All the while, the viewer exerts an increasing
amount of control in her representation of that image on the monitor.
Graham orchestrates a similarly deconstructive model of history in Past
Future/Split Attention.191 (Fig. 74) In this recorded performance, two performers
are engaged in a dialog of sorts. While one performer predicts the second’s
future behavior, the second recounts the first’s past behavior. The performance
is videotaped, confining the time bending to a set interval. The tape is then
presumably played back to an audience at a later date, although the video
medium Graham employed allowed nearly simultaneous recording and
playback as well. The ripples of time intervals between past, present and future
inform the video medium with its possibility of presentness and its potential for
recalling the past for the future. Thus the performers, in their split roles of
recording and predicting within sight of each other’s present/presence, at once
structure and reflect the multiple time dimensions of the medium. Moreover,
they act as interpretive mirrors for each other. In this performance work, neither
position is granted any privileged status as an agent of history. Instead, both
record separate histories that depend upon each other.
A slightly different version of mirroring and history writing is acted out in
Performer/Audience/Mirror Sequence (fig. 75 & 76), except, in this instance, there is
no time delay or reference to the past or future. In this performance, the artist, or
his proxy, stands before an audience and reflects [upon] the audience’s [and his
own] behavior by turn. According to Graham’s instructions, published often
with documentary photographs and recently released as a recording, the
performer begins by describing his own behavior for a set period of time and
then turning to the audience to describe their behavior, both individually and
collectively. During the second phase of the performance, the performer turns to
the mirror behind him and describes, by turns, himself and the audience. The
audience, according to Graham and de Duve, is thus faced with either accepting
or rejecting the performer’s description, not only of the group or individuals in it,
but also of the performer. They are expected to assess the performer’s
interpretation and, ideally, part of this assessment becomes material for the
performer to interpret. Again for de Duve, the mirror provides the objective
view for the audience through which they maintain some autonomy as
individuals so that they are not inscribed into a history beyond their control.
Graham’s explicit references to history vary considerably. Instead of
discussing his magazine works or even his installations as history, Graham is
more likely to discuss history in terms of the given context for his work.192 As a
result, he addresses the architectural context of the modern glass building when
he describes Two Adjacent Pavilions (fig. 67) as well as the eighteenth century
concept of the rustic hut and the Rococo symbolism of mirrors in architecture,193
and the social impact of Renaissance theater design when he describes the model
for Cinema in “Theater, Cinema and Power.”194 Graham also couches his
historical reflection on his early magazine pages within the Minimalist and Pop
art scenes of the sixties.195
Graham asserts his own prerogative to shape the dialogue about his work
through his interpretive and socio-historical essays, sometimes even limiting the
references and structures used to interpret the work. As a result, Graham’s
writing occupies a defining position because he insists on beginning the dialogue
about the art work. His first word on the work shapes subsequent responses to
it, particularly written responses. It is in this way that Graham’s writing
structures, in an almost architectural fashion, the art historical fate of his art
work. In a manner similar to the Minimalist work that Graham exhibited in his
short-lived gallery, Graham’s writing on his work reflects on the institutional
context of the art world, not just in terms of where art work is shown and sold,
but also in terms of where art work is commodified, that is, in art journals. What
is more, Graham’s architectural structuring of the viewer’s visual experience
forces the viewer to become more aware of herself both in time and in space.
Graham’s viewer-cum-historian then, sometimes embodied in a
performer, but always prone to the flux of time, ends up having a responsibility
to the work she describes. Like the viewer, the historian depends upon the work
as much as the work depends upon the historian. As a result of this
interdependent relationship, Graham’s work presents itself as a series of delays,
repeats and refashionings whose medium breaks are as arbitrary as the time
limitations imposed on his performances.
By being the first writer as well as the first viewer of his works, Graham
secures some leverage in the historical fortune of the works. Additionally, by
naming the essays with the same title bestowed on the art works, he undermines
their autonomy while repositioning himself as father and his essay as the image
for which the art work needs to account. It seems likely that Graham’s need to
write about the works arises out of the same slippage or gap which compelled
the viewer to act or “rewrite” in Present/Continuous Past[s]. That is, the
compulsion to act arises from the need to reclaim one’s experience in front of
these works, essentially to seal the circuit between the viewer and her reflected
or projected image.
The gap already exists for the viewer in front of the mirror. But with the
addition of a time delay and/or the public exhibition of the site of identification,
Graham ensures that the viewer is exposed to the realm of the symbolic, thus
forcing the issue by compelling an act of reclamation on the part of the viewer.
For the viewer's experience is wrested from her and either made the subject of
exhibition or subsumed within a communal experience. In the act of “writing”
or renaming her experience, the viewer positions herself in the role of the father
of the mirror stage, in effect removing herself from the visual circuit for a
framing or structuring textual intervention. It is in this way, by compelling the
viewer to provide some framework, that Graham secures the works’ positions as
art. For, as he has already pointed out when discussing his magazine pieces, it is
not simply the exhibition that determines art’s fate but also its public-ation.
Dan Graham’s first exhibition occurred at the home of the artist Robert
Smithson, where Graham projected the slides that illustrated Homes for
America.196 Smithson responded two years later with his own
travelogue/aesthetic meditation, the photo-essay Incidents of Mirror Travel in the
Yucatan, a work that came toward the end of the artist’s profound interest in
mirrors.197 Just as Rauschenberg, Richter and Graham tested the boundaries of
traditional media, Smithson’s oeuvre pushed painting, sculpture, film and even
writing beyond their limits, blurring distinctions between them and staking out
new territory in earthworks and writing.198 However, his use of mirrors and
reflection differed considerably from these artists. Rather than using mirrors to
reflect the viewer, Smithson disrupted the viewer’s reflection, ultimately
destabilizing the vertical reference to painting that remained a persistent feature
of all three artists discussed thus far. Through his angled deployment of the
mirrors, Smithson introduced a perceptual drain into the seemingly closed
system of one-point perspective, which bolstered the mirror work of most artists
of the 1960s.
As the previous chapters have noted, one-point perspective created a
perceptual system in which the viewer was expected to identify with a reflected
image. For Rauschenberg, this image highlighted the ambiguity between the
two-dimensional images and the three-dimensional objects that comprised his
work. The reflected image also bridged the gap between art and life by engaging
his viewers in the activation and completion of his interactive installations. Onepoint perspective also bolsters the psychoanalytic theories of Jacques
Lacan—theories that exposed the implicit identifications that leant illusionistic
painting its appeal to the viewer. Richter used the mirror to expose those
identifications as well by denying the viewer the clarity she sought in his photopaintings and in his colored mirrors. Graham also exposed the
institutionalization of these identifications by undermining them through
temporal and social disruptions.
For Smithson, one-point perspective represented but one of the flawed
systems his work aimed to expose. His Alogons materialize one-point
perspective, as many scholars have noted.199 (Fig. 77) However, that
materialization serves to turn the process back on itself. By returning the threedimensional object to its original status, after it has been translated in to two
dimensions, Smithson exposes the loss of accuracy, underscoring the failure of
that system. As Reynolds argues, the Alogons show how a perspective system
based on a single point, or eye, does not fully account for the reality of the space
it attempts to duplicate.200 Like the sandbox that Smithson describes in his A
Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, filled half with black sand and half with white
sand, there is no return to the original equilibrium once the sand is mixed.201 The
sandbox example introduced Smithson’s interest in the physical process of
entropy. According to this process, every system is characterized by its
deterioration or energy loss. In the Alogons, Smithson shows how the illusionistic
system of painting according to one-point perspective is subject to entropy as
well. While a viewer may mentally reconstruct the three-dimensional object
depicted, a faithful projection of that object after it has been filtered through onepoint perspective yields an object that is a-logical, an alogon, as Smithson refers
to them.
There is another level on which the identification process inherent in onepoint perspective provides a counterpoint for Smithson. As Reynolds notes,
Smithson rejected the biological metaphors in art criticism that typified
Greenberg’s and Fried’s descriptions of abstraction.202 Instead, according to
Smithson, abstraction is more accurately associated with the inhuman, nonbiological structure of crystals. To a certain extent this attitude is visible in the
Alogons simply by virtue of the fact that their materialization pays no heed to the
viewer’s position in front of, or around, the works. This chapter will
demonstrate that Smithson’s use of mirrors manages, surprisingly, to avoid the
empathetic identification that typifies the work of other artists using reflection in
the 1960s, in favor of a more abstract and entropic deployment.
Smithson’s use of mirrors as a primary material covers the period from
1964 until 1970. While his work consistently presents mirrors in distinctly
different ways than Rauschenberg, Richter or Graham, his interests in the visual
possibilities available through the mirror evolve during these five years. As
such, the work can be divided into three separate, although undeniably related,
phases. From 1964 to 1965, Smithson’s use of mirrors mainly explored interiority,
unearthing a hidden component of Minimalism that was inherent from the
beginning in Robert Morris’ early works. Unlike Minimalism, however,
Smithson’s exploration of interiority undermined empathetic visual perception
by refusing to return to the viewer the reflected image of herself that she expects.
From 1966-1968, Smithson focused on undermining pictorial conventions
associated with Euclidean Geometric Perspective. By refusing to employ mirrors
and glass in the service of one-point perspective and by materializing the rules of
perspectival illusions, freezing them into a situation in which there is no single
vantage point, Smithson attacks these conventions, showing up their limitations.
From late 1968 to early 1970, a very productive time for Smithson in terms of his
mirror work, Smithson concentrates on absence as the single most important trait
of the mirror, that which defines the viewer’s experience in front of all mirrors,
for when one stands in front of a mirror, despite that fact that one sees oneself
there, one is not in the mirror. Smithson seeks to heighten this experience, by
thwarting the viewer’s reflected appearance as well. Less reflection than
refraction, these works are typically angled away from the viewer or positioned
on the floor or low on the wall, providing an unexpected view of either the
gallery or some other space.
5.1 1964-1965: The Vestiges of Minimalism
Smithson’s first work employing mirrors, The Eliminator, introduced two motifs
which became reference points in his later work: contextual specificity in the vein
of Minimalism and the reflection of light. (Fig. 78) Composed of three mirrors
supported by a steel frame, the structure implied an architectural corner of sorts
with two mirrors positioned upright, flanking a horizontal mirror that rests on
the floor. Positioned halfway between the two vertical mirrors, a steel frame
supports neon tubing arranged in a zigzag pattern. The neon light was designed
to flash on and off when the work was displayed. In its overall design, it
prefigured the mirrored Nonsites Smithson constructed as corner installations. 203
Moreover, Smithson’s use of neon in The Eliminator introduced a later interest in
light even as it distinguished this sculpture from the rest of Smithson’s work.
Never again did Smithson use neon or other artificial light in his work, despite
the fact that the neon gained him some popular attention in 1964.204 Nonetheless,
his pairing of neon and mirrors introduced the theme of reflected sunlight, a
theme that pervaded his Mirror Displacements, the essay Incidents of Mirror
Travel in the Yucatan, and the film Spiral Jetty.
Robert Hobbes has suggested that Smithson’s sculptures from this period
are in a constant dialogue with Minimalism.205 Indeed, Smithson’s structural
choice of a corner does mimic the Minimalist predilection for corners and other
recognizable architectural references to the gallery space. There are two other
relationships to Minimalism here, one that should be evident at this point and
another that may not be. First, the reflexive shape and reflective materials of
Minimalist objects are referenced in Smithson’s choice of mirrored materials and
in the reflexive positions of the upright mirrors. In fact, Smithson takes this
reflexivity even further. Because the mirrors face inward, they not only refer to
each other, they actually reflect each other. This stress on the object’s interiority
continues an undercurrent in Minimalism that was implicit in the Minimalist
cube, as Michael Fried pointed out three years later, when he discussed Robert
Morris’ Untitled from 1965-66.206 (Fig. 79) The work consists of two halves of a
ring that are positioned a few inches apart. The gaps between the two sides glow
with their own fluorescent lights, which had been incorporated into the
structure. As Fried puts it, that light suggests “an inner, even secret life.”207
Fried’s description not only responds to the object’s implied hollowness, but also
its repression of that hollowness, making it seem like a secret aspect of the work,
simply because the interior is not entirely understandable from, or transparent
to, its exterior. While it predates Morris’ object, Smithson’s The Eliminator
responds materially to Dan Flavin’s employment of fluorescent lights and
conceptually to two earlier Morris works that do not employ light, his I-Box
(1962) and Box with the Sound of Its Own Making (1961). (Fig. 80 and 81) I-Box is a
simple wooden box in the shape of a capital letter I. A door with a small handle
is cut into the box and when opened it reveals a nude photograph of the artist.
Functioning a bit like a peep show, although Morris’ confident, conspiratorial
gaze admittedly undermines that impression, the work delivers an ego in the
form of the artist to the viewer. The appeal of Morris’ I-Box is more explicitly
visible in its contemporary, Rauschenberg’s combine Icon of the same year,
which also uses the box format, in this case rewarding the curious viewer with a
mirror reflection of herself. While Smithson’s work, like Rauschenberg’s,
incorporates reflection on its interior, it does not reward the viewer with a
reflection of herself. Instead, it plays reflection off of itself in a dizzying effect
akin to the distorting and perceptually confusing configurations of the halls of
mirrors found in amusement parks. The viewing subject is thwarted altogether
when she tries to fix herself spatially within the art work’s configuration, either
through identification with the artist or with her own image.
The Eliminator’s relationship to Box with the Sound of Its Own Making may
not be as obvious, but it is equally important for understanding just how radical
Smithson’s “Minimalist” work is. The wooden box that Morris exhibits as Box
with the Sound of Its Own Making is an entirely autonomous system, both spatially
and temporally. The cube shape of the box suggests the visual gestalt so
important to the Minimalists, which, they believed, secured its autonomy from
the viewer and from its context. Moreover, the tape recording of the making of
the box renders the work entirely self-referential, even to the point of
incorporating the temporal duration of its construction. Morris’ box appears to
hide nothing, suggesting its complete transparency in its presentation of itself to
the viewer.208 In contrast, Smithson opens up the cube, leaving only three sides
in The Eliminator, making any suggestion of the work’s transparency
unnecessary. And yet, unlike Box with the Sound of its Own Making, The Eliminator
is anything but transparent. Its reflective sides complicate the instant readability
of the cube shape that Smithson exposes, undermining the spatial autonomy and
self-referentiality of the cube. But it is in Smithson’s interpretation of the work’s
temporal status that his critique of the temporal specificity of the recording is
most striking.
The Eliminator is a clock that doesn’t keep time, but loses it. The
intervals between the flashes of neon are “void intervals”…The
Eliminator orders negative time as it avoids historical space.209
The flashes of the neon light appear to track time, in this case the present time of
the viewer, not a pre-recorded duration. Nonetheless, Smithson places the
emphasis in his description on the negative intervals when the light is off. This is
partly because, according to Smithson, when the light is on, “The viewer doesn’t
know what he is looking at, because he has no surface space to fixate on.”210 As a
result, the work appears to devour both time and space, but, because it is turned
in on itself, the time and space it consumes are its own, making the work
function like the mirror vortexes Smithson produced a year later, which will be
discussed below. Should the viewer wish to identify with the piece, she is met
only with the absence of her own reflection and the disruption of her suspended
sense of time in front of the work. Thus, even this early three-dimensional work,
which predates Smithson’s most “Minimalist” objects, not to mention his essays
on Minimalism, already reveals his profound differences with the movement.
Another work from this period also employed mirrors to effect a
perceptual abyss in front of the viewer. The now lost Enantiomorphic Chambers
(1965) have been analyzed at length by Tim Martin.211 (Fig. 82) Martin analyzes
photographs and descriptions of the work, along with a drawing/collage
Smithson completed, titled After-Thought Enantiomorphic Chambers and Drawing
Y, a schematic drawing that Martin believes relates to the chambers. Martin
describes the enantiomorphic chambers as part of a psychoanalytic event in
which the viewer is presented with her own desire to see herself—and by
extension to be seen by the inhuman gaze of the work—precisely through the
confounding of this desire. Martin extrapolates the viewer’s experience in front
of the work through a Lacanian analysis that is informed by the pictorial
convention of Renaissance perspective, a convention Smithson alludes to with
the mirror, even while he deploys the mirrors so that the reflexive confined space
of one-point perspective is opened up to infinite drain. Citing Smithson’s 1967
essay “Pointless Vanishing Points,” Martin notes that the artist intended the
work to provide three vantage points. Nonetheless, Smithson never explicitly
stated where they would be. Martin sets himself the task of extrapolating these
positions from Drawing Y, reaching the conclusion that at least one of the vantage
points effectively divided the viewer’s vision right down the middle. The
diagram marked six positions in relation to each other, three of which are
marked by the letter “m” and three by the letter “e,” suggesting the conceptual
splitting of the word “me” in reference to a two-eyed viewing subject. Martin
grafts an eye onto each letter and then suggests that Smithson intended to
heighten the viewer’s perceptual splitting with the work. To be sure, Smithson
was interested in the fact that physiologically vision is divided between two eyes
that mentally suture these two slightly different vantage points together in a
process known as retinal fusion.212 Nonetheless, there is little to suggest that
Smithson would have expected the viewer to experience the work from some of
the positions Martin describes. In particular, his second stage, during which
Martin imagines the viewer will walk right up to the edge of the sculpture and
willingly position one eye so that it gazes into the internal mirror vortex and the
other so that it gazes at the exterior of the sculpture. It is true that Smithson has
a particular interest in enantiomorphs. However, this interest does not seem to
be limited to a concern about an inhuman gaze, particularly one styled after
Lacan’s symbolic gaze.213 Instead, Smithson seems to be more interested in
revealing the actual split in perception, not in the subject. As Smithson puts it,
the work explores “…all the different breakdowns within perception.”214
Moreover, such an interest in the subject would open the artist up to the same
critique he levels at Greenberg and psychoanalysis, that is of relying too heavily
on biomorphic descriptions.
The other works from this period frequently take the shape of crystals, a
shape that Smithson favors because of its non-biomorphic associations and
because of his long-standing interest in geology. It is from the sciences that the
artist also picks up his concept of entropy. Borrowed from physics, the term
offers an alternative to the biological metaphors that dominated art criticism and
art history. As a state of continual energy drain, entropy begins with a mistrust
in cycles as well as in stasis. In the second respect, Smithson structurally
incorporates entropy and his interest in crystals into his critique of Minimalism.
By giving his objects crystalline forms, he undermines the implied transparency
of the Minimalist cube in favor of a perceptually opaque interplay of surface and
interior. Works like Mirror Vortex and Four Sided Vortex, both 1965, insert
mirrored vortexes into simple stainless steel rectangular or triangular containers.
(Fig. 83 and 84) Like The Eliminator and Enantiomorphic Chambers, the vortexes
refuse viewer reflection. The internal reflections create the appearance of
crystalline shapes within these boxes. But the continual deferral of the static
subject/object relationship a viewer expects in front of one of these works inserts
a perceptual hole in the work, in effect draining the certainty of that relationship
away into the vortex. Smithson makes much of the abstract nature of the
Minimalists’ work in a 1965 essay on Donald Judd that bears remarking, for his
description of Judd’s work is perhaps more accurately a description of his own
work with mirrors.
Space in Judd’s art seems to belong to an order of increasing
hardness, not unlike geological formations…Judd has brought
space down into an abstract world of mineral forms. He is
involved in what could be called, “The Deposition of Infinite
Space.” Time has many anthropomorphic representations, such as
Father Time, but space has none…Space is nothing, yet we all have
a kind of vague faith in it.215
In the above quotation, Smithson sets up an opposition between abstraction and
anthropomorphism.216 True abstraction, according to Smithson, conveys no
anthropomorphic references and is instead better suited to geological metaphors.
Indeed, his vortexes more closely resemble crystals than the biomorphic figures
they refuse to figure forth. Moreover, as a result of their failure to reflect
anything other than mirrors or fragments of objects and people reflected in other
mirrors, they are perhaps the most abstract mirrors discussed thus far. Where
Rauschenberg, Richter and Graham all ultimately understood that their works
would reflect their viewers and in some cases actively sought this effect,
Smithson worked to achieve a more radical, non-humanist abstraction with his
Smithson also posited that Judd’s work deposes the particular kind of
space that Smithson explores the next year in such works as the Alogons and, in
1968, Pointless Vanishing Point.217 In the essay on Judd, Smithson calls the space
that Minimalism deposes infinite, but in the essay “Pointless Vanishing Points”
he makes clear that this space is that of Euclid.218 Euclidean space, as Smithson
describes it, is two-dimensional and, at least by implication, infinite. In
opposition to the Euclidean space of one-point perspective, Smithson offers up
what he calls enantiomorphic space, which is three-dimensional and finite. It is,
in fact, more like the actual world we inhabit, as opposed to the world we
attempt to conceptualize when figuring it. It would seem that Smithson has in
mind the camera obscura when he describes one-point perspective. The structure
of the camera obscura, a box on the interior of which a convincing image of the
external world is projected, is mimicked in Smithson’s box-like structures of 1964
and 1965. However, when Smithson builds his own finite structure, he
undermines the perceptual effects of the camera obscura. While Smithson’s works
posit a correct vantage point, they also leave themselves open to an infinite
number of incorrect vantage points—all of which are possible even if they do not
participate in the original illusion. In doing so, Smithson undermines the
veracity of the analogy on which the camera obscura operates, between infinite
space and its finite representation. By exposing the lack of cohesion within this
analogy, Smithson underscores the ruptures and gaps that structure the pictorial
device of one-point perspective. The exposure of these gaps becomes Smithson’s
defining concern when he uses mirrors. Instead of constructing an enclosed
system where vision presents itself as unified, Smithson created perceptual
devices, like the Enantiomorphic Chambers, in which vision is forever split from
itself in an open and infinite circuit of reflection. Between 1966 and 1968,
Smithson turns his attention to finite, three-dimensional structures, further
undoing the defining analogy of Euclidean space and its representational tool,
the camera obscura.
5.2 1966-1968: Limits and Layers
Beginning in 1966, with the Alogons, Smithson abandoned the mirror briefly to
materialize the techniques of one-point perspective in three-dimensions. (Fig. 77)
The result was a series of repeated forms of diminishing scale, exhibited together
in sequence. Due to the visible remnants of the system of one-point perspective,
all of the Alogons are structured according to a particular vantage point.
However, a viewer is free to stand wherever she chooses while viewing the
work, leaving open the likelihood that the “illusion” of spatial recession into
depth—an illusion which is redundant and unnecessary in three
dimensions—would unravel. By returning the forms back to their threedimensional reality after cycling them through the illusionistic system of
traditional western painting, Smithson exposes the limits of one-point
perspective. As such, these works are an extension of the same concerns with
perception and one-point perspective that defined Smithson’s early mirrored
works. Speaking of his interest in Jorge Luis Borges’ writing, Smithson describes
the author’s writing and the artist’s art making as essentially similar in method.
I was always interested in Borges’ writings and the way he would
use leftover remnants of philosophy. That kind of taking of a
discarded system and using it…as a kind of armature.219
Smithson’s employment of one-point perspective, a system that was all but
discarded within the history of modern painting, became Smithson’s armature as
he explored a radically abstract art.
Additionally, Smithson suggested that his art process involved the
compositional strategy of layering, just as his writing did.220 That is, the process
of materializing one-point perspective adds another layer of meaning by
exposing perspective’s entropic nature and its ultimate failure. Structurally, the
stacked composition of the Alogons and the other works from this period,
including Plunge, Pointless Vanishing Point, and Terminal, informed Smithson’s
return to mirrors as a sculptural material. Beginning in late 1966, Smithson
produced a series of strata made of glass and mirror. The series combined
Smithson’s interest in space and time. Linked to crystals, the strata offered
Smithson a model for the spatial and temporal disruptions he noted within
modernist painting. The layered structure of crystals he likened to the geological
evidence of time in the strata visible in core samples.221 The defining element of
geological stratifications is the layering and disruptive shifts which put two
temporally distinct periods in contact with one another. He describes a similar
effect of historical disjunction in his essay “Ultramoderne.” The essay posits the
existence of “two types of time—organic (modernist) and crystalline
(Ultratist).”222 Modernist time depends upon the idea of advance. It is the linear
time that gives rise to concepts like the avant-garde, whereas Ultratist time arises
out of the object from the various layers of time embedded in the object.223
Smithson describes this crystalline structure in the architecture of the 1930s,
which combined elements of “the many types of monumental art from every
major period—Egyptian, Mayan, Inca, Aztec, Druid, Indian, etc.”224
With Ziggurat Mirror, Smithson layers mirrors together in the rough form
of a stepped pyramid, or ziggurat. (Fig. 85) The architectural reference to the
pyramidal structures of Mesopotamia and the Aztecs reveal Smithson’s interest
in the pre-historic past. By building the ziggurat out of a mirror, Smithson
acknowledges his debt to the architecture of the thirties as well. In the essay on
“Ultramoderne” architecture, he notes the profusion of mirrors, suggesting that
the material’s ability to repeat what appeared before it made it a particularly apt
choice for this architectural style which repeated so many different
styles—implicitly rejecting the originality sought after by the avant-garde.225 In
the same essay, however, Smithson also notes the mirror’s ability to “contain
everything” while it nonetheless is in fact “a vain trap, an abyss.”226 This
description, Janus-like, refers back to the mirror vortexes at the same time that it
prefigures Smithson’s later work with mirrors. As such, it is important to
understand his particular interest in this layered mirror. It functions like a
mirror in that either side reflects the viewer, albeit with the layered edges of the
mirrors disrupting the reflection at points. However, in order to experience the
primary title reference, i.e. the ziggurat shape, one must leave one’s reflection in
favor of a side-view, which emphasizes instead the thickness and color of the
glass mirrors, as opposed to the reflectivity of the sides. Thus, the prehistoric
reference, which on one side displays a permanently present reality in the mirror,
retains a spatial thickness on its side. Time and space are united in one object
that combines a view of the present and a reference to the distant past.227
The divided structure of ziggurat mirror is hinted at by its combination of
two nouns in its title. It is both a ziggurat and a mirror. The viewer cannot
experience both directly from any one side. The ascendance of either title
reference is determined by her vantage point, just as that position determined
her experience of the Alogons. Moreover, the ziggurat format evokes the wellknown biblical ziggurat, the Tower of Babel, functioning as a shorthand for
Smithson’s interest in the confluence of stylistic languages in the architecture of
the 1930s and his conviction that art and language can never be seamlessly and
completely translated into one another.
In the illusory babels of language, an artist might advance
specifically to get lost, and to intoxicate himself in dizzying
syntaxes, seeking odd intersections of meaning, strange corridors of
history, unexpected echoes, unknown humors, or voids of
knowledge...but this quest is risky, full of bottomless fictions and
endless architectures and the end, if there
is an end, are perhaps only meaningless reverberations. The
following is a mirror structure built of macro and micro orders,
reflections, critical laputas, and dangerous stairways of words...
Here language “covers” rather than “discovers” its sites and
situations. Here language “closes” rather than “discloses” doors to
utilitarian interpretations and explanations. The language of the
artists and critics referred to in this article becomes paradigmatic
reflections in a looking-glass babel that is fabricated according to
Pascal’s remark, “Nature is an infinite sphere, whose center is
everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” The entire
article may be viewed as a variation on that much misused remark;
or as a monstrous “museum” constructed out of multi-faceted
surfaces that refer, not to one subject but to many subjects...Or
language becomes an infinite museum, whose center is everywhere and
whose limits are nowhere.228
In this passage, Smithson combines references to Borges in the stairways with the
motif of infinite reflection, which somehow manages to miss its subject, to imply
the endless interpretations of his art, translations from the visual to the linguistic,
that can arise in the face of it. In contrast to Graham, Smithson’s writing refuses
to limit the discourse that surrounds his work. Instead, it continually introduces
new layers of interpretation.
Smithson’s other strata were oriented horizontally, adding another
dimension to his references. Like Ziggurat Mirror, the later strata are formed in
pyramidal configurations, with their apex typically positioned in one corner.
(Fig. 86) Their effect is to accentuate the materiality of the mirror, exposing the
thickness of the mirrors through the repetition of layers. Thus, the process of
spectral reflection is exposed as dependent upon thickness and materiality.229 As
Reynolds points out, these strata, especially Untitled (Map on Mirror) Fig. 87,
which can be viewed both as immaterial and flattened from above and thick and
substantive from the side, extend from Smithson’s experience as a consultant on
the proposal for the air terminal for Dallas/Fort Worth, particularly with regard
to the aerial maps he encountered on this project, which stood in for the
architectural environment he was helping to plan.230 Like the Alogons, whose
stacked and splayed construction these strata repeat, the mirrors reverse the
tendency to optically flatten the world through a mirrored surface or map. This
map on mirror also functions to reverse the mapping process, rendering that flat
image in three-dimensions. Smithson’s choice to back each successively smaller
mirror with maps that correspondingly decreased in scale renders the map
inconsistent and emphatically layered in appearance, suggesting instead the
geological shifts which rendered the earth’s surface inconsistent and ultimately
influenced the features described on the map. Ultimately, Smithson’s interest in
maps, a place where geological time meets contemporary space, led him to an
interest in more spatially distant relationships between the gallery and an actual
5.3 1968-1970: “A Thing is a Hole in a Thing It is not”
In 1968, Smithson began using mirrors in his Nonsites, works he referred to as
“three dimensional logical picture[s] that [are] abstract, yet represent an actual
site…”231 Red Sandstone Corner Piece consists of three mirrors, each four feet
square, placed into a corner. (Fig. 88) The mirror that rests on the floor is nearly
covered with sandstone from the Sandy Hook Quarry in New Jersey. As a
corner piece, the work echoes Smithson’s early neon work The Eliminator. In this
case, however, the mirrors reflect the sandstone, making it appear to extend into
a single floor piece approximately 16 feet square. Because the work is larger than
The Eliminator and all three mirrors meet on a 90-degree angle, the work actually
reflects more of its surroundings than its predecessor. As a result, the distinction
between site and non-site is blurred, because the sandstone from the site is
reflected in the mirror together with the non-site context of the gallery. The
mirrors turn the geological samples from the site into a picture. Moreover, they
incorporate the viewer’s legs and feet into that site as well, creating a sense of
physical displacement for the viewer from the gallery to the unbounded,
uncontained site. While Smithson emphatically maintains that his art is abstract
and, therefore, non-empathetic, he does invite the viewer to imagine traversing
the site mentally. By refusing to provide the viewer with a reflection of her face,
Smithson avoids the pathos and anthropomorphism he criticizes Greenberg and
Fried for having appealed to in their discussions of abstraction. By fragmenting
the viewer and, to a certain extent, de-personalizing her self-projection towards
the Nonsite, Smithson maintains a delicate balance between site and Nonsite as
well as between the object and the viewer’s mental experience. As he puts it:
My work is impure; it is clogged with matter. I’m for a weighty,
ponderous art. There is no escape from matter…nor is there any
escape from the mind. The two are in a constant collision course.
You might say that my work is like an artistic disaster. It is a quiet
catastrophe of mind and matter.232
When Smithson insists on the non-empathetic nature of abstraction, he does not
deny the viewer’s mental projection into the work. Instead, he merely refuses to
provide an object with which easy identification can happen between the two.
In most cases, his Nonsites involve gathering samples of rocks, dirt or
other geological specimens from a site full of such materials, a site which
typically seems unbounded and “oceanic” in comparison with the bounded
Nonsite into which that material is incorporated. Thus, the dialectic between site
and Nonsite, is also one between the limitless and the contained, and, because
the works are exhibited within the confines of the art gallery system, between the
peripheral and forgotten and the central and historically relevant. Because the
materials gathered do not usually leave any sort of absence on the site, the works
also put into play a dialectic between the visible and the invisible. That is, by
virtue of having moved the sandstone from the quarry in New Jersey, Smithson
has actually made it visible to many who would never have access to that quarry.
All of these contrasting concepts are held together in the “non” part of the site,
an emphatic object that refers to a fact we only know conceptually. As he puts it,
An object to me is the product of a thought; it doesn’t necessarily
signify the existence of art. My view of art springs from a
dialectical position that deals with whether something exists or
doesn’t exist…There is this dialectic between inner and outer,
closed and open, center and peripheral. It just goes on constantly
permuting itself into this endless doubling, so that you have the
Nonsite functioning as a mirror and the site functioning as a
His sense of the mirror then is largely determined by the mirror’s object status, as
opposed to its reflective ability. The mirror, like his Nonsites, contains a remnant
of the site in the form of a reflection. However, the mirror can also suggest the
limitless site through its multiple reflections.
The Nonsites, because they set up these dualities that they attempt to
contain, have a very different feel than the early works like the Enantiomorphic
Chambers, which refuse to maintain a closed system of viewer and viewed, or
even the vortexes, which seem to draw the viewer into a sieve through which
perception appears to drain out the bottom. Given the fact that the sites are
sometimes indistinguishable after they have been mined by Smithson, the
structure of the Nonsites in relation to the sites appears to be one very close to a
more traditional mirroring situation, in which nothing is lost from the origin[al]
even while it is referred to from a place outside of itself. And, perhaps more
importantly, Smithson often carefully includes the name of the location from
which the material was gathered, rendering the Nonsite unambiguously attached
to a specific space. There is no possibility for attachments between the Nonsite
and a multitude of possible original sites. In some ways this is similar to the
effect of the Alogons, which fix the point of perceptual origin. However, the
Alogons always leave open the possibility, indeed even encourage it, that the
viewer will choose another vantage point. In the named Nonsites, such
possibilities are excluded.
Mineralogically, the non-sites that feature mirrors with sand or sandstone
refer to the continual permutational flow between the sample and the mirror.
Both sand and sandstone form the basic materials in the manufacturing of glass.
As a result, a work like Red Sandstone Corner Piece presents two points in an
irreversible process—one that could be said to be entropic in its irreversibility.
The original structure of the sandstone in particular cannot be recouped once the
stone has been melted and fired into glass. Moreover, sandstone is a particularly
appropriate material, simply because its geological structure mimics the layered
composition of the strata. As a sedimentary rock, it exhibits the depth and
disruptions of time in its very structure.
In another type of mirror work from the same period, Smithson structures
his work out of flux and flow as a primary material. In his Cayuga Salt Mine
Project, Smithson employs both Nonsites and mirror displacements which
marked the site.234 (Fig. 89) Additionally, he creates a Mirror Trail between the
gallery that exhibited the Nonsite and the site, actively encouraging travel to the
site. (Fig. 90) Eight Part Piece consists of eight square mirrors cantilevered
horizontally a few inches above the floor and supported by the salt collected at
the site. (Fig. 91) The mirrors reflect only a small percentage of the sample from
the site. Instead, the Nonsite functions like a reflection of the site; that is,
Smithson’s deployment of the mirrors and salt echoes the arrangement of the
same materials in the displacement he photographed at the mining site. In his
displacements at the site, Smithson photographed the mirrors on the floor of the
salt mine, sometimes laying them flat on the floor of the mine and at others
slanting them diagonally rising from the floor. The photographs of the mirrors
are in all cases taken at an angle that provides a view of a part of the mine that is
beyond the frame of the camera. Typically, the mirrors reflect areas of the mine
which are bathed in light, and occasionally they reflect the light more directly,
bathing their own surroundings with refracted sunlight, bringing the celestial
down to the subterranean in the same way the salt brings the site into the
Nonsite or gallery.235 The mirror displacement from the mining site was then
disassembled. The same mirrors used in the mine were probably used in the
Nonsite. Nonetheless, even if they were not the same, the fact that the mirrors
were only temporarily placed on the site and similar mirrors were used in the
Nonsite creates a strong impression of the gallery’s Nonsite simply functioning
as yet another displacement from the site by way of the mirror.236 Smithson notes
the material’s conceptual aspect, as well, suggesting the work functioned as a
reflection of the site, despite the fact that an actual reflection of the site did not
appear in the mirror.237
Smithson does alter the exterior of the gallery in this work, unlike Red
Sandstone Corner Piece. His Mirror Trail, a path between the gallery and the
Cayuga Salt Mine site marked only by mirrors placed periodically in the
landscape connected site to Nonsite, exhibition to referent. These mirrors
functioned differently than the mirrors in the gallery, which simply emphasized
the materiality of the salt that supported and rested on them at the same time
that they reflected more mundane architectural aspects of the gallery, such as its
ceiling and lighting. The Mirror Trail, however, offered the possibility of
reflecting the viewer, but in this case the viewer was en route and the emphasis
on the viewer’s travel to the site, as opposed to the viewer within a gallery, or
even at the site, tended to downplay the viewer’s identification with her reflected
image for a more dynamic experience of flux. In this way, Smithson offers the
viewer the visual experience of her own displacement, creating a more
conceptual projection into displacement as a process, rather than an
anthropomorphic image with which one identifies. Smithson states “A lot of my
pieces come out of the idea of covering distances.”238 He referred to the distance
separating the site from the Nonsite as an abyss, “a kind of oblivion”239 As such,
the Mirror Trail punctuated that abyss, giving it form. The abyss in this sense ties
in closely with Smithson’s argument about the limitless. As he states in an
interview conducted two months later in April of 1969, art cannot be limitless.
“All legitimate art deals with limits. Fraudulent art feels that it has no limits.”240
Earlier in the same article, when he is discussing his Nonsites, he states,
It seems that no matter how far out you go, you are always thrown
back on your point of origin…You are confronted with an
extending horizon; it can expand onward and onward, but then
you suddenly find the horizon is closing in all around you, so that
you have this dilating effect. In other words, there is no escape
from limits.241
The passage quoted above notably echoes another passage from the
published version of another displacement, which also occurred in April of 1969.
Driving away from Merida down Highway 261 one becomes aware
of the indifferent horizon…One is always crossing the horizon, yet
is always remains distant…A horizon is something else other than
a horizon; it is closedness in openness…242
The essay, “Incidents of Mirror Travel in the Yucatan,” from which the preceding
passage is taken, is a multi-part work that is primarily about limits and
secondarily about the systems that impose limits. The photo-essay, which is the
only form in which it survived at the end of Smithson’s life, documents a trip
Smithson took with his wife, the artist Nancy Holt, and his dealer, Virginia
Dwan.243 During the trip, Smithson assembled between nine and thirteen square
mirrors in the landscape across the Yucatan peninsula, typically near, but not in
view of, Mayan and Aztec ruins. (Fig. 92 and 93) His manner of assembly was
similar to his displacements in the Cayuga Salt Mine. The mirrors again were
nestled into embankments of rock or dirt, or sometimes propped up by
vegetation, reflecting the sky above them and any incidental rocks, dirt, flora or
fauna which happened to fall before them. After the displacements were
photographed, the installation would be disassembled and brought to a new
location for yet another displacement. Unlike the Cayuga Salt Mine Project, no
materials were collected from the sites, and the mirrors were never exhibited
elsewhere. Instead, the only record Smithson left Mexico with was his largeformat film. Rather than exhibiting the photographs, Smithson wrote the hybrid
essay “Incidents of Mirror Travel in the Yucatan.” Part travelogue, part
documentation, part aesthetic pronouncement, the essay echoes many of
Smithson’s interests up to that point.
The passage the Yucatan essay opens with, quoted above, situated the
work in a debate current in Minimal art at the time. Revolving around the
experience of the infinite and art’s inability to reconstruct that experience, the
debate begins with a comment made by the Minimalist artist Tony Smith in an
interview published in Artforum in December of 1966. Describing a revelatory
experience he had while driving, Smith states:
…someone told me how I could get onto the unfinished New Jersey
Turnpike…It was a dark night and there were no lights or shoulder
markers, lines, railings, or anything at all except the dark pavement
moving through the landscape of the flats…This drive was a
revealing experience. The road and much of the landscape was
artificial, and yet it couldn’t be called a work of art. On the other
hand, it did something for me that art had never done…its effect
was to liberate me from many of the views I had had about art…I
thought to myself, it ought to be clear that’s the end of art. Most
painting looks pretty pictorial after that. There is no way you can
frame it, you just have to experience it.244
While Smithson described a similar experience during a car ride, it is important
to note that he consistently described his movement through space in terms of a
horizon. That is, as he traveled down the road, the horizon continually slipped
underneath his wheels. Horizons are, aside from being perceptual facts, pictorial
conventions. It is typically along the horizon that the vanishing point would
appear in a picture constructed according to the rules of one-point perspective.
This point on the horizon organizes the pictorial space, just as the road on which
Smithson traveled organized the space through which he passed.245 Thus, the
vanishing point, the furthest visible point on the road, became Smithson’s goal,
yet as he moved, he continually occupied a previous vanishing point. Time and
space collapsed. Poised always at the threshold of the infinite which promised to
open out beyond the vanishing point, Smithson’s experience revealed the limits
of perception, as well as the limits of the art form which seeks to convey that
Smithson’s placement of the mirrors in the Yucatan echoes his
displacements in the Cayuga Salt Mine Project. For the most part, they were
placed on the ground so that the sky is reflected into them. Smithson suggests it
was a way of painting with light.
Particles of color infected the molten reflections on the twelve
mirrors, and in so doing, engendered mixtures of darkness and
light. Color as an agent of matter filled the reflected illuminations
with shadowy tones, pressing the light into dusty material
opacity…The word “color” means at its origin to “cover” or “hide.”
Matter eats up light and “covers” it with a confusion of color…Real
color is risky, not like the tame stuff that comes out of tubes.246
The mirrors thus become uncontrollable and irrational. “Reflections fall onto the
mirrors without logic.”247 The mirrors keep confusing rational space. “The
mirror surfaces being disconnected from each other ‘destructuralized’ any literal
logic.”248 They are a far cry from Leonardo’s mirror, which secured the
rationality of his painting’s illusionistic space.
The publication of the Yucatan essay further undermines the system of
one-point perspective through its layout of the photographs and the inclusion of
text. As Reynolds notes, the grid format of the publication of the photographs
overlays a separate system on the photographic space that structures each image,
creating a disjunction between the two. The mirrors further disrupt that space by
creating a hole in the photographed landscape.249 Beyond that, Smithson’s
writing also overlays another system over the original “hole.” “One must
remember that writing on art replaces presence by absence by substituting the
abstraction of language for the real thing.”250 None of these systems perfectly
reflect each other; there is always a disjunction. “Writing the reflection is
supposed to match the physical reality, yet somehow the enantiomorphs don’t
quite fit together.”251 Or to quote from the passage by Levi-Strauss used as an
epigraph for the essay:
The characteristic feature of the savage mind is its timelessness; its
object is to grasp the world as both a synchronic and a diachronic
totality and the knowledge which it draws therefrom is like that
afforded of a room by mirrors fixed on opposite walls, which reflect
each other…although without being strictly parallel.252
While Strauss is commenting on a non-western conception of time, the image he
uses to describe it is particularly telling. The figure of the enantiomorph and the
lack of fit between two poles of a system like one-point perspective both open up
a trap door into the “dialectics” that Smithson presents, introducing an illogical
entropic loss in the logical systems. What is particularly fitting about the choice
of this passage for the epigraph, however, is Smithson’s equally disruptive
employment of mirrors to accomplish a similar effect. Instead of angling the
mirror so that it artificially creates a static and apparently complete space,
Smithson manages to leave an opening. His mirrors do not complete the scene
before the mirror the way that the painted mirror in Van Eyck’s double portrait
does, suggesting an infinite continuity of similar space outside the painting. (Fig.
94) Instead, Smithson effects the sort of temporal and spatial disruptions that are
common in geological strata by displacing the sky onto the earth. The mirror
displacements thus fail to preserve the spatial autonomy of the picture, allowing
time and space to bleed from sky to ground, from mirror to camera, from
photograph to writing, and all into the art magazine, finally fixing the
displacement with an admittedly arbitrary publication date.
Smithson continues his interest in the displacement of light and the
natural occurrence of reflective surfaces in his film and essay Spiral Jetty. The
reflective possibilities of water seem to have informed the Yucatan
displacements, despite the fact that no photographs displaying this effect were
actually published with the essay. Nonetheless, the photograph Roots and Rocks,
Palenque was taken during the trip. (Fig. 95) Sometime around the Fifth Mirror
Displacement, Smithson assembled a small pile of rocks and roots in a nearly dry,
rocky riverbed. Smithson then photographed the pile aiming the camera
outward to include a long view of the landscape and the horizon towards the
top. Next to the pile of rocks, a small puddle of water reflects the hazy sun into
the camera.253 In a similar manner, the Great Salt Lake functioned as a mirror in
the film of Spiral Jetty. (Fig. 96) When Smithson filmed it from above, the water
reflected the sun displacing it into the spiral of water that was contained by the
jetty. “The helicopter maneuvered the sun’s reflection through the Spiral Jetty
until it reached the center. The water functioned as a vast thermal mirror.”254 In
this one shot, Smithson layers one of the sources for the spiral motif onto the
final spiral.
As I looked at the site, it reverberated out to the horizons only to
suggest an immobile cyclone while flickering light made the entire
landscape appear to quake. A dormant earthquake spread into the
fluttering stillness, into a spinning sensation without movement.
This site was a rotary that enclosed itself in an immense roundness.
From that gyrating space emerged the possibility of the Spiral Jetty.
No ideas, no concepts, no systems, no structures, no abstractions
could hold themselves together in the actuality of that evidence.
My dialectics of site and Nonsite whirled into an indeterminate
state, where solid and liquid lost themselves in each other…The
shore of the lake became the edge of the sun, a boiling curve, an
explosion rising into a fiery prominence. Matter collapsing into the
lake mirrored in the shape of a spiral.255
The spiral shape of the jetty was in part inspired by the spiraling tendrils of fire
that rise from the edges of the sun, in part inspired by the local myth of a
whirlpool at the center of the Great Salt Lake, and in part by the spiral structure
of the salt crystals which would ultimately form on the jetty.256 Nonetheless, the
spiral motif had appeared before in Smithson’s art, most notably in the 1970
sculpture Gyrostasis and in proposals for an air terminal site, and would appear
again in his subsequent earth works. The flickering of light that inspired the
spiral movement Smithson described, however, also had early precedents in The
Eliminator, where the flashing lights lost space and time. Like the viewer before
The Eliminator, Smithson found himself losing his spatial and conceptual
markers, losing himself in his experience of the site. And yet, his experience was
not conveyed through a limitless medium. Instead, it was caught in two
enantiomorphs, two imperfect reflections: his essay “Spiral Jetty” and his film
Spiral Jetty. Both essay and film have a bounded materiality of their own.
Indeed, the film’s structure of multiple frames of photographic exposure mimics
the flickering of light that the artist described in the essay. The materiality of the
essay may not be as clear in this respect, but Smithson described it particularly
well in a passage about his earth works.
The names of minerals and the minerals themselves do not differ
from each other, because at the bottom of both the material and the
print is the beginning of an abysmal number of fissures. Words
and rocks contain a language that follows a syntax of splits and
ruptures. Look at any word long enough and you will see it open
up into a series of faults, in a terrain of particles each containing its
own void.257
In a similar manner, Smithson imagined his own writings like “Spiral Jetty” and
“Incidents of Mirror Travel in the Yucatan” to be structured out of the same kind
of fissures and disruptions that constituted the jetty and the mirror
displacements. Instead of mirroring his works, as Graham’s writing attempts to
do, Smithson’s writing opened up the terrain, exposing the lack of cohesion and
the deep fissures that drain away authoritative meaning, revealing chaos rather
than logic, inverting the typical function of the artist essay to make sense of the
work. In sight of each other, the works and the writing are in constant dialogue,
but in the end the system is given over to entropic loss. Levi-Strauss’ description
of a room filled with mirrors that partly reflect each other captures some sense of
the effect of Smithson’s writing on his sculptures, non-sites, displacements, earth
works and film. Rather than lining up perfectly, Smithson’s writing circles his
works, but the works always exceed the terms of his writing.258 In fact, Smithson
stated definitively that he does not subscribe to the view that art works can be
done away with entirely and replaced by a concept.259 It is more accurate to
claim that the writing is capable of being translated into the art work’s terms.
That is certainly what he claimed in the quotation above, where he described
words in the material terms of the rocks he so frequently employed. And it was
also his claim in the 1966 poem, “A Heap of Language.” (Fig. 97) Consisting of
layers of words structured in a pyramidal shape, the work resembles his mirror
and glass strata of the same year. The words are all related to language but are
not exact definitions of the word “language” placed at the apex. Instead, each
word expands the references in the same way that each consecutive line, as the
poem is read, increases the scale of the pyramid. For Smithson, words were
material and thus could not be a perfect reflection of that to which they refer.
This position is remarkably similar to Derrida’s claim that language frames art
but does not perfectly reflect it.260 It would be a mistake to believe that any
written description exhausts all that there is to see in an art work.
To push Smithson’s work and writing even further afield, but strangely
enough back to his intellectual roots, it might be useful to consider two stories
about the impulse to make art. One originates in Ovid’s Metamorphosis, while the
other was proposed by the same philosopher who provided Smithson with the
term “dialectic,” G.W.F. Hegel.261 The story of Narcissus, who mistook his own
reflection for that of another, transfixed in his desire for the other, is rather well
known. Hegel’s story, briefly related in the introduction to the Aesthetics, is
perhaps less so. It comes within a discussion of the need to produce works of art.
Hegel claimed that this need arises from a thinking consciousness that must
reproduce itself in order to have itself as an object of contemplation. In the story,
a boy throws stones into a river.262 His action produces circular ripples across
the surface of the water. In these ripples, the boy recognizes his own agency.
That is, he understands that he has extended himself out into the world through
the effects caused by his action. Hegel’s story contrasts sharply with the
Narcissus myth. When the protagonist reaches out to touch the face of his
paramour, the image of his beloved disappears among the ripples caused by the
youth’s contact with the surface. The Narcissus myth is based on a fundamental
mis-recognition of one’s own reflection. Not only does this mis-recognition
occur when Narcissus believes his reflection is actually the face of another, but it
also happens when he fails to recognize the effect of his own action in the ripples
on the water—the same effect in which Hegel’s stone-thrower recognizes
himself. The Narcissus myth operates on the level of illusionism and is best
suited therefore to figuration. The system of illusionism that the Narcissus story
implies is one related to one-point perspective in which a correlation between
viewer and image is maintained in a closed and static system—one haunted by
the implied anthropomorphism of the image. By contrast, the stone-thrower’s
agency is far more abstract and open to flux and, as a result, more closely
resembles the entropy which structures Smithson’s writing. What all of these
theories and examples, Derrida’s parergon, Hegel’s stone-thrower, Levi-Strauss’
mirrored room and Smithson’s entropy, have in common is an internal slippage,
an excess that resists articulation and containment. It is, by extension, the brute
fact of being unable to fully capture in words how an art work articulates itself
from all that is not art. One might argue, in light of such preoccupations since
the 1960s in the discourse of art, that that fact was the central problem of
Minimalism. For, if the Specific Objects that Judd described were to be embraced
into the history of art, then their identity became a theoretical problem. The
questions of identity and reflection thus ripple outward from Minimalism’s point
of entry, just as artists in the sixties turned their attention outward toward
viewers and the institutions of the art world that made their work visible.
Since classical Greece, mirrors have been linked to art through a linguistic
device, the analogy. With the widespread use of industrial materials into art and
the insistence on the part of the Minimalists that their work was related to the
history of modern painting even while their art was dubbed “objects” and
“structures” rather than painting or sculpture, a need arose to redefine the
relationship between art and everything else. It is in light of this need that the
concurrent use of mirrors and reflective surfaces, along with the more frequent
appeals to written reflection by artists engaged in these practices, is particularly
revealing of the way that these issues were knotted together in the second half of
the twentieth century.
All artists working in any sort of community produce art within a written
discourse that attempts to explain their work in hopes of revealing all of its
visual interest. For artists working in the wake of Abstract Expressionism, this
written discourse had become particularly important. Artists in the United
States saw the rise of subtle, incisive, and, importantly, influential art criticism
after World War II, along with the need for ever more explication of the abstract
art that found recognition among these critics. While this circumstance in some
ways was not unique to this period—after all, French artists had been working in
a field dominated by influential art critics since Diderot—the difference is that
the art world of the sixties and seventies focused increasing attention on its own
discursive and institutionalized context. Like the viewers who encountered the
work and the institutions that showed the work, the broader written context of
the art world (and the history of art) became increasingly implicated within the
art work. Rauschenberg, Richter, Graham and Smithson all understood this, and
the mirror functioned centrally in their responses to this situation, albeit in four
quite different ways.
By refusing to comment about his work, except to chime in with
contradictory statements every so often, Rauschenberg encourages his viewer to
make connections between the diverse and sometimes perplexing visual
elements in his work, bridging the gap between art and life. Additionally, his
compositional style of layering and combining images and objects invites the
same type of “reading” one does when interpreting a text. Rauschenberg
exploited a constant tension between divergent readings of his work by leaving
open as many interpretations as possible, thus engaging the viewer in an ongoing act of interpretation. Within the visual tensions he composed, the mirror,
either as a reflective material or in depicted form, often functioned to play up the
ambiguities of subject matter and spatial relations. Thus his deployment of the
mirrors reflects his strategy of allowing, sometimes even introducing, a
discursive tension.
Richter’s production of mirrors also parallels his writerly strategies. The
mirror’s blankness and continual deferral of clarity and fixity—attributes Richter
tends to play up in his photo-paintings and, to a lesser extent, in his abstract
paintings—mimic Richter’s intention to write without fixing the meaning of his
works. Just as she is when facing the mirrors, Richter’s viewer is thrown back on
herself when trying to glean intentions and meaning from his writing. This is not
to say that Richter never makes definitive statements about his intentions or
what he believes to be the import of his work, but such claims tend to occur in
interviews when the artist is drawn into a prolonged conversation about his
work, rather than in his notes and statements. Ultimately, the external discourse
that arose in view of his art work, particularly as it was articulated by Benjamin
Buchloh, gained a more permanent hold later in his career when Richter
embraced the critic’s suggestion that his work was ironic. This acceptance
changed the tenor of Richter’s work, resulting in a decade of works that replayed
earlier motifs in a somewhat ironic manner.
Where Rauschenberg and Richter shied away from limiting the discourse
surrounding their work, Graham repeatedly attempts to set the stage for those
writing about his work. To a certain degree, this is probably related to his
introduction to the art world as a gallerist and his early commitment to writing
art criticism. For Graham, his writing establishes for the record his intentions.263
However, because his intentions predominantly relate to the viewer’s experience,
which may or may not bear out the artist’s statements, and because many of his
installations have been disassembled and are only available through diagrams,
documentary photographs and the artist’s descriptions, his writing has an
unbalanced affect, often deeply influencing later interpretations of his work. In
this way, his writing participates in structuring the viewer’s or the reader’s
experience, the second of which must imagine her viewing experience, just as his
use of mirrors and mirror-like video cameras and monitors did. But more
importantly, Graham’s writing participates in the same kind of interpretive
activity that the viewer finds herself pursuing in installations like
Present/Continuous Past[s].
While Smithson published essays with the same titles as his work, just as
Graham did, the relation between the two is far more complex than Graham’s
interpretive and declaratory writing. Smithson tended to favor an opacity in his
writing that mimicked the materiality of his work or of the temporary
installation. Like his mirrors that displaced reflections, his writing often
reflected on the visual work while introducing additional information as well
opening up the circuit of subject and object, or object and reflection. Conversely,
his writing never claimed to exhaust the visual implications of his art work.
Instead, the two existed as supplements to each other, forever displacing art into
writing and his writing into the art criticism that surrounds his work.
As this dissertation has shown, the various appeals to theory in art
discourse since the 1960s arise from a desire to explain the appeal to the viewer
that occurred in front of these works. Additionally, it has appealed to theory in
order to explain the importance of writing within the field of contemporary art.
These theories of perception have also helped to describe how it is that one work
could implicate the viewer physically, as Rauschenberg’s and Graham’s work
does, while another might withhold the very identification a viewer came to
expect, as Richter’s and Smithson’s work does. More generally, they also
provided a model for the way an art work constructs meaning, whether or not
reflective surfaces were a dominant feature of the work. Because of the varied
ways that theory has been taken up by artists and critics, this dissertation has
found it preferable to treat each artist uniquely in terms of his use of theory,
ultimately revealing the breadth of theoretical approaches to art perception and
interpretation, as well as pointing to the way that each artist and their
interpreters might reinterpret these theories. For Rauschenberg, whose work did
not refer to Merleau-Ponty, or any other writer, Merleau-Ponty’s theories about
vision and embodiment functioned as an analogy to understand how
Rauschenberg constructed space in his effort to work in the gap between art and
life, engaging the viewer all the while. For Richter, the discussion of Lacan
fleshed out the arguments of the critics, some of whom have appealed to the
psychoanalyst, in hopes of showing how the mirror functions within the artist’s
and his critic’s preoccupation with the death of painting and, more universally,
widely publicized and highly politicized deaths. Graham’s frequent appeals to
various theories of perception required explanation, particularly where they
failed to materialize in the ways that he imagined they would. And finally,
Smithson’s supplemental writing, which reflected a truth about the art work,
found additional supplements in the writings of Derrida and Hegel.
To end with a visual example, this dissertation has attempted to construct
a virtual gallery of sorts that materializes one aspect of the artistic discourse
begun in Minimalism. Thus, the four chapters might function as walls, each
occupied by the reflective works of Rauschenberg, Richter, Graham and
Smithson, respectively, with a Minimalist cube in the center. All four walls
reflect different aspects of the cube in their own way. On Rauschenberg’s wall,
the cube’s relationship to modernist painting is evident in the White Paintings,
while its three-dimensional appeal to the viewer is visible in the viewer-activated
technological works and the silk-screens on reflective surfaces. Richter’s wall
reflects in reverse the main claim of two Minimalists that painting is dead, or at
best irrelevant. His insistence on continuing to paint, albeit without claims to
historical or aesthetic progression, ends up embracing the repetition, in one
photo-painting, monochrome or mirror after another, that typified Minimalist
compositional strategies. Graham’s wall reflects the social implications of
Minimalism’s physical address of the viewer, and through Minimalism, extends
Rauschenberg’s project to a more explicit and pointed social intervention in
Graham’s installations and architectural pavilions. Smithson’s wall displaces
Minimalism into the discourse that surrounds it, revealing the disjunctions
between the two, distantly reflecting Richter’s work, which found Minimalism a
way to continue to paint.
While this imaginary scene serves to exemplify certain ways in which the
sometimes widely divergent work of these artists might be seen within the same
discursive space, there are other ways in which they relate to each other,
responding, for example, to the long repressed illusionistic strategy of one-point
perspective and to its related mirror and window analogies, as well as to
contemporary appeals to perceptual and psychoanalytic theory, that remain
invisible within this room and can only be fleshed out in writing. Thus, as the
reader has surely noticed, the walls of this proposed gallery are necessarily
constructed of words that prop up, even while they distort, the internal
reflections they seek to describe. Like the mirrors used by all four artists, the
words frame the works they hope to reflect and necessarily exclude some
considerations. Nonetheless, if they have been successful in reflecting some of
the wider discourse in which the mirror, reflection and theories of perception
came to figure in art since the sixties, they can claim to mark out their own
discursive space in the same way that the imaginary gallery does.
1 Robert Morris, “Notes on Sculpture, I and II,” in Minimal Art: A Critical
Anthology. Ed. Gregory Battcock. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995;
2 See especially Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Eye and Mind (L’Oeil et l’Esprit. Paris:
Gallimard, 1964) reprinted in The Primacy of Perception and Other Essays. Ed.
James M. Edie. Trans. Carleton Dallery. Northwestern University Press, 1964;
3 In her introduction to the anthology Minimal Art, Anne M. Wagner succintly
describes the heyday of Minimalism as “a writerly one”. (Wagner, “Reading
Minimal Art,” in Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology. Ed. Gregory Battcock.
Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995; 7.) More recently Jessica Prinz has
noted that both Conceptual artists and Language Poets treat language as material
in her book Art Discourse/Discourse in Art. New Brunswick: Rutgers University
Press, 1991; 166-167.
4 For Plato, see The Republic. X, 596. Alberti is quoted in M. H. Abrams, The
Mirror and the Lamp: romantic theory and the critical tradition. London, Oxford and
New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1953; 32.
5 Northern Renaissance scholars have long noted the ambiguous nature of the
depicted mirror in painting. One early text that attempted to exhaust the topic is
Heinrich Schwarz’s study “The Mirror in Art” (Art Quarterly 15 (1952): 96-118.)
For a more recent study, see Hope B. Werness, The Symbolism of Mirrors in Art
from Ancient Times to the Present. (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, c. 1999.)
6 Of course, sorting that question out is no simple task. The scholarship
surrounding Jan van Eyck's Arnolfini Betrothal provides a particularly good
example of this debate. Erwin Panofsky used this painting to advance his theory
of disguised symbolism. (Early Netherlandish Painting. New York: Icon Editions,
1971: 201-203) Panofsky suggests that the mirror functions on two levels. First,
in conjunction with the signature, it testifies to the painter's presence as a witness
to the marriage. But, he also asserts, the mirror, or speculum sine macula, is a wellknown symbol of the Virgin's purity. This interpretation has come under attack
of late in Jan Baptist Bedaux's The Reality of Symbols (The Hague: Gary
Schwartz/SDU, 1990: 21-67) and Edwin Hall's The Arnolfini Betrothal: Medieval
Marriage and the Enigma of van Eyck's Double Portrait (Berkeley: Univ. of California
Press, 1994.) Bedaux argues that van Eyck was simply depicting a bridal chamber
complete with all of the trimmings, some of which would be standard devotional
objects, like a mirror surrounded by scenes of Christ's Passion. While Hall
disagrees with Bedaux's identification of the moment depicted and the
significance of the setting, he follows Bedaux's opinion regarding the mirror. At
any rate, everyone who addresses the work agrees that the signature and the
reflection are related in that they both belong to the painter, marking his
presence at the moment depicted.
7 According to an apocryphal story, St. Luke painted a portrait of the Virgin
and Child from a vision, thus providing a prototype for all depictions of that
subject. Based on this legend, he was considered the patron saint of painters.
Interestingly, the guild of St. Luke in Bruges included glassmakers and mirror
makers in addition to painters.
8 The close association of the painter and illusionistic studio practices and the
mirror gave rise to a more general understanding of the mirror as metonymically
standing in for the painter, the painter's studio or even the visual conceit of
illusionism, as Gregory Galligan has suggested in his essay, "The Self Pictured:
Manet, the Mirror, and the Occupation of Realist Painting" (Art Bulletin LXXX/1
(March 1998): 139-171.)
9 Indeed this practice continued in the work of such modern artists at Pierre
Bonnard, who painted a series of self-portraits in mirrors.
10 M. H. Abrams argues that illusionism was in decline as an aesthetic theory
in poetry as early as the Romantic period.
11 As Gris puts it: “You want to know why I had to stick on a piece of mirror?
Well, surfaces can be re-created and volumes reinterpreted in a picture, but what
is one to do about a mirror whose surface is always changing and which should
reflect even the spectator? There is nothing else to do but stick on a real piece.”
(quoted in David Mower, “Through the Looking Glass and What the Artist
Found There,” Art International xxiii/5-6 (Sept. 1979):64)
12 Morris, 225; Donald Judd, “Specific Objects,” reprinted in Minimalism from
the Themes and Movements series. Ed. James Meyer. London: Phaidon, 2000;
13 Judd even goes so far as to suggest that while the work responds to one or
the other medium, it should not be considered either painting or sculpture.
14 This is, in fact, the way James Meyer has recently addressed Minimalism,
both in Minimalism: Art and Polemics in the Sixties (New Haven: Yale University
Press, 2001) and in his edited collection Minimalism (Themes and Movements).
(London: Phaidon, 2000.)
15 Robert Morris, “Notes on Sculpture, I and II,” in Minimal Art: A Critical
Anthology. Ed. Gregory Battcock. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995;
16 Morris, 230.
17 This is one way of understanding the development of Hans Haacke’s career.
It is also the basis of Hal Foster’s article about the continued importance of the
Minimalist task in the eighties. (See “The Crux of Minimalism,” in The Return of
the Real: The Avant-Garde at the End of the Century. Cambridge, MA and London:
MIT Press, 1996.)
18 Barbara Rose, “ABC Art,” Art in America. October-November 1965: 57-69.
19 Meyer,
20 During Bruce Glaser’s interview with Dan Flavin, Donald Judd and Frank
Stella, Judd states “I always thought of [Stella’s paintings made with] aluminum
[paint] as slabs in a way, they seemed almost objects to me…I think that was a
first.” (For Stella’s and Judd’s exchange, see “Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, Frank
Stella, New Nihilism or New Art? Interview with Bruce Glaser,” in Meyer, 2000,
21 Fried refers specifically to Merleau-Ponty's The Phenomenology of Perception in
his 1965 essay "Three American Painters" (also in Art and Objecthood. Chicago,
Univ. Chicago Press, 1998: 264, n. 26.) His anthropomorphically determined
descriptions of Anthony Caro's sculpture, a body of work he pits against
Minimalism in "Art and Objecthood", develops Merleau-Ponty's description of
vision as embodied to its visual parallel within the sculpture. He describes one
of Caro's sculptures as "open as widespread arms and then as a door is open."
("Two Sculptures by Anthony Caro," in Art and Objecthood, 180.) He goes on
"...Caro's work...shares with architecture a preoccupation with the fact, or with
the implications of the fact, that humans have bodies and live in a physical
world...This same preoccupation no longer finds a natural home in painting and
sculpture: it is the nearly impossible task of artists like Caro to put it there, and
this can only be done by rendering it antiliteral or (what I mean by) abstract."
22 Merleau-Ponty makes explicit use of the mirror in his Eye and Mind (L’Oeil et
l’Esprit. Paris: Gallimard, 1964.), but the metaphor is implicit in his unfinished
work The Visible and the Invisible (Ed. Claude Lefort. Trans. Alphonso Lingis.
Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 1968.)
23 Merleau-Ponty, 152.
24 See Jacques Lacan, Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York:
Norton, 1977.
25 Lacan explores these issues in a series of lectures titled The Four Fundamental
Concepts of Psychoanalysis (ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. trans. Alan Sheridan. New
York and London: W.W. Norton & Co., 1981.)
26 One is either "in the picture" or not. And that of course is the shock at the
end of the story about the sardine can and at the bottom of the painting. Lacan
thought he was a fisherman, while the sardine can refused to see this
27 Michel Foucault, "Las Meninas," in The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the
Human Sciences. New York: Vintage Books, 1994; 3-16.
28 Foucault, 9.
29 Jacques Derrida, The Truth in Painting. trans. Geoff Bennington and Ian
McLeod. Chicago: Univ. Chicago Press, 1987.
30 Michael Fried, “An Introduction to My Art Criticism,” in Art and Objecthood:
Essays and Reviews. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1998; 6.
31 Mel Bochner, who was studying philosophy at Northwestern University at
that time, has indicated that he was involved in many conversations about
Merleau-Ponty's work and that the writing was very important to his artwork
ultimately. (See Amy Newman, Challenging Art: Artforum 1962-1974. New York,
Soho Press, 2000; 34.) John Coplans, also a frequent contributor to Artforum was
also reading the writings of Merleau-Ponty shortly after they were translated.
(See Newman, 117).
32 Dan Graham in particular has noted the importance of that journal to his
understanding of Lacan's theories. (In conversation with the author, December
6, 2001).
33 Laura Mulvey, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," Screen 16, no. 3
(Autumn 1975): 6-18.
34 Craig Owens discusses Mary Kelly’s Post-Partum Document (1973-1979) as “a
contribution as well as a critique of Lacanian theory.” (Owens, “The Discourse
of Others: Feminists and Postmodernism,” in The Expanding Discourse: Feminism
and Art History. Ed. Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard. New York: Harper
Collins, 1992: 491-491.)
35 The artist/theorist Peter Halley discussed the importance of what came to be
known as French Theory, a loosely-connected group of French philosophers,
historians and sociologist, including Foucault and Derrida, in the discourse of the
art world of the eighties in his essay, “Nature and Culture,” (Arts Magazine. Sept.
36 These include: Linda Weintraub, The Rebounding Surface: a study of reflections
in the work of nineteen contemporary artists. exh. cat. Annandale-on-Hudson, NY:
Bard College Center, 1982; and Mark Francis and Michael Newman, The Mirror
and the Lamp. exh. cat. Edinburgh: Fruitmarket Gallery, c. 1986.
37 David Mower, "Through the Looking Glass and What the Artist Found
There," Art International xxiii/5-6 (Sept. 1979): 63-70; and Valentina Anker and
Lucien Dällenbach, “La Réflection spéculaire dans la peinture et la littérature
récentes,” Art International, 19/2 (1975): 28-32, 45-48.
38 Weintraub, unpaginated.
39 Mower, 63.
40 Francis and Newman, 5.
41 M. H. Abrams, The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and The Critical
Tradition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1953.
42 The text also mentions the work of Dan Graham, although none was
included in the exhitibion.
43 It is important to note the multitude of literary borrowings in the exhibition.
Not only does it owe its title a work of literary criticism, but many of Newman’s
references come from literary criticism as well.
44 Andre Gide, Journal 1889-1939. Paris: Gallimard, 1948; 41.
45 A Traverse le miroir de Bonnard a Buren. Rouen and Paris: Musee des BeauxArts and la Reunion des Musees Nationaux, 2000.
46 Alain Cueff, “Miroir sans Reflet,” in A Traverse le miroir de Bonnard a Buren;
70-79; and Jaroslav Andel, “Miroir et Autoreflexion,” in A Traverse le miroir de
Bonnard a Buren; 80-87.
47 The late 1980s and early 1990s saw Rauschenberg return to his interest in the
mirror and Richter produce a large series of mirrors, both of which will be
discussed below. Additionally, younger artists have been producing mirrors as
well, among them Jim Hodges and Yayoi Kusama.
48 The recent exhibition of the photographs he has collected from which he
draws his subject matter for his paintings makes clear the importance
photography plays in his work. See Atlas of the Photographs, collages and sketches .
Ed. Helmut Friedel and Ulhrich Wilmes. New York: Distributed Art Publishers,
49 While his most recent retrospective at the Guggenheim (1997) did include
some of the works painted on aluminum and many of the authors who
contributed to the catalogue mentioned these works, noting his continued
interest in depicted and actual space, no one did much to see them as consistent
with his more painterly interests in collage and silkscreen.
50 Stephen Melville has convincingly traced the roots of Smithson's nonpainterly practice to painterly concerns in his "Robert Smithson: a literalist of the
imagination," (reprinted in Seams: art as a philosophical context. Amsterdam: G &
B, 1996.)
51 For the most part, essays on Graham have traced social motifs across these
media without explaining the need for such divergence. The most recent
catalogue is no exception. See Dan Graham. exh. cat. Ed. Gloria Moure.
Barcelona: Fondacio Antoni Tapies, 1998.
52 I am thinking specifically of his artist statement, "Note on Painting," of 1963
where he mimics the structure of an artist's statement while the content is
intended to be nonsense (in John Russell and Suzi Gablik, Pop Art Redefined.
New York: Praeger, 1969: 101-2.)
53 Richter makes this point repeatedly in his collection of writings, The Daily
Practice of Painting: writings and interviews, 1962-1993. (Ed. Hans-Ulrich Obrist.
Trans. David Britt. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995.)
54 See, on the one hand, "Schema," and, on the other, an essay like "Theater,
Cinema, Power," both of which have been reprinted in Rock My Religion, 19651990. (Ed. Brian Wallis. Cambridge, MA and London: MIT Press, 1993: 24-25,
55 Smithson makes this claim explicitly in his essay, "Incidents of MirrorTravel in the Yucatan," (reprinted in Robert Smithson, the collected writings. Ed.
Jack Flam. Berkeley: Univ. California Press, c. 1996: 119-133.)
56 Here, of course, I am referring to the critical writing of Clement Greenberg
and Michael Fried. While the two critics differ on a number of points, both
champion painting that acknowledged its two dimensional character. See
Greenberg, "Modernist Painting" and Fried "Three American Painters." Both
have been reprinted in Modern Art and Modernism, a Critical Anthology (ed. Francis
Frascina and Charles Harrison. New York: Harper and Row, 1987: 5-10 and 115121.
57 Rosalind Krauss has discussed Rauschenberg's work as essentially
addressing memory. See her essay, "Rauschenberg and the Materialized Image"
(Artforum 13 (Dec. 1974): 36-43.
58 Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness. Trans. Hazel E. Barnes. New York:
Washington Square Press, 1992; 122-124.
59 The variety of Rauschenberg’s imagery has prompted many critics to attempt
to decode his works using a modified iconographical approach. (See Charles
Stuckey, “Reading Rauschenberg,” Art in America (March-April 1977): 74-84;
Roni Feinstein, Robert Rauschenberg: The Silkscreen Paintings 1962-64. New York:
The Whitney Museum of American Art and Bulfinch Press, 1991; Kenneth
Bendiner, “Robert Rauschenberg’s Canyon,” Arts Magazine, 56 (June 1982): 57-59;
Roger Cranshaw and Adrian Lewis, “Re-Reading Rauschenberg,” Artscribe
International, no. 29 (June 1981): 44-51.)
60 Other combine paintings that incorporate mirrors include Collection (195354), Untitled (1955), Canyon (1959) and Icon (1962). The late combine Icon consists
of a small box with a door on the front. When the viewer opens the door she is
confronted with a mirror that Rauschenberg had mounted inside. In the same
year, Robert Morris produced a similar box with a door. In this case, the door
was cut in the shape of a capital letter “I”. Mounted inside, instead of a mirror,
was a nude photograph of the artist. Incidentally, Morris, like Rauschenberg,
explored performance at about this time as well.
61 Rauschenberg’s early works have been repeatedly discussed in terms of their
similarity to Dadaist and Surrealist collage. Both Marcel Duchamp’s readymades and Kurt Schwitters’ merzbild provide historical basis for the work. While
Rauschenberg did not meet Duchamp until 1959 or 1960, he was familiar with
Duchamp’s work. Rauschenberg, surprisingly, had not known Schwitters’ work
at this point either, despite the fact that an exhibition of the artist’s work was
shown at the Sidney Janis Gallery in 1952--the same gallery where a year later
Rauschenberg saw Duchamp’s work for the first time. (Calvin Tomkins, Off the
Wall: Robert Rauschenberg and the Art World of Our Time. New York: Penguin,
1980; 129.) Moreover, the juxtaposition of the umbrella at one side and the
electric light opposite it echoes the Surrealist inspiration from Lautremont’s now
famous image, “The chance meeting of an umbrella and a sewing machine on a
dissecting table.” Another very early work from the Elemental Sculpture series
(exhibited in 1953) recalls Giacometti’s Suspended Ball from 1930-31. The
sculpture, or more accurately the installation, which is now lost, consisted of a
stone tied and hung from the ceiling by a rope. Below the rope, Rauschenberg
placed a square mirror raised on a small base. The potential for contact between
the two elements is underscored by the stone’s reflection in the mirror, which
visually connects them, like the wedge-shaped groove of the suspended ball
which echoes the wedge placed directly below it. Moreover, the suggestion of a
certain amount of violence which hovers around the suspended ball, a ball which
appears to have already made contact with the wedge and been split by that
contact, is echoed in the danger of the stone’s potential fall onto the mirror, most
likely resulting in the destruction of the mirror. Here, the potential for motion,
like in the Giacometti, is also a potential for violence, despite the fact that the
movements implied are directionally different and the fact that the relationship
of threat between the suspended object and its other half is reversed. Walter
Hopps illustrates the work in Robert Rauschenberg: The Early 1950s. Houston: The
Menil Collection, c. 1991: 193.
62 Leo Steinberg, “Other Criteria,” in Other Criteria: Confrontations with
Twentieth-Century Art. London, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press,
1972; 55-91.
63 It is important to note that Rauschenberg uses the silk-screens graphically.
That is, in drawings, as in the silkscreen process, the untouched ground tends to
advance from the areas where drawn marks serve as shadows or contour. There
is a sense in which the silkscreen was the perfect companion to Rauschenberg’s
collage technique. Both work on the similar principle of the original division that
ultimately holds the composition together. Moreover, such an analogy can be
extended to the way that reflection operates in these works. Just as drawn lines
divide while they hold together, Rauschenberg’s reflective surfaces accomplish
the same feat. The viewer identifies with the reflected image of herself, which
exists entirely outside herself. Acting as an aesthetic model for his project--that is
to work in the gap between art and life--the mirror serves to hold these two
realms together.
64 See Ludwig Wittgenstein, Remarks on Color. Ed. G.E.M. Anscombe. Trans.
Linda L. McAlister and Margarete Schattle. Los Angeles: U of California P, 1978.
65 Tomkins, 197.
66 It is useful to note that the flatness and opacity of Rauschenberg’s white
passages found a counterpart in the contemporary work of Robert Ryman and
Frank Stella, the second of whom had even experimented with metallic, and thus
reflective, paint, thus placing Rauschenberg within the more painterly
manifestations of Minimalism.
67 Armin Zweite’s essay on Robert Rauschenberg’s series Shiners and Urban
Bourbons addresses Rauschenberg’s use of reflective materials dating back to the
combines. (Armin Zweite, “Art Shouldn’t Have a Concept,” in Robert
Rauschenberg. Cologne: DuMont Buchverlag, 1994; 17-60.) But Zweite takes an
overly focused approach, concentrating solely upon these two points in the
artist’s career, and observing only that there is a very different motivation which
informs each period. According to Zweite, the mirrors in the combines function
to bring together diverse elements in an attempt to create a unified work.
Rauschenberg’s employment of reflective materials in the 1980s, however,
foregrounds the disparity in an otherwise unified composition, rather than
glossing over that disparity, according to Zweite. Ultimately, Zweite relies on
the sense that the later works lack a “uniform center of subjectivity”. (Zweite,
112) While Zweite does describe the series from the 1980s fairly accurately, he
does not explain how Rauschenberg’s interest in reflection fits into the rest of his
career. Moreover, the question of why the artist became interested in these
effects again is conspicuously absent from his assessment.
68 Like the Carnal Clocks, which are from 1969 and also make use of the same
backlit Plexiglas covered with silk-screened images, Solstice is also the result of a
collaborative effort. But in the case of Solstice the collaboration occurs at the time
of viewing, not of making the work. Collaboration is an important leitmotif in
Rauschenberg’s career, with the 1960s being the heyday of his technological
collaborations with other artists and with engineers like Billy Klüver. For an
account of his work with Klüver, see Billy Klüver with Julie Martin, “Four
Collaborations,” in Robert Rauschenberg: Haywire. Ostfildern-Ruit: Verlag Gerd
Hatje, 1997; 59-101.
69 Like many of Rauschenberg’s technological experiments, this installation
piece had not functioned in many years when it was restored for the Haywire
70 There is a sense in which this work fully reflects Rauschenberg’s penchant
for collaborative work at this time.
71 Catherine Craft discusses the importance of reflection in the technological
works in her essay, “Grand Central” in Robert Rauschenberg: Haywire. OstfildernRuit: Verlag Gerd Hatje, 1997; 11-40, especially 35.
72 Craft, 20.
73 Feinstein, “The Early Work of Robert Rauschenberg: The White Paintings,
The Black Paintings, and the Elemental Sculptures,” Arts Magazine, 61, no. 1
(Sept. 1986): 28.
74 Tomkins, 71.
75 Cited in Tomkins, 71.
76 John Cage, “On Robert Rauschenberg, Artist, and His Work,” Metro 2, May
77 Tomkins, 32.
78 While Rauschenberg admits the influence, it would probably come as a
surprise to Albers, who never really understood the young artist’s work. See
Tomkins, 56.
79 Seckler, 74.
80 Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “Eye and Mind,” in The Primacy of Perception and
Other Essays. Ed. James M. Edie. Trans. Carleton Dallery. Northwestern
University Press, 1964; 162-163.
81 Merleau-Ponty, 166.
82 This is one major theme of his unfinished work The Visible and the Invisible.
Ed. Claude Lefort. Trans. Alphonso Lingis. Evanston, IL: Northwestern
University Press, 1968.
83 Merleau-Ponty, 1964, 179.
84 Merleau-Ponty, 1964, 180.
85 Merleau-Ponty, 1964, 168.
86 Krauss, 1974, 43.
87 Rosalind Krauss was perhaps the first to point this out in her essay,
“Rauschenberg and the Materialized Image,” Artforum 13 (December 1974): 3643. While Krauss, merely notes this trend, Charles Stuckey, Roni Feinstein,
Kenneth Bendiner, Roger Cranshaw and Adrian Lewis have notably attempted
to interpret individual works or groups of works by Rauschenberg using an
iconographic approach. (See note 58 above.)
88 In addition to Krauss’ invocation of allegory, Benjamin Buchloh (“Allegorical
Procedures: Appropriation and Montage in Contemporary Art,” Artforum 21
(Sept. 1982): 43-56) and Craig Owens (“The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a
Theory of Postmodernism,” October 12 (Spring 1980):67-87; and October 13
(Summer 1980): 59-80) both argue that artists after the era of Abstract
Expressionism turned to allegory as a way of addressing the problem of meaning
in their work.
89 Rosalind Krauss, “Perpetual Inventory,” in Robert Rauschenberg: A
Retrospective. Walter Hopps and Susan Davidson, eds. New York: The
Guggenheim Museum with The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 1997; 207223.
90 His most public assertion of his intention to turn interpretation back to the
viewer occurred in his interview with Robert Hughes for American Visions, the
popular series on American art that aired on PBS in the late nineties. When
asked about his inclusion of disparate subject matter in works like Rebus,
Rauschenberg replied, “You’re the one who has all the references, because of
your experience.” Hughes then asked for clarification, “And so you’re happy to
let people make [the meanings] up as they go along.” To which Rauschenberg
stated, “I insist on it.”
91 This analysis of Rauschenberg’s work also responds to his art as well as the
critical arena which has risen in view of the art, self-consciously positioning itself
as a collaborator, albeit one with a view to understanding the wider trend of
reflective surfaces in the art of this era.
92 See note 87 above.
93 The most prominent among the scholars to address Duchamp’s influence on
Richter is Benjamin Buchloh, whose essays in the three volume publication
issued for the 1993 retrospective argue for an interpretation of Richter’s ironic
employment of both figurative and abstract modes, as if each genre, i.e.
landscapes, portraits, still lifes and abstraction, not to mention history painting,
were all equally available and equally empty of meaning and importance for
Richter. Buchloh largely forms this opinion based on Richter’s own statement,
from 1964, about his decision to paint from photographs because it “seemed to
[him] the most moronic and inartistic thing that any one could do.”(Richter, 22.)
This statement, along with others about not knowing what to paint, registers the
artist’s recognition of a crisis in painting in the early sixties and fuels Buchloh’s
sense that Marcel Duchamp’s ready-mades figured prominently in Richter’s
approach. Starting from Duchamp allows Buchloh to suggest that whether
figurative or abstract, all stylistic choice could be chalked up to passing fancies in
different motifs, none of which were exploring new ground within the medium
of painting simply because all the territory had already been marked out. All
that was left for painting to do was to expose the impossibility of the myth of
progress that fueled modern art from the start. Such a stance can only interpret
the work of an artist who continues to paint after the progress-driven history of
painting had come to an end as an ironic project. Quite a few of the essays that
flesh out Buchloh’s interpretation appear in volume 2 of Gerhard Richter. Bonn:
Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, 1993.
94 Richter, 16.
95 Many scholars follow Buchloh in his assessment, holding that Richter’s
paintings throw into question pictorial representation. (See Gertrude Koch, “The
Open Secret: Gerhard Richter and the surfaces of modernity,” trans. Brian
Holmes, in Gerhard Richter. Paris: Editions Dis Voir, 1995; 9-27; and Gregg M.
Horowitz, “The Tomb of Art and the Organon of Life: What Gerhard Richter
Saw,” in Sustaining Loss: Art and Mournful Life. Stanford: Stanford University
Press, 2001; 133-169; and I. Michael Danoff, “Heterogeneity: An Introduction to
the Work of Gerhard Richter” in Gerhard Richter: Painting. Ed. Terry A Neff. New
York and London: Thames and Hudson, 1988; 9-14; and Buchloh, “Pandora’s
Painting” and “Allegories of Painting” both in Gerhard Richter, Documenta IX,
1992. New York: Marian Goodman Gallery, 1993. Koch and Danoff see the
question primarily one about representation, while Horowitz and Buchloh cast
the question in terms of the efficacy of certain genres at the end of the twentieth
century.) Armin Zweite contends that Richter's drastic shifts between abstraction
and figuration grow out of what he calls modernism’s movement “from the
semantic to the semiotic”, that is “the retreat from the object of representation to
the very possibility of representation.” (Armin Zweite, “Gerhard Richter’s Album
of Photographs, Collages and Sketches, in Photography and Painting in the Work of
Gerhard Richter: Four Essays on Atlas. Barcelona: Llibres de Recerca and Museu
d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, 2000; 63.) Jean-Francois Chevrier inflects the
question of the possibility of representation somewhat differently when he
distinguishes between photography’s function of recording events for history
and the reproductive function of the mirror. (Jean-Francois Chevrier, “Between
the Fine Arts and the Media (The German Example: Gerhard Richter),” in
Photography and Painting in the Work of Gerhard Richter: Four Essays on Atlas.
Barcelona: Llibres de Recerca and Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona,
2000; 31-59 and especially 47.)
96 Richter claimed in a series of notes written between 1964 and 64 “I like
everything that has no style: dictionaries, photographs, nature, myself and my
paintings.” (Richter, 35.) Nonetheless he has made stylistic alterations to his
pictures by blurring the photographs. While he has admitted this, he claimed
not to have been creating them but rather to have been making his pictures more
“credible” by highlighting their photographic origins. (Richter, 37.)
97 Richter executed twelve drawings of the Four Panes of Glass and a related
Glass Wall between 1965 and 1967 (numbers 65/12 and 65/13 and 66/1 through
66/10 from Gerhard Richter Drawings 1964-1999. Catalogue Raisonne. Dusseldorf:
Richter Verlag, 1999.) Although the Glass Wall was never executed, its influence
is felt in the Four Panes of Glass with Richter’s decision to mount the panes to the
floor and ceiling, effectively dividing the gallery space like a wall.
98 “Perhaps the Doors, Curtains, Surface Pictures, Panes of Glass, etc. are
metaphors of despair, prompted by the dilemma that our sense of sight causes us
to apprehend things, but at the same time restricts and partly precludes our
apprehension of reality. Richter “Note 1971”, in Richter, 64.
99 Jean-Philippe Antoine, “Ne pas voir la peinture en Peinture: Les images de
Gerhard Richter” in Peinture. Emblemes et References. Bordeaux: CAPC Musee
d’art Contemporaine, 1993; 169.
100 Critics have noted a similar division of space between implied depth and
surface facture in Richter’s photo-paintings. See Stefan Germer (“Retrospective
Ahead” in Gerhard Richter. London: Tate Gallery, 1991: 22-32) and Gregg
Horowitz (see note 2, above.)
101 Rosalind Krauss, “Grids,” in The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other
Modernist Myths. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1986; 9-22. Historically
speaking, the grid has been used as an illusionistic device for mapping recession
into depth, as is evident in Albrecht Dürer’s woodcut Artist Drawing a Reclining
Model (1525), where an artist is shown viewing a reclining woman through a
gridded frame and drawing what he sees onto a gridded sheet. By isolating the
grid, rather than the volumetric view the author was representing, modernist
artists drained the representational goal from the project, even while they
referred to its absence.
102 For example, when Richter discusses the relationship between his Curtains
series and his photopaintings, he points out that the blurring in the curtains
stems from the stylistic effects he copied from photography. (Richter, 24.) In this
way, painting can imitate a photographic reality just as it creates the illusion of a
three-dimensional reality.
103 Rainer Rochlitz, “Where We Have Got to,” in Photography and Painting in the
Work of Gerhard Richter: Four Essays on Atlas. Barcelona: Llibres de Recerca and
Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, 2000; 109.
104 Buchloh suggests this (see “Interview with Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, 1986,”
in Richter, 132-166) as does Dieter Schwarz (“To See Everything--to Comprehend
Nothing,” in Gerhard Richter Drawings 1964-1999. Catalogue Raisonne. Düsseldorf:
Richter Verlag, 1999: 19.)
105 The exhibition Marcel Duchamp: Ready Mades was shown in April and May
of 1965 in Krefeld at the Museum Haus Lange, and it included, along with the
photograph of The Large Glass, the painting Nude Descending a Staircase.
106 Richter, “Interview with Jonas Storsve, 1991,” in Richter, 224-225.
107 Thierry de Duve, Pictorial Nominalism: On Marcel Duchamp’s Passage from
Painting to the Readymade. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991.
108 Michael Edward Shapiro’s “Gerhard Richter: Paintings, Prints, and
Photographs in the Collection of the Saint Louis Art Museum,” The Saint Louis
Art Museum Bulletin. Summer, 1992: 9.
109 Richter introduces personal photographs into his painting in 1965. By 1968,
he was employing his own photographs exclusively. See Antoine, 1993, 165.
110 Paul Jaskot recently argued that the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann had a
profound impact on Richter, making the Nazi past an immediate question at this
time in his paper “Gerhard Richter/Adolf Eichmann: Art and the Nazi Past in
Postwar West Germany” (presented at the College Art Association’s 91st Annual
Conference, February 22, 2003.) While this seems likely, I would stress that any
political relevance this event had for Richter must have been subject to the same
distaste Richter showed for Communist politics, with both having a more
abstract interest for Richter by 1965.
111 The resemblance between the window grids and the actual grid support
that Richter employs in his stretchers also suggest the private space of his studio,
where finished paintings and unpainted stretched canvases might lean against
the wall exposing the back side.
112 In a 1972 interview, Peter Sager asked Richter if his “paintings of objects are
really abstract paintings.” Richter, 68. Richter is noncommittal but had
suggested this himself in a note from 1964-65 in which he states, “The
photograph has an abstraction of its own...” in Richter, 30.
113 Robert Storr, Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting. New York, The
Museum of Modern Art, 2002; 23.
114 Richter, “18 March 1983” in Richter, 103.
115 In further support of this claim, Richter writes in February of 1986, “I am a
popular artist…and I want to remain just that, successfully; with all my
discontent and desperate longing; with all my fear of death and of ‘crossing
frontiers’.” (Richter, 125.)
116 In 1978, Richter travelled to the Nova Scotia College of Art to work as a
visiting artist at the invitation of Benjamin Buchloh. Through Buchloh, Richter
became acquainted with the artist Dan Graham, who was exploring Lacanian
themes in his work at the time. While Richter does not mention Lacan in his
writings, it seems likely, based on the appearance three years later of the silvered
mirrors, that he was at least introduced to the main arguments in the
psychoanalyst’s writing.
117 Lacan’s theories about the importance of vision in the formation of the
subject can be found in his essay “The mirror stage as formative of the function
of the I as revealed in psychoanalytic experience,” (in Lacan (1977), 1-7) as well
as in the section “Of the Gaze as Objet Petit a,” (in Lacan (1981), 67-119.)
118 Indeed, it is to a 16th century German painting that Lacan’s refers when he
discusses the role of the gaze as a disruptive agent in painting, describing the
famous anamorphic skull painted across the bottom of Hans Holbein’s The
French Ambassadors. Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. 85-90.
119 Gertrud Koch “The Richter-Scale of Blur,” October 62 (Fall 1992): 133-142.
120 Birgit Pelzer has convincingly interpreted Richter’s work using Lacan,
addressing his mirrors in particular as manifesting the gaze or its screen. (Birgit
Pelzer, “There is No There: Gerhard Richter at the Carre d’Art in Nimes,” from
Gerhard Richter: 100 Pictures. Ostfildern-Ruit: Cantz Verlag, 1996; 133-141.) Pelzer
introduces these themes in a short reflection on Richter’s work that appeared in
an issue of Parkett Magazine on Richter. (See Birgit Pelzer, “The Tragic Desire,”
Parkett 35 (1993): 66-71.) Other critics have addressed the mirrors briefly, mostly
arguing that the blurred quality of the painted mirrors should be read as a
critique of painting. (Koch “The Richter-Scale of Blur,” (ibid) and “The Open
Secret: Gerhard Richter and the Surfaces of Modernity,” in Gerhard Richter.
Trans. Brian Holmes. Paris: Éditions Dis Voir, 1995: 9-27.) Desa Philippi argues
that as the glass and mirror works evolve, they critique the evolving associations
to which painting has found itself attached.
“Each of these bodies of work isolates one of the qualities that, in shifting
constellations, constituted oil on canvas as painting at different historical
moments: transparency, materiality of the two-dimensional surface, and
reflection. The pieces thus call attention to the entirely arbitrary and
conventional relation of these qualities to painting. (Desa Philippi, “Moments of
Interpretation,” October 62 (Fall 1992): 117.)
Such a reading, to be sure, relies on the presumption that Richter’s entire
production has been concerned solely with this crisis in painting. Johannes
Meinhardt comes to much the same conclusion about the groups, even going so
far as to point out that the installations of glass and mirror paintings are much
better than the photo paintings at calling attention to the essentially arbitrary and
conventional qualities of painting because the installations employ the optical
ambiguity of their context in a way the photo paintings cannot. (Johannes
Meinhardt, “Unmogliche Malerei,” Kunstforum International 131 (August-October
1995): 236-246.)
121 Lacan, FFC, 95.
122 Pelzer (1996): 143.
123 These paintings have generated a great deal of attention in Richter
scholarship. A particularly useful source of information on the series can be
found in Gerhard Richter: 18. October 1977. London: Institute of Contemporary
Arts in association with Anthony d’Offay Gallery, 1989.
124 Richter, “Conversation with Jan Thorn Prikker concerning the cycle “18
October 1977’, 1989,” in Richter, 194.
125 Richter, “Interview with Jonas Storsve, 1991” in Richter, 225-226.
126 Yve-Alain Bois, “Painting: The Task of Mourning,” in Painting as Model.
Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1990: 229-244.
127 One thinks of Courbet’s belabored brushstroke and Rodin’s finger-marked
surfaces as overt reactions to industrialization to name but two. Later in Bois’
essay, he calls Courbet’s one-man exhibition outside the Exposition Universelle
in Paris in 1855 an act of defiance against the ever-growing realm of the
commodity. (Bois, 234)
128 Thierry de Duve, “The Ready-made and the Tube of Paint,” Artforum, May
1986: 115-116; quoted in Bois, 232-233.
129 Bois, 233.
130 Richter has contradicted himself on this point. During an interview with
Buchloh in 1986, Richter claims he is unconcerned about subject matter, but then
shortly afterwards admits that there may be some reason that he chooses what he
does. “Interview with Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, 1986,” in The Daily Practice of
Painting, 145. Later in another interview, Richter claims that death is “the
theme.” from “Conversation with Jan Thorn Prikker concerning the cycle ‘18
October 1977,’ 1989,” in The Daily Practice of Painting, 186. Critics have noted this
fact as well. See Michael Kelly, “Richter and Buchloh Under the Shadow of
Adorno,” (The Fold Wexner Center for the Arts. (Oct. 1997) 13 pp. Online.
Internet. where Kelly
claims the theme of mourning in Richter’s art does not materialize simply
because Richter believes the medium of painting to be finished in terms of its
own relevance, as Buchloh would argue, but rather that a particular history of
painting which assumes transcendental meaning is lost, whether that meaning is
“political, social, epistemological, psychological, [or] religious.”Kelly bases his
argument on a passage in the 1986 interview between Buchloh and Richter in
which Richter corrects Buchloh’s assessment of painting as inadequate and
bankrupt, insisting that while painting is not bankrupt it is “always” inadequate.
(Richter, 146.) Bente Larsen is another critic who disagrees with Buchloh while
also pointing out the difference between mourning art and mourning in art. (See
Bente Larsen, Gerhard Richter. Oslo: For Art (The Institute for Research within
International Contemporary Art), 2001.)
131 His blurring technique in the photo paintings has also been tied in with loss
as well. Gertrud Koch argues that the blurring negates the photograph’s original
referent in which the referent stands for meaning. “The destruction of all
meaning provides the justification for its own specific meaning in terms of an
aesthetics of negativity.” (See Koch (1992), 133-142.)
132 Jean-Philippe Antoine, “Photography, Painting and the Real: The Question
of Landscape in the Painting of Gerhard Richter,” trans. by Warren
Niesluchowski, in Gerhard Richter. Paris: Editions Dis Voir, 1995; 53-89.
133 Benjamin Buchloh, “Gerhard Richter’s Atlas, the Anomic Archive,” in
Gerhard Richter. Prato, Italy: Museo Pecci, 1999; 155-163.
134 Benjamin Buchloh, “Gerhard Richter’s Eight Gray: Between Vorschein and
Glanz,” in Gerhard Richter: Eight Gray. Berlin: Deutsche Guggenheim, 2002; 13-28.
135 Buchloh (2002), 28.
136 Kaja Silverman has recently suggested that Richter ultimately did begin the
process of painting the concentration camp photographs. (“How to Paint
History” lecture presented at the City University of New York and Columbia
University, December 5 and 8, 2003.) Using the Baader-Meinhof photographs as
a model, she suggested that Richter typically transfers key elements of the
photographs he finds difficult to paint into less politicized, more personal,
subjects in an “analogical” process.
137 Sean Rainbird, "Variations on a Theme: The Painting of Gerhard Richter," in
Gerhard Richter (exh. cat.) London: Tate Gallery, 1991: 11-21.
138 Richter, 220.
139 Koch, 1995.
140 This is of course what Minimalist artists like Robert Morris had long
recognized in the placement of their objects in the space of the gallery.
Discussing Minimalism, he states, “The object is but one of the terms in the
newer aesthetic. It is in some way more reflexive, because one’s awareness of
oneself existing in the same space as the work is stronger than in previous work,
with its many internal relationships.” (See Robert Morris, Continuous Project
Altered Daily: The Writings of Robert Morris. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1993: 15.)
141 The tableau paradigm dominates interpretations of the Four Panes of Glass,
which most critics see as a tableau waiting to happen. (Rochlitz, note 102, above.)
142 Richter does not obliterate such a fissure in the gray mirror that was
exhibited at Documenta IX. Instead he foregrounds the break between the two
panels by affixing them on hinges, which allow the panels to pivot away from
each other evoking a shutter rather than a window.
143 The spatial configuration of these two works seems to support JeanPhilippe Antoine’s invocation of Friedrich as an important precursor for the
landscape paintings. (Antoine, who citing Richter’s statement that “ can
painting like [Caspar David Friedrich] today,” (78) claims that Richter’s
landscapes employ the tactics of Friedrich in order to explore the bounds of
painting and photography. “If the function of landscapes is to have us
experience natural beauty, its projective character, and the mendacious character
of the transfiguration worked on Nature, the abstract paintings in fact intimate
the possibility of another relationship to Nature...Abstract paintings, writes
Richter, are ‘fictional models,’ for they make our senses aware of a reality which
we can neither see nor describe, but whose reality we can infer.” (83)
“Landscape thus remains the nexus where the paradoxes attending in the
relationship between photography, painting and the real all come together.”(89)
144 Richter, 270-272.
145 In a letter from 1973, Richter states the relationship between his writing and
his painting. “Pictures are the idea in visual or pictorial form;...However, none
of this means that pictures function as illustrations of an idea: ultimately they are
the idea. Nor is the verbal formulation of the idea a translation of the visual: it
simply bears a certain resemblance to the meaning of the idea. It is an
interpretation, literally a reflection.” (quoted in Richter, 78) Like Foucault and
Derrida, he does not imagine that verbal or linguistically based interpretations
can completely capture what goes on in a work of visual art. “Pictures which are
interpretable, and which contain a meaning, are bad pictures.” (Richter, 35).
146 Richter repeatedly disagrees with Buchloh in their 1986 interview. See in
particular the section titled “The rhetoric of painting,” (Richter, 161-166.)
147 Richter, 80.
148 Buchloh, “Gerhard Richter’s Atlas: The Anomic Archive,” in Gerhard Richter.
Prato, Italy: Museo Pecci, 1999; 155-163.
149 While Rauschenberg did produce installations that incorporated reflections,
they typically addressed the viewer in a manner analogous to the way painting
would address a viewer, from a single angle within an uncomplicated temporal
sequence. As will become clear, Graham’s installations function on a level more
accurately described as architectural in their deployment of all-encompassing
spatial-temporal reflections.
150 Anne Rorimer makes all these claims in her, “Dan Graham: An
Introduction,” in Buildings and Signs/Dan Graham. Chicago: Renaissance Society
at the University of Chicago, c. 1981. Nabuo Nakamura echoes this assessment
in his Thoughts and Action. Tokyo: Kokusai Koryu Kikin, 1982. John Vinci also
reads this strategy into Graham’s pavilions in his “Dan Graham: Sculpture as
Architecture, Architecture as Sculpture,” in Robert Lehman Lectures on
Contemporary Art. Ed. Lynne Cooke and and Karen Kelly. New York: Dia Center
for the Arts, 1996: 79-106.
151 Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, “Moments of History in the Work of Dan Graham,”
in Walker Evans & Dan Graham. Rotterdam: Witte de With Center for
Contemporary Art, 1992; 211-215.
152 Dan Graham, “My Works for Magazine Pages: ‘A History of Conceptual
Art’,” in Rock My Religion: writings and art projects, 1965-1990. Ed. Brian Wallis.
Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1993: xx.
153 Ibid, xx.
154 This is not to suggest that no critics have noted the social nature of
Graham’s work. Indeed, Buchloh acknowledged it as a serious intention on the
part of Graham, both in his works for magazines and in his use of video (see
Buchloh, “From Gadget Video to Agit Video: Some Notes on Four Recent Video
Works,” Art Journal. Fall 1985: 217-227.) Moreover, Thierry de Duve has written
eloquently about the role of the video medium in Graham’s work in disrupting
the system of power bolstered by the television news media. (de Duve, “Dan
Graham and the Critique of Artistic Autonomy, “ in Dan Graham, Works 19652000. Dusseldorf: Richter Verlag, 2001: 49-66.)
155 This is certainly the case for de Duve, who concentrates on the blurring of
public and private roles of viewing made possible by the two-way mirror. (de
Duve, 64.)
156 Dan Graham, “Two Adjacent Pavilions,” in Rock My Religion: writings and
art projects, 1965-1990. Ed. Brian Wallis. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1993:
157 Another work that encourages a Sartrean interpretation can be found in Two
Viewing Rooms from 1975 in which two rooms are divided by a two-way mirror.
A video camera is set up in the darker of the two rooms, recording the lighter
room. This recording is shown on a monitor set up in the lighter room. Thus the
visitor to the lighter room becomes a viewed object for herself in the monitor and
for any visitors to the darker room, who, because they are invisible to the other
visitor, occupy a position similar to the voyeur of Sartre’s description. Still, the
visitor to the lighted room is aware of her recording, even if she cannot see who
may be watching her.
158 With the addition of this third party, which often takes the form of a social
factor, Graham’s work more closely follows the perceptual theories of Jacques
Lacan. Graham himself cites Lacan in his “Essay on Video, Architecture and
Television (Graham, “Essay on Video, Architecture, and Television,” reprinted in
Two-way Mirror Power: selected writings by Dan Graham on his art. Ed. Alexander
Alberro. Cambridge, MA:MIT, 1999; 55.)
159 “Video feedback time is the immediate present, without relation to past and
hypothetical future states--a continuous topological or feedback loop forward or
backward between just-past or immediate future.” (Graham, 1999, 56.)
160 Photographs of the installation typically show viewers jumping, pointing
and smiling broadly, bearing out my own experience viewing the work when I
interrupted some enthusiastic dancing and laughing as I entered the already
occupied room.
161 Graham, 1999, 53. In Graham’s recent installation at the Marian Goodman
Gallery, New York, Children’s Day Care, CD-ROM, Cartoon, Computer Screen
Library Project , the virtual world of the internet is substituted for video, also
allowing a flux that transcends spatial boundaries.
162 It is telling that when Graham addresses architecture, he chooses sites in
which the play between public and private is most powerful: corporate office
buildings, museums and theaters. In each case, the interiors of these spaces
appear to promise privacy for action and perception, however, they do so only
within their public circumstances. The least interesting case is the modern glass
office building that appears to offer a transparency in its glass construction that
metaphorically suggests a corporate transparency just as reflective as the glass
walls prove to be. Museums and theaters are far more interesting in this respect
and are the main interest of this chapter.
163 See Dan Graham Two-way Mirror Power: selected writings by Dan Graham on
his art. Ed. Alexander Alberro. Cambridge, MA:MIT, 1999; and Gloria Moure,
ed. Dan Graham, Works 1965-2000. Dusseldorf: Richter Verlag, 2001, which adds
photography, film and groups models and pavilions separately from
architecture. A similar breakdown is also the case with the earlier anthology
Rock My Religion, which groups the writings into conceptual art, performance
and architecture.
164 Graham himself emphasizes the arbitrary nature of the different positions
set up by his work in titles making use of slashes to mark positions that are in
continual flux, such as Projection/Reception and Performer/Audience/Mirror. To a
certain extent, he continues this in medium terms in Pavilion/Sculpture for
Argonne and Three Linked Cubes/Interior Design for Space for Showing Videos. In
both cases he seems to be trading between the appearance and the function of the
works to arrive at a classification.
165 Michael Fried critiqued Minimalism’s physical implication of its viewer
along with its dependence upon its viewer to recognize the objects as art in his
essay, “Art and Objecthood,” first published in Artforum in 1967, and reprinted in
Art and Objecthood: Essays and Reviews. Chicago and London: The University of
Chicago Press, 1998; 148-172.
166 Graham’s magazine pieces should also be viewed in light of his rejection of
Fried, a point that is discussed later in this chapter.
167 Fried, 167.
168 Fried, 167.
169 The essay “Cinema” can be found in Rock My Religion (Graham, 1993, 168169) along with his contemporaneous essay “Theater, Cinema and Power” in
which Graham discusses his interest in historical theater architecture and its
sociopolitical underpinnings (see Graham, 1993, 170-189.)
170 Graham, 1993, 168.
171 Graham, 1993, 168.
172 Lacan, 1981, 107.
173 There are, of course, gender issues at work within the apparatus set up in
many films, an issue explored most famously by Laura Mulvey on the pages of
Screen, a journal Graham did read with some regularity. (See particularly,
“Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” in Screen 16, no. 3 (Autumn 1975).)
This analysis deliberately sets these issues aside, except to point out that gender,
visual perception and audience identification are topics Graham has explored
throughout his career in works like Two Consciousness Projection[s] (1972), “New
Wave Rock and the Feminine,” (Graham, 1993: 116-137) and to some extent in
Children’s Pavilion, which is addressed below. However, Mulvey’s essay had an
important influence in that it and other essays in Screen introduced Graham to
Lacanian psychoanalytic theory, which Graham openly adapted in discussing his
own works.
174 Dan Graham, “Theater, Cinema, Power,” in Graham, 1993, 170.
175 Erwin Panofsky’s well-known essay on one-point perspective argued that
the technique ultimately opened up the possibility for the viewing subject to
imagine himself autonomous and provided a model for objectivity in historical
research. See Panofsky, Perspective as Symbolic Form. Trans. Christopher S. Wood.
New York: Zone Books, 1991.
176 Merleau-Ponty, 1968, 131.
177 Graham, 1993, 138.
178 It is such a perceptual conundrum that structures a perspectival model of
history, incidentally.
179 Graham, 1993, 190-191. Graham states: “Each audience sees the other
audience’s visual behavior, but is isolated from their aural behavior. Each
audience is made more aware of its own verbal communications. It is assumed
that after a time, each audience will develop a social cohesion and group
identity...Psychologically, for an audience, the glass divider represents a visual
window showing (objectifying) the other audience’s behavior (so that the
observed, second audience becomes, by analogy, a ‘mirror’ of the outward
behavior of the audience observing; at the same time the mirror at the end of one
space allows the observing audience to view itself as a unified body (engaged in
looking at the other audience).”
180 Lacan (1973), 106.
181 Graham (1999), 137.
182 Dot Tuer discusses James Coleman’s work in the same terms. (Tuer,
“Blindness and Insight: The Act of Interrogating Vision in the Work of James
Coleman,” in Robert Lehman Lectures on Contemporary Art. Ed. Lynne Cooke and
Karen Kelly. New York: Dia Center for the Arts, 1996: 175-199.) It is perhaps
telling that Graham comes closest to a Lacanian model in this collaboration with
Coleman. Despite Graham’s references to Lacan, his sympathies sometimes tend
toward Merleau-Ponty or Sartre, rather than the psychoanalyst.
183 See note 166, above.
184 Roland Barthes describes this effect in his Camera Lucida (New York: Farrar,
Straus and Giroux, 1982.)
185 Hubert Damisch has argued that there never was any such vantage point in
his response to Panofsky (The Origin of Perspective. Trans. John Goodman.
Cambridge, MA and London: The MIT Press, 1994.)
186 Graham’s interest in the impact photography and film have on memory is
evident in his essay “Theater, Cinema, and Power” in which he quotes Walter
Benjamin and Michel Foucault on the difference these media make for history.
While Graham’s essay follows Benjamin’s and Foucault’s rather pessimistic view
of history’s prospects in an age devoted to these media, this chapter argues that
Graham’s work actually presents a far more optimistic view.
187 Brian Wallis’ introduction to the collection of Graham’s writings in Rock My
Religion also addresses Graham’s utopian project of restoring historical memory
in the form of the artist’s insistent references to the “just past.” (See Wallis, “Dan
Graham’s History Lessons,” in Graham (1993): viii-xvi. On a biographical note,
Graham and Buchloh seem to have met while both were teaching at the Nova
Scotia College of Art and Design in 1978. Incidentally, Richter also taught at the
school that year.
188 Dan Graham, “Photographs by Dan Graham” in Minimal Art: A Critical
Anthology. Ed. Gregory Battcock. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1968, 175.
189 There is a similar trend within the news media to blur the distinction
between reportage and historical inquiry. This is perhaps most evident during
elections in the United States when the broadcast media consults historians to
comment on the elections as they unfold. The obverse relationship also holds
with the reliance on televised or broadcasted reportage to fill out historical
documentaries that consider events of the last hundred years.
190 De Duve contends that Dan Graham includes three ways to resist what de
Duve perceives as the pretension of the media in claiming to be the exclusive
narrator of history. First, Graham rendered the medium explicitly autoreferential exposing its deficiencies. Second, the spectator can perform history by
passing a hand in front of camera. And third, the lateral mirror provides a view
of the present in the installation, deconstructing the continuous regression into
history. (De Duve, 298-302.)
191 De Duve does not address this work.
192 While this would suggest that the ready-made context of the art magazines
in which he published his magazine works might be of interest in a discussion of
Graham’s interest in historical context, it is the magazines’ place in the art world
context that most interests the artist. Dan Graham writes about his early interest
in magazines, “unlike art framed by the museum or gallery which is defined as
‘timeless’, ‘eternal’, the contexts of magazines reflect (possibly help to define) an
unfolding historical chronology as a series of incomplete ‘present-day’ intervals.
(quoted in Rorimer, 12.)
193 Dan Graham, Pavilions. Ed. Jean Hubert Martin. Bern: Die Kunsthalle, c.
194 Dan Graham “Theater, Cinema, Power” Parachute, no. 31 (Summer 1983):
11-19; later published in Rock My Religion, 170-189.
195 Graham, “My Works for Magazine Pages: ‘A History of Conceptual Art’,”
in Rock My Religion, xviii-xx.
196 Graham related this in a conversation with the author. December 6, 2001.
197 The essay was first published in Artforum in September 1969. All citations
are from the reprint of the essay in Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings. Ed.
Jack Flam. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996; 119-133.
198 The issue of medium distinction plagues descriptions of Smithson’s work,
just as it does for Rauschenberg, Richter and Graham. Robert Hobbs, writing on
the occasion of Smithson’s first retrospective exhibition, acknowledges the wide
range of work Smithson did; nonetheless, he maintains that all of it evolved out
of the three-dimensional, post-minimalist structures he completed between 1964
and 1968. As Hobbs puts it, “before being a writer, filmmaker, social
commentator and critic, Smithson was a sculptor.” (23) Smithson’s Nonsite
pieces have inspired many critics and historians to focus on the oppositions
implied by the dialectic. But it is important to note that categories for Smithson
do not fall into such simple oppositions and are not material for a conceptual
synthesis on his part. Stephen Melville takes issue with Hobbs’ classification of
Smithson as a sculptor. (Melville, 30-40.) Pointing out the undeniable fact of
Smithson’s early work—work which since has been the subject of an
exhibition—along with Smithson’s interest in materializing the painterly strategy
of perspective, Melville argues that Smithson must be considered within the
context of painting, but not as some synthesis of the two media. Instead, the
chronological movement from making two-dimensional works to threedimensional works (from painting to sculpture to put it crudely) operates
through the logic of displacement, not a Hegelian dialectic. “Smithson aimed
always at impurity—at contaminating sculpture with the terms and problems of
painting.” (Melville, 33.) Others focus on his film as the defining medium
(Elizabeth Childs “Robert Smithson and Film: The Spiral Jetty Reconsidered”
Arts Magazine, 56, no. 2 (October 1981): 68-81; and Marjorie Perloff “The Demise
of ‘and’ Reflections on Robert Smithson’s mirrors,” Critical Quarterly, 32, no. 3
(1990): 81-101.
199 See Hobbs, 20; Melville, 32-33; and Reynolds, 15-22.
200 Reynolds, 15-31.
201 Flam, 74.
202 Reynolds, 71-72.
203 While the construction formed an acute angle, the reference to the later
corner pieces also constructed of three mirrors and displayed on the floor is fairly
204 This work was reproduced in the May 21, 1965 issue of Life.
205 Hobbs, 19.
206 Fried, 156.
207 Fried, 156.
208 Admittedly, Fried has shown that such a suggestion is false, nonetheless, at
the time that Smithson responds to works like Morris’, Fried has not made this
statement yet.
209 Smithson, “The Eliminator” in Flam; 327. While the work predates
Rauschenberg’s Carnal Clocks, the artists’ shared pairing of a temporal device
with a reflective material highlights the emphatic temporal presence of the
210 Flam, 327.
211 Tim Martin, “Enantiomorphic Chambers,” in Robert Smithson Retrospective:
Works 1955-1973. Oslo: The National Museum of Contemporary Art, 1999: 60-77.
212 Reynolds discusses this interest at length. (See Ann Reynolds, Robert
Smithson: Learning from New Jersey and Elsewhere. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press,
2003; especially 59-64.)
213 While he did describe the works as “alien eyes,” Smithson has little interest
in psychoanalysis. (Flam, 359.)
214 Smithson, “Interview with Dennis Wheeler,” in Flam, 208.
215 Smithson, “Don Judd,” in Flam: 6.
216 Reynolds discusses at length Smithson’s singular understanding of
abstraction in opposition to anthropomorphism. (See Reynolds, 64-75.)
217 Reynolds analyzes in depth the way that Smithson undermines one point
perspective with the Alogons. (See Reynolds, 15-31.)
218 Smithson, “Pointless Vanishing Points,” in Flam, 358-359.
219 Paul Cummings, “Interview with Robert Smithson for the Archives of
American Art/ Smithsonian Institution (1972),” in Flam, 294. In this interview he
indicates that his interest in Borges began around 1965, just before his first
220 “And my writing, I guess, proceeded that way [layering like Glass Strata]. I
thought of writing more as material to sort of put together than as a kind of
analytic searchlight, you know.” (Flam, 154.)
221 In 1966 and 1967, Smithson was serving as an artist-consultant for the
construction of an air terminal between Dallas and Fort Worth. In his writing
about this project, he claims the core samples done at the beginning of the project
have an aesthetic value. (See “Towards the Development of an Air Terminal
Site,” in Flam, 56.)
222 See “Ultramoderne,” in Flam, 63.
223 See “Quasi-Infinities and the Waning of Space,” in Flam, 36-37.
224 See “Ultramoderne,” in Flam, 63.
225 Krauss has demonstrated since the publication of Smithson’s essay that the
avant-garde in fact embraced repetition. See “The Originality of the AvantGarde,” in The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths.
Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1985; 151-170.
226 “Ultramoderne,” in Flam, 65.
227 Smithson recalls this temporal convergence in the mirror later in one of his
epigraphs for “Incidents of Mirror-Travel in the Yucatan,” when he quotes
Claude-Levi Strauss: “The characteristic feature of the savage mind is its
timelessness: its object is to grasp the world as both a synchronic and a
diachronic totality and the knowledge which it draws therefrom is like that
afforded of a room by mirrors fixed on opposite walls, which reflect each
other…although without being strictly parallel.” (See “Incidents of Mirror-Travel
in the Yucatan,” in Flam, 119.)
228 Smithson, “A Museum of Language in the Vicinity of Art (1968),” in Flam,
229 Smithson’s revelation is in tune with Rauschenberg’s similar insistence on
opacity, reflecting a widely held belief in the inherently three-dimensional nature
of vision that informed Minimalism, as well as Merleau-Ponty’s theory of visual
230 Reynolds, 134-143.
231 Flam, 364.
232 Flam, 194.
233 Flam, 192-193.
234 The work was originally proposed with photographs of the interior of the
salt mine in place of the mirrors in both spaces. It seems right to surmise that the
mirror offered more possibilities for inserting another layer of mirroring into the
work without focusing disproportionately on any one aspect. “I’m going to use a
room and a salt mine...and tomorrow I’ll go down there and put on an exhibition
in the salt mines and arrange these mirrors in various configurations,
photograph them, and then bring them back to the interior along with rock salt
of various grades. As you can see, the interior of the Museum somehow mirrors
the site and I’m actually going to use mirrors. Most sculptors just think about the
object, but for me there is no focus on one object so it is the back-and-forth
thing.” (Flam, 161.)
235 Of course, this particular work, with its cave-like features and its reflections
of the sun calls to mind Plato’s cave. Nonetheless, Smithson never mentions any
interest in levels of truth or even pictorial illusionism. Instead, the sun simply
seems to be an extension of an earlier interest in the reflection of light here. Later
in the film Spiral Jetty, light takes on a more interesting role.
236 The photographs of the original installation of the mirrors in the mine were
also displayed at the gallery, in some cases distributed on a pile of rock salt, just
as the mirrors were displayed.
237 “I’m using a mirror because the mirror in a sense is both the physical mirror
and the reflection: the mirror as a concept and abstraction…Here the site/nonsite becomes encompassed by mirror as a concept—mirroring, the mirror being a
dialectic.” (Flam, 190.)
238 Flam, 192.
239 Flam, 190.
240 Flam, 194.
241 Flam, 192.
242 Flam, 119.
243 Dwan recounts a stop the three made in Florida to meet Rauschenberg at his
home and studio. This was their first and only meeting. According to Dwan the
two had a surprising rapport and even collaborated on one of Smithson’s upsidedown trees. (Oral History Project, Interview with Virginia Dwan for the
Archives of American Art)
244 Samuel Wagstaff, Jr., “Talking with Tony Smith,” Artforum 5, no. 4
(December 1966): 19.
245 It is clear that Smithson associated the horizon with the road in the
paragraph following the one quoted above. “Looking down at the map (it was
all there), a tangled network of horizon lines on paper called ‘roads’…”(Flam,
246 Flam, 124-25.
247 Flam, 124.
248 Flam, 128.
249 Reynolds, 179.
250 Flam, 129.
251 Flam, 131.
252 Claude Levi-Strauss from The Savage Mind, quoted, Flam, 119.
253 The theme of water and puddles had interesting Smithson prior to this trip
with regard to the question about the limitless discussed above. In the
“Sedimentation of the Mind” essay, Smithson obliquely attacks Fried again when
he contrasts “wet” and “dry” art—terms that he introduces here. Claiming that
“The wet mind enjoys ‘pools and stains’ of paint,” he suggests a project called
“The Mud Pool Project” in which an area of earth is broken up and then
saturated until it turns to mud. When it is left to dry it turns to clay. He follows
this proposal with a quotation from the geologist Fredric H. Lahee, “When dried
under the sun’s rays for a sufficiently long time, mud and clay shrink and crack
in a network of fissures which enclose polygonal areas.”(109) The fissures and
cracks of the clay impose their own frames and disruptions into the “pools and
stains” of mud. Ultimately, these wet pools reveal themselves as riven with
cracks in their desert-like aridity. As the pools of Pollock’s paint dries, the
sediment of his mind is visible with all its cracks and fissures. “The rational idea
of ‘painting’ begins to disintegrate and decompose into so many sedimentary
concepts…A sense of the Earth as a map undergoing disruption leads the artist
to the realization that nothing is certain or formal Language itself becomes
mountains of symbolic debris.”(Flam, 110.)
254 Flam, 149.
255 Flam, 146.
256 Flam, 147.
257 Flam, 107.
258 The inverse is true as well. Smithson’s mirror displacements certainly do
not exhaust the essay, “Incidents of Mirror Travel in the Yucatan.” In fact there
are whole aspects of the essay that are simply invisible to the mirror
displacements. For example, while the displacements carry the index of space
and time, other spatial and temporal travel is described in the essay, such as the
drive on the highway (119-120) and the flight between the sites of the fifth and
sixth displacements (126-127), neither of which is marked by the photographs.
Additionally, Smithson’s visions of Quetzalcoatl (131) and the remnants of the
Mayan past (119-120) are also suppressed in the displacements.
259 He discusses his attitude toward Conceptual Art in “Four Conversations
Between Dennis Wheeler and Robert Smithson (1969-1970)”, in Flam, 196-233,
especially 209 and 214-215.
260 This is the general argument of his book The Truth in Painting (Trans. Geoff
Bennington and Ian McLeod. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1987.)
While it is extremely difficult to extract a short quotation from any of Derrida’s
arguments, the following passage where Derrida highlights the very problem of
language as an articulating system when used as a means to penetrate into the
essence of anything that is not language: “Discourses on painting are perhaps
destined to reproduce the limit which constitutes them, whatever they do and
whatever they say: there is for them an inside and an outside of the work as soon
as there is a work.”(11) Generally speaking, once anything has been called an art
work, it has been distinguished from everything else, including language.
261 Gary Shapiro has discussed Smithson’s debt to Hegel and also his profound
difference from Hegel, even when he uses Hegelian terminology. “Just as
Smithson displaced and expanded the sense of entropy, so he adapted the
concept of dialectics to his own purposes. What he finds useful in dialectics is
not the idea of a higher synthesis or attained totality, as in Hegel or some
versions of Marxism, but rather the idea of a play or movement that breaks down
fixed oppositions…Much of what Smithson finds helpful in the concepts of
entropy and dialectics is sometimes better expressed by the notion of
dedifferentiation…” a process by which, “conventional differences are broken
down not to create an undifferentiated unity, but to articulate a fluid and
multidimensional system of differences.” (See Gary Shapiro, Earthwards: Robert
Smithson and Art after Babel. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995; esp. 83
and 89.)
262 Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art. Trans. T. M.
Knox. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975; vol. 1, p. 31.
263 He cited this as one of his main aims in writing about his installation on the
rooftop of the Dia Center in New York City. (In conversation with the author,
Dec. 2001.)
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Fig. 1 Lukas Furtenagle, “The Artist Hans
Burgkmair and his Wife, Anna,” 1529
Fig. 2 The Mirror of Death, c. 1480
Fig. 3 Quentin Metsys, “St. Luke Painting the
Virgin and Child”
Fig. 4 Henri Matisse, “Carmelina,” 1903
Fig. 5 “Marcia Painting her Self-Portrait”
Fig. 6 Juan Gris, “Le Lavabo,” 1912
Figure 7 Vladimir Tatlin, “The Bottle,”
Figure 8 Gino Severini, “The Bal
Tabarin” 1912
Figure 9 Constantine Brancusi, “Sleeping
Figure 10 Robert Morris, “Untitled
(Mirror Cubes)” 1965
Figure 11 Frank Stella, “Empress of India,”
Figure 12 Hans Holbein, “The French
Ambassadors, “1533
Figure 13 Michelangelo Pistoletto, Person
Seen from the back, 1962
Figure 14 Judd, “Untitled” 1968
Figure 15 Lucas Samaras, “Room #2,”
Figure 16 Adrian Piper, Black Box
and White Box, 1992
Figure 17 Piper, interior of “Black Box”
Figure 18 Rauschenberg, Charlene,
Figure 19 Rauschenberg, “Minutiae,” 1954
Figure 20 Rauschenberg, “Big D
Ellipse” 1990
Figure 21 Rauschenberg, “Ballast,” 1987
Figure 22 Rauschenberg, “FavorRites,” 1988
Figure 23 Rauschenberg, “Soundings,” 1968
Figure 24 Rauschenberg, “Solstice”
Figure 25 Rauschenberg, Revolver, 1967
Figure 26 Rauschenberg,
“Audition” from Carnal Clocks,
Figure 27 Rauschenberg, “Illustrations for
Dante’s Inferno,”
Figure 28 Rauschenberg, “White
Painting” 1951
Figure 29 Rauschenberg, “Retroactive II,”
Figure 30 Rauschenberg, “Press,”
Figure 31 Rauschenberg, “Female Figure,”
Figure 32 Rauschenberg, “Tracer”
Figure 33 Rauschenberg, “Transom,” 1963
Figure 34 Gerhard Richter, “Table,”
Figure 35 Richter, “Dead I,” 1988
Figure 36 Richter, “1024 Colors”
Figure 37 Richter, “Abstract Picture” 1992
Figure 38 Richter, “Eight Gray”
2001 (installation view)
Figure 39 Richter, “Four Panes of Glass,” 1967
Figure 40 Georges Braque, “Le
Portugais” 1911-12
Figure 41 Marcel Duchamp, “The Bride
Stripped Bare by her Bachelors Even (The Large
Figure 42 Richter, “Ema (Nude and
Staircase),” 1966
Figure 43 Richter, “Woman Descending the
Staircase,” 1965
Figure 44 Duchamp, “Nude
Descending a Staircase,” 1912
Figure 45 Richter, “Uncle Rudi” 1965
Figure 46 Richter, “Pane of Glass” I
& II, 1977
Figure 47 Richter, “Double Pane of Glass,”
Figure 48 Richter, “Betty” 1977
Figure 49 Richter, “Self-Portrait” 1996
Figure 50 Richter, “Mirror” and
“Mirror” both 1981
Figure 51 Richter, “Mirror” 1981
Figure 52 Richter, “Two Candles”
Figure 53 Richter, “Skull” 1983
Figure 54 Richter, “Hanged” 1988
Figure 55 Richter, “Gray Mirror” c. 1991
Figure 56 Richter, “Six Mirrors for
a Bank,” 1991
Figure 57 Richter, “Twelve Mirrors for a
Bank,” 1991
Figure 58 Richter, “Seven
Standing Panes,” 2002
Figure 59 Richter, “Corner Mirror, BrownBlue,”1991
Figure 60 Richter, “Gray Mirror”
Figure 61 Richter, “Seascape” 1969
Figure 62 Richter, “Shadow
Painting” 1968
Figure 63 Richter, “Betty” 1988
Figure 64 Richter, “I.G.” 1993
Figure 65 Dan Graham, “Body Press” 1970
Figure 66 Graham, “Homes for
America” 1966-67
Figure 67 Graham, “Two Adjacent Pavilions”
Figure 68 Graham,
“Present/Continuous Past[s]”,
Figure 69. Graham, “Present/Continuous
Figure 70 Graham, Cinema, 1981
Figure 71 Graham, “Cinema (interior)”
Figure 72 Graham, “Public
Space/Two Audiences”, 1976
Figure 73 Graham, “Stage Set for Guaire”
Figure 74 Graham, “Past
Future/Split Attention” 1972
Figure 75 Graham,
“Performer/Audience/Mirror” 1977
Figure 76 Graham, “Performer/
Audience/Mirror,” performance in
mid 1990s
Figure 77 Robert Smithson, “Alogon II,” 1966
Figure 78 Smithson, “The
Eliminator,” 1964
Figure 79 Morris, “Untitled” 1965-66
Figure 80 Morris, “I-Box,” 1962
Figure 81 Morris, “Box with the Sound of Its
Own Making,” 1961
Figure 82 Smithson,
“Enantiomorphic Chambers,”
Figure 83 Smithson, “Mirror Vortex,” 1965
Figure 84 Smithson, “Four-Sided
Vortex,” 1965
Figure 85 Smithson, “Ziggurat Mirror,”
Figure 86 Smithson, “Untitled
(Map on Mirror)” 1967
Figure 87 Smithson, “Mirror Strata,” 1966
Figure 88 Smithson, “Red
Sandstone Corner Piece,” 1968
Figure 89 Smithson, “Mirror Displacement
(Cayuga Salt Mine Project),” 1969
Figure 90 Smithson, “Mirror
Trail,” 1969
Figure 91 Smithson, “Eight Part Piece,”
Figure 93 Smithson, “Seventh Mirror
Displacement,” 1969
Figure 92 Smithson, “Fourth
Mirror Displacement,” 1969
Figure 94 Jan van Eyck,
“Arnolfini Double Portrait” 1434
Figure 95 Smithson, “Roots and Rocks,
Palenque,” 1969
Figure 96 Smithson, “Spiral Jetty,”
Figure 97 Smithson, “A Heap of Language,”
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