This is the story of the meeting:
Once we had all found our places around the long table of Café Bommel, ordered our drinks and explained the rules of engagement to the newcomers, the theme was introduced by Ralph who had brought with him a book written by Rémy Zaugg called Die List der Unschuld, Das Wahrnehmen einer Skulptur, or The trick of innocence, the perception of a piece of sculpture. The book was published in 1982, in Eindhoven. It is a three hundred page book about a single work of art, namely, Donald Judd’s Untitled (six cold rolled steel boxes) of 1969 which stand in the lobby of the Kunstmuseum in Basel. So what was to be the theme of the evening? Was it to be the book, the work of art it speaks about, or was it something else entirely? That question was never fully answered…
The theme might have been the difference between pre-reflective perception and reflective perception. Between what happens when you are with something and simple take account of it without making it the focus of your attention and what happens when you start thinking about that something and take account of it by thinking about it with focus and concentration.
The theme might also have been about the difference between two works of art, Andy Warhol’s Marylyn Monroe and Donald Judd’s Untitled (six cold rolled steel boxes). Of course it was also, if only indirectly, about Rémy Zaugg and his personal struggle with this work of art; a struggle that resulted in a book which appeared to be about the fact that innocence plays tricks, and that perhaps, innocence is itself a trick played upon innocents. It has to be said at this stage that only Ralph had read the book he had brought along. The rest of us had not, or at least not yet. We had read an article Ralph had written about this work of art, the book and its relationship to the theme of tectonics. So we relied on Ralph to explain at least some part of the book to us and what it says about the work of art and its effect.
That is how we started with the thesis that the sculpture represents itself. How the context of the work of art affects our perception of it, how we perceive the steel and the number of boxes, six, that fact that they are cubes, and how we reconstruct that fact out of our spatial experience of things, how the sequence of boxes atomises with a first view and merges into a single work of art as one spends time with this work. All this can be read I the book.
Then came the thesis that Andy Warhol’s work is fundamentally different to Judd’s work, That Andy Warhol’s work is about Marylyn Monroe, the icon of Americanism and Hollywood, that Warhol’s work of art represented Marylyn Monroe the person. And indeed as Mark astutely observed, when we were talking about the Andy Warhol, we invariably caught ourselves talking about Marylyn Monroe the person and not about the work of art. Surely that was a clear case of representation. But do we understand what representation means, can we see it at work and see how it works? Ralph recounted how Rémy Zaugg argued that if you get very close to the Andy Warhol, you would see uniform surfaces of colour, a neutrality of meaning that disappears as you move away. The nature of a silk screen print is that it presents flat surfaces of colour. And certainly the portraits by Andy Warhol, which invariably are reproductions of iconic portraits llok as if they have been redone in a cheap printing technique, with a simple pallet of colours spilling over the forms, smudging the lips and eyes. And as soon as we move away from our myopic view of the painting and take our distance, a world of associations and meaning force themselves upon us, creating an ineluctable network of flight lines whereby the thing is connected with ideas, vague memories, stories and associations, wishes: the world of Marylyn Monroe, a lady whom none of us had ever met, and about whom we could only think and perhaps recall things we had seen or heard. Who look us at us in a certain way. She becomes a vessel of thoughts forged into a body portrayed. She comes to life in our mind, much like the figure in a novel, much like how we look at people and see their liveliness which comes to life in our minds as we imagine what they are doing, thinking and feeling. And the image of Marylyn Monroe is full of ideas: idea of sexiness, womanhood, objectified womanhood, objectified sex, lust, beauty and gorgeousness, ideas about America, Kennedy, the sound of a voice, of songs and affairs, and tragedy. She has a story, a biography which is reconstituted in the mind of the beholder, every time. Enfin, the portrait by Andy Warhol becomes the continuation of her virtual life in our minds.
And this virtual life Zaugg contrasted with the six cold rolled steel boxes by Donald Judd. Where Warhol is overburdened with narrative and meaning, the Judd appears cold indeed, and empty. It represents itself. But what does that mean? What does it mean to represent yourself? If you get close to the Judd, you see steel, the surface of steel, scratches, bits of rust, the shine of steel. As you move away you see steel boxes in their spatial setting, their arrangement, their concerted behaviour as you move around. You understand them to be cubes, i.e. carefully made approximations of the geometric and Platonic idea of the cube. Those boxes do not represent anything. They do not refer to a reality outside themselves, they do not tell a story. They represent themselves. Well, Okay, they might be said to represent the Platonic idea of a cube, but that is nit-picking; they are as near to a cube as any worldly creation on that scale can get to a proper cube, so they are nothing if not just themselves. Everything is itself, but some things fall silent and say nothing about the world around them.
What is the nature of representation? If you look at the Andy Warhol you see meaning projected and proliferating in the experience of the beholder. The portrait adds to the beholder’s frame of reference. Marylyn Monroe was all that she was and now she is also that portrait by Andy Warhol and everything that this might mean. Andy Warhol the pop artist was concerned with the spectacle of consumerism, gave us the notion that everyone has the right to fifteen minutes of fame, explored and investigated the idea of meaning and iconicity by repeating Marylyn Monroes, Coca Cola Bottles, Cambell’s Soup tins, electric chairs, car accidents, you name it. The everyday and even the banal made profound through flattening, through repetition, through stutter. Having said that the nature of Warhol’s profundity always remained elusive. Could it not be a representation of emptiness after all?
When we look at the Judd, Ralph said, we might ask ourselves “what have we here?” With the Warhol this seems not a very difficult question to answer at first. What we have here was at least obvious within the frame of reference that the status of an art work enforces upon a conversation: we have here a portrait of a famous lady! But with the Judd, the what-have-we-here question is reduced to a degré zero. It appears unsatisfactory to say: Untitled (six cold rolled steel boxes). That is not very much. The six cold rolled steel boxes appear to have reached a level of neutrality that makes the work of art appear to deny its existence as a work of art. Indeed the status of the Judd as a work of art is regularly contested. This is accomplished in two ways. Firstly by placing the work of art not in a regular room of the museum but in the lobby, a place where people prepare themselves to be immersed in art without yet having quite dipped their toes. Secondly because people regularly ignore the Judd as a work of art and notice it instead as a useful piece of furniture to put your coat on or sort out your pockets. Then Floor came with the observation that Judd had in fact chosen to work at this scale. And this scale was a scale that was related to the human body in such a way that his works have indeed something of abstracted pieces of furniture; they are the size of pieces of furniture and thus enter their field of affordance and meaning. Raoul and Niels then pursued the idea of what his method of stripping, neutralising, denying meaning, could mean for architects. Making buildings that do not shout about what it is they want to be, is that being yourself? But what if you are the kind of person who enjoys shouting what you are? This appears to be what Judd is after, to strip the work of art of its artfulness, of everything that makes it have meaning as a work of art without it ever giving up the task of being an artwork. It is an exercise in denial, in being something else, it wants to be something called itself.
But what is being oneself? We have to be careful. At the time that this work of art was made, 1969, it was fashionable to say such things: Just be yourself man and to subsequently dissolve into a coud of strange smelling smoke. But being yourself is surely nothing more than being what you are capable of being, being what you are comfortable being, being perhaps what you want to be. Those are three very different ways of being yourself. Each of them addresses a specific part of the indeterminate being that you are.
A cube by Richard Serra, of a larger scale, speaks of heaviness, of gravity, of carefully positioned weight. It is a space, you can walk around as if you walk around a small building whereas the Judd is an object you walk past and around as if it is a table. Now, we do not really know what gravity is, we know what it does: gravity is downward pull, it makes lightness and heaviness possible. The cube by Serra is heavy and precariously balanced. Spending time with it is being among heaviness and precariousness. Light things are also about gravity; they are about the overcoming of heaviness by being light. Judd’s work is not about heaviness or lightness, it isn’t about any of these things. It is not even about making boxes of cold rolled steel. The work seems to want to be ignored and yet here is a trick of which we were reminded by Thijs: it was trying to be ignored as a work of art in a museum. Never mind that it was standing in the lobby. Never mind that a few innocents, unaware of what “a Judd” means to the world of art, put their coats on it. All the greater the effect of the work of art when they found out: this is no mere table, this is “a Judd”. Here lies a trick. It was a work of art disguising itself as nothing much, as Untitled (six cold rolled steel boxes). Judd’s work appears to want to be ignored, it evokes no feeling, until one starts thinking about it and then a three hundred page book is only the beginning of an endless journey of meaning. So what have we here? We appear to have an exercise in non-representation which is beguiling us with its supposed innocence, making people innocent of any intentional wrong-doing, guilty of abuse.
What is representation? Representation happens when something, a picture for instance, presents itself by making a reference to something else, a landscape for instance, which, in turn, is not present but made to be present in the image of it. No, the image is itself an image, but the image of a landscape done in paint is an image of something. At this moment something strange happens. Judd, in doing his exercise in non-representation, in attempting to deny us the being and image of something challenges us to think about his work by subversively playing down its nature as a work of art, by making it a piece of possible furniture in a lobby and making us ask: “what we have here?” and giving us an answer that is unsatisfactory: something that is Untitled, (six cold rolled steel boxes. In presenting itself, and more accurately in representing itself, it begins to proliferate in its being. This proliferation of being is cause by us thinking about it. We know, deep in ourselves, that every pretence of something being nothing is a trick played on us and a not very innocent trick at that. Nothing is nothing! And by being thought about by us, the work comes to stand for our ability to think about it, or rather, it comes to stand for what we have thought about when thinking about it. So with some it will become a rich work of art and with others it will be a rather poor work of art. To represent itself then, means to represent the self that we the beholder in fact produce through the act of thought and conversation. And here arrive at the possibility of generating a three hundred page book about a work of art that tries to escape meaning and is thus forced to fill itself with ours. It is at the mercy of our madness, our dullness, our cleverness, our sensibility.
Whereas Andy Warhol achieves fullness and indeterminate meaning through the overexposure of banal reference in the form of iconic flatness, making us focus on the nature of the work of art through its thickly applied reference distorted through the techniques he uses to present her overexposed image, Judd requires us to work for our art and produce meaning on the emptiness of a banal title, which simply states what these boxes are: six in number and made of cold rolled steel. We generate meaning through it, and the work in its emptiness is exceedingly generous, it produces meaning through us as fast and as easy as anything Warhol makes. We see ourselves reborn in the work of art. Representing itself is making the beholder be reborn in the creation of the work of art. And this self-creation starts with the analysis of the beholder’s perception that Zaugg begins with in the book, the fact that you begin by seeing the first cube and end by seeing the last one. But when you come back to it the work has become a single thing, a piece of art. Not six boxes or five gaps but a single whole, a work of art, which seems to dissolve the idea of being six and the idea of this being an even number so that there is no middle box, but a middle gap, like the peripteros of a Greek temple at the front and back. Perhaps the work could be called not Untitled (six cold rolled steel boxes) but Untitled (five airy gaps). And so we go on, we acquire a taste for generating art through thought about the nature of art, the nature of representation, the nature of meaning itself and the fact that it generates itself uncontrollably when meaning appears to be denied.
Judd’s work is no less full of meaning than Warhol’s but it is full of a more explicitly heterotopic meaning. In that sense it is more innocent. It refuses to mean something and so we take on the responsibility of producing it. It assembles meaning in the head of the beholder and it becomes no more than what the beholder is capable of making it. Zaugg is an expert. You look at that work and it becomes what you are capable of making it and that what it is capable of becoming is no more than what you are, or at least a part of what you are. Judd’s work is a technique of self-generation. But is Warhol’s work any different? Not really. They just start us off in different ways, the one by tricking us into thinking it is empty, by making us think its represents itself and the other by tricking us into thinking it is refers to something else when in fact it only ever leads us to our Marylyn, the one that is in our mind.
And listen how far we have come! We started off with the thesis that the work of art represented nothing but itself and now we have agreed that it is itself but that itself is what it is in the mind of each person involved with it. Most ignore it completely and do not worry themselves about it. Some rest in their confusion and move on. A few allow the work to proliferate their being like the Goldberg variations make the aria proliferate into things we can barely recognise as related. Perhaps that is arts great task, to make something of us; it is the catalyst whereby the beholder reconstructs himself and gives himself body. A heavy task.