The subjects of John Gerrard’s ‘portraits’ – isolated, enigmatic structures whose interiors remain hidden – are real sites, their surface captured by Gerrard in thousands of digital photographs, which are then employed in a painstaking virtual reconstruction.1 The mastery of this medium that Gerrard and his production team have developed has enabled him to distance the work from any conspicuous emphasis on its ‘new media’ credentials and their cultural associations. While utilising software designed for intensively interactive gaming environments, the works revoke the gamer’s freedom of movement to explore virtual space. Their immaculately rendered environments refuse to deliver the vertiginous flythroughs, descents and dizzying perspectives movies have taught us to associate with CGI, leading us instead on slow orbital paths around isolated structures which offer a minimum of ‘action’.
Nevertheless much of the significance of Gerrard’s work pivots on the technical nature of its medium. The digital computer and its generalized capacity to model any system whatsoever is the crucial enabler, not only of the hyper-realistic rendering of his subjects, but also of the globally co-ordinated networks of production and distribution they invite us to consider. Accordingly, these ‘portraits’ embody a tension between a realism that is pictorial, illusionistic, offering us a precise image of a reality remote-controlled by virtualities; and a realism that would liquidate the artwork’s autonomy, reminding us that the work, too, is of that same reality.2
In this sense the work can be seen to span two moments – precisionist and literalist – of a specifically American realism. That is, a realism allowing the artist the subtraction from (European) artistic tradition necessary to address the new realities – themselves quintessentially American – of a world dominated by objects and environments that appear as uncanny, alien presences; a realism for those realities of a new world whose aesthetic and social meaning has not yet crystallised.
Charles Sheeler: Precision and Power
Charles Sheeler [1883-1965] records that his exposure to European avant-garde painting at the 1913 Armory Show provoked a realization ‘that a picture could be as arbitrarily conceived as the artist wished’.3 Sheeler abandoned painterly experimentation, however, instead developing a rigorous realism in his recording of the industrialisation of the American landscape. This is the style that would become known as ‘precisionism’, characterized by its exaggerated sensitivity to machined forms and their sharply delineated, geometrical, unmodulated surfaces.
The pursuit of precision was also determined by Sheeler’s professional involvement in photography. The formal qualities accentuated by photography, diverging from those emphasised by pictorial tradition, hasten the conclusion that, rather than exploring the essential elements of the pictorial through painterly experiment, one might instead discover the articulations of the real by ‘remov[ing] the method of painting as far as possible from being an obstacle in the way of considering the content of the picture’.4
Working as a commercial photographer, Sheeler was commissioned in 1927 by an advertising agency to document Albert Kahn’s eleven-hundred-acre Ford Red River Plant in Michigan, then the largest industrial complex in the world. The plant was the product of a new, heavily-planned functional ‘architecture of production’ devised by Ford engineers for increased efficiency. Kahn’s single-storey, steel-framed, glass-walled structures, free of all superfluous adornment, ensured that ‘the imperatives of management … were conveyed, not merely by foremen, but by the architecture of the workplace.’5 Sheeler’s passion for his subject (‘incomparably the most thrilling I have had to work with’) is reflected in the heroic cast of the images, which would be a determining moment in the development of his painting.
Contemporary critics shared Sheeler’s own understanding of his style as essentially American, its ‘ultimate literalness,’ its ‘extremely simplified realism’6 seen as echoing the ‘clear-cut fineness, the cool austerity, the complete distrust of superfluities’ of the Shaker furniture Sheeler admired7 as much as the industrial might of Red River. In the former as in the latter Sheeler divines a ‘classicism’ that he associates with Greek sculpture’s ‘façade of realism’, behind which is ‘skilfully concealed’ an ideal structure. So that, despite Sheeler’s claim that ‘my things don’t go beyond the boundaries of the actual’,8 precisionism ultimately is an idealism. Its crystalline semi-abstractions argue that the corn silos, factories and machines generated through the sole concern for function and efficiency participate in the same ‘spirit’ as the early products of American handcraft. Sheeler requires that ‘every picture should have a steel structure’, but equally that the steel structures of his subjects are extensions of a nobler armature.
The high point of precisionism is 1940’s Power, Sheeler’s series of paintings commissioned for a Fortune magazine feature that breathlessly vaunts the marvels of technology to a still largely rural American public. Fortune was cautious enough about Sheeler’s work – by then attracting criticism for its affectless representations – not only to head the article with the one painting that features pre-twentieth-century technology (a waterwheel entitled Primitive Power) but also to equip the reader in advance with a reassuring interpretation of the remainder:
In the text alongside Sheeler’s Yankee Clipper, Sheeler’s cropped portrait of an airplane propeller becomes a symbol of identity and popular freedom:
At the same time, the propeller can be read as threatening the usurpation of the artist by the engineer:
Sheeler believes that the pursuit of function reveals principles of beauty that will retrospectively absorb those of the restricted practices of art; and yet this is paradoxically conjoined with an attempt to redeem functional beauty through an art that measures itself for the task by erasing all trace of its mediation. Doesn’t this uneasy alliance merely hold at bay the more fundamental shift in the relation between art and the real that such ‘infinitely precise’ creations call for? Thierry de Duve recounts that in 1912
This ‘designa[tion], ready-made,’ of ‘Blériot’s airplane and propeller’ as ‘worthy of supplanting painting under the title of art’ of course anticipates Duchamp’s ambiguous declaration that ‘The only works of art America has given are her plumbing and her bridges’.10 Duchamp seconds Fortune’s recognition of what de Duve describes as ‘the immanent and involuntary beauty of the modern machine adapted to its function’;11 but Sheeler’s representation of this new art still retains a certain autonomy of means, beyond mere selection and nomination. Re-presentation is still necessary, even as it strives to negate its mediation so as to reveal the underlying structure of the new aesthetic. Sheeler’s dogged pursuit of this goal renders his work at once urgent and opaque: the subtraction of all facture and ornament presses the viewer against the real as if willing it to secrete some clue as to its inner structure, but its faithfully-reproduced, cryptic surfaces offer no satisfaction.
The Theatre of Literalism
In his 1965 essay ‘Specific Objects’, Donald Judd sets out the motivations and criteria for an art that would escape the constraints of both painting and sculpture. Recent work having consigned these ‘given forms’ to a determinate ‘life span’, Judd looks to works which, no longer generating autonomous illusionistic space, now inhabit ‘three dimensions … real space’; whose materials are ‘simply materials … used directly … aren’t obviously art’; and whose qualities are no longer determined by the relation of their parts, since they tend towards ‘singleness’, being ‘an entity, one thing’.12 Judd contends that this ‘new three-dimensional work’ moves toward the possibility of artworks that are nothing more than themselves qua ‘specific objects’.
In his famous critique of this position,13 Michael Fried finds the most important clue to the stakes of Judd’s ‘literalism’ in Tony Smith’s anecdote of driving the unfinished New Jersey Turnpike:
Judd insists on liberating art from its painterly and sculptural circumscription through a confrontation with the literal object and the use of repetition; Robert Morris argues that the inexhaustible number of possible relationships between viewer and object becomes a part of the work in the minimalist ‘situation’; Fried squarely aligns these claims with Smith’s ‘non-art’ experience of driving the turnpike, claiming that the former merely encrypt the latter; that what Judd and Morris invoke is the same experience ‘of endlessness, of inexhaustibility, of being able to go on and letting … the material itself confront one in all its literalness, its “objectivity”, its absence of anything beyond itself.’15
According to Fried, the literalist work is a compaction of the deracinating but somehow exhilarating experience of inhabiting a system of objects whose forceful but meaningless presence seems to obtrude on experience from ‘elsewhere’; an object-reality without semantic or social correlation, and therefore ‘hollow’. Precision-engineered to be nothing but what it is, ‘permut[ing] the facts of Modern Reality’,16 we might say that the ‘specific object’ invites the hypnotic fascination enjoyed by that ‘man in a car, driving on a concrete highway to an unknown destination’ nominated by J.G.Ballard as the key image of the Twentieth Century. Perhaps a more appropriate twenty-first century image would be that of a teenager rapt before the screen as a console unfolds from its memory chip tracts of virtual highway, producing in a state of total immobility the endless and vacuous ‘interest’ that Fried derides in Judd’s objects.
As Fried anticipates, the form of experience he identifies has become so common as to be banal. The best indicator of this might be the uncontested hegemony of various derivatives of techno, that music originating in the ‘motor-city’ Detroit and which, abandoning form and development, consists apparently of laminar repetitive continua that the listener enters and leaves arbitrarily. Thinking of Smith’s turnpike experience, this is perhaps best exemplified by British duo Orbital, who, in homage to Kraftwerk’s seminal electronic highway hymn Autobahn, named themselves after the M25 motorway that circles the city of London. For the inexhaustibility of the literalist object is precisely of the orbital type: According to Fried, the intensity of the encounter it embodies, the speed of the turnpike cruise, engenders a hallucinatory sensation of progression and repletion; whereas in fact, the literal is inexhaustible only ‘because there is nothing there to exhaust … It is endless the way a road might be: if it were circular, for example.’17 Which is why it must be polemically opposed by the work of art, whose value lies precisely in its ability to ‘defeat or suspend’18 its objecthood by generating autonomous spaces.
Smith’s turnpike experience is conditioned by the reorganization of the environment through the mass-production of modular, repetitive forms. Entry into them is marked by new modes of experience: those which, according to Fried, ‘most deeply excite literalist sensibility, and that literalist artists seek to objectify in their work … by the repetition of identical units’.19 Unlike in Sheeler’s quest for ideal classical form, this order ‘is not rationalistic and underlying but is simply order, like that of continuity, one thing after another’.20 What Fried calls literalism’s ‘theatricality’ then consists precisely in its relaying modernity unreflectively (since it is already ‘corrupted or perverted’ by it),21 and in submitting to its seductive, cryptic threat (or promise) of inundation by alien objects, in a way that Sheeler could not yet do.
Crystals, Aliens, Monoliths
In his 1966 account of a car trip with Judd, The Crystal Land, Robert Smithson replays Tony Smith’s epiphany, reimagining the production of these forms as a glacial, inorganic terrestrial process. Smithson further develops the link between the machined, industrial environment, and the nature of the literalist object, whose creation he re-imagines as an unnatural ‘crystallisation’ ‘put[ting] space down in the form of deposits’.22 Following a Glaciologist’s statement that
Smithson observes how
At this point, where mankind is besieged, like the hero of Ballard’s contemporaneous Crystal World, by some uncontrolled inorganic infestation, it is no longer a question of tethering this ‘adventure in space’ in which man ‘loses old realities and gains new ones’ to a social project. Beyond Sheeler’s complicity with the symbolic domestication of the machine, and Duchamp’s nomination of it as art, the literalist object now indexes something ‘mapped out’ in advance but which is no longer ‘for us’: an alien regulation and reorganization of space. This sentiment is attested to not only by Smithson’s candid associational reading of Judd’s works (‘The first time I saw Don Judd’s ‘pink-plexiglas box,’ it suggested a giant crystal from another planet’);24 but also by John McCracken, whose account of his own works slides easily from their existing ‘between the two worlds’ of illusionist painting and three-dimensionality, to being alien life-forms from another dimension (or from the future) channelled by the artist;25 not to mention the impenetrable, cosmically-cryptic ‘monolith’ and Morris-like spacestation of Kubrick’s 2001.
The New New Three-Dimensional Work
It is in the context of Smithson’s journey, where he finds
that we can offer an interpretation of Gerrard’s method of selection. In particular, the facility that features in Grow Finish Unit (Near Elkhart, Kansas) was spotted soon after Gerrard had visited the artillery sheds at Judd’s Chinati Foundation at Marfa, Texas. This contingent double-encounter of Judd’s permanently-installed serial forms and those deposited in the landscape by agro-industry gives a supplementary dimension to Gerrard’s selection. The isolated, silently operating production site may function as a synechdoche for a system that resynthesizes the planet’s resources and reconfigures space according to its own functional criteria. But the site is not merely an allegory or symbol of the type found in Sheeler’s Power series; it is simultaneously a literalist ‘readymade’. This duality corresponds to a splitting within the work that obviates, or at least complicates, its ‘theatrical’ nature.
The reconstructed model itself no less than virtualizes the literalist situation, fastforwarded through its evolution into ‘monumental’ land art. The recurring camera path, orbiting the building at walking pace, automates the viewer’s inexhaustible surveying of the permanent installation; the impenetrability in principle of the superficially-reconstructed building and the durational nature of the virtual environment re-emphasise this inexhaustibility.
But this proxy experience is complicated by the physical form of the work that constitutes both its (technical) support and an installation into which it is embedded. In the installation of Cuban School (Community 5th of October) at Simon Preston Gallery in New York, a Morris-esque slab is suspended parallel to the wall, of a thickness that makes it a volume rather than a mere screen. The digital projection is precisely congruent with the face of this white monolith, so that the projected image vacillates between portal (a ‘view into another world’) and superficial covering. The ‘theatrical’ situation of literalism, including its beholder (in the form of the virtual camera viewpoint) is set at a distance; and the archetypal minimalist hollow volume becomes a host-body, a vehicle freighted with the illusionist space that literalism wants to liquidate. The doubling of the real 3-d presence of the screen-volume and the virtual 3-d presence of the school is further echoed by the similar dimensions of the space itself, which, for the purpose of designing of the installation, was itself modeled using the same software.
Black Box / White Box
Tony Smith’s (1962) work ‘Black Box’ implies a relation between the enigmatic hollowness of the minimalist object and the cybernetic conception of a modular processing unit whose mechanism, accessible through input and output ports, is sealed and closed off from view. This hint indicates the shortcomings of Judd’s conceiving of objectivity in terms limited to physical and spatial presence. In order to participate in reality, an object must be considered not just as a spatial unit, but in its productive interactions with its environment. Furthermore, any contemporary conception of space must take into account the non-physical but effectively real electronic spaces that increasingly organize and reformat physical space.
This expanded notion of ‘objecthood’ is insisted upon most strongly in the other form in which Gerrard’s work is presented: The physical presence and gravity of his ‘artboxes’ – formerly floor-standing tables fabricated in the featureless, abstract white industrial material Corian, more recently wall-mounted forms in rolled steel – decisively prevent the work’s being read as merely ‘virtual’. At the same time, the on-screen virtual environment makes it inevitable that the hollowness of the white box is filled-out with circuitries, hooked up to the grid, becoming a black box.
Fittingly for works that are the result of a collaboration across many disciplines (industrial design, software engineering, CGI modelling), a piece like Lufkin (Near Hugo, Colorado) conspicuously exposes its complicity in the same network of production, and the same contingent history of geosynthesis, as the industrial facilities it depicts. This draws attention to the pervasive technological illusion of freedom from time and contingency that is the essence of the heightened literalist experience of its virtual mise-en-scène. While the virtual scene uses the digital medium to accentuate the implacable, apparently limitless cycles of industrial technology, the installation reveals it, along with the digital ‘black box’ and the art ‘object’ itself, as synthetic, finite, and resource-consuming. From the silent ‘processing’ that happens in the 7-month interim between the delivery of the piglets and their pickup to the slow-motion plutonic vampirism of the oil pump, Gerrard recognizes that to properly consummate the ‘literalist’ encounter with the alien requires that this synthetic aspect, also, be brought ‘to the surface’.
The Cuban Schools share with earlier work the aspect of entities ‘from outside’: space-invader-like, the buildings crouch on concrete feet that give the impression that they have just ‘landed’. From which ‘alien dimension’?
The Schools belong to a period in the island’s history when the optimism of early revolutionary socialist models of housing provision gave way to large-scale mass housing models. This phase began with the US Embargo and the consequent pressing need for high-tech solutions to see through the revolutionary project. A decisive moment came with the Soviet Union’s donation, after 1963’s Hurricane Flora, of a large-panel concrete prefabrication factory in Santiago. Over the following decade, a growing network of prefabrication facilities throughout the country slowly locked in a commitment to the technology; the socialist project became virtually synonymous with state-centralised prefabrication.27 But the huge investments brought at best mixed results:
The infatuation with these capital-intensive prefabrication methods owed less to their results than to the notion that only industrialisation would help Cuba escape underdevelopment (‘industrial development as a cornerstone of the socialist revolution’) – as reflected in Castro’s production goal of 100,000 housing units a year by 1970 to accompany the famous ‘10 Million Ton Sugar Harvest’. But the stimulation of this situation, and the exportation of architecture and planning, were also part of a deliberate transformation of the post-colonial South or ‘third world’, defined in relation to the socialist/capitalist alternative, into a battleground in which technology transfer and knowledge distribution were ideological vehicles.29
The export of planning and architecture as instruments of cold war politics is exemplified by the case of Constantinos Doxiadis, whose rationalist vision of ‘Ekistics, the ‘science of human settlements’ was promoted by the US government and the Ford Foundation. Doxiadis’s system describes a ramified hierarchy in which the smallest scale unit of ‘anthropos’ is embedded into ‘ecumenopolis’, a ‘world-encompassing city’; a ‘machine for emancipation, decentralisation and individualism’. In the belief that the organization of space and of dwelling could determine the political destiny of territories in the balance, while US aid was mobilised for Doxiadis to exert his influence on Iran, Lebanon, and various African capitals, Warsaw architects funded by the UN, planned Skopje, Chimbote, and Libya; and exported prefab to Cuba.
El Bloqueo and Generation Y
It is no wonder, then, that in ‘El Bloqueo’, shown at the Third Havana Biennial in 1989, the material used by Cuban artist Antonio Eligio Fernández (Tonel) to spell out the work’s title (‘The Blockade/Embargo’), and to construct a rudimentary, squared-off map of Cuba, are concrete blocks. Made in the year the Berlin Wall fell, Tonel’s work anticipates the problematic legacy of the imported Soviet model, whose forms left their impression on the lives of a generation in Cuba. It was Girón-style reinforced panel prefabrication that permitted the mass construction, during the late 60s and early 70s, of the ESBECs or ‘schools in the countryside’ [Escuelas Secundarias Basicas en el Campo], establishments which are an abidingly painful memory for Cuba’s ‘Generation Y’. Of course the brutal reality of life within these alien shells bore little relation to the principles supposedly embodied in their concrete slabs.
When Soviet funding dried up the shortcomings of the model were all too evident:
The question of ‘actually-existing’ vs ‘real’ socialism is perhaps subsidiary to that of the sacrifice of the contingency of place and history to the prefabrication of ideological alternatives. In aligning the incongruous presence of the Cuban Schools – appropriate emblems for this attempted political remote-control – with the equally remote-controlled industrial facilities of his previous works, Gerrard reflects on the universality of the functionalist legacy of modernism.
To Build the Real
We live amongst the ruins of the belief that, in the fascinating formal possibilities that emerge from new technology, there is a latent possibility of twisting free of tradition and creating forms of life that, since they directly confront reality, are universal. Of course, the ‘Fordist’ principles of utility and efficiency embodied hyperbolically in industrial facilities such as the Grow Finish Unit, belong to the same Fordism that exported Doxiadis’ virtual ‘structures for living’, and that employed precisionist painting to promote its efficiencies. But we should also recall the close relation between literalism and constructivism’s transformation of art into production through the extirpation of ideology. Its effects are as manifest in the Cuban Schools as in the literalist object. Furthermore, the depersonalised and de-ideologised productions of constructivism – informed by the precepts of tectonics (exploitation of the newest materials and techniques), facture (the non-bourgeois use of materials) and construction (the efficient and functional fabrication) – aimed to produce in their proletarian audience precisely the type of excitement described by Fried as ‘theatrical’. Like Smith and his students on the turnpike, this audience was supposed to come face to face with a real that was beyond anything that ‘art’ had to offer, to enter directly, participatively, into it rather than contemplating and reflecting on its meaning.
From this point of view it is instructive that immediately after the recounting of his turnpike experience, Smith moves from Ballardian wastelands (‘abandoned airstrips … artificial landscapes … created worlds without tradition’) to the architecture of Le Corbusier, praising it as a similarly ‘accessible’ experience of a reality that breaks the circumscribed bounds of art.31 – Le Corbusier who, like Sheeler, discerned a classical beauty in ‘the American grain elevators and factories, the magnificent first-fruits of the new age.’;32 and whose call for ‘Standardisation; Industrialisation; Taylorisation’ as ‘the most urgent program of town planning’33 echoed from East to West during the Twentieth Century.
The dream of an art equal to the real itself always addresses itself to a type that it hopes to engender – either a rational observer who discerns an ideal order, or a pragmatist who ‘sees … works of art as nothing more than objects’34 and acts on material facts. What Fried identifies as that which excites literalism, cannot be reduced to merely ‘a matter of … experience, conviction, sensibility’;35 for it also provided the stimulus, the fascinated compulsion, that drove nations to participate enthusiastically in the construction of crystal lands, monoliths.
Fried’s question is apt: ‘if the turnpike, airstrips, and drill ground are not works of art, what are they?’36 – what is the nature of this reality that compels art to respond, that ‘seems to run of its own accord, without human intervention’37 and of the depiction of which Sheeler says (perhaps only half-jokingly) ‘it’s my illustration of what a beautiful world it would be if there were no people in it’?38
They are the ruins of something whose cryptic promise seduced the human race into assisting in its emergence, but which conspicuously failed to engender a new human to inhabit it. The caretakers of the Cuban Schools and the industrious painter of Oil Stick Work alike tend to the enigmatic remainders of this hope, in works whose realism, this time, announces itself as temporal and synthetic.
- My thanks to Matthew Poole, Amanda Beech, Milica Topalovic, Hana Disch, Reza Negarestani, Simon Preston, and the artist himself, for conversations during which the themes explored in this text were developed. All shortcomings remain the sole responsibility of the author.
- On the question of ‘ofness’, see Art and Language, ‘Portrait of V.I. Lenin’, Artforum vol. XX, no.2 (Feb. 1980), reprinted in C. Harrison, F. Orton (eds) Modernism, Criticism, Realism (London and New York: Harper and Row, 1984), 145-69 and ‘On “A Portrait of V.I. Lenin in the Style of Jackson Pollock”’, in C. Harrison (ed.) Essays on Art and Language (Cambridge, MA.: MIT Press, 2001), 129-49;.
- K. Lucic, Charles Sheeler and the Cult of the Machine (Cambridge: Mass: Harvard University Press,1991), 33.
- C. Troyen, E. E. Hirshler, Charles Sheeler: Paintings and Drawings (Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1987), 32.
- Lucic, 92.
- Troyen & Hirschler, 15.
- Ibid., 22.
- Ibid., 15.
- T. De Duve, Pictorial Nominalism: On Marcel Duchamp’s Passage from Painting to the Readymade (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press,1991), 110.
- Ibid., 110–11
- Ibid., 110.
- In Arts Yearbook 8 (1965); reprinted in D. Judd, Complete Writings 1959-1975 (Halifax: NSCAD Press, 2005).
- M. Fried, ‘Art and Objecthood’ in Artforum 5 (June 1967): 12-23; reprinted in Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology, ed, G. Battcock (NY: Dutton, 1968), 116-47.
- Fried, 130-1; Tony Smith, in Samuel Wagstaﬀ, Jr., ‘Talking with Tony Smith,’ in Battcock (ed.) Minimal Art, 386.
- Fried, 143.
- R. Smithson, The Collected Writings, ed. J. Flam (Berkeley/LA: The University of California Press, 1996), 5.
- Fried, 144.
- Ibid., 135.
- Ibid., 144.
- Judd, 184.
- Fried, 136.
- Smithson, 6.
- Smithson, 7, 9.
- Smithson, 7.
- See e.g. D. Blair, ‘Otherworldly: Interview with John McCracken’, at http://www.thing.net/~lilyvac/writing30.html.
- Smithson, 8.
- See P. Castex, ‘La politique de production-distribution du logement à Cuba. David et Goliath: le combat inégal entre la propriété individuelle-autoconstruction et l’étatisation-préfabrication lourde jusqu’à l’armistice de décembre 1984’ (Paris: Groupe de Recherche et d’Echanges Technologiques, 1986)
- J.L. Scarpaci, R. Segre, M. Coyula, Havana: Two Faces of the Antillean Metropolis (Chapel Hill/London: University of North Carolina Press, 2001), 287.
- See M. Provoost, ‘New Towns on the Cold War Frontier’ at http://www.crimsonweb.org/spip.php?article47.
- Scarpaci, Segre & Coyula, 220.
- Fried, 134.
- Le Corbusier, Towards a New Architecture, tr. Frederick Etchells (London: Architectural Press, 1927), 21.
- Le Corbusier, Pour batir: standardiser et tayloriser: Supplement au Bulletin du Redressement Francais, May 1, 1928.
- Fried, 136.
- Fried, 135.
- Fried, 134.
- Troyen & Hirshler, 20.