An open-ended look at contemporary art – both inside the Walker and out – as framed by our Visual Arts curators.
Installation view of Unpacking the Box. All photos: Gene Pittman Unpacking the Box is the first installation in the new Best Buy Aperture, where changing displays will highlight materials from the Walker’s collections, archives, and library. Here, Jordan Carter and Victoria Sung discuss the inaugural conceptualization of the space. Let’s start by unpacking what we […]
Unpacking the Box is the first installation in the new Best Buy Aperture, where changing displays will highlight materials from the Walker’s collections, archives, and library. Here, Jordan Carter and Victoria Sung discuss the inaugural conceptualization of the space.
Let’s start by unpacking what we mean by the title Unpacking the Box. We are referring to, of course, the literal box (you’ll see that all of the objects on view take the form of a box or box-like container, whether that be a suitcase, a cabinet, or a backpack) but also the metaphorical box, meaning the museum as white cube or box. These objects throw into question the distinction between an artwork and its immediate frame, or container, and by extension, between the art object and the museum that houses it. The container is complicit, even critical to our understanding of the artwork; in fact, it is the artwork.
This type of so-called “institutional critique” has a relatively long history within the history of art. Perhaps the best place to begin would be Marcel Duchamp’s Boîte-en-valise (Box in a Valise), the first edition of which was created between 1935 and 1941. A suitcase housing miniature reproductions of his artworks (rendered at precisely 33 percent of their original size), the Boîte questioned the status of the unique work of art. What did it mean for an artist to reproduce at miniature scale objects from his own oeuvre? Are these “multiples” diminished as works of art? In reproducing and disseminating his artworks, Duchamp challenged not only the unique work of art but also the authority of the institutions that displayed them. Here, one could have a portable exhibition of one’s own outside of the museum apparatus.
The Boîte en valise has been reproduced several times, thus embodying the spirit of the facsimile. The Walker’s red Boîte is from Series F, produced in Paris in 1966 in an edition of 75. It includes several intentional changes from the first production, including 12 additional reproductions. Most recently, the publisher Walther König produced a new, posthumous facsimile, edited by Mathieu Mercier under the supervision of Association Marcel Duchamp. It uses contemporary digital printing and production technologies to allow for a larger edition at a modest price. This new edition, released in 2015, makes it possible for the Boîte to be viewed, reimagined, and even purchased outside of the museum and gallery system, honoring Duchamp’s original democratic desire.
The intentional variations between the two Boîtes is one that we tried to highlight by placing them side by side. In addition to the obvious differences in color, material, and scale, there are more subtle changes that speak to Duchamp’s playful and irreverent sense of humor. If you look at the backsides of two of the elements on view, for example, you’ll see that the 2015 Boîte presents a two-dimensional trompe-l’oeil approximation of the three-dimensional wooden armature of the earlier Boîte. In other words, the structural function of this detail has been rendered purely decorative. Moreover, the proximity between the two editions and their linear sequencing mimics an assembly line of sorts, perhaps intimating the seriality of their production.
Across the hall from the vitrine hosting the two Boîtes is a selection of Fluxus multiples that took their inspiration, in part, from Duchamp’s transgressive gesture of shrinking his life’s work into a portable container. On display are a number of Fluxus editions that take the form of a box, suitcase, or so-called “Fluxkits.” Fluxus was a movement of international artists active in the 1960s and 1970s founded by George Maciunas. In 1964, he established ©Fluxus Editions—a collection of affordable publications and multiples. ©Fluxus Editions allowed Maciunas to bring together concepts by a network of artists around the world, facilitating an ethos of collaboration through joint publication.
Many of the objects on view were acquired by the Walker in 1989, establishing one of the most comprehensive Fluxus collections in the United States, and were subsequently displayed in the Walker’s 1993 exhibition In the Spirit of Fluxus, curated by Elizabeth Armstrong and Joan Rothfuss. Although similar in packaging, each multiple is distinctive in terms of idea, the items they contain, and how artists intended audience interaction. These editions were performative, acting as “scores” or instructions, for exercises of the body and mind.
While many of these Fluxus multiples were meant to be physically unpacked, poked, prodded, flipped, and folded, they—like Duchamp’s Boîte—have become fragile over time. Fluxus multiples posited play as practice and audience participation as fundamental to the full realization of the work, but these boxes now exist behind glass in a state of suspended animation. Unpacking the Box attempts to activate these works by prompting passersby to imagine new modes of interaction. Boxes and kits are propped open, the door to a cabinet is left slightly ajar, contents spill out of a backpack in a manner of what might be called orderly chaos. We’ve started the process of unpacking and leave it to you to use your imagination to unpack, arrange, and rearrange the objects on view.
Unpacking the Box is on view until February 19, 2017.
How does an exhibition accrete meaning, gain relevance, or shift shape over time? In the “Second Thoughts” series, Walker curators reconsider earlier presentations of art, articulating new or refined conclusions. Here, Jordan Carter writes about how the discovery of a 1977 book of line drawings by American artist Fred Sandback (1943–2003) prompts new thinking about the artist’s sculptures made using yarn or elastic cord. […]
How does an exhibition accrete meaning, gain relevance, or shift shape over time? In the “Second Thoughts” series, Walker curators reconsider earlier presentations of art, articulating new or refined conclusions. Here, Jordan Carter writes about how the discovery of a 1977 book of line drawings by American artist Fred Sandback (1943–2003) prompts new thinking about the artist’s sculptures made using yarn or elastic cord.
Mining the Walker’s Rosemary Furtak Collection of artist’s books, I came across Ten Isometric Drawings for Ten Vertical Constructions (1977), a book-as-exhibition by Fred Sandback. The thin, pamphlet-like publication, devoid of text, comprises renderings of drawn-line constructions that emerge from a white grid atop a starkly contrasting black field. Sandback’s bold U- and L-shaped linear constructions appear three-dimensional within a two-dimensional plane. The artist achieved this by plotting forms onto matrices of 120-degree angle intersections of white gridded lines. This trompe l’oeil is facilitated by a process known as isometric projection, in which specific angles and intersections give “flat” surfaces the illusion of three-dimensionality. What appears to the eye as an object extending from the page is referred to as an “impossible object,” a term that can be readily applied to Sandback’s transformative drawings and minimal sculptures. The artist’s works transcend dimensions and, in the hindsight of our post-digital age, open his practice up to a discourse surrounding the virtual. The isometric process afforded Sandback the ability to work in an “imagined” space, positing the page as a virtual plane with indeterminate spatial possibilities for his linear constructions—literally blurring the lines between drawing, sculpture, and architecture.
This slippage between media and this expanded notion of virtual space transported me back to Fred Sandback 64 Three-Part Pieces, a 2015 exhibition of the artist’s Untitled (Sixty-four Three-part Pieces) at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation in St. Louis. The work consists of 64 drawings that together present all of the possible configurations of the associated yarn sculptures. The sculptural realizations of these drawings were presented in three adjacent, walled of spaces. The exhibition marked the US premiere of the work and its first realization since its 1975 debut in Munich. Each week, the three sculptures on view—each comprising three taught strands of yarn—were replaced and by the end of the run of the show 20 iterations of the work were constructed, the most ever shown in its history. Even though 44 configurations remained unseen, the level of variability achieved in this rotating display speaks to the virtual possibilities of Sandback’s minimal constructions, which challenge the viewer to actively engage in a dialogue with line and space.
Sandback’s practice upends conventions of artistic autonomy and authorship, as curators, registrars, and art handlers become what art historian Julia Bryan-Wilson describes as “art workers,” renegotiating the relationship between art and work as they labor the works to life in real time and space. They do not simply place an object on the wall or on a pedestal, but put in motion an experiential mise-en-scène, in which sculpture unfolds in a relational space between bodies and the imagined “object.” Sandback noted that his works were meant to exist in a “pedestrian space,” and the yarn constructions, primarily placed along the ground or connecting the wall to the ground, invite viewers to enter a newly demarcated space. The taught fibers frame mundane spaces and create apertures onto a field of virtual possibilities.
The 64 drawings displayed alongside the rotating yarn sculptures at the Pulitzer, which represented all possible yarn constructions, were accompanied by a series of preliminary sketches. These “flat” diagrams acted as instructions for the realization of these works within the gallery space. The lines of the drawings, which float within the two-dimensional field, beg to come off of the page and it becomes the role of curators, registrars, and art handlers to translate the image from one dimension to another. Sandback distills the sculptural object into information, returning the material process to a germinal “zero degree” state of absolute potential, in which lines on a page become platforms for reimagining the relationship between bodies and objects in space. Sandback’s drawings and sculptures exist in and out of time; in and out of space—the artist relinquishes his authority and provides an indeterminate platform for viewers to reimagine the temporal and spatial possibilities of what appears before their eyes. In this manner, Sandback implicates the proverbial “art worker” in a virtual negotiation with the line and its unstable dimensionality.
Although Sandback had no concrete association with the Fluxus movement, his Ten Isometric Drawings for Ten Vertical Constructions and his Untitled (Sixty-four Three-part Pieces), as well as his drawings and diagrammatic elastic cord sculpture certificates within the Walker’s collection function analogously to Fluxus scores and instructions. The lines, whether emerging from the grid or floating in space, activate viewers and prompt them to imagine construction in mental space or to actually physically realize the sculptural form within architectural space.
Held in the Walker’s collection, the 1973 Untitled drawing is a minimal work on paper in which the artist uses a felt-tip pen to draw five parallel lines within the center of a field of negative space. Like his preparatory drawings that are directly intended for sculptural realization, this work can be seen as a potential prompt for mental and physical constructions that transcend the two-dimensional page. Furthering this precarious boundary between score, instruction, and finished product are the certificates that accompanied the Walker’s collection of Sandback’s elastic cord sculptures upon acquisition.
The three 1970 elastic-cord corner constructions—which predate the artist’s turn to acrylic yarn—in the Walker’s collection (Pink Corner Piece, Gray Corner Piece, and Yellow Corner Piece) were acquired in the form of a certificate of authenticity, on which the artist has used a color pen—signifying the pigment of the cord to be used—to sketch out the measurements and spatial orientation for which the sourced elastic cord is to be taught and affixed to the corner of an exhibition space. The two-dimensional certificates bare an uncanny resemblance to their three-dimensional counterparts, further complicating any fixed dimensionality of Sandback’s sculptures or works on paper. The idea of a certificate or a score as a stand-in for an object-based work is emblematic of Fluxus scores and instructions (of which the Walker has significant holdings). Inserting Sandback’s works, “flat” and otherwise, into a Fluxus discourse allows for a recontextualization of his practice beyond the limiting categorizations of Minimalism and Post-Minimalism. Within the frame of the Fluxus score, Sandback’s oeuvre becomes open to indeterminate manifestations on the part of the viewer-turned-participant. Sandback’s works across media take on a virtual dimension, transforming the line, at once a static signal of order and structure, into a rhizomatic network in which museum staff and passerby take on the role of “art worker”—laboring with their minds or hands to determine and redetermine the dimensionality of the work.
 See Julia Bryan-Wilson, Art Workers: Radical Practice in the Vietnam War Era (Berkley: University of California Press, 2009).
In 1965, on the outskirts of Colorado, in the desert fields of El Moro, one filmmaker (Gene Bernofsky) and three artists (JoAnn Bernofsky, Richard Kallweit, and Clark Richert) established an alternative space of communal living. It was coined Drop City, not only because the founding members and transient visitors had “dropped out” of mainstream societal strictures, […]
In 1965, on the outskirts of Colorado, in the desert fields of El Moro, one filmmaker (Gene Bernofsky) and three artists (JoAnn Bernofsky, Richard Kallweit, and Clark Richert) established an alternative space of communal living. It was coined Drop City, not only because the founding members and transient visitors had “dropped out” of mainstream societal strictures, but also because the artists-turned-architects “dropped” mini-complexes that took on the form of geodesic domes, in the spirit of Buckminster Fuller, atop the landscape’s topology. Although they were influenced by Fuller’s architectural strategies and philosophies, they took an ad hoc approach to the production of their living structures—acting as bricoleurs, they repurposed refuse, using car tops to form their dome habitats. By the late 1970s Drop City was abandoned, evacuated of hippies performing alternative lifestyles and left in ruins.
Like many dissolved art collectives, the living members of Drop City are neither in agreement as to the original aspirations nor the legacy of their now iconic commune. For some, Drop City was meant strictly to be a functional living space. Despite the frequent leaks caused by rain falling through the cracks between the composite metal fragments, some defended the domes’ structural integrity, pointing to the maintenance needed for the upkeep of even the most urban of apartment units. Others, however, posited Drop City as an art project in which aesthetic and social aims outweighed utilitarian purposes. For them, the commune was a realization of the mission of modernity, an albeit short-lived fusion of art and life. The domes provided a theatrical backdrop to the bodies that circulated the commune and formed a constellation of aesthetic radicalism and social upheaval.
While the artistic intention behind the geodesic domes and the commune remains in contention, there is one art object—recreated in 2011 and on display in the Walker’s galleries—whose status is undisputed: The Ultimate Painting (1966/2011). The work, which took the form of a circular canvas covered with trippy, quasi-futuristic poly-chromatic shapes, was attached to a rotary apparatus that allowed it to spin at various speeds. Increasing the dynamism of this early participatory and kinetic artwork was a control panel with arcade-game-like buttons that projected various stroboscopic lights onto the rotating circular composition—creating indeterminate, immersive, and at times discombobulating, visual experiences. The Ultimate Painting presented viewers-turned-players with hundreds of different visual computations depending on their own rhythmic engagement with the five red buttons at their disposal.
Although one might not readily link the product of a hippie commune characterized by “droppings” of junkyard-made dome living structures with avant-garde visual music, there is an uncanny parallel between The Ultimate Painting and the visual music apparatus known as the Optophonic Piano invented by Russian Futurist artist and composer Vladamir Baranov-Rossiné (1888–1944) in the early 1900s. The “optophone”—which, translated from the Greek, means “visible sound”—comprised many hand-made elements by the artist that would presage the color-wheel projectors of the 1960s, especially The Ultimate Painting. The Optophonic Piano was a hybrid audio-visual apparatus comprising a piano keyboard plugged into a screen onto which variable circular color compositions unfolded based on which keys were struck.
The color configurations of the circular projections were determined by a number of small, abstract hand-painted disks (gouache and watercolor on celluloid) that in hindsight share a striking resemblance to the Ultimate Painting in miniature. These discs were linked to chords within the organ.
Baranov-Rossiné explained how his intermedia instrument operated:
Each touch of the keys of the organ, which are fixed in a chosen position, make a certain apparatus move quicker or slower, together with the transparent filters, through which a beam of white light passes … Light filters … single colored filters and optical elements…prisms, lenses or a mirror are employed. The complex filters include elements of graphic art… Add to this the possibility of changing the position of the projector, the form of the screen, the symmetry of the compositions, their movements and intensity, and you can imagine this light piano.1
Irrespective of whether the Drop City artists who collaboratively created The Ultimate Painting would agree that “light” was their primary medium, it was this natural, yet painterly element that turned a static painting into an “ultimate” ever-changing kaleidoscope. In the words of Baranov-Rossiné one month following his November 1924 Otophone performance at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow: “My apparatus … provided unusual expanse in dynamic painting, the sort of color painting one might only dream about… In one second, billions of pictures: a willful, universal kaleidoscope.”2
Baranov-Rossiné turned his colorful dreams into reality, scoring new possibilities for future experiments in the interstitial space between the visual and the auditory.
The “light piano” Baranov-Rossiné describes could very well be Drop City’s Ultimate Painting, which likewise moves at various speeds due to the choreography of the player’s fingertips and the resulting light forms. Whereas the “graphic art” of the Optophone lies in the painted disks hidden within the apparatus, the painterly gestures of Drop City are readily apparent on the surface of the circular canvas. The key similarity, however, is the shared importance of light in creating a multi-sensory experience. It is the manipulation of light that allows for the generation of a myriad permutations of color patterns, allowing for an audio-visual experience that bridges the material and the immaterial. Both the Optophonic Piano and The Ultimate Painting rely on the player to take an active role in the unfolding of a synaesthetic orchestra—the intermingling of the tactile sounds of keys and buttons being pushed and the mechanical noises of the projector humming and the circular canvas accelerating and decelerating in rotation.
1. Rossine, Vladimir, Aleksandra S. Shatskikh, and N. B. Avtonomova. Vladimir Baranov-Rossiné : the artist of Russian avant-garde, St. Petersburg: Palace Editions, 2007, p. 40–41.
2. Ibid., p. 41.
On July 23, 2015 Shigeko Kubota—a seminal Japanese female figure in the international Fluxus collective—passed away. But it is not too late to take a dose of her Flux Medicine (1966/1968). The Walker’s extensive Fluxus collection includes Kubota’s iconic multiple of this title, comprising a plastic box with a label depicting a small white tablet with the word “FLUX” engraved on it. The contents are Kubota’s medicinal concoction: one white ball, one empty capsule, one Styrofoam disk, a clear bottle of unidentified liquid, an eye dropper, crushed eggshells, packages of Alka-Seltzer, Calcium-Lactate, and Neo-Synephrine, accompanied by a plastic tube and a needle for injection. Like most Fluxus multiples, Flux Medicine can be read as either an absurdist, apolitical gesture or a radical renegotiation of the role of the artist and art object in our commodity culture. This slippage between commerce, art, and life epitomized the zeitgeist in which artists from the 1960s and early 1970s were working, as exemplified in the exhibition International Pop (closing August 29). Kubota’s “Flux-formula” presents art that can be injected, an aesthetic “supplement” for transforming art—and perhaps the role of the artist—into a consumable commodity. International Pop posits “Pop” as a pill—akin to Kubota’s Flux Medicine—that was being popped by artists across the globe.