February 19, 2008

The Concept in Art: What Does it Mean?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Graham Coulter-Smith

Tom Friedman,  Untitled 1990. Eraser shavings, dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist, Conway MA and Feature Inc. NYC.In 1990 Tom Friedman took a container of red eraser shavings and scattered them on the floor in the shape of a soft-edged circle. How do we understand this gesture as art? One of the things that we can do is look for precedents. Below is a typical target painting by Kenneth Noland on the right of it a painting by Mark Rothko.

Kenneth Noland, Earthen Bound, 1960. Acrylic on canvas, 103.5 x 103.5 in. © Kenneth Noland, licensed by VAGA, licensed by VAGA, NYC. Mark Rothko, No. 14, 1960. © Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko; Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Rothko was known for his soft edges whereas Noland is known for his hard edges. Rothko is known for his rectangles whereas Noland is renowned for his circles. Both artists came into prominence in the 1950s and had half a century of European abstract art backing their practice up behind them. But by the 1960s abstract art was the fine art establishment which is probably why the younger generation of artists in the 1960s largely rejected it.

Pablo Picasso, Bottle of Vieux Marc, Glass, Guitar and Newspaper, 1913. Collage and pen and ink on blue paper support, 467 x 625 mm Kurt Schwitters (1887–1948), Untitled, 1928. Collage, 7.25 x 6.75 inches, 184 x 171 mm.Collection Jasper Johns. Photo: Schecter Lee

What Friedman is doing in his circle of eraser shavings is most certainly referring to abstract art; but we can also say that he is deconstructing it by shifting from the venerable medium of oil on canvas to eraser shavings on a floor. In so doing he was following the deconstructive turn that arose in the fine art during the 1960s and which remains the bedrock for a contemporary practice today. And we can trace deconstructive art further back into the early twentieth century, to the Duchampian Readymade, Cubist collage, and the use of found objects and lowly materials, such as pieces cut out of newspapers,  in Cubist and Surrealist sculpture.

One might wonder why we have to bolster the work of a contemporary artist by referencing it to the history of modern/postmodern art; well, it is one of those things that we tend to do in the discipline of fine art. One way of rationalising this protocol relates to the notion of the creative game which I have mentioned elsewhere (Coulter-Smith 2006). Understanding contemporary art in terms of the creative game leads to the notion of people who are able to play that game skilfully, and more importantly people who are able to develop what Jean-Francois Lyotard (1984) has referred to as a “new move”. The notion of the “new move”, however, presupposes and is encompassed by old moves. Which is to say, the “game” is bigger than any individual artist.

Piero Manzoni, Artist’s Shit, 1961 Tom Friedman, Untitled (Faces), 1992. A 0.5 mm sphere of the artist’s faces rests precisely centred on top of a white 51 cm cube pedestal

We can see this very clearly in the comparison of images above; on the left we have an illustration of a classic work of “deconstructive” or “transgressive” art, Piero Manzoni’s Artist’s Shit, 1961. On the right we have Tom Friedman’s 1992 variation which consists of a tiny half millimetre diameter ball of the artist’s shit placed on a white, 51 cm cube pedestal. The white cube signifies yet another reference, this time to black squares, black cubes and white cubes.

Kasimir Malevich, Black Square on a White Ground, 1914-1915. Oil on linen, 80×80cm. State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow El Lissitzky, Lenin Tribune (Proun no. 85) 1924

On the left we see one of the founding icons of modern/postmodern art, Kasimir Malevich’s Black Square 1915. This is the original minimalist gesture. On the right is displayed an elaboration of the Black Square by the Russian Constructivist El Lissitzky in 1924 which uses a cubic version of Malevich’s black square as a pedestal for a podium from which Lenin would be able to deliver his speeches. Returning to Friedman’s half millimetre ball of his faeces on a white cube pedestal, we can note that it is not much of a transition from a black cube to a white cube; but one can also note that the term “white cube” is used within the art world to refer to a typical modern art gallery with its minimal-modernist white walls.

So, considering Friedman’s ball of faeces on a pedestal, we have two ideal forms (the sphere and the cube) one white the other almost black. The ideality of the sphere is deconstructed by its material which is faeces, generally considered impure. The cube is not only a cube but also represents, metaphorically, the fine art system. Symbolically, the individual artist sits on top of the ideal realm that is the art system and, metaphorically, defecates on it. One remembers here Duchamp’s metaphorical urination on the fine art system when he conceived Fountain, 1917; which, quite extraordinarily, has become the most influential work of art of the twentieth century.

Friedman’s tiny sphere of faeces perfectly centred on its white cube pedestal is replete with references, as is the circle of red eraser shavings scattered on the gallery floor in the shape of a soft edge circle. We could say that both works are self-referential in the sense that they are discursive art objects: objects that reflect on the discourse of art. The obvious question that this observation invokes is whether it is possible to have a work of art that does not have such references? Such a work would be truly original, but is this possible, or even desirable?

Ceal Floyer, Projection (Nail), 1997. Installation view plus detail of its exhibition at the 50th Venice Biennale in 2003.

We can shift to another high concept work of art: Ceal Floyer’s Projection (Nail), 1997, shown at the 50th Venice Biennale in 2003. The work consists of a projector projecting an image of a nail hammered into a white wall projected on to a white wall of the gallery. Again there is an element of self-reference in the sense that the photograph of the nail in the white wall refers to the white walls of an art gallery. But the self-referentiality also steps outside the boundary of art. We can contemplate Projection (Nail) as a philosophical statement regarding the way in which the concrete reality of the nail is replaced by an immaterial image.

Joseph Kosuth, One and Three Chairs, 1965 (year of conception not construction). Chair, photograph, dictionary definition.

One is reminded here of the conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth’s classic One and Three Chairs which the artist claims he conceived in 1965, but did not actually create until later (Buchloh 1989). Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs is a philosophical meditation on the relationship between signs and physical objects. We have an actual chair, a black-and-white photograph of that chair and a dictionary definition of the word “chair”.

Rene Magritte, The Treason of Images, 1929

In his 1929 painting The Treason of Images Magritte commented upon the betrayal of reality by the sign. Animals, we suppose, are in much more intimate contact with physical reality due to the fact that they lack language and perhaps imagination. Memory, imagination and language provide human beings with the capacity to plan actions in the mind before implementing them. Daniel Dennett (1996) has pointed out that this gives human beings a considerable evolutionary advantage because if we had to test all our actions in reality it is possible that some of the results could be damaging or fatal.

Although we possess a far from perfect ability to think before we act we do have sufficient ability such that our capacity for survival is greater than that of most other animals. It is also the case that our capacity for constructing models of the world is so powerful that one wonders whether there will come a point where we do not need reality. Jean Baudrillard constructed an entire intellectual career on the basis of a post-surrealist theory of hyperreality and simulation in which the simulacrum (a representation, copy etc.) became not only as good as but superior to the original (see Baudrillard 1994) .

We can contemplate, for example, our capacity to become totally absorbed in a film or play, reacting and making observations on it as if it were real. Obviously we are aware that it is not real, nevertheless, the way in which we think about such simulacra is extremely similar to the way in which we think about real actions and events. There is also something philosophically curious about the profession of acting because here are people who dedicate their lives to pretending. And what is more fascinating is that we accept their pretense without a second thought. The fact that somebody can be celebrated, can become a “superstar” for their capacity to pretend points to a fascinating intersection of the dimensions of common sense and imagination.

It is as if our grasp on reality is a little bit more tenuous than it ought to be. Such observations serve as a basis to contemplate what Magritte may have meant by his use of the term “treason” in reference to images. Representational images betray reality, but for the Surrealists this act of betrayal pointed towards the core of creativity, which is in turn based upon the nature of mind.

But from the standpoint of contemporary semiotics we would understand signs not as mysterious phenomena but as socially determined. For example, Peter Bürger notes that the “positing of meaning is always the achievement of individuals and groups; there is no such thing as a meaning that exists independent of a human communications nexus” (1984: 66). And he argues that the Surrealists were unaware that this was the case citing as evidence their belief that chance—not common sense, in the sense of a community of sense—is the source of truth. Bürger notes that the Surrealists saw “something like objective meaning” in chance (1984: 66) and that “for the Surrealists, meaning is contained in the chance constellations of objects and events that they take note of as ‘objective chance’” (1984: 66); which is to say, for the Surrealists, the reality of chance is more real than reality.

Rene Magritte, Key of Dreams, 1930.

We can see this fairly clearly in Magritte’s,” Key of Dreams, 1930, in which the relationship between images and words is deliberately deconstructed as if images and their labels were put into a hat and shaken.

It is possible to counter Bürger’s critique of Surrealism by pointing out that the object of the Surrealists’ artistic interest was imagination and creativity rather than common sense. Nobody, not even a Surrealist, could exist without common sense. But common sense is that which is given whereas creativity is about shifting, dislocating and invaginating the manifold fabric of common sense (which indicates the intimate relationship between creativity and common sense). When we understand the Surrealists primary interest as an exploration of creative processes we can understand chance more as a methodology than as a substitute for reality or truth. Deconstructive processes such as metaphor, displacement, dislocation, transposition, superimposition, etc. become ways of both articulating and understanding creative process. Chance simply points to an equivalence between the quantum leaps between ideas in the mind and coincidences and accidents or mistakes in the material world. We sometimes equate creativity with intuition, but intuition can be understood as an unconscious form of common sense. Even imagination can be habitual, but an imaginative leap is something else.

Is pouring a container full of eraser shavings onto the floor a leap of imagination or can it be considered in terms of a consciously conceived displacement of knowledge common to a specific discipline: in this case that of modern/postmodern art? The degree to which the act is repetition or a quantum leap determines the degree to which we can judge it as a good, very good or excellent work of art. In the case of Friedman’s eraser shaving circle we would deem it competent, nothing more. The pouring of references over such a work does not improve the gesture, it merely frames it as “art”.


Baudrillard, Jean. 1994. Simulacra and simulation. Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press.

Buchloh, Benjamin. (1989). “From the Aesthetic of Administration to Institutional Critique (Some Aspects of Conceptual Art 1962-1969″. In L’art conceptuel: une perspective. C. Gintz. Paris, Musée d’art moderne de la Ville de Paris.

Bürger, Peter. 1984. Theory of the Avant-Garde. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Dennett, Daniel. 1996. Kinds of Minds: Towards an Understanding of Consciousness. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.


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  2. I think you are babbling about nonsense. It really isnt that hard, or the hard part isnt what you are talking about. I think its about the irony of a soft edged object made by something that is normally used to subtract an image. There is a simple, visual proposition that has poetic truth to it in this piece. It opens up visual language on a personal, and at the same time, universal level. To create soft edges or to “erase” and make less visible is what erasers do. We are going to compare it to art history regardless of wether or not it is original because we are naturally historians that dosnt need to be done by the everyday person to enjoy art like this. You are going in circles about something, completely missing the point, missing the whole visual metaphor talking about this work in a silly, perverse frame.

    Comment by kelly deaver — July 10, 2008 @ 4:19 am

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