Francis A. Rivera Jr.
Katherine Anne Novotny
(Downloadable-Essay: Word Document, click the following hyperlink) Neil_Thrun_Neutral Spaces Empty Geometry
Neutral Spaces, Empty Geometry: Why all artists need to re-engage with Ideology“The formalist project in geometry is discredited. It no longer seems possible to explore form as form (in the shape of geometry), as it did to the Constructivists and Neo-Plasticists, nor to empty geometric form of its signifying function, as the Minimalists proposed.” –Peter Halley, The Crisis in Geometry (1984) Today it is not the “formalist project of geometry” that is in crisis, but instead the deconstructive project of Peter Halley and other Neo-Geo Artists of the 1980s. Overturning what he saw as the history of 20th century abstract art, Halley argued that it “no longer seems possible to accept geometric form as either transcendental order, detached signifier, or as the basic gestalt of visual perception”. Halley’s essay instead critiques geometry in a Marxist methodology. “The omnipresent unfolding of geometric structures in cities, factories, and schools, in housing, transportation, and hospitals, is revealed as a novel mechanism by which action and movement (and all behavior) could be channeled, measured, and normalized, and a means by which the unprecedented population of the emerging industrial era could be controlled and its productivity maximized” And therefore: “Based on this analysis, we may come to see in the work of these geometric transcendentalists a classicizing mechanism at work in which the very object of discomfort, geometry, is transformed into an object of adulation. In the formalists’ claim for geometry’s neutrality, we may likewise see an effort to normalize, to accept as given, the omnipresence of these geometric signs
And to rectify all of this Halley painted what he called “cells” and “conduits,” 1 that connected them. These geometric paintings were not abstract or neutral, but instead pictures of computer chips, prisons, factories, apartment complexes and city grids. His paintings were ethically and subjectively charged, a protest against modern society, a protest against the normalizing of the geometry of oppression. Today it is not the “formalist project in geometry” that is floundering but instead Halley’s critique. In an ironic reversal Halley’s paintings have not changed in nearly 30 years beyond shifts in color, composition and texture; that is the only change has been a formal change. In addition, Halley has become nearly silent, having written very little since his essays of the 80s. And while the art world has embraced Halley, they have not embraced his critique. His paintings hang alongside minimalist works as if there were no conflict of ideology. His work is just as complicit in normalizing and classicizing the geometry of oppression as any work of Donald Judd, 2 or Josef Albers, 3
Formal Revolutionary Geometric ArtHalley wasn’t the first geometric painter to embrace Marxist ideas. After the Russian Revolution of 1905 and before the February and October Revolutions of 1917, Kazimir Malevich painted Black Square and penned his manifesto From Cubism and Futurism to Suprematism: The New Realism in Painting. Malevich and his Suprematist movement are undoubtedly the origin of Halley’s “formalist project in geometry”, yet in his manifesto Malevich describes his Black Square,4 in both formal and revolutionary terms. [v] Yet this revolutionary art was short lived, in 1924 Lenin died and Stalin began consolidating his power, eventually becoming the sole ruler of the USSR by the end of the 1920s. By 1934, Socialist Realism became the official art style of the USSR and abstract art was banned. Socialist Realism with its heroic depiction of farmers, laborers, children and Soviet Leaders was better suited for propaganda (like Boris Vladimirski’s Roses for Stalin); 6 [vi] it was easier to understand and most importantly it did not encourage revolution. In Stalin’s prohibition of abstract art, we can see the refutation of Halley’s claim that the function of Constructivism was the normalizing and classicizing of oppression. If it was, Stalin surely would have used it in his methodical oppression of the USSR. Instead, its revolutionary character had to be stomped out, as its utopian dreams couldn’t match the reality of living in the USSR. In the most subtle sign of protest against Stalin’s prohibition, Malevich painted a self portrait in the Socialist Realist style, 7 but he signed the painting with a miniature Black Square instead of his signature. [vii]
Dissident Appropriations of MalevichMalevich’s Suprematist Revolution was not forgotten, even if his work was banned and left in museum basements. In 1984 (the same year Halley wrote The Crisis in Geometry), dissident artists in Slovenia, then part of Yugoslavia and the USSR, formed the art collective Neue Slowenische Kunst (New Slovenian Art) or NSK. NSK members sought to bring to light repressed and censored histories within the USSR through art. Even the name NSK is a protest, by using a German name and acronym the artists of NSK were acknowledging Slovenia’s history as a state of the Austrian Empire. A group of NSK musicians named themselves Laibach; the name of Slovenia’s capital city of Ljubljana during the Nazi Occupation. This fascination with German and Nazi themes was not born out of sympathy for Fascism, instead the use of these historical names was to critique Soviet rule over Yugoslavia. By using Fascist imagery alongside Soviet imagery, NSK sought to show that the totalitarian principles of the USSR were no different than Nazi Germany. Even if Ljubljana was once again named Ljubljana, it was still not sovereign. Considering NSK’s interest in the repressed history of the USSR, it is no surprise that Kazimir Malevich, a Ukrainian born citizen of the Russian Empire, would be of special interest to them. NSK chose Malevich’s Black Cross, 7 as their symbol, surrounding it with a circular toothed gear shape. 9 Whether or not this was a conscious move to link geometry and industry in the manner Halley theorizes is unclear, but NSK’s use of industry is definitely a critique of oppression. Laibach’s music was greatly inspired by the Industrial Music emerging out of Western Europe. Laibach combined the machine-like noises of bands like Throbbing Gristle with the marching beats and military anthems of the USSR. Unlike the Socialist Realist use of industry as a sense of patriotism or hard work, Laibach’s music is an anti-heroic parody of totalitarianism, in which both the Military and Industry are shown to be tools of state oppression. [viii][ix] When the USSR collapsed in 1992, a group of NSK painters, named IRWIN, travelled to Moscow’s Red Square to celebrate the event. Arriving at Red Square, IRWIN unrolled an enormous 22 meter black cloth square on top of Red Square. By bringing Malevich’s Black Square to the Red Square, 10 the heart of Soviet Government, IRWIN was trying to recapture the revolutionary schism that Malevich seized upon in 1915. This action was the inverse of Malevich’s 1933 Self Portrait where the black square was tiny and subordinate to Socialist Realism, in IRWIN’s action it is the black square that dominates the heart of the USSR. The documentary film Predictions of Fire shows IRWIN unrolling their black square amidst amused citizens and military police. When one officer is asked by the filmmaker about the black square the officer says “It is a painting of Malevich’s Black Square.” but then adds “But, of course, I don’t know what it means.” [x]
Neutral Spaces in Kansas City“Politics is the highest and all-encompassing Art. We create the New Slovenian Art. We are Politicians.” -Laibach, Manifesto (Undated, post 1990) “In contrast to the false “anti-dogmatic spirit” which maintains a “critical distance” towards every theoretical enunciated in order to maintain the steady and full identity of its position of enunciation, it is the author’s conviction that only by unreservedly assuming a determinate theoretical position does one effectively expose oneself to possible criticism.” -Slavoj Žižek, For they know not what they do: Enjoyment as a Political Factor (1991) While this essay is written to accompany the exhibition, Neutral Spaces at the Spraybooth Gallery, it is written at an inopportune time. It was written before the exhibition, before the work was hung on the walls and even before the artists were selected. It is my expectation that the work in this exhibition will traverse the whole range of geometric art and that the intentions of the artists will vary between all the historical poles of geometric art. More importantly, I expect the intentions of the artists will not be explicitly clear. I do not expect any dogmatic manifestos, written or painted, like those of Malevich, Halley or IRWIN. Unlike the history of the geometric art in Avant-garde, today no one in Kansas City seems interested in the ideology of their predecessors. No one has the arrogance or bombast to call their art a “royal infant.” While geometric art is not out of style, ideology and manifestos have not been taken up by artists in Kansas City. In this sense Neutral Spaces could just as easily refer to the mute apolitical vision of many Kansas City artists, just as easily as it could refer to the academic theories of Minimalism. Today, the anonymous Russian officer’s quip about Malevich’s Black Square is truer than ever. We know Malevich, but who knows his sense of revolution? I can already see the counter-argument that the revolutionary character of Malevich, Halley and NSK were only possible because of their historical positions as the subjects of a totalitarian regimes (be it the Czar’s, Stalin’s or Donald Judd’s). Our state of affairs is different, but no less problematic. It is a distinct lack of authority that is our problem, our culture of Individualism has killed the will to be ideological (to take a stand). The reasoning of Individualism goes something like this: “We are all individuals; therefore we have no business telling each other what to do.” If Malevich’s “rubbish filled pool” was caused by the authoritarian control of the Academy whose standards were too strict and old-fashioned, then our rubbish filled pool has been created by complete permissiveness and lack of any standard. This is what Slavoj Zizek refers to as “anti-dogmatic spirit” and it is just as much an ideology as any other, the problem is that is has nothing to say beyond the criticism of dogmatic ideologies. In Predictions of Fire, Slavoj Žižek says of NSK’s methods that “The only way to be really subversive is not to develop critical potentials or ironic distance, but to precisely take the system more seriously than it takes itself.” This is where I locate the failure of Peter Halley, 11 he has offered a critical potential and left it at that. [xi] He hasn’t staked his own theoretical position on what geometric painting should or could do beyond his critique. If we want to “take the system more seriously than it takes itself”, we need to engage ideologically with and against our peers and do so more actively than Halley has. We should be willing to stand against methods of art making that we do not like, whether it’s faux-mysticism, academic formalism, banal interactivity or something else (these being things that I have no patience for, yours will presumably be different) but also take a stand for the art we do like. Only when we do this, will we “expose ourselves to possible criticism.” By being ideological, we can be more serious about individualism than individualism itself and we might actually be individual then. Otherwise we will be stuck making neutral spaces, work that is ideologically empty and without consequence, while drinking free alcohol and half-heartedly congratulating each other. Artists need to re-engage with ideology and therefore each other. And this is true for not only geometric artists but all artists in general. Essay written by: Neil Thrun Email: email@example.com
[i]Peter Halley, Prison with Underground Circuit. 1983 acrylic, Day-Glo acrylic & Roll-a-Tex on canvas. [ii] Donald Judd, Untitled. 1973 stainless steel and oil enamel on Plexiglas. [iii] Josef Albers, Homage to the Square. 1965 oil on Masonite. [iv] Kazimir Malevich, Black Square. 1915 oil on canvas. [v] El Lissitzky, Bear the Whites with the Red Wedge. 1919 lithograph poster. [vi] Boris Vladmiriski, Roses for Stalin. 1949 oil on canvas. [vii] Kazimir Malevich, Self Portrait. 1933 oil on canvas. [viii] Kazimir Malevich, Black Cross. 1923 oil on canvas. [ix] NSK Logo. Created after 1984, digital image. [x] A still taken from the film Predictions of Fire that shows IRWIN and Black Square on Red Square. I1992 peformance (1996 film). [xi] Peter Halley, Neutral Territory. 2010 acrylic, Day-Glo acrylic & Roll-a-Tex on canvas.