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Pop and Minimalism

Introduction

As the post modern artistic revolution began to take hold, formal modernist artworks inspired by Greenberg began to take on new meaning under the artists of the sixties and seventies. Appropriation and social commentary butted heads against materialism and minimalism. In this lesson, we will explore the artworks of the pop art movement and the minimalist artists describing the expressive qualities inherent in each of these artistic directions.

Beginnings of Pop

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Jasper Johns, Flag, 1954-55

Jasper Johns’ integration of everyday icon and his displacement of the painted canvas as an object led the way for many artists after him to further stretch these concepts. Two main movements stem from many of the ideas of Johns’ and Rauschenberg’s work of the 1950’s, the concepts behind those working with what is later labelled "excentric abstraction," and the movement titled "Pop."

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Eduardo Paolozzi, Real Gold, 1950 and Richard Hamilton, Just what is it that makes today's homes so different, so appealing?, 1956

Eduardo Paolozzi was a member of what became called the “Independent Group” in England. This Independent Group focused on many of the same topics of the Nuveaux Realistes, as they focused on the byproducts of society. Since the mid forties, Paolozzi made collages using images of consumer goods, technology, and popular culture taken from books and magazines. He combined images of everyday culture in a way that was freely associated, but with some form of meaning much like Rauschenberg had done in his work.

As the consumerism of US culture seeped into England, British artists commented more and more on the topic of popular culture for which they coined the term “pop art.” (Genuine appreciation for the imagery of the commercial environment and a rejection of the distinction between highbrow and popular culture). There was a serious concern for the direction in which the world was headed. “We still have no formulated intellectual attitudes for living in a throw-away economy” (Reyner Banham, “But today we collect ads” 1956)

Richard Hamilton worked in advertising during the forties. In his collage, What is it that makes today's homes so different, so appealing? he marked a turning point in art with his use of commercial graphic design techniques and imagery from popular media. He approached a sophisticated system of visual symbols to express his answer to his question. He described it as “instant art” due to the use of popular imagery. This implied an attack on the traditional division of “high” and “low” art as expressed in Clement Greenberg’s “The Abstract and Kitch”

The influence that TV exerted on increasing numbers of people was a major subject for the pop artists of the early sixties. For a brief time John F. Kennedy raised the spirits of America and Europe. He was the first TV President, and the public identified with him because of TV. His “New Frontier” culture also became a popular priority. And his establishment of the National Endowment for the Arts and Jackie Kennedy united fashion and culture with her media image.

Pop artists typically worked in a passive detachment from the spiritual. They commented on everyday life in a very morbid sense, not connecting emotionally with their art. The fluxus movement, the beat poets, and the combines of Rauschenberg foreshadow this movement and the way that the Pop artists treated what came into view. They, like Rauschenberg replaced found objects with the found images of magazine culture. They cultivated impersonality and developed commercial techniques in order to evoke the ideas of mass-production as will become clearer when we begin to talk about the artists involved.

Andy Warhol

"If you want to know all about Andy Wahrhol, Just look at the surface of my paintings and films, and me, and there I am. There’s nothing behind it." - Warhol

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Throughout the 1950’s, Warhol worked as a graphic designer and illustrator which became extremely profitable for him. He was earning nearly $65,000 a year by 1959. By 1962, Warhol decided to dedicate himself to fine art. Warhol settled on the subject matter of comics, cheap ads, and headlines from pulp tabloids to drive his artwork stemming from his advertising experience. Eventually he moved towards “no comment” paintings which were very coldly handled. The look was mechanical, and the subject matter was the direct opposite of what “high art” expects as individual and expressive. Warhol states:

What’s great about this country is America started a tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you can know that the president drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All Cokes are the same and all Cokes are good. (Fineberg 252)

 

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Andy Warhol, Cambells' Soup Cans, 1962

Warhol’s first gallery show was in 1962 of an installation of 32 Campbell’s Soup Cans all 16x20 inches. Warhol was always alert to the latest trend in art and these may have been painted in response to Johns’ Painted Bronze.

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Jasper Johns, Painted Bronze, 1960

These works however surpass Johns in the inexpressive literalness of the way they were presented. They are images of cans of soup, a commercial thing that everyone can buy.

By the end of 1962, he had a desire to remove his hand from painting and began hiring assistants to create his work, much like a design firm. Warhol states, "The reason I’m painting this way is because I want to be a machine. Whatever I do, and do machine-like is because it is what I want to do. I think it would be terrific if everybody was alike (Fineberg 253). He could have contracted out his work, but he chose to still have the hand-done look and embraced imperfection.

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Andy Warhol, Maryilyn Monroe's Lips, 1962

The Repetition of images forces an image into an anonymous decorative pattern while the particularlising features of each unit continue to assert themselves, creating an expressive difference between the individual and the machine. Warhol drives into the viewer the popular image, emphasizing it’s iconic quality, and the layers behind said icon. Warhol loved Hollywood and all it stood for. “I love Los Angeles, I love Hollywood, They’re beautiful. Everybody’s plastic… I want to be plastic.”

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Andy Warhol, Gold Marlyn, 1962

Warhol’s Marilyn series follows her apparent suicide in 1962 to emphasize the iconic image that she portrayed. The repetition of her portrait makes her seem paper thin and removes the idea of a person, but only a superficial image.

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Andy Warhol, Five Deaths Eleven Times in Orange, 1963

In 1963, Warhol embarked on his disaster series which amplified the morbid preoccupations of the “Marilyns.” His focus on forcing death down the throats of his viewers is the same way that media forces death down the viewer’s throat. The more you look at the same exact thing, the more the meaning goes away, and the better and emptier you feel. He focuses on the detachment from the images in the same way a reporter might express his detachment.

 

Everything I do is connected with death- Warhol, 1978

In 1963, Warhol moves his factory to an old building on East 47th St. which he called “The Factory.” This place became one big party as Warhol had to surround himself with people to feed his insecurities. And the press began to constantly berate Warhol as he coined his “fifteen minutes of fame” quote. Having become the decade’s leading art star, and after gaining an exhibition at Castelli’s gallery, Warhol announced his retirement from painting in 1965.

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In 1966, he turned to films. He did several long actionless films with a fixed camera position: Sleep, Empire, Eat… By 1967, Warhol moved the factory to Union Square and the scene became more and more bizarre until its abrupt end in 1968 when a groupie shot Warhol. Warhol died and was revived.

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Andy Warhol, Mao and Self Portrait

Warhol’s work had been an assembly-line product since 1963, and they would produce as many as 80 paintings a day and a movie a week. Playing up what things really were was very Pop, very sixties.

Roy Lichtenstein

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Roy Lichtenstein, Blam, 1962 and Drowning Girl, 1963

Lichtenstein wanted to “look programmed or impersonal,” mirroring the impersonality of mass culture as America entered the sixties. He states, "I don’t really believe I’m being impersonal when I do it (Fineberg 259).” Rather than a concern with asserting his identity he explored his imagery and style.

His style of rendering objects resembles their presentation in simple linear sketches of inexpensive product catalogs and advertisements in newspapers. He abandoned easily identifiable images in favor of anonymous comic strips, often soap opera romance or action themes. He was not painting things but signs of things. His true subject is not the embracing couple, the jets in a dog fight, but rather the terms of their translation into the language of media and the implications of that metamorphosis. This turned everything into a form that could be reproduced. One image can be substituted for another. He paid attention to the formal qualities of the reproduction more-so than the subject matter.

One of the things a cartoon does is to express violent emotion and passion in a completely mechanical and removed style. The detachment becomes the subject. His background differs from Warhol in that he was a fine artist and not a commercial artist and drew from the history of art rather than commercial culture.

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Lichtenstein, Brush Strokes

The comic style creates a distance from the existential authenticity and immediacy of abstract expressionism. He even expresses this distance in his paintings of the brush stroke in 1965 and 1966 that later were expanded into sculpture. He utilized this stylistic impersonalization to also re-imagine other artistic styles, flattening and emphasizing the commercialized nature of art in the process:

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Roy Lichtenstein, Cubist Still Life with Playing Cards, 1974

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Roy Lichtenstein, Rouen Cathedral Set V, 1969

James Rosenquist

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James Rosenquist, Nomad, 1963, President, and I Love you with my Ford 1961

Rosenquist pulls from popular culture much like Rauschenberg, but stemming from a more commercial background of painting billboards in Times Square. He states:

I’m amazed and excited and fascinated about the way things are thrust at us, attacked by radio and television and visual communications… at such a speed and with such a force that painting… now seems very old fashioned… why shouldn’t it be done with that power and gusto (of advertising), with that impact (Fineberg 265).

His works resemble the large billboards that he previously created, encapsulating the images of mass media and popular culture in this same sense of impact which he was fascinated by. The forms do not provide more detail, instead they are created with the flat commercial color of a reproduced image. Rosenquest further states, "I’m interested in contemporary vision, the flick of chrome, reflections, rapid associations, quick flashes of light. Bing-bang! Bing-bang! I don’t do anecdotes; I accumulate experiences (Fineberg 265)."

 

Robert Arneson

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Robert Arneson, Toilet, 1963

The most influential figure in the Bay Area art scene in the seventies and eighties after emerging from the “funk art” aesthetic of the sixties including artists such as H.C. WestermannPeter Saul, and The Hairy Who from Chicago, and comic artists such as R. Crumb. “Funk” dealt with a more human aesthetic than “pop” more like the neuvaux realists and the beat poets. They focused on life and a satire on it rather than emphasizing the philosophical qualities of it by creating outrageous sculptures, bright colors, and exaggerated forms that mimicked more of Oldenburg’s sensibilities. Arneson came across the fine art aspect of his clay works after randomly creating a beer bottle and labelling it “No Deposit, No Return” without thought of making a statement. He brought commercial culture into a fine art context and it was heralded as a major transformation in his work.

In 1963, Arneson received an invitation to exhibit in an important show called “California Sculpture”. He felt that this was an occasion to create a personal manifesto. He states, "I really thought about the ultimate ceramics in western culture so I made a toilet (Fineberg 287)." He hand created this toilet with human qualities to elements of it, created clay excrement inside, and grafittied the whole thing with jokes. Arneson continues,

Duchamp did not make a toilet, he made an untoilet. It’s about transformation – he took a toilet and make a work of art out of it – I wasn’t transforming anything. I was looking at a toilet like someone would look at a figure, you know, a very traditional kind of art, and then I started to talk about it, putting graffiti on (Fineberg 287).

The toilet was removed from the exhibition, which made Arneson realize his importance. This produced a presence of the artist… "I had finally arrived at a piece of work that stood firmly on its ground. It was vulgar. I was vulgar (Fineberg 288)." His toilet pays homage to expressionist mark as well as pokes fun at it with such things as the excrement spelling out “Art”

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Robert Arneson, Typewriter, 1966

Arneson later moves to creating objects in satirical ways which poke fun at the idea, but are typically in extremely bad taste. He shows that he has no boundaries to his message, and although objectionable, they become endearing through his style of approach. Arneson continually looked to Pollock for stylistic approach because of what Pollock stood for in art. Pollock was a brutalized and isolated victim and a survivor, and where Pollock self-destructed, Arneson overcame the odds and pushed forward embracing the criticism.

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Robert Arneson Pollack, 1985

California Pop

The west coast contained artists that produced a very different pop art aesthetic. Artists such as Ed Ruscha and Vija Clemins demonstrate a unique set of work incorporating appropriation and graphic design that proved to be truly unique.

 

Minimalism

In an important essay of 1965 entitled “ABC Art” Barbara Rose wrote about the emergence of “an art whose blank, neutral, mechanical impersonality contrasts so violently with the romantic biographical abstract expressionist style which preceded it that spectators are chilled by its apparent lack of feeling or content (Rose 58).” Minimal art as it came to be known gravitated toward geometric forms or modular sequences especially in sculpture which was placed not on pedestals but on the floor or wall to stress its continuity with real space.

This artform Shocked the viewers who were accustomed to the visual complexities of gesture painting. It was aggressively authoritarian, a “displaced will to power,” and in particular white male power. (after the fascist movement) This style required a large amount of supporting writings to reveal the motives behind the apparently simple works. Much like Clement Greenberg’s formalism, the simple object might generate the most complex theories. Ironically, Greenberg disliked the minimalists’ work even though they pursued his theoretical prescriptions for modernism with greater rigor. Greenberg discounted minimalism as contrived, “something deduced instead of felt or discovered (Fineberg 294).” Reinhardt attacked references in art and proclaimed the new academy of art would have twelve rules: no texture, no brushwork, no drawing, no forms, no design, no color, no light, no space, no time, no size or scale, no movement, and finally no object.

Frank Stella

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Frank Stella, Untitled, 1960

Stella’s work stems from Johns’ idea of the painting as an object. He singled out formal ideas from paintings of Johns one by one and followed them to a logical extreme in abstract terms. He eliminated the subject and the painterly touch and gave them greater scale. There is no detail and the canvas can be viewed all at once. This gave way to a shaped canvas which made it feel even more like an object than a painting. Stella often endowed his paintings with emotional titles and made the shallow space of abstract expressionism seem old fashioned. He had posed and solved the problem of the painting’s presence as an object, a question posed since Cezanne.

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Frank Stella Firuzabad III, 1970

Later, in the Mid sixties, Stella moves to Day-Glo colors and studio assistants increasingly work on his painting for him to emphasize the painting as an object.

Donald Judd

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Judd fulfills Tatlin’s machine-age prescription for “real materials in real space.” However, Judd has no social message behind his art, it is purely formal. If an image suggested three dimensions, the three dimensions existed and were not illusions or representations.The viewer would immediately recognize any pattern in the work instead of it’s compositional elements. They eliminate any idea to composition and allow for more complex form. Geometry could be used in a non-Neo-Plastic way, an impure way without the purity that geometric art seemed to have. Mondrian, though really great, is too ideal and clean. In another way, Reinhardt is too. That was not a believable quality for me. Stella’s painting had a possibility that became evident of an impure geometric art.

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Donald Judd, Untitled, 1966-68

By the mid-sixties, Judd made enough money through his art to have it machine fabricated rather than hand tooled giving it an even more materialisticly minimal quality. The object becomes the object, and can be seen as a whole, seemingly repeated infinitely through commercial/industrial processes.

Tony Smith

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Tony Smith, Die, 1962

Born 1912 and was a part of the abstract expressionist generation and taught several of the minimalists. His main contribution to art was his calibrated scale of his works to their site. He undercut the notion of monumentality by making them responsive to the architectural or natural setting. Why didn’t you make it larger so that it would loom over the observer? Someone asked Smith about “Die” (6’ black steel cube (1962)) I was not making a monument. The observer then said: Then why didn’t you make it smaller so the observer could see over the top? Smith replied: "I was not making an object (Fineberg 301)."

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Tony Smith, Amaryllis, 1965

Smith explored the idea of a holistic image, an image that could be viewed all at once as a single form. Minimal art emphasizes the “gestalt” where they expect that the viewer could continue the form with the preconceived notions as to what is given to them.

Carl Andre

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Carl Andre, Magnesium Plain, 1969, Element Series, 1971, and Stone Field Sculpture, 1977

Andre Play’s off the material quality of his materials as well as a means of organizing them. Many of his early works deal with a sense of the grid to organize individual elements.

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Constantine Brancusi, Endless Column, 1937-1938

Andre also took many ideas from Brancusi who dealt with the same ideas of materials and endless compositions. Andre later moves to a sense of ordered chaos created by the material’s irregular form and a structure created through placement keeping with the concept of Gestalt psychology.

Dan Flavin

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Dan Flavin, Untitled, 1964-1970

Began working exclusively with new industrially fabricated florescent tubes and fixtures in 1963. He choreographed light from the tubes investigating the idea of space as a sculpture rather than form. Each piece becomes dependent on sight rather than the piece itself, and any piece can be recreated by anyone willing to go to a hardware store to pick up the materials to make it. The light indicated the sublime as if a modern technological fetish. Much like Newman, his lights are simple, and carry a holistic quality.

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Robert Morris

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Robert Morris, Installation, 1964 and Untitled, 1970

Morris technique lay in the way he approaches a problem. He would invent a task and then carry it out in a routine scientific manner that creates a sort of installation out of the process. Many of the early pieces dealt simply with box shapes that he would see how many ways he can dispose of it in space. This later led to cutting up of form and reassembling it in infinite ways to see what happened to the gestalt (the identifying mental image) Morris states,

One need not move around an object for the sense of the whole, the gestalt, to occur. One sees and immediately believes that the pattern within one’s mind corresponds to the existential fact of the object… A sixty-four sided figure is difficult to visualize, yet because of its regularity one senses the whole even if seen from a single viewpoint… The fact that some polyhedrons are less familiar than the regular geometric forms does not affect the formation of a gestalt. Rather the irregularity becomes a particularizing quality (Fineberg 306).

 

Morris drew inspiration from Cunningham and Cage’s chance in their “happenings." He provided a fresh look at the boundary of order and chaos and the way that sculpture could define space rather than form. He states, "When you build something rigid you know what it’s going to look like… I wanted a material that I could predict even less about (Fineberg 306)." He moved to soft felt because it could be placed in a space in an infinite number of ways.

Sol LeWitt

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Sol LeWitt, Corner House, 1976

Sol Lewitt applied the minimalists’ system of logic and literalness to the creations of his work without much care for the literal object. He separated the process from the object itself. In 1967 LeWitt demonstrates that the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art. This kind of art is not theoretical or illustrative of theories; it is intuitive; it is involved with all types of mental processes, and it is purposeless. It is usually free from the dependence on the skill of the artist as a craftsman. The underlying concept was referred to as its “grammar”

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Sol LeWitt, Wall Drawing, 1968

The Wall Drawings begun in 1968 involved this set of predetermined procedures listed by LeWitt and carried out by assistants directly on the wall of the gallery. Broke the conventions of the art object because of the way they can be removed and re-created according to the instruction without the need of the artist. Sometimes he emphasized this by having the instruction written on the wall next to the piece.

Materials, Eccentric Abstraction, and Post Minimalism

The detatched objectivity of the Minimalists and the disengagement of Pop and formalism pushed some artists to seek a way back to the individual. Louise Bourgeois, Lucas Samaras, and Lynda Benglis pioneered an expressionism of organic forms and unusual materials such as plastics and latex at the beginning of the 1960’s. The materials gave the sculptures a vivid sensation of touch. The amazing fact was that they succeeded in this formalist and pop oriented art world. The work was formal in that it embodied minimalism, but the materials gave these artists a more intimate touch that involved their own body experience.

One attribution to their success was a show called “Eccentric Abstraction” where Lucy Lippard (Lippard Discusses her Curatorial Career) grouped them together in 1966. The need to make something that felt real and present was what drew these artists to their materials.

Eva Hesse

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Eva Hesse, One More than One, 1967

Hesse used whatever materials were available to give her works a human presence that embodied her own feminine tortures. The breast-like forms are expressive of minimalism: "I feel very close to Carl Andre, I feel, let’s say, emotionally connected to his work. It does something to my insides. His metal plates were the concentration camp for me (Fineberg 312)." Hesse had a troubled life as she fled persecution from Nazi Germany during WWII and ended up in the United States for her short life.

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Eva Hesse, Hang Up, 1966, Contingentand Untitled (Rope Piece), 1970

Her work later shifts away from the overtly sexual imagery to a simplicity that is embodied in the materials themselves rather than the form. She turned to Fiberglass and latex in 1968 because of the tactile quality much like skin. She states,

Art and work and art and life are very connected and my whole life has been absurd. There isn’t a thing in my life that has happened that hasn’t been extreme – personal health, family, economic situations… absurdity is the key word… It has to do with contradictions and oppositions. In the forms I use in my work the contradictions are certainly there. I was always aware that I should take order versus chaos, stringy versus mass, huge versus small, and I would try to find the most absurd opposites or extreme opposites (Fineberg 313-314).

Untitled Rope Piece undermines the notions of fixed scale and gives a three dimensional gestural field much like Pollock. In 1969, Hesse collapsed from a brain tumor and died the following year.

 

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Bruce Nauman

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Bruce Nauman, Untitled, 1965

Nauman looks inward but not in a psychological sense like Hesse. He focuses on Literal presence, although the process becomes more important in many cases than the final result, much like LeWitt. All of his work deals with his curiosity about the nature of immediate experience through questioning, and he uses any medium at his disposal to answer such questions.

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Bruce Nauman, Artist, Clown TortureNeon Templates of the Left Half of my Body, and Self Portrait as a Fountain

Nauman sets up tasks for himself like Morris just to see what would happen, in order to find things out. He would do things that you don’t particularly want to do, putting yourself in unfamiliar situations, following resistances to find out why you’re resisting, like therapy. In works such as his corridor pieces he actively involves the viewer to take part in the experience.

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Richard Serra

Richard Serra Reconcieved the anti-illusionism of minimal art as an aesthetic of direct physical experience. He concentrates on the quality of the materials and on the improvisational process of making sculpture. The significance of the work is in its effort not in its intentions. And that effort is a state of mind, an activity, an interaction with the world.

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In his splash pieces, the process is more important than the final product as he splashes molten lead on the wall. The piece becomes a permanent fixture, or would have to be destroyed in order to move it. It takes its form from the procedure and takes on a specific shape due to the space making the viewer aware of that space, the time involved in process, and the materials used.

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Richard Serra One Ton Prop- House of Cards, 1969 and Prop Sculpture 1968

The propped lead pieces give the viewer a sense of danger as the pieces are simply propped in place, and the slightest force could send a 500 lb sheet of lead falling on top of you… It gives a sense of presence of the materials again. Serra did many outdoor pieces, most notably, due to it’s controversy was Tilted Arc, that was placed in Federal Plaza in NYC. These are monoliths that are made with Cor-ten Steel and simply give a sense of weight and presence.

 

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Works Cited

Fineberg, Jonathan. Art Since 1940, Strategies of Being. Second Edition. New Jersey: Prentice Hall. Print. 2000. 
Rose, Barbara. "ABC art." Art in America 53.5 (1965): 57-69. 
Sayer, Henry M. A World of Art. Seventh Edition. New York: Prentice Hall. Print. 2013.

Further Reading and Viewing

Harris and Zucker. SmArtHistory.org. KhanAcademy. Web. 2014.

 

Recommended Reading

  • Danto, Arthur C. Encounters and Reflections: Art in the Historical Present. New York, 1990.
  •                 Beyond the Brillo Box. New York, 1992.
  •                 After the End of Art: Contemporary Art and the Pale of History. Princeton, 1995.
  • Harrison, Charles & Wood, Paul, eds. Art in Theory: An Anthology of Changing Ideas. Colchester, Vermont, 1992.
  • Hertz, Richard & Klein, Norman, eds. Twentieth Century Art Theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ.
  • Holt, Nancy. The Writings of Robert Smithson. New York, 1979.
  • Hunter, Sam & Jacobus, John. Modern Art. Thrid edition. Prentice Hall, 1992.
  • Huyssen, Andreas. After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Post-Modernism. Bloomington, Indiana, 1986.
  • Johnson, Ellen, ed. American Artists on Art: 1940-1980. New York, 1982.
  • Russell, John & Gablick, Suzi, eds. Pop Art Redefined. New York, 1969.
  • Steinberg, Leo.  Other Criteria: Confrontations with 20th Century Art. New York, 1972.
  • Whitney Museum of American Art. Anti-Illusion: Proceedures/Materials.  New York, 1969.
  •                 Blam! The Explosion of Pop, Minimalism and Performance: 1958-64. New York, 1984.
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