Beat, Minimalism, New Wave and Robert Smithson

Published in Arts Magazine, New York, Vol. 56, No. 9, May 1981.Published in Arts Magazine, New York, Vol. 56, No. 9, May 1981.

 
 



There is presently a good deal of impetus among proponents of New Wave art to deny sharing any aims with Minimalism. On the deepest level, this reflects the inter-generational rivalry and distrust that has characterized the climate of modern art since the nineteenth century and which overwhelmingly characterizes the New York art world as well. On a more conscious level, both the New Wave artists and the people who are promoting them are firmly committed to the denial of history. The artists are motivated by their uncontrollable anger; the promoters must deny any true connection between the new art and the past if they are to maintain the illusion of novelty necessary to market art to an increasingly speculative entrepreneurial class steeped in the mentality of planned obsolescence.

But in order to understand the significance of the current New Wave movement, it is necessary to correctly identify its antecedents. In fact, New Wave, Minimalism, and Beat writing are all concerned with the same issue. All three express America's fascination-repulsion for its shallow cultural roots and its vulnerability to the impact of techological change,

Initially, any connection between New Wave and Minimal art seems unlikely since one of the most obvious manifestations of New Wave is its opposition to what Jeffrey Deitch calls the "Post-Minimalist Academy.” However, this Post-Minimalist academy itself represented a “normalization” of the aims of the original Minimalist group during the stifling days of the Nixon administration. The political intent of Minimalism was transformed into the various formal, anthropological, nature- and craft-oriented escapisms of Post-Minimalism.

However, there is evidence of the connection between the Minimalist and New Wave sensibilities in the series of essays that Robert Smithson wrote in the late '60s and early '70s. In his later writings, Smithson also formulated a strategy for dealing with the problems of normalization and self-destruction that have plagued the Beat and Minimalist movements and now threaten the New Wave artists almost as soon as they come forward.

In 1966, Smithson published his first piece, "Entropy and the New Monuments,” in which he described the then emerging Minimalist artists' fascination with post-industrial culture, their passion for movies and movie houses, "printed matter,” science fiction, information theory, and geology. He claimed that the undeveloped, blunt nature of the work of these artists was a result of their torpid, "entropic" state, which echoed the rundown condition of our civilization.

Consider this description of the movie-going practices of Minimalist artists in "Entropy and the New Monuments:"

Some artists see an infinite number of movies. [Peter] Hutchinson, for instance, instead of going to the country to study nature, will go to see a movie on 42nd Street, like "Horror of Party Beach,” two or three times and contemplate it for weeks on end. The movies give a ritual pattern to the lives of many artists, and this induces a kind of low-budget mysticism, which keeps them in a perpetual trance. (The "blood and guts" of horror movies provides fortheir "organic needs," while the "cold steel" of Sci-fi movies provides for their "inorganic needs." Serious movies are too heavy on "values," and so are dismissed by the more perceptive artists. Such artists have X-ray eyes, and can see through all of that cloddish substance that passes for "The deep and profound" these days.

Written fifteen years ago, this description sounds like an exact blueprint for the approach of a New Wave artist. Peter Hutchinson, like the music group, The B-52s, is preoccupied with post-industrial beach culture. He even prefers to see his movies at Times Square, anticipating another symbol of the current generation. Like the Minimal artists, the New Wavers are today rejecting the 'cloddish substance" of traditional humanistic "values" for the perceptions and emotions triggered by pornography (Jimmy DeSana, Jane Dickson), science fiction (Steve Keister, Ronnie Fischer), and news images (Ilona Granet, Becky Howland).

Like Minimalists, New Wavers look to media images rather than to a nostalgic conception of nature to inform them on the substance of reality. But Minimalists and New Wave artists have reacted differently to these same horrifying images. While the Minimalists were frozen into a state of decisionless catatonia (what Smithson refers to as a "perpetual trance" and an "entropic state") the New Wavers are thrust into a condition of twitching hysteria (what Ronny Cohen calls "Energism"). This is the essential difference between the blankmetal-flaked repetition" of a Judd sculpture and the awkward, scrawled charcoal-on-cardboard drawing of Becky Howland's Transmission Towers seen in the December Colab show at Brooke Alexander. (It should be noted that the entropic, catatonic Minimalists tended to deal in physical recreations of their subject matter in abstract form, while the hysterical, "energistic" New Wave artists lean toward making images of specific phenomena.)

Also in "Entropy and the New Monuments" Smithson explains the kind of visual material that interests the Minimal artist:

Like the movies and the movie houses, "printed matter" plays an entropic role: maps, charts, advertisements, artbooks, sciencebooks, money, architectural plans, math books, graphs, diagrams, newspapers, comics, booklets and pamphlets from industrial companies. Judd has a labyrinthine collection of printed matter some of which he "looks at" rather than reads.

Since this explanation in 1966, "Printed Matter" (in the form of "artists' books") has become the exclusive domain of the Post-Minimalist fixation of phenomenological philosophy and private reality. In the late ‘sixties, as at present, it provided artists with a means of radically reordering their perceptions of society. Smithson explains that Donald Judd "might take a math equation, and, by sight, translate it into a metal a progression of structured intervals.” This was a means of escaping the outmoded convention of "relational" compositional. Judd's writing style, Smithson continues, "has much in common with the terse factual descriptions one finds in his collection of geology books." The science fiction interests of artists like Judd helped them break away from received cultural values and artistic modes.

Printed matter, as Smithson described it, is playing a similar role in New Wave culture today. In their song, "Don't Worry About the Government," the Talking Heads underline their fascination with map consciousness and advertising slogans. Artist Peter Fend recently presented Future States, a drawing in which possible future political boundaries were drawn on a world map. Money, too, has recently been reappearing thematically. In the Times Square Show, Christof Kohlhofer presented Billion Dollar Bills. In a recent Colab show, Andrea Callard had a piece entitled I made this money, what can I buy.

At this point, we can look even further back from 1966 to 1956. This same concern, this pained awareness of the impact of technological change on culture, has its source in the work of the Beat generation writers.

Unlike the New Wavers, the Minimalists seem to have been well aware of their debt to Beat writing. Smithson, for example, readily acknowledged the Influence that the Beats, particularly Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs, had on his development. Conscious of this heritage, Smithson referred proudly to his connections with various Beat figures in his autobiographical interview for the Archives of American Art in 1972." He mentioned that he was born in Passaic, New Jersey, next door to Paterson where AlIen Ginsberg was from.  He recalled visiting the aged William Carlos Williams and how Williams “talked a lot about Ginsberg coming out at all hours of the night.” Influenced by the Beat idea of unencumbered travel, Smithson hitchhiked around the United States and Mexico between 1956 and 1958. "When I got back On the Road was out, and all those people were around, you know, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, both of whom I met.”
 
Consider, for example, the imagery of Howl, Ginsberg's protest against the tortuous structure of post-industrial society. The hell he describes is lived out in "robot apartments" and "invisible suburbs," "in empty lots and diner backyards," "in movie houses rickety rows," on "tenement roofs, and in front of a “neon blinking traffic light.”
 
Ginsberg's obsessions with urban life, the terrifying products of science and industry, and the structure of commerce, all themes of Minimalism and New Wave, are all present in this stanza from Howl:

(I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness)… who were burned alive in their innocent flannel suits on Madison Avenue amid the blasts of leaden verse & the tanked-up clatter of the iron regiments of fashion & the nitroglycerine shrieks of the fairies of advertising & the mustard gas of sinister intelligent editors, or were run down by the drunken taxicabs of Absolute Reality.

William Burroughs is another, even darker precursor of this sensibility. Smithson read Naked Lunch In Rome in 1961. He commented that "the imagery…corresponded…to a kind of grotesque massive accumulation of all kinds of rejective rituals…. Erecting those kinds of ritual situation fascinated me.” Burroughs’ preoccupation with violence, sexual fantasy, technological backfire. and third-world settings also qualify him as an important precursor of New Wave, as we can see from this typical passage from The Soft Machine (1961):
           
In the blue windy morning masturbating a soiled Idiot body of cold scar tissue - satatonic limestone hands folded over his yen - a friend of any boy structure cut by a species of mollusk - Street boys of the green gathered - slow bronze smiles from a land of grass without memory - cool casual little ghosts of adolescent spasm - mental excrement and crystal glooms of the fist city - under a purple twilight our clothes shredded mummy linen on obsidian floors - Panama clung to our bodies -
            "You come with me, Meester?"
            Northern lights flicker from his "Yes" - The rope is adjusted - Writhing in wind black hair, bursts through his flesh - Great canines tear into his gums with exquisite toothache pleasure - The green cab boys go all the way on any line.

The Beat and New Wave movements are both emotionally "hot." Their art is based on intensive affective involvement in experience. For many of its practitioners, this kind of participation has been deadly. A pattern of self-destruction emerges: Neal Cassady, Jack Kerouac, Sid Vicious all died tragically. Dylan was almost killed in a motorcycle accident in 1966. Burroughs was a junkie.
 
On the other hand, Minimalism was a "cool" movement. Its practitioners were detached. They protected themselves with their intellectual distance. The danger for them was in becoming academic, neutralized. With most of the leaders of this generation – Carl Andre, Donald Judd, Dan Flavin, De Maria. Sol LeWitt - that indeed occurred. The failure of these artists to develop beyond their Initial statements is the tragedy of the Minimalist generation.
 
Robert Smithson's writings are a link between the Beat 'generation and the Minimalists, and between Minimalism and New Wave. Smithson also died a tragic early death. However, his death was seemingly random and accidental, devoid of any self-destructive intent.

But in the last two years of his life, Smithson developed a methodology for negotiating the narrow way between normalization and self-destruction. In his interviews of 1972, he came very close to codifying this strategy, based largely on "Marxian" ideas, for confronting the problems and illusions of Late Capitalism. The three interdependent principles of his method are Consciousness, Reality, and Dialogue. Smithson insisted that artists must be conscious of the motivations that guide their work, of their role in society, and of the role their work plays. ("And you know a lot of people just don't like to hear this sort of thing. They prefer the artist to be dumb and unconscious and basically crazy.”)

He insisted that artists must try to describe what they believe to be the nature of reality and not be seduced into creating escapist "dream worlds" (either pleasant or haunted). He claimed that artists who are "dumb enough to think they're on a cloud or something” actually serve to reinforce reactionary political values by reiterating social and political illusions in the dream worlds they create. (He said that art was the opiate of the middle class.)

Lastly, he argued that the only way for the artist to be- come conscious and to figure out what is real is to engage in dialogue. His work contained dialogues between art and environment, artist and art world, art world and society. He railed against the "Kantian myth" that the art object is a "thing in itself:' Instead he urged an understanding that the work of artists is dialectical: “Things are not things in themselves. They are related to other things." He spoke of a dialectical method that "seeks a world outside of cultural confinement":

See, what I'm talking about are relationships. Art has tended to be viewed in terms of isolation, neutralization, separation, and this is encouraged. Art is supposed to be on some eternal plane, free from the experiences of the world, and I'm more interested in those experiences, not as a refutation of art, but as a part of that experience, or interwoven, in other words, all these factors come into it.
 
Already, the New Wave generation has had its casualties. Almost as soon as it has appeared before the public some of its artists have destroyed themselves, others have quickly allowed their work to be neutralized. In order to combat the mounting intensity of these pressures, the artist must acquire a coherent methodology. To adopt principles like Smithson's may be the only way the present generation can survive long enough to bring its work to fruition.

 

FOOTNOTES

1.  Jeffrey Deitch,"Report from Times Square," Art in America. (September 1980).
2.John Berger coined the term “normalization” to describe the process of political and social retrenchment that took place throughout the Western world after the “watershed” year of 1968. John Berger, “Between Two Colmars," About Looking. New York: Pantheon Books, 1980.
3.Robert Smithson. "Entropy and the New Monuments, "Artforum  (June 1966). The Writings of Robert Smithson, New York: New York University Press, 1979.
4. Ibid.
5. Ronny Cohen, "Energism,” Artforum (September 1980).
6. "Entropy and the New Monuments," op. cit.. p. 15.
7. Ibid., p.15.
8. Smithson, “Interview with Robert Smithson for the Archives of American Art Smithsonian Institute," ibid.
9. Allen Ginsberg, Howl and Other Poems, San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1956.
10. Ibid.
11."Interview,” op. cit.
12. William Burroughs, The Soft Machine. New York: Grove Press, 1961.
13. Smithson, "Conversation with Robert Smithson on April 22, 1972. Edited by Bruce Kurtz,”op. cit. Subsequent quotes from Smithson are also from this interview.