Memories. Every scenario and every mise-en-scène have always been constructed by or on memories. One must chance that—start from affection and new sounds.–– Jean-Luc Godard
I am thinking of the terms “post-Minimalism” and “dematerialization”—of how they have become entrenched within the lexicon of contemporary criticism. I am thinking of the extreme disjunction between the strategic value of those terms and their capacity to signify. For, while I understand the politics of their usage, their meaning eludes me insofar as it attaches itself to the art they label.
Operationally, “post-Minimalism” acts to drive a historical wedge between the Minimalist art of Donald Judd, Robert Morris, Dan Flavin, Frank Stella, and Carl Andre, and the work of a younger generation which began to achieve prominence by the end of the 1960s. (1) “Post-Minimalism,” by insisting upon the temporal divide between these two generations of artists, signals that it is acting as a conceptual marker as well: asserting a separation of meaning between the two groups, a separation in which the gears of sensibility mesh with the supposed shift in historical time. “Dematerialization” functions similarly as a chronological counter, by scripting as a new act in the historical drama the flight of certain work from the material, concrete arena of the object. The assumption behind the use of both these terms seems to be that the demarcations of historical time carry within themselves the profile of meaning––that in themselves they are adequate to characterize or define the deep import of works of art. The same assumption operates when, in answer to a question like, “What does this painting by Stella mean?” the reply comes, “It’s about his relationship to Johns and Newman.” The question asked was about meaning; the answer that is inevitably given is about historical context. The assumption is that they are synonymous. But they are not.
The special irony of that ingrained use of history as meaning, is that it is applied to a tradition which prides itself on an originating act of historical demolition. For sooner or later every account of modern art feels compelled to turn to Manet and tell of his attack on History Painting. With a certain relish those tales relive that moment of subversion, when the very models of academic value—history, classicism—were turned upside-down to become the empty vessels into which could be poured the perceptions of a modern consciousness. Using a strategy of historical reference, the Olympia and the Déjeuner were erected on Old Master groundplans, structures completely given over to the forms and meanings of the present. And the force of this construction was its power to topple History as the foundation itself of value.
It is a recounting of singular emptiness. For it points to a moment when history was revoked, as the prologue of a story in which history lives on with a particular tenacity. If history has been rejected as a source of value, it has certainly been retained within the annals of modern art as a course of meaning, and therefore, of explanation. Each art act in its turn is accounted for insofar as it deepens the logic of a particular formal convention, or as it supplants one convention with another, or as it attempts to transgress the notion of convention altogether. No matter what the stance of a given art toward the acts that preceded it, the description of its meaning is generally entrenched within the hermetic logic of paternity—of the sets of esthetic lineage that make up the history of modern art. Meaning in the present becomes a coefficient of the past; explanation is circumscribed by the profile of a historicist model.
By continuing to operate within this model, the terms “post-Minimalism” and “dematerialization” are constructions that trap meaning itself within an infinite regress of negation. Neither label really conceives in positive terms the content of the works they characterize. Neither really describes the particular modality of consciousness, or of reality, which is generated by the works they designate. Yet the interesting thing is that cognizance of that modality begins to tear apart the neatness of historical packaging. For, if one considers the paradigm of meaning out of which the art that is called “post-Minimalism” operates, one discovers the deep level at which it is antithetical to the content of a dematerialized form of Conceptualism. And further, one begins to see he absolute continuities of meaning that connect “post-Minimalism” to Minimal Art. (2)
From the outside, of course, a claim for the continuity between Minimalism and post-Minimalism will seem rather obvious. For to the uninitiated observer the strategies of the one have an obdurate similarity to the strategies of the other. Which is to stay that from the outside, Mel Bochner’s use of the series of cardinal numbers in order to achieve extension, or Richer Serra’s method of building a form by splashing lead into a corner, pulling the hardened remains away, splashing again, pulling away again . . ., might not appear all that different from Judd’s construction of a row of boxes, or Andre’s placement of bricks in line, or for that matter, Stella’s repetition of stripes across a canvas surface. They all partake of a similar kind of relentlessness; just as they all share in vouching for the utter seriousness for this putting, to use Judd’s words, “one thing after another.” Given the sameness of tone in the mode of construction, it may look from the outside like something of a fine point to say that Stella’s stripes are on a canvas support while Bochner or Dorothea Rockburne mark directly on the wall; and it may seem like an oversubtle distinction that Judd’s and Morris’ and Andre’s constructions involved rational geometric forms while Serra’s are generated through the process of making. The naive observer, feeling this continuity, may not quite see why one group is set off from the other by this prefix “post” on the historical label. And the naive observer has common sense on his side. He is pointing to something that in fact exists—only what he points to is a procedural similarity, rather than to the more crucial one which is also present: a shared notion about the prerequisites for a model of meaning.