DURING THE FIRST DECADE of Artforum, two comments appeared in its pages that have long troubled me. They occur in well-known interviews, the first with Tony Smith, published in December 1966, the second with Eva Hesse, published in May 1970, and in each case the artist associates Minimalism with Nazism. Although no explanations are given, the connections are not meant as condemnations—on the contrary. So what relationships are intimated?1
“Talking with Tony Smith” was occasioned by two shows curated by Samuel Wagstaff Jr., who “culled” the six-page interview “from a summer and fall” of conversations.2 Although the result is disjointed, this befits a career that moved from architecture to sculpture, as well as an overview that jumps from drawings and models to photographs of actual buildings and objects. These shifts also suit the central preoccupation of the text, which is scale. “Art today is an art of postage stamps,” Smith declares, whereas he viewed “art as something vast,” and in this expansive purview, which was more and more common in his milieu, he cites a range of exempla, from “the High Court Building at Chandigarh” by Le Corbusier to “the Pueblos of the Southwest” to “mural painting” in Mexico by José Clemente Orozco. Although Smith holds to a Corbusian distinction—“Architecture has to do with space and light, not with form; that’s sculpture”—he wants his sculpture to partake of the scale of architecture. And this line of thought leads him to share a story that Michael Fried cited several months later in his influential critique of Minimalism “Art and Objecthood,” published in Artforum in summer 1967. Smith tells Wagstaff about a nighttime ride in the early 1950s with three Cooper Union students on “the unfinished New Jersey Turnpike”; they drove “from somewhere in the Meadows to New Brunswick” across a terrain vague “punctuated by stacks, towers, fumes, and colored lights.” Smith came to understand the experience as follows:
The road and much of the landscape was artificial, and yet it couldn’t be called a work of art. On the other hand, it did something for me that art had never done. At first I didn’t know what it was, but its effect was to liberate me from many of the views I had had about art. It seemed that there had been a reality there which had not had any expression in art.
The experience on the road was something mapped out but not socially recognized. I thought to myself, it ought to be clear that’s the end of art. Most painting looks pretty pictorial after that. There is no way you can frame it, you just have to experience it.
What was revealed to Smith, Fried argued, was the “conventional nature of art” (there is no way you can frame it), “and this Smith seems to have understood, not as laying bare the essence of art, but as announcing its end” (you just have to experience it). As is well known, for Fried in 1967, such an opening of visual art to temporal duration amounted to “theater,” and “theater is now the negation of art.”3
Often overlooked in the long debate about Minimalism that ensued is what Smith said immediately after “you just have to experience it”:
Later I discovered some abandoned airstrips in Europe—abandoned works, Surrealist landscapes, something that had nothing to do with any function, created worlds without tradition. Artificial landscape without cultural precedent began to dawn on me. There is a drill ground in Nuremberg large enough to accommodate two million men. The entire field is enclosed with high embankments and towers. The concrete approach is three sixteen-inch steps, one above the other, stretching for a mile or so.
This allusion—to the Nazi arena designed by Albert Speer for party rallies in the mid-1930s, sometimes featuring his “Cathedral of Ice” searchlights—ends as abruptly as it begins, without further comment from Smith.4 We cannot know what he intended, but given that this association follows his account of his turnpike epiphany, he seems to advocate a massive orchestration of scale and site as a way forward for advanced art, a contemporary updating of the sublime by means both architectural and technological: There is no way you can frame it, you just have to experience it.
Whereas Tony Smith evokes a sublime overwhelming of the subject, Eva Hesse points to a traumatic piercing.
This opening looks more problematic now, several decades on, than it did then, as the “expanded field” of sculpture has become, in no small part, the drill ground for the expanded extravaganzas of the art world. In this respect, the real transformation of art arrived by way not of “theater” so much as “spectacle” (Guy Debord published The Society of the Spectacle in 1967 too). This is a now-familiar route from the abandoned Nuremberg arena to the unfinished New Jersey Turnpike to countless mega art events around the globe today, but it is not the one I want to follow here, largely because it runs in only one direction, and no one needs to be told yet again that the culture industry always wins.5
Like the Smith interview, the Hesse conversation is heavily edited, in this case from ninety pages of transcript to a five-page article. It, too, proceeds by quick shifts and abrupt juxtapositions, nowhere more so than in the first exchange. Asked by her interlocutor, Cindy Nemser, about her affinity with “any particular school of painting,” Hesse puts forward Pollock, Oldenburg, and especially Warhol, with whom she identifies most fully: “He is the most as an artist that you could be. His art and his statements and his person are so equivalent.”6 And then she drops this bombshell:
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.
Here, again, we cannot know what is intended, yet clearly, like Smith, Hesse favors art that is affectively intense, with this difference: Whereas Smith evokes a sublime overwhelming of the subject, Hesse points to a traumatic piercing (it does something to my insides).7 To her mind this is not an analogy, much less a metaphor—the plates were the camp for her, not like it—and her use of the past tense suggests that they triggered a temporal relay that Freud understood as the “deferred action” of trauma. Such a reading is supported by the well-known facts that Hesse escaped Nazi Germany in 1938 as a Jewish girl of two and that she was terminally ill with cancer at the time of the interview. (She died at thirty-four, less than a month after its publication.) Yet these facts also prepared the psychobiographical account of her work—“Hesse as wound”—that pervaded the critical literature until Anne Wagner cautioned against it in 1994, and though it is not wrong, it is partial. Among other problems, it obscures the sociopolitical implications of her art, not to mention its formal complexities.8
Elsewhere in the interview, Hesse claims the true content of her work to be the “total absurdity of life,” which she associates with extremity:
There isn’t a thing in my life that has happened that hasn’t been extreme—personal health, family, economic situations. . . . Now art being the most important thing for me, other than existing and staying alive, became connected to this, now closer meshed than ever, and absurdity is the key word. . . . It has to do with contradictions and oppositions. . . . 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.
Another term for this absurdity might be antinomy; certainly, Hesse proceeded by negation as she pursued “a non-anthropomorphic, non-geometric, non-non” basis for her art. Here, she offers no mediation between her “extreme opposites”—her artwork is that mediation—but this accords with the extremity of the time, not only in her own life but also in the artistic debates that engaged her and the world events that impinged on everyone.9 Mel Bochner tells a relevant anecdote involving a run-in with Andre from a few years before:
At Max’s Kansas City, I was introduced, for the first time, to an artist I had written about very positively. He immediately attacked me for misunderstanding his work. When I asked what he objected to about my interpretation, he shouted, “My work is the cry of dying babies in Vietnam. Every unit represents a dead baby.”10
Smith’s memorial project might be seen as the Nuremberg ground reimagined as a different sort of setting for a different kind of collectivity—not a spectacle that calls its subjects to ecstatic submission but a summoning of “fused groups” in democratic solidarity.
Initial detractors called Minimalism “cold” and “inhuman,” and subsequent opponents deemed it “masculinist” and “totalitarian.” I still see these responses as emotionally reactive or formally reductive or both, and, like several other critics, I have stressed the phenomenological dimension of Minimalism, its engagement with the body and the space of the viewer, in part to counter such readings. Nonetheless, they did represent the sentiments of many observers, and some of these accounts also point to the historical problem at issue here, even if, to my mind, they misconstrue it in doing so.11 For what was taken as “inhuman” in Minimalist practice is better understood as “antihumanist,” a position that was largely shared by Conceptual artists. This antihumanism was active, for example, when, in another well-known conversation from 1966, Frank Stella and Donald Judd claimed to jettison European “rationalism,” and when Bochner insisted a year later that Conceptualists sought to bracket all considerations of style and metaphor.12 Not only a local reaction against late Abstract Expressionism, this rejection, widespread among artists, writers, and philosophers of the time, targeted a humanism that had had no effective answer for fascism, the Holocaust, or the Bomb and that continued to fail in the face of American imperialism in Southeast Asia and elsewhere.13
So, again, how to understand the brutal juxtapositions posed by Smith and Hesse—the expanded field of sculpture and the Nuremberg drill ground, the Andre plates and the concentration camp? If we rule out any simple link between the paired terms, one way is to follow Jean-François Lyotard, who did explicitly what Smith did implicitly: He invokes the sublime to mediate such connections—directly in The Differend (1983) and Heidegger and “the jews” (1988) and indirectly in “The Sublime and the Avant-Garde” (published in Artforum in April 1984). In his important work on the subject, Mark Godfrey provides a concise synopsis of this argument: “Avant-garde abstraction witnesses the unrepresentable by not representing it; and so post-Holocaust abstraction witnesses the unrepresentability of the Holocaust by not representing it.” However, as Godfrey notes, there are problems here (beyond sheer circularity). “The question of medium is unimportant” to Lyotard, who is “as interested in a Dan Flavin installation as in a Barnett Newman painting.”14 And not only is the materialist specificity of abstract painting and Minimalist object thereby lost, so is the structural clarity of the expanded field of sculpture that follows them. More seriously still, the sublime appears as the ineffable, and this transcendental dimension is entirely at odds with the immanent orientation of Minimalism and its artistic legatees, focused as they are on the actual parameters of art—physical, institutional, and discursive. The mediation of the expanded field and Nuremberg or of Andre and the camp cannot come via the sacred.
Art, in order to be critical, must be immanent to the structures of its world.
What if we see the relationship as one of absurdity in the antinomic manner of Hesse? Fredric Jameson defines dialectical thinking as “the unmasking of antinomy as contradiction,” through which we come to recognize “the interpenetration of opposites” in any given situation.15 Thus, for example, Brecht, in his caustic poem about his Los Angeles exile, presents the same place, Hollywood, as both heaven and hell—heaven for the affluent and hell for the poor. Jameson prefers to run the dialectic in the other direction in order to grasp the utopian possibilities in the most dystopian of historical conditions. For instance, he has presented Walmart as a gigantic corporation that not only preys on local communities but also offers a new model of production and distribution that might be adapted to radically different ends.16 What if we attempted a similar experiment with the Smith and Hesse juxtapositions? The dystopian trajectory is clear enough, but what utopian horizon might be drawn, however tentatively or tendentiously?
As far as dialectical reversals go, what comes to mind first is the famous plea, made by Benjamin at the end of “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technical Reproducibility” (1936), for a communist politicization of art to counter the fascist aestheticization of politics all around him. Liberal humanist that he was, Smith made no such appeal in 1966. “I think of art in a public context,” he says simply.17 This statement follows another reference to Le Corbusier, or rather to the white marble edifice in Midtown Manhattan that the architect codesigned in 1947: “I love the Secretariat Building of the UN, placed like a salute.” In the interview, Smith includes his own 1960 project for the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial competition in Washington, DC, which also called for white marble slabs, in this case three horizontal rectangles “organized in a spiral and arranged in progression according to size” on an immense plaza (in the drawing, people are represented as specks). Inscribed on the largest wall, like an oracular pronouncement on a huge tablet, is the climactic line of Roosevelt’s second presidential-nomination address, delivered in 1936 (the same year that Benjamin published his “Work of Art” essay): “This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny.” Like the scheme, which combines the scale of Speer and the abstraction of Le Corbusier, this statement is grandiose; no one believes, or should any longer, in such rhetoric. But by the same token, the New Deal seems like a very good deal today—the FDR speech might strike contemporary ears as well-nigh utopian—and 1960, the year of the Kennedy election as well as of the Roosevelt competition, did mark a partial reboot of this social contract.18 Not to be overly generous to Smith, but in this context his memorial project might be seen as the Nuremberg ground reimagined as a different sort of setting for a different kind of collectivity—not a spectacle that calls its subjects to ecstatic submission but a summoning of “fused groups” in democratic solidarity.19
I take the notion of fused groups from Sartre, who published the first volume of his Critique of Dialectical Reason also in 1960. For Sartre, who should be returned to discussions of postwar art more often than he is, seriality is the fundamental condition of capitalist society; this is especially pronounced in its consumerist stage, shot through with markets and media, which address us en masse but separate us in doing so. Seriality is thus “a plurality of separations,” a multitude of alienations, Sartre argues, that are internal as well as external: In a serial condition, “everyone is the same as the Others in so far as he is Other than himself.”20 His famous example is a queue at a bus stop—anonymous people, backs turned to one another, silent and indifferent. In his account, the opposite of this serial line is the fused group, for which Sartre offers a celebrated instance of revolt: the storming of the Bastille in 1789. Significantly, Sartre sees seriality as primary; fused groups rise out of this state and fall back into it. If atomized, passive alienation sometimes flips into collective, active solidarity, it does so only for a time; soon enough, “groups die and then disintegrate.”21
Hesse was a reader of Sartre, at least of his existentialist writings such as Nausea (1938), which informed her sense of absurdity (she cites him in the interview). As Briony Fer and Mignon Nixon have underscored, seriality, an inheritance of both Minimalism and Conceptualism, structures much of her work, and like her friend Sol LeWitt, she pushed its logic toward the illogical; this is one more antinomy that is essential to her aesthetic.22 “Series, serial, serial art is another way of repeating absurdity,” Hesse stated, and, curious about words as she was, she would have known that absurd stems from the Latin for “out of tune,” the regular tipped to the irregular.23 More importantly here, Hesse turned seriality back toward its Sartrean opposite, fusion. Several pieces illustrated in the interview perform her characteristic drama of composition and decomposition, material concentration and formal dispersion. To be sure, this tension between binding and unbinding has psychic resonances, which are well discussed by Fer and Nixon, but it also has sociopolitical implications, which are not much considered (in any case, this is hardly an either/or).24
That Hesse is concerned with the serial and the fused, the apart and the together, is intimated in the titles of some of her illustrated sculptures, such as Ennead, 1966, named after a family of nine deities in Egyptian mythology, and Vinculum I and II, both 1969, named after the Latin for “bond” (germane, too, is that vinculum is used in anatomy for connective tissue and in mathematics for the horizontal line placed over a group of terms to indicate that they are to be treated as a single entity). Ennead consists of nine strands of dyed string that begin evenly spaced near the top of a dark rectangle on the wall only to fall three feet into actual space, where many of the strands tangle before they rise to the adjacent wall, where they are again attached: “stringy versus mass,” serial versus fused. A different interplay occurs in Vinculum I, a double-ladder structure of metal screens covered with latex; the two vertical series of panels, which rise above human height, are both separated and sutured by the vinyl tubes that fall between them. Repetition Nineteen III, 1968, activates the serial-fused dynamic in another way: These nineteen fiberglass buckets are both like and unlike, and Hesse allows them to be rearranged as though to underscore the relay between individual and group. Sometimes this dynamic is staged between works, as in Schema and Sequel, both 1967. In Schema, little latex hemispheres are neatly placed on a latex square in twelves rows of twelve each, while in Sequel, little latex spheres are spread as though randomly on a cheesecloth rectangle. The titles suggest that Sequel follows Schema, but seriality and fusion are in play variously in both, and they are presented as bound up with each other.25
Since seriality runs through Pop as well as through Minimalism and Conceptualism, it was on the minds of artists and critics at the time; for example, Artforum published Bochner’s “The Serial Attitude” in December 1967 and John Coplans’s “Serial Imagery” in October 1968. For his part, Bochner deemed seriality “self-exhausting and solipsistic”; as a result, its sociopolitical dimension goes unremarked, and no mention of Sartre is made.26 This is true of other relevant texts too, even though the problem of the serial and the fused was everywhere evident in contemporary politics: How to fuse the civil-rights, antiwar, and feminist movements, both internally and with one another, in a society that was ever more serial as well as spectacular?27
Readers may wonder what possible utopia could be glimpsed in the linking of Minimalist object and concentration camp. The very question is offensive, but dialectical thinking is often perverse, an overturning (per-version) of the accepted framing of a problem.28 If Hesse was antinomic in her thinking, the Marxist Andre aimed to be dialectical in his. “My work is part of the objective condition of capitalist American society in the 20th century,” he wrote in 1975; nonetheless, “I would like to say that my work is socialist art.”29 Already in 1966, Andre had asserted that it is “communistic because the form is equally accessible to all.”30 This thinking might seem more magical than dialectical, yet what is suggested here is that art, in order to be critical, must be immanent to the structures of its world: in this case, that it must work with the given forms of seriality—serial objects, serial people, even serial death—to work through them ; that is, to imagine a different life beyond them.31 Perhaps what Hesse signals in her brutal juxtaposition is not only the importance of affective intensity in art but also the necessity of an artistic figuration of serial absence transformed into fused presence.32 This is true now as much as then.
Hal Foster’s Brutal Aesthetics: Dubuffet, Bataille, Jorn, Paolozzi, Oldenburg was published in 2020 by Princeton University Press.
1. There were other such provocations, some prior, as when Frank Stella gave two of his “Black Paintings,” 1959, titles with Nazi associations (Arbeit Macht Frei and Die Fahne Hoch); this was duly acknowledged but not deeply discussed at the time. See Caroline A. Jones, Machine in the Studio: Constructing the Postwar American Artist (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), and James Meyer, Minimalism: Art and Polemics in the Sixties (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001). As we will see, the associations made by Smith and Hesse are very different, the former more about scalar impact, the latter more about intense affect, but they also converge in unexpected ways. My thanks to Alex Kitnick, Julian Rose, Samuel Shapiro, and Robert Slifkin for their incisive comments on the present essay.
2. Samuel Wagstaff Jr., “Talking with Tony Smith,” Artforum December 1966, 14–19; all Smith quotations are from this source.
3. Michael Fried, “Art and Objecthood,” Artforum Summer 1967, 15, 19. I reviewed this debate in “The Crux of Minimalism” (1986), reprinted in The Return of the Real (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996), 35–70.
4. Fried quotes these lines in “Art and Objecthood” but does not develop the examples except as forerunners of “theatrical” art, which becomes even more guilty by association. Pace Smith, the drill ground was hardly without “any function” or, for that matter, “cultural precedent.”
5. See Rosalind Krauss, “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” October, no. 8 (Spring 1979): 30–44; and “The Cultural Logic of the Late Capitalist Museum,” October, no. 54 (Autumn 1990): 3–17. In “The Crux of Minimalism,” I stressed its opening to investigations of site but also noted its susceptibility to spectacle, which I later took to be “the catastrophe of Minimalism” in “Six Paragraphs on Dan Flavin” (Artforum, February 2005) and other texts. (As will become clear, I ply a more utopian path in the present essay.) That Smith referred to the drill ground in 1966 suggests that the expanded field of sculpture began in spectacle as well. Yet that he alluded to “Surrealist landscapes” and “abandoned works” also points to antispectacular developments in recent sculpture, as articulated by Robert Smithson in “Entropy and the New Monuments,” published in Artforum in June 1966, several months before the interview. In any case, not all immersive environments are given over to spectacle. As Michelle Kuo and others have insisted, some artists—then, since, and now—have taken spectacle as a point of departure in order to work against it.
6. Cindy Nemser, “An Interview with Eve Hesse,” Artforum, May 1970, 59–63; unless otherwise specified, all Hesse quotations are from this source.
7. For many readers today, this statement will be overdetermined by the subsequent charge against Andre in the unexplained death of Ana Mendieta. However, in its historical context, the remark was a compliment, not a condemnation; then as now, that is a large part of its riddle.
8. See Anne Middleton Wagner, “Another Hesse,” October, no. 69 (Summer 1994), reprinted in Three Artists (Three Women): Modernism and the Art of Hesse, Krasner, and O’Keeffe Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996).
9. This is not to say that the extremity of the time explains her antinomies or that they are only rhetorical. On the contrary, the stark juxtaposition offered by Hesse and by Smith points us to dialectical readings of the art that most concerns them.
10. Mel Bochner, Solar System & Rest Rooms: Writings and Interviews 1965–2007 (Cambridge, MA: MIT 2008), xvii. In an oral history for the Archives of American Art, Bochner names the artist as Andre. My thanks to Samuel Shapiro for these references.
11. See, above all, Anna C. Chave, “Minimalism and the Rhetoric of Power,” Arts, January 1990.
12. Bruce Glaser, “Questions to Stella and Judd,” Art News September 1966, reprinted in Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology, ed. Gregory Battcock (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1968), 151; and Mel Bochner, “Serial Art, Systems, Solipsism,” Arts (Summer 1967), reprinted in Battcock, 93. The Stella-Judd conversation was also heavily edited (a third participant, Dan Flavin, disappeared altogether).
13. This antihumanist position was programmatic in the nouveau roman, the literary movement most often cited by both Minimalists and Conceptualists, and it was also received as “cold” and “inhuman.” See Alain Robbe-Grillet, For a New Novel: Essays on Fiction, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Grove Press, 1966).
14. Mark Godfrey, “The Memory of Modernism: Abstract Art and the Holocaust,” dissertation, University College London, 2002, revised and published as Abstraction and the Holocaust (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006).
15. Fredric Jameson, Valences of the Dialectic (London: Verso, 2009), 13, 43.
16. Ibid., 416–25. I borrow the Brecht example from Jameson. Jameson on Walmart follows Lenin on the big banks of his time, which, like other institutions of monopoly capitalism, he hoped to repurpose under communism. Also see Fredric Jameson et al., An American Utopia: Dual Power and the Universal Army (London: Verso, 2016).
17. “I think of art in a public context,” Smith says, “not in terms of mobility of works of art”—an allusion to painting and sculptures produced for the market.
18. The 1936 address is resonant again today. FDR called for a renewed revolution to oust the “economic royalists” of the time: “For out of this modern civilization economic royalists carved new dynasties. . . . They created a new despotism and wrapped it in the robes of legal sanction. . . . For too many of us the political equality we once had won was meaningless in the face of economic inequality.”
19. The chronology of the present essay is convoluted. I begin in the late 1960s, when the extremity of the time appeared to lock artists into antinomic thinking, then step back to 1960, when there was a momentary opening for optimism, only to return to the late 1960s to extract a utopian dialectics that was impeded at the time.
20. Jean-Paul Sartre, Critique of Dialectical Reason, trans. Alan Sheridan-Smith (London: Verso, 2004),1:257, 1:260.
21. Ibid.,1:254. In this respect, Sartre offers an important corrective to the usual narrative in critical theory about modernity as a tragic fall from a past state of integration—subjective as well as social—into a present state of atomization. I explore the serial-fused dynamic in our own time in “Seriality, Sociability, Silence,” Artforum (December 2020) , 160–63.
22. On Hesse, see Briony Fer, “Bordering on Blank: Eva Hesse and Minimalism,” 17, no. 3 (September 1994): 424–49; (September 1994), and Mignon Nixon, “o + x,” October, no. 119 (Winter 2007): 6–20. On LeWitt, see Rosalind Krauss, “LeWitt in Progress,” October, no. 6 (Autumn 1978): 46–60.
23. Hesse quoted in Lucy Lippard, Eva Hesse (New York: Da Capo Press, 1976), 96.
24. On binding and unbinding, see Sigmund Freud, The Ego and the Id, trans. James Strachey (New York: W. W. Norton, 1960).
25. There is also an individual-group dynamic in the collaborative making of her work then and in the conservational care for it now.
26. Bochner had earlier broached this subject in “Serial Art, Systems, Solipsism.” There were important exceptions to solipsistic seriality in practice, as in Homes for America (1966–67), where Dan Graham demonstrated that seriality structured suburban tract housing. And commentators on Pop could not avoid the seriality of some of the commodities imaged in that art.
27. “The notion of seriality developed here,” Jameson writes in his 2004 foreword to the first volume of The Critique of Dialectical Reason, “is the only philosophically satisfactory theory of public opinion, the only genuine philosophy of the media, that anyone has proposed to date” (xxviii). One might object that Debord offered such a theory in The Society of the Spectacle, but then spectacle for Debord is largely seriality for Sartre rethought through the commodity-image.
“Seriality” was one missed encounter between artistic practice and political theory during the 1960s. Another—even more pertinent to my concerns but too complex to develop here—revolved around “banality.” Not long after Artforum was launched in San Francisco in 1962, two controversies broke out in New York, both of which hinged on the charge of banality. One debate was political, provoked by Hannah Arendt’s notorious analysis of the Adolf Eichmann trial in Jerusalem, which ran in the_ New Yorker _in February and March 1963. The other was aesthetic and sparked by the sudden emergence of Pop art, which was the subject of a symposium at the Museum of Modern Art in December 1962 (published in Arts magazine in April 1963). Arendt applied her infamous phrase “the banality of evil” neutrally, which enraged her critics all the more. Far from neutral, opponents of Pop condemned the new art as “banal.” It appears that for both groups the term signaled a new lack of depth—historical, moral, psychological, artistic, critical—that each found intolerable.
28. Dialectics à la Jameson can also be desperate, but I opt for it over the dialectics of doom, too pervasive on the left today, which forecloses more than it opens up.
29. Carl Andre, Cuts: Texts 1959–2004, ed. James Meyer (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005), 38. Here is another instance of his dialectical thinking, framed almost as a Conceptualist proposition. Asked in 1969 by Lucy Lippard, “What is the relationship between politics and art?,” Andre responds:
Art is a political weapon.
Art has nothing to do with politics.
Art serves imperialism.
Art serves revolution.
The relationship between politics and art is none of these things, some of these things, all of these things (Ibid., 55).
30. Ibid., 291.
31. This remark from Giorgio Agamben is pertinent here: “In Auschwitz, people did not die; rather, corpses were produced. Corpses without death, non-humans whose decease is debased into a matter of serial production. . . . Precisely this degradation of death constitutes the specific offense of Auschwitz, the proper name of its horror” (Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen [New York: Zone Books, 2002], 71–72).
32. Presence is a key word in the Andre lexicon, and this presence-absence dynamic was again active for him in a commission for a synagogue in Stommeln, Germany, in 1997, about which he wrote, “Every work of art is haunted by its absence. The small, austerely beautiful, half-hidden synagogue of Stommeln is haunted by the absence of its minyan” (quoted in Godfrey, “The Memory of Modernism,” 57). The same dynamic was captured by Richard Serra in a prior commission for Stommeln synagogue, The Drowned and the Saved, 1992, the title of which was borrowed from Primo Levi.
Surfaced here is a crucial topic that is mooted but not developed in either the Smith or the Hesse interview: monumentality, or, more precisely, how to conceive the monument after its basic conventions are voided by historical events. Again, Smith suggests a repurposing of the category, shifting its tense, in his FDR proposal, from past to future, from ruin to “destiny,” in a way that aims to promote democracy but also permits, even exploits, elements of spectacle. Older than Hesse and Andre by a generation, Smith retains some of the optimistic spirit of the “new monumentality” proposed by Josep Lluís Sert, Fernand Léger, and Sigfried Giedion in 1943. That modernist trio—architect, artist, and architectural historian—acknowledged “the devaluation of monumentality” over “the last hundred years” and pointed to the lack of “unifying culture” as the problem. Nonetheless, they believed that “postwar changes in the whole economic structure of nations may bring with them the organization of community life,” which might in turn have allowed for a renovated monumentality, one that deployed “modern materials and new techniques” in “the vast open spaces” left by wartime destruction. Already in the 1920s Léger had urged artists to refashion spectacle in their own terms, and his voice is heard again here: “During night hours, color and forms can be projected on vast surfaces. Such displays could be projected upon buildings for purposes of publicity or propaganda. These buildings would have large plane surfaces planned for this purpose, surfaces which are nonexistent today” (Sert, Léger, and Giedion, “Nine Points on Monumentality,” in Giedion, Architecture, You and Me: The Diary of a Development [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1958], 48–51). This is all to say that Speer and his ilk did not have a monopoly on spectacle and that other versions of monumentality run through the twentieth century, some of which had democratic motivations and even utopian aspirations. Of course, for Hesse to link the Andre plates to the camps might suggest, contra Smith, that no such monumentality can be reclaimed in the face of the serial death of the Holocaust, and certainly Andre refused all traditional aspects of the monument, especially its most fundamental convention: verticality. Yet, again, his plates can be taken to evoke presence through absence, and the seriality of Minimalism has provided the language for some of the most effective of Holocaust memorials. The Memorial for the Murdered Jews in Europe, 2005, by Peter Eisenman (with a strong assist from Serra) is only one instance.