In Print

This is not a story (Part 4)


To commemorate an exhibition of the late Bonnie Bronson's work on view in the Swigert Commons at Pacific Northwest College of Art, Randal Davis writes about the influences, context and history that shaped Bronson's development as an artist.

“The Minimal Art object is usually not found or ready-made, but fabricated and intended for no apparent use. In this sense it functions like Hitchcock’s ‘McGuffin’: a particular prop in a film that is little more than a pretence, a narrative trick to trigger the plot.”

—Jorg Heiser, “The Dark Side of the Room” [25]

Edward Strickland opens his “prehistory” of Minimalism with the wry observation that “the death of Minimalism is announced periodically, which may be the surest testimonial to its staying power.” [26] At roughly the same time that Strickland was charting Minimalism’s passage from a “once–subversive style to…part of the lingua franca,” Lynn Zelevansky advanced a similar claim, arguing that “Minimalism—which has antecedents in various twentieth century art movements, from revolutionary Soviet art to the objects of Marcel Duchamp and the paintings of Barnett Newman—has a place in the second half of our century akin to the one held by Cubism in the first half.” [27] Zelevansky traces Minimalism’s “staying power” to its offering of “the first really versatile new set of formal strategies since Cubism, one that could tolerate the imposition of many different meanings” (8). Or, as Christine Mehring points out, “all Minimalist artists in one way or another displace or depart from Greenbergian paradigms, but they all do so in different and often contradictory ways.” [28]

Allowing for this proliferation, it is not so contradictory to assert that Bronson’s work had little to do with Minimalism while also being deeply intertwined with it. To understand how this is possible, though, requires that one be clear about which Minimalism(s) one invokes. Foremost, is the clear realization that Bronson’s work was never consistent with the influential models proposed by Donald Judd or Robert Morris.

Bronson’s work did not conform with what Morris termed “unitary form”—“the autonomous and literal nature of sculpture demands that it have its own, equally literal space—not a surface shared with painting.” Hence, in his view, while “relief has always been accepted as a viable mode…it cannot be accepted today as legitimate.” [29] Judd’s notion of the “specific object” might superficially seem more accommodating to Bronson’s work, particularly his rhetorical gambit that “half or more of the best new work in the last few years has been neither painting nor sculpture.” [30] He continues with the somewhat gnomic observation that “the new work obviously resembles sculpture more than it does painting, but it is nearer to painting” (182).

It could be suggested that much of Bronson’s work, particularly the metal wall reliefs and at least some of the cardboard works, fit Judd’s formulation, in at least general terms; the mosaic-like patterns of her steel reliefs of the mid-1970s, or the subtle texturings of the huge cardboard Kassandra (1980), likened, for example, to Frank Stella’s Polish Village series (1970–1974), clearly suggest works “resembl [ing] sculpture” while remaining “nearer to painting.” The relation to Stella is even more apparent in such works as the commissioned pieces for the Multnomah County Justice Center (1982), the Wy’East Day Lodge at Timberline (1983), and the studio work Parts Leland (1984). These works can be read in exactly the context of Michael Fried’s notion of “deductive structure” in “the relation between depicted and literal shape,” which he proposed in the context of Stella’s Irregular Polygons. [31]

At the same time, it would be difficult indeed to reconcile Bronson’s work with Judd’s familiar insistence on “non-relational” composition. In 1964, somewhat before Minimalism’s ascendancy, Stella and Judd were interviewed by Bruce Glaser on New York City’s WBAI radio under the provocative title, “New Nihilism or New Art.” Glaser questioned Judd about the seductions of symmetry, and if he was “trying to create a sensuous or an austere effect.“ Judd shot back, “No, I don’t think my work is either one. I’m interested in spareness, but I don’t think it has any connection to symmetry.” [32]

Stella, openly disbelieving, interjected “actually, your work is really symmetrical. How can you avoid it when you take a box situation?” Even in the face of Stella’s incredulity, Judd remained intransigent: “But I don’t have any ideas as to symmetry. My things are symmetrical because, as you said, I wanted to get rid of any compositional effects, and the obvious way to do it is to be symmetrical” (151/197). “Those [compositional] effects,” he added, “tend to carry with them all the structures, values, feelings of the whole European tradition. It suits me fine if that’s all down the drain” (151/198).

It’s not difficult at all to see where Bronson departs from these reductive, even somewhat reactionary strictures. Most obviously, her work is almost always asymmetrical, sometimes subtly, as in the pitched planes of the mid–1970s reliefs, sometimes far more aggressively, as in, say, the Jas and Leland series. And such vivid instances as the small drawings of the Untitled [grids] series (1985–86) are nothing if not virtual catalogs of the “compositional effects” possible within a reduced range of formal devices.

There is much more that might be said on behalf of these formal models, but that too is another story. What differentiates Bronson most decisively from Minimalist orthodoxy (or heterodoxy, if you prefer) is the absence of what Michael Fried famously called the “literalist espousal of objecthood [which] amounts to nothing other than a plea for a new genre of theater, and theater is now the negation of art.” [33] For Hal Foster, what Fried called “theatricality” was a profound change; “a partial shift in focus from object to subject, from ontological questions (of the essence of a medium) to phenomenological conditions (of a particular body in a particular space as the ground of art.)” [34] This is what Foster memorably noted elsewhere—that Minimal work, “far from idealist…complicates the purity of conception with the contingency of perception.” [35] Fried was concerned with the way that Minimal works “confronted” the viewer—“they must,” he famously remarked, “…be placed not just in his space but in his way” (154).

If I’ve emphasized these questions of theory, it is only to show how questionable the application of these definitions are to Bronson’s work. Another way of looking at this is to allow that Bronson’s questionable “minimalism” retained an essentially pictorial bent; it is worth recalling here that she only realized one work of free-standing sculpture. The high relief of many of her wall pieces certainly contributed to their “objecthood,” but this was hardly unfamiliar to anyone who knew Stella’s work, in which the use of deep stretchers had begun with his early Black Paintings.

At the same time, it’s easy to imagine that Bronson’s models, particularly for the Untitled reliefs of the early ‘70’s, were quite elsewhere, in a place she could have known only vicariously: the landscape of Picasso’s Horta paintings, which Gertrude Stein, famously though controversially, saw as “the beginnings of Cubism.” [36] These works, including Brick Factory in Tortosa, and especially Reservoir at Horta and the spectacular Houses on the Hill (all 1909), possess what Christopher Green rightly calls a “rebarbative, angular hardness.”

In both Houses on the Hill and The Reservoir, Picasso…sharpens edges to build a crystalline structure that has its own integrity. The ridges and spines of underlying structures break through the picture surface. The eye does not slide easily across a continuous, fused picture surface, but rather encounters a resistant architecture bristling with knife-sharp edges and points. [37]

The limited chromatics of Bronson’s metal reliefs (monochrome, in the case of the galvanized Study) also show some filiation with Picasso’s palette, but Bronson as a colorist is a subject I will take up later. I’m not, of course, suggesting that Bronson adopted some sort of very late neo-Cubism but simply that, as was seen in her move from Abstract Expressionist painting to the first metal constructions, her engagement with Modernist compositional devices worked in complex, not always linear ways.

And in this, she was hardly alone. Stella and Judd, in their conversation with Glaser, were at pains to cast their inheritance, from Suprematism forward, as monolithic, but this was simply not the case. As Barbara Rose observed:

American geometry, in comparison with European purist styles, with their commitment to predictable and familiar forms, is eccentric and expressionist. Jagged planes lock together, not in any classical harmony, but in asymmetric uneasy union. The modernization of classicism and purism is so inimical to the American temperament that even painters working within the strict discipline of geometric abstraction—the classical style of modern art—produced restless, tense, highly activated works. [38]

This is evident in such canonical pieces of American Precisionism as Charles Demuth’s My Egypt (1927) and Ralston Crawford’s Maitland Bridge #2 (1938). The former bears an uncanny architectural similarity to Bronson’s Color I and Color II (both 1975)—with, it might also be noted, the multiplying reflections of Robert Smithson’s Mirror Vortex (1964) and Four-Sided Vortex (1965) as distant, but cordial, relations.

Another example, and one indicative of why Rose sees “eccentric” as more a matter of “temperament” than a proper lineage, is found in work by one of the Park Avenue Cubists, Charles G. Shaw, who’s two-paneled painting Atomic Flight (1945/1946) mirrors the same composition, albeit with a displaced palette. [39] Some shapes remain unchanged in color, some shift to a complement, still others seem to change arbitrarily. This is precisely the structural device that Bronson used to great effect in her 1982 commission for Multnomah County’s Justice Center. Its placement on a large curving wall, wrapping around an elevator bay, makes it difficult—impossible, in fact—to see the work 
“as a whole,” so the moment of recognition of this underlying system is all the more surprising.

Allowing what I earlier called the essentially pictorial bent of Bronson’s art suggests, at the very least, that her problematic relation to Minimalism remained in painterly terms. It in turn suggests that one look within the domain of what Greenberg called Post-Painterly Abstraction, though the relation is, again, subtle and partial. [40] There are not, for example, strong relations between Bronson and such exemplars as Morris Louis or Larry Poons; Kenneth Noland is another matter, as is Jules Olitski.

Many of Bronson’s surfaces, particularly the shaded gradations of sprayed lacquers in pieces like Landscape through Window and Rinpoche’s Window (both 1986) recall Olitski’s oft-quoted quest for “a spray of paint in the air that would just stay there.” Greenberg’s explication of Olitski’s “illusion of depth that somehow extrudes all suggestions of depth,” which nonetheless contains “a world of color and light differentiations” is apposite, as a consistent aspect of Bronson’s work is the increasingly subtle gradations of color as she moves towards monochrome. [41]

Formally, it is not difficult to see the relation of Noland’s chevrons to many of the reliefs of the mid-1970s and, most obviously, in the monumental cardboard Kassandra (1980). But it is, finally, the example of Ellsworth Kelly who looms largest here. Barbara Rose’s assessment of his work, for a 1980 retrospective, as “an amalgam and synthesis of qualities of European, as well as Oriental and primitive art… [that] incorporates elements of Dada and cubo-constructivism in an individual style [with] the large scale of the New York School,” is a virtual précis of Bronson’s work. [42]

And, the unique properties of Bronson’s “amalgam and synthesis” often depended upon the elaborate and idiosyncratic geometric systems of her work. This is most overt in the series of “window” pieces from the later 1980s—the subtle modulations of color I noted above are oddly symmetrical, i.e., directionless. This enables the works to be hung in any of the four available axial rotations, as Bronson’s own photographs of the work attest.

The large cardboard wall relief Kassandra (1980), the only one completed of a projected series, was one of Bronson’s most interesting explorations of structure. Composed of more than 240 individual modules, arranged in 6 panels, Kassandra underwent a remarkable formal evolution, as documented in studio photographs. Most conspicuous here was the change from its penultimate state to the final version, as seen at Blackfish Gallery. A photograph of the completed work in Bronson’s studio is identical to that subsequently exhibited, but with one difference—the entire 10 × 24 foot work was turned top-for-bottom.

Other photographs, taken while the work was in various stages of completion, also show the panels in different relationships. For example, in the final version, the diagonal vectors of the modules at the seams of the panels are symmetrical, but in-progress photos reveal that this was not always the case. Bronson appears, in this, to have borrowed a formal device from Jasper Johns’ cross–hatch paintings of the early 1970s, works such as Scent (1973–74) and the Corpse & Mirror series (1974–75).

But, this discussion would not be complete without reference to the particular materiality of her work, and its positing of a continual dialog between method and means. [43] In favoring a decidedly impersonal facture, Minimalism, as famously pilloried by Anna Chave, sought “the cultural authority of the markers of industry and technology.” [44] This became, in the reception of both Pop and Minimal works the source of some mystification. As Robert Smithson noted in a catalog essay on the work of Donald Judd: “these procedures tend to baffle art-Iovers. They either wonder where the ‘art’ went or where the ‘work’ went, or both.” [45]

Bronson’s complex interest in non-traditional methods and materials spurred her to research enamelling processes in the early 1970s. And, while capable of producing an almost inhuman perfection, she would also sometimes use techniques that resulted in a more raku-like finish—common to both, though, was the absence of the “hand,” which really only returned in the works of her last few years.

Smithson continues his essay with a breezy characterization of Judd’s process:

He may go to Long Island City and have the Bernstein Brothers, Tinsmiths put “Pittsburgh” seams into some (Bethcon) iron boxes, or he might go to Allied Plastics in Lower Manhattan and have cut-to-size some Rohm-Haas “glowing” pink plexiglass…. Or maybe he will travel to Hackensack, New Jersey to investigate a lead he got on a new kind of zinc-based paint called Galvanox, which is comparable to “hot-dip” galvanizing (4).

Smithson, too, may not have been the most reliable interpreter; his passing reference to Judd in a footnote to his 1966 article “Quasi-Infinities and the Waning of Space” prompted a terse four-word letter to the editor from Judd: “Smithson isn’t my spokesman.” [46]

Perhaps, but Smithson was hardly alone in his sentiments—in a 1966 New York City symposium on Primary Structures, the groundbreaking exhibition of Minimal work at the Jewish Museum, sculptor Mark DiSuvero opened by flatly stating: “I think my friend Don Judd can’t qualify as an artist because he doesn’t do the work.” [47]

If it now seems like DiSuvero was on the losing side of a bet with history, the issue remains, taken up some four decades later by Kirk Varnedoe who, trying to distance himself from Chave’s intense polemic, found an analogous duality in Minimal work—an “oddness.”

Judd’s metal works were not mass-produced but fabricated at a kind of mom-and-pop metal shop, Bernstein Brothers in Long Island City, using galvanized iron, stainless steel, aluminum, brass, colored Plexiglas, and the kind of translucent enamel paints used to customize Harley-Davidsons. The results are not overpowering or impersonal; in fact they are often kind of fussy, slick, and decorative. [48]

But Varnedoe had some difficulty unpacking the contradiction that grows between mom-and-pop and a Harley-Davidson, between industry and kitsch and he took another approach:

There is something small-time and peculiar about the fabrication of a lot of [M]inimalist works that suggests not industrial mass production, but old-fashioned craftsmanship. In this sense, [M]inimalism seems to express a nostalgia for small-product America, for chopper shops and body shops or businesses that make metal door frames or install aluminum siding (54).

Better, perhaps, except the materials and processes that he cites are plainly those of industrial production. And there is surely nothing obviously “fussy, slick, or decorative” about aluminum siding.

An altogether more subtle view of Judd’s complex relation to materials and process, particularly the delegation of work, was recently suggested by Jeff Jahn, borrowing from Aquinas via Kant the idea of intrinsic finality, a reciprocity of means and ends. [49] For Judd, Jahn suggested, “the piece exists to satisfy its own visual/spatial operational end concerns… not as an investment style fetish.” [50] In a subsequent note, Jahn treated this idea with a provocative expansion: Judd, he suggested, “delegated the fabrication of his work to get control over it… shrewdly remov [ing] himself so he could see the piece, not the work put into it.” [51]

What I like about this idea is Jahn’s recognition of doubled movements, control and abnegation, presence and distance, and I think something very similar informed Bronson’s making, even if in a way different from what Jahn finds in Judd. Specifically, I’m not at all certain that Bronson didn’t want us to see the work put into it—at least some of the time.

It is true, to be sure, that the slickly reflective enamel surfaces of many of her 1970s reliefs invite at least qualified comparison not only with color-field painting, as I noted above, but also with the “finish fetish” of West Coast Minimalism. What most qualifies that relation, though, is Bronson’s embrace of far more mundane materials, most notably cardboard, which she began using, conventionally enough, for maquettes but which soon became a material in its own right.

So, yes, a double movement, but one that suggests something more like the eclectic passions of a Rauschenberg. And, too, it should be remembered that many of Bronson’s works (not just in cardboard) were explicitly derived from quilting, which puts rather a different spin to ideas about individual and community, authorship and, not least, Varnedoe’s “mom-and-pop metal shop.”

Part Five >

25. Jorg Heiser, “The Dark Side of the Room,” Frieze 65 (March 2002): n. pag.

26. Edward Strickland, Minimalism: Origins (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993): 1.

27. Lynn Zelevansky, Sense & Sensibility: Women Artists and Minimalism in the Nineties (New York: Museum of Modern Art/Harry N. Abrams, 1994): 7.

28. Christine Mehring, “Minimalism: Art History as Detective Novel,” Art Journal 62:1 (Spring 2003): 97.

29. Robert Morris, “Notes on Sculpture I & II,” in Gregory Battcock (editor), Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology (New York: EP Dutton & Company, Inc., 1968): 224. Essays originally published in Artforum (February & October, 1966).

30. Donald Judd, “Specific Objects,” Complete Writings 1959-1975 (Halifax: Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 2005): 181.

31. Michael Fried, “Shape as Form: Frank Stella’s Irregular Polygons,” Art and Objecthood: Essays and Reviews (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998): 89. Originally published in Artforum 5 (November 1966). Also, his earlier, “Three American Painters: Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, Frank Stella,” also reprinted in Art and Objecthood: Essays and Reviews.

32. Dan Flavin’s participation in this conversation was elided in the most familiar version, edited by Lucy Lippard, published in Art News (September, 1966) and reprinted in Gregory Battcock’s Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology. The full version is in James Meyer (editor) Minimalism (London: Phaidon, 2000). Page citations here are in the format Battcock/Meyer.

33. Michael Fried, “Art and Objecthood,” Art and Objecthood: Essays and Reviews (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998): 153. Originally published in Artforum 5 (June 1967).

34. Hal Foster, “The Un/making of Sculpture,” in Hal Foster & Gordon Hughes (editors), Richard Serra (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2000): 177. Essay originally published as a catalog essay for Richard Serra: Sculpture 1985–1998 at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, exhibition dates September 20, 1998 through January 3, 1999.

35. Hal Foster, “The Crux of Minimalism,” The Return of the Real (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1998): 40.

36. Gertrude Stein, Picasso (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1984): 8.

37. Christopher Green, Picasso: architecture and vertigo (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005): 146 & 120.

38. Barbara Rose, “Geometry, American Style,” Autocritique: essays on art and anti-art, 1963-1987 (New York: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1988): 11. Originally published in New York Magazine (26 June 1972).

39. See Debra Bricker Balken & Robert S. Lubar, The Park Avenue Cubists (New York: Grey Art Gallery, New York University, 2002) for general background on this overlooked group of artists.

40. See Robert Hobbs, “The Term ‘Colour Field’: A Reframing” in David Moos (editor), The Shape of Colour: Excursions in Colour Field Art 1950-2005 (Toronto: Art Gallery of Ontario, 2005): 18–23.

41. Clement Greenberg, “Introduction to Jules Olitski at the Venice Biennale,” The Collected Essays and Criticism: Modernism with a Vengeance, 1957-1969, Volume 4 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993): 230. Originally published as catalog essay for the exhibition at the XXXIII International Biennial Exhibition of Art, Venice and subsequent showing at the Smithsonian Institution, exhibition dates June–October, 1966.

42. Barbara Rose, “Ellsworth Kelly: An American in Paris, “ Autocritique: essays on art and anti-art, 1963-1987 (New York: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1988): 114. Originally published as the catalog essay at the Amsterdam Stedelijk Van Abbemuseum, 1980.

43. Wiiliam Chiego, Bonnie Bronson: Recent Works (Portland: Portland Art Museum, 1979): n. pag. Catalog essay for mid–career survey, exhibition dates 25 September through 28 October, 1979.

44. Anna Chave, “Minimalism and the Rhetoric of Power,” in Power: Its Myths and Mores in American Art 1961-1991, Holliday T. Day, editor (Indianapolis, IN: Indianapolis Museum of Art, 1991): 116. Originally published in Arts Magazine (January 1990).

45. Robert Smithson, “Donald Judd,” Robert Smithson: The Collected

46. Robert Smithson, “Quasi-Infinities and the Waning of Space,” Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996): 34-38. Originally published in Arts Magazine (November 1966). Donald Judd, “Letter to the editor,” Complete Writings 1959-1975 (Halifax: Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 2005): 217. Originally published in Arts Magazine (February 1967).

47. Mark di Suvero, Donald Judd, Kynaston McShine, Robert Morris & Barbara Rose, “The New Sculpture” in James Meyer, editor, Minimalism (London: Phaidon: 2000): 220. Unpublished manuscript from the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC.

48. Kirk Varnedoe, Pictures of nothing: abstract art since Pollock (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006): 54. Originally presented as the 2003 A.W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC.

49. Mark C. Taylor, “Refiguring Religion,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 77:1 (March 2009): 115.

50. Jeff Jahn, “Intrinsic Finalities,” Donald Judd (Portland: White Box/University of Oregon, 2010): n. pag. Catalog essay for the April/May 2010 exhibition Donald Judd at White Box Gallery, Portland.

51. Jeff Jahn, “Donald Judd Now,” PORT (6 May 2010): n. pag. .

by Randal Davis

— Posted on 08/31 at 05:26 PM

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