Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 7, 2005
Donna De Salvo, ed. Open Systems: Rethinking Art c. 1970 Tate Publishing, 2005. 192 pp.; 60 color ills.; 50 b/w ills. Paper (1854375652)
June 1–August 29, 2005
Mel Bochner, Measurement Room, 1969. Tape and Letraset on wall. Dimensions variable. Museum of Modern Art, New York. © the artist.

It would appear that Jack Burnham’s 1968 claim that “a ‘systems esthetic’ will become the dominant approach to a maze of socio-technical conditions rooted only in the present” was accurately visionary. In Open Systems: Rethinking Art c. 1970, curator Donna De Salvo has put this concept of a “system” to work as an organizing principle around which to understand anew significant trends in art produced during the years bracketing 1970. The choice was a good one on two counts. First, there has been much recent interest in the art of the period, as high-profile retrospectives of Robert Smithson, Dan Flavin, and Donald Judd—not to mention Bruce Nauman’s installation at Tate Modern (arguably a retrospective in audio) and Richard Serra’s Bilbao installation—have all demonstrated. This is also clear in the proliferation of contemporary work that takes its cues from conceptualism, minimalism, and institutional critique. Second, “system,” as a theme, proves itself potentially to be a flexible and suggestive strategy for “rethinking” the period while also providing a focus that is effective, rigorous, and engaging.

As with the best of the aforementioned retrospectives, Open Systems provides the opportunity to reevaluate well-known work within a broader historical and aesthetic context than has been done previously. Thus, the often unhelpfully narrow titles of minimalism, conceptualism, and so forth can be sidestepped in favor of critical descriptions that allow for the connections between these artists and ones as visually diverse as Hans Haacke, Lygia Clark, and Martha Rosler (among others). The exhibition does particularly well in using the idea of “system” to suggest a similarity among this diversity that is not immediately obvious. The usual suspects of late 1960s art—Judd, Smithson, and Nauman—are all represented here, along with Carl Andre (another pivotal figure). Judd and Andre are represented by minimalist cube-based work that interrogates the system of its environment; Smithson, with the quasi-minimalist mirrored sculpture Four-Sided Vortex (1967), which seems to drag its surroundings into its collapsing visual conundrum, and Hotel Palenque (1969), his slide-show lecture at the University of Utah on architectural entropy. Notably absent, however, are Dan Flavin and Robert Morris. Flavin’s neon sculptures’ phenomenological investigation into the spaces and systems of their display would have further illuminated the exhibition’s theme, as would Robert Morris, whose questioning of the ontology, form, medium, and phenomenological experience of art mark him as the exemplary artist of the period.

To the exhibition’s credit it does not attempt to create a stylistic or aesthetic unity in “systems” art at the expense of diminishing the radicalism (political and aesthetic) from which this art first emerged. As De Salvo observes in the catalogue’s opening essay: “It may be that we admire a period in which art, culture and politics seemed to mesh so easily, especially in the late 1960s when so many dramatic events were felt. Student riots in Paris, assassinations in the United States and worldwide protests over the war in Vietnam were the scenarios of the day, as virtually every mode of authority and order was under attack.” The possibility of such resonant “meshing” is not difficult to imagine in the contemporary moment. Indeed, in walking back from the exhibition, one might pass the standoff between anti-war protestors and heavily armed soldiers enacted daily outside what is becoming an increasingly and formidably armored House of Parliament. Within this context, Alighiero e Boetti’s Mappa (1971), originally embroidered in Kabul, which at first sight appears anachronistic in its portrayal of a world that no longer exists, becomes chillingly prescient in addressing contemporary questions of globalization. Similarly, Haacke’s infamous exposure of the financial systems of slum housing and real estate ownership in Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, a Real-Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971 (1971), once considered too contentious to exhibit by the Guggenheim trustees, has lost none of its power in asking questions concerning the uneasy partnership between public life and private capital. A similar social commentary of continued relevance is to be found in Dan Graham’s Homes for America (1966–67) and Rosler’s The Bowery in Two Inadequate Description Systems (1974–75), both of which explore the gulf between the reality of a social system and its representation in documentation (in these cases photography).

Ultimately, however, given the familiarity of most of the art on show, the relative success or failure of the exhibition should be judged according to two criteria. First, how coherent the concept of “system” is in relation to such a diverse range of artistic practices; and second, how effectively—or to what end—such work might be inscribed within the concept. Unfortunately, it is on this second point that Open Systems fails to convince.

As stated at the outset of this review, the original concept of system as an organizing principle is indeed a convincing one. Not only would many of the artists involved have been familiar with the concept, but, as a descriptive term, the concept also acknowledges what is at stake when artists investigate how a work of art becomes “de-materialized”—as Lucy Lippard explained the same six years of production from which the works shown here were mined. However, the implications of this for both artistic and curatorial decision-making might have been followed up in a more sustained fashion. What exactly does it mean to talk of systems? And how exactly are we to define the term in a meaningful way? Haacke, for example, has throughout his career continuously returned to an investigation of systems of art making and their social context. In part, this endeavor is informed by his ongoing engagement with Bourdieu’s sociology and in part by his engagement with the “systems esthetic” formulated by Burnham, who is also known as a curator of such innovative shows as Software (Jewish Museum, NY, 1970), to which the current exhibition owes a substantial ideological debt. Burnham’s essay on “Systems Esthetics” is included in the catalogue and goes some way to providing an overall rationale for Open Systems. However, it feels as if much more of his complex theories on “systems esthetics” could have been developed in the exhibition.

The two artists in the exhibition who best exemplify the preoccupation with a work of art as subordinate to its various systems of display, representation, and control are Haacke and Mel Bochner. Bochner’s Measurement: Room (1969) is a deceptively simple recording of the architectural space of display. This is a gesture common to that of other practices now studied under the encompassing rubric of institutional critique. Other examples include Michael Asher, Daniel Buren, and Marcel Broodthaers, the latter represented by two works that specifically question the institutional systems of their display. Haacke’s ongoing specific engagement with systems (seen elsewhere in work such as Live Airborne System [1965–68]) is displayed in the aforementioned Shapolsky . . . and in Condensation Cube (1963–65), a closed system that registers its response to its environment in levels of condensation produced within its glass surfaces. The theme of entropy controlled within the fixed parameters of a closed system makes an excellent emblem for the broader concerns addressed by a “systems esthetic.” Elsewhere in the exhibition, John Baldessari’s Throwing Three Balls in the Air to Get an Equilateral Triangle (1972–73) offers a characteristically quirky reflection upon the stochastic processes that are characteristic of the intricate systems studied by Complexity and Chaos Theory. However, these notable exceptions aside, it often seems unclear exactly how all of the work on display fits into an overall theme. For example, while it is always great to see the whimsical work of Bas Jan Ader and Charles Ray, it is not immediately apparent how their exploration of a subjective angle to conceptualism is specifically related to a “systems esthetic.” Likewise, while Warhol’s iconic Brillo Box (1964) fits the exhibition theme perfectly by recalling its status as the focal point for Arthur Danto’s philosophical reflections on its identity within the institutional system of the Artworld, its pendant here, the large screen-prints of Mao Tse-tung (1972), feels gratuitous and sits uneasily aside more rigorously reflexive work in the show.

Ultimately, however, the lack of overall coherence stems not from the quality of work on exhibit but rather from the lack of precise definitions of “system,” “systems esthetics” and “systems theory.” It is never obvious exactly what is at stake by evoking the concept of “system,” and it feels, at times, like an underexplored and underutilized placeholder for a more general anti-formalist artistic practice.

Haacke himself had a clear idea of systems theory when he gave the following definition: “A system is most generally defined as a grouping of elements subject to a common plan and purpose. These elements or components interact so as to arrive at a joint goal. To separate these elements would be to destroy the system. Outside the context of a whole, the elements serve no function. Naturally these prerequisites are also true of every good painting, sculpture, building, or similarly complex but static visual entity. The original use of the term in the natural sciences is valuable for understanding the behaviors of physically independent processes. It explained phenomena of constant change, recycling and equilibrium. Therefore, I believe there are sound reasons for reserving the term ‘system’ for certain non-static ‘structures,’ since only in this category does transfer of energy, material or information occur.”

This definition is informed by an established discourse of Systems Theory that has its most coherent definitions in the General Systems Theory of Ludwig von Bertalanffy, the Cybernetics of Norbert Weiner, and, more recently and more importantly, the sociological Systems Theory of Niklas Luhmann. An acknowledgement of these conceptual sources, and their application to the radical art on display, would have further contributed to the success of this interesting show.

Francis Halsall
Lecturer, History of Art, Limerick School of Art & Design/ University College Cork, Ireland