Process Art

ART AS PROCESS

Definition

When the peripatetic artist, Robert Morris, abandoned his hollow gray wooden Minimal objects and pinned to the wall a cascade of felt folding itself into resplendent labial folds relaxing into a pool of material on the floor, the art world knew that a new movement had begun. Hard and permanent was out and soft, unformed and temporary was in. Predicted by Lucy Lippard’s Eccentric Abstractions exhibition in 1966, by 1968, yet another movement had risen up in another oedipal challenge to a precursor. Post-Minimal Art, also known as Process Art, ended the brief vogue for Minimal Art. It is important to note that these successive movements were mostly a New York phenomenon and reflected a lingering battle against painting, against Minimalism and against Clement Greenberg. Although Process Art was, with some artists, performative, it was not Performance Art.

Process Art and Conceptual Art emerged on the scene about the same time, heralded by the important article in Artforum by Robert Morris, “Anti-Form,” in 1968, a year before Conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth’s essay, “Art After Art Philosophy.” Conceptual Art owed much of its foundation to Duchamp and Reinhardt, but Process Art owed much to Pollock, who turned painting into a process and a work of art into a record of that process. Process Art extended the implications of Pollock’s work and also repudiated the solidity and bounded forms of Minimal Art. The Post-Minimal artists preferred loose and soft industrial materials, which could not achieve a final form or shape. As Robert Morris wrote,

Of the Abstract Expressionists only Pollock was able to recover process and hold on to it as part of the end form of the work. Pollock’s recovery of process involved a profound rethinking of the role of both material and tools in making. The stick which drips paint is a tool which acknowledges the nature of the fluidity of paint. Like any other tool it is still one that controls and transforms matter. But unlike the brush it is in far greater sympathy with matter because it acknowledges the inherent tendencies and properties of that matter. In some ways Louis was even closer to matter in his use of the container itself to pour the fluid.

Process art, like Minimal art, often tended to be gallery bound, limited to the “pure white cube.” Process Art simply could not exist, even for the brief time of its exhibition appearances, outside of the gallery. The viewer was made aware of the activity of making, with free form materials scattered across a gallery floor or loosely arranged for the moment. As opposed to the eternal “primary structures” of the Minimalist movement, the works produced by process artists were present only when being exhibited and possessed no form other than an ever-changing arbitrary shape. What was called the “Pictural-Sculptural phase” emphasized the process of making art in a way that necessitated new methods of non-composition.

Robert Morris’s soft process works were quiet different from Oldenberg’s soft sculptures which were of an object. Oldenberg played off ideas of the hard with the soft, of the large with the small, creating inversions of size and scale and surfaces, using ordinary and popular objects as his experimental models. Morris’s works are about the process and are as abstract in their own material way as the immaterial Ideas of Kosuth. Morris carried on suggestions earlier addressed in Dada and in the work of Jackson Pollock: that of isolating one aspect of the art making experience: Process and turning an unthought of act into an experience in and of itself. The move away from craft to dematerialization resulted in Process Art. Process art was often ephemeral and un-buyable, questioning the assumed definition of a work of art as an object that was unchanging and permanent.

All of the artists of this period were seeking different solutions to the problem of the commodification of art and all are attempting to eliminate an object which can be freely moved from place to place, bought and sold at will. Process Art refreshed focus on the artist’s unique personality and embraced the eccentric, dematerialized form un-made with a “signature substance.” Process Art interrogated the structure of Minimalism by relaxing structure and/or by using materials that suggest the human body. Minimalism was industrial and Process Art was physical. If Conceptual Art isolated art-as-idea (mental processes), Process Art isolated process, the making of a work of art, as subject and content in its own right. As Morris explained,

…considerations of gravity become as important as those of space. The focus on matter and gravity as means results in forms which were not projected in advance. Considerations of ordering are necessarily casual and imprecise and unemphasized. Random piling, loose stacking, hanging, give passing form to the material. Chance is accepted and indeterminacy is implied since replacing will result in another configuration. Disengagement with preconceived enduring forms and orders for things is a positive assertion. It is part of the work’s refusal to continue aestheticizing form by dealing with it as a prescribed end.

Indeed, the very concept of “craft,” meaning a well-made object, was scorned and ultimately abandoned. Minimal Art was rarely written about in terms of its sheer dazzling shining pristine beauty, but the objects were breathtaking in the fabrication. In Los Angeles, such tender loving care towards an art object was referred to as “finish fetish” for the highly polished untouchable and untouched surfaces. Process art extended Minimalism and its fascination with systems by de-systemizing structures and by rendering ironic ratios and proportions and worked against the factory-pristine perfection of Minimal and Conceptual works by introducing new materials that were non-historical, non-art and often non-archival and perishable.

Artists

For the first time, women were not only visible in this Process Art movement but also took the lead. Since the end of the Second World War II, women had been pushed to the periphery of the art world and their return was a prophecy of feminism to come. Jackie Windsor burned Minimal forms—square boxes reduced to char—in what seemed to be a commentary on the male obsession with hard-edged industrial forms. On the other hand, Eva Hesse stumbled upon a wealth of soft limp malleable flexible industrial materials—latex and polyester resin—and traditional papier mâché and string—to imply a louche sexuality of distended parts. After her death, the works of Eva Hesse were frozen in time and preserved in an arbitrarily selected state, but her work was always intended to foreground process, the obsessive nature of making art, and she expected the unarchivable materials to deteriorate over time.

Both Windsor and Hesse were the inheritors of Minimal Art in that they both created repetitive units and multiple objects, however, with these artists, each element was unique and had its own specific personality. With Hesse’s works, the physical acts of making are easy to discern, from looping strands of rope to inserting clear plastic tubes into holes. At the end of the sixties, the only way that critics knew how to talk about Hesse was in gendered language: she was obsessive—as were all females—in her many repetitive movements and her craft like approach to making. There was some truth to the gendered critiques in that the male artists of the Post-Minimal movement willfully destroyed objects.

Process Art avoided the issue of “look” by stressing the action of the artist. The appearance or the look of a collectable object did not matter, because the end result, the object itself, was not the point. For example, Richard Serra took a list of verbs and executed these verbs. “Casting” became the act of throwing molten lead from a ladle onto a warehouse wall. The result was not an attractive object but the literal materialization and freezing of a verb into a noun. Lead was thrown into the juncture between the wall and the floor and, when the lead cooled, it had formed a long metal corner. The artist had “cast” the lead and had produced a “cast” of the angle where the wall and the floor met which could be pried from the fold of the building. Clearly, Serra was referencing Pollock who threw or “cast” paint onto a canvas on the floor.

The process of making art through discourse was involved in a feedback loop between the artists and the increasingly important art market during the late sixties and early seventies. The all-powerful art dealers could make or break “art stars.” During the Seventies, there was a great deal of surplus money in the economy and it was possible for artists who moved beyond the object and away from traditional “art” to be supported financially within the system through dealers such as Virginia Dwan. The artists could take the rebellious stance of refusing to cooperate with the making of art into a commodity, by making art that was dematerialized or simply inaccessible to the public.

The new avant-garde artist could be supported by an art dealer who would create the artist as a “name” or a “brand.” The artist sold a concept to a museum, for example, and the museum as institutional owner would have the right to reproduce the idea. In this early stage of Conceptual Art, the so-called “craft” of making art was still important and the works of Joseph Kosuth and Sol Le Witt and Lawrence Weiner were carefully executed. Minimal Art and Conceptual Art was pristine in its untouched and impersonal and were intended, for the most part, for museum collections. However, with the new level of dealer and institutional support, the artist could literally afford to give up making an object that could be purchased in an unchanging form. From Richard Serra’s “castings” and “splashing” in warehouses or Barry Le Va’s scatterings, Process Art was bound to the galleries and would cease to exist when cleaned out to make room for the next exhibition.

Conclusion

This simple fact that “art” would cease to exist after the exhibition—did Le Va put his materials in a cardboard box or simply throw them away?—led the way to the next and quite possibly the last “ism” of mid-century: Conceptual Art. In the Seventies, the art world would shift from the “dematerialized” object to the absence of the object to the removal of the object to what the New York artists fondly referred to as the “land.” In 1969, the end of Minimal Art became official and the beginning of Process Art was recognized with two shows, Anti-Illusion: Procedures/Materials at the Whitney Museum and When Attitudes Become Form at The Institute of Contemporary Arts, London. But it was already too late, the artists had moved on, the object was over, painting was dead, and women were gathering at the gates of the fortress. The Seventies would end the Age of Aquarius and usher in the Age of Pluralism and the art movements would become as scattered as an activity by Barry Le Va.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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