Dr. Philip Ursprung

Laudatio for Carl Andre and Trisha Brown on the occasion of the Award of the Roswitha Haftmann Prize 2011 on 5 May 2011 at the Kunsthaus Zürich

From object to process

In March this year at the Barbican Art Gallery in London I saw a restaging of Trisha Brown’s legendary 1971 performance Walking on the Wall. The performers seemed to float right above my head. Horizontal, secured by ropes and harnesses, they moved back and forth along the wall. Initially their movements were hesitant; as time went on they grew in confidence. Whenever they reached the corner of the room they had to take a slight run-up, and for a moment they hung free in space. As a spectator, I was in some ways relieved not to be in their precarious position. On the other hand, I would have liked to experience this unfamiliar sensation myself, and envied the performers their opportunity to take part. To me, the figures moving along the wall seemed like a picture of life on the street, characterized by chance encounters and varying rhythms. At the same time I myself, like the other spectators in the room, became part of the picture. We could sense the performers’ concentration as they sought to control their movements. We smiled when, getting in each other’s way or overtaking one another, they began to laugh. Through a minor shift from horizontal to vertical, Trisha Brown had succeeded in radically transforming their – and our – perception of the everyday act of walking.

During the same trip I also visited Tate Modern. In the collection, I came upon Carl Andre’s floor sculpture Steel Zinc Plain (1969). As I always do when I see one of his floor sculptures, I hesitated for a moment. I know that his works are intended to be walked on. But do the gallery attendants know too? Are the works now so valuable that the restorers no longer allow them to be touched? I gathered myself together and stepped onto the surface. No-one stopped me. It seemed to me I sensed a slight movement, as if the plate were not lying quite flat on its base. Unlike the cement floor, the metal surface was smooth. I took a few paces, taking care not to exert too much pressure and cause the plates to shift. My steps on the metal sounded different from those on the floor. How does the sound of a footstep on concrete differ from one on steel or zinc? Isn’t zinc the softer material, the one formerly used for bar counters and sinks? Can you feel that through the soles of your shoes? Although the metal was undoubtedly robust and the chessboard arrangement could not be simpler, I experienced the work of art as something fragile, something that could come apart at any moment. Like Trisha Brown’s performance Walking on the Wall, Andre’s floor sculpture calls into question the way in which we take walking and standing for granted.

How can it be that an encounter with the works of Trisha Brown and Carl Andre isn’t in some way old-fashioned? Where do their topicality, their contemporaneity come from? Why do we experience them today as something of the present, although we know they were created forty years ago? One reason for the continuing impact of Andre’s and Brown’s oeuvre is that their works concern elemental, human movement processes. They deal with things that affect all of us. They revolve around everyday activities such as standing, walking, throwing, laying, stacking, pulling – actions by means of which we create space for ourselves and define ourselves within our environment and among our fellow human beings. Such actions have been so familiar to us ever since our childhood that we scarcely heed them any more, noticing them only when they are interrupted. Brown and Andre belong to the generation of artists that, at the start of the 1960s, sought to redefine the locus of the subject. We may describe it as a sweeping away of the conventions of painting, a merging of art with life, or a break with the values of modernism. What all these artists had in common was that they used their own bodies to create an art that was designed not to be absolute and self-referential but rather anchored directly in the here and now. They conceived their works not as detached end products but rather as actions, as processes. In so doing, they reflected a general shift of value judgement that still holds true today, namely the idea that the production is worth more than the product. “Only the changing is really enduring”, as Allan Kaprow put it. Today we ask each other “what are you working on right now”, and not “what have you done?”

This is not to say that the artists of that time rejected the reality of the industrialized society in favour of a retreat into their own bodies. On the contrary: the idea of continuous movement is inconceivable without industrialization. When Andy Warhol announced “I want to be a machine,” he was speaking for his contemporaries. The art of Andre and Brown is thoroughly urban. It is inseparably bound up with New York, the capital of the 20th century, the “fever curve of capitalism,” as Rem Koolhaas once put it. Their oeuvre is shaped by the segmentation of time and space as a consequence of the modern division of labour and alienation. As we view Carl Andre’s 10 x 10 Altstadt Rectangle we seem to hear the hammering of the machines and the rattling of the conveyor belts. His poems and language games evoke the pace of the factory, the rawness of heavy industry; and at the same time they bring to mind the binary code, the perfunctory “yes/no” of the computer. The spatial works are seen to their best advantage against the backdrop of an empty factory. The loft, the factory floor, from which the machines and workers have disappeared, is the ideal setting for an art that stages the drama of the post-industrial. For “post-industrial” means not only that the machines and division of labour have vanished from our field of view, but also that we are no longer able adequately to represent production, or indeed labour of any kind. The reason we find the experience of processes so fascinating is that they have disappeared, and been dematerialized, beneath the cover of processors.

An important structural element of Andre’s art is that the artefacts consist of individual modules that can be freely interchanged. There is no hierarchy among them. The principle of composition – the arrangement of internal elements within a frame, the creation of tension by the juxtaposition of individual parts – is replaced by an addition of modules, all of them identical, that could – in theory at least – be added ad infinitum. The individual bricks of Equivalent VIII (1966) do not have a prescribed position within the work of art. The wooden sections of Post, Lintel and Threshold (1971) can be rearranged at any time in accordance with the predefined pattern. As with his contemporaries Donald Judd and Frank Stella, the so-called “relational” – structuring as a series of many individual relationships between the internal elements – is replaced by the “non-relational.” Andre lifts the sculpture from its pedestal, while Stella takes the painting out of its frame. The spatiality of the work of art is the same as that of its environment and those viewing it. That is why images showing this art together with other works and observers, as in the exhibition Amerikanische Raumkunst at the Kunsthaus Zürich in 1969, are more convincing than those which display them removed from their context. In contrast with Max Bill, for example, whose sculptures have an autonomous spatiality and can be reduced or enlarged in scale as often as one might want, Andre’s sculptures always retain their relationship to real space and human scale. Unlike, for instance, Bill’s Pavilion Sculpture (1983) on the Bahnhofstrasse in Zurich, they are anthropomorphic. Bill’s piece follows laws of its own; essentially, it could stand anywhere. Andre’s sculptures, by contrast, articulate the spatiality that surrounds them. They show up every weakness of the architecture, the arrangement, just like a magnifying glass. That makes curating – placing the works for an exhibition – a particular challenge.

The motif of human labour runs through the oeuvre of both Andre and Brown. The gestures of the performers and the actions of the sculptor are not random, but rather wholly deliberate. It is all about stacking, ordering, layering. Trisha Brown’s Leaning Duets (1971, 1972) operate like a sketch for a sculpture. They are a spontaneous, ludic experiment, each involving two performers on a street. Joined by their bare hands or a loop of rope, they attempt to walk a short distance together, leaning against each other. The duet suggests partnership, trust, the attempt to maintain one’s balance. Yet at the same time it evokes the competitive pressure, the blurring of boundaries between work and leisure and the ill-defined frontier between the realms of the private, the public and the common. One false step, one moment of inattention, and the image of balance collapses. A moment’s pause, and the party is over. Trisha Brown’s Primary Accumulation (1972) in which four performers lie supine in the urban space, can be read as an attempt spontaneously to claim new space and briefly halt the flow of urban life. Simultaneously it paraphrases the concept, drawing on Karl Marx, of “primitive accumulation”, the “process of divorcing the producer from the means of production” and thus the driving force of capitalism par excellence.

Neither Andre nor Brown veils the process of separation, the Marxian alienation. In contrast to some of their European contemporaries, they do not seek to turn back the wheel of time. They do not preach reconciliation – unlike some theorists, who look to art to confer meaning upon a present perceived as discontinuous and thereby to present it as coherent. The human body, and what it is capable of, may be their material of choice, but they do not shy away from technical reproduction. Trisha Brown dances with a film projector mounted on her back – a machine projecting a film of her dance – in her performance Homemade (1966). And Carl Andre is conscious at all times of the presence of the camera, since it is only the camera that can capture the action, indeed render it visible as such. The ephemeral process depends upon technical reproduction; the performative is unimaginable without representation.

It is a characteristic of the art of the 1960s and early 1970s that it opens up spaces which have not yet been invested with meaning, and which are not being exploited economically. Some of Andre’s sculptures from that period are almost indistinguishable from the objects one might find on the street, such as a stack of paving stones. Building blocks scattered on the ground look like garbage, the accidental leftovers of an experiment. Trisha Brown uses the roof landscapes of SoHo for Roof Piece (1971), in which the dancers, standing atop a series of apartment blocks, mimic each other’s improvised gestures and in so doing focus attention on a terrain that had been invisible, even suppressed, for decades. The city is now read not as a system of signs – in the manner of Andy Warhol’s eight-hour cinematographic homage to New York in his film Empire (1964) – but rather as the setting for concrete happenings. Now the artists are interested not in the emblems and symbols, but rather in what lies underneath or alongside and has been forgotten. The gaze moves away from the sublime images of the skyline to the ground, the battered surface of the street. The perspective shifts from the abstract sign to the specific place. As the American dream begins to crumble in the recession of the early 1970s, Trisha Brown creates the performance Man Walking Down the Side of a Building (1970). Secured to a rope, a performer moves slowly, vertically, earthward, followed by the fearful gaze of a small group of spectators. Andre, Brown and many others, including Gordon Matta-Clark, Mierle Laderman Ukeles and Laurie Anderson, sharpen our awareness of the decay of the metropolis – and at the same time demonstrate how the new can emerge among the ruins.

The art of Andre and Brown is entirely pragmatic, in keeping with the American tradition. “No ideas but in things” wrote the American poet William Carlos Williams in his epic Paterson (1963). The arrangement of Carl Andre’s Redan (1964) is explained by the fact that the floor of the gallery would have been unable to bear the weight of the wooden sections in a compact configuration. Andre therefore decided to spread the weight over as wide a surface as possible. Brown’s Leaning Duets appear as if a group of performers had spontaneously resolved to do something together without first spending much time thinking what it might be. There is no disjuncture between plan and execution, idea and reality. The work does not refer to something that will come later; it does not require deferment. It is precisely this that makes these works so relevant even today. They bear witness to the fact that we are subject to the forces of social and economic change and that we cannot free ourselves either from our skins or from our times. Yet they also demonstrate that all of us, everywhere, here and now, act, and that we can shape the course of things.