Bodies in Minimalism: Gerard Byrne on ataraxia

I will return in a future post to the 1980s, specifically to the shift from the appropriation practices of the early years of the decade (e.g. Louise Lawler, Sherrie Levine) to the participatory art of its end (e.g. Group Material, Felix Gonzalez-Torres), and what happened to the question of sexual difference in the process. I am especially interested in what it means to want to understand and embody a past moment of activism in a present crisis. But today I am in need of some tranquility and when this happens I like to transport myself back to my 2012 visit to Marfa by looking at some photographs I took of Donald Judd’s 15 Untitled Works in Concrete, 1980-1984.

The way these works are scattered across the desert landscape, you can see this from an aerial photograph below. But my memory of my visit is grounded in an explicitly bodily experience of walking up to each work and measuring myself against it amid the immense scale of the landscape.

This experience of body and place reminds me today of a statement made by Lytle Shaw in an essay on the work of Irish artist Gerard Byrne. Shaw is discussing the work A thing is a hole in a thing it is not, 2010- a four-part filmic reconstruction of some moments in the history of Minimalism. One of the films recreates a radio interview from 1964 between Bruce Glaser, Frank Stella, Donald Judd and Dan Flavin.

The interview had been transcribed and reproduced in key anthologies of Minimalism, but what Byrne does is mix the original audio with new video of close-ups of actors in a radio station. The film makes a compelling statement about the difference between ‘being there’ and the abstraction and disturbance caused by the close-up effects. The words (and voices) stay the same, but the way we encounter the protagonists in snapshots and blurred close-ups becomes radically altered as we become aware of our own bodies in space as spectators. It was this aspect of the work that Shaw emphasized in the following discussion of Minimalism and its institutionalization:

And so if this very enterprise too begins to seem historical – whether or not it is properly artistic – then the hallowed Minimalist galleries in so many of the world’s museums begin to seem less like those crypts of European painting speaking to us in arcane languages, and more like something that appears as the very antithesis of their striped down, non-compositional forms: history museums, and more specifically, living history museums. Byond Carl Andre Antiquarian walk and the Donald Judd Historic Homestead, with its period room of antique specific objects, we discover the Robert Morris Re-Enactment Theme Park and its vintage, self-awareness-generating gestalt forms. As they proliferate, these memorial institutions my begin to rival Gettysburg and Colonial Williamsburg. This perhaps is what underlies the awkwardness we witness with so many of the viewers we view in A thing is a hole in a thing it is not: their uncertainty at what might constitute a satisfactory duration of aesthetic attention of this Frank Stella painting; or rather, the time it takes them to jettison this enterprise and become aware of their own bodies in (institutional) space. That few seem to undergo this epiphany is not a punchline here.

This analysis makes me realize why I return to my bodily experience at Marfa what could be dubbed ‘a state of neutral pleasure’ (to borrow the title of the Gerard Byrne book which included Shaw’s essay) or the Epicurean idea of ataraxia. Furthermore, as those same Epicureans thought, the memory of pleasure was sufficient for the original pleasure experienced and amid the chaos of daily life in these States, it is calming to be able to get back there.

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