Presented March 2011, at a closed-door seminar convened as part of the curatorial planning for Inventing Abstraction, 1910 - 1925, at MoMA, NYC.
1. Writing of the Salon of 1767, Diderot describes Vernet’s landscapes by way of imagining himself strolling through them with “a tutor-abbot, his two young pupils, and two servants carrying picnic baskets.” Addressing his account to the philologist, Friedrich Grimm, Diderot describes his conversations with the imagined abbot and his journey through (among, on, in – what is the right preposition?) the oil paint mountains and lakes. As Lyotard has noted, Diderot erases the distinction between “reality and fiction, history and narrative, diegesis and metadiegesis.” The painter (Vernet), the critic (Diderot), the fictional interlocutor (the abbot), the addressee (Grimm), and the reader, are each destabilized and allowed to intermingle freely among grades and shades of realness, representation, and fiction.
If this sounds like a capsule definition of the Postmodern as Lyotard, among others, has described it, it still cuts against any reduction to mere recapitulation. As Lyotard has noted, Postmodernism is a tendency – perhaps the founding tendency – of Modernism. As such, to detect the Postmodern in Diderot, is to bear witness to the mechanism of history, to the Möbius strip of causality. Diderot proposes a relation of narrative to event that is far more complicated and complicit than the conventional cause-and-effect view of referent and reference. History, as object lesson, is meant to arrive at clearly delineated, unravelable, syllogisms. But, in truth, all roads do not lead to Rome, nor to the Dome of the Rock, the Palme d’Or, Sacre Coeur, or, MoMA.
Not only the what, but the how and the who, when, where, and why, are all equal contributors to history. Kandinsky’s story, or Malevich’s, or Mondrian’s, are in, and not just of, the paintings. Even the monochrome, bereft of pictorial illusion, represents how and when and why it came to be. Each who in this drama has a walk-on part. No one – not the painter, the collector, the critical apologist, the museum director – can claim sole authorship or the leading role. History’s diegetic urge is equally its metadigetic message: everything could be otherwise. As Lyotard writes of Diderot’s account,
… these interlocutors in turn are never original but are instead themselves the possible characters of one or more games that are played out on other stages and related by and to other interlocutors, and … nothing is off-stage or … what is off-stage is a component of the stage, and … no eye can see all theatres at once.
We’re probably more comfortable saying that Malevich (as opposed to Vernet) paints in response to, as commentary on, his political, art historical moment. But for every artist, what is in the painting, on the canvas, is part of a larger network of relations: social, political, historical. The work is always constituted by, and constitutive of, these relations. A work’s relations are the sine qua non upon which any secondary representation is built. These relations organize the spectatorial experience, yet they can’t always be located specifically in the work.
2. We all know the Pater quote about the other arts aspiring to the condition of music. Contemporary sonic practitioners and theorists stake their reputations on the notion that the sonic arts are purer, more abstract, than anything on canvas, celluloid, pedestal, or stage. They claim for sound a self-referentiality that has no need of signification. Sound, by this account, is either real in itself, a material artifact and, therefore, the opposite of representational; or it represents only the forms in which it is arranged, like stars in a constellation. As an artist who often works with sound, I am an anomaly in disavowing abstraction. I cede the valuations that typically grant sound its entitlements.
Elsewhere I’ve argued for rethinking this Pater-patter by subjecting the past sixty-odd years of sonic art to the same tests faced by the visual arts in this time span: minimalism, conceptualism, institutional critique, performance, relational aesthetics, and so on. Here, however, I’ve tried to abide by the timeframe of the exhibition and limit my discussion to the history of art and ideas available to the artists in the period in question: 1912-1925.
Still, it’s worth considering how a reevaluation of abstraction – both in its early visual moment and in its current sonic moment – might inflect a reading of contemporary practice. Today, artists have initiated a genuine reconfiguration of the equations, distributions, and propositions of artistic encounter. The contemporary work that strikes me as most interesting, and possibly even genuinely new, doesn’t genuflect to any kind of in-itselfism nor to a self-contained formalism.
One way to think the new work in relation to the subject at hand is to ask whether this work operates along a spectrum defined at one end by representation and at the other by abstraction. Liam Gillick’s work certainly engages a history that runs through LeWitt to the Bauhaus and Mondrian. But is it accurate, useful, or informative, to call it abstract? There is no doubt that Tino Seghal’s work indicates a set of concerns. But is our understanding of the work enhanced if we think of it as representational? What about Trisha Donnelly, Harrell Fletcher, Francis Alÿs, Carey Young? Such questions don’t register on the palimpsest of practices that carve out a situation-space in which a set of relations – real/imagined, active/passive, diegetic/metadiegetic – may be explored or invented, embraced or renounced. Instead this work nominates what I’ll tentatively call a rich content framework, a forum in which a broad set of relations are evoked as possibilities, rather than dictated as commands. The message, ”everything could be otherwise,” is both implicit and unavoidable. This is not a replay of the “open work” debates of the 1960s, which located contingency in the act of interpretation. This work accepts contingency as an ontological condition of making, an epistemological condition of knowing.
By engaging the evasive, liminal, nuances of content and context, positions and presentations, this work attempts to deal more honestly than previous work with what Roland Barthes referred to, variously, as the neutral, the punctum, or the obtuse. The relations in play don’t submit to representation, yet they are surely experienced. Nor are they a blunt material fact; they cannot be easily introduced into consideration like a ball into a tennis match (sound into space, paint onto canvas). The neutral, to land on one of Barthes’ terms, doesn’t focus on the form-content antagonisms of the representation-abstraction continuum. These works propose frameworks – institutional, signifying, categorical – in which the neutral is both constituted by, and constitutive of, the relations potentially in play in a given situation. At the same time, these works realize that any rich content framework – as organizing structure – omits as much as it captures. What slips through the cracks may be ineffable, but it’s not transcendental. Nor is it any kind of it in-itself, beyond the grasp of signification. Such omissions are the result of conventions of thought and language that seek singularity in both subject and object; of imperatives that depend upon the clearly delineated, unravelable, syllogisms of history-as-object-lesson. This rich content framework engages emergent content, yet keeps the otherwise-that-might-have-been perennially in play.
I have responded to the question of abstraction without really addressing abstraction. That’s because I deny abstraction as a “special case.” Diderot, in 1767, was already in touch with an alternate history that folds contradictorily back on itself. The contemporary work I mean to indicate, and the rich content framework, acknowledges the complications and complicity of content-as-quarry. It’s not a question of whether the content lies in the world or in the work. The critical questions (in both senses of the phrase) are: How is content arrived at? By and for whom? When? Where? and Why? What happens to the terms abstraction and representation when we engage works by Vernet and Malevich as if they were Rirkrit Tiravanija’s or Kirsten Pieroth’s?
 Jean-François Lyotard, “Philosophy and Painting in the Age of Their Experimentation: Contribution to an Idea of Postmodernity,” in The Lyotard Reader, Andrew Benjamin, editor. Oxford, UK, and Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1992, 183.
 Ibid., 184.
 See my In The Blink of an Ear: Toward a Non-Cochlear Sonic Art. New York and London: Continuum 2009; and “The Hole Truth,” Artforum, November 2009.