Archives for posts with tag: Robert Smithson

Steve Armstrong, The Descent of Geometry, oil, brass and fibreglass resin on particle board, 50″ x 50″, 1981-85.

Metaphorical thinking is like using a funnel the wrong way round.

It’s time for a third voice to consider the issues raised in Self Expression and Conceptual Painting and Repressed Anger. The former was a sincere attempt to understand beauty, the latter, an attempt to apply raw self-analysis to my understanding of art. Lately, I’ve been studying Hunter S. Thompson to get an angle on his amazing talent for digression and hyperbole. Then I thought, what if this technique were directed inwards instead of out. But enough of that, down to business:

I have a friend who is an art critic and in a newspaper review around 2001 he used the term ‘conceptual painting’. I coined this term in the title of a painting in 1999, and no doubt, it would have been part of our occasional conversations. I then used the idea, but not the term itself, in a review published in Lola magazine in 2000.

This is all extremely unimportant, especially since my friend used the term to refer to a different idea altogether, but it has revealed something relevant about my character: I had a very strong compulsion to write this because I hope that the term “conceptual painting” might catch on, and if someone else received credit for it, I would feel a sense of loss. This is somewhat ridiculous of course: Was I going to miss out on sex, money, and power perhaps, not to mention the high life on the lecture circuit? No, what I want is credit, respect or even congratulations. This is probably why a discussion of conceptual painting showed up in my first blog post.

I have to wonder why these things matter to me. I remember reading about the conflict between Richard Huelsenbeck and Tristan Tzara over the provenance of the word “dada” and thinking as I read, “this dispute is of no importance, I don’t know them and they don’t know me, they are no more than words on a page, and even if I were acquainted with them, it still wouldn’t make much difference and it would, in fact, only be a problem if I wanted to stay on friendly terms with both of them”. Besides that, they’re dead. I am sure that Huelsenbeck and Tzara experienced righteous anger over their issue, and that is unfortunate. Fame creates resentful new wounds.

What is important is what is done, not who did it. Why should I care about what a bunch of people I have never met, and might never meet, think of some deed I allegedly performed? Since Shakespeare’s not around to enjoy the recognition, why does it matter who wrote those plays? Although there would be a reason for Shakespeare and me to demand recognition if we were in it for the money. And naturally enough, that has been a component for both of us, but not a terribly important one, because he’s dead and can’t collect, and I’ve always had a good day job. As I wrote in 1995, if we face the facts, “we would tell the world that its money belongs in hell. If art is real, then it is serious.”

It should be obvious that we only desire credit for a deed when it is not sufficiently satisfying simply as a deed done. But this becomes less obvious once the euphoria from viewing a completed work starts to fade – when the cash gets scarce, the cheaper wines look better. The Descent of Geometry was fully satisfying as a deed done for almost fifteen years, then the desire to justify and explain it crept in, as evidenced by my writings from around 1999. Those writings have been edited and incorporated in these three related posts.

Ockham’s Razor would guide us to the explanation with the fewest assumed entities but Armstrong’s Bin provides us with the most flattering explanation for anything that puzzles us. Schopenhauer knows why this would be the case – he said that self-interest is the strongest argument, and I’m sure he said this because he had a great sense of humour. The Bin tells me that my painting demands a beautiful aetiology, and most people who see it, seem fond of it, so I guess I could do worse than load it up with meaning. I’m going to indulge myself.

From 1981 until 1985 I occasionally worked on this very stubborn painting. When I felt reasonably satisfied with it (that being the point when I realized that anything else I did would only make it worse), I signed the back and wrote, “Beyond Böcklin’s Island: an arbitrary geometry seeking a meaning in Romance while Franz Schubert has the poignancy of death”. Shortly afterwards this title embarrassed me. I crossed it out and wrote, “The Descent of Geometry”.

Arnold_Böcklin v.3 1883

 Arnold Böcklin, Isle of the Dead, third version (of many), oil on wood, 150 x 80 cm, 1883.

I have noticed a particular trope that has turned up regularly in my work. I have frequently made illusory space on a celestial scale and then interrupted the picture plane and made it difficult to see coherently. I have done this by adding bits of metal, drilling holes, working on peg- board, adding painted shapes to pencil drawings, or by other means that force a difficulty into the act of coherent perception.

For example, a small piece of brass in a painted sky has to be unseen as an extraneous thing for the painting to become a picture of an odd flying object. The geometrical object in the Descent is made of brass strips arranged like cloisonné. It’s fun to un-see things, it’s a childish and playful thing to do like imaginatively turning your bedroom ceiling into an ocean with the ceiling fixture as a strange boat. I’ve done that.

That’s what we do with all pictures anyway, although we are mostly unaware of doing it. We studiously overlook the means of image delivery in magazines films and photographs to get straight to the picture. I hesitate to mention paintings as well, because as a painter, I never overlook the means, I look for the means. I have done this to the extent that, on occasion, I haven’t noticed the picture, and instead, merely seen the painting. It’s startling to suddenly notice the picture.

pegboard yellow frame

Steve Armstrong, A Small Redemption of the Machine Age, acrylic on pegboard, 40″ x 52″, 1993.

I think facts are poetic, and it’s facts, much more so than pictures, that are there to be seen in paintings – especially straightforward, non-conceptual paintings. A painting is like a new spoon triumphantly raising vegetables to the surface of your soup. It is a shroud of conviction, a moist daubing that brings relief, and a television carved from a single block of wood. When you get by the technical stuff (the professional looking that a painter engages in), the leftovers are metaphorical.

In The Descent, the brass insert is the emissary of science that emerges as our savior from Romantic darkness – this grandiose affair depicts the story of Modernism. Science and technology have pushed past all the protests of a Luddite Romanticism.

The Descent of Geometry offers mythological events to explain the origins of science envy in Modernism. There are scientific airs in various Modernist practices – Impressionism with its theories of perception (a defensive posture against photography), Surrealism with its thoughts on intentionality and coincidence versus cause, or Minimalism and Earthworks with their musings about ontology and an Industrial Sublime. The idea of an Avant-garde itself, holds the concept of progress.


Vladimir Tatlin, model for Monument to the Third International, 1919.

I’m left with the feeling that Modernism carried aspects of Romanticism with it into the Twentieth Century. Modernism has a streak of the Romantic “Sublime” through it, although it had become industrial and technological. The Eiffel Tower and its child, Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International, Malevich’s White Square, Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, and countless other things all attest to this fact. Baudelaire for instance, preferred harbours over natural coastlines. I understand this feeling. In spite of Böcklin, Turner’s steam engines haven’t been shaken off.


J. M. W. Turner, Rain, Steam, Speed, oil on Canvas, 90.8 x 121.9 cm., 1844. National Gallery, London

With The Descent of Geometry I wanted to make the picture plane a figure and have the world as its ground. I chose the “L” shape because it looks arbitrary and has as many sides as a cube. Hopefully this suggests that the painting is a thing as much as it is a picture.


Steve Armstrong, Zocor, oil on cardboard mounted on panel, 6.5″ x 7.5″, 2006.

This same preoccupation returned with the box paintings. With all my art I want to make the picture plane a figure, and that’s a statement so strong I hesitate to make it, but at the moment I can’t think of any exceptions. It explains why my pencil drawings never go to the edge of the paper and why I make painted sculpture (free standing picture planes in the round). I cannot justify any of this for one very important reason – we do not get to choose our desires.


Steve Armstrong, Rodchenko’s Column, acrylic on douglas fir, 12″ x 12″ x 63″, 1997.

I also see the desire to make the picture plane a figure in the work of Jackson Pollock and Frank Stella. I think that is why their lines do not make figures. I may be wrong about them, but that does not really matter because regardless of what they are up to, picture plane reification is what I want to do anyway. It is not necessary for me to know why. It is also not necessary for me to know whether I have any predecessors with this goal. Desire simply dips into my life like a rudder. Thus a painting is a Rosetta Stone that translates decisions.


The Rosetta Stone, granodiorite, 114.4 x 72.3 x 27.93 cm, Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, demotic script, and Greek script, 196 BCE.

The Descent of Geometry concerns our nasty habit of looking for simple answers to complicated questions. It is no excuse that we fail to notice how complicated the questions are. The Descent also concerns how we situate our desires in unattainable places, as Ludwig Feuerbach pointed out way before Freud and me (projection).

I suppose the Descent concerns how an art object might be indiscernible from an ordinary object. If one were to think otherwise, it is plainly obvious that Romanticism never really went away because for an art-thing to be different from an ordinary thing, it needs to have a mysterious component – something Sublime perhaps. Fortunately, the issue whether any particular thing is art or not, is of no interest whatsoever, especially to artists. Some things are interesting because of their intentional way of being the way they are, and that makes them artish things. Some things are interesting because of failed intentions, or qualities that are irrelevant to their intentional way of being the way they are. These sorts of things are not artish at all.

The Descent of Geometry is about how our use of the Sublime to flatter ourselves is ludicrous and shameful. Taking pleasure in such mysteries is unworthy and I suspect that mystery, being the genus that contains the species patriotism, is, besides the hiding place of scoundrels, the weapon of the baffled as well. Hegel, that Romantic old fellow, provides a fine example of using mystery to cloak vacuity. Oscar Wilde said something about the mystery being in the visible and a corollary of Wilde’s observation would be, “the invisible has greater clarity for us”. And in fact, invisibility has greater clarity than even glass. Invisible pictures reveal visible paintings.

I can only add that I don’t believe in ghosts but they scare me, and I conclude from this that when an idea is fundamental, it is not necessarily true, but it nonetheless stimulates my glands. A good argument has a cheap elegance about it, but beauty is found more easily in ideas that can’t be proven.

I have some advice: Never use things in the manner they were intended, and always use the wrong tool for the job unless, of course, your ambition is to thrill the shopkeepers of the world. In conclusion, consider an artist’s career: As a rule, critics and gallery operators are not terribly visual, most artists are too busy trying to figure out how their work is independent of yours (including me), and the public can be very vexing. At least people like big geometry in the sky, which explains the popularity of air shows and fire works.


When a machine is invented, metaphors follow. For instance, Jerónimo de Ayanz y Beaumont (1553 – 1613) invented a steam-powered water pump for draining mines. It was patented in 1606. One day it occurred to William Harvey that the heart is a pump, he published his findings in 1628. These dates from Wikipedia support what I’m saying – I’m going to trust Wikipedia on this one. I like machines and metaphors.

The image at the top is Jean Tinguely’s Homage to New York, 1960. It was a machine designed to destroy itself. Intentional futility is poignant, and if the futility suggests something about ourselves, I’d call it art.

What follows are some quotes from artists who emerged in the early 20th century:

Jean Cocteau, “The case of the gramophone convinces me that poetry is moving into an unknown world. The subordinate role of machines is going to end. We shall have to collaborate with them”.fn1

Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, “We are developing and proclaiming a great new idea that runs through modern life: the idea of mechanical beauty. We therefore exalt love for the machine, that love we notice flaming on the cheeks of mechanics scorched and smeared with coal. Have you never seen a mechanic lovingly at work on the great powerful body of his locomotive?”.fn2

Vladimir Evgrafovich Tatlin, “I am waiting for well-equipped artistic ‘depots’ where an artist’s psychic machine might be repaired as necessary”.fn3

Tristan Tzara, “Dialectics is an amusing machine that leads us (in banal fashion) to the opinions which we would have held in any case”.fn4

Paul Valery, “A poem is really a kind of machine for producing the poetic state of mind by means of words”.fn5

In the last couple of years, two other art machines have come to my attention. Both have Tinguely’s poignant futility.

The Belgian artist Wim Delvoye has made a number of machines that manufacture feces – put food in the top and wait. His Disney themed website is also worth a look.

Arthur Ganson made a machine that consists of interconnected gears driven by an electric motor at 200 rpm with each of its twelve stages reducing speed and increasing torque by a factor of 50. The final gear in the series is encased in concrete and will take two trillion years to make one rotation.

The futility of all these examples is pretty obvious and I see them as metaphors of our hopes and bodily realities.

But enough about machines. there’s also a beautiful futility in the following two works:

Agnes Denes
In 1982 Agnes Denes planted a field of wheat in the Battery Park landfill, New York.

spiral jetty 2
In 1970 Robert Smithson constructed Spiral Jetty on the shore of Great Salt Lake, near Rozel Point, Utah. It’s 1500 feet long and 15 feet wide.

Oh what strange and wondrous things there are.

fn1 Jean Cocteau, The Art of Cinema, André Bernard and Claude Gauteur eds., Robin Buss trans., New York: Marion Boyars, 1992, “A Wonderful and Dangerous Weapon in a Poet’s Hands”, p. 31.

fn2 Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Marinetti Selected Writings, R. W. Flint ed., R. W. Flint and A. A. Coppotelli trans., New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1972, “War, the World’s only Hygiene” (1911-1915), p. 90.

fn3 Vladimir Evgrafovich Tatlin, Tatlin, Larissa Alekseevna Zhadova ed., P. Filotas, M. Julian, E. Lockwood, D. Macknight, E Polgar, C. Wright trans., London: Thames and Hudson, 1988, “My answer to “Letter to the Futurists”” p. 185.

fn4 Tristan Tzara, Dada Almanach, Richard Huelsenbeck ed., M. Green, D. Wynand, T. Hale, B. Wright, A. Melville and S. Barnett trans., London: Atlas Press, 1993, “Dada Manifesto, 1918” p.127.

fn5 Paul Valery, The Art of Poetry, Denise Folliot trans., London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1958, “Poetry and Abstract Thought” p. 79

PHOTO CREDITS: Cloaca from ; Arthur Ganson’s machine from ; Wheat field photo, Agnes Denes ; The photo of Cocteau looks like a Man Ray kind of thing. I wish I knew who to credit for the others. It’s easier to find things on the internet than it is to find out who created them when. If anyone has advice on this subject, it would be greatly appreciated. I’m a stickler for footnotes.

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