In a historic passage Mallarmé describes the terror, the sense of sterility, that the poet experiences when he sits down to his desk, confronts the sheet of paper on which his poem is supposed to be composed, and no words come to him. But we might ask, why could not Mallarmé, after an interval of time, have simply got up from his chair and produced the blank sheet of paper as the poem that he sat down to write? Indeed, in support of this, could one imagine anything that was more expressive of, or would be held to exhibit more precisely the poet’s feelings of inner devastation than the virginal paper?
— Richard Wollheim, “Minimal Art,” in Minimal Art, ed. Gregory Battcock, 1968
There is at Columbia University’s Arden House Conference Center a statue of a cat in bronze. It stands on a floor at the head of a stairway that leads into a common room at a lower level. Presumably it is of some value, or believed to be … inasmuch as the managers have chained it to the railing — to forestall theft, I suppose, as if it were a television set in a squalid motel. Such might be the obvious interpretation. But I am open to the suggestion that it is not a chained sculpture of a cat but a sculpture of a chained cat, one end of which is wittily attached to a piece of reality. … Of course what we take to be a bit of reality can in fact be part of the work, which is now a sculpture of a cat-chained-to-an-iron-railing, though the moment we allow it to be a part of the work, where does or can the work end? It becomes a kind of metaphysical sandpit, swallowing the universe down into itself.
— Arthur Danto, The Transfiguration of the Commonplace, 1981
Twenty years ago, 11,000 people planted 11,000 trees on an artificial mountain near Ylöjärvi, Finland. The trees were planted in a mathematical pattern based on the golden section; in time they will grow into a virgin forest each tree of which has a designated custodian. The trees can change ownership, but they can never be removed from the forest, and the mountain itself can never be owned or sold.
Artist Agnes Denes conceived the project in 1982, and the Finnish government undertook it 10 years later. The site is legally protected for the next 400 years.
By turning the traditional rules of perspective inside out, the paintings of British artist Patrick Hughes induce a compelling illusion in three dimensions.
“Reverspectives are three-dimensional paintings that when viewed from the front initially give the impression of viewing a painted flat surface that shows a perspective view,” he writes. “However as soon as the viewer moves their head even slightly the three dimensional surface that supports the perspective view accentuates the depth of the image and accelerates the shifting perspective far more than the brain normally allows.
“This provides a powerful and often disorienting impression of depth and movement. The illusion is made possible by painting the view in reverse to the relief of the surface, that is, the bits that stick farthest out from the painting are painted with the most distant part of the scene.”
Since 1966, Japanese artist On Kawara has been producing paintings that depict only the date of their creation, executed in liquitex on canvas in eight standard sizes. If he can’t complete a painting on the day he starts it, he destroys it. Each entry in the series is painted carefully by hand in the language of the country in which he produces it; to date he’s completed more than 2,000 paintings in 112 countries, and he says he’ll continue until he dies.
Is this valuable? Yes: In 2006 Christie’s sold Nov. 8, 1989 for £310,000.
In 1525, more than 100,000 German peasants demanded an end to serfdom and were massacred by the well-organized armies of the ruling class. After observing the ornate memorials with which the aristocrats congratulated themselves, Albrecht Dürer proposed a similarly baroque monument to the slain peasants:
Place a quadrangular stone block measuring ten feet in width and four feet in height on a quadrangular stone slab which measures twenty feet in length and one foot in height. On the four corners of the ledge place tied-up cows, sheep, pigs, etc. But on the four corners of the stone block place four baskets, filled with butter, eggs, onions, and herbs, or whatever you like. In the centre of this stone block place a second one, measuring seven feet in length and one foot in height. On top of this second block place a strong chest four feet high, measuring six and a half feet wide at the bottom and four feet wide at the top. Then place a kettle upside down on top of the chest. The kettle’s diameter should be four and a half feet at the rim and three feet at its bottom. Surmount the kettle with a cheese bowl which is half a foot high and two and a half feet in diameter at the bottom. Cover this bowl with a thick plate that protrudes beyond its rim. On the plate, place a keg of butter which is three feet high and two and a half feet in diameter at the bottom. Cover this bowl with a thick plate that protrudes beyond its rim. On the plate, place a keg of butter which is three feet high and has a diameter of a foot and a half at the bottom, and of only a foot at the top. Its spout should protrude beyond this. On the top of the butter keg, place a well-formed milk jug, two and a half feet high, and with a diameter which is one foot at its bulge, half a foot at its top, and is wider at its bottom. Into this jug put four rods branching into forks on top and extending five and a half feet in height, so that the rods will protrude by half a foot, and then hang peasants’ tool on it – like hoes, pitchforks, flails, etc. The rods are to be surmounted by a chicken basket, topped by a lard tub upon which sits an afflicted peasant with a sword stuck into his back.
What would that look like?
In 1953 Robert Rauschenberg obtained a drawing from Willem de Kooning, erased it, and presented the blank paper in a gilded frame titled Erased de Kooning Drawing, Robert Rauschenberg, 1953.
“I wanted to create a work of art by [erasing],” he said. “Using my own work wasn’t satisfactory. … I realized that it had to be something by someone who everybody agreed was great, and the most logical person for that was de Kooning.”
Rauschenberg said de Kooning was annoyed at first by the request, but “would not have wanted to hinder me in my work, if that’s what I wanted to do.” But he chose a particularly dark drawing in charcoal, ink, pencil, and crayon, saying, “We might as well make it harder for you.”
Completed in 1997, German artist Jo Niemeyer’s 20 Steps Around the Globe installed 20 high-grade steel columns on a great circle around the earth, establishing the distances between them using the golden ratio φ, 1.61803398875.
The first poles, shown here, were erected in Finnish Lapland, north of the polar circle. The first two were placed 0.458 meters apart; the third was placed 0.458 × φ = 0.741 meters beyond the second; and so on, marching off in a beeline toward the horizon. The first 12 poles are in Finland; the 13th and 14th in Norway; the 15th, 16th, and 17th in Russia; the 18th in China; and the 19th in Australia. The 20th coincides with the first back in Finland.
In this way the project models the golden section and the Fibonacci sequence, tailoring them to our planet. Niemeyer calls it “an interdisciplinary expedition into the secrets of the power of limits.”
Neil Dawson’s Horizons invites a double-take — what appears to be a discarded piece of paper is actually a sculpture of welded steel 10 meters high.
Commissioned in 1994, it occupies the highest hilltop in businessman Alan Gibbs’ private art park in New Zealand.
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute art professor Larry Kagan “hides” two-dimensional images in seemingly chaotic three-dimensional sculptures. The images are revealed when light is applied from the right angle.
“The shadows are a condensation of something that exists in more dimensions,” he says. “Behind them, there can be an awful lot going on.”
A few more playful sculptures from Japanese artist Shigeo Fukuda:
Jean Tinguely presented Homage to New York in the sculpture garden at the Museum of Modern Art in 1960. New York governor Nelson Rockefeller and three television crews watched as the machine played a piano, produced an abstract painting, and inflated a weather balloon, then set itself afire. Tinguely summoned a firefighter to extinguish the blaze and then finished the destruction with an ax.
He followed this up with Study for the End of the World No. 2, a sculpture assembled from odds and ends collected from Las Vegas scrapyards and blown up in the Nevada desert to invoke the testing of atomic bombs:
As a comment on the ephemeral nature of text, in 1992 William Gibson wrote a 300-line poem titled Agrippa (a book of the dead) and published it on a 3.5″ floppy disk in a book of art by abstract painter Dennis Ashbaugh. The disk was programmed to encrypt itself after a single use, and the book’s pages were chemically treated to fade on exposure to light. Ironically, the text was pirated at its first performance and is now extensively archived at the UCSB English department.
In 1975, artist Richard Haas renewed the building at 112 Prince Street in Manhattan by covering its blank brick side with a five-story mural emulating the cast-iron architecture of its facade. Only two of the windows are real.
In 1961 Italian artist Piero Manzoni offered art buyers 90 tins of his own excrement, signed and numbered, each sold by weight at gold’s daily market price.
That would have been a good investment. A tin that would have cost $37 in 1961 was auctioned by Sotheby’s for $67,000 in 1991 — outperforming gold more than seventyfold.
Architect Robert Venturi got a tricky assignment in 1976: The National Park Service wanted to commemorate Ben Franklin’s residence in Philadelphia, but Franklin’s house had been demolished in 1812 and no record of its appearance had survived.
“There were fire insurance descriptions and archaeological remains of the house, so you could tell the exact configuration of the walls, and there were letters about the house exchanged between Franklin and his wife while he was in London and the house was in construction,” Venturi said. “But, with so little visual information, the Park Service was pretty easily persuaded not to try to reproduce the house.”
He solved the problem with a “ghost house” outlining the dimensions of the original house with a steel armature. “The aim was to create a delightful open place in the center of the dense texture of the city,” he said. “So the courtyard became a pleasant neighborhood amenity for people who live there, as well as for tourists.”
In 1965, sculptor Claes Oldenburg proposed building a colossal Good Humor bar on Park Avenue in Manhattan. All the traffic would have to be routed through a bite in the bar’s corner.
He also proposed replacing the Statue of Liberty with a giant electric fan and the Washington Monument with a pair of scissors.
The fan, he said, would guarantee workers in lower Manhattan a “steady breeze.” “You can also think of the Fan as a sort of substitute image of America. The suggestion is probably there but I haven’t drawn a conclusion.”
In 1766, French draughtsman Charles-Louis Clérisseau painted a room in the Trinità dei Monti convent in Rome to resemble a ruin, complete with a fallen ceiling and broken walls. A table was disguised as a damaged cornice, a desk as a shattered sarcophagus, and the kennel of the monks’ dog became a toppled urn.
“Building ruins in Rome might seem a waste of effort,” writes Robert Harbison in The Built, the Unbuilt, and the Unbuildable, “but the point was that one could comfortably inhabit this one, getting all the beauty of disorder without the inconvenience.”
For a 1793 treatise on the principles of Gothic architecture, Scottish architect Sir James Hall built an example using natural materials:
The wicker structure, as shewn in the frontispiece, was formed according to the plan of the cloister of Westminster Abbey, by a set of posts of ash about three inches in diameter thrust into the ground, with a set of willow rods of about an inch in diameter applied to them, the whole being conducted as already fully described. The construction answers perfectly well in practice, and affords a firm support for the thatch.
“The summit of the roof within is about eight feet high,” he added, “so that a person can walk under it with ease.”
A cowshed shaped like a cow, by the enigmatic French architect Jean-Jacques Lequeu, 1795. He labeled it simply “The Cow Byre faces south on the cool meadow.”
Elsewhere he proposed a henhouse shaped like an egg. Perhaps he was simply literal-minded.
In the 1970s, Best Products enlisted architect James Wines to design a series of wildly unorthodox facades for its retail stores. The chain’s owners, Frances and Sydney Lewis, were avid patrons of modern art, and they gave Wines free rein in designing nine storefronts.
Wines’ bizarre buildings drew twice as much traffic as Best’s conventional stores — Tom Wolfe called them “the only touch of intentional humor and joie de vivre in the entire history of modern architecture” — but the chain lost out to changing retail trends and closed its doors in 1996.
In 1980, artist Tom Van Sant arranged 90 mirrors in the Mojave Desert at angles precisely calculated to overexpose the sensors on NASA’s Landsat II satellite 600 miles overhead and produce the image of a human eye 2.5 kilometers wide.
Two years later Van Sant commissioned the National Research and Resource Facility for Sub-Micron Structures at Cornell to etch the image of an eye a quarter-micron wide into a salt crystal:
The first image was 100,000 times larger than a human eye, the second 100,000 times smaller, two renderings of the same image that differ in scale by a factor of 10 billion.
“So the same artist who made the smallest drawing ever has also made the largest,” Richard Feynman told an audience. “Let’s go up another scale, the same amount again, another hundred thousand, and then try to draw an eye: Where would we have to draw it? Well, it turns out that it’s there — it’s a beautiful eye in the heavens, namely Saturn with her rings!”
More information at Van Sant’s website.
In 2005 Toronto artist Brian Joseph Davis assembled more than 5,000 film taglines into one long narrative.
This version, read by voice-over artist Scott Taylor, is only an excerpt — the whole thing runs to 22 pages (PDF).
On learning that weather erodes granite one inch every 100,000 years, sculptor Gutzon Borglum added an extra three inches to each president’s features on Mount Rushmore.
“Three inches would require 300,000 years to bring the work down to the point that I would like to finish it,” he said. “In other words, the work will not be done for another 300,000 years, as it should be.”
Argentine artist Leandro Erlich calls himself an “architect of the uncertain,” drawing equally from his countryman Jorge Luis Borges and from filmmakers such as Luis Buñuel and David Lynch, who he says “have used the everyday as a stage for creating a fictional world obtained through the psychological subversion of everyday spaces.”
The apparently gravity-defying Victorian property above is actually a large mirror suspended at a 45° angle over a facade set into the ground, which visitors are free to climb on. It’s appearing this month on a street in Dalston, East London.
The same participatory spirit informs Erlich’s installation Swimming Pool, below, which appeared at New York’s P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center in 2008. The lower room is covered with a sheet of acrylic and a thin veil of water.
“Games and play are something that children do in order to learn the world,” Erlich says. “I do think [playing] is a positive way to trigger the process of thinking.”
In 1877 James McNeill Whistler sued John Ruskin for panning his painting Nocturne in Black and Gold. “I have seen, and heard, much of Cockney impudence before now,” Ruskin had written, “but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.” The trial saw this exchange between Whistler and Ruskin’s attorney, Sir John Holker:
Holker: Did it take you much time to paint the Nocturne in Black and Gold? How soon did you knock it off?
Whistler: Oh, I “knock one off” possibly in a couple of days — one day to do the work and another to finish it.
Holker: The labour of two days is that for which you ask two hundred guineas?
Whistler: No, I ask it for the knowledge I have gained in the work of a lifetime.
Similar: When Henry Ford’s engineers were unable to solve a problem with a huge new generator, he called Charles Steinmetz. Steinmetz listened to the generator for two days, made some calculations, mounted a ladder, and drew a chalk mark on its side. If the engineers would remove 16 windings from the field coil at that location, he said, the generator would work perfectly. He was right.
Afterward, Ford received a bill for $10,000. When he respectfully asked for an itemization, Steinmetz sent this:
Making chalk mark on generator: $1
Knowing where to make mark: $9,999
Total due: $10,000