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Victor Burgin b.1941
P07230 Room 1970
Inscribed ‘Victor Burgin’ in centre of title page.
18 printed sheets (plus unexhibited title page) each 11¾ x 8¼ (30x 21).
Purchased from the artist (Grant-in-Aid) 1973.
Exh: Idea Structures, Camden Art Centre, June–July 1970; The New Art, Hayward Gallery, August–September 1972 (Victor Burgin, 2).
Lit: Victor Burgin (interview with Anne Seymour), in catalogue of The New Art, 1972, pp. 74–6.
The artist told the compiler that ‘Room’ is a unique piece. A shorter version was produced in 1971–2 in an edition of fifty but this contains only the basic headings on a single sheet.
‘Room’ was made for, and first exhibited in the Idea Structures exhibition at the Camden Art Centre. It was Burgin’s second purely verbal piece. The first, ‘This position’, 1969, was also originally exhibited in a similar way— each of its eleven sections being typed on a strip of paper which was pasted to the wall and read consecutively along the wall. The artist has said that at the time he ‘was still concerned with the idea of something that met the demands of its situation’, a preoccupation expressed in his first article in Studio International, ‘Situational Aesthetics’, October 1969. At Camden the sheets were pasted about nine feet apart focusing the spectator’s attention not only on the room, but in a way which distributed it equally around the room—contrary to the traditional concept of a painting as a rectangular object in one place on the wall.
The artist has said that he wanted to make the relationship of the spectator to the room as direct as possible. He told the compiler that the ideal solution might have been to print the instructions, whereby the spectator handles the room perceptually, directly onto the wall. As it was he used off-white paper close to the wall colour and a standard typeface which is ipso facto inconspicuous; ‘it’s something which slips into your consciousness without too much noise attached to it.’ Another aspect of simply pasting paper and printed instructions onto the wall of the room was the need the artist felt ‘to avoid the unique art work status which most works had at that time.’ His intention was to show that both so-called art objects and other objects may equally serve as objects of Formalist appreciation.
The piece can of course be used in any room. Within this specification the artist intended that it should be appropriate ‘to all observer situations’. However by virtue of its specific location it could not be reproduced in the catalogue of the exhibition since this could be read in other circumstances. The piece which was reproduced there, ‘All criteria’, 1970, came directly out of the artist’s recognition of this problem.
The visual economy of ‘Room’ is echoed by the verbal economy of the piece. The artist has said (catalogue of The New Art, 1972) ‘I value economy of expression and I avoid twelve page solutions when I can get away with half a page’. He told the compiler that works such as this took a long time to construct because of the necessity of ‘ironing out ambiguities’. His choice of language is similarly spare. He said to the compiler ‘I was trying to be very literal, to be very précis... very metaphor free, as far as that’s possible... I wanted a very straight objective form of language, which is typical of philosophy, in particular of British Empiricist philosophy’, though he emphasised that his approach was quite distinct from this and that he ‘was not setting out to write philosophy’.
Asked whether finding a suitable language had been a problem, he stated in The New Art (loc. cit.), ‘It’s difficult to come up with a language form which doesn’t remind you irrelevantly of a dozen others. Practically speaking the first problem was to build a vocabulary in which referents would be available in all likely observer situations. The next problem was to put this vocabulary into a form that wouldn’t point back to particular times and places, but would remain perpetually actual.’
In conversation with the compiler Burgin compared the way he constructed the work to the way he used to approach life drawing ‘I’d start by getting one bit right… and then I’d try to get the relationships between that bit and the other bits… and gradually work out the whole. And then having got the whole I’d work at that again.’ With regard to the order in which the sentences are placed he found that ‘there seemed intuitively to be some sort of hierarchy inherent in the experience. I would begin with this. In writing however, I would find that by moving an element, initially placed early in the list, to a later position, I could subsume other earlier elements under it. This would give me a complex unit which I could then treat, still later in the piece, as a single element. It was a sort of gathering up process vis-à-vis the intuited experience, one of the objects of which was to use as little language as possible.’ During its construction he said that the work ‘was arranged and re-arranged so that the form of the piece became important and certain decisions were made solely in the interests of the piece’.
Asked about the evolution of his work towards purely verbal pieces Burgin explained (The New Art, loc. cit.) ‘I’ve always had what you might call corrupted phenomenological leanings which started with an early interest in Analytical Cubism and were reaffirmed by the Minimal sculpture programme, or rather my own interpretation of that programme... a lot of post-Minimal work got into how far you could go beyond the unwritten sculptural conventions... so we got Hundred Mile sculpture, Gas State sculptures, things like that... This seemed to me however elaborated to be simple nomination a la Duchamp. You could say I was headed in the opposite direction—I was really interested in what I was doing from moment to moment, when I had cognition of any object solid, gaseous or whatever. So I wasn’t concerned with objects as much as with events in the life of the observer.’
The questions raised by the Minimal sculpture programme, and its inherent contradictions, affected Burgin directly especially as he was a student at Yale when Morris, Judd, Reinhardt were visiting teachers. Robert Morris’s statement that he wanted his sculpture to be simply one of the ‘terms’ in a room and no more important than any other of the ‘terms’ was particularly influential. It raised the question in Burgin’s mind ‘why have the special art object if it is no more important—could the observer not deal more directly with things that already exist ?’ The second important area of consideration was raised by Judd’s contention that the discovery of a form which was neither geometric nor organic would be a very great discovery. The solution to this appeared to be to deal with psychological forms and temporal rather than spatial extension.
Burgin told the compiler that he found himself in the position of having to find out how to ‘persuade someone to perform the same act of attention without providing the situational cue which a piece of sculpture provides... some sort of situational cue which wouldn’t carry with it the same art-historical references’.
The work which occupied Burgin after he returned to England at the end of 1967 and until the end of 1968, and led directly to the entirely written pieces, took the form of instructions on file cards stored in a file box. These were basically concerned ‘to underline the contingency of the physical object and the primacy of the observer’s act of observation.’ The file box represented a rough classification of perceptual act types and situations. (One of the few works made from these instructions was ‘Photopath’).
The artist told the compiler that until ‘Bracketed Performative’, 1971, he was concerned with trying ‘to circumscribe the sort of attitude that I adopted previously in making sculpture and in looking at sculpture which, from my conversations with other artists and from reading art journals and criticism seemed... to be a shared attitude within the art community... I was trying to circumscribe this mental set, lay it down in language so that it could be transmitted directly and not through several years of apprenticeship in an art school.’ Subsequently Burgin moved on to consider things which were only implied before; pre-eminently values, and codes.
This catalogue entry has been approved and edited by the artist.
Published in The Tate Gallery Report 1972–1974, London 1975.