Where we begin opening the system, c.1970: Cubes and rooms

Building upon the innovations of post-war abstraction, the exhibition begins with a room of cubes suggesting that it offered many artists of the period a convenient armature, an ordered geometric structure and controlled space as a device through which to test out and posit new ideas. The fact that at this moment so many artists turned to the cube, but decided to complicate it, seems emblematic of a period in great transition. The cube stands as a simple system, a way of ordering space; within the modernist paradigm it has also come to represent a utopian ideal. Clinging to these identifiable structures, artists introduced something else into the system; the disorder and contradictions of the world. 

The use of the cube here underscores a shared structural relationship - a desire to go beyond pure abstraction, an investigation of materials and processes and a physical opening up of the object to the surrounding world, while at the same offering the opportunity to differentiate the ways these common threads are inflected by a variety of cultural frameworks, perspectives and systems. 

During the early part of the twentieth century, many of the artists associated with Constructivism - Theo van Doesburg (1883-1931), Kazimir Malevich (1878-1935), and Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) - had turned to the use of objective systems such as mathematics and physics as ways of achieving compositional harmony and order in their work, enabling a utopian agenda that brought reason (and in the case of some artists, emotion) to a disordered and unjust world. 

These ideas continued to find currency in the work of artists working in Central and Western Europe and South America. For instance, in Rio de Janeiro at the end of the 1950s, artists participated in the short-lived movement called Neo-Concretism, which adopted some formalistic aspects of Russian Constructivism, but held as one of its central ideas a return to the body, the senses and subjectivity. Unlike their contemporaries working in São Paulo, who had adopted the more rational and technical aspects of Constructivism, artists working in Rio sought to express an organic notion of the artwork - to establish a dialogue between art and public by incorporating the space-time of lived experience. 

In the United States, Minimalism’s interest in the literal in art - the idea that all meaning rests within the work itself - also owed a debt to the art concret of van Doesburg. In their writings, both Donald Judd (1928-94) and Robert Morris (b. 1931) referenced the Constructivists, especially Vladimir Tatlin (1885-c.1953), as well as the work of figures such as Naum Gabo (1890-1977). And in Eastern Europe, a group of artists and architects working in Yugoslavia known as EXAT 51, advocated the principles of geometric abstraction and in particular, Constructivism, as an alternative to official Social Realism.1

Eva Hesse’s (1936-70) 1967 Accession, for example, is precise, yet idiosyncratic. Comprised of a galvanised steel frame, its five sides are held together by plastic tubing that has been systematically laced through it, in a way similar to a hooked rug.2 ‘That huge box I did in 1967, I called it Accession,’ the artist has said, ‘I did it first in metal, then in fiberglass. Outside it takes the form of a square, a perfect square and the outside is very clear. The inside, however, looks amazingly chaotic, although it is the same piece of hose going through.’3 Working at the time of Minimalism, Hesse had also used grids and serialised structures in the production of her objects. However, unlike Donald Judd’s industrially fabricated objects, Hesse was intent on retaining the expressive look of the handmade in her sculpture, investing it with a sense of the corporeal. 

As curator Ann Rorimer has observed regarding her method and intent, ‘Hesse relayed in an interview that she was “interested in finding out through working on a piece some of the potential and not the preconceived,” and that if there were nameable content in her work, it’s the total absurdity of life … absurdity is the key word. It has to do with contradictions and oppositions.’4 Hesse’s systemised structure can still be read organically, as something fixed yet open, just as the cube itself is left open. 

As in Hesse’s work, this opening up of sculpture to the world around it, and to the body within and without, is a fundamental aspect in the work of Hélio Oiticica (1937-80). However, un5like static sculpture, Box Bolide 9 1964, a painted wooden box containing openings and drawers filled with pure pigments, is intended to be opened and explored, thus challenging the traditional boundary between gallery goer and work of art. Oiticica saw artwork as a ‘series of proposals, open and incomplete processes, situations to be lived, inserted into social space’, and his interactive approach made viewer participation a central focus of his work.6es: Museum of Contemporary Art 2000, p.181. His works transformed the museum or gallery experience into a ‘mythical place for feelings, for acting, for making things and constructing one’s own interior cosmos’. His Neo-Concrete works of the 1950s - intensely coloured painted wooden constructions suspended away from the wall which viewers walked within and around, built upon ideas inherited from the Modernist avant-garde, and in particular, Russian Constructivism.7 However, Oititica also sought to break with traditional categories of painting and sculpture by inventing his own classifications, including the boxes he called Bolides, which translates from the Portuguese as ‘fire-ball’, or meteor’, each of which he carefully catalogued and numbered in his notebooks. 

Into these highly formal constructions, Oiticica came increasingly to reference the cultural, social, and political landscape of Brazil, and particularly of Rio de Janeiro. He used raw materials such as seashells, crushed shells and mud, and drew inspiration from the activities and structures he found in its poorest, yet most vibrant districts, the favelas. As art historian Guy Brett (b. 1942) writes, the ‘two sides coexisted in Hélio - delirious abandon and meticulous order, intellect and trance’.

For Robert Smithson (1938-1973), physical structures - for example, geometry and later crystalline structures - were, as he writes, wielded as a way to ‘to conceive of ways of dealing with nature without falling into the old trap of the biological metaphor’.8 In Mirror Vortex 1966 Smithson captures the viewer reflected in the world, and as the work’s title suggests, spins that image in a seemingly infinite number of directions. Similar to a work produced one year earlier, Four-Sided Vortex 1967, Smithson created it by inserting mirrors in the shape of inverted pyramids into an industrially-fabricated steel case. The shapes are based upon crystals, geological formations whose structures are produced through the loss of energy. 

In his earlier works, Smithson’s references included science fiction, religious iconography and biology; by 1966, these had been eclipsed by an interest in physics. His objects were primarily used in the service of his larger interest in the concept of entropy as articulated by the Second Law of Thermodynamics. His writings of the period, published regularly in Artforum and other magazines of the day, were at least as important as the object was to his efforts to look beyond the purely organic split between a place and how it was represented in the gallery. In ‘Entropy and the New Monuments’ (1966), for example, he observed that the work of some of his fellow artists (e.g. Judd, Morris, Sol LeWitt [b. 1928], Dan Flavin [1933-96], Larry Bell [b. 1939]) ‘provided a visible analogue for the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which extrapolates the range of entropy by telling us energy is more easily lost than obtained, and that in the ultimate future the whole universe will burn out and be transformed into an allencompassing sameness’.9

At first glance, Hans Haacke’s Condensation Cube 1963-5 may seem deceptively simple. First shown at the Howard Wise Gallery in New York, it is a sealed Perspex box, 30 x 30 x 30 centimetres, containing a small amount of water. As light enters, the cube warms and the water within condenses on its interior walls, collecting at the bottom to perpetuate the process. Initially, Haacke was involved with an analysis of physical and biological systems, including living plants and animals, and the physical states of water and wind. 

Condensation Cube is just one of a series of works the artist produced in the early 1960s combining technological with organic processes to make visible the physical forces of nature. Haacke’s cube bears only a passing resemblance to the reductive Minimalist structures of the 1960s, but also reflects his involvement with the Zero group, established in Dusseldorf by Otto Piene (b. 1928) and Heinz Mack (b. 1931), and later Gunther Uecker (b. 1930). The group was interested, as Haacke has said, ‘in light and phenomena and reflection, and motion, and also works that were taking place with a public outside of the gallery space’.10 

Although a sealed structure, Condensation Cube is entirely dependent upon its ambient surroundings: light and temperature directly influence the process of condensation happening within, placing viewer and work in real time and space. As artist and critic Jack Burnham wrote: ‘Traditionally, artworks exist in “mythical time”, that is in an ideal historical timeframe separated from the day-to-day events of the real world. Some systems and conceptual artists, such as Haacke, attempt to integrate their works in the actual events of the “real world”, that is the world of politics, money-making, ecology, industry, and other pursuits.’11 The phenomenologically-based practices of Minimalism, which required the viewer to navigate the spaces around and within works, also placed the viewer in real time and space. They became implicated in an interconnected system of objects in space, engaged in perceptual changes as they moved around the objects. The objects themselves, however, remained materially stable, whereas Haacke now added instability, allowing him to ‘make something which experiences, reacts to its environment, changes, is nonstable’.12

Sol LeWitt’s Muybridge I 1964 offers one of the most elaborated retorts against the limitations of geometric structure in and of itself. A fundamental figure in the development of Conceptual art, LeWitt had initially been attracted to Minimalism, but ‘increasingly felt that the constant simplification of geometrical form was a reductive trap’.13 In order to move away from the ‘dead-end’ of Minimalism, LeWitt became interested in producing works in which there was movement from one part to another, where a sequence had to be followed that required the viewer to move his or her body in response to the work, as is seen in Muybridge I. A rectilinear wooden box containing photographs made by his colleague, Barbara Brown, of a nude female figure, it was inspired by the nineteenth century photographer Eadweard Muybridge’s motion studies. 

For LeWitt, Muybridge’s careful studies of movement and its attempt to break down and systematise something as common as a body walking, became a way to complicate the reductive closure of a structure like the cube. In LeWitt’s work the photographs are arranged based upon their sequence in time and space, as the body moves before the camera. In so doing, he began to analyse an operation that accounts for the resulting image or structure. 

As LeWitt later came to observe in his ‘Paragraphs on Conceptual art’, ‘When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.’14 However, although one might experience a sense of clinical detachment in this orderly arrangement, its erotic charge as the nude woman advances closer and closer into the viewer’s field of vision, is undeniable. 

Arguing that the artists of the period move from the opening up of a paradigmatic object into the creation of spaces that engage the viewer in a controlled manner, the next section of the exhibition begins with Mel Bochner, for whom the cube becomes the room, the space of the gallery itself. In Bochner’s Measurement: Room, first realised in 1969 at the Heiner Friedrich Gallery in Munich, the artist applied 1/2 inch black tape and Letraset to the walls of the gallery, mapping out and indicating their height and length. Before beginning this work, Bochner had been experimenting with photography, using his own bodily parts for works such as Actual Size (Face) 1968 and Actual Size (Hand) 1968 as a way of testing the medium’s capacity to mediate meaning. 

Measurement: Room enabled Bochner to completely encompass a space, and through the mediating system of measurement create distance between the viewer and what they were seeing. That he accomplishes this through a system of standardisation is what enables the room to function on multiple levels. The measurements not only serve to make the viewer aware of his or her surroundings, but to make them self-consciously aware, that they are now the subject. Perhaps it is something about the lines we encounter, something that evokes in us a feeling that we, much like the room we are in, are also being called into question, that we are literally being-sized up. Bochner accounts for this sense of doubt. He has said: ‘Measurement is one of our means of believing that the world can be reduced to a function of human understanding. Yet, when forced to surrender its transparency, measurement reveals an essential nothingness. The yardstick does not say that the thing we are measuring is one yard long. Something must be added to the yardstick in order to assert anything about the length of the object. This something is a purely mental act …”an assumption”.’ Measurement: Room throws everything into doubt and is paradigmatic of the move from object to system. 

Moving on to consider some of the other ways in which artists fused aesthetic and real world systems, one aim here is to explore some of the complex intersections between these artists’ individual efforts by studying structures and systems in the day-to-day world, representations of the physical body and psychological constructions of the self. 15

One approach that seems to recur in the work of artists as varied as Joan Jonas (b.1936), Richard Long (b.1945), Lygia Clark, Bruce Nauman (b.1941), Adrian Piper (b.1948), Charles Ray (b.1953) and Bas Jan Ader (1942-75) is a tendency to appropriate the body as a kind of Duchampian readymade in order to provoke calculated responses in the viewer. Each of these artists stakes out a subjective boundary between self and world. 

Charles Ray literally folds his body into his art object to intimate the implied presence of the body in sculpture, and documents this in his photograph, Plank Piece 1973. In a Line Made by Walking 1967 Richard Long traverses a straight line between two places, transplanting his studio practice to the world. The act of walking is as important to Long as the photographs which document his carefully planned forays into the English countryside. 

Adrian Piper also devised an art form in which she plotted her movements, but on urban streets. Aside from documenting these movements in written texts, photographs, and graphs, Piper treated herself as an art object in such a way that she might provoke in viewers a heightened consciousness to her racial identity. In a different way from Piper, but also with an interest in provoking, Valie Export isolates and frames charged body parts or strikes exaggerated poses, with a similar desire to incite a response in the viewer and make them conscious of what they are seeing. 

In Vertical Roll 1972 Joan Jonas takes the then new medium of video and in the process of recording the structured movements of the body in real time, also calls attention to the movements of the medium itself. Finally, Bruce Nauman simultaneously entices and frustrates the attention of the viewer in Going Around the Corner 1970 by causing them to follow themselves around a corner while a video camera records their actions, the viewer becoming unwitting witness to his or her actions. 

John Baldessari (b. 1931), Marcel Broodthaers, Hans Haacke, Sanja Ivekovic (b. 1949), Gerhard Richter (b. 1932), Braco Dimitrijevic (b. 1948), Gordon Matta-Clark (1943-78) and the Anarchitecture Group, Cildo Meireles (b. 1948), Martha Rosler (b. 1943), and Andy Warhol (1928-87) appropriate whole systems rather their own isolated bodies, investigating such institutions as the art museum, artistic authorship, real estate, and architecture. 

In his series Commissioned Paintings Baldessari commissions a series of paintings exhibited under his name but which in fact are works made by amateur artists and sign painters. As exhibited, the paintings call into question the notion of artistic authorship.

For his 48 Portraits 1972, Gerhard Richter appropriates images from an encyclopedia of famous scientists, artists and writers. By basing his paintings on these photographs, Richter unravels the credibility of at least two systems assumed to stand for ‘truth’ - the encyclopedia and photography. For his silkscreen portraits of Mao Tse Tung, Andy Warhol subjects the ubiquitous image of the Chinese leader to market production, making the work available in a seemingly limitless array of sizes and colours. Braco Dimitrijevic stops individuals he meets on the street and photographs those willing to participate. He then inserts photographs of these individuals into the urban context, as in The Casual Passer-by I met at 11:38 am, London, October 1972, inevitably raising questions about the criteria by which fame and historical importance are determined. 

Cildo Meireles practises another kind of insertion by distributing his own banknotes and bottles of Coca-Cola, which he has altered, as part of his Insertions Into Ideological Circuits. Martha Rosler focuses on the domain of the housewife in her video, Semiotics of the Kitchen 1975. Spelling out an A-Z list of chores by slashing the air with knife and fork, Rosler weaves together two systems - that of food production and language - to critique female stereotypes. In Double Life 1959-75, Sanja Ivekovi’c explores another kind of stereotype by selecting gender-specific images from mass media and juxtaposing these with highly personal photographs containing parallel poses. 

Hans Haacke uses records of real-estate transactions as the structure for his work, Shapolsky, et.al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, A Real Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971 1971, its highly detailed documents unmasking the inner machinations and inequalities of property. And, drawing attention to everyday life and the forgotten gaps and spaces of the urban environment, Gordon Matta-Clark and the Anarchitecture Group make us rethink what constitutes architecture. 

Instead of appropriating a system of the world in order to subvert or critique, Dimitrije Basicevic Mangelos (1921-87), Robert Filliou (1926-87), Ilya Kabakov (b. 1933) and Alighiero e Boetti (1940-94), create highly poetic ones that selectively mimic the real world systems they find inadequate. 

Alighiero e Boetti invented an imaginary postal system featuring letters never mailed. A museum curator whose work remained private for many years, Mangelos transformed the surfaces of books and globes, replacing their original content with handwriting and painting to create a poetic, yet systemised cautionary statement on the dangers of rationalism in post-war Europe. Made while living in the Soviet Union, Ilya Kabakov’s Sitting-in-the-Closet-Primakov 1972-5 (no.49), tells the story of a fictional character, Primakov, as he slowly ventures out of the blackness of his closet into a world that seems even more absolute than the one he leaves behind. Playfully misaligned, Robert Filliou’s construction, I Hate Work Which is Not Play 1970, upsets traditional notions of workmanship. A former economist and participant in Fluxus, Fillou proposes new theories of value based upon principles of imagination and innocence. 

Hélio Oiticica (1937-1980) and Dan Graham (b.1952) seduce us into spaces which reflect very different ideas about the representation of self. In an unexpected twist, Graham’s Public Spaces, Two Audiences 1976 (no.61), puts viewers on display as they enter a bare room in which one wall is covered by a mirror. Without resorting to traditional portraiture, Graham’s room creates a mirror image - of a self repressed by space. In his Homes for America 1966-8, Graham employs the language of Minimalism to critique the banality of suburban tract housing. 

By contrast, Hélio Oiticica finds his inspiration in the vibrancy, chaos, and customs of everyday life in Brazil. As viewers move through the labyrinthine structure of Oiticica’s Projeto-Para Vergara NY 1972, they are immersed in a sensory overload of colour and sound. At the end of the journey, visitors can actually inbibe colour by consuming the glass of orange juice they are offered. In Oiticica’s world, everyone is free to construct their own ‘interior cosmos,’ a cathartic experience that gets to the interior world of the self. 

In trying to present a period as earnest, probing, and unresolved as the early 1970s, there is always the danger that one can promote only one reading of it. However, the intent here is just the opposite, for by identifying some common ground, it becomes possible to read the individual efforts of these artists as ‘open systems’ - or propositions that open themselves to the vulnerability of the world and its events. The artists featured here succeeded in extending the literal, material object of Minimalism, Neo-Concretism, and other approaches and the purely abstract generative idea of Conceptualism into a more dynamic and responsive construct, resulting in new and incredibly diverse forms of art that continue to challenge, move, and remind us of the illusive nature of reality. 

In much of his work, Bas Jan Ader explored moments in which his subject - himself - loses physical and emotional control. Ader’s films depict his carefully planned actions as he falls from the roof of a house, or rides his bicycle into a canal in Amsterdam, flowers in hand, always ending in an inevitable surrender to the forces of gravity. Having lived the last decade of his life in Los Angeles, the pathos in Ader’s work suggests that he may have been aware of the history of early Hollywood film, and vaudeville. 

Buster Keaton, the king of vaudeville, in his 1920 film One Week tells the story of an unfortunate pair of newlyweds and their attempt to build a house from a kit. After receiving crates containing their house, they proceed to assemble it by following numbers written on each of the boxes, unaware that the husband’s rival has reordered them. The completed house looks anything but normal, with a front door opening into mid-air and windows askew. Their troubles only escalate when they discover the house has also been built on the wrong lot, and, towing it behind their car to another location, it becomes stuck at a railroad crossing. Ironically, just when they think it is safe, the house is demolished by a passing train. Keaton’s film could be seen as a jibe at the institution of marriage, or even property ownership, but if there is any lesson to be learned from it, and from the artists featured in this book, it is that a system is a human construction, and thus fallible and imperfect. This is why artists make ‘open systems’.


  • 1. For an excellent discussion of the role of form and systematic strategies in an international context, see Lynn Zelevansky’s exhibition catalogue Beyond Geometry: Experiments in Form, 1940s-70s, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2004.
  • 2. See Linda Norden ‘ “Getting to Ick”: To Know What One is Not’, in Helen Cooper (ed.), Eva Hesse: A Retrospective, exh. cat., New Haven 1992. Norden is the first to write about Hesse’s experiences working in a textile mill and their potential impact upon her sculpture.
  • 3. Quoted in Robert Pincus-Witten, ‘Eva Hesse: More Light on the transition from Post-Minimal to the Sublime’, in Eva Hesse: A Memorial Exhibition, exh. cat., The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York 1972, p.10.
  • 4. Anne Rorimer, New Art in the 60s and 70s Redefining Reality, London 2001, p.25.
  • 5. Quoted in Hélio Oiticica, exh. cat., Galerie national de Jeu de Paume, Paris 1992.
  • 6. Quoted in Catherine David, ‘Hélio Oiticica: Brazil Experiment’, in The Experimental Exercise of Freedom, Los AngelZelevansky, p.19.
  • 7. See ‘Hélio Oiticica’s 1960s Aesthetic of Subversion and Cultural Contamination’, in A Radical Intervention: The Brazilian Contribution to the International Electronic Art Movement, Eduardo Kac (ed.), in Leonardo, Volume 30, No.4, Cambridge, Mass. 1997.
  • 8. Ann Goldstein, A Minimal Future? Art as Object 1958- 1968, exh. cat.,Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art 2004, p.342.
  • 9. Robert Smithson, ‘Entropy and the New Monuments’, quoted in James Meyer (ed.), Minimalism, London 2000, p.223.
  • 10. Quoted in Goldstein, p. 211.
  • 11. Jack Burnham, ‘Steps in the Formulation of Real-Time Political Art’, in Kaspar Koenig (ed.), Hans Haacke/Framing and Being Framed: 7 works, 1970-5, Halifax and New York 1975, p.134.
  • 12. Goldstein, p.213.
  • 13. Martin Friedman, ‘Construction Sights’, in Gary Garrels, Sol LeWitt: A Retrospective, exh.cat., San Francisco Museum of Modern Art 2000, p.52.
  • 14. Alberro and Stimson, p.12.
  • 15. Quoted in Rorimer, pp.184-5.