MUHKA 1991

Silence and Reprieve

by Maia Damianovic


In a manner similar to an interrogation, a number of recent sculptures testify to a rereading of Minimalism, as an alibi or a contemporary postscript. Under interrogation, the recounting of evidences and the testimony of witnesses assume significance in the veiling or unveiling of an alibi, but, as “Rashomon” reveals, witnesses submitted to interrogation are often unreliable. So, too, these contemporary sculptures, including Michael Gitlin’s recent freestanding and wall pieces, unveil the multiple faces of the minimalist sign. In these works an implicit movement, simultaneously back and forth, weaves and frays the textual fibers of Minimalism. A practice of cuts, rather than denials or confirmations, dislocates the grounding of a minimalist alibi.


“But should this veil be suspended, or even fall a bit differently there would no longer be any truth, only ‘truth’ written in quotation marks” (Jacques Derrida). Often, immediately apparent or face-value evidence is most suspect and susceptible to interrogation. The compelling reductive resolution of sculptural forms in Gitlin’s recent body of works is such a double-edged testimony. Although, these recent sculptures allow a visual simile with Minimalist form, a possible comparison is solely based on an abducted appearance, - what might be called an apparition. Here reductionist language is only a point of departure. While in general terms a visual doubling between the original and Gitlin’s rereading appears to be a collaboration, a secretive underground activity of lines, planes and materials in the latter abandons the molecular order of Minimalism. Moments of incongruity alien to the minimalist discourse poke through the surface of Gitlin’s objects as unaligned axes, surface wobbles, curves, planar dislocations and a deliberate specificity of materials. Instances of semantic plurality, - a play of referents and differences - subversively metamorphosize and contaminate the image of Minimalist thought. Instead of verifying or confirming Minimalism, Gitlin’s objects exhibit to the viewer an impulse to move in unstable, truant and multiple directions, distancing themselves from the contained and repetitive idealities of Minimal form.


A duplicity, in the manner of a “false witness”, provides evidence for a dismantling and questioning of the Minimal alibi. As reductive form already has historical precedent in Minimalism, its revisitation in Gitlin’s work only amounts to a spectral or devious doubling that like a “false witness” confuses the evidence of forms and is never “what it is saying or at least not quite the evidence” (Jacques Derrida). As with the artist’s allusive drawing technique that subjects the line to successive erasures and redrawings, Gitlin’s sculpture erases its linkage with formal consistencies and discloses the gap between Minimalism and its rereading. A disorientation sets in, like the movement through Lewis Carroll’s looking glass: “ wandering up and down, and trying turn after turn, after turn, but always coming back”. Through this pseudo-mirroring, the body of Minimalism is no longer a sedentary functioning organism based on certitude, but delinquency wanders dismembered into the domain of possibilities and accidents, like something Deleuze and Guattari would term a “body without organs”.


There is nothing as damaging to an alibi as gaps in evidence which unravel and disintegrate a story. Similarly, an irregular geometry foreign to the static line of Minimalism glides along Gitlin’s surfaces. The almost fictional elasticity of these sculptures is held in tenuous alliance with reductionist work. A discontinuity of axes and a wob-bling of sufaces vividly offer a central metaphor of fragmentation and slippage that seems to correspondingly transform and question the minimalist belief in truth as a materially expressed ideality of form. In the piece titled A-sun-der, even the anagrammatical play of the words “a sun under” and “asunder” seems to allude to a dislocation and disturbance. A multitude of tactile markings and tenuous imperfections mar an otherwise bright yellow taut skin (of the sun?) and record a rite of passage from ideal smoothness to the individuality of a living and accident-prone surface. What ensues in Gitlin’s work is a chain of geometric and surface deformations which at the same time try to keep a certain Minimalist vocabulary of referents intact. Held under the collapsing wobble of its top and the near perfectly finished wood frame, A-sun-der addresses a verisimilitude of fluid geomtric contacts that do not solidify but suffuse the identity of the whole piece. Thus supplanting a firm Euclidean grid and sedentary lines composed of determined segments and localizable points, Gitlin’s “wobbles” mark a supple intensity passing clandestinely underneath the surface that subtly scrambles formal geometric foundations traditionally part of the Minimalist agenda. The internalized metaphor of light in A-sun-der voices a failure and disap-pointment with formalist perfections, ruptured by life’s accidental limitations. “The voice of a desire carries in itself the destiny of its own dissatisfaction and defers an announcement of the clarity of light” (Paul de Man).


Gitlin’s sculptural devices, such as wobbles and axial displacements become indicators of an “errancy”, an aberration of formal concepts. Visual moments veering from the Minimalist code not only become apparent, but constitute an anomalous cartography - a transformation of Minimalism. By echoing reductive forms, the lines of Gitlin’s sculpture intersect with those of the Minimalist “prototypes” and visibly evidence a critical index of difference that drifts off course and wanders away from the consistency of the Minimalist dictum: “a line...or plane...of drift intersects a customary line...or plane...resulting in an anomaly. In short, there is a plane of flight and a customary or molar plane” and between the two there is an unchartered sculptural surface in formation. “They are tales, narratives, statements of a becoming” (Deleuze and Guattari). The underscored anomaly of form posited by Gitlin compromises the minimalist alibi while permanently manipulating its body. For instance, in the piece Siamese Addiction, two counterfeit mirror-image wood units are sandwiched with simplified compactness and near-perfect alliance, but for slight slippages in alignment that dismantle the geometry and balance of the whole, as if the closer the original Minimalist form is approximated, the more insidiously is it betrayed. This skewed geometry carries with it the excitement of flight from the idealized immobility of Minimalism - a rebellion evoking the ebullient escape of Gothic architecture from medieval geometry.” The diagonal has already become the transversal, the semi-diagonal or free straight line, the broken or angular line, or curve - always in the midst of themselves” (Deleuze and Guattari). Rather than submitting to the Minimalist order of straight or parallel lines in laminar flow, Gitlin’s line opts for an eccentric and somewhat unpredictable curvilinear declination with blockages - wobbles - signifying a distortion that denies the representative function of outlining form. For instance, in Without Grounding the Minimalist command of the grid based on a rigid connection of perpendicular lines is substituted by a sweeping and warped diagonal line that makes the grid obsolete. Hence, by claiming a physically warped geometry, Gitlin’s forms become more a variable visual community of specific events than strictly formal essences: a square is no longer just a square, a cube no longer just a cube. The fundamental topology of Minimalism is put to flight.


In the course of their lucid discussions of “smooth” and “striated” organizations of space, Deleuze and Guattari recognized that the difference between what they term the nomadic space of accidental or incidental effects and the authority of plotted space assumes political proportions. This analysis extends equally well to Gitlin’s polemical rereading of Minimalism. The nomadic and often incidental play of geometric referents and specificities that glide along these surfaces erases consistent linkage with Minimalism. By retracking Minimalism, Gitlin’s sculptures contrast the repetitive authority of formal and plotted geometric logic with fragmentation, specificity and variability. Distinguished by a specifically contemporary ethical reflection, Gitlin’s sculptural figures, in contrast, proceed from indivisible ideality to multiple individuality. This preoccupation is already apparent in an earlier installation project, titled Broken Infinity (1988) in which the artist quite literally addressed the issue by traversing and fragmenting with wood beams three exhibiton rooms at the Kunstverein in Bonn. The recent work continues to articulate purely reified and formal concerns into specificities that advocate communication. Unlike the long line of Untitled pieces or series characteristic of Minimalism, the titles of Gitlin’s pieces show careful deliberation, each evoking speculative associations. While the insidious repetition of forms and grids common to Minimalist work exemplified by Judd’s Progressions series, actually dematerialized the sculptural object and diminished its individual presence, the continually varied geometry of Gitlin’s objects implies a unique identity submitted to a mutable external context. In sharp contrast to the common minimalist practice of producing and indefinitely reproducing perfectly matched pieces on the basis of mathematically exact and detailed work drawings, the specificity of Gitlin’s objects, such as A-sun-der, disdains mechanical fabrication. Individual genesis and the accidental hand of the artist show up in the quirky mutations calculated to undermine methods of mechanical reproduction. While minimalist work remained semantically hermetic and loyally projected an undifferentiated notion of ideality even to the extent that the individual object nearly vanishes under its full impact, Gitlin’s sculptures admit specific imperfections that can be read almost as “counter-thoughts” reflecting the awareness of an outside existence. The genuine singularities of each object are seized upon. For instance, rather than sealing or camouflaging individual identity by unifying objects with a coating of pervasive white paint like LeWitt or Judd often did, Gitlin grants his pieces a specific life extending toward the outside. The three floor sculptures in this show made of solid wood and visibly heavy are a further example of this permeating concern for genuine authenticity. Imperfections in the wood grain and color surface uncensored on these objects as lessons on how to individualise form. Similarly, in Without Grounding in a form of semantic appropriation, the ytong, a cheap insulation block, is consulted and integrated in its capacity as a building material with a specific history. No longer indivisible presences, Gitlin’s objects emphasize intervals and borders, as if semantic fragmentation and discontinuity overshadow minimalist or dogmatically formal hermeneutics. As when, even though they display a tight economy of form, the two distinctly different woods in Tributary meet in odd curves and an off-balanced axial juxtaposition which underscores their particularity. In Gitlin’s recent sculptures, specificity weaves together the communicative speach of the work and acknowledges the singularities of each object as a visible “exteriority” that attracts and desires the gaze of the other. The changing visual dynamics of these objects voice a desire for communication - a “face to face” link with the viewer as a supplement to a previous deficiency inherent to Minimalism.


The absence of rhetorical specificity provided the most damaging evidence against the formalist alibi of Minimalism. In its historical aftermath, Minimalism was condemned on ethical grounds for embodying an exclusivist principle that silenced different categories of content, such as tactile sensibility or confessional and autobiographical communication. Critics reacted to the tautology inherent in Minimalism as a highly formalized esthetic of a priviledged spectacle; one is reminded of the repetitive modular gestures of Judd or LeWitt. Ironically, Minimalism and the critical outcome of the “immanent object” grew in response to another ethical dilemma - how to recuperate from the sudden and expansive contamination of communication and representation during the early 1960’s in the United States. In her 1969 essay “Styles of Radical Will”, Susan Sontag addresses the draining of meaning, or the disintegration of languages of representation by calling for an “esthetics of silence”. Language, according to Sontag, “is experienced not merely as something shared but also as something corrupted.” Furthermore, she states that “Silence undermines ‘bad speech’. As the prestige of language falls, that of silence arises”. In this essay Sontag also puts forth the contemporary rationale of Minimalism “ as a strategy in art designed to prompt the audience to confront the artwork in a more ‘conscious, conceptual way’, and to fill in referential gaps for themselves”. At the time, these notions of “silence” developed as a political stand in the face of the corrupted and contaminated status of social “truth” during the Watergate and Vietnam era. Within this political climate, the referential withdrawal signified by the Minimalist object became an intentional gesture of resistance and autonomy in defiance of external reality.


At the basis of Minimalism was the belief that idealized forms could effectively stand in semantic contrast to one another as self-contained presences without exterior references. However, in its final outcome, the positing of the Minimal work by a purely formalized procedure enforced an interior monologue, a withdrawal of speech or a “private speech” to the disadvantage of indication and communication. Nonetheless, with the advantage of hindsight, it now appears that American art criticism, as much as art itself, in a relentless and revolutionary reaction to both classic formalist criticism and the art of an earlier generation, neglected to comprehensively investigate the “solicitude of silence” and the sublimation of referential clarity inherent to Minimalist gesture. In a dangerously subjective manner, the initial critical reactions to Minimalism seemed blind to the possibilities of “silence” as moments of semantic dysfunction, deferment or dissimulation and, instead, directing their criticism mainly against its radical outcome, the restriction and diminishment of an explicit work-viewer paradigm of communication. As a result, much art in the aftermath of Minimalism in a limited way became primarily concerned with issues pertaining to the recuperation of representation as precise and direct statements of conscious formulation.


Ironically, however, “silence” and in its very opposite of the “voice” of referential clarity form a “double bind” situation. Both offer openings and closures of representation as communication and in neither is there a guarantee of an ethical resolution. While the internal “private speech” of formalism can discourage an explicit relationship between the work and the viewer, “silence” as a referential sublimation can also solicit another profound type of reader-work relationship. By a similar irony, while the voice of representational clarity can initiate communication between the work and the viewer, the clarity of this “voice” can also become the authority of exclusions, various exiles, bannings and Dracula’s veil.


Perhaps, the creative potentials of “silence” as a referential withdrawal can be more fully encountered through contemporary rereadings of Minimalism - as exemplified by Michael Gitlin’s sculptures that simultaneously remember and forsake formalist concepts and in a manner described by Paul de Man, “open poetic space by a deep division of meaning”. Through their subtly unfolding and vague alliance of wobbles and planes, Gitlin’s sculptures drift clandestinely between semantic clarity and obscurity that foil attempts at interpretation. These objects reveal themselves tenebrously through a succession of small and irresolved semantic moments. Like Edgar Allan Poe’s anonymous culprit left unnamed after an analytically exhaustive evidencing in “The Mystery of Marie Roget”, the weave of a monumental repose of simplified solid wood forms and a truant geometry presents itself without salient representational truth. A certain anonymity of semantic evidence is dispersed between vagueness or opaqueness and specificity of the sculptural body. It is, after all, “precisely the ambiguity of the world that disrupts the fluid continuity of narrative”. (Roland Barthes)


In contrast to a synecdoche, or a unified totality of representation, Gitlin’s rereading reflects the entropic pluralism of contemporary communications. In what amounts to a hybrid gesture, these objects, acknowledge the contamination and impurity inherently part of representation and embrace inconsistencies and “annexactness”. For instance, in deliberate resistance to a simple semantic model, while surface wobbles indicate specificity, they also appear as accidental surface effects without particular reverence. This contamination of forms is in general terms reminiscent of a much earlier moment in art history, when Mannerism fractured the Renaissance model of ideality and in place of rigidly formulaic concepts of beauty, and the perfect geometry of the square or circle, favored the hybrid deformation of the spiral. Similarly, the near-Euclidean exactness of Sol LeWitt’s cubes is deformed across the body of Gitlin’s solid wood object titled Siamese Addiction, its slightly lifted corners signifying more than a physical deviation from classic geometric shapes and static horizontal placement.


Gitlin’s sculptures describe continuous variations in excess of Minimalist conventions. For instance, in Tributary the angular and parallel line breaks free from its vertical and horizontal containment and, instead, emphasizes the sweeping curve of a transverse diagonal. These new geometries contaminate the repetitive mimetic code of Minimalism almost as a visible and accessible voice of communication. A constantly shifting repertoire of deformations offers figures of rhetorical specificity and a communicative “exteriority” across the surface of the work. Hybrid and anomalous deformations reinterpret otherwise formalist issues as “images of speech”. This “exteriority” makes for a metaphorical “face to face” encounter, a revealing of the object to the gaze of the viewer. The specificity and narrative quality of these indexes effects a separation or reflective distance between work and viewer absent from Minimalism. For instance in Point Blank, the artist deliberately chose to work with concrete enabling him to transcend purely sculptural issues and evoke the history of modern prefabrication or construction. The artist employs this type of appropriation to present recognizable, culturally loaded signs thereby reinforcing communication. In another piece titled Without Grounding, unlike the withdrawn isolation of Sol LeWitt’s white surfaces, the artist pairs two distinctly individual materials, wood and ytong, as an invitation to the viewer to move away from the opaque face of an inner soliloquy. In terms of the work-viewer relationship, this generous surface of communication exposes a move from fascination to respect. Where Minimalism amounted to a turning away from the face of the viewer - who was expected to grasp the presumably self-evident internal logic of a piece from a single point of view - Michael Gitlin’s work is invaded by surprise and accident in an irreverent and nomadic manner that needs to be seen in its specificity from all sides. By walking around these pieces, the viewer discovers a myriad of unfolding visual surprises and a changing exteriority that acts as a rhetoric or a communication with an outside world. Each wobbly line or dislocated plane undescores the errant character of the work and paves the way towards a semantic multiplicity by “bringing out the warring forces of significations within the text itself” (Paul de Man).


The hybrid visual errancy in Gitlin’s recent pieces voices a historical dilemma of communication caught up between the ethical obligation of representational clarity and the seductive appeal of the obscurity of the sign. Already in 1953, Barthes voiced this concern, concluding that writing is held in agonizing suspension between these two contradictory goals. For Barthes representation becomes a matter of degrees and multiplicities of referentiality and the indi-vidual author’s “ethical obligation” regarding the “essential morality of form”. Likewise, Gitlin’s recent sculptures seem to testify to the difficulty of a clear link between didactic representation and allegorical withdrawal, of a simultaneous “exteriority” and an “inferiority” of communication. The “annexact” interaction of deformations, such as wobbles that reinforce indication with large and hermetic forms does not help to solidify this relation between clarity and obscurity. Furthermore, the unpredictable, but also hermetic forms of the work sidestep amorphous symbolic or psychological associations. Instead, semantic gaps and leakages of signs dislocate a firm metaphorical reading and drain the unequivocal domination of one mode of signifying over another. While appropriation and simulation advanced the unravelling of the language of representation, thus foreshadowing the present hybrid, they often characteristically did so from a position of critical denial either through an irony or nihilism. Gitlin’s sculptures, however, neither emphasize a fatigue of representation or its explicit recuperation. Uncharacteristically, even though the spectre of Minimalism in Gitlin’s rereading implies what Lyotard terms a “post-modern ethic of renunciation” as a “reversal of consciousness”, these objects suggest neither ironic reversal nor nihilist renunciation. Instead, along with a growing number of current works, these hybrids embrace a sincere semantic agility that announces the difference between critical denial and genesis. Instead, the paradoxical encounter in these objects between critical denial and genesis, as every encounter, proposes the possibility of a beginning. The political relevance of this contemporary stand is only now becoming apparent as a built-in genetic agility characteristic of a novel beginning.


It is not surprising that at end of the 20th century, the creative judgement underlying a rereading of Minimalism mirrors a particularly urgent climate of social change which calls on artists to question their chosen language, echoing Barthes’ assessment that every “ecriture” depends on the writer’s committed assessment of its political relevance. While historical indebtedness is often difficult to measure, perhaps the recounting of Modernist alibis, as in the case of Minimalism, affords a measure of critical contemplation and reinvests in the possibilities of representation. Gitlin’s sculptures evidence a hope in representation by relating it as a modified-contaminated body. This rereading of Minimalism encourages at once a reevaluation of and a reinvestment in the fragility and dysfunction of representational language Minimalism poignantly addressed. However, the often unpredictable and subtle unfolding of these forms strikingly diverges from the theoretical and essentially authoritarian beauty of the minimalist object. Gitlin’s rereading attempts to gratify rather than seduce the eye. Although the work consistently recalls the semantic inferiority of Minimalism, it is also enriched with visible signs of a bias errancy that urges the eye to move from one visual event to another in the attempt to effect a specific relationship with the viewer. Evoking the contemporary crisis of communication in general, these sculptures evidence an essential ambivalence inherent in language caught irrevocably in a hybrid play between referential exteriority and non-referential interiority. Visual defections from Minimalism linger tremulously on these surfaces, yielding an instant of narrative communication before their crystallizing into compacted forms.


In what amounts to a subversion, the incoherent and singular encounter of representational and allegorical moments diffuses the semantic grounding of our reading and is enlisted by the artist to solicit the eye of the viewer in a way reflected on by Paul de Man: “moments of blindness in the text-reader-work coincide to make the unseen visible”. Stated differently, this referential incongruity also obscures our reading of the work, but also encourages what Barthes defined as a “third” or “obscure” meaning that offers itself to the viewer separate from evidential meanings: “I read, I receive a third meaning, erratic, yet evident and persistent. I do not know what its signified is, they form a dialoguism so tenuous that there is no guarantee of its intentionality”, furthermore, this “obtuse” meaning is not structurally situated: “my reading lies suspended between the image and its description, between definition and approximation” (Roland Barthes). Gitlin’s work, following Barthes’ description, taps the “solicitude of silence” as a space left to the viewer’s subjective reading of the work as an “obtuse meaning”. Similarly to Minimalism, “silence is still the condition and delight of a reading”, but, in the rereading “silence” gains visibility. This contemporary rereading amounts to a demanding reflection on the ethics of a conventional work-viewer communication based on unobstructed exchange. The artist re-raises the possibility that semantic withdrawal can solicit an alternate work-viewer relationship. The incongruous convergence of allegorical withdrawal and advancement of referentiality plays a large part in the genesis of an alternate paradigm of reading, as a compelling space of contemplation between viewer and work that cannot be inscribed by words or referential indication. Here, too, it is as if in this “solicitude” between two visual territories our reading is not out of grasp because it is imaginary, but the opposite: because it is in the process of being drawn (Deleuze & Guattari).

New York 1991


“A-SUN-DER”, 1991. Mixed media, wood, 51 x 45 x 42,5 cm. Private collection, New York

“POINT-BLANK”, 1991. Concrete, wood, 126 x 36,5 x 36,5 cm. Courtesy Galerie S 65, Aalst

“SIAMESE ADDICTION”, 1991. Wood, 123 x 125 x 77 cm. Courtesy Galerie Schuppenhauer, Koln

“TRIBUTARY”, 1991.Wood, 109x107x70cm. Courtesy Galerie S 65, Aalst

“WITHOUT GROUNDING”, 1991. Ytong, wood, 134 x 101 x 91 cm. Courtesy Galerie Schuppenhauer, Koln.