Things as they are

I’d like to return to a piece by Elizabeth Murray included in an earlier post, because it demonstrates something important about American art.

Elizabeth Murray, Yikes! 1982

The right hand part has three zig-zags and one curve, the left hand part has three curves and one pointed movement. So there is a logic and an order there, which apart from its symmetry has everything to do with the shapes of the spilled coffee. But the two parts face each other and fit together in a way that seems haphazard. It appears that no real effort has been made to make the curves and zig-zags line up in some aesthetically deliberate way. That may not be exactly the case, but it is a conscious appearance, and one very typical of American abstraction—the appearance that things are just the way they are, and haven’t been arted up and formed. Even the cleverest and most knowing work must leave something open, meaning leave some part just as is, or apparently so—that’s the American way. This is often presented as leaving space for the viewer to find their own satisfactions, but that makes no sense because no matter what is done or not done to any work the viewer still has exactly the same power to make up their own mind about everything. The claim to be offering some freedom to the viewer always strikes me as disingenuous. What we have here is a rhetoric typical of a particular time and place, a rhetoric that says “this is just the way it is, without art.” Of course it takes a lot of intervention to make something look like it just is what it is, as it takes a lot of invisible effort to make it look like nothing has been done. This is one of the approaches to the inhuman, conventional now, attractive nevertheless and still usable.


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