Subjecthood in Disguise

Robert Morris Untitled 1978

“The resurgence of the human figure in much recent sculpture cannot be separated from a renewed attention to the idea of the subject. Although it is so commonplace as to go unnoticed, the idea of the artwork as a kind of subject in itself was one of the epochal inventions of modernity, crystallized in the radical shift in aesthetic theory in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. At that juncture, it was specifically tied to painting: For Hegel, sculpture was able to “create a unity between body and spirit,” but painting alone allowed in a more abstract “principle of subjectivity.” In recent years, scholars have extended this notion to make room for considerations of both the changing contemporary status of the subject and challenges to the notion of medium. Art historian Michael Lüthy and philosopher Christoph Menke, for example, argue that all artworks function as “figures of the subject.” In their continual negotiation between subject and medium, artworks dissolve such stable categories in a give-and-take that results in the medium assuming anthropomorphic qualities, while the subject in turn takes on the properties of a “quasi medium.”
This notion challenges the high-modernist idea of art as transcending subjectivity, most famously posed by Michael Fried in his 1967 essay “Art and Objecthood.” As is well known, Fried here both diagnosed and decried “a kind of latent or hidden . . . anthropomorphism” at the heart of Minimalist sculpture. Considered in this light, the objecthood in Fried’s essay could be interpreted quite differently — as subjecthood in disguise. Even the obdurate, industrially fabricated objects of Minimalism can, it turns out, be considered as quasi subjects. Consider how Fried compared the “obtrusiveness … even aggressiveness” of works by Donald Judd or Robert Morris to the feeling of “being distanced, or crowded, by the silent presence of another person.” One could say that it is the “behavior” of these works that he disliked: They reminded him of how it feels to be bothered by someone occupying the same literal space.” [Isabelle Graw on Art and Subjecthood]

“Whilst I think “space” in sculpture is important, it remains in my understanding something that is associated with figuration, because it is either directly related to the body, or at the very least has an architectural connection that is referenced outside of the sculpture itself, a part of an inevitable contextualisation. “Space” tends perhaps towards being in some way descriptive, and, as we have often seen, it gets worked in a linear fashion, articulating material from A to B. That might have been enough once, if we had not recently put so much pressure on what space might do or not do in relation to being fully abstract. Spatiality as an end-game now seems limited compared to what is possible with a free-flowing three-dimensionality that can come and go, back and forth, in an open and unlimited way, not reliant on either subject or context.
… These things are a matter of degree, and I don’t put down spatiality completely, but even with recent sculptures, those we have perhaps accidentally or inadvertently called “abstract” (or perhaps “abstractions”), there are, for example, many, many non-figurative, constructed sculptures (e.g. Caro, Smith etc., etc.) that occupy and define space without in the least addressing something fundamental to the potential weirdness/newness of their internal three-dimensional “relations”. “Spatial” can look very predictable and banal. “Three-dimensional” can now look very challenging. When repetitions and outside references, or flatness and design, are in the mix, the differences that abstract sculpture might address become rather lost.” [Robin Greenwood on Three Dimensionality]

Rachel Harrison Pablo Escobar 2010

Works that try to appear or act like quasi-subjects tend to suggest that they possess a certain degree of subjectivity – because it is subjectivity that designates a subject. With this in mind we have to differentiate between those works of art that explicitly try to appear like quasi-objects and thereby seem to claim something like subjectivity for themselves – I am thinking here of Isa Genzken or Rachel Harrison’s figurative assemblages – and those artists that seek to eliminate all traces of subjectivity from them like Frank Stella’s Black Paintings. While we all know that abolishing the artist’s hand, say from a silkscreen painting by Andy Warhol, doesn’t mean that the work will be cleaned of all residue of subjectivity – quite the contrary, the mechanical procedure will be considered as the artistic touch. I believe that it still makes a difference whether an artist opts for ways of eradicating traces of subjectivity or whether she encourages them. [Isabelle Graw When Objecthood Turns Into Subjecthood]

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