Time on Their Hands: Scott Burton on Richard Serra and Bruce Nauman’s Durational Art, in 1968

Installation view of "Nine Young Artists," 1968, at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. ©SGRF, NY

Installation view of “Nine Young Artists,” 1968, at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.


Scott Burton is best known for his minimalist furniture, which usually involves granite and bronze and is currently being shown as part of MoMA’s PS1’s “Greater New York.” But Burton started out as a critic. In the late ’60s, he was an editorial assistant here at ARTnews. For the Summer 1968 issue, Burton wrote about two exhibitions—the Guggenheim’s “Nine Young Artists” and the Whitney’s “Anti-Illusion: Procedures/Materials.” Before other critics wrote about similar topics, Burton noticed that artists like Bill Bolinger, Bruce Nauman, and Richard Serra were involving time in their work, either setting up situations for their sculptures to change or involving durational aspects in their practices. Below, Burton’s essay, titled “Time on Their Hands,” follows in full below.—Alex Greenberger

“Time on Their Hands”
By Scott Burton

Summer exhibitions at the Whitney and the Guggenheim present a group of young artists, many of whom take a radically new approach to the dimension of time

Two current museum exhibitions, the Guggenheim’s “Nine Young Artists” [to June 29] and the Whitney’s “Anti-Illusion: Procedures/Materials” [to July 6], offer recent work in which the temporal dimension is crucial to both concept and appearance.

All art exists in time, of course, like everything else, but today time is often incorporated into the work of art by means so direct and so simple that it seems sometimes to be the paramount element of the work. To the composer, choreographer and narrative artist, including the film-maker, playwright and novelist, there is nothing new about the esthetic employment of time. (The main inaccuracy of the “formalist” criticism which calls much recent art “theatrical” is in the conservative assumption that the adjective is pejorative.) Perversely, artists, trained in the reorganization of physical matter to produce art objects, are today going against the grain of their mediums, so that what was once painting and sculpture has become as important for duration in time as for location in space. “Literalism” has been extended to the modes of temporal existence; painting has been swallowed by sculpture—at least, insofar as the painter depends on the physicality of his work to elicit interest—and sculpture, always apparent in its temporality since merely to see the entire work takes time, is using time in new ways.

The interest in time was anticipated by the older generation in both painting and sculpture. In 1962, Tony Smith made a small sculpture, The Black Box, which is a box but which is not black but rather rust-colored. It is of untreated steel and is an outdoor piece; the rusting is intentional. Although occasional of linseed oil retard the process of oxidation, Smith’s is a work which some day (in 200 or 300 years?) will no longer exist. Unlike patina, which “adds” to a sculpture, rusting takes away—literally. Jean Tinguely’s self-destroying machines had a deliberately limited existence, too, but Smith chose instead to employe a natural (and very slow) process to determine his work’s life-span. Esthetic choice—in this case, as in Robert Morris’ mirrored cubes, involving the appearance of the work’s surface—is shunned. This is not just a new version of “truth to materials,” but something more, an alignment or identification of the viewer’s time with the work’s. The two become continuous; the fictive time of art gives way to our time, to “real” time.

By a different method, the late “black” paintings of Ad Reinhardt accomplish a similar temporalization of plastic art. How long does it take the eye to see that there are colors in these pictures? How much longer to see how many there are? To see what colors they are? We may look as long or as little as we please with most painting, and see more or less in it regardless of style or period, but Reinhardt uses time neither in the depiction of moments in subject matter nor in traces of fabrication which embody time in Abstract-Expressionist painting, but rather in a very direct and simple way: his closely valued late paintings do not exist for us at all if they do not take up at least a few minutes of the viewer’s actual time.

Any technological art, such as neon sculpture, makes us think of time because it has two primary states, on and off. When it is turned off, it is dormant. Intermittent or limited existence is a feature of some recent non-electronic art as well, where it is the result of a more complex rethinking of the relation between three and four dimensions. The ancient notion that life is short and art long has been challenged by artists as diverse as Richard Serra, Bill Bollinger, Richard Tuttle, Bruce Nauman, and Robert Barry, all of whom create in some way “short art.”

Richard Serra, Splashing, 1968, lead, ca. 18 inches x 26 feet. HARRY SHUNK/INSTALLATION: "NINE AT CASTELLI," LEO CASTELLI WAREHOUSE, NEW YORK, 1968

Richard Serra, Splashing, 1968, lead, ca. 18 inches x 26 feet.


Serra (at both the Guggenheim and the Whitney), whose sensibility is as American as scrap iron, has produced in his Prop series a number of sculptures dealing with the physical problem of supporting objects. In these works, the parts are vitally independent (in Clothes Pin, a long, narrow metal cylinder holds a short, wider one up against the wall) yet the parts do not permanently adhere to each other; precariousness and a potentially violent rearrangement (given the weights and sizes he favors) underlie Serra’s matter-of-factness in demonstrating the various ways, all perfectly obvious, of propping things up. Serra removes the functional and thus the rational justification for such activities as leaning one thing against another. He is content to reveal, and refrains from using as well. This intention depends on the avoidance of fixed physical relationships, within the work or between the work and environment. Material instability creates impermanence.

Serra’s Splash pieces, made by pouring molten lead along a length of the intersection of a wall and a ground plane, whether in a room or out of doors, are interesting not only for their application to sculpture of principles of painting (derived specifically from Pollock’s and the later stain and spray painter’s fidelity to liquidity) but also for their—again—impermanence. As obviously rapid in execution as a de Kooning or Pollock line, a Serra splash of lead has nothing like canvas to mediate between it and the floor or wall, so it cannot be moved without being destroyed. As anchored to its site as any fresco or architectural relief, it is nevertheless anti-situational not only in its indifference to architecture—any planar perpendicularity will suffice—but it also in its implied deprecation of permanent installation. (Compare Sol LeWitt’s recent permutational squares of diagonal lines pencilled directly upon the wall; their rigor of concept is accompanied by an equally intense fragility of both duration and appearance.) Like Michael Heizer, Dennis Oppenheim, Richard Long and others who go out and work directly in the landscape itself, and also like Neil Jenny, Rafael Ferrer (both at the Whitney) and others who, with less grandeur than the earthworks artists, use organic matter (fruit, leaves) in their work, Richard Serra stamps the word “perishable” across his art, though his mediums are the orthodox ones of sculpture—metal, wood, glass, rubber. Serra is as concerned with the results of (human) activities on materials as he is with the properties of those materials; naturally, the two are mutually determinant but Serra’s production (including series involving folding, sawing, hanging and balancing also) is as assertively in our time as a Donald Judd box is in our space, by virtue of its emphasis on both its past (its identity as a result) and its future (its potentialities).

Bill Bollinger (at the Whitney) gives his rope sculptures a similar existence in time. They not only cut up space like all sculpture but are explicitly temporary; their chief formal quality being not their linearity but their tautness—their pull between two points (these being the grommets screwed into the wall, floor or ceiling). Such work might be called “post-Soft” sculpture because, though it uses flexible material, it subverts the material’s nature by drawing it so tight as to make it nearly inflexible, as well as subverting its purpose of holding things together.

Bollinger’s floor pieces (the floor is the most likely place to find recent art) take a further step toward impermanence. When he strews graphite flakes or industrial sweeping compound, a gritty green substance, across a floor, not only does Bollinger produce landscape-like sensations of great beauty (the graphite work is like walking into a Seurat drawing), but he also makes something which cannot stay in one state for any determinable length of time. These sculptures, with their hundreds of thousands of separate (and possibly modular) parts, are not isolated but walked right upon by the spectator, whose body thus becomes an active accomplice of the transient and limitless formal possibilities of the work.

Bill Bollinger, Untitled (Lake Series), 1973, cast iron, 112 x 35 x 12 inches. COURTESY ALGUS GREENSPON, NEW YORK

Bill Bollinger, Untitled (Lake Series), 1973, cast iron, 112 x 35 x 12 inches.


As predecessors of variable-form art like Bollinger’s “Pointillist” floor works, the earliest that come to mind are Calder’s mobiles. These are not only changing in form (though in a fixed if enormous number of relations) but also take advantage of a natural process, their art current, to effect their shape-shifting. The wind that revolves the metal leaves and branches of a Calder mobile is the same wind which blows away the helium, neon, argon and other gases released out of doors by Robert Barry in his “inert gas series.” The same medium is used by Michael Asher (at the Whitney), who makes “air columns,” invisible but tactile works (produced by blowers) through which the “viewer” walks. Warhol’s flying silver pillows are a cousin in this family and the grandfather is the author of 20 Cc. of Paris Air. The great-great-grandfather is J. M. Turner, a specialist in gale-force winds. Such a thematic cross-sectioning makes clear how a Romantic sensibility—the interest in ethereality, in vacancy and absence—is still with us, whether in the guise of “conceptual” art like Barry’s or “process” art like Asher’s. Such comparisons also reveal the extremism of younger artists, who discard even the confining flask of Duchamp’s air work, to say nothing of the purely metaphorical or depictive method of the painter of air. Barry’s gas works extend in his words, “from a measured volume to indefinite expansion”; here is not only another instance of art whose spatial totality is not measurable, but a product, as well, of three generations of environmentalist thinking: Barry’s work becomes part of the global environment, the very atmosphere of the earth, and his sense of scale and proportion expressed in the relation between something so vast and the tininess of the artist, his work and gesture, is reminiscent of the early Romantic theme (vide C.D. Friedrich) of the dwarfing or overwhelming of the individual self by the cosmos.

Bruce Nauman (at the Guggenheim and the Whitney), whose Dadaistic wit seems a far cry from the earnestness of a Novalis or Shelley, is nevertheless related to this Romantic tendency to temporalize plastic art because he constantly uses the most impermanent of all artistic mediums, the self. The author of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man would have been amused by the conception of Nauman’s photograph, Self-Portrait as Fountain, in which water spurts from the artist’s mouth. From Hand to Mouth, a sculpture cast from Nauman’s own body, is not only a comic device of misapplication (an idiomatic expression taken literally to determine the work’s image) but also an indication, like his neon sculpture of his own signature distorted, that the self or consciousness of the artist is still a subject able to sustain a variety of inventions.

As anyone who follows any of the performing arts more than briefly understands, the artist’s own body is not an enduring material. Artists like Nauman and Robert Morris, in his box wth photograph of his nude self, begin to blur the traditional distinction between performing and producing arts; that is between, art as service and art as object. If a work of plastic art can exist as a gesture (and not just as the result of a gesture) then critics of the most recent art are right to feel threatened by the “theatricality” of temporalized work. the chief characteristic of live performance is that, after it is completed, there is nothing left to quantify. The witness is forced to examine his own impressions and thus his own psyche instead of being able to pretend to a formal objectivity. In Nauman’s self-cast, the form is as arbitrary as in Bollinger’s floor works, or as in Richard Tuttle’s wrinkled, dyed octagons of canvas (at the Whitney). Neither the irregularity of the permeation of color nor the myriads of folds and creases were put there by Tuttle (which is not say, of course, that he did not choose and so in effect create them); he even allows the factors which way is up, of which is front, and of placement on wall or floor to remain open. And, like all non-rigid work, Tuttle’s can be folded up, whereupon it resumes its condition of potential rather than actual art[.] Here, too, we find art’s existence in time stressed, as we do in any three-dimensional work which can sustain morphological variability. This is the ultimate (at least, the current ultimate) in idea of art as an “imitation of life”; not to aspire to an impossible permanence is at once audacious and humble.

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