A material shift in gallery art


Returning to gallery art, the role of materials in sculpture turned from being permanent, fixed, and stable to being impermanent and unstable in the late 1960s. The exhibition Anti-Illusion: Procedures/Materials (1969), curated by Marcia Tucker and James Monte for the Whitney Museum of American Art, stands as a pivotal moment in the development of an art movement that not only expanded beyond modernism and its formalist extension in Minimalism, but also introduced an experimental approach to materials and process. The physical artworks themselves were of little monetary value and, at the end of the exhibition, were more likely cleaned up and disposed of rather than being carefully dismantled and packed into shipping crates.


The exhibition curators assembled artists often associated with Post-Minimalism, such as William Bollinger, Eva Hesse, Robert Morris, Bruce Nauman, and Richard Serra, who employed a range of unlikely materials, such as “flour dust, hay and grease, steel, poured latex, neon and glass, lead, styrofoam blocks, ice and dry leaves, invested money, dog food, rocks, rubberized cheesecloth, and the human body” (Wasserman 1969: 57). For the art reviewer Emily Wasserman, the occasional non-visual and impermanent nature of the sculptures reflected the artists’ new relationship to these materials:


The artists’ refusal to objectify, to order and to construct permanently or solidly alters the conventional expectations for sculpture as something durable, discreetly formed or built, balanced from part to part, or substantially refined in numerous ways. (Wasserman 1969: 57)


These artists were part of a general movement towards dematerialization, which emerged to a certain degree as a reaction to the industrialized, systematic processes of sculptural Minimalism that often resulted in highly polished machine-produced pieces, such as the work of Donald Judd. In the mid-to-late 1960s, influential writer, art critic, and curator Lucy Lippard had posited two types of conceptual approaches to what she delineated as “dematerialization” – art as idea and art as action (Lippard and Chandler 1971: 255). She identified a number of artists who were approaching materials not through a structured system but instead allowing them to determine the form of their work, as “reflected in the ubiquity of temporary ‘piles’ of materials around 1968” (Lippard 1973: 5). As these piles were ephemeral, they pointed to artworks that were not permanent, timeless, or even purchasable in the traditional sense. She tells us that this “premise was soon applied to such ephemeral materials as time itself, space, nonvisual systems, situations, unrecorded experience, unspoken ideas and so on” and subsequently applied to non-physical materials such as “perception, behavior, and thought processes per se” (Lippard 1973: 5). As it turns out, this dematerialized practice is not actually without physical substance, but rather indicative of the shift that was occurring from the mediums historically associated with art – more specifically with the marble, wood, and metal of sculpture – towards non-traditional materials. Part of this shift was towards an aesthetic of impermanence, however, alongside this was the logic of object clustering, in which no single one of them has intrinsic value in themselves, but their value lies in the coming together of multiple bits of stuff.


What I find in this move toward dematerialized practices is not a turning away from materials per se but rather an intensified investigation of the nature of experience in relation to materials. Materials shift from the traditional and expected to something that requires attention. Similarly, recent explorations of sound and materials have refocused our attention back onto materials through their sounding. Instead of an almost total focus on sound and listening to the exclusion of the materials, objects, and visual elements that make up the gallery-based installations devised by the artists under investigation in this paper, I find a deep enquiry into the materials that produce the sounding elements of the installations.