Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 15, 2006
Pamela W. Lee Chronophobia: On Time in the Art of the 1960s Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2004. 394 pp.; 67 b/w ills. Cloth $34.95 (026212260X)

The specter of Michael Fried’s imperious rhetoric looms large over Pamela Lee’s study Chronophobia: On Art and Time in the 1960s. Indeed, part 1 of her three-part study and (rather confusingly) the first of its five chapters both bear the title “Presentness Is Grace,” a quote taken from the last line of “Art and Objecthood,” Fried’s now seminal disavowal of “literalist” art, first published in Artforum in 1967. As many have done before her, Lee subjects Fried’s essay to an extended close reading, honing in on the discussion of temporality that motivates Fried’s comparison of Minimalist practice with that of the modernist painting or sculpture he favors.

Fried argues that the most compelling works of art seem instantaneously present to the viewer: “It is as if one’s experience has no duration . . . because at every moment the work itself is wholly manifest” (Michael Fried, “Art and Objecthood,” in Gregory Battcock, ed., Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995, 145; emphasis in original). He prizes above all an art that occupies a “perpetual present,” that reveals itself in its entirety in one graceful flash. In contrast Minimalist work develops interactively over an extended period of time; it “is theatrical because it is concerned with the actual circumstances in which the viewer encounters [it]” (Fried in Battcock, 125). And theater, for Fried, is profoundly hostile to, even “at war with,” the visual arts (Fried in Battcock, 135).

Fried declares “war” between “authentic” modernist painting and literalist objects that share the durational preoccupations of theater. And it is just such rhetorical voracity, one might even say extremity, that is the motor for Lee’s book. Quite adeptly, Lee exploits the vigorous, committed language of Fried’s essay to demonstrate her book’s fundamental argument: that the art and art criticism of the 1960s “produced” and also performed “an understanding of time” that she calls “chronophobic,” a “neologism that suggests a marked fear of the temporal” that went hand in hand with the rise of technology (8). This unease, the author contends, cuts across a variety of movements, mediums, and genres, and finds expression in the work of artists as apparently dissimilar in motives and means as Richard Serra and Andy Warhol. Ultimately this preoccupation with time in the art of the ’60s, according to Lee, “illuminates the emergence of new information technologies in the postwar era, offering a historical prelude” to a current fixation with time-efficient digital gadgetry able to offer communication and entertainment in the blink of an eye (8).

Lee’s thesis may at first glance appear a rather simple one: the art of the ’60s responded to the way technology was reshaping the human experience of time. But as becomes apparent rather quickly, this simple observation allows Lee to draw into her study arguments and objects by a sundry group of artists (Bridget Riley, On Kawara, Andy Warhol), philosophers and cultural theorists (Thomas Kuhn, Martin Heidegger, Marshall McLuhan), and critics (Clement Greenberg, Donald Judd, Robert Smithson), whose works taken in concert reveal a rich artistic milieu of deeply contested practices and viewpoints, all engaged to some greater or lesser degree in marking and describing the passage of time. If Lee’s adroitly researched and ambitious new account of ’60s art has a blind spot, it is not, as one might expect, her desire to identify a definitive synthetic history of ’60s art at the expense of other avenues of inquiry. As she states at the outset (and her work to my mind remains consistent with this pronouncement), “this is not a survey of time in the art of the sixties, nor is it a history of ‘tech art’ or ‘new media’ in that decade” (xix).

Rather, the limitation of the project for me is that Lee does not reflect explicitly enough on the tightly interwoven fabric of art and criticism that emerges so vividly in her coverage of the ’60s. She makes heavy use of popular and academic art critical texts from the decade that proffer value judgments on its art, yet as she absorbs these texts into her historical argument, she does not reflect on the specific relationship between art criticism, art practice, artists’ writings, and art history that makes this historiographic gesture possible. For instance, Lee leans heavily on Fried’s essay, but she carefully avoids the polemical, evaluative language evidenced in essays like “Art and Objecthood”; in so doing, she implies a categorical division between the aims of art critical writing (judgment of quality) and the work of history (to promote understanding). The division between these two modes of writing is crucial for Lee. With this position in mind, she forwards a strong, innovative thesis, but does not offer—or perhaps only buries—value judgments, whereas it is precisely Fried’s willingness to evaluate the quality and affect of works of art that enables the kind of historiographic work Lee undertakes in Chronophobia. What Lee does is to transform Fried’s critical judgment of value into historical description, or into a historically determined thematic.

As she uses them, the words of Fried, Smithson, Judd, Greenberg, and Robert Morris, to name but a few, still read with a vigor and verve notably absent in the writing that surrounds the art of the current moment. While articulate and argumentative critics like Greenberg and Fried proposed one way to evaluate quality and seriousness in art, at the same time, artists themselves, most significantly, perhaps, Judd, argued in their persuasive criticism for entirely different criteria. Is her project a history of art, or a history of art criticism? Or, as seems far more likely, does she understand the ’60s as an era in which art and criticism formed a contiguous discursive field whereby new forms emerged and were situated almost immediately within a critical landscape, which in turn described and anticipated the next development in art practice?

With estimable skill and command of the available sources, Lee brings together many of the most captivating moments in these debates, making clear the unique fertility of the discursive field formed by ’60s art and criticism. This very polemical, “text-rich” passage in art history has, for scholars of contemporary art, become the new Renaissance. To decode the iconography and to explain in precise terms the appearance of Renaissance art, scholars of the period draw on liturgical texts, theoretical treatises on painting, and contemporary art writing to understand the work or works in question. Vasari’s famous treatise, The Lives of the Artists, for example, has proved a fertile complement to the visual art of the Italian Renaissance, and the relationship between text and image established by Vasari has spawned countless pages of art history. Similarly, historians of ’60s art can draw on the words of Fried, Greenberg, Mel Bochner, or Dan Graham to illuminate otherwise obstinate works of art, to translate visual form into the medium of history—language. As a result of practicing artists like Bochner and Judd entering the critical fray, the connection between art criticism and art production in the ’60s seems unusually close and thus extremely attractive to art historians. It should be noted, however, that such historiographic work often simply accepts contemporaneous writing as history rather than historicizing it, in effect taking as a given the translation provided by critics of that moment, without stopping to offer a “fresh” translation of the visual matter in question that might differ from that already available. Lee’s study makes full use of all available sources, and as such provides an opportunity to ask in specific terms how and why this period has gained such prominence, and to reflect on what is at stake for art history—and its methods and imperatives—as this new historical canon is formed and contested.

Lee’s book is at least as text rich as the art critical landscape of the 1960s. The title of each chapter of Chronophobia alludes to or quotes a textual source of some variety. Part 1, as I have already noted, is entitled, “Presentness Is Grace.” Here, Lee establishes her basic argument, namely that in the 1960s “time and technology . . . are twinned phenomena . . . and works of art provide special insight into this relationship as much as they model that relationship in turn” (7). As is structurally typical of her book, in order to demonstrate the relationship between time, art, and technology, Lee immediately turns not to the “special” medium of visual art, but rather to the words of a critic.

Lee suggests that the experience of time, for Fried, is a foreign cultural element that should not intrude on the experience of authentic modernist art. And it is this trenchant attachment to present time—embodied for Fried in modernist painting and sculpture—that Lee uses to define normative time in the ’60s. This theoretical straw man—this “presentness” to use Fried’s terminology—is for Lee the closest embodiment of the “chronophobic” impulse. Those like Fried who were attached to what might be called the “slow present” of modernism were averse to both the notion of duration evoked by Minimalist practice and to the quickening sensation of time produced by the rise of computer technology in culture at large. Thus, it is against Fried’s text that the work of artists like Kawara, Smithson, and Jean Tinguely will react, and it is on the foundation of Fried’s words that the architecture of Lee’s book is built.

The popular and political (as opposed to art critical) reception of Tinguely’s wild, kinetic contraptions provides the primary steam for Lee’s second chapter, “Study for the End of the World.” “Kinetic art,” Lee claims, “seemed to crystallize the phenomenal experience of viewing art as material and embodied, as contingent and site-determined. It did so through its explicit address to the timelessness of the audience, whose encounter with the work mirrored its ever-fluctuating configurations” (95). Lee suggests that Tinguely’s project in particular was “caught up in a peculiar debate about shifting technologies, namely, the relationship between mechanization and automation in the postwar era: the historical confrontation between the machine and the computer” (105). Citing the often-skeptical reception of his kinetic sculptures in the popular press, Lee argues that anxiety over the diminished importance of the manual laborer in postindustrial society produced in viewers a disdain for Tinguely’s constructions—machines that either made or became themselves works of art. In the artist’s Meta-matic, no. 9 (1958), for example, the viewer encounters a pedestal sculpture, reminiscent of a Calder mobile, that churns out abstract drawings by automated means as would a factory machine. Because the labor of the artist is made invisible in this work, and because the creation of art thus appears as an automated product of computation and control, Lee argues that Tinguely’s machine had a “robotic” character that “came to represent the greatest possible danger posed to the individual worker, inspiring a kind of neo-Luddism ranging from the sophisticated polemics of Jacques Ellul to the cruder prognoses of a robotic takeover in the popular media” (110). Lee deftly synthesizes a broad range of textual evidence to support her conclusion that Tinguely’s work—in particular its ability to make the experience of new, technological time palpable and inescapable for viewers by presenting them with a repeated, automated action—was understood during the ’60s as comment on the topical issues of production and duration, initiated by the development of computer-based automated manufacture that threatened the livelihood of the worker.

Perhaps the most suggestive chapter in Lee’s study is her consideration of Riley’s optical paintings. Riley, “the reluctant heroine” of the Op Art movement, is presented not simply as an artist preoccupied with the optical, but also, and rather surprisingly, Lee foregrounds the haptic implications of her project (157). The nausea-inducing sway of Riley’s exacting optical paintings, Lee suggests, make the viewer acutely aware of her or his own body. This awareness in turn yields a consciousness of time that is equal parts haptic and optic, and one that Lee refers to as Riley’s “Eye/Body Problem.” Examining the reception of Riley’s painting at the time of MoMA’s much-derided 1965 exhibition The Responsive Eye, Lee expertly illuminates the implicit links established by contemporary critics between Riley’s paintings, period fashion, and the artist’s identity as a woman. Fashion, Lee argues, is a period-specific mode of expression that forces one to think in historical terms. For Lee, Op was a flash-in-the-pan movement that can only be associated with the culture of the ’60s. Therefore, since history is so deeply inscribed in the surface of Riley’s optical paintings, Lee suggests convincingly that they are of an inescapably temporal character. Both the aforementioned haptic dimension of Op Art and Op’s relationship to fashion’s “endless cycles . . . of stagnation and acceleration” are rightfully shown to be anathema to the paradoxically timeless “presentness” of Fried’s modernism (189).

Lee’s dialogue with the doctrinaire aspects of Friedian/Greenbergian modernism is developed further in chapter 4 where she considers Smithson’s essay “Quasi-Infinites and the Waning of Space” (first published in the November 1966 issue of Arts Magazine [41, no. 1]) in conjunction with the writing of the influential Mesoamerican art historian, George Kubler. Kubler’s biography, as Lee notes, “does not immediately recommend him to the pantheon of postwar critics that includes Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried” (225). But it is of course Kubler’s position outside this formalist pantheon that is most useful to Lee. As a Mesoamericanist, Kubler’s project was deeply embedded in the past, and his most famous text, The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1962), was singularly influential to Smithson, among others. In this text, as Lee states, Kubler suggested that “the fullness of history is forever indigestible,” and it was just this belief that time and history “threaten to break down” under their own weight that motivated much of Smithson’s writing and art practice. Indeed, as Smithson noted in his acerbic response to Fried’s notion of “presentness” as “grace,” “eternity brings about the dissolution of belief in temporal history, empires, revolutions, and counter-revolutions—all becomes ephemeral and in a sense unreal, even the universe loses its reality” (“Letter to the Editor,” in Jack Flam, ed., Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996, 66). For Lee, Smithson and Kubler are complementary antidotes to the conventional modernist narrative and provide an enticingly complex vision of time and history, one far more palatable, as she observes, to the postmodernism of the present moment than the rigid, authoritarian modernism of formalists like Fried and Greenberg.

The fifth and final chapter of Chronophobia, entitled “The Bad Infinity/The Long Durée,” considers the work of Warhol and Kawara, two artists specifically engaged with notions of duration completely opposed to that of Fried, and in a manner far less obtuse than Smithson. Lee begins with the assertion that the “sixties are endless” (259), and judging from the treatment of this era in the popular press recently, this would certainly appear to be the case. The hero of the final chapter, and perhaps Lee’s book as a whole, is not Warhol, as one might expect, but instead Kawara. Lee’s promise that art offers “special” insight into the problematics of the ’60s comes to bear most obviously in Kawara’s work, and, once again, it is against the template of “Art and Objecthood” that Kawara’s notions of time and duration are measured. To counter Fried’s “presentness,” Lee offers Kawara’s work as an example of art predicated on “timeliness” (289). For Lee, Kawara’s deadpan canvases, which record simply a date—“Jan. 4, 1966,” for example—admit of their status as in-between time. They designate a moment in the past, yet necessarily mark a moment of looking in the present, as well as point to any possible date in the future. Kawara’s willingness to contract three primary notions of time (past, present, and future) exemplifies in Lee’s mind the anxiety over time and duration she feels was broadly present in the culture of the ’60s. But perhaps more important is Lee’s argument that through the production of his work “day in day out” Kawara was able to assemble a body of work that speaks to “the most fundamental gestures of the artist being in the world” (306).

It is testament to the acuity of her analysis that Lee’s treatment of an essay as pawed over as “Art and Objecthood” feels fresh. With her notions of time and duration in mind, we are able to see anew the relationship between Fried’s aesthetic criteria, questions of time raised by other artists during the ’60s, and, more broadly, the remaking of time in postindustrial society. As Lee remarks in the closing paragraphs of Chronophobia, “the sixties . . . represented a marked grappling with changed temporality, and, more often than not, technology figured into that picture” (307). Seen within the framework of her study, a new dimension of such established figures as Kawara, Smithson, and Riley is revealed, and with it a new conceptual force in a celebrated period in art history. Lee’s book relies on the wealth of polemical, innovative, intellectually vigorous texts that arose during the ’60s. With these texts in hand, she is able to frame the intellectual landscape of the era, and measure the contributions of visual art to this debate. But while Chronophobia benefits immeasurably from this use of criticism, it also illuminates a concomitant problem in the present. While controversial, revisionist theses are encouraged, even required in art history, critics are today encouraged to withhold explicit judgment and confine their activities to descriptive work. A brief survey of the short reviews published in Artforum and Art in America is enough to demonstrate this fact. It might be argued that the unspoken injunction against polemic that guides contemporary art criticism today has impoverished the current moment, and that poverty may only become apparent when thirty years from now an art historian undertakes the same sort of study Lee has successfully completed here, only to find a stagnant critical landscape, devoid of meaningful exchange between critics and artists.

Would Lee’s book, one might ask, be as successful, were it not for the unabashed rigor of Fried’s polemics? What was it about artistic culture in the ’60s that fostered the energetic exchange between artists and critics Lee describes? Was the art of the ’60s more interesting than the art of other decades, and if so, was the work enriched by the presence of careful and committed commentators willing and able to offer strong positions on art and culture? Is a lively critical climate a necessary precondition for the eventual creation of engaging art history? Do art historians today tend more toward periods that are “text-rich”? The answer to some of these questions seems to be a resounding yes. But all this begs what is perhaps the most vital question for critics and art historians working today: Where is our “Art and Objecthood?”

Christopher Bedford
Curator, Department of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art; PhD candidate, Courtauld Institute of Art