Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 17, 2006
Briony Fer The Infinite Line: Re-Making Art After Modernism New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005. 224 pp.; 30 color ills.; 90 b/w ills. Cloth $45.00 (0300104014)
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Rather than rehearse traditional narratives, Briony Fer’s The Infinite Line: Re-Making Art After Modernism refreshingly shifts the established canon of post-war art by positioning lesser-studied artists like Piero Manzoni, Hanne Darboven, and Agnes Martin in relation to venerated figures such as Robert Smithson, Eva Hesse, and Mel Bochner. Her subject is chronologically circumscribed by what she defines as the period of transition between modernism and postmodernism, formally characterized by the shift away from a collage aesthetic. In modern art, collage carries connotations of the disorder and disintegration of the modern world, exemplified by a seemingly random overlapping of disparate elements within a single work. However, in the decades after World War II, Fer observes a growing predilection for rationality, evidenced by the way that repetition and “seriality” began to consume art practice, functioning as both ordering and disordering principles. In The Infinite Line, Fer looks at works that fall on both sides of this “serial” coin—instances of evident repetition as well as series of disconnections. Fer’s launching point is Mel Bochner’s essay, “The Serial Attitude” (Artforum 6, no. 4 [December 1967]: 28–33). In it he “distinguished seriality as a method from working ‘in series,’ citing the thematic variations of Morandi’s bottle or De Kooning’s women as examples of series. Series denoted a characteristically modernist and compositional process whilst serial art was anti-compositional” (2). Fer makes it her project to “revitalize the term ‘series,’” using it as an ordering principle for artists working on both sides of the Atlantic (2). Although various objects from the U.S. Minimalist camp relate directly to this discussion, she explicitly states that it will not be a focal point of her study. Instead, many of her ideas begin with works produced in Italy and Germany, countries whose modern art histories have traditionally received less attention; she juxtaposes these works with an eclectic mix of U.S. artists, thereby disrupting typical hierarchies and offering the reader new comparisons and conclusions.

The 1940s and 1950s are described as the period when U.S. artists were able to wrest themselves free from the hegemony of European painting and establish their own formal languages. By the 1960s, the medium of painting began to come under suspicion in the United States; as artists began working increasingly in three-dimensional space, painting was resoundingly proclaimed “dead.” Of course, painting did not actually “die,” and continued to be a generative method for artists in Europe and the United States, even though dominant art historical narratives tend to gloss over its resilience. It is thus somewhat unexpected that painting is the unifying theme, or “infinite line,” of a book that looks at post-war art. Fer adeptly hangs the chapters around a sustained discussion of this very medium that was rumored to be in decline, whether she is classifying an artist as a painter (Mark Rothko, Manzoni, Hesse), or reconsidering his reception as such (Dan Flavin, Blinky Palermo). Not solely limited to the act of applying pigment to canvas, Fer’s notion of painting also considers the process as well as the conceptual frame through which a work is made. Painting can be defined by the manual labor of working with viscous fluids such as latex (Hesse) or the marking of stretched canvas with graphite (Martin). She questions whether the radiating light thrown from a fluorescent tube constitutes a painting (Flavin), but recognizes the installation of furniture in a room to function like one (Claes Oldenburg).

The Infinite Line looks at almost twenty artists in the course of ten brief chapters. Essentially independent essays about different “modes of making,” each chapter is titled by a noun—for example, Picture, Diagram, Encounter, List, Mobility—that characterizes either a formal reading of the works discussed or the process behind them (3). According to Fer, the chapters create a “discontinuous series of parts,” and she refrains from making many obvious connections between them, a rhetorical device designed to emphasize one of the themes of her book—series of disconnections (3). She devotes her first chapter, “Picture,” to Rothko, positioning him as a key transitional figure between the modern and postmodern periods, eschewing other more commonly used artists like Barnett Newman. For Fer, Rothko’s painting and installation processes foreshadow attitudes about art making that would become central in the following decade. Here, she is more interested in the variations at the edges of the canvases, where the countless layers of paint reveal themselves in small patches, since they expose Rothko’s repetitive physical act of painting, than in the consistent formal language of his body of work. Fer deliberately moves across the Atlantic in her second chapter, “Series,” to Italian Piero Manzoni. Although not a conventional painter, Manzoni unlocks the logic of the series in his ability to work on several distinct cycles simultaneously. Linee (Lines) is one of the series she discusses. In these works, Manzoni painted a single line down the center of a scroll of paper, then rolled and stored it in a cylindrical case that bore a label indicating the length of the line, ranging from a few meters to infinity. In addition to providing the book’s title, Fer reads Manzoni’s passive and indifferent marking of paper—almost a negation of Rothko’s physical act—as another form of painting.

In addition to a persistent discussion of painting, Hesse’s work is another consistent feature of Fer’s book, appearing in seven of the ten chapters and receiving more attention than any other artist. In fact, the book as a whole sometimes reads like an attempt to contextualize Hesse’s production in relation to the other artists and tendencies discussed, which is not entirely surprising given Fer’s extensive work on the artist. The chapter titled “Studio” is devoted exclusively to Hesse’s work, and focuses on Accretion, a sculpture of fifty fiberglass tubes from 1968. Fer highlights Hesse’s use of ready-found forms as molds for her sculptures, in this case cardboard tubes. Always looking for the small differences, Fer finds them in the slight irregularities between each tube. The repetitive and laborious act of covering all fifty with fiberglass, which then produces a largely monochromatic field, is another aspect of the work that she finds significant.

Unfortunately, those chapters with more tenuous links to Fer’s thesis are less successful. She presumes her reader to have a high level of knowledge about the period in question, and she neglects to fill in many of the connections for those unfamiliar with the discourse. Even a specialist would have difficulty intuiting all of the implicit details. For example, there are several instances where the connection between two sequential sentences is a biographical fact that is never explicitly stated. In one occurrence, Fer points to a discussion of Hesse’s use of a black-and-white palette in her early drawing. She follows by stating, “It is also worth pointing out that Albers got his students to study gradation by collecting as many greys in paper as possible” (120). Not only is this her first mention of artist Josef Albers in forty pages, but she also neglects to mention that Hesse studied with him at Yale. The information conveyed is completely irrelevant without this biographical fact. Oversights like this cause the reader to wonder what other “obvious” connections are omitted that might illuminate areas of confusion in certain chapters.

One of the major strengths of this book is the time and attention Fer spends looking at and describing individual artworks. Her exphrasis is enhanced by a bounty of exquisite color reproductions, often providing both full and detailed images. This effectively illustrates her narrative, allowing the reader to follow her reasoning along literary and visual paths simultaneously. Moreover, many of the works in the book are difficult to reproduce because of their monochromy or subtle color gradation, difficult lighting conditions, or size. The fact that the publisher is able to produce illustrations so faithful to the original artwork is a rare pleasure for the reader. Despite the handsomeness of the volume, however, occasionally awkward word choice and sentence structure, along with numerous errors and omissions in the footnotes, figure numbers, and index, distract the reader.

This book contributes to a rapidly growing body of literature about the art of the 1960s. In addition to several recently published scholarly volumes, this period has received increased attention in the museum sphere. A pinnacle occurred with the inauguration of the Dia Art Foundation’s Dia:Beacon, which gives post-war art, particularly from the 1960s and 1970s, an entire museum in Beacon, New York. However, unlike Fer’s book, many of these projects presume the centrality of U.S. Minimalism. By avoiding it almost entirely, Fer is able to reinterpret and position two terms from the modernist vocabulary—painting and series—as fundamental to the transition of art from the modern to the postmodern periods. Finally, by privileging the medium of painting and widening her frame to re-include European art, she inverts received ideas about art from the post-war period, including the myth of the death of painting. In this, Fer is right—the practice of painting is an important and “infinite line” that extends into the present moment, even if previous art historical studies have claimed otherwise.

Aleca Le Blanc
Assistant Professor, Department of Art History, University of California, Riverside

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