‘Boxing Stories’, Art History, Volume 25, No. 1, 2002
In the opening section of his book, Carter Ratcliff spars with that convention of art history which would have artists shoe-horned into boxes according to genre. This error of convention within the discipline, he says, comes as a result of the art historian’s tendency to plump for expedient simplification as a counter to complex historical situations. Out of the Box, makes clear from the outset that it is Ratcliff’s intention to do justice to the complex situation which was Minimalism, and the re-inventions it engendered, by resisting that seductive tactic of simplification: ‘the distribution of careers into the readymade categories called genres; genealogies of stylistic influence’ (p. 13).
In sympathy with the post-Minimalist re-inventiveness he goes on to discuss, the author sets out to escape the particular methodological ‘box’ of a conventional art historical treatment of Minimalism and its aftermath. In so doing, therefore, Ratcliff presents Out of the Box as an act of re-inventiveness in itself; perhaps not a complete reversal of familiar modes of historiography, but certainly a shifting of narrative customs. He writes:
If familiar notions of genre and style are useless, there’s no point in trying to write the sort of narrative those notions inspire. This book is not a sequential history of a period. It is more like a film, the product of montage, with slow pans and tracking shots, two-shots and close-ups, crosscuts and flashbacks, dissolves and the occasional fade to black. (p. 13)
The author’s determinedness to avoid the familiar ‘rectilinear’ narrative of careers and artworks boxed according to genres, is further emphasised by way of an analogical connection between his own ambition for the book and his introductory case-study: Barry Le Va’s, Velocity – Impact Run of 1969. For an hour and forty-three minutes, in the gallery of Ohio State University, Le Va ran from one end to the other, throwing himself, full-tilt, at the constraining walls of the exhibition space. Needless to say, Le Va did not break through the rectilinear constraints of the gallery box, but his ‘refusal to accept imprisonment’ (p. xii) is the salient intention which Ratcliff wishes to foreground in his recounting of the event.
To force the analogy here; Ratcliff attempts to escape, as he sees it, the rectilinearity of art historical convention, notwithstanding the impossibility of ‘running through the constraints of language’: for two hundred and seventy-six pages he pushes against the parameters of the conventions of recounting a complex historical situation, and, as a result, in a way, he does manage to present a novel telling of this crucial period of Minimalist proposition and counter-proposition. In short, this novel telling he achieves by allowing simple, albeit non-sequential, descriptions of these innumerable Minimalist propositions and counter-propositions to take precedence over any theoretical or contextual ‘impositions’ on the part of the author.
This policy of “simple” description before “imposed” definition calls to mind an attitude of Carl Andre’s which Ratcliff mentions elsewhere: ‘simplicity is good…because it defeats the temptation “to impose properties on materials.”’i Just as Andre wished his materials to somehow reveal themselves by their own volition, Ratcliff wishes the casestudies to declare themselves to the reader as directly as is possible, without the convention of a running accompaniment of conceptual and stylistic justification and explication. Out of the Box may not share the rectilinear logic of an artwork by Andre, but it does share that property of descriptive literalism.
A typical passage reads:
To free art from the box, dismantle it. Encourage it to crumble. Use, instead of metal and plywood, materials with no aptitude for straight lines and right angles. Barry Le Va chose scraps of felt. Alan Saret tangled strips of latex with lengths of electrical wire. Before her latex could solidify, Lynda Benglis poured it on gallery floors. Rafael Ferrer preferred autumn leaves. (p. 150)
The examples listed in the above passage meet each other under the chapter heading, Disintegration, but Ratcliff does not venture any summative theoretical connections behind this grouping of works – not even for the sake of sustaining an argued thesis. Having said this, in his chapter Beyond Absence, Ratcliff goes beyond the grouping of examples under a ‘re-invention tactic’ by acknowledging the philosophical apparatus used by Joseph Kosuth to climb out of the Minimalist box. Elaborating on Kosuth’s logical positivism, Ratcliff embellishes his customary liminal literalism with references to the critical thinking of A. J. Ayer and Richard Rorty. In doing so the author helps the reader to understand the impact of Minimalist and post-Minimalist output on questions of Realism in twentieth-century art. Indeed, in this chapter, the author ventures to pass critical judgement on Kosuth’s non-art rationality: the opinion that ‘there’s not much interest in an earnest deployment of tautologies in the logical positivist manner’ (p. 183).
The chapter concludes with a similarly incisive remark, although somewhat more poetic; with regard to Kosuth’s out-of-the-box existence in the domain of philosophy, and his contribution to the de-materialization of art, Ratcliff concludes:
This was a maneuver in the fields of theory. It took him beyond objects and
further still, beyond the absence of objects, to a place where there is never any
question of objects – a magical realm on the far side of the old Cartesian gulf
between body and mind, where the air is so pure that nothing but concepts can
ever catch a breath. (p. 184)
Perhaps Ratcliff is at his best when he delivers passages of critical intervention and explication such as is found in Beyond Absence, but accepting that this chapter is uncharacteristic of the book, and taking a lead from the author’s own invocation of a different narrative paradigm, one might say that Ratcliff’s narrative is one of ‘filmic live action’ rather than ‘textual critical replay’. By thus eluding, in the main, the discipline’s conventional demand for simplificative and summative critical reflection, Ratcliff identifies again with the escapology of the artists in his account:
This is a book about artists who escaped, who would have been no more than
practitioners of a style if they had accepted imprisonment. Le Va, too, escaped
despite the impossibility of running through walls. (p. xii)
And so it is that Carter Ratcliff, by being out of the box, resists being merely a practitioner of a style – favouring instead the quasi-autonomous ‘telling it as it is’ as an antidote to what one of his ilk might term, ‘critical hijacking’: the most pernicious outcome of illicitly imposing properties on materials.
The novel, descriptive literalism of Out of the Box sets it apart from other texts on the meanings and effects of Minimalism: for example, Frances Colpitt’s 1990 publication, Minimal Art: The Critical Perspective.ii Ratcliff does not attempt the kind of terse, epistemological study of Minimalist orientated work which Colpitt notably put forward. Colpitt certainly appreciated the philosophical discourses in which Minimalism and its aftermath were couched, but, presaging Ratcliff’s narrative style, she anticipated the need to wean the historian off a dependence on theoretical and philosophical genealogy.
Minimal art, however, does not exist on theory alone. Since a great deal of its impact results from experiential factors such as presence and scale, face-to-face confrontation with the physical object is essential. (p. 135)
With this she is in tune with Ratcliff, however the strategic responses to Minimalism
described in Out of the Box did not exist merely as physical objects or experiential events.
Feminist accounts of the disintegration of the minimalist paradigm are testament to this.
One such account is Amelia Jones’ emphasis on ‘philosophy of body’ in Body Art :
Performing the Subject.iii For example, where Ratcliff claims that ‘Vito Acconci aspired
to the solipsism of the minimalist object’ (p. 210), Jones posits by contrast:
Staging art as a communicative exchange between dersiring subjects – a
phenomenological intertwining or psychoanalytical
transference/countertransference involving exchange of codes, behaviours,
expressivities, and embodied, erotically invested subjectivities – Acconci’s body
art unveils the privileged male body of the artist/genius.iv
Irrespective of the propriety of Jones’ summative critical reflection, it does, by way of
comparison, clarify that Ratcliff’s narrative is filmic in the way that he describes. His
narrative moves, achronologically, across a surface of Minimalist moments and counter-
Minimalist moments, creating patterned connections which take their cue from the
structures of the works – but which retain an intrinsic two-dimensionality.
By telling it as it is, Ratcliff desists from imposing a series of rectilinear connections
between the careers and objects of chosen artists: if you will, he chooses not to fill in the
areas demarcated by the grids. ‘The line, the plane, and the grid…are demotic forms, and
so a grid by Mel Bochner cannot be seen as a variation on a grid by a Minimalist
predecessor.’ (p. 13) As this conventional requirement of meaningful stylistic and/or
theoretical genealogy is foreclosed, Ratcliff can arrange the case-studies loosely around
some re-inventive strategies which were employed in response to Minimalist canons;
giving rise to such chapter headings as, ‘From Box to Plane and Line’, ‘Line Enlarged’,
‘Line Erased’ and, as mentioned, ‘Disintegration’.
This strategy keeps the narrative couched in the selected case-studies, without the need
for any shoe-horning, and, thus, it maintains a quality of autonomy for the text. This
novel telling is greatly assisted by Ratcliff’s ‘insider’s’ status. An art critic in New York
for more than twenty years, Ratcliff was very much one of the protagonists in the
complex historical situation which he describes – giving his ‘filmic live action’ a
convincing documentary quality, and thus a running legitimization.
A chief concern of David Hopkins in his text, After Modern Art: 1945 – 2000, is to
ground the art of the period in a broader sociocultural context than can be achieved by an
author whose narrative is constructed using the tactic of filmic montage which Ratcliff
employs – Hopkins pursues a more three-dimensional telling of ‘his’ complex historical
situation. Introducing his approach to narrative, Hopkins comments on other attempts at
historiographies of the period:
As yet, few books have attempted to encompass the whole period from 1945 to
the end of the century. Those that have done so have often ended up looking selfdefeatingly
encyclopaedic or self-protectively partisan. (p. 2)
(Disregarding the different timeframe, this remark could, of course, be directed to
Ratcliff’s book. The myriad case-studies and the confessed closeness of the author to the
artists in the case-studies selected, results in Out of the Box being both encyclopaedic and
local to the author.)
Hopkins may have had in mind Jonathan Fineberg’s recent text, Art Since 1940:
Strategies of Being,v as it seems to qualify on both counts here. Fineberg, although he
does attempt a survey of the same period as After Modern Art, begins, not with an
ambitious gambit like Hopkins’, but with a cautionary note which goes some way to
absolve the author of the responsibility of treating recent artistic production teleologically
I would like to point out…that this is a personal account. It is predominately an
American perspective and it is my perspective on art since 1940. There are many
other possible and equally valid points of view from which this book could have
been written. What matters here is not the list of art objects and artists (my
choices continue to change), but rather my sincere engagement with the works of
my lifetime that have most enlarged or challenged the way I see the world.vi
To herald his particular method, Hopkins opens ambitiously with mention of nuclear war
and the holocaust – immediately raising the stakes on previous attempts to marshall this
historical period according to stylistic characteristics and genre-boxes.
The first two lines read:
On 9th August 1945 an atom bomb fell on Nagasaki in Japan, bringing the Second
World War to a close. During the six years of the conflict an incalculable number
of people had lost their lives.’ (p. 3)
This is a declaration of a very different motivation from Fineberg and from that which is
to be found, for example, in Edward Lucie-Smith’s survey, Movements in Art Since 1945;
notwithstanding recent new editions which treat Issue Based Art and Globalisation.
Lucie-Smith’s book, by comparison, appears old fashioned and rather more like a
collection of experts’ definitive chapters (in the same vein as Nikos Stangos’ anthology,
Concepts of Modern Artvii) than a critical argument about art of the period 1945 – 2000
which is willing to contend with historical events of magnitude outwith the box in which
art is kept.
Alongside reference to these colossal events, Hopkins places a detail of an image by the
little-known English artist, Nigel Henderson who ‘is rarely accorded much status in
accounts of postwar art’ (p. 101). The detail shows the face of a man seemingly
disfigured by some war atrocity, and thus it serves as an evocatively powerful
complement to the text. This gambit tells the reader that the author will not be seeking to
escape the demands of a socially engaged art history, nor will the author be relying
wholly on individual artists whose work may have already appeared as exemplars of
postwar canons in previous surveys. A gambit which ups the ante, not only on longstanding
texts like Lucie-Smith’s, but also on recent, more narrow surveys by Michael
Archer and Brandon Taylor: respectively, Art Since 1960 and The Art of Today.viii
Hopkins’ opening strategy attests to one highly commendable aspect of his narrative: the
combination of critical reflection on sociopolitical causation with a ‘strong sense of the
historical agency of individual artists’ (p. 1). Although, like Ratcliff, he does not favour
an arrangement of art into genres, he is not tempted to out-box conventional ‘rectilinear’
narrative with a combination of non-sequential and filmic retelling under a Postmodern
pretext. The strength of the book is that it makes full use of two existing, and eminently
credible, historiographical methods of art history within a dialectical play: art as a result
of individual creativity informed by and perpetually set against a sociocultural matrix.
Importantly, neither the internal nor external aspect eclipses the other.
Needless to say, a book which deals with both of these aspects requires argumentation in
order to achieve a cohesive, single narrative – especially when the author must distill such
a fecund history. Whereas Ratcliff’s liminal retelling of the events of his timeframe is
somehow legitimized by his own closeness to the complex situation he describes,
Hopkins’ combined narrative requires a structural bolstering from critical and summative
explication. For the sake of comparison; Hopkins seeks to reflect on what might in fact be
the generative substance in the gaps between the phenomenological properties of the
chosen case-studies. He allows the selected works to reveal their properties to the reader,
never abandoning the stuff of the art in favour of mannered theorizing (an occasional
fault of Jones at the opposite end of the spectrum to Ratcliff) and at the same time he
assists in revealing the underlying properties of the sociopolitical and socioeconomic
cultures which engendered, sustained and paid attention to those works cited in the book.
Just as Ratcliff makes manifest his intentions vis-à-vis narrative with his retelling of Le
Va’s Ohio performance, Hopkins declares his willingness to engage with an argued
narrative via one of his own case-studies: a painting by the Sicilian, Renato Guttuso.
A detail of Guttuso’s, The Discussion, 1959-60, opens the first chapter, The Politics of
Modernism; a title which, of course, clearly sets out the author’s stall. The detail shows a
young activist of the Italian Communist Party, leaning over a café table, arguing his case
to the group present. For the sake of argument here, the character in Guttuso’s painting
passionately ‘boxes his case’ within reasoned discourse, and Hopkins is equally prepared
to make available his own interpretation of what is most definitely a complex historical
situation, with no less conviction. From the introduction again:
I should acknowledge that my interpretation has its biases. Although I have
attempted to balance a range of contrasting opinions, this book would lack
urgency if it lacked a viewpoint.’ (p. 2)
Arguably, the viewpoint which runs as an undercurrent throughout the text is that avantgarde
activities in the visual arts persisted after the atrocities of the Second World War,
and did so within a Duchampian lineage. Although there are many other argued
perspectives in the book, this viewpoint (which is by necessity trans-atlantic) forms a
leitmotiv and is designed in some way to answer tacitly Adorno’s challenge to the avantgarde
in the wake of Auschwitz; a challenge which is brought to the fore in discussion of
Henderson’s disturbing montage.
Duchamp’s reminder that ‘the work of art is not performed by the artist alone’ (p. 41) is
foregrounded in those passages wherein Hopkins tackles a summative explication of the
sociopolitical ‘activation’ of art. In addition, Duchamp also appears throughout as an
individual whose concepts and formal strategies informed the practice of so many others.
In charting some of the narrative in this way, Hopkins discerns the Duchampian lineage
within areas other than the ‘readymade’ tactics of Johns and Rauschenberg: Duchamp’s
‘predilection for indexical signs’ (p. 209) is discussed in the sub-section, The backlash
against painting: photo-related practices (chapter 7), for example, and thus a cohesive
and diverse reading of avant-garde tactics of ‘re-invention’ is sustained with Duchamp as
By these terms, at its most significative this book embodies a critically committed
engagement with its selected, argued discourse, which, in itself, stands against a
descriptive literalism which may, to some, speak of an all too typical fear of evaluation
or, more grandly, an all too typical fear of teleological treatments of complex historical
situations. These treatments, whatever the art historical timeframe, could be teleological
attempts – the impossibility of definitiveness need not, of course, discourage the
endeavour. Nor should an attempt to argue a teleological narrative be seen as a pernicious
imposition of properties on materials when it is accompanied, as it is in After Modern Art,
with detailed and perceptive analyses of a diverse range of case-studies.
A fruitful by-product of Hopkins’ book, therefore, is that by grounding the activity of
postwar avant-gardism firmly in a sociopolitical and conventional art historical grid the
book, on one level, serves as a powerful antidote to the theoretical assassination of both
the avant-garde and the urgency of the individual artist carried out by so many postwarpostmodern
Fear of telos and the fear of evaluation have been detected by Hopkins as characterizing
recent treatments of all or part of this complex art historical period (call to mind, or don’t
bother, the most recent prevarications from Matthew Collingsix) and by Hopkins
successfully boxing his corner, After Modern Art is an extremely welcome and important
narrative which will serve both scholar and student, and which might caution future
protagonists from running against walls simply because they are there.
i The Fate of a Gesture by Carter Ratcliff, Colorado: Westview Press, 1998, p. 227.
ii Minimal Art: The Critical Perspective by Frances Colpitt, Seattle: University of
Washington Press, 1990.
iii Body Art: Performing the Subject by Amelia Jones, Minneapolis: University of
Minnesota Press, 1998.
iv Body Art: Performing the Subject, p. 105/106.
v Art Since 1940: Strategies of Being by Jonathan Fineberg, London: Laurence King,
Second Edition, 2000.
vi Art Since 1940: Strategies of Being, p. 10.
vii Concepts of Modern Art by Nikos Stangos (ed.), London: Thames and Hudson, 1991.
viii Art Since 1960 by Michael Archer, London: Thames and Hudson, 1997. The Art of
Today by Brandon Taylor, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1995.
ix This Is Modern Art by Matthew Collings, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1999