Topic: Notes on: Brian O'Doherty "Inside the White Cube" Pt 1

engl. kurzfassung:
Brian O'Doherty hat in den Siebziger und Achtziger Jahren in einer Reihe von Essays die Gesetze und die Entwicklung des Ausstellungsraums, insbesondere der Gallerie, thematisiert. Auslöser sind die Installationen und Environments der Sechziger Jahre die teils aus ästhetischen, teils aus gesellschaftspolitischen Gründen die Regeln des Ausstellungsraums in Frage stellten. Allerdings geht diese Praxis der, wie er sagt, „künstlerischen Gesten“ zur Infragestellung des Ausstellungsraums auf die Avantgarden des frühen 20. Jahrhunderts zurück, especially Duchamps. He remains in many ways on the surface of his subject, describing and catagorizing artistic gestures and hinting and political implications, but not asking for the deeper layers of meaning and, as Ranciere would say, regimes. In this it is more an account and a polemic on the recent developments than a serious analysis.

The „white cube“ is a space designed not for bodies but for eyes, implying a reduced human, all eyes and brains, no limbs and torso.

Der Galerie-Raum legt den Gedanken nahe, dass Augen und Geist willkommen sind, raumgreifende Körper dagegen nicht – höchstens dass sie als Gliederpuppen für Studienzwecke zugelassen sind. Dieses Paradox à la Descartes wird durch eine Ikone unserer visuellen Kultur bekräftigt, das Ausstellungsfoto ohne Menschen. Hier endlich sind die Betrachter, wir selbst, eliminiert. Wir sind da ohne da zu sein; einer der größten Dienste den die Fotografie ihrer Rivalin Kunst leistet. Das Ausstellungsfoto ist eine Metapher für den Ausstellungsraum.“(11)

This idea of the bodyless space will be broken up by the minimalists (among others) as we will later see. Greenbergs critic of the „theater of representation“ in Smith Die means just that: an object which invites the body into the space, makes it central again in the act of perception. In O'Doherty's logic the white cube is the direct opposition to the black cube (Die) in as far as it's influence on the role of the body is concerned. That is why I included the notion of white cube in the description for the LP in Mannheim. If we work on Die we have to take this dialectic in account.

History / Teil 1

The reason why I think this chapter is important is, that O'Doherty writes art history from the perspective of the space, the gallery,which means, he writes about situations, rather then objects. This is very close to my own desire.

He follows the roots of the gallery space into the salon of the 19th century. (art – non religious that is – becomes public only after the french revolution. See also Malraux.) A gallery therefore was a salon with a wall full of pictures. Yet the famous „Petersburger Hängung“ as it was used in many salons in the 19th constituted a very different aesthetic practice than today's gallery does. How was this justified?

[Dadurch] dass nämlich jedes Gemälde als eine selbständige Einheit galt, die durch einen schweren Rahmen nach außen und durch ein komplettes System der Perspektive nach innen vollkommen vom hautnah an drängenden Nachbarn abgeschottet wurde. Raum war damals unzusammenhängend und teilbar, genauso wie das Haus, in dem die Gemälde hingen, verschiedene Räume für verschiedene Funktionen hatte. Der Geist des 19. Jahrhunderts war auf Messung und Unterteilung aus, und das Auge des 19. Jahrhunderts respektierte die Hierarchie der Genres und die Autorität des Rahmens.“ (13)

That is a superficial analysis but nevertheless: the role of the frame is a central theme here. What I find interesting is, that the Petersburger Hängung requires a much greater work on the part of the spectator, than todays practice. In fact we are talking about a greater degree of abstraction, since the contemplation into a painted landscape that hangs this close to a Stilleben or Sea Scenery is much more difficult to accomplish. The other central theme is perspective as an artistic strategy. Perspective orders all elements within the frame in such a way as to draw the gaze into it, helping to avoid seeing the rest of the wall. O'Doherty speaks of transgression here:

Man geht förmlich in so ein Gemälde hinein, oder man gleitet mühelos in es hinein. Je größer die Illusion, desto stärker wird die Einladung an das Auge des Betrachters; das Auge wird von seinem fest verankerten Körper abgezogen und wird in das Bild hinein versetzt, um sich mit dem Raum vertraut zu machen.” (14)

An interesting question would be whether the style of presentation (historically) followed the invention of the central perspective or whether the Petersburger Hängung required such a technique. I assume that the first is the case (perspective came first). However the opposite would be imaginable as well. What made the central perspective necessary? If it is a strategy to draw the eye into the space of the painting, what was this practice trying to avoid? If later artists omitted the central perspective again, what are the social or aesthetic necessities for either development? In fact, the central perspective was merely a phase in painting – maybe 200 or 300 years – not a guiding principle or a technical necessity.

Bei diesem Vorgang [dem hineingleiten] ist die Sicherheit, die der Rahmen gewährt, ebenso notwendig wie der Sauerstoffbehälter für den Taucher.”(14)

O'Doherty speaks of „neatly tied packages“ of perspective and gold frame. There were very few efforts towards a dissolution of the frame, namely those of CDF: „compositions that create pressure on the frame“, as he calls them. They are „surfaces of multiple meanings“, „oscillating between unending depth and flatness“.(15) The frame now becomes unreliable and the separation of the paintings in the space becomes necessary.

From the middle of the 19th on O'Doherty sees two different strategies at work: one where the frame is central, which was important in early photography (which accepted the frame) and one which aims at Flächigkeit (two-dimensionality, laminarity) instead of depth and wants to overcome the frame. This development constitutes the first major brake in the concept of the gallery and art itself:

Die Tendenz zur Flächigkeit trug am stärksten zur Durchsetzung seiner [des Bildes] Autonomie bei. Das Entstehen eines flachen Raumes, der erfundene Formen und nicht mehr wie der illusionistische Raum wirkliche Formen enthielt, übte weiteren Druck auf den Rand aus.” (17)

O'Doherty here throws two things in one (invented forms and flatness or real forms and illusion) which to my mind indeed conditioned and legitimated one another. But how exactly? And in which order and logic? He also totally ignores the development of the panorama, which coincides with CDF's flat paintings. I don't think that the argument of Flächigkeit creating autonomy of art holds true when looking at the Panorama: The panorama is totally illusionary, yet it omits central perspective and can be called flat. It does not need to draw the eye into it, because the eye (and the body!) is already in the middle of it! It also reunites body and eye, the separation of which O'Doherty regards as a central operation in the logic of 18t and 19th century art.

He then writes something which I find very intriguing. He speculates that Monet's approach to space might have been a result of his technical deficits. The lack of concreteness, the seemingly arbitrary framing of objects – O'Doherty calls them provisionary solutions. The fleeting or unfocused impression his art creates allowed “for the eye to look elsewhere”, he writes. (18) What a strange sentence! Where is this elsewhere? In the gallery space, in the painting? Monet he says painted like he was passing by his objects, instead of stopping to focus on them. If so, does this mean, that they should be perceived like in passing by? Does this technique imply a likewise perception? How so?


I do however understand, how such a neglect of focus further weakens the concept of illusionary space and thereby contributes to Flächigkeit of the painting. Monet also painted the huge Le bassin aux Nympheas, almost a panorama.

nympheas panorame 1920

Returning to the question of Hängung, O'Doherty complains that we know too little about that. I agree, in fact I would love to learn more about this whole historical complex of presentations. He writes that it should be possible “to relate the inner story of a painting onto it's outer hanging”. (22) What this means is that the concrete situation of encounter -the space in which it takes place – should play a role in evaluating the work. This is pure CATALOG OF SITUATIONS! Only he does not know it...

In the 50s and 60s – which is his main era of concern – the paintings started to take over the wall, literally invade the wall. O’Doherty writes that group exhibitions soon looked like the Balkan, with territory wars waging and everybody trying to steel some ground and push the others aside. The question arose, how much space does a painting need. By breaking the rectangular frame, the wall also became a focus, meaning the audience started to perceive the whole space. The space thereby becomes part of the artwork – which O’Doherty does not say. (But for example Karpow clearly stated)
O’Doherty returns once more to the exhibition photo: „Das Foto einer Colour-Filed Ausstellung kann als der logische Endpunkt der Tradition der Moderne angesehen werden.“ (29) This idea of the exhibition photo that allows only the eye, but not the body, reappears throughout his essays. It is a central trope.
He closes the chapter by summing the problem of space invasion up with another example of artistic gesture: William Anastasie West Wall, 1967.
Anastasi West Wall