YOU LOOK INTO WHAT APPEARS AN INFINITE DARK CORRIDOR
light that strikes the black surface is absorbed and none of the spectrum visible to the human eye as colour is reflected.
In Blue Reflex (1966-67) by Ian Burn, on the other hand, the surface of the painting is a completely flat dark blue. The paint, which is multiple layers of automobile enamel on plywood, is mechanically applied without brushstrokes or any visible mark of having been created by a human hand. But although the artist as subject has disappeared entirely behind the work, the pictorial surface, because it is so dark and glossy, has become a mirror reflecting the viewer. In a sense we can’t really see the painting as an object because it insists on echoing back our own world.
Another thing that is striking about Blue Reflex is that it would not achieve this effect if it were not made with the greatest care and attention to execution. One of the questions the minimalists asked themselves was how little was indispensable to make a work of art. In practice the answer could vary: Joseph Beuys, for example, could make works with a very low standard of craft execution because he was relying on the quasi-magical resonance of his characteristic motifs and materials. The American minimalists, however, eschewing all such natural associations, were left with the necessity of technical execution.
The best example in the exhibition is Donald Judd’s Untitled (1969-71), which is also the finest and most complex work in the show. This sculpture consists of a very large box open at both ends, made of bare aluminium on the outside and painted on the inside, once again, in a very dark high-gloss automobile surface.
One sees at once that for this piece to achieve its ends, its production must be flawless — with the inhuman flawlessness, in fact, that can come ical processes.
The paint on the inside is so dark that a casual visitor might imagine it was black. The briefest moment of attention, however, reveals that it is really a very deep, inky blue, though this is visible only on the floor of the box, where it is struck by the ambient light of the gallery. But once you have noticed this, you begin to see more and more.
First you find that because of the size of the box, its position on the floor, and the distance from which you naturally find yourself viewing it, you cannot at first see through to the other
only from mechan- side. Instead you look into what appears an infinite dark corridor, ending in an oblong of light on the floor reflecting the aperture at the other end. Depending on how you move from side to side, the oblong of light moves around in the oblong of darkness at the viewer’s end, so dark and featureless that you can almost imagine you are looking at an animated version of a hard-edge abstract painting. But the work is not entirely abstract after all, since the oblong of light reflects the ceiling, with its beams and lamps.
If you then step back to the point where you can see through the tunnel to the gallery floor Robert Morris’s Untitled (1970), although ostensibly entirely different, addresses the viewer in a similar way.
It is one of a series of works made from heavy-duty industrial felt, carefully (and of course mechanically) cut in five horizontal lines with a short vertical slit at each end, so that what was originally a single rectangle of fabric becomes a series of massively heavy ribbon shapes, hanging in long loops, the lowest resting on the ground, an immediate and physical metaphor of entropy.
These two works, incidentally, roughly sum up the subtle difference between minimalist, which tends to be geometric and precise, and post-minimalist, which employs more organic materials and less formal structures. The trouble with either variety of the style, of course, is that if it not done extremely well it can be terribly bland, and such is the fate of many of the local artists who try to follow in a relatively perilous path. An exception is Robert Hunter, whose minimalist paintings in shades of white reveal subtle variations in hue, tone and temperature to the patient viewer.
A sort of coda to the exhibition deals with the transition from minimalism to conceptualism. We meet Ian Burn again, now with a mirror piece pondering philosophical conundrums of identity and causality, as well as Dale Hickey’s 100 White Walls, a grimly ascetic work from a painter. But conceptualism too is a form of late modernism rather than of postmodernism, concerned as it still is to determine some trace, however exiguous, of certainty and authenticity in a world of illusion.