Investigating Art and the Spiritual, Week 4: Formless: Alo Altripp, Ray Yoshida, Rachel Whiteread

Ray Yoshida, Unh!

Ray Yoshida, (title unknown)

Rachel Whiteread, One Hundred Spaces

Rachel Whiteread, Ghost

Formless: Alo Altripp, Ray Yoshida, Rachel Whiteread

The idea of formlessness may at first glance not be an evidently spiritual or an artistic one: for instance, how can that which has no form be important in forming an idea of the activity of the spiritual in art? And isn’t what we call “formalism” in artistic production by necessity an expression of one’s ideas and spirit made by “forming” or molding through the means of artifice? All these are true, so perhaps all this is simply a misunderstanding. The answer could be considered the flipside: art – and the spiritual in art specifically – is crucial to, and intimately involved in, bringing to the formless, a form. That is, all art does it to an extent by its nature, but spiritually-driven art does it by intention. In other words, artists try to form a mold around that which is unknown, to thereby better understand and visualize the lesser known, less intellectualized, more intuited parts of the universe; both inwardly (nucleus) and outwardly (cosmos). It functions almost as the opposite of casting a mold: artists begin with the seemingly non-existent, not simply the object at hand. As we mentioned before, specifically about nuclear science and imagination, art and science have both long taken us deeply into the microscopic worlds which before were unknown in tangible reality; art more through pure imagination, and science through technology (though, those two roles are now more often than not interchangeable and overlapping). The idea of the cosmos, or the universe, more easily imagined and grasped since it is simply an extrapolation from what is seen easily, has been an arena in which art and science have dwelled even longer. Think of the ancient Greeks pairing up their mythological stories with the star maps of the skies, to form what we still know as constellations. The mythology was not necessary for knowing, even as it is not now, but it pulled their (and our) imaginations up into a formless place, and gave it a form in our psyches. In a nutshell, art is the mold in which the invisible is cast. After the form has been created by artists though, is there anything left? And what of that ineffable content,”there-ness” or spirit which can never fully be imparted, or impacted? Does anything signify its former presence, though it is changed in appearance? What about those artworks which deal more directly with the mold, or the craft, as it were, rather than the cast, or spirit/idea? This image of casting a mold will be increasingly important to our discussion, as we continue.
Firstly, a few words on the concept’s spiritual history. (A disclaimer: I was steeped in the Christian tradition, so Christian metaphors spring most readily to my mind; if anyone has something to contribute on “formless” from another tradition, I’d love to entertain it). For one, it is central to the Judeo-Christian tradition that God is a spirit, i.e. formless. The earth and creation, in fact, found its form through Jehovah; formerly, “the earth was formless and void”. In the very first verses of Genesis, the cosmology of Judaism, it says, “And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:2, KJV). And in most basic cosmologies, there is one or more omnipotent force or being which enacted the creation of earth and humankind. So there are many connections to be found between the idea of formlessness, and the pure act of creation. In fact, the idea behind the modern expression known as “conceptual” art is directly concerned with bringing a form (or a product) to the formless (or the idea). Artists, having grown tired of the tropes of traditional artistic expression, wanted to strip it away to nothing and begin again, in the guise of pure bodily movement (Vito Acconci) and active interaction with materials (medium=expression) (Yves Klein), or in extreme music and chance-based art of someone like John Cage. In some conceptual art, the idea stays an idea, never actually reaching materialization, but it still retains its definition as art, having an altering effect on our perception (Rirkrit Tiravanija.)
Let’s begin investigating the activity of the formless, by looking at Alo Altripp’s Kopf in Rot, in G 20. Though perhaps not immediately recognizable as an artwork dealing with formlessness, this painting rewards closer investigation and careful consideration within this context. Consider first the method of creation. The rudimentary, almost emotionally-tortured head is created using a technique similar to a children’s painting method known as “finger-painting”. And the concept behind “finger-painting” is that of the imitation of form by removal or negative manipulation of the material used; that is, the "picture" is made by "removing" the paint; through a kind of pushing and pulling with the hands, an excavating out of a form is achieved. How is this a significant characteristic? It is firstly a visual reminder of what we’re dealing with: namely, form is being created by removal of material. And this is not the 3-D removal of material from a sculpted piece; where a form is being “released”, in the traditional carving sense of sculpture. This is rather the 2-D, complete removal of the image-making matrix; i.e. paint, which in turn, creates an image. In other words, the negative becomes the positive, and the positive becomes the negative; they are turned on their head. This raises some interesting points: firstly, that a form is being created by removing form; and secondly, that the material being removed is being done so by an ultimately concrete form; that is the artist’s hand (or a tool connected to it). Overall, the point may be made that: the head seen here, speaking strictly and formally, does not really exist; i.e. is “formless” – at least, outside of the material - technically, only the edges created by the material "exist". Made viable to our eyes by the mold of the paint, this head is as close as one may come, to a visually realistic and readable “formless form”. As Sixten Ringbom mentions in The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890—1985, there are two avenues to “formless” – one is to be completely emptied of anything immediately recognizable, and two, that which is of ultimately indistinct form, yet seemingly visible. He says,
“How formless is formless? To insist on absolute formlessness must in terms of visual representation, result in a complete void: the empty circle of the Oxherder series, the blank space of the tantric representation of pure conscience. At the beginning of this century, however, Zen and tantrism were virtually unknown to the general public; the direct and immediate impact of this radical iconoclasm on abstract art was to be felt only decades later. There is also a looser interpretation of the word formless that does not entail an absolute absence of form but merely the absence of physical shape. This is something altogether different from the arid emptiness that results from a strict application of the concept. It offers a virtually limitless freedom in the choice of line, shape, and color as long as the artist sees to it that representational forms are excluded” (136).
For a contrast in the idea of formlessness, let's continue our discussion with a second Altripp painting, now in G 23, called Plant-like. These two paintings seem to address each of Ringbom's distinctions, though neither fully: the first is closest to the first definition, and this painting is more close to the second definition (that is, without distinct form, but seemingly visible). Instead of suggesting a more stalwart and frozen formlessness like the first Altripp, which is more of an archaeological casting along the lines of petrified wood, where the original material has slowly seeped out and been replaced with a stony mineral deposit, taking on the original's form, this second Altripp moves towards an amoebic state, that is formlessness through indistinctness. This is a shape which seemingly shifts; changes; morphs continuously, so that no definite form may be given it. Any time an attempt is made to define it, it shifts again. So, though Altripp has recorded it here as it came to him, in this painting, by its very look and nature, we know it kept moving afterwards - much like a scene frozen in a photograph did not stop after the photographer shot the scene: it has an ever changing form; the photographic print being a shell of one of its states, like a snake shedding its skin, and moving on with a renewed form. In one way, this formlessness emphasizes itself as being a spiritual "record", or memory, more than the "archaeological-type", which Kopf in Rot is: here in Plant-like, even the mold is gone; there is not even a record of this permutation having existed: it is a pure impression, such as Charles Leadbeater and Annie Besant’s "thought-form" paintings, from their theosophical book, Thought-Forces (1905), which purported to visualize the presence of emotional forces or auras. A present-day artist who alludes to this reality is Mary Baumeister, a German who was active in the United States during the 1960s. She said in an interview, “…as a child I saw around every living being a colorful moving aura (even around so-called dead things like stones), so when I saw Art, paintings of reality, I missed the color field. Later, when my visionary childhood vanished away through schooling and teaching, when I had to learn the reduced interpretation of the world, I refused” (WACC, 2, 2009, p. 6). Many would unequivocally acknowledge their existence, as auras and the like, but no one would dare suggest that this exact impression could be found again, in this way and none other... in this way, this painting is truly "formless".
Let’s look at some further examples of the formless; in contemporary expression this time. One artist who has dealt almost exclusively with the possibilities of the “formless” finding form is Rachel Whiteread. Whiteread was a member of the YBA group (Young British Artists) which emerged in the mid-1990s as the “bad kids” of British art. (Other members include Damien Hirst, Chris Ofili, Tracey Emin, etc.). She first came to international recognition with her large casts of domestic and unassuming spaces, including Ghost, and House. Her project we’ll be looking at, One Hundred Spaces, is a grid of colored-resin casts of the full-sized spaces between chair legs, a series of descendants to the Bruce Nauman piece in our reading. Much of what constitutes the concept of formlessness in Whiteread’s work deals with memory, and marks. Memory, in the sense that the plaster, concrete and resin, numbly (and dumbly) fill the cast space with a visually metaphorical congealing of the accumulation of memories that have to do with a particular space, such as Ghost, or House, where the cast has much to do with an embodiment of what was; the metaphysical made physical. By “filling” out the shell with a continuous and tactile material, our memories and social consciousness have become a shape of what we were, or what they were: our individual and collective memories and perceptions and biases have been given a medium. In the sense of marks, the memory becomes a repeated sensation, as in One Hundred Spaces. It is more of a memorial, or record of our direct interaction with an object (form) in the guise of a chair, rather than the accumulation of memories, congealing to a massive form, such as in Ghost or House. (That is, a focus on individuals making a whole, as opposed to focusing on a whole made up of individuals - the same idea, approached from different sides). All of this is action towards finding something, or being able to recall something, for which there are little or no physical remains. Memories are like this – they may have even a small physical remnant, but even this is still a shell, containing nothing form-full of that which it signifies, or even participated in. The only thing we have is, in a true sense, “formless”. While still with Whiteread, one final point we should make about formlessness, is that this really is the crux of what is meant by conceptual art: the form resulting after the art-making is the idea: form = idea; idea = form. When these are created equally, and when the craft (physical or mental) is skilled, conceptual art is a tautology: unassailable, supremely formless, and with a limited but incredibly focused power. Therefore, conceptual art, like all art involved with the idea of the formless, is in a very real sense, empty. To be brutally honest, there is nothing there, there; it is a shadow, a shell, a Ghost. But let us not forget that the most evanescent of things may stir us to our deepest core. Emptiness does not assume vacuity. What it does signify, however, is the most important thing we could hope to approach: the spirit of creation itself. And that spirit -- or muse, as the classicists called it -- as we are finding out, is formless.
The interface between humans and the natural world, and then between humans themselves, is what concerns the next artists we will look at in our investigation of formlessness in art. Those spaces, after all, are the factories where those memories are created, which we looked at previously, that deal with one aspect of formlessness.
Ray Yoshida was a Bay-area artist, using what might be called a culling, or a hunter/gatherer motive in much of his work. In one series of his works, he went through comic books and funny pages, pulling out images related to various themes, from things as seemingly random and banal as hairdos, or as ephemeral as expressed noises – the unphysical made physical: “unh!”, “ugh!”, and so on). Again, as in Altripp, his applied technique, how he went about affixing these scraps of comic representation to his working surface is what really feeds into our idea of the formless. To reiterate the importance of the cast-and-mold metaphor, Yoshida’s comic pieces work in this pattern perfectly. Notice the blank, negative spaces between the cut-out pieces on his collage. They are a continuous pattern of silence; a matrix which makes the colorful scraps sing, and gives them that much more poignancy and importance. In the same way that John Cage insisted that the spaces between notes are what make the notes themselves viable (after all, if the notes were all contiguous, there would be a drastically-lessened sense of pattern; it would be an aural [or in the case of Yoshida, visual] assault and maelstrom.) Like those old-fashioned optical illusion tricks, like "lovers about to kiss vs. a candlestick?", or "rabbit vs. old lady?", the negative and positive are ephemeral; both have potential meaning, and neither is more important than the other. In Yoshida, the positive is given aesthetic prevalence, but without the negative, as we'll see, the positive doesn't make sense. Even in the original comic strips or books themselves, spaces are necessary; an imperative.
A further instructive definition might be to include language, or alphabets themselves in this conversation: the distinguishing between letters is what creates legibility, and the spaces are what we learn as much as the baggage that the letters carry. Otherwise, the message is going to be largely garbled and incoherent. Not only that, but importance weighs in here: the finely-tuned spaces between the color/motion/sound give to the pieces a real grandeur, dignity and value: cut out much like a well-cut mat gives a fine artwork a life of its own, while remaining in the background. And the formless is like that: it is a demurring entity, which requires us to go after it; to seek it. Only the deliberate and determined will begin to form a sense of the formless. For what else can we slaves to form do, but be dogged in the pursuit of that formlessness, which in some way is anti-matter to us, but in many important ways, the most crucial thing? In a very ironically concrete way, Yoshida is “collecting evidence" of the formless; through an ephemeral medium (newsprint; comic books) that, despite its naïve nature, was always required to crudely but effectively evoke the formless (the “biff!” and “pow!” and “sigh!” known to devotees of comics): emotions we all recognize. All of these compiled pieces of evidence of the formless add up to a more extensive and more detailed mold – yet we still face the fact that no matter how beautiful, astounding, amazing or scandalous the mold – we still have to imagine and speculate on the cast (the form). This is the quandary of an artist interested in finding (or following, as we are always a few steps behind) the formless form. In various ways, we all “collect evidence” (unless we are a dyed-in-the-wool skeptic, and then we collect anti-evidence) of the action of the formless; the spiritual in our lives: unexplained coincidences; chance meetings; which prove to be linchpins or watersheds, etc. Artists take these mysteries and make them into profundities and beauties. But for many of us, they remain simply mysterious phenomena.
Back to Nauman: one of the first thoughts upon considering this concrete cast, of his chair (space), might be at its mundanity. It is indeed a mysterious and captivating object, connected to an equally captivating idea and inspiration – but nonetheless, it is utterly mundane. Even the material underlines its mundanity and everydayness: concrete is ubiquitous to most of us. In fact, even the “unseen” mold – the chair – is known to have been steel – again, mundane. So, whence the mystery we feel? An important point about the investigating of the “formless” in art is how transcendancy is found in the everyday. In daily forms, patterns, habits and marks may be found the formless mystery and presence which surrounds, and is between them. To reiterate about Yoshida – the mundanity of the spaces (paper! - another utterly ubiquitous material) between the collected evidence of the formless (comic book cutouts) become indispensable to the discovery (recognition, really) of that formless. Before Nauman cast his chair bottom’s space – it was a non-entity. But because of Nauman's artifice, our perception has changed; we've become newly aware of the space between material, becoming material in its mimicking of our heightened perception. Forgive the crass analogy, but it is the first spike of realization in puberty, of the reality between the other gender's legs. In fact, it still is largely a non-entity – and that’s the point again: this form recorded the presence of what was formless – like petrified offal of a prehistoric worm or animal. One can hardly get more mundane than that – yet the thing which formed it – the intestines, etc. – is gone, forever…and therefore, the resulting object is a thing of mystery and wonder – despite its mundanity. Therefore within the mundanity of life itself the form-full evidence of the formless can be found most readily and convincingly. What is a cathedral, synagogue or other holy space, other than a place which “contains” a spirit; a community formed within another form – signifying formlessness. On their own, again, these spaces are merely material accumulations (brick; stone; wood; metal) in the form of a building. It is our perception of them, and of what fills them, and especially of what we bring to them, that make them special. This whole result though, remains largely formless. But it is scarcely different than an artist bringing to the creative process firstly a mental idea, and matching it with a physical material or materials, and attempting to get a sense of what form that formless sense may take. Some would also include, along with built chapels, etcetera, natural places; canyons; mountaintops; glades and forests. For many, (and for many millennia, to aboriginal groups) these certain spaces have had a grandeur and presence which is seemingly collected or gathered there, and is available to all who enter with an open heart - but it is still a formless concept - we encounter it spiritually, not formally. And that concept is what formless art is trying to grapple with.
We'll end with two brief glances at two very different artists, both of whom, however, approach the idea of formless in art-making. Agnes Martin is an artist who comes to mind, this time in the world of deliberately two-dimensional work, of a person “recording” the formless, through such recognizable and familiar means such as line, color, space (or spacing) and format. And yet, as we’ve seen, pure abstraction is an ideal only; all art, even Nauman, Martin, etc, have some resultant form to illustrate formlessness. If we dispersed with form all together, we’d be left in a vacuum. All art is by its nature form-based, however minimally because it is created by humans, wholly slaves to form. So inevitably, we continue to return to the paradox of formless form, or the form-of-the-formless. There are so many examples; we could go on for a long time: Alfred Stieglitz’s photos of clouds (Equivalents); genre paintings of historical events, etc. – all shells. But our artists in spotlight; Altripp, Yoshida, Nauman, Whiteread, etc, have taken the search for the formless several steps further: they have presumed to attempt a filling of the Space, or the vacuum, and accentuate its numinous nature by deliberate and intentional abstraction. Art, especially contemporary art, is audacious! And human audacity time and time again is what made the gods angry – but intrigued them deeply, nonetheless (think of their anger towards the audacity of Prometheus sharing the power of fire with humans). Think too, of someone like Duchamp, who in making his “erotic objects”, (casts of his lover’s vaginal cavity, etc.) was trying, however psychologically and possibly crassly, to come to some embodiment of an emotion; a passion; an obsession; a “formless” entity or state which they shared, and which he wanted to hold on to; to share; to analyze; to “bring out” into space. Shocking still, yes; but also touching in the unique way it conducts the investigation into the spiritual in art.

(To see cited Alo Altripp's work, please visit the Barnes Foundation!)

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