In a culture as visually glutted as ours, there can be something very pleasing about the ascetic embodiments of "idea art," a respite from the visual onslaughts to which we're accustomed. When you've spent the day being pummeled by advertising, one of William Anastasi's "unsighted" subway series drawings, with its two little clouds of vibratory scribble floating near the top of a small, creamy square of plain paper, is calming. Of course, as Art, its claims run much deeper. In this case, the term idea art to refers loosely to a vein of art that often stresses intellectual over aesthetic presence and has been deeply concerned with the idea of Art and the idea of the Artist.
Boise Art Museum has recently acquired one of those little drawings, along with 22 more, all in the form of a gift from the celebrated New York collector and educator Werner Kramarsky. The museum is currently displaying the group of works under the title "Idea as Art."
Kramarsky began seriously collecting art in the middle of the last century and has taken a particular interest in minimalist, post-minimalist and conceptual works on paper. The show includes works by pioneers of idea art, Sol LeWitt and Mel Bochner, as well as newer members of the club like Christine Hiebert and Eve Aschheim.
In the beginning, idea art's break with visual art seemed positively mental to some and generated enough disdain to be called revolutionary. Experts in the field are still willing to describe it in terms normally used for more heroic episodes. But looking back at things, it seems like a logical development of modernism's desire to grant art its autonomy. Idea art pushes the intellectual presence of a work by renouncing its sensual presence; it can seem like an ascetic exercise. Add to that the fact that such distillations also wick up another of art's modern purities, namely, its pure importance, and it starts to seem downright religious in nature.
The minimalists, post-minimalists and conceptualists seem less like brave explorers and revolutionary combatants and more like an insular group of nuns and monks hunkering down in an attempt to claim some territory they could call their own. Scientists were making claims that stretched from elementary particles, through human DNA, out to the surface of the moon, and entertainers were claiming the hearts and souls of the masses. What was left? Art itself, of course.
So, they hunkered down, renounced subjective distractions like emotion and illustrative references to the world and began to pursue a form of purity. Making art became about making art, and the more rigorous one could be about this tautological apotheosis the closer one would get to becoming a kind of oracle. It was as if there was a special kind of truth only art could explore and only artists had access to.
Sol LeWitt's now famous "Sentences on Conceptual Art" begins, "Conceptual artists are mystics rather than rationalists. They leap to conclusions that logic cannot reach."
Interested parties will also enjoy his Paragraphs on Conceptual Art. Read them together and ask yourself if anything could be more overtly religious.
How different in spirit are Anastasi's "sightless" drawings and Joseph Smith's work with his Urim and Thummim? To this day, when people are confronted with work like this, they become, well, a little mystified. And it's not because they're stupid. It's because the main effect of idea art's reductionism effects is to mystify. Unlike the minimalism of, say, Charles Gill's chip paintings, which seem wholeheartedly sensuous and aesthetically communicative.
Some idea art slips back toward the pleasures of aesthetics. Christine Hiebert's line has appeal. Julia Mangold's graphite works, along with the piece by the late Sol LeWitt, have graphic presence, but to really appreciate work like Steven Gwon's graph paper study, or Mel Bochner's ruler project with its tantalizing residue of erasure, you need to be a believer. And when the reductionist effect is pushed as far as Bronlyn Jones' piece pushes, it can become too gaudy and ridiculous, in its way, for even the most committed art world devotee.
The great thing about Kramarsky's collection of works on paper is the nature of things on paper. Paper has humility.
For this kind of art to be healthy, it has to be open about its mystical belief in art's pure importance. And, maybe most importantly, it has to live the way monks do, right up next to the nagging possibility that it might all be an empty projection, that they've simply made importance out of a need for importance. But the art world doesn't work that way. The possibility of an over inflated worth isn't good for investment values. The fact that this show is made small and ephemeral by being on paper helps nudge it back toward the risk and reality of humility.
Stand in front of Anastasi's subway drawing. Now, imagine you aren't in a museum, you're on the subway. The man next to you has a drawing board across his lap. He is holding a pencil in each hand at right angles to his body and allowing the movement of the train to guide the pencils across a small piece of paper. His eyes are closed. He knows it is foolish and needy to be doing such a thing and that there is only a chance it is channeling anything of value. Now we're getting somewhere.