The Contingency of Form: Humble Materials, Perception and Process

The Contingency of Form: Humble Materials, Perception and Process

By Alexandra A Jopp

The phenomenological basis of the beholder’s experience is a necessity in Minimal art. How the viewer perceives the relationships among the various parts of the work and how he or she sees the work in its entirety is crucial. The reappearance of forms in Minimal sculpture provides highlights to the fine differences in the perception of those forms as the beholder’s perspective changes in time and space.

Gestalt theory is an important part of expressing and perceiving the meaning of Morris’s works. He describes his method of gestalt as “parts ... bound together in such a way that they create a maximum resistance to perceptual separation,” and further states that “indeterminacy of arrangement of parts is a literal aspect of the physical existence of the thing.” In his “Notes on Sculpture,” Morris writes that constancy of shape is to be obtained by the use of polyhedrons with “strong gestalt sensation.” The “existential fact of the object,” as perceived by the spectator, “enables him to become more intensely aware of other phenomena such as light, space, and shape itself.” How a viewer experiences a work of art, then, becomes a highly personal undertaking that combines sensual reaction with individual experience.

While Morris’s “Notes on Sculpture 4: Beyond Objects” offers a complex philosophic examination of recent trends in perception and the artistic process, his essay “Anti-Form” (1968) is a statement about process art and its differences from Minimal or object art. Anti-Form applies to certain types of works that react against traditional artistic forms, materials and methods, and Morris uses the term as an “attempt to contradict one’s taste.”

In Morris’s argument, the process of making a piece of art is not hidden but, instead, remains an important element of the completed work. Citing Jackson Pollock’s layers of dripped and poured paint and Morris Louis’s pouring, Morris writes, “The focus on matter and gravity as means results in forms that were not projected in advance. Considerations of ordering are necessarily casual and imprecise and unemphasized. Random piling, loose stacking, hanging, give passing form to the material. Chance is accepted and indeterminacy is implied, as replacing will result in another configuration. Disengagement with preconceived enduring forms is a positive assertion. It is part of the work’s refusal to continue aestheticizing the form by dealing with it as a prescribed end.” Morris, thus, does not argue against the form but, rather, proposes a new way to discover it through an active engagement of all kinds of materials in which the final work is open-ended and non-aestheticized.

Greenberg’s theory of purity – that art should be free of illusion and representation – is a central theme in Marcia Tucker’s essay “Anti-Illusion: Procedures/Materials.” Tucker’s view is similar to Greenberg’s formalism, where “new concerns with time, gesture, materials and attitudes takes precedence.”
Morris, Tucker and other artists and critics are creating new ways in which contemporary art can be perceived. The works by Minimal artists such as Morris, Judd and Serra offer examples of how a work’s object, subject and surroundings can be placed in a stable but open-ended structure that challenges perception and reinvents form.