Good for the Environment
Like Oedipus, “We saw of old blue skies and summer seas,” while channel hopping for afternoon tea. That unmistakeable five star feel. The familiar sound of crunchy gravel, stepping out of the car (carriage doors, please) to be greeted by the soothing sound of a gently flowing fountain, open entrance doors set in an archway offering a vista beyond of manicured striped lawns, French doors on either side revealing plumped up cushions on well sprung sofas, the scent of camomile candles floating through the air. Where better than the terrace of Longueville Manor in Jersey to enter a discourse on Environmental art, in an exponential swirl of increments bereft of presumption?
Is Environmental art a necessary classification in mid 20th century art? In order to answer this question, it is prudent to distinguish between two ways in which art may be related to the environment. These are approximately conveyed in the traditional antithesis between Classical and Romantic. The Classical artist presumes an established harmony between the forms in art and those in the outside world; the Romantic is aware of a disproportion.
This distinction operates in a less precise way between the fields of Kinetic and Pop art. Both are concerned with sending a special resonance into the environment. Both place great emphasis on the role of the viewer. But they differ in the relationship established between viewer and work. When Robert Dowd included a real apple and an apple painted according to the laws of perspective in the same composition, he was undoubtedly commenting upon the relationship of art to environment. The real apple was an intermediary between the canvas and the world. Sometimes it appears to belong to the environment. Other times, to the implausible shape of the canvas. It becomes a roving ambassador for Robert Rauschenberg’s ‘gap between art and life’.
An analogy is found with the paintings of Jesús Soto. They also depend on the interaction of an illusionistic background and the real objects which hang in front of it. While Dowd depended on a knowledge of pictorial conventions for effect, Soto used the disposition of the human retina. Dowd succeeds in immobilising the viewer by presenting a combination which distorts the implications of pictorial perspective. Soto, though, makes the viewer aware of mobility since it is only by passing in front of his work that its delicate spatial structure can be appreciated.
Thus the notion of Environmental art can be applied to at least two different kinds of work. Firstly, the ‘anxious’ object which illustrates a disproportion between the work of art and the environment. Secondly, and reversing Rauschenberg’s terminology, the ‘secure’ object which serves as a natural extension to the exploration of space. It is a helpful classification in mid 20th century art.
It is this second category which presents the widest range of possibilities. The Pop artist worked through existing media of representations since his output almost inevitably depended upon a tension between the object and how it is conveyed. In practice he was confined to isolated works of painting or sculpture. A notable exception to this rule is the work of Claes Oldenburg. His 1970 exhibition at the Ileana Sonnabend Gallery of sculpted ‘meat’ on rows of marble shelves resembled a Parisian butcher’s shop. But Oldenburg was concerned not so much with environment as with context. In his work the act of representation becomes non contextual placement. The plaster cast meat and the plastic typewriter are inherently preposterous because they are so blatantly remote from their original functions. A disregard for real space is revealed.
On the other hand, there is no problem of context for the Kinetic artist, no obstacle to the free elaboration of forms within space. Kinetic works automatically form part of the environment since they involve the viewer in direct physiological action or reaction. Whether it is a matter of virtual, literal or induced movement, the viewer is aware of his own responses of movement in the dialogue.
Yet there would be no advantage in using the term Environmental if it was synonymous with Kinetic. There is a difference, not simply in degree, but also in kind between works designed to animate an existing environment and works which create an environment of their own. This can be expressed as the distinction between environmental art and Environmental art.
Kinetic art is environmental art not simply because of the aesthetic factor but also because of the methods by which it was produced. Victor Vasarely’s 1950s work is an early example of the way in which the abandonment of traditional materials led to a new environmental status for art. He worked with maquettes, using projectors to determine what scale they should be constructed to in the ‘public’ versions. It is the ‘functional’ nature of the work that is important in this instance. Vasarely did not merely design specific works for specific settings, a task any artist might undertake. His method of working was inseparably linked with the notion of function since the maquette would remain no more than a blueprint if commissions were not made from it.
At the 1964 Documenta III exhibition at Cassel, the section entitled ‘Bild and Raum’ allowed a wide variety of artists to arrange their work in an environment of their choice. Sam Francis’ three painted panels were a respite from the Rococo of the entrance hall of the Basel Kunstgalle. Louise Nevelson’s dead black reliefs combined to form a small solemn room. But the seven works by Vasarely did more than lend character to the surrounding space.
Beyond their application to a particular setting, they testified to the existence of a type of creation by its very nature divorced from the traditional systems of production and exhibition. The generality of their pictorial language and the lucidity of their organisation suggested a reintroduction of traditional Classical harmony. Far from being dehumanised, they gave no hint of disequilibrium between the works of art and the outside world.
The conviction that the Kinetic artist was creating a new form of order to satisfy a human instinct that makes itself known not simply in the gallery and museum but in the community at large, was not confined to Vasarely. A decade earlier Gregorio Vardanega had proclaimed. “Luminosity, precision, harmony and especially space are elements which give a new significance to the work of art – they bring with them joy, optimism and perhaps even a less equivocal type of conduct, making their contribution towards a fuller life.”
There is of course an often insurmountable problem of realising the projects which an artist of this leaning will naturally devise. Vardanega’s project for a 20 metre high tower, with a sequence of flashing lights and corresponding sound effects, remained unexecuted beyond maquette form. Vasarely called for a new class, “the Toscaninis of the visual arts”, to investigate and carry out the environmental projects of artists. One fully signed up member had already emerged. Bernard Lassus had begun approaching the problem of animating the environment from an architect’s point of view, having carried out numerous projects in buildings.
This type of mediation between the artist and the wider environment only became accepted by the late 1960s and the beginning of the following decade. Until then, Vasarely and Vardanega were obliged to work within the previously established systems of presentation. They produced their works mainly for exhibition in galleries and museums. But times they were a-changing. Artists and groups of artists started turning to the different subject of creating an artificial environment which the viewer was able to affect, and even transform, by his own actions. Environmental art with a capital E had arrived.
The Groupe de Recherche d’Art Visuel theorised on the emerging movement. When they presented their first Labyrinthe at the 1963 Paris Biennale, the Groupe explained that this composite work was “in one sense a transposition onto an architectural scale of some of the principal aspects of their work”. They added that it was also a pointer towards new experiments involving the participation of the viewer. In the same year, the Groupe’s Julio Le Parc provided this description of a projected ‘place of activation’,
“In this place there would be neither pictures hung from the walls, nor actors; neither passive spectators nor masers nor pupils; simply certain elements, and people with time to spare. This hypothetical space could be a large room 15 by 15 by 6 metres in size, all white, with a system of panels and mobile bridges. Alternatively, a series of 50 centimetre cubes could be assembled to create different floor levels and masses.”
In concentrating their attention almost exclusively on the interaction between viewer and work, the Groupe were making a decisive departure from the systems of presentation characteristic of the visual arts. But they were not separating themselves from other forms of artistic activity. Even the choice of the word ‘Labyrinthe’ opened up a field of reference.
The aesthetic of Labyrinthe suggests a common determination to attack what Alain Robbe-Grillet called “the romantic heart of things”. It also indicated a kinship between the two strands of Kinetic art. When Joel Stein of the Groupe de Recherche d’Art Visuel criticised the ‘medieval’ view that a work of art addresses itself to the ‘noble regions’ of the mind, he echoed Vasarely’s farewell to the “art of the old world, the angel and the devil”. In fact the strands of Environmental art and environmental art may be drawn together. Both the planning of architectural projects and the construction of ‘Labyrinthes’ may be seen as mid 20th century attempts to achieve an unproblematic relationship between art and the outside world, to eliminate the anxiety which hovers round the corners of the picture frame.
Is Environmental art a necessary classification in mid 20th century art? Is art necessary? By definition, no. Art by its very nature isn’t necessary. Classifications are useful though. They’re neat, sometimes too neat. The phrase ‘Environmental art’ may not have the zing of Pop or Op or Dada but it was a movement in its own right and should be used as a category of art which emerged in the mid 20th century. Earthworks, Land art and Site Specific art would also emerge, overlapping and interweaving. Later that century Robert Smithson would build his jetty, David Nash would construct his tree sculptures and Ian Hamilton Finlay would create his garden. More cucumber sandwiches, anyone?