Camouflaging Over Totality

John C. Welchman





We might consider Jan De Cock's work as an action addressing a mass, loosely on the model of the loudspeaker; except, of course, that his is a PA system issuing sheathing not sound. First, the works can be imagined as the infinite unpacking of the speaker box, the tessellation of all that is concentrated into an echo chamber unfolded in an extension that still resonates. Secondly, the works manoeuvre themselves across the surface of public spaces that are also meeting places or points of cultural transit. They aim to infiltrate that portion of the space they occupy through a kind of ambient visibility, that rhymes with the penetration of sound in large or exterior spaces engendered by the loudspeaker. Thirdly, it is of the very nature of the Denkmal that it amplifies the structures and surfaces it covers. The primary coordinates of the artist's mission are addition and extrapolation. Its spatial matrix is organised around building-out; just as the loudspeaker functions by sounding-through.


The technics of both initiatives are characterised by a limit horizon before which either sound or cladding blurs and fades. For De Cock this is the liminal zone where his interference terminates or otherwise gives up, while its catalytic structure continues on, eventually becoming itself again. In the sonic arena governed by the loudspeaker an analogous, frayed borderline governs the edges or interference corridors of the zone of amplification, prompting awareness of sound as a temporary infiltration and as a social instrument. Finally, both the structural and sonic discourses interleaved here are fuelled by an imagination of, and dependency on, the monument. The loudspeaker lends to the regime of sounds - especially human utterances - that were formerly just soft and loud, private and declaimed, a new volume and power that is intrinsically monumental and at the same time confers the status of monumentality on the speaker or point of origin.


Thinking through the model of the loudspeaker we can better understand how the subtly obtrusive omnivoyance of De Cock's erections is administered through the logic of a fade - the zone in which sound gives way, on the one hand; the point of defection in De Cock's monuments from the imagination of total coverage, on the other. What results in each case is a baffling system that from certain points of view or listening positions seems total and complete, but which, from others more remote or obtuse, is revealed as a camouflage thrown over silence or structure.





There have been many incarnations of the studio in the history of visual modernism, from its designation as an alternative exhibition space pioneered by the Impressionist group when they borrowed Nadar's photography studio for their first group exhibition in 1874, to the bohemian garrets and lean-tos epitomised by the Bateaux Lavoir in Monmartre in the early 1900s. While the studio has been subject to a reflexive modernist appearance as representation (in the Red Studio, 1911) of Henri Matisse, for example), or as an Existential correlate of pictoriality (in the late work of Philip Guston); while it has been fetishised as a primal zone of expressivity (Jackson Pollock's Long Island barn floor; the paint be-smeared enclave of Francis Bacon's studio, moved from London to Dublin in 1998) or a hallowed area of composition (Piet Mondrian), its precincts have been radically renovated in the last few decades. Perhaps there are three vectors in this reformulation: the abandonment of the studio, symbolised by the ethos of 'post-Studio' in the eponymous class taught by John Baldessari at the California Institute of the Arts, Valencia beginning in the early 1970s; the refurbishment of the studio as an emblem of visual display; and the formation in recent years of the mega-studio.


It is this last appearance of the studio, one associated above all with the locative work of Paul McCarthy, that interests me here. For McCarthy the studio has operated in a split range of functions, modifications and detours that, thought together and in mutual relation, offer a summation of its postmodern extension as a symbolic location brokering what Ralph Rugoff refers to as the "continuous overlapping of traditional boundaries between images and concrete spaces".[1]


The studio has long been a special place for McCarthy, serving as a privileged arena for his heterogeneous inscriptions and a matrix of sets and locations for performance or projection. These were raised to a flashpoint by the extraordinary, perceptual vertigo of The Box (1999), with its 45 degree rotation of the entire contents of the artist's house-studio near Pasadena and its uncanny suspension in an eerily, endless list. McCarthy's recent Pirate Project, shown in Paul McCarthy: LaLa Land Parody Paradise, Haus der Kunst, Munich, Germany in the summer of 2005, trumps even the grandest of these. In Pirate Project the studio becomes an enormous lair swarming with actors and extras, assistants and special effects people, film crews, technicians and hangers-on. At some moments the professional apparatus in the space is deployed as it would be in a Hollywood film set; at others the on and off-camera worlds merge without jurisdiction, just as the sets and props shift from backdrops and objects to the different valences of sculpture and installation.


De Cock's modus operandi shares something of the scale and functional overlaps of McCarthy's film-and-special-effects studio model; but it extends its logic and expands its geographies. For the recent Denkmal 53 (2005) at Tate Modern, for example, De Cock choreographed the dispatch of more than a dozen containers to the Thames-front precincts of the Tate, where he established a kind of art camp of supplies, tools, machinery, materials, and a fabrication crew. This operation involved neither a suspension of the studio's function and its eclipse by the specificity of the site, nor yet another scalar expansion on the terms of the mega-studio. Instead, De Cock has renegotiated a centripetal orientation for the studio. Rather than acting as a stationary point of manufacture into which raw materials flow and from which finished products are exported to an exhibition location, the studio itself is re-located to the site and the whole spectrum of activities it subtends are re-enacted in apposition to the structure that the work will eventually modify by supplementation. The work-in-progress of the appositional studio is thus logically similar to the eventuating relation of the finished artwork to its location. Both inhabit the same adjacent spaces around the margins of the museum, and De Cock, in fact, uses the profiles and orientation of the containers as part of the blueprint for the Denkmäler they engender.


The footprint of the studio thus becomes a silhouette for the fabrication process to which it gives rise, while the spaces it occupies disgorge materials that are enmeshed to form a skin around it. Following the logic of plywood composition, the studio for De Cock is dissolved or combined into the product it begets, and marked into the Denkmäler as a grain.





De Cock confers titles on his work that have two points of reference. First, all his interventions are called Denkmal, or monument; and secondly, they each bear a signature number that correlates with the street address of their location. Thus, Denkmal 47 (2004) is titled after the address of the Stella Lohaus gallery, 47 Vlaamse Kaai, in Antwerp; Denkmal 9 (2003) after the address of the Henry van de Velde University Library, Rozier 9, in Ghent; and his book is Denkmal ISBN 9080842419 after its international publication identification number. This nomenclature has several consequences and effects. From a historical point of view, De Cock has engineered another of his signal dialogues with the language of the modern tradition. His deployment of a single term coupled with a number is, in part, a commentary on the distinctively modernist development of serial and abstract titles.[2]


The use of sequential numbering was popularised in the 1890s by Paul Signac who titled his paintings with opus numbers on the model of the musical score. While the general semantics of the modernist title were reorganised by a constellation of artists, from James McNeil Whistler, who appropriated more musical signatures using the terms 'arrangement' and 'symphony', through the proliferation of single-word titles, or part-titles, such as 'impression', and 'composition' (the key titular term for the pioneer abstractionists, Mondrian and Wassily Kandinsky) to the apogee of non-specification enshrined in works designated 'untitled'. The musical analogy and the contraction of the title to a single word, and eventually to the zero-sum end-game of 'untitled', would seem to correlate with the genealogy of modernist abstraction and the referential closure of the work of art to all but formal signification.


 By reconstituting the numbered work, De Cock has opened up the operational field of the numerical sequence, crossing its abstract logic with the arbitration of specific locations enshrined in the western system of street numbering. He has thus coupled his nominal numerals with the coding of geographical place and the spacing and effects of neighbourhood lots or structures it entails. He has also re-routed the abstract contingencies of sequential numbering in several ways - by inventing his own maverick Fibonacci series as his integers zigzag between 47, 9, 53, 7, and so on; and by recycling the interval between the specific and the random which his titular gestures subtend through the fundamental conditions of the marketplace - property, value, order and identification.


 Finally, each numbered work is tethered not only to the institution in, on and around which it is constructed, but also to the declarative solidity of the monumental. De Cock's insistence that each of his works share the unitary designation Denkmal sets in motion a second intervention in the history of modern titling that runs intermittently parallel to the first. The term Denkmal underscores the material palpability and social presence of the artist's projects, but at the same time forces us to confront how, precisely, they are 'monuments' and how they negotiate and reorganise the traditional attributes of monumentality: scale, materiality, national or social memory, temporality, gravitas, civic sanction and public visibility.





De Cock, of course, is not the first artist specifically to address the resonances and reversed histories of the monument that were all but abandoned by visual modernism. Perhaps the most significant previous intervention is 'The Monuments of Passaic', the annotated diary of a bus-trip taken by Robert Smithson to Passaic, New Jersey on September 30, 1967, the ostensible object of which was to photograph and document five dissident 'monuments'.[3] This text is important, for in it we find a predictive, if overwrought, allegory for many of the later investments made by De Cock in the relation of the monument to time, writing, number, name and production.


For a start, Smithson reels off his own elaborate and entropic numerology, which acts as a decaying refrain in an essay of which the first paragraph contains seven numbers, and the final six, none at all. Beginning, then, with the date of the journey, Smithson's vernacular indexes include: "the Port Authority Building on 41st Street and 8th Avenue"; "ticket booth 21"; platform 173"; "the number 30 bus"; "331/3% off"; "XVIII-XIX Century English Furniture"; '"Moving a 1,000 Pound Sculpture Can Be a Fine Work of Art Too'"; "page 31 in Big Letters"; "Highway 2"; "my Instamatic 400"; "A date flashed in the sunshine … 1899 … No … 1896 … maybe"; "six large pipes … that suggested six horizontal smokestacks"; "YOUR HIGHWAY TAXES 21 AT WORK - Federal Highway Trust Funds 2,867,000 - U.S. Dept. of Commerce Bureau of Public Roads State Highway Funds 2,867,000"; "1968 WIDE TRACK PONTIACS"; and "ASA 125 22 DIN". In addition to the Port Authority that is located in relation to its position within the numbered grid of Manhattan streets, Smithson embeds a subset of particular interest among his diverse number systems of dates, public transit, finances, and product designations. This comprises two street addresses, "253 River Drive" "a place where the Passaic Concrete Plant … does a good business in STONE, BITUMINOUS, SAND, and CEMENT"; and "the Golden Coach Diner (11 Central Avenue)", where Smithson had lunch and reloaded his Instamatic camera. Given Smithson's abiding concern with place, site and location, the numerals comprising an address seemed weighted here with added significance, in a manner that points the way to their annexation by De Cock as the defining integers of his oeuvre.


When it comes to titling the only visual representations of the monuments offered by the essay (six Instamatic snapshots used as illustrations), Smithson, like the later De Cock, terms them all 'monuments'. Like the later De Cock, again, he qualifies each with a different set of attributes; but unlike their presence in the work of the younger Belgian artist, these are not numbers derived from addresses, but parenthetical descriptors: The Bridge Monument Showing Wooden Sidewalks; Monument with Pontoons: the Pumping Derrick; The Great Pipes Monument; The Fountain Monument: Side View; The Fountain Monument - Bird's Eye View; The Sand-Box Monument (also called The Desert). Smithson's qualifiers offer a mini-reprise of subtitling types, including motif ('Pumping Derrick') and detail ('Wooden Sidewalks'); viewpoint ('from the side and bird's eye'); and an alternative or metaphorical title in which the 'Sand-Box Monument' is also designated as 'The Desert'.


Of course, this nominal regimen is more elaborate than De Cock's, and Smithson also has to hand a theory of exchange between language and things - the poetics of which he plays out in greater detail elsewhere. Here, however, the appositional adjectives of his titles find their counterparts in the adjectival demeanour of his locale: "Passaic center loomed like a dull adjective. Each 'store' in it was like an adjective unto the next". We understand from this something of the redemptive allegorisation that the older artist attempts to visit on the landscape he traverses and records. The central proposition of the essay - that the monuments Smithson encounters are "ruins on reverse", that they "don't fall into ruin after they are built but rather rise into ruin before they are built" - is engineered around the visual and textual appropriation and recontextualisation of part-zones of the industrial and vernacular landscapes he encounters. The series of relatively unremarkable locations become monuments by virtue of the re-framing and re-nomination undertaken by the artist. At the same time, his titles and photographs merely confirm the presence of syntactical and filmic qualities and mirror relations that were already inherent in the 'monuments' before his arrival. Some of this transformation arises from the artist's formal and subjective consumption of the cityscape and landscape, his gestures of re-reading it into another order. Thus, at one moment in Smithson's journey a Howard Johnson's Motor Lodge flying by outside the window of his bus becomes a "symphony in orange and blue". This is no innocent analogy, but rather a deliberate allusion to the titling procedures of Whistler, who, as we noted above, used the musical designations 'nocturne' and 'symphony', coupled with dominant colouristic effects and often supplied with descriptive subtitles (as in Symphony in White, No. 2: The Little White Girl, 1871, or Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, 1877) to advance his views on decorative composition.


De Cock counters Smithson's semi-ironic, crypto-Romantic, visionary zeal ("[t]his monument of minute particles blazed under a bleakly glowing sun, and suggested the sullen dissolution of entire continents"), with a return to the matrix of the museum or gallery, which he simultaneously wraps, ruins and recasts. While Smithson used language, temporality and solitary wandering to weave his monuments into their new locations, De Cock deploys a studio team and elemental fabrication units - plywood, board and bolts - literally flaunting the common construction that seemingly incarnated Smithson's ruinous future (a suburbanisation of the planet on the incremental, adjectival model of the Passaic centre augmented by an infinite mirroring of its adjacent parking lots).


On the other hand, it would seem that De Cock, like Smithson, has found new grounds for monumentality under cover of the void. In Smithson's case the great void that stands ready at the conclusion of all entropies is symbolised, quite literally, by the punctured landscape of Passaic which, he writes, "seems full of 'holes' compared to New York City, which seems tightly packed and solid". These holes, he continues, are, "in a sense […] the monumental vacancies that define, without trying, the memory traces of an abandoned set of futures". De Cock works with the void in a rather different way, though as Marc De Kesel has argued, he reaches for an analogous extreme of absolute absence, predicated on a view of "humankind" as the "void" subject of representation.[4] For both, too, the museum is a premium location for the negotiation with nullity. In one of his briefest but most rhetorically visionary texts, 'Some Void Thoughts on Museums' (1967), Smithson argues that the sequences of privileged objects confined in a museum precipitate an awareness of representational history and abstract temporary which "span everyone's own vacancy".[5] For Smithson the void at the centre of the museum is a symbolic implosion wrought through the over-memorialisation of static cultural artefacts. De Cock's conception of the void is more constructed. It is articulated in the process of cancelling, hiding or re-orienting through coverage and camouflage as the museum is subject to enclosure, partly boxed up and boarded in - and in the gaps between, infiltrated by the same elements now configured as pseudo-utilitarian objects.


As has been well-established by commentators on De Cock's work, as well as by the artist himself, the German word Denkmal carries with it connotations better rendered in English as a combination of 'monument' and 'memorial'.[6] The interposition of temporal and elegiac considerations is another mark of the dialogue between Smithson's and De Cock's work on the grounds of the monumental. For if Smithson's monuments are ruins in reverse, De Cock's are the reverse of reversed ruins: they are cocoons and extrapolations that incubate symbolic structures into surrogate rejuvenation. De Cock's memorial is a replicating parasite that entombs its host site, transforming it into a corpse but then forcing it to escape into an afterlife imprinted with its image. Thus is the memorial commandeered and the monumental delivered into recognition as its camouflage peels off.



The Grounds of Ply


Most of De Cock's recent Denkmäler have been made with one predominant material - his signature green-stained and varnished plywood or concrete shuttering fibreboard. In addition to moisture-resistant green he has also used red and white (melamine) finished variants, the latter, for example, in Denkmal 5-12-3 in Tokyo. The artist's view of this substance, and his use of it, is succinct: "[i]t's an honest material that doesn't distract attention from the form".[7] Like many of De Cock's statements, this pronouncement is disarmingly simple. His valorisation of 'honesty', barely tinged with irony, one feels, seems utterly complicit with the modernist mantra of 'truth to materials', reinforced in a dutiful continuum by several generations of twentieth century sculptors who argued for the co-dependency of the form and meaning of their work with the innate properties of its governing materials - the grain of wood, the veining and weight of stone, the texture and burnish of bronze, or the sheen and smoothness of polished metals like brass, finished steel or aluminium. Yet, when we consider the shift at stake in the move from traditional 'art' materials and their modernist successors, it is immediately apparent that the grounds for De Cock's conjunction of 'truth' and 'materials' have also mutated. In what, precisely, we might ask, does the honesty of plywood consist? De Cock has already delivered one response to this question by suggesting that plywood is by its very nature self-effacing, that by virtue of its commonness or ubiquity, its non-art connotations (or whatever it is the artist has in mind) it brokers a kind of material invisibility that promotes and gives precedence to the form it nevertheless outlines and realises.


 I want to argue that the implications of this effacement and putative invisibility can only be grasped if we try to understand first, something of the history of plywood as a material, and second, some of the circumstances and effects of its annexation by the art world in the 1960s, and the spectacular reinvestment in ply that began in heyday postmodernism in the 1980s and has only accelerated and proliferated in the ensuing quarter century.


While the origin of the lamination of woods probably dates back to independent technologies developed in both ancient Egypt and pre-Ming dynasty China, and while Western pre-modern plywood generally used decorative hardwoods for the fabrication of domestic items (cabinets, desktops, etc.), the appearance of "construction plywood made from softwood species" is a distinctively twentieth century phenomenon.[8] The first patent for plywood was issued in 1865 to a resident of New York City, who never made commercial use of it.[9] It was only during preparations for the 1905 World's Fair in Portland Oregon that the era of plywood manufacture began using Pacific Northwest softwoods. Commencing with simple door panels, the plywood industry coupled with Detroit in the 1920s to produce automobile running boards, and thanks to a series of technical innovations, including the invention of a waterproof adhesive in 1934, and the consolidations sponsored by the Douglas Fir Plywood Association formed a year earlier, plywood emerged as an archetypal standardised commodity.


The extraordinary success of plywood in the construction industry was engineered under the popular advertising slogan of the late 1930s and 40s, 'Dri-Bilt With Plywood'. According to the American Plywood Association (APA), "more than a million low-cost Dri-Bilt homes were constructed featuring DFPA-trademarked PlyScord subfloors and sheathing, PlyWall ceilings and walls, PlyPanel built-ins, and PlyShield siding".[10] And in 1940, the association sponsored The House in the Sun, the first of many plywood demonstration houses. In 1944 the industry's 30 mills produced 1.4 billion square feet of plywood; by 1975 U.S. production alone exceeded 16 billion square feet. In the 1960s further new technologies enabled the cross-gluing of veneers of wood from different points of origin. This resulted in a wholesale reorientation in the geography of plywood production from its historical zones of origin in the US North West and Canadian British Columbia: some two thirds of all US production is now generated by Southern manufacturers, using Southern pine.


We are already in a position to glimpse some of the 'honesties' of plywood, which clearly functions as a 'higher' emblematic and composite truth against the singular or whole truth (and nothing but) of high modernist materiality. Plywood plays a role in relation to real-world construction as 'the original engineered wood product' which is analogous to the position of collage in art world composition. This is how the APA defines the evolutionary innovation of plywood:


It was one of the first [products] to be made by bonding together cut or refashioned pieces of wood to form a larger and integral composite unit stronger and stiffer than the sum of its parts. Cross-laminating layers of wood veneer actually improve upon the inherent structural advantages of wood by distributing along-the-grain strength of wood in both directions. This idea of 'reconstituting' wood fiber to produce better-than-wood building materials has led in more recent times to a technological revolution and the rise of a whole new engineered wood products industry. In the late 1970s and early 80s, for example, the plywood principle gave rise to what today is a worldwide oriented strand board, or OSB, industry. Instead of solid sheets of veneer, OSB is made of small wood strands that are glued together in cross-laminated layers.[11]


The market-driven positivism evidenced here notwithstanding, the notion of the composite reconstitution of a natural material that - in certain dimensions at least (strength, durability etc.) - trumps its originating parts as 'better-than', has important implications. For a start this residually avant-gardist idea does more to promote the invisibility of the material than assert its presence. For it is the very purpose of contemporary plywood that it effaces its constitution behind a smooth façade that stands ready to be primed or painted or subsumed within environments where it is seldom the object of attention or focus. Secondly, the hyper-abundance of plywood and the measurement of its production in multiple billions of square feet, grants it invisibility by virtue of its sheer ubiquity. Thirdly, as the APA informs us, plywood has within the last generation achieved a large measure of universal standardisation, thus administering the death-knell to global traditions of social and architectural locality. One can now purchase an 'off-the-shelf' cupboard that might be almost identical in Belgium and Britain, but also in Bahrain and Botswana. Fourthly, industrial plywood is participating in a great cover-up as its volumes, whether buildings or closets, boxes or cabinets, are devouring the habitable space of the planet, and assisting in the great transformation of forest into suburb. It obviously behoves this operation to be as silent and stealthy as possible.


 We can, however, only infer so much from the point of view of plywood as a mega-commodity subject to an almost infinite range of uses or applications, from DIY to poly-fabrication. Even though it has the status of an insignificant asteroid in the cosmos of industrial production, there is, of course, a parallel history of plywood as it crosses into the domain of experimental art. In the mythology that underwrites this minor narrative, plywood's primal emergence in the art world arrived with the Minimalists, who prized its self-evident modernity, simple specificity and the fact that even in flat sheets it seemed to infer the arrival of basic, object-like forms. But while it may be short, the story of the acceptance of plywood as an artistic material is far from simple. At every turn in the reviews and criticism of the mid-1960s the use of plywood in the new object-based sculpture is tentatively acknowledged, but rarely annotated and almost never asserted. It appears that plywood's journey into art was founded in an inaugural version of the silence, restraint and invisibility that De Cock rejuvenates.


In a well-known passage in his manifesto 'Specific Objects' (1965), Donald Judd, for example, offers a paen to the new, mostly mass-produced and industrial materials deployed in the three dimensional work under discussion. He mentions Dan Flavin's use of "fluorescent lights" and lists "formica, aluminum, cold-rolled steel, plexiglass [sic], red and common brass, and so forth" as examples of what he terms 'greatly various' materials that "are simply materials".[12] The word 'plywood' is not even used in this signature essay, despite that fact that several of the works illustrated, including his own (Untitled, 1963) are - if I am seeing it correctly - made from ply. The omission is all the more strange because of the point Judd is at pains to make - that modern mass-produced materials signify simply as themselves and are thus not over-coded with tradition or authority like paint and marble. The commonness and rhetorical restraint associated with plywood would seem to fit this argument perfectly - rendering all the more surprising its utter omission.


Perhaps plywood is so effective as an agent of silent self-referentiality and so successful as the substance of the non-composed and neutral objects for which Judd advocates that he has literally overlooked it? Or perhaps it is too weighed down by associations with the traditional materials that make it up? Or is it that plywood's composite nature, a hybrid of the natural and the artificial, gets in the way of the singular qualities and functions that Judd clearly prefers? Whatever the case, plywood's key role in the development of Minimalist sculpture is subject to numerous other evasions in addition to Judd's.


 Even the signature usage of plywood by Robert Morris in an exhibition at the Green Gallery, New York in 1964 that has become one of the touchstones of the Minimalist movement, attracted little contemporary or subsequent comment. In the first sentences of his review in Arts Magazine in February 1965, Judd himself notes that the show featured "seven large plywood pieces" and that "[t]hey're all shaped geometrically and painted Merkin Pilgrim gray, which is light".[13] Judd's contention is that Morris's objects "are fairly ordinary geometric objects and a very ordinary color, but they have been built. They've been made on purpose, not found, to be minimal, unimportant, relatively unordered objects".[14] The covert and subtractive logic that Judd brings to Morris's work begins with the material that so effectively fosters these values, but in the course of its development commits only to the elaboration of its more general effects.


If we go back a few months to Judd's review of the exhibition Black, White and Gray at the Wadsworth Atheneum (January 9 to February 9, 1964) which appeared in Arts Magazine in March 1964, we can find the grounds for the dialectic between material affirmation and absence spelled out in much the same terms but perhaps a little more clearly:


Morris's work implies that everything exists in the same way through existing in the most minimal way, but by clearly being art, purposefully built, useless and unidentifiable. It sets a lowest common denominator; it is art, which is supposed to exist most clearly and importantly, but it barely exists. Everything is caught in between and flattened.[15]


Judd's formula for the material constructedness of Morris's work, which he claims as one of its most salient characteristics, is almost precisely the same here as in his later piece - the sculptural objects on view are 'purposefully built' in March 1964, while 'made on purpose' in February 1965. But while plywood is the agent or catalyst of this purpose, the resulting sculptures are, at the same time, 'useless and unidentifiable'. It is the lot of the plywood that makes them up to take on the burden of this uselessness and lack of identity. Put another way, the elevation of a plywood object into 'art', defined by the mission, purpose and deliberation of the artist, must be accompanied by a proportional diminution as the work plays out its destiny in selective self-declaration and flatness. Plywood assists in a general refurbishment of the category of art as it strives for what Judd suggestively terms its lowest common denominator, basic properties and principles that can't be subtracted from a fabrication and exhibition process already based on minimisation.


What Judd claims for his colleagues' work is underlined in Morris's own reflection, 'Notes on Sculpture' (1966).[16] Beginning with the generic distinction between painting and sculpture, predicated on "the sculptural facts of space, light, and materials", Morris reflects here on the general determinants that inform the new three dimensional work of the 1960s: unitary form; gestalt; shape; scale; placement; temporality; and environmental situation. While specific kinds of shapes - such as cubes, pyramids, polyhedrons (simple and irregular), beams and modular units - are mentioned to further his arguments about the appearance of works, Morris nowhere itemises or discusses their material constitution. At the end of the second part of the essay, Morris offers a rationale for this 'abstraction'. Reeling off his own list of properties - "the particular shaping, proportions, size, surface of the specific object in question" - he notes, first of all, that they are "still critical sources for the particular quality the work generates". But at the same time, the new objects have engendered another layer of referentiality that effectively keeps this preliminary one (the material substrate) in check: "[b]ut it is now not possible to separate these decisions, which are relevant to the object as a thing in itself, from the decisions external to its physical presence". In addition, the materiality of sculpture has been digested (as in Judd's notion of 'purpose') under an artistic command structure that functions not with physical stuff but as a series of 'decisions'.


All this helps us realise that plywood plays a special, perhaps unique, role in the generation of Minimalist objects that is all the more powerful by virtue of going unreported. Coated with 'light' and self-effacing colour, primary shapes made from plywood probably represent the maximum in the lack of inflection promoted by Judd and others. For unlike the materials in Judd's list, plywood in this condition exhibits a general absence of innate properties: it is not transparent, reflective, burnished, coloured, textured or weighty. 1964 was the heyday of plywood; for while it was used with some frequency in the years following, Morris moved on to fibreglass and steel, and Judd preferred to use it in combinations, especially with Plexiglas, which, as Yve-Alain Bois put it in a recent comment, "subtly modulated the lackluster bluntness of the plywood".[17]


It would not be farfetched to argue that the era of aesthetic invisibility ushered in by the Conceptual generation at the end of the 1960s was anticipated by the discursive reticence of plywood. Nor is it surprising that after the neo-Expressionist rebound that followed, plywood was finally permitted both the self-declaration and dissemination so long denied it. If the Minimalist push for perceptual generality kept plywood submissive, then the postmodern ambience of irony and iteration granted it a new permission to be seen - right through to its grain, as in the work of Sherrie Levine or Ian Wallace. Other work from this era alluded to the mass-production and commonality of ply, crossing it with both the leading issues and rival materials of the day: the formation of identity and the photographic. In her Ego Geometria Sum (I Am Geometry) (1983), the late Helen Chadwick made ten large schematic plywood forms "reductions of everyday objects - a boat, a couch, a baby carriage - covered with ghostly photographic images, many of the artist herself, nude".[18] Here the plywood becomes a cipher mediating between diagrammatic reduction, familiar everyday objects and the photographic presence of the artist's body.


More remarkable, perhaps, is the arrival of plywood in the succeeding generation as the emblematic material of work that defined itself in relation to design, architecture, construction and model-making. One mode of appearance for plywood in these genres replayed aspects of its earlier subordination, but with less deliberation or completeness. In work by Andrea Zittel and others, plywood is used as a form of substructure that supports various modules, combos and value-ads as other materials (and concepts) are joined to or stacked on it. Sometimes this function is made literal as in the predella-like plywood slabs that supported the paintings of Marisa Merz at the Christian Stein gallery in NY (2005). Sometimes plywood forms an architectural frame that is then embellished with other materials, as in Dan Peterman's Ville Deponie (2002), a hut made of plywood to which layers of adaptively recycled sneaker material are affixed. But there is also a strand of work in which demonstrably visible plywood is situated on the precise threshold between art and design, as in the lamps and other objects (some hanging in Tate Modern as I write) made by Jorge Pardo from low-grade, unfinished ply.


If substructural subordination and designed-blurred declaration form two axes for the deployment of plywood in recent years, much of the best work in this material sets out to explore the less predicated in-between or to complicate and finally dissolve this polarity. The installations of Manfred Pernice, for example, set up relationships with modelling, scale, and design elements such as modular furniture; but the structures, consisting of "partially painted particleboard, scored or cut as though halfway to assembly", also take aim at the gestalt wholeness and completion craved by the Minimalists.[19]


Two projects, in particular, advance this revisionism further but at the same time extend the long-lived association of plywood with blankness, nullity and withdrawal. For his mid-career survey at the Boijmans Museum in Rotterdam, A Retrospective (Tomorrow Is Another Fine Day) (December 2004 to February 2006) Rirkrit Tiravanija offered up empty plywood simulacra of seven gallery spaces in which he had exhibited over the last decade and half. Tiravanija has wittily exploded the dependence of plywood and its discrete objects on gestalt and placement; and at the same time deferred what have become the normative aspects of their dependence on metaphorical relations with architecture and design. Like De Cock he used boards as both container and screen, and deliciously served up spectators as sculptural subjects under the confinement of ply. For Tiravanija, too, the system of blanks is animated (this time literally) by a sonic element - though not in the form of public address using a grid of loudspeakers but through private input through the ear-plugs of personal players which give a singular sonic and temporal dimension to events that have irredeemably transpired.


Half a decade earlier Giuseppe Gabellone made a photograph (Untitled, 1999) of an elaborate plywood construction of ramps, stilts and spirals - something like a cross between a gargantuan late Stella and an Escher-ish go-kart track - set in an anonymously grandiloquent warehouse-like space, which it filled edge to edge.[20] After taking the photograph for which it was intended, one of the largest and most complex plywood 'sculptures' yet achieved was summarily dismantled and abandoned. Side-stepping the constellation of issues that surround the fetishised purity of the art object (which have recently erupted in debates on the conservation and recreation of Minimalist objects, Judd's in particular), Gabellone makes literal - and instrumental - the art world half-life of plywood that has been implicit since the 60s.


Around the turn of the millennium, in the so-called 'Ikea-art' craze that was especially strong in Los Angeles and Berlin, plywood endured an almost hallucinatory presence in the art world as its structural allusionism ran wild. It even brokered Richard Long's transition from the traversal of physical sites to recent gallery works which use raw plywood inscribed with basic geometries and function both as paintings and sculptures. At the same time, it has been reassociated with the nomadic by Joost Conijn, who in 2001 built a wood-fuelled plywood car and drove it around Europe, its forward motion and his sustenance eked out with the charity of strangers.


Under cover of this circus of usages, plywood is in danger of becoming a mere cardboard cutout of itself - which, in some sense, I suppose, is little more than to suggest it has fulfilled the destiny ordained some forty years ago when the art world hijacked it from the DIY store. As a seasoned pioneer in plywood's apotheosis, however, De Cock has digested most of the lessons served-up from the 1900s on, and allied these with a more knowing and ironic sense of plywood's Minimalist imaginary. His Denkmäler are extruded through a double space opened up for the monumental by experimental art and its artist-authored theorisation in the decade between 1964 and 1974. We have examined one side of this new agenda represented by Smithson's ruinous monuments and the entropic forfeitures of the museum. On the other side is Morris's polarity between human and monumental scale, the foothills among which he sanctions the resting place for the Minimalist object. But Morris, like Smithson, leaves an aperture in his reckoning with the monumental that De Cock moves in to fill. "Things on the monumental scale", Morris writes, "include more terms necessary for their apprehension than objects smaller than the body, namely the literal space in which they exist and the kinesthetic demands placed upon the body".[21] De Cock's response is not founded on trumping or even outflanking either the entropic decay of Smithson or the kinaesthetic perceptualism of Morris. Instead he conjoins both possibilities by propagating the visible disguise of the monument. Think of it like this: the green of De Cock's plywood is the positive or visible term in the displaced patchwork matrix that operates as one side of a camouflage system. As he works predominantly with architectural and urban sites, De Cock, of course, has replaced the simulated biomorphic lattice of traditional camouflage with a rectilinear grid of plates and boxes, whose structural articulation is hidden between the covered institutional object and its new surface. As Roger Callois might have put it, De Cock's great cover-up turns kinaesthesia into psychasthenia and ruins into legends, with intimations that the memorial has not really cheated death, it simply becomes it.



  • Notes:
  • [1] Ralph Rugoff, 'Mr. McCarthy's Neighborhood' in Paul McCarthy, London: Phaidon, 1996, p. 82. This discussion is adapted from John C. Welchman, 'Haus, Hinterhof, Atelier, Kulisse: Paul McCarthy's Arbeitsräume', Texte zur Kunst [Atelier], 13, 49 (March 2003): pp. 105-111.
  • [2] For a discussion of the implications of this history, see: John C. Welchman, Invisible Colors: A Visual History of Titles, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997.
  • [3] Robert Smithson, 'The Monuments of Passaic', Artforum (December 1967), reprinted as 'A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey' in Nancy Holt (ed), The Writings of Robert Smithson, New York: New York University Press, 1979, pp. 52-57.
  • [4] Marc De Kesel, 'Invaginatio Transcedentalis: On Jan De Cock's Randschade/Collateral Damage', in Jan De Cock: Denkmal ISBN 9080842419, Brussel: Atelier Jan De Cock, 2004, p. 61.
  • [5] Robert Smithson, 'Some Void Thoughts on Museums', in Holt (ed), The Writings of Robert Smithson, p. 58.
  • [6] Denkmal also "knowingly alludes to Adolf Loos's famous quip in 1909 that the tomb (Grabmal) and the monument (Denkmal) were the only architectural forms that could rightfully be considered art. Apart from meaning "monument" and "memorial", "Denkmal" can also be phonetically understood as the German slang imperative denk 'mal, meaning "think about it". By imploring his viewers to "denk 'mal", de Cock brings monuments and memorials back to life, pulling them from dusty history into our living world". Jordan Kantor, 'First Take', Artforum (January 2005).
  • [7] De Cock, cited in Frame Magazine 43 (March/April, 2005),,5259.html
  • [8] American Plywood Association (APA), 'Milestones in the History of Plywood'
  • [9] The re-issue of the 1865 patent, on August 18, 1868 by John K. Mayo of New York City stated that "The invention consists in cementing or otherwise fastening together a number of these scales of sheets, with the grain of the successive pieces, or some of them, running crosswise or diversely from that of the others […]".
  • [10] APA, 'Milestones in the History of Plywood'.
  • [11] APA, 'Milestones in the History of Plywood'.
  • [12] Donald Judd, 'Specific objects'(1965), in Complete Writings 1959-1975, Halifax and New York: The Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design and New York University Press, 2005, p. 187.
  • [13] Donald Judd, 'In the Galleries [Robert Morris]' (1965), in Complete Writings 1959-1975, p. 165.
  • [14] Judd, 'In the Galleries [Robert Morris]', p. 165.
  • [15] Donald Judd, 'Nationwide Reports: Hartford [Black, White and Gray]'(1964), in Complete Writings 1959-1975, p. 118.
  • [16] Robert Morris, 'Notes on Sculpture', published in two parts in Artforum (February and October 1966); reprinted in Gregory Battcock (ed), Minimalism: A Critical Anthology, New York: Dutton, 1968, pp. 222-35.
  • [17] Yve-Alain Bois, 'Specific objections', Artforum (Summer, 2004).
  • [18] Barry Schwabsky, 'Helen Chadwick: Barbican Art Gallery', Artforum (September, 2004).
  • [19] Lytle Shaw, 'Manfred Pernice: Anton Kern Gallery and Storefront for Art and Architecture', Artforum (May 2004): "Manfred Pernice's recent show, art disentangled itself from, and then remerged with, modular furniture: Dinged plywood benches each formed of three open cubes and positioned against a gallery wall led into more elaborate "banks" in the center of the space, some built of concrete with inset tiles, others of partially painted particleboard, scored or cut as though halfway to assembly".
  • [20] For a discussion of recent relations between photography and sculpture, including comment on this work by Gabellone, see 'Image structures: Mark Godfrey on photography and sculpture', Artforum (February 2005).
  • [21] Morris, 'Notes on Sculpture', p. 231.