Hammer Museum, Los Angeles
February 7–May 24, 2015
As early as 1978, Charles Gaines claimed to have “eliminated chance.”1 How? One method would be to control and suppress every contingency; many have tried, all have failed. A second and opposite option, however, would be to activate all contingencies at once—achieving a totality, a oneness, within which every possibility of every element of the universe coexists in synchrony. In such a state, distinctions of all kinds would be irrelevant—chance, art, signification itself—a mindboggling order, yet one perhaps closer to the goal of the incremental experiments in drawing, each manageably framed yet tending toward this absolute proposition, gathered for this retrospective of Gaines’s early work.
The first frame is this selection of years (1974–89): an arbitrary bracket placed along the abscissa of an artist’s career. This exhibition is a retrospective of early work pertaining, simply, to works by Gaines that employ his version of the Cartesian grid—systematized applications of formulas, photos, and drawings, which over the course of single series produce dense composites of their input, resulting despite themselves in more or less affective and often beautiful compositions.
Beginning with Regression, proceeding through Calculations, Walnut Tree Orchard, Faces, Color Regression, Falling Leaves, Incomplete Text, Shadows, Motion: Trisha Brown Dance, and ending with Numbers and Trees, Gaines produced several discrete yet interrelated series, each comprised of sets of framed triptychs or tetraptychs or, ultimately, series of paintings on Plexiglass boxes. At the Hammer, the show is hung chronologically, one series after the next, reiterating this programmatic method. The Regression works represent the artist’s first and purest foray into the Grid. Round shapes of increasing density, if not complexity, emerge from unknown functions plotted from the y-axis of hand-drawn graphs—a gesture that establishes an objective, conceptual coolness against which all else is a fuming, expressive mess. The rigor of Conceptualism, after all, requires faith in arbitrary rules—as all rules, excluding perhaps those of physics, are not natural, a priori, but rather social contracts. Such systems are a means to reveal the failure of objective systems. And not only because the systems break down or are inadequate but also, insofar as they output and support information, they are vulnerable to the aesthetics of information. Gaines fills each square in the grid activated by the underlying system with a number, signifying its distance from the start (in Regression and Calculations, the y-axis; in later works, the x-axis, or the “center” of the grid). Numbers 99 and 88 use more ink than 1 or 0; higher values appear darker and, especially in the higher resolution drawings, inflict a chance gradient. Almost immediately, as in the oft-cited 4’33” span orchestrated by John Cage in 1952, aesthetic accidents invade the arbitrary frame. The impossibility of the human rendering of perfect systems exacerbates the problem. The handwriting in the Color Regression works is noticeably hurried; some works include transcription errors.2 There can be, it seems, no control.
A structuralist piece such as Cage’s points out how music meters time; here, the Grid makes explicit how artworks meter space. Just as time is infinite, and the discrete designation of minute or year is dependent on the chance operations of our planet’s orbit and axis, the Grid itself hasn’t any rational conclusion. “Logically speaking,” writes Rosalind Krauss, “the grid extends, in all directions, to infinity. Any boundaries imposed on it by a given painting or sculpture can only be seen—according to this logic—as arbitrary.”3 Each sheet of paper, each frame, each discrete artwork, clips off and isolates a fragment of what is understood as an indefinite, autonomous, infinite Grid—a mathematical, orthogonal ideal, extant independent of its representation, indeed, less present here than invoked. Nor is it clear, within the totality of Gaines’s work on view or otherwise, why one series ever stops. Walnut Tree Orchard, which maps the bare branches of a walnut tree first in a photo, then in two gridded drawings, contains twenty-six triptychs, but could contain 26,000, or as many photos as walnut trees on earth, with thousands of perspectives on each tree, and this making no provision for growth and decay. There are twelve sets at the Hammer. The particulars of these selections, which follow the practicalities of mounting an exhibition, suggest the arbitrary nature of curation. Substitution of the twenty-first in the series for the twentieth would likely go unnoticed.
In the middle panel of Orchard, Gaines transposes the photo into an outline on a grid, the drawn lines of which are both brutally specific and rigorously expressive. The Tree stands in for a kind of found expressivity—a series of “arbitrary” marks, a natural system nonetheless tempered by its translation onto the grid. “Flattened, geometricized, ordered,” writes Krauss, the Grid “is antinatural, antimimetic, antireal. It is what art looks like when it turns its back on nature.”4 With Walnut Tree Orchard, we arrive at Gaines’s preoccupation with the limits of representation—a dualism between “expressivity” and the “real” in which Gaines sets traditional aesthetics (based on self-expression, affect, and irrationality) against objective, supposedly non-signifying systems. The third panel of each triptych represents a given tree as a set of numbers superimposed on the numbers generated by each previous drawing. The last panel in the last (twenty-sixth) series, then, is, up to that point, the whole orchard. Even within this limited abundance, the idea “tree” approaches its abstract status as sign (it is, after all, one of Saussure’s favorite examples); even the photos seem symbolic of every tree, “The Tree,” mapped onto “The Grid.”
Gaines recalls a formative encounter with the undifferentiated, nonsubjective expanse of the Grid:
This curiosity started long ago, as I mentioned, but one important moment of its consideration happened 40 years ago [circa 1969] as I was listening to John Coltrane’s “Love Supreme,” one of the most amazing pieces of music ever produced.5 It was the “hippy” era and somehow marijuana entered my bloodstream. As I was listening to Coltrane’s riffs in my living room, I suddenly lost my sense of place and sense of time. I was engulfed in sound to the degree that it became physical. I could feel the cells of my body separating and floating away. This frightened me and with one great effort, I recovered my sense of self.6
Here is an episode of self-loss, self-discovery—indeed, a first, traumatic encounter with metonymy. This linguistic concept refers to a figuration constructed from continuity—between adjacent elements or elements that are part of the same whole. No longer “his” cells, the cells and body of one Charles Gaines, they became simply “the” cells. Had Gaines not “recovered,” he would have experienced a state of unmodulated universe, where even the word “cell” ceased to signify. The ideal Grid represents infinity, oneness, a lack of signification within which everything is contiguous. But the Grid as represented, as drawn, can only contain and link signs; signification persists. The Grid in this sense establishes a metonymical part-of between everything supported/surrounded/contiguous with the Grid. This includes the possibility of metaphor. Yet the concept that startled the artist into retrieving “himself” soon became the central antagonism of his thought, writing, and work. Gaines came to see metonymy as the antidote of metaphor, which in his formulation provokes affective feelings rather than critical thought. For Gaines, the metaphorical argument makes illogical leaps to reach its conclusion. The metonymic argument, in contrast, lends itself to logical, contiguous progression. The latter recalls Jack Burnham’s description of Systems Esthetics (published in Artforum in 1968, it’s likely that this essay also somehow entered Gaines’s bloodstream) as art that “embraces a series of absolutely logical and incremental changes.”7 This against the “fevered iconoclasm that accompanied the heroic period from 1907 to 1925,” the stuff of painting. Gaines relinquished painting in 1972, turning instead to the systematic production of triptychs and tetraptychs in which each panel bears a contiguous, logical relationship to the preceding panel, and where each series in turn builds on the other. This reading is contingent on the work escaping the syntax of its installation; the show’s previous hang at the Studio Museum in Harlem was achronological. If the Hammer provides a Gaines diachrony, the Grid allows us to easily imagine an alternative, synchronic read.
Indeed, the Coltrane episode seems to foreshadow the program-aesthetic problem that would guide Gaines’s mature work—in particular the period of the present exhibition—but also in not-yet-conceived non-grid pieces. How to return to this frightening yet somehow enlightening moment of ego-death? Perhaps through work that denies all evident subjectivity and rejects affective ploys on the part of the artist. Gaines compares what results to Zen or Tantric diagrams: themselves dissociated from thought, yet structures for the viewer’s subjective reactions.8 Gaines invokes the Grid, enacts the system, presents the work—which then prompts the viewer’s own excursion into the nonhierarchical pathways of representation. Each piece, or segment of a piece, follows decisions based not on spontaneous self-expression (which falls under metaphor in Gaines’s rubric) but on the associations generated in the course of carrying out a program—a contiguous series, series of series, set of sets—a metonymic progression. Gaines hopes to engage the transcendent possibilities of art while avoiding what he distrusts more than the temporary loss of subjecthood: the illogical leaps of metaphor.9
Determinations are made at the outset, rather than on the fly—therefore skirting expressive tweaks. The first representational leap, put through a series of systemic/contiguous decisions, is the black-and-white photograph. The world appears (to most humans, at least) in color; the black-and-white image registers as objective, but also artificial, reduced. Color, though, adds complexity—further layers of authenticity, perception, falsity; an extra value for each “grain” or pixel: light to dark, red to violet. Indeed, the large-format camera incorporates a grid on its ground glass, marking the ideal against which we gauge distortions in perspective and focus. The opening and closing of the camera’s shutter enclose arbitrary intervals of light. Yet photography also exhibits the most polyvalent signification—registering index/icon/symbol—in fact an illogical, unstable place to start. The Falling Leaves works, appearing near the middle of the exhibition, are the most semiotically developed of the Grid series, and therefore adjacent with nearly every other grouping in ways beyond the common fact of the Grid: in use of tree, triptych structure, superimposition, color pens, and (now color) photography. Significantly, the series incorporates not merely a third-panel superimposition, as with Walnut Tree Orchard, of forms and drawings but also of time. The image itself, which represents or rather has been generated by the rates of leaves falling from the trees pictured, invokes the passage of seasons, life and death, the extra-human. The third panel, with rates of leaf-loss climbing each column, is cumulative, multiplied, until the numbered squares come to cover the increasingly bare tree; the data produced by the system literally exceeds the tree drawing itself. In Incomplete Texts, every other letter of an initial passage falls, leaf-like, into the next frame. Motion: Trisha Brown Dance applies Gaines’s system to subjectively selected photos of a body traversing space.
The earliest works deny any biographical input—aside from our assumptions that it was Gaines who saw this or that tree, drew this or that grid (eventually, he began using assistants). A later series, however, reveals a distinctly subjective correspondence with the dancer Trisha Brown. In Faces, the subject matter set into the Grid is not just faces—human surfaces, emotional/racial/categorical signifiers—but the particular Fresno milieu of the university where Gaines taught. Here the second panel of each diptych is subtitled with the sitter’s name—revealing such “subjects” as artist Terry Allen and writer and composer Eugene Zumwalt. Choice here is not arbitrary but coincident, adjacent—evidence of interpersonal contact.
From this point until 1989, the conclusion of the present grouping, the subjective grows more insistent. Yet throughout, the Gridwork incorporates human intervention through the simple fact that each piece is a drawing—down to the lines of the grid itself. This physical investment in the making of each piece signals a reluctance to give the artwork over entirely to mechanization; systems are one thing, automation would be another. The artist hand-renders the system, maintaining that, even if no subject has injected the work with affect, there is nevertheless a subject behind it: Charles Gaines.
At the Hammer, the curators include two vitrines of biographical material in the center of the middle gallery (this subset of the chronology bookended by Falling Leaves on one end and Motion: Trisha Brown Dance on the other). A selection of gallery announcements for shows at Leo Castelli/John Weber Gallery, Margo Leavin, et al. compliment the “subject-less” grids with a more quotidian (albeit orthogonal) assurance that Charles Gaines led the life of a proper Conceptualist, exhibiting at the right galleries and in the right group shows and biennials. His first brush with metonymy in the late 1960s presaged an appropriately structured career in the 1970s and 1980s. Painting renounced, the Grid embraced—each artwork a metonymic piece.
As Kaja Silverman points out, the process of signification is in fact congruent with the process of subjectification as described by Freud.10 Gaines would reject a Freudian reading of his work, insisting that he takes his cues from cognitive linguistics, not psychoanalysis.11 “There is so much we agree on,” writes Gaines to his colleague Leslie Dick, “but I think our differences regarding metaphor/metonymy are due to our different source material, you and psychoanalysis, me and cognitive linguistics.”12 His distinction between metaphor/metonymy prefigures the lines he draws between fields of study. Yet Silverman also remarks that, as Freud’s model of the subject is also a model of semiotics, the markers of various disciplines collapse, are composited, into the overlaps of their contiguous terms. In Gaines’s work, no less than anywhere else, both metaphor and metonymy are inextricable from the ongoing formation of a/the subject.
Yet the pure, abstract Grid remains untroubled by, indeed threatens, the possibilities of a subject defined through representation. Proceeding from the initial contradiction that the Grid has been rendered at all—a primary failure to represent an ideal—the Grid exhibits a paradoxical lack of signification—representing a base mathematical understructure free of inaccurate attempts to represent. In practice, the mystical, psychedelic aspect of the Grid is always supporting or concomitant with reality—a reality as portrayed by signs. “The grid’s mythic power,” writes Krauss, “is that it makes us able to think we are dealing with materialism (or sometimes science, or logic) while at the same time it provides us with a release into belief (or illusion, or fiction)”13—as when the Grid emerges as an aspect of the trance or trip. “Somehow marijuana entered my bloodstream.” But not only the drug, also the riffs of John Coltrane, which provoked a concentration so intense, so in tune with the bars of music roiling in succession, as to induce self-shattering meditations on the infinite.
Gaines’s circa 1969 experience of Coltrane figures that of many other drug-takers: the loss of discrete self into the contiguity (oneness) of the cosmos—that is to say, into a radical metonymic state. For Foucault, writes Sadie Plant, the mescaline trip “was thinking at its most worthwhile: a thinking that might find a way to cut through the familiar categories that organize and classify the self and the world. It was a loss of logic, an abandonment of will.”14 Deleuze and Guattari, no strangers to mescaline and LSD, perceived their share of infinite-repetitive fields—for example, a thousand plateaus—and concluded that the final cure for the painful, schizoid, and doomed ordering of the universe through signs would be nothing less than the end of signification. The cells fly apart, the discrete entity loses its sense of self, the conscious being has no sign to call its own. This, however, is not strictly desirable. “You don’t do it with a sledgehammer,” they write. “How necessary caution is, the art of dosages, since overdose is a danger.”15 Better to explore, in small doses, what this universe would resemble: the undifferentiated, unframed Grid.
Thus Gaines sustains in his work a contradictory tension between representation and the lack thereof, discrete artworks and continual process, metaphor and metonymy, cropped and infinite. The Grid functions to suspend such contradictions in the narrative of an artwork—or, here, of an artist—“to allow both views to be held in some kind of para-logical suspension.”16 “By virtue of the grid,” writes Krauss, “the given work of art is presented as a mere fragment, a tiny piece arbitrarily cropped from an infinitely larger fabric. … Yet the grid also points inward. … It is a mapping of the space inside the frame onto itself.”17 Angled in, toward the discreteness of the individual framed artwork, while also outward, toward the potentiality of the unrealized series and the infinity of the a priori, ideal Grid. For Deleuze and Guatarri, as well as Krauss, such a condition earns a psychoanalytic diagnosis: “Because of its bivalent structure (and history), the grid is fully, even cheerfully, schizophrenic.”18
In their obsessive metering of space and time, Gaines’s Gridworks restate, again and again, the failed possibility of a nonsubjective experience. Indeed, “The grid … is a mode of repetition, the content of which is the conventional nature of art itself.”19 Relentless repetition is hard-coded into the program. Yet as Gaines’s series multiply, they suggest an inability to move on—a devotion to conceptual tenets, surely, but with the increasing implication of an irreconcilable break. Gaines’s Coltrane episode marks an initial brush with the unknown that the artist would revisit hundreds of times. What follows is a parable of Modernism: at once marked by the tyranny of self-expression and what it covers over and emblematized by the radical abstraction of the Grid. Gaines reenacts the trauma of self-loss for fifteen years, in miniature, putting grids through metonymically gradual tests.
In the end—that is, in 1986–89—Gaines deliberately tempts subjectivity once more, introducing bright acrylic paint into a last series of tree works, Numbers and Trees. These pieces are uniquely aesthetic among the Gridworks, foregoing the rigid seriality and long, multi-panel conceptual frames of the past. As if to prove a hypothesis posited by Regression, an example from Numbers and Trees illustrates the cover of the exhibition catalog, and has been blown up for a giant graphic beside the gallery entrance at the Hammer. “I use color not as affective gesture,” Gaines wrote to Carol and Sol LeWitt in 1989, “but as code to establish difference.”20 Yet more than difference, this work edges still further toward a contiguous totality. Painted on plexiglass mounted a few inches above a black-and-white photo, here the suddenly radiant Grid enacts a final collapse of system and expressivity, program and affect. Plexiglass supports the painterly overlay, which, in the narrative of Gaines’s Gridwork, seems to offer something like a happy ending—if not a resolution of the schizoid leap into metonymy.
With Numbers and Trees, Gaines’s use of the purist mode of conceptual art comes to its (arbitrary) conclusion; the artist moves to Los Angeles and abandons the Grid. Yet he persists in his initial distinction between metaphor and metonymy. This separation, after all, constitutes a kind of root system throughout the Gridworks, and links them to the work that he continues to make. The Gridwork exhibition frames a period that is in many ways contiguous with his oeuvre—as a rigorous split between metaphor/metonymy itself amounts to a self-induced schizophrenic system, which—despite arguments for other understandings of the terms—Gaines, by all appearances, intends to carry out to its/his conclusion. Relinquishing this distinction, after all—letting the cells of his work drift apart into a universe unmarred by signification—would be truly terrifying.
Travis Diehl lives in Los Angeles. He is a recipient of the Creative Capital / Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant. He is a regular contributor to Artforum. He serves on the editorial board of X·TRA. He is founding editor of the artist-run arts journal Prism of Reality.
- Charles Gaines, quoted in David Hale, “All Systems Are Go,” The Fresno Bee, August 18, 1978.↵
- For example, the square root of 153 is given in one drawing as 3.369316; it is 12.369317. See Charles Gaines, Calculation of a Numerical Equation, Analysis #4, Drawing I-1 (1976). Reproduced in Charles Gaines: Gridwork 1974–1989 (New York: The Studio Museum in Harlem, 2014), 32.↵
- Rosalind Krauss, “Grids,” October (Summer 1979), The MIT Press, 60.↵
- Ibid., 51.↵
- This reference to jazz is less than arbitrary—in fact it might serve as another figuration of the Grid: time kept, metered, a series of chord changes, supporting melodies and subsequent improvisation—riffs—which build on and bend the underlying structure. Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme,” across its two sides, manages to seamlessly incorporate both long-form modal jazz and the more intricate changes of hard bop. Gaines, though, would argue that his works in fact shut down expression—that the grids he employs support not expressive improvisation (à la Ab Ex), but systems—the systematic translation of input. Thus his very first Gridworks, which here open the chronological hang, don’t expand or billow like lungs “because they want to,” don’t extend into ever more detailed parabolas for any reason other than a systemic extrapolation of Gaines’s initial, arbitrary premise—the first set of numbers, which produce the rest regardless. Here the system schedules the improv in advance—not merely suggesting harmonies, but writing out a solo, one not without its moments of beauty and mystery.↵
- Charles Gaines and Leslie Dick, “On Metaphor and Metonymy as Artistic Strategy,” Why Theory: CalArts MFA Catalog 2009 (Valencia, CA: California Institute of the Arts, 2009), 27.↵
- Jack Burnham, “Systems Esthetics,” Artforum (September 1968).↵
- For Krauss the grid is both spiritual and secular; she points out that Reinhardt’s 3 x 3 black grids “inescapably” suggest the “Greek cross.” Krauss, 52.↵
- Gaines’s favorite example is “Desert Storm.” He argues that mapping the idea of “storm” onto “army” endows the 1990/91 U.S. action in Iraq with a sense of inevitability and power. True, such a well-crafted term lends itself to sloppy, illogical reads, such that might overlook possible arguments against the invasion. Yet the Pentagon certainly used its coldest logic to choose the name. Leslie Dick points out that metaphor is not inherently dangerous or illogical; reason might use metaphor, propaganda might use metonymy. Gaines and Dick, 32, 35–36.↵
- “It has been often remarked that Sigmund Freud ‘discovered’ the unconscious, but only recently have his readers begun to observe that his discovery has as many implications for semiotics, or the study of signification, as it does for psychoanalysis, or the study of the subject. Indeed, by means of it Freud shows the two disciplines to be virtually synonymous.” Kaja Silverman, The Subject of Semiotics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983), 54.↵
- See Charles Gaines, “Reconsidering Metaphor/Metonymy: Art and the Suppression of Thought,” Art Lies 64 (Winter 2009), 48–57.↵
- Gaines and Dick, 32.↵
- Krauss, 54.↵
- Sadie Plant, Writing on Drugs (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999), 167.↵
- Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (London: Continuum, 1987), 177.↵
- Krauss, 55.↵
- Ibid., 60–61.↵
- Ibid., 60. Krauss later qualifies that “schizophrenia” and “repression” as applied to art are not technical/medical terms but rather metaphors (ibid., 64).↵
- Ibid., 61.↵
- Charles Gaines, Letter to Carol and Sol LeWitt, January 6, 1989; reproduced in Charles Gaines: Gridwork 1974–1989, 155–56.↵