Art of Its Own Making: The Pulitzer explores how unseen influences affect our perception of art

Feb 27, 2014 at 4:00 am
Installation view of the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts' main gallery: Art of Its Own Making, 2014.
Installation view of the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts' main gallery: Art of Its Own Making, 2014. David Johnson

Hands down, one of the most consequential pieces of ceramics to emerge last century has to be the Bedfordshire urinal, which in 1917 was available for purchase at JL Mott Ironworks, a plumbing supply company in Manhattan's Flatiron District. Not that the Bedfordshire was much to look at. Made of white porcelain, its sole decorative element was the simple fluting that circled its rim.

But this urinal was destined for great things.

That April, the artist Marcel Duchamp bought one of the urinals. He scrawled "R. Mutt 1917" along its rim, re-christened it Fountain, and submitted it, unsuccessfully, as a sculpture in that year's exhibit by the Society of Independent Artists. With this simple act, Duchamp transformed the urinal from lowly pissoir into what was arguably the century's most important work of art — one that questioned not only the role that cultural context plays in our appreciation of art, but the very nature of art itself.

"Whether Mr. Mutt made the fountain with his own hands or not has no importance," Duchamp wrote, arguing in The Blind Man that his urinal, reimagined, was as much a work of art as any other. "He CHOSE it. He took an article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view — created a new thought for that object."

The art world has been reeling ever since, as subsequent artists have continued to probe how subjectivity, cultural context and the life of the object inform our notions of what art is and can be. These questions and more receive a particularly cerebral treatment in Art of Its Own Making, an understated exhibit now on view at the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts. Organized by Gretchen Wagner, the exhibit draws on works from the past 50 years to examine how environmental factors, often imperceptible, continue to "make" works of art once they've left the studio.

With its emphasis on unseen influences like wind, gravity, air pressure and oxidation, Art of Its Own Making is one part science experiment, examining how artworks respond over time to subtle atmospheric shifts. Take Tony Conrad's Yellow Movie 3/5-6/73, where the artist painted a large piece of photo paper with a rectangular field of white house paint. Although Yellow Movie (1973) would seem to have a firm foothold in painting, Conrad meant it to be viewed as a film — a film whose narrative emerges not over the course of a few hours, but rather over the course of a lifetime, as the work responds to its surrounding environment, subtly evolving from a field of pure white to one of mottled yellow. Of course, it would be easy to dismiss Conrad's Yellow Movie (perhaps retitling it Watching Paint Dry for the Rest of Your Life, Contemplating Futility, Packing Shotgun Shells), but something more interesting is at play here. Conrad may have instigated the work, but now, some 41 years later, Yellow Movie is as much a product of its own history as it is of Conrad's hand. The work has become a collaboration of sorts between the artist and the environment. It has developed its own narrative and accrued new meanings, so that seeing Yellow Movie in, say, 1981, would have been quite a different experience than seeing it in 2014.

The role of the unseen resonates throughout Art of Its Own Making. In Belgian artist Edith Dekyndt's marvelous Ground Control, for instance, we see how our mere physical presence alters the environment to affect this sculpture — a 59-inch diameter polypropylene sphere filled with helium and air. Sometimes Ground Control rolls away when visitors enter the Pulitzer's rear gallery. Other times it oscillates slightly before floating toward the ceiling. At still other times it just sits there. Is Ground Control responding to the weather? Is it responding to us? What about gravity? And does it bounce around like that when no one's watching? We don't know for sure, but these shifting and invisible environmental factors give the sculpture an enchanting life of its own.

The idea that artworks evolve, transforming over time as they continue to "make" themselves gets a particularly interesting treatment in Nam June Paik's Zen for Film, a work that is near perfect in its simplicity. Residing in the Pulitzer's lower rear gallery, Zen for Film consists of little but a film projector that casts a continuous loop of blank film on the wall. The projection becomes increasingly complex as the film continues to run, developing its unique patina of nicks and scratches. The work, another collaboration, is constructing itself before our eyes, increasing its complexity until its final creative act — the breaking of the film, its own destruction.

Many of the show's works demand a high degree of viewer engagement, requiring that we not simply observe the works as aesthetic objects, but actually enter their symbolic logic. That's certainly the case in Sam Lewitt's Stored Value Field Separator (svfs 12), a spine-like wall sculpture of serried hard drive magnets and used gift cards — the unseen physical infrastructure of our increasingly digital lives. Others, however, are also gorgeous to behold, like Agnes Denes' arresting Pyramids of Conscience, a group of four Plexiglas pyramids that serve as the show's visual anchor. Three of the pyramids are filled with elements we see every day but rarely think much about: St. Louis tap water, Mississippi River water and 150 gallons of used motor oil ("curated" from the service station around the corner). The fourth pyramid is made of mirrors, reflecting the viewer in relation to these oft-unseen elements that here are given a new physicality.

Make no mistake: Art of Its Own Making is not a show that will make your heart race. There are no scandalous Duchampian gestures here. Rather, like many Pulitzer exhibits, this is a quiet, contemplative show that appeals more to the head than to the heart. It does engage the imagination, however, and once engaged, this very smart exhibit proves fertile ground to explore the unseen forces that imperceptibly shape so much of our conscious experience.