The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2021

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JUL-AUG 2021 Issue
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Non-anthropocentric extension into an abstract infinite sphere

Bruce Conner, <em>Mandala</em>, 1965. Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2021 Conner Family Trust, San Francisco / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Digital Image: © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY.
Bruce Conner, Mandala, 1965. Museum of Modern Art, New York. © 2021 Conner Family Trust, San Francisco / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Digital Image: © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY.

The term “mysticism” leaves most art-world insiders cold for several obvious reasons. That category of experience is commonly taken to mean perception beyond the norm, thus a claim to higher sensory and cognitive powers. Reports of mystical states and insights are inherently unverifiable, so requiring extra-perceptual belief to be credible. When works by artists who make such claims are admired, whether by a Mondrian or a Hilma af Klint, their metaphysical commitments tend to be bracketed, noted with a certain condescension as fortunate catalysts to achievements entirely accessible to everyday vision and judgment.

But what if these commonplace assumptions are turned on their heads, such that everyday vision and judgment becomes the dubious option standing in need of justification? Certainly Robert Smithson thought so, reserving particular scorn for Donald Judd’s assertions invalidating all allusion beyond the “specific materials” of an artwork. “The use of specific materials in this context,” Smithson countered, “becomes nothing more than a personal, self-centered sense of authority.” It’s been reported that he intended a direct riposte to the pronouncement by Frank Stella, offered in a joint 1966 interview with Judd: “My painting is based on the fact that only what can be seen there is there.” The logical flaw in such pronouncements for Smithson lay in their presuming to grasp the thing-in-itself by the same empirical means that constituted the object in the first place, just as the modes of explanation in the physical sciences possess no power to account for the existence of their objects. Any serious effort to do so will necessarily be metaphysical or in Latin super naturam, that is, belonging to the supernatural dimension of thought traditionally assigned to the mystic.

Thus for Smithson the problems rightly posed by the Minimalist insistence on the thing-in-itself could only be resolved on a metaphysical level, by positing a sacramental passage within one and the same physical entity from the contingent to the eternal, from the molecular to the infinite. But the reasonable problem for those viewing his work lies in sensing such intimations (noting, say, the uncanny crystallizations on the rocks of the Spiral Jetty [1970] as anchoring the work’s sweeping compass whereby the furthest horizon is drawn inside the sculpture) while never being sure of adequately inhabiting what he called a “non-anthropocentric extension into an abstract infinite sphere.”

That phrase, however, resembles nothing so much as the language of the same period attempting to convey the peak state achieved under the ministration of psilocybin or LSD. And there exists in the person of Bruce Conner an artist of the first rank who participated unreservedly in the carnivalesque surrender of normative selfhood as it unfolded from the beginning of the San Francisco counterculture. Conner participated in the systematic use of psychedelics in psychiatric therapy, with the much-admired assemblage sculptures he fashioned between 1958 and 1964 serving, in his estimation, as “reports” of rewired associations and mental dislocations from inside psychotropic episodes: “I experienced myself as this very tenuously held-together construction—the tendons and muscles and organs loosely hanging around inside—and it seemed like at any moment disaster could strike and you could fall apart.” And from such experienced dissolution of bodily integrity he made works to match, their fragility, transparency, and stretched web-like patterns all keyed to the theme of incipient physical disintegration: the prelude in psychedelic lore to an anticipated reintegration of self at a higher level. The difference between this vision and Smithson’s lay in Conner offering an implicit invitation to join him in such out-of-the-ordinary mental states—ones congruent to the reports by mystics over centuries recounting their inner transport and heightened acuity—by partaking in the same chemical sacraments.

Such out-of-the-ordinary mental states can be understood in non-metaphysical terms as the artificial acceleration of typically inhibited, blinkered mental operations. To the adept, the hyperkinetic blizzard of impressions conveyed by Conner’s films, careening from one thought-image to the next faster than normal cognition can follow, made eminent sense as an analogue to the perceptual intensity of a psilocybin high. Much the same can be said of his work at the other end of the temporal spectrum, mandala drawings that exhibit fascinated, near-obsessive attention to texture and the minutest detail. They demanded days on end of meditative concentration to make and encouraged a cognate state of mind in their viewers—or, conversely, ecstatic release when rendered as transparencies to be splashed over the walls of the Avalon Ballroom. As Conner’s work has come to be much admired, the critical consensus has not on the whole caught up with the practical metaphysics, the induced mysticism, from which it sprang. When and if that happens, let us keep it in view.


Thomas Crow

Thomas Crow is Rosalie Solow Professor at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University. His most recent books include No Idols: The Missing Theology of Art (2017) and Restoration: The Fall of Napoleon in the Course of European Art (2018). His newest book The Artist in the Counterculture from Bruce Conner to Mike Kelley (and Other Tales from the Edge) is forthcoming.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2021

All Issues