Charles Long, Bill Berkson, and the impossible task.
For the September 2012 issue of the Brooklyn Rail, guest editor Bill Berkson asked art writers to take up one of two challenges: write about an exhibition or a work of art based on interpretation with no mention of the physical object, or exclusively write about the physical without a whiff of interpretation. I chose the latter path, and what resulted was this review of Charles Long’s installation Pet Sounds at Madison Square Park.
I’m happy with this review now that I see it in print (or in digital form), but I have to admit, I was really frustrated writing the damn thing. You see, I don’t believe that a person could ever write anything devoid of interpretation.
In his prompt, Berkson cited this review by Donald Judd, publish in Studio International in 1970, as an example of description sans interpretation:
“Shining Forth (to George),” done in 1961, was shown in New York this year. It’s nine and a half feet high and fourteen and a half along. The rectangle is unprimed cotton canvas except for two stripes and the edges of a third. Slightly to the left of the center there is a vertical black strip three inches wide. All of the stripes run to the upper and lower edges. Slightly less than a foot from the left edge there is a black stripe an inch wide. This hasn’t been painted directly and evenly like the central stripe, but has been lade between two stripes of masking tape. The paint has run under the tape some, making the stripe a little rough. A foot in from the right edge there is another stripe an inch wide, but this is one of the reserved canvas, made by scraping black paint across a strip of masking tape and then removing it. There isn’t much paint on either side of the white stripe; the two edges are sharp just against the stripe and break into sharp palette knife marks just away from it. Some of the marks have been lightly brushed. The three stripes are fairly sharp but none are perfectly even and straight. It’s a complex painting.
The last sentence, Berkson claims, is ”a brisk bit of cheating.” It’s that very sentence that makes the piece, an oddly accurate description of a seemingly mundane composition until Judd’s four-word assertion turns our ideas upside down: “It’s a complex painting.” Okay, yeah, that’s interpretation. Whether a painting is complex or not is probably a subjective call.
But I wouldn’t call what Judd is doing with his words in the rest of the review “objective.” The choice to describe the painting—methodically, rhythmically, with painstaking precision—is a stylistic choice, and I’d like to argue that it is necessarily an interpretive one as well. Newman’s stripes (“zips”) have been described with such gusto and embued with such power that Judd’s choice to describe them monotonously is intentional. He makes us believe the painting is boring (and does so to set up his cheeky little ending), when it very well might not be.
There is no one way to describe a work of art. It’s not a one-to-one correlation, “this description perfectly and objectively describes this work”; if that were the case, we’d never need to look at the art because the text describes it so completely. The thing is, a writer makes a choice with each word he or she puts down on a piece of paper. What you choose to include or omit, the tone you adopt, the action verbs you use to describe a static object—these all contribute to a form of interpretation, albeit a subtle and possibly subconscious one.