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Phenomenology

In “Notes on Sculpture II” and “The Double Negative: A New Syntax for Sculpture,” authors Robert Morris and Rosalind E. Krauss, respectively, successfully appropriate Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s theories on perception as a backbone for their own arguments. To fully understand how and why these authors look to Merleau-Ponty, it is necessary to outline his most important assertions. In his chapter of Phenomenology of Perception, “The Thing and The Natural World,” Merleau-Ponty posits that perception is a system of meanings by which a phenomenal object is recognized. In that, every conscious action and every experience is channeled through perception; therefore, one and one’s perception of the world are inextricably linked and mutually involved. The foundation of his argument, that the world and its parts are subject to perception and we the humans consciously attribute meaning to the world, is essential to the formulation of Minimalism and its desire to relocate origins of meaning to the outside.[1] In the writings of Morris and Krauss, it is evident that many characteristics of Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of perception align with notions of Minimalism: the body/the object is not only a thing, but a constant condition of experience; objects and experiences are subjective; empiricism and/or rationalism does not explain the consciousness-perception relationship, such that, the evaluation or definition of an object can go beyond both reason and experience; associative forces can shape perception; objects reflect each other in time and space: reflexive/reflection; existence and content legitimize and explain each other; and the axiom, “I think, therefore I am,” is abandoned, as experience transcends thought. This shared ideology is visually manifested through the artistic language of Minimalism.

Robert Morris, Minimalist and author of “Notes on Sculpture,” discusses the function of Minimalist sculpture as purposefully ineffable and whose perceptive meaning cannot be derived from the object itself. In that, the meaning of these works of unitary forms, is established only by the energy provided by the gestalt and its inevitable exhaustion. Indeed, this presents a clear relationship to Merleau-Ponty’s theory in which he claims that a human encounter with an object is temporary and unfixed, as we experience objects and their meaning through an integrated yet boundless world. Each experience, then, establishes a gestalt, which is ultimately exhausted and replaced by a new gestalt. Morris agrees with Merleau-Ponty that when confronted with an object, the apprehension of this gestalt is immediate causing the experience of said object to only exist in time. Morris writes, “…once [the gestalt] is established it does not disintegrate. One is then both free of the shape and bound to it. Free or released because of the exhaustion of information about it, as shape, and bound to it because it remains constant and indivisible.”[2] Here, Merleau-Ponty’s notion is called to mind: the function of consciousness is not only to represent or to signify, but also to engender and develop sensory material that will free an object from its determined meaning.

Morris further utilizes Merleau-Ponty’s concepts in his discussion of Minimalist “structures” or “objects,” and their central placement on the size continuum, which spans from ornament to monument. Morris’ assertions on the quality of intimacy, perception of relative size, and awareness of scale, within the context of human interaction with a three-dimensional object, are guided by Merleau-Ponty’s notion that space is a manifestation of external experience and not a physical arena occupied by external objects. In that, when Morris writes, “The awareness of scale is a function of the comparison made between that constant, one’s body size, and the object,”[3] he pulls directly from Merleau-Ponty’s claim: “It is, therefore, quite true that any perception of a thing, a shape or a size as real, any perceptual constancy refers back to the positioning of a world and of a system of experience in which my body is inescapably linked with phenomena… it is my involvement in a point of view which makes possible both the finiteness of my perception and its opening out upon the complete world as a horizon of every perception.”[4] This idea is visually manifested within the Minimalist aesthetic, which espouses an art object that is reflexive and that heightens one’s awareness of oneself within the work, as it demands interaction between the object itself, its container, and the person moving within it. Here, it is apt to discuss artworks mentioned in Rosalind E. Krauss’ “The Double Negative: A New Syntax for Sculpture,” which presents a range of Minimalist artists and works that appropriate Merleau-Ponty’s object-horizon system. The Minimalists promote a compositional aesthetic that relies on the notion that one (viewer/participant) is able to distinguish perceptual objects from each other due to the object-horizon structure.

Krauss commences her argument asserting that, “Minimalist sculpture began with a procedure for declaring the externality of meaning.”[5] Transcending shape and substance, these sculptures seek meaning from the outside, thus, they abandon Descartes’ accepted truth “I think, therefore I am,” which is internally established, and replace it with an ordering system recognized as coming from outside the work.[6] Krauss investigates this notion through a comprehensive study on many significant Minimalist works executed by artists such as Robert Morris, Carl Andre, Richard Serra, Eva Hesse, Michael Heizer, and Robert Smithson. She finds that their sculptures, earthworks, or videos all function “to formulate a notion of the self, which exists only in that moment of externality within that experience.”[7] The artists (and Krauss), then, accept Merleau-Ponty’s rejection of Descartes’ axiom, as it does not consider that consciousness is influenced by spatial bodily experience.

These ideas become apparent in Krauss’ discussion of Michael Heizer’s earthwork entitled Double Negative, 1969. This work functions as a literal, visual rendering of Merleau-Pontyian thought with its incorporation of the mirror. Clearly relying on the phenomenologist, Krauss concludes, “Heizer’s image therefore depicts the intervention of the outer world into the body’s internal being, taking up residence there and forming its motivations and its meanings.”[8] The author’s assessment of this work is informed by the belief that bodily experience gives perception meaning beyond what is established by thought alone. Another work explored through use of Merleau-Ponty’s concepts is Richard Serra’s Stacked Steel Slabs, 1960. In examination of this highly unusual work, Krauss relies on the phenomenological notion that existence realizes itself through material substance. She claims that Serra’s verbs used are generators of art forms,[9] meaning, the stuff of the work expresses or infers the existence of a whole artwork.

Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of perception can be considered the written document to Minimalism, its visual-aid counterpart. Because his theories are so well suited for this type of aesthetic, it is interesting to imagine other applications of his ideas to art. We can, indeed, apply his notions to our experience with Jesús Rafael Soto’s Penetrable, 1990. This work, which consists of square arrays of thin, dangling tubes, is interactive as it allows its observers to walk through it.  Due to the necessary interaction between composition and viewer, the piece is only complete with viewer participation. In concordance with the ideologies of Venezuelan Kineticism, Soto’s Penetrable presents phenomenological questions of perception by means of color and movement. Moreover, it functions as an object that resolves barriers between artist and audience with the direct involvement of the individual spectator. Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology can also be applied to Carlos Cruz-Díez kinetic works such as Handmade (Fisicromia no. 23), 1961. Unlike traditional Kinetic art, which includes physical moving elements, Cruz-Díez’s painting expresses movement as an optical illusion, fabricated by use of light and vibrant color. Degrees of vertical lines are rendered, so that upon viewing the work, formerly hidden colors and forms materialize, making the work an object of movement. A phenomenological read is therefore demanded, as the motion of the composition is totally subjective; it is generated by the individual spectator’s experience.

Works Cited

Krauss, Rosalind E. "The Double Negative: A New Syntax for Sculpture." Passages in Modern Sculptures. MIT, 1981. 266-88.

Merleau Ponty, Maurice. "The Thing in the Natural World." Phenomenology of Perception. 2nd ed. Routledge Ltd, 2002. 348-402.

Morris, Robert. "Notes on Sculpture II." Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology. University of California, 1995. 228-35.

[1] Rosalind E Krauss. "The Double Negative: A New Syntax for Sculpture." Passages in Modern Sculptures. MIT, 1981. 266-88.

[2] Robert Morris. "Notes on Sculpture II." Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology. University of California, 1995. 228-35.

[3] Morris, 231.

[4] Maurice Merleau Ponty. "The Thing in the Natural World." Phenomenology of Perception. 2nd ed. Routledge Ltd, 2002. 348 402.

[5] Krauss, 266.

[6] Krauss, 270.

[7] Krauss, 267.

[8] Krauss, 280.

[9] Krauss, 276.

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