Content Becomes Something to be Avoided like a Plague
Critical Episodes (1957-2011). MACBA Collection
As part of the exhibition Critical Episodes (1957-2011). MACBA Collection, Level 1 of the Museum presents two new episodes of the MACBA Collection. The first Content becomes something to be avoided like a plague presents works by artists such as Art & Language, Raymond Hains, Nigel Henderson, Robert Morris, Robert Rauschenberg and Antoni Tàpies.
In the mid-twentieth century, as Europe was emerging from the post-war period, a new model of painting had taken hold. Abstract Expressionism, which had developed in America, abandoned representation of any kind. Paintings had become a field of perceptual stimuli. By the sixties, a series of voices within the field of painting itself began to speak out and challenge this way of understanding art. Significant counterproposals included incorporating objects into the painting surface, using images from advertising and photography, applying an analytical approach to the artworks, and exploring their relationship with their exhibition context.
Urged on by the filmmaker Pere Portabella, Joan Miró – who was quite old by this time – erased the mural he had painted at the Barcelona headquarters of the Col•legi d’Arquitectes de Catalunya, with the help of the building’s cleaning staff. The year was 1969, and Miró’s gesture encapsulated much of the debate that had sprung up around the painting genre – a debate that sought to break the hold of Abstract Expressionism and the verdict of one of the most influential art critics of the twentieth century, Clement Greenberg, when he said that ‘content becomes something to be avoided like a plague’.
While artists like Robert Rauschenberg and Antoni Tàpies incorporated three-dimensional objects into the flat surface of the canvas, Raymond Hains and other followers of French New Realism drew on consumer culture. Hains worked with the practice of décollage, tearing off fragments of images on advertising billboards. Similarly, the photographer Nigel Henderson, who joined the Independent Group at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London in 1952, used landscape photographs as the base for his work. The movement known as European Pop art thus made use of found objects and images.
The work of Àngels Ribé and Joan Hernández Pijuan took the analytical revision of art even further. In one of her body actions, Àngels Ribé followed the angle of aperture of the gaze with her eyes, objectifying the gaze by disconnecting it from its object. While this artist emphasised the visual condition of art, Joan Hernández Pijuan took painting to a state of maximum reduction, transforming the canvas into pure chromatic vibration.
In the context of the modern idea of art as pure perception, the spaces where art is exhibited and the discourses that engage its audiences take on sexual connotations that are parodied by artists such as Andrea Fraser. In an incognito performance in one of the spaces of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, this artist followed the instructions of an audio guide that encourages visitors with messages such as ‘Enjoy, experience, be moved…’ Meanwhile, Robert Morris transformed the canvas into an object with distinctly sensual overtones in works such as House of Vetti II (1983), which takes its name from a luxurious Roman residence in Pompeii that contained a series of important erotic frescoes.
The Conceptual Minimalism that Morris developed in the sixties was soon taken up as an influence by a substantial part of the artistic community. While they were still at art school, before they had joined the group Art & Language, Philip Pilkington and David Rushton reinterpreted a work by Robert Morris, Untitled (1967–68), in which the American sculptor had allowed the consistency of long pieces of dark-coloured felt to settle into a shape resembling a chair. The piece by Pilkington and Rushton takes its title, Noisy Channel: A, from a mathematical theorem formulated by Claude Shannon in 1948, which links error control to the efficiency of data transmission. As in other projects by Art & Language, commenting on a work, which was often not considered an artwork, ended up becoming the work in itself.