Abstract Art Leaves Space for the Writer

Minimalistic art and I are now friends. We weren't always. I like stories and narratives, I like words. While I could appreciate a nice composition, some interesting marks and materials, and colors in harmonious chords, I always felt unsatisfied with Minimalism or Post-Minimalism. Until I taught my last "Friendly Writing for the Visual Thinker" workshop last weekend. This particular incarnation swirled around the precarios, the little abstract sculptures made by Cecilia Vicuña. More research led me to more appreciation.

I wanted to bring in the work of other artists who worked with found objects, but in a more formal way, where the objects didn't have as many layers of meaning. They might be bits and parts of something. My art history friend had mentioned Richard Tuttle after she saw Vicuña's work, so I looked into Tuttle's sculptures. From there, Rauschenberg, and then Louise Bourgeois.

Tuttle seems interested in shape and color and light. I remember noticing in one exhibit at SFMOMA in 2005, that the shadows on the wall were as important as the objects themselves. A little video, showing him creating a wire piece, which he feels is "close to something alive" is here. He draws a line on the wall, hammers one nail at each end, then bends the wire to match the drawing. The wire comes from a spool or ordinary wire without prior history or connotations. It simply has the properties or characteristics he needs to achieve his vision. Other sculptures include plywood and found objects, like Ten, A, created in 2000. He'll paint the objects, as needed for his vision. He has also made artist's books. You can see a good example of one here, which, not surprisingly, looks like his sculptures, but contains his writing as well.

Rauschenberg created a series of what he called "Elemental Sculptures" and "Tethered Objects," made from "spikes, steel, stones, twine, wood, and other materials" found near his New York studio. The objects are worn and used, but also not particularly specific to a place or time; they could easily be from anywhere in the world. By tethering them, either by nailing them or tying them together, or just by putting them in the same room, he creates a new piece and a new connections. The larger scale pieces can be like collective memory jogs, evoking ancient sculpture as well as contemporary art. The shapes are simple. The marks and wear bring humanity back into view as we imagine who held and used them before Rauschenberg changed their meaning and context.

Louise Bourgeois isn't quite as minimalistic as the others, but her work can be cryptic and both her drawings and sculptures do seem to stress form. The daughter of tapestry restorers, Bourgeois was often asked to draw the worn or missing areas. If you are always looking to connect the edges, it seems natural to begin connecting object to object, or person to object, which is what her sculptures addressed, showing human emotion in her streamlined, yet complex work. Most of her work features the human figure, figures, or heads, as well as the spiders for which she is best known. A few sculptures include everyday objects, like an eggbeater. As I read more about her I discovered that each time she made a sculpture, she had a person in mind. And yet, the sculptures are not realistic, they are perhaps symbols or signs. Perfect metaphors.

Ultimately, these sculptures have one meaning for the artist, but there is room for the viewer, and I would say, room for the writer. They are excellent focal points, a wonderful way to kickstart a new written piece. While the artworks contain enough material to begin—some concrete imagery—the writer has the freedom to imagine. You might ask of the works all those question words you were taught in grade school: 

Who? Who would use this? Who would own it? Who would find it? Who is it? Of whom does it remind you?
What? What is it made of? What does it remind you of? What does it do? What are its characteristics? (This is my favorite question because it can lead one to comparisons and metaphors.)
Where? Where did it come from? Where is it going? Where was it made? Where is it now? Where will it be in the distant future? Where did you or someone else experience it?
When? When was it made? When did you or someone else experience it? 
How? How was it made? How could it be taken apart? How do you imagine others will experience it? How did it get here?
Why? Why was it made? Why is it here? Why should it remain? Why do you keep spending time with it? Why does/doesn't it affect you? Why would someone own it or want to share it?

And you're in.

In my last workshop, students created their own tiny sculptures from found objects I picked up on my walks, deliberately trying to find more "elemental" objects that could cross time and place. I also brought raffia, pins, thread, and wine corks.

And then they wrote about them.