Infecting the Canon: Exploring Ideas of Queer Formalism and Queer Abstraction
Queering Forms, Queer Abstraction, and Queer Formalism are all variations of a conversation that has popped up in the contemporary art setting of late. The idea is proving to be a hard concept to nail down, but all of it revolves around using the idea of queerness as a way to read, reread, or redirect conversations of the past and present.
In order to enter this conversation, it is important to first define how queer is being used. David Getsy, art historian, professor, theorist, and critic, enters us into a concise definition of use in his journal Queer Relations.[i]
After all, one cannot be queer alone. Whether in the embrace of another or against the ground of hostile society that seeks to enforce normativity, a life is thrown into relief as queer through its commitment to unauthorized or unorthodox relations and the transformative potential they represent.
Getsy is using queer as a way to look at something that is counter to a system that has been put into place. Without that normative system queer could not exist. This is super important when it comes to turning that queer lens onto forms. He is also using queer as a way to talk about how two forms are interacting with each other. Though, the most important and simple idea to take away here is just that one cannot be queer alone. This is about a relationship between two or more things that creates a friction, kinship, or desire.
Desire is another larger idea that needs unpacking. A lot of the ideas surrounding desire help to clear up the sort of relationship between forms that Getsy is referring to. What most easily illustrates desire and its relationship to an “intercourse in forms”[ii] is this very truncated idea by Lacan, “desire is the desire of the Other, because what is lacking in the Other causes its desire”.[iii] While Lacan presents desire very mathematically and using heteronormative metaphors, the idea of lacking and Other are useful as illustrators. So, desire is this idea of filling a space of exact emptiness and never being able to achieve that goal or the desire is destroyed. It is about the action of trying between two or more ideas of forms and the feeling of tension there.
Queer Formalism or Queer Abstraction is also looked at as a way to further open a conversation about bodies and consider ideas without falling into the familiar traps of the symbol systems already laid out. Gordan Hall, artist and lecturer, talks about this as the “glitter problem. Or the leather problem. Or the pink-yarn, 1970s-crafts, iconic diva, glory-hole, pre-AIDS-sexuality, post-AIDS-sexuality, bodies and body-parts, blood-and-bodily-fluids problem.”[iv] The issues of falling into the tracks of an old conversation again and again, using a language and symbol set that is limiting, and perpetuating separateness or otherness, are keeping us from opening a new conversation.
How can we remove all symbols relating to feminist/queer work and still have a political conversation? Hall breaks down ways to view objects into two “Object Lessons”, in their text Object Lessons:Thinking Gender Variance through Minimalist Sculpture.[v] The first lesson being, that the blankness of minimalism allows for more and better answers than if a specific idea is drawn. “It is not often that we are able to produce answers that make the questions posed to us seem absurd”[vi] Meaning that a question sets up rules that box in an answer. By remaining blank and by refusing to answer a question, and just exist, there is a better line of bodily communication. When an object is removed of all reference or symbol, what is left in the space, shape, light, and surrounding architecture, is what the body is left to deal with. When the body can take over for the mind a relationship can be set up, that is more physical, and can tell a viewer how to feel in their own skin as a way to communicate an idea about body.
The second object lesson is surrounding virtual bodies. Hall sums it up best when saying, “There are not bodies first and then ideas about bodies – bodies are also ideas about bodies”, or as they go on to quote Fred Sandback, “I’m full of thoughts (more or less). My work isn’t. It’s not a demonstration of an idea either. It’s an actuality. Ideas are also actualities. The notion that there are ideas that then take form, or ideas that can be extracted from the material substratum, doesn’t make any sense.” Ideas are forms. Bodies are forms, which are ideas. So, when looking at a minimalist work or an object in general, the form is the idea. That form is not a set of symbolic gestures that tell you about an idea. That form is the idea itself, all one in the same. How the form relates to your body and how you read it with your senses is the idea. That is the way in which a work can teach us different or non-normative ways of being in a body.
Returning to ways in which an object or objects can be queer in form, Art Journal published a conversation between Jennifer Doyle and David Getsy that sets up an anecdote as example.
My sister worked as a nanny to a woman who spent her summers with the designer Halston, who rented Andy Warhol’s estate on Long Island. I went to visit my sister there in 1987. There were built-in bookcases throughout the houses on the property. All of the books lining those shelves, however, were turned so that the spines faced the wall. Walking into a room to see a wall of books that had been treated that way was bracing. It was a slap in the face. For, of course, those walls were beautiful – you instantly got it, the seriality of books as objects. It was a redeployment of books as home decoration, against their use as cultural capital. The gesture is a brutal thing, a total rejection of a certain kind of discourse on culture and value.[vii]
While a queer formalist work can be in itself an idea about body and ways to be in the body, it can also be a way to go against what an object was meant to do, therefore turning it into its own form that is an idea, but an idea hinged on its rebellion against purpose. This is how Doyle and Getsy talk differently about the potential of Queer Formalism. In their discussion they see a queering in areas where “objects derail intention”. In other words, queer forms are forms that are counter narrative, this going back to the idea of an inability to be queer alone. By turning the books around on the book shelf, the books are being stripped of purpose and identity as individuals and are instead turned into a wall of tactile pages. Not only is this act formal, but it is a form that is pointedly going against original use. Getsy uses camp and appropriation as examples of how this strategy has been used. Camp, because of its bad taste and down with the normies nature and appropriation because of its nature to steal and reuse.
Doyle and Getsy also talk about removing the artist hand, reliance on the viewer, and reading too far into a work. All of these ideas coming to together as way to emphasize that the actual form is what matters. The artist’s identity and sexuality does not play a part in how a work could be entered into a queer formalist conversation. Whether we are talking about work made by a queer identifying artist, such as Félix González-Torres, or a minimalist white male artist, like Robert Morris, the artist is not a part of the conversation. The work is read formally as the work. In this way work made by the “cisheteropatriarchy” can be returned to, without giving more power and credit to already overly viewed majority artists, but instead taking back the work and opening up further conversation and a new way to talk about ideas of body. Getsy says, “One can argue for different politics than those intended by the artists while still being grounded in the direct history of the art object, its form, and its reception.”[viii]
The idea of reading too far into a work is shut down by Doyle.
The complaint about “reading into” usually displaces a conversation about desire with a complaint about identity – it mistakes the effort to expand on how pleasure works for a taxonomical project, turning the queer reading into the abject shadow of art history’s most conservative projects. That worry about “reading into” invokes the inside as that which we should not access.[ix]
By fearing “reading into” something, the conversation is roped off into an area of common use of language and familiar and stereotypical territory. We shouldn’t avoid opening up new conversation that can arise. This fear stems from jealousy as humans. It stems from worry that we are giving an artist more credit for a conversation than what is due. But when viewing work as work and how it interacts in a space, there is no reason to keep a conversation of the work in one lane. This isn’t about a studio visit to help an artist be more successful in communication. This is simply about using art in actual practice, using it to change ideas, specifically ideas about ways of being in the body. In this way the viewer is also a key factor in the work. The interaction of a viewer is necessary. The viewer plays a much larger role in this viewing of art than does an artist.
With these ways of defining Queer Formalism or Queer Abstraction, Joseph Henry, art historian and critic, brings up the important question of limits. Henry brakes down some of the issues in his review of Avram Finkelstein’s show, FOUND: Queer Archaeology; Queer Abstraction.
Yet, these positions repeat some mistakes of past art history that cannot be entirely accommodated by progressive sexual and gender politics. In the same way that the Euro-American avant-garde of the pre- and interwar periods proposed a Universalist, transcendent understanding of form, so too have some defenders of queer abstraction seen in its non-referentiality a near-limitless capacity for figuring identity. This desire and its ambitions are important for their sense of political futurity, but they embody a partial reading of abstraction that can be truncated in its historical breadth, non-intersectional in its theory, and perhaps lax in its understanding of what abstraction signifies today.[x]
When using a word like “queer” the vast number of ways it used or defined is in fact opening up a weakness and opportunity for collapse. How can one talk about minority politics with an aesthetic that is so nonspecific? Contemporary art as a whole often focuses on ways in which to make something counter narrative or a way in which one can subvert the norm in order to make a point. So, what is the idea of Queer Formalism doing for the contemporary art conversation?
Queer art relies on symbols and iconography to talk about issues. This iconography is the very problem that Getsy and Hall have issues with. Henry points out that minimalist work also comes with its own set of symbols and readings that speak specifically to its history, which is majorly that of white heterosexual men. Henry then goes on to concede that while each has their identifiers those can be changed and remade. “Abstraction has a cultural baggage that cannot be ignored, but it can be re-signified, repurposed, and fucked up.”[xi]
The potential of Queer Formalism and Queer Abstraction is to redirect a conversation, to change narratives by removing them from their set vocabulary, and to learn about different ways of being in the body by viewing work in a bodily way. This show is a curation of artists that are working on and illustrating these ideas in different ways, while still using this idea of queer and changing the conversation. This work is not a conclusion by any means, but an exploration in order to participate in this contemporary conversation.
[i] David J. Getsy, Queer Relations, vol. 2, accessed May 3, 2018, http://www.academia.edu/34098492/Queer_Relations.
[ii] David Getsy, ed., Queer (London : Cambridge, Massachusetts: Whitechapel Gallery ; The MIT Press, 2016).
[iii] Dr Ehsan Azari, “Lacan: From Desire to Love,” n.d., 9.
[iv] Gordon Hall, “Object Lessons: Thinking Gender Variance through Minimalist Sculpture,” Art Journal 72, no. 4 (December 1, 2013): 46–57, https://doi.org/10.1080/00043249.2013.10792863.
[vii] Jennifer Doyle and David Getsy, “Queer Formalisms: Jennifer Doyle and David Getsy in Conversation,” Art Journal 72, no. 4 (2013): 58–71.
[viii] Doyle and Getsy.
[ix] Doyle and Getsy.
[x] Joseph Henry, “Queering Queer Abstraction,” The Brooklyn Rail, accessed May 3, 2018, https://brooklynrail.org/2017/10/artseen/Queering-Queer-Abstraction.