(First draft, September 2007)


The test of Luhmann's theory of art as a system must be found in its power to describe specific practices. More strongly, the form of the theory must be repeated on the level of at least some individual works. Certain works of the sixties and seventies in fact demonstrate, in their form, that the system of art does define itself as a distinction, but this period is now historical. It is clear that Luhmann's ideas are relevant to recent neo avant-garde practices collected under the rubric of "relational aesthetics," but since it is a theory of forms I want to show how some recent formalist works can allow us to both critique and expand Luhmann's concept.


I think that there are two Systems theories relevant to contemporary art; the dynamical system of the Santa Fe Institute, which is a theory of emergent properties, and Luhmann’s static or diagrammatic system of social frames. Luhmann’s system is not completely static. Following G. Spencer Brown, when the frame is noticed, it is crossed; with reference to art we can probably also observe the opposite, namely that to cross the frame is to render it visible. So Luhmann’s theory does include movement as a necessary feature, but I would still characterize it as relatively static in comparison with the Santa Fe model, which is totally concerned with change.

When I first read Luhmann’s Art as A Social System, I was astonished. I often had the impression that he was describing my own work. Later, after pondering it for a while, I realized he was actually describing the work of Robert Smithson. But then, I further realized, to work with the frame is exactly what I had learned from Smithson anyway, but it was so long ago that it was not exactly at the forefront of my mind. For me, Luhmann was a confirmation of the deep history of my own work, but of course he didn’t have Smithson in mind any more than he was thinking of me.

The strength of Luhmann’s work is its abstractness, the way that it reaches for a general truth. But that is also its weakness. From the point of view of art, any such general theory must be weak because the proper concern of art is the concrete particular. And both criticism and art history must start from the concrete features of particular works. After we admit the justice of Luhamnn’s characterization of art as a system, what else is there to learn, or even to say? So I try to read Luhmann the way I read Adorno, with the understanding that though we are floating on a level far above the real world of art, some connecting filaments are implied; they have to be traced by the reader. Actually, with Luhamnn I’m not sure if this is the case. His theory may not, and probably does not, come out of any experience of art itself, so it remains to be determined exactly what are the consequences of the fact that he got it right. In a word, to be useful, Luhmann’s ideas have to be grounded in specific practices.

But before I try to do that, I want to point out that Luhmann’s description of how the system of art moves, or changes, or grows, in other words the consequences of the crossing of the boundary, is pretty easily assimilated to the standard modernist model of historical change.

Modernist art is supposed to progress by investigating and working on its own presuppositions, and the boundary of the system is precisely the definition of the system. But even though we can diagram what Luhmann means by a system, again following the simple diagrams found in Spencer Brown, it is important not to forget that this boundary is fully three dimensional. In other words it would be wrong to think that there is one boundary, between art and the rest of society, or art and non-art. There must be a boundary between art and design, art and education, art and music, art and science, art and nature, art and politics, art and business, etc. And to make the discussion more concrete, we could say that the same thing applies to specific media, so there is a boundary between painting and literature, between painting and sculpture, between painting and film and so on. Since the boundaries are the only thing that makes art possible at all, important work must cross those boundaries and return; this is what Spencer Brown and Luhmann mean by the return of the form into the form, which could easily be equated with Greenberg’s claim that modernism is "art about art". Normative art, anything that sits comfortably within the marked off boundary, is negligible. As attractive as this description may or may not be, it’s problematic for the same reason that this kind of standard modernist aesthetics is problematic, it’s too general, too abstract, not concrete enough.

At this point I want to explain why my approach is basically formalist. I think that we already have, within art, a well developed, well articulated and complex theory of art as a social system. From Peter B├╝rger to Benjamin Buchloh to Pierre Bourdieu to relational aesthetics, and not to overlook on the way the work of Art & Language, the status of art as a system within the framing social system is well understood, and it is well understood that that status is not immutable. Further, the shape of that relation has been well traced by art itself. Luhmann’s theory is a formalism. Its descriptive power as a theory of art as a social system derives from this formalism; in other words it is true without being limited to any contingent examples. Yet I am not satisfied with this, because, as I’ve already said, I believe that the proper concern of art is the concrete particular. I can easily see how Luhmann’s ideas are applicable to neo-avant garde practice, and I can easily anticipate how neo-avant garde practice might take Luhmann on board. Since this is so easy to see, it is uninteresting. I want to give Luhmann’s system a more radical test; I want to see if the form of his system is also the form of particular works. If so, then his theory is valid because it is mimetic of art. On the same principle, the critique of Luhmann’s system must be as formalist as the system itself.

We do have historical examples of art that proposes that the frame is the definition. Smithson gives some good ones. Matta-Clark gives more, and more interesting ones. It appears that contemporary art became aware of itself as a system at some point in the sixties, and so Luhmann did achieve a valid description of art. This descriptive truth should make him a good source for art historians of the period, but since then art has moved on; the boundary has been crossed again, and appropriately it has been crossed in a way that changes our notion of what the boundary is.

The work of Matta-Clark responds directly to Smithson, and it may mark the furthest possible materialist reduction in this line. The cut is not a reduction to language, or to concept; it remains obdurately materialist. Like Smithson’s Non-Sites, Matta-Clark’s cuts keep the form of art as frame, but dispense with any object. The elegance of the gesture and the economy of the form are critiques of Smithson’s Non-Sites, which seem now to be unnecessarily made things and too tied to the gallery.

The cut, which of course is also a drawing, is immaterial in the final work, and it does not reduce to social relations. The relationship between the artist’s gesture and the surrounding context is exactly the already existing relationship between art and society, so it does not achieve a full desublimation to politics. A partial explanation for this may be found in it’s well documented origins in the work of Anthony McCall, specifically his "Solid Light Film" of 1973. McCall does what artists have always tried to do, namely to conjure new things into existence. This can only happen within the realm of aesthetic illusion, as fiction, and so his work, like that of many others of his generation, tests the limits of the aesthetic by reducing down to the material base, but doesn’t step out of those limits. From this point of view, Matta-Clark’s work could also be seen as a critique of that of McCall. His operation on McCall’s work is the same as his operation on Smithson, he does less. A standard principle of modernist aesthetics is reaffirmed in Matta-Clark’s work as a way to critique the work of his most important predecessors, who themselves are more modernist than their avant-garde credentials might suggest. But most interesting is to observe that at this point, meditation on the framing boundary of art turns that boundary into a plane.

I would like to propose a specific opposite to the cuts of Matta-Clark in the work of Fred Sandback. Sandback’s attenuated sculptures, which perhaps achieve the greatest refinement of sculpture as drawing, as a way of occupying space with the greatest possible reduction of mass, could be seen as material descriptions of the cuts. As such they are open to the same criticism as Smithson’s Non-Sites; formally they seem unnecessary. Matta-Clark’s reduction to the cut remains the standard; even Sandback’s threads are too thick in comparison. However, Sandback’s works have another property; the thin strings that draw planes in empty space somehow produce a rich body of optical and illusionist effects. Viewers often think that they see planes of glass. Such effects cannot be reproduced in phographs, so I have to present my own testimony.

One piece is composed of two thin vertical strings quite close together; it looks like a piece of thin transparent plastic or plexiglas, and one cannot escape the impression that it flexes slightly, as such a narrow sheet would do. Close inspection cures that impression, but then it returns if one glances back at the piece from further away. Another untitled piece from 1968 resembles a series of boxes by Judd, as it might appear in an overexposed or solarized photo. Sandback’s work offers effects ranging from the illusion of solid planes to the illusion of kinds of appearances only found in visual media, and combinations of the two, all hovering on the edge of perceptibility. The coming and going of optical impressions is an important feature; they exist in a realm that is hard to locate, somewhere between the material world and memory, and by nature they are fugitive, but nevertheless real.

Sandback was aware of these optical events, but he did not give them much thought. They were understood to be incidental perceptual effects. Judd, an artist who welcomed similar, even more pictorial effects of transparency, reflection and illusions of depth, had earlier been careful to distinguish between illusionism, meaning the illusions of spaces and volumes found in historic painting, and illusion proper, which he identified as real phenomena of perception, occuring somewhere in the eyes and mind, objectively verifiable and presumably subject to scientific analysis and explanation. Although I can understand Judd’s need to draw such a distinction I find it a hard one to sustain. It seems to me impossible to decide which phenomena are sense impressions, which are prepared by our knowledge and memory, and which are intrinsic to the structures of perception, so called "real illusions". The boundaries between all these are hard to locate and probably move in response to our experience, which means the training of our senses. Sandback’s work brings this uncertainty forward.

Similar effects may be found in the work of Gego. If one stands close to the work and focuses on one of the triangular or rectangular planes, and then moves ones head slightly back and forth one can clearly see something like the skin of a soap bubble suspended between the wires. I suspect that this illusion has something to do with the fact that if you are standing close enough whatever is behind the plane is out of focus. In any case, it is a real and verifiable effect that can be experienced by anyone.

Gego and Sandback can both help us to look back at Matta-Clark. He projects simple geometric solids, such as cones and cylinders, through real space filled with solid matter, and then cuts away the area notionally taken up by the shape. The cone itself has no actuality, and is only recognizable by virtue of the remainder, comprised of both built structure and empty space, but it is present nevertheless. But, a cone is not strictly a plane. It might be called a curved plane, such as we can see in some of the works of Gego, but it isn’t at all clear that it is perceptible in the same way, despite the example of McCall’s "Solid Light Cone". McCall’s projected illusions are actually materializations within the smoke that fills the exhibition space, they are not the same thing at all. I suspect that the presence of the cone or cylinder is less strongly felt than the illusory planes in a work by Sandback or Gego, but this could only be verified by a reconstruction of the piece. That would be a very interesting project for a curator, to reconstruct, or re-deconstruct, Matta-Clark’s important works. In any event, to understand how all these works might illuminate Luhamnn’s formalism of systems, some contemporary science might help.

A large part of the universe remains outside of the limits of our knowledge, and scientists have a name for this — they call it the unknown region. For example, we can have no idea what is going on in a solar system ten light years away, because the radiation that could carry that information has not reached us yet. All the space between us and that distant star belongs to our unknown region. Ten years from now the boundary of our unknown region will have moved, and we will receive that information. Scientists illustrate this situation with a diagram of two cones joined at their apexes, which is our present. As we look further into the past the region that we know about grows larger—that is one cone—and we can project an increase of our knowledge into the future—that is the other. However, the universe is large enough that there are places that we will definitely never know about, no matter how long we wait, so the unknown region is a real physical location, and knowledge has an actual boundary, in fact a surface.

Further, the event horizon of any black hole is also the boundary of an unknown region, unknown for anyone at any location in the universe, and so the properties of that particular surface are paradigmatic for the limits of all knowledge. The key discovery is something called the Bekenstein Bound. It states that the amount of information inside a black hole is proportional not to the volume it encloses but to its surface area. This is a completely counterintuitive and shocking result, and it implies that what can be known about any space is limited by the amount of information present on a surface. It should be immediately obvious that science has unknowingly moved closer to art, for modernist abstraction is nothing if not a meditation on how much information about objects, spaces and their relative movements any surface can bear. Actually, the artistic parallels lie much deeper, and a restriction to the modalities of painting doesn’t really do them justice. Surface is the material limit of both painting and sculpture, and an abstraction of surface away from the object could produce a work that embodies the boundary, in Luhmann’s sense, between the two media.

The Bekenstein Bound has led scientists to posit that all knowledge is tied in some way to a surface, but the location of this surface is not easy to specify. Like the surfaces conjured up by Sandback, they are understood to be real yet they can’t be touched, measured, weighed or seen. The science I am presenting here should be seen as speculation analagous to art itself, speculation in and through material, however insubstantial that material may be.

At this point I have to acknowledge that these ideas emerge directly from my own practice. In my paintings, forms which I call Islands float in an empty notional space. Formally, these pictures are about boundedness, about inside and outside presented as an image, so you can see the analogy with Luhmann pretty easily. But the shapes also appear to twist and recede, and I am trying to make the negative areas, the oceans, move in the same way. This possibility became more vivid when I started to pour Islands onto oval mirrors. The optical movement back and forth of the Islands on the mirrors makes the spaces between them appear to be twisted or receding at an angle. One seems to be looking at folded or bent or angled segments of picture plane which are perceptible yet utterly transparent. They cannot be touched or seen, but they are vividly present. My interpretation of these strange entities is that they are fragments of the picture plane, brought to perceptibility by being twisted away from parallel with the picture surface. The picture plane began as a concept, the mathematical concept of the plane of projection. In practice it has often been identified with the picture surface, but it can also be held some space away from the picture surface, a little behind or a little in front, and either displacement can produce vivid illusionist effects, but it is always assumed to be parallel with the picture surface. I maintain that it has become newly perceptible since abstract artists, beginning with Pollock, have learned to bend, twist and fold it at an angle to the plane of the painted surface. It other words, it has become real in a new way. This plane is the abstraction of the limit between phenomena and substance, and this limit is the real surface of any sculpture and the picture plane both. But further, if we follow the scientific thinking that all knowledge lies on a surface, it is also the boundary of knowledge itself, hence a boundary between science and art.

As clearly demonstrated by the work of Gego, one cannot both see the plane and see through it at the same time. So the real interest of the work of Sandback, Gego and my own mirror pictures, is that either one sees the illusory projected plane, or one sees an empty network that frames off a lot of ordinary details in a way that doesn’t prevent us from seeing how those details continue beyond the frame, in other words, aesthetic illusion and common dispersed reality. This alternating experience is a function of our perceptual and cognitive limitations, and itself then allows us to "see" a distinction. These works critique the schematism of Luhmann’s theory, without rejecting its formalism, and they further allow us to see that the distinction, or boundary, is in fact a plane which carries information about the system.

For Luhmann, perception always occurs across a boundary; the art I have been discussing shows us that perception is always of a boundary. Luhmann remarks that "The functional concepts of imitation and representation, now obsolete, would have to be rejected a second time—not because they unduly restrict the freedom of art, but because they indulge in, rather than unmask, the illusionism of the world." Reduction of the means of art is a test for aesthetic experience. To ask whether the emotional and cognitive experiences offered by art can survive without illusion is to suggest that they themselves may only be illusion anyway; the artist that purges illusionism from art is then also giving up his or her own illusions, and this could be figured as the falling away of a succession of masks. Progressive reduction in art could be seen as a tool of enlightenment for artists who want to know who they are and what they really feel — and to make a space within which they could feel anything — but always in relation to the surrounding social space. Yet Luhmann seems to assume that there could be a real without a mask, but his own theory suggests otherwise. The "unmasking of illusionism" is precisely the re-entry of the form into itself, the acknowledgement of the frame within the frame. The illusion of a plane conjured up by Gego or Sandback tells us that there can be no art without a plane as the carrier of aesthetic appearance. The celebrated flatness of classic modernism may be an acknowledgment of a fundamental feature of any picture, but we can never know that a picture is flat, only that it looks flat; flatness is just as much a matter of illusion as deep pictorial space. So illusion is then the ground level of art, of both painting and sculpture, yet perhaps illusion is not the best word. I would prefer "appearance". Art is the realm of the irreducibly phenomenal aspect of experience.

The political implications of this lie in a consideration of the social meaning of illusion, otherwise the dialectic of appearances. I do not claim that suffering does not exist, or that we don’t experience the effects of power on our bodies and minds, but to assume that politics, or money, or identity or even facts themselves are "real" is the most dangerous of all illusions, because as we credit their reality we also strengthen their hold over us. This is how art that claims to dissolve the beautiful fiction unintentionally affirms the power of the given social order. We can only gain understanding about our lives through images. Conversely, art cannot be desublimated to the "real". To put it simply, the most critical position that art can take is to reside in its phenomenal nature. To finish with a quote from Smithson:

Only appearances are fertile; they are the gateways to the primordial. Every artist owes his existence to such mirages. The ponderous illusions of solidity, the nonexistence of things, is what the artist takes for "materials".