Waldo Bien by Patrick Healy
In the preparation for the study of the Death Room Interior I would like to begin with one of the earliest surviving works of Waldo Bien from the nineteen-seventies. The work is entitled Static Pedestal [ 1978-001 ]. Commenting some twenty years later on its position in his œuvre, Bien described the piece as being an access to a process. He suggested that it had been necessary to eliminate the problem of movement and to create a field of observation. The issue raised for him was one of initiating a process by finding a place of rest which allowed maximum vibration, where the dialectical would be at a standstill.
In what could be taken as a relatively ruthless self-criticism Bien characterised his work in terms of an intimate belonging to his own cultural pre-suppositions. He made a claim towards the ideas of object and place which he regarded as a specific weight, and the determination of a traditional conception of sculpture.1
The networks of relational and other meanings need to be recuperated in studying his work. Very often the context of involvement which led to their appearance is ambiguous and ephemeral. Bien has, as part of his engagement, pursued a constant revising narrative as to what was relevant to the various initiations, gestural and social, that provoked many of his actions – and indeed, the decision of structuring the world as relational requires a continuing transformative action; the works themselves raise questions about the very process of their making or realisation.
Without surviving documents or sketches, the existence of the Static Pedestal [ 1978-001 ], sometimes referred to as the Static Sockle, remains crucial to the understanding of the early period from 1972–77. What can be inferred from the negative evidence is something of Bien’s working method at this date. The movement of his body is the sketch, the height of
his body the system of measure. Indeed a surviving passport description gives his height as 189 c.m. – the same as that of the Static Pedestal as completed.
It could be argued for Bien, at this stage of his development, that every problem of construction is caught up in a tension between the rational idea of construction and the need for expressive urgency. His own body is the sketch towards measure for the human scale, whether the tension between construction and expression is a matter of real opposition, or, a dialectical process, he is unable to decide.
Bien insists on the spontaneity of his own movement as a form of protest against the idealising authority of construction. But the body too has structure that is not dependent on expression. If construction was the model, or, preparation, for an ideal world, involving an imposition of unity to achieve validity, then it was clear that spontaneity was easily destroyed. Where a random gesture could not be made then the logic of construction is a projection towards a form of rational control that eliminates the human subject. It is the Polders dilemma.
Part of his cultural baggage was the myth of the Polders, a recurrent theme of constructed landscape that also functioned as a bind socially. The work of reclaiming land and building of dykes and ditches had created ties; inviting an equalitarian or consensus based project – later epitomised as the ‘democratic’ exigencies of Dutch society.
It can be seen in one of the earliest surviving works of Bien from 1972, with the title This is the continuing story of the Dutch IJsselmeer and her embryos! [ 1972-007 ] There are six discrete framed canvas pieces, under separate glass panels, and a large box surrounding frame. The technique is cutting and overlay, a monochrome green with organisation of individual elements determined by shapes that are a condition of Bien’s subjective topology.
Bien’s working method was an attempt to break the presumption of the constructivist paradigm; that all relations are self-conscious. The insistence on bodily movement as a form of measure also involved the subjective body measure in a symbolic translation of the body
as sculpture, opposing an abstract dictate of geometry. A modal relation of the first importance is the one to the skeleton. The projection of the mobile body is what transforms physical objects into sculpture.
The body could also be considered in terms of a kind of self-semblance of structure. It is an assembly, with its own capacity for containment and a form of architecture. In this view of tension and gravity the body has ‘tensegrity’ a kind of conatus, where in the compression against, or, towards gravity, the bones, muscles and tendons, even ligaments become load-bearing, and the stabilising takes place, in Donald Ingher’s terms, through ‘tensegrity’.2
In the late 1990’s Bien creates a series of works which take up the problem of the skin as surface, and the painterly action as a break-through into depth which he describes as vivisection. There is a constant stressing of the surface to the point where it can be literally responsible for depth, and the penetration for the artist is also a protest against the grid and containment of flatness and organisation. In cultural terms this is a form of revolt against the hegemony of Mondriaan as an emblematic national artist.
He further – as the crucial early work shows – rejects the hierarchy of materials. Here the basic materials are simple and require little modification. He insists that the structure could be built by someone with even basic skills in woodworking or carpentry. The materials have a relation to the everyday, they are not special, and indeed their simplicity is their main recommendation for attention. This it shares with the almost contemporary practise of Carl Andre in his Element series of 1971, which Andre referred to as a pedestal for the rest of the world. 3 Within Bien’s re-appraisal of construction and its inherent dangers went a further consideration of the intervention, which denoted a belief in constitution, where the translation of the body, and not its resultant object, takes priority. This making of Bien’s is a kind of performative self extinction, and goes with his insistence on the mortality of his objects, their being saturated with a relation to time as limit.
In negotiating the problem of the sockel the ambivalence of the body in its own standing was also explored. It was only in the concrete process of making that the abstract idea could be given in the form of an overcoming of the need for excessive material self-representation. This meant devices such as the plinth, or the support of forms depending on aesthetic distance from the world of everyday objects, had to be abandoned in favour of a more suggestive and subtle process of linking correspondences, which depended on the body itself as an object within the observation process. The inner tension was finally not something which could be shown as a representation for the object, and of which the object could then be construed as an adequate showing, rather, it had to be indicated as something felt, such as a sensed potential, which continued to vibrate as possibility, or, expressive inflections.
In the finished work, the illusion of the dynamic balance of the strings, descending through the centre, is the field of maximum potential vibration and suspense. The sculpture has the retention of the vertical, the symbolic upright, of a classical idiom as a form of suspension, that is supplementary to the arrest of the dialectic, of the inscribed making and the object which exists. Thus, the illusion of balance is the inner truth of the body, the sculpture dissolves the tensions of construction against expression by making of the ‘pedestal’ a form of innerness, taking the traditional expectation of the pedestal as the support from below, and minimising the relations of vertical and horizontal axis, through the implication that the vertical is suspended from above.
Bien had tried to literally take on the formal problem, which made of the pedestal something extraneous to the maximising aesthetic distance of the artwork, extrinsic and irrelevant. His approach is very different to Andre or Caro who, as one scholar has trenchantly observed, practised a synecdochic economy, and were content to exchange part for the whole.4
Bien tries to retain within the transformative somatology, the spontaneous making as a logic of the sculptural. It is not necessary for the work to exist in a kind of ascetic withdrawal towards the viewer, a process which had fascinated Caro who wondered if thereby one risked the establishing of an a-object or object for sculpture without the normally mediated cues and commitment to the specialisation of commodity fetishism, or, indeed, the Kantian ideology of aesthetic distance. A minimalist strategy, as with Bien, results in a scepticism. The somatically posited a-object is a doubting intervention in which the question of the belonging in the world, the network of relations predominate.
The real question of the pedestal for Bien is where the sculpture belongs in the world. In one sense the problem in the early billiard table work [ 1972-008 ] is similar, although more specific to the question of the frame, and raises a similar problem of the breaking apart the notions of frame, pedestal or architectural support. Bien distanced himself from the question of whether sculpture could prove itself art in real space without the aid of framing devices, a question of interest to the work of Caro and Andre at around the same time, rather, Bien wishes to have the work as a site of his own transformative energy, an inter-action for the viewer where an inquisitive space and questioning reserves are opened, where the inner bodily presence is the engaging dynamic for exhibition and reception. This somatic theory is as fundamental as the obvious gestures of revolt against the traditional restraints.
The question of the method was to become in the context of Bien’s own self-appraisal the continuing impact of the work of the pedestal and the initial propositions associated with its making. One can trace a complex series of responses through the following 25 years. However it is necessary to return to the period before the work to track out the “anecdotes of language” which for Bien began this process, which he views as ongoing.
The billiard table work [ 1972-008 ] which precedes the dynamic and static sockle works was made in the polders. Beuys who had proposed the walk to Bien was also to criticise the work on its showing at the Kunstmuseum Düsseldorf. By a process of linking Bien had made the suggestion that the experience of walking the polders reminded him of the billiard table from his childhood. The flatness of the landscape as a memory object fascinated him. He painted, in response, colored stripes moving in and out of the surface to suggest movement, or precarious possession; the colors as much concerned with the psychological jostling between memory and forgetfulness, as with any literal reportage of the monochromes of the polders. The problem of the ground seemed to him more than a problem of complex perceiving, as he interpreted his own stance as the unseen within the seeing.
Initially with the billiard table he covered it with zinc, sides and legs, the playing surface he covered with tar. Responding to this work Beuys looked underneath and remarked that it had been dealt with by way of surface and not as sculpture. Beuys made specific suggestions as to changes which could be made, and said that he thought it should have been covered underneath, as sculpture did not have a ‘backside’. For Beuys the work was not grounded and was too optically contrived. On the IJsselmeer [ 1972-007 ] he offered the opposite criticism, and thought that it should be stripped down, a reduction was needed, a gesture which would tear it away from the painterly.
The figure in the box construction with balancing wire [ 1972-010 ] Beuys found lacking in improvisation, although the element of the dynamic strings was to be re-deployed in the Static Pedestal work, as Bien wanted to establish suspension and a dynamic in tandem, and Beuys’ observations were effectively ignored. Bien’s research with Platonic figures was a partial engagement with the theosophical background of Mondriaan, and a reading of Mondriaan’s ascetic reduction as a form of hermetic total control.5 Bien wanted to think of the black framing lines as tattooing on the skeleton which is the 3 dimensions of the canvas, including the back and the stretcher. The Platonic figures with the neo-lithic sculpture was a search for the skeleton of space.
Bien’s reistance to the hermetic closure was intensified in response to post-card invitation from Konrad Fischer for a Jan Dibbets exhibition in 1974, the invitation being a Dibbets work with the legend NO OPENING on a tight graph paper, the kind of closure in the grid that had been aimed at by Mondriaan, Bien responded by an agressive act of placement sous-rature [ 1974-003 ].6
Schönenborn and Rutkowsky were a counterweight influence to Beuys in Bien’s artistic formation. Schönenborn’s Studien Grundlegende Formen, Bewegungen und Farben, illustrates well the independent strands within the Academy. Schönenborn’s research in the choreography of ornament, or Rutkowsky’s philosophical and hermeneutical approach, were very much a minority interest at the Academy. Rutkowsky’s main preoccupation was with the innerness of the body space. His project at this time might be described as an attempt to create an internal sculptural anatomy, trying to move the determination of form away from the silhouette and outline of the sculpture into the concealed innerness, where haptic intuition acts even in response as a creative reservoir.
Beuys’ objections led to a discussion not between Beuys and Bien but between fellow class 20 student, Rutkowsky.7 It went to the heart of the problem of the relation for Bien to Beuys’ teaching, and also to the decision to activate the optical as a somatic and gestural necessity.
Rutkowsky detected in Beuys’ criticism the traces of an old classicist presumption, namely that the coherence of the object depended on talk about the conditions of the object, a form of epistemic discourse. He thought that Beuys was still committed to a view of the object as a result of synthesis.
In one sense, Rutkowsky, was identifying the Beuysian legacy of preserving the Duchampian gesture, namely the preserving of the identity of the object in the formal unity of the subject, i.e. the artists’ will. In the traditional sculpture the problem had been one of representation as res, now it seemed that the voluntary was decisive.
Beuys had already over-determined the functional and pragmatic in-itself of the work, and wished to reduce it to a cipher, treating the dispositional character, and the functional reference, as a primary quality. This inevitably meant that part of his pedagogic strategy was to implicate an incoherence in relation to the naming subject to which the work had a kind of spiritual adjacency. Thus, the importance of the linguistic referent in the works of Beuys.
Rutkowsky was more concerned with a network of relational and other meanings. What was decisive was the structuring of the world as relation. This is clearly a continuing action. Bien too insisted that he wished the work not to be embodied, or arrested in the sense of ‘completion’ or a register of some kind of absolutist will, rather he impressed on Rutkowsky, and less successfully on Beuys, that the most important element of the work was its potential, the sluice through the frame, which for Bien meant that the energy of the gesture would support the continuing of even the memory as a presence which did not become stratified and objectified. In that sense both Bien and Rutkowsky did not view their work together as a making of ‘things’ but rather the creation of references within the structure of the world, understood as presence.
The breaking of the frame of the billiard table surround can be read as a highly charged gesture. Bien intended to reverse the very literal fact of the landscape. Where the polders existed as shoring up against the sea, Bien wanted to liquidify the stable and containing element in the rupture and sluice he made, and it may be argued that the dynamo of energy which this extrusion creates was for Bien emblematic of his struggle to reach for an expressionist solution, in what must once again be viewed as a constant pre-corso namely the sundering of rational self maintenance and a violation of the very ordered response of early pictorial representation, the self enclosing of boundaries.
Donal Kuspitt has glossed in his work on Karel Appel this tension between order and mysterious elective affinities which haunt Dutch artists.8 It is the Mondriaan/van Gogh dichotomy, the choice between ordered, contained rational planning, and of lyrical subjective wildness, the latter often existing as the grotesque, the former as the projection of utopia as nightmare. Bien does not wish to stay in the ordered world of the polders, or to mediate the demands of fusion and separation by some kind of diplomatic consensus, the boundary is overcome through the invention of a threshold that is a constant state of raw modification.
Construction and destruction, Bien abandoned the problem of material resistance. His studies in Düsseldorf resulted in a strange levelling, where he had to realise that the work of art could not be made as a consequence of endless discussion, rather he reflected that the elective affinities were more mysterious and engaging than the rational discourse which had invited students to politicise the aesthetic and aestheticise the political; the famous Friday discussions in Class 20 resulted in his need to find an observation point, to become, as we shall see in discussing the Regal Star [1983-001] project, himself as pedestal.
Very little of the work of the preceding 6 years from his time in Düsseldorf survives. Severe self-criticism meant that many things made were destroyed. The billiard table work takes the construction-destruction pair as intimately linked, the long balance of such a position resulted in a curious kind of performative distinction and extinction, which continues to the present.
“Access to process was provided by the pedestal work, it became necessary to eliminate the idea of movement, between normative and transgressive, I needed a field of observation, at least for the analytical part. I had the experience of the train running by when I was standing on the platform. But I couldn’t get in. So I gave it the title of Salt on a Bird’s Tail. Then I tried to get into a position of observation. I had been rooted even in the study of phenomenology. Schönenborn had taught anatomy. My skeleton was sculpture. Things were innovated every day. Then there was the problem of the public sphere. The sluice I made works as a gate, and is an energy field which allows me to gain access. There is an invisible moment, where the process, and the questioning of the process is the process, and then I have the most energy.”
For Bien the entire mobile and dynamic process forms the deepest element in his biography, and a sense of endlessness within activity. His favourite metaphor used to describe his own position is that of standing and watching a train go by. Something hurtling and inaccessible which re-constitutes the dynamic of awareness through movement. It is a profoundly cinematic trope.
A more conventional view of his biography is elicited from comments of Rutkowsky, Anatol and others who studied in Düsseldorf during the early 70’s. For Bien his arrival there was a series of chance accidents and the invitation from Beuys a kind of street wise fantasy. Penniless traveller approached by stranger, and a chance encounter changes the course of a life.