GRASSY CANVAS The salt marshes of Foulness Island in Essex, U.K., provide a vast open expanse ideal for vertical works of art. The island’s relative quiet is also perfect for loud musical broadcasts. photo

No Art Art

When a proposal merits a ‘counter-proposal’

By Sean Ashton


Since the advent of Conceptual Art in the late 1960s, it has become quite common for artists to submit descriptions of works instead of making them. Though many proposals are still written in the hope of a material outcome, those intended to exist only in the mind are now numerous enough to constitute a specialist genre. But within this genre is a still more specialist one. Before presenting what I believe to be a new development in the field, I hope the reader will not think it too indulgent if, by way of providing a little context, I mention some key exponents of the “unrealized project.”

Peter Liversidge’s book “Selected Proposals” (2013) features a diverse series of suggestions to gallerists and curators. These range from the throwaway – “I propose to grow vegetables on Carlton Hill,” ran the terse communiqué to Ingleby Gallery in 2006 – to the archly self-reflexive, Liversidge having pledged, in a 2012 proposal to the Flag Club in the Netherlands, to write a further 24 proposals over a 48-hour period in early June of that year. And who’s so say that, were we to peruse those two-dozen secondary proposals, we would not find proposals that offered to write still more proposals, and, within this tertiary bundle, proposals that promised a quaternary batch? If the Internet is to be believed, Liversidge is cultivating a plantation of unrealised projects, my personal favorite being the request to the staff of his gallery to wear woodland animal costumes during office hours, including to and from work.

Not many people are aware of Francis Picabia’s contribution to the genre. In his “Poetic Paintings” (Gallimard, 1951), a collection of sonnets laying out compositions for works on canvas, verse is used as an “applied art” to achieve what would be impractical with paint. For example, “Le Chat Grand” describes a colossal portrait of a cat with an arrow through its left eye. Reflected in its right eye is an image of that same cat, which in turn has an image of a cat with an arrow through  its left eye reflected in its right eye, and so on to infinity, till cats, arrows and eyes are visible only under magnification.

Artist Matthew Crawley tends to blur the distinction between proposal and actual work, sometimes by pointing out the essentially notional character of processes already operating in the social realm. A case in point is “The Named” (2011), for which he adopted a dolphin through the Bottlenose Dolphin Research Institute, naming it “Matthew William Crawley.” Adopters get a T-shirt and certificate, a chart of its behavior and an MP3 recording of “their” dolphin “talking.” It’s these sundries that are shown in exhibitions, though the live dolphin is itself the work. The provisional status of things – artifacts, animals, people – is a recurring theme for Crawley. I have a piece of his on my wall: a business card with beautifully embossed gold lettering that reads “Con Man.” The reverse is blank.

I also recommend Robert Smithson’s “Collected Writings” (New York University Press, 1979), which abounds in imaginary works, most of them mentioned in passing. Smithson was a casual floater of interesting schemes, many of which, one feels, were mooted in the hope that someone else would take them up. The more I  read of him, the more it seems he was pitching the greater part of his oeuvre to a future posterity – and contemporary curators certainly seem happy to function as his posthumous assistants. In a conversation with Allan Kaprow shortly before his death in 1973, he proposed the idea of a Museum of Emptiness. “Installations should not fill museums, they should empty them,” he said. “Voids: a Retrospective,” which took place at the Pompidou in 2009, was just one of several subsequent exhibitions to follow this recommendation.

I pass over the contribution of the Renaissance men here, for the true proposer must be content to use only words. Leonardo’s plans for the helicopter were undoubtedly prescient, but blighted by copiously detailed sketches. Also vetoed are the conceptualists Sol LeWitt – whose instructions for wall drawings continue to be carried out by assistants – and the venerable Michael Craig-Martin, who undermined his claim to have turned a glass of water into an oak tree by including an actual glass of water alongside the written text.

But there is another practitioner whose recognition is long overdue. And here I come to my main purpose. In some ways, to omit Neil Goodwyn from the pantheon is to acknowledge the titanic modesty of his enterprise, which, so far as I can gather, is known only to the stunned recipients of his correspondence. I wonder if the reader has ever come across his work? It’s conceivable that, if you’re an artist and have made an application to a funding body in the last decade, you may be familiar with it. I urge you to check over those rejection letters. Is there anything strange in the tone, out of step with the usual bureaucratic way of doing things? A hint of insolence in the prose, perhaps? Outright contempt, even? Perhaps your reply crackles with malevolence? If so, you may be in possession of a genuine Neil Goodwyn.

Read the rest of this story in the Winter 2015 issue of Artenol. Order yours today

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