Reconsidering the Average Object of Art, 1965-1966
Alex J Taylor, University of Oxford
Consider the works of Peter Phillips and Gerald Laing in Primary Structures, the 1966 exhibit at New York’s Jewish Museum. Known as a landmark for minimal art, this exhibition incorporated a much broader range of practices than would usually be associated with that movement. The presence of their gaudy sculptures, with their wiggling tongues of electroplated chrome and candy striped Formica alongside works by Donald Judd and Sol Lewitt goes someway to destabilising the tendency for sixties art to be too neatly categorised, suggesting the more permeable boundaries that existed between kinds of work whose differences now can seem irreconcilable.
The focus of my presentation is a sculpture called Hybrid, a collaboration between Laing and Phillips made while they were in the United States. The fact that it doesn’t look very pop hardly matters given that it is the transgression of such categories that I think is subject of this sculpture. Hybrid represents, I would like to suggest, a strategic and wholesale amalgamation of practically every tendency of the mid-sixties avant garde – pop, op, hard-edge, performance, light and space, finish fetish, art and technology, multiples, participatory art, conceptualism and probably more. Moreover, this is an artwork that directly engaged more critics, curators and collectors than almost any other. These are grand claims, but my goal this evening is to recast this sculpture as nothing less than the proper representative of mid-1960s art.
In Spring 1965, Phillips and Laing hit the supply stores of lower Manhattan to buy the kind of materials from which one might create a work of art. These samples were assembled into a small fitted case made from cardboard. Inside this box we find a treasure trove: bound leaves of various surface finishes, a cube of various timbers, plastics and other solid materials. It was the year of The Responsive Eye, so we find a selection of checkerboard patterns printed on acetate, joined in a long spiral-bound concertina, along with a selection of flat shapes in brushed steel – including a French curve and the outline of an automobile. A stack of lurid Perspex samples, some in the day-glo hues that Judd would favour, others flashier still with embedded glitter, are neatly threaded on a cord. Inside the box is small fluorescent light, which required the whole case to be plugged in. Finally, the box contained overlaid discs of plain and patterned colours that could be turned to produce a multitude of combinations.
Making an identical pair of these kits, Philips and Laing did what any ambitious artists in New York in the mid-sixties might have wanted to do – set up meetings with the who’s who of the artworld. As their original proposal for Hybrid describes, their goal for these meetings was to conduct interviews to create ‘A consumer research project to define the schematically average art object for 1965.’ The pair assumed the corporate identity of ‘Hybrid Enterprises’ for the task. Beginning in March, Laing and Phillips thought that the exercise would take eight weeks – though it ended up taking about six months, and the resulting work would not be exhibited until April 1966. The proprietors of Hybrid Enterprises appear here as a deadpan double act, like travelling salesmen or sideshow hucksters, though it was usually just one artist that conducted each interview. The questions they asked were delivered rapidly, and participants recorded their answers on a branded scorecard. Laing and Phillips aimed to conduct 250 interviews – and though, in the end, they managed a little less than 150, their list still makes impressive reading: Lawrence Alloway, Reyner Banham, Max Kozloff, Lloyd Goodrich, Leo Castelli, Norbert Lynton, Harry Abrams, Philip Johnson, Robert Pincus-Witten, Peter Selz and over 100 others.
Participants were asked if they wanted a two- or three-dimensional object. Would they like the object open or closed? How high should it to be? How wide? How deep? Figurative or non-figurative? Using the numbered samples in their kit, participants were asked to select those materials in which they wished for the artwork to be made, shading portions of the gridded card to represent the proportion of each material to be used. The final requirement for each of these participants was to produce a drawing to determine the shape of the artwork. As John Canaday’s effort suggests, the idea was to trace around the flat templates provided, though not everyone followed the instructions so rigidly. Lucy Lippard needed to start again, and annotated her final design for added clarity. Notably, only one artist was interviewed – Carolee Schneeman, an interview that, according to the account of Gene Swenson, “failed miserably,” such that no other artists were asked to participate, problems materialised perhaps in the wilfully obtuse shape she left behind.
Tapping into period panic about the loss of jobs to technology, and the extension of such discourses to the arts, the publicity for Hybrid boasted that a computer would calculate the final form of the artwork. Analysis of the archival record however reveals its processing to have been somewhat more rudimentary. Laing’s tabulations of the quantitative data, by which the proportions of the four most popular colours and materials were selected, appear laboriously manual. But the task of defining the sculpture’s shape proved more complex. The artists had been in touch with IBM, but in the end it was Michael Noll from Bell Laboratories that did the calculations. The drawings were split into two random piles to determine the artwork’s front and side profiles – from which Bell Labs plotted composites. The result was 22 pages that took some ten hours of processing time. In any case, they don’t seem to have given Laing and Phillips much to go on, as the existence of all these revised sketches for the work reveals. But the appearance of an art without artists was important, and by the time the sculpture was exhibited, such manual processes were subsumed under the rigorously rational and authorless look of an engineering blueprint.
As Laing and Phillips explained to the New York Times, the work was a “re-enactment of motor industry techniques” – a description that complies with much broader interest in custom car culture across both pop and post-painterly abstraction. This connection between artworld novelty and what Vance Packard had called “planned obsolescence” in the equally fashion-driven auto industry was made explicit by the references of the project’s promotional poster. To reinforce this consumerist framing, Hybrid was made in an edition of two, plus ten smaller models – and all of them were exhibited in the Kornblee Gallery showroom. Though it would be possible to look at this sculpture now and not see the processes of its production, its widespread publicity and rich supporting materials ensured that its patently conceptual goals would have been clear to most period viewers. In Hybrid, thirty years before Komar and Melamid’s more famous ‘Most Wanted Paintings’ series, Phillips and Laing’s adopted the strategies of the market researcher to suggest art’s obligations to the dynamics of consumer demand. As the Hybrid press release explained:
Hybrid is the epitome of art as consumer goods and emulates the Lever Brothers and General Motors approach to the commercial product… In that it confronts the low-brow, Hybrid is “Pop”, in the deliberate acknowledgement of art as goods…
To claim Hybrid as representative of sixties art is then to claim that the thread that draws this art together is the primacy of the market in its creation. The average object of art circa 1965 was, in other words, consumption. This persistent engagement with the commodity form was not limited to pop, and by the mid-sixties certainly included plenty of abstract art. In Hybrid, Laing and Phillips carefully straddle such tendencies, and the result is a biting satire of the sixties artworld. But if that is what Phillips and Laing achieve, what does it mean for their other sculptures? Given that Hybrid opened a matter of weeks before Primary Structures, how might have period viewers who saw both groups of work have understood their relationship? As Phillips and Laing lampooned the art world’s appetite for the latest thing, perhaps that was also just what they delivered.