Walter de Maria and Pierre Huyghe – A Conversation Part I

Walter de Maria at Gagosian Grosvenor Hill

After a fairly long break Richard Guest and I visited two shows – Pierre Huyghe: UUmwelt at the Serpentine Gallery and Walter De Maria: Idea to Action to Object, at Gagosian, Grosvenor Hill. This is the resulting email conversation, in two parts.



Visiting these two shows was not any kind of programmatic choice – they aren’t related for me in any way. I think we both found the Huyghe show hard to digest; but, rather against expectations, the de Maria was quite playful in a laconic sort of way.

Walter de Maria is one of those artists who seem to embody the pioneering conceptualism of the 1960s and 70s. Rare pictures of him seem to give off both the romantic elan of early Surrealists and Dadaists but also the gravitas of the Los Alamos bomb makers and other highly serious types. I hadn’t seen a lot of his work in one place before and I was keen to see the Gagosian show to give me a strong taste of what his work was really about. Once again my expectations were upended – it seems to happen whenever I go to see a show! Are there a lot of revisionist curators around or did I just get totally the wrong end of the stick about all this stuff when I was younger?


Ha, ha, quite – the Walter de Maria show was a real surprise.

As a teenager I took artists a lot more seriously at the same time as not bothering to research them too deeply. When we were at art college, Walter de Maria was talked about by respected tutors with some reverence. So I assumed he was a “very serious artist” and the works I was familiar with (from books and magazines) did not dispel this view. The two pieces I remember being particularly interested in: Lightning Field (1977) and The New York Earth Room (1977) were both large in scale and seemed rigorously disciplined in their thinking.

Here’s a video about Lightning Field:

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and here’s one about The New York Earth Room:

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Although there is no relation between the Pierre Huyghe and the Walter de Maria, I think it could be interesting to compare and contrast our experiences of the two shows. Here’s Bjarne Eriksen’s experience of the Huyghe:

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One thing the video does not convey is the weird (rotting meat?) smell that clung to the exhibition, which coloured the whole experience for me and made me want to leave perhaps sooner than I should. The show comprised: large screens showing what appeared to be glitchy video of forms mutating, patches of wall where previous layers of paint had been revealed by sanding, lots of live houseflies, and the odour. It felt a bit like walking around in someone else’s nightmare.


The smell and the flies were definitely important! When you are first getting interested in art, exposure to photos, books and videos (and of course blogs!) seems to tell you everything, but it’s often incomplete and there are whole dimensions missing. Especially when the work isn’t completely visual. On the other hand, it’s easy to get wrapped up in understanding the intention of the artist and the processes behind the work without stepping back to look at the work itself. And sometimes all the process and attitude is lost in the finished work. But as followers of the Cult of Personality, we get very wrapped up in attitudes, politics and other ephemeral stuff. I like to try to separate what I see or smell in front of me in a gallery from all the received information around, which is almost impossible. Usually the only way is by receiving the information afterwards!


Walter de Maria: drawing for Olympic Mountain Project (1970–71).

Although De Maria was a bit of a local hero when we were students, I don’t think he was ever mainstream and a lot of these works are being exhibited for the first time at the Gagosian, so perhaps we can be forgiven for not fully appreciating his playful side. Part of which would seem to be about aping the high seriousness of some of his more po-faced contemporaries. The large works you mention are also very different in character from what is on show here. There are a lot of sketches with quirky captions and comments that really reveal his thoughts in a very spontaneous way. I connected them mentally with Claes Oldenburg – the epitome of a witty, playful artist. What did you make of the drawings? Can we call them drawings?

Yes, I’d call them drawings – de Maria making propositions, giving form to ideas. They are playful, but informative enough that he communicates the sense of how a concept could be enacted. (DSC00170.jpg)

I like his drawing style – it gives the impression of concentration and spontaneity – de Maria is “present” in the moment. None of the drawings in the exhibition look overworked or over-thought.  They are spare and light and communicate just enough of an idea to bring it to life in the mind. And I think this lightness of touch translates to the objects he made.

In contrast to de Maria’s approach I feel like Huyghe’s work is grinding away at some opaque concept, one that is close, oppressive and pessimistic. Am I misreading Uumwelt because I’m comparing it to de Maria’s utopianism?


For me the overall impression of the Huyghe was of timelapse security camera footage of decomposing aliens, but that was beside the point. The process was the point…the suggestion that images can be generated by machine learning and could be formed by computers interfacing directly with the human brain is a fascinating one. But the images themselves felt like layers of graphics and noise. By contrast de Maria seems to have compartmentalised his creativity very differently – and more humanly. It’s very down to Earth…the title “Idea to Action to Object” really seems to describe an artist’s working process perfectly. The object is the direct product of the action which is the consequence of the idea. The internal idea is brought into the world in the turmoil of action and the only evidence of it is the object. When the action is concluded the wormhole between the idea and the object is closed; and the object stands alone on ‘the other side’ – a clean break.

Huyghe seems to be trying to skip the ‘action’ step – to paint, or perform or write – and to have the idea translate itself directly into images. But of course the process becomes the action, the machine is just the outsourced hand of the artist. I felt Huyghe is almost afraid of owning the idea: almost as if he wanted the machine to arrive at his idea so he didn’t have to. Not because it would be too much work, but because it feels more ’empirical’ and less tied to some personal value system. Before seeing the de Maria show I would have said this desire to distance yourself from your own ideas was the legacy of Conceptual Art, but now I’m not so sure.

Part II 

Walter de Maria and Pierre Huyghe – A Conversation Part II

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Pierre Huyghe Uumwelt (From the Serpentine Gallery Guide)

After a fairly long break Richard Guest and I visited two shows – Pierre Huyghe: UUmwelt at the Serpentine Gallery and Walter De Maria: Idea to Action to Object, at Gagosian, Grosvenor Hill. This is the resulting email conversation, in two parts. You can read part I here


Making a simple comparison between the two exhibitions, Huyghe is ceding his creativity to a machine, with the expected in/ un-human result, whereas de Maria’s work is not only driven by utopian ideas, but is all on a human scale – there are balls to pick up and drop, human interaction is imaginable (and encouraged in his drawings) and looks like it would have a satisfying tactility.

I’d like to see more work by Huyghe to get a better sense of where he’s coming from – is it all at this vast remove? The larger de Maria works seem consistent with the works in this show – Lightning Field and Earth Room still work on a human scale, are understandable as concepts and a person could interact with them.

I think conceptual art has changed a lot in its intentions over time: ideas are being expressed for different reasons now than they were in the 1960s and 1970s. It’s quite an enduring form in a way, but is Huyghe an artistic descendant of de Maria?


Interesting that you say Conceptual Art is an enduring form – since it was originally fundamentally opposed to form – it suggests that it has defeated itself or been consumed by the market. I am not sure that’s really a fair analysis though.

The Dadaists were the first to sever the link between the Object and the Idea. They were the first Conceptualists. But now that has spawned so many subgenres: some are just ideas without objects and some are objects without ideas. ‘A concept in search of an idea’, as we used to say!  The difference would be that some of these empty object based artists now describe themselves as Conceptualists: although their work is as decorative and devoid of meaning as any flower painting or animal sculpture.

But there was something right about the overall plan of Dada – it was partly a reaction to photography and mechanisation that threatened to democratise art to the point where skill based reproduction of the visible world was immediately obsolete. Today that process has all but overwhelmed the creative impulse as we are swamped with everyone’s ‘creative’ images, but that is not all. I would argue that the pervasive framework of the internet has made it almost impossible to have an original idea, or even to believe that you have had one. This has led to artists like Huyghe, who are trying to think their way back to the possibility of an idea emerging in the brain unprompted by the collective consciousness. That is what this work was about and – although it wasn’t completely successful for me  – it did have a mind’s eye kind of quality to it as if you were witnessing a visual idea take shape. That’s pretty amazing and yes, quite original.

De Maria seems to have had no such difficulty in owning ideas and feeling that they were original and exciting (even though some of them might not have been). So, in answer to your question, although they are both related to the roots of Conceptualism they are from very different branches. But I could be completely wrong! I am not sure if either of them are as in earnest as they seem at first glance. In particular, I feel I don’t totally fathom de Maria’s humour – how do you perceive that, especially in relation to some of the very dry looking sculptures he came out with..?


Walter de Maria at the Gagosian


I’m not sure it’s humour so much as light-heartedness. There’s a generosity of spirit behind the drawings, and a sense of inclusiveness to the sculptures. There’s also no mystification to the process: Walter makes a drawing setting out what he intends to do (annotated in plain language), and executes the sculpture according to the drawing – there’s seemingly no barrier/ framing device between him and the viewer. (Hi, I’m Walter, this is my idea, hope you like it!) It’s all of a piece with his Utopian intentions I think. I appreciate what you’re saying about Huyghe and his originality and I agree, but the work is troubling and alien and (without any kind of background reading), opaque. To what extent do you think it’s important that exhibitions are supported by texts? With both of these shows I went in with very little prior knowledge and trusted my reactions to the work without the gallery’s framing context.


This is a question we always come back to. I want to feel that anyone can interact directly with art without background information from the priesthood of critics and gallerists, without other peoples’ interposing opinions or even the artist’s own backstory of the work. I want art that has the power of creation within it, not some weak commentary or reflection flaking off our society like a dry scab.

However, this also means that as a viewer I have to be in a pure state of mind and heart, unclouded by irrelevant thoughts. And the gallery itself would have to be some perfect bubble of contemplation. This is only partly possible…when art works, it is like a radio broadcasting the artist’s mind, and all this other stuff is like static around that signal. But to feel meaning in it, art cannot be wholly disconnected: it has to strike a resonance with my life and experience. Without that – it’s just junk.

On the one hand it is really exciting to have that connection with an artist whose life is remote to mine, but it is necessarily harder to establish that connection and what can be communicated is less detailed and specific. Probably it is restricted to what used to be called The Human Condition, although you don’t really hear that phrase much anymore. All ephemeral or topical content quickly becomes lost.

Art criticism is a kind of oral history that no-one is curating. Its development will be lost – and that is probably a good thing; but we will find the art of the recent past to be almost inexplicable when it is primarily oriented to that critical debate. And if I’m honest I see both de Maria and Huyghe in that camp.

Joseph Beuys: a conversation (part three)

The third (and final) part of my chat with Richard Guest about Joseph Beuys…

The Future Is Papier Mâché

In early June 2018David Cook and I visited Joseph Beuys: Utopia At The Stag Monuments at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, London, 17th April to 16th June 2018. Afterwards, we discussed the show by email. The following is the result of several weeks’ electronic toing and froing.

David: It’s time we went upstairs, I think. The Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac is a generous refurbishment of a sumptuous town house in Dover Street in Mayfair – one of the most expensive areas in the world. But we are swimming in space as we go up the double staircase. There is a ‘sparse hang’ along the corridor of a few multiples and drawings, with the white walls and the oak floors it all feels very much as it should do – the works have plenty of space, but you can still get close. Then we arrive at the end room…

Richard: Having…

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Joseph Beuys: a conversation (part two)

The Future Is Papier Mâché

In early June 2018David Cook and I visited Joseph Beuys: Utopia At The Stag Monuments at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, London, 17th April to 16th June 2018. Afterwards, we discussed the show by email. The following is the result of several weeks’ electronic toing and froing.

Richard: One of the things that makes his work so magnetic is the fusion of the commonplace with the spiritual and intellectual – as if every object he touched was a means of deep psychological and material exploration for him and (possibly as a byproduct) a way to awaken curiosity about the physical world in the viewer. There’s a roughness and vitality to the drawings that makes them very difficult to co-opt for commercial purposes. How much do you think Beuys’ aesthetic/ anti-aesthetic has entered the vocabulary of advertising and media (I remember in the mid-Eighties Green from Scritti Politti citing Beuys as…

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Joseph Beuys: a conversation (part one) — The Future Is Papier Mâché

In early June 2018 David Cook and I visited Joseph Beuys: Utopia At The Stag Monuments at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, London, 17th April to 16th June 2018. Afterwards, we discussed the show by email. The following is the result of several weeks’ electronic toing and froing. David: This show was like a refresher course in […]

via Joseph Beuys: a conversation (part one) — The Future Is Papier Mâché

Jasper Johns: A Conversation (part three)

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Jasper Johns: ‘Fools House’ (1961-2)

A couple of months ago Richard Guest and I visited the Jasper Johns exhibition ‘Something Resembling Truth’ at the Royal Academy in London. Then we exchanged emails about it, and this is the result.
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Those are great quotations; I think he’s being honest, and they explain the work’s strength and its durability – the paintings have no fixed meaning and Johns never sought to impose one. I like the idea that the artist paints, writes, draws, records etc in the way they are able, because they have to (get something out there).

Yes, I think the key to the work’s appeal is its sensual quality – the images are seductive, in part because of their texture, because the hand of the artist is visible. And the tension between the concept and Johns’ intuitive delivery are what grip us.

Can we talk about Fool’s House (1961-2)?
Indeed! For me Fool’s House is ‘the one’ where it all comes together. I wasn’t really expecting it, unlike the flags and targets, but it brought a smile to both our faces (which is an amazing accomplishment). It was able to do that because – I think – it is so right. The balance between the conceptual and painterly elements is perfectly struck – there is a kind of rich counterpoint between them, a perfect tension between the real and the depicted, the word and the gesture, the planned and the spontaneous, the intention and the act. The action of the broom sweeping the paint in the arc is balanced against the frozen nature of paint, the hanging of the broom and cup on hooks that suggest they could swing…the writing on the canvas, naming the articles correctly – a slap in the face for Magritte – but there more. Johns revered Marcel Duchamp we are told, but this feels like a robust defence of painting, a giant leap beyond Duchamp’s barren late work. It feels like a more personal painting too, somehow. How did it strike you?

Fool’s House was one of the biggest surprises for me – I’ve seen so many reproductions of it, but nothing prepares you for its raw, pugnacious, visceral effect. Duchamp’s coolness has been replaced by the heat of creation. It’s a dense work – conceptual, jokey, handmade and very much alive! A tangible object in the world and one that seems to be making a proposition: art can be this way (which would be taken up by lots of painters, particularly in the eighties); it doesn’t have to be purely conceptual or purely gestural.

The objects: broom, stretcher, towel, cup could all be found in the typical painter’s studio – is Johns referring to himself as a fool (the stencil used to title the painting is very similar to those used by removal firms to label wooden tea crates)? If so it’s a nice personal/ autobiographical byroad to go down and lends humour and tenderness to the work. The laconic labelling of the objects can be read in a couple of ways – this is a cup (a la Magritte) or the cup goes here. I like the second interpretation, because it suggests a fussiness about the arrangement of objects in a space.

There’s a lovely tension between the actual (the objects) and the world of the imagination (the paint marks). Gestural, suggestive paint marks allow the mind to wander, to create images in the murk. The area to the right of the broom records a lot of activity – maybe something was painted in and painted out again. I wonder if this prompted Johns to paint in the other grey areas, creating a composition he found pleasing on a purely visual level. Containing the whole in a frame emphasises the action of the mark making as well as the cup being simultaneously part of and outside the painting.

For me there’s a rawness to Fool’s House, it’s an open work: there’s space for the viewer’s imagination to complete the picture. And there’s a real tenderness there – an attempt at preserving a snapshot of a life? – casting about to save a few things as the ship goes down…painting as life raft…

Fool’s House is at once a gathering of ideas and a spontaneous expressive moment from an artist’s life. It does remain open to interpretation in a way that some of his other work perhaps doesn’t – I have read conspiracy style theories about it online – that it contains a self portrait, that it contains rosicrucian style references to Raphael and Vermeer etc etc. Not very plausible mostly, but pointing to the the dualistic character of so much of Johns’ work: a cerebral practicality versus free expressive openness. He does not duck any of the hard questions about painting but he remains free to paint any way he wants. Quite an achievement.
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Jasper Johns: ‘Regrets’ (2013)

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Jasper Johns: A Conversation (part two)

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Jasper Johns  ‘Flag’ (1958)

A couple of months ago Richard Guest and I visited the Jasper Johns exhibition ‘Something Resembling Truth’ at the Royal Academy in London. Then we exchanged emails about it, and this is the result. 
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I think the subjects are very specifically chosen – they have deep roots in the Western psyche – a target is for shooting at, so we think about the implications of that image; numbers underpin our lives and shadow our activities in all sorts of ways (data, economics etc), maps and flags signal ownership of land. These objects are all so much a part of everyday existence for so many people that they are taken for granted, but they hold fundamental meaning – road signs, logos, labels are ephemeral by comparison. So, I wonder whether Johns used the maps, flags, numbers and targets to stimulate some kind of intellectual/ tactile reverie in the viewer. If so, to what end? I don’t think his concerns were ever aligned with those of the Pop artists; he was looking beyond labels and design at deeper human experience.

They certainly are very old and as near to universal as you could wish for. On the other hand he chose that particular flag (Stars and Stripes), and that particular map (of the U.S.A). As far as I know he stuck with them. Similarly he has never varied the typeface for 0 through 9 – it’s always the same typeface that is depicting the numbers. A font so old from the days of stencils it probably doesn’t even have a name. It’s almost as if what started as an unconsciously chosen symbol has evolved a deeper aspect and what we have ended up with is a series of portraits or views of a specific landscape – like Frank Auerbach painting the same models for fifty years or Cezanne or Hokusai revisiting the same landscape in different seasons or from different viewpoints. Is it possible he finds them somehow almost as real as people…in some way anticipating a kind of abstraction or virtualisation of our physical lives?  Johns’ work somehow embodies the moment the standard of living in the States was suddenly way better than anywhere else on the planet, but without depicting a refrigerator or a Lincoln Continental. When the materialist ephemera of our culture has long disappeared, it Johns’ work a fitting encapsulation of that moment, a monument to it even?

Not a monument. Or an encapsulation. I think both terms are too static to capture the nature of the work. The work is simultaneously a part of and comment on the time – Johns is right in the thick of things – the US cultural debate – questioning his times and positing ideas for a future. His art lives and breathes still – its meaning changing with the political, social, cultural tides. This is another difference with Pop, which for the most part represents a fixed point in time in terms of what it’s saying. Johns’ work somehow embodies a complex representation of the American experience. On the one hand, it is complicit with capitalist values (the art market being a  model of the system in microcosm, and the soaring value of his work within it) and on the other it seems to undercut it, by pointing to objects that define everyday life and saying here are your rulers: discuss. The hand of the artist is in the service of these iconic/ monumental images, and is necessarily humble, which I think raises a question of scale.

One thing for sure is that he himself never attempts to explain his work, its origins, its ideas at all. It’s not his job. He is the master of the unhelpful artist-on-the-subject-of-their-own-work quotation. Here are a few:
“One works without thinking how to work.”,
“I don’t know how to organise thoughts. I don’t know how to have thoughts.”
“I have no ideas about what the paintings imply about the world. I don’t think that’s a painter’s business. He just paints paintings without a conscious reason.”
“I assumed that everything would lead to complete failure, but I decided that didn’t matter –- that would be my life.”

I don’t think he is being deliberately unhelpful here, (although bizarrely it made wonder how Marcel Duchamp would have fared on the Graham Norton Show), I just think his angle of attack is so oblique relative to almost any other artist it is very hard to explain it in simple terms. This is perhaps more revealing:
“I think that one wants from a painting a sense of life. The final suggestion, the final statement, has to be not a deliberate statement but a helpless statement. It has to be what you can’t avoid saying.”

This hints at the transcendent quality of the work. The borrowed starting point (the real thing – map, target, flag etc ) kick starts the work, before Johns takes it over and remakes it in art. The process through which the canvas is covered by the addition of paint is also a process of reduction – if the supplicant is honest and without ego. What remains has the essence, the life that the artist was seeking to put there.

It’s not cerebral – in the sense you need to think about it to understand it – but it HOLDS the mind. It is not a concept that has been merely executed, (a sense of the death of an idea there), but an idea that has been allowed to take flight – or to become manifested through – a (to me) surprisingly traditional and intuitive process of painting.
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Jasper Johns: ‘Painting With Two Balls’ (1960)