'Art' and 'Life' … and Death: Marcel Duchamp, Robert Morris and Neo-Avant-Garde Irony
Abstract:This essay addresses the utopian rhetoric concerning crossovers or mergers between 'art' and 'life' in neo-avant-garde art production of the late 1950s and 60s. Taking the American artist Robert Morris' 1963 sculpture 'Metered Bulb' as a central focus of attention, it argues that there is a peculiarly ironic treatment of the art/life theme in certain aspects of neo-avant-garde art, such that the measurability of life's admission into art is often parodically examined. This concern is indexed to certain aspects of Marcel Duchamp's thought, and his presence in the United States after World War II is seen as crucial for the dissemination of ideas of this kind. The theme of the quantifiability of art/life relations is further extended in the work of European artists such as Yves Klein and Piero Manzoni to include a more explicit socio-political reflection on art-life discourse as determined by the logic of exchange.
As well as engaging with Duchamp, Morris is shown to have replicated the self-referring formalist aesthetics of Clement Greenberg's Modernism, so that his work appears to bring about a collision of art-life and art-for-art's sake positions (both of these amounting to assertions of artistic autonomy with different inflections). All of this means that Morris produces a much more ironic response to the legacy of Jackson Pollock than the blithe reading of Pollock as a proto-performative figure presented by Allan Kaprow.
In the final stages of the argument, a further instance of a merging of notions of life and art, in a statement by the American Sculptor Tony Smith, is shown to have strong iconographic connections to certain works by Man Ray/Marcel Duchamp and Robert Rauschenberg which can be shown to engage, at a submerged level, with mortality. The essay concludes by asserting that such dark themes more frequently underlie art-life rhetoric than might be supposed, indicating that a very different, ironic approach to the principle of sublation separates the neo-avant-garde from the 'heroic' historical avant-garde of the early twentieth century.
Document Type: Research Article
Publication date: October 1, 2006
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