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The Soft Grid: A Response to Sina Queyras’s Lyric Conceptualist Manifesto
Sina Queyras has posited the future of post-conceptual writing as lyric conceptualism in her striking Lyric Conceptualism, A Manifesto In Progress. This sort of tempering of first-generation purity with second-generation subjectivity and lyricism was played out across various art forms in the twentieth century: think of the lyricist gestures of a second-generation abstract expressionist painter like Robert Motherwell as compared with the more programmatic works of a Kline or a Pollock; or the playful funkiness of Ted Berrigan as compared to the relative formality of Frank O’Hara; or the narratives that Laurie Anderson hung upon the minimalist structures of Steve Reich. All of these gestures embraced impurities and pleasures denied by first-generations in their headstrong stabs at pure practice (though certainly those first-generation rigors have their own types of pleasures).
Queyras begins her manifesto—extending these gestures to writing—by declaiming that the next generation “has moved beyond the indigestible and the unreadable, in fact, beyond all gestures that have made pleasure the enemy of reading.” The embrace of impurity permits second-generations to freely reconcile opposites and break down binaries, while maintaining the rigors and structures of first-generations, producing tempered statements like: “Lyric Conceptualism is not simply expressionism.”; it’s OK to be expressive, but not to be expressionistic.
Queyras’s manifesto primarily hinges upon one sentence: “The Lyric Conceptualist is not necessarily a feminine body, but it has the stink of the impure, a certain irreverence for the master, therefore it is by default, feminine in construction.” Accordingly, second-generation minimalism in the visual arts—also known as post-minimalism—is an historical precedent to what Queyras is proposing for conceptual writing. Her use of the pronoun “she” throughout the manifesto is telling: in post-minimalism, the most compelling work was driven by a feminist preoccupation of deconstructing procedural and rational processes that were identified with masculinist tendencies in a largely male-dominated field.
In the late 1960s, Lynda Benglis created her famous poured pigmented latex floor pieces as a direct response to Carl Andre’s logical gridded metal floor works and Richard Serra’s macho poured lead pieces. Produced with the same procedural rigor as Andre or Serra, Benglis’s pours melded and bled into each other in unpredictable ways, creating works that were both rigorous and expressive, studied and spontaneous, process-based and organic, and most importantly, colorful. In a recent interview with The Brooklyn Rail, Benglis states:
Benglis: First of all color was definitely in with the artists of my generation. As it was for many feminist artists who were using anything and doing everything with pattern and decoration.
Rail: As their way of reacting against the minimalism while retaining the same use of the grid system.
With one small, smart, materially-based moved, Benglis blew apart notions of what minimalism could be. Far from being expressionistic, these works were expressive resulting from their process. Queyras, too, espouses tempered process to produce expressivity: “Lyric Conceptualism accepts appropriation and re-contextualization as useful, if not essential gestures but does not confine her process to these gestures” and “Lyric Conceptualism is informed, not enslaved, by theory.” Appropriation and theory are now more tools in a writer’s toolbox.
Such gestures in the visual arts were repeated time and again as basic tenets of minimalism were elasticized and retrofitted by second-generation practitioners. The grid, for instance, was ripe for détournement: softened, recast in terms of sewing instead of mathematics, the T-square swapped for the loom, the mechanical pencil line for the structured yet organic warp and weft of cloth.
Artists such as Harmony Hammond literally took a LeWittian grid and swathed it in colorful fabrics, lending it “the stink of the impure, a certain irreverence for the master.” Over the course of the seventies, the soft grid was loaded with more and more stuff: images, narratives, texts, objects, photographs, until finally, by the middle of the decade the grid was buried to the point of invisibility and eventually forgotten about as the visual arts moved toward pattern and design (a decorative arts movement which buried the grid in glitter), new image painting, performance art, and ultimately to the neo expressionist and pictures generation work of the 80s (where ironically the grid makes its reappearance in the media appropriations of Richard Prince and the paintings of Sherrie Levine).
As in first-generation conceptual or minimalist art, there were dominant women practitioners in first-generation conceptual writing. Against Expression—arguably a first-generation anthology of conceptual writing—includes dozens of women, yet the works by and large don’t veer from the rigorous processes by which they were written, enacting the Sol LeWitt’s dictum, “In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.” The recent I’LL DROWN MY BOOK, Conceptual Writing by Women broadens the field, scope, notions, techniques, and results from what is set forth in Against Expression in unpredictable and fruitful ways. Many of the works in I’LL DROWN MY BOOK employ specific processes but take the liberties to negate and deform those processes, resulting in works that, in some cases, can be termed soft grids.
As with any attempt at historicization and periodicity, these examples are oversimplified and narrow (my argument ignores the lineage of conceptual and minimalist artists like Bruce Nauman and Robert Morris who worked through the body and language whilst bypassing the grid and didactic processes). And due to temporal and genre displacement, such parallels are stretched (writing is not visual art; the second decade of the millennium is not the sixties). But there is enough compelling evidence in Queyras’s manifesto that, indeed, the reports of conceptual writing’s death are greatly exaggerated, creating a post-conceptualist landscape of, in Queyras’s words, “openings rather than closures… an idea with no end.”