“Something real but imperceptable”

March 9, 2023
8 min read
Featured Image

“For years people have been concerned with what goes on inside the frame. Well maybe there is something going on outside the frame that could be considered an artistic idea.” —Robert Barry (1968)

At what point do we begin to visualize an image in the mind? Do we need to be provided a direct image to do so? Words have the ability to help our mind to create images, and yet some words don’t produce an image. In a parallel fashion we encounter images which drive us to words, and some images which elude description altogether.

What would the space between image and words be? Performance, space, time, creative process, formation, translation. When the world was formed, it did so as God spoke. Words became a material, physical reality. What a beautiful parallel this is for our creative effort. When we speak a word, it can be a creative act. When the word becomes an image, and when that image is perceived, it moves us between the abstraction of language and the concreteness of reality (or sometimes, a lack thereof).

Etymologically, the word ‘image’ is rooted in a reflection, in imagination, in imitation. ‘Word’ comes from speaking, saying. And maybe this process is in some ways symmetrical, but resulting in different forms. Speaking brings about images; images bring about speech, even if not spoken aloud. Mel Bochner captures this idea:

“Imagination is a word that has been generally banned from the vocabulary of recent art. Associations with any notion of special power reserved for artists or of a “poetical world” of half-dreams seem particularly unattractive. There is, however, within the unspecified usage of the word a function that infuses the process of making and seeing art. The root word “image” need not be used only to mean representation (in the sense of one thing referring to something other than itself). To re-present can be defined as the shift in referential frames of the viewer from the space of events to the space of statements or vice versa. Imagining (as opposed to imaging) is not a pictorial preoccupation. Imagination is a projection, the exteriorizing of ideas about the nature of things seen. It reproduces that which is initially without product. A good deal of what we are “seeing” we are, in this sense, actually imagining. There is an overlap in the mind of these two dissimilar activities. We cannot see what we cannot imagine.”

What I love about the works of many 1960s conceptual artists, (Robert Barry, Lawrence Weiner, Sol Lewitt, Douglas Huebler, On Kawara, etc) is the way in which they seemingly play in this space between language and image. Conceptual artists often call into question the very materialization of a work of art—whether or not it should be physically rendered, or if it actually exists at all. If a statement is typeset on a piece of paper, is this idea the work of art, or is the production of that statement the work of art? Is its printing on the typeset page the art object? Where does its true origin live? For conceptual artists in the 60s, and perhaps many now, these questions are pervasive.

In 1969, Robert Barry created the piece “All the things I know but of which I am not at the moment thinking – 1:36 PM; June 15, 1969”

“All the things I know but of which I am not at the moment thinking – 1:36 PM; June 15, 1969”

Barry’s work often revolves around the immaterial, such as his Inert Gas Series, in one of which he released a liter of Argon into the atmosphere on a Santa Monica beach in 1969. Not all works of language evoke a mental image or are required to have an associated art object as a record of the work’s materiality. 

Robert Barry, Inert Gas Series/Helium, Neon, Argon, Krypton, Xenon/From a Measured Volume to Indefinite Expansion, 1969
Robert Barry, Inert Gas Series, Helium, 1969
Robert Barry, Inert Gas Series, Argon, Santa Monica, 1969

The MoMA description for the work reads, “While documentary photographs were taken of the action of the releases, the only physically tangible evidence of the work would remain the poster, published by the New York art dealer Seth Siegelaub, who stated, “He has done something and it’s definitely changing the world, however infinitesimally. He has put something into the world but you just can’t see it or measure it. Something real but imperceptible” (Gallery label from There Will Never Be Silence: Scoring John Cage’s 4’33”, October 12, 2013–June 22, 2014).

Lawrence Weiner, well known for his work with linguistic statements, says a “work need not be built.” Language can function as a material itself, and is not dependent on construction. In As Far as the Eye Can See,” Dieter Schwartz contributes the essay “The Metaphor Problem, Again and Again: Books and Other Things by Lawrence Weiner.” They of his Weiner’s work, “A word corresponds to an object in Weiner's work, a group of words to a number of objects, since the linguistic elements have the same value as the object, the same value as a picture of it.” 

His “Statement of Intent,” first published in 1968 outlines this approach:

  1. The artist may construct the piece
  2. The piece may be fabricated
  3. The piece need not be built

Each being equal and consistent with the intent of the artist the decision as to condition rests with the receiver upon the occasion of receivership.


Similarly, in his “Sentences on Conceptual Art,” Sol Lewitt says in sentence no. 10, “Ideas alone can be works of art; they are in a chain of development that may eventually find some form. All ideas need not be made physical.” Lewitt’s works build on this notion by using his own intuition to create language, which is then executed by other artists and draftsman, rarely Lewitt himself, which not only adjusts a definition of making, but of maker by challenging the notion of an artist as an author or craftsperson.

Sol LeWitt, Sentences on Conceptual Art, 1968

In a historical context, Weiner and other conceptual artists challenged the notions of the Abstract Expressionist works, which focused on the canvas as its own self-referential world and space. Through happenings and performance works, audiences began to participate in artworks, opening up a new space for creation and receivership. In discussing his paintings, Weiner said, “The picture-frame convention was a very real thing. The painting stopped at that edge. When you are dealing with language, there is no edge that the picture drops over or drops off. You are dealing with something completely infinite." 

Similarly, Robert Barry, in a discussion with philosopher René Denizot, said “Hopefully it allows it to be dealt with not just as a visual item. It should be dealt with in a, I'd like to say, more wholistic way. Closer to the way we live, the way we encounter the world. I'm being critical of a formalist approach to things; that the value of art has to do with its formal structure - color relationships, spatial relationships and things like that. I hope my work is approached from more than just that position…”

Conceptual artists, by playing at the boundaries, the borders, between language and image might supposedly lead to a dematerialization of the art object—to immaterial concepts only. For many artists like LeWitt, this is almost true, yet artworks have not fully propelled towards immateriality:

“Such a trend appears to be provoking a profound dematerialization of art, especially of art as object, and if it continues to prevail, it may result in the object's becoming wholly obsolete.” 
—Lucy Lippard

Lucy Lippard’s classic book Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972... brings together a host of conceptual artists exploring the boundaries of these ideas. Later she addresses the complexities of the terminology around dematerialization: "Since I first wrote on the subject in 1967, it has often been pointed out to me that dematerialization is an inaccurate term, that a piece of paper or a photograph is as much an object, or as “material,” as a ton of lead. Granted. But for lack of a better term I have continued to refer to a process of dematerialization, or a deemphasis on material aspects (uniqueness, permanence, decorative attractiveness)." 

The idea of dematerialization can only ever be partially true. In many ways the concepts and ideas still must exist in the world we inhabit, whether taking a physical form or not. To deny something’s temporal existence altogether denies the reality of being in the world, whether this means words becoming sound, language becoming a print, or an idea existing in a physical mind.

Walking this line opens the bounds of experience around art and living—to bring it into a more holistic way of being in and experiencing the world. To not just absorb a visual work, but to see art and making as a way of existing in the world, observing it, and participating in it.

Robert Kinmont, 8 Natural Handstands, 1969

In Robert Kinmont’s 8 Natural Handstands, we see him doing handstands on cliffs, rock faces, on stones, in a stream, in a field, in a desert, and in the woods. Trees and mountains line the backgrounds. Though the black and white photographs are monochromatic, we sense the blue of the sky, the reflection of light on water, the shadows cast by his denim jacket. The series marks Kinmont’s intimate ties to northern Californian landscapes, the immediacy of his experiences there, perhaps a longing to be more in connection with each space (but this might be pushing it).

But further than this and in the context of conceptual art, this work to me embodies the interdependency of being in the world and of making something with its materials, even by using the self. On one hand the “artwork” itself leans towards dematerialization—only the photographs document the actual activity that occurred—on the other, it is a direct reference to materialization and limitation, the body in the world. On the borderline between language and image, material and concept, its symbolism in this context is about the ways in which we exist as human beings with limitations in every sense, tied to the world and yet able to perceive and communicate certain concepts and ideas which are ultimately unseen, cannot be seen, or cannot always be captured by language—sometimes in a platonic sense. To me this is one of the most beautiful parts of this work, and perhaps of many other conceptual artists’ works. In a sense they often record, document, capture, and submit for investigation something greater than their act, whether it takes a physical form or not. To reference a statement by Seth Siegelaub used earlier, they capture “Something real but imperceptible.”

Cover Image: Robert Kinmont, 8 Natural Handstands, 1969

All Content © 2020 Alex Catanese. All rights reserved.