Density of Decision: Greenberg with Robert Adams
During the month of April, 1971 Clement Greenberg gave nine seminars on esthetics at Bennington College. Greenberg, then in his early 60s, was I think aware that he had little more to say as a critic of contemporary art, and he seems to have wanted to leave a legacy of a more theoretical or philosophical kind albeit one keyed to the developments in modern painting and sculpture that for more than three decades had engaged his attention. Over the next seven or eight years he worked further on the texts, eight of which eventually were published one at a time in Art International, Studio International, and Arts Magazine. The essay I want to discuss today was originally entitled “Convention and Innovation” and was published as “Seminar 6” in Arts Magazine in June 1976. (Republished more than twenty years later in a volume called Homemade Esthetics, it was again titled “Convention and Innovation.”) It begins:
Experience says that formalized art, the kind most people agree to call art, offers greater satisfaction by and large than any other aesthetic experience. Formalizing art means making aesthetic experience communicable: objectifying it, making it public, instead of keeping it private or solipsistic as happens with most aesthetic experience. For aesthetic experience to be communicated it has to be submitted to conventions—or “forms” if you like—just as a language does if it’s to be understood by more than one person.
Conventions put resistances, obstacles, controls in the way of communication at the same time that they make it possible and guide it. The particular satisfactions we get from formalized art are due, in some essential part, to the sense gotten of resistances coped with by dint of choices or decisions (intuited decisions or what I call judgment-decisions). Quality, the very success or goodness, of formal art derives, formally, from these decisions, from their intensity or density.1
There is much here I’m not happy with, such as the suggestion that the artist begins with, or in, private or even solipsistic aesthetic experience and then, if he or she is to get beyond that (if he or she has what it takes to become a real artist), finds the means, via conventions or forms, of making that experience public—as if Edouard Manet (for example) began with the first sort of experience (as it were inside his head) and then, via the conventions of the nude, which is to say in the course of both working with those conventions and refusing to submit to them as they stood, discovered a way to communicate that experience to others in the painting we know as Olympia. Or as if, to take up Greenberg’s language analogy, linguistic communication begins in a private experience or feat of self-communication that then makes use of linguistic conventions to get through to others. I am going to assume that in this post-Wittgensteinian age the unconvincingness of such scenarios doesn’t require demonstration.2
But my aim in this talk is not to dwell on Greenberg’s deficiencies as a thinker about such issues. “Convention and Innovation” continues:
The density or intensity of decision that goes into the making of communicable art has nothing to do with quantity or multiplicity. But it’s impossible not to resort to quantitative terms in discussing the matter: thus as when I affirm that as “much” density of decision can, in principle, go into the shaping of a box as into the carving or modeling of a representation of the human figure. The size, proportions, material, and color of a box can bear as great a weight of intuited decision as the sculpture that fills a pediment. The fact that this has proven unlikely so far (despite the achievements of one or two minimal artists) doesn’t make it any the less possible.
To say it again: under a certain aspect, and a very real one, quality in art appears to be directly proportionate to the density or weight of decision that’s gone into its making. And a good part of that density is generated under the pressure of the resistance offered by the conventions of a medium of communication. (48)
Finally, there is this:
Most of what I’ve just said is not new. But the emphasis I’ve put on decision or choice may be. If so, that would be thanks to what’s happened in art itself in recent years. It’s the boringness, the vacuousness of so much of the purportedly advanced art of the past decade and more that has brought home—at least to me—how essential the awareness of decision is to satisfying experience of formal art. For the vacuousness of “advanced” art in this time is more like that of “raw,” unformalized art or aesthetic experience, which vacuousness derives precisely from the absence of enough conventions and the want of decisions made or received under the pressure of conventions. (49)
“Convention and Innovation” goes on for another nine or so pages, but I want to stay with the passages I have just quoted, in particular with Greenberg’s emphasis, new in his writing, on what he calls the density or intensity or weight of decision in the making of a work of “formal” or “formalized” (please note: not “formalist”) art.
One reason Greenberg’s remarks first caught my attention is that they chime with claims that I have made in recent writings about a similar density or intensity or weight of intention—which is to say of decision—in recent sculptures by Charles Ray such as his marvelous Hinoki (2007) and in the photographic work of Thomas Demand as well as in the latter’s tour de force two-minute stop-motion film, Pacific Sun (2012). Thus in the chapter on Ray in my book Four Honest Outlaws I argue that the entire point of Demand’s labor-intensive project—reconstructing certain often notorious places or settings in colored paper and cardboard in such a way that the fact of reconstruction is made salient and then photographing the result at something like life-scale—is to produce photographs “that are saturated with traces of nothing other than [Demand’s] own artistic intentions—not just the general intention to reproduce the scene but the specific intentions involved in remaking it at every point, so to speak.”3 And I proceed to compare Demand’s project to Ray’s in Hinoki, which involved discovering by chance an especially charismatic 30-feet-long fallen oak tree in the California countryside; sawing it into sections and bringing the latter to his studio; making molds of those sections and then fiberglass casts from the molds, and eventually five “barrels” that locked into each other so that the log could now be reassembled as a simulacrum of the original. These were then shipped to Osaka, where a master carver, Yuboku Mukoyoshi, and his team reproduced the log, first its hollow interior and then its exterior, carving the whole in cypress blocks the separateness of which can clearly be discerned in the finished work. The entire project took more than five years, before Ray decided that the piece was finished. He then had to figure out exactly how to display it (by mounting it on cypress blocks). Only then was Ray able to release the sculpture to the vagaries of time.
I go on to claim that Demand’s photographs and Ray’s Hinoki (as well as the latter’s figurative sculptures in cast aluminum or machined steel) stand in the sharpest, most emphatic opposition to the bias toward indeterminacy in Minimalism/Literalism (my reference here is of course to my 1967 essay “Art and Objecthood”4). Caro’s sculptures, too, are anything but indeterminate, as are those of David Smith and countless other sculptors and painters prior to Minimalism; the difference is that none of those artists, Caro included, ever felt called upon to thematize intentionality as both Demand and Ray have found it necessary to do. Indeed Hinoki’s remarkable authority as a work of sculpture is for me inseparable from my sense of it as an ontologically extremely dense intentional artifact, the intentions in question belonging in the first place to Ray and in the second place to Yuboku and his team of carvers who worked for five years as a collective expression of Ray’s artistic will but whose traditional training and perhaps also whose personal inclinations are inevitably and everywhere inscribed in the surface of the piece, including, consistent with Ray’s intentions, the surface of its hollow core. As if the weight or density of so much concentrated intentionality functions as an ontological counterforce to Ray’s original empathic sense of the years of sun, rain, and ultraviolet radiation that had hammered down on the original log—“the pressure was just incredible,” he once said to me—and in another five or ten years might well have driven it to the point of collapse. (103, emphasis in original)
In other words, that Ray’s and Demand’s work (including, as I argue in a later essay, Pacific Sun) foreground density of intention in this way is understood by me as at least partly a response to or reaction against the valorization of indeterminacy in the first place in Minimalism/Literalism (my target in “Art and Objecthood”) and beyond that in Post-Modernism generally.5
Interestingly, Greenberg says something not dissimilar when he remarks that the emphasis he puts on decision or choice may have been inspired by the recognition that “so much of the purportedly advanced art of the past decade or more”—his reference is to the 1960s—has been thin or trivial or vacuous precisely on those grounds, a state he goes on to relate to “the absence of enough conventions and the want of decisions made or received under the pressure of conventions.” At the same time, he wants to insist—this is pure Greenberg—that there is in principle no reason why the shaping of a box (he is clearly thinking of Minimalist/Literalist works like Tony Smith’s archetypal Die or various boxes by Donald Judd) couldn’t bear just as much “weight of intuited decision” as a sculpture for a temple pediment. I say this is pure Greenberg because it is such a “formalist” remark: for Greenberg, to entertain the thought that there could, practically speaking, be a difference in this regard between a box or a cube and a temple pediment would be to attach fundamental significance to considerations of something like subject matter (in this case, the difference between an abstract cube and the gods, warriors, and centaurs on a temple pediment), which by his lights properly could have no bearing on artistic issues properly understood. This seems to me misguided for reasons that, again, shouldn’t need elaborating at this point in time: it is, after all, no accident that the cube or box (a strong gestalt, Robert Morris would have said) played so important a role in the Minimalist/Literalist project as anatomized in “Art and Objecthood” (an essay Greenberg never began to try to understand; the whole argument about theatricality mostly set his teeth on edge6). In other words, Greenberg both related his claims about “how essential the awareness of decision is [i.e. has become] to the satisfying experience of formal art” to the weakness of certain recent purportedly advanced work and refused at least on this occasion to consider what it was specifically about that work that led or conduced to the paucity of conventions he so deplored.7
But, again, my aim in these remarks is not to critique Greenberg’s ideas. Instead I want to seize upon the thought of density or intensity or weight of intuited decision and to associate that thought with a body of work to which, on theoretical grounds, it might seem to have nothing in common—the photographic oeuvre of Robert Adams. Very briefly: Adams was born in New Jersey in 1937; his family subsequently moved to Madison, Wisconsin and a few years later to the suburbs of Denver. Adams got his B.A. from the University of Redlands in California, and went on to do a Ph.D. at the University of Southern California. In 1962 he began teaching English at Colorado College but around that time became interested in taking and making photographs; by 1967 he was doing so seriously, and in 1970 he stopped teaching in order to photograph full time. An important photobook, The New West: Landscapes along the Colorado Front Range, appeared in 1974 and a year later his work was shown in the important exhibition (in retrospect a milestone in American photographic history), New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape (1975). Since that time superb photobooks have appeared with some regularity (Denver: A Photographic Survey of the Metropolitan Area ; Los Angeles Spring ; What We Bought: The New World, Scenes from the Denver Metropolitan Area, 1970-74 [1995 and 2009]; and Turning Back: A Photographic Journal of Re-exploration  among them), and of course for a long time now Adams has been widely recognized as one of the most distinguished photographers at work anywhere. My personal familiarity with his art is quite recent, dating as it does from the major retrospective exhibition, a selection of nearly 300 works, organized by Joshua Chuang for the Yale University Art Gallery, which opened in Vancouver in the fall of 2010 and over the next few years traveled to a number of venues in this country and Europe.8 (I saw it in New Haven in the fall of 2012 after having caught it some months before at LACMA. Let me also say that I had the privilege of going through the exhibition at LACMA with Jim Welling and at Yale with Josh Chuang; I’m grateful to them both for countless insights.) Simply put, I was swept away by what I saw. Naturally I had admired individual photographs and even small shows of Adams’s work in the past. But Josh Chuang’s exhibition established Adams’s stature as a major artist beyond the possibility of dispute, by virtue both of the taste, intelligence, and amplitude of the selection and, in both museums but especially in New Haven, the effectiveness of the installation.
Before saying anything further about Adams, however, I should explain what I meant when I remarked that the notion of density or intensity or weight of intuited decision as put forward by Greenberg might seem, on theoretical grounds, to have nothing to do with work such as Adams’s. I’m referring, of course, to the emphasis in photographic theory on what is usually called the indexicality of the photograph, which is to say to the important sense, brilliantly developed in recent writings by Walter Benn Michaels, in which a photograph may be understood as not properly speaking a representation of the thing it is a photograph of but rather an indexical, fossil-like trace of that thing. As Michaels shows, such an emphasis turns out to be linked with the post-modern critique of modernism, understood in turn, as he remarks, “as crucially the critique of representation, of the picture and of the categories associated with it: ‘aesthetic intention,’ ‘work of art,’ ‘authorship,’ etc.”9 Michaels’s argument is characteristically complex but I want to single out the issue of intention, as expressed for example by Patrick Maynard (quoted by Michaels) when he asks whether the photograph “‘sufficiently expresses or manifests intentional states of people, rather than other formative factors [like the] photochemical/electronic marking process.’ Thus, as [Maynard] puts it, ‘there will be effects in successful photos that one does not know how to attribute,’ by which he means one doesn’t know whether or not they’re there on purpose. The standard example here is the profusion of detail in the photograph, the way in which the photograph shows things the eye did not see. [All the leaves on a tree, for example, or blades of grass on a lawn, or similar details of that sort.] And it is such details, Maynard says, that raise ‘the question of the kinds and proportion of controlled features relative to uncontrolled ones, as compared with drawing and painting’” (13).10 (The most emphatic version of this argument is Roger Scruton’s in his 1981 essay “Photography and Representation,” which essentially denies to photography the status of an art.11 One short quotation: “The photograph is a means to the end of seeing its subject; in painting, on the other hand, the subject is the means to the end of its own representation. The photograph is transparent to its subject, and if it holds our interest it does so because it acts as a surrogate for the represented thing. Thus if one finds a photograph beautiful, it is because one finds something beautiful in its subject. A painting may be beautiful, on the other hand, even when it represents an ugly thing” .)
All this is much too summary, but it is meant chiefly to prepare the ground for the counter-claim—in effect the point of this talk—that Adams’s photographs, both individually and en masse, struck me in 2012 as epitomizing Greenberg’s emphasis on density or intensity or weight of intuited decision (or judgment-decision) in the strongest possible sense. And this not despite the fact that they are photographs so much as because they are, if I may so put it. Take for example the photograph Adams calls “Colorado Springs, Colorado,” from his photobook The New West, of which it was the frontispiece. (It is also the frontispiece to volume one of The Place We Live, which further suggests that Adams places great stock in it.) In various respects, it is emblematic of his work of the late 1960s and early 1970s: the setting is a suburb (often unfinished), with tract housing, undistinguished construction, unimpressive spaces—in effect despoiling nature in a more or less unconscious manner. (Adams means the viewer to receive such images in that spirit.) Note in this case the unattractiveness of the “in-between” space with which we are presented, with scarcely a place for the two human beings (a man in glasses at the right, a woman in trousers to the left, both viewed largely from behind) to stand and talk. Not to mention the small heap of rubble directly behind the woman, which she appears to ignore, or the completely un-aesthetic juxtaposition to her left of the two exterior walls with their ill-matched horizontal striations or the strange stony interstice between the two. (The sloping metallic roof adds another quietly discordant note.) In short, scarcely a beautiful subject, in Scruton’s terminology. But Adams’s photograph is breathtaking. Indeed what is difficult is to know where to begin extolling its perfection. In the first place, there is the thrill of its utter clarity, its sheer sharpness of focus, throughout the entire depth of field, which of course is a function of the combination of lens opening and shutter speed choices (that is, intuited decisions) as well as the choice of film—and prior to that, the choice of camera, lens, etc. And in a photograph such as this one, as throughout Adams’s work, there is also the stunning, unexpected rightness of the composition, about which one could go on at length (in fact almost indefinitely). So for example there is the objectively startling interplay between the man all of whom is in dark shadow save for his face and the white rectangle of the upper story of the building beyond him, the lower right-hand corner of which comes extremely close to making visual contact with his forehead, thereby telescoping the spatial separation between them, or very nearly so. Note too the way the woman’s dark-haired head breaks into the same white rectangle over toward the left, which is what gives such particular poignance to the exquisitely calibrated sense at once of distance and of communication (or should the terms be reversed?) between the two protagonists. And of course there is the towering, cut-off building at the right, which anchors the composition by virtue of its strong vertical emphasis (with horizontal striations, a hallmark of the image as a whole) while remaining at the same time somehow unobtrusive, the “action” of the image being entirely to the left. Adams himself cites the photographer Edward Weston as saying that good composition is “the strongest way of seeing.”12 What Weston appears to have meant, Adams goes on to state, is that a photographer “wants Form, an unarguably right relationship of shapes, a visual stability in which all components are equally important. The photographer hopes, in brief, to discover a tension so exact it is peace.” And: the right set of relations is “discovered in a split second of literal fact” but unlike (for example) a glimpse from a car window “it implies an order beyond itself, a landscape into which all fragments, no matter how imperfect, fit perfectly.” (Among those “fragments,” in this photograph, are the man and the woman; what it means that they are subsumed so acutely in the emerging order of the composition is a question without a knockdown answer. But it is a question one cannot simply put aside.) All this, I need hardly add, has everything to do with the fact that a camera such as Adams used to make this photograph had only one lens (that is, one combination of lenses), not two set side by side, like constantly focusing and refocusing human eyes, which is to say that nothing could be less like lived vision (to use the language of Merleau-Pontyan phenomenology) than the fixed ultra-sharp arrangement of elements “Colorado Springs, Colorado” gives us to see. But that unlikeness itself was in effect intended by Adams, who in a sense anticipated the end result, not completely, that indeed would have been impossible, but at least up to a point. And of course—something it is easy to forget—the finished photograph reveals its perfection precisely to the human gaze, which finds in it the grounds for an exhilaration that ordinary vision as such does not afford. (Weston’s “strongest way of seeing” is to be found only there.)
Then there is the light. To quote Adams again, about the photographs in The New West: after acknowledging the drabness of the suburbs and the tract housing he writes, “Paradoxically, however, we also need the whole geography, natural and man-made, to experience a place; all land, no matter what has happened to it, has over it a grace, an absolutely persistent beauty.”13 (The notion of grace is of special interest to me, needless to say.) He continues: “The subject of these pictures is, in this sense, not tract homes or freeways but the source of all Form, Light. The Front Range is astonishing because it is overspread with light of such richness that banality is impossible. Even subdivisions, which we hate for the obscenity of the speculator’s greed, are at certain times of the day transformed to a dry, cold brilliance.” And: “Nothing permanently diminishes the affirmation of the sun.” Finally, he quotes Jean-Luc Godard’s cameraman Raoul Contal: “Daylight has an inhuman faculty for being always perfect.”14
Here it is worth pausing a moment to underscore the self-evident: the light Adams celebrates in these terms is rendered in his photographs not in full color but in black and white (and all the myriad greys between). This is at once a radical simplification and a considerable enriching of ordinary vision: a simplification in the obvious sense that we lose the sensuous richness of color as such and an enriching in that the infinitely precise play of values, of shades of light and dark, that black-and-white photography makes possible is not something that ordinary lived full-color vision is capable of registering on its own. (Nor, by and large, is color photography, but that is another matter.) The pursuit of what Adams calls Form thus inevitably involves taking account both of the sharpness (the absoluteness) of the contrast between black and white and of the proliferation of minutely discriminable light/dark values between the two extremes, and let me say at once that to the best of my knowledge no photographer has ever been more in command of this particular resource than Robert Adams. So that while Adams is undoubtedly correct to speak as he does of the natural light of the Front Range, the fact that his photographs make it stunningly present is an esthetic achievement of a very particular sort. (As Jim Welling has made clear to me, this has much to do with Adams’s masterly printing of his own photographs—a fascinating topic that I hope Welling writes about some day.15)
Another self-evident point concerns the small scale of Adams’s photographs—for the most part a matter of inches only. Needless to say, this is a major difference between his work and the High Modernist painting I began my career as an art critic by celebrating and indeed that Greenberg would have had in mind as well—think of Pollock, De Kooning, Kline, Newman, Still, Rothko, Frankenthaler, Louis, Noland, Olitski, Stella, Poons—and of course it is an almost equally salient point of difference between Adams’s photographs and the new tableau-scale art photography that has come dramatically to the fore starting in the late 1970s, I mean the work of Wall, Bustamante, Ruff, Struth, Gursky, Höfer, Demand, et al., the photographers discussed in my 2008 book, Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before. My argument in that book is that the new tableau photography, by virtue not only of its scale but also of the fact (noted by Jean-François Chevrier) that it was made for the wall, necessarily engaged with the problem of the relation of work to beholder that I had previously tried to show emerged as central to ambitious modern (and then, subsequently, modernist) painting starting in the mid-1750s in France. I can’t go further into this here, though it should at once be clear that Adams’s photographs operate differently: they are not beholder-oriented in the tableau way even as their relatively small scale invites an intensity of close looking capable of discerning and taking esthetic pleasure in the rightness of the different sorts of relationships I have tried to evoke. Indeed there is a sense in which his photographs might be said to have been made ultimately to find their ideal place in carefully plotted, aspirationally unified photobooks, a medium within which Adams’s lyric sensibility reveals itself to the fullest extent.16
With respect to the recent history of photography, in other words, Adams’s photographs belong to a developmental moment prior to the present one, assuming we can specify the latter moment with any fixity. And my basic claim in these pages is that there are aspects of that earlier moment that may be seen, by a sort of Nachträglichkeit, as taking on a new and highly charged significance in the present situation (an “as never before quality,” in a manner of speaking), as if Adams’s concentrated pursuit of an absolute perfection of manifold small-scale internal relations within the sharply circumscribed rectangular photographic field can today be understood as instantiating Greenberg’s notion of a density or intensity or weight of intuited decision—also his emphasis on the productive role of what he calls conventions—with a new forcefulness and perspicuousness. This is to say that the strictly documentary character of Adams’s work, which by and large claimed viewers’ attention at the time of New Topographics, has somewhat receded in importance. And it is also to suggest that the theoretical issue of the non-representational nature of the photograph as well as of the problematic status of the photographer’s intentions owing to the photograph’s indexicality, on which earlier writers have laid such stress and which, inflected differently—that is to say, “positively”—has also been central to Michaels’s reflections on the medium, turns out to be not quite relevant to the present case. Or rather, more precisely, it is as if the “weak intentionality” of the photograph in the latter regard (to adapt a term of John Berger’s put in circulation by Michaels17) turns out to throw into relief the extraordinary strength and efficacy of Adams’s esthetic perfectionism—the density or intensity of his judgment-decisions, in Greenberg’s lingo—with respect to the appearance of the final print, the esthetic artifact as such. I need hardly add that this last claim requires demonstration and analysis at far greater length and, no doubt, depth than have been here provided.18