Unpublished text, 1996.
Most materialists, despite wanting to eliminate all spiritual entities, ended up describing an order of things whose hierarchical relations mark it out as specifically idealist. They have situated dead matter at the summit of a conventional hierarchy of diverse types of facts, without realizing that in this way they have submitted to an obsession with an ideal form of matter, with a form which approaches closer than any other to that which matter should be. (1)

In 1995 I encountered the work of Torie Begg primarily through a text by Brian Muller (2), the artists statement for a catalogue and then in an interview with Begg (3). My contact with her work came much later in an exhibition of her work at the Galerie Renos Xippas, Paris in 1996. My reading of these texts preceding my first encounter with the paintings opened up a series of questions which will be addressed in this essay.
These questions arise out of a situation which underpins the practice of painting today. For it to have a radical role in contemporary visual culture there is a pressing need for the artist to understand a complex range of issues. Torie Begg is just such an artist as she articulates a highly reasoned and discursive position in relation to her practice. Between the texts and her work there is much ground that needs to be addressed, not solely to affect a critique of Begg’s work but also to enter into questions which apply to a broader field of contemporary artistic engagement.
This essay will discuss aspects of the historical and theoretical framework in which Begg presents her work in attempt to open up another position from which to view it.
At the heart of Begg’s and Muller’s texts is a claim that her paintings shift the sense of reception of the work entirely into the field of the viewer. They describe the paintings as producing a material object with no illusionistic residues referring exclusively to the relationships of its own process. This though is done not to present the viewer with a process puzzle to solve but to construct an ‘active viewer’ who checks imaginary associations of what the painting might be against the material fact of the work. The viewer is pulled through a set of attempts to understand the painting which the work resists pulling the recipient further into a viewing process. Each attempt brings the viewer to the realization that their associative attempts of understanding the work are a product of ‘their own personal construct’. The viewing event is thus centered within the ‘viewer’s own cognitive process’ (4). This shift to the viewer is accompanied by a regime of making the paintings where she contrasts manual with mechanistic means whose end is to ‘undermine the notion of the artist and the artists ideas as being precious’(5) (which will be discussed later in this essay). The product of a painting which is a material object evacuated of all illusion and with all vestiges of a hand of an authentic viewer eradicated brings Begg and Muller to a conclusion that the viewing event is in terms of the ‘real thing’ (6). What is presented here as a neat circuit of reflexivity with the ‘real thing’ at its hub does raise questions as to what constructs could be conditioning the ‘real’ within this context’s claims (7). If Begg’s paintings are accepted as somehow ‘real’ then what form of ritual has naturalized them through their presentation (i.e. through a displacement of authenticity from the maker to the made)? If the ‘real’ here is determined in some way then what ideological frame is at work?
To start to address this issue it is important to revise (rather than revive) some complex issues which arose from Minimalist artistic practice and its discourse. The sense of an active spectator was also essential to its development. This was not the first time the active viewer was at the heart of an artistic strategy, Russian Constructivism needed an active participant who would be productive in constructing the then emerging revolutionary social sphere. With Robert Morris (8) the passive spectator had been the subject of European art. Morris saw composition in painting and anthropomorphic structure in sculpture as forcing the viewer when attempting a cognition of the works totality to have to relate it as a sum of its parts. Morris sought to eliminate this passivity by making a category of work that was neither painting nor sculpture. He used ‘unitary form’, simple forms which generate strong gestalt effects. The mind would perceive a simple forms totality instantly emphasizing external qualities of the object and the viewers relationship to it. The former European model of representation where by the work was fragmented through cognition by its viewer was displaced into model where the fragmentation of the viewing subject became the focus. Alongside this preoccupation the Minimalists were also concerned with challenging the myth of authenticity with regard to the status of the author. They challenged this not only by way of the assertion of the objecthood of their work but also through the use of materials and procedures specific to consumer culture under industrial production.
The apparent link between the Minimalist active spectator and that of Russian Constructivism divides at one crucial point. Minimalist preoccupation’s (especially Morris’s) center attention on the phenomenological event which occurs between viewer and the faktura of the object. The tectonic implicit to the faktura (9)was never amply addressed by Minimalist art. Tectonic being the relationship between an ideology and the use of productive material (communism and industrial production in the case of the Constructivists). The tectonic of Minimalism was always a stumbling block. The Minimalist expressive use of the processes and materials of industrial society and repetitive modes were an attempt to challenge the authentic role of the artist as a maker of an original. While this challenge was noble in terms of questioning a hierarchical relationship of the viewer to the work of art the mirroring of productive forces gave rise to another set of problems. Minimalism’s active viewer centered into an intense phenomenological relationship was arguably being unwittingly inscribed into the democratic principle of American society. The tectonic at work being an inscription of Liberal democratic capitalism. The heritage of formalism at work in Minimalism in the 1960s preserved the idea of art as being autonomous from the relationships at work in society. The Minimalist viewing event was solely a question of an individual’s relation to a work of art.
An issue contained here has been addressed, in part, by Rosalind Krauss (10). She has described the installation of the Count Panza collection of Minimalists works into the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris. This required not only emptying out the collection from the museum but also an extensive rebuild of many of the galleries for the smooth operation of the Minimalist works. She goes on to discuss a gestalt-switch or a reprogramming of the museum that seems to have happened and that connects Minimalism to the radical revisions of museums that have recently been taking place. She points to an internal contradiction between on the one hand the “..phenomenological ambitions of Minimalism; and on the other, underscored by the dilemma of contemporary fabrication, Minimalism’s participation in a culture of seriality, of multiples without originals - a culture, that is, of commodity production. “(11) The restructuring of the viewing subject which was at the heart of the original Minimalist ambition was undertaken alongside an attempt to undermine the “old idealist notions about creative authority” (12). By utilizing industrial fabrication and indexing the art object as a multiple rather than as a unique and original object the intention was to explode the relevance of that ‘authentic’ art object along with the implication that the artist is the authorial center of its process. Krauss centers her efforts in this discussion upon the sense of a phenomenological, pre-objective internal horizon somehow present in the reformalisation of a Minimalist subject where through a sort of displacement there is a return to the body.
She observes that although Minimalism was a radical attack upon commodification and technologicalization that it also somehow carried the codes of that condition by empowering a language that signifies technological production. This she points out is a paradox of modernist art and its relationship to capital - an avant-gardist alternative to technology or commodity is as much a function of it. In turn, because of its Utopian nature, the modernist alternative risks becoming the sensorium for an emergent phase of capital. More particularly, as a reaction against the subject in an industrial society, Minimalism actually risks preparing the ground for that subject in a newly-emerging technological phase. This logic of capital characterizes not only modernism but also an avant-gardist projection into a future which is the perfect terrain for more advanced form of capital.
Minimalism, albeit unwittingly, prepared the ground for the fragmented subject. Characterizing this subject in a technological condition, post-modern and spread thin amongst simulacra and signs, very different from the context of bodily immediacy that typifies Minimalist intent. This new space is about intensity, a hyper-space (Krauss’s ‘hysterical sublime’) which is so easily subsumed into switch culture, information technology and corporate structure. Rather than depth there is extension and movement as the subject switches in a desire to unscramble one form in relationship to another in a dizzying eddy . Intensity, Krauss notes, is the index of this hyper space.
Michael Fried's attack on Minimalism (13)though confused by his support of late formalism and his credo of ‘presentness is grace’ pointed out that the theatricalization of the viewing event far from freeing the subject actually faces the beholder with a confrontation of the work. After Fried the Minimalist viewing situation began to be regarded as a highly controlled affair (14). Morris later confronted the question that his work did no more than mirror a Foucault’s model of confinement for by the 1970s Minimalism was seen by many as replicating the panoptic effect of industrial society (15).
As with Minimalism Begg and Muller stake out a position where the active viewer is locked into a cognitive circuit whereby the material object of the painting acts upon the viewer in a way she describes as being real. The framework in which the viewing event is set up is subject to the faktura of the work, in Begg's case a kind of techno-logic. Secondary levels of meaning and reading are simply disqualified in their discourse. However this seems like a conjuring trick and closer examination reveals that a more complex nexus of modes of control and the management of time and perception can be argued to be at work.
Begg makes allusions to technology in her descriptions of her studio practice. She makes a 'score' on a computer which is then performed in the making of the painting. A dialectic is generated between the mechanical aspect of the score against the manual manipulation of the materials. She implies that a closure is generated within this dialectic which sets up the viewing event that is so crucial to her discourse. The dialectic's excess contains an operation which is arguably more challenging and indeed opens up the paintings to a reading which is quite removed from the closure of a dialectic within the viewing event.
Begg's mirroring of technological process in terms of making a score for the work is further supported by her claim that the material character of her work should be accessed as 'information' or 'data'. This mirrors constructs of knowledge that at work in technological culture whereby data is somehow neutral and participation through computer technology is through ‘interaction’. The 'real' as presented in the reflexive discourse seems to have much in common with a technological construct of knowledge (where the active spectator of a former consumer culture during industrialization can be seen as becoming interactive in its technological phase). The reflexive art viewing event would seem to be agreeing with a sensorium that is at present at work in terms of the internet and CD ROM technology. The frame of the 'real' is taken down another track when she makes allusions to photography in her descriptions of her studio practice. The thin layering of paint to a saturation point is likened to the emulsion on photographic film. The end point of her process is like achieving a perfect exposure. Over and under exposure are used as criteria for when this perfection is not achieved.
Thus the real here can be seen as being bound up with two systems of signification. On the one hand there is an indexical system , where the sign is partially produced by the referent. This is the analogue of photography. On the other hand the techno-logic of the work refers into an another system of signification ( which is related to digital technology imaging) where the index is erased because of the infinite possibilities of image manipulation (16). This relationship seems to be the occasion that is important in the viewing event but which has not been explored in Muller's and Begg's texts. The paradox within the present phase of technology is that images produced digitally continue to be sanctioned by the authority of the 'real' which has been (arguably) ascribed to photography. Begg's realism has much in common with the mechanical and regularized product of photography (which has been popularly valorized as being the 'truthful medium') - that photography is like a fact.
My objections to Begg's discourse and particularly the credo of the real is not made as an attempt to undermine her work. Her work actually seems to be more important as an intervention between the analogue and the digital than as a consciousness raising platform within the cognitive operations of the active viewer. The tension between mechanical and manual manipulation in the process of the work sets up a dialogue that opens up a thinking of the difference in operation between analogue and digital. As Anne-Marie Willis points out "digitisation reverses the history of imaging technologies and takes photography back to the ontology of the infinitely manipulable medium of painting. If Paul Delaroche declared in 1839, 'from today painting is dead', now we could say ‘from today photography is dead” (17). And ironically it is a simulated form of painting that is displacing photography". This trauma is played out in Begg's paintings.
The core of her exhibition at Renos Xippas in Paris was an installation of works titled 'Apparently Yellow'. In one corner there were three large works, two mounted on corner walls and one on the floor in a configuration which suggested the three interior faces of a cube. A similar installation of smaller works in the adjacent corner of the gallery utilized the intersection of the ceiling and walls. The apparently identical character of each set of works and the utilization of the vertical and horizontal fields for their presentation produces an interrogation of their qualities by the viewer which aligns with Begg's purpose. However the operation of the paintings within these fields seems less to do with a closure into the 'real' and more to do with an oscillation between a number of readings diminishing the prospect that the materiality of the work can be elevated to such a value. The paintings seemingly identical appearance is differentiated according to which field they occupy. In the vertical position the paintings are at risk of being subject to a reading in terms of pure opticality . Incidents such as dust and brush hair trapped in the layers of paint although material elements of the literal surface of the painting are just as likely to be read as events in the painting’s optical field. Thus surface, thickness, and flatness are invaded by the opticality of the colour field generating a space in the painting. This space although phenomenologically produced cannot be said to real. It is an illusion which is specific to colour and it defies reductive elimination. When an apparently identical painting is viewed on the horizontal field then the painting is being seen within the context in which it was made. Depth in this field seems like looking into a pool of water, or a puddle which is an accurate correlation to the category of objects these paintings belong. The dust and paint hair become what they are, matter that is excess to a process. If we can talk of materialism in these works then their horizontal orientation suggests that it is base materialism at work both in their production and presentation. The opposition between these field serves the anti-idealist undercurrent of Begg's discourse. The operation of the informe in the horizontal axis undermines the elevation of the ‘thing’s’ qualities (that are apparently identical) when viewed in the vertical position. The vertical plane can be thought of in relation to a plane of vision where matter becomes naturalized into a world space indexed to opticality and then normalized as the reception of sense data experienced in our normal erect posture. The floor is the field of production and operation where “the painted surface is no longer the analogue of a visual experience of nature but of operational process” (18). Within this field of the viewing event there is an important opening. An essentialist attempt to normalize or naturalise the perceptual reception of an object is jeopardized through this confrontation of the vertical with the horizontal axis (19).
Bound up here is the point at which analogue and digital are in tension within the wider visual culture. The transformations of imaging technologies amounts to a slippage of the frame which has historically authorized a category of the real. Painting will fulfill a radical role only if it avoids actuating the world in terms of such concrete categories (20). Begg’s paintings seem to play out this manner of avoidance while in her discourse this strategy exists only by implication (21). The transformation within imaging technology is stalked by the ghost of modernism in all its guises. Begg’s work, despite her claims, is not so much a rehabilitation of modernism into a ‘New Modernism’ but more like a re-examination of some its key issues through the displacement of some common associations.

1.Georges Bataille, Materialism from the Critical Dictionary
2. Brian Muller, Real Art. ‘A New Modernism’. British Reflexive Painters in the 1990s; catalogue text for the Real Art exhibition, Southampton City Gallery, 1995 which also appeared in Artpress, France in the May 1995 issue.
3. A Statement for the Real Art catalogue and an interview for Contemporary Art titled Apparently Red Paintings, Winter Vol 3 #1.
4. Section 5 of Begg’s statement for the Real Art catalogue
5. From the unedited transcript of an interview with Begg which became the Apparently Red Paintings, Contemporary Art, Winter Vol 3 #1.
6. Muller, Real Art catalogue p6.
7. Begg maintains that her work is not involved in questions of signification. That somehow the painting is an empty sign and resides outside of a chain of signification. There seems to be shift here where Begg is using the photographic rather than the pictorial as a model. Rosalind Krauss has examined this issue in much depth particularly in her essays Notes on the Index: Parts 1 & 2, The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths, The MIT Press, 1985.
8. Robert Morris Notes on Sculpture 1-3, Artforum vol. 4, no 6, Feb. 1966; vol.5, no. 2 Oct. 1966; vol. 5 no. 10 Summer 1967.
9. In the sense of the state of the worked material. See the Programme of the First Working Group of Constructivists.
10. In her essay The Cultural Logic of the Late Capitalist Museum (October 54 Fall 1990)
11. ibid.
12. ibid.
13. Art and Objecthood, Artforum, Summer 1967.
14. The theatricalization of the real ,as first set out by Fried , has remained one of the most contentious but key issues of the last thirty years. Fried’s ‘beholder discourse’ could be used to bring much of Begg’s and Muller’s presentation into question but this seems to be ground that has been well covered by many others (Art and Language for example). A recent in depth discussion of the beholder discourse appears in Theories of Art after Minimalism and Pop, Discussions in Contemporary Culture N° 1, edited by Hal Foster for the DIA Art Foundation, Bay Press, Seattle, 1987.
15. For some time now there has been a discussion of how Minimalism relates to social forms. Foucault’s Discipline and Punish description of the partitioning and confining structures of social institutions has come to be related to the geometries of Minimalist sculpture and Morris acknowledged Discipline and Punish in his series of drawings in the late seventies titled In the Realm of the Carceral. Peter Halley has written much about how geometric art and early Minimalist sculpture relates to Foucault’s environments of confinement and punishment. However Halley, like other commentators that stress a link between the art of this period and an emerging social space, ignore or dodge the questions raised by the issues in Art and Objecthood (questions which have stereotypically become known as the theatricalization of the real but could more immediately be categorized as the ‘passive or active position’ and the relation of the beholder to works of art and other representations). Halley seems to see the geometries of Morris’s and Judd’s works as types of commentaries or demonstrations of a ‘disciplined’ environment relevant to the society of industrial production that these artists were addressing. The point at which these artists were actually conforming to a mode of production and social organization in industrial society rather than forming a dialogue or a critique of it, is rarely clear. Commentators like Halley seem happy to assign the intentions of the latter to these artists.
16. Digital process though it can use photographic material is not bound by the indexical relation of the sign to its referent.
17. Anne-Marie Willis, Digitisation, from Culture, Technology & Creativity, John Libbey, 1990.
18. Leo Steinberg, Other Criteria, p61, OUP, 1972.
19. The source of this criteria is Georges Batille
20. A recent essay by Peter Gidal titled The Polemics of Paint (from Gerhard Richter, Painting in the Nineties, Anthony d’Offay, 1995) is a revision of not only former accounts of Richter’s paintings but also tackles the issue of the empowerment of the viewer. He poses the question that Richter’s painting work against recognition, that they produce ‘unrecognitions’. That they obliterate readings of sublimation or a sublime. Here the concern for the material and process of the structures of both the abstract and the photo-paintings does not allow identification. That somehow the viewer is left with ‘nothing’. The ‘nothing’ includes being unable to recuperate a viewing position which is metaphorical, historicized, and, which by implication, would be an ideological construct.
21. It is worth noting Walter Benjamin’s sense of a danger of the difference that lies between “uncritical assumptions of actuality rather than a critical position of questioning.”