Installation Art in the Age of Electronic Media (2000)



Robert Irwin DIA Installation(photo of Robert Irwin’s “Exegesis: Homage to the Square” at Dia, courtesy of Joel Meyerowiz)


Installation Art in the Age of Electronic Media

(e-pub excerpt of yr2000 paper for Columbia Art History department)





The 1990’s hardly seem to have passed into cultural history, yet already we have characterizations emerging, helping us to mentally assign things, conditions, and events a “then” sense, rather than “now” sense.  One element that surely will be spoken of as a “nineties” thing is the naturalization of “installation art” as a genre.  This distinction does not refer to an idea that the artistic practice itself emerged during the decade.  Instead, it refers to the “establishment” of a common understanding and beginnings of a common language that became attached in and around various sculptural works that secured their identification in the same movement and propelled the new use of the term “installation” as a genre identifier.  The subsequent attachment and perpetual use of the term signifies that installation has been in practice long and widely enough to have become established and need some sort of title.  Originally referring to the “installation of” sculptural works that departed from traditional sculpture; the term seems to have grown naturally from verb to noun/verb.  The expansion of the fine arts into this genre that we call installation art has other characteristics that mark its emergence as more than simply a local trend in the history of art.  One notes its establishment and titling by way of recent art world texts documenting its history, such as the Smithsonian Institution’s Installation Art, the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art’s Blurring the Boundaries, and the recently released From Margin to Center, by independent scholar Julie H. Reiss. The texts all feature works executed from the 1950s to the present, tracing a visual history of the phenomenon they declaim as “installation.”  Yet the previous decades that these surveys summarize are populated by books and articles from the world of art history and critical theory that have not conclusively segregated the “installation” but instead discuss exhibits in a vocabulary established by conceptual art, sculpture, and postmodern cultural criticism.  While the installation phenomenon has its main roots in the conceptual art movement of the 1960s, it has evolved into a characteristically postmodern and self-contained genre with its own momentum.  How it differs from sculpture is inherent to understanding the function it serves in our culture today.

Two key sources in the field of early theories about installation art are Lucy Lippard’s 1973 Six Years: the Dematerialization of the Art Object… and Rosalind Krauss’s 1979 essay “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” which originally appeared in October.  Lippard’s opening essay “Escape Attempts” reports on the emergence of art-making that sought two aims: to radicalize the defining qualities of art objects–by attempting to remove any sense of “object” possible–thus attempting to remove art from a commodity-driven establishment, and to politicize the act of making art.[1]  The creation of non-object works by artists, such as Allan Kaprow’s Happenings, not only explored the possibilities of making art without an object, but attempted to push the relationship between the viewer and the work beyond that of an aestheticized, commodity-oriented observer “consuming” art.  In a more systematic analysis, Krauss sees the emergence of work such as the earth works of Robert Smithson not as a negation of the object, but an expansion from the object into alternate conceptions based on the object’s nature.  She uses a Klein diagram to express the logic of this expansion, but

[1] Lucy Lippard, Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object 1966-1972…, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973), pp. vii-xxii.

Allan Kaprow, Yard (Happening), 1961

Robert Morris, Observatory, 1971

Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty, 1974

metaphorically, it is easier to comprehend by imagining the sculptural artist as a blind person in a room of objects he or she has to learn.  First exploring the figures and objects in the room, to know what is where by pace-distance and touch, the artist then moves to discovering the nature of the space in which the objects exist-the world he or she shares with them in the form of the room.  The room can be imagined as the world itself to understand the expansion beyond architectural structures.  This expansion is populated by three different forms that today are considered under the umbrella we now call installation, defined as the “site construction,” “axiomatic structures,” and “marked sites.”  A site construction is differentiated from a marked site by its relation to architecture: a site construction is both landscape and architecture, whereas a marked site is both landscape and “not-landscape.”  Robert Morris’ Observatory, which appears to be a small structure of wood and sod embedded in the middle of a grassy field in Holland, is a site construction, while the site of Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, a reshaping of existing elements, a “physical manipulation of the site,” categorizes it as a “marked site.”  The third category, “axiomatic structures,” represents work that engages architecture and “not-architecture,” works that “intervene into the real space of architecture,” such as Bruce Nauman’s video corridors, or the specific demolitions of Gordon Matta-Clark.  These works “map the axiomatic features of the architectural experience.”[1]  This formal structuring of the differences is helpful in thinking about how installations can be individually examined and demonstrates that sculptural art desired to comment on the relationship between human beings and their world, but only hints at the impulses that actually caused sculpture to break away from its monumental origins.  The blind person may be curious about the world, but more than curiosity moves him or her to make something that describes his or her relationship to it.

The artist Robert Irwin writes of the installation as sculpture that has four degrees of expansion, making an analysis of how a work integrates with an environment and differentiating it based on both the artist’s and viewer’s experience of the architectural and structural features of the work.  In this analysis, “site dominant” is a traditional monumental sculpture,

[1] Rosalind Krauss, “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” in Foster, ed., The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, pp.36-40.


Susan Tyler Jenkins, June 27, 2000

Honors Thesis

Department of Art History, Columbia University