Max Ernst, L’Oil du silence (The Eye of Silence), 1943-44, Oil on canvas, 43-1/4 x 56-1/4". Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, Washington University in St. Louis. University purchase, Kende Sale Fund, 1946.
Ellsworth Kelly, Spectrum Colors Arranged by Chance V, 1951, Collage on paper, 39 x 39”. Collection of the artist. © Ellsworth Kelly.
Dieter Roth, Kleiner Sonnenuntergang (Small Sunset), 1968), Sausage on paper in plastic bag, 16-15/16 x 12-9/16". Dieter Roth Foundation, Hamburg.
Victor Brauner, Jacques Hérold, Violette Hérold, Yves Tanguy, and Raoul Ubac, Untitled "Cadavre exquis" ("Exquisite Corpse"), 1938, Graphite and collage on paper, 10-3/8 x 8-1/16”. Collection of Howard and Mauree Miller, Pennsylvania.
Mildred Lane Kemper
One Brookings Drive
September 18, 2009-January 4, 2010
Dripping or flinging paint; flipping coins to compose musical scores; letting the progressive decay of organic materials determine a composition — since the early 20th century avant-garde artists have used these processes and many others to explore the creative possibilities of chance and its attendant release of authorial intent.
Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum at Washington University in St. Louis presents Chance Aesthetics, a major loan exhibition investigating the use of chance as a key compositional principle in modern art.
Organized by Meredith Malone, assistant curator for the Kemper Art Museum, Chance Aesthetics features more than 60 artworks by more than 40 avant-garde artists from Europe and the United States, including Jean Arp, George Brecht, John Cage, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Ellsworth Kelly, Alison Knowles, François Morellet, Robert Morris, Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock, Dieter Roth, Niki de Saint Phalle and Yves Tanguy, among many others.
At the exhibition's heart is a central paradox involving the tension between chance and choice. While many artists have championed the creative possibilities of the arbitrary and the accidental — both as an attack on reason and logic and as a counterpoint to officially sanctioned aesthetic tastes — artistic subjectivity is never entirely ceded.
The controlled and the arbitrary variously interplayed throughout the 20th century, stimulating new forms of creative invention that challenged longstanding assumptions about what might constitute a work of art and the role of the artist as autonomous creator.
Chance Aesthetics explores these ideas in three thematic sections: "Collage, Assemblage and the Found Object," "Automatism" and "Games and Systems of Random Ordering." Each section addresses key avant-garde strategies designed to subvert or rework traditional forms of artistic expression as well as the bourgeois values and ideals they were understood to represent.
These categories also provide a basic framework through which individual movements — including Dada, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, Nouveau Réalisme and Fluxus — can be traversed, allowing viewers to compare and contrast the use of chance-based processes across diverse historical and cultural contexts.
"Collage, Assemblage and the Found Object" examines three closely related practices employed by artists as means of destabilizing accepted views of the world through fragmentation and juxtaposition while negating traditional criteria for judging a work of art such as the direct trace of the artist's hand.
Marcel Duchamp's Hat Rack (1917) and Jean Arp's Objects Arranged according to the Laws of Chance III: Symmetrical Configuration (1931) provide early touchstones, informing a wide range of subsequent artworks. Particularly in the post-WWII era, assemblage, coupled with chance — as evinced in works such as Daniel Spoerri's snare paintings and Niki de Saint Phalle's shooting paintings—offered artists a compelling means of social critique as well as a strategy for pushing the trajectory of artistic production toward process, performance and ephemeral events.
In his 1924 Manifesto of Surrealism André Breton defined Surrealism as "psychic automatism in its pure state." Appropriated first from physiology and psychiatry, the term "automatism" was applied to various techniques of spontaneous writing, drawing and painting.
Examples range from André Masson's sand paintings and automatic drawings to Max Ernst's otherworldly frottages (rubbings). Intended to bypass the conscious mind, these Surrealist experiments later were adapted by Abstract Expressionists such as Jackson Pollock, who explored chance effects of gravity and momentum on falling paint. But by the late 1950s diverse responses arose in opposition to the Surrealist legacy, including Swiss sculptor Jean Tinguely's humorous production of painting machines, which took aim at both postwar gestural abstraction's heroic mark-making and the supposed liberations of automatic production.
The final section, "Games and Systems of Random Ordering," examines chance as generated through the implementation of randomizing systems and procedures. Though parameters typically were stipulated in advance, results were left largely to serendipity.
Duchamp's promotion of nonintention on the part of the artist and his notion of "canned chance," which describes processes that depend on chance yet paradoxically attempt to fix or standardize it, aptly characterize many of the artistic practices represented. The type of indeterminacy derived from games and arbitrary systems of order — such as the simple toss of a coin, where one of two outcomes is equally likely — provided John Cage, Ellsworth Kelly, François Morellet and other artists with a means of undermining concerns of style and personal expression, thus facilitating the liberating exploration of unorthodox methodologies for making art.
A fully illustrated color catalog — distributed by the University of Chicago Press — accompanies the exhibition. Essays by Susan Laxton, Meredith Malone and Janine Mileaf draw connections across media and disciplines while linking the genesis and meaning of artistic production through chance to larger socio-cultural, historical and theoretical contexts.
The catalog also features extended entries on all works in the exhibition, focusing on the processes employed and the rhetoric used to describe and theorize them.
Niki de Saint Phalle, Grand tir – séance Galerie J, June 30-July 12, 1961, Plaster, paint, wire mesh, string and plastic, 56-5/16 x 30-5/16". Niki Charitable Art Foundation.