Summer 2004

Artist Project / Proposal for Total Reflective Abstraction

Josiah McElheny

From Josiah McElheny’s artwork Model for Total Reflective Abstraction (after Buckminster Fuller and Isamu Noguchi), 2003.

This proposal for an addition to the history of 20th-century abstraction originates in an unfinished conversation between Buckminster Fuller and Isamu Noguchi.[1] Their early articulation of the concept of total reflectivity is in large part unknown, but serendipitously, aspects of the idea have been explored by artists, architects, and designers throughout the 20th century. As a culture, we seem obsessed by the idea of mirroring and self-reflexivity; this can be observed throughout our physical environment, in the use of reflective surfaces as an emblem of modernity. Total Reflective Abstraction is a possible term of classification for the ways in which this preoccupation is expressed in the worlds of art and design.

In 1929, before the stock-market crash, Fuller and Noguchi began talking about abstraction at a bar called Romany Marie’s in New York’s West Village. The same year, the Bauhaus School was organizing their famous Metallic Festival, in which they created reflective effects that—coincidentally—the two men in New York had begun to formulate as theory. According to Fuller, this was also “the year Henry Ford made chrome nickel steel commercially available for the first time in history, and with it, permanently reflective surfaces in economically available massive quantities [which were] therefore available to large sculptures, whereas gold had theretofore been available only in jewelry magnitudes.”[2] The importance of reflectivity to modernism was making itself known, from the avant-garde to mass production.

Fuller and Noguchi’s conversation began as speculation about the definition of sculptural form, and whether it was necessary, as it always had been in the past, that form be communicated through the experience of shadows—or “negative light reflections,” as they put it. They proposed that a totally reflective object within a totally reflective environment would allow form to exist without shadow, and at the same time create a new kind of abstraction based only on reflected light. As Fuller recalled over 30 years later: “Isamu did not think of reflective sculpture as shiny alternate models of negative-light sculptures. … What he saw that others did not see was that completely reflective surfaces provided a fundamental invisibility of the surface. … Isamu saw here an invisible sculpture, hidden in and communicating through a succession of live reflections of images surrounding it.”[3] One can imagine a manifesto: A form without shadow, a figure without ground, a seamless, ever-changing unity!

But perhaps it is necessary to inquire why, if this conversation has important implications and applications even now, the anecdote has been virtually forgotten? Partly this is because their exploration of the idea was limited to one experiment. As Noguchi described it in a 1980 book about Fuller: “Some time later I got an old laundry room on top of a building on Madison Avenue and Twenty-Ninth Street with windows all around. Under Bucky’s sway, I painted the whole place silver—so that one was almost blinded by the lack of shadow. There I made his portrait in chrome-plated bronze—also form without shadow.”[4] So, despite Fuller’s assertion regarding Noguchi’s thoughts on “invisible sculpture,” it had actually been Fuller who conceived the theory, while Noguchi attempted its realization. This involved creating the necessary conditions for their extraordinary experiment: the first totally reflective artist’s studio, and an early use of “the newly available chromium”[5] for art. In this small, space-age environment, their hypothesis was put to the test. A completely reflective sculpture was installed in a totally reflective environment, resulting in a blinding experience of light itself defining form.

Subsequently, however, Noguchi let the matter drop, and all would probably have been forgotten were it not for Fuller having recollected the matter in 1960 when asked to analyze the influence of Noguchi’s work on art and design of the 20th century. It was then that Fuller ascribed to Noguchi the invention of an abstraction based on total reflectivity. No one trumpeted the declaration, even though the importance of reflectivity to the modern movement had been in the air for some time; the glass towers of International Style architecture already dominated the landscape with their huge mirrored surfaces, and soon after Fuller’s statement, Robert Smithson would shift art’s understanding of spatial concepts with his Enantiomorphic Chambers (1965) and Mirror Displacements (1969). The barroom theorists’ tantalizing and precocious formulation notwithstanding, they were not the only ones to have explored the notion of reflection as a core metaphor for questions posed by modernism in the 20th century.

Fuller and Noguchi envisioned an experience of art and a vocabulary of design based on a philosophy of total reflectivity. The proposed term, Total Reflective Abstraction, suggests that the final goal of abstraction is to create a unity of all that exists within the visual field, in order to remake the very experience of seeing. As Fuller imagined it: “In the brain of the viewer there would be induced a composite constellation of pattern information permitting the secondarily derived recognition of the invisible sculpture’s presence and dimensional relationships.”[6] The visual utopia they imagined is a world in which all is one; the self and the other are joined in a perfect union of reflection and perception. Within this reflective world, abstraction means the recognition of the self in everything else, the understanding that there is no permanent border to the body. In this sense, their speculation echoes a variety of philosophical concerns central to the 20th century that emphasize the interdependence of situation and observation.

We live in a world in which the strategies behind the construction of our environment appear as if they were actually derived from the theorems of Total Reflective Abstraction. In the 21st century, we interact constantly with the physically reflective wherever we go—not only in the form of chrome and mirror, but in the huge variety of glass used in architecture, to the high-gloss painted surfaces that are ubiquitous in the modern world. In light of these attempts to banish the unreflective—the dull, the flat, the absorptive—from our visual vocabulary, it is surprising that our collective belief in reflectivity has not generated a distinct aesthetic discourse or category of abstraction, as have other modernist motifs, such as the grid or monochrome. Perhaps the notion of Total Reflective Abstraction was never explicitly defined as a separate notion within art or design because it implies a limit to the expression of ideas in material form, when reflection and the reflected become one.

In general, the experience of reflectivity is a kind of perception that is manifested not in the gritty world of the tangibly solid, but as a constantly moving record of our own examination of that world. Fuller poetically described it: “The fundamental invisibility was that of utterly still waters whose presence can be apprehended only when objects surrounding those surfaces can be reflected in them.”[7] Reflectivity is made up of the interaction of light and surface, an objective image formed of a collaboration between material and energy that articulates the intrinsic properties of the object and its situation in space. But, strangely, our experience of it is the opposite, a subjective experience in which the reflection seems to exist somewhere between the object, the light source, and our eyes. Often it confuses us with its variability, its tendency to disorient our normal spatial capabilities. In other words, it fascinates, because it cannot be completely explained as a collection of optical effects.

Reflectivity physically exudes mystery, even within our world that tries to eliminate the unknown from all aspects of life. Benjamin Buchloh describes the historical development of our interest in the metaphoric possibilities of perceptual experience within the fields of art and architecture: “What followed the cult of transparency was a cult of reflections, of mirror effects that would reflect audience behavior and movement in the manner of a recording camera.”[8] Ultimately, these experiences are registered in our minds not as a single, photographic image, but as multiple moments of the perception of light interacting with materiality.

It may be helpful here to clarify the relationship between the mirror and the reflection. The mirror marks one end of a spectrum of reflectivity, and is often thought of as embodying a one-to-one relationship between the image created in the mirror and physical reality. Experience of the mirror might stop at the flattering recognition of the self, but it might also extend to include other distortions, perspectives, and transformations. The mirror can provide recognizable images, but this image is not a simple copy or reproduction of the world. Every mirror alters what it reflects to some extent; at the least it reverses things. At the other end of the spectrum, meanwhile, is simply the reflection—as opposed to the absorption—of light, which offers effects based in part on the conditions of light at that moment. But it does not necessarily transmit a definable image or form; it provides us with a kind of malleable visual information, with deformations and warpage that by nature register our presence.

The reflective in totality could thus be said to contain a sequence of possible images, from the “photographically realistic” to the most extremely “non-objective” or abstract. It is an amalgam of the subjective and objective—experience of it is subjective, but what makes up that experience are the objective actions of reflected light in a specific place and time. If “the reflective” can be described as a medium, it is one in which the viewer becomes the author, because without the viewer it is impossible to discern the something, or even the nothing, that is there.

Jorge Luis Borges, in his poems and fictions about mirrors (see page 101), made clear that reflections of the self are not only constructions of the mind, but that they have a disarmingly palpable presence in the world. Importantly, he put forward the notion that all materials that reflect light at any level can become active mirrors in relation to our experience of the world. He observed that the activating force of reflections (and therefore of possible mirroring) appears not only in chromed sculpture or glass mirrors, specifically crafted for their highly reflective capacities. He saw that this force also arises out of the “merely” reflective thing—whether or not that thing has been specifically created for this effect—and of course in natural materials and phenomena. The images that are not exactly inside nor outside the glossy substances appear and multiply around us endlessly. Read in this context, his work proposes that looking at the world is like an experience of de facto Total Reflective Abstraction, where the meaning of visual information is constantly shaped by the viewpoint of the self.

As has been described, it was also demonstrated at least as early as 1929 that the visual properties of reflectivity can be intentionally transformed into surprisingly tangible objects and experiences. Fuller wrote of an “invisible sculpture,” an invisible form, but perhaps a more accurate description would employ an adjective currently in vogue, and speak of dematerialized form. Yet, the reflective object is material, and in fact must be experienced physically, because it can never be adequately photographed, or filmed. It changes with each viewing. Even a written description of it must have recourse to something that by nature is virtually impossible to depict objectively, the self-consuming experience of seeing oneself in the mirror. Total Reflective Abstraction could be viewed as the ultimate, and final, expression of form materialized because, in a fundamental way, it defies form.

Total Reflective Abstraction, then, is a concept based on the physical/mental effects of the human urge to examine the self, or even to examine the act of examining. A theory about it would engage the relentless, circular, infinite nature of reflectivity, its seductive ability to play on the most basic aspects of human curiosity, and the seemingly undefeatable logic of an ideology that can conform to any and all definitions of what is important. Total Reflective Abstraction exploits the fact that reflectivity represents both the Self and the Other, and that reflectivity can therefore contain an infinite number of possible interactions.

A category named Total Reflective Abstraction proposes that the physical, material effects of the reflective create an abstraction that erases the boundaries between its parts and between the viewer and his/her object. Total Reflective Abstraction might be seen as an expression of our urge towards perfection itself, the secular corollary to a heaven in which thought and the body are one. As a visual modality it is infinite in its ability to project before us new perspectives, distortions, extensions. It is timeless, or perhaps it is time itself, because it only exists, as it exists, now, in the moment of looking. Total Reflective Abstraction, in its extreme and untarnished form, implies an implosion, as endless reflections take up more and more of the space we need to live and breathe. Our devotion to it is, in this sense, dangerous, because it uses to great effect two universal human characteristics: the psychological pull of our own image, and the desire for any object that sparkles, shines, or glows, echoing our hope for a light that emanates from within.

With thanks to Ingrid Schaffner

  1. See Ingrid Schaffner, “Reflections on Silver Studios” in Josiah McElheny, The Metal Party. Published jointly by the Public Art Fund and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 2002.
  2. R. Buckminster Fuller, “Isamu Noguchi,” reprinted in Isamu Noguchi: Sculptural Design (Berlin: Vitra Design Museum, n.d.), p. 257. Originally published in The Palette: The Magazine of the Connecticut Arts Association, Winter 1960. Reprinted, extensively abridged, as the Foreword to Noguchi’s autobiography, Isamu Noguchi: Sculptor’s World (New York: Harper and Row, 1968).
  3. Ibid.
  4. Isamu Noguchi, quoted in Buckminster Fuller: An Autobiographical Monologue/ Scenario (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1980), p. 62. This quote also appears in Ingrid Schaffner, op. cit.
  5. Fuller, p. 257.
  6. Ibid. This quote also appears in Ingrid Schaffner, op. cit.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Benjamin Buchloh, Gerhard Richter: Eight Gray (Berlin: Deutsche Guggenheim, 2002), p. 24. Italics in the original.

Josiah McElheny is a New York–based artist who exhibits internationally. His two contributions to this issue are part of research he conducted in order to make The History of Mirrors (1998) and his current group of artworks, which engage with the conversation described here between Noguchi and Fuller. His most recent show, “Total Reflective Abstraction,” was at Donald Young Gallery in Chicago.

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