Theses Doctoral

Site Specifics: Modernist Mediums in Modern Places

Vydrin, Eugene

This dissertation argues that the modernist doctrine of medium specificity, the idea that the autonomy of the arts arises from artworks' investigation of the properties and limits of their materials, grounds artistic production in the place where it was produced. The identity of artistic mediums (writing, painting, sculpture, and land art) depends on their literal placement in physical, geographic environments. Medium specificity requires site specificity. In the aesthetic, art-historical discourses I consider -- Gertrude Stein's account of Cubism, Soviet avant-garde writings on Constructivism, Robert Smithson's texts on landscape, earth art, and Minimalism -- the mediums of art-making are located in places that serve simultaneously as construction sites, sources of raw materials, and models of aesthetic form. They are both the subject of representation and the representational means, the work's content, form, and substance. Art derives its physical properties, its subject matter, and its formal laws from the geography, topography, and geology of the sites at which it is made. Stein retroactively models Picasso's Cubism (and her own plays) on the spatial juxtaposition of houses and mountains in the Spanish landscape. Shklovsky discovers Constructivist principles (and those of his own formalist aesthetics) in the daily life of post-revolutionary St. Petersburg. Smithson finds a model for earth art and for the recovery of history from universal entropy in the "dialectical landscape" of Central Park. For all three of these aesthetic theorists and practitioners, natural processes are entangled with social history, reciprocally modifying each other at the intersections of the built and the found. The specific site is constituted by such intersections and models site-specific art as a legible composition of modern life. By literally taking place, the site-specific artworks these writers describe, theorize, and propose acquire historical specificity, an identity that both indexes the social order that gave rise to them and resists or revises it. This autonomy of the artwork is the stake of site-specificity. An artwork's capacity to resist its present, to be autonomous from or non-identical with the dominant mode of production of its time, is a function of its localization in a socially determined site. A site-specific work is made from materials that are arranged in real space and organized by the laws governing this space. By turning social materials and social laws into its own constructive principle, such a work makes them perceivable and reveals the historical processes at work in them. Manifesting history in its material composition and formal arrangement, the site-specific artwork both remembers and remakes it.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
English and Comparative Literature
Thesis Advisors
Golston, Michael Bernhard
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
May 30, 2013