08 Dec

Anne Spalter’s Scenes from the North Pole of Transcendence


Nearly thirty years ago, Rosalind Krauss produced the preeminent analysis of the singular structure most unique to, most resonant with, and most emblematic of the aims of modern art – the grid. What the grid initiates with the symmetry of its abstract purity, the circle extends, in a new form that could be taken as Western postmodernity’s reversion to the cohesive infinity of the mandala, a site less of center than radiality. The circle’s compositional integration is a mirror simile for the universe as an expansive principle in which, as with the mandala, any presumption of a center is subservient to its overall order. But in order to understand the circle, we must appraise the allure of its predecessor, the grid.

Radical as the implication of its latticed form is, the grid is a form whose mystical potential modern art criticism doesn’t deny, for at least two crucial reasons. Reason one: the first artists to employ grids spoke to the transcendental ontology of its creative form – we note Krauss’s acknowledgment, that “Mondrian and Malevich are not discussing canvas or pigment or graphite or any other form of matter. They are talking about Being or Mind or Spirit”.[1] Secondly – and more forcefully – it is in the grid’s transcendence that the idea of symmetry finds a way out of form and into an interpretive rabbit hole of possible pathways – as again Krauss affirms: “The grid’s mythic power is that it makes us able to think we are dealing with materialism (or sometimes science, or logic) while at the same time it provides us with a release into belief (or illusion, or fiction).”[2] Thus, in its embrace of this visual archetype, the art historical record is clear: the grid signals the height of modernity’s engagement with formalism.

Again and again, in the drawings, paintings, and prints of Marcel Duchamp, Piet Mondrian, Georges Vantongerloo, Ellsworth Kelly, Donald Judd, Kenneth Noland, Sol LeWitt, Robert Ryman, Agnes Martin, Chuck Close – and so many other artists – the twentieth century returned to the grid, as it rediscovered and exploited that archetype’s seductive significance for pure visual innovation. Unmistakably, this procession traced its single-minded lineage through the mainstays of the modern and contemporary canon. But the grid is, as Krauss notes above, a shape somehow dependent on the obviousness of a material support and the presence of labor for its transcendence. A grid painted by hand, declaring the commitment of artistic reduction to repetitious formalism, conveys something that a machine-programmed grid, easily realized through the iterations of algorithmic generation, cannot. So now if, in its exhaustion, the abstract geometry of the grid has been transposed into that of the circle, it is because the material support of grid composition is no longer innovative, and moreover, since material support itself is, in a technological epoch, no longer a precondition of creative production, we find how, in much electronic art, this new shape has borrowed the distant abstraction of its earlier rectilinear variety, and wants to go beyond it. The circle’s trigonometric correspondence with the engineering of the cathode ray tube, the computer monitor, and many kinds of projection, lathing, and impression systems, raises the status of that shape and renders it as the new grid, the palette and coordinate system for the age of contemporary electronic art. Of course, non-digital art, too, has long used the circle’s fertile promise – we could in fact draw a second historical timeline from Duchamp’s first filmed rotoreliefs in action up to Anthony McCall’s Line Describing a Cone and therein rightfully include many lesser known artists.


Figure 1. Marcel Duchamp, Anémic Cinéma, 1926. Film.

Figure 2. Anthony McCall, Line Describing a Cone, 1973. Installation at Hangar Bicocca, Milan, 2009

Rather, the insistent abstraction of the circle, for example, characterizes John Whitney’s Permutations, a series of short films illustrating the dance of analog signals in a progression of circular rearrangements over the spatial void of a CRT screen.

Figure 3. John Whitney, Permutations, 1966. Film.

Whitney’s work was the cinematic result of several computer programs designed by Jack Citron for IBM Los Angeles Scientific Center and filmed at the UCLA School of Medicine, and he was not alone. Similarly, and clearly illustrating the union of art machine with the archetype of circularity, is the work of Desmond Paul Henry, one of several artists to adapt war machinery – in this case, bomber sights – to a kind of spirograph on steroids.

Figure 4. Desmond Paul Henry’s “Drawing Machine 1”

Figure 5. Desmond Paul Henry, Untitled, 1962. Print.


My thoughts thus far have pointed to a contextual review of the last century’s fertile adoption of one trope, the grid, leading up to another more recent one, the circle, in the technological sphere, particularly with the polemical sterility that abstraction provides. But there is a catch here, for as we know, there is no line of art history that makes abstraction, modern art’s most distinctive and recognizable style, a visual foundation for postmodernity, as well. Rather this latter era is characterized by a return to the real, drawing from the conditions of societal engagement as the materials for aesthetic production. So let us ask ourselves this: how feasible is it to imagine an artistic union between the detached perpetuity of the circle on one hand and contemporary art’s connection with the empirical world, not to mention the technological, on the other? How can a form like the circle be used in this world in conditions of photorealism, of motion, and of what a technological art form can bring to them? This is the question that Traffic Circle, Anne Spalter’s new show at the Stoyanov Gallery, confronts — which, in so doing, resolves a missing vector between the creative lineages of the grid and the circle – but the end result, it turns out, is not to be found in material supports, but rather in the technology of the projected image subjected to computational orchestration.

The works in the show comprise a consistency of architectural structure, each captures a temporal succession of events using taut cinematic grammar, namely the linear pan, the zoom, and the steady shot of traffic in a static place, and documents before the viewer the transposition of its natural Cartesian perspective of the world as our eyes see it — horizontal motion across the x axis and vertical, running up and down — to one whose coordinate system is radial, using a fragment of the visual field as a slice that weaves into itself about a circle. This singular move, seemingly effortless and unadorned, does more than produce a polarized fugue of marginally recognizable transit scenes and components. It also resolves the long-standing problem of how to unify the abstract promise of the circle with the pragmatic and embodied realism of a cosmopolitan life. It brings together the quasi-tessellated rabbit-hole of immersive order that we encounter in artists from M.C. Escher to Andreas Gursky, with the visual stimulation that a filmic setting, recalling from other traditions – for example, in literature – the historically recent turn from formalism to realism; William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, and Hunter S. Thompson naturally come to mind. But Spalter’s visual assemblages present something more than abstract imagery or metropolitan metabolism, they propose a new visual trope that starts in Duchamp’s Anemic Cinema with those rotorelief mechanisms and come to traverse the naturalistic symmetry that Benoit Mandelbrot found embedded in the structure of natural forms from small scale to large, so that a film of a highway, in Spalter’s mutations reveals an uncanny similarity not to an object but to an entire range of them, to include at one moment, the floret seeds in a dandelion

Figure 6. Anne Spalter, Circular Highway, 2011. Video projection. 00:13

that in turn explode to the mathematical obduracy of a star

Figure 7. Anne Spalter, Circular Highway, 2011. Video projection. 00:23

And as this shape expands, its inner membrane dissolves, so that the points transform into spokes where separation between inner and outer form yields to that of an open nexus.


Figure 8. Anne Spalter, Circular Highway, 2011. Video projection. 00:26

In turn, this image’s radial augmentation quickly re-engenders the star this time, but now as its morphological negative, a space between points, and pointed to by them:

Figure 9. Anne Spalter, Circular Highway, 2011. Video projection. 00:30

Spalter’s eye for submitting horizontal linearity to applied movement in a single continual direction produces a progression or chain of transformations that resolves, as I have said, not toward a single image but rather to the presence of a principle of translation, one whose essence is formally abstract and simultaneously in the realism of physical phenomena. And it is this intersection of a new and different kind, between the worldly and the pure, that mandala makers understand, proposing fleeting visual monuments as aphorisms of contemplation which use form as a way to move toward all that lies beyond it. And it is the same meditative process into which Spalter’s transcendent motion draws us.

Figure 10. Anne Spalter, Circular Highway, 2011. Video projection. 00:55

“Traffic Circle” at the Stephan Stoyanov Gallery, 29 Orchard Street, New York, NY, 10002,  Dec. 8, 2011 – Jan. 6, 2012.

[1] Rosalind Krauss, “Grids,” in The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1985).

[2] Ibid.