Robert Tiemann Beyond Originality

By Frances Colpitt (in ARTSPACE magazine September/October 1992)

During the 1970s, many artists turned to appropriation (the copying of preexisting images) and deconstruction (the critique of received ideologies) as ways of questioning the concepts of originality, demonstrating its fictional nature and leveling the hierarchies of quality and gender inherent in the history of art. Nevertheless, we continue to seek newness in art, and at the same time expect an artist to be true to his or her personal (original) vision. Robert Tiemann both satisfies and challenges—or, better yet, satisfies by challenging—such demands. He is open to change through experimentation with media, materials, systems and forms, yet his vision, at once industrial and abstract, is profoundly consistent. While it is tempting to see the recent photographic work, produced in collaboration with his wife Annabelle, as something altogether new, this is true only to the extent that the vision is no longer individualized. In this work, as in Tiemann’s earlier paintings and sculptures, self-expression and the touch of the hand—aspects often taken to be hallmarks of originality—are simply irrelevant.

It was with the Aluminum Paintings of 1979-80 that Robert Tiemann gave up the personalized gesture which characterized his previous stain paintings. These had been based on an assimilation of Jackson Pollock’s drip technique, as well as his use of commercial aluminum paint. In Tiemann’s work the silvery sheen of aluminum induces the reflection of light, emphasizes the physical nature of the canvas support, and has an industrial rather than a natural aura.

To reinforce the anti-illusionistic quality of his paintings, Tiemann wove grids of this string, which he placed over the canvas before applying the paint. Although the grid is as old as Western art, it was widely used by artists in the 1960s as a way of eliminating personalized arrangements of form As a compositional device, the grid, according to Sol LeWitt, “neutralizes space by treating it all equally.” While painted grids, such as those of Agnes Martin or Robert Ryman, have the effect of doubling and enlarging the weave of the canvas. Tiemann’s string grids literally reproduce the weave and act as a barrier, forcing all information to the front of the picture plane. The majority of Tiemann’s grid paintings are five-feet square, just “as high as a man, as wide as a man’s outstretched arms,’ as Ad Reinhardt described his own five-foot paintings. Their deliberately human scale, in conjunction with the emphatic materiality endows Tiemann’s paintings with a powerful presence.

Many of the Aluminum Paintings were originally designed to hang on the wall as diamonds rather than squares. The Vertical Columns, with their sawtoothed profiles, consist of repeated half-diamonds, as if a series of cubes stacked on their edges has been vertically sliced in half, with the whole resembling an expanded detail of the string grid that articulates the surface. The Columns are Tiemann’s first shaped paintings, and were soon followed by smaller hexagonal canvases based on the perimeter of a two-dimensional drawing of a box. Both these and the Columns flirt with illusion (by implying what is not there: the third dimension of the box or the other half of the stacked cubes). At the same time, they reject the behind-the-frame illusionism of the traditional rectangular canvas.

In the early 1980s, Tiemann began to use numbers as a way of “adding something to painting that’s not visual.” The first such works—large drawings in which each square of skewed grids is sequentially numbered—simply involved counting. Similarly, in pegboard panels, each hole is dutifully counted. Tiemann had been reading Donald Judd’s Complete Writings and was interested in Judd’s definition of “nonrelational” composition—a principle of organization which is “like that of continuity, one thing after another.” The Tiemanns met Judd in 1983, following a visit to Marfa, Texas, where Judd is headquartered.

It was in the mid-1980s that Tiemann’s work drew especially close in concept, if not in form, to Judd’s. From “one thing after another,” Judd developed compositions based on mathematical progressions, the simplest of which is the “arithmetic” (the addition of a constant number, e.g., 2, 4, 6, 8…). As Tiemann’s pegboard works grew in size, with the number of holes reaching into the thousands, he also began to use a type progression, known as the “magic square,” to limit the numbers of the holes to two digits. Within the grid of a magic square, the sum of the numbers is the same in each column, row and diagonal. The two-dimensional x, y, and z axes thus suggest a three-dimensional cube. Tiemann’s magic squares are quite compelling and far less neutral than Judd’s progressions. For Judd, mathematics is merely a way of avoiding idiosyncratic composition. Tiemann goes beyond this to present the perceiver with a puzzle that, especially in the case of the four-foot yellow and white panels, is almost impossible to solve.

In a related series of unstretched silver canvases with string grids, Tiemann numbers each square with black paint. Like the magic squares, the sum of each row is identical. Often, however, the perimeters of these works are not square. Although constructed of canvas and paint, these are hardly paintings at all; they are thin and limp, without the bulk of stretcher bars. Rather than beginning with the empty rectangle of conventional painting, Tiemann allows the mathematics to determine the form of the work. Expanding on this concept, Tiemann allowed the configuration of his contribution to the second annual exhibition of San Antonio artists at Blue Star in 1986 to be generated by the space of the gallery. This work consisted of a variable number of seven-inch discs of chipboard arranged in a row. Between some of the discs were spaces that corresponded to pillars standing in front of the wall. If this piece were to be exhibited again, the number of discs would be determined by the architecture and available wall space.

In Untitled, 1987-88, ten chipboard circles were used to frame painted, numbered and folded canvases that conically project from the wall. The numbers, often obscured by the folds, were applied only to complete squares in the grid on the originally circular canvas. To another Untitled work, one of a series of cylinders that resulted from gluing stacks of wooden circles together and applying a string grid and paint to the top, Tiemann attached the handle of a pail, proving an illusion of function. Other cylindrical works are held together by delicate cages of chickenwire, inside of which might be discs of pegboard, silver canvas or wooden wafers or tangled masses of string.

In 1986, Tiemann made a series of circle drawings by rubbing graphite over paper on top of sandpaper discs. The readymade circle of sandpaper produces a surprisingly delicate image. A related and also delightfully unaffected work consists of a chipboard base topped with white formica, to which a sawblade has been bolted. Perhaps the most distinctive feature of Tiemann’s work is his embrace of non-traditional, industrial materials. If the color, form and tactility of a sawblade are appropriate, Tiemann uses a sawblade. Pegboard supplies him with a ready-made grid of tiny circles. Here, he differs from Judd, who in 1963 drilled a thousand equally spaced holes in the central panel of a rectangular relief.

In the summer of 1987, the Tiemanns again visited Judd at Marfa. At the time a former artillery shed of the old Fort D.A. Russell was being renovated to house a permanent installation of Judd’s work, and it was there that Robert and Annabelle Tiemann located their first Found Sculpture. Spotting a set of boards that had been propped in place by the construction crew to seal off a missing window, the Tiemanns took a picture of the “work.” It was their first significant use of photography, and their gesture brings up questions about the nature of the art object by positioning it in the conceptual space between the wood arranged by the construction crew and their own photograph. The photograph functions as a documentation of an idea, rather than as a self-sufficient object or a pretty picture.

In the fall following the Tiemanns’ return to San Antonio from Marfa, Robert produced both the Leaning Building Materials and Paneling Pieces. At Trinity University, where he has taught since 1965, Tiemann brought in panels printed with a landscape motif, suitable for mobile home decor, and mounted them upside-down next to a sheet of pegboard. The five Leaning Building Materials works were made of standard 4 x 8 sheets of particle board, black insulation board, silver insulation board and sheetrock, all of it leaning, unattached, against the wall. In the spirit of Minimal and Postminimal artists of the 1960s and ‘70s, Tiemann was redefining sculpture by emphasizing not only the beauty of practical materials, but how, based on their function, they differ in appearance, despite their essential modularity. The Leaning Building Materials, exposing the unmodified foundations of building and architecture, are far less constructed than most of Tiemann’s works, and thus recall the architecture of Frank Gehry.

Although collaborative efforts in the arts are especially characteristic of post modernism, Conceptual Art groups such as Gilbert and George, Art & Language and N.E. Thing Co. were among the earliest to emphasize ideas over handmade objects. More recently, photographers Clegg & Guttmann and the Starn Twins have come to prominence, while for some time now Ed Keinholz and Claes Oldenburg have acknowledged the contributions of their wives. As Kristen Jones, of Kristen Jones and Andrew Ginzel, explained, “Now with a greater acceptance of the parity between men and women, there seems to be less resistance [to collaborative work], an understanding that collaboration in art is not unlike collaboration in architecture and theater.” The significance of collaboration, at this moment in time, lies in its rejection of the romantic myth of the heroic master-creator, which has been central to art since the Renaissance and a driving force of modernism.

Although Annabelle Tiemann, an elementary school teacher, has been assisting Robert since 1974, they officially began to collaborate in 1988, coincident with Robert’s shift from painting and object-making to photography. In an essay on the collective meaning of photography, Conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth explained how photography can “be employed to present a matter-of-fact presentation of the world (the ‘objective’ detachment of science) while the photograph itself, as a cultural object, [is] pervasive to the point of being ‘naturalized’ as a given part of the world.” Painting, on the other hand, as an “autonomous private language,” says Kosuth. “With painting, each mark presents itself as an opinion. Because one assumes each gesture has behind it a human subject with intention, it presumes a signification.”

If photography can be said to be inherently multiple, in the sense that any number of prints can be struck from a negative, the apparent uniqueness of a Polaroid image is paradoxical. To compound the paradox, the Tiemanns began to photocopy their Polaroids in the summer of 1988. They do not, however, make editions; instead they use the Canon Color Copier just as they would a camera. The final form of a given work is no more a copy of an original than a print is a copy of a negative. The process of copying, thus subverted, results in originals.

While each work by the Tiemanns is unique, the images that they employ are multiple. Photographs from newspapers, advertising brochures, postcards and their own snapshots appear again and again. In combination with other images, the meaning of each is altered by its context. Their frequent application of a grid of dots over the photographs before they are copied further problematizes the imagery in some works by obscuring key pieces of information. A photograph of the Jonestown massacre, for example, looks at first like a crowded beach party scene, or a Pollock-like “allover” abstraction. Derived from the earlier use of pegboard, the dots are also a method of tempering the realism of photography through the impositions of an abstract pattern. The copies are mounted on wooden panels, laminated between sheets of plastic with grommets for hanging by pushpins, or simply taped together, underscoring their ultimately industrial origin without rendering them precious. Among their most recent work is the Veiled Threat Series. These large, nine-part copies are derived from photographs of the Tiemanns’ television set, tuned to an adult channel that has been scrambled. The shockingly brilliant colors—the magentas are especially vivid—are seductive. Here and there a breast, a hand or a foot are legible within tangled patterns that otherwise resemble abstract painting. The Veiled Threats raise issues of censorship and of the objectification of the female body in pornography, while the scrambling obliterates and fragments the objectified body, denying the viewer the kinds of satisfaction associated with the consumption of pornography. At the same time, through an embrace of the forms of mass communication and sophisticated manipulation of reproductive media, the Tiemanns continue to engage in a pointed dialogue with originality.