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Experts in Expediency
A Reflection

in Log 17, Fall 2009

Op does its own work for whoever will look. It dispenses [with] the repertoire of knowledge and experience that is presumed to be required to appreciate abstract art. It replaces the elite, intellectual pleasure of “getting it” with the egalitarian fun-house pleasure of trying to understand something that you cannot.1

—Dave Hickey

[Kitsch] predigests art for the spectator and spares him effort, provides him with a short cut to the pleasure of art that detours what is necessarily difficult in genuine art.2

—Clement Greenberg

In the wake of abstract expressionism, two divergent practices in pursuit of expediency in painting emerged. The post-war activities of action painters—those attempting to reveal new forms of authenticity by inextricably linking the organization of paint on canvas with the intuited act—had unwittingly instigated a mutual reactionary sentiment from two bands of new artists. Perhaps the lone similarity shared by op artists and pop artists was the ambition to make paintings capable of expediting the process of their own interpretation. For many viewers at the time, the divergent developments of these two art movements provided welcome alternatives to abstract expressionist work, which seemed to necessitate a plethora of intellectual depth to gain access. Such depth was assumed (or claimed) to be possessed by only a few art critics, so the generation and distribution of critical assessment resembled the structure of a tree—hierarchical and stemming from a single source. Metaphorically, op art and pop art changed the physical state and location of required expertise, enabling its evaporation from the realm of the viewer and meticulously facilitating its rematerialization well within the controlled domain of the producer.

The transference and diminution of expertise were mutually dependent on the development of distinct campaigns for immediate accessibility to art. The two movements carved out diverse contexts within which to maneuver and abided by opposing constructs in order to guide their work. Both instituted individual sets of ambitions and unique strategies for instant conveyance—op aiming to deliver unprecedented perceptual effects, and pop attempting to relay referential messages. Whether being referred to as capable of doing “its own work for whoever will look,”3 or providing “a shortcut to the pleasure of art that detours what is necessarily difficult,”4 each suggested a manner for art to act efficiently. The inherent value sets embodied in this miscellaneous pairing of creative art practices, in addition to the methods used, are reminiscent of a similar coupling of contemporary architectural leanings: one that has increasingly exhibited a form of “material expediency”—the creation of intricate formations that aspire to visually induce sensation and material awareness—and one that has leaned toward signs of “graphic expediency”5—the shaping of adroit caricatures that can pointedly address the facts of mass culture. Parallels between such practices in art and architecture first require some reflection on the milieus and the inner workings of op and pop.

The “context” that op artists operated within was one of relative autonomy. Interested in fabricating the optically uncanny, they invested in worlds structured by grids and navigated by increments. Systems of lines imagined to extend infinitely beyond the edges of the canvas provided artists with an exact and artificial environment within which to make their work. Bridget Riley was guided by Igor Stravinsky's understanding of the correlation between metric context and rhythmic content. He observed meter as equal parts into which something is divided and rhythm as the differences within those equal parts.6 Collectively, op artists were concerned with the correspondence of metric manipulation to rhythmic formation: a reciprocity between order and change, a balancing act between changes within a given ordering system, and the ordering of new systems of change. The most successful paintings of this genre are those that are able to fuse this relationship into a single, cohesive orchestration, effectively blurring the distinction between the patterns that register mechanisms of control and those that deviate from them.

The work in this kind of painting lies in the coercion of multiple systems of gradations—progressions of shape, size, tone, and frequency. Increments of change are variable, providing the widest range of possible rates of transformation. Manipulated fields—composed of patterns, lines, stripes, and edges—encourage continuities in select orientations while maintaining strict discontinuities in others. The use of precise “incrementalism” in op painting creates compound rhythms, or fluctuating periodicities, that are subject to continual modification. It is the variable rate of change that is primarily responsible for the immediate sense of dynamism typically associated with op. There are overlaps and syncopations of rhythms—sometimes sustained, sometimes fleeting—which create oscillations between a painting's background and its foreground. Complex and ever-changing figure-ground relationships can generate “temporal” hierarchies, but are quickly compounded by new, momentarily discernable ones. The fluctuation of these transitory and ephemeral hierarchies, however, generates a field that is, in the end, nonhierarchical and indicative of a practice of differentiating the homogeneous, rather than one of blending the heterogeneous.

Material expediency of this sort usually requires precise drawings beneath the painted surface (so-called “essays”) to coordinate the causal frameworks and the effectual patterns. As the critic Harold Rosenberg observed, this practice stood in stark contrast to the ethos that charged the work of the abstract expressionists of the preceding decade, some of whom were deeply unsettled by the thought of composing a preparatory sketch for one of their paintings.7 But the talents required to produce successful op art can be found embedded beneath the paint in a drawing similar to a construction document, consisting of ruled points, lines, and arcs.8 Mastery of multiple formats of variability relies on careful planning to influence the accurate production of effects. From the perspective of the artist, tracking several changes simultaneously can be complex, as the differentiated/repetitive patterns of op tend to be the result of several concurrent gradations. But it is exactly this “fabricated interdependency,” this precision-guided ambiguity between part and whole connecting material organization and structure, that is the most thrilling achievement of op and one of the most useful precedents for a particular group of contemporary architects. It is illustrative of a more general sophistication surrounding the reciprocity of systems—the coordination of existing and new networks in order to maintain flows and conjure specific responses.

While op artists were highly proficient specialists in material expediency, pop artists were experts in graphic expediency. Engaging in a popular mediated reality, they acted as accomplices in the perpetuation of mass culture, rather than producing abstract and autonomous substitutions for it. Mimicking techniques of mass production, pop art mirrored the rising status of media and mechanization during the middle of the 20th century. Roy Lichtenstein and others looked to industrial printing processes for alternatives to painting conventions. Decades earlier Benjamin Day (1838-1916) had invented a mechanical procedure that saturated paper with misaligned and overlapping layers of ink dots in cyan, magenta, yellow, and black. The expedient method approximated shades of color not easily reproduced on earlier printing presses, creating illusions of secondary colors like flesh tone. In order to produce a properly blended tonality, the size, density, and orientation of the fields of dots could be adjusted to the specific viewing proximities associated with particular print media; for example, newsprint needed smaller dots, while posters and billboards required dots of a much larger size. Lichtenstein appropriated these Benday dots as an exploitative, self-referential graphic language, making it his signature. He first loosened the strictly coordinated relationship between the distance of the eye and the size of the dot. He then made a practice of affirming disproportionate relationships—usually grossly oversized dots seen at close proximity—which afforded viewers immediate visual access to this art of artifice.

Like op art, the planning behind the expediency of a pop painting is of singular importance, but its method, its contextual allegiances, and its required skill are dissimilar. Methodologically, the pop painting begins with a simple figural “deduction,” usually a sketch. For example, Lichtenstein would frequently project the outline of a previously drawn graphic onto the canvas. Procedurally, the clear borders of the shapes were delineated first. These unambiguous limits then acted as fixed frames for the subsequent infill—the particular characteristics of which were unregulated, open-ended, and free to be guided by other concerns. Infill in pop can take on many different degrees of graphic saturation, such as the repeated stampings of Warhol, the stenciled Benday dots of Lichtenstein, and the collaged clippings of Richard Hamilton. While op painting necessitated a precise interdependence between parts and wholes, pop painting allowed for a great deal of tolerance between figures and fills.9

The context within which pop art leveraged itself was shaped by the invisible but ubiquitous forces of commercialism, capitalism, and—to an important but lesser extent—politics. Commentary offered by a pop painting was tightly tethered to external events; events that were mass mediated and publicized by an increasingly omnipresent and omnivorous press. The universality of culture—a single, similar, shared culture supported by new modes of mechanical reproduction and widespread dissemination—was its stage set (adopted reference and milieu). Arguably, an aptitude for making pop art depended less on one's technical abilities than on a desire for intrigue and participation in the cultural scene. The best pop art does its job better than any tabloid, providing critique, hyperbole, and unadulterated praise for spectacular popular culture.10 It delivers highly condensed, immediately legible, sensationalist insights on media-saturated subjects. It artfully and ironically inserts low culture into high culture, or high culture into low culture, each eliding the other.

The divergent trajectories of these persistent post-abstract expressionist forms of expediency currently have fervent, contemporaneous parallels in architecture. They arise out of different cultural circumstances and are further exemplified by disciplinary distinctions, no doubt; but the similarities between the sets of vocabulary that can be used to describe efforts in “immediate conveyance” in 1960s American art and efforts in architecture today are far too propitious to ignore.

Architecture and the Material Expedient

A number of contemporary architects who are experts in material expediency are deeply entrenched in the production of sensation via new forms of organizational dexterity. To do this, they make material organizations—that is, organizations that act like materials. Their formations exhibit a predisposition toward continuity and a potential for gradated differentiation, as the constructs are primarily defined geometrically—given a flexible modularity provided by parametric modeling. The facility of these architects to glide seamlessly between scales—those, for example, typically associated with conventionally discrete categories of construction—is due in part to their working environment, which is largely computational, and to their chosen methods of fabrication, which are usually experimental. By taking liberty with virtuality (the world of computation and digitization), and by suspending any skepticism regarding possible techniques for eventual realization, they are able to rethink and promote new “nonclassical” part-to-whole relationships. In lieu of dictating that material organizations abide by traditional notions of scale in assembly—framework mandating the overall structural organization, planes or surfaces controlling spatial subdivisions, and surface finishes providing tactile qualities—they induce indiscriminate mixtures of structural, spatial, and tactile elements. In turn, these architects produce blurred orchestrations that resist hierarchical relationships. Part-to-whole relationships need not be explicit, but can be latent and promiscuous.

The strengths of material expediency seem to be centered on possibilities for difference and repetition. Clearly, complex repetitive organizations that privilege dominant directionalities—either linear, as in a tower, or thick and two-dimensional, as in a screen or a mat—depend on the technical virtuosity of the architect. They are the creators of intricate composites, the “layers” of which are guided simultaneously by material possibilities and phenomenological and perceptual opportunities. For this group, like op artists, to have expertise is to attain a level of knowledge and foresight that can anticipate the resultant behaviors of the material organizations that they concoct virtually and fabricate digitally. It is the pursuit of precision surrounding what is seemingly an unwieldy, alchemical process of combination and experimentation. Materially expedient architects abstract and redefine the conventional elements of architecture in the hope of “elicitation”—to bring forth new forms. They make nonreferential objects and environments that require no particular cultural frame of reference to enjoy, other than a baseline understanding of “the norm” to provide contrast. The most ambitious of these designers aim to expand the very medium of architecture. However, they stop short of their predecessors and do not attempt to reconstitute an explicit autonomous formal language but, instead, make architectural vocabularies that are far more associative. The appealing possibility of folding in the extradisciplinary—biological systems, complex geometrical systems, and, more recently, geological and landscape systems—might just be the most promising aspects for this kind of work.

Architecture and the Graphic Expedient

On the other side of the spectrum, graphically expedient architects bring a radically different set of abilities to the field. They are quite savvy with systems, but of another variety from those used by materially expedient architects. The systems they participate in are pop cultural, media filtered, and market driven.11 They enthusiastically acknowledge the artificiality of our mediated reality and opt to engage it, not to challenge it. If one considers the term artificiality negatively, then these architects are our preeminent cultural cynics, busily conspiring with commercialists to perpetuate a built environment stricken with inauthenticity and apathy. Alternatively, these architects could be seen as “avant-garde pragmatists,” apparently logical, levelheaded, and politically aware enough to advance an architectural agenda at a global scale, but also idealistic enough to know such things remain heedlessly and primarily speculative. They can do this in large part because of their assiduous engagement with participatory aspects of design. Their project descriptions and conceptual diagrams—both textual and graphic—are at once rational, fact based, and visually compelling, remaining freely and immediately accessible to a nondiscriminating, lay public.12 Collectively, they seek to inflate and disseminate the very mediatic nature of digital and global architecture.

Architecture projects made with such proficiencies in mind normally treat program as a given, rather than reinterpreting function through the performance criteria of continuous, geometrically complex surfaces (as their materially expedient colleagues might). They opt to follow a (hyper) rationalist tradition, in which hierarchies and adjacencies in programmatic elements are the primary instigators of formal experimentation. They rarely attempt to challenge the content of program, but rather seek to challenge the arrangement of that content. Like the collage practices of pop artists, the arrangement and interaction of disparate pieces are toyed with to shape a set of potential massings, the merits of which are measured by the effectiveness of the overall shape as icon. It is at this point in their design method that the whole matters, but the parts do not. Later on, in the selection of materials, the parts will matter, but the whole will not. This nonchalant incongruence, this deliberate disunion between part and whole, distinguishes the methods and potential of the graphically expedient. The default state of collage is disparity and heterogeneity, and therefore devices to produce cohesiveness must be imposed. This method of design is not process oriented but thrives on the coincidence and happenstance of trial and error.

Achieving desired eccentricities for the graphically expedient stems from a logic-based, “if-then” design approach, one that resembles a “chain of command.” Building planning of this kind becomes necessarily hierarchical. While materially expedient designers' programming methods might stem from a process of negotiation between diverse requirements by establishing similarities through a common system of organization, these methods bring together potentially disparate programmatic needs via imposition. It should be noted that this process works most successfully in projects that can accommodate a casual looseness and is best employed by teams of designers that can directly benefit from such unity and clarity of concept in order to proceed. Subsequently, the materials that are assigned to various program pieces can be conceptualized as agents of heterogeneity. They exacerbate dissimilarities between programs by way of unique and untailored appliqués. Similar to the attitudes of the pop artists toward figure and infill, they favor a patchwork of material application.

New Expediencies

The purpose of drawing parallels between a pair of genres in mid-century art (op and pop) and two strands of contemporary architecture (materially expedient and graphically expedient) is threefold: first, to acknowledge analogous, creative ambitions across disciplines to allow for the potential migration of their respective vocabularies; second, to monitor the transference of expertise from viewer to producer in these creative practices and to outline the different forms of proficiency that these modes of expediency require; and third, to suggest that these differences in architectural methods and values be considered as poles on a spectrum, rather than perpetuating an older, diametrically opposed relationship. The ostensible clarity of this familiar dichotomy notwithstanding, a final return to art might suggest a suitable precedent for the development of present-day mutations, spin-offs, and hybrid practices.

What immediately followed op art and pop art in the late 1960s and early '70s was a kaleidoscopic splintering of practices, which were represented by combinations and affiliations that no longer contrasted so much as overlapped and became symbiotic. Though there was never a direct hybridization of op and pop—perhaps the values and methods were just too distinct—many smaller factions emerged that seemed to have far less rigid (less ideological) tendencies and were quite happy to form impromptu and apparently purpose-driven alliances. These art practices were instrumental in incorporating other fields not readily associated with the more “disciplinary” traditions of art; for example, the materialists developed ever more clever alchemical practices in post-minimalist sculpture, such as, Eva Hesse, while land artists such as Robert Smithson and Walter de Maria absorbed and channeled semiological, geological, biological, and political values given to “landscape,” and Sol LeWitt further pushed the project of stretching the rules, iterations, and variabilities of abstract yet site-specific art. These practices created new niches where inherited values might be transformed, deformed, disfigured, and—ultimately—redeployed. As architects, we might anticipate and encourage a similarly productive and rich multiplicity of expedient practices leading, no doubt, both forward and backward at once—forward, in the sense of creating new forms and iterations of now-classic themes, and backward in the sense of revisiting the so-called agonistic path of avant-gardes confronting and often cannibalizing the prior generation, all in the name of breaking new ground.

1. Dave Hickey, “Trying to See What We Can Never Know,” in Optic Nerve (New York: Merrell, 2007), 13.
2. Clement Greenberg, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” in Clement Greenberg, Art and Culture (Boston: Beacon Press, 1961), 15. First published in Partisan Review 6, no. 5 (Fall 1939).
3. Hickey, “Trying to See What We Can Never Know,” 13.
4. Greenberg, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” 15.
5. The use of the term graphic expediency shares resonance with its use in Robert Somol's “Green Dots 101.” However it differs slightly in this context, specifically in its manner of association—that is, here, it has a fraternal twin, material expediency. See Somol, “Green Dots 101,” Hunch 11 (Winter 2006-2007).
6. Igor Stravinsky, Poetics of Music: In the Form of Six Lessons (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1942), 28.
7. Harold Rosenberg, “The American Action Painters,” Artnews (December 1952): 22-23, 48-50. Rosenberg discusses action painters' suspicion of sketches, as they viewed the canvas as the place for recording the direct output of the mind.
8. This is, of course, not new. Drawing on the canvas is an old practice. What is new is that the drawings do not disappear as such but remain part of the visual field.
9. This technique has a long history in the art historical sense, going back to Vermeer, and by some estimations, to Titian. The graphic use of paint or color often served as a purely visual supplement to the painting—supporting “visuality” (sense) versus “visibility” (intellection). See Georges Didi-Huberman, Confronting Images: Questioning the Ends of a Certain History of Art (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2005).
10. While often seen as trite and/or cynical, both then and now, much of pop art became a means of obliquely critiquing consumerist culture, as did pop architecture (Archigram, Superstudio, and the like). The latent cynicism of such a critique was later transformed into the nihilistic postmodern assault on spectacular capitalist culture (that is, Baudrillard en route to The Matrix). See Hal Foster, “Image Building,” Artforum 43, no. 2 (October 2004): 270-73, 310-11. The issue is titled “This is Today: Pop after Pop.” Foster shows the links between pop art and pop architecture. On the continuing relevance of pop, see Barbara Haskell, ed., Blam! The Explosion of Pop, Minimalism, and Performance, 1958-1964 (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art/W.W. Norton, 1984); Exhibition catalogue, September 20 through December 2, 1984, and Edward Leftingwell, Karen Marta, eds., Modern Dreams: The Rise and Fall of Pop (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1988); Exhibition catalogue, ICA (New York), October 22, 1987, through June 12, 1988.
11. One of Rem Koolhaas's more compelling observations in Delirious New York is that the ingredients of a capitalist context—economy, technology, and globalization—sponsor a productive, if not conflicted, attitude toward artistic creation. Rafael Moneo, in his book Theoretical Anxiety and Design Strategies in the Work of Eight Contemporary Architects (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004), cites Koolhaas circa 1996: “My work is positive vis-à-vis modernization but critical vis-à-vis modernism as an artistic movement.” For Moneo, the notion that Koolhaas is an “intellectual who finds himself part of an elite that has lost touch with the masses” and is trying to regain connection through action, aligns with the collective ambition of the first wave of pop artists in Britain and the US in the late '50s and early '60s.
12. In an essay about Andy Warhol's work, Benjamin H.D. Buchloh makes a distinction between the pursuits of the naive “visionary” and the wry “conformist” in an elegant way; this is the basis for my description of textual and graphic representations of this group. See Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, “Andy Warhol's One-Dimensional Art,” in Andy Warhol, ed. Kynaston McShine (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1989), 39-61. The essay was reissued in Buchloh's Neo-Avantgarde and Culture Industry: Essays on European and American Art from 1955 to 1975 (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003), 461-529.