Process Art

Avidan Grossman

Earlier this past March, Kendrick Lamar, the multi-platinum rapper and recording artist, released untitled unmastered., a collection of eight tracks chiefly compiled from the unfinished demos of To Pimp a Butterfly, Lamar’s latest Grammy-winning album. On “untitled 07 | 2014 – 2016”, the longest song on the album at just over eight minutes, Lamar meditates on the vices and virtues of success, singing softly about fame and fortune and rapping for a little under half the song. In the final few minutes, Lamar is heard instructing a guitarist in the background to adjust the tempo of the music, and calls out to his band to help him with the vocals. It’s casual studio chatter, but for Lamar, whose albums are often as polished as they are passionate, it’s a conscious thematic choice to let the listener in on the complex intricacies of the creative process. On an album that often feels intentionally fragmented and unfinished, that casual studio chatter, the sounds of songs being made, impresses upon the listener a sense of careful intimacy and actively involves the audience in the construction of the album.

Photograph courtesy of guggenheim.org

Photograph courtesy of guggenheim.org

In an essay entitled “Anti-Form” published in April of 1968, Robert Morris, the American artist and author, presents a pioneering manifesto for what would eventually become known as the process art movement. Writing for Artforum in anticipation of the opening of an exhibit on the same subject later that year, Morris describes in detail the differences between what he refers to as “object-type art”, and art in which the process of “making itself” is just as important, if not more so, than what is actually being made. “In object-type art, process is not visible,” Morris maintains. “Materials often are. When they are, their reasonableness is usually apparent. Rigid industrial materials go together at right angles with great ease…Materials themselves have been limited to those which efficiently make the general object form.” Though Morris traces the conceptual roots of process art all the way back to 16th century Italy, with the “saving of sketches and unfinished work in the High Renaissance,” he begrudgingly acknowledges that many of the movement’s influences are more contemporary in nature, citing extensively the work of abstract expressionists like Jackson Pollock, who Morris credits with the ability “to recover process and hold on to it as part of the end form of the work.”

In early 1994, The Guggenheim Museum organized “Robert Morris: The Mind/Body Problem,” a comprehensive retrospective of over 150 pieces of the artist’s work, spanning across his three decades’ worth of output from the mid 1900s. In an accompanying monograph published by Morris in conjunction with the exhibit, Peter Lawson-Johnston, the grandson of Solomon R. Guggenheim and at the time the President of the museum, described the Guggenheim as “devoted to non-objective painting” since its founding in 1937. The museum, which houses a sizeable collection of pieces by Morris and many of the other artists associated with the process art movement, including Lynda Benglis, Bruce Nauman, Keith Sonnier, and Richard Serra, defines process art in a small blurb on its website as emphasizing “concepts of change and transience” that, as Morris mentions, have precedent in the “Abstract Expressionists’ use of unconventional methods such as dripping and staining.” The museum cites the “Anti-Form” essay as a “basis for making art works in terms of process and time rather than as static and enduring icons, which [Morris] associated with ‘object-type’ art.”

Image courtesy of vogue.com

Image courtesy of vogue.com

In a review of the retrospective published in The New York Times later that year, Roberta Smith, the American art critic, describes Morris’s art as “overly didactic and cerebral and weirdly unconnected… an artist more involved with problem solving than art making who often reduces the viewer to the role of guinea pig.” However, Smith concedes:

In the end, the most engaging works at the two Guggenheim sites are the most ad hoc and least cerebral, primarily the Process works involving loose, unstructured expanses of felt and thread. Also in this category is a series of unusual drawings from the early 70's in which the artist, dipping his hands in powdered graphite, attempted to make certain shapes or patterns while blindfolded. In one way, these works are deliberately artless exercises and reflect the cynicism that plagues so much of Mr. Morris’s work. But the inadvertent expressiveness of their raw and fumbling marks still counts, communicating a degree of spontaneity, vulnerability and inevitability that is too frequently lacking elsewhere.

Smith’s scathing criticisms speak to the relative sense of skepticism shared by many of the early critics of the process art movement. Today, most pieces produced during the peak of the process art movement don’t sell for nearly as much as, say, their abstract expressionist counterparts, likely because the artists associated with the movement never quite achieved the same level of widespread recognition as their contemporaries. Rothko and Rauschenberg are household names. Sonnier and Serra are not.

Many of the pieces attributed to the process art movement are understood to be, in their fluidity and flexibility, a powerful pushback to the careful composure of the predominantly minimalist paintings produced during the early 1960s. So much so, in fact, that the philosophy of the process art movement would indelibly influence the work of a cohort of important creatives within the fashion industry, and catalyze a crucial shift in how the process of design is perceived today. In its annual style issue from the week of July 4th, 2005, The New Yorker published a lengthy profile on the Japanese designer Rei Kawakubo titled “The Misfit”. In the opening line, Kawakubo, who is described as an “avant-gardist of few words”, is credited with changing the entire look of women’s fashion by offering a clear alternative to the clean lines and crisp tailoring distinctive to the designs of many of her contemporaries, including Donna Karan and Calvin Klein. Judith Thurman, a staff writer for the magazine since 2000, describes Kawakubo’s polarizing entrance onto the fashion scene in 1981, and the manner in which the revolutionary spirit of her first European collection, shown in Paris, has continued to define her work today. The collection was “modelled by a cadre of disheveled vestals in livid war paint who stomped down the catwalk to the beating of a drum, wearing the bleak and ragged uniforms of a new order”, and has since proved its place among the pantheon of pivotal moments in fashion, immediately catapulting Kawakubo and her brand, Comme des Garçons, to the top of the fashion industry food chain. After the collection, which Thurman calls a “piece of shock theatre”, Kawakubo went on to establish herself as one of the most influential, and oft imitated, designers of the 20th century, in part because what she was doing, and how she did it, was just so different. Kawakubo’s clothes have “the rigor, if not the logic, of modernist architecture, but loose flaps, queer trains, and other sometimes perplexing extrusions encouraged a client of the house to improvise her own style of wearing them”, Thurman comments, and through this irreverence she has “changed the way one thinks about what dress is”. Since the “Destroy” collection first debuted in the early 1980’s, Kawakubo has become famous for constantly and consistently pushing the boundaries of women’s clothing. In her seminal spring 1997 collection “Body Meets Dress, Dress Meets Body”, Kawakubo featured jackets with three armholes, jackets with detachable misshapen lumps all over the torso, and jackets with no armholes at all, forcing the consumers of her particular form of fashion to reconsider their preconceived notions about the design process and aiding them in appreciating not just what is being made, but, as Morris might put it, the “making itself”.

Months before the official release of untitled unmastered. Kendrick Lamar appeared as a musical guest on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, where he debuted “Untitled 2”, a sequel of sorts to a song he first performed over two years ago, with a powerful and poignant performance backed only by a live band and an appreciative audience. The paired-down performance was the perfect platform for Lamar’s particular form of lyrical legerdemain; the song was both slow and spastic, filled with twists and turns and clever changes of cadence that left the habitually hyperactive Fallon in a sort of shocked speechlessness. Almost two months after the debut of “Untitled 2” on The Tonight Show, bits and pieces of Lamar’s performance would appear on untitled unmastered., slowed-down and sexed-up so significantly the songs hardly seemed the same. In a tweet from March 4th announcing the release of the album, Lamar referred to untitled unmastered. as “unfinished” and in it’s “raw form”, allowing for what Roberta Smith, the art critic, might describe as a certain “inadvertent expressiveness” that communicates a “degree of spontaneity, vulnerability and inevitability that is too frequently lacking elsewhere.” For Lamar, the final product doesn’t seem so much the primary focus as the process itself; the casual studio chatter and the various different versions of the songs included on the album all indications of an artist constantly rethinking, readjusting, and reworking, all the while letting the listener in on every part of the process.

A little over a month after it was first tweeted, the message announcing the release of untitled unmastered. has been liked over 75,000 times. The response from Lamar’s Twitter fan base, a sizeable, albeit biased, following, has been overwhelmingly positive. Most users have taken to expressing their appreciation for the album with two simple words well under the 140-character limit imposed by the social networking service: thank you.