Richard van Buren and the Inner Life of Matter

by Carter Ratcliff

We usually think of a work of art as something an artist intends. Or, more concisely, art is what an artist does. I’m not about to disagree, and yet certain sculptures by Richard van Buren bring us up against the idea of intention with a disorienting jolt. I’m thinking of works from the 1970s that look as if they might be fragments of a landscape—products not of art but of nature. There are pieces that stretch across the floor like encrustations displaced from salt flats out West. Others bring to mind chunks of igneous rock, with dramatically disparate layers fused into an inseparable whole, or pieces of marble broken open to reveal crystalline interiors. Angels, 1970, looks like a flock of mineral but somehow airborne creatures that has settled, for a moment, on the wall of a gallery. John Keats said that “if Poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree it had better not come at all.” i For the poet’s biological processes Van Buren substitutes geological ones, or so it seems until common sense kicks in.

Keats may have been, in some sense, a natural writer and yet his rhymes and metrical schemes have no counterpart in nature. Likewise, the amazing fluidity of van Buren’s colors may suggest the flow of lava but this suggestion is of no interest to geologists—unless they also have an interest in art. During the 1970s, when he was pouring polyester resin, van Buren was a younger cousin to such gestural painters as Jackson Pollock and Morris Louis, and a sibling of sorts to Lynda Benglis, who in those days was covering floors with puddles of tinted polyurethane. The works of Benglis, Louis, and Pollock are immediately recognizable as works of art. So are van Buren’s, all the more so because we see them in art-world settings, not in volcanic landscapes. So why bring nature into a discussion of his work? Because of that jolt I mentioned earlier. Focusing on the lush and often startling details of his work we find ourselves asking: did he mean this? Or how could he have meant it—an especially subtle blurring of two colors, for example, or a startling shift in the quality of translucence? What would it mean to intend these subtleties, details with the look of such natural phenomena as mineral striations or the iridescence of crystals? In short, where is this artist in his art? How do his intentions inhabit these lustrous objects? A brushstroke is the trace of a gesture: an action of a kind we know how to decipher. There is nothing equivalent in van Buren’s art.

We can sidestep questions of form and intention by allying van Buren with Marcel Duchamp and other artists who factored chance into their work. The curved edges in Duchamp’s Three Standard Stoppages, 1913-14, replicate the curves produced when he let three lengths of thread fall to the floor. To make certain of his collages, Jean Arp dropped scraps of paper onto a sheet of paper and then glued them to the spots where they fell. In van Buren’s time, Barry Le Va and Robert Morris built chance into the textures of works that came to be known as scatter pieces. By employing a process fully determined before any material was deployed, these artists made it easy to distinguish their intentions from what they intended. Thus one could say that they stood outside their art. Van Buren does not, or not in the same way, despite his method’s general resemblance to that of the scatter-piece artists. Unlike them, he—or at least his intention—is in his work. But what does it mean to say that?

Gestural painters always begin in the same place: the flat and empty surface of a canvas. The starting place for each of van Buren’s poured pieces from the 1970s was unique: a piece of Mylar shaped into a trough or basin by the objects the artist placed around its edges. Once this irregular receptacle had been formed, he filled it with liquid polyester resin—but not all at once. Every piece required several pourings, and for each pouring the artist mixed the resin with other materials. Pigments provided color. Spackle, shaved glass, and other dry materials added texture. With charcoal van Buren insinuated shadowy passages into the light these works gather from their surroundings and then emanate with stepped-up intensity. In a gallery setting, certain floor pieces from this period look not so much lit as luminous. It’s as if they were announcing themselves, drawing us in for a close look at the way their currents of color play off against the slow curves and sudden swerves of their shapes. Form doesn’t reflect color, does not mimic or follow it; rather, form seems to reflect on color, considering its subtleties and responding with subtleties of its own. This internal responsiveness endows van Buren’s objects with an air of self-awareness. That is why it looks as if intentionpermeates these works, though it cannot, of course, do any such thing. When I say that it does I am speaking metaphorically, and it is not at all clear how this metaphor of intentional matter ought to be taken.

The image of intention standing outside a work, overseeing its creation in a managerial capacity, is less perplexing because it shades off into a literal truth: an artist is a maker and clearly separate from the thing made: an artwork. This distance between intention and result is nowhere clearer than in the case of the Minimalist object. Drawing up precise specifications for each of their works, Donald Judd and the other Minimalists had them fabricated industrially, the better to avoid what they saw as the melodrama of Abstract Expressionist painting—or “action painting,” which its proponents described as an emotionally fraught adventure of self-discovery. According to Elaine de Kooning, the action painter “sees himself in his art, his art in his life.” ii He is not merely in his art, he is at one with it. This is hyperbole. Jackson Pollock, action painter par excellence, would lay on a tangle of paint, then tack his canvas to the wall and study it for a time—for a week or two, in some cases—before adding another layer in a different color. iii Action was interrupted by periods of contemplation that would have been pointless if they had not permitted a measure of detachment. To assess a work in progress, Pollock needed to stand apart from it.

Van Buren’s method of pouring ensured that, from the start of his career, he would be compared to Pollock. And rightly so, yet there is no counterpart in his method to the temporal and spatial distances Pollock built into his way of painting. Does this mean that van Buren achieved a unity—a seamless oneness of artist and art and life—that eluded Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and all the other action painters? No, it doesn’t, chiefly because that seamless oneness is impossible. Artists cannot, literally speaking, be at one with their work. So if I say that van Buren inhabits his work to an unusual degree, that his energies are those of his subtly shifting colors and textures, I am throwing ideas and images up in the air in the hope that they will provide at least a flicker of illumination.

In pursuit of that hope, let us pretend for a moment to be animists. More specifically, let us make believe that van Buren’s objects are alive and have the power to shape themselves into works of art. Given the dazzlingly, self-consciously sensuous quality of these works, it is tempting to see in them an intelligence at once witty and courageous—but not much taken by theory. The shaping power I sense in van Buren’s objects deploys no concepts. So there is little in his objects for analysis to detach and hold up for examination. No issue of “composition” or “alloverness” or “objecthood.” No chance method or a pre-established process of fabrication. No expressiveness or depiction. Focusing on one of his startlingly distinctive works, we see an object that is not only complex but engaged in a lively contemplation of its own complexity. They owe their impact to this inward vitality, not to an engagement with art-issues. A van Buren piece counts as art by virtue of its seductive but self-sufficient presence. I say seductive but self-sufficientto suggest the way his each of his works attracts us without trying to send us any messages. Nor does it hope to convince us that it has scored any points in a game of art-concepts. It is presenting itself as it is, open to our responses but not dependent on them. These objects are autonomous. And here we find a pertinent issue, one that surfaced early in the evolution of modern culture.

Autonomy, purity—these well-worn buzz words appeared first in the polemics surrounding literature. Exasperated by the demand that poetry and the novel make themselves useful by promoting good morals and social progress, the poet and critic Théophile Gautier argued in the 1830s that, to the contrary, that “there is nothing really beautiful but that which is useless.” iv Gathering strength from its conflicts with utilitarian ideologies, this doctrine of aesthetic autonomy—of art-for-art’s sake—reached beyond literature to visual art. In 1912, Apollonaire elaborated his comments on Cubism into a prophesy: a new kind of art is about to appear, “an art that will be to painting, as painting has hitherto been envisaged, what music is to literature. It will be pure painting, just as music is pure literature.” v

When van Buren arrived on the New York art scene in the late 1960s, the ideal of aesthetic autonomy was being kept in play by the so-called formalist critics. Their leader was Clement Greenberg, who said that a medium progresses by concerning itself solely with its own concerns. Because line belongs to the province of sculpture, painting must get rid of it and focus on color, its primary resource. Deploying color in ways that free it from depiction, expression and, ultimately, everything but its own chromatic nature, painting becomes “purely optical.” vi Wielded as a criterion of judgment, “optical” purity devolved into a detachable concept. And the ideal of autonomy was undermined. A work of art can’t be considered self-sufficient if its value depends on its willingness to exemplify “optical” purity or any other external standard. I should add, however, that no artwork can be truly self-sufficient. Absolute autonomy is an impossible ideal. Something always undermines it.

When Van Buren’s poured works of the 1970s take on a look of autonomy, we see them not as pure, not as disengaged from the world, but as inhabiting our world in a state of independent, self-reflective vitality. His more intricate works give us an idea of what animate beings would be like if they were not animal or vegetable but mineral. And they lose their look of autonomy when we acknowledge the obvious: they are only metaphorically alive. The life we sense in them is that of the artist—not that these works are expressive in any ordinary way. They do not convey attitudes or feelings. Rather, they exemplify a state of being: poised, adventurous, and indefatigably alert to the flow of events. To say that Van Buren is his generation’s greatest virtuoso of improvisation is to state a truth at the risk of creating a false impression. Virtuosity is sometimes mere facility. In van Buren’s case, it is a resourcefulness sustained by a profound understanding of matter’s power to take on meaning.

i . John Keats, letter to John Taylor, February 27, 1818. Keats, Selected Letters, ed. Robert Gittings, Oxford University Press, 2009, p. 66

ii . Elaine de Kooning, “Two Americans in Action: Franz Kline & Mark Rothko” (1958), The Spirit of Abstract Expressionism: Selected Writings, New York: George Braziller, 1994,pp. 165-74. De Kooning’s formulation is a plain-spoken variation on Harold Rosenberg’s claim that, for the action painter, “the act-painting is of the same metaphysical substance as the artist’s existence.” See Rosenberg, “The American Action Painter” (1952), Art As Theory1900-2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, ed. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, Blackwell Publishing, 2003, p. 590

iii . Robert Goodnough, "Pollock Paints a Picture," Artnews,May 1951, pp. 40-41. Online at

iv . Théophile Gautier, “Preface to Mademoiselle de Maupin” (1834), Strangeness and Beauty” An Anthology of Aesthetic Criticism 1840-1910, 2 vols., ed. Eric Warner and Graham Hough, Cambridge University Press, 1983, vol. 1, p. 163

v . Apollonaire, “On the Subject in Modern Painting” (1912), Art As Theory1900-2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, p. 186

vi . Clement Greenberg, "Louis and Noland" (1960), The Collected Essays and Criticism, 4 vols., ed. John O'Brian, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1993, pp. 95-97