The greatest mystery is not that we have been flung at random between the profusion of the earth and the galaxy of the stars, but that in this prison we can fashion images of ourselves sufficiently powerful to deny our nothingness.
What images? Among those currently proffered to the public for contemplation: a series of six, large, identically white pictures by Walter de Maria differing only in that on one the artist has written in pencil the word Sky, on another River, on a third Mountain. Four packing-case-sized and identical boxes by Robert Morris, painted white and spaced at equal intervals on the floor. A row of what appears to be eight truncated shoeboxes, the work of James Seawright, each containing a variant of the figure eight in sometimes flashing lights, while every now and then a taped voice croaks out, "Eight." A flight of wooden stairs covered in gold-colored carpet, entitled Euclid by Joe Goode. A creation called Die by Architect-turned-Sculptor Tony Smith, which he admits he ordered by phone. And why not? It is only a six-by-six-by-six-foot cube in slab metala piece of art on which the artist has not laid a hand.
These are examples of the latest in "minimal" art. The present art scene offers other creations: paintings that are an eye-blinding dazzle of stripes; canvases that are cantilevered from the wall right over the living-room sofa; gadgets that jiggle, wiggle, writhe and spin. And, though it is past its peak, there is pop: an assemblage in which a real lawnmower leans against a painted canvas; Brillo boxes designed to look exactly like Brillo boxes; cartoons blown up to mural size, complete with dialogue balloons and lithographic dots; old bits of crumpled automobiles presented as sculpture; an old Savarin coffee can containing 18 brushes in turpentine and frozen in ineffable permanency. Sometimes the subjects are erotic. Edward Kienholz's plaster couple makes love in the back seat of a real, if dismembered, car. Larry Rivers' seven-foot, three-faced Negro in plywood achieves vivid connection with a complaisant friend by way of a flashing light bulb. A disembodied female breast by Tom Wesselman looms, big as a mountain, over a diminished seashore.
Are these images sufficiently powerful to deny man's nothingness? All are declared to be art by the museums that show them, by the critics who explain and hail them, by the collectors who buy them. This has its advantages over the old days when the young artist suffered from neglect and sometimes died unrecognized. But in this day when the most radical young artist is threatened not by neglect but by the possibility that he may be considered over the hill at 30, a few critics and some painters who themselves were radical only a few styles back are beginning to raise an old question: What is art? They are worried not so much by the extravagance of some objects that are accepted as art as by the fact that there seem to be no criteria, no opposition, not even an insistence on the artist's uniqueness or individualitythe very claim that used to animate artistic revolutions. More and more people are beginning to feel that the current state of art, as Robert Frost said of free verse, is like playing tennis without a net.