Art Expanded, 1958–1978

II

Walker Living Collections Catalogue

The Clues and the Aftermath

Barry Le Va and Room 2

The Clues and the Aftermath

Barry Le Va and Room 2

Abstract

In 1969, artist Barry Le Va was invited to create an installation for the Walker Art Center’s soon-to-be-demolished building. Le Va’s intervention of broken glass, mineral oil, and red oxide powder was made in secret after the site had already been closed to the public. Beginning with this cryptic installation, Mike Maizels discusses the artist’s interest in the “clue” and his affinity for Sherlock Holmes, interpreting the Le Va’s work in relationship to the nineteenth-century ideal of the knowable world and the twentieth-century collapse of that model.

Citation
Maizels, Mike. “The Clues and the Aftermath: Barry Le Va and Room 2.” In Art Expanded, 1958-1978, edited by Eric Crosby with Liz Glass. Vol. 2 of Living Collections Catalogue. Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 2015. This essay is adapted from a chapter in Maizel’s forthcoming book, Barry Le Va: The Aesthetic Aftermath (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015). http://walkerart.org/collections/publications/art-expanded/barry-le-va.
Walker Art Center ©2015
Barry Le Va, Room 2 of a 3-Room, 3-Part Installation, Utilizing Various Quantities of the 3 Materials, 1969, Spanish red oxide, plate glass, mineral oil, dimensions unknown, installed at the Walker Art Center. Walker Art Center Archives. ©Barry Le Va.

A new kind of order in Le Va’s work may be being overlooked—and Le Va’s order may have implications beyond art. —Larry Rosing1

An intellectual revolution took place at the beginning of the sixties, whose vector was mathematics, yet whose repercussions extend through the entirety of possible thought. —Alain Badiou2

It first appears as a jumbled mess of fragments and materials, the residue of an act of architectural destruction. Shattered glass, scavenged from the deserted building, glints sharply amidst a noxious admixture of crimson iron oxide powder and congealing mineral oil that seeps into the floor. The most ambitious in a series of powder-diffusion works that Barry Le Va executed in Minneapolis in March 1969, Room 2 of a 3-Room, 3-Part Installation Utilizing Various Quantities of the 3 Materials came about through a unique opportunity. Walker Art Center curators Richard Koshalek and Christopher Finch approached Le Va, then a young professor at the Minneapolis School of Art, about the possibility of executing a work in a museum building that was slated for demolition.3

Le Va had initially envisaged the work as a three-room installation, with each room in a different state of liquid saturation. In the “dry” room, the red iron oxide powder was to predominate, whereas in the “wet” room, only a scant dusting of powder would float amidst a deluge of mineral oil. However, the constraints of gelid temperatures, the absence of functional electricity, and the shortened daylight of an early northern spring limited the possibilities. Le Va scaled the project back to just one room, selecting the mid-value “damp” room—mineral oil and iron oxide in approximately equal quantity—in order to allude to the dynamic continuum that the original concept was designed to capture. And while the work itself was subsequently destroyed along with its container, having been seen by only a handful of assistants, friends, and Walker staff members, images of Room 2 were published in the Walker publication Design Quarterly.4 A twelve-page spread dedicated to Le Va included photographs of Room 2 alongside typewritten text works, cryptic handwritten notes, and photographs of other recent powder-based pieces.

Room 2 stands as an underappreciated art-historical milestone. As one of the earliest installations in a condemned architectural site, this piece paved the way for works such as Robert Smithson’s Partially Buried Woodshed and Gordon Matta-Clark’s Day’s End, which used derelict structures as media for almost sculptural interventions. But for the purposes of the present discussion, we can see Room 2 as a key to appreciating one of the most singular and deeply beautiful aspects of Le Va’s art: its invocation of a keen ambivalence about what can be known by an observer. This ambivalence is tied up in the way in which the work simultaneously invokes two seemingly divergent threads in the art of the late 1960s: 1) large-scale installations and their connections to the emergence of Land Art; and 2) text-based works and their ties to the explorations of conceptual art. As I have explained elsewhere, Le Va was inspired by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and he came to consider his work as a kind of aftermath analogous to fragments at the scene of a crime.5 His viewers, he hoped, would behave like detectives and work to reconstruct an antecedent event from its fragmentary material or textual remains.

In this essay, I want to focus on how a tension between competing scientific epistemologies surfaces in Le Va’s art, and particularly in Room 2. On the one hand, there is the world presented by Conan Doyle in the Sherlock Holmes stories, a world rooted in the metaphysics of the Enlightenment and the 19th-century doctrine of the clockwork universe. For the author, and by extension Holmes, any crime may be solved on the basis of the most meager evidence, a belief that assumes a clear, distinct, and demonstrable relationship between any phenomenon and its preceding causes. On the other hand, there is the world of “information theory,” a twentieth-century branch of mathematical exploration developed by Claude Shannon that offered quantifiable limits of how much information could, in principle, be derived from a given datum.6 At the heart of Shannon’s ideas was the discovery that entropy (a thematic central to land art) and information (the same for conceptual art) were correlated phenomena.

While Le Va was an avid reader of popular science, and the doctrines of information theory were a frequent topic of exploration among his artistic peers, I am less interested in how Le Va interpreted Holmes or Shannon than in the ways in which the paradigm shift from the world inhabited by the former to the one described by the latter—from a world completely knowable to one incompletely knowable—manifests itself as a kind of agnosticism in Le Va’s art. While Le Va may have emphasized the centrality of Holmesian reconstruction to his thinking, the mysteries encountered by his viewers may not, in fact, be solvable.

The Powder Mysteries

In the catalogue accompanying his 1977 exhibition at the Wright State University Art Gallery in Dayton, Ohio, Le Va reprinted a lengthy excerpt from the introduction to John Strang’s Ars Criminalis that details the philological history of the word “clue.”7 According to the passage, the meaning of “clue” is intimately tied up with notions of tying up—that is to say, with string. The word itself descends from the Old English clew, meaning “thread,” an etymology whose origins can be traced to the ball of cord by which Ariadne guided Theseus out of the labyrinth of the Minotaur. It is worth noting that although this linguistic history is correct, the source is fictional—in fact, doubly fictional. The actual source of the quotation, divulged in small print at the bottom of the page, is the 1930 pulp detective classic The French Powder Mystery. The Ars Criminalis was itself invented by Powder Mystery authors Fred Dannay and Manny Lee, writing under the nom de plume Ellery Queen. Dannay and Lee subtly tipped their hand to this fabrication by naming the treatise’s author Strang, or “string” in German.8

While Le Va would not publish the Powder Mysteries quotation until the mid-1970s, in the late 1960s he was occupied with his own set of powder mysteries. In the immediate lead-up to Room 2, Le Va had been exhibiting material distributions at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts that made his scandalous Distribution Piece (1968) on the cover of the November 1968 issue of Artforum seem almost tame. While the relatively sedate Installation #2: Right Angle Section (1968–69) was composed of a sharply delineated triangle of flour tucked unobtrusively into a corner, the preceding Installation #1: Outwards (1968–69), which consisted of a sprawling welter of paper towels, flour, and mineral oil, was described by one reviewer as “one of the most despicable, repellent objects I have ever seen.”9 Undaunted, Le Va would continue his work with materials such as iron oxide, chalk, flour, and cement powder as well as ripped felt and fractured glass through 1972—executing major flour-based works both in the United States and internationally.

While these flour pieces had many goals, they were in part designed to translate different physical and optical effects of the landscape into the space of the gallery. For his solo exhibition at Stout State University (now the University of Wisconsin–Stout) in the fall of 1969, Le Va created 6 Blown Lines (Accumulation Drift). He laid down a long, thin pile of flour, approximately two inches high, two inches thick, and forty feet long, and then blew parts of it away with an air compressor. He repeated this process five additional times until the room was approximately filled. The receding rows of flour create the impression of vast space—endlessly rolling waves or cascading dunes of drifting dust.

Le Va extended this effect in a 1971 work executed for London-based gallerist Nigel Greenwood, who secured temporary access to a massive warehouse for the artist. He used it as a site for Extended Vertex Meetings: Blocked: Blown Outward, his first major piece executed in the United Kingdom. According to a special section on the piece published in the journal Studio International, the artist laid down neat rows of flour, guided by masking tape, and then blew parts of the flour away with his air compressor. The resulting “residue overlay” would interact with the architecture of the space—both the portable white walls Le Va had purposefully built and the clerestory lighting he left intact—to produce, in his elliptical characterization, a “continuous expansion extended scale.”10 Like 6 Blown Lines and Room 2, Extended Vertex gave the impression that the confines of the gallery had been open out into the vistas of the landscape, expanded to encompass a great expanse of natural terrain.

But Le Va’s engagement with the landscape during this period was not solely illusionistic. Shortly after completing Room 2, he was invited to participate in the 9 Artists/9 Spaces exhibition, organized by Walker director Martin Friedman and curator Richard Koshalek.11 The show, presented during the museum’s temporary closure, was designed to move the exhibition of challenging artworks beyond the boundaries of the physical museum. Issues arose, however, when aims of fostering public encounters with works of advanced art clashed with the conflicting desires and interests of those that made up this “public.”

As new media historian Peggy Weil has remarked, “The public aspect of the show spectacularly backfired when, one by one, each piece fell victim to controversy or mishap.”12 The Walker’s own archived correspondence between Koshalek and the participating artists documents this litany of curatorial disasters. Before the exhibition could open, Ron Brodigan’s sculpture was vandalized beyond recognition. Fred Escher’s installation of neon in an abandoned home was shut down by police when they discovered a cache of illegal explosives hidden in the building’s basement. William Wegman’s billboard contribution, a photograph of Minneapolis’s landmark Foshay Tower lying on its side, was dismantled by the FBI, which had interpreted it as a veiled bomb threat.

For a while, it appeared as though Le Va’s work would survive this rising cascade of catastrophe. He had proposed a seemingly uncontroversial work called Landscape View, which consisted of three stepped platforms composed of four-foot concrete slabs. These platforms were to be placed 1,000 feet apart at sixty-degree angles in order to form an equilateral triangle. But even this remote, apolitical work composed of solid concrete succumbed to the misfortune that seemed to hover over 9 Artists/9 Spaces. As organizer Koshalek recounted, he and Le Va had been scouting locations for the work by helicopter. When they came to the artist’s chosen site, they landed and approached the only inhabitant they could find, the intoxicated occupant of a local trailer, who granted them permission to “build a hotel for all I care.”13 But as luck would have it, the man had no legal title over the land. The farmer who did, however, was apoplectic when he damaged a piece of equipment on an alien block of concrete. He contacted the sheriff and a warrant was actually issued for Koshalek’s arrest. And while the curator did manage to stay out of jail, Le Va’s work was nevertheless removed from its site.

Legal and curatorial misfortunes aside, Landscape View permits an illustration of how a Holmesian notion of reconstruction operates within Le Va’s work. The simplified distribution—three seemingly random markings distributed in an equilateral triangle—would have made it possible for a viewer who had stumbled upon the work to discern its overall shape. As the artist described it during a 1971 interview, “I didn’t want it advertised as a work of art at all, but for people to discover it as one might find architectural debris. To find a step … and maybe stand on it. If they did that, they would probably see another step.”14 The surviving photographs of the piece, unusual for Le Va’s work of this period, allow for a secondary reconstruction of the first-order retrospective consideration he intended for his viewers. And from the discovery of what seemed to be architectural remains, viewers might have drawn any number of conjectural conclusions about the distribution and former purpose of the remnants. The blocks could have functioned as lookout platforms at the edge of a territory, cairns marking a border, or small pyramids correlating to the placement of stars. Very much like Room 2, Le Va’s Landscape View was insistently not about what it was, but what could be discerned from fragments that had been left behind.

A Brief History of the Clue

Given the artist’s fascination with the subject, it is worth pausing to sketch out the historical and intellectual backdrop against which Holmesian ratiocination emerged. As historian Carlo Ginzburg has demonstrated in Clues, Myths, and the Historical Method, while modern clue-based inquiry derives from the rise of empirical science in the wake of the Renaissance, the real roots of clue-logic are much older. He concedes that the interpretation of telltale signs must have been an art practiced by early hunter-gatherers, but argues that a hermeneutics of the clue truly begins with the invention of writing. The way in which this invention necessitated the elaboration of ideas such as coding and decipherment encouraged the application of these concepts beyond the written word. According to Ginzburg, the world came to be seen as a kind of book, the language of which highly trained and sensitive individuals might learn to read.15

A new chapter in this history occurred in the aftermath of the Scientific Revolution. As confidence began to grow in a universe that was rule-governed and therefore knowable, increasing faith was placed in the degree to which small fragments of data might yield immutable truths. The epitome of such faith can be seen in the writings of the early nineteenth-century mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace. In his iconic “Philosophical Essay on Probabilities,” he attempted to expand the Newtonian picture of the periodic and deterministic heavens into a notion of an entire, atomic universe akin to an omnipresent game of billiards. Laplace argued that an intelligent being capable of perceiving and analyzing all of these microscopic motions would be, in effect, omniscient. “Such an intelligence,” he wrote, “would embrace in the same formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the lightest atom; for it, nothing would be uncertain and the future, as the past, would be present to its eyes.”16 Because the universe was knowable and predictable, a sophisticated intelligence could be given tiny slivers of information and reasonably asked to make absolute projections about the remote past or the distant future.

Such projections were the hallmark of Sherlock Holmes and indeed, scholars such as Martin Rosenstock have argued that post-Enlightenment rationalism had its most highly visible realization in the character of Holmes.17 In a passage that seems as though it could have come straight from Laplace, Holmes reminds Watson of the seemingly boundless power of logic: “From a drop of water,” Holmes insists, “a logician could infer the possibility of an Atlantic or a Niagara without having seen or heard of one or the other.”18 Just like Laplace’s “sophisticated intelligence,” Holmes’s logician is capable of extrapolating from a fragment of data and building a valid inference about something grand in the external world.

The Text Fragments

At the very end of the 1960s, Le Va also began making typewritten text-based works, usually composed of fragmentary descriptions or cryptic proposals. The format of typewritten text may appear to have little in common with the sifting of flour or the siting of concrete platforms, but scrutiny of these works nonetheless reveals consistent thematic linkages, particularly with Le Va’s sculptural practice. In addition to their joint affinity for partially occluded information, the text works provided an outlet for the artist’s burgeoning interest in an epistemology of geological formations and architectural ruins. While many of these pieces were associated with Room 2 through their joint publication in the Design Quarterly feature on that work, Room 2 was itself the subject of a corollary text work: Information Tape Piece (1969). As detailed in the scientifically styled document—a “situation” is outlined and a subsequent “proposal” elaborated—a work would be constructed from a recording made of every telephone conversation that took place during one day of the museum’s closure. The raw recording, which was never actually produced, would have then been played in an otherwise empty room in the rebuilt museum.

This text-based mode of working became the basis for Le Va’s contribution to the landmark Information show, curated by Kynaston McShine for the Museum of Modern Art in 1970. While the loaded concept of “information” will be interrogated more closely in the next section, McShine’s exhibition had been intended to survey the range of artistic responses to a world that was increasingly driven by quantitative data as well as one roiling in geopolitical strife. Le Va sent Notes for Possible Pieces (1970), a series of short, elliptical descriptions that are equal parts dry, technical language and Romantic fascination with the power of nature. However, the phrases, such as “sand blown off a mesa top into a valley,” turn out to be excerpts from a geological dictionary, with each phrase forming the definition of an absent geological term. “The equal all-sided pressure in the crust of the earth due to the weight of the overlying rocks” refers to “lithostatic pressure,” while “a rolling mass of partly condensed water vapor, dust and ash, highly charged with electricity” forms the definition of an “eruption cloud.”

The process of textual extraction also framed Le Va’s contribution to the exhibition Art in the Mind, held at the Allen Art Museum at Oberlin College only a few weeks before Information. While Art in the Mind did not provide the same high-profile exposure as Information, it did allow Le Va more room for experimentation. He decided to return to the touchstone of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries and produced Fictional Excerpts (1970), a work that features eleven typed quotations on eleven separate pages. These quotations reproduce lines 25 through 28, with line breaks, from every hundredth page of the Doubleday and Company publication of The Complete Sherlock Holmes. The work neatly doubles the concept of the Holmesian clue—presenting barely recognizable fragments of stories that hinge on the apprehension of barely recognizable fragments.

The quotations are worth discussing in brief. While Le Va suggested that the arbitrariness of the procedure he used for selecting the quotes should indicate the unimportance of their content, several excerpts deal with question of art, disguise, occluded information, and the art of detection in a way that seems likely to have been concordant with his thinking.19 The first excerpt, from page 100, reads as follows:

of youth. In point of fact, he had turned his thirtieth year. “Your Servant, Miss Morstan,” he kept repeating in a thin, high voice. Your servant, gentlemen. Pray step into my little sanctum. A small place, miss, but furnished to my own liking. An oasis of art in the howling desert of South Lon-”20

Aside from appreciating the truncated reference to a 19th-century vision of art as a refined bourgeois bulwark against the meanness of urban blight, the knowledgeable reader might have recognized this quotation as a fragment from The Sign of Four, the second full-length Sherlock Holmes novel that begins, after a vivid depiction of Holmes’s intravenous drug use, with Holmes expounding on the nature of deduction.

In another of Le Va’s selected fragments, Holmes chastises Watson for publishing A Study in Scarlet, which was Conan Doyle’s first novel about their exploits. Holmes faults Watson for failing to grasp the true essence of his work, claiming that the novel romanticized the process of detection and introduced an unwanted element of sentimentality:

Detection is, or ought to be an exact science and should be treated in the same cold and unemotional manner. You have attempted to tinge it with romanticism, which produces much the same effect as if you worked a love story or an elopement into the fifth proposition of Euclid.21

For Holmes, the process of following clues to their logical conclusion should be an airtight one, analogous to the derivation of geometric proofs; properly discerned, the clues left by a criminal will inevitably point to one and only one solution.

The eighth excerpt makes a similar case within the body of the quotation. Drawn from The Valley of Fear, this fortuitous fragment, reproduced in the epigraph of my forthcoming monograph on Le Va, features Holmes beseeching Watson to try to “get behind the lie and reconstruct the truth.”22 Holmes is confident in his ability and terminally frustrated by Watson’s hapless inability to generate a line of reasoning that is beyond question or doubt. As Holmes repeatedly emphasizes, it is not Watson’s observations that fail him. In fact, as a stand-in for the reader, Watson is often given the task of explicitly detailing all that he and Holmes have witnessed at the scene of the crime. Rather, what Watson lacks is Holmes’s powers of reasoning, his ability to follow the thread—tangled as it may be, it is always a single thread—back to the certain cause of the resulting evidence before their eyes. The difficulty was in moving beyond the lie of appearance in order to reconstruct the deep necessity of truth.

Entropy and Information

As nineteenth-century figures like Laplace and Holmes were expressing a vision of the universe that was entirely orderly and deterministic, their grand ontology was being unraveled by a seemingly simple paradox in thermodynamics. The apparent contradiction between the conservation of energy and its always decreasing availability had led physicist Rudolph Clausius to introduce a concept he first called “disgregation” but later renamed “entropy,” a concept intended to describe the inevitably increasing disorder of any closed system. While the scientific and cultural implications of these ideas would be difficult to overstate, their significance for the present discussion is their surprising, mid-twentieth-century afterlife. Historian Thomas Richards has argued that this new application had as much to do with geopolitics as with the underlying science. In the late nineteenth century, the far-flung British Empire was undergoing a critical transformation as the telegraph replaced the steam engine as the primary instrument of colonial authority.23 This evolution precipitated a shift in scientific focus, as the mathematical tools honed to maximize the efficiency of energy use were turned to increase the capacity of informational channels. Indeed, a pronounced parallelism was observed in these limitations. Just as productive energy was lost to heat, the meaning of messages had a similar tendency to fall prey to eventual distortion and decay. It seemed as though energy and information were both subject to the forces of entropy.

However, the observed relationship between information, energy, and entropy was not formalized until after World War II. And while Richards has suggested that the current connotations of “information”—endless, raw, asystematic data—coalesced in the Victorian days of empire, it was an American engineer, Claude Shannon, who gave the term an explicit and quantitative meaning. For Shannon, information, which could be transmitted between senders and receivers or stored in machine states, would be defined in terms of the “bit,” a binary answer given to a yes/no question. This definition enabled Shannon to precisely delineate the empirically observed relationship between information and entropy. As he revealed in a paper now regarded as the cornerstone of the field of information theory, information and entropy were in fact inverse phenomena—information, in his words, was a kind of “neg-entropy.”24

While Shannon’s information theory was of enormous importance for a number of artists of Le Va’s generation, his discoveries are particularly essential for unpacking Le Va’s art because of the way they fundamentally rewrote the nature of clues. For Laplace, living a century and a half before Shannon, the interpretive value of arbitrarily small fragments of data was constrained only by an individual’s limited powers of reason. His imagined demon—unfettered by such restrictions—would be able to derive complete knowledge of the past, present, and future universe from the movement of the “slightest atom.” This view was echoed not only by Sherlock Holmes, inferring the existence of Niagara from a drop of water, but also by the great mathematician Henri Poincaré, who in 1908 argued that “chance is only the measure of our ignorance.”25 For these thinkers, grounded in a metaphysics derived from the Enlightenment, uncertainty and indeterminacy were ancillary byproducts of contingent limitations.

Shannon’s demonstration of the interconnected nature of information and entropy led directly to a proof of the theoretical impossibility of total, Laplacean knowledge. Because information was a kind of negative entropy, it required energy to create, transmit, and maintain it. As a result, an infinite awareness of the state of the particles in the universe would require an infinite amount of energy.26 Laplace’s demon, Holmes’s logician, and Poincaré’s speculations violate a fundamental principle of the physical world.

The “Postmodern” and the New Detective

By the time Le Va began making art in the mid-1960s, the doctrine of the clockwork universe had been out of scientific currency for well over a century. In the intervening period, assaults on the larger metaphysics of total knowability arose in nearly every field. It was not just Shannon’s information but also Heisenberg’s uncertainty, Gödel’s incompleteness, Wittgenstein’s language games, John Cage’s aleatorics, and Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction that all functioned as part of what Alain Badiou describes as “an intellectual revolution … whose repercussions extend through the entirety of possible thought.”27 If, as has been suggested by scholars such as Stephen Greenblatt, the rise of an atomistic epistemology catalyzed the dawn of what we now call modernity, then perhaps a notion of the postmodern might map onto the constellation of anti-deterministic upheavals diagnosed by Badiou.28

While the meanings of “postmodern” are very slippery and diffuse, one specific formulation of the term illuminates a distinguishing and extremely important characteristic of Le Va’s art. While he was part of a larger swath of artists that embraced strategies of material disarticulation, his notion of “aftermath” (and the attendant act of reconstruction to which the viewer is impelled) is different in an important way from other, contemporaneous theorizations of what was variously termed “anti-form,” “post-minimalism,” or schmutzkunst. The salient difference revolves around Le Va’s orientation to time. While Richard Serra sought to make the unfolding present ever more clearly manifest in his process, and while Robert Smithson’s work points to an entropic future he anticipated with near certainty, Le Va’s art, on the other hand, is couched in the frame of the “future anterior,” a grammatical tense structured as “that which will have been.”

Le Va’s works, considered as exhibited aftermath, depend on a retrospective past that can only exist after the (future) act of interpretation and decipherment on the part of the viewer. This condition of future anteriority is particularly important to Room 2, a work predicated on its temporal between-ness: between states of wet and dry, a built site and a razed one. This ambivalent, almost bidirectional temporal structure is patterned after the architecture of the classical mystery story, the discovery of a crime at the opening and the unmasking of the culprit at the conclusion.

For Jean-François Lyotard, an embrace of future-anteriority comprised the signal shift into a new condition of postmodernity:

The artist and the writer, then, are working without rules in order to formulate the rules of what will have been done [ … ] Post modern would have to be understood according to the paradox of the future anterior.29

While my Barry Le Va: The Aesthetic Aftermath delves more deeply into the world of “postmodern” detective fiction—a genre that includes Georges Perec’s La Disparition, Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, and Alain Robbe-Grillet’s The Erasers—I’d like to here close with a brief turn to Robbe-Grillet for an encapsulation of the new epistemology steeped in the anti-determinist upheavals diagnosed by Badiou.

While The Erasers—a favorite of Le Va’s from his student days—provides a rich counterpoint to the orderly rationalism of Conan Doyle’s Tales of Sherlock Holmes, Robbe-Grillet’s clearest statements on the world in the wake of information theory come from his manifesto For a New Novel. In this foundational text, he argued that nineteenth-century science had succeeded in producing domain-specific insights, but that its attempt to offer the world a unified field of knowledge had collapsed in failure. What was left in the wake of this disintegration was a radically anti-humanist disorientation. “The world around us,” writes Robbe-Grillet, “once again becomes a smooth surface, without signification, without soul and without values, on which we no longer have any purchase.” In this quotation, which was reprinted as the epigraph of a prominent Artforum article in December 1969, the author presents the world as a kind of pure information, an impenetrable veneer that might be described but could never be understood.30

It is significant that Robbe-Grillet suggests the world has again become illegible. His analysis suggests the closure of the epoch that was examined earlier in this chapter. As Carlo Ginzburg claims, the invention of writing opened the world like a book, a place of signs capable of being decoded and analyzed by its privileged citizens; Robbe-Grillet presents the book being closed and the world again becoming opaque to analysis and indifferent to its inhabitants.

“50–100 Lengths of String”

But perhaps it is not as bleak nor as straightforward as that. Le Va did not passively demonstrate the precepts of the New Novel nor the tenets of information theory any more than he simply illustrated the principles of Sherlock Holmes. The significance, and the eloquence, of Le Va’s work is the way in which it makes appeals in both directions—it seeks the earnest application of reconstructive reason in a world that has become fragmented and impenetrable. This ambiguity can be clearly seen in Networks (1969), a text work that appeared in the Walker’s Design Quarterly and a piece that thereby returns us to our initial consideration of Room 2. The text reads:

50–100 lengths of string
each length 1 mile long
buried 3 feet below the earth’s surface
each length a separate beginning
each length a separate ending
criss-crossing
interlacing
interweaving
meandering into separate paths
all beginnings and endings exposed
above earth’s surface.31

Networks weaves together a number of the disparate strands of this discussion. Not only does it jointly address the realm of language and vistas of the landscape—thematizing the new connection between the domain of information and the sites of physical entropy—but it also provides a framework for thinking about Le Va’s art as dispersions of material interlaced with meaningful fragments. Per Ariadne, the string must be understood as a metaphor for the clue.

The difficulty suggested by Networks is not so much the lack of clues, but rather their sheer profusion. The strands emerge from the ground in an ambiguous relationship to one another, comprising either a complex web for an enterprising sleuth to unravel or a hopeless tangle of threads jumbled together. Perhaps the energy needed to produce the relevant solution—the information in Shannon’s sense of the term—is finite and perhaps it is not. It is unclear whether we are presented with a clockwork world that can be run backwards for a solution, or whether, as in Robert Smithson’s famous illustration of entropy, running backwards will only create more disorder.32 Though Le Va’s clues may be manifest, or manifold, it is unclear whether his mysteries can be solved.

Mike Maizels is a teacher, curator, and scholar interested in the long tail of the artistic innovations of the 1960s. His first book, on artist Barry Le Va, is forthcoming from the University of Minnesota Press, and he is currently at work on a second that will address the intersection of experimental art and music in the 1960s. More recently, his research has led to a larger interest in newer forms of “variable media,” including electronic and digital art. Maizels is currently the Mellon New Media Curator/Lecturer at the Davis Museum at Wellesley College and a fellow at the metaLAB at Harvard University. For more information on his academic and curatorial ventures, see www.mikemaizels.com.