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During a conference titled “The Language of Criticism and the Sciences of Man” held at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore in October 1966, Jacques Derrida, in what has become a crucial moment in the history of postmodern theory, described an emerging “rupture” in western metaphysics, wherein “it was necessary to begin thinking that there was no center, that the center could not be thought in the form of a present-being, that the center had no natural site, that it was not a fixed locus but a function, a sort of nonlocus in which an infinite number of sign-substitutions came into play.” According to the philosopher, this radical decentering of humanistic paradigms, with their normative and hierarchical values, motivated an extensive leveling of experience, deconstructing any sense of a foundational truth and turning everything into, as he put it, “discourse.”1 To borrow a term from a Fischbach Gallery (New York) exhibition, organized by Lucy Lippard around the time of Derrida’s talk, one might describe this categorically post-structuralist conception of man and knowledge as eccentric. Indeed the characteristically asymmetrical, flaccid, and ungainly sculptures included in the show, which eschewed what Lippard called “the rigors of structural art” (her term for the affectless geometries of minimalism, or “Primary Structures”), can be understood as material correlates for the decentered postmodern subject diagnosed by Derrida.2
This connection between postmodern conceptions of subjectivity and postmodernist aesthetics is articulated early on in Jo Applin’s study of this important strand of sculptural practice, which found its most focused manifestation in New York in the mid-to-late 1960s. According to the author, the oftentimes uncannily anthropomorphic works by artists such as Yayoi Kusama, Bruce Nauman, and Claes Oldenburg placed “increased pressure” upon “both sculptural objects and the viewing subject” (6). Drawing upon Applin’s argument, it is not hard to imagine how these three-dimensional objects (and they were, without exception, objects and not pictures, or things, rather than representations of things) served as surrogate bodies, at once demanding new modes of aesthetic [End Page 855] engagement and figuring the contours of an emergent subjectivity engendered by these new aesthetic paradigms. By focusing on the works’ mode of address to the viewer and the sorts of encounters such works engendered, Applin’s book explores the way that material objects impinge upon the boundaries of the self; and, more broadly, how works of art may provide a privileged realm to consider the reciprocal relationship between people and things.
Applin surveys what she rightly describes as the “uncertain condition of ‘sculpture’ during the early years of the sixties” (5). If the scare quotes in the preceding quotation signal the dwindling fortunes of conventional artistic formats and practices like painting and sculpture, this questioning of discrete media was related to a much broader reconsideration of the ontological basis of the work of art, manifested most powerfully in the “dematerialized” practices (also Lippard’s term) of conceptualism, performance, and land art, which emerged alongside “Eccentric Abstraction.”3 All of these endeavors were ostensibly marshaled in the name of breaking down the boundaries between the rarified realms of aesthetics and everyday life. Yet unlike the more austere, and seemingly recalcitrant, works associated with minimalism and conceptualism, and like a great deal of pop art, the manifest figurativeness—and even funkiness—of eccentric abstraction traces one of the most detectable links between high artistic practices and the counter-cultural ethos of the decade. Applin’s focus on these “eccentric” works productively complicates the conventional art-historical account of the decade, which too often prioritized the willfully arid, if not academic, realms of minimalism and conceptualism, along with avant-garde strategies of negation and critique at the expense of the work of artists who more overtly channeled the popular imagination of the later sixties, when Eros and visions of a “whole earth” provided swelling numbers of young adults with a politics based in the body and its environment.
Applin’s book is part of a larger reconsideration of the critical reception of...