Ascending to a height of 630-feet, the iconic Gateway Arch in downtown St. Louis towers above the western bank of the Mississippi River. From a half-mile away, visitors stand on the front steps of the Old Courthouse and view the full profile. In order to see the structure in its entirety, a distance of this approximate length is necessary. Designed by Eero Saarinen in 1947 and built between 1961 and 1967, the stainless steel structure is the tallest arch in the world and the tallest man-made monument in the Western Hemisphere.
Of course, it’s not until one walks to the base of the monument and looks upward that the enormity of the arch becomes evident. The curved, silver surface vaults into the heavens—backed by white cloud tufts and blue Midwestern sky—rendering miniscule the spectators below. The Gateway Arch’s massive size acts as a provocation for visitors to consider larger, conceptual issues surrounding its origins, creation, and purpose. For instance, how does the monument function as an emblematic pivot between the East and the West? How does the structure embody the spirit of westward expansion? And what are the contemporary implications of a monument dedicated to Manifest Destiny when contextualized within the framework of American imperialism, the genocide of indigenous populations, and the destruction of our nation’s natural resources for the sake of “advancement”? Indeed, the magnitude of the arch necessitates these lines of inquiry, as well as others.
In his essay “Notes on Sculpture II,” Robert Morris (the Missouri-born, Minimalist artist) forwards a similar argument: “The quality of intimacy is attached to an object in a fairly direct proportion as its size diminishes in relation to oneself. The quality of publicness is attached in proportion as the size increases in relation to oneself.” The artist expands upon the effect of size when he writes: “it is necessary…to keep one’s distance from large objects in order to take the whole of any one view into one’s field of vision…It is this necessary greater distance of the object in space from our bodies, in order that it be seen at all, that structures the non-personal or public mode.”
To this extent, Morris argues that an object’s optics inform our perception of, feelings toward, and engagement with the object itself. The requisite distance between ourselves and an object does not just act as a metaphor for public or intimate engagement. Rather, the space necessary for viewing allows for other people and ideas to enter and to leave one’s field of vision, developing a civic discourse that can affirm, challenge, or question an object’s purpose.
Located just fifteen miles southwest of the Gateway Arch is Laumeier Sculpture Park. Curators bill the area as “one of the first and largest sculpture parks in the country” with a mission dedicated to “engaging the community through art and nature.” The park also happens to host Robert Morris’s sculpture “Untitled (1968-1968),” in addition to several other works by iconic Minimalist artists, such as Donald Judd (another Missourian), Michael Heizer, and Sol LeWitt.
Relatively speaking, Morris’s “Untitled” pales in comparison to Saarinen’s arch. Measuring two-feet tall, with a length and width of 24-feet, the Minimalist sculpture of cross-stacked, aluminum I-beams boasts dimensions more reserved than the enormous proportions of the monument. But to employ Morris’s argument and assert that “Untitled” fosters an increased sense of intimacy due to its smaller size seems specious.
To begin with, the object’s dimensions do not afford an unencumbered holistic view. In fact, if park visitors want to view (or photograph) “Untitled” most completely, they must climb fifteen feet up a tree located about twelve feet away from the sculpture.
No doubt, partial non-tree viewing of “Untitled” speaks to Morris’s notion, as outlined in “Notes on Sculpture I,” that the gestalt of a simple form engenders a “belief” or “faith in spatial extension” and subsequent “visualization.” This gestalt, then, allows us to imagine or intuit the complete form of an object. But intimacy, one might argue, necessitates revelation and baring oneself to another. In other words, intimacy requires one to become open and, thus, vulnerable to another. For an object-maker to intentionally obfuscate holistic optics for the sake of embodying a gestalt suggests something other than an intimate encounter.
The material Morris chose for his piece also affects the relationship between viewer and object. Composed of aluminum I-beams, Morris’s sculpture evokes an industrial sensibility at odds with that which is normatively intimate. Of the “new materials” employed by Minimalists during the 60s, Donald Judd wrote in “Specific Objects” that “formica, aluminum, cold-rolled steel, Plexiglas red and common brass” are more “aggressive” than traditional materials, possessing an “objectivity” and “obdurate identity.” Additionally, the Euler-Bernoulli Beam Theory demonstrates that the flanges of an I-beam (i.e. the horizontal surfaces) resist elasticity, producing rigidity; the web of an I-beam (i.e. the vertical surface), on the other hand, resists shear forces so as to help bear loads. Aggressive, objective, obdurate, rigid, load-bearing, and resistant: modifiers that function in hard contrast to the tenderness typically associated with intimacy.
Another concept that functions in conjunction with choice of materials is color. Morris decided not to paint the I-beams of “Untitled,” revealing their unfinished silver-gray hue. In “Notes on Sculpture I,” the artist argued that “more neutral hues…do not call attention to themselves, [and] allow for the maximum focus on those essential physical decisions that inform sculptural works.” But, in every way, this statement permeates with false assumptions and deceptive rhetoric. At the nominal level, a neutral hue is one without color. But within the realms phenomenology or physics, neutrals hues, indeed, do possess color; these colors, rather than absent, would be more rightly termed “bland.” And the connotation of “neutral” hues are anything but neutral. The silver-gray surfaces of Morris’s I-beams, in fact, lend themselves to interpretations of that which is mechanized, industrial, and cold. Again, these modifiers suggest the absence of intimacy, as opposed to its presence.
Finally, if the optics, materials, and color of Morris’s “Untitled” don’t mitigate (if not preclude) intimacy, then the signage adjacent to the object certainly does. It simply reads: “NO CLIMBING ON SCULPTURE. CO ORD 101 080.” A negative imperative, the sign commands viewers not to interact physically with the object: a governmental directive to ward off intimacy associated with touch. And if the content and imperative address did not succeed in reducing intimacy, then the form of expression removes the last vestiges of tenderness. Indeed, the abbreviations for “county” and “ordinance” suggest that the governmental apparatus does not deem viewers worthy of full, linguistic expression. “CO” and “ORD” become curt, short-hand signifiers that reduce the time and space needed to instruct viewers, subjecting them to expedited regulations.
One could make the counter-argument, of course, that Morris did not claim his objects are intimate. Rather, he maintained that intimacy functions in reverse proportion to the size of an object: a relative scale not indicative to an absolute value, but, instead, only comparable to other objects on a continuum of intimacy. To this extent, the question is not “Is Morris’s sculpture intimate?” or “Does Morris’s sculpture create the conditions for intimacy between itself and a viewer?” Rather, the question raised should be: “Does Morris’s sculpture engender more intimate relations between itself and a viewer than a monument (such as the Gateway Arch)?” This final question engages Morris’s essay, perhaps, on fairer terms, at least to the extent that it more directly attends to the artist’s intentions.
That being said, to prescribe the production of intimacy exclusively or most prominently to the relationship between holistic optics and distance does not comprehensively address the issue. By doing so, one re-enforces a false hierarchy that places totalizing vision atop its ordering system. While, no doubt, sight is a contributing factor to the increase or diminishment of intimacy, other factors also play a key role. Returning to the example of the Gateway Arch, then, provides further clarity.
While holistic optics require a viewer to withdraw a greater distance from the monument than from Morris’s sculpture, the Gateway Arch offers visitors something “Untitled” cannot: passage or entrance inside the structure. To enter into or be subsumed by an object can be understood as another type or manner of engaging intimacy that is not, necessarily, dependent on optics. Rather, shared or simultaneous space produces intimacy through envelopment, immersion, or penetration. Moreover, to be inside a structure produces a rhetoric of intimacy often associated with fetal development or sexual activity. This, of course, says nothing of the fact that, before entering, one can run their hand freely along the surface (i.e. skin) of the arch, mimicking the lover’s caress or touch.
Besides physical contact, another common practice for producing intimacy is sharing personal narratives. Telling stories enables two people to learn each other’s histories, understand the motivating forces that informed the critical decisions in one’s life, and become familiar with the formative events, personalities, and ideas that comprise a person’s past. As a result, interpersonal bonds develop and strengthen. An analog for an individual’s personal narrative can be found in Monument to the Dream, a 28-minute film shown in the theater at the base of Gateway Arch; the movie documents the monument’s design and construction. Not only does the film trace the origins, development, and process of building the monument, but it captures the faces, hands, and bodies of the men who erected the structure. In doing so, the film humanizes the arch by framing it as the product of many people’s dreams, imagination, and labor. Monument to the Dream also provides a detailed visual and verbal account of how the arch was made—informing movie-goers of what materials, literally, went into the structure. To this end, the documentary reveals the insides of the arch: in other words, that which remains hidden from external optics.
Of course, Monument to the Dream isn’t the only way for visitors to experience the infrastructure, inner-workings, and materials used to construct the Gateway Arch. If one boards the tram at the monument’s base and rides it to the apex, a small window on the tram door offers passengers a view of the arch’s internal structure: a switch-backed metal stairway, girders, cables, ventilation shafts, etc. Just as the film reveals the hidden elements used to construct the arch, so too does a ride to the top of the monument. And, as an ancillary note, the confined compartments of the tram cars necessarily mean that passengers will come into physical contact with one another: touching one another’s knees, feeling each other’s breath, and smelling body odors comingling in the confined space. In this way, then, the structure encourages intimacy between visitors.
So, then, does size matter with regard to intimacy? To some extent, the answer is “yes.” Morris’s thoughts on holistic optics, its relationship to distance, and an object’s corresponding projection of intimacy or “publicness” certainly makes sense when de-contextualized. To this extent, the artist provided useful critical criteria for other artists, art appreciators, collectors, and reviewers to understand and conceptualize sculptures and Minimalist objects. But, to be sure, neither artwork nor those who experience them exist in a vacuum; rather, external and internal contingencies transform art encounters, challenging or negating the most practical dictums.
The contingent nature of art encounters is evident when viewing another Robert Morris artwork: “Doors that Don’t Open” at the Saint Louis Art Museum. With stated dimensions of 24.5” x 15.5”, the lead, plywood, and wire wall-object should, according to “Notes on Sculpture II,” provide viewers a heightened sense of intimacy relative to the Gateway Arch or Morris’s own “Untitled.” While the distance between object and viewer for holistic optics is mere inches, the encounter could hardly be called intimate. The piece’s dark-gray finish infuses the work with ominous connotations that function in contradistinction to intimacy. Likewise, the small hinged doors situated in the center of the piece remained closed. They reveal nothing to the viewer. The doors, literally, shut viewers off from internal engagement.
While the formal elements of “Doors that Don’t Open” appear to openly challenge the very precepts of intimacy that Morris describes, the curatorial choices for the object’s presentation amplify these antagonisms. Entombed in a glass case, direct viewing or photographing of the dark object produces a strong glare that reflects the viewer’s image back to them. Instead of an intimate encounter with an object, viewers see their own ghostly image overlaid upon the door: a projection of the Self impeding direct access to the Other. “Doors that Don’t Open,” although small in stature, is neither intimate nor public. Instead of open passage, it is a dark and impenetrable surface that reflects back a solipsistic specter. In the end, though, this should not be read as a negative critique of Morris’s artwork; but, rather, an acknowledgment that no theory of art remains intact when confronted with the contingencies of lived experience.