Open Systems Critical Essay

Having decently earned her weight as one of the leading contemporary curators for post-WWII art, Donna DeSalvo’s essay on Open Systems: Rethinking Art c. 1970 (Tate Modern, London 2005) is an important contribution for the exhibition and its magnitude. The scope of DeSalvo’s account is rather wide, providing not only the essentials of the exhibition, but also the contextual framework of the works. Although DeSalvo herself warns from “the danger that one can promote only one reading” of the 1970s art, her approach is extremely holistic, ranging from the work and the artist to potential sources of influence on a single or a group of objects.

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DeSalvo’s main focus is the manners in which the different artists redesigned the relations between the work and the systems with whom the artists correspond. Unlike the simplistic view of systems, which generally deals with the esthetics of the relations between the work and the space (in particular the gallery), DeSalvo expends the discussion on systems to include social, economic and physical perspectives when they are relevant in a specific work. As a result, one of the essay’s main merits is the ability to deal with “ways in which these artists drew parallels between their aesthetic systems and those of the real world,” while retaining the author’s role in drawing attention to potentially relevant systems, while refraining from direct criticism.

One example for this approach is DeSalvo’s treatment to Mel Bochner’s Measurment: Room (1969), which opens one of the sections of the exhibition. Desalvo identifies quite a few “systems” in Bochner’s work, including the treatment of space, dimensions, the object and the viewer, while applying Bochner’s perceptions of the artist and pieces from his own biography. One of the unique aspects in DeSalvo’s reading, which can be identified in the treatment of this work, is her reluctance to force an interpretation. That is, she identifies the means, in which the work conveys a sense of transformation of the object from the work to the viewer, but does not dictates how the viewer should react to this manipulation, especially in regard to subjective “representations of the physical body and psychological constructions of the self.”

However, this approach has also a downside. Take, for example, DeSalvo’s closing statement: “a system is a human construction, and thus fallible and imperfect. This is why artists make ‘open systems.’” After taking a rather descriptive approach and refraining from critical analysis as of the works in the exhibition, DeSalvo fails to deliver the appropriate background that may justify her claim, although it may be partially interpenetrated from the opening section. Moreover, considering the author’s comprehensive understanding of the era, it would have been a good idea to enhance the reading and serve the readers by further exploring the imperfections of the systems in question.

In conclusion, DeSalvo’s account is a valuable introduction to the artistic notions of the era and a loyal companion to the basics of the exhibition. The essay successfully separates the wheat from the chaff and can hence serve as a well-rounded bibliographical overview on the issue that relate to the exhibition.

Works Cited
DeSalvo, Donna. “Where We Begin Opening the System.” Tate Modern. Tate Modern. Web. 25 Sep. 2009.

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