Film: Literal Illusions

Los Angeles, Palm Beach

David Haxton: Cubes, 1977, 16mm film, 12 minutes. All images this article courtesy Gavlak Gallery, Palm Beach and Los Angeles.

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The camera is trained on a paper scrim shot in negative. For a moment, a white field fills the frame, its expanse perfectly monochrome save a tremor of scratch and grain. Then the space is interrupted by a cut: a sharp tool proceeds downward from the scrim’s upper edge, splitting it evenly in two. The gap reveals another scrim—this one appearing black—against which a man appears in silhouette. He makes two more cuts through the first scrim, one each along its right- and leftmost edges, then two more. Four white panels now occupy the screen. The man removes two—the second from the right, the first from the left—leaving a flattened pattern: black, white, black, white. Further cuts appear in the black ground and two more strips of scrim are removed. The screen returns to its original shade of white: dim and slightly silvered. The performer proceeds methodically, excising the remaining strips of scrim and carrying them, one by one, into an unresolved space within the frame.

The film, Overlapping Planes, is by David Haxton. It was made in 1974 and ’75, when Haxton was in his early 30s, having quit San Diego for New York two years prior. Over the course of the decade, Haxton would make roughly a dozen films in his Spring Street studio. Shot in 16mm on a borrowed Bolex camera, each depicts either Haxton or an assistant executing a series of tasks—tracing simple geometries, moving fluorescent lights, cutting arrangements of suspended string or scrims. Silent and statically framed, the films are between five and 15 minutes in length, ending when the procedure has been completed. All document the construction and disassembly of a spatial illusion, revealing flatness where there seemed to be depth, or depth where we thought there was flatness.

Haxton’s films met all of the usual criteria for canonization: distribution by high-profile gallerists (Leo Castelli and Ileana Sonnabend), screenings at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and inclusion (three times) in the Whitney Biennial. Yet his work of the period has largely fallen out of the historical record and, save for program notes from screenings and a handful of reviews that were lukewarm at best, little writing on them has been done. “The films are very precise and elegant. But they exist only as visual puzzles and at this point in the history of cinema that makes them of only slight interest,” Amy Taubin wrote in the SoHo Weekly News in 1977. In her appraisal, Haxton was a latter-day Georges Méliès, having traded wand and hat for a “uniquely cinematic” instrument of magic: “the instability of the illusionist space of the film image.”1 P. Adams Sitney’s take was more caustic. In his opinion, little could redeem these “coldly methodical” films from their “polemical superficiality.” In fact, Sitney concluded, “His films doggedly set out to prove that anti-illusionism remains a vital issue for the cinema today. They almost succeed.”2

Though he surely bristled at his critics’ verdicts, Haxton too located illusion and its antithesis at the interpretive horizon of his films. “The performers’ activities are organized to produce a constant interaction between the physicality of the screen illumination and the illusionistic image of a space produced by the film image,” he wrote. Haxton perceived his work as staging an endless ricochet between literal flatness and virtual depth.3  Yet, if this ambition could be considered straightforward today, the critical debates about art and illusion that Haxton waded into were anything but.

What seems to have made Haxton’s work unpalatable to his contemporaries was its overt staging of visual illusion at a moment when such effects were considered dated or, worse, reactionary. During the post-WWII era in American art, from late-modernist painting to Minimal sculpture and Structural film, “illusionism” and “anti-illusionism” had become shorthand for weighty philosophical positions about the nature of experience and the subject’s place within it. “The ground of Western illusionism is an entrenched Cartesianism,” Rosalind Krauss wrote in a 1973 issue of Artforum. For Krauss, illusionistic art stabilized a particular kind of viewing subject—“humanist,” “rationalist,” “transcendental”—that the avant-garde was attempting to discredit. In the work of Mel Bochner, Dorothea Rockburne, Donald Judd and others Krauss saw an insistence on “the externality, the publicness of space in which verification and meaning reside.” This was presented in contrast to the “arbitrariness” of illusionistic art’s “private language.”4 

Krauss was hardly alone in her disdain for illusionism. Concrete, actual, specific: these were some of the terms favored by the most prominent voices in the New York avant-garde of the 1960s and ’70s. Certainly the bare bones camera operation and real-time action depicted in Overlapping Planes suggest an alignment with some of these concerns and an antipathy toward the frivolous or vague. At the same time, Haxton’s films make playful sport of spatial ambiguity, thereby complicating the seemingly stable binary—illusion vs. anti-illusion—that undergirded so many aesthetic debates at the time.

Film was not Haxton’s first artistic pursuit. Like many of his peers (Judd, Robert Morris, Michael Snow and Paul Sharits, among others), Haxton trained as a painter. His turn to celluloid came as a result of frustration, a feeling that he had run up against the canvas’s limits. The feeling was widely shared. To an emergent crop of artists, Abstract Expressionism’s earnestness seemed somewhat embarrassing, its twinning of operatic gesture and high seriousness verging on camp.

One way out was to dispense with painting altogether, to move from the space of the canvas into the realm of bodies and objects: Jackson Pollock’s “dance of dripping” repackaged as performance art. Such was the strategy of Haxton’s first film installation, Four Screen Films (1970). Comprising four freestanding screens and as many projectors, the piece re-created Haxton’s studio within the gallery. Each screen displayed a film that depicted the studio in a different way: by panning the room with a mirror, for instance, or recording a performer as he moved objects (cement blocks, fluorescent lights) alternately on- and off-screen. Bruce Nauman’s films of the late 1960s, which Haxton admired, were a noteworthy influence. These works depict Nauman negotiating the interior of his studio, his body pressed within a makeshift hallway or wedged in the fold between floor and wall. Something of the tenor of Nauman’s films would persist in Haxton’s own: their listless procedurality; their absence of affect; their insistence on the camera’s intervention between spectator and scene.

Haxton’s first single-screen effort, Bringing Lights Forward, came later in 1970. As in Overlapping Planes, the premise was simple. A woman places three lamps in the back of a room: right, center and left. Rendered again in negative, the field’s darkness registers as a whiteness which the lamps selectively illuminate: black orbs hanging in air that appears thick, even liquid. The woman turns off the lamps and carries them, one by one, to the room’s midground. Once they are repositioned, she again flips their switches. She repeats the process and carries the lamps further afield, so that their tops exceed the camera’s frame. The woman turns each off, then on again, affording views of a space of uncertain depth. We know that the room recedes because we recall the woman traversing it. Yet its recession seems illusory: confirmed by the body onscreen but still vaguely unreal.

Haxton’s arrival in New York in 1972 coincided with a moment of retrenchment on the city’s avant-garde film scene. The new style, dubbed Structural film, addressed questions of cinematic form, taking the stuff of its technical apparatus—the frame, the splice mark, the tactility of light striking celluloid—as its content. Michael Snow, Tony Conrad and the Andy Warhol of the eight-hour, single-shot Empire (1964) were exemplars of this mode, which proceeded by way of serial negation: no editing, no camera movement, no seduction. Structural film was to be opaque, boring and painfully self-conscious; resistant, above all, to the easy entertainment of populist cinema. Illusion was its primary target, as the first sentence of British filmmaker Peter Gidal’s 1976 mission statement for the style announces. “Structural/Materialist film attempts to be non-illusionist,” the text declares, “attempts” being the key word.5  The suggestion was that this effort might not succeed.

Haxton’s work betrays certain hallmarks of the Structural idiom, such as fixed framing and real-time duration. Yet Haxton showed little interest in the mechanics of the camera, or, for that matter, in the filmic qualities of film. If his camera remains motionless and frontally disposed, it seems a choice equally rooted in a need to assert the literal presence of the film frame as in a desire to mimic the stability of a canvas. Of the alignment of his films with painting, Haxton was well aware. His vocabulary was not cinematic but painterly: by his account, the screen was a “newly primed canvas” that received a “spatial image” from the projector.6 Hans Hofmann’s theory of “push-pull” painting, famously adapted upon by Clement Greenberg, was an early point of reference for Haxton. As Hofmann and Greenberg argued, illusion and flatness in painting existed in an unresolved dialectic.7 The appearance of space could never quite be purged from the canvas, Greenberg acknowledged, no matter how ruthless the attempt to eliminate it. 

For many artists in the 1960s, this illusionistic remainder was grounds for abandoning painting altogether. “Almost all paintings are spatial in one way or another,” Judd surmised. “Even a single circle will warp the surface to it, will have a little space behind it.”8  If the artwork was obdurately objectlike, however, illusion (always a matter of an ersatz third dimension) would seem a moot point. Judd was particularly motivated on this score, having pronounced illusionism “one of the salient and most objectionable relics of European art” which his art of “real space” would defy.9  Comprising lacquered metals and translucent plastics, his sculptures compelled perceptual ambiguities that could (theoretically) be resolved through careful, sustained looking.

Yet for all the brute physicality of his work, Judd relished in reflective surfaces whose effect was to dissolve the very objects that they defined. Think of his Relief (1961), a rectangular sheet of Masonite mounted on wood and inset with a tinned baking pan. From a certain distance, the pan’s orthogonals appear to lie flush with the Masonite surface. Unlike the lingering dimensionality of painting, however, this kind of illusion was what Judd termed “matter-of-fact.”10 As Judd’s protégé, Fred Sandback explained this fine distinction in words that bear equally on the art of his teacher: “My work is not illusionistic in the normal sense of the word. It doesn’t refer away from itself to something that isn’t present. Its illusions are simply present aspects of it. Illusions are just as real as facts, and facts just as ephemeral as illusions.”11  Illusion could be preserved, in this sense, but only on seemingly paradoxical terms: the illusion had to be made literal.

Haxton’s films dramatize this apparent contradiction, exemplifying what it might mean for an illusion to be at once fictive and factual. Painting in Object (1975-76) opens with an image of Haxton defining the contours of an open cube. Shot in negative, the room reads as a nebulous whiteness and the cube, frontally oriented, seems simply a square, which Haxton appears to outline atop a solid scrim. Only when he walks through the square does the room’s depth register and then only by implication: we deduce that the room must recede if Haxton’s movements are to be possible, even if we cannot verify its recession visually. Haxton proceeds to define the cube’s upper and lower edges: four diagonals tapering in space. As he paints, his body periodically melds with atmosphere, and the room again seems strangely spaceless, its depth schematic rather than real, like the symbolic spatiality of a one-point perspective diagram.

The cubes that appear in Haxton’s work often recall diagrammatic illustrations of the sort that could be found in texts on the psychology of perception. If, in Overlapping Planes and Painting in Object, spatial ambiguity was an effect of abbreviation (of insufficient visual information), in Cubes (1977), the opposite holds. The film documents a performer as he outlines a cube on a suspended lattice of strings. With each of its edges defined in paint, the cube allows two interpretations: its frontmost face either projects outward or angles inward. The visual insolubility that results is compounded by the performer’s iteration of two identically sized cubes on a background scrim. The redundancy of the gesture—the same geometry is three times produced—heightens the cube’s constitutive redundancy as a shape whose every edge and face duplicate the others.

Haxton’s films present both the illusion and the means used to create it. The friction between the two—the viewer’s awareness of being deceived, the pleasure of the deception—structures the performances that unfold. As with trompe l’oeil painting, Haxton’s films cultivate irony. Pushed to an extreme, his spatial references become self-referential, their literalism sliding into ambiguity.

“You can’t have any illusionism in any sense without getting back to the old quality that painting has had all along, which I think is not especially credible,” Judd affirmed in a 1966 symposium, when asked if painting could ever be flat. “It is a question of credibility and what you believe. I can’t believe any of it.”12 Judd’s statement hints at a wider ethical context for his fiercely guarded aesthetic positions. As scholars of the period have noted, this insistence on “credibility” in art—a grasping for facts and empirical experience—resonated with a Cold War cultural and political landscape. Anxieties about duplicity and deception were made newly urgent in the 1970s by Nixon’s serial dishonesty.13  Generously read, Haxton’s figuring and foiling of illusions comes not as a special effect—Méliès’s cinema magic, repackaged for a 1970s audience—but as precisely the opposite: an effort to dismantle that which was incredible.

Still, Haxton’s work reminds us that literalism, no matter how fanatically stressed in writing, was never so straightforward in practice. In Haxton’s films, the coolness of tautology—the cube is what it is, to paraphrase a famous line by Dan Flavin—yields to an unverifiable ambiguity. “Things that exist exist,” Judd could declare, trusting, as he did, that “all experience is knowledge.”14  Tempering Judd’s stringency is the tenuousness of experience, the ease with which sustained looking can yield not clarity but contradiction.