top of page

 The Art Object


"Every time I would show them to people, some would say they're paintings, others called them sculptures."1


“Acting as a painter as well as a sculptor, the artist wrapped color around the corners of these sculptures, creating visually poetic relationships between structure and surface”2 


“it is precisely here that her metaphorical gesture, informed by a lightness, the allure of the surface, the way of arranging and placing her work, prevents her from producing what could be defined as “painting”, thanks also to the combination of extremely diverse elements”3

Though the art Object has transformed itself from artist to artist and era to era it is important to state here that the definition of the Object, as being separate from painting or sculpture, was made during Minimalism.  Donald Judd in his essay “Specific Objects” defined the art Object as being “related closely to one or the other4” (painting or sculpture) yet necessarily different from both. He stated that the interest in making objects came directly from a disinterest in making either sculpture or painting, a disinterest in, as he said, “doing it again”. From this point on, the category of the Object has been seen as a reaction against or towards painting and sculpture. It has to be added that in addition, today, the art object is also seen as separate from installation art. Unlike installations, art Objects do not define or transform the space in which they are contained, they instead define and transform painting, sculpture and themselves. That the identity of such objects is often in question and that they avoid easy association with traditional and familiar art conventions is a part of their value. However, today the autonomy of the art Object is firmly established. In this essay I will discuss the Minimalist and Contemporary art Object, with specific discussion of the similarities and differences between the contemporary Objects of Isa Genzken with the Objects of Peter Lanyon, Robert Rauschenberg and Anne Truitt.


During Minimalism, it was believed that the Object, as much as it was possible, should be based on a single form that presented itself to the viewer all at once.  Many artists, both working and writing theory during the years of Minimalism, proposed that the construction of the Object should not involve varied surfaces or the balance of different compositional elements. They acknowledged that it should instead appear as if it was industrially manufactured and clearly not appear as unique or handmade.  This echoes the Duchampian readymade in that the Minimalist Object like Duchamp's readymades had literal presence, the materials used were not intended to symbolize anything else. Yet the Minimalists expand on this ideal as the industrial materials they used, were, unlike Duchamp's readymades, transformed by application of color and shape. Neither color nor form however, was supposed to be used to express feeling or mood, but was to be used instead to simply  delineate space. Judd especially spoke to the fact that the objects color and form should not make a reference to any thing, feeling or idea outside of itself. This practice brought the material of the Object to the forefront. Both the materials and the completed Object had a simplicity, immediacy, severity and a gravity that echoed the tenets of Minimalism.


Though the materials that the contemporary Object are made from, as well as the form they take, may differ from the Minimalist Object, the idea that the viewer is being asked to notice the materiality of the object is the same. Today the Object is also often made from readymade materials. However, though these materials may be ordinary and mass produced, as were the industrial materials that the Minimalists used, they are, in contrast to those materials (such as steel) often consciously or unconsciously insignificant, trivial or impermanent. As with the Minimalist Object, we are not asked to consider these materials for what they represent; they are not made to look like something else. We are instead asked to consider these materials for what they are, be that plastic, paper, opaque, transparent or colorful. They are, like the materials of the Minimalist Object, defiantly present, and this presence frequently and obdurately stops us from seeing anything figurative or narrative about the work. These contemporary Objects are also often composed using many varied materials. These materials are jumbled, hung or strung together in seemingly random ways, and, it can be said, this collection of materials often resembles the marks of an abstract expressionist painting. With the contemporary Object we are taken somewhere between, as well as beyond, the readymade, minimalist and abstract Object. Starting with Duchamp and proceeding to today, what the art-world has found is that the conventions that define and limit art making can be explored and expanded to a place where an artwork stops being an artwork and turns into an arbitrary object. It is in the space and between these limits that Peter Lanyon, Anne Truitt, Robert Rauschenberg and now Isa Genzken make art. 


The British abstract expressionist Peter Lanyon's constructions were the first painterly sculptures or sculptural paintings that I recognized as Objects. From them stems all my thoughts and experience of the art Object. Working before Minimalism, Lanyon's reasons for making these objects was wholly different than those stated by the Minimalists. Lanyon believed in the importance of what he called the “ ‘informing' and ‘forming' stages of painting, those processes of collecting data to form an image of his environment”5. To this end, Lanyon lay on, drew, photographed, tasted and flew over the land. Using this information he created small constructions which he used to further inform his paintings. Lanyon made these objects using pieces of glass stuck together with black paint and glue as well as materials found in his studio. The transparency of the glass along with the jumbled materials provides many levels of ambiguity and distortion. Though Lanyon used this distortion to assist with his abstract paintings, these objects may be more descriptive of Lanyon's experiencing of the land than a painting may ever be. This occurs because these Objects marry qualities of painting such as gestural marks and layering of imagery with the 3 dimensionality of sculpture. They become paintings in the round – yet, and this is the joy, they cannot be fully described as such. As a viewer you feel comfortable seeing a language you know and then that very knowledge is called into question. This can leave you feeling upset, disrupted, excited, more fully informed or confused...whatever the emotion it is certainly never complacency. 


In their jumbled haphazard aesthetic, as well as their intent to disrupt, Lanyon's constructions seem closely related to the aesthetic of the contemporary Object's of Isa Genzken. Though Isa Genzken's later work is categorized as close to sculpture and has been discussed as making a direct comment on sculpture6, I believe Genzken's Objects are also closely related to Lanyon's Objects in material, method of construction, and intent.  Both Lanyon and Genzken use readymade, or “at hand” materials, both use layered, transparent, reflective and opaque materials to disrupt the viewer. While Lanyon desired disruption as a means of creating abstraction, Genzken creates disruptions to call into question not only the environment but also the formalist aspects of art-making. When one sees either of these artist's Objects, there is a sensation that they came into being because of the materials they are made of.  One gets the sense, from both, that they are working at speed to capture a “vision” and present a view that is rapidly slipping from them even as they work. One can perhaps see in their work the urgency and yet the contradictory stillness of a moment caught. The inaccuracy of the work is part of the appeal, one feels that there is something missing and that this absence is as important as what is present. This “missing” is not felt as a deficiency but rather as an excitement; it is an invitation from the artist to speculate on the whole and imagine what is left out. Lanyon and Genzken reject the standards of the traditional “artwork” and instead create dynamic, frustrating and disruptive objects which eventually bring the artists vision to you in new ways. 


The works of Lanyon and Genzken differ however in their material intentionality. Lanyon used his materials in an abstract expressionist manner; the materials were meant to say something about something else i.e. the land. They were used to evoke and describe elements Lanyon had experienced in the land. Genzken, on the other hand, used materials much more in accord with Minimalist ideals; the material is intended to speak firstly about the material. However, it has been said of Genzken that she, “ aspires to wrangle the concept of sculpture from the hands of minimalists and take it to completely new places”7 Because of this, the materials she uses feel like they ask the viewer - Do I perhaps mean something different now that I am next to these other materials? The viewer is asked - Can we get a larger view of this material now that it is placed next to these other materials? Yet their meaning is never revealed. Genzken has said “That's why the formal in my more recent works is daring in a way because there is little to hold on to, little one can tie things to, except for a sense I have when I am actually engaged in the process of construction and things come together.”8 


Genzken's contemporary Objects are often composed using many varied materials, seemingly haphazardly placed together. Because of this, Genzken's work can also be seen as relating directly to Robert Rauschenberg's Combines. Working at the end of Abstract Expressionism, Rauschenberg's Combines questioned both painting and sculpture. Rauschenberg's work unifies these separate categories into one category – Objects. These objects, which he called Combines9, are composed using materials such as historical papers, artifacts and everyday found materials. Rauschenberg's interest in these materials, as well as his rejection of many of the ideals of Abstract Expressionism, led him to search for a new more playful means of expression. Rauschenberg, like the later Genzken, uses non-traditional materials to painterly effect. At the same time he shows an interest in formal composition in that he adapts and plays with both the rectangle of the traditional painting and the plinth of the formal sculpture. He adds to and subtracts from these traditional art structures and the materials they are made from to tease (out) our preconceived ideas of art.


Rauschenberg, like the earlier Lanyon and the later Genzken, is also interested in visual disruption. He stated that the material's “uniqueness were what fed my curiosity. They didn't have a choice but to become something new. Then you put them in juxtaposition with something else and you very quickly get a world of surprises...So the object itself was changed by its context and therefore it became a new thing”10. Visual relationships between materials, i.e. color, texture, shape, gesture or some other similarity are brought to the fore, this creates the sensation of relationships between things which were once unrelated. This fashioning of new relationships in Rauschenberg's Combines not only make the work seem somehow “political”, in that the viewer is perhaps being asked to form relationships between images of people, places and things, but also very formal pictorially, in that the viewer is being asked to see the compositional elements aside from the illusory connection. We are disrupted as we try to figure out whether the connection is or is not merely visual. Genzken and Rauschenberg create relationships between space, color and material which speak directly to space, color and material themselves first, and, unlike Lanyon whose work is solidly abstracted narrative, their work is positioned between the worlds of formalist concern and narrative interpretation. Rauschenberg's and Genzken's work, though complex visually is, at first impression, about color and form and the relationship between these two things first. This is not to say that their work does not have meaning, but it is often implied by the viewer rather than imbued by the artist. 



Genzken's work often draws from the Minimalist concept of objective abstraction. She separates color and form from emotion. Yet, in her later work, she marries color and form, perhaps not to create a narrative but, instead, to create questions. In contrast to both Rauschenberg's and Genzken's work, Anne Truitt's work, though aesthetically close to Minimalist art, is conceptually further away from Minimalism. Truitt cared deeply about the emotional impact of the color and form she used. Truitt was often criticized by Minimalist artist and theorist Donald Judd for just these reasons, in 1963 he critiqued an exhibition of Truitt's work, saying “There are a number of boxes and columns, both simple and combined, in this exhibition, and a large slab. The work looks serious without being so. The partitioning of the colors on the boxes is merely that, and the arrangement of the boxes is as thoughtless as the tombstones which they resemble. 11 The Minimalist ideal, that work should not be about anything but itself, was not something that Truitt was interested in. Her work, though appearing quite sparse visually, was profoundly invested with emotion and referenced specific imagery. For Truitt the physical shape of pieces resembled something, fences, walks or architectural environments, with the specific colors adding emotional meaning. 


Like Lanyon, Truitt was always making visual explorations of both abstraction and personal reference. Writing in 1965, Truitt stated: "What is important to me in not geometrical shape per se, or color per se, but to make a relationship between shape and color which feels to me like my experience. To make what feels to me like reality."12 Truitt uses plinths and pedestal type constructions as abstractions of objects in the physical world while Genzken uses the vocabulary of traditional forms, such a plinths and pedestals, in a different way. By adding juxtaposing material to these forms Genzken's work expands on, abandons, and reinterprets those very forms. In this way Genzken's use of form usually questions the meaning of sculpture itself, whereas Truitt uses form to speak of narrative. In this way Truitt's work is closer to Lanyon's as being abstracted narrative – though unlike Lanyon she is never interested in the traditional picture plane. Truitt in an interview with The Washington Post in 1987, said "I've struggled all my life to get maximum meaning in the simplest possible form." Like Lanyon, Truitt's idea “was not to get rid of life but to keep it and to see what it is. But the only way I seem to be able to see what anything is, is to make it in another form, in the form in which it appears in my head”13 Truitt works intuitively and with an integrity that does not allow her to make either painting or sculpture, the structures she creates are the most honest representation of what she feels and thinks. They involve shifting amounts of both painting and sculpture, and because of that, at no point can these Objects be called either. In that fact lies their beautiful tension. Genzken's work is also full of tension, the materials balance precariously, the colors too often balance just as precariously next to each other. These works look always like they are about to implode, explode or do both at once. Yet, like Truitt's, Genzken's work also balances, deftly enough to cause concern14, between painting and sculpture. It is in that balance that we are asked to consider why these things are made and why they are made in the way they are made. These questions are fundamentally part of the inherent nature of Genzken's Objects. To have these questions answered would remove from them their intrinsic nature, it would destroy the very purpose they are created for as well as the very tension which makes them visually and conceptually exciting.  


It can be said, at this point in art history, that the art Object has grown and developed almost beyond recognition from the Minimalist ideal. The Object, however, can still be seen as conceptually very connected to that ideal, albeit if that connection is only a rejection. Artist and critic Robert Morris in his essay Anti Form 15 , anticipated Lanyon, Genzken, Truitt and Rauschenberg's work when he stated that “Recently, materials other than rigid industrial ones have begun to show up. Sometimes a direct manipulation of a given made. In these cases consideration of gravity become as important as those of space. Considerations of ordering are not necessarily casual, imprecise and unemphasized, random piling, loose stacking, hanging give passing form to material. Chance is accepted and indeterminacy is implied since replacing will result in another configuration. Disengagement with preconceived enduring forms and orders for things is a positive assertion, it is part of the works refusal to continue aestheticizing form by dealing with it as a prescribed end”16 These four artists, Lanyon, Truitt, Rauschenberg and Genzken straddle and blur the line between painting and sculpture, they have, along with many other artists working in the last 60 years, managed to create a new art category, that of the art Object. This category, not only often allows for expression of ideas more fully than either painting of sculpture, it also questions and reacts to these categories. Paradoxically, this questioning and reaction keeps the dialog of both painting and sculpture alive. 

1. Robert Rauschenberg in Carol Vogel. A half-century of Rauschenberg's 'junk' art, New York Times, December, 2005

2. AnneTruitt quoted on
3. Andreas Schlaegel. Isa Genzken: Fuck the Bauhaus. Flash Art (May-June 2007): pages 122-124
4. Donald Judd. Specific Objects (1965), Minimalism. James Meyer, Phaidon Press, 2005, page 207
5. Article on Peter Lanyon at Tate
6. Andreas Schlaegel. Isa Genzken: Fuck the Bauhaus. Flash Art (May-June 2007): pages 122-124
7. Andreas Schlaegel. Isa Genzken: Fuck the Bauhaus. Flash Art (May-June 2007): pages 122-124
8. Wolfgang Tillmans .Who do you love? Isa Genzken in conversation with Wolfgang Tillmans, ArtForum, November, 2005. Translated from German by Wilhelm Werthern (with Brian Currid).
9. "Every time I would show them to people, some would say they're paintings, others called them sculptures. And then I heard this story about Calder," he said, referring to the artist Alexander Calder, "that nobody would look at his work because they didn't know what to call it. As soon as he began calling them mobiles, all of a sudden people would say 'Oh, so that's what they are.' So I invented the term 'Combine' to break out of that dead end of something not being a sculpture or a painting. And it seemed to work." - Rauschenberg quoted In Carol Vogel, " A half- century of Rauschenberg's 'junk' art," New York Times (December 2005).

10. Rosetta Brooks Rosetta Brooks Interviews Robert Rauschenberg, Modern Painters, <>.

11. Donald Judd. Donald Judd: Complete Writings 1959-1975. The Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. 2005 (Emmerich, Feb. 12.-Mar. 2)Page 85

12. “it is precisely here that her metaphorical gesture, informed by a lightness, the allure of the surface, the way of arranging and placing her work, prevents her from producing what could be defined as “painting”, thanks also to the combination of extremely diverse elements” Andreas Schlaegel. Isa Genzken: Fuck the Bauhaus. Flash Art (May-June 2007): pages 122-124
13.  Robert Morris. Anti Form (1968) Minimalism. James Meyer, Phaidon Press, 2005, Page 243
14. Robert Morris. Anti Form (1968) Minimalism. James Meyer, Phaidon Press, 2005, Page 243



Unmonumental: The Object in the 21st Century. Phaidon Press, 2007

Robert Rauschenberg: Combines. Museum of Contemporary Art, LA and Steidl Verlag, 2005
As Painting: Division and Displacement. Philip Armstrong, Laura Lisbon, Stephen Melville, MIT

Press, MA, 2001

High Times, Hard Times: New York Painting 1967 – 1975. Edited by Katy Siegel, Independent Curators, NY, 2006

Donald Judd, Colorist. Hatje Cantz Publishers, 2000
Part Object - Part Sculpture. Helen Molesworth, 2005
The System of Objects. Jean Baudrillard, Vera, London, 1996
Minimalism. James Meyer, Phaidon Press, 2005
A half-century of Rauschenberg's 'junk' art. Carol Vogel, New York Times (December 2005).

Anne Truitt: Daybook: The Journal of an Artist. Penguin, 1984
James Meyer. Grand allusion: James Meyer talks with Anne Truitt – Interview. ArtForum, May, 2002

Isa Genzken: Fuck the Bauhaus. Andreas Schlaegel, Flash Art (May-June 2007)
Who do you love? Isa Genzken in conversation with Wolfgang Tillmans. ArtForum, November, 2005

Translated from German by Wilhelm Werthern (with Brian Currid).
Rosetta Brooks Interviews Robert Rauschenberg. Rosetta Brooks (December/January 2005), Modern

Painters, <>.
Donald Judd: Complete Writings 1959-1975. The Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design.

2005 (Emmerich, Feb. 12.-Mar. 2)Page 85.
Grand allusion: James Meyer talks with Anne Truitt. James Meyer, ArtForum, May, 2002 Daybook: The Journal of an Artist. Anne Truitt, Penguin, 1984
Prospect. Anne Truitt. Penguin, 1997
Isa Genzken, Astrid Wege, Sara Ogger. ArtForum, Oct, 2000

bottom of page