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Pamela M. Lee

Pamela M. Lee is Professor of Art History at Stanford University and the author of Object to Be Destroyed: The Work of Gordon Matta-Clark and Chronophobia: On Time in the Art of the 1960s, both published by the MIT Press.

Titles by This Author

It may be time to forget the art world--or at least to recognize that a certain historical notion of the art world is in eclipse. Today, the art world spins on its axis so quickly that its maps can no longer be read; its borders blur. In Forgetting the Art World, Pamela Lee connects the current state of this world to globalization and its attendant controversies. Contemporary art has responded to globalization with images of movement and migration, borders and multitudes, but Lee looks beyond iconography to view globalization as a world process. Rather than think about the “global art world” as a socioeconomic phenomenon, or in terms of the imagery it stages and sponsors, Lee considers “the work of art’s world” as a medium through which globalization takes place. She argues that the work of art is itself both object and agent of globalization.

Lee explores the ways that art actualizes, iterates, or enables the processes of globalization, offering close readings of works by artists who have come to prominence in the last two decades. She examines the “just in time” managerial ethos of Takahashi Murakami; the production of ethereal spaces in Andreas Gursky’s images of contemporary markets and manufacture; the logic of immanent cause dramatized in Thomas Hirschhorn’s mixed-media displays; and the “pseudo-collectivism” in the contemporary practice of the Atlas Group, the Raqs Media Collective, and others.

To speak of “the work of art’s world,” Lee says, is to point to both the work of art’s mattering and its materialization, to understand the activity performed by the object as utterly continuous with the world it at once inhabits and creates.

On Time in the Art of the 1960s

In the 1960s art fell out of time; both artists and critics lost their temporal bearings in response to what E. M. Cioran called "not being entitled to time." This anxiety and uneasiness about time, which Pamela Lee calls "chronophobia," cut across movements, media, and genres, and was figured in works ranging from kinetic sculptures to Andy Warhol films. Despite its pervasiveness, the subject of time and 1960s art has gone largely unexamined in historical accounts of the period. Chronophobia is the first critical attempt to define this obsession and analyze it in relation to art and technology.

Lee discusses the chronophobia of art relative to the emergence of the Information Age in postwar culture. The accompanying rapid technological transformations, including the advent of computers and automation processes, produced for many an acute sense of historical unknowing; the seemingly accelerated pace of life began to outstrip any attempts to make sense of the present. Lee sees the attitude of 1960s art to time as a historical prelude to our current fixation on time and speed within digital culture. Reflecting upon the 1960s cultural anxiety about temporality, she argues, helps us historicize our current relation to technology and time.

After an introductory framing of terms, Lee discusses such topics as "presentness" with repect to the interest in systems theory in 1960s art; kinetic sculpture and new forms of global media; the temporality of the body and the spatialization of the visual image in the paintings of Bridget Riley and the performance art of Carolee Schneemann; Robert Smithson's interest in seriality and futurity, considered in light of his reading of George Kubler's important work The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things and Norbert Wiener's discussion of cybernetics; and the endless belaboring of the present in sixties art, as seen in Warhol's Empire and the work of On Kawara.

The Work of Gordon Matta-Clark

Although highly regarded during his short life—and honored by artists and architects today—the American artist Gordon Matta-Clark (1943-78) has been largely ignored within the history of art. Matta-Clark is best remembered for site-specific projects known as "building cuts." Sculptural transformations of architecture produced through direct cuts into buildings scheduled for demolition, these works now exist only as sculptural fragments, photographs, and film and video documentations. Matta-Clark is also remembered as a catalytic force in the creation of SoHo in the early 1970s. Through loft activities, site projects at the exhibition space 112 Greene Street, and his work at the restaurant Food, he participated in the production of a new social and artistic space.

Have art historians written so little about Matta-Clark's work because of its ephemerality, or, as Pamela M. Lee argues, because of its historiographic, political, and social dimensions? What did the activity of carving up a building-in anticipation of its destruction—suggest about the conditions of art making, architecture, and urbanism in the 1970s? What was one to make of the paradox attendant on its making—that the production of the object was contingent upon its ruination? How do these projects address the very writing of history, a history that imagines itself building toward an ideal work in the service of progress?

In this first critical account of Matta-Clark's work, Lee considers it in the context of the art of the 1970s—particularly site-specific, conceptual, and minimalist practices—and its confrontation with issues of community, property, the alienation of urban space, the "right to the city," and the ideologies of progress that have defined modern building programs.