"Red Curves" (1996) by Ellsworth Kelly, oil on canvas (360,68cm x 166,37cm) The Doris and Donald Fischer Collection at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Easy Form Hard is a show that addresses the systems of logic - convention - consensus - by creating a non-system - or maybe rather so by creating a secondary system? A performance of what-seemingly-is-a-system, that then isn’t, yet enables you to go into thinking that there is one.



View pictures at either top or bottom of this essay to see reference of an Ellsworth Kelly work


Brian O’Doherty: Inside The White Cube, The Lapis Press (1985) p.15


O'Doherty: the eye and the spectator 39


O'Doherty: the eye and the spectator 42


O'Doherty: the eye and the spectator 45


O'Doherty: the eye and the spectator 52


César Aira: On Contemporary Art, David Zwirner Books (2010) 13


Aira 13


Aira 27


Aira 27


Aira 30


Aira 30-31


Aira 31


re: "1200 Coal Bags" Marcel Duchamp (1938)


O'Doherty: context as content 70


Aira 35


Aira 466


Aira 48


Our minds are so great, so that with tiny clues, we cut and glue objects, events and words apart and together into a mass of meaning. 


Or maybe rather: experience. 

Something happened, I witnessed what happened. 

Art possesses the potential of making something happen. Through the act of creation –  something was made and happened – that would never  have occurred otherwise. In that parallel plane, the mirror staring back at society, an earthquake was made and it shook us so thoroughly, that we evaded back into reality with new thoughts and a mindset ready to alter the dusty habitual ways of which and what we usually did. No, but really, ideally! This is the goal! Is it not? That we with art can change how we do things. That we with art can perceive things anew. Tell each other stories that implement change in between us as humans, bodies, cultures. 

Change, the scissors cutting, the glue gathering. 

Performance: the act of splicing and adhering – the staged act of doing, with a plan, the knowing act of when you are acting, you are doing, you are creating motion in the ocean. 

The butterfly effect: something was done somewhere and that altered what would happen thereafter, unforeseeably

The line of the horizon, breaking those vertical white walls into the metaphysical dimensional plane that runs out into the distance. The horizontal line divides the space in half. The proposition that “what if the line was the horizon and this space was an undecided size” – I mean it already is, through our minds - but we take the possibility of imagining for granted. We take for granted what our minds are capable of doing the act of transforming. 


As such the exhibition space becomes a playground for thoughts and ideas, a gym for exercising our capability to imagine things differently, understanding it all anew, seeing through the abstract into that space beyond form.

The image is a prop. Traditional painting has been explained as windows into other worlds. The Salon style hanging showcasing a vast amount of windows, with golden-frame borders - this logic was evident in its day. Something was lifelike, because the skill of the artist to make the image resemble the world was in high demand. Now – after photography – within the birth of AI, what is the image containing, but proposition? All of us nowadays have access to images. We have a phone with a camera, a vast library of images is a google search away, and still we visit  art and museums.


I have been returning to the shaped canvases1 of Ellsworth Kelly in SFMOMA. His work explores form, space and color. In the time they were created, they symbolized a new radical way to engage with both painting, but also with dealing with the canvas, furthermore they became guides onto new ways of engaging with art. In contradiction with other Color Field painters such as Rothko or Newmann, Kelly did not want his works to evoke transcendental or emotional experiences. Rather, his ambition was for them to engage the space, the wall the work was exhibited on, the building it was positioned in and the viewer who perceived the shape. As such Kelly fits well with Minimalist ideas - reducing the canvas to its essence by looking at its shape and form, however the works are created with a spontaneity that does not correlate well within strict formalistic Minimalism.
                      To me, the works appear as queer ideas, a form trying to break the mold they are born to. As a figure of thought, the work is fighting against the consensus through which we as a society perceive art. The notion “I am still a painting even though I am not square” was very new, and very demanding in its day – yet it became enveloped into art history and is now displayed for current spectators at the SFMOMA, as a part of the canon - “Freeform: Experiencing Abstraction”.


In the text “Inside the White Cube” Brian O’Doherty talks about the evolution of the gallery and how artists and audiences have been able to agitate within it. Some of his main ideas being that the gallery space is an ideal space for ideas to be aestheticized through their isolation from the surrounding world. 

The space without human presence, as it is staged in its documentation is the ideal form for the show, “while eyes and minds are welcome, space occupying bodies are not.2 When we as humans enter the gallery space we are split in two as the eye or the spectator. The latter being a bodily presence occupying the space, and “is ready to enact our fanciest speculations.3 Doing as the visual program tells them to do, however ambiguously or staggering, to experience the work. The eye is the opposite - “it is a finely, even noble organ, esthetically and socially superior to the Spectator.” And functions as a perceiving, organizing tool of our intelligence, however it has a hard time recognizing context, and is limited to a picture plane whereas “the spectator stands in space in space broken up by the consequences of collage.”4

      O’Doherty goes through art history, speaking about how “eventually, the gallery itself becomes like the picture plane, a transforming force.5 The gallery being able to transform objects into context through which everything can be read anew. Nevertheless, there is still a form of trespassing for a Spectator to enter the gallery space, even though the Eye craves it to be able to move around. Within the late 60’s and 70’s three-dimensionality became such an invading method within the gallery discourse that a new transaction of negotiations had to happen:

“There are two kinds of time here: the eye apprehended the object at once, like painting, then the body bore the eye around it. This prompted a feedback between expectation confirmed (checking) and hitherto subliminal bodily sensation. The Eye and the Spectator were not fused but cooperated for the occasion. (…) The Eye urges the body around to provide it with information – the body becomes a data-gatherer. There is heavy traffic in both directions on this sensory highway – between sensation conceptualized and concept actualized. In this unstable re-approachment lie the origins of perceptual scenarios performance and Body Art.”6


O’Doherty speaks of the gallery as a liminal space, invented to showcase and aestheticize ideas, concepts, to put the outside life, reality, into perspective. The gallery works on a parallel plane, one that we as visitors can enter, transporting us out of the daily context, into that of art. However, ideally, the space is empty - read: deserted – for our eyes only. Ideally we could look at the documentation photos and understand the show. However, art does not work that way, and our eyes, our tools for analyzing and understanding, must be transported through the vehicle that is our body. The body must intervene within the space, however awkwardly it must maneuver around, making sure it doesn’t break or touch anything along the way, as art is fragile and often very expensive. Through gazing only, we are to understand, achieve a new experience and leave the gallery plane enriched, able to tell our peers on the other side, back into reality, about what strange events have occurred to us, within those exclusive white walls.



Going back to Kelly’s canvasses, the thing is – there is nothing to get! When you see it, you get it. “That painting is not square, it is something else.” There is no real motive to analyze, so you see its position in space, the light it casts and you relate bodily to its size. You glance at it from afar to investigate it closer, as the object becomes larger than you, when you find it up close. It’s a spontaneous shape, meant to be seen, meant to relate to, not as such to be understood.

In “On Contemporary Art” César Aira suggests that the “possible beginning of literature - an origin myth of any rate - could be the first poem or the first story as a mythical description or interpretation of a drawing or a statue.7 Describing how the images depicting hunting scenes on cave walls could have been used as props, tools of communication, for telling the stories of the feats of man versus bisons. 

“The mediation of images imposes a distance, and that distance opens up a space in which words can resonate and multiply their expression beyond what is utilitarian.”8

Merging the idea of the image being a prop for communication, with Kelly’s shaped canvases might at first seem contrary, but if we consider Kelly’s discourse and him being aware of the “primary” usage of painting - canvas - image, and harnesses that history within his reduction of canvas from both motive and conventional form, then the queer shapes starts oozing and  communicating that subverted message, which they embody completely.

Aira continues in his essay to define contemporary art. To sum up the text, he says the that naming of “Contemporary Art” came through in the 1970’s after a decade of artistic movements having been busy with naming and manifesting themselves through “what the future of art would/ should be” – giving the then new-artistic styles both rules and a set of values - thus devaluing themselves, closing themselves off to new interpretations. 

In the text, he both distinguishes art from craft, and from having been “done” to “not-done”. The latter imposes history as a basis for contemporary art-making, What’s done is like a plinth for the not-done to rest upon. “Because the work is done, everything that refers to it will belong to some form of the past, to what is certain and shut.9 On the Contrary -

To incorporate the not-done into the done is the task that some artists seem to have taken on, from the very moment when the saga of modernism declared itself over. What is done - existing books, paintings, sculpture, videos, et cetera - due to the fact of having been done, are products, and as such are objects in the marketplace. And the bad part of this is that in order to function in the market, they must convey already established and conformed values, thereby betraying the ultimate mission of art, which is to create new values and place them in circulation.10 

Because we have gone through art history and a decade of naming, the value or “function of art” has changed and transitioned into the plane of contemporary art. This is where it makes sense to return to Aira’s distinguishing between art and craft. In the text Aira says the “concept of ‘art’ arose in the eighteenth century11 as changes within society and technology split up the modi of art. Work being made to be beautiful, being “done-well” can from here-on be defined within the category of craft.

“It’s not necessary to do art well - and making an effort to do so is a lamentable waste of time (...) If it is art, or for it to be art, it should create new values; it doesn’t need to be good, on the contrary: if it can be called good that means it’s obeying already fixed parameters of quality, and so can be placed (...) in the category of craft.”12

 Contemporary Art (CA) became a perfect not-descriptive name for what art becomes, without being craft, and releasing itself from history - CA turns time into a space, an even plane, where the done - read: history - is the base it rests upon. The future becomes irrelevant, as trying to name itself within a future will have to come with definition and adding value. Instead CA becomes an on-going “now” “a smooth and flat realization of the present.13


Returning to the image as a prop - a gesture within the space, that might allude to a trail of thought. In “Inside the White Cube” O’Doherty discusses the concept of gesture within the context of the gallery space. Through works such as Duchamp’s “1200 Coal Bags” (1938) he examines  the turn of exhibition design, from Salon hanging to White Cube Aesthetics. How the stark white walls influence our perception and interpretation of the artworks within the space, adds an emphasis on cleanliness and “neutrality of space”. CA has created an arena that both enhances and constrains the meaning of the works that are displayed within it.

“Gesture” is a way O’Doherty uses to describe how an artist would engage the physical space within their discourse, through statements, interventions that may disrupt or challenge the traditional conventions of art presentation. Gestures can be placing things off center, altering signs or spatial relationships to draw attention to the constructed nature of an exhibition space and further provoke critical reflection onto the institutional frameworks that give the power to shape the reception of art.

Underscoring a complex interplay of the physical environment - the site - and the meaning of the artworks displayed within it - the content - “gesture” is a way of highlighting the ways - the verbs through which - an artist engages within and try to subvert the conventions of the gallery space. In the text O’Doherty writes:

 “The formal content of a gesture lies in its aptness, economy and grace. It dispatches the bull of history with a single thrust. Yet it needs that bull, for it shifts perspective suddenly on a body of assumptions and ideas (…) The ceiling/floor gesture14 might now be repeatable as a ‘project’. A gesture might be a ‘young’ project; but it is more argumentative and epigrammatic, and it speculates riskily on the future. It calls attention to untested assumptions, overlooked content flaws in historical logic. Projects –short-term art made for specific sites and occasions – raise the issue of how the impermanent survives, if it does.”15 

Kelly did it through creating non-square-other-shaped canvases. Manzoni created a plinth that he turned upside down in “Socle Du Monde” (1961) and Abramovic altered our relation to the artist and the work, through redevising the autonomy over what should happen with the art in relation to the spectators - the “art” both implemented within her as the body of the artist, and the situation the event undertook.


Through Aira we can also define the notion of a gesture, within the “whatever-formula”. According to Aira we must set the landscape of CA in relation to Duchamp and the “Fountain”(1917) “After Duchamp’s urinal, almost any work of Contemporary Art removed from its context, its history, the explanation surrounding it, lends itself to sardonic description.16 Through Duchamp, a work of art (WOA) becomes a prop with a discourse in the right setting, context:


The “whatever-formula” is then, that the artist can turn to whatever to reach their means. They are allowed to do everything/anything, following the premise that it’s done with the intention to create new value, avoiding the obstacles of being “done-well.” Given of course that its shown in a given designated context of art ie. the gallery.


Defining a work as a prop or gesture, makes it lighter – it goes against the wanting of art as being something serious. As the tax-payers give artists the money to survive, “Art must be Beautiful”, Art must be serious, - something worthwhile, preferably that can be sold and accumulate worth. 

It’s Duchamp’s fault.17 may be the criticism of contemporary art, and the explanation to why artists won't deliver “substantial” “beautiful” work, as they are supposed to, within the bourgeois romantic idea of an artist’s work.

To think that one idea, can shape the next decade of work within a field. However the idea of everything already having been done by Duchamp leaves the landscape open for the rest of us. Acknowledging that as done, creates a room for free maneuvering for the rest of us. In our age “there are no more Picassos.18 He is sitting in the past, leaving the field open for new motions to be spun around, for the not-done to be tested and flourish.


In my practice, understanding the space of art as a site for exercise, trying things out anew, has opened the space and given it a tenfold dimension. Nobody’s creativity ever thrived on being told exactly what to do. As such, we as a culture failed each other, through education, through an upbringing where we teach each other to fit into the mold, to become something certain, man - woman - policeman - doctor - Danish - Swedish - painter - artist - spectator. Our language, and the whole way we speak about the world has failed us. “We define something, therefore it is.” - Lie! “It has a name, it cannot be other than what that name beholds.” - Absurd. 

Language is the virus of humanity. The lie is that it has been connecting us. We speak thousands of different languages, human-made, however, the world already has a universal one. Appearances. Colors. Sounds, Smells, Shapes. Something was left to be unsaid, as it already made sense.

- Sensing!

Us within that sense. There was room for us in the calculation already. Alas, we invented language, because we wanted more. Defining grants me the power to collect and know, stating such and such, suddenly there is a pattern, a rule, a law, a culture. As herd-animals we don't thrive going against that order, that logic. So when I say A=A how can you deny it?


It’s not necessary to do art well. What transports us is the story, the intention manifested within a work, to communicate, convey an idea. Creating an abstract situation for us to maneuver within. Establishing a new logic within the exhibition space, that it is a site for experimentation - agitation - gestures - ideas. The space becomes a parallel plane in which we can abstract words from their given sense and sequence, and toy with the residing logic to re-establish a new sense of gravity. In here we are no longer weighed down by consensus of convention, by beauty or something being done-well, but through other modi such as bodily or social relation to the object, or the other visitors, or our personal association with the images.

Words are props. Abstract canvases in lines prosaically creating dimension. Sequences of images adhering, gluing symbols and sense together. The space is redecided through acting, with materials, ourselves included.

The system, or non-system, is that there always is a movement. A means of transportation to an idea, a medium conveying that idea. Bisons drawn onto the cave-walls. There are no more picassos. Everything has already been done. It’s words, spinning around, on a piece of paper, in a white room as a set, as a set idea, as an easy form hard.

by niels munk plum

// MARCH 2024 

A Selfie with "Red Curves" (1996) by Ellsworth Kelly at SFMOMA 06/02-24 16:43