From process to poetic the working drawings of carlos nogueira
by Bruno Marchand
It seems that this is a difficulty pertaining to our times: there is as yet only one possible choice, and this choice can bear only on two equally extreme methods: either to posit a reality which is entirely permeable to history and ideologize; or, conversely, to posit a reality which is ultimately impenetrable, irreducible, and, in this case, poetize.
Roland Barthes, Mythologies
Between 1954 and 1956, Roland Barthes, French philosopher and semiologist, wrote a monthly column in the journal Les Lettres Nouvelles, within the context of which he produced a set of texts that would later shape one of his most referenced pieces of work: Mythologies. Corresponding to that which became referred to as his journalistic period, these articles were the responses the author offered to current affairs and which allowed him to de-construct the way apparently innocuous phenomena were laden with a meaning, capable of conferring upon them a far broader and active symbolic value than that suggested by their apparent innocuousness. Thus, from wrestling to literary criticism, from soap and detergent to Charlot, from marriage to toy, from red wine to striptease, a totally heterogeneous range of themes fell under the scrutiny of Barthes who, as if disassembling an argument, revealed their hidden structures, their hollow spaces and the veiled foundations of their discursive valences and cultural effects.
More than an extraordinary collection of critical essays, Mythologiesis a compendium of symptoms all pointing to the same infirmity. Indeed, if we can take this set of constructions and epiphenomena as symptoms, with which, although in a very broad sense, the idea of mythology is associated, the infirmity, per se, is condensed in the terse outpouring described in the excerpt above: the irreparable rift of the post-industrial societies, divided between the analytical and positivist vision of the real and its sensualization and poetic restitution. As a correlate of his sculptural practice, the working drawings of Carlos Nogueira are the heirs of this rift and its productive tension. They are hybridized and ambiguous pieces, simultaneously strict and casual, intuitive and rational, but always anchored in a balance which projects them to a singularity that has characterised the entire artistic production of Carlos Nogueira over the last thirty years.
Work in process and the process as work
There were times when the working drawings of Carlos Nogueira raised serious issues as to their classification and status within the narrow scope of visual arts. In the mid 1970s, when the artist began to collect these pieces and regard them as works of art, the debate around the limits regarding what may or may not be considered a drawing – in other words, as an object competing for an artistic status within a disciplinary field bearing a history and a set of clearly identifiable methodologies and procedures – would barely have accepted, at least consensually and pacifically, proposals similar to those displayed in this exhibition, on both conceptual and morphological levels. However, to say that the debates would reluctantly have accepted these proposals does not mean that they excluded them at the outset. Such would not have been possible, particularly since in the mid 1970s the grounding of the double movement which came to determine that neither the identity of a drawing is dependent on compliance with methodological or disciplinary prescriptions, nor is its status as a piece of work conditioned by the eventual suitability of the displayed content or by its apparent state of progress, was already under way.
In 1966, a very discreet exhibition, now regarded as historical, held in the School of Visual Arts in New York, contributed most significantly to the above mentioned situation. Entitled “Working Drawings and Other Visible Things on Paper Not Necessarily Meant to Be Viewed as Art”, this exhibition was the response Mel Bochner, artist and professor at the time in the History of Art department, offered to the challenge presented to him by the Board to organize the traditional Christmas exhibition. Profoundly attached to the experiences of a generation associated with the so-called Minimal Art, Bochner invited a wide range of artists such as Carl Andre, Jo Baer, Dan Flavin, Dan Graham, Eva Hesse, Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt and Robert Smithson to release some «working drawings and other visible things on paper not necessarily meant to be viewed as art»(1).
Although the lack of any significant funding was an important detail in the nature of the invitation, Mel Bochner had far deeper reasons for launching such a particular and openly ambitious challenge against the artistic and exhibitory conventions in vogue in the late 60s. Within a cultural framework that was highly dominated by the idea of process – whether through the recurrence of repetition and seriality in the minimalistic proposals, or the emphasis placed on the action of the artist and the behaviour of the materials in the post-minimal works – slowly but surely, a clear awareness emerged as to the importance of the developmental stages preceding and leading to the final presentation of artistic objects. As an alternative to the vertiginous drop to the material and technical fundamentals of the different artistic disciplines proclaimed by idealistic modernism, a considerable fringe of working artists at the time showed interest in triggering a drop to the fundamentals of the actual artistic practice, in de-constructing their operative structures, in revealing that inaugural impulse which took on the term of concept, and around which the last of the modern phenomena became crystallised.
A year before the publication of the seminal text by Sol LeWitt, «Paragraphs on Conceptual Art», Bochner’s exhibition was already striving to prove that each and every stage leading to the final materialisation of a piece of work – whether «scribbles, sketches, drawings, failed works, models, studies, thoughts, conversations – are of interest. Those that show the thought process of the artist are sometimes more interesting than the final product»(2). Shielded by the prospective status of the SVA gallery, Bochner, throughout the month of December, presented a set of works showing deployment maps, construction grids, engineering plans, invoices, commission notes, sketches, studies, blueprints, lists, texts, charts and diagrams(3). As an atlas of what the contemporary drawing also came to be accepted as, these works not only spread the notion of drawing to fields which, up to then had been unsuspected, but also shared three terms that came to be determinant in the substitution of the idea of working drawing as an instance signalling work in process for the notion of working drawing as something pledging the actual process as a piece of work, namely (1) a projective status, (2) a transitive condition and (3) an administrative aesthetics.
1. Projective status
The working drawings of Carlos Nogueira not only share these terms but also complexify their effects. As we will see further ahead, what separates the drawings of Carlos Nogueira from those presented by Mel Bochner are thirty years of subversive energy fading among the rifts of an avant-garde already excessively institutionalised and conscious of itself, and a persistent search on the part of the Portuguese artist for the foundation of a subjective space within the context of an absolutely methodical and analytical practice.
In truth, beyond these thirty years, the idea of a working drawing as a piece of art and an autonomous object was, as Robert Morris recalled in his «Anti-Form», a fabrication of the high renaissance(4). At that time, sketches emerged as intermediate instances, as subsidiary objects, as entities that committed to something that bore, both symbolically and materially, an undeniable superiority: the painting. The preparatory drawing, fruit, to a certain extent, of the ascending social position of the artist and appreciation of his work on a commercial level, conquered a peculiar space in the taxonomic scale of artistic objects; while, on the one hand, it enabled an assessment of the true geniality of the artist moulded on the unwavering quality of the outline, in its ability for synthesis or compounded precision, on the other its vague and undetermined appearance transformed it into a powerful vortex for the imagination of the spectator(5). Naturally, the set of parameters imposed on the Renaissance drawings differs greatly from those we apply to contemporary drawings, however, operating as a unit which has remained untouchable throughout all these centuries, the suggestive capacity has remained as an inalienable factor in our current experience when faced with working drawings. Far from the direct precedence and mimetic relation maintained between the Renaissance sketch and painting, the drawings of Carlos Nogueira call upon a far broader set of productive strategies to ensure another level of autonomy and to establish fertile ground for the projective reaction.
Taking some of the 1970s projects as a starting point, it is clear how they depend essentially on words and diagrams to establish and bring forth a territory of artistic action. Much more than performances, works such as 99 pombas de brincar para outros tantos usadores(99 wooden toy pigeons for an equal number of users) (1973), conjunto de mesa e pintura a condizer e outros fragmentos de um discurso sobre o comum e o quotidiano (ou a primeira fruta com as primeiras chuvas) [matching table and painting and other fragments of a discourse on the common and quotidian . (or the first fruit with the first rains)] (1975-1981) or a Camões e a ti (to Camões and you) (1980) are specific events(6) which foresee an interaction with the public and whose initial coordinates are established through visual and textual descriptions. Although marked by the fluidity and chaotic freedom of an urgency put into action, these drawings still convey a remarkable composure, organising their elements within a graphic mould (sometimes a simple horizontal line to define different areas of action and commentary) which not only distributes them over the page, but also attributes them a place in the hierarchy and performative mechanics to which the project refers. However, as the number of produced drawings increases so does their complexity and, by the same token, the higher the number of elements per drawing, the lower its communicative ability and efficacy of its descriptive function.
By and large, the above mentioned phenomenon has strong underlying reasons. The first, and, perhaps, most immediately identifiable, is related to the fact that we encounter these drawings structured around a mode of signification that is uncommon for objects of this kind. Contrary to what would be expected, these drawings are far more anchored to symbolic modes of signification (words, diagrams, axonometries) than to iconographic ones. This means that beyond the play of similarity recognition and posterior projection, they request of the spectator an attention to interpretation and decoding(7). Indeed, an approximation of this nature transfers to the spectator the onus of concatenating disparate information and its translation into a piece of work to be staged in that exclusive field of fertile creative freedom we call imagination. Although anchored to the textual premises and graphic traces that Carlos Nogueira offers, the experience triggered by these working drawings reaps its glow and energy precisely from what remains inexplicit, vague, indeterminate, suggested, and which, in its generalized imprecision, authorizes the speculative and projective action of the spectator, without jeopardizing the artistic function.
2. Transitive condition
«Live in your head» – subtitle of another renowned exhibition, this time curated by Harald Szeemann at Kunsthalle Bern in 1969(8) – could be the epithet for the phenomenon triggered by these drawings. Instigated by the erasures, caesurae and corrections, as also the visual indications and addenda provided by the artist, the projective action set in motion before these drawings implies a critical involvement which oscillates between what becomes expressed and what is insinuated in the project. If, as we have seen, it is through suggestion that the imaginative process in which we are enmeshed unfolds, it is neither possible, however, nor desirable to relegate the transitive quality of most of the data provided by the artist to the background. Furthermore, it is precisely by means of acknowledging this quality and the involvement of the spectator in the dynamics stemming thereof, that the sensation of process, so to speak, is installed and becomes productive.
As far as the afore mentioned transitive condition is concerned, it is possible to distinguish two rather different modalities in the set of working drawings presented in this exhibition. The first, and perhaps the most obvious, gains substance in the visual marks that indicate the artist’s thinking process. Achieving greater expression in works such as estudos para beyond the very edge of the earth (studies for beyond the very edge of the earth) (1997-1998), estudo para a noite e branco (study for in night and white) (1997-2000) or estudos para desenhos de construção com casa . e céu (studies for construction drawings with house . and sky) (2006), this body of visual marks is composed essentially of words, numbers, diagrams and signs whose organisation enables one not only to assume the intentions of the artist, but also the hesitations, mistakes and alterations he carried out throughout the process. There is a clear feeling of temporality and duration in the drawings of Carlos Nogueira. His involvement in the process of conception leaves a trace which, although not susceptible to being organised by the spectator in a linear succession – with a perfectly identifiable beginning, middle and end – still testifies the immersion of the artist in the creative challenge. Likewise, the spectator’s encounter with this trace will produce a no less immersive, stimulating and scathing experience, as if the work in question could function as a mediating surface of the specular relationship between the behaviour of the artist and that of the beholder.
To a certain degree, what is most surprising about this whole situation is the fact that it is processed primarily on a morphological level. This means that our acknowledgement of the immersion of Carlos Nogueira in the creative moment does away with all levels of information other than the purely visual; the entire apparatus functions on a surface level which is sufficient for the spectator to be situated before that which is beheld in a regime of absolute generality. It is precisely when we are available to decode and find the specificity of some of this information – particularly the textual – that the second modality of the inclusion of the transitive in these working drawings is unveiled: the way such information refers to the transformation states of the shapes and materials listed in the different projects.
Beyond the unequivocal allusion to the transitive mode contained in the line by Camões “All the world is made of change” – which Carlos Nogueira integrated in the project a Camões e a ti (1980) – works such as se eu pudesse dava-te um piano . ação por correio (if i could, i would give you a piano . mail action) (1980), as portas do rio te estão abertas(the doors of the river are open to you) (1995-1996), a noite e branco (in night and white) (1997-2000), a ver (to see) (1998-2002) or desenhos de construção com casa . e céu (construction drawings with house . and sky) (2006) implied the production of drawings in which inscriptions may be read indicating material relationships (“white on white”, “lime+texts”), performative states (“push each other”, “be still”) temporal markings (“slow”) or direct actions (“message tied to one of the threads”, “construct a space inside and another on the other side”, “use common industrial production materials and transform them, giving them other meanings” or all the instructions present in paisagem(s) com vento [landscape(s) with wind (1983), the purpose of which is to construct a paper windmill]. Composed of concise language of an almost preceptive nature, a considerable part of these indications situate the spectator within the broad spectrum of exchanges among materials, shapes and gestures, stressing the metamorphoses and transfigurations they mutually impose upon each other. It is, however, worth noting, that these marked exchanges do not simply account for what occurs on an external level and are susceptible to an extrapolation which frequently reveals a far more subtle set of internal transformations, of relational strategies, and inter-subjective ambitions.
3. Administrative aesthetics
It is interesting to note that as the subjective slant towards the textual inscriptions encountered in the drawings of Carlos Nogueira increases, there is a reduction in the use of support materials that immediately establish a connection with practices linked to communication and accuracy. However, in works such as para um levantamento da paisagem . o rio (for a mapping of landscape . the river) (1975), paisagens de mandar (landscapes to be sent) (1979), gosto muito de ti . ação de rua (i like you so much . street action) (1980), desenho de casa [drawing of house] (1985), uma floresta . como um rio (a forest . like a river) (1993), construção com chão branco a partir de dentro (construction with white floor from within) (1997-1998) or a ver . do outro lado (to see . from the other side) (1998), the artist fell back on a set of very specific support instruments for the creation of the respective working drawings. Among these, we find lined or squared sheets, reading sheets, greaseproof paper, transparencies, tapes, correction ink, pens, pencil cases, typewriters, rulers, set-squares, compasses and staples – an entire panoply of resources we are used to associating more with the production, management and presentation of data than with the set of material relations we traditionally identify with works of art.
In fact, at first glance, there seems to be a deliberate block in these drawings against all the strategies which could lead to aesthetic pleasure, in the traditional sense of the term. This effect is heightened by the fact that these drawings are clearly dominated by text and by an apparent graphic carelessness which seems intent on making clear that the artist is far more set on showing us the methods rather than the actual results. Placing emphasis on the methods over the results means giving priority to an entire tradition of artistic experience that is decidedly detached from the visuality strategies more associated with questions of taste. As noted by Benjamin Buchloh in an important text on the grounding of conceptual practices(9), the artistic movements, intent on broadening the domain of aesthetic judgement to fields where visuality became absolutely inoperative (as with the conceptual practices), imported two distinct, but complementary conditions to the artistic sphere: legalistic language and administrative aesthetics (10).
Although the drawings of Carlos Nogueira do not present any sign of the above mentioned legalistic language, the particular attention paid by the artist to how these objects are presented to the world is undeniable. Like a phantom image that permeates this body of work and, beyond all element of doubt, sets out to pledge its status as an artistic object, Carlos Nogueira inserted a set of marks on the backs of these pages – namely stamps, signatures and fingerprints – which, despite not being as radical as the actions of artists such as Marcel Duchamp, Piero Manzoni or Robert Rauschenberg, still strive towards the same proclamatory effect(11). However, although no perfect correspondence between the legalistic ambitions of the protoconceptual authors and the pragmatic needs of Carlos Nogueira may be encountered here, the same can not be said as far as administrative aesthetics is concerned. We need only consider the use artists such as Sol LeWitt, Michael Asher, Mel Bochner, Gordon Matta-Clark, Robert Smithson, Hanne Darboven, Eva Hesse, Nancy Holt or Lee Lozano made of the above mentioned instruments and support materials to establish a territory for action which, on eroding the assumed traditional aesthetics did not, nonetheless, prevent its replacement by another regime; the latter being characterised by accuracy, contention, candour, coding and a protocolar stance which highlighted the increasing non-objectual slant of the artistic work and, as summed up by Jan Verwoert, glorified the aesthetics of the bureaucratic(12).
On beholding the working drawings of Carlos Nogueira, we know we are looking at documents. Furthermore, we know we are looking at documents devoid of material immanence. What this means, in fact, is that what we see is the work embodied in the unveiling of its own procedures and mechanics, but not exactly in its product. The product itself – sculptures, installations, performances, happenings – is something to which we are deferred. Naturally, the intangibility of this state of affairs is regulated by a set of experiences which, as referred to above, consist essentially of reading and decoding skills – whether applied to the strict field of linguistic competence or the broader field of visual competence. However, it is quite clear that the decisions which, a posteriori, transformed these documents into the drawings we now encounter on the gallery walls, do not exactly facilitate their reception as entities to be read or decoded. On the contrary, while omitting the horizontality we identify with the work plane, in favour of a verticality we associate with the pictorial plane, these drawings, in fact, trigger a regime of perception which decrees an ambiguous status upon them, hovering between pure information organisers and unique graphic compositions.
From process to poetic
It may be said, therefore, that the working drawings of Carlos Nogueira oscillate between two absolutely distinct poles: the clear and structured thought process map which was poured onto a sheet of paper and the sophisticated composition grounded on a set of visual elements that divert to the afore-mentioned visual universe of the bureaucratic. To a certain extent, striking up a relationship with one of these poles means to annul, or, at least, to considerably reduce the significant ability of the other. In any case, whatever the option may be, while the wavering balance is maintained between both these extremes, the experience of the spectator is limited to a territory that is broadly dominated by signs we associate with logic, rationality and objectivity. The phatic and austere inclination of this position has enabled Carlos Nogueira, along with the authors of the post-minimal and conceptual generations, to affirm their practice beyond all formalistic determinisms and material constraints in which the artistic discourses of the 1960s and 1970s were still enmeshed. Their radicality was simultaneously a vote of confidence in the avant-garde expressions and their striving for cultural de-stabilisation as well as a censure motion against the actual idea of visuality as the initial propellent of artistic experience.
Naturally, adopting this kind of position led to a remarkable wearing away of the presence (even in an indexical sense) of the artist’s singularity and subjectivity in the work of art. Carlos Nogueira was, for sure, aware of this erosion. Moreover, Carlos Nogueira seems to have always been intent on building bridges between the inheritance of this sense of order, precision and critical adaptability and the inexorable inter-subjective impulse that has marked his artistic stance. Perhaps as a result of this, it is possible to encounter in these working drawings a growing presence of diary and/or poetic texts, inscriptions referring to episodes in the life of the artist (the details of which have been carefully erased), and even verses and odd sentences, punctuated by interjections which, gradually, suggest a “you”, easily taken to be the spectator
As a direct counterpoint to the enclosed rigidity of the idea of working drawing, these texts serve to reinforce the intuitive, random and intrinsically emotional nature that the work of Carlos Nogueira never fails to incorporate. It is through them that the artist works his most discreet artistic facet, but also the one that most clearly denounces the tension pervading his entire practice. Indeed, by contradicting the terms of the above-mentioned excerpt by Barthes, it seems that Carlos Nogueira wished not to opt between the analytical and positivist vision of the real and its sensualisation and poetic restitution. His trajectory has, rather, been one of progressive sophistication of the deepened tension between these two positions, as one who explores the erotic, sometimes subtle, sometimes monumental, in the multiform body of all things.
(1) For details on this extraordinary exhibition, see Mel Bochner (et al.), WDAOVTOPNNMTBVAA, Geneva, Département des affaires culturelles; Colone, Walther Konig; Paris, Picaron Editions, 1997.
(2) Sol LeWitt, “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art”, in Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, Art in Theory 1900-1990: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, Oxford, Blackwell Publishers, 2001, p. 836.
(3) More specifically, the exhibition was composed of four dossiers displayed on plinths, containing photocopied drawings of twenty-eight participants ranging from artists to engineers, unidentified authors to the Xerox Company itself. Although beyond the scope of this text, it is worth noting that the inclusion of objects from areas outside the artistic field and the multiple gestures of detachment in relation to original pieces (namely by means of photocopy and enlargement and reduction processes) were another two crucial points in the exhibitory strategy of Bochner.
(4) See Robert Morris, “Antiform”, Art Forum, vol. 6, n.º 8, April 1968, pp. 33-35.
(5) See Deanna Petherbridge, The Primacy of Drawing: Histories and Theories of Practice, New Haven; London, Yale University Press, 2010, pp. 26-49.
(6) These works are not classified here as performances. Given their community inclination and the relational openness Carlos Nogueira has always printed on projects of this nature, the idea of event (as a happening) seems more appropriate.
(7) Here we follow the categories established by Charles S. Peirce in his semiotic theory, whereby the choice of the word “decode” refers exclusively to the idea that, for some strategies used by Carlos Nogueira – the use of the double orthogonal projection, for example – the spectator must be able to master a certain code in order to access meaning. See Charles Sanders Peirce, Semiótica, São Paulo, Perspectiva, 1977.
(8) More specifically, “When Attitudes Become Form”, one of the first exhibitions to introduce to the European public a broad set of artists working on the boundary between the so-called post-minimal and conceptual practices.
(9) Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, “Conceptual Art 1962-1969: From the Aesthetic of Administration to the Critique of Institutions”, in October, vol. 55 (Winter, 1990), pp. 105-143.
(10) In the words of the author: “legalistic language and an administrative style of the material presentation of the artistic object…”, Op. Cit., p. 118.
(11) We are referring to works such as l.h.o.o.q. for which Duchamp requested a stamp of authenticity from a notary, of the certificates issued by Manzoni declaring persons and parties as works of art, or of the telegram portrait by Robert Rauschenberg of the gallerist Iris Clert.
(12) See Jan Verwoert, “Why Are Conceptual Artists Painting Again? Because They Think It’s a Good Idea”, published in 2005, accessed on May 24th 2012, available at
Translated by Tania Gregg