The Failing Grid

Daniel C. Blight
Written to accompany the exhibition Moves.

Anonymous, Tolstoy plays chess with his son-in-law M. Sukhotin, vintage silver gelatin print, 1908

Focussing in on the chessboard’s gridded composition, a number of black and white squares are visible. They appear delimiting – acting as flattened, ordered resting places for each game piece, before and after a movement. In contrast, the shapes of the pieces’ movements are varied as they cut across the board and leave a square behind. If one could imagine a blur created as the pieces moved diagonally or in an L-shape throughout the game, a composition would emerge that is both based upon and contradicted by a grid. The grid holds, but also releases the pieces so they can advance. A grid, all in a blur: forming and formless.

Tolstoy was a writer, essayist and near to compulsive gambler, who loved chess and often cheated at it. Tolstoy had interesting beliefs: he was an austere, Christian moralist and a supporter of anarcho-pacifism whose novels Flaubert thought to be formless. A man who cheats, without violence, or form?

Consider what kind of work was being made outside the West in the first decades of the twentieth century, and how it surrounded Tolstoy in Russia at the time of the photograph, after his death in 1910 and following the revolution of 1917.

One might draw an analogy between the photograph of Tolstoy and a particular time in modernist art. Rodchenko began studying at the Kazan School of Art the same year Tolstoy died. Malevich’s, Popova’s and Rodchenko’s grids come to mind in relation to the way they developed an art that could move beyond its own two-dimensionality. Art could expand beyond its own confines, relating to architecture, politics and society. As Margarita Tupitsyn has put it, such work presented a grid that moves ‘away from the course planned for it within Western modernism, that is, to signify the autonomy of art’. (Tupitsyn, 2009) Similarly, for Rosalind Krauss the grid in constructivism symbolised a movement away from ‘modern art’s will to silence, its hostility to literature, to narrative, to discourse.’ (Krauss, 1979)

The modernist grid is visually orienting, stable and organised. It documents, as was the case with so-called “factographic” material designed in Russia by the constructivists and in Germany by the Bauhaus artists.

Darren Harvey-Regan, More or less obvious form, C-type print on archival paper, 2012

The grid later became a more liquid composition: Tupitsyn points out this in reference to the artist Andrei Molodkin’s Liquid Modernity (2009) and earlier fluorescent tube work by Dan Flavin. In uncertain times politically and socially, the grid takes on a more liquid form.

Tupitsyn goes on to mention the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, defining a certain liquid modernity as ‘a condition in which social forms (structures that limit individual choices, institutions that guard repetitions of routines, patterns of acceptable behaviour) can no longer keep their shape for long, because they decompose and melt faster than the time it takes to make them.’

As grids shift in shape, melt or decompose they offer up a space for literature, stories or, as Krauss also states, ‘myth’. Myths deal with paradox and contradiction and in occupying the breaking structure of a grid, relieve these compositions of perpendicular meeting-points of their hostility to narrative discourse.

Jonathan Murphy, Cups, Unfixed photographic emulsion, ceramic cups and net, 2013

The works in this exhibition are all examples of failing grid structures. Some are imbedded with historical, narrative reference – as is the case with Darren Harvey-Regan’s perspectivally gridded bust of Plato in More or Less Obvious Forms – and some compositions decompose more rhetorically. The latter exist in a manner Carl Andre stated with regard to his own grid works: ‘It’s not an idea, it’s a sense of something you know, a demarked place.’

The presence of Tolstoy in the photograph marks the presence of literature, of the voice of narrative in the failing grid. A series of (perhaps cheating) moves are made in the practice of art making that can be based upon or contradicted by a grid. The grid holds, but also releases composition so it can advance. A grid, all in a blur: forming and formless.

Rosalind Krauss, Grids in October, Vol.9 (Summer 1979), pp. 50–64.
Margarita Tupitsyn, The Grid as a Checkpoint of Modernity, Tate Papers, 2009.