A book cover features artwork that includes a hot dog illustration. The text reads: Routledge Research in Art History. American Artists Engage the Built Environment, 1960-1979. Susanneh Bieber.

Bieber Examines Avant-Garde Art Through Architectural Lens In New Book

A new book by Susanneh Bieber examines the avant-garde work of seven artists during “the long Sixties.”

“American Artists Engage the Built Environment, 1960-1979,” published by Routledge, features Bieber’s analysis of the work of artists Robert Grosvenor, Donald Judd, Gordon Matta-Clark, Mary Miss, Claes Oldenburg, Robert Smithson and Lawrence Weiner during that transformational era.

The associate professor in the Texas A&M School of Performance, Visualization and Fine Arts, who has a joint appointment with the School of Architecture, challenges the convention to narrate the history of art as distinct movements, independent from society around it. In traditional narratives, pop and minimal art of the early 1960s are followed by conceptual art and then by site-specific art and feminist art, she said.

Bieber aimed to reframe the history of American avant-garde art in that time through an architectural lens.

“I’m basically saying that these styles of avant-garde art do not just develop internally, one movement in reaction to the previous one, but that you can narrate that history of ’60s art as part of broader sociocultural discourses about buildings and cities,” she said.

People often think of such innovative architects as Frank Gehry or Peter Eisenmann as taking their inspiration from art, Bieber said. The book explores the opposite direction of influence, the idea that artists take inspiration from architecture and the built environment.

“I want to emphasize the reciprocity between these disciplines — art, architecture and the built environment,” Bieber said. “They enrich each other, they create lively and productive dialogues.”

In researching Judd’s minimal abstract sculptures, Bieber visited Marfa, Texas, where the artist moved in 1979 from New York. She also traveled to the Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., to study his art and the documents he left behind. Judd, who died in 1994, used materials including stainless steel and plexiglass in his pieces.

“They’re often just seen as objects that are to be appreciated through an aesthetic lens,” Bieber said. “I basically show that, if we go into the archives and look at some of his letters and writing from that period, we actually see that he was very influenced by the built environment.”

Bieber, who received a Glasscock Faculty Research Fellowship for the 2023-24 academic year to research her next book — became interested in the topic while serving as a curator at the Tate Modern gallery in London. She said she was inspired by working with contemporary artists, many of whom were interested in built spaces.

“I was interested in looking at the longer history,” Bieber said. “Where do these ideas come from, and what kind of precedents are these contemporary artists referencing? That’s when the ’60s came up as such an important period. The artists that I am discussing in my book — Donald Judd, Gordon Matta-Clark, Mary Miss — are often referenced by contemporary artists. I thought I’d look into that more closely, and that’s how the book really came about.”

Bieber said she chose artists that were well-known and associated with a specific movement. She chose Judd for minimalism, Smithson for earth art, Weiner for conceptual art and Miss for feminist art.

The use of humor by artists was among Bieber’s favorite discoveries. Though these artists were socially and politically involved, they sometimes took a lighthearted approach, she said. An example: Oldenburg’s technique of envisioning large monuments of everyday items, including a giant hot dog (featured on the book cover), a pair of scissors, and a gearstick in motion.

“He never thought that the monuments he jotted down on paper would actually be realized, so there is a kind of tongue-in-cheek approach to his art,” Bieber said. “These early proposals for monuments were quite critical and intersected closely with the architectural discourses at the time, but there is a sense of humor that also plays into his work.”

This is how artists shape society, Bieber said. The act of creation — even something as simple as drawing something on paper — gives viewers the opportunity to envision it, to think it possible, she said. In Oldenburg’s case, it turned out that he was commissioned just a few years later to realize some of his ideas as actual monuments: a clothespin, lipstick and a plug.

“Generally, I think art is often disparaged or dismissed or even seen as frivolous,” she said. “And artists like Oldenburg do have outlandish ideas. But only by thinking beyond what is ordinary and familiar are we actually able to then also envision and realize the impossible.”

Bieber will discuss the book on Nov. 14 at 4 p.m. in the Adams Presentation Room, Langford Architecture Building A, on the second floor.

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