History and Heritage: His Story and Her Restaging. On Sandra Peters’s Sculpture

Gregor Stemmrich

Modernism has been understood as a “grand narrative,” if only because that was the neat account its theorists fashioned of it; this account proved influential. It lent credence to efforts to unearth all—and there had been a whole lot—that had been excluded or marginalized by this narrative (paradigmatically: Clement Greenberg’s theoretical scheme) and hold it up, with much righteous indignation, as evidence against the belief in modernism’s superiority. these efforts were important and necessary, but their proponents invariably appealed to the idea of the grand récit they sought to break with—hardly the demise of grand narratives on which the discourse of postmodernism was purportedly predicated. Postmodernity was supposed to be historically new, a fresh departure after the theory of modernism had lost all credibility (a disillusionment in which those efforts played no small part). Yet this account implies, first, that the end of modernism has its place in a linear historical development—which is to say, it evidently leaves one premise of the theory of modernism uncontested—and, second, that said end was brought about in an engagement with the premises of the theory of modernism, an engagement that then looks suspiciously like a bid to perpetuate said premises. the obvious example of an artistic practice that fits this model is American Minimalism, which has been described as essentially modernist, antimodernist, and postmodernist. The fact that all available major categories of historical classification arguably applied to an art that in itself hardly conveyed an impression of intellectual indecision should give us pause. I am not trying to pinpoint the realization of an ideal in the past, if only because subsequent tendencies in art have proffered a well-grounded critique of Minimalism, although that critique remained rooted in Minimalism’s own premises. Still, it is important to note that the two main ways of critiquing modernism—critics have confronted the theory of modernism with forms of artistic practice it had ignored in order to sketch a different theory and historiography, while artists have sought a critical engagement with the premises of the theory of modernism in their practice—are by no means mutually exclusive. Minimalism itself in fact demonstrated their compatibility with its recourse (again, no idealization of the past implied) to Russian Constructivism, for which Greenberg’s theory had had no room. The very uncertainty over whether modernism has actually ended—an uncertainty reflected, on the level of theory, in so many polarizing strategies to reject phenomena the critic declares to be utterly obsolete—can be fruitful; fruitful for historical recollection, which does not coincide with historical knowledge but is operative in the contemplation of art. It is an uncertainty of the kind that Freud, trying to sketch a theory of memory in an 1895 manuscript, expressed in the observation that “in what pathbreaking consists remains undetermined.” Derrida’s essay on “Freud and the Scene of Writing” is prefaced with this observation; it goes on to show that in considering pathbreaking, the breaking and the brokenness of the path must be thought of as inextricable from each other.11Jacques Derrida, “Freud and the Scene of Writing,” in Writing and Difference (1967), trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), 196–231.

We would do well to keep this in mind even if, with regard to art, we assume that “pathbreaking” in both senses primarily occurs in the historical rather than the psychological dimension, or that both determinant dimensions cannot be neatly separated. There were different approaches to a theory of modernism—broadly speaking: Greenberg’s conservative interpretation, intent on purifying the phenomenon, and the avant-gardist one, following a sociocultural and political perspective—but they all foregrounded the idea of straightforward pathbreaking rather than the path’s inevitable brokenness. One reflection of this pivotal idea was the journalistic discourse of postmodernist arbitrariness: the impression was hard to avoid that the history of art had reached a point where no new paths were being broken, that any subsequent innovation would have to grapple with the brokenness of the path, its impassability (which might very well have a positive side but immediately prompted efforts to stay true to an original radicalism). The two determinations were conceived as antithetical, when the challenge was to think them as inextricable from each other or inquire into the possibility of their coincidence. Artistic practice is in fact better suited to that challenge than is theory. What must come into view are preferences in the choice of itinerary: not a preference for pathbreaking that wishes to deny the resulting brokenness of the path (say, in keeping with the modernist paradigm of the pure straight line extending into infinity), but one for taking the brokenness into account in the pathbreaking itself. That is how an artistic practice can produce examples of the ideational integration of pathbreaking and the path’s brokenness and can itself be the object of such a preference. An artwork made due to it acknowledges a past and relates to a future, but in the form of an eidetic presence. In the present realization of this structure, presentation and representation, aesthetic experience and recollection, are thoroughly interdependent. Their integration in art does not require a preferential preoccupation with fashionable, journalistic, theoretical discourses or “hot” issues. On the contrary: it may turn out to be a cold issue in art, an issue that fully comes into view only after other, ostensibly more important conceptual options have been tried.

I have resorted to one discourse, Derrida’s critical reading of Freud, to shed light on another, the contentions over modernist and postmodernist art; my purpose, however, was to create a focus of attention for considering an art that has no stake in those contentions and is not itself a discourse: the sculpture of Sandra Peters. Yet to adopt this focus we must understand Derrida’s critique of Freud, to in turn suggest a critique of Derrida. Derrida criticizes Freud’s theoretical model for satisfying itself with the observation that the impressions we receive induce the carving of a pathway that allows for them to be retained, a model that cannot explain any preferences in the choice of itinerary. Yet the psychological quality of memory cannot be understood without such preferences, which must be assumed to reside within “ what pathbreaking consists” in (my emphasis), a question that Freud left “undetermined.” Derrida argues that they are the traces left by the carving of a pathway that reveal it to be broken. Against Freud, then, he prefers a thinking of the coincidence of pathbreaking and the brokenness of the path. the question remains unanswered, however, of how we should conceive of a preference in the choice of itinerary. As long as we remain wedded to the simple notion that impressions received have effects, such a preference is inexplicable, since any preference presupposes an activity of choosing that, far from proceeding blindly, makes sense within a horizon of possibilities. By implication, different acts of preference may tie in with one another, or in other words, a preference may exist for such compatibility, which may be actively fashioned. The objective is not to hold on to an originary impression but to permit and effect displacements that nonetheless contain references to elements that were previously preferred (or rejected), in different ways and in different circumstances, by others.

The attempt to explain a preference in the choice of itinerary faces the challenge of thinking the union of psychological and historical conditions, and of thinking it, moreover, not as a matter of historical action and psychological reaction but as an activity that both presupposes and achieves the integration of these conditions. Hence the possible preference for an artistic activity that operates in the forecourt of memory by creating impressions that did not exist before. Such creation and such impressions may manifest a conceptual and operational union of pathbreaking and the inevitable brokenness of the path that does not reduce the latter to traces of the former, instead acknowledging its positive valence as a proposal to consider psychological and historical conditions in interrelation.

We are often guided by the assumption that to understand a creative endeavor one must trace its development. This belief presupposes that the idea of (development as) pathbreaking continues to be valid. It may turn out that an oeuvre’s evolution was far from linear, but the paradigm of linearity supposedly holds and in fact makes the observation of deviations from it possible. The preference for the paradigm remains unquestioned. On further reflection, we recognize that the point cannot be either to observe linear development or to presuppose the paradigmatic status of linearity, and only then can we think, and practice, preferences in the choice of itinerary in a different fashion. The notion of an abstract consistency is then only one among several determinative aspects we must grapple with.

My purpose in the following will not be to retrace the evolution of Sandra Peters’s art. Rather, I want to sketch some reflections on several of her works—reflections that are both specific and general and that illuminate the significance of her creative project in a historical perspective as well as in the contemporary context. Her sculpture Interface No. 1 (2012) will immediately remind most viewers of Sol LeWitt’s Open Modular Cubes, which he started creating in the mid-1960s, although the differences are no less conspicuous. Of course, numerous artists have built on the Minimalist legacy while also marking ways in which their art differs from it, but most of them have done so in order to tie their work in with advanced discourses (or what they believe to be such discourses) in order to stake out a position on history’s cutting edge. Everything else, they suggest, must be regarded as mere perseveration. Peters’s Interface No. 1, by contrast, signals an appreciation of LeWitt’s art that has nothing to do with self-conscious awe—her appreciation of the artist who declared that “what the work of art looks like isn’t too important”22Sol LeWitt, “Paragraphs on Conceptual art,” Artforum 5, no. 10 (June 1967); repr. in Sol LeWitt, ed. Alicia Legg, exh. cat. (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1978), 166. in order to highlight the conceptual aspiration of his art. Yet the fact that Peters’s sculpture, with its cubic shape, grid structures, and white paint, looks at first glance “like a LeWitt” should not be taken to indicate that her objective is to reduce LeWitt’s art to its look, nor that she means to emulate its conceptual aspirations. The defining characteristic of LeWitt’s art is generally acknowledged to be the abstract consistency with which logical operations are executed (“the idea becomes a machine that makes the art”33Ibid.), and critics and art historians have described this characteristic in a historical perspective as a perfectly logical step in a consistent evolutionary series. Peters’s Interface No. 1 roundly rejects this notion; her work is determined by abstract consistency: she uses a bilateral-diagonal grid structure that, while derived from the basic form of the square, disrupts its symmetry. A back-of-the-envelope calculation for the eight orientations in which the grid structure can be applied to each of the cube’s six faces yields 86 = 262,144 possible cubes, of which only one has been realized as a sculpture. The realized sculpture incorporates the artist’s awareness and experience of the inevitability of arbitrary decision-making. Peters’s work indicates the space of possibilities rather than exhausting it, making evident that what LeWitt successfully avoided—and argued art needed to avoid—nonetheless underlies her work’s own possibility. In Interface No. 1, LeWitt shares that facilitating role with Rudolph Schindler, who designed the bilateral-diagonal structure of the cube’s faces for the wooden ceiling construction of the How House (1925), where it serves to fuse the architectural impression of self-contained structure with the appearance of continuity between interior and exterior space. Just as Peters does not revive LeWitt’s Conceptual art, she does not try to bring Schindler’s architecture up to date—as though that were even possible. Rather, she establishes a rapport between both artistic endeavors that neither, taken by itself, appears to suggest. The reiteration of form draws attention to the form of reiteration: sculpture as an interface between Schindler and LeWitt, between visual experience and vision sustained by memory, between the sculpture’s cubic interior, which shuts out the beholder’s body, and the surrounding architectonic framework in which it is implemented and which the beholder can enter.

The rapport Peters establishes between sculpture and architecture is both chiastic and superimpositional. She harnesses elements, concepts, materials, and procedures originally developed with a view to functional questions of architecture for a sculptural objective, in order to let the sculpture resonate in the architecture. The sculpture is not part of the architecture, since no architectonic function has been assigned to it, and in that regard it comes into consideration as an alien structure. Yet due to its affinity with architectonic elements, concepts, materials, and procedures, it conveys an experience of familiarity with architecture. This experience is immediate, since the sculpture’s presentation is designed to interact with the surrounding architecture. Still, it is not site-specific. It retains an inherent otherness.

In Borrowed Window Piece I (2011), Peters translated the window front of the Lechner House in Studio City, California, which Schindler designed in 1948, into a freestanding sculpture; an operation made possible by the fact that the original window front consists of three sections set at various angles to one another. To allow the sculpture to stand without additional supports, however, the artist had to deviate from the proportions of the original. The overall configuration of windowpanes and frames remains the same as they undergo a topological alteration in which they cast off the architectonic bond to a house. Schindler’s window areas both demarcate the boundary between and serve to connect interior and exterior as well as different interior spaces. Peters’s sculpture, by contrast, appears as a cut slashing through the room. Viewers can walk around the sculpture and step through it. Looking at the glass panes, they espy faint reflections of themselves as well as other viewers and the architectonic elements behind them, while also seeing, through the glass and past the open frames, the surrounding architecture and viewers on the other side. The sculpture’s presentation relates to the architecture of the exhibition space without being immediately bound up with it. In this way, it points up that architecture and sculpture operate in different terms, while indicating, through the use of a configuration “borrowed” from Schindler’s architecture, that contextual (historical-temporal, geographic-spatial, and artistic-semantic) displacement may establish a connection between them.

Borrowing is a term familiar to theorists of art and music. In music, a wide variety of styles ranging from Baroque and Romantic to jazz are said to use “borrowed chords”: instead of a chord formed from the notes of the piece’s normal key, the composer or performer prefers a chord from another key with the same tonic. Such borrowing adds color to the music. In art theory, borrowing came into currency in the eighteenth century (Joshua Reynolds was influential in this process). As distinct from imitation, borrowing meant adopting and modifying actions, gestures, and attitudes depicted in the paintings of other masters by inserting them into new contexts in ways that also shed light on the original context. In either instance, borrowing expresses appreciation both of what is borrowed and its origin. Peters departs from these conventional uses of the term in that she relocates elements not between contexts within an art—music or painting—but from the domain of architecture into that of sculpture. As in music, her borrowing presupposes a shared basis or basic disposition; echoing the art-theoretical meaning of the term, it aims for a mutually illuminating rapport.

Borrowing is also helpful here because the term is the diametrical semantic opposite of appropriation, a fact that has, indicatively enough, gone unnoticed in the ongoing wide-ranging debates over the notion of appropriation. To appropriate, one need not feel appreciation for what is “appropriated” (or “borrowed”) or its original context; in fact, appropriation presupposes the insight or assumption that others, conditioned by capitalist relations, will feel an appreciation for both, of which they can be disabused. Hence the ambivalent air of appropriation art: it is meant to convey, or at least may be read as conveying, the impression of intellectual and strategic superiority. Peters, by contrast, is unambiguous in her unconditioned appreciation for Schindler’s architecture—the fact that, as she is well aware, he was not able to realize his ideas in a social, urban, cultural practice on a larger scale does not diminish her admiration. Schindler’s architecture charted a “path,” to use Freud’s term again, that anticipated its consistent extension; Peters’s sculpture confronts it, in a specific product, with the historical experience of the brokenness of that path.

Peters realized the sculpture derived from Schindler’s Lechner House, while two other “borrowed window” pieces remain drafts awaiting realization. One refers to Schindler’s Lovell Beach House, the other to his residence known as Kings Road. Complementing these three pieces, in which the “borrowing” of a particular architectural element, its isolating re-creation in sculptural form, is thematic, three other works by Peters take what may be described as the opposite approach, by lending creative form to the engagement with Schindler’s architecture in slide projections. In Flux Balance / Rotating Wings (2010), Within : Without (2011), and Ahoy (2013), photographs of buildings designed by Schindler—each slide installation explores a different house—are arranged such that the work’s relation to the architecture evinces an intrinsically antagonistic motive dynamic, underlined, on the visual level, by Peters’s use of two slide projectors, which allows not only for superimpositions but also for each slide to be slowly faded in and out. The effect is contemplative and subliminally magical. The corresponding feature on the auditory level is the clicking noise of the projectors. The present moment is marked; by the same token, a space of recollection is opened up.

Peters’s slide-projection pieces on Schindler homes work with existing architecture whose provenance from a different historical period is unmistakable; another slide projection, Mixing Colors (2014), focuses on a phenomenon that is equally unmistakable as a product of contemporary culture: a computer-controlled nocturnal-illumination spectacle on a Ferris wheel on the Santa Monica Pier. The rapidly changing colors and chromatic patterns in the real situation are designed to titillate the optical nerve with forever-new stimuli and reduce the experience of the present to a physiological reaction. Peters’s use of individual slides and slow cross-fades between them, by contrast, creates a situation of contemplative calm and attention. Rather than chasing one another in frantic alternation, impressions are revealed to be both volatile and lasting. The superimposition of pictures generates déjà vu effects and phantasmatic echoes, evoking a vision of floating equilibrium. Instead of superseding one another in a staccato of pulses, impressions of color blend in compounds that intimate novel hues. Peters’s piece relates the physiological and psychological pathway any impression carves to the brokenness of the intended path provided by the spectacle; far from being felt as a negative, an undesirable deviation, it is experienced as an enhancement of psychological depth. The Ferris wheel’s rotation is translated and displaced into the rotation of the slide carousels, whose interaction in the superimposition of the projections visualizes the process of “trans-position” and displacement. The viewer is free to read the work’s title, Mixing Colors, as a metaphor.

Peters’s Modifikation—stetig steigende Steine (Modification—Constantly Climbing Stones, 2009) employs the interrelated motifs of rotation, situational displacement, and doubling to different effect, emphasizing the rapport between sculpture and architecture. The work was realized at the Kunstverein Ruhr in Essen, whose gallery is a former commercial space with large glass windows looking out on the surrounding urban environment. Two load-bearing square columns effectively divide the room along its long axis, making it less than perfectly suited for a presentation of freestanding sculptures by undercutting the overall effect of any correspondence between architecture and sculpture. Peters solved the problem by walling the supports in with brickwork. Camouflaging the existing columns without serving any architectonic function, they are architectonic elements that are sculptures, achieving an aesthetic integration of sculpture and the surrounding interior as well as exterior architectonic space. The effect is heightened by the existence of two additional—but round and white—steel columns near the windows and the brick-built piers of a pergola outside the gallery.

The two columnar brick structures display a helical structure, which one articulates in convex shapes, while the other features concave curvatures. Each column is based on a distinctive type of brick, shaped such that the brick courses form a continuous rapport. Historians of architecture know such brick bonds from the Islamic architecture of the Seljuq dynasty. It influenced the Tudor style, which marks the transition from Gothic to Renaissance architecture in England. One late product of the nineteenth-century Tudor revival in northern Europe, part of the larger phenomenon of historicism, is Cecilienhof Palace in Potsdam, built by Emperor Wilhelm II for Crown Prince Wilhelm and designed by Paul Schultze-Naumburg, who later became a member of the Nazi party. The foundation stone was laid in 1913, shortly before the outbreak of World War I, and the structure was completed in 1917, just a year before the war’s end led to the emperor’s abdication. The palace played a brief part in world history in 1945, when the victorious Allies convened there for the Potsdam Conference (more fully known as the Berlin Conference of the three Heads of Government of the USSR, USA, and UK), which was held from July 17 to August 2 and determined the fates of Germany, Europe, and the world after World War II. President Truman approved the deployment of the nuclear bomb against Hiroshima in a phone call he took at Cecilienhof. The building and the other palaces and gardens around Potsdam are now a UNESCO-protected World Cultural Heritage site. The palace itself and the cultural landscape in which it is embedded are popular excursion destinations; the appearance of a harmonious ensemble they present contrasts sharply with the visitor’s awareness of the world-historical catastrophes with which the palace is associated.

In keeping with Tudor convention, each of Cecilienhof Palace’s chimneys was laid in a different brickwork bond. Peters took a series of photographs of these chimneys. Her purpose was neither to comment on the site’s significance in world history nor to document the palace as a late product of architectural historicism and the ideological baggage with which it is fraught. She was interested in the brick formations as such, intricate structures that are products of traditional architectural craftsmanship. She then selected two contrasting brickwork patterns for her work at the Kunstverein Ruhr. The Ruhr district is a former coal-mining area, and smokestacks are a staple of its urban landscape. Functional until the mid-1960s, they are now mute witnesses to a past era. The chimneys at Cecilienhof Palace, by contrast, were never anything other than imposing decoration; they had nothing to do with the palace’s actual heating system, towering above its roofs as pure ornaments. Peters repurposed their brickwork formations to encase the architectural columns in the Kunstverein Ruhr’s ground-floor exhibition space, where the viewer encounters them at eye level—if they still bring chimneys to mind, it is because brick-built smokestacks are part of the local urban environment. Rather than mere decoration, the brickwork is now functional, in that it establishes a rapport between sculpture and architecture, being correlative both to the architecture of the space and to the urban surroundings, as well as camouflaging columns that are not conducive to a presentation of freestanding sculptures. Yet it is sculpturally functional primarily as an alien element, being neither autonomous sculpture in the sense of the modernist tradition nor an integral, defining feature of the architecture or the site; it can also not be regarded as site-specific (it fails the test that removing the work from its site would necessarily amount to its destruction). The presentation is site-related and highlights specific conditions of the site as a site of presentation, but without excluding other such sites and conditions (where a presentation would be site-related in its own way). The site, then, does not figure as an integral determinant of the work, which thus retains its inherent alienness, distancing itself from earlier and other imaginable contexts in which the brickwork patterns figure as integral features of a site. As an alien element, it renders such contexts, including Cecilienhof Palace, extrinsic to itself while proposing, as sculpture, a relation to its material that resists subsumption under that genre. It does not deny the derivation of the brickwork patterns from architectural craftsmanship, but it spells out the implications of the fact that neither the history of these patterns nor their reproducibility as such is tantamount to an unbroken tradition. Instead of aligning itself with a tradition, the work illustrates in itself the brokenness of what others would like to perceive as tradition.

Other artists have created brickwork sculptures before Peters: Carl Andre made pieces that interacted with interiors; Per Kirkeby designed works for exterior settings. Andre placed bricks on the floor, sometimes with a parallel second course on top, arranging them side by side in rectangular formations that emphasize their sculptural volume vis-à-vis the surrounding space. Only gravity keeps the bricks in place. Kirkeby created brick sculptures that feature walls, gateways, and window arches and apertures; they must be regarded as sculptures because they do not serve an architectonic function even as they evoke a tradition of brick architecture. Both Andre and Kirkeby worked exclusively with ordinary rectangular oblong bricks. Peters, by contrast, uses special bricks whose shapes hint at an intrinsic torque. They are laid in circular courses and bonded with mortar, though they would evidently remain in place without it. The use of mortar and the fact that her work looks vaguely like a column or chimney make it seem designed for an exterior setting, but it was conceived for presentation in an interior. It does not suggest window arches or apertures, gateways or doorways, nor does it form volumes that the viewer could experience visually as compact brick formations or their negatives. Her brickwork encloses two cylindrical cavities that are hidden from view, although one may infer their existence. With two different helical brickwork patterns, the material implementation of the work as a whole presents the appearance of a double helix. Each helix might conceivably be extended ad infinitum. The doubling, meanwhile, visualizes a dialogical principle to which the viewer may relate in a dialogical engagement of his or her own.

The principle of infinite extendibility was introduced into sculpture by Constantin Brancusi’s Endless Column, where it carries spiritual overtones. Brancusi had studied the motif as early as 1917; after several implementations in wood, he finally created a metal version that was erected in 1938 as part of a war memorial in Târgu Jiu, Romania. The sculpture conveys the impression of (the carving of) a spiritual pathway. It inspired Carl Andre to develop a Minimalist redefinition of sculpture based on its horizontal reorientation in conjunction with an emphasis on gravity. He conceived sculpture as a “cut in space,” or sometimes a “cut into space.” Peters set this strand in the history of sculpture in relation to elements of architectural history. Taken literally, Andre’s memorable phrase describes Peters’s Borrowed Window Piece I accurately enough, but what comes into view in the sculpture is the brokenness of an incision or pathway and its integration into sculpture. The sculpture stands emphatically aslant, both as a whole in relation to the surrounding architectonic space and in the deviation of the relative alignment of the components from the supposition of rectilinearity as the norm. The same may be said of the bricks she used for her work at the Kunstverein Ruhr; the sculpture could not have been realized without setting some parts of the surfaces of these bricks aslant. The circling dialogical line, the helix, mediates between horizontality and verticality, but its sculptural determinant is the conjunction of displacement and parallelism bonding the individual bricks and relating the two columns to each other, as well as sculpture to architecture.

In Pandora’s Box (2016), Peters sets selected surfaces at oblique angles relative to the cube’s rectangular construction. The cube as a basic form is arguably a paradigm both of architecture and—since Minimalism—of sculpture. One characteristic operation architects working with existing or projected three-dimensional objects employ is to unfold them. Moreover, the cube may be unfolded in eleven ways. In architectural practice, unfolding is part of the toolkit of graphic representation. Peters has applied it to three-dimensional objects or, more particularly, to objects that are three-dimensional because they are suspended in a state between unfolding and folding. So instead of one three-dimensional object, the cube, or its sculptural representation, there are eleven such three-dimensional objects; and given the fact that the oblique angling of the surfaces permits of infinitely many variations, one can imagine infinitely many such intermediate states. Moreover, the eleven objects might be arranged in countless spaces in infinitely many constellations. Although Minimalism elevated the cube, in the form of the “box,” to paradigmatic status, it virtually precluded any actual engagement with this paradigm of the sort Peters pursues. The Minimalists placed importance on the marked rectangularity of their objects as well as the rectangular placement of a work’s components relative to one another, which was part and parcel of the work’s very definition. This emphasis on right angles was supposed to focus the viewer’s attention both on the work’s autonomy and on the architectonic framework in which he or she beheld it. The constancy of the object and the variability of perception were to be experienced as separate parameters—an idea that was unusual and novel but, in its very novelty, bound up with its historical moment. Where Minimalism was preoccupied with elaborating the paradigm of the rectangular box and its implications, Peters’s sculpture scrutinizes that paradigm from a historical distance. Her engagement with it is situated on the procedural intersection between sculpture and architecture, as well as between cutting (subtractive) and modeling (additive) as sculptural practices. The word sculpture derives from a verb meaning “to carve”: the sculptor cuts into a mass of hard material to create a permanent different form. In modeling, by contrast, formless material is used in the de novo creation of definite form. Peters has integrated both modes. The eleven objects of Pandora’s Box show cut edges as well as warped surfaces that indicate modeling, evoking a finely calibrated balance between the notions of opening (unfolding) and closing (the box).

In light of the cube’s high degree of symmetry, which is reflected in the even numbers of its key parameters (six sides, eight vertices, twelve edges), it is not intuitive that there should be eleven possible ways to unfold it (mathematically speaking: eleven possible nets). Although these numbers refer to different aspects of the cube, they allow the properties of the three-dimensional body as well as its unfolding into two dimensions to be plotted along the one-dimensional number line. The latter encompasses all even as well as odd numbers, but that fact alone still does not make the existence of eleven nets any more intuitive. Instead, the decimal system, which owes its genesis and practicability to the fact that humans have ten fingers, helps us intuitively grasp the notion that something can be countable—and its existence undeniable—and yet defy intuitive apprehension. Intuition, then, is prompted by its own premises to seek assistance outside itself, a circumstance Peters hints at with the palette she chose for the elements of Pandora’s Box. Ten of them (made of powder-coated aluminum) are yellow, while one is dark gray with an admixture of silver. Unlike the contrast between black and white, which, while it may serve as a vehicle for semantic associations, rests on a rational polarity, that between yellow and silvery gray seems ambivalent. Yellow carries positive connotations—it makes us think of sunlight—but the dark-gray element and its ambiguous silver sheen, by being part of the same order as the yellow pieces, calls that positive association into question.

The title Pandora’s Box alludes to this ambivalence. In Greek myth, Pandora was the first woman, molded out of clay; as part of the retribution Zeus meted out against Prometheus for the theft of fire, he gave her a jar—“box” is likely the product of a mistranslation via Latin—with the instruction to keep it closed, come what may. After her wedding to Prometheus’s brother, Pandora opened the jar, releasing all the evils of the world. At the very bottom of the jar was hope, yet before it too escaped, she replaced the lid. The work’s title does not make it an illustration of the myth. It was not the point of departure for the work’s genesis; the artist found it as she was working on the piece. She chose it because it demarcates a domain of semantic resonance for the sculpture that unites two defining aspects. On the one hand, it indicates the possible construction of an existential metaphor; on the other, it gestures toward the fact that this work, which appears to be a manifest disavowal of the principles of Minimalism, with its connotation of masculinity, was created by a woman artist. Yet it cannot be reduced to an existential metaphor or an ironic commentary, instead making manifest that these interpretive perspectives are broken—refracted by reflection—in their relation both to each other and to the sculpture as such.

Peters elaborated on the unfolding of the cube in two other works, Zabriskie Point (2013, unrealized) and Tango (2013–16). Unlike in Pandora’s Box, however, they appear in these works without folding edges and so are devoid of the ambivalence or antagonism between unfolding and folding. Nets are planar elements that, realized as physical objects, have a certain height and mass. These nets, resting on the floor in pairs, interact with the viewer’s perception of a field. Each of the eleven nets of the cube has fourteen cut edges and, in principle, five folding edges. When neither creases nor lines indicate the latter, their existence can only be inferred from the outward shape of the net, and the materially cohesive object brings a mass effect to bear that deflects the notion that it might be folded into a cube. The cube and its possible representation give rise to a suspension of the idea of the cube—yet they can do so only in relation to the physical material, which is indifferent to the idea of the cube. Unfolding foregrounds the material, and the material highlights the situation of its presentation. The latter is defined, on the part of the work, by the fact that the nets are arranged in pairs that touch along some cut edges. Each pair can touch along different edges. All in all, there are sixty-six possible pairs, eleven sets of twins and fifty-five combinations of two different nets. The number sixty-six points back to the cube and its eleven nets as the work’s conceptual point of departure. For Zabriskie Point, which so far exists only as a model, Peters will form all sixty-six pairs out of molded rubber elements (of the consistency and characteristic grayish-beige color of an eraser) whose height precludes reading them either as notionally flat nets or as exactly cubic configurations (whose height would be identical to the length of one edge). Either reading would bring the work’s elements into view as illustrations of the idea of the cube and its unfolding, but they evince an intrinsic sculptural definition and openness to associations that are not anchored in the mathematical conception of the cube and its nets. Neither of the two determinants, conception and material, dominates over the other—both are transposed into a liminal register that becomes perceptible in the material contact between the members of the pairs. The choice of rubber as material, its coloration, and the touching pairs hint at a possible erotic subtext, while the rigid geometry of the elements is premised on distance. The title, Zabriskie Point, is an allusion to this ambivalence: an overlook on the edge of California’s Death Valley, Zabriskie Point gave its name to a celebrated color film Michelangelo Antonioni finished in 1970 that contains vaguely hallucinatory sequences featuring pairs of lovers scattered across the desert landscape. A blurry and coarse-grained black-and-white printout on newsprint of a still from the movie is part of Peters’s work. The oneiric quality of the scene from which it is taken blends into the sensation of a hallucinatory resurfacing of impressions that belong to a distant past but were without basis in reality—outside their cinematic staging—even then. The film still stands in marked contrast to the physical presence of the sculptural elements of the work in the exhibition space, but the latter must be regarded as no less staged, and any staging reads as a potential reenactment. Such reenactment ostensibly fuses what seemed to be separate categories in 1970: the geometric formal vocabulary of Minimalism, touted as the “art of the real,” and Antonioni’s disillusioned romantic gaze on nature with its social and political undercurrents. Rather than indulging in nostalgic reminiscences, Peters’s work, by integrating phenomena that were once experienced as disparate, illustrates the capacity of recollection to recreate things as they never were in order to derive the license for a sculpturally congruent practice in the forecourt of memory.

Tango likewise consists of contiguous pairs of nets of the cube, realized, in this instance, as glass panes resting on the floor. The more systematic aspect—the fact that there are sixty-six possible pairs—is irrelevant here because the number of pairs can be adapted to the exhibition situation. The transparent glass pane is a material that is mostly used in an upright position—as window glazing, in French doors, in picture frames—and, less frequently, horizontally, in glass roofs and glass-topped tables. Glass panes lying flat on the ground are a rare sight in everyday life. Glass often serves to shield what is behind it while conveying an impression of transparency and openness. Such uses tend to deemphasize the material’s protective function and in fact create the impression that, because of its fragility, it is itself in need of protection—or would be if not for the reasonable expectation that people will treat it with the appropriate caution. It helps enforce standards of social behavior and exposes any violation to public scrutiny. In the case of a glass-topped table, the primary function may be aesthetic—to signal a lifestyle—but once the glass is placed directly on the floor, that aesthetic function is complicated by a heightened awareness of the material’s fragility. It is understood, as it were, that stepping on these glass panes is prohibited: they protect not the ground but themselves. The viewer is made acutely conscious of his or her role as viewer, and what appears reflected in them is not the glass itself. In Peters’s work, however, glass panes cut in the shapes of the cube’s nets lie on the floor in pairs so that some of their edges touch, reflecting each other in their basic disposition: a rigid geometry that invites erotic investment and at once reveals the fragility of such a scopic structure. The artist chose the title tango after the dance that originated on the shore of the Rio de la Plata in the late nineteenth century; the etymology of the name is uncertain, but the thrilling blend of forceful physical contact and gestures of distance, even repulsion, suggests the association with the Latin verb tangere (tango,“I touch”). Peters worked with the designers at cyan (Berlin) to develop wall-mounted neon letters that spell the word tango in the exhibition context. The neon light is a literal realization of the title’s capacity to shed a different light on the work.

Peters’s art may be read as a critical study of American Minimalism, but this interest is not an exclusive preoccupation. Her engagement is sustained by her own stance and the horizon of possibilities it entails, a horizon that has continually grown and evolved in the course of an interconnected series of investigations. Peters’s examination of the sea change in the development of sculpture in the second half of the twentieth century that Minimalism represents is merely one aspect of her work and closely linked from the outset to a renegotiation of the relationship between sculpture and architecture. She often engages others in dialogue, a strategy that allows her to avoid the pitfall of solipsistic fixation. Rudolph Schindler has emerged as an important interlocutor for her. Yet as the title Tango intimates, her referential horizon is not constrained to the history of European-American art and architecture. More recently, she has found another major source of inspiration in the art of Brazilian neoconcretismo, and especially in the work of Hélio Oiticica. Yet she never simply makes another artist’s project her own, however worthy of emulation she may believe it to be; rather, she singles out individual elements or procedures from another artist’s practice in order to combine them with other elements so as to generate and open up new constellations. In Oiticica’s case, she does not focus on the question of color, a central concern in his oeuvre, but instead reprises a sculptural manifestation of this concern in his art: the use of (colorful) panels suspended from the ceiling by strings or fixtures. In Interface No. 1, she strictly preserved the shape of the cube; in Webbing (2015), by contrast, she detached its individual faces, which now separately hang from strings. The work as a whole consists of six such cubic structures levelly suspended at a certain distance from one another at the center of the room. Each of the structures features a different configuration of faces. The viewer can walk among the hovering cubes and circle around the ensemble. The individual faces move freely, and although they usually sway only very gently, each movement of one face immediately triggers a corresponding movement of the others. In any case, the rigid form of the cube is broken up. The viewer perceives intricate patterns that interpenetrate each other indissolubly and undergo continual modification and reconfiguration with each shift of perspective or motion of the elements. This phenomenon lends the work a textile quality, to which the title alludes. The word webbing designates both a manufacturing process and the final product. In Peters’s work, it is the viewer who is involved in the process of making, the making of something he or she never sees as a final product in which the process itself would have vanished. Like interface, web is a familiar term in the language of computing, and so the title also hints at a “World Wide Webbing.” With regard to Peters’s art, however, the more pertinent observation is that her creative practice may itself be described as a sort of webbing, as this work is especially apt to illustrate with its interweaving of references to LeWitt, Schindler, and Oiticica. Weaving is a craft that is traditionally associated with women, a connotation or stereotype that Peters sets aside, instead offering the viewer, regardless of sex, an experience available to anyone that harks back to artists whom she unmistakably holds in high esteem. She integrates rather than polarizes, but in such a way as to dismantle and displace entrenched preconceptions and prompt critical reflection on them. What makes her approach so compelling is that her art demonstrates the potential of such critical consideration with regard to itself: the viewer is encouraged to critique Peters’s ideas no less than those of others. With a team that she pulled together, she began a sound installation, Scoreality (2014), that is based on one of her suspended cubes, with a score that translates the object’s structural properties into acoustic relations; directional speakers allow the listener to experience them as a sonic sculpture in space. Notably, this translation leaves neither room nor need for references to LeWitt, Schindler, or Oiticica, and it eschews any invocation of models in the history of music or among the diverse tendencies that have evolved under the label “sound art.” Peters’s first sound piece, which was based on Modifikation—stetig steigende Steine (Modification—Constantly Climbing Stones), is marked by similar referential austerity.

This essay began with reflections on the history of art, the paradigm of pathbreaking, and possible ways to mark the brokenness of paths—issues, it seems to me, that are important for an understanding of Peters’s art in relation to that history and paradigm. Her sculptural use of sound, however, envisages the possibility of suspending reflection on the multiplicity of potential referential interconnections in favor of a reflection on the listener’s own sensation: a superimposition of sounds and noises, and the refraction of such superimposition by individual and variable preferences concerning his or her position in the space of the sculpture. Any preferential selection is an exemplary instance of determinacy, yet one that is inseparable from how such a preference is enacted, as well as a structure that imparts meaning to what is preferred and how.


  • 1Jacques Derrida, “Freud and the Scene of Writing,” in Writing and Difference (1967), trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), 196–231.
  • 2Sol LeWitt, “Paragraphs on Conceptual art,” Artforum 5, no. 10 (June 1967); repr. in Sol LeWitt, ed. Alicia Legg, exh. cat. (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1978), 166.
  • 3Ibid.

PER/TRANS: Performing the Cube, Transforming the Cube. Works by Sandra Peters, 1998–2017

Vienna: VfmK Verlag für moderne Kunst


pp. 8–19