Why do artists decide to reduce their available choices?


Vera Molnar. 144 Trapèzes (144 Trapeziums) - 1974
Vera Molnar. 144 Trapèzes (144 Trapeziums) – 1974


By abdicating minor or local decisions in art making to a predeterminative system of rules, artists are able to produce work that is concerned with the whole, rather than its individual parts. In this essay I will explore systematic art making as a strategy of reducing the available and necessary choices in the production of art. As this has become a wide spread practice, engaged in by many artists, I will begin by focusing on the early Stripe Paintings of Frank Stella to explain how in the late Fifties and early Sixties, there was a new development in working systematically to reduce choice. Though artists before him were working systematically in series i.e. Johns’ Targets and Noland’s Circles, Stella was one of the first artists to produce individual artworks that could be predetermined by a system, characterised by the ‘Deductive structure’ of his shaped stretchers (Fried, 1965). Before him the Dadaists used aleatory strategies to allow chance to take over the decisions required to produce a work of art (Molesworth, 2003: 179). For the purpose of this essay systematic art will be defined as an artwork that follows a set of rules, or system, that is self imposed by the artist. This often results in what Stella called ‘All-over painting’, continuing an action until the canvas is full, resulting in a patterned field (Rubin, 1970: 26-28). This style of painting places all the decision making up front, before the painting even begins, leaving the artist as a designer, but not necessarily the executor of a plan. Using Barry Schwartz’s ‘Paradox of Choice’ I will offer a counterpoint to the view of painting as a pure medium referring only to itself, put forward by Greenberg (Greenberg 1960) to suggest that Stella’s reduction of choice could be a reaction against the growth of consumer culture during that period. The final section of this essay will focus on tracing the escalation of the removal of choice, and reintroduction of chance in the work of Manfred Mohr, Georg Nees and Vera Molnar.

Frank Stella (1968) Black Study
Frank Stella (1968) Black Study

Stella’s Stripe Paintings

Beginning with the series of Black Paintings, Stella started to make paintings that referred directly to their physical dimensions. The stripes run parallel to, or appear to bounce off the edges of the canvas at forty-five degree angles. Each stripe runs parallel to the next, creating an evenness over the entire surface. Krauss (1991: 123) describes these paintings as being different to the minimalism that had come before from the likes of Reinhardt and Albers. Instead they were more related to, and directly influenced by Johns’s Flag Paintings (Rubin, 1970: 12). If the Flags are to be seen as readymades, and thus refusals of personal choice, then Stella’s stripes are also readymades, taking their dimensions from the easily and cheaply available timber used in the Black Paintings, just as Johns’s stripes mirror the dimensions of the widely available American Flag (Krauss, 1991: 123). In a further refusal to participate in the accepted painterly practices of abstract expressionism, Stella chose to use commercially available industrial enamel to paint his black paintings (Gablik, 1974: 247). Rather than mixing his paint, and dealing with a complex spectrum of possible outcomes, the industrial black not only reduces the decisions required by Stella to produce the work, it also produces an acceptance in the viewer that this is black – the only available black.

Frank Stella, Aluminum Series, 1960
Frank Stella, Aluminum Series, 1960

If any arbitrary decisions from the artist could be identified on the surface of the canvas in these paintings in the angular patterns of the stripes, then the notched Aluminium Paintings would dispel any doubts about Stella’s intention. In this series the stripes strictly follow the edge of the canvas, and repeat across the entire plane. The notches send ripples running through the stripes to the center of the canvas. In these paintings it is clear that both the pattern of the stripes and shape of the canvas have been conceived simultaneously, and that one dictates the other and vice versa (Fried, 1967). In these series Stella breaks from the Abstract Expressionism and Geometrical Abstraction that came before to create a new aesthetic of exclusion (Gablik, 1974: 246). He expresses a frustration with the relational strategy of making these paintings. During a lecture given at The Pratt Institute, Stella stated that ‘I didn’t want to be involved in the kind of painting that was mostly correctional’, (Rubin, 1970: 26) here he is referring to all painting that came before, what he called relational painting, specifically the geometric abstraction of Mondrian and Vasarely; preferring to make paintings that are concerned with a unified whole, that are non-compositional and can be immediately understood (Glaser, 1966).

            This fits into Greenberg’s (1960) view of Modernism; that painting should engage with its materials and stress its essential properties, its flatness, the shape of the stretcher, and the effect of pigment. Stella’s Black Paintings are a perfect example and acknowledgement of this, though his later shaped canvases pushed past Greenburg’s (1962) limit of what constitutes a painting (Amstutz 2005: 108). While Stella’s Black Paintings appeared to be sympathetic to Greenberg’s (1960) writing, the anecdotal ease with which he turned his back on this by cutting notches into his stretchers, suggests his interest lay more in making his system of painting the ruling element in his work (Gough, 2007: 103-104).

Stella and the Paradox of Choice

Schwartz (2004) describes a situation of paralysis in the face of overwhelming choice, which is symptomatic of consumer culture. The paralysis comes as a result of fear of making the wrong choice, and feeling unhappy with one’s decision. The example he uses is the purchase of jeans. There was once only one option for jeans, you bought the jeans and they weren’t great, but hey, they were the only option. But now, with hundreds of available options, the consumer should be able to select a perfect pair of jeans, meaning that anything less than perfect is unsatisfactory, the responsibility to own perfect jeans falls on the consumer (Shwartz, 2004: 1). At the Pratt Institute talk Stella quite tellingly states that: ‘The painterly problems of what to put here and there and how to do it to make it go with what was already there, had become more and more difficult and the solutions more and more unsatisfactory’ (Gough, 2007: 102). He discusses a dissatisfaction very similar to that described by Schwartz: in making a relational painting, every element added depends on the artist to make a decision based on what has already been painted. He is describing a situation in which the options are infinite, and the choices made are unsatisfying, which according to Schwartz, is due to the regret of all the options not taken, the responsibility for which falls squarely on the shoulders of the artist (Shwartz, 2004: 117-137).


Stella’s solution to this is to create a systematic mode of painting, which greatly reduces the choices he is required to make. Whether it is the pattern of the stripes that determines the shape of the support, or the shape of the support that determines the pattern of the stripes, these decisions are made before the painting begins. With a system in place, Stella has no further decisions to make, and can paint free of regret for the path not taken as the system does not allow for alternative paths. Should the painting be unsatisfactory, that is not due to instinctive decisions, but due to the system put in place, allowing the artist a certain amount of distance from the responsibility for their decisions.

It is also notable that while certainly not the first artist to do so, Stella works mainly in series: The Black Paintings, The Aluminium Paintings, The Copper Paintings, etc. This is a strategy put forward by Schwartz as a way of coping with choice paralysis; knowing a good investment and being wary of always seeking ‘new and improved’ (Schwartz, 2004: 227-228). While each painting in these series isn’t identical, every painting in any given series follows the same set of rules or parameters. If Stella set out to completely reinvent his system with every painting he made, he would certainly make far fewer paintings. That’s not to accuse Stella of being lazy or complacent, far from it! After a few more coloured series in this systematic vein he returned to a modified version of relational painting in his series of Irregular Polygons, balancing painted forms not against each other, but against the exterior limits of the stretcher. Stella effectively dropped systematic art making from his practice, making it clear that his project lay not in systematic painting, but in pushing the boundaries of the relationship between depicted and literal shape (Fried, 1966). Though a relatively fleeting formative moment in his practice, Stella’s systematic stripe paintings paved the way for the exploration of systematic art, and the reduction of choice.

Manfred Mohr, P135, 1973, plotter drawing
Manfred Mohr, P135, 1973, plotter drawing


Manfred Mohr, Georg Nees and Vera Molnar working in the late Sixties, take this reduction of choice one step further than Stella, by programming computers to produce the actual marks of their artworks, designing a system that acts as a set of criteria for the production of randomly generated marks. In this situation, the artist gives up authorship of the actual marks made. The main real difference in this strategy that employs machines is an uncertainty regarding the end result, as described by Mohr (2000). ‘Even though my work process is rational and systematic, its results can be unpredictable.’ This represents a difference in intentions between Stella and the early computer artists, where Stella is imposing a system on himself with a very definite idea of the eventual outcome, this new breed of artists are imposing a rational system of control on an otherwise completely random generative process, with an uncertainly as to the outcome. This can be read as congruent with a resurgence of Dada strategies seen in the work of Johns and Rauschenberg (Molesworth, 2003: 179). By allowing computerised chance into their drawing Mohr, Nees and Molnar are, like the Dadaists in the 1910s and 1920s rejecting intentionality and traditional artistic skill in favour of aleatory strategies (Molesworth, 2003: 179). The artwork becomes the system itself that the artist has designed. In the work of all three of these artists, the surface is covered in marks, showing many iterations of the same algorithm, or an incrementally adjusted algorithm playing out across the surface of the paper. It is important to note that in the majority of these artworks, there is a regular all-over grid in place, to organise the output of the algorithms. This not only makes clear to the viewer the systematic nature of the work’s production, but also serves to keep any relational decision making from entering the process. It does this by declaring the artwork to be anti-natural and anti-mimetic, it flattens and orders the surface of the artwork. In doing so the artist is freed from the compulsion to consider individual parts of their drawing or painting, because the organisational nature of the grid is inescapable (Krauss, 1979).

Vera Molnar (Square Structures) 1986
Vera Molnar (Square Structures) 1986

Mohr (2000) describes situations where he must employ random decisions in order to create a ‘value-free’ solution to move the work forward. By value-free, he means through random selection, all possible outcomes are equally valid. By allowing this to be random, and by making no value judgements on the outcome, Mohr has absolved himself of all responsibility for that decision. Just as in Schwartz’s (2004) analogy of the ‘only available jeans’, Mohr only has one option, and it was decided for him. So rather than being paralysed by an overabundance of options, he can move on with his work.

Franke (1989: 26) outlines this departure from traditional painting and drawing, describing two distinct approaches, Punctual and Integral. In the Punctual approach the painting is altered only where the artist makes a direct mark on the support. The integral approach describes an algorithmic way of thinking, whereby an intervention by the artist in the source algorithm of the work has the possibility of affecting the entire picture as a whole. Following the logic of this approach requires far fewer decisions from the artist, and the all over effect of even the tiniest decisions is satisfying in its instantaneity. Molnar describes operating in this way, specifically employing a computer to generate lines, as ‘thrilling’; the computer randomly making hundreds of minute random decisions within the parameters of her algorithm frees her to concentrate on the effect of the entire image (Molnar, 1975: 186).

Sol LeWitt, Wall Drawing 1152, Whirls and twirls 2005
Sol LeWitt, Wall Drawing 1152, Whirls and twirls 2005

But in the words of Sol LeWitt, an artist working in this serialised manner is ‘merely a clerk cataloguing the results of his premise’ (North, 2001: 1371). North (2001) also points out ‘the notion that art might be produced without human intention was first made prominent by the original recording medium, photography’. While it is certainly possible to question the role of the artist in a practice such as this, where the hand of the artist is invisible, and intentionality seems to be completely absent, it is important to remember that the work is not completely void of decision making. Molnar (1975) describes a stepwise, conversational system whereby upon seeing the generated outcome of each algorithm on a CRT monitor, she alters the algorithm, and continues this process until she finds a result that is satisfactory, before plotting the marks onto paper. In this way, she is not as LeWitt would profess, merely a clerk, but is working much in the familiar revisional way of the painters that Stella was fed up with, (Glaser 1966) though she is outsourcing the minor decisions regarding individual marks to computer.



In Stella’s adoption of the idea of the readymade painting he found a way to make his paintings directly refer to their materials, (Greenberg, 1960) but also reduced the amount of choices necessary to produce them. In doing so he began the idea of systematic painting, which for him was a necessary move in removing the ‘fussiness’ of relational painting and working in a way that addressed the entire canvas all at once. Working in series, as he does, is a strategy congruent with one of Schwartz’s (2004: 227) strategies for overcoming the paralyses of choice, allowing him to have the system by which the painting will be made already in place, it’s just a matter of tweaking the parameters (the stretcher) to produce a new work in the series. This allows for a much greater output of work, and for familiarity in the viewer, they are already halfway to understanding the work from previous experience. Though Stella later abandoned a strategy of systematically predetermined painting, the early computer artists of the late 60s picked it up. In deferring the decisions regarding individual marks to a computer, they were free to consider the whole of the drawing as their primary concern. Responsibility for individual marks is transferred from the artist to the machine, and the necessary approach to viewing the work is concerned with viewing the whole. Consideration of the artwork as a whole was Stella’s main concern, and it was achieved by relinquishing the minor decisions of his making to a predeterminative system.



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