End Game: Systems as a Post-formalism

Melissa Ragain

Assistant Professor of Art History
Montana State University

It is difficult to read Jack Burnham’s “Systems Esthetics” in 2014 and not be struck by its resonance with our current moment – its euphoric embrace of information culture, mingled with sharp criticisms of the various exploitative systems in which we are all imbricated. As Caroline Jones recently noted in her commemoration of the essay’s publication in Artforum, “Burnham called it[…]Reading the original 1968 essay today is an exercise in reverse teleology.” [1] Indeed it is this powerful temptation to read the essay’s claims as prophecy fulfilled that can obscure its place within the rich and contentious field of art writing in the late 1960s and within Burnham’s own critical trajectory. What interests me about Burnham’s systems – in the whole of his writing and not only his most cited essay – is the question of how we might make heads or tails of it as a critical approach. “Systems Esthetics” was occasioned certainly by a set of technological and economic conditions akin to our own, but also by a more fleeting critical climate in which such speculative writing was possible. Though I don’t have time to fully do so here, my long-term project is to situate Burnham’s writing as part of a wider effort fill the vacuum left by formalist interpretation. This interest was triggered by yet another resonance with the present, the emergence of post-formalism as an active term within discussions of art historical method. [2, 3] Today I’ll begin by focusing on an unpublished and undated text by Burnham provocatively titled “Towards a Post-formalist Aesthetic” in hopes that we might recover some of the historical assumptions that undergird his notion of systems.

Jack Burnham, 1968. © Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Courtesy of the Center for Advanced Visual Studies, special Collection, MIT.

Jack Burnham, 1968. © Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Courtesy of the Center for Advanced Visual Studies, special Collection, MIT.

As many of you know, despite the significant body of writing around systems and seriality by Sol LeWitt, Mel Bochner, Robert Pincus-Witten and Lawrence Alloway, Burnham’s writing remained somewhat outside of mainstream critical conversation. His essays were rarely commented upon directly and his career was hampered by geographical distance from New York, as well as his own eremitic tendencies and later immersion in the Cabala. Further, Burnham’s deference to scientific thought and engagement with technological change in essays like “Real-Time Systems” or the catalog for the exhibition of digital art, Software, were marginalized as at-worst technocratic propaganda and at-best distracting novelty. At the same time, the surging language of his most widely read work “Systems Esthetics” shuttled, like all good manifestoes, between the utopian and apocalyptic, leaving behind the self-critical and apolitical language that had until recently typified the powerful centrism of American formalist criticism.

Burnham’s animus toward formalism was part of a singular contrariness and a general resistance to anything he perceived as dogmatic. Hans Haacke likes to tell the story of a young Jack Burnham at Yale around 1960, throwing darts at a poster of Joseph Albers’ squares. This rebellious gesture recalls the antagonism of painters like Lucio Fontana toward Painting’s subtle illusionism as well as the truth of its material, gridded, and rule-bound flatness. In such acts the meaning that once derived from the organization of form and color yields to another kind of meaning anchored in the organization of the present world (or more accurately, the multiple organizations of multiple worlds: psycho-perceptual, natural, economic, and so forth). The entire research enterprise that Albers, along with Clement Greenberg and later Michael Fried, represented — the continual discovery of the medium condition — represented to Burnham, among others, not only a longstanding idealism but a political failure at the heart of modern art criticism.

In his preface to Beyond Modern Sculpture, Burnham situated himself in the rationalist and materialist tradition of Gottfried Semper who viewed art as a “clear reflection of the economic, technical, and social relationships which form any society.”[5] This was, he claimed, in direct opposition to Alois Riegl’s concept of the kunstwollen and the German tradition of aesthetics that derived from it. Beyond Modern Sculpture reiterated the objections of social historians such as Meyer Schapiro to the Vienna School’s use of “mysterious racial and animistic language” instead of “a real analysis of historical factors” resulting in “palmistry or numerology not science.” [6] The German and Viennese traditions allowed for the development of abstraction on purely psychological terms, neglecting the material developments that accompanied abstraction. Thus the formalist tradition culminated by Greenberg’s account of painting’s self-criticality was indicted for both the philosophical defect of idealism, and the pictorial effect of illusionism.

During the years 1967-1968 Burnham repeatedly defined the art object in Marxist-materialist terms, as the progressive alienation of humanity from the world through its reification as commodities. His materialist studies were intended to make way for “the constant resynchronization of artistic sensibility with a disclosed form-world of scientific theory.” Burnham clarifies this somewhat Delphic claim in the introduction of “Towards a Post-formalist Aesthetic,” characterizing formalism as a “bloodless Marxism” bound to linear historicity through its mapping of stylistic development. He made an explicit connection between the formalist concern for innovation with capitalist “product innovation” and an outdated market for durable goods. The problem was not that historical change was unimportant, but that it was a dangerous illusion. “That change appears while rules remain is the nexus of our economics.” By highlighting and valuing innovative change, formalist criticism had helped to perpetuate false consciousness that concealed not only class relations, but also all of the true relations that make up the world. For instance, the American embrace of individuality associated with Abstract Expressionism was merely “a mechanism of despair against a system which allows for no cohesive social goal.” [4] For Burnham, worldly relations had been disclosed only recently by scientific theory, which provided direct access to a world unsullied by ideology. In this he shared the productivist deference to technical and scientific knowledge, and a belief in the ultimate utility of art – a utilitarian function that in Burnham’s case is always didactic in nature. Despite this deference to the technical, his gloss on cybernetics and systems theory read both a contributions to the Western mimetic tradition—figuring the word as lived rather than as seen. In this he leaned harder on their metaphors than on their mathematics.
Burnham’s writing militated against illusionism in much that same way that contemporaneous artists insisted upon the anti-illusionistic experience of real-time, and real forces such as gravity, in opposition to representation and transcendental ideation. Given their shared antipathy to form and illusion, Burnham might have concerned himself with anti-form, process art or what Lippard called “eccentric abstraction.” Instead, he was most concerned with the phase of Postminimalism that Robert Pincus-Witten identified as “epistemological” in its concern for language and information-based practices. While Pincus-Witten described such practices as a set of coping mechanisms for dealing with the corporate context that buttressed formalism, Burnham significantly described them more defiantly as a “set of social acts.”

His 1969 lecture “Art and the Marcusean Analysis” revealed just how heavily Burnham’s conception of the art object relied on Marcuse’s understanding of Western culture as coercive, creating only the illusion of freedom without the ability to provoke meaningful change. Like Marcuse, Burnham understood art’s ameliorative potential as a catalyst for remaking industrial society. While someone like György Kepes sought to condition the viewer to a newly outsized technological environment, Burnham saw technology as a way to materialize values of unveiling, art’s proper hermeneutic task.

This important difference rested on another presumption outlined in “Toward a Post-formalist Esthetic” and tied to Burnham’s sense of his own materialist mandate. “For the Marxist, art (as in primitive societies) must be consistent with general social welfare. Where this cannot happen, art turns into an elaborate parody of the prevailing socio-economic system.” In other words, Burnham’s understanding of art historical change rested on the central assumption that art could not by definition be complicit in a dysfunctional system – that is, any system in an extreme state of imbalance – but must either act as a homeostatic force within society (as ritual had once done), or become a “mirror revolutionary”– a satirical reflection of the dominant system. He once titled a lecture “Art ends in a Joke, not a bang or a whimper.”

This claim seemed so central to understanding Burnham’s conception of history that I was struck when I saw the essay briefly mentioned in a letter written to Michael Fried by Artforum’s then-editor Philip Leider. In this letter, Leider gave a candid account of his forthcoming September issue: “a reasonably dull affair with lots of objectionable stuff in it, in particular another snotty Smithson piece [“A Sedimentation of the Mind”]… Also an article by one of your fellow Guggenheim lecturers Jack Burnham, originally entitled, you should know, “Towards a Post-Formalist Aesthetic” but which I finally prevailed upon him to change, as well as get rid of the first ten pages of his article, in which he provides so imbecilic a notion of what the formalist esthetic he is replacing looks like that he would have been hopelessly defeated before he even began to introduce the stuff that is to replace it (Which is, as the title will tell you, ‘systems esthetics.’)” [7]

Perhaps it’s obvious that Burnham intended to mobilize “systems” directly against formalist interpretation. Yet, this antagonism is obscured in part by the fact that the nonvisual relationality of systems was borrowed from visual composition. Moreover, Leider’s alterations worked on me with marked efficiency. In my reading of the edited version of “Systems Esthetics” to this point, questions of historical interpretation or critical judgment never really struck me as primary. Aimed presciently against an age of extreme political polarization, economic disparity, and what we would now call “precarity,” Burnham, like Smithson with whom he often shared pages, looked out across a vast expanse far beyond the pages of Artforum. But it’s clear from Burnham’s other writings — his preface to Beyond Modern Sculpture for instance, this original draft of “Systems Esthetics,” and the return of the “postformal” in the subtitle of his collection Great Western Salt Works — that his intervention was intended as methodological, not only cultural.

In those lost ten pages Burnham claimed to invert a number of the “tacit assumptions of formalism”: shifting emphasis away from objects toward relations, away from visuality toward other forms of organization more akin to language, away from what he calls the metaphysical properties of “quality,” “presentness,” and “relevancy” toward more neutral terms of “information.” The absence of consecutive movements and styles within his post-minimalist present validated this turn away from diachronic understandings of culture toward the synchronic and flatly descriptive: “an oblique type of criticism,” he writes in the finished essay “resisting emotive and literary associations … it resemble[d] what a computer programmer would call an entity’s list structure, or all the enumerated properties needed to physically rebuild an object.” Pioneered by Donald Judd this mode of writing ignored meaning and private intention. By ridding aesthetics of delusional individualism, it mimicked the bureaucratic voice of the new knowledge economy, and presumably regained some of its effectiveness within (rather than against) “a system which allow[ed] for no cohesive social goal.”

Of course, Semiotics and Structuralism played an important role in Burnham’s post-formalism, beginning with the 1971 publication of the Structure of Art. This text attempted to account for the wide variety of means available to contemporary artists, and presupposed the “historical consistency of all art.” Where style was a quintessentially idealist category, the structuralist field’s lack of hierarchy and center powerfully inverted of the linear narrative of formalism. Both Burnham and Rosalind Krauss built on the oppositional vocabulary of Wölfflin’s binaries, by which meaning could arise amid a system of differences and oppositions.

Significantly however, Burnham not only rejected style itself but insisted on “the difference between Wölfflin’s tenuous theory of stylistic repetition and [his] view, which is implicitly that no teleology is necessary to prove influence.” [8] Like the “system,” the structuralist field was an arena for infinite, fluid circulations of energy, which unlike modernist modes of linear causality, could yield an inexhaustible set of artistic possibilities as well as localized historical interactions. In Structure of Art Burnham claimed that this was due to a “highly sophisticated but hidden, logical structure.” [9] Both Systems and Structure provided Burnham with pseudo-technical ways to expose myths such as “anthropocentrism,” and “historical progress” from a standpoint of fundamental skepticism. This explains to a certain extent his admiration for Hans Haacke’s use of information to produce counter-memory through similar strategies of unveiling, or in the case of Robert Morris pointing to the exhaustion of modernist discovery by bracketing a diverse but tautological set of borrowed practices. These strategies appeared to Burnham as alternatives to the only viable formalist possibilities of discovery and innovation, but also to forms of direct action pervasive among his peers in the Art Workers Coalition (of which both Haacke and Morris were members).

The field reappears in the form of Duchamp’s chessboard in his 1972 essay, “The Semiotics of ‘End Game’ Art.” Burnham sets up Greenbergian modernism as “historical gamesmanship” that “gradually lose[s] all sense of the sacred mysteries in their substitution of esthetic and practical consideration. Art thus became a series of gaming strategies played against time.” This sense of impending formal exhaustion was one that Burnham relished, since it confirmed his investment in diachronic modes of interpretation supposedly concealed and thus protected from non-believers. Oddly, the structuralist field became at once the figure for this teleologic futility and the arena for the infinite, ritualized circulation once represented by Systems. Around 1971, Burnham moved to Arts Magazine where, as he coyly says, “They didn’t care about quality.” Burnham took advantage of Arts‘ looser editorial style publishing prolifically between 1971 and 1974 on Duchamp, the Cabala and contemporary ritual, in an attempt to develop a new, non-parodic relationship between art and society.

In 1972, the Sefirot Burnham used to analyze Duchamp’s Large Glass appeared on the cover of Arts. The diagram seen here depicts the 10 attributes or forces through which the creator is revealed to the created world. This form, which at first glance resembles a stacked pair of Klein groups, similarly maps a balancing of oppositional forces and describes both the structure of the human mind and aspects of phenomenological experience. As Harold Bloom wrote in 1975, “Popular Kabbalism has understood, somehow, that the Sefirot are neither things nor acts, but rather are relational events and so are persuasive representations of what ordinary people encounter as the inner reality of their lives.”[10] The Sefirot is living revealed as form. Just as importantly, it is Burnham’s belief in the non-complicity of art and fundamental skepticism of appearances—of the merely visual—that links his systemic and occult writings.

The essays written during this period insist on the subversive character of Duchamp in particular, understanding him as a kind of pre-post-formalist since he prioritized economic and linguistic relations over finished craft-based objects.. In these essays the Klein group became not merely a field but a wheel, a figure for “the cycle of human redemption” in which cultural cohesion dissolved into nature in a process of “semiotic decay,” or entropy, with the readymade situated as the mediating central term. He claimed that myth, ritual, and their metaphorical equivalent SALT protect culture because they “reconcile opposites; they seek to invert unstable relationships.” [11] The Spiral Jetty, seen by Burnham on his way to the Aspen Institute, appeared on the cover of Great Western Salt Works in 1974 as a negative image meant to suggest such powerful mechanisms as inversion and reconciliation.

In Burnham’s chain of association, ritual acts and Readymade objects perform similar services, establishing “social solidarity and well-being” by referring to archetypal consistencies rather than the kinds of historical differences indicated by “information.” His definition of the readymade reflected his study of systems and structuralism: “Any tool or artifact involved in the fundamental cycles of growth would work equally well as a true-readymade.” Because it resulted in the “recognition of the necessary” However such social acts also contained a secret “sacred message” concerning the structure of culture itself. Within two years he had transformed the work of art into a gnostic gospel, and system esthetics into a comforting form of endless explanation yielding only ever more obscurities.

In his text on the Kabbalah, Bloom writes further of the emotional function of relational thinking. “Kabbalah proposes to give suffering a meaning, by way of interpretation of scripture that depends overtly upon an audacious figuration, the sefirot.” This figure is audacious because it suggests the highest grade of reality is reached only through signification. It transforms text/art work into a diagram pointing to the difference between an object and its criticism. Such criticism arises in the form of over-determined explanation in which presence and absence coexist and interplay. This was also what Krauss liked about the diagram — that, within it, Modernism was no longer a narrative:

I want this square to represent a universe, a system of thinking in its entirety, a system that will be both bracketed by and generated from a fundamental pair of oppositions. This of course [!] is the universe of visual perception, the one that is mapped by a distinction between figure and ground. [12]

It is at once figuration and its antithesis, vision and its other. According to Bloom the Sefirot also conforms to the ascetic ideal, the desire to be different and to be elsewhere, the desire to end exile, and to explain loss through the power of metaphorical thought. Indeed loss, regret, geographic alienation and a sense of impotence pervade Burnham’s autobiographical and political narratives after 1971, a period which he calls the beginning of “political malaise.” Even in 1968 he had written of the melancholic character of this new paradigm, “Systems theory may be another attempt by science to resist the emotional pain and ambiguity that remain an unavoidable aspect of life.”

Our unexpurgated text further explains that the hopeful stabilizing function of art as a social act is stifled in the context of increasingly polarized economies. Or as he told me the day Hurricane Sandy hit the east coast, “Cultures get the art they deserve.” During such periods, he claimed, art goes increasingly underground. And a hermeneutic art criticism follows logically from this sub-rosa character of contemporary art in an age of extremes. As such, both art and criticism become arenas in which to safely subvert dogmatic belief. Indeed his own writing becomes around 1972, a space of dark humor secreted behind the obscuring boredom of bureaucratic or academic language. Densely packed, alternating between the insightful and the arcane, it requires of its reader close attention, recitation, and study. It holds to the contemporary post-formalist disavowal, after Wölfflin, of the object as the primary object of art history. In the end, however, Burnham s version of “systems” served as a synchronic counterpart to “spirit,” participating in its own set of phenomenological unveilings and recalibrations. As Schapiro might say, “this is palmistry or numerology, not science.”

There has been a noticeable resurgence of “systems,” granted a thumbnail version, in our latter-day didactic art, also known as public or social practice that stems certainly from Burnham’s definition of art as a social act. Critics including Caroline Jones noted the pervasiveness of systems in dOCUMENTA (13), for instance. And at the 2010 Creative Time Summit, Claire Pentecost quoted at length from “Systems Esthetics” : “Burnham describes what we’re living in art practice today,” she said, as artists work against the “deep structural conditions that degrade life” by challenging “untenable systems.”[13] The 2011 Summit “Living as Form” was similarly rife with systematicity, but subsumed under a discussion of form dislodged from the visual. Nato Thomson borrowed Harold Szeeman’s 1969 claim that: “For the first time, the importance of form seemed to be questioned altogether by the conceptualization of form.” Thompson writes that “Such a break is in the air again, but now accompanied by a keen awareness that living itself exists in forms that must be questioned, rearranged, mobilized, and undone. For the first time, the importance of forms of living seems to be questioned altogether by the conceptualization of living as form.” [14] I can’t help but see this as looping back to a kind of magical thinking around notions of systems, and revised or systematized notions of form, from which “Systems Esthetics” attempted to escape. The progressive coming into being of system into human consciousness, the comforting rotation of its elements, the continual mourning for a prior-to that this practice seems to signify, also point for me to a helpless melancholy at the heart of systems thinking belied by its recent proximity to activist politics.


1. Caroline A. Jones “System Symptoms.” Artforum International 51, no. 1 (2012), 113.
2. David Summers, Real Spaces: World Art History and the Rise of Western Modernism. (London: Phaidon Press, 2003), 15-32.
3. Whitney Davis “What is post-formalism? (or, das sehen an sich hat seine kunstgeschichte)” Nonsite, vol.7 (2012), http://search.proquest.com/docview/1429206174?accountid=14678 (accessed March 10, 2014).
4. Meyer Schapiro, “The New Viennese School” in The Vienna School Reader: Politics and Art Historical Method in the 1930s. ed. Christopher Wood (New York: Zone Books, 2000), 459.
5. Jack Burnham, Beyond Modern Sculpture: the Effects of Science and Technology on the Sculpture of this Century (New York: George Braziller, 1968), viii
6. Typescript, undated, box 2, Folder 91, Edward Fry Papers, University of Pennsylvania: Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Philadelphia, PA.
7. Philip Leider, Letter to Michael Fried. 8/21/1968, Philip Leider Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.
8. Jack Burnham “Art’s End, reply by James Ackerman,” New York Review of Books, November 20, 1969, http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/1969/nov/20/arts-end-2/ (accessed March 10, 2014)
9. Jack Burnham, The Structure of Art (New York: George Braziller, 1971), 2-3.
10. Harold Bloom, Kabbalah and Criticism (New York: Seabury Press, 1975), 28, 51.
11. Jack Burnham “True Readymade,” Art and Artists, 6, no. 11 (February 1972), 26–31.
12. Rosalind Krauss, The Optical Unconscious. (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1993), 13.
13. Claire Pentecost, “Creative Time Summit 2: Revolutions in Public Practice,” October 9, 2010, http://creativetime.org/summit/2010/10/09/claire-pentecost/, (accessed March 10, 2014).
14. Nato Thompson, Living As Form: Socially Engaged Art from 1991-2011. (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2012), 28-29.


Melissa Ragain is a historian of modern and contemporary art history at Montana State University in Bozeman. She has written for Art Journal, X-tra: Contemporary Art Quarterly, ARTLIES, Criticism, and Inform magazine. She was a Core Critical Studies Fellow at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston in 2010-11. Her current manuscript project examines the reception of art psychology by sculptors in the postwar United States. She is also editing a collection of Jack Burnham’s writing for MIT Press, forthcoming 2015.