To What Degree and How Does the Meaning or Experience of a Work of Art Depend on Context?

This essay will answer the title question by analysing 3 forms of context that affect a work of art: The author/spectator relationship, the artwork’s historical relationships and its institutional setting. It will question how each of these aspects affect Enrico Castellani’s “Superficie biangolare cromata” (2011) (displayed at Dominique Lévy London in the “Local History” exhibition that attempts ‘to explore a pivotal moment of intersection in the careers of three exalted postwar artists’ (Dominique Lévy, 2014 p.1)) and Anne Hardy’s “Cipher” (displayed at the Hayward Gallery, London as part of the “Mirrorcity” exhibition engaging London artists on fiction and reality (Rosenthal, 2014)).

Anne Hardy Cipher 2007 C-type diasec mounted print 144cm x 174cm
Anne Hardy
C-type diasec mounted print
144cm x 174cm
Enrico Castellani Superficie biangolare cromata  2011 Acrylic on canvas 70 x 50 x 100 cm
Enrico Castellani
Superficie biangolare cromata
Acrylic on canvas
70 x 50 x 100 cm


The mid to late 1960s brought about new modes of thought regarding the producer/consumer relationship. In the visual arts, Robert Morris was influential in this change; his series of essays “Notes on Sculpture” analysed the new relationships being formed between spectators and the art objects that came to be known as literalist or minimalist works (Morris, 1966). Morris notes that ‘one is more aware than before that he himself is establishing relationships as he apprehends the object’ (Morris, 1966 p. 15), the spectator’s body is brought into the gallery context, no longer the modernist, “superfluous”, “intrusion” that was the ideal seen by Brian O’Doherty (1976), championed by Clement Greenberg (1955). Morris’s argument was expanded in a literary context by Roland Barthes:

A text is made of multiple writings, drawn from many cultures and entering into mutual relations of dialogue, parody, contestation, but there is one place where this multiplicity is focused and that place is the reader, not, as was hitherto said, the author. (Barthes, 1968 p. 148)

Barthes’s assertion was that the single point at which all intention a work carries is the receiving end and thus it is with the reader (spectator) that a work is completed. Michael Fried decried this personal, private “experience” in the essay “Art and Objecthood”, in which he argued against the “theatre” of literalism and the “experience” they wished to convey (Fried, 1967). Fried disliked this, reminiscing a time when ‘the risk, the possibility, of seeing works of art as nothing more than objects did not exist’ (Fried, 1967 p. 829).

These better, formalist works could be interpreted; they had an a priori meaning hidden behind a Freudian veil of “manifest content”. Susan Sontag disagrees with interpretation, noting that, because ‘interpretation must itself be evaluated, within a historical view of human consciousness’ (Sontag, 1964 p. 3), as culture evolves, so must its ways of understanding its past self, summed up by John Berger:

In the Middle Ages when men believed in the physical existence of Hell the sight of fire must have meant something different from what it means today. Nevertheless their idea of Hell owed a lot to the sight of fire consuming and the ashes remaining – as well as their experience of the pain of burns. (Berger, 1972 p. 8)

The desire to create authorless, uninterpretable art faltered when theorists began to question why these pieces were art. Donald Judd presented his objects as art because they were formally compelling, but it was the fact he had placed his “objects” into the gallery context that distinguished them. His work was the ‘presentation of the artists intention’ (Kosuth in Meyer, 1969 p.148), ‘a box is art because Judd said it was’ (Meyer, 1969 p.148), reintroducing the author.

Enrico Castellani’s “Superficie biangolare cromata”, sits in the middle of the producer/consumer struggle. The work very much follows a minimalist aesthetic, sharing Morris’s confrontational scale and using its reflective and shaped surface to introduce relationships in light and space with the viewer, typifying Morris’s literalist sculpture experience (Morris, 1966). However, this private, untradeable experience is displayed in a very commercialised space, in a small one-room gallery on Old Bond Street. Furthermore, the work is treated as a commodity for sale rather than an experience to be gained, placed in front of an area with chairs, a coffee table and the gallery’s publications. Suggesting a meeting space amongst the valued commodities, in which to negotiate pricing. The experience of the work, displayed in this manner is affected by its surroundings as all minimalist works are and in this case is reduced to decoration.

In contrast, “Cipher” by Anne Hardy is displayed not as part of an exhibition simply outlining the similarity in the work of 3 artists, but as part of an exploration of the ‘dilemmas, realities and consequences of living in a digital age’ (Rugoff, 2014 p. 5). The coherence in the subject lends the viewer to think of the art not as individual items but as a journey through a series of “realities” (the exhibition explores fictions as realities (Rosenthal, 2014)) that are occurring or entering into the everyday. Though not a literalist work in itself, “Cipher” follows a relational aesthetic that develops the idea of a non-capitalist trade, first introduced by minimalism and its authorless ideals, expressed by the method of display: Billboard sized and on the roof terraces, to the effect that works are visible from street level – an experience can be had through social intersice rather than the transaction of any mercantile wealth (Bourriaud, 1998).

Cipher, specific installation view.
Cipher, specific installation view.

In contemporary art practice, the aforementioned “interstice” is developed by the creation of ‘free areas, and time spans whose rhythm contrasts with those structuring everyday life’ (Bourriaud, 1998 p.16). In essence: The contemporary art exhibition. This contrast has been brought about not by a great change in the exhibition but in culture itself. Our society is more interconnected and can view images of artworks from anywhere; the exhibition is no longer ‘a space to be walked through…It is henceforth presented as a period of time to be lived through’ (Bourriaud, 1998 p.15). As such our non-personal interconnectedness has reduced the spaces of relation within the society. Machine efficiency is replacing human interaction. Art is filling this gap; the advent of conceptualism allowed an artwork to be ephemeral, performances cannot be bought and sold, merely a recording or licence to re-perform. Bourriaud termed this “Relational Art”:

An art taking as its theoretical horizon the realm of human interactions and its social context rather than the assertion of an independent and private symbolic space. (Bourriaud, 1998 p.15)

Hardy’s “Cipher” creates such relationships: Concerned with ‘how odd reality is’ (Hardy in Rosenthal, 2014 p.18), the kind of space she is ‘fascinated with is just there, next to you, and you don’t see it’ (Hardy in Rosenthal, 2014 p.18). Hardy concerns herself with the creation of relationships between the spectator and other members of the public, by exhibiting voyeuristic portraits, through the display of their private niche (in this case that of a weightlifter). Hardy circumvents the designated social space etiquette, mirroring the webcam culture of the 21st century.

This projection of private space onto the gallery setting was the key driving force behind Marcel Broodthaers’s influential work “Musée d’art moderne département des aigles, Section XIXème Siècle”, a parody of the museum that Broodthaers created in his own private space, his studio, for, ‘to question one while leaving the other intact accomplishes nothing’ (Buren in Crimp, 1980 p.210). Broodthaers wanted to be able to influence culture by exerting the control of a museum, choosing the 19th century for its part in the alienation of the artist from society and the rise of the museum as the medium between the public and its culture (Crimp, 1980). Broodthaers criticises the museum for it’s universalising of ‘all knowledge by tracing [culture’s] course in an infinite regress of origins’ (Crimp, 1980 p.222) and expresses Walter Benjamin’s “Historical Materialism”, ‘engaging with the historical original to every new present’ (Benjamin in Crimp, 1980 p.204).

Broodthaers’s history is social Darwinism, the ideal of a teleological utopia. Bourriaud’s relational art rejects this premise, going further to express that it is necessary for the critic to look at art from the perspective of situations that govern the art’s creation (Bourriaud, 1998). “Superficie biangolare cromata”, when viewed from Broodthaers’s perspective, being displayed amongst other literalist works can be seen to react to the present in the same way as they do, bringing legitimacy. Under the context of relational aesthetics however, the work was created out of its historical setting, bearing little relation to the more contemporary arts, with this as the perspective, the work is to capitalise on the reception of minimalism after the fact, the definition of Greenberg’s “Kitsch” (Greenberg, 1937).


The modernist gallery space as the pristine, softly lit, white walled, white ceilinged, windowless, white cube with a polished wood or carpeted floor and large expanses between works, allows artworks to push their boundaries and interact with the wall (O’Doherty. 1976). Matisse’s asked for this, they flattened depth, causing them to expand and challenge their frame, meaning other works could not be placed nearby so as not to confuse it’s meaning. The artwork required room to “breathe”; yet being “easel paintings” meant no amount of flattening through developments of modernism could bring the painting to mural levels, without being reduced to decoration. When Frank Stella introduced his shaped canvases, he suddenly brought the wall into the art itself, the non-rectangular frames meant the negative areas that used to be canvas played as statements against formalism, ‘the eye frequently went searching tangentially for the wall’s limits’ (O’Doherty, 1976 p.29).

This ocean of white was an effective point of sale for artwork and so characterised the gallery. Subtracting ‘from the artwork all clues that interfere with the fact that it is art’ (O’Doherty, 1976 p.14) and as such is the culmination of the social elitism of aesthetics. Much like Judd’s work, we put the art on the pedestal and call it art, the context inflates its value as an object. O’Doherty doesn’t believe, as Broodthaers does, that the gallery is the end point to the studio/gallery intertwinement (Crimp, 1989), but that the gallery presents itself as a neutral limbo between the purity of creation (studio) and the purity of consumption (living room). The white wall holds our assumptions of what should be on it, we ‘now are not looking at art; [we] are looking at the idea of “art” [we] carry in [our] minds’ (O’Doherty, 1986 p.82). It is nothing more than a noticeboard for advertisements.

The “white cube” is the very style with which Dominique Lévy London operates, one piece per wall, though with street facing windows as well as ceiling lights. This system further imposes the foreboding feeling of business that describes the experience of “Superficie biangolare cromata”. There is an air of a private viewing, with the watchful secretary leaving their desk to stand inside the room as if to judge on spectator’s disturbance of the facility’s pristine nature.

“Cipher” attempts to escape the “white cube” in its roof terrace location. the billboard size and great expanse of the sky above providing juxtaposition with the cramped conditions of the image. There is no hiding the method with which the image is held upright either, the piece doesn’t float from a wall but stands on a solid wood construction. Although the three pieces on the terrace face away from each other to avoid cross-image interference, there’s no attempt to hide their existence.


For “Cipher” at least, the Mirrorcity exhibition at the Hayward Gallery has attempted to engage the physical and institutional context of the work with the content displayed within. Allowing it to expand upon its meaning and the experience of it. Something which Dominique Lévy London does not. Instead it allows its private, corporate intentions to encroach on and inhibit the works on display.

Castellani’s piece, though formally compelling, lacks the engagement with its historical context that is so required of an artwork. It in no way attempts to reference or build on the past but simply to exist within it. Any argument to the contrary need only be pointed to the time frames of the other exhibited works, the youngest of which, predates “Superficie biangolare cromata” by 20 years. Such a criticism again cannot be levelled upon “Cipher”, Hardy’s engagement with the social experiences of the modern world are clearly visible in the content itself as well as its physical context.

Context can be as important if not more so than content when forming a relationship of meaning or experience with an artwork. Anne Hardy’s “Cipher” fits into its context perfectly, allowing it to remould the image to form a more compelling narrative than the image can share alone. Yet under the theories that outlined the literalist works to which “Superficie biangolare cromata” wishes to call kin, its gallery space undermines any attempt it may make of sincerity. The blatant commercialism to the space shouts down any potential experience of the art object to such a degree, a barcode would be more fitting an entry on the guide.






Berlinde De Bruyckere Met tere huid / Of tender skin (2014) [Exhibition]. Hauser & Wirth London, South Gallery. 27/11/14 – 10/01/15.

David Hammons (2014) [Exhibition]. White Cube Mason’s Yard. 03/10/14 – 03/01/15.

Local History (2014) [Exhibition]. Dominique Lévy London . 14/10/14 – 24/01/15.

MirrorCity: London artists on fiction and reality (2014) [Exhibition]. Hayward Gallery. 14/10/14 – 04/01/15.

Polly Apfelbaum Colour Sessions (2014) [Exhibition]. Frith Street Gallery. 07/11/14 – 20/12/14.

Sigmar Polke: Alibis (2014) [Exhibition]. Tate Modern. 09/10/14 – 08/02/15.



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Berger, J. (1972) Ways of Seeing. 15th edn. London: Penguin Books

Bourriaud, N. (1998) Relational Aesthetics. Dijon: Les presses du reel

Crimp, D (1980) ‘On the Museum’s Ruins’, in Crimp, D. (ed.) On the Museum’s Ruins. USA: MIT Press

Crimp, D (1989) ‘This is Not a Museum of Art’, in Crimp, D. (ed.) On the Museum’s Ruins. USA: MIT Press

Dominique Lévy (2014) Transatlantic Exhibition to Explore a Pivotal Moment of Intersection in the Careers of Three Exalted Postwar Artists [Press release]. December.

Fried, M. (1967) ‘Art and Objecthood’, in Harrison, C. Wood, P. (ed.) Art in Theory, 1900-1990. UK: Blackwell Publishers Ltd, pp.822-834

Greenberg, C. (1961) ‘Modernist Painting’, Art and Literature Paris, spring 1965 From: Modernist Painting (2007) Available at: (Accessed: 14/01/15)

Greenberg, C. (1939) ‘Avant-garde and Kitsch’, Partisan review. 6:5, pp.34-49

Meyer, J. (2009) ‘Minimal Unconscious’, October, Fall 2009, Issue 130, pp.141-176

Morris, R. (1966) ‘Notes on sculpture pt.2’, in Morris, R. (ed.) Continuous Project Altered Daily: The Writings of Robert Morris. USA: MIT Press, pp.11-21

O’Doherty, R. (1976) ‘Notes on the Gallery Space’, in O’Doherty, B. (ed.) Inside the White Cube: Ideologies of the Gallery Space. USA: University of California Press, pp.13-34

O’Doherty, R. (1981) ‘The Eye and the Spectator’, in O’Doherty, B. (ed.) Inside the White Cube: Ideologies of the Gallery Space. USA: University of California Press, pp.35-64

O’Doherty, R. (1986) ‘Context as Content’, in O’Doherty, B. (ed.) Inside the White Cube: Ideologies of the Gallery Space. USA: University of California Press, pp.64-86

Rosenthal, S. (2014) Mirrorcity: London artists on fiction and reality.UK: Hayward Publishing.

Sontag, S. (1966), ‘Against Interpretation’, Against Interpretation, UK: Vintage



Castellani, E. (2011) Superficie biangolare cromata. Available at: (Accessed: 14/01/15).

Hardy, A. (2007) Cipher. Available at: (Accessed: 14/01/15).

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