random objectivations 1962-1975


In the publication random objectivations (1972), de vries helpfully reproduced one of the pages (119) in Fisher and Yates's Statistical Tables for Biological, Agricultural and Medical Research that he had used as the basis for the many works he created from the procedure of plotting random points on a given plane, each of which bears the generic title. The procedure itself he had described in detail in an article in the second issue of nul = 0 in April 1963, which also gives a summary of the various works that de vries had undertaken in the previous four years in which he had used random methods of composition.


We may, fortuitously, find them beautiful in other affective ways, of course: the configuration of elements across a plane may resemble a constellation of stars, or a scatter of dandelion seeds, or we may find visually exciting the play of unpredictable random black or colour points across the perfect order of an invisible grid. Every one of these random objectivations was made by using an arbitrarily determined procedure and resort to the random tables in Fisher and Yates. The random dots in space works of the early 1970s may thus look at first glance like a spatter of inkspots, but each dot (in reality a disc of black ink whose size is exactly determined by stencil) is carefully plotted on a series of random crossing points, set against the co-ordinates of the sheet edges, in what de vries calls 'an irregular weaving'. That a real and random spatter of blots might look like this, is, in the final order of things, no coincidence at all, any more than that the stars in the universe are where they are (or were) merely by cosmic accident.


Andersen, in what is a densely compressed text [Troels Andersen, 'Rational Structures', 1969], makes clear that what he values in de vries's work is its rigorous demonstration that the world as perceived - the phenomenal world in all its manifestations - is subject to the universal law of randomness; that what may seem 'natural' or 'logical' is subsumed under a condition of actuality that is beyond the order we may be trying, intellectually, to impose. What is controlled by any ordering of our own invention is what comes into our logical understanding or what offers evidence to our senses; what remains outside our rationally comprehended 'knowledge' or is beyond our senses is nevertheless a bigger part of reality with a coherence that we obviously cannot comprehend. In this, Andersen puts his finger on a central insight of de vries's, and one which is close to that expressed in the final proposition of Wittgenstein's Tractatus - 'Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent' - which may refer to both the physical facts of the world and to metaphysical realities beyond ordinary comprehension.

By adopting random procedures de vries demonstrates that out of randomness comes a multitude of possible immediate actualities, each of which is also an intimation of an order: the random objectivations are figures that, for Andersen, 'correspond' to those of 'axiomatic geometry', and that will 'clarify our mode of thought and insight'. The idea implied here of randomness as constituting in itself an order of complexity is neatly summarised by the mathematician, A.M. Born, as quoted by de vries in a text of 1968 (fragmentarische argumente): 'in his long pursuit of order in nature, the scientist has turned a corner. he is now after order and disorder without prejudice, having discovered that complexity usually involves both.' de vries the artist-poet is truly wallace stevens's 'connoisseur of chaos' who proposes:

A. A violent order is disorder; and
B. A great disorder is an order. These
Two things are one.

The introductory note to de vries's chance-fields/chance felder, an essay on the topology of randomness (1973), lightly hints at its essentially philosophical purpose:

look back, any place, any time, to actuality, when you have read chance-fields.

What has the appearance of a book of geometric figures, an exercise in mathematical abstraction, is in fact a proposition about the nature of our everyday reality in the phenomenal world. de vries had been familiar with Wittgenstein's Tractatus since 1965, and proposition 5,634 had long been a key text for him:

Everything we see could be otherwise.
Everything we can describe at all could also be otherwise.
There is no order of things a priori.

The random objectivations are, in a profound sense, formal visual extensions of these propositions of Wittgenstein, just as the many later works, presenting natural objects or traces of natural process in various ways, are concrete demonstrations of them.

The three-dimensional structures, reliefs, objects and sculptures that de vries made during this period are all in accord with the general principle that they could be otherwise than what they are: they offer no ground for preference. All are painted white, and carry into the three-dimensional world the whiteness that was so important a feature not only of white is superabundance, where it signified both absence and superabundance - the void and the chaos of infinite potentiality - but also as the 'field of chances' in the diagrammatic planar objectivations. After forty years or more their poignancy as historical objects is intensified, ironically, by the anonymous neutrality of their material presence, the whiteness of their surfaces, whose impersonal purpose in both aspects was precisely intended to achieve the elimination of affect but which now speak of their creation, in acts of personal intention, in a period of idealistically revived avant-garde-ism. They have become poignant relicts of late modernism.

History has many ways of modifying the impact and meaning of objects. (Consider Marcel Duchamp's provocatively propositional Fountain, whose secondary career as affective object began only after the publication of Alfred Stieglitz's moody and shadowy photograph of it.) On the occasion of the first exhibition of assembled block (1961) a bystander asked the question: 'mr de vries, where is the expression?' to which the artist replied: 'in the glue.' This was a double-edged joke: we see now that the decision to 'compose' the block (which entailed the glue) was indeed less impersonal than it seemed at the time. The random colour configurations of random objectivation - collage (1970) have a beauty of form and colour relations that is inescapably connected, we see now, at the deepest level, but coming from the opposite direction, so to speak, to that of the 'concrete abstractions' of Richard Lohse. Far from being random in their construction, Lohse's paintings are demonstrations of perfectly predictable relations in what the Swiss artist with whom de vries had discussions in the 1970s, described as a 'structured field'.

The artistic enactment of the random principle in the three-dimensional world was most immediately obvious in the sculptures which consist of a blind scattering (different in every manifestation) of wooden cubes and blocks, and in works of randomly plotted arrangements such as zufallsstapelung (1975), dating from the same year as a seminal work of de vries - one, two and three hours under my appte tree - which demonstrates the principle of randomness as it obtains in the natural domain. By this time, de vries had settled in the village of Eschenau in northern Bavaria and had already embarked on his work with natural processes and natural objects, which has been central to his project ever since. four stems, made as early as 196O, in certain obvious respects anticipates this later body of work, but it is very much a 'modified readymade' in that the natural objects of the title, randomly chosen with none of them having any quality more special than any of the others, have been tied together and painted white. Nature has become art here in more ways than one: four stems is a sculpture.

In September 1965, in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, a large random spatial structure was created which took the concept of random objectivity into the domain of the architectural. This was constructed by museum staff according to a manual provided by the artist. This gave the positions of the hanging panels in relation to two linear co-ordinates (aligned with two sides of a square drawn on thefloor, which was removed when the structure was completed), with random heights for the hang of the panels, and with the direction of their placement being determined in relation to the two walls of the space in which there were windows. 'personally', wrote de vries afterwards, "i saw only the object completely finished, 35 minutes before the opening of the exhibition. by then, any personal encroachments on my part were no longer possible, nor needed either."

[source: Passage from Mel Gooding, herman de vries. chance and change (Thames and Hudson : London 2006) 29-39.

random objectivation, 1964

random objectivation, 1964.
squares of colored paper randomly placed on board
[photo courtesy Galerie Hans Mayer, Düsseldorf]