The following is an updated and condensed version of a research paper presented by the curator and writer Adam Barbu at the 2015 Carleton University Interface Conference (Ottawa, CAN). The paper works to develop a critical foundation to support Shan Kelley’s art practice, as well as address several broader methodological questions facing considerations of queer theory and HIV/AIDS in the art history academy today.

On Minimalist Informality, or, Queer Vandalism Beyond Representation

by Adam Barbu

As a writer and curator, I have pursued an interest in tracing counterpoints and new lines of intimacy across and between two seemingly unlikely bedfellows: early minimalist sculpture and queer theory. This research has revealed to me that, when read alongside one other, the two introduce a difficult, yet pressing set of questions on the legacy of formalist art criticism and its continued influence on an entire framing of knowledge on the subject of queerness and HIV/AIDS within the mainstream discourse of academic art history.

The comparison raises several questions: What new possibilities emerge when we re-return to widely exchanged canonical works, objects, and texts with a different set of tools, priorities, and vocabulary of ideas? What happens when minimalist art is brought back down to the level of the ground and the discussion shifts from the formalism of minimalist art towards minimalist informality?


An email, dated August 21, 2014:

Shan Kelley,

As Director of the Chinati Foundation, I am writing concerning a possible act of vandalism which has been attributed to you. On July 31st our security team was alerted to the application of vinyl letters on the interior wall of one of Donald Judd’s work in concrete on the grounds of the Chinati Foundation. The Chinati Foundation is an art museum for which the care and protection of our artwork is of utmost importance.

We request all visitors respect the works of art on ours grounds and do not allows visitors to climb inside or on Donald Judd’s concrete works. And we do not allow the application of any materials for any purpose to the surface of Judd’s artworks. These actions damage the sculptures and potentially compromise the materials with which they are made. We did not approve the action depicted in the attached photographs and were not asked for permission by any artist or person to do so. Vandalism, mistreatment and damage to artwork is a serious offense punishable by law.

The concrete surface is being conserved.

If damage to the work has occurred, legal action will be taken.

I appreciate your attention to this situation.

The interruptive unauthorized gesture in question provides the central basis for Chasing the Horizon (Love Letter for Donald Judd) (2014) by Shan Kelley, a Montreal-based mixed media artist represented in the Visual AIDS Artist+ Registry. As indicated by the letter, this part performance, installation, sculptural, and photographic work is framed as an act of vandalism. To create the work, Kelley pasted a short passage of text in black vinyl lettering reading “Courage it takes to let you get to know me. Chasing the horizon,” on the interior of a prominent sculptural component of Donald Judd’s 15 Untitled Works in Concrete (1980-84), a renowned site-specific installation situated on the grounds of the Chinati Foundation in the desert town of Marfa, Texas. Today, nothing remains of Kelley’s intervention but a few modest pieces of evidence, such as photographs of the tagged concrete structure and the above response letter written by director of the Chinati Foundation.

Judd’s body of work, itself representative of what is often referred to as “minimalism,” enacted a shift towards a new formal language that called into question our embodied proximity to art objects. To position Judd’s work in its historical context, it is particularly useful to reference an often-cited text that took an explicit stance against early minimalist art. In his essay Art and Objecthood (1967), Michael Fried argues that minimalist art wrongly deviates from the modernist project to defeat “objecthood.” As a justification for this charge, he emphasizes the problematic “distances” that minimalist art introduces between the object, the spectator, and the surrounding environment. For Fried, these distances are not only spatial but also temporal, creating a situation of “theatricality” that confronts the viewer and leads to an open-ended, undefined, and uncomfortable corporeal experience before the work that has no necessary beginning or end. Fried develops this argument through a mode of inquiry that is unmistakably formalist. Used in this context, formalism refers to a materialist art history methodology that proclaims the most important aspect of an artwork is its distinct formal qualities and the ways in which these formal qualities interact within a broader material structure. Drawing from this formula, Fried’s conception of “theatre” introduces a rigid distinction in how we interpret the difference between the interiority and exteriority of art objects.

Kelley, the innocent vandal, inverts this formalist binary and positively incorporates Fried’s logic of “distances” to support an altogether different politics of spectatorship. Chasing the Horizon enacts a situation where the theatrical presence of the minimalist object that, in Fried’s account “distances” the viewer, in turn becomes a vehicle to tap into an impossible, non-representable and ungraspable closeness we might call intimacy in distance.

This paradox is constituted, no less, through the use of a love letter that is specifically non-specific and decisively indecisive: a signature of minimal doubt. Although Kelley’s status is nowhere explicitly referenced in this work, he does float the idea of a “risky” contract of intimacy: the “risk” that the vinyl supposedly poses to the exposed concrete is strategically leveled against the symbolic “risk” of intimacy between the two bodies, particularly given Kelley’s role as the trespassing outsider. This friction highlights the inevitable failure of a proximate, sustainable encounter between the poetic gesture and Judd’s concrete structure, and taken further, between the living Kelley and the deceased Judd. Viewed through this lens, the encounter exists within a rich, transitory space both in the sense of form (the ephemeral vinyl lettering will eventually be stripped and its trace cleaned from the object), and also in the sense of content (the poem distinctly outlines that there is no determinate end to this search or “chase” for connection). Kelley is “chasing the horizon” for its own sake.

Chasing the Horizon stages the informality of Judd’s work by capitalizing on theatricality and emphasizing the radical exteriority of this intimacy in distance. This embrace of and commitment to the informal is based inthe belief that an art object is never simply its visible, formal appearance, and that our critical focus should to be centered on the contingency of one’s site-specific late arrival to the outside of the work - a distinction that clearly opposes Fried’s idealization of formalist interiority and the “presentness” of spectatorship. When considered alongside Kelley’s intervention, Judd’s concrete structure can no longer be conceived of as an isolated formalist entity that acts as a marker of individual artistic genius. Instead, it becomes a slippery object within a surrounding environment whose meaning is contingent on the actions and behaviours of the different bodies that encounter it.

Through this expression of intimacy in distance, defined by a process of making-informal, Kelley complicates the material identity and spatial logic of Judd’s work, raising several questions: Is Judd’s concrete structure at all separable from the poem? Where does “Shan Kelley” begin and where does “Donald Judd” end? And at what point could either of these symbolic locations be identified as either the inside or outside of either the single sculptural object or the broader installation? These questions are, quite obviously, unanswerable. And so it is better argued that this performative intervention introduces situations of promiscuous co-existence and co-exposure between Judd, Kelley, and the spectator(s) who happen upon them.


However paradoxically, it is through this act of vandalism that Kelley repeats many of the central concerns of key minimalist artists like Judd, in both performing and asserting the primacy of the spectator. Perhaps it at this juncture that Chasing the Horizon expresses what is at stake when minimalist sensibility aligns with queer thought. Despite the fact that it rejects any sort of explicit reference to queer sexuality, I believe Kelley’s love letter whispers the queer legacy of minimalism, a legacy that encapsulates a shift in values from the logic of the pictorial and queer representation towards poetic vandalism and an expanded field of queer relations.

This shift embraces two core principles:

One: As theorist Deborah P. Britzman claimed more than twenty years ago, we must continue to advance an understanding of queer theory that is not simply based in interrogations of the identity of the author or artist who engages with it, but one that that calls into question “the conceptual geography of normalization.”1 This means adopting a shift in values from the study of queer “actors” to queer “actions.”2

Two: Operating within the tradition of artists such as Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Scott Burton, and Tom Burr, the queer legacy of minimalism taps into an aesthetic-political register of queerness that operates outside of the calculus of the rhetoric of cultural visibility. This means acknowledging the futility of traditional, yet still prevalent, representational practices that seek to render the visibility of certain queer bodies (while others are duly rendered invisible) and simultaneously articulate broader truths about “queer identity” and “queer history.”

And so, we arrive back at the distinction between formalism and informality. Together, the two principles outlined above encourage a movement beyond formalism and towards a kind of informal politics of spectatorship that centers on a rejection of the notion that art objects are bearers of objectivist forms of queer cultural evidence. This re-reading encourages considerations of the decisions that artists and curators make in staging queer relations.


My hope is that this modest proposition of minimalist informality demonstrates how Kelley’s seemingly unspectacular poetic gesture implicates broader redirections in queer thought and HIV/AIDS research through a decentered, anti-canonical approach to art theory and art criticism - a shift in thinking that several prominent writers have previously advocated for.3 Retracing these lines of inquiry, Chasing the Horizon reveals the shortcomings of efforts by certain artists and curators that dedicate their work to creating more or less “authentic,” politically “effective” images about AIDS. Instead, Kelley’s intervention reminds us that the discussion ought to be centered on the question of queer actions, affects, and relations in the time of AIDS.4

This loose methodology supports a mode of queer aesthetics rooted in situations of felt distance, displacement, and bad timing. In the same breath, it performs a rejection of even the most strategically disguised essentialisms in favour of an everyday queer politics that acts an enclosure for unexpected, opportunistic, and perverse intimacies to emerge.


1. Deborah P. Britzman, "Is There A Queer Pedagogy? Or, Stop Reading Straight," Educational Theory 45, no. 2 (1995):155.

2. Ibid., 153.

3. Two theorists of particular importance to this discussion are William Haver and John Paul Ricco.

4. This emphasis on the present moment ofa world withand part ofAIDS operates against what some have deemed a “post-AIDS” historical moment.

Adam Barbu is a writer and curator living between Toronto and Ottawa, Canada. Recently, he has created several exhibitions drawing from the Visual AIDS Artist Registry addressing themes of minimalism, and new approaches to queer politics and aesthetics in the space of the museum. In 2015, he was the recipient of the Middlebook Prize for Young Canadian Curators.

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Shan Kelley

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Felix Gonzalez-Torres