heading article1 the shape of the real minimalism and choong kam kow unspecific objects

Louis Ho

Our tale begins in 1965, with two otherwise disjunct historical moments. Choong Kam Kow, then a recent graduate of National Taiwan Normal University, where he learnt to channel the post-Impressionist and Expressionist aesthetics of the early twentieth-century masters, ranging from van Gogh to Cezanne to Matisse, had been teaching art at Poi Lam High School in his home town, Ipoh, for several years. He received some life-changing news that year: he had been awarded a Fulbright scholarship through the newly established Malaysian-American Commission on Educational Exchange, and, in September, was duly enrolled as a graduate student at the Pratt Institute in New York City. His sojourn in America, which lasted some four years, was to prove – unsurprisingly – critical for his artistic trajectory. Post-war New York was at the height of its creative ferment, and in the mid-60s, Pollock and the Abstract Expressionist behemoth he had birthed was giving way to other forms of articulation: the shaped canvases and hard-edged style of Frank Stella, the monochromes of Ad Reinhardt and Yves Klein, the Neo-Dada embrace of the everyday by the likes of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, the Minimalist mode of Donald Judd, Robert Morris and others. As one of Choong’s biographers put it: “All these and in particular … geometric abstraction and conceptual minimalism have [had] great impact on Dr Choong’s subsequent art practice and his mission as an art educator. The New York series, Shaped Canvas series and SEA Thru series were produced as a result of his exposure to these American art movements.” [1]

It was also in 1965 that the Minimalist artist par excellence, Donald Judd, published what was to become his discursive calling card. His now famous polemic against illusionism, “Specific Objects”, appeared in the annual periodical edited by MoMA curator, William Seitz, Contemporary Sculpture: Arts Yearbook 8. The piece remains not simply the definitive pronouncement on the incipient minimalist aesthetic, but also functions as a pivotal document in the history of the movement. The list of Judd’s chosen buzzwords, generously sprinkled throughout the slender length of the piece, makes clear the values that he considered central to the character of the so-called specific object, or what he dubbed the “new work”: it was “non-associative”, “non-anthropomorphic”, “non-relational”. The inventory of Judd’s preferred mantras evinces the idea of self-sufficient clarity by arguing against the allusive, relational nature of traditional European art: “The [old] imagery involves a couple of salient resemblances to other visible things and a number of more oblique references … The parts and the space are allusive, descriptive … together they form a naturalistic and anthropomorphic image.” [2] The abstract, non-associative autonomy of his three-dimensional objects, their essential resistance to any sort of gesture towards a reality external to their particular forms, was the basic point that Judd was attempting to drive home: “Much of the motivation in the new work is to get clear of these forms.” [3] Perceptual clarity, then, was paramount, a concept that underpinned Judd’s repertoire of buzzwords: totality, specificity, objectivity. The work had to be able to hold its own in the face of any exegetical attempt to crack it apart, to read it for its art historical indebtedness, its experiential references, its socio-historical implications – anything, in other words, outside the stringent formalistic parameters that Judd had set. A specific object embodied literally nothing but itself, as he was fond of pointing out.

The serendipitous meeting of two disparate moments, occurring in the personal biography of an individual artist and in the broader currents of the art history of the twentieth century, foregrounds one of the central dichotomies that has shaped the understanding of Choong’s oeuvre. Like the non-referential specificity of Judd’s specific objects, some of his most famous works, from the Shaped Canvas series to the SEA Thru sculptures, have been understood primarily within the context of their perceived formalism, subjected to readings of their technical and material configurations as the chief point of access: the use of the shaped canvas, the deployment of colour theories, the intrusion of “real” space into pictorial space (more on which later). As one commentator observes: “In the late 1969’s [sic], Dr Choong … espoused an art that is clinically analytic, non-emotional, non-gestural and even blandly non-symbolic.” [4] The “blandly non-symbolic” character of Choong’s output at this time also lent itself to the established narrative of post-war Malaysian art history, which aligns its values with the concept-oriented approach being espoused by Redza Piyadasa in the 1970s:

          … attempt[-ing] to challenge and displace the Abstract Expressionist aesthetic values that was
          dominant in the practices of the newly returned artists such as Syed Ahmad Jamal and
          Latif Mohidin. Redza Piyadasa, alongside Sulaiman Esa, Tan Teong Eng, Tan Teong Kooi,
          Tang Tuck Kan, and Choong Kam Kow, were the few early artists that posit artworks,
          rather than be emotive or intuitively based such as the “Abstract Expressionism”, should on
          the other hand, employ analytical and logical strategies. [5]

In fact, no one less than the illustrious Piyadasa drew the explicit connections between Judd’s objects and Choong’s praxis. Borrowing from Judd’s theoretical formulations, he remarks of one the SEA Thru sculptures, SEA Thru – Flow 3 (1974) [6] :

          This work is actually an ‘object’ rather than a sculpture in that it is self-referential and
          does not depict anything outside of itself. Neatly cut holes have been made on the forms
          to emphasise the intrusion of real physical space and this has heightened its identity as a thing.
          It is, in essence, a minimalist form existing in the same space as the viewer. The highly
          polished surfaces suggest an industrially ‘finished’ look and character. [7]

Piyadasa’s comments are representative of prevailing notions of Choong’s conceptual scope, of the ontological autonomy of his paintings and sculptures of the period. His framing of the work in question within the discursive parameters of the specific object falls in line with Minimalist orthodoxy, partaking as it does of the now familiar lexicon of ideas like “object”, self-referentiality, Minimalist form, and the lack of citation of “anything outside of itself”. The object or thing, in Piyadasa’s view, suggests an entity that has veered off from recognizable artistic form, an item that, like innumerable other things, simply occupies “the same space as the viewer”. It would seem as if Choong’s work in the 1960s and 70s was indeed informed by the a-referential tenets of Minimalism …. yet the artist had, on various occasions, indicated that the shaped canvases and sculptural panels were also inspired by the look and feel of the city, and technological and industrial changes, that confronted him when he first moved to New York in 1965, and upon his return to his native country later. As he recounts, [8] he began the earliest of the shaped canvases in New York: in moving into pure geometric abstraction – the series was immediately preceded by the so-called New York paintings, which juxtaposed figural representation with brushwork inspired by the tradition of Chinese ink – he was at least partly inspired by the textures, shapes and forms of the urban fabric to assume the visual vocabulary of pure geometricity. [9] The modular, serial, interchangeable components of the shaped canvases reflected the material environment of the city he encountered as a foreigner, but also, later, by what was transpiring in the Kuala Lumpur he returned to, where most of the shaped canvas works were produced. Kuala Lumpur in 1969 was an evolving city. [10] It was a microcosm of the anticipation and aspirations of the new Malaysia, which had just become an independent nation a scant twelve years earlier. Industrialization, Choong recalls, was well underway then, and manufacturing, in particular, was providing much-needed impetus to the emerging economies of Southeast Asia and the Third World; taking his cue from the the Fordist system of assembly-line manufacture, he adopted the practice of joining several individual panels together into one work. The standardized, multi-panel modularity was present also in the SEA Thru series, developed slightly later, and which represented a desire to move on from shaped canvases. What was new in these sculptural pieces, however, was the introduction of “real space” into the pictorial realm of the work, the disruption of the parameters of the otherwise self-referential object – qua Piyadasa – by the manipulation of optical illusion and physical mass, tactics that were indebted to Lucio Fontana’s slashed canvases.

Of the SEA Thru works, Choong writes: “The interplay of solid and void, tactile quality and visual texture, illusional and physical space, real and imaginary forms gives rise to a kind of curiosity which arouses the urge to touch, feel and examine closely.” [11] It is, in fact, the haptic, tactile quality of the sculptures that, oddly enough, aligns them once more with Judd’s specific objects. Judd’s conceptual declarations have often been at odds with the persistently embodied ways in which his work has been received, and the issue of the haptic is especially pertinent in this regard; the idea of tactility, or the possibility of touch, evoked in the visual register, is intrinsic to the invitingly lustrous surfaces of his artworks. The spectre of the everyday seems to haunt his exacting phenomenological precepts like a dogged shadow, with commentators and critics reading the forms of familiar, prosaic things in the shapes and materials of his objects. Rosalind Krauss, for one, noted the deceptive appearance of his art, of the necessity of an embodied experience with which to grasp it in its actuality, a process that foregrounded the insistently tactile quality. Judd’s sensuously tangible and seductively engaging objects were, for Krauss, the epitome of “the inadequacy of the theoretical line, its failure to measure up (at least in Judd’s case) to the power of the sculptural statement.” [12] His artworks were “insistently meaningful” [13] to her, and that meaning was generated through an embodied experience – meaning denied by a solely optical involvement. The most salient feature of Krauss’ approach, then, is its embeddedness in the realm of the sensorial-experiential. The impression of tactility, in both a metaphorical and corporeal sense, is especially critical: “the work plays off the illusory quality of the thing itself as it presents itself to vision alone … as against the sensation of being able to grasp it and therefore to know it through touch.” [14]

To return to Choong’s sculptural objects, then, they are perhaps not quite as specific – to themselves, to art history – as generally assumed. The estrangement between art and the praxis of life [15] perhaps finds a point of symmetry in the idea of the haptic, and particularly in the ontological character of the SEA Thru sculptures “to suggest actual space is intrinsically more direct, powerful and specific.” [16] Alois Riegl, who popularized the idea of haptic and optic modes of vision with respect to antique relief sculpture, thought of the haptic as a delineation of a figure on its ground by “a distinct sculptural contour, treated as an isolated body in space, and, as such, perceived by the beholder as a tactile and individualized entity.” [17] He formulated the binary as one of long-distance, disembodied vision (optic) and close-range tactile perception (haptic). Riegl’s association of the haptic gaze with tactility was not to claim that the operation of each sense modality could be isolated in practice, but to raise the potentiality of encoding the sense of the tactile in the visual register – a form of looking that he deemed close to the phenomenon of “normal”, or everyday, vision. The process of an intimate scrutiny of textural complexity, akin to the experience of running one’s hand over a surface, distinguishing every bump and indentation, is central to this notion of a mode of visuality able to conjure the sensation of touch:

          Optical visuality depends on a separation between the viewing subject and the object.
          Haptic looking tends to move over the surface of its object rather than to plunge into
          illusionistic depth, not to distinguish form so much as to discern texture. It is more inclined
          to graze than to gaze. [18]

Choong’s un-specific objects, then, as three-dimensional forms in space, can be said to evoke a response beyond the purely visual – i.e. to draw attention not simply to their forms, but to the almost tangible qualities of their surface texture, to, as he put it, evoke “the urge to touch, feel and examine closely.” To return to Krauss’ assessment of graspability and a touch-based epistemology, perhaps it should be noted that the haptic entails more than just an appeal to tactility via the mechanism of sight, but implicates the entire sensorium in a synaesthetic act of looking as well. Krauss brings to mind Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s characterization of embodied, multisensory experience: “The senses intercommunicate by opening onto the structure of the thing. One sees the hardness and brittleness of glass … One sees the springiness of steel.”  [19] Or, to quote Carolee Schneemann on her own performative practice: “Vision is not a fact but an aggregate of sensations.” [20] In other words, the divide between popular critical positions on Choong’s work and the embodied ways in which he frames his objects of the 1970s points to a fundamental rupture, one that is perhaps best summed up by the artist himself:

          My canvases are designed to create a new reality, not a pictorial reality.

October 2019

(From Choong Kam Kow: The Shape of Things - Conceptual Configurations,
 Published by Gajah Gallery, Singapore, 2019)

[1] Ramlan Abdullah, “Journey Remembered, Trading Imagination, Series and Processes” in Choong Kam Kow: Cross Culture.Trans Era (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: National Visual Arts Gallery, 2014), pp. 18 – 37. See p. 24.
[2] Donald Judd, “Specific Objects”, in his Complete Writings 1959 – 1975 (Halifax, N.S.: Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, and NY: New York University Press, 2005), pp. 181 – 9. See p. 183.
[3] Ibid., p. 181.
[4] Ooi Kok Chuen, “Choong Kam Kow: The Enigma of Change” in Choong Kam Kow, pp. 64 – 90. See p. 68.
[5] Sarena Abdullah, “The Early Postmodern Artistic Strategies in Malaysian Art” in sentAp!, no. 1/07 (2010), pp. 27 – 33. See p. 29.
[6] The work is in the collection of the National Art Gallery of Malaysia. See Masterpieces from the National Art Gallery of Malaysia: Selected and Introduced by Redza Piyadasa (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: National Art Gallery, 2002), pp. 184-5.
[7] Qtd. in Muliyadi Mahamood, “Choong Kam Kow’s Creative Journey”, Choong Kam Kow, pp. 40 – 61. See p. 51.
[8] The reflections in this part of the essay are derived from a conversation that took place between the author and the artist, on Sept 10, 2019, at the latter’s home in Petaling Jaya.
[9] It is important to note that, according to Choong, the use of emulsion paint for the shaped canvases was due not only to the fact that they were cheaper and more readily available, but also because they were used for painting buildings and walls, an urban and architectural connection that he found interesting.
[10] 1969, of course, was a turning point for Malaysia in another respect altogether: the riots of May 13 were to prove seminal for the country’s future socio-political development. Choong remembers returning to Malaysia shortly after the events of May that year, though what effect, if any, they had on his immediate output remains to be examined.
[11] Qtd. in Ooi, “Choong Kam Kow: The Enigma of Change”, p. 85.
[12] Rosalind Krauss, “Allusion and Illusion in Donald Judd”, Artforum, vol. 4, no. 9 (May, 1966), pp. 24 – 6. See p. 24.
[13] Ibid, p. 24.
[14] Ibid, p. 25-6.
[15] As Peter Bürger formulated the issue with regards to the avant-garde-ist project, in Theory of the Avant-Garde (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984). See the section, “On the Problem of the Autonomy of Art in Bourgeois Society”, pp. 35-54.
[16] Pok Chong Boon, “Contemplating colours, shapes and the dimension beyond: the evolution of Dr Choong Kam Kow’s conceptual configurations” in Choong Kam Kow, pp. 104 – 125. See p. 122.
[17] As described by Pamela M. Lee, Chronophobia: On Time in the Art of the 1960s (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2004), p. 177.
[18] Laura U. Marks, The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2000), p. 162.
[19] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Phenomenology of Perception (London: Routledge, 1992), p. 229.
[20] Qtd. in Lee, p. 205.
[21] This quote is derived from an unpublished essay by Choong. While undated, the piece was most likely penned in the 1970s, not long after he began working on the SEA Thru series. The transcribed essay in its entirety is included in the present publication.

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drchoong kam kow
Dr. Choong Kam Kow is a well known
senior contemporary artist,
a leading art & design educationist and
an independent curator in Malaysia