Peter Downsbrough (*1940 in New Brunswick, New Jersey) lives and works in Brussels. Since 1961 his work has been seen in many international solo shows, including, most recently, at deSingel, international arts campus, Antwerp (2011), at S.M.A.K., Stedelijk Museum voor actuele Kunst, Ghent (2006), and at the École des Beaux-Arts, Nîmes (2000). His art was shown at the documenta 6 in Kassel in 1977. In 1981 he received the Prijs van de kritiek, A.B.C.A.
At the zero degree of the book
"Cuts through 'the forest of signs,' to paraphrase Edgar Allen Poe, with austere rigor, pruning away nonessentials.” (James Welling on the books of Peter Downsbrough)
Along with Robert Barry, Sol LeWitt, and Lawrence Weiner in New York, and John Baldessari, Ed Ruscha, and Allan Ruppersberg in California, the American artist Peter Downsbrough belongs to the first generation of artists working in Conceptual Art and for whom the book is an essential, abiding form of expression. Downsbrough, whose oeuvre also includes photographs, drawings, prints, sculptures, public art, and films, has produced a total of one hundred books and exhibition catalogues since the late 1960s. In a very precise form, with an extremely purist visual vocabulary, the artist’s publications revolve around the theme of space and three-dimensionality—the same themes he has dealt with in other media for more than forty-five years now.
In his very first book, Notes on Location, begun in 1968 and published in 1972, he identified the parameters of his quite fundamental, book-and-space-based investigations, and they remain valid to this day. In “9 am, 800’ asl [above sea level]” he mentions the hour at which he began working on the manuscript, as well as the place where it was produced: his studio in Etna, New Hampshire, 800 feet above sea level, which he himself—as an architect—designed.
Downbrough’s material is composed primarily of lines and words—often conjunctions and prepositions, verbs and nouns. The lines appear in the form of Two Lines—two parallel, vertical lines with a standard length of 2-1/2 inches—as either simple vertical and horizontal placements in space, or also as diagonals. The artist often cuts off, tips over, or reflects the words or letters so that they become graphic abbreviations that lose some of their meaning, while at the same tie maintaining some of it, too. “With the word, one takes part in a dialogue, a discourse on its precise meaning. The word for me is an object. It has both a precise and a vague meaning. It is a universe one is confronted with. But there is no obligatory way of reading,” says Downsbrough himself.
Over the course of his career Downsbrough has increasingly expanded on this basic vocabulary of lines and words. In 1974, for instance, he added photos for the first time to his book, Two Pipes. Fourteen Locations –pictures of his Two Pipes, sculptures made of parallel vertical metal pipes, set in their (urban) environment. He continued to add other artistic materials, often in combination with each other: arrows, texts, plans, maps, collages, sketches, postcards, and film stills, manifesting a scarcely unsurpassable clarity of concept and design.
Downsbrough is one of the most important people on the New York art scene who was involved in the development of Conceptual Art out of Minimal Art in the late 1960s. As early as 1970 the artist succeeded in questioning the traditional, object-related character of the work of art, which led him first to radically simplified sculptures and interventions in space, and finally—like his fellow artist Lawrence Weiner—to a rigorous examination of the book as a medium.
“We could talk about the zero degree of the book, since it presents itself here in its simplest form,” wrote the publisher, book collector, and curator Guy Schraenen in 1993 on the books of Peter Downsbrough, which he himself does not regard as artist’s books, but simply as books.
Photo: courtesy Angels, Barcelona
February 18, 2013 Stefanie Gommel