I had seen the name Robert Horvitz several times, but had never seen his work until curiosity, or perhaps procrastination, got the best of me after re-reading his 1976 Artforum piece on Chris Burden.
The room is haunted. Thoughts tumble forth, drawn out by the vacuum of his withheld presence. While Burden is fasting, two leaders of the Irish Republican Army are in the seventh week of their hunger strike in a Belfast prison. They say they will fast to death to protest the British occupation of their country. At the same time, thousands are starving in East Africa and India, not as a symbolic gesture, but because drought has killed their crops and livestock. The reality of hunger in other parts of the world makes a disinterested esthetic appraisal of Burden’s piece seem somewhat ludicrous, if not downright perverse. In this piece, as in his others, the motive has to be the key. His execution is beyond criticism: he need only endure the inactivity, isolation and hunger to carry the work through, and to large extent this process is concealed by the installation. The piece dominates its space effortlessly. Nothing is employed that is not absolutely essential. Even his timing, in terms of both his own oeuvre and the surrounding social climate, artistic and otherwise, seems apt.
The byline reads “Robert Horvitz is an ordinary housewife who draws.”
Indeed he does.
Since 1970, all of my drawings have been made with just one kind of mark. I put the pen on the paper and flick it. The split-second acceleration of the penpoint attenuates the flow of ink so that the mark tapers, then breaks into tiny skips, and then disappears completely. This leaves a straight comet-shaped track about 1-2 cm long. No two marks are exactly the same, but their diversity is strictly limited. Most of my drawings contain thousands of marks.
The drawings are based on systems devised by Horvitz, but they are not so fixed as to reduce the artist’s hand in the process. He explains in his statement from 1977:
I never make preliminary sketches. Instead, I work out systems of constraint that govern the evolution of the drawing without eliminating free choice. (A fully constrained drawing, where the outcome is determined in advance, would not be worth executing.) By systematically limiting my options, I can create specific ranges and types of freedom. The visual consequences are often unexpected.
There is no uniquely prescribed course of action. At every moment it is
possible to imagine the drawing extending into a variety of futures. My decision to follow any one course closes off many others of equal interest and validity. Conflict and mediation. Some process of selection is called for that does not reduce to rules.
The rigidity of these systems appears to vary, compare the rather locked in work pictured above, Golgi’s Thing (1980), with the freer Personal Domain of Freedom and Ecstasy No. 3 (1973), containing a mosaic of varying rule sets governing pen movement. The latter looks as if the strategy organically mutated as Horvitz progressed across the paper from left to right, top to bottom.
Even in their shrunken, compressed format, I find this series of drawings from the last three decades captivating and wish there were some higher resolution images available online.
Bruce Sterling wrote of his work:
There’s an underlying logic to the work. You can sense him working from
self-set rules, spinning out graphic algorithms. But it’s not mere order:
it’s not a skyscraper made of toothpicks. The work also knows chaos. This art takes place where life is: at the rim of order and chaos. The possibility of breakdown and loss is always there. It’s a game between virtuosity and wild inspiration…
More of Robert Horvitz’s drawings can be seen on here and here. There is a short interview from 2000 available online, and it appears he is also on Twitter.