Exploring the Arbitrary, Conceptual Artist Charles Gaines Reveals First Public Artwork in NYC

Charles Gaines’s work aims to stretch, palpate, disintegrate, and—in all other ways—put pressure on the concept of meaning until it gives up the secret of its arbitrariness. Over the course of his nearly 60-year career, he has explored this concern with the arbitrariness of meaning through often-beautiful artworks, though he treats beauty as incidental. Gaines has absorbed the big lesson of the conceptualist movement of the 1960s and early '70s: the aesthetic dimension of art can’t be abolished—even a ready made or deconstructed object still has an appreciable form—but aesthetics is not the content of art, it’s just a necessary condition. Thus his work deconstructs the legibility of images without itself ever becoming illegible. Some of the artist’s early work, such as his famous “Numbers and Trees” series, made up of carefully hand-drawn and painted grids, even seem to anticipate the era of digital imaging. This is yet another example of the arbitrariness of meaning: Gaines is uninterested in the digital as such.

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