Illustration: Ansellia Kulikku. Source image: The Museum of Modern Art.

On the fourth floor of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, I encountered a man attending to a nearly invisible piece of string. Like many of MoMA’s guards, the man was black, and had donned a neat sharp black suit with a white shirt. He also wore black-rimmed spectacles. He stood before the string, which I soon discovered was a length of translucent nylon filament. A heavy stainless steel weight anchored the tendril to the ground, and the string extended to the ceiling, to which it was attached. It proved so difficult to detect visually that, at first, I thought the man only guarded the weight. In fact, it was difficult to imagine what he was doing there at all. I approached him and inquired what was going on.

He’d had a blank, bored, exhausted look on his face, but now smiled at me. He thrust his head forward from his shoulders to indicate the diaphanous installation. “I’m here to make sure that no one runs into it.”

“What is this?” I asked.

“A ha ha,” he said.  “I don’t know. Art.”

“It’s a string,” I said.

“Yes,” he said.

“How long do you stand here?” I asked.

“All day,” he said. “My whole shift.  Then I go home and soak my feet.”

“That sounds hard,” I said.

“I soak my feet at the end of the day,” he said again.

“I would too,” I said.

I went up to the little wall sign explaining the artwork in order to see who had made it and why.

The conceptual artist Robert Barry built Untitled in 1968, during a period from the mid-1960s to the 1970s when string works dominated Minimalism. The sculptor Fred Sandback, for example, made large installations out of black acrylic yarn, and Eva Hesse crafted squiggly clouds out of string, rope, wire, and latex.  

But Barry, an Anglo man born in the Bronx in 1936, was different. While Sandback made outlines, and Hesse created levitating graffiti that quoted the body, Barry wanted to represent nothing at all. Indeed, in a 1968 interview with the critic Lucy Lippard he explained: “Nothing seems to me the most potent thing in the world.” He pursued this obsession by playing with transparency and undetectability, which found expression in this work guarded, in the manner of Sisyphus, by the sore-footed man in the black suit and black spectacles.

Expanding on his idea of Nothing, Barry became interested in what he calls “invisible energy.” In 1969, he made  88mc Carrier Wave (FM), a sculpture which consisted of squeaky-sounding radio waves cast by a hidden transmitter.  Also in 1969, he made the sculpture Inert Gas Series/Helium, Neon, Argon, Krypton, Xenon/From a Measured Volume to Indefinite Expansion. This installation consisted of a post office box and a telephone number that directed people to a recorded message describing how Barry had released odorless and colorless gases at various locations in Los Angeles that year. Soon after, Barry made Telepathic Piece for a show at Vancouver’s Simon Fraser University. Telepathic Piece consisted of Barry sitting in his New York apartment and sending out a thought, or, rather, a “feeling, a sense,” for people to capture and read via ESP.  

Starting in the aughts, Barry broke form and began making works out of written words, such as “unknown,” “passion,” “look,” and “real,” which he fashioned out of electrically-lit tubing or printed in lively colors on walls and floors. These pieces moved towards the tangible and the emotional, and seem a vibrant riposte to his Vietnam-era fixation on zilch.   

But on the fourth floor of MoMA, Barry’s earlier fascinations hold sway.  

On September 16, 2016, the day I visited the museum, the string-guarding man stared out at the room with expressionless eyes as visitors swirled around him.  

“May I take your photograph?” I asked.

“Sure,” he said, looking at me sideways and suddenly smiling a little.

I took out my iPhone and his face grew somber again as I snapped him. I wanted to ask his name, but did not. He seemed too exhausted to talk, and I did not want to treat him as a specimen in the diorama that is MoMA. Also, I was shy and stupid.

I left.

* * *

Robert Barry became interested in Nothing in the mid-1960s, and made art that resembled the absence of something in its invisibility.  

However, invisibility is not nothing.

Ralph Ellison explained all of this to us back in 1952, but we may find a different way to worry about the Museum of Modern Art’s labor practices by looking to the field of science.  

In the seventeenth century, Pierre de Fermat discovered that light will always travel between points on the shortest possible path. This is the principle of least time or least action. We see the principle of least time or action at work when we look at objects in the water and they appear to us in a position other than where they rest: The water changes the shape of space around the object, and distorts the path of light.

The science of invisibility exploits Fermat’s breakthrough: If space curves wholly around an entity, then this swell determines the shortest distance. If space can somehow be pushed out around the thing—a string, a weight, a person—then light will also travel around it, rendering it invisible.     

Scientists work on manufacturing such invisibility even as I write this. In 2006, an international team of British, American, and Israeli physicists constructed an “invisibility” cloak out of metamaterials that shield objects from microwaves. Metamaterials are composed of plastics or metals, and possess precise geometric arrangements that deflect and disarrange these spectral currents. However, a thing coated in metamaterials remains visible to the human eye.  

Other scientists on a joint Chinese-American project are now using metamaterials to bend radio waves, like those used by Robert Barry in his 88mc Carrier Wave (FM). Contemporary invisibility cloaks thus parry with radar and sonar, but innovators nourish hopes that someday soon invisibility cloaks will work well on visible light waves—blinding people to what is right in front of them.  

* * *

The fourth floor of the Museum of Modern Art is a place full of invisibility. Signs of boredom, pain, and regret flit across people’s faces and then disappear.

I do not know if the patrons at the museum felt upset that a man stood for hours on end without a chair in order to guard a string tied to a weight that had been made by Robert Barry in the late 1960’s in order to convey an attitude of Nothing. The fourth floor holds the David Geffen wing, and one of its prizes is a vintage dark blue Jaguar E-Type Roadster, which Jaguar Cars gifted to the museum in 1996. A lot of visitors seemed mostly interested in looking at that.

Did the man guarding the translucent string feel Barry’s invisible energy, or did he feel like he was being slowly evaporated by a principle that might be called most time/least action? I do know that his feet hurt.  

* * *

Once I attended a conference where the poet and arts administrator Marisela Norte spoke. Norte, whose book Peeping Tom Tom Girl was published in 2008, works as an admissions official at The Craft and Folk Art Museum, on Los Angeles’s Wilshire Boulevard.  

She talked about her days fundraising at L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art, where she worked for fourteen years before being dismissed in 2009.  Before she was let go, Norte had befriended a young Latino security guard. He had artistic ambitions of his own, she said, but it is hard to become an artist when diverted by a full-time job. The young man spent the bulk of his days working at MOCA, guarding a room full of Abstract Expressionist paintings. Norte said that he died early, in an accident, before he could realize his dreams.

“He just spent his life staring at these scrawled Jackson Pollock paintings,” Norte recalled, and started to cry.

I had always considered Jackson Pollock a hero of American art, since he had broken open form in such a radical way and invented action painting. I had also cherished museums as unassailable strongholds of enlightenment and transcendence and beauty.

I began to think of museums differently after that.

* * *

I do not know the emotions of the man with the black spectacles and sore feet. I do not have telepathy like Robert Barry, and so I cannot detect the man’s feelings, his sense. But I think that as he stood guarding Barry’s Nothing, space pushed around him in a Jaguar-shaped bubble so that visible light waves followed the curve and did not pass through him. Art lovers’ indifference achieved a supernatural feat that the world’s best physicists cannot yet master.      

Others have fretted over the problem of museums, people of color, and optics. In 1991, artist and former museum security guard Fred Wilson built an installation called Guarded View, composed of four black mannequins wearing guard uniforms from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Jewish Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Whitney Museum respectively. When the Whitney displayed his installation at its 2012 biennial, Wilson told a reporter:  “When you’re a guard…people walk by you, but unlike the artwork, you are invisible…. [And besides] the people in the food service or the maintenance, you know, we were the only African-Americans or people of color in the museum.”

I am blind, too. Maybe if I paid attention to the museums I attend I would not visit them so regularly. I would patronize, instead, only guerrilla galleries founded on the tenets of equality and love. But blue chip museum art interests me, because it is bright and full of history. I am actually under-describing my feelings about high modern and contemporary art: The sculptures and paintings of Kiki Smith and Franz Kline and Robert Motherwell and Lee Krasner make me happy, often ecstatic. But when I think of the man guarding Robert Barry’s sculpture in that gorgeous, white-cube gallery, MoMA’s holdings start to look corrupted. It is as if an undesirable element of the art had been wrapped in an invisibility cloak that has now been ripped off.  

* * *

A person who stares at the space around a translucent string all day gets an education on the real meaning of Nothing—the most potent thing in the world. He or she also knows that a related concept, least action, is a misleading phrase. In physics, Fermat’s least action indicates that universal powers conspire to conserve energy by executing the fastest, most efficient space-time processes. This resourcefulness is accepted as a piece of cosmic cleverness. But in security guarding, the guard acquires the job of least action because he or she cannot do anything but stand watch, unless something ghastly transpires. Least action is not as great when practiced by human beings in this way.  

In the uncredited article 5 Ways for Security Guards to Combat Boredom on the Job, published by the security guard employment site, readers are told that “the best evidence that you’ve done what you were hired to do is when nothing actually happens.” As such, “it’s important to not let boredom compromise your effectiveness while you’re on post.” In order to avoid mental lethargy, the article counsels: “[C]ount the number of steps it takes to get to a certain location in your patrol route. Count floor or ceiling tiles, exit doors, fire alarms, or sprinkler heads. . . . [C]ount how many people are wearing neckties or how many people have blonde hair or glasses.”

In 2012, a scientific paper published in the International Journal of Psychology and Behavioral Sciences described a study of Malay security guards who worked in a bank. Its authors reported that “[a] considerable number of participants were screened positive for depression (25.4 percent) and 14.8 percent were positively screened with psychosis…. Overall, there is significant presence of mental health problems among the participants.”

The authors did not suggest that boredom or feelings of invisibility and insignificance contributed to these mental ills. Instead they looked to childhood traumas and the stress that comes with monitoring other human beings and conceivably being called upon to repel a violent affront to an employer’s safety.  

* * *

MoMA’s holdings are magnificent teachers. Franz Kline made beautiful black-and-white dreamscapes. Joan Mitchell marked the miasmas of postwar life. Kiki Smith frightens us about our impending deaths. Lee Bontecou crafted ingenious and degenerate war machines. Pablo Picasso revealed truths shattered. Jackson Pollock described the blasted shape of modernity. Robert Barry carried these revelations forward and showed that the stuff of life—the elements, thoughts, the mysterious vitalities that keep us alive—remains as escapist as inert gas and as ephemeral as a nylon fiber. It will vanish before your very eyes.

But if nothing is the most potent force in the world, then no one should have it thrust upon them as a condition of work. Invisibility is the scientific product of metamaterial Jaguars, racism, and social inattention to sore feet and weathered peace of mind.  

Art is supposed to be the visible energy that impels us to look with passion at the unknown and the real. Yet, what happens when art is held in an environment that dazzles your gaze away from inequality and suffering?  

Something, rather than nothing, does take place—and it’s terrible.

Yxta Maya Murray

Yxta Maya Murray has published six novels, including The Conquest (2002), and won a Whiting Writer's Award in 1999. She also teaches at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, and writes scholarship on law and literature, among other topics.

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