4.3 / Review

Field Conditions

By Genevieve Quick October 23, 2012

Rooted in the experimental architect Stan Allen’s concept of a field condition, the current exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) explores networks and their permutations through drawing, interactive installations, and computer-generated video. Joseph Becker, the museum’s curator of architecture and design, has gathered an expansive selection of works by contemporary visual artists and conceptual architects that explore Allen’s compelling ideas. The black-and-white palette of most of the pieces lends an austerity to the exhibition, giving Becker a narrow formal vocabulary with which to explore the theoretical boundaries and potential surprises of Allen’s rich premise.

In a 1996 essay, Allen proposes that, “a field condition could be any formal or spatial matrix capable of unifying diverse elements while respecting the identity of each. [. . .] Interval, repetition, and seriality are key concepts. Form matters, but not so much the forms of things as the forms between things.”1 With the term field, Allen makes an open-ended reference to mathematics, anthropology, and botany— disciplines that apply or test theoretical inquiries “on site” in order to explore potential variances within a series. Included in the exhibition is Allen’s series of drawings First 2,500 iterations of an infinite series of plan variations (2009). Based on an algorithm Allen designed that follows three simple rules to generate a myriad of permutations, these drawings present ideas of seriality and process to explore spatial relationships independent of being feasible architectural form.

Similarly, the white-on-black drawings by the visual artist Marsha Cottrell and the conceptual architect Lebbeus Woods investigate relational dynamics through line and simple forms. In A Black Powder Rains Down Gently On My Sleepless Night (2012), Cottrell ephemerally depicts a whirlwind of motion where forms, suggestive of galaxies or flying saucers, swirl in vortices and sweep across the sky. In his series Conflict Space (2006), Woods employs graphic repetitive white lines and shapes to create spatial depth and explore permutation. Much like Allen’s series, Woods’s drawings operate as exercises in conceptual architecture, where the space between lines suggests the dynamics of process and iteration rather than rendering a constructible form.

Tauba Auerbach. 50/50 Floor, 2008; installation view; black and white tiles, dimensions variable. Courtesy of the Artist. © Tauba Auerbach. Photo: Deitch Projects.
Lebbeus Woods, Conflict Space 3, 2006; crayon and acrylic on linen; 74 x 120 in. Purchase through a gift of anonymous donors and the Accessions Committee Fund. Courtesy of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. © Lebbeus Woods.

In contrast to such graphic works on paper, which make up much of the exhibition, Tauba Auerbach’s installation 50/50 Floor (2008) creates a more visceral relationship to pattern. Composed of eighty thousand two-inch ceramic tiles, evenly split in number between black and white and randomly laid on the gallery floor, the installation resembles a Quick Response Code (QR Code), the pixelated designs for scanning smart phones, often used in advertising campaigns. As a viewer moves around the installation, the patterns shift as one’s visual frame is forced to continually refocus. While quite nice as a spatial experience, 50/50 Floor doesn’t possess the same disorienting visual pop as Auerbach’s ink-on-paper 50/50 series (2006–08), which is not included in the exhibition. Perhaps smaller tiles or a larger room would have made the piece a stronger corollary to the drawings. Installed directly above Auerbach’s floor is Rafael Lozano-Hemmer's Homographies (2006): motion detectors pick up viewers’ paths across the gallery, causing ceiling-mounted fluorescent lights to spin sequentially along the same route, tracing movement through the space. While Lozano-Hemmer’s piece creates a vertical relationship with Auerbach’s work (diverting attention from the gallery walls, the standard focal point in art exhibitions), the presence of both interactive installations in the same room makes it difficult for a viewer to focus on either one for extended periods of time.

While Lozano-Hemmer’s installation explores shifting patterns as an interactive process between viewers and his rotating lights, the collaborative team Semiconductor creates moving patterns from data in their single-channel video, 20Hz (2011). Based upon data gathered from the Canadian Array for Realtime Investigations of Magnetic Activity (CARISMA), Semiconductor translates the electromagnetic radiation from a geomagnetic storm in the Earth’s upper atmosphere into elegant black-and-white abstract patterns accompanied by a crackling and whirring audio track. Although the video and audio elements are suggestive of television or radio static, the conceptual thread that holds together 20Hz should be more explicit for the piece to be more than aesthetically pleasing noise.

Field Condition’s prioritization of black-and-white works is perhaps not so surprising given that the exhibition was organized by SFMOMA’s architecture and design department. Black and white tones are often preferred as distilled forms of graphic representation, as their use avoids the potential decorative or connotative aspects of colors. While Field Conditions is conceptually cohesive, perhaps to a fault, unexpected juxtapositions of sculptural form, color, or mark could have expanded Allen’s ideas of relational space and permutation while perhaps even bringing some humor to the show. Additionally, given that some of the five pioneering architects included in the exhibition have broad practices that include object making, writing, product design, and so forth, it seems restrictive to limit their contributions to drawings, especially in a show that seeks to develop an expansive vocabulary for architecture. Works in other media, such as Woods’s chaotic metal installation Rain (2004), would have been a nice material complement to the works on paper. Nonetheless, Field Conditions’ exploration of the rich relationship between contemporary visual arts and theoretical architecture is admirable at a time when both disciplines continue to grapple with the tension between the pursuit of concept and its material manifestation.


Field Conditions is on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art through January 6, 2012.


  1. Stan Allen, “From Object to Field: Field Conditions in Architecture and Urbanism,” in Practice: Architecture, Technique and Representation (London: Routledge, 2009). The essay can be read at http://march1section1.pbworks.com/f/AllenS_FieldConditions.pdf.

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