Born in 1947, Robert Therrien belongs to a generation of artists whose imaginations were galvanized by Minimalism and its sources in the work of Brancusi, Duchamp and Mondrian but also by Pop Art and its irreverence. In the mid/late 1960s this emerging generation of artists began seeking ways to mediate between popular and high-brow culture and to bridge the ideological differences between Pop and Minimalism. As individuals who had grown up in the shadow of the Cold War they had been schooled in ideological rancour and divisiveness and inoculated against rationalist systematizations. Theirs is a generation that has cavilled at hierarchical orderings and categorical thinking and has sought ambiguity and maximal referentiality. Their achievement has been to combine the methodological rigour and self-reflectivity of the art of their immediate predecessors with a renewed emphasis on intuition and sentiment.
The rift between high and low forms of culture endures today in American culture where popular culture has a status and a currency far exceeding its presence and influence in European cultural life. Popular culture in America, the locus of its heart and soul and the source of its vitality, equally contains its worst aspects. The invidiousness of popular culture in contemporary American life, its unhappy success story, arises from the absence in America of a countervailing intellectual tradition with sufficient currency to mitigate the faddism, hype, compulsive pursuit of novelty and crass sensationalism that infect all forms of culture today but especially plague popular forms of culture owing to their close attachment to the mass media and the media’s kowtowing to consumerist values and their servile dependency on economic exigency.
In response to the deleterious influence and pervasive presence of the mass media, Therrien’s art distances itself from their techniques and style yet also attempts to rescue what in traditional popular culture is perennially valuable: its democratizing humour, its fantasy, its narrational impulse, its sentimentality – in short, precisely those traits that had been excised from Minimalism and other autocritical tendencies in vanguardist, high-brow culture.
As other writers have noted, Therrien’s art issues from Minimalism and is indebted also to Brancusi’s sculpture. The connections between Therrien’s and Brancusi’s art are considerable and quite apparent. What is interesting, though, about Therrien’s involvement with Brancusi’s work, and what has not been discussed previously, is how Therrien’s response to it differs from that of the minimalists. Whereas the minimalists valued the grammatical elementarism and discreteness of Brancusi’s forms, and his direct, pragmatic use of materials, Therrien responded also to something that the minimalists had overlooked in Brancusi’s art, namely its mythology of the object and its vitalism. Brancusi’s art, on a certain level, emulated the auratic potency of primitive cult objects. He sought to invest his sculptures with a magical, metamorphic potency. Therrien’s art, while not ascribing to the alchemical impulse and essentialism of Brancusi’s art, is affiliated with it through a mutual interest in potentiality. Potentiality affirms itself in Therrien’s art through its fluctuating play between figuration and abstraction, through its referential ambiguity, and finally via its spatiality. All these factors support an imaginative investment and capaciousness in the work.