Posted by: Brad Nixon | August 3, 2017

“Is It Art?” Part II: Black Box

A few months ago, I wrote a post about a massive piece of art on display at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art: “Levitated Mass,” by Michael Heizer.

Levitated Mass Brad Nixon 7014 (480x640)

It’s a 300-ton boulder suspended above a 15-foot-deep concrete trench.

The question I asked, “Is it art?” generated a number of interesting comments.

Recently I saw another work — albeit much smaller — that begs the same question.

McCracken Black Box 7838 (640x480)

That is “Black Box,” by John McCracken, created c. 1965. It’s on display in the Portland (Oregon) Art Museum. The museum’s description reads, “Polyester resin on fiberglass and plywood.” I didn’t measure it, but it’s approximately 18″ on each side.

As you can see, the visible faces are reflective. It’s only occurred to me now that there are two sides — the “back” and the bottom — that I did not see. Does one assume they’re identical? Is part of the artistry to make us question our assumption that the parts suggest the whole?  A question of the gestalt?

I went out of my way to avoid reflections in the image above other than the unavoidable one of the white plinth and the object’s own shadow. A second image shows the reflection of a passing museum-goer and the descriptive card to the right.

McCracken Black Box 7839 (640x524)


There is certainly “artistry” involved: imagining and then executing the fabrication of a (presumably) perfect cube with no surface variation other than in the reflection of light on its surface.

That, after all, is precisely what is going on in adjacent rooms of that museum and every other museum in the world: Light is reflecting from paint, stone, bronze, ceramics or precious metals used by Monet, Degas, Tiffany et. al. One of the most profound lessons a beginning painter learns is that she isn’t painting the object, she’s painting the light reflected from it.

Black Cube is an object, not a representation. If it represents anything, it embodies the idea, “cube.” But it’s also about light, because it reflects light (and does almost nothing else). Is that enough to call it “art?” René Magritte famously painted a pipe with the label, “Ceci n’est pas un pipe,” naming the painting “The treachery of images.” McCracken calls this a cube: Is that what it is? If that’s all it signified, wouldn’t he have simply made the surface a nonreflective matte black?

At the very least, McCracken makes us think about the light, not just the object.

So, is it art?

I already know what I think. What about you? Leave a comment. I relish discussions like this.

Additional information:

John McCracken on Wikipedia

John McCracken Survey, David Zwirner

© Brad Nixon 2017. Black Cube © John McCracken, Portland Art Museum, gift of Karen and Henry Groth. No commercial use of the image without express permission.


  1. I would say yes. At first glance it may not appear to be more than a cube. However, as you pointed it, the piece did make you reflect upon the artist’s intention. Also, as I’m sure you are aware, it’s often the back story of a piece that makes the work more valuable.


    • I hope some other readers comment on the notion of “intent” in creating art. That, alone, is a broad topic of consideration, and I’m happy you brought it up. Thanks.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. The question is incomplete. It should be: is it art just because it’s in a museum? Or, just because the object’s creator said so? These were the questions Marcel Duchamp essentially posed in the early 20th C., when he entered an upside down urinal in an open art exhibition. He signed his “sculpture” R. Mutt.

    So, if you like the ambiguity and provocative qualities of Dada and Neo-Dada, then this Minimalist cube is surely your baby. But it’s not for me. I’m a 19th C. guy.


    • Thanks, La Boheme. There’s something to be said for your century. A lot of things hanging around on walls from that era! And I agree: there are, essentially, only questions, and it’s difficult to ask the right ones.


  3. Yeah I seen this it’s weird “art” like this can sell for so much


Leave a Comment. I enjoy hearing from readers.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


%d bloggers like this: