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The Flattening of “Collage”



In his influential article “Modernism and Mass Culture in the Visual Arts,”
Tom Crow took the courageous step of citing—favorably—several critical essays
written by Clement Greenberg. Crow wanted to remind us that, in its earliest
theoretical formulations, including those advanced by Greenberg himself,
modernist art was seen as thoroughly bound up with the rise of capitalism and the
culture industry that attended it.1 It was, of course, to the early, overtly Marxist
Greenberg (the author of “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” and “Towards a Newer
Laocoon”) that Crow directed our attention; he had substantially less enthusiasm
for the arguably more dogmatic, formalist critic who, two decades later, wrote
“Collage.”2 That Greenberg, Crow rightly pointed out, had become so intent on
denying any overlap between the products of mass culture and modernist art
that he refused to acknowledge the obviously commercial nature of the collage
elements—the labels, the scraps of newspaper, and wallpaper—that Picasso and
Braque had actually pasted into their papiers collés. Crow seemed to feel that,
whatever the insights of “Collage,” they were outweighed by such oversights,
and within the course of a few paragraphs he had effectively written the essay
off as irredeemably flawed.
If I find myself less willing or able to dismiss “Collage,” it is not because I
think the formalist, Kantian Greenberg is more compelling than his Marxist
predecessor. In truth, I am far less interested in either the formalist or the Marxist
alone than I am in (to borrow Stephen Melville’s phrasing) the Hegelian who

This essay benefited from its presentation to the seminar in modern art jointly sponsored by the
History of Art Department and the Humanities Center at Johns Hopkins University. I would like to
thank Brigid Doherty for extending the invitation to deliver the paper there. I would also like to thank
Harry Cooper for his generous and careful reading of the text; even those few suggestions that I did
not ultimately take helped me to clarify the finer points of the argument that I was trying to make. A
more general debt of gratitude is owed to Stephen Melville, who, early on, showed me what it might
mean to actually read Greenberg thoughtfully and with care.
Tom Crow, “Modernism and Mass Culture in the Visual Arts,” in Modern Art in the Common
Culture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996), pp. 3–37.
Greenberg, “Collage” (1959), in Art and Culture (Boston: Beacon Press, 1961), pp. 70–83.
OCTOBER 102, Fall 2002, pp. 59–86. © 2002 October Magazine, Ltd. and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.



emerges out of the rubbing of Kant against Marx in Greenberg’s writings.3 I
would even go so far as to suggest that Greenberg has been a powerful presence
within art history precisely because, like Hegel, he offers us a model, albeit
imperfect, of how “art” and “history” might be thought together, and of how
their conjunction can be seen to articulate a single field: art history as distinct
from history tout court or, perhaps more urgently at present, from either visual
or cultural studies.4
All of this is by way of saying that if in what follows I engage in a close reading
of “Collage” (a text that Crow describes as one of Greenberg’s “most complete
statements of formal method”5), it is not so much to explicate the essay’s formalism
as to draw from it an understanding of the grounds on which art might properly
be said to have a history—its history, if not fully separate from, neither fully
subsumable into, a history of culture more broadly or generally conceived. I also
hope to show that that understanding can be turned back upon the text itself, and
used to rectify some of its more evident shortcomings. Even the omissions pointed
out by Crow can be addressed, I believe, by rigorously applying the logic that
Greenberg developed in the first half of the essay but failed to carry through.6
I am getting ahead of myself, however. Before we can even begin our close
reading, we need to clarify precisely which text it is that we intend to read.
“Collage” has all too often been taken as a straightforward revision of “The PastedPaper Revolution,” an essay that Greenberg wrote a year earlier, and that appeared
in the September 1958 issue of ARTNews.7 The differences between the two texts
Melville, “Posit ionalit y, Object ivit y, Judgment ,” in Seams: Art as a Philosophical Context
(Amsterdam: G+B Arts International, 1996), p. 78. Of course, it remains to be seen what kind of a
Hegelian Greenberg actually is.
Crow’s essay, it seems to me, largely blurs these distinctions—not only through its explicit
appeal to cultural studies (primarily the work of Phil Cohen, Stuart Hall, and Tony Jefferson), but also
through its implication that the autonomy of art, on which rests whatever claim art history may have to
occupying a distinct field, actually originates elsewhere. Crow writes, for example, that “the formal
autonomy achieved in early modernist painting should be understood as a mediated synthesis of
possibilities derived from both the failures of existing artistic technique and a repertoire of potentially
oppositional practices discovered in the world outside” (p. 29). Similarly, although Crow begins by
regarding the avant-garde as a resistant subculture like those studied by Hall and Jefferson, he closes
his argument with the suggestion that it in practice only borrows from such groups. Thus: “In their
selective appropriation from fringe mass culture, advanced artists search out areas of social practice
that retain some vivid life in an increasingly administered and rationalized society” (p. 35).
Crow, “Modernism and Mass Culture,” p. 8.
In this ambition to turn what I take to be the strongest arguments within “Collage” back upon
that text itself, I feel a bit of the same hesitation expressed by T. J. Clark when he admitted that he was
“genuinely uncertain as to whether [he was] diverging from Greenberg’s argument or explaining it
more fully.” In my case, there is undoubtedly some truth to both claims—though I trace my ambivalence
to “Collage” itself, which seems to lay out two distinct and even contradictory models of how modernism
works. For Clark’s analysis, “Clement Greenberg’s Theory of Art,” see Francis Frascina, ed., Pollock and
After: The Critical Debate (New York: Harper & Row, 1985), pp. 47–63.
Reprinted in Clement Greenberg, Collected Essays and Criticism, ed. John O’Brian (Chicago:
1993), vol. 4, pp. 61–66. “The Pasted-Paper Revolution” is in turn something of a reworking of a review
of The Museum of Modern Art’s Collage exhibition that Greenberg wrote a decade earlier and published
in The Nation 27 (November 1948).

The situation is not helped by the fact that “The Pasted-Paper Revolution” was included in Greenberg’s Collected Essays and Criticism. the change of title—from “The Pasted-Paper Revolution” to “Collage”— suggests that Greenberg did in fact recognize a distinction between the two practices. especially those concerned with Cubism. 9. I would counter. and thereby altering it in some fundamental way. Everything is to be understood in the context of the whole.” I have used them more or less interchangeably here. It might seem that by beginning. related in the unfolding narrative of “Collage. post–1915) paintings of Juan Gris—that significantly alter the argument’s overall shape. “The Pasted-Paper Revolution” (as in note 1). Even if that editorial decision was taken in view of the still ready availability of Art and Culture. collage appears to open out more readily onto practices perhaps best described as sculptural. Greenberg claims that the paintings effectively recapitulate and clarify the most important achievements of Picasso’s 8. it is likely to discourage any direct comparison of the two texts. it probably makes sense to disentangle them momentarily and attend first to Greenberg’s discussion of the paintings by Gris. in the end. whereas papier collé seems to maintain a much closer attachment to the field of painting. leap to the beginning. as a result. It has become customary among art historians. however. (As a result. specifically those done in 1915 and the several years following. whereas collages may include a wider array of materials—everything from rope and fabric to pieces of metal or wood.9 While Gris’s work had been mentioned in “The Pasted-Paper Revolution. and then work my way forward to the end—is designed to simulate. again. as Harry Cooper pointed out to me. and in fact never employs the phrase “papier collé. collage would prove the more “revolutionary” of the two. and Greenberg’s judgment was largely negative. although much of the additional material can be passed off as simply providing greater detail to the existing argument. and the later (that is. 10. as the name implies.8 But “Collage” is more than twice as long as its predecessor. to pieces of pasted paper (often with pencil or charcoal drawing overtop). though.” I am willfully flouting the order of the argument as it is actually presented. the multiple readings that in fact led up to the interpretation I will offer.The Flattening of “Collage” 61 have.” For our purposes. with the rather awkward qualification that that whole in turn depends entirely on the individual moments comprising it. Greenberg follows it with praise for Gris’s later paintings.” The latter term is usually reserved for works whose elements are limited. 65.”10 In “Collage. as efficiently as possible. the essay also includes two subjects nowhere raised in “The Pasted-Paper Revolution”—Picasso’s and Braque’s cultivation of the sculptural aspects of Cubism. which serves as a sort of coda to the essay as a whole. and so to reinforce the impression that the differences between them are relatively minor. understandably. on his papiers collés. if negatively. that one of the things that characterizes “Collage” (and makes it more than a little Hegelian) is that no part of it is fully explicable in isolation.” although essentially the same charge is repeated. . Nevertheless. or at least the more pervasive and so the more historically consequential. p. The strategy that I have adopted here—to start at the conclusion. been frequently elided. while “Collage” was not. We will see as we proceed that the two subjects are closely. and. at the end of “Collage. Gris’s collages were held to “lack the immediacy of presence of Picasso’s and Braque’s. To the extent that Greenberg’s desire to incorporate these subjects into his narrative seems likely to have been what occasioned the rewriting. it might be worth our while to examine them briefly before taking up a properly sequential reading of the text. to distinguish between the more general category of “collage” and the subset “papier collé. It may even be that we should read the switch to “Collage” as an indication of Greenberg’s growing sense that. as I do.” the emphasis there was.) Because Greenberg does not distinguish between the two terms.

the liquidation of sculptural shading. He points in particular to Gris’s “sonorous” blacks—to the way that they initially constitute themselves as shapes (rather than shadows) and so establish an ambiguous relation to both adjacent shapes and the plane of the picture as a whole. © 1998 The Detroit Institute of Arts. . “Collage.” In such works. and Braque’s earlier papiers collés.” pp. Greenberg adds.Juan Gris. From the essay’s opening sentence. “perhaps more clearly than anything by Picasso or Braque. 1916.”11 The essay leaves little doubt that these twinned accomplishments—the liquidation of sculptural shading and the transcending of the decorative—are central to Greenberg’s assessment of Gris’s paintings. the brilliance of a work like Gris’s 1916 Still Life lies in the fact that it demonstrates. just as they are to his estimation of Cubist collage.” we are told. Still Life. 81–82. In Greenberg’s eyes. it is also made clear that that estimation is considerable: “Collage was a major turning point in the evolution of Cubism. “and therefore a major turning point in the whole evolution of 11. “the decorative is transcended and transfigured. something which is of the highest importance to Cubism and to the collage’s effect upon it: namely.

p. and only the radical experiences afforded by avant-garde art offered any real hope of saving painting. he argues. 15. Philosophy Beside Itself: On Deconstruction and Modernism [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. to cease to count. p. 86. 13. “Towards a Newer Laocoon.” Each art.”13 In his later writings Greenberg’s terms are rather less political. It is.” As Crow and others have accurately pointed out. but a whimper. discovered that they “could save themselves from this leveling down only by demonstrating that the kind of experience they provided was valuable in its own right and not to be obtained from any other kind of activity. not through any direct critique of either those effects or their cause.”15 The arts. a bit difficult to know how serious a threat to art capitalism actually poses. . of the self-critical tendency that began with the philosopher Kant. “Modernist Painting. almost the exacerbation. we will need to take a brief detour through a couple of other essays by Greenberg. pp.. I myself. p. 70. but rather through the processes of “selfcriticism”: “I identify modernism with the intensification.”12 What remains unexplained in “Collage” itself is why the history of modernist art should have pivoted upon a dual rejection of sculptural shading and the sort of decorativeness that Gris’s paintings are likewise seen to have overcome.” In “Modernist Painting. on the contrary. “to be assimilated to entertainment pure and simple. Also see Melville’s entry on Greenberg in The Encyclopedia of Aesthetics (New York: Oxford University Press. and he warns that activities unable to avail themselves of this sort of self-critique are those most likely to disappear. fear of Muzak” (Melville. from being turned into a form of “relatively trivial interior decoration. Greenberg. for example.” Partisan Review ( July–August 1940).The Flattening of “Collage” 63 modernist art. 4. 8). had to perform this demonstration on its own behalf: The task of self-criticism became to eliminate from the specific effects of each art any and every effect that might conceivably be borrowed 12. vol. I think. 1.. in our world: not with a bang. 1998) vol.”14 Its resistance to the deadening effects of contemporary society is staged. No doubt there are many who feel that Greenberg’s anxiety in this regard is misplaced— either because they hold art to be inviolable or because. having recognized their vulnerability. but he continues to hold modernism responsible for “the whole of what is truly alive in our culture. 14. 2. Ibid. am inclined to agree with Stephen Melville when he writes. 1983]. among other things. It is. p. 85. including what is surely his most programmatic (and controversial) statement on the subject. vol. p. that the “fear we attribute to the world of art is not bizarre. 24. they celebrate its involvement with commodity culture. he explained.” Greenberg argues that such self-criticism is used not to subvert the “self” in question. in a discussion of Greenberg’s modernism. 335–38.” in Collected Essays. In his earliest essays. it is based on the way things of culture increasingly do appear to die. Ibid. “Modernist Painting. but to entrench it more firmly. In order to flesh out the logic underlying this particular view of modernism. however. Greenberg’s interest in modernism was fueled from the start by a deep anxiety over the fate and identity of art. reprinted in Greenberg’s Collected Essays. he cast the argument in explicitly Marxist terms: capitalism’s inexorable commodification posed a serious threat to cultural standards and values. however.

for example. Although Poggi concedes that Greenberg was “an astute observer of the relational.” 18. In so doing. moreover. see Stephen Melville’s Philosophy Beside Itself. at having had to resort to these terms. And with this double handling of “purity. then. and so assume that the language of purity precisely captures what Greenberg had in mind. “Because flatness was the only condition painting shared with no other art.” .” in The Encyclopedia of Aesthetics (New York: Oxford University Press. 17.” and is held. because we have begun from an effort to take a certain kind of threat seriously.” Greenberg concluded. so as to reveal in the end the final truth or essence of each art. and this means that we are going to be able to use notions like purity only if they are somehow bracketed. In fact.17 If we disregard the scare quotes. one of my hopes for the present 16.” and in its “purity” find the guarantee of its standards of quality as well as of its independence. in which Melville draws out the implications of accepting the idea that art might. 1998). “Modernist Painting. we are forced to speak of something like “purity” as a central project for or aspiration of art.” p. At the same time. we have in effect already built an impurity into our notion of art in a way that cannot be overcome. For a reading of “Modernist Painting” that does take those quotation marks fully into account. p. 19.” we have installed a dialectical motor capable of generating a real history operating in something other than logico-aesthetic space—a space organized by a desire to continue the enterprise of art and not a desire to offer “theoretical demonstrations.64 OCTOBER from or by the medium of any other art. ever-shifting value of surface and volume in Cubist works. Christine Poggi. See.” perhaps most infamously in his discussion of the “ineluctable flatness” of painting’s material support. 392. 4ff.19 Whether or not “Modernist Painting” can actually sustain such an interpretation. Greenberg himself unfortunately appears to have accepted this invitation at a number of places within “Modernist Painting. we rule out any radically aestheticist position from the beginning. 1.” she finds both “The Pasted-Paper Revolution” and “Collage” to be marred by Greenberg’s “continued [assumption] that the pictorial ground was an a priori fact whose integrity must be affirmed. vol. to say that it is an essential possibility of art that it can mistake itself in a certain way. Of particular relevance to the argument I hope to make here is the following passage. Such a reading has nourished the belief that Greenberg was committed to little more than painting’s assertion of its literal surface.” They seem to indicate a certain ambivalence on Greenberg’s part. Thus would each art be rendered “pure. p. 87. “‘The Pasted-Paper Revolution’ Revisited. “Collage” clearly cannot. a commitment that is easily and rightly written off as superficial. a dissatisfaction. in fact. Ibid. even. to be exemplary of Greenberg’s writings on these matters as a whole.16 We would perhaps do well to take note of the quotation marks that appear in this passage around the words “pure” and “purity. “Modernist painting oriented itself to flatness as it did to nothing else. we will feel ourselves invited to imagine the history of modernist art as a progressive paring away of the inessential. be something capable of “assimilation to entertainment pure and simple”: We want. from page 7.”18 It is an unhappy fact of the reception of Greenberg’s criticism that this reductive account of modern art’s relation to medium has become the accepted reading of “Modernist Painting.

and the Cubists after him. once again. so the Cubist counter-revolution eventuated in a kind of painting flatter than anything in Western art since before Giotto and Cimabue—so flat indeed that it could hardly contain recognizable images. of having been “crucially concerned. had it only been a matter of that. even though at the same time.” The reversal would allow us to see the appeals to medium-specificity in “Modernist Painting” as something other than a narrow essentialism. in the name of the sculptural. far from being a simple linear progression to an essence.” p. paradoxically. I will argue. “Collage. italics added. 21 The “sculptural” and the “decorative” that Greenberg takes up later in his discussion of Gris can thus be seen as names for 20. in fact fully dialectical. We will want to look carefully over the course of the remainder of this essay at the exact nature of that dialectic. the physical fact that it was flat. and so little guarding against the medium’s degeneration into “relatively trivial interior decoration. Indeed.” “Collage” is very clear on this point. as David had reacted against Fragonard. say.” the medium of painting draws at certain (self-)critical moments on the resources of sculpture— as it does no less on those of papier collé. there would have been little to distinguish a modernist painting from. “Collage” also makes plain the absurdity of the notion that modernist painting was oriented solely toward the revelation of the “ineluctable flatness” of its material support. before that. 21. 71. the wallpaper against which it hung. from page 89: It was. reacted against Impressionism. in the history of modernist (which is to say.” though it has been almost entirely overshadowed by those passages that seem to contradict it.” and.”20 These observations play an important role in what. though. it had to overcome this proclaimed flatness as an aesthetic fact” were it to become a successful painting.The Flattening of “Collage” 65 essay is that it will encourage a reversal of the usual priority of things. Literal flatness is a condition that modernist painting had to acknowledge. so that “Modernist Painting” will begin to be read through the corrective lens of “Collage. in a kind of painting even less sculptural than before. Picasso and Braque are credited there with having produced in their early pasted-paper works “the illusion of forms in bas-relief. rather than pretend to deny. but to which it refused to be fully reconciled: “Painting had to spell out. that Cézanne. with obtaining sculptural results by strictly nonsculptural means. the idea that Greenberg holds to an exclusively purist conception of the arts is readily given the lie by his insistence in “Collage” on the sculptural dimensions of Cubism. The relevant sentences are these. . For the time being. in and through their [paintings]. In fact a similar point is made in “Modernist Painting. it may be enough to remark how. medium-specific) art recounted in “Collage.” pp. is the essay’s clear demonstration that Greenberg’s history of modernist art is. 75 and 71. and the selfcriticism that the essay claims to be definitive of modernist art as quite distinct from the self-reference for which it is generally mistaken. just as David’s and Ingres’s reaction had culminated. with its shading and modeling. We can see easily enough for ourselves that. “Collage. But once more.

“Collage” lays out the complexity of the gambit in some detail: If the actuality of the surface—its real.22 (In this light. the category. Ibid.”25 If ultimately somewhat less than adequate.. spatially. whereas the “decorative” would denote the opposite tendency—a disregard for what Greenberg calls the “aesthetic fact” that that flatness (the canvas’s mere or mundane physicality) must somehow be overcome in order for the painting actually to be judged a painting. of non-art. in reference to the paintings of 1910 and 1911. the facet-planes—had to be kept separate enough from literal flatness to permit a minimal illusion of threedimensional space to survive between the two. that is. or the tassels-and-studs that appeared in several other works. . it would be distinguished and separated from everything else the surface contained. Ibid.66 OCTOBER painting’s tendency to forget one or another of these “facts” about its own field.. we are perhaps finally ready to begin working our way sequentially through “Collage.” the “token” means of the tack-with-a-cast-shadow used in the 1910 Still Life with Violin and Pitcher. 25. neither the tack nor the tassel-and-stud acts upon the picture.” Greenberg’s exclusive concern at the beginning of the text is with the early Cubist paintings of Picasso and Braque. each suggests illusion without making it really present. 71–72. that there might be a way to overcome literal or physical flatness by. The “sculptural. producing anything that could quite be mistaken for sculptural form. Or to put it still another way: depicted flatness would inhabit at least the 22. pp. physical flatness—could be indicated explicitly enough in certain places. without. however. 24. and the limit point at which painting passes over into the extra-aesthetic or merely decorative. bringing it to the fore. “The main problem at this juncture. whatever upon it was not intended literally would be set off and enhanced in its non-literalness.” Greenberg wrote. 72. “became to keep the ‘inside’ of the picture—its content—from fusing with the ‘outside’—its literal surface. the “decorative” connotes both the ineluctable physical flatness of the canvas.) Having arrived at this understanding of its terms. between the depicted planes and the spectator’s eye. Once the literal nature of the support was advertised. He suggests that those works took the particular forms they did as a result of the effort to find a balance between flattened facet-planes that would emphasize the surface and a modeling that would disrupt it. p. these tacks and studs created a “trompe-l’oeil suggestion of deep space on top of Cubist flatness.”23 Braque had already tried to address this problem with what Greenberg described as “expedients. amounts to a forgetting or a denial of the physical fact that a painting is flat.” 24 Unfortunately. paradoxically. By producing a momentary conflation of the rearmost of the painting’s depicted planes and the physical plane of the picture itself. Depicted flatness—that is. Ibid.” that is. the token hardware of these early paintings nonetheless seems to have brought Picasso and Braque to a crucial realization: namely. 23. the effect was never more than local: “Plastically.

Ibid. Georges Braque. for a brief instant at least. . When used in combination with the token tassel-and-stud. in 1911. © Artists Rights Society (ARS).67 The Flattening of “Collage” semblance of a three-dimensional space as long as the brute. Ibid. Courtesy Giraudon/Art Resource. as in Braque’s The Portuguese. Picasso and Braque began introducing into their compositions. the stenciling of The Portuguese draws the physical surface itself momentarily into the illusion: the surface “seems pulled back into depth along with the stenciling. the point was to draw attention through these inscriptions to the literal surface of the painting.26 Thus. effectively canceled or negated. the printed or stenciled letters and numbers that. for example. 1911. p. New York/ADAGP. 27. New York. 74. The Portuguese. undepicted flatness of the literal surface was pointed to as being still flatter. Appearing to change places in depth with the tassel-and-stud.27 26. the simulated typography was able to yield an even more dramatic effect.” with the result that its presence is. so that everything less obviously adhering to that surface would appear to recede in depth as a result of the comparison. Paris..

29. But because that opposition is itself dialectical. 1993). Rather. insofar as the intention was to overcome (and not merely to deny) the literal flatness of painting’s material support. and the Problem of Postmodernism in the Visual Arts. by Peter Osborne. the most sustained comparison to date of their writings. . Although similarities between Greenberg’s criticism and the views of Adorno have been frequently remarked. Cubist painting was driven to ever more extreme measures. however.28 Adorno’s term “negative dialectics” was clearly intended to invoke Hegel. dialectical core of Hegelian thought free from that system and its conciliatory. Significantly. 31–50. too. And. Again. Adorno. trans. pp. the effort was doomed to failure from the start. this strategy. Osborne’s presentation of Greenberg. the moment of absolute knowing. for Osborne. At this point. Adorno’s ambition was to prize the negative. my ambition for the present essay is that it will dispel precisely these associations.” As I hope I have already made clear.29 The point of contention for Adorno is that moment posited by Hegel. according to Adorno. its history appears.” it is precisely this nonreconciliation to flatness—to. It is also what generated for it a history. Shierry Weber Nicholsen (Cambridge: MIT Press. the desired illusion might be prolonged. In the end. it was bound to. and presumably modernist painting more generally. however. all of history’s driving oppositions—between subject and object.” with the result that Greenberg’s notion of autonomy is reduced to “the idea of specifically aesthetic ‘values’” that are aligned to “the formal properties of the physical medium. in which dialectical history is at last brought to an end. so that we might begin to understand Greenberg’s “self-criticism” as something other than self-referentiality. we might say: the history of Cubism was propelled by a negative dialectic. dialectical responses to its inability to free itself from its own extra-aesthetic contingencies. Greenberg’s logic runs parallel to that of Adorno. This phrasing has the advantage of pointing up the extent to which. there is a strong sense in which Adorno’s project also demands to be seen as continuous with Hegel’s own. Spirit and Nature—are made to resolve themselves. however.” New Formations 9 (Winter 1989). undialectical conclusion. without remainder and to the benefit of Spirit. in the first part of the essay at least. “Aesthetic Autonomy and the Crisis of Theory: Greenberg. for whom art and its history were likewise the products of nonreconciliation. Alternatively. as a result. Theodore W. we might say. Adorno refused to dismiss Hegel’s conception of a totalizing system as merely an idealistic construct (although he did adamantly deny its claims to truth). in the monumental unity of the Hegelian system as a whole. and to suggest an opposition to the dialectic of Hegelian philosophy. By 1912 Picasso and Braque had begun selectively adding sand and other foreign materials to their pigments.68 OCTOBER The only problem was that familiarity appeared to weaken the effect. Faced with the impossible demand to simultaneously spell out and overcome its literal flatness.” Thus. according to “Collage. See. See Peter Osborne. Hegel: Three Studies. Adorno. proved insufficient. in particular. the unavoidable conditions of its own existence— that characterized Cubism. as a succession of retrospective. in the hope that. “the idea of autonomy becomes inextricably linked within Greenberg’s work to that of self-referentiality. of course. by emphasizing and bringing to the fore still larger areas of the actual surface. is largely based on a simplified reading of “Modernist Painting. has instead underlined dissimilarities. 28.

makes much the same claim: There is also the fact that a society as completely capitalized and industrialized as our American own. particularly since 1940. vol. 263–64.”32 Its autonomy arises precisely as a result of its demonstra30. Adorno. 2. Collected Writings. Although it lacks the reference to Hegel. p. 27. trans. 31. 1984). committed to an exploration of its own formal means—allows us at least a momentary glimpse of freedom from this oppressive social reality. Art is social. p. and as a result is increasingly alienated from society at large. . . flattening and emptying all those vessels which are supposed to nourish us daily. 32. Horowitz. pp. ed. Adorno argued. the following passage. that is. Mass. it creates the distance necessary for effective social critique. Aesthetic Theory. Such work is not easily folded into the machinery of the culture industry. modern. 163). a hundred and fifty years later.The Flattening of “Collage” 69 he saw that system as having been concretely realized in the twentieth century under the forces of advanced capitalism: Satanically. Adorno. is social and historical not because it is externally determined by society. p. Gregg M. proved itself to be a system in the literal sense. Tom Huhn and Lambert Zuidervaart (Cambridge. but also because .” in The Semblance of Subjectivity: Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory. the world as grasped by the Hegelian system has only now. 1997). .” through the exchange relationship. Christian Lenhardt (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. and London: MIT Press. But that alienation does nothing to lessen the work’s social significance. autonomous art—art. Now this opposition art can mount only when it has become autonomous.30 According to Adorno. all other quotations from Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory will be taken from Robert Hullot-Kentor’s more recent (and generally better) translation of the text. and in this sense actually realizes the primacy of the whole over its parts. By congealing into an entity unto itself—rather than obeying existing social norms and thus proving itself to be “socially useful”—art criticizes society just by being there.. seeks relentlessly to organize every possible field of activity and consumption in the direction of profit. . A world integrated through “production. primarily because it stands opposed to society. in this regard the desperate impotence of every single individual now verifies Hegel’s extravagant conception of the system. . Hegel: Three Studies. regardless of whatever immunity from commercialization any particular activity may have once enjoyed. it strives to stage the conflict between itself and its determinations. depends in all its moments on the social conditions of production. .31 As a recent commentator on Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory put it. “Art History and Autonomy. Except where noted. 321. namely that of a radically societalized society. “Autonomous art. It is this kind of rationalization that has made life more and more boring and tasteless in our country. from Greenberg’s “The Present Prospects of American Painting and Sculpture” (1947. on the contrary. although it is that. hence.

that they only underdetermine—its appearance. rather than aesthetic) failure. which discuss the papiers collés in relation to the presumed opposition between autonomous and social art. . and Masson largely abandoned representation. Surrealism is made to stand for a social art: “But cubism itself revolted. 175). 35. in becoming concretized and therefore. in terms of its actual content [Inhalt. “production develops as if the new work wanted to recover what the earlier work. 1997]. the constraints are also required to make their appearance in the work. Thus. Perhaps most directly related to the concerns of the present essay are the comments on p.”35 Through the inclusion. It must be said. If the ultimate impossibility of that task meant that every work was bound to a certain (ontological. But. Autonomous work attempts to show that all potential constraints on its freedom.” Adorno wrote. Adorno. 273–74. as ever. are not in actuality constraining. trans. rather. . In his excellent essay “Art History and Autonomy. later. the proper answer is that autonomous art looks like the failure of freedom. on this view. who refused to collude with the market and initially protested against the sphere of art itself. as the idea of shock.”34 This. However. “The totally objectivated artwork would congeal into a mere thing. whether these inhere in cultural institutions. first. Robert Hullot-Kentor [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. important surrealists such as Max Ernst and André Masson. Aesthetic Theory.”) Cubism is held up as the example of autonomy while. and offers the following pertinent response: The traditional answer in the post-Kantian tradition of philosophical aesthetics is that it looks like freedom. Aesthetic Theory. only in this way can the art object resist being assimilated to preformed categories of understanding. it did nothing to discourage the production of new works 33.” pp. because it fails to be free and yet remains unreconciled to that failure. autonomous art has a history. and in this way necessarily reveals its inability to escape entirely from the world it aims to transcend.” . “if it altogether evaded objectification it would regress to an impotently powerless subjective impulse [something without substance or visibility] and so flounder in the empirical world” (Adorno. (“This dichotomization is false. however. p. against the bourgeois idea of a gaplessly pure immanence of artworks.33 Modern. 256. had had to renounce. received conventions. here Adorno seems to be referring specifically to the appropriated materials of collage]. was transformed into a technique of painting. It seems relevant here to note that Adorno invokes Picasso’s Cubism at a number of points within his Aesthetic Theory. . Every autonomous work is bound as a result to show what does not bind it.” Adorno argues. however. of letters and numbers and. as we have seen. “because it presents the two dynamically related elements as simple alternatives. Clement Greenberg at his worst. and Clive Bell at his best. Conversely. 209.70 OCTOBER tion that those determinations do not in fact determine—or. or the very materials out of which the work itself is made. obviously. is very much the way that early Cubism proceeded in the history of it recounted by “Collage. p. 34. that the work could not conceivably appear in any other way. as it is there that they must be confronted and negated. Gregg Horowitz explicitly raises the question of what autonomous art looks like. which dissipates quickly in thematic material. of sand and other materials that would lend it visible texture. an answer that has led to the idealist valorizations of aesthetic autonomy in Schiller and the young Nietzsche. perhaps somewhat surprisingly. gradually turned toward formal principles. in Adorno’s account. limiting itself. the Cubist paintings of 1911 and 1912 called forth the literal surface of the canvas specifically as a means to its negation.

© Artists Rights Society (ARS). we will be asked to believe that the papiers collés managed to achieve. New York/ADAGP. It manages to convey not only the complexity of the visual experience afforded by Braque’s Fruit Dish. Fruit Dish and Glass. however. it seems to me. what earlier works had not: “the seamless fusion of the decorative with the plastic.”39 which is to say. in fact. until this moment. Ibid. Paris. p. By the end of the essay.. something of the excitement that a viewer in the grip of that experience is likely to feel. at last.” away from the negative-dialectical argument with which the essay began toward something much more fully and affirmatively Hegelian. the overcoming or “sublation” of the opposition between literal and depicted flatnesses that. had been presented as the driving tension behind the 39. 81 . in Greenberg’s evident (and understandable) enthusiasm for the papiers collés. 1912. we begin to detect a subtle shift in “Collage. to arrive at a description much better than this. but also.Braque. in the quickening pace of its narrative. Just here. One would be hard-pressed.

By the end of the essay. until this moment. at last. 1912. Paris. but also. it seems to me. we begin to detect a subtle shift in “Collage. New York/ADAGP. something of the excitement that a viewer in the grip of that experience is likely to feel. Ibid. we will be asked to believe that the papiers collés managed to achieve. It manages to convey not only the complexity of the visual experience afforded by Braque’s Fruit Dish. p. in fact. the overcoming or “sublation” of the opposition between literal and depicted flatnesses that.Braque.” away from the negative-dialectical argument with which the essay began toward something much more fully and affirmatively Hegelian. in Greenberg’s evident (and understandable) enthusiasm for the papiers collés. had been presented as the driving tension behind the 39. what earlier works had not: “the seamless fusion of the decorative with the plastic. © Artists Rights Society (ARS). Fruit Dish and Glass. however. to arrive at a description much better than this. in the quickening pace of its narrative. 81 .. Just here.”39 which is to say. One would be hard-pressed.

64). the result was the depicted flatness of high Analytic Cubism (the paintings of. to Gris’s paintings. Depicted. Picasso and Braque coupled a quasi-Impressionist. in the case of Gris’s paintings. we are told. the prominence of their blacks that effected the desired result. In the next round. a pictorial one. “pictorial illusion begins to give way to what could be more properly called optical illusion” (Greenberg. p. With the papiers collés. undepicted kind. Of the works of 1912. it underpins and reinforces that literalness. but it is a flatness become so ambiguous and expanded as to turn into illusion itself—at least an optical illusion if not. Now the contours of “Collage” appear to have resolved themselves into a neatly ascending (Hegelian) spiral. Certainly one interpretation of absolute knowing—the one held. decorative flatness with the sort of sculptural shading that had traditionally been the hallmark of pictorial illusion. following them. Here. re-creates it. the route suddenly appears very different than it had on the outbound journey. 40. 77. typically marks the narrative climax.40 There is a distinctly triumphalist tone to these passages. . roughly. Greenberg argued. Greenberg suggests. Cubist flatness is now almost completely assimilated to the literal. brings an end to dialectical history. when the way forward seemed much more purely ad hoc. having at last assimilated all otherness. 1910 to 1912). In this way it could be made evident that the optical illusion of the collages might be produced without the aid of any pictorial illusion whatsoever— that the physical surface could be displaced and re-created out of shapes that were unimpeachably flat. without depriving the latter of its literalness. Collected Essays and Criticism. he writes: Flatness may now monopolize everything. moreover. it was. The corresponding passage in “The Pasted-Paper Revolution” is perhaps a little more direct in its presentation of the matter.41 It would be left to the later papiers collés and. vol.. The key to this reconciliation. a brief retracing of the circuitous path leading to this point. 41. p. whose line of development we might easily imagine Greenberg articulating as follows: In the first turn of events. From a retrospective vantage. however. for instance. by Adorno—is that it represents the moment when subjectivity. Ibid. 4. it also tends to encourage a backward glance. a matter of chance and opportunity. It might be said that Greenberg’s opticality functions here (and in other texts) much like absolute knowing does for Hegel. only to liquidate the vestiges of sculptural shading that still clung to Braque’s Fruit Dish. as with those other epics. the continuity of that depicted flatness was tied to its literal counterpart—and the outcome this time was an optical illusionism that constantly seemed to displace the surface and remake it elsewhere. but at the same time it reacts upon and largely transforms the undepicted kind—and it does so. lies with papier collé’s potential for optical illusion. rather. in quest epics.The Flattening of “Collage” 73 development of Cubist painting. Again. roughly of the sort that. properly speaking.

it does indeed appear to take off as an independent shape. the decorative is transcended and transfigured. Ibid.” 44. p. 43. p. as “Collage” had originally reported (and as the structure of its narrative seemed to demand): in fact.43 Plainly. with the footnote he added to the essay in 1972. There he admitted that Picasso and Braque had not abandoned sculptural shading soon after the invention of papier collé.” Because that ambiguity arises now within a painting devoid of sculptural modeling—and so upon a surface that would otherwise seem merely patterned and two-dimensional—Greenberg also claims that Gris’s work has successfully “transcended” the decorative: “transcended and transfigured” it into the “monumental unity” of the painting as a whole. Greenberg’s prose is seamless enough that. . p. on a first reading. negative dialectic into a more fully Hegelian doctrine of affirmation and reconciliation is complete. which. “Picasso and Braque continued to use discrete shading off and on well into 1914. 82. as it had already been in Picasso’s. 82. “every part and plane of the picture keeps changing place with every other part and plane. and in Picasso’s case even longer. the labor of that reworking is not readily apparent. with this declaration of a “monumental unity.. in a monumental unity. Here again. “And here.. Specifically. If. Greenberg says. They might even be seen to produce 42. 83. Braque’s and Léger’s art. All the value gradations are summed up in a single.42 In writing these sentences Greenberg presumably had in view something like the black chevron just right of center in the lower half of Gris’s Still Life. opaque black—a black that becomes a color as sonorous and pure as any spectrum color and that confers upon the silhouettes it fills an even greater weight than is possessed by the lighter-hued forms which these silhouettes are supposed to shade. at last. however. Ibid. Anyone at all familiar with those works is likely to be given pause by the essay’s complete disregard of their “pointillist” passages.74 OCTOBER The clearly and simply contoured solid black shapes on which Gris relied so much in these paintings represent fossilized shadows and fossilized patches of shading. on a different level. as Greenberg said of the earlier papiers collés. and so keep our eyes fixed squarely on the works in question.” Even Greenberg himself engaged in this sort of revision. advancing in front of even the lighter-colored “newspaper” (the bluish rectangle partially inscribed “Le Journal”).”44 A similar repression seems to have been involved in Greenberg’s analysis of Gris’s paintings. we can manage to resist succumbing to the rhetorical elegance of his argument. ultimate value of flat. and it is as if the only stable relation left among the different parts of the picture is the ambivalent and ambiguous one each has with the surface.. which are at least as prominent a feature as are the opaque blacks.” the reworking of the essay’s initial. we are eventually bound to notice certain features of those works that were simply papered over in the later sections of “Collage. Ibid. it serves as shadow.

689. a similar effect. To the extent that they pointedly recall the stippled wallpaper that. in fact. they allude to precisely the sort of “relatively trivial interior decoration” whose proliferation. Dorothy S. . 683. it was perhaps because they raised the specter of a decorativeness beyond all possibility of redemption or transcendence. 793. Houston. They might be seen. if we make ourselves focus exclusively on it. pp. 685. appears to separate itself from the others as an independent shape and to advance slightly forward of them. © 2002 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS). whose frank two-dimensionality nonetheless refuses to adhere to the literal surface—or even to a single. For illustrations. There is with these stippled areas. 1979). Pipe and Sheet Music. perhaps. for example.45 If Greenberg passed over these passages in silence. the neck of the bottle in Gris’s Still Life : Its silhouette is articulated on the left by a field of green dots against a yellow ground. Picasso pasted into several of his papiers collés. Picasso: The Cubist Years 1907–1916. Note. not as fossilized shading. Blair (Boston: New York Graphic Society.46 45. 46. 1914. consistent plane in depth. and 799. according to Greenberg. and at right by blue stippling on a green field. in 1914. but as reified luminosity (something akin to Seurat’s Neo-Impressionism made even more patterned and systematic). its continuity from one field to the next is plainly evident—each area.Pablo Picasso. had first set modernism in motion. in the middle by an undifferentiated green. see Pierre Daix and Joan Rosselet. Even though it is the same green hue in all three cases—and even though. There are seven works in all that use this stippled wallpaper. the same kind of spatial oscillation and ambiguity that Greenberg detailed in his account of the paintings’ “sonorous” blacks. or else recede a little in depth. 686. Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts. in other words. that is. New York. 681. trans.

p. Modern Artists on Art [New York: Prentice-Hall. from November of 1912.Salon bourgeois. Paris. Salon d’Automne. an ocher-and-yellow floral pattern appears prominently in what is probably his first papier collé. I am thinking of the Maison Cubiste. 48. Du Cubisme [Paris: Figuière. Albert Gleizes. given that they had argued in Du Cubisme—published while the Salon d’Automne was still open and receiving visitors—that their work was the very antithesis of decoration. 1964]. Guitar and Wineglass. and many of the other so-called Salon Cubists. the suite of rooms modeling the interior of a bourgeois home that was part of the 1912 Salon d’Automne. Wallpaper in general was a standard element of Picasso’s collages. translated in Robert Herbert.47 Displaying furniture and wallpaper patterns by a group of young designers led by André Mare. Jean Metzinger. . 1912. The Salon of that year ran from October 1 until November 8. the Maison also showcased the paintings of Fernand Léger. The antidecorative diatribe of Du Cubisme was aimed specifically at the Art Nouveau belief that a painting should 47. Undoubtedly they are ignorant of the most obvious signs which make decorative work the antithesis of the picture” (Albert Gleizes and Jean Metzinger. and it was so from the very beginning: for example. “Many consider that decorative preoccupations must govern the spirit of the new painters. La Maison Cubiste. The participation of Gleizes and Metzinger seems particularly difficult to explain. It is a striking fact—surely more than merely coincidental—that the artist’s insertion of such explicitly decorative elements into his Cubist collages followed almost immediately upon the very public insertion of Cubism into an explicitly decorative context. 5). 1912].48 It appears to have been the absence of any discernible Cubist influence upon the furnishings of Mare and his cohort that allowed Gleizes and Metzinger to rationalize their involvement with the project. Archives André Mare. Paris.

but all painting has always been decoration. reinforcing the painting’s autonomy and integrity. “One need not be afraid of words when one knows what they signify. In Defiance of Painting: Cubism. But. . pp. Finally all the eccentricities of commercial art were accepted (an extraordinary thing). Complicating the situation further was the fact that many avant-garde artists— from the Nabis to the Fauves. 1998).The Flattening of “Collage” 77 harmonize with its surroundings. 1992). For his part. and playing up some of its subtler hues). and sharply differentiate them from the mass-produced commodities marketed to the public through the department stores’ displays. see David Cottington.”51 49. . Matisse all but conceded that their unqualified acceptance of the term had been naive—or worse. . p.” Years after the fact. and to emphasize the qualitative differences between the artisanal tradition represented by Mare and the mass production of the department stores. a popularized. 140. . the more or less traditional décor of the Maison Cubiste could be seen to serve. 79–102. 1942. pp. without meaning. “Matisse’s Radio Interview: First Broadcast. 169–79. 51. In many ways. Cubism in the Shadow of War (New Haven and London: Yale University Press. p. on the contrary. actually complicitous with the marketing strategies of the French department stores: Finally. 50. and including.” Cited in Christine Poggi. without moderation.” “Clearly it is decoration.49 If Au Printemps’s showrooms seemed to foretell a future in which paintings would take their place within a coordinated decorative ensemble (each work designed to harmonize with the furniture. 123. as an offsetting frame. the public was very flexible and the salesman would take them in by saying.” cited in Poggi. Cubists such as Gris himself 50—openly embraced the characterization of their work as “decorative. we have seen our department stores invaded by materials. and Nancy Troy. Modernism and the Decorative Arts in France (New Haven: Yale University Press. on occasion. For a discussion of the Maison Cubiste within the history of the French decorative arts. In 1921 Gris informed Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler that. And Art Nouveau—or rather. Futurism. decorated in medleys of color. it simply concretized the threat of art’s assimilation to interior decoration. These odd medleys of color and these lines were very irritating to those who knew what was going on and to the artists who had to employ these different means for the development of their form. massproduced version of it—was being widely marketed in the newly opened ateliers of the French department stores. Mare hoped that an alliance with Cubist painters and sculptors would give his designs a certain cachet. the whole enterprise was open to multiple interpretations. when showing the goods: “This is modern. 1991). the dealer’s protests to the contrary. In Defiance of Painting.” Gris wrote. of course. and the Invention of Collage (New Haven: Yale University Press. Even if it was intended to underline the integrity of the Cubist paintings hanging there. after the rediscovery of the emotional and decorative properties of line and color by modern artists. his work was in fact accurately characterized as “decorative. the very resemblance of the Maison Cubiste to Au Printemps’s ateliers d’art threatened to scramble those distinctions.

Tellingly. and 6 (April. both were openly contemptuous of paintings made “to ‘adorn’ the wall. Two of these—Pipe and Musical Score and Glass and Bottle of Bass—feature the stippled wallpaper pattern. “The Parergon. The Rise of Cubism (1916). “Le Papier peint. one in which the invention of papier collé is. no less epochal.”53 In this context it seems crucial to note that the wallpapers of that series sometimes served—as they do in Pipe and Sheet Music—to duplicate the frame. and 787). On the notion. the moment. 53. the frame both obviously belongs to the work and. Unlike the collages themselves. just at the time that Picasso began working on this series. Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler.” 37ff. nos. when the decorative surface of the work was at long last “transcended and transfigured. Henry Aronson (New York: Wittenborn. 1998). On the status of the frame and its implications for the autonomy of art. What’s more.56 52. see Stanley Cavell. 684. In Greenberg’s history of Cubism.” dissolved into the purely subjective space of optical illusion.” and. the artist regularly incorporated wallpaper fragments within his papiers collés. in the months and years immediately following the run of the Maison Cubiste. in the spring of 1914. neither he nor Braque ever took up Matisse’s praise of the “decorative. 181. those fragments were ones that clearly pointed up the difficulty of distinguishing modernist art (certainly of the Neo-Impressionist variety) from “relatively trivial interior decoration. Geoff Bennington and Ian McLeod (Chicago: University of Chicago Press. There are a total of four collages from the spring of 1914 that employ wallpaper frames (Daix 683. which advocated a return to primitive woodblock printing methods for wallpaper. we might say. At once external to the painting and essential to its appearance as a thing apart. But the frame’s own status is. trans. Greenberg refused to admit even the potential presence of the literally and commercially decorative within the field of modern art. as he said. “Knowing and . a serialized essay by André Mare appeared in Montjoie!.” Montjoie!. and June 1914). ambiguous and contradictory. mass-produced nature of many of the elements of Cubist collage. 685. of acknowledgment. 4.54 Frames have traditionally provided the visible marker of a work’s autonomy. and the structure. Of course. the invention of collage had marked an epochal moment. Straus and Giroux. Our own attention to the specific materials of those collages now suggests a slightly different history. 55. cited in Rosalind Krauss. however.” From as early as 1907. according to Kahnweiler. doesn’t. that history was dependent upon the repression of the commodified. See Mare. see Jacques Derrida. as it were—between modern art and the merely decorative. for precisely that reason. trans. the threat of the decorative—the possibility that modern painting might in fact be assimilated to decoration (or entertainment) pure and simple—was. May.”52 And yet. 5. openly acknowledged.55 Picasso’s wallpaper-framed collages seem to be making an analogous claim regarding the boundary—the all-important (in)distinction. 54. 1987). 7. p. 1949). just as evidently. clearly demarcating the boundary between that work and everything else outside.78 OCTOBER As for Picasso. And they encourage us to see his earlier wallpaper works in very much the same vein. Kahnweiler says. The Truth in Painting. The Picasso Papers (New York: Farrar. 56. p. at long last. especially section II. and blamed modern mechanical techniques for a decline in the present quality of production. Through its invention. Picasso “perceived the danger of lowering his art to the level of ornament. in the case of the 1914 series.

Lynn Zelevansky (New York: The Museum of Modern Art. the project of the papiers collés is continuous with that of earlier. He argued that. 378–82. by hierarchies of power (which determined what would appear on the front page.59 Angered by the newspapers’ increasing commodification of literature— including their ser ializat ion of novels commissioned explicit ly for that purpose—Mallarmé went on the offensive. where those earlier works had taken it upon themselves to acknowledge (and negate) the physical fact of their material surface. sounds a distinctly false note for me. and her revision of that argument in her book In Defiance of Painting.” in Must We Mean What We Say? (Cambridge. 58–72.” in Oeuvres completes (Paris: Éditions Gallimard.” in The Yale Journal of Criticism 1. 238–66.60 Acknowledging. whose Symbolist aesthetic and views on the autonomy of art clearly held a strong attraction for Picasso. no. See also Christine Poggi.” however. in that its pages confronted the viewer with column after column of monotonous gray type. its composition was driven. and the Newspaper as Commodity. newspaper was a material under considerable tension in the avant-garde world of 1912. 1976). Furthermore. 1992). 60. 1 (1987). “Le Livre. Analytic Cubism.” Picasso and Braque: A Symposium. worst of all. On the relation between Picasso and Mallarmé. even as it acknowledges its entanglements with the extra-aesthetic. As Krauss has shown. p. 58.58 It had been roundly condemned by Stéphane Mallarmé. pp. I would also argue that Picasso’s and Braque’s papiers collés are not identical in this regard (see note 66 below). . 128). “The Motivations of the Sign. We might compare Picasso’s use of wallpaper in this regard with his equally frequent employment of newspaper in the papiers collés. ed. 133–51. In Defiance of Painting. p. demanding entertainment. It is what each work must demonstrate for itself.” in Picasso and Braque: A Symposium. what on the last). 57. pp. except that. see David Cottington. Modernism.” in that they suggest simultaneously “a denial of the precious. even apart from the quality of the writing it presented. if art does in fact cease to exist or to matter in this world. the papiers collés also acknowledge the social fact of painting’s equivocal position in relation to the culture industry of late capitalism.57 On this view. pp. it will be less because it has reified into a mere object than because it has capitulated to a voracious subjectivity. it might be better to say that the papiers collés effectively recognize that the distinctness (or “purity”) art was once able to take for granted is no longer tenable. pp. 1945). 59. seeking pleasure. Krauss. England: Cambridge University Press. See also Poggi. openly accepted. he said. the newspaper was vastly inferior to the book. Just as earlier Cubist paintings had foregrounded their literal surface in a determined effort to negate it. it sacrificed the sensuous fold of the book to the unrelieved flatness of the open newsprint page. “Mallarmé.The Flattening of “Collage” 79 I hasten to add that it was not. and. for all that. 261–86. Picasso. Stéphane Mallarmé. instrument spirituel. To phrase things in terms of “denial. I am largely agreeing with Christine Poggi. pp. so Picasso’s wallpaper collages seem to advertise their imbrication with the merely decorative precisely so that they might make crucial differences apparent. who has argued that Picasso’s and Braque’s papiers collés represent a “complex and paradoxical relation to mass culture. fine art status of traditional works of art as well as an attempt to subvert the seemingly inevitable process by which art becomes a commodity in the modern world” (In Defiance of Painting. They amount to the recognition that. Aestheticism. 141ff. “Cubism. In saying this.

121–42. 281–82. As Adorno argued. and the ability to transmute the gray drone of the marks on the page” into signifiers for light. ‘poeticized. and depth. posters that sing out loud and clear— That’s the morning’s poetry.” Oeuvres completes (Paris: Éditions Gallimard. Rather. 867. Krauss. Krauss. however. Picasso employed newspaper. There are tabloids lurid with police reports. 62.” p. See also Y ve-Alain Bois’s “The Semiology of Cubism. by contrast. Lynn Zelevansky (New York: Museum of Modern Art.” pp. “Motivations of the Sign. in his own heteroglossic poem “Zone.64 61. is made all too apparent by those scholars who. Portraits of the great and a thousand assorted stories. and for prose there are the newspapers. such significance is won specifically through the work’s autonomy. and not some final sublation or transcendence. It is worth noting that David Cottington has recently sanctioned a similar argument for the political significance of Mallarmé’s work. and translated by.’” 64.80 OCTOBER In the newspapers’ corner. ed.63 Understanding how the newspaper fragments function within Picasso’s papiers collés—and how that functioning ought to discourage us from reading the text or attributing its views to Picasso—should by no means prevent us. 1945). and who. its overt display of nonreconciliation. As Krauss has shown. 63. Cited in. Guillaume Apollinaire’s “Zone” seems like an explicit riposte to Mallarmé’s assertion that “le vers est partout dans la langue où il y a rythme. from recognizing the potential social and political significance of the works themselves. where he aptly characterizes the “recourse to newspaper [as] a Mallarméan (or formalist) answer to Mallarmé’s disdain: even this product of modern industry can be deautomatized. pp. opacified. Re-Ordering the Universe: Picasso and Anarchism. excepté dans les affiches et à la quatrième page les journaux.” embraced nearly all of commercially printed popular culture: You read the handbills. catalogues. 1992). 277. they are not of a piece with Apollinaire’s unqualified acceptance. “ The Mot ivat ions of the Sign.62 That we are dealing with a determinate negation.: Princeton University Press. The most concerted effort in this regard is to be found in Patricia Leighten. N. ignoring Cubism’s dialectical impulse. partout. 1989). p. yet their very appearance within the collages places them at some remove from Mallarmé’s conviction that the newspaper could not possibly serve as a vehicle for genuine aesthetic experience. which is to say. transparency. The fragments within his collages are made to embody precisely “those precious aesthetic possibilities that Mallarmé had insisted were the exclusive prerogative of the book: the capacity to figure forth the fold as that metaphysical ‘turning’ of the page that opens the work of art onto the abyss or chasm of meaning. persist in reading the columns of type as if those passages were nothing more or other than the newspaper from and against which the work of art actually took shape. holding that Mallarmé’s prose poems constituted a “counter- . was Picasso’s friend Guillaume Apollinaire. deinstrumentalized. 203. but in such a way as to negate its most pernicious effects. who admired the papers for their ability to speak in a plurality of voices.” in Picasso and Braque: A Symposium.J. p. 1897–1914 (Princeton.61 The newspapers of Picasso’s papiers collés cannot be said to adhere to either of these positions.

66 The relevance of his comments lies also in their implication that the “decorative” names but a “frill” or extension of the “system”—which is to say. 258. p. in Art and Culture (Boston: Beacon Press. The unity of the social criterion of art with the aesthetic one hinges on whether art is able to supercede empirical reality while at the same time concretizing its relation to that superceded reality.. and refuses to consider aesthetic experience as anything other than the purview of an economic elite. “If decoration can be said to be the specter that haunts modernist painting. p. then part of the latter’s formal mission is to find ways of using the decorative against itself. however. 1984).The Flattening of “Collage” 81 Whether art becomes politically relevant or indifferent—an idle play or decorative frill of the system—depends on the extent to which art’s constructions and montages are at the same time de-montages. 362. And what this suggests in turn is that . 1961).” which turned the “language of dominant discourse against itself. 1998). Elsewhere in Aesthetic Theory. For this passage. I have used the Lenhardt translation of Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. Cubism in the Shadow of War (New Haven and London: Yale University Press. thus freely shaping them into something else. 200. work that is either a product of the culture industry or ready fodder for it. Clement Greenberg.”67 This time the words are Clement Greenberg’s. especially pp. from “any and every effect that might conceivably be borrowed from or by the medium of any other art”—here those concerns clearly take a backseat to the threat of the decorative. they seem particularly apt to an understanding of Picasso’s wallpaper collages.” This.e. 66. i. is symptomatic of the fact that Cottington persistently identifies references to the “popular” in Picasso’s art with the working classes (rather than with commodity culture). 67. but confront that decorativeness in one of its most insidious forms: as the bland discourse. Cottington—who has also sanctioned and amply documented an understanding of Picasso’s Cubism in relation to the aestheticism of Mallarmé—is unable to see the artist’s papiers collés as performing a similar negation. which not only acknowledge the specter of the decorative. 65. it seems to me.65 What makes Adorno’s comments so thoroughly apposite to the present context is not simply their explanat ion of the ant agonist ic relat ionship between autonomous art and existent social formations. p. they manage to ser ve nicely in that capacit y nonetheless. and. 255–56. Adorno specifically states that the “act from which all montage derives” was Picasso’s use of newspaper in his papiers collés. whereas “Modernist Painting” had emphasized the need for painting to distinguish itself principally from the sculptural and the literary—that is. 137–43.” Ironically. See Cottington. nor even their suggestion that the appropriate structural model for that relationship is to be found in collage or montage. See the Hullot-Kentor translation. worth noting that. dismantlements that appropriate elements of reality by destroying them. In fact. Art that succeeds in doing this has a prerogative: it may dismiss the question posed by political practitioners as to what it is up to and what its “message” is. It is. although they were not written specifically as commentary on the development of Cubism and the advent of papier collé. “Milton Avery” (1958). The corresponding passage appears in the Hullot-Kentor translation on pp. Instead he argues that their “pretensions to counter-discourse are compromised” by their “complicity” with “the aesthetic hierarchies of dominant culture. I think.

Yet still it seems right to declare: la bataille s’est engagé[e]. It is. in this reading the mauve wallpaper reverts back from its earlier designation as the shadowy surround of the table (the space of traditional easel painting). 68. and so to imagine that successful paintings yet remained completely sealed off from the insidiousness of “decoration. that rectangle appears simply as the vertical plane of the picture proper. for example. pp. and becomes again simply wallpaper. opaque surface. . in one light. only a tentative move. as a tabletop—freed from both gravity and perspective. as he discovered ever new ways to dissolve the wallpaper’s opacity or displace its surface in depth. 58–89. In another light.68 That these collages are also “de-collages. this one sets up and exploits what Christine Poggi has described as a willful confusion between table and tableau. continuous background against which the still life elements of the composition are arrayed. See Poggi. modernist painting was always driven by its dialectical opposition to decoration.” turning the decorative against itself. Philosophy Beside Itself. And still there is a third possibility. In this way it became possible to reconstrue the prospect of painting’s failure as still a failure within the realm of the aesthetic. Long ago Kahnweiler made the suggestion—more recently elaborated by Krauss—that the work is also capable of producing the illusion that it is not a picture frame that we are looking into.” see Melville. but—because that threat was too dire—the accompanying anxiety was constantly displaced onto the safer encroachments of literature and sculpture. The Picasso Papers.” in In Defiance of Painting. but it is now a surface displaced to the far side of the room—the wall behind our backs—with the result that the work acquires an almost Meninas-like spatial complexity. In Pipe and Sheet Music. 161ff. Braque’s preference was for faux bois papers that raised questions of representation and similitude. It seems to me a striking fact that Picasso’s use of patterned wallpaper is much more extensive than Braque’s. 69. pp. “Frames of Reference: Table and Tableau in Picasso’s Collages and Constructions. from the spring of 1914.70 At such moments the wallpaper continues to designate a flat. but carried few of the social and aesthetic implications of Picasso’s chosen materials. is readily seen.82 OCTOBER prettiness of bourgeois interior decor. and casting a heavy shadow on the floor. on a completely different plane in depth. but nonetheless supporting the pipe and the pages laid beneath it. Around the periphery of that work the wallpaper represents nothing other than wallpaper itself: a flat.69 The brown rectangle at the center of the composition asks to be read. Like so many other Cubist still lifes. where it is reconstituted as the guitar’s surface and so made to reside. p. But the section just beneath the sound hole of the guitar seems drawn forward (precisely by its relation to that overlaid “hole”). or at least the matte surface on which the small collaged still life is mounted. an opening salvo. See Krauss. each one suggesting a radically different spatial configuration for the elements of the picture as a whole. however. but rather the ornate frame of a mirror. 9–10. the stippled mauve wallpaper lends itself to at least three contradictory interpretations.” On such matters as they pertain to Michael Fried’s notion of “theatricality. at least momentarily. for example. of course. 70. in Guitar and Wineglass. Over the next eighteen months Picasso’s means would become progressively more sophisticated.

Guitar and Wine Glass. 1912. New York. © 2002 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS). Collection of the McNay Art Museum. . Bequest of Marion Koogler McNay.Picasso.

monotonous: the kind of surface whose only function is to please.84 OCTOBER It seems important here to insist that. but also the banality of those materials. They seem to cut themselves out from the prefabricated world. they are obviously still attached. we would have little choice but to believe that his best course would have been a more thorough repression. lends itself to various conflicting readings. the argument that Greenberg made for Picasso’s papiers collés. despite any and all intentions to the contrary.” a “decorative frill of the system. in some sense. since the process is driven by a dialectic of negation. it remains the case that it is an argument we are unlikely to have been able to formulate without him. And. In her recent book The Picasso Papers. In those cases. Greenberg’s “Collage” opens with a clear articulation of the negative-dialectical workings of Cubism—albeit without 71. But her suggestion that we understand that dialectic on the model of “reaction formation”—and that Pipe and Sheet Music represents one of the earliest manifestations of that condition in Picasso’s art—does not seem quite adequate either to registering the pervasiveness of the decorative’s threat. will appear merely and simply decorative. Adorno’s account of art’s negative. I concede. which. ingratiating.” We might describe Picasso’s papiers collés in general as working to negate not just the literal flatness of the materials they employ. and which asks for nothing more than our inattention. they are nothing more than “idle play. although optical illusion plays a role in this experience of the collage. Rosalind Krauss discusses several of Picasso’s wallpaper collages in terms that have substantial overlap with my analysis of those works here. into works of surprising depth and difficulty. In the case of the wallpaper collages the material in question is superficial. The unrelieved repetitiveness of the wallpaper patterning offers an experience that is a perfect example of perceptions conforming to preestablished categories of understanding.dialect ical relat ion to societ y at large is perhaps nowhere better seen than in Picasso’s wallpaper collages. the world as it already exists.71 If this is not. this still leaves open the possibility that the attempted negation will be unsuccessful and that the work in question. As the designs themselves affect no change in the pattern of our thought.) I prefer to think of the papiers collés under the model of acknowledgment: the collages openly acknowledging the presence of the decorative in order that its worst qualities and consequences might be negated. at least—by demonstrating their nonreconciliation to the ineluctable flatness and banality of the wallpapers are able to achieve some measure of autonomy. or to imagining what a “healthy” response to it might be. ultimately. In fact. Of course. it will be because of the way that they are able to make those materials over. the model of reaction formation has a certain applicability. by contrast. If we find Picasso’s collages compelling. indeed Krauss’s text has informed my understanding of the papiers collés considerably.” But Picasso’s collages—the successful ones. “by contrast” should be emphasized here. illusion per se does not appear to be the main goal of the work. . (If every appearance of decoration in Picasso’s work is to be diagnosed as a case of reaction formation. because of that arbitrariness. and to which. It is but one of the means employed to undo the certainties of the wallpaper—to turn its consistently repetitive surface into a kind of arbitrary sign. Her insistence that the relation between modern art and the decorative be seen as dialectical is an idea that I have obviously taken very much to heart. of course. and so also in the negation of the wallpaper’s unambiguous planarity. as a sort of multidimensional “pun.

dialectical relation to the earlier history of Cubism as that history is articulated by Greenberg in his essay on collage. 237–57. Self-criticism might be regarded. is closely aligned to the mater ial specificit ies of the works in question. has been repeatedly disregarded in favor of generalities and preconceptions. It is self-critical only to the extent that the works involved genuinely place themselves at stake and hold themselves in that condition: assuming neither art’s inviolability nor. is “self-criticism. especially in “Modernist 72. completely escape its resemblance to and imbrication with those other cultural products also condemns it. Phrased in this way—and in view of our discussion of the negative dialectic at work in “Collage”—Greenberg’s modernist “self-criticism” appears closely related to what Adorno referred to as art’s autonomy. But it is just this failure that generates a history for art—which means that works can only be produced or understood in relation to that history. as we have seen. That art cannot. Admittedly. 16. then. The Semblance of Subjectivity. its manifestly oppositional relation to society at large. Greenberg’s essay very much follows the form of the Hegelian dialectic. “Kant.” On the relation of subject and object in Adorno’s aesthetic theory. Philosophy Beside Itself. Adorno. to a certain failure. it is also true that art history stands open to a similar accusation in regard to “Collage. 73. then the present essay might be said to attempt a similar recuperation of the materiality of the papiers collés in “Collage. as yet another name for that dialectical process through which art continues to make and preserve a place for itself in the modern world. in its best moment s. . Greenberg’s writing becomes disconnected from the works he is purportedly describing and settles into generalities and preconceptions.” He both identifies artistic modernism with “a self-critical tendency” and warns that activities unable to avail themselves of such self-criticism are those most likely to be assimilated to entertainment pure and simple. see Tom Huhn. inevitably collapsed the distinction between subject and object at the expense of the latter. For me at least.” The specificity of its argument. In its worst moments. Greenberg himself. in the end. The discussion of the papiers collés in the latter half of “Collage” might be taken as a case in point. This is a paraphrase of Stephen Melville’s description of “radical self-criticism”. and the Social Opacity of the Aesthetic. see Melville. and insist upon. as Adorno complained. pp. And while it may be true that that essay misses the full significance of the papiers collés through its refusal to engage with the particularities of the materials they employ.72) The one theoretical or philosophical term that Greenberg does use.73 And those works will be successful in turn only to the extent that they are able to distinguish themselves from other kinds of objects of cultural production—to the extent that they make some critical difference visible. By totally failing to register the nature of the materials employed. its nuance. If Adorno’s negative dialectic was meant to correct for the “too-ready and too-complete erasure of the object” in Hegel’s philosophy. of course. its simple nonexistence. this. p. and to the particular concrete works within it that make a claim on us as art. much of what makes Picasso’s papiers collés so compelling is their difficult.” in Huhn and Zuidervaart. so that it might emphasize instead their dissolve into optical illusion.The Flattening of “Collage” 85 couching the discussion in precisely those terms. (In general Greenberg tends to avoid theoretical terminology in favor of descriptive language that.

revealing the historical dialectic at work—at the most advanced level—in their respective material. has an “unhappy” correlate in the relation of the three closely related essays. grasp one another. 1977). Adorno. it might be said that this is precisely what Greenberg failed to do in his discussion of Picasso’s papiers collés. and “Modernist Painting” (1960). The greater depth of the argument of “Collage” (a depth won through the recognition of how literal flatness might be turned dialectically against itself) is largely drained away in “Modernist Painting”. in effect. In fact it seems to me that the dialectical struggle narrated in “Collage. “The Pasted-Paper Revolution” (1958).74 Adorno once wrote that progress (by which he meant simply the way forward to something new. Walter Benjamin. “Collage” (1959). and that loss is at least in part the result of Greenberg’s succumbing to the illusion of transcendence that had first been raised in “Collage. 153–54.86 OCTOBER Painting.” 74. .” against an apparently inexorable flattening. 50. 1928 bis 1962 (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.”75 Again. when those papiers collés are placed alongside “Collage. Adorno. no less than for the artist) was “nothing else but persistently grasping the material at the most advanced level of its historical dialectic. “Reaktion and Fortschritt. for the intellectual or critic.” (1930).” is guilty of this same charge—so that perhaps the primary lesson to be drawn is about the sheer difficulty of keeping generalities and preconceptions at bay. pp. Moments Musicaux: Neugedruckte Aufsätze.” 75.” the two. p. The Origin of Negative Dialectics: Theodor W. Yet what strikes me as the much more interesting fact is that. and the Frankfurt Institute (New York: Free Press. 1964). My own paper has largely been an effort to articulate that phenomenon—and so to explain in the process the nature of my own particular attachment to “Collage. cited and translated by Susan Buck-Morss.