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The idea of an isolated American painting, so popular in this country during the thirties, seems absurd to me, just as the idea of creating a purely American mathematics or physics would seem absurd . . . And in another sense, the problem doesn’t exist at all; or if it did, it would solve itself. An American is an American and his painting would naturally be qualified by that fact, whether he wills it or not. But the basic problems of contemporary painting are independent of any one country. – Jackson Pollock I am totally uninterested in European art and I think it’s over with. – Donald Judd The artifacts of recent history rush backwards in time, perpetually receding from our apperception and apprehension; their actuality (their qualities as “acts” performed in a certain context of historical reality) and their effectiveness (the effects on which those works depended as well as those they created in their particular moment of production) diminish in impact, dissolving to the point of vanishing altogether. It is at precisely this point that the historian steps in. Having neither participated in the decisive acts nor caused any effects, having taken neither risk nor responsibility, the historian elevates works of art to the status of cultural objects, saving them from oblivion by transforming their historical function into an aesthetic one. From the perspective of the historian, the works become magnified idols. Bereft of all contextual implications, they now appear as autonomous objects, speaking (and being spoken about) in their own discourse, following their own rules of grammar and having a history of their own, an independent meta-language and a meta-history. This new language of the art object, being of a secondary mythical reality (according to Roland Barthes’ definition), should be read with an adequate tool: that of ideological criticism.1 Since works of art can never be restored to an original level of primary functional language, the historical method of ideological criticism can illuminate their initial impact only in an indirect manner. As their transformation into cultural myth is analyzed, their original intention perhaps becomes more apparent. The formalist approach to artistic practices of the recent past would allow us to talk about a urinal manufactured around 1917 in terms of the wholeness of its Gestalt, the specificity of its material, its sculptural presence. As a result of such an approach, this presumed identity of form and support, which supposedly defines itself, and which commands its own space, would, by the 1960s—the moment of Minimalism, for example—go on to serve as an integral criterion for the judgment of aesthetic quality. To hazard a defense of the formalist method, one could argue that it allows us to deal with a work in an apparently objective manner, perhaps even to recognize the original intentions that motivated its production, since we are only considering the formal facts at hand. This formalist critical description, however, seems to have become the basis for the production of some of the most important American art of the 1960s. The terms
Benjamin H. d. BucHloH
formalism-as-criticalcriterion has found its most recent iteration in Joseph Kosuth’s well-designed tautological corpus. For example. Therefore the following essay—while by no means pretending to show the only valid aspect of such a differentiation—focuses on how these attitudes have changed and interrelated in European and American art since 1945. omissions and ignorance of history as through the artistic information that was available at the time.5 Immediate postwar art history. and although it is too early—the conditions are not met—to blow them up. is exclusively political. which he spent in New York. written in the same year as Kosuth’s (1969). .that had once been used to describe the phenomena have now become the terms used to produce the phenomena. for it permitted some Americans to develop a more independent sense of color. Extending from the moment of Symbolism to that of Yves Klein’s concept of immateriality. if only thanks to misunderstanding and ignorance. the time has come to unveil them. it would appear as yet another attempt in a long tradition of artistic propositions in modernism to conjure away the historical and physical materiality of the work of art by acting out narcissistic fantasies about the self-generating artist and the self-referential. . during the last four years of his life. What is called for is the analysis of the formal and cultural limits (and not one or the other) within which art exists and struggles. namely that of the Paris and New York Schools of painting. Daniel Buren’s text Limites Critiques. seems to have been formed as much through misunderstandings. The absence of reality in art is exactly art’s reality. – Clement Greenberg. autonomous work of art. Piet Mondrian. 3 ” On the European side. . was more 82 Formalism and Historicity . which was the only place that really mattered. and Cahiers d’Art above all . . For a while Parisian painting exerted perhaps a more decisive influence on New York art through black and white reproductions than through first-hand examples.2 As Kosuth stated at the end of the 1960s: “Works of art that try to tell us something about the world are bound to fail . Postwar Lacunae Art publications from France. which may have been a blessing in disguise. These limits are many and of different intensities. articulated the dialectical opposite of this formalist position by defining an explicit concept of historicity: Art.4 If any specific difference were to be sketched out between recent American and European art. kept you posted on the latest developments in Paris. whatever it may be. Although the prevailing ideology and the associated artists try in every way to camouflage them. Philosophically speaking. And from the purview of art history. and which has since been handed down to us. one might find it first by comparing the different attitudes toward the historicity of art. such a position simply introduces a basic concept of logical positivism into aesthetic discussion.
Another example would be the almost total lack (or refusal) of recognition for the work of the Russian and Soviet avant-gardes in the US and Western Europe. which offered all the relevant information on the major recent international art in 1936. Dada. the visual and plastic complexity of the paintings of El Lissitzky. His limited concepts of abstract painting and his politically opportunist. which was assimilated only in its more traditional painterly positions (articulated in the works of figures like Joan Miró and André Masson. omitting and/or suppressing the other? One could also ask the question: rather than contemplating Miró and Kandinsky. why did Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman. Arshile Gorky and Willem de Kooning not discover the infinitely more radical epistemological changes suggested by artists such as Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia. By contrast.7 From our present-day perspective. such as Cubism and Abstract Art or Fantastic Art. Surrealism. exceeding by far that of Europe in the late 1930s. BucHloH 83 .6 The same can be said with regard to the artistic and art-historical reception of Surrealism. Man Ray and Tristan Tzara. This is all the more astounding since a profound knowledge and appreciation of these legacies had existed in New York. Jr.recognized by the artists formulating the project of Abstract Expressionism than he had ever been during the twenty-five years that he had spent in Paris. One only has to think of the famous exhibitions and catalogs by Alfred Barr. reintroducing American artists in particular to a much broader historical and critical field. Jean Arp and Kurt Schwitters as the primary sources of artistic information at that time? One preliminary explanation is clearly to be found in the Americans’ awe for the tradition of Parisian painting. and every move made there is decisive for advanced art elsewhere—which is advanced precisely because it can respond to and extend the vibrations of that nerve-center and nerve-end of modernity which is Paris. Thus the question arises again: what kind of information is received by which group of recipients at which particular moment? For what reasons does a particular group choose one set of artistic information. as expressed in Greenberg’s essay “The School of Paris” of 1946: Paris remains the fountainhead of modern art. Max Ernst and Yves Tanguy). the incomparable reductivist radicality of the Suprematist Kazimir Malevich. Kandinsky rose to a position of primary importance and became very influential for painterly production in New York as well as in Europe during the postwar period. when Camilla Gray’s extraordinary study of the Russian and Soviet avant-garde was published. The reception of the work of Wassily Kandinsky demonstrates the point by exception. and the politicized precision of the sculptural and architectural concepts of Alexander Rodchenko passed by almost unnoticed until 1962. Clifford Still and Jackson Pollock. this statement seems surprising since artists in Paris had by then themselves become aware of the growing academicism of the Benjamin H. Nevertheless. where he was practically unknown after the war. not to say reactionary. d. positions had been convincingly criticized in the 1920s by El Lissitzky (and later by Arnold Schoenberg).
. for example. and thereby. . we know that it is pointless to speculate on whether art might have changed if more or different information had been absorbed at specific points in history. and to reveal the degree to which seemingly ” autonomous aesthetic entities inform themselves art-historically. for the precious surfaces of late Surrealist painting. for example. his Cathedral of Erotic Misery (whose title Flavin seems to unconsciously paraphrase). and not only to pastry chefs. If one would be inclined in general to prefer bread to cake. 1963. do these not seem somewhat belaboured—at best. like foils. but also to the institutions. Or what about Dan Flavin’s Diagonal of Personal Ecstasy (the diagonal of May 25. and enlarged their own set of historical presuppositions from the artistic practices of the twentieth century. it seems valid to acknowledge—in particular in the context of postwar art —the extent to which “reception history” (and its peculiar randomness) has become “production history. It is at the moment of vanishing that the swan starts singing. Nevertheless. which certainly has to be considered as a key work in international American art of the 1960s? From a contemporary perspective. which are also a Parisian specialty. I would like my paintings to be on the verge of disappearing as paintings. sponges and sand. One wonders whether a retrospective view would not reveal a cyclical pattern in which each generation—from the Abstract Expressionists to the Minimalists—appear to have assimilated. like museums and art dealers and critics. to Constantin Brancusi). Post-Surrealist Dilemma The Surrealists reacted against the historical conditions “in the service of revolution. worked through. if placed in relation to Duchamp’s Fountain (1917). nourishing quite a lot of people . about the presumed epistemological radicality of Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup paintings (1962). He therefore attempted to relate artistic practice once again to the collective potential for artistic production—as the Surrealists had originally done themselves—by substituting raw and repugnant materials.late Surrealist painting and late abstract painting of the École de Paris. As Dubuffet stated in 1947: What I am interested in is not the cakes but the bread. From a current European perspective. very learned—assimilations of key sculptural concepts of the twentieth century? Especially so if compared to the still indecipherable complexity of Kurt Schwitters’ architectural vision. Jean Dubuffet. one would end up being very unjust to pastry chefs.8 Of course. historically. By using the more or less misunder- 84 Formalism and Historicity . One could voice doubts. tried to posit his art brut figurations against the Surrealists’ myths of the individual creator’s prolific unconscious. one begins to question the historicist aspects of some recent American art. ” trying to accelerate and to intensify the process of the auto-destruction of bourgeois consciousness by means of the subconscious.
whether he had to relinquish the uncompromising radicality of his original insight into the historical truth of capitalist culture in decline when he made his observations concerning the redevelopment of a local painterly culture ten years later in New York: “It could be said that. they hoped that from there they could protest more convincingly by throwing their “ego” against the dissociated conditions. This condition finds its clearest manifestation in the fact that—perhaps with the sole exception of Fontana—the work of these artists is inextricably bound up with a claim for charisma. Although Greenberg’s lucid observation from 1946 might sound truthful at first. 12 ” Indeed. that one can comprehend certain European developments as well as the high esteem (if not overestimation) in which certain socially and historically defined artistic identities are held in postwar Europe. however. BucHloH 85 . on the contrary. especially the painting of the School of Paris. Benjamin H. That this particular form of protest was infantile did not prevent them from experiencing it as a real protest. it becomes particularly important to recognize the peculiar continuity of local traditions. d.10 Greenberg’s astounding clairvoyance seems to anticipate the ultimate dematerialization of the art object in Conceptual and post-Minimal art. and finally through to Joseph Beuys in West Germany—further justify Max Raphael’s remark about the Surrealists’ infantilism cited above. and that a handful of then obscure New York painters possessed the ripest painting culture of the day.11 One wonders. Eighth Street had caught up with Paris as Paris had not yet caught up with herself. the subconscious became the last unit of the dissolving ego. it neither coincides with the Parisian reality at the time. the key figures of postwar European art—from Georges Mathieu to Yves Klein in Paris.stood and limited methods of psychoanalysis. i. from Lucio Fontana to Piero Manzoni in Italy. In this context.e. Mondrian looked like the handwriting on the wall. which depended in part on the assumption that infinite prospects of technical advance lay ahead of both society and arts. This idea of the artist as a medium of transcendental experiences stands in distinct opposition to the more traditional image of the artist as a fusion of craftsman. lost faith in itself. those artists totally withdrew from society. It began to be suspected that the physical in art was as historically limited as capitalism itself had turned out to be. as inevitably fraudulent a claim as it may be. – Max Raphael9 When looking at the history of post-Surrealist art in Europe. believing it to be unlimited. back into themselves. it was precisely this infantilism which allowed them to extend their protest to include everything and nothing. nor with subsequent developments: After 1920 the positivism of the School of Paris. by 1940. it is only against the background of such a situation that “had not yet caught up with” itself (once again a reference to either a deliberate or imposed historical ignorance). a development that might be called the most original and authentic contribution of American art to the present.
14 One of Mathieu’s lasting achievements is his initiative of organizing the first exhibitions of the paintings of Wols and Pollock in Paris. Pollock’s was an entirely new beginning in the objectification of the process of painting itself. and from fool or clown through entertainer. Thus one of the basic differences between European and American art of that period—a difference that had lasting effects on contemporary [ed. He reflected on the prevailing conditions of painting and experience under advanced monopoly capitalism—with its potential for increased individual freedom and its governing conditions of rapidly diminishing options for the subjective differentiation of experience.: 1960s–1970s] practices—is evident in Pollock’s dominant concern with decentering the matter and process of painting. that in his eagerness to situate himself among them—he installed his own paintings with theirs—he showed that he was unable to discern the fundamental differences between the two artists. ultimately suggesting new models of a post-Freudian subjectivity. and least of all between their work and his own. Mathieu and Pollock Were Pollock a Frenchman. in compliance with the reactionary requests of postwar society. however. the artist makes a dialectical gesture toward the potential reality of a new collective. By contrast. By contrast. a figure who delivers his work and research results to bourgeois society through the market. the subject is spectacularized. Pollock’s painting proved that not even the slightest residue of “subjective” imagery should interfere with those forces. 1952.scientist and philosopher. If Wols’s work completed the last phase of écriture automatique and radical subjectivity in painting. recognizing the necessity of forming a post-traditional subjectivity. This is most clearly revealed in a comparison between the structural organization of painterly mass in canvases by Pollock and in those of Wols. Thus Pollock shifted abstraction away from Surrealist painting and negated automatist conventions.13 All of these reflect—in very different ways of course— particular social needs for a new mythical subjectivity. I feel. he would already be called maître and there would already be speculation in his pictures. endowing his paintings with the innate radicality of a decentered field of self-referential pictorial processes and traces. —Clement Greenberg. It is characteristic. In the case of Mathieu. Thus these artists had to assume attitudes of irrational and archaic behavior oscillating on a broad scale from shaman or high priest through victim. there would be. if not more so. and that “artistic” imagination need no longer be superimposed on the viewer’s perception. In the case of Manzoni. the collective need for a newly formed social hierarchy with the artist as its symbolic center or fountainhead. Mathieu’s work represents a final phase of Surrealist automatism and the supposedly liberating forces of the subjective unconscious to dissolve objec- 86 Formalism and Historicity . no need by now to call attention to my objectivity in praising him. Klein and Beuys. the historical function of these newly figured hypertrophic identities of postwar European artists seems to have been to act out not just the urge for a new type of artistic subjectivity but equally.
tive reification. to Kaprow and the Fluxus group. sound. food. old socks. chairs. which was held by a whole generation of American artists—from Cage and Merce Cunningham. But simply a way of waking up to the very life we’re living. odors. people. but ignored. we shall utilize the specific substances of sight. born in 1927 and 1928 respectively. both are members of the first generation of artists that had learned substantially from their immediate predecessors (i. the inescapable need to confront. might be chosen as another pair of opposites illustrating the history of European and American differences. who had completed his Master’s thesis on Mondrian with Meyer Schapiro at Columbia University. . then. Not only will these bold creators show us. but they will disclose entirely unheard of happenings. and from their antecedents in the historical avant-gardes. water. a dog. and had studied the work of Pollock extensively. Although claiming to be the trace of pure velocity and temporality. advocating “a purposeful purposelessness or a purposeless play”: This play however. . At a relatively early moment. Like involuntary caricatures of Pollock. Kaprow formed the basis for his own work as a new exchange between the aesthetic and the real. Kaprow. movement. the world which we have always had about us.16 This attitude. a thousand other things which will be discovered by the present generation of artists. The composer John Cage (with whom Kaprow had studied at The New School in 1957–58) had set the tone for this new approach. even if unknowingly. touch. BucHloH 87 . Klein and Kaprow Allan Kaprow and Yves Klein. as if for the first time.e. movies. Mathieu’s “action painting” generates a manifestly frozen gesture. Mathieu’s compulsion to restore traditional (artistic) subjectivity in hypertrophic forms articulates.15 By joining a radical reading of the Surrealist origins of Pollock’s painting with the heritage of theatrical activities as they had been performed in revolutionary Russian Futurist theatre and Dada activities alike. d. Pollock/Mathieu). is an affirmation of life—not an attempt to bring order out of chaos . smoke. In fact. Mathieu’s paintings generate dead hierarchic figures in centralized grounds. which is so excellent once one gets one’s mind and one’s desires out of its way and lets it act of its own accord. electric and neon lights. Objects of every sort are the materials of the new art: paint. if not to comply with. considered his own work as a necessary extension of the projects of these painters: Not satisfied with the suggestion through paint of our senses. the intensifying demands for the spectacularization of (artistic) subjectivity in contemporary culture. and from the early Benjamin H.
. Such a position was articulated in these terms: Materialism—this quantitative spirit has been recognized as the enemy of liberty . that is my LIFE. I love in myself everything that does not belong to me. my psychological and optical inheritance.19 Regardless of whether he was aware of Mondrian nor not. my qualities. but unlike Kaprow. sentimental and emotional death.20 Monochrome paintings had been shown in Paris by Ellsworth Kelly (who lived and worked there from 1948 to 1954) during his first personal exhibition at the Galerie Arnaud in 1951. my manias: in one word. but I realized at the private view that the public were prisoners of a preconceived point of view and that. His first exhibition at Colette Allendy’s Paris gallery in 1956 comprised differently colored monochromes that looked as if they had been executed under the influence of a first encounter with Mondrian’s unicolor rectangles. . everything that leads me irredeemably towards physical. this crucial chapter of recent American art has been underrated and misrepresented in many ways because it did not produce marketable or museologically classifiable objects. one has to admit that Klein articulates a major formal problem that would soon become one of the crucial arguments that American artists like Frank Stella and Donald Judd would make against the European tradition—namely. 18 ” Apart from his knowledge of Malevich. confronted with all these surfaces of different colors they responded far more to the interrelationship of the different propositions.17 Obviously Klein had learned his art-historical lessons as well. and I detest everything that belongs to me: my education. since he was a frequent traveller to Italy in the early 1950s. which is received and traditional. the simultaneously developing European position of Klein reveals a state of historical delusion originating in an artistic narcissism that insists on the false opposition between bourgeois and artistic subject positions. my views. he tried to conceal his sources—one or two allusions to Malevich notwithstanding— with the hypertrophic affirmation of his absolute originality: “The glaring obviousness of my paternity of monochromy in the twentieth century is such that even if I myself were to fight hard against that fact I should probably never manage to rid myself of it. And one should of course remember that the monochrome canvases of Lucio Fontana might easily have been known to Klein as well. they reconstituted the elements of a decorative polychromy. Klein seems to have been equally aware of Mondrian’s legacy.work of Robert Rauschenberg to that of Yvonne Rainer—could be summed up as the quest for a new correspondence between life and art. my defects. And thirdly—possibly most 88 Formalism and Historicity . In contrast to Kaprow. Typically. the problem of chromatic and spatial relations and compositionality: I was trying to show color.
And then there is the culminating moment of the certificates marking the exchange of pure gold for parts of the Immaterial Pictorial Sensitivity Zone. According to one’s perspective. In relation to Klein’s Cosmogonies. must have been of prime importance for the development of Yves le Monochrome. there is Duchamp’s Unhappy Readymade (1919) and his Élevage de poussière (Dust Breeding). in 1928). For Klein’s Portraits-Reliefs from 1962. then. Klein reactivates the artist as a petit-bourgeois agent provocateur. whose predecessor is Duchamp’s Monte Carlo Bond (1924).importantly—when confronting Klein’s claims to an original “paternity of monochromy” and flatness. there is Duchamp’s With my Tongue in my Cheek (1959). for example. and the wholeness of the painting as an object. unlikely as it is that Klein could have encountered them in reproduction. influences. Judd evaluates Klein’s work in patently formalist terms. purely indexical paintings resulting from the climatic effects on a blank canvas mounted on the roof of his car for the journey from Paris to Nice.1920. as Klein was. wholeness and “object-like” painting. But perhaps a greater surprise is that Klein seems to have been the only figure recognized by the younger generation of American artists of the early 1960s. abolition of relationality. as revealed in Bruce Glaser’s interview with Stella and Judd. Finally. Dubuffet’s works such as the Texturologies from 1954 and the monochrome sponge sculptures of the same year. for example). “a sort of superman. and for a long time. the seemingly hermetic mystery of Klein’s “genius” had also been subjected to more local. frequently refers to Klein as the only European painter who dealt with formal issues of prime importance to his own concerns: flatness. d. in particular. as ” Duchamp had once put it. to Kaprow’s Happenings. in his own writings. disregarding any implications of the materiality (in the Monogolds. And finally. that by the late 1960s Klein’s work had found such appreciation in the US. Furthermore. to appear on the cover of Artforum (January 1967)—on the occasion of his major retrospective at the Jewish Museum in New York. a similar genealogy can be traced: every one of Klein’s immaterial works ” has a Duchampian predecessor. Klein’s switch from Dubuffet’s chthonic monochrome colors to the bright synthetic hues of industrial production could either be celebrated as a major change or discarded as a minor academic problem in the final phases of post-Surrealist painting. regarding Klein’s claims to have invented the concept of “immateriality.21 In a model of “activation” quite in opposition. Klein and Judd It is astonishing. or the processes of Benjamin H. the éponges (sponges). Judd (born. not to say vernacular. the only one. BucHloH 89 . his discovery of the monochrome in general and his sculptural inventions. we would have to consider Robert Rauschenberg’s monochrome paintings from 1951. The most symptomatic figures of that position—such as Salvador Dalí. a reactionary position that had been lingering around late Parisian Surrealism. whose techniques of self-scandalizing mythology Klein seems to have studied most thoroughly—attempted to maintain an idea of the artist as a narcissistic elitist. He was the first postwar European artist.
From a contemporary European vantage point. It is precisely the loss of naivety with regard to history that might be called specific to European art since the late 1950s. bringing “reality” to their hungry bourgeois patrons . the life of his art has vanished. are on view at the Jewish Museum. . . . No one better exemplifies the shift in values. Bereft of the confectioner. . summarized by existentialism . which proves that American-type formalism was only one possible historical approach to be taken at the time.23 The opposition of formalism and historicity can perhaps now be more clearly defined. a host of younger artists stepped out into the world of show business. than the late Yves Klein. .22 Judd’s formalism seems to have originated in the attitudes of a generation that learned its art-history lessons better than its history lessons. desiccated and boring. new psychism. Fortunately. As Ashton put it in her essay on Klein: He was a reactionary in the sense that many of the young intelligentsia were reactionaries in the postwar decade: theirs was a reaction against the great wartime currents of commitment. published relatively early by the critic Dore Ashton. the fossils of one of these lives. this formalist attitude shows either blatant disdain. When the interdependence of aesthetic and historical structures cannot be imagined in any other way than to consider art merely a mimetic appendix to reality (or as its decoration as Judd once called it). Under cover of cascades of hyperbolic prose promotion. and new brotherhoods in some distant future in the infinite beyonds where “other” art would conquer . a generation that appears to have been mainly concerned with the problem of inserting its production into the mainstream of modernist formalist traditions. it has become even less comprehensible how one could evaluate any artistic production without considering at the same time its manifest political and ideological investments. the fevered prose accompanying the “revolution” in the visual arts was coyly transmundane. there exists at least one lucid analysis of Klein. The souvenirs of his life of spectacle are poor dead things.production (in the Anthropométries). new infinite beyonds. limiting itself to exalted discussions of new cosmologies. [W]hen many older French intellectuals were frantic with horror. . An awareness re-emerged that—by analyzing their own epistemological presuppositions—artistic practices could not restrict their inquiry to 90 Formalism and Historicity . But how inaccurate and imprecise such a reading must be if it is incapable even of identifying the most elementary—whether latent or manifest—ideological and historical implications of a work. or naivety toward the dialectical potential of art. Both concepts should be regarded as the opposite ends of an axis along which artistic production as well as criticism and the writing of recent art history seem to be perpetually shifting according to their immanent and historical dynamics. the switch from art as a private affair to art as a public event.
26 Nevertheless. d. It develops out of two altogether different sources: either the masquerade of outer elegance under which the individual pretends to continue his fight against society. it must be stated that this generation’s work articulates transformations of ideas and practices that were initiated by European artists in the 1950s and early 1960s. In the first case dandyism is a conscious irony deriving from the tragic and comical separation of the singular individual from society and the feeling of superiority of the “paradoxical unique” over the bon sens of the philistines. artists whose work essentially changed the notion of contemporary European art. for the fata morgana of all contradictions being resolved. Lacéré anonyme— the anonymous lacerations of billboards—is the term used by Villeglé to describe the result of an artistic “contract” between the artist as “collector” and the anonymous pedestrian committing acts of vandalism against advertisements on urban billboards. – Jacques de la Villeglé25 It seems useful to emphasize the fact that none of the artists of the subsequent generation in Europe [ed.: mid-1960s–1970s]. Rather. Benjamin H. who feels the restraint of reification pending on him. This critical attitude is precisely what prevented the next generation of European artists from following in the footsteps of Klein. or an abstract idealization and embellishment which develops exactly to the degree to which the real human being becomes a caricature.24 Villeglé’s Anonymous Lacerations It is within the real. as it is for the lesser-known French décollagistes: Francois Dufrêne. But it’s just because he doesn’t resign to reality that the anonymous lacerator. and as modes of ideological productivity transforming this reality. by the real and with the real that the affiche lacérée [torn poster] gains its consistency and imposes its presence. Raymond Hains and Jacques de la Villeglé (as well as their Italian colleague Mimmo Rotella).their own discourse alone (nor to the history of that discourse). acts by protesting in particular against the psychic violation of the masses by the public propaganda. the Italian Piero Manzoni. who exemplified in the postwar moment the artistic type whom Raphael had defined as early as 1938 as the “caterer of chic”: Chic is another feeling of contrast. in the second case “embellishment” is the desire of the disproportioned and dehumanized for aesthetic illusion. This is as true of Klein’s counter-figure. In both cases chic has become an integral element of high art. for false harmony and pretended proportionality. was influenced by the Klein legacy. practices that received much less recognition in European (let alone in American) art criticism. BucHloH 91 . Through this he introduces the domain of the potentiality of childhood right into the reality of adults. they would have to reflect their positions dialectically within a given historical reality. both as dependent and determined forms.
The work and artistic position of the décollagistes could be called the most underestimated and misunderstood in postwar European art. the artist as a flaneur restricts his productive activity to the mere act of choosing an anonymous vandalizing gesture—making it even less of an artistic intervention than Duchamp’s “declarative act of pictorial nominalism. . the décollagistes cede their position to the collective ” gestures of vandalism. the artist . their work has been discarded as simply having transformed Duchamp’s readymade into a different materiality. aestheticized by declaration. to live with them. which completed the idea of gestural automatism. to sign the torn posters. however. an idiosyncratic fiction (historical. the project of the décollagistes/affichistes aimed at a far more comprehensive transformation of the Dada legacies. In a conscious refusal. l cannot consider the tearings of the anonymous participant or my selection of them as a transcription or objectivization of a singular. And. this is not a questioning of the artwork in the sense of Duchamp’s readymade but more a questioning of the professional and traditional artist. The anonymous gesture and the very activity of the collective unconscious (l’inconscient collectif) to which Villeglé frequently refers. geographical as well as socio-psychological) that attempted to mobilize a seemingly lost innocent productivity to oppose the division of labor and the status of the artist as a specialist in bourgeois society. a counter-productivity that in Villeglé’s historical situation 92 Formalism and Historicity . to collect. slightly later: After all. The gestural savagery of a multitude is individualized to become the most remarkable manifestation of “art made by all and not by one” of this period.27 Being fully aware of given (art) historical conditions. all too easily. It may also represent the first legitimate European contribution to the development of a new artistic language since Dada and Surrealism. enter into the realm of artistic reflection but at a remove from the Surrealists’ traditional idealization of the liberating powers of the collective unconscious. ranging from the concept of the readymade to Schwitters’ collage and assemblage aesthetics to the radicality of Pollock’s all-over pictorial field. that of a gifted and predestined individual. lived experience. As Villeglé has pointed out: To plunder. aestheticized by arrangement. . in a different text. the décollagistes (as early as 1949) deliberately transferred painterly actions from the studio and the canvas into the street. With lacéré anonyme. or as having transposed the collage language of Schwitters onto a different scale. And yet. and to exhibit them in galleries.28 The work of the décollagistes departs both from Duchamp’s anonymously manufactured objects. This position had found its most immediate articulation in Dubuffet’s art brut collection/production. salons and museums. and from Schwitters’ found materials. In actuality.
The procedural and perceptual specificity in the work of the décollagistes would certainly be legible in “formalist” terms: the abolition of illusionistic space corresponds to the abolition of projective subjectivism in the spectatorial act.31 Manzoni should be considered as a key figure for contemporary European art. the opposite could be said of Manzoni. cognitive. Villeglé identified the motivations for his practice by situating the formal and perceptual changes that his work engenders within an explicitly historical frame: Lacéré anonyme opens up with four cuts of the razor blade a window into the flatness of the affiche-objet. He was young. endowed the work with a new public dimension. and their quantitative extension.29 Manzoni’s Concepts Manzoni is dead. into all kinds of events. Each step in that progression. d. Manzoni will be in the history books of the terrible twentieth century. selfdetermining spectatorial subject. As a collector who links himself to an ” anonymous producer of oppositional gestures. And if this should be the reason. A beam of daylight thus cuts through the obscurity of the ways in which the financial and political powers arrive at the ends they impose on mankind. The unknown poetry reveals and destroys the schematizations of propaganda and publicity. BucHloH 93 . Benjamin H. the artist acknowledges the potential for collective participation. the progressive dissolution of the work’s aesthetic appearance and the abolition of artistic conventions in favor of actual material processes induced a new conceptualization of production. – Marcel Broodthaers30 Whereas Klein can be considered a terminal figure—as of course was true of Mathieu—who left almost no traces in contemporary art. If Duchamp played games with the epistemological consequences of his work. and spatial elements of the contemporary aesthetic structure. And in a dialectical reversal. Lines from Duchamp to Manzoni In 1913–14 Duchamp’s Trois stoppages étalon (Three Standard Stoppages) represented the almost unimaginable step of isolating one particular aspect of spatial plasticity. Nevertheless. and the successive qualitative distillation of these elements. will have to be profound and thorough. Is there a connection between his untimely death and the attitude that he took on in the context of art? It is most certain that insisting on his kind of humor was not a very comfortable position to have taken. Manzoni reintroduced those Duchampian attitudes in the postwar period and made them operative.appeared to be the sole gesture of opposition against what he would identify as “psychic violation by public propaganda. consisted in an increasing differentiation and singularization of the perceptual. In any case. physically dead. the presence of the self-referential opacity of the object demands the presence of a conscious. from Duchamp to Manzoni and to the next generation. then our inquiry into artistic events.
Thus it becomes evident with hindsight that Manzoni was one of the originators of Conceptual practices and introduced a new attitude of materialist conceptualization and of conceptualized material. shifting from the programmatic examination of the relations of chance operations and sculptural form to the question of a work’s conceptual identity and perceptual dissimilarity. it exists only insofar as it functions to negate the work’s appearance—as a containing concealment.) The materials of the Three Standard Stoppages range from wooden rulers to gold lettering.200 meters. the sculpture at rest). The shiny mirroring surface of the chrome container literally reflects (or deflects) the spectator’s perceptual expectations from the aesthetic object back onto the viewers themselves. are by no means less complex in their conception than Duchamp’s. All of these elements are finally encased in the presentational device of a croquet box. as material object. in which the artist defined drawing as a purely spatio-temporal extension. Yet the work. Duchamp’s ludic box appears almost subjectivist. Manzoni defines a strategy of withdrawal that replaces perceptual definitions of the work of art with conceptualization.32 Manzoni’s line works (most prominently his Line 1000 Meters Long. it has been radically negated in the dialectical withholding of the object’s material and visual appearance. or conceptualization of a dramatically different kind from those being conceived in post-Cubist painting at that moment. This work was not recognized in Europe until the period of Manzoni’s Linea works (conceived from 1959 onwards). from glass panes to lengths of string. The singularization of one constituent feature of the work. Both the idea of the pure spatial dimension and its material concretion are present. or. negates itself totally in favor of its (invisible) conceptual dimension. almost monumental public openness and accessibility. it constituted an abstraction. which serves as both a fetishistic frame (containing the sculpture in its post-performance state. All of these aspects culminate in a previously unthinkable distinction between the performative state of the sculpture’s physical execution and its static mode of display as integral but oppositional elements. Equivalent to this range of materials is the perceptual-conceptual complexity of Duchamp’s work. Yet while the phenomenon of spatio-temporal extension has been magnified to the level of public monumentality. in this instance the drawing process as a spatio-temporal extension. as Robert Pincus-Witten (one of the first and 94 Formalism and Historicity . featuring a peculiar intimacy. the device of framing and presentation is now the only material object that is perceptually accessible as it literally contains the artistic concept and conceals its hidden aesthetic materialization. and as a ludic allusion (promising the sculpture’s partial reactivation in the performative display). is magnified to such a degree that it gains an altogether different. and one—a black wooden tubular body—is identified as a line of infinite length. (Each work is defined by different dimensions ranging from a few meters up to 7. while reduced in their presentational devices.as such. from canvas bases to leather labels. Thus it can no longer be perceived in any other way than in the spectator’s imaginary conceptualization. By contrast. By comparison. As an object. 1961).
and as such it cannot have any traditionally defined “literary” meaning or illustrative function.p. Yvon Lambert. Art and Culture: 120. and London: Jack Wendler Gallery). 6 Camilla Gray. 3 Joseph Kosuth. February 1947: 782. Limites Critiques. in Art and Culture (Boston: Beacon Press. One knows very well that pure art and empty art are one and the same thing. 1962). this sense of historicity. in Buren. Perhaps this is due to the fact that European artists were—at least during the moment of the 1960s— more concerned with the actually governing conditions of social reality than with an abstract ideal of cultural production. . Manzoni paraded what he thought [was] the essential futility of art as sensibility. and that aestheticist purism was simply a brilliant defensive manoeuver of the past century’s bourgeoisie who preferred being denounced as philistines to being discovered as exploiters. remains the capacity to question the relevance of one’s practice while one is practicing it. No wonder. . Abrams. of Sol LeWitt. ed. even within the painter’s activity. 1952): “The term ‘ideology’ actually means to say that certain challenged opinions. then. 1 Benjamin H. 1975): 21. invitation-pamphlet for his Portraits exhibition at Galerie René Drouin in 1947: n. ” 9 Max Raphael. ” 2 Jean-Paul Sartre—as early as 1947—compared certain aesthetic phenomena of that period to the ideological implications of symbolism’s aestheticist attitude: “But art has never been on the side of the purists . This quotation is particularly revealing in regard to the development of the visual arts in France (and Europe). Proposition 14. as defined by Karl . ed. . 33 ” . Dan Graham and Michael Asher (to name the most crucial examples) are certainly further removed from Europe-oriented historicism than any works of the preceding generation. This fragility seems to be a feature common to most of the crucial European practices beginning at the turn of the 1960s. This capacity alone may distinguish certain works and position them among the most serious efforts operative in contemporary culture. statements. 1973: 43–52. Mannheim in his Ideologie und Utopie (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp. those formal attitudes come to define an ever-fragile equilibrium between subjective gesture and objective fact. Paris 1970.p. at the climax of Nouveau Réalisme in Europe. “The Late Thirties in New York”(1957). it is conditioned as a collective mode of experience and self-expression. In comparison to the most advanced American art of that period. 10 Greenberg. Kunst und Künstler (Frankfurt: S. European art appears as though it would have to give up its material existence were it to give up its historical consciousness. “The School of Paris: 1946. that he became the champion of the newly reinstated bourgeoisie and postwar parvenus of post-fascist West Germany. In 1962. but have to be understood in terms of existential conditions of the subject by being interpreted as functions of these conditions of being. ” 8 Jean Dubuffet. Fischer Verlag. .rare American critics to write about Manzoni) suggested: “by isolating constituent features of art. this means that we somehow reason that the concrete foundation of a subject’s existential being is responsible in a constitutional manner for the subject’s opinions. 7 Clement Greenberg. 4 Daniel Buren. of Robert Barry and Lawrence Weiner. 1961): 231. English translation as “Critical Limits. in Art and Culture: 120. The Sixth Investigation.: “the present” refers to c. See Sartre. This kind of object now stands as a category of historically determined visual material. Looking to the decades ahead—the late 1960s and beyond—the works of Bruce Nauman and Richard Serra. 1977] Post-Minimalist and Conceptual work is a manifest exception to the American postwar tradition of historical assimilation. Today. What is more. objectivizations (ideas in the broadest sense of the word) cannot be comprehended alone for themselves. is understood here in the most general way possible. “Causette.34 Notes The term “ideology” while still remaining relevant. statements and recognitions. That is to say. Five Texts (New ” York: John Weber Gallery. most artistic practices were essentially still concerned with the legacies of the readymade as object. ” “Qu’est-ce que la littérature ?”(I). 1969): n. d. if formal approaches result from a vigilant consciousness of the historicity of any artistic practice. “Beschäftigung mit neuer Kunst” (1938) in Arbeiter. Gerd de Vries (Cologne: Paul Maenz. 5 Clement Greenberg. “The School of Paris: 1946. The Great Experiment: Russian Art 1863–1922 (New York: Harry N. BucHloH 95 . in Les Temps Modernes. where only a few years later the ideas of purity and immaterial emptiness in art became the key concepts of Yves le Monochrome. ” 11 [ed.
but is perceived as the sole and singular artist to produce the most authentic work of the present in West Germany. 18 Klein’s 1957 statement. 1961): 12. and it seems that in this case he once again dismissed and ignored the few really innovative and important contributions to European art of the 1950s. Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press. he assumes the role of shaman. and aimed at the (symbolic) annihilation of the individual producer. “The Late Thirties in New York. Instead of resorting to the inchoate individual unconscious. and Villeglé. ” 23 Ibid. But even American criticism seems to fall into this trap as soon as it comes to Beuys. as well as in a special group show L ’Affiche lacérée held at the Gres Gallery in Chicago in 1964. quite to the contrary of the Nouveaux Réalistes.d. surrounded by a world governed by standards of advanced science and economics.g. As quoted by Dore Ashton in her ” essay. it seems that the radicality of their assault on the traditional (painterly) values equally frightened the collector and the museum curator/historian: they must have questioned the idea of investing money and time into a type of work whose production—by its very definition—was apparently unlimited. 21 That Klein was not only familiar with. “The Legacy of Jackson Pollock. ” 13 It is bewildering—and sometimes amusing—to read the implausible statements on such irrational attitudes and atavisms again and again in art criticism and art-history writing. After all. the Roosevelts. The question arises as to whether this dominance does not in fact depend more on the everlasting suppression of subjectivity and political memory in Germany. This exhibition included works by all the authentic décollage artists. 1952. while allied to the tradition of automatic drawing. to be discovered. Duchamp’s work is proved by the fact that as early as 1948 he offered the catalog of the famous Surrealist exhibition in the Galerie Maeght to his close friend Arman. The same analysis is valid for Jasper Johns . Arts Magazine (March 1967): 44.: Here the author refers to the generation of the late 1960s–early 1970s. n. reproduced in Yves Klein. into formal 96 Formalism and Historicity . 24 Raphael: 133. In the full. 19 In a photograph that had been published for the first time in Michel Seuphor’s monograph on Mondrian earlier in the same year. on the occasion of Weiner’s first show in his gallery. or too similar to their own concerns. Once again. . “Experimental Music. the artist—as archaic as he might be— functions very well in a highly differentiated and complicated economic and ideological sub-system called the art world. and finally positions himself on this side of Schwitters. Pierre Restany does not seem to be altogether wrong in saying: “Rauschenberg remains a contributor to post-cubist aesthetics. Arman (Paris: Galerie nationale du Jeu de Paume. ” It would be interesting to find out from the inventors of such notions how they actually relate those artists’ roles and functions to the reality and society within which they supposedly practice their obsolete crafts as shamans. This is especially true of the French and West German Klein exegeses (e. While Klein and Manzoni disappeared and left the stage to the following generations. Art News (October 1958): 27 ” . Rotella. seems to be the fact that Beuys’s existence as a shaman (and the objection against interpreting him as a shaman raises no questions about his abilities as an artist) has become an integral element to maintain his almost everlasting position of domination in West German postwar art. the implications of this work seem to have been too advanced. Hanne Darboven. which shows itself clearly in his concerns for composition and painterly presence. these Neo-Dadaists have not realized the extreme consequences of the readymade concept. Le lacéré anonyme (Paris: Centre Georges Pompidou ” 1977): 57 (my translation). and in 1962 at the New Realists show at the Sidney Janis Gallery. quoted by Germano Celant in Piero Manzoni (London: Tate Gallery. 20 Yves Klein in Yves Klein. “Conversation avec Arman. In fact. Bernice Rose’s matter-of-course reference to Beuys as a “shaman” in her introductory essay to the catalog. Needless to say. stands alone in his choice of sources and techniques. Selected Writings: n. but instead integrated the found object into aesthetic compositions. And if he supposedly functions as a shaman. 1947).] 27 The works of these artists. . whether his obsolete presence as the artistic father figure does not reflect the seemingly never-ending reign of German collective infantilism and the resulting need for archaic mystification. “Art as Spectacle. who began—like them—to make his work in the early 1950s. ” 12 Greenberg. Drawing Now (New York: The Museum of Modern Art. ” 22 Klein’s became evident in his crypto-fascist statements delivered on the occasion of the “Inauguration of the Pneumatic Epoch”: “Our government pure and scandalous will eliminate the puppets. ” 15 This was the first time that Kaprow would deploy and define the term “happening. a lyrical or expressionist synthesis of cubism. the affiches lacérées and décollages. the Pandit Nehrus. however. Mondrian’s monochrome panels could be seen scattered over the walls of the artist’s last studio in New York. 1998): 44. As is usually the case with art-historical reception (especially that of the recent past). and even more so for the recent West German exegesis of the work of Joseph Beuys. They [the American Neo-Dadaists] have not transcended the Dada facts. the Genets.). soon to become the central project of his ” work. in Silence (Middletown. a life-size foam-rubber cast of a breast.Perhaps Leo Castelli was both punning on and paraphrasing Greenberg’s reference to Mondrian when. “Partisan Review Art Chronicle. 1976): 16: “Beuys. I have not found a single example to illuminate the ways in which the affichistes were received in the criticism of other artists. and Gerhard Richter. the rats and garbage cans. in Art and Culture: 233. Beuys. He is still bound to a traditional language. See Allan Kaprow. Pierre Restany and Paul Wember). See. Judd does not mention their work at all. in Abadie (ed. Berndt and Hilla Becher. for whose sake is it—healing whom and how exactly? Most symptomatic. Art and Culture: 153. Their work has hardly been dealt with in American and European criticism. the Einsteins. 26 [ed. were shown in William Seitz’s famous exhibition The Art of Assemblage at The Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1961. 1974): n. ” 17 Yves Klein. “Les boulevards de la création. 14 Greenberg. but deeply fascinated by. in Villeglé. See Daniel Abadie. 1974): n. Dufrêne. is still not only the dominating figure in West Germany. he commented: “This is the writing on the wall. he assumes the role of one to whom the unconscious drive of numerous civilizations has assigned the function of primary executor of fantasies. 16 John Cage. original version of this text the European artists discussed in this context were Stanley Brouwn. as though the visual arts were a zone protected from reason and the understanding of human behavior.p. resulting from its inherent principles of anonymity and infinite repetition. Even for artistic eyes. for example. the Georges Duhamel. the Françoise Sagans.p. Hains. 25 Jacques de la Villeglé. This was the catalog that carried Duchamp’s notorious cover Prière de toucher (Please Touch. Daniel Buren.p. Selected Writings (London: Tate Gallery.
Advances in culture. ” 32 Only one other sculptor would make such a distinction a central aspect of his work: Alexander Rodchenko would explicitly differentiate a display mode and a storage mode in his collapsible folding sculptures of 1918–19. the work of Manzoni is revolutionary. a romantic. “Gare au défi ! Le Pop Art. ” 34 [ed.structures. 31 The Italian critic Sarenco put it this way: “the work of Klein is conservative. his work opens the way of the contemporary avant-garde. a materialist conception of the world. Germano Celant has pointed out the opposition between Klein and Manzoni even more distinctly. see Benjamin Buchloh. Le Nouveau Réalisme ” (Paris: Galerie Mathias Fels. More recently.] Perhaps it is also due to the fact that their ideas about artistic practices at a given moment are not primarily engaged with the mere innovation upon traditions but rather with a political project that Greenberg had already defined in 1939 in a prophetic statement: “Capitalism in decline finds that whatever of quality it is still capable of producing becomes almost invariably a threat to its own existence. Sarenco. once we do have socialism. Jim Dine et l’influence de René Magritte. in Journal du Palais des Beaux” Arts. as in every other question today. October 30 (Fall 1984): ” 83–118. desire to change things. Piero Manzoni (London: Tate Gallery. and therefore of death. Because of spatial limitations alone. Clement Greenberg.: These were the original last lines to the essay. Here. it becomes necessary to quote Marx word for word. Germano Celant. ” ” Benjamin H. Pierre Restany. Among the many differences that he identifies. BucHloH 97 . while the latter is a champion of the ‘resurrection’ of the flesh. even though the work of all the authentic affichistes would merit equal interest and reading. which were relevant long ago in expressionist and cubist vocabulary. no less than advances in science and industry. 29 Ibid. d. 33 Robert Pincus-Witten.p. a decadent. 1973): n. his work closes a cycle of the avant-garde. childish obsessions. 1963): 9. In Manzoni there is violent irony. “Ryman-Marden-Manzoni. Artforum. 1974). Manzoni is a man of the concrete. Klein is a man of despair. 1970): n. For further discussion of these terms and Rodchenko’s sculptures. in Art and Culture: 21.p. In Klein there is metaphysics. a provocateur. no. “From Faktura to Factography. Piero Manzoni: Opere ” et giorni (Milan. Today we no longer look toward socialism for a new culture—as inevitably as one will appear. we will deal in the following pages mainly with Villeglé’s work and writings. Today we look to socialism simply for the preservation of whatever living culture we have right now. Seen from a psychoanalytic angle there emerges in the former (according to the theories of Norman Brown) a protagonist of sublimation. “Avant-Garde and Kitsch. 28 Villeglé: 59. 1029 (Brussels: Palais des Beaux Arts. the following one seems to be particularly relevant: “There is therefore a clear contrast between the concept of the spiritual and messianic art that is Klein’s and the dialectic and materialistic art of Manzoni. June 1972: 50. and therefore of life. corrode the very society under whose aegis they are made possible. 30 Marcel Broodthaers.