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The Primary Colors for the Second Time: A Paradigm Repetition of the Neo-Avant-Garde

Author(s): Benjamin H. D. Buchloh

Source: October, Vol. 37 (Summer, 1986), pp. 41-52
Published by: The MIT Press
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The Primary Colors for the Second
Time: A Paradigm Repetition of
the Neo-Avant-Garde*


The concept 'historic avant-garde movements' distinguishes these

[dada, constructivism, surrealism] from all those neo-avant-gardiste
attempts that are characteristic for Western Europe and the United
States during the fifties and sixties. Although the neo-avant-gardes
proclaim the same goals as the representatives of the historic avant-
garde movements to some extent, the demand that art be
reintegrated in the praxis of life within the existing society can no
longer be seriously made after the failure of avant-gardiste inten-

The neo-avant-garde, which stages for a second time the avant-

gardiste break with tradition, becomes a manifestation that is void of
sense and that permits the positing of any meaning whatever.2
These two quotations give us, in highly abbreviated form, one of the cen-
tral hypotheses of Peter Burger's important but problematic study, The Theoryof
the Avant-Garde.To rephrase it, the hypothesis runs roughly as follows: It was
the goal of the original avant-garde, that of the period 1910-25, to criticize the
notion of autonomy, the central term of modernist thinking. Furthermore, this
avant-garde aimed to abolish the separation of the aesthetic from the real (what
is often referred to as the gap between art and life) and attempted instead to in-

* This symposium contribution is excerpted from a study of the reception and transforma-
tion of the paradigm of monochrome painting in the practice of the neo-avant-garde from 1951 to
1961. The study forms a chapter of a projected book devoted to the relationships of the neo-
avant-garde to the historical avant-garde of 1910-25, focusing on the paradigmatic strategies of
that period: in addition to monochromy, ready-made, collage, serial grid composition, and open
1. Peter Burger, Theoryof the Avant-Garde, trans. Michael Shaw, Minneapolis, University of
Minnesota Press, 1984, p. 109, n. 4.
2. Ibid., p. 62.

tegrate art within social praxis. At the very least, the historical avant-garde at-
tempted to criticize the institutionalization of modernism. By contrast, all those
activities of the generations of postwar artists that Burger calls the neo-avant-
garde are flawed from the beginning by the most obvious of all failures in art
production: repetition. "The neo-avant-garde," Burger claims, "institution-
alizes the avant-gardeas art and thus negates genuinely avant-gardiste inten-
The word genuinelybetrays Biurger's evaluation of the "historical" avant-
garde artists: they were original, while their postwar followers are imitators,
recapitulators. The neo-avant-garde has copied and therefore falsified the
original moment of rupture with the discursive practice and institutional
system of modernism. While it is evident that Burger's model of repetition is
infinitely more complex than those which traditionally separate the unique,
auratic original from the debased copy (whether repetition is understood as a
process of learning and ever-closer approximation to an ideal of perfection or as
a manufacturing process of copies and fakes), it is also evident that Burger's no-
tion of the "genuine" original versus the "fraudulent" copy is still determined by
the binary opposition ultimately deriving from the cult of the auratic original.
Burger's historical scheme, valid and important as it might be in other
respects, is marred by this one feature: the fiction of the origin as a moment of
irretrievable plenitude and truth. This fictitious moment of an "origin" func-
tions, as we know, as the fulcrum of the historian's pursuit. Only after
establishing this plenitude or originality in the past- and that past moment
can, as in an infinite regress, either be shifted further back into history or be
pulled to the forefront of present-day experience - only then can the work of the
historian begin.
As is usually the case with such fictions, we find in Burger's text the conse-
quence of this loss of the original for the present. The present moment is
devalued, is comparatively empty and meaningless, lacks the vigor of the
original, and therefore, at best, offers us the randomness of historicism. Thus,
the present is not only "void of sense" and "permits the positing of any meaning
whatever," but, "through the avant-garde movements, the historical succession
of techniques and styles has been transformed into a simultaneity of the
radically disparate. The consequence is that no movement in the arts today can
legitimately claim to be historically more advanced as art than any other."4

3. Ibid., p. 61.
4. Ibid., p. 63. The implications of this statement seem particularly problematic when con-
sidered in relation to current "postmodernist" production, whose cynical apologists argue precisely
for a value-free art practice based on the end of the avant-garde and the simultaneous availability
of all historical styles through pastiche or quotation. Burger's discussion of the neo-avant-garde
shows no awareness whatever of those art practices of the late 1960s and early 1970s (his book
was originally published in Germany in 1974) that radically opposed the "institutionalization of
the avant-garde as art," for example, the work of Marcel Broodthaers, Daniel Buren, and Hans
The Primary Colorsfor the Second Time 43

I want to argue, against Burger, that the positing of a moment of

historical originality in the relationship between the historical avant-garde and
the neo-avant-garde does not allow for an adequate understanding of the com-
plexity of that relationship, for we are confronted here with practices of repeti-
tion that cannot be discussed in terms of influence, imitation, and authenticity
alone. A model of repetition that might better describe this relationship is the
Freudian concept of repetition that originates in repression and disavowal.
Rather than discarding forty years of neo-avant-garde history with the high-
handed naivete of the art historian who has staked out a field and predetermined
its limits, it would be more appropriate to investigate the actual conditions of
reception and transformation of the avant-garde paradigms. This would entail
clarifying the peculiar dynamics of selection and disavowal, of repression and
"simple" omission that resulted from the particular dispositions and in-
vestments that the various audiences brought to their involvement with the
avant-garde after the Second World War. Furthermore, I want to ask whether
it might not be precisely the process of repetition which constitutes the specific
historical "meaning" and "authenticity" of the art production of the neo-avant-
This clarification should be developed first of all within the discursive
practice itself, and not by instantly seeking recourse in transcendental
categories of causality and determination. Nor can the relationship between the
historical avant-garde and the neo-avant-garde be elucidated from a centralized
point, that of the authenticmoment of originality, from which all subsequent ac-
tivities appear as mere repetitions.
In the following I want to discuss a single example, a case in which one of
the central pictorial strategies of the original avant-garde of the 1910-25 period
was in fact rediscovered and "repeated" by artists of the neo-avant-garde, and
was subjected to the process of institutionalization that Burger discusses. As is
well known by now, between 1919 and 1921, in the context of postcubist paint-
ing, monochromy became one of the most important reductivist pictorial
strategies of the historical avant-garde. While Malevich, in his series of square
and modular-cross paintings of 1915-19, was the first to introduce the
monochrome figure and to map this figure onto an achromatic field in a
nonrelational central composition, it is not until 1921 that we can speak of a
completely monochrome canvas from which all figure-ground and chromatic
relationships have been eliminated as well.5 Rodchenko's triptych Pure Colors.
Red, Yellow, Blue, 1921, is the first work that not only abolishes the denotative
functions of color but also liberates color from all spiritual, emotional, and

Haacke. For a more developed critique of this aspect of Burger's book, see my review, "Theoriz-
ing the Avant-Garde," Art in America, vol. 72, no. 10 (November 1984), pp. 19-21.
5. For a first extensive and excellent discussion of the history of monochrome painting, see
Yve-Alain Bois, "Malevich, le carre, le degre zero," Macula, no. 1 (1978), pp. 28-49.

psychological associations, analogies with musical chords, and transcendental

meaning in general. Thus, with Rodchenko's introduction of the monochrome,
we witness not only the abolition of relational composition but, more impor-
tantly, the abandonment of conventional attributions of the "meaning" of color
in favor of the pure materialityof color. It is only logical that this recognition of
the materialityof color coincided historically with the discovery of the chromatic
values of materials as pronounced one year earlier in the Realistic Manifesto of
Naum Gabo and Antoine Pevsner (and as it had already been put into practice
in Duchamp's ready-mades). Thus it is perfectly convincing to read Rodchenko's
claim (made retrospectively in his text "Working with Mayakovsky" of 1939):
[In 1921] I reduced painting to its logical conclusion and exhibited
three canvases: red, blue, and yellow. I affirmed: this is the end of
painting. These are the primary colors. Every plane is a discrete
plane and there will be no more representation.6
While one cannot deny with certainty that a remnant of antibourgeois,
futurist shock value still motivated Rodchenko's claim, it is nevertheless evi-
dent that the project of Rodchenko's critical modernist strategies was the
demystification of aesthetic production, in this case the pictorial convention of
assigning meaning to color. In its explicitly scientistic attitude -since it adapts
scientific models of empirio-criticism-it proclaims itself as a model for
aesthetic practice, and thus as a model for cultural practice in general.
Moreover, by the mysterious process of model imitation that is never clarified
in modernist practice (how exactly did Mondrian, for example, expect his paint-
ings to operate as models of the socialist society?), Rodchenko's triptych sug-
gests the elimination of art's esoteric nature, the rationalistic transparence of its
conception and construction supposedly inviting wider and different audiences.
Rodchenko aims to lay the foundations for a new culture of the collective rather
than continuing one for the specialized, bourgeois elite.
Inevitably, the reduction to the monochrome also implied a redefinition of
the role of the artist. Insofar as the work eliminates the marks of manual
creation - analogue of the specialized vision - in its form and structure, it op-
poses the social division of labor and that condensation of talent in the single
individual that is synonymous with its suppression in the collective. This im-
plication of the monochrome painting is programmatically and provocatively
overstated in an anonymous text of 1924, written either by Malevich or El
With the increasing frequency of the square in painting, the art in-

6. Alexander Rodchenko, "Working with Majakowsky," in From Painting to Design: Russian

ConstructivistArt of the Twenties, Cologne, Galerie Gmurzynska, 1981, p. 191.
The Primary Colorsfor the Second Time 45

stitutions have offered everybody the means to make art. Now the
production of art has been simplified to such an extent that one can
do no better than order one's paintings by telephone from a house
painter while one is lying in bed.7
Exactly thirty years later the French artist Yves Klein - in many ways the
quintessential neo-avant-garde artist--astounded the Parisian art world with
his work, and he seems to have convinced that art world with his claim to have
invented monochrome painting. While Klein acknowledged his awareness of
Malevich at a point in time later than this "invention," we have no evidence
that he had come in contact with any examples of postcubist monochrome
painting before 1957, when he saw Malevich's and Strzemiriski's paintings in
Paris. This fact does not in the least, however, resolve the questions that are
raised by this clear-cut case of neo-avant-garde paradigm repetition. If
anything, it should make us realize that these phenomena must be addressed in
a way that avoids mechanistic speculations about priority and influence. This is
corroborated by the fact that Klein was literally surrounded at the time by
other artists of his generation who (re-)discovered the strategy with equal en-
thusiasm and naivete- for example, Fontana, Rauschenberg, and Kelly.
This coincidence, as well as the simultaneity of rediscoveries and repeti-
tions of other avant-garde paradigms, substantiates the hypothesis that the
discursive formation of modernism generated its own historical and evolu-
tionary dynamic. If we assume that visual paradigms operate analogously to
linguistic paradigms, then the "langue"of modernism would constitute the neo-
avant-garde "speakers" and continuously replicate and modify their 'paroles."
Since the aesthetic objects that emerge from these discursive formations
seem at first to be structurally, formally, and materially analogous, if not iden-
tical, traditional art-historical approaches have been confronted with two
possibilities. Either choose Burger's transcendental criticism (and it does not
really matter whether this is argued on political or aesthetic grounds), which re-
jects neo-avant-garde practices as so much charlatanry, as insufficient in com-
parison to the authenticity and sublime seriousness of the "original," historical
avant-garde's critical project; or revert to the opposite (and complementary)
method of connoisseurship. This latter approach attempts to elevate the activi-
ties of the neo-avant-garde- often with an effort bordering on the grotesque-
and to transform them into such traditional high-art categories as the oeuvre,
within which each object becomes again inherently self-sufficient, its meanings
understood as a function of its "essence."8

7. Quoted in Bois, p. 37, n. 40; originallypublishedin Hans Arp and El Lissitzky,Kunstismen,

Munich, Eugen Rentsch Verlag, 1925, pp. ix-x.
8. For a recent example of this approach, see John Bowlt, "The Zero of Forms,"in OfAbsence
andPresence,New York, Kent Fine Art, 1986, np.
Malevich (center)and El Lissitzky (left, with wool cap)
with UNOWIS studentsleavingfor Vitebsk,1919.
Spectatorsat YvesKlein's Anthropometries de 1'epoque
bleue, GalerieInternationaled'Art Contemporian,Paris,
March 9, 1960.

But it is precisely this traditional conception of the work of art as a com-

plete, self-enclosed, self-sufficient entity that the repetitions of the neo-avant-
garde calls into question. And even though Burger argues for a conception of
the work as a fragment, an open structure, he does not seem to realize that
within such an open structure, all formal and material, not to mention
iconographic, elements are no longer able to generate the traditional semantic
functions that he nevertheless deems essential to original avant-garde practices.
It is thus inevitablethat these works have reached what Bfirger calls, critically, a
state of "semantic atrophy." This term betrays Burger's expectations of a tradi-
tional meaning structure inside an open, fragmented work, a meaning cen-
tralized and integrated and residing within the elements of the aesthetic object
itself, yet nevertheless maintaining a referential relation to the real world.
On the contrary, however, the repetitive structure of the neo-avant-garde
work, with its apparently identical chromatic, formal, and structural elements,
prohibits the perception of an immanent meaning and dislodges this traditional
structure. It displaces meaning to the peripheries, shifting it to the level of the
syntagma and toward contingency and contextual heteronomous determina-
tion. Consequently, the inherent qualities of the work no longer offer sufficient
possibilities of differentiation among one another. (What would be the point of
a formal comparison between two ready-mades by Duchamp or two paintings
of soup cans by Warhol?) Nor are the works of the neo-avant-garde to be
distinguished from their paradigmatic predecessors in the historical avant-
garde; structurally, formally, chromatically the two triptychs by Rodchenko
and Klein are at first almost identical.
It therefore becomes obvious that the reading of these neo-avant-garde
works consists exclusively in assigning meaning to them from what traditional
discourse would call the outside, that is, the process of their reception-the au-
dience's disposition and demands, the cultural legitimation the works are asked
to perform, the institutional mediation between demand and legitimation. For
the work of the neo-avant-garde, then, meaning becomes visibly a matter of
projection, of aesthetic and ideological investment, shared by a particular com-
munity for a specific period of time.
Yves Klein seems to have been aware of all of this when he decided to
repeat the modernist strategy of monochromy, and he pushed all the inherent
contradictions to their logical extreme. In one of his most "scandalous" exhibi-
tions, Klein installed ten identical blue monochrome paintings in a commercial
gallery in Milan in 1957. The implications of what Klein called his "mono-
chrome adventure" seem at first glance to be that the very continuation of paint-
ing is threatened. And indeed monochromy had, in Rodchenko's case, lead to
the conclusion of his painting production. By purging color of its last remnants
of mythical, transcendental meaning; by making painting completely anony-
mous through seriality and infinite repeatability; by imbuing painting with the
status of the ready-made, the final blow to painting-considered as a unique
The Primary Colorsfor the SecondTime 49

YvesKleinat theEpoca Blu exhibition,Galleria


object and a moment of auratic experience-seemed to have been dealt. We

are left with the infinite repetition of the structurally analogous or identical, as
was precisely the case in the work of so many artists during the 1950s and '60s,
the complete destruction of the closed, centered, self-contained work, as well as
the destruction of the organic development of the oeuvre.
But there is an almost schizophrenic split between Klein's pictorial pro-
duction and the perceptual experience he wants it to generate, as demonstrated
in his own observations on the 1957 exhibition:
All of these blue propositions, all alike in appearance, were recognized
by the public as quite different from one another. The amateurpassed
from one to another as he liked and penetrated, in a state of instan-
taneous contemplation, into the worlds of the blue.
However, each blue world of each picture, although of the
same blue and treated in the same manner, revealed itself to be of an

entirely different essence and atmosphere; none resembled another,

no more than pictorial moments or poetic moments resemble each
The most sensational observation was that of the "buyers."
Each selected out of the ... pictures that one that was his, and each
paid the asking price. The prices were all different of course. This
fact proves, for one thing, that the pictorial quality of each picture
was perceptible through something other than the material physical
appearance ..
So I am in search of the real value of the picture, that is, sup-
pose two paintings rigorously identical in all visible and legible
effects, such as lines, colors, drawing, forms, format, density of sur-
face, and technique in general, but the one is painted by a "painter"
and the other by a skilled "technician," an "artisan," albeit both
officially recognized as "painters" by the public. This invisible real
value means that one of these two objects is a "picture" and the other
isn't. (Vermeer, van Meegeren.)9
It is in Klein's desperate (or is it facetious?) attempt to protect himself
against the erosion of painting and to maintain it as a form of sublime and
privileged experience that he reveals most poignantly (it is unclear whether his
clairvoyance is innocent or cynical) the extent to which painterly production
had already become subservient to the conditions of the culture industry. The
realm of modernism -once a domain of resistance to the totalizing demands of
ideology and those of the production of use value and exchange value; a do-
main that had offered a form of refuge, a utopian space where cognition and vi-
sion, sensual play and apperception could be experienced as integrated; where
the primary process maintained its supremacy - this realm was now in the pro-
cess of being converted into an area of specialization for the production of lux-
urious perceptual fetishes for privileged audiences.
But more than that, we read in Klein's account the way in which every
single feature of the modernist pictorial strategy and its enlightenment agenda
is turned on its head. While for Rodchenko it was the tactilityof his monochrome
panels, their relief character, so to speak, that suggested the abolition of the bour-
geois contemplative mode of perception, it is precisely contemplationthat Klein
prescribes as the proper perceptual approach to his works. While Rodchenko
wished to purge chromatic qualities of their mythical and transcendental mean-
ing, Klein conjures up the essence and the atmosphere of the poetic moment of
each individual painting. And finally, it had been evident from Rodchenko's

9. Yves Klein, "The Monochrome Adventure," trans. and quoted in Nan Rosenthal,
"AssistedLevitation: The Art of Yves Klein," in YvesKlein, Houston, Institute for the Arts, Rice
University, and New York, The Arts Publisher, 1982, p. 105.
The Primary Colorsfor the Second Time 51

positivist agenda, and from the Malevich/Lissitzky statement, that one of the
most radical implications of the strategy of monochromy was the redefinition of
the artist's role, the abolition of the painter's patte and his specialized vision in
the systematic breakdown of the work's auratic status. In Klein's statement, by
contrast, the artificial reconstitution of the aura is the central issue, and he
must therefore logically separate the art of the copyist or faker from that of the
reconstructed, inspired, original, creative genius.
This reconstitution of the artist's traditional role is, however, by necessity
mythical, and the products emerging from this restoration are inevitably
fetishistic. They are fetishistic, first of all, because their auratic quality can only
be demonstrated by their commodity status. The hierarchyof exchange value to
which Klein refers with such candor reveals the myth as myth even in the act of
constructing it. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the fetishistic nature
of these products originates-as is crucial for the formation of the fetish in
general--in disavowal, in this case, the disavowal of the historical legacy of
modernism itself. Neither the original implications of the strategy of the
monochrome nor its subsequent development (constructivism's transition to
productivism, for example) could be acknowledged in the reception and repeti-
tion of this paradigm by the neo-avant-garde. The primary function of the neo-
avant-garde was not to reexamine this historical body of aesthetic knowledge,
but to provide models of cultural identity and legitimation for the reconstructed
(or newly constituted) liberal bourgeois audience of the postwar period. This
audience sought a reconstruction of the avant-garde that would fulfill its own,
needs, and the demystification of aesthetic practice was certainly not among
those needs. Neither was the integration of art into social practice, but rather
the opposite: the association of art with spectacle. It is in the spectacle that the
neo-avant-garde finds its place as the provider of a mythical semblance of
radicality, and it is in the spectacle that it can imbue the repetition of its ob-
solete modernist strategies with the appearance of credibility.
According to Klein - and to many of his apologists and exegetes - one of
his prime achievements was to have "liberated the pigment" from its traditional
binding media. This was accomplished by discovering and mixing new
materials to create his patented International Klein Blue. The recipe, which
used transparent acrylic as a binder, made the blue pigment appear as if pure
and unbound, sitting like a powder on the surface of the canvas. Paradoxically,
though, it is just this extreme devotion to the details of the painting's surface
which indicates most poignantly that the modernist concern with transparency
of construction had run its course. Any attempt to refine it, to increase its preci-
sion, or to extend the life span of the paradigm was bound to result in fetishiza-
Thus we find our hypothesis empirically confirmed on the level of the
materials and procedures themselves, and so the actual differences between the
two triptychs - Rodchenko's and Klein's - must be taken very seriously indeed.

The one is by no means a mere repetition of the other using slightly altered col-
ors (from yellow to gold, from red to pink, from blue to IKB); rather, the first
triptych completed the modernist, materialist project in order to abolish the last
vestiges of myth and cult to which high art had been inextricably tied within
bourgeois culture. Rodchenko's work thereby made possible the conception of
a new collective culture. By contrast, Klein's triptych resuscitated the idea of
art as transcendental negation and esoteric experience precisely at that moment
when the mass culture of corporate capitalism was in the process of dismantling
all vestiges of bourgeois culture's individual experience and liquidating the op-
positional functions of high art.
It becomes obvious, then, from these very minute material and pro-
cedural features of the neo-avant-garde paradigm repetition that the bourgeois
public sphere from which the modernist project emerged had been utterly
transformed and that modernist culture had lost its function of mediating be-
tween individual and public. The very same strategies that had developed
within modernism's project of enlightenment now serve the transformation of
the bourgeois public sphere into the public sphere of the corporate state, with
its appropriate forms of distribution (total commodification) and cultural ex-
perience (the spectacle).