You are on page 1of 17

Formalism and Historicity

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 doesnt 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 its 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 1960sthe moment of Minimalism, for examplego 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

81

that had once been used to describe the phenomena have now become the terms used to produce the phenomena. Philosophically speaking, such a position simply introduces a basic concept of logical positivism into aesthetic discussion. And from the purview of art history, 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, autonomous work of art. Extending from the moment of Symbolism to that of Yves Kleins concept of immateriality, formalism-as-criticalcriterion has found its most recent iteration in Joseph Kosuths well-designed tautological corpus.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 . . . The absence of reality in art is exactly arts reality. 3 On the European side, Daniel Burens text Limites Critiques, written in the same year as Kosuths (1969), articulated the dialectical opposite of this formalist position by defining an explicit concept of historicity: Art, whatever it may be, is exclusively political. 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. These limits are many and of different intensities. Although the prevailing ideology and the associated artists try in every way to camouflage them, and although it is too earlythe conditions are not metto blow them up, the time has come to unveil them.4 If any specific difference were to be sketched out between recent American and European art, one might find it first by comparing the different attitudes toward the historicity of art. Therefore the following essaywhile by no means pretending to show the only valid aspect of such a differentiationfocuses on how these attitudes have changed and interrelated in European and American art since 1945. Postwar Lacunae Art publications from France, and Cahiers dArt above all . . . kept you posted on the latest developments in Paris, which was the only place that really mattered. 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, which may have been a blessing in disguise, for it permitted some Americans to develop a more independent sense of color, if only thanks to misunderstanding and ignorance. Clement Greenberg.5 Immediate postwar art history, namely that of the Paris and New York Schools of painting, seems to have been formed as much through misunderstandings, omissions and ignorance of history as through the artistic information that was available at the time, and which has since been handed down to us. For example, Piet Mondrian, during the last four years of his life, which he spent in New York, was more

82

Formalism and Historicity

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, where he was practically unknown after the war. 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. The reception of the work of Wassily Kandinsky demonstrates the point by exception. His limited concepts of abstract painting and his politically opportunist, not to say reactionary, positions had been convincingly criticized in the 1920s by El Lissitzky (and later by Arnold Schoenberg). Nevertheless, 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. By contrast, the incomparable reductivist radicality of the Suprematist Kazimir Malevich, the visual and plastic complexity of the paintings of El Lissitzky, and the politicized precision of the sculptural and architectural concepts of Alexander Rodchenko passed by almost unnoticed until 1962, when Camilla Grays extraordinary study of the Russian and Soviet avant-garde was published, reintroducing American artists in particular to a much broader historical and critical field.6 The same can be said with regard to the artistic and art-historical reception of Surrealism, which was assimilated only in its more traditional painterly positions (articulated in the works of figures like Joan Mir and Andr Masson, Max Ernst and Yves Tanguy). This is all the more astounding since a profound knowledge and appreciation of these legacies had existed in New York, exceeding by far that of Europe in the late 1930s. One only has to think of the famous exhibitions and catalogs by Alfred Barr, Jr. such as Cubism and Abstract Art or Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism, which offered all the relevant information on the major recent international art in 1936. 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, omitting and/or suppressing the other? One could also ask the question: rather than contemplating Mir and Kandinsky, why did Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, Clifford Still and Jackson Pollock, Arshile Gorky and Willem de Kooning not discover the infinitely more radical epistemological changes suggested by artists such as Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia, Man Ray and Tristan Tzara, 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, as expressed in Greenbergs essay The School of Paris of 1946: Paris remains the fountainhead of modern art, and every move made there is decisive for advanced art elsewherewhich is advanced precisely because it can respond to and extend the vibrations of that nerve-center and nerve-end of modernity which is Paris.7 From our present-day perspective, this statement seems surprising since artists in Paris had by then themselves become aware of the growing academicism of the

Benjamin H. d. BucHloH

83

late Surrealist painting and late abstract painting of the cole de Paris. Jean Dubuffet, for example, tried to posit his art brut figurations against the Surrealists myths of the individual creators prolific unconscious. He therefore attempted to relate artistic practice once again to the collective potential for artistic productionas the Surrealists had originally done themselvesby substituting raw and repugnant materials, like foils, sponges and sand, for the precious surfaces of late Surrealist painting. As Dubuffet stated in 1947: What I am interested in is not the cakes but the bread. If one would be inclined in general to prefer bread to cake, one would end up being very unjust to pastry chefs, and not only to pastry chefs, but also to the institutions, like museums and art dealers and critics, which are also a Parisian specialty, nourishing quite a lot of people . . . I would like my paintings to be on the verge of disappearing as paintings. It is at the moment of vanishing that the swan starts singing.8 Of course, 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. Nevertheless, it seems valid to acknowledgein particular in the context of postwar art the extent to which reception history (and its peculiar randomness) has become production history, and to reveal the degree to which seemingly autonomous aesthetic entities inform themselves art-historically, and thereby, historically. From a current European perspective, one begins to question the historicist aspects of some recent American art. One wonders whether a retrospective view would not reveal a cyclical pattern in which each generationfrom the Abstract Expressionists to the Minimalistsappear to have assimilated, worked through, and enlarged their own set of historical presuppositions from the artistic practices of the twentieth century. One could voice doubts, for example, about the presumed epistemological radicality of Andy Warhols Campbells Soup paintings (1962), if placed in relation to Duchamps Fountain (1917). Or what about Dan Flavins Diagonal of Personal Ecstasy (the diagonal of May 25, 1963, to Constantin Brancusi), which certainly has to be considered as a key work in international American art of the 1960s? From a contemporary perspective, do these not seem somewhat belabouredat best, very learnedassimilations of key sculptural concepts of the twentieth century? Especially so if compared to the still indecipherable complexity of Kurt Schwitters architectural vision, his Cathedral of Erotic Misery (whose title Flavin seems to unconsciously paraphrase). Post-Surrealist Dilemma The Surrealists reacted against the historical conditions in the service of revolution, trying to accelerate and to intensify the process of the auto-destruction of bourgeois consciousness by means of the subconscious. By using the more or less misunder-

84

Formalism and Historicity

stood and limited methods of psychoanalysis, those artists totally withdrew from society, back into themselves, i.e. the subconscious became the last unit of the dissolving ego; they hoped that from there they could protest more convincingly by throwing their ego against the dissociated conditions. That this particular form of protest was infantile did not prevent them from experiencing it as a real protest; on the contrary, it was precisely this infantilism which allowed them to extend their protest to include everything and nothing, believing it to be unlimited. Max Raphael9 When looking at the history of post-Surrealist art in Europe, especially the painting of the School of Paris, it becomes particularly important to recognize the peculiar continuity of local traditions. Although Greenbergs lucid observation from 1946 might sound truthful at first, it neither coincides with the Parisian reality at the time, nor with subsequent developments: After 1920 the positivism of the School of Paris, which depended in part on the assumption that infinite prospects of technical advance lay ahead of both society and arts, lost faith in itself. It began to be suspected that the physical in art was as historically limited as capitalism itself had turned out to be. Mondrian looked like the handwriting on the wall.10 Greenbergs astounding clairvoyance seems to anticipate the ultimate dematerialization of the art object in Conceptual and post-Minimal art, a development that might be called the most original and authentic contribution of American art to the present.11 One wonders, however, 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, by 1940, Eighth Street had caught up with Paris as Paris had not yet caught up with herself, and that a handful of then obscure New York painters possessed the ripest painting culture of the day. 12 Indeed, 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), 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. In this context, the key figures of postwar European artfrom Georges Mathieu to Yves Klein in Paris, from Lucio Fontana to Piero Manzoni in Italy, and finally through to Joseph Beuys in West Germanyfurther justify Max Raphaels remark about the Surrealists infantilism cited above. This condition finds its clearest manifestation in the fact thatperhaps with the sole exception of Fontanathe work of these artists is inextricably bound up with a claim for charisma, as inevitably fraudulent a claim as it may be. 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,

Benjamin H. d. BucHloH

85

scientist and philosopher, a figure who delivers his work and research results to bourgeois society through the market. By contrast, 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, if not more so, the collective need for a newly formed social hierarchy with the artist as its symbolic center or fountainhead. Thus these artists had to assume attitudes of irrational and archaic behavior oscillating on a broad scale from shaman or high priest through victim, and from fool or clown through entertainer.13 All of these reflectin very different ways of course particular social needs for a new mythical subjectivity. In the case of Mathieu, Klein and Beuys, the subject is spectacularized, in compliance with the reactionary requests of postwar society. In the case of Manzoni, the artist makes a dialectical gesture toward the potential reality of a new collective, recognizing the necessity of forming a post-traditional subjectivity. Mathieu and Pollock Were Pollock a Frenchman, there would be, I feel, no need by now to call attention to my objectivity in praising him; he would already be called matre and there would already be speculation in his pictures. Clement Greenberg, 1952.14 One of Mathieus lasting achievements is his initiative of organizing the first exhibitions of the paintings of Wols and Pollock in Paris. It is characteristic, however, that in his eagerness to situate himself among themhe installed his own paintings with theirshe showed that he was unable to discern the fundamental differences between the two artists, and least of all between their work and his own. If Wolss work completed the last phase of criture automatique and radical subjectivity in painting, Pollocks was an entirely new beginning in the objectification of the process of painting itself. 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 one of the basic differences between European and American art of that perioda difference that had lasting effects on contemporary [ed.: 1960s1970s] practicesis evident in Pollocks dominant concern with decentering the matter and process of painting, endowing his paintings with the innate radicality of a decentered field of self-referential pictorial processes and traces. Pollocks painting proved that not even the slightest residue of subjective imagery should interfere with those forces, and that artistic imagination need no longer be superimposed on the viewers perception. Thus Pollock shifted abstraction away from Surrealist painting and negated automatist conventions, ultimately suggesting new models of a post-Freudian subjectivity. He reflected on the prevailing conditions of painting and experience under advanced monopoly capitalismwith its potential for increased individual freedom and its governing conditions of rapidly diminishing options for the subjective differentiation of experience. By contrast, Mathieus work represents a final phase of Surrealist automatism and the supposedly liberating forces of the subjective unconscious to dissolve objec-

86

Formalism and Historicity

tive reification. Although claiming to be the trace of pure velocity and temporality, Mathieus action painting generates a manifestly frozen gesture. Like involuntary caricatures of Pollock, Mathieus paintings generate dead hierarchic figures in centralized grounds. At a relatively early moment, then, Mathieus compulsion to restore traditional (artistic) subjectivity in hypertrophic forms articulates, even if unknowingly, the inescapable need to confront, if not to comply with, the intensifying demands for the spectacularization of (artistic) subjectivity in contemporary culture. Klein and Kaprow Allan Kaprow and Yves Klein, born in 1927 and 1928 respectively, might be chosen as another pair of opposites illustrating the history of European and American differences. In fact, both are members of the first generation of artists that had learned substantially from their immediate predecessors (i.e. Pollock/Mathieu), and from their antecedents in the historical avant-gardes. Kaprow, who had completed his Masters thesis on Mondrian with Meyer Schapiro at Columbia University, and had studied the work of Pollock extensively, considered his own work as a necessary extension of the projects of these painters: Not satisfied with the suggestion through paint of our senses, we shall utilize the specific substances of sight, sound, movement, people, odors, touch. Objects of every sort are the materials of the new art: paint, chairs, food, electric and neon lights, smoke, water, old socks, a dog, movies, a thousand other things which will be discovered by the present generation of artists. Not only will these bold creators show us, as if for the first time, the world which we have always had about us, but ignored, but they will disclose entirely unheard of happenings.15 By joining a radical reading of the Surrealist origins of Pollocks painting with the heritage of theatrical activities as they had been performed in revolutionary Russian Futurist theatre and Dada activities alike, Kaprow formed the basis for his own work as a new exchange between the aesthetic and the real. The composer John Cage (with whom Kaprow had studied at The New School in 195758) had set the tone for this new approach, advocating a purposeful purposelessness or a purposeless play: This play however, is an affirmation of lifenot an attempt to bring order out of chaos . . . But simply a way of waking up to the very life were living, which is so excellent once one gets ones mind and ones desires out of its way and lets it act of its own accord.16 This attitude, which was held by a whole generation of American artistsfrom Cage and Merce Cunningham, to Kaprow and the Fluxus group, and from the early

Benjamin H. d. BucHloH

87

work of Robert Rauschenberg to that of Yvonne Rainercould be summed up as the quest for a new correspondence between life and art. Typically, 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. In contrast to Kaprow, 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. Such a position was articulated in these terms: Materialismthis quantitative spirit has been recognized as the enemy of liberty . . . I love in myself everything that does not belong to me, that is my LIFE, and I detest everything that belongs to me: my education, my psychological and optical inheritance, which is received and traditional, my views, my defects, my qualities, my manias: in one word, everything that leads me irredeemably towards physical, sentimental and emotional death.17 Obviously Klein had learned his art-historical lessons as well, but unlike Kaprow, he tried to conceal his sourcesone 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. 18 Apart from his knowledge of Malevich, Klein seems to have been equally aware of Mondrians legacy. His first exhibition at Colette Allendys Paris gallery in 1956 comprised differently colored monochromes that looked as if they had been executed under the influence of a first encounter with Mondrians unicolor rectangles.19 Regardless of whether he was aware of Mondrian nor not, 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 traditionnamely, the problem of chromatic and spatial relations and compositionality: I was trying to show color, but I realized at the private view that the public were prisoners of a preconceived point of view and that, confronted with all these surfaces of different colors they responded far more to the interrelationship of the different propositions, they reconstituted the elements of a decorative polychromy.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. And one should of course remember that the monochrome canvases of Lucio Fontana might easily have been known to Klein as well, since he was a frequent traveller to Italy in the early 1950s. And thirdlypossibly most

88

Formalism and Historicity

importantlywhen confronting Kleins claims to an original paternity of monochromy and flatness, wholeness and object-like painting, we would have to consider Robert Rauschenbergs monochrome paintings from 1951, unlikely as it is that Klein could have encountered them in reproduction. Finally, the seemingly hermetic mystery of Kleins genius had also been subjected to more local, not to say vernacular, influences. Dubuffets works such as the Texturologies from 1954 and the monochrome sponge sculptures of the same year, must have been of prime importance for the development of Yves le Monochrome, his discovery of the monochrome in general and his sculptural inventions, the ponges (sponges), in particular. According to ones perspective, Kleins switch from Dubuffets 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. Furthermore, regarding Kleins claims to have invented the concept of immateriality, a similar genealogy can be traced: every one of Kleins immaterial works has a Duchampian predecessor. In relation to Kleins Cosmogonies, 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, there is Duchamps Unhappy Readymade (1919) and his levage de poussire (Dust Breeding),1920. For Kleins Portraits-Reliefs from 1962, there is Duchamps With my Tongue in my Cheek (1959). And then there is the culminating moment of the certificates marking the exchange of pure gold for parts of the Immaterial Pictorial Sensitivity Zone, whose predecessor is Duchamps Monte Carlo Bond (1924).21 In a model of activation quite in opposition, for example, to Kaprows Happenings, Klein reactivates the artist as a petit-bourgeois agent provocateur, a reactionary position that had been lingering around late Parisian Surrealism. The most symptomatic figures of that positionsuch as Salvador Dal, whose techniques of self-scandalizing mythology Klein seems to have studied most thoroughlyattempted to maintain an idea of the artist as a narcissistic elitist, a sort of superman, as Duchamp had once put it. Klein and Judd It is astonishing, then, that by the late 1960s Kleins work had found such appreciation in the US. He was the first postwar European artist, and for a long time, the only one, to appear on the cover of Artforum (January 1967)on the occasion of his major retrospective at the Jewish Museum in New York. 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, as revealed in Bruce Glasers interview with Stella and Judd. And finally, in his own writings, Judd (born, as Klein was, in 1928), frequently refers to Klein as the only European painter who dealt with formal issues of prime importance to his own concerns: flatness, abolition of relationality, and the wholeness of the painting as an object. Judd evaluates Kleins work in patently formalist terms, disregarding any implications of the materiality (in the Monogolds, for example), or the processes of

Benjamin H. d. BucHloH

89

production (in the Anthropomtries). From a contemporary European vantage point, 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.22 Judds formalism seems to have originated in the attitudes of a generation that learned its art-history lessons better than its history lessons, a generation that appears to have been mainly concerned with the problem of inserting its production into the mainstream of modernist formalist traditions. But how inaccurate and imprecise such a reading must be if it is incapable even of identifying the most elementarywhether latent or manifestideological and historical implications of a work. Fortunately, there exists at least one lucid analysis of Klein, published relatively early by the critic Dore Ashton, which proves that American-type formalism was only one possible historical approach to be taken at the time. 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, summarized by existentialism . . . [W]hen many older French intellectuals were frantic with horror, the fevered prose accompanying the revolution in the visual arts was coyly transmundane, limiting itself to exalted discussions of new cosmologies, new psychism, new infinite beyonds, and new brotherhoods in some distant future in the infinite beyonds where other art would conquer . . . Under cover of cascades of hyperbolic prose promotion, a host of younger artists stepped out into the world of show business, bringing reality to their hungry bourgeois patrons . . . the fossils of one of these lives, desiccated and boring, are on view at the Jewish Museum. No one better exemplifies the shift in values, the switch from art as a private affair to art as a public event, than the late Yves Klein. The souvenirs of his life of spectacle are poor dead things. Bereft of the confectioner, the life of his art has vanished.23 The opposition of formalism and historicity can perhaps now be more clearly defined. 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. 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), this formalist attitude shows either blatant disdain, or naivety toward the dialectical potential of art. It is precisely the loss of naivety with regard to history that might be called specific to European art since the late 1950s. An awareness re-emerged thatby analyzing their own epistemological presuppositionsartistic practices could not restrict their inquiry to

90

Formalism and Historicity

their own discourse alone (nor to the history of that discourse). Rather, they would have to reflect their positions dialectically within a given historical reality, both as dependent and determined forms, and as modes of ideological productivity transforming this reality. This critical attitude is precisely what prevented the next generation of European artists from following in the footsteps of Klein, 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. 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, or an abstract idealization and embellishment which develops exactly to the degree to which the real human being becomes a caricature. 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; in the second case embellishment is the desire of the disproportioned and dehumanized for aesthetic illusion, for false harmony and pretended proportionality, for the fata morgana of all contradictions being resolved. In both cases chic has become an integral element of high art.24 Villegls Anonymous Lacerations It is within the real, by the real and with the real that the affiche lacre [torn poster] gains its consistency and imposes its presence. But its just because he doesnt resign to reality that the anonymous lacerator, who feels the restraint of reification pending on him, acts by protesting in particular against the psychic violation of the masses by the public propaganda. Through this he introduces the domain of the potentiality of childhood right into the reality of adults. Jacques de la Villegl25 It seems useful to emphasize the fact that none of the artists of the subsequent generation in Europe [ed.: mid-1960s1970s], artists whose work essentially changed the notion of contemporary European art, was influenced by the Klein legacy.26 Nevertheless, it must be stated that this generations work articulates transformations of ideas and practices that were initiated by European artists in the 1950s and early 1960s, practices that received much less recognition in European (let alone in American) art criticism. This is as true of Kleins counter-figure, the Italian Piero Manzoni, as it is for the lesser-known French dcollagistes: Francois Dufrne, Raymond Hains and Jacques de la Villegl (as well as their Italian colleague Mimmo Rotella). Lacr anonyme the anonymous lacerations of billboardsis the term used by Villegl 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.

Benjamin H. d. BucHloH

91

The work and artistic position of the dcollagistes could be called the most underestimated and misunderstood in postwar European art. It may also represent the first legitimate European contribution to the development of a new artistic language since Dada and Surrealism.27 Being fully aware of given (art) historical conditions, ranging from the concept of the readymade to Schwitters collage and assemblage aesthetics to the radicality of Pollocks all-over pictorial field, which completed the idea of gestural automatism, the dcollagistes (as early as 1949) deliberately transferred painterly actions from the studio and the canvas into the street. And yet, all too easily, their work has been discarded as simply having transformed Duchamps readymade into a different materiality, or as having transposed the collage language of Schwitters onto a different scale. In actuality, however, the project of the dcollagistes/affichistes aimed at a far more comprehensive transformation of the Dada legacies. As Villegl has pointed out: To plunder, to collect, to sign the torn posters, to live with them, and to exhibit them in galleries, salons and museums, this is not a questioning of the artwork in the sense of Duchamps readymade but more a questioning of the professional and traditional artist. And, in a different text, slightly later: After all, l cannot consider the tearings of the anonymous participant or my selection of them as a transcription or objectivization of a singular, lived experience, that of a gifted and predestined individual, the artist . . . 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.28 The work of the dcollagistes departs both from Duchamps anonymously manufactured objects, aestheticized by declaration, and from Schwitters found materials, aestheticized by arrangement. The anonymous gesture and the very activity of the collective unconscious (linconscient collectif) to which Villegl frequently refers, enter into the realm of artistic reflection but at a remove from the Surrealists traditional idealization of the liberating powers of the collective unconscious. This position had found its most immediate articulation in Dubuffets art brut collection/production, an idiosyncratic fiction (historical, 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. With lacr anonyme, the artist as a flaneur restricts his productive activity to the mere act of choosing an anonymous vandalizing gesturemaking it even less of an artistic intervention than Duchamps declarative act of pictorial nominalism. In a conscious refusal, the dcollagistes cede their position to the collective gestures of vandalism, a counter-productivity that in Villegls historical situation

92

Formalism and Historicity

appeared to be the sole gesture of opposition against what he would identify as psychic violation by public propaganda. As a collector who links himself to an anonymous producer of oppositional gestures, the artist acknowledges the potential for collective participation. The procedural and perceptual specificity in the work of the dcollagistes would certainly be legible in formalist terms: the abolition of illusionistic space corresponds to the abolition of projective subjectivism in the spectatorial act; the presence of the self-referential opacity of the object demands the presence of a conscious, selfdetermining spectatorial subject. Nevertheless, Villegl identified the motivations for his practice by situating the formal and perceptual changes that his work engenders within an explicitly historical frame: Lacr anonyme opens up with four cuts of the razor blade a window into the flatness of the affiche-objet. 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.29 Manzonis Concepts Manzoni is dead, physically dead. He was young. 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. And if this should be the reason, then our inquiry into artistic events, into all kinds of events, will have to be profound and thorough. In any case, Manzoni will be in the history books of the terrible twentieth century. Marcel Broodthaers30 Whereas Klein can be considered a terminal figureas of course was true of Mathieuwho left almost no traces in contemporary art, the opposite could be said of Manzoni.31 Manzoni should be considered as a key figure for contemporary European art. If Duchamp played games with the epistemological consequences of his work, Manzoni reintroduced those Duchampian attitudes in the postwar period and made them operative. Each step in that progression, from Duchamp to Manzoni and to the next generation, consisted in an increasing differentiation and singularization of the perceptual, cognitive, and spatial elements of the contemporary aesthetic structure; and the successive qualitative distillation of these elements, and their quantitative extension, endowed the work with a new public dimension. And in a dialectical reversal, the progressive dissolution of the works aesthetic appearance and the abolition of artistic conventions in favor of actual material processes induced a new conceptualization of production. Lines from Duchamp to Manzoni In 191314 Duchamps Trois stoppages talon (Three Standard Stoppages) represented the almost unimaginable step of isolating one particular aspect of spatial plasticity;

Benjamin H. d. BucHloH

93

as such, it constituted an abstraction, 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 Manzonis Linea works (conceived from 1959 onwards), in which the artist defined drawing as a purely spatio-temporal extension. (Each work is defined by different dimensions ranging from a few meters up to 7,200 meters, and onea black wooden tubular bodyis identified as a line of infinite length.) The materials of the Three Standard Stoppages range from wooden rulers to gold lettering, from glass panes to lengths of string, from canvas bases to leather labels. All of these elements are finally encased in the presentational device of a croquet box, which serves as both a fetishistic frame (containing the sculpture in its post-performance state, the sculpture at rest), and as a ludic allusion (promising the sculptures partial reactivation in the performative display). Equivalent to this range of materials is the perceptual-conceptual complexity of Duchamps work, shifting from the programmatic examination of the relations of chance operations and sculptural form to the question of a works conceptual identity and perceptual dissimilarity. All of these aspects culminate in a previously unthinkable distinction between the performative state of the sculptures physical execution and its static mode of display as integral but oppositional elements.32 Manzonis line works (most prominently his Line 1000 Meters Long, 1961), while reduced in their presentational devices, are by no means less complex in their conception than Duchamps. The singularization of one constituent feature of the work, in this instance the drawing process as a spatio-temporal extension, is magnified to such a degree that it gains an altogether different, almost monumental public openness and accessibility. By comparison, Duchamps ludic box appears almost subjectivist, featuring a peculiar intimacy. Yet while the phenomenon of spatio-temporal extension has been magnified to the level of public monumentality, it has been radically negated in the dialectical withholding of the objects material and visual appearance. Thus it can no longer be perceived in any other way than in the spectators imaginary conceptualization. By contrast, 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. Manzoni defines a strategy of withdrawal that replaces perceptual definitions of the work of art with conceptualization. Both the idea of the pure spatial dimension and its material concretion are present. Yet the work, as material object, negates itself totally in favor of its (invisible) conceptual dimension. As an object, it exists only insofar as it functions to negate the works appearanceas a containing concealment. The shiny mirroring surface of the chrome container literally reflects (or deflects) the spectators perceptual expectations from the aesthetic object back onto the viewers themselves. 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, or, as Robert Pincus-Witten (one of the first and

94

Formalism and Historicity

rare American critics to write about Manzoni) suggested: by isolating constituent features of art, Manzoni paraded what he thought [was] the essential futility of art as sensibility. 33 . . . In 1962, at the climax of Nouveau Ralisme in Europe, most artistic practices were essentially still concerned with the legacies of the readymade as object. This kind of object now stands as a category of historically determined visual material; it is conditioned as a collective mode of experience and self-expression, and as such it cannot have any traditionally defined literary meaning or illustrative function. Today, this sense of historicity, even within the painters activity, remains the capacity to question the relevance of ones practice while one is practicing it. This capacity alone may distinguish certain works and position them among the most serious efforts operative in contemporary culture. That is to say, if formal approaches result from a vigilant consciousness of the historicity of any artistic practice, those formal attitudes come to define an ever-fragile equilibrium between subjective gesture and objective fact. This fragility seems to be a feature common to most of the crucial European practices beginning at the turn of the 1960s. In comparison to the most advanced American art of that period, European art appears as though it would have to give up its material existence were it to give up its historical consciousness. Perhaps this is due to the fact that European artists wereat 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.34 Notes
The term ideology while still remaining relevant, is understood here in the most general way possible, as defined by Karl , Mannheim in his Ideologie und Utopie (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1952): The term ideology actually means to say that certain challenged opinions, statements, objectivizations (ideas in the broadest sense of the word) cannot be comprehended alone for themselves, but have to be understood in terms of existential conditions of the subject by being interpreted as functions of these conditions of being. What is more, this means that we somehow reason that the concrete foundation of a subjects existential being is responsible in a constitutional manner for the subjects opinions, statements and recognitions. 2 Jean-Paul Sartreas early as 1947compared certain aesthetic phenomena of that period to the ideological implications of symbolisms aestheticist attitude: But art has never been on the side of the purists . . . One knows very well that pure art and empty art are one and the same thing, and that aestheticist purism was simply a brilliant defensive manoeuver of the past centurys bourgeoisie who preferred being denounced as philistines to being discovered as exploiters. See Sartre, Quest-ce que la littrature ?(I), in Les Temps Modernes, February 1947: 782. This quotation is particularly revealing in regard to the development of the visual arts in France (and Europe), where only a few years later the ideas of purity and immaterial emptiness in art became the key concepts of Yves le Monochrome. No wonder, then, that he became the champion of the newly reinstated bourgeoisie and postwar parvenus of post-fascist West Germany. 3 Joseph Kosuth, The Sixth Investigation, Proposition 14, ed. Gerd de Vries (Cologne: Paul Maenz, 1969): n.p. 4 Daniel Buren, Limites Critiques, ed. Yvon Lambert, Paris 1970; English translation as Critical Limits, in Buren, Five Texts (New York: John Weber Gallery, and London: Jack Wendler Gallery), 1973: 4352. 5 Clement Greenberg, The Late Thirties in New York(1957), in Art and Culture (Boston: Beacon Press, 1961): 231. 6 Camilla Gray, The Great Experiment: Russian Art 18631922 (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1962). 7 Clement Greenberg, The School of Paris: 1946, Art and Culture: 120. 8 Jean Dubuffet, Causette, invitation-pamphlet for his Portraits exhibition at Galerie Ren Drouin in 1947: n.p. 9 Max Raphael, Beschftigung mit neuer Kunst (1938) in Arbeiter, Kunst und Knstler (Frankfurt: S. Fischer Verlag, 1975): 21. 10 Greenberg, The School of Paris: 1946, in Art and Culture: 120. 11 [ed.: the present refers to c. 1977] Post-Minimalist and Conceptual work is a manifest exception to the American postwar tradition of historical assimilation. Looking to the decades aheadthe late 1960s and beyondthe works of Bruce Nauman and Richard Serra, of Robert Barry and Lawrence Weiner, of Sol LeWitt, 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.
1

Benjamin H. d. BucHloH

95

Perhaps Leo Castelli was both punning on and paraphrasing Greenbergs reference to Mondrian when, on the occasion of Weiners first show in his gallery, he commented: This is the writing on the wall. 12 Greenberg, The Late Thirties in New York, in Art and Culture: 233. 13 It is bewilderingand sometimes amusingto read the implausible statements on such irrational attitudes and atavisms again and again in art criticism and art-history writing, as though the visual arts were a zone protected from reason and the understanding of human behavior. This is especially true of the French and West German Klein exegeses (e.g. Pierre Restany and Paul Wember), and even more so for the recent West German exegesis of the work of Joseph Beuys. But even American criticism seems to fall into this trap as soon as it comes to Beuys. See, for example, Bernice Roses matter-of-course reference to Beuys as a shaman in her introductory essay to the catalog, Drawing Now (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1976): 16: Beuys, while allied to the tradition of automatic drawing, stands alone in his choice of sources and techniques. Instead of resorting to the inchoate individual unconscious, he assumes the role of one to whom the unconscious drive of numerous civilizations has assigned the function of primary executor of fantasies, he assumes the role of shaman. 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. After all, surrounded by a world governed by standards of advanced science and economics, the artistas archaic as he might be functions very well in a highly differentiated and complicated economic and ideological sub-system called the art world. And if he supposedly functions as a shaman, for whose sake is ithealing whom and how exactly? Most symptomatic, however, seems to be the fact that Beuyss 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. While Klein and Manzoni disappeared and left the stage to the following generations, Beuys, who beganlike themto make his work in the early 1950s, is still not only the dominating figure in West Germany, but is perceived as the sole and singular artist to produce the most authentic work of the present in West Germany. 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, 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. 14 Greenberg, Partisan Review Art Chronicle, 1952, Art and Culture: 153. 15 This was the first time that Kaprow would deploy and define the term happening, soon to become the central project of his work. See Allan Kaprow, The Legacy of Jackson Pollock, Art News (October 1958): 27 . 16 John Cage, Experimental Music, in Silence (Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1961): 12. 17 Yves Klein, quoted by Germano Celant in Piero Manzoni (London: Tate Gallery, 1974): n.p. 18 Kleins 1957 statement, reproduced in Yves Klein, Selected Writings (London: Tate Gallery, 1974): n.p. 19 In a photograph that had been published for the first time in Michel Seuphors monograph on Mondrian earlier in the same year, Mondrians monochrome panels could be seen scattered over the walls of the artists last studio in New York. 20 Yves Klein in Yves Klein, Selected Writings: n.p. 21 That Klein was not only familiar with, but deeply fascinated by, Duchamps 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. This was the catalog that carried Duchamps notorious cover Prire de toucher (Please Touch, 1947), a life-size foam-rubber cast of a breast. See Daniel Abadie, Conversation avec Arman, in Abadie (ed.), Arman (Paris: Galerie nationale du Jeu de Paume, 1998): 44. 22 Kleins 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, the Franoise Sagans, the Genets, the Georges Duhamel, the Einsteins, the Roosevelts, the Pandit Nehrus, the rats and garbage cans. As quoted by Dore Ashton in her essay, Art as Spectacle, Arts Magazine (March 1967): 44. 23 Ibid. 24 Raphael: 133. 25 Jacques de la Villegl, Les boulevards de la cration, n.d, in Villegl, Le lacr anonyme (Paris: Centre Georges Pompidou 1977): 57 (my translation). 26 [ed.: Here the author refers to the generation of the late 1960searly 1970s. In the full, original version of this text the European artists discussed in this context were Stanley Brouwn, Hanne Darboven, Daniel Buren, Berndt and Hilla Becher, and Gerhard Richter.] 27 The works of these artists, the affiches lacres and dcollages, were shown in William Seitzs famous exhibition The Art of Assemblage at The Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1961, and in 1962 at the New Realists show at the Sidney Janis Gallery, as well as in a special group show L Affiche lacre held at the Gres Gallery in Chicago in 1964. This exhibition included works by all the authentic dcollage artists, Dufrne, Hains, Rotella, and Villegl. Their work has hardly been dealt with in American and European criticism. As is usually the case with art-historical reception (especially that of the recent past), 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 productionby its very definitionwas apparently unlimited, resulting from its inherent principles of anonymity and infinite repetition, and aimed at the (symbolic) annihilation of the individual producer. I have not found a single example to illuminate the ways in which the affichistes were received in the criticism of other artists. Needless to say, Judd does not mention their work at all, 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. Even for artistic eyes, the implications of this work seem to have been too advanced, or too similar to their own concerns, to be discovered. Once again, Pierre Restany does not seem to be altogether wrong in saying: Rauschenberg remains a contributor to post-cubist aesthetics, and finally positions himself on this side of Schwitters. He is still bound to a traditional language, a lyrical or expressionist synthesis of cubism, which shows itself clearly in his concerns for composition and painterly presence. The same analysis is valid for Jasper Johns . . . In fact, quite to the contrary of the Nouveaux Ralistes, these Neo-Dadaists have not realized the extreme consequences of the readymade concept. They [the American Neo-Dadaists] have not transcended the Dada facts, but instead integrated the found object into aesthetic compositions, into formal

96

Formalism and Historicity

structures, which were relevant long ago in expressionist and cubist vocabulary. Pierre Restany, Le Nouveau Ralisme (Paris: Galerie Mathias Fels, 1970): n.p. Because of spatial limitations alone, we will deal in the following pages mainly with Villegls work and writings, even though the work of all the authentic affichistes would merit equal interest and reading. 28 Villegl: 59. 29 Ibid. 30 Marcel Broodthaers, Gare au dfi ! Le Pop Art, Jim Dine et linfluence de Ren Magritte, in Journal du Palais des Beaux Arts, no. 1029 (Brussels: Palais des Beaux Arts, 1963): 9. 31 The Italian critic Sarenco put it this way: the work of Klein is conservative, the work of Manzoni is revolutionary. In Klein there is metaphysics, childish obsessions. In Manzoni there is violent irony, desire to change things, a materialist conception of the world. Klein is a man of despair, a romantic, a decadent; his work closes a cycle of the avant-garde. Manzoni is a man of the concrete, a provocateur, his work opens the way of the contemporary avant-garde. Sarenco, Piero Manzoni: Opere et giorni (Milan, 1973): n.p. More recently, Germano Celant has pointed out the opposition between Klein and Manzoni even more distinctly. Among the many differences that he identifies, 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 Kleins and the dialectic and materialistic art of Manzoni. Seen from a psychoanalytic angle there emerges in the former (according to the theories of Norman Brown) a protagonist of sublimation, and therefore of death, while the latter is a champion of the resurrection of the flesh, and therefore of life. Germano Celant, Piero Manzoni (London: Tate Gallery, 1974). 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 191819. For further discussion of these terms and Rodchenkos sculptures, see Benjamin Buchloh, From Faktura to Factography, October 30 (Fall 1984): 83118. 33 Robert Pincus-Witten, Ryman-Marden-Manzoni, Artforum, June 1972: 50. 34 [ed.: These were the original last lines to the essay.] 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. Advances in culture, no less than advances in science and industry, corrode the very society under whose aegis they are made possible. Here, as in every other question today, it becomes necessary to quote Marx word for word. Today we no longer look toward socialism for a new cultureas inevitably as one will appear, once we do have socialism. Today we look to socialism simply for the preservation of whatever living culture we have right now. Clement Greenberg, Avant-Garde and Kitsch, in Art and Culture: 21.

Benjamin H. d. BucHloH

97