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April 11, 2005

The Face of the Enemy?

As promised, an example of the October crew's output for your delectation...

This weekend I unpacked a few boxes of books, one of which contained a stack of art rag back issues. Along with more copies of Artforum from the past three years than I'd care to admit to having, I found a single issue of October (Vol. 108, Spring 2004) purchased last spring without regard for its contents for the sake of some light travel reading. I never read anything within it beyond Mark Godfrey's essay, Barnett Newman's Stations and the Memory of the Holocaust, and that only casually (so casually that I can't now recall one bit of it).

I mention all of this so as to disabuse anyone of any notions of selection bias. That is to say: my choice of this particular issue was, for all present intents and purposes, absolutely random.

The only writing in October 108 representing any of the four October editors in question in the last post is a pair of essays by Yve-Alain Bois on a pair of Barnett Newman paintings, the first a 22-pager on Abraham which can be read free online in PDF form and which I quote substantial portions of below.

In it Bois entertains a number of approaches to the painting, ranging from what might be considered a psychological approach to the artist's intent and a textual reading of the work's title in terms of existentialist thought current among the Ab-Ex painters, to more purely formalist concerns and consideration of the work's phenomenal appearance to viewers (with various technical notes pertinent to this), all of which points appear tightly connected. Bois' main purpose is the consideration of the painting as a pivotal work in Newman's oeuvre.

(The second essay, devoted to Newman's Galaxy, is far shorter and more strictly focused on matters formal and technical. An earlier Bois lecture covering both works can be found here.)

Whatever you ultimately think of Bois' take on Newman, please at least consider this essay in terms of our previous discussion: (1) the quality of writing and critical use of unnecessary or tedious jargon; (2) the critic's deference to artist and object; (3) his concern for historical context and significance; (4) critical understanding of technical methods and material history; and (5) our ability to incorporate or recuperate (if deemed necessary) Bois' thoughts into a more object-centered discourse and whether Bois brings anything at all of value to the table. Forget, for the moment at least, the question of the role of judgment in criticism, which is, I think, a far bigger question than just that of the value of theory (and possibly marginal as concerns the relation of theory to art history).

Last, but not least, tell me if you can: is there joy in Bois' soul?

* * *

Newman considered Abraham one of his most significant works. Included in his first solo show at Betty Parsons in 1950, the painting was absent from his 1958 (Bennington College) and 1959 (French & Co.) exhibitions only because it was then touring Europe for the landmark 1958–59 traveling exhibition, The New American Painting, organized by the Museum of Modern Art, New York. In fact, in the note where Newman jotted down his choice of four works for that exhibition, Abraham figures at the top of the list, followed by Horizon Light, Adam, and Concord, which will all be included. Further proof of the importance of this canvas for the artist is given by his selecting it, together with Onement III and Vir Heroicus Sublimis, for the exhibition American Paintings 1945–1957. Organized by Stanton L. Catlin at the Minneapolis Institute of Art (June 18–September 1, 1957), this show marks both the first serious recognition of Newmanís art by an American museum and the artistís reentry into the public arena. In short, Newman deemed Abraham a chief ambassador of his art.
While the artist must have felt vindicated, he remained extremely protective regarding the pedigree of this canvas; he was particularly concerned that its place in history, notably its impact on artists of his own generation, be properly acknowledged. His pervasive anxiety over the issue of Abraham's "priority" is documented in numerous declarations that give us some hint as to what the painting meant for him.
Newmanís quasi-obsession about the inaugural character of Abraham was undoubtedly exacerbated by the conflict with his once-good friend Ad Reinhardt, with whom he had not been on speaking terms since October 1954. The quixotic lawsuit that Newman attempted to file against Reinhardt at that time, to the great surprise of the latter, need not be addressed in detail, but it should be noted that this sad affair occurred soon after Reinhardt painted his first "black" canvases—for plagiarism subsequently became a frequent charge raised by Newman against his fellow artists. His sensitivity in this matter is obvious when one compares his contrasting reactions to two obituaries published at Reinhardtís death...
But Reinhardt was only the tip of the iceberg, and the whole of Western production had to be called to the witness stand with regard to blackness. Ten years before Hessís memorial tribute to Reinhardt, in a letter written on November 22, 1957, Newman gently chided Ethel Schwabacher for having muddled the matter in her monograph on Arshile Gorky (it is to be noted that Abraham had just come back from Minneapolis, where it had been vandalized, and was thus very much on the painterís mind)...
One should not overestimate Newmanís interest in Kierkegaard, whom he never mentioned in his writings or interviews, but given that the titling of Abraham cannot be dated with any certainty and, as mentioned above, could have happened long after the painting was finished, it is more than plausible that it occurred after Newman had gained cognizance of Fear and Tremblingís content. In any event, it is undoubtedly to the context of a widespread enthusiasm for Kierkegaard that Barr referred when he began his preface for the catalog of the 1958–59 MoMA traveling show with these words: "Of the seventeen painters in this exhibition, none speaks for the others any more than he paints for the others. In principle their individualism is as uncompromising as that of the religion of Kierkegaard whom they honor."
Later in the same interview, Newman would return to Abraham, which he compares to the audacity of early Cubist collages. (He also remarks, not so accurately, that in some of Picasso and Braque's first Cubist drawings, "the line is like the hand was almost trembling.") He then adds: "Like this black painting, I worked with [a] certain kind of tension which was bold and also afraid, so that this is what I suppose involves a sense of terror. . . . Itís more than anxiety. I was nervous because itís so bold. Itís like something Iíve never seen or done. At the same time, I mean where do I get the nerve, you know, whatís going to happen?"
In short, Newman's agony is to be taken seriously, and it indeed explains in great part his fixation on anteriority. He was alone when he painted Abraham, and courageous, too, in surmounting his fear. Having a whole string of predecessors would take this "emotional content" away from the painting; it would empty it. He was alone, like Abraham during the interminable three and a half days of his journey with Isaac to the sacrificial site on the mountain, without anyone to whom he could confide his unprecedented ordeal—an immense solitude that Kierkegaard underscores throughout his book. Newman was trembling in front of the unknown.
The optical effect of a halo is extremely volatile—it is an apparition whose evanescence is crucial if the goal is to give the beholder an actual sensation of time. One has to be patient to perceive it; in a sense one has to have faith, one must be expectant—it requires one's sustained presence, and this presence is based on faith, like that of Abraham answering God's call by declaring "Here I am." But the fragile halo needs to be protected, as the slightest alteration in its conditions of visibility (alteration of the picture's surface, harsh light, etc.) would annul its possibility. It is for this reason that Newman was extremely wary of any interference, of anything that might disturb the delicate interaction between the two blacks of Abraham.
Let us now examine the issue of brilliance. In front of the current state of the painting, whose surface has been buried under a thick coat of glistening wax applied by a conservator, one can hardly imagine what the original experience—described by Hess among others—of a stark opposition between a shiny central zip and a matte field would have been like. But several photographs taken in Newman's studio might give us some idea. The fact that most show the painting obliquely—in raking light, revealing how thick the original stretcher was—might be attributed to Newmanís urging. Whatever the case, the photographs enact the kind of value reversal that Newman had already explored in End of Silence, in that the darker area appears brighter as soon as specular light (due to lateral lighting or an oblique point of view) comes into play. The extent of this effect is measured by a review of the 1959 show at MoMA in Time magazine, where the painting was described as a "vertical white line on a towering black canvas"—a clear indication that the writer had not bothered standing directly in front of the painting and had only glanced at it obliquely and from afar.
Newman would often insist, later on, that his zips are not lines but color planes (see, for example, the discarded text for the 1958–59 traveling show: "My work, they say, is involved in line, when it is obvious that there are no lines" [SWI, p. 180]), and that the zip and its surrounding field are not different in nature but in extension (an ontological identity that Newman often inscribed in the very process of painting: rather than painting his zips on the color field, more often than not he painted them last and directly on the white priming of the canvas which was reserved for this purpose). In Abraham, this breakdown of the traditional opposition between line and color, or between line and plane, is accentuated by the modular division mentioned above, which in turn helps undo the perceptual dichotomy of figure and ground: the shiny black zip just fills one module, the plane at its left fills two, the one at its right fills three. (Strictly speaking, the painting is not black on black at all, but "black next to black.") But the certainty of our perception—which depends upon a clear recognition of the figure/ground hierarchy—is also assaulted by other means. As plane, a vertical zip has two vertical edges, a fact that is emphasized in Abraham by the very width of the zip, but Newman makes it difficult for us to read these two edges as equivalent (and thus to obtain an immediate, synthetic mental image of the zip as a geometric figure, as a timeless gestalt). Positioning one edge on the axis of symmetry and the other not, Newman deliberately gives them a different weight without tilting anything in space. (He would pursue this type of disequilibrium by other means in both Covenant and The Promise, as well as in Galaxy, in which symmetry is completely abandoned. It is hardly by chance that, as noted above, the title of these canvases are semantically linked.) The fleeting apparition of a halo on each side of the zip further teases our perceptual capacity: we never manage to take in everything simultaneously and the only certitude we are ever able to grasp in front of such a vacillating image is, when we step back, the lateral expanse of the whole canvas and its more-than-human height. Such a feat, which requires the suppression of insterstitial space (and thus of any atmospheric illusion of depth), had already been achieved, of course, in the symmetrical canvases of the Onement series, but now Newman is experimenting with a laterality that is not deductive, that is not a property of the field as such, and this is a much more complex affair. Abraham, more than any other previous work by Newman—and he will draw a lot from it—catches us in the process of perceiving and of realizing that the yardstick of scale, by which we measure our own spatial relation to the objects we behold, is what gives us above all a sense of being here, not there, to paraphrase one of his titles.

"The Face of the Enemy?"
Posted by Dan at 09:42 PM


You are right. This isn't bad. It is hard for me to read it entirely objectively because I took Newman's art very seriously and was very influenced by it many years ago as a kid artist.

But many of the facts and characteristics he points to and describes are elements of Newman's great originality as an artist and have never been understood by critics or artists - never understood in terms of their potential for painting either.

There may be joy in Bois's heart. But the joy in mine was destroyed by the image of that thick coat of wax.
Facture and surface are so important for a Newman painting. That is just vandalism.

Posted by: oldpro on April 11, 2005 at 10:20 PM

> You are right.

Something so rarely heard in this here blogosphere. Thanks. For what it's worth, though I'm not terribly familiar with Bois, I was as surprised as anyone by this essay.

Posted by: Dan on April 11, 2005 at 10:33 PM

You are correct on all five counts above.

Let me ask, though - and really, I'm just asking - does this qualify as theory? Your initial irritation was over broadsides against theory. The most speculative part of the above is the bit about the halo, I think, and he comes back to Newman at the end of the paragraph. So I'm not sure that this is the kind of thing that Jones et al. were going after in the first place.

But you've certainly established that Bois' works in their entirety do not deserve to become collateral damage in such broadsides.

As I said in the last post, the first three paragraphs of each chapter of Art Since 1900 come off as honest reportage. Go read a few of them - they sound remarkably like the above excerpts. I wonder if Bois got the job of straight man for the book.

Posted by: Franklin on April 12, 2005 at 05:47 AM

It is always best to consider particulars. Whatever the other work by this person is like, or whatever the intellectual company he keeps, this is a decent piece of writing that points to interesting facts.

Posted by: oldpro on April 12, 2005 at 05:54 AM

I'd call this a very smart and philosophically informed piece of close formal analysis. Which shouldn't be surprising, given the roots of the Octber crowd in formalism, however tormented that relationship came to be.

I'm also reminded that I never wrote a post I proposed on the straight upward trajectory of Newman's critical reputation, as exemplified in his prominence in the reinstalled MoMA. It's probably not necessary to go into it now. When you think of artist whom everyone from Franklin and oldpro through to Bois (and beyond, to certified French pomo philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard) can get behind and find something to attract them in the work, that artist is gonna be doing fine.

I had some more to say about this conversation, but I've got to run to a meeting. Perhaps later.

Posted by: MS on April 12, 2005 at 08:11 AM

> Let me ask, though - and really, I'm just asking - does this qualify as theory?

A reasonable question and one that had occurred to me. I think a salient question in response might be: if this is not "the kind of thing that Jones et al. were going after", then what are the criteria that distinguish their targets (theory as such) from writing like this on the one hand and bad writing in general on the other?

What really struck me about Bois' essay, as I read and reread it in the process of posting, was how much of a synthesis it represented in terms of different approaches and concerns, with all ideas constellated around the art. He spends as much time speculating about the possible relation of the painting to Newman's relationship with his father as he does about the possiblity that the halo effect may in fact involve a very real artifact of conservation efforts. (If anyone hasn't yet read the entire thing, do.)

I was also struck in turn by the thought of how different the results might appear if a similar approach (i.e., speculation on the work in terms of the artist's desire, consideration of its connection to historical context and contemporary philisophical thought, and reflection on viewers' response in terms of all of the above, not to mention the engagement of jargon-infused technical coinages like "laterality" and "deductive structure") were taken toward artists with different concerns or artistic orientations, say a Robert Smithson or Daniel Buren.

Without real examples, this is little more than a thought experiment, but I think it might serve to tease out the thread connecting the work of Greenberg, through Fried, to at least some of the more speculative theory of the past few decades. And I think it raises one important question in particular: would you find the same critical method less acceptable when adapted to more conceptual works?

At any rate, to the first question, I have something of an example in the coffer, something I've been meaning to post about for quite some time. As to the second question, perhaps I can scare up some examples to either support or refute myself, but not till later (if at all).

Finally... I think this should all serve, if nothing else, to highlight the fact that "theory" as such, is a fairly heterogeneous thing.

Posted by: Dan on April 12, 2005 at 10:19 AM

Itís interesting to observe the polarities at work here, ranging from "It is very hard to fight this monster." to "Ö Rosalind E. Krauss rocks!" I suspect the issue is not so nearly black and white. The psychology here suggests, on one level, that a generational influence is peaking with the publication of "the definitive works" In some ways this is not unlike the influential peak of Clement Greenberg several years back. It does not mean that these writers, or their theories and opinions, wither and die on the vine for surely they will find youthful supporters in academia to champion their causes. However, my hunch is that the brightest will stand on their backs and find a path less trodden.

I reject the notion that one can make a blanket dismissal of a work like Art Since 1900 with a sweeping mark of the poison pen, for in the next instant we find an exception. Moreover, even where we may disagree, how can we harbor disdain for a pursuit of a truth? Is it not the truth which we seek?

So I ask, what purpose does critical theory serve?

Posted by: george on April 12, 2005 at 11:12 AM

Having read the complete text, I'd revise my statement on it a little - while it has a formalist component, the essay goes further than that in balancing and synthesizing different kinds of interests. There were a few moments when I felt that Bois could have expressed himself just as well without resorting to specialized terminology, but not so often as to be a real problem or unintelligible. But then, I often like this kind of thing.

As for Dan's question as to whether one would find an approach such as Bois deploys in the article acceptable when used on other work, in a broad sense my answer is sure. That is, the mix of evidence he turns to (work, artist's statements, statements of those with knowledge of events, secondary sources), the priority he gives to them and in general his consideration and sifting of this material en route to his conclusions seems fine. To get more specific than that, however, leads to the problem that to deal responsibly with different kinds of work, different approaches might be needed.

Posted by: MS on April 12, 2005 at 12:13 PM

I suppose my point in posing that question was to ask if strong antipathy towards "theory" might not sometimes be more a case of strong antipathy toward the art it attends to (where deference to the art and the artist demands, perhaps, a more conceptual or theoretical tack). This sets aside the popular subgenre of revisionist theory, of course, but I think it's still something worth thinking about.

The question before that found me wondering, similarly, if distaste for "theory" is more properly an overgeneralized distaste for bad or unconvincing writing (that is, whether our main criterion for labeling something as "theory" might simply be its incomprehensibility, the other side of the coin being something like: 'well this can't be theory... it makes too much sense').

Posted by: Dan on April 13, 2005 at 02:47 AM

If you particularize it you lose the point. There are a hundred ways to treat art badly. If enough of them are grouped under a single label, such as theory, then theory gets a bad name, and you tend to reject it out of hand. Everyone is guilty of this, including me.

If you love art, or at least respect it, you start with the art itself and how you feel about it, and that becomes your vantage. That is how you measure the writing, not the other way around. The excerpt you quoted above clearly was a close analysis "about" the art, so, despite its shortcomings, it deserved serious attention, and that attention, for me, was rewarded.

Posted by: oldpro on April 13, 2005 at 08:41 AM

I'm just thinking aloud about the question of whether this is properly "theory" or not (as posed above as well as both here and here).

I'm not entirely sure what you're reacting to, but I think you're kind of making my argument for me when you write something like:

It is always best to consider particulars. Whatever the other work by this person is like, or whatever the intellectual company he keeps, this is a decent piece of writing that points to interesting facts.

I think this is precisely to my larger point.

Are you suggesting that it's fair to say that writing off an entire heterogeneous body of thought, however ill-defined, as "the enemy," as a "monster," and as soulless poison that no one actually reads (not to put too fine a point on it) might betray a failure to particularize? I think I'm inclined to agree.

I'm inclined, as well, to highlight what George wrote above as a suggestion for a general attitude toward even the worst offenders:

... even where we may disagree, how can we harbor disdain for a pursuit of a truth? Is it not the truth which we seek?

Posted by: Dan on April 13, 2005 at 09:37 AM

I should clarify what i intended in each case by "particularize". I felt that in the immediate instance, what you said just above, that you were trying to particularize in the sense of searching for a source of the antipathy towards theory by posing several possibilities. My response was that instead of casting about like that it is better to just start from the art and judge everything as if you were an "advocate" of art. It was not meant to be an argument, just a suggestion.

As for the second instance, I also wrote above:

"If enough of them are grouped under a single label, such as theory, then theory gets a bad name, and you tend to reject it out of hand. Everyone is guilty of this, including me."

I was guilty of doing that, as I already admitted, so I am not sure why you are trying to drive the point home. it was rhetorical excess, driven by my strong antipathy to the people who do it badly, which I had already surmised, from looking through the book, was applicable (I can't really read the stuff; that is part of the problem).

Then you brought up an example from one of the authors, apparently not a piece from the book, and you said, look, here's something that should not fall under this condemnation. I then said yes, it is OK, and one should not overgeneralize, one should go by particulars. This was a different application of "particularize" from the first.

Nevertheless, to return to my own defense, I would not call the excerpt from Bois "theory". It was more a close reading - of "particulars" - and his conclusions from those particuars were generally restrained and reasonable. "Theory", in art vernacular, is one of those words which has become attached to a somewhat amorphous species of academic activity, much of which leaves art behind and much of which reflects human characteristics which I think demean art and all the good "human" stuff art represents. I make no bones about it. I hate that stuff. If there is such a thing as "good' theory, I will read it, be informed by it and gladly say so. I haven't seen much. This becomes a semantic question, I think.

George's comment is one of those warm and positive assertions which forces agreement even while inciting caveats. I can't oppose "Pursuit of truth", but I certainly do reserve the right to oppose anyone who works in the name of "truth" with whom I disagree. I am sure you do too.

Posted by: oldpro on April 13, 2005 at 10:41 AM

If I'm seen as trying to drive the point home, I apologize... I'm mostly hoping to clarify. Let's leave it at that.

You write about theory as "a somewhat amorphous species of academic activity" and leave its definition as a an issue of semantics. What I wanted to get at was the possible biases behind any of our definitions of the term (and believe me when I say that this is primarily aimed at my own confused little mind).

Maybe this is all just pointless and confused, and I'm not really sure to what positive end I'm addressing it, but I'm throwing it out there nonetheless.

And, again, some examples on my part would probably help.


> I can't oppose "Pursuit of truth", but I certainly do reserve the right to oppose anyone who works in the name of "truth" with whom I disagree. I am sure you do too.


Posted by: Dan on April 13, 2005 at 11:19 AM

Well, I am biased as all getout, for sure, and my main "pursuit" is directed more toward pleasure than truth, most of the time, anyway, so however theory may be defined I will probably want to keep my distance from it.

Posted by: oldpro on April 13, 2005 at 12:07 PM

Dan said, "The question before that found me wondering, similarly, if distaste for "theory" is more properly an over generalized distaste for bad or unconvincing writingÖ" This is an interesting point. I have always had difficulty with writing that became esoteric or convoluted for no logical reason. There are cases where precise use of specialized language is helpful in making subtle distinctions. Unfortunately, the "jargon" (a wordcrafters "look") can be appropriated to lend apparent credence to what is essentially a lightweight argument. I suspect that "the pursuit of truth" often turns into a pursuit of the dollar when we consider the impetus behind much of the art writing today. At the same time, the "demand" for art writing (theoretical or critical) must be there or fewer people would bother with it at all.

This leads me to examine Oldpros remark "There are a hundred ways to treat art badly." On first glance this seems logical, if I ponder whatís required to treat art badly I come around to the notion of opinions. One man's meat is another man's poison. So what happens in such a case? The form or style becomes neglected? I think the implication is that the work loses popular respect or is misinterpreted. While these cases may seem appalling, I seriously doubt they are fatal and that they only represent shifting public opinion. Times change and popular opinions change as well, but I would suggest it ultimately does not matter because the polarities are both finite and cyclical. What is out of fashion today is back in fashion tomorrow, so it is with taste. I feel the other artists out there cringing at this remark but fashion is not as bad as it seems.

Every era has itís defining fashion, taste, styles, theories, whatever you wish to attend to. In my opinion, these cultural markers emanate from the artist (writer etc) and not from the critics or chroniclers who are the early adopters of the styles or theories. While a theorist may be labeled an artist, closing the loop above, the artist must only intuit the changing cultural sensibilities. It is not a requirement that he/she generates or even follows a theoretical course. Undoubtedly, when a particular mode or theory has been in fashion for a time it becomes thread bare and frayed at the edges. As new artists come on the scene they will undoubtedly continue to fertilize the proven soil and attempt to extend the genre. Other, artists will view the territory as "fully explored" (of course it isnít) and look to greener pastures. I would suggest that it is the artists talent and "strength of will" which can change the direction of art at any time. It is not a postulated theory, but the sheer force of will by the artist to manifest a presence in the world with or without the theory which possesses the potential for change.

Posted by: George on April 13, 2005 at 06:33 PM

Hello. I was sent the link to your blog by a student, and I must say it was nice to read that someone felt that the accusation of "not-caring-about-the-object-but-only-about-theory" against the October "gang of four" was just a cliche that does not stand close scrutiny. Having been called a formalist all my scholarly life, I'd say it was a bit odd to read I was not looking at the objects--that is, it was odd to read this in the UK press, as it's common in the US from the right-wing likes of Hilton Kramer, the genius connoisseur who said (for example) in 1970 that a couple years from now (that is, from then), Pollock would be entitely forgotten. I have always been very attentive to the object and I even wrote the introduction to my 1990 collection of essays (at MIT Press) as a warning against the effect of undigested theory.
And anyone who says that Rosalind Krauss does not look at objects should read again some of her texts (I defy anyone to describe Caro's Early One Morning better than she did in Passages of Modern Sculpture, for example--I choose this example because Caro was such a darling of the formalist connoisseurs). Same for Buchloh: there is nothing I like more than going with him to see an Odilon Redon show, for example, and spend hours in it commenting on every grain of pastel. I was particularly incensed at Whitford's review in the Times, when he complained that Greenberg was more discussed than Matisse: this just showsed that the only thing he read in the book was the index, for there is three entries entirely devoted to Matisse (1900, 1906, 1910) and another (1944) in which he gets the lion's share. But that's the way the cookie crumble and has crumbled for so long now that it's no use protesting. I enjoy much better going to look at painting (and in enjoy, there is the word joy, if you see what I mean).
best, yab

Posted by: yve-alain bois on May 8, 2005 at 08:16 PM

Referenced in this post:

European Graduate School: 'Here I am': On Newmanís use of laterality—A lecture by Yve-Alain Bois—August 2002
Iconoduel: Lemon Harangue
Iconoduel: Lemon Harangue—Comment 10
Iconoduel: Lemon Harangue—Comment 11
Iconoduel: Lemon Harangue—Comment 15
Iconoduel: Lemon Harangue—Comment 5
Iconoduel: Lemon Harangue—Comment 9
John & Belle Have A Blog: It is the wittiest partition that ever I heard discourse, my lord
October 108, Spring 2004
October 108, Spring 2004: On Two Paintings by Barnett Newman—Yve-Alain Bois