PRINT March 1973

Yes! Says Arakawa

CROCE, IN HIS AESTHETIC (1902) maintains that “the much-sought-for science of language, in so far as what it contains is reducible to philosophy, is nothing but Aesthetic.”1 Croce’s own idealist emphasis on purely mental esthetic operations adumbrates Conceptualism, just as his preoccupation with art/language problems has obvious contemporary pertinence. Yet his statement oddly retains significance even for those bored by the puritanical immateriality of Conceptualism and put off by art that attaches itself to a type of philosophy that fiddles while Rome burns. In the passage in question Croce summarizes his theory and inserts as an aphoristic keystone the statement that “Philosophy of language and philosophy of art are the same thing.” However, it is likely that in 1902 the appeal would have been in the idea that linguistic operations resemble esthetic operations, rather than vice versa. Indeed, the drift of the first quotation is that in the face of the elusiveness of linguistic understanding, we already have esthetic understanding within reach, with which, luckily, the linguistic seems interchangeable.

Shusaku Arakawa, born in Tokyo in 1936, came to New York in 1960. He has recently brought out a book covering a large body of works done in the ’60s, and in December he showed five startling new paintings at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts. Arakawa deals inescapably with linguistic-analytic materials, but he proceeds more bran intuitive artistic confidence that would please Croce than by resort to language in compensation for esthetic poverty.

During the ’60s, in collaboration with Madeline Gins, Arakawa produced a protracted visual/linguistic project under the general rubric “Mechanism of Meaning,” now published as an album of illustrations with an extensive introduction by Lawrence Alloway, Mechanismus der Bedeutung (Werke im Entstehen: 1963–1971) (Munich, 1971).2 Much of this material does not appeal to me; I find it an interesting and amusing form of game-playing that induces little visual pleasure. The body of work recorded in the book is not self-sufficient art, although it has artistic features. Its relation to the tradition of Duchamp and Johns is as distinct in its specific verbal content as in its semantic and diagrammatic approach. For example, when Arakawa instructs us, in one picture, to “LOOK AT ANY CLOSE OBJECT AS YOU OPEN AND CLOSE YOUR EYES FOR SEVERAL MINUTES,” or, in another, “LOOK AT THIS FOR MORE THAN ONE MINUTE TO KEEP YOUR OWN NAME,” we cannot but recall Duchamp’s sculpture To Be Looked At (From The Other Side Of The Glass) With One Eye, Close To, For Almost An Hour of 1918. Other motifs, compositional procedures, and ideas also recall Duchamp, just as Arakawa’s rulers, maps, cups, compartments with lids, deadpan stencil lettering, and plays on verbal labels, all suggest Jasper Johns. Yet, at least in reproduction these earlier works are mostly quite drab. On another level, I find their apparent advocacy or induction of generalized doubt as futile as it is intellectually offensive. And this negativefeature is a true esthetic defect because, internally, it proceeds by abusing the game being played. Many of the ideas and some of the humor suggest Yoko Ono, but Arakawa’s work is not only “heavier,” but cleverer and funnier than hers.

The function of the Arakawa/Gins book is to establish a comprehensive catalogue of linguistic patterns and relationships. It is an aid in the production of art (and in altogether different human activities as well). It is fully as public as the painted work, and certainly as much a part of the artist’s intellectual output, but in a way that is quite distinct from painting. Like Charles Le Brun’s treatise on the rendering of human emotions, its function as a personal analytical exercise on the artist’s part and its utility beyond the field of painting are both interesting but do not qualify the significance of the finished artwork. This is mainly why, artistically, the illustrations look so thin and empty—like stiff Jim Dines—while the paintings are full of rewarding painterly incident.

I was altogether unprepared for the spare but melodious beauty of Arakawa’s large paintings from 1972. If the word lyric as applied to abstract painting were not already accounted for, it could be used with precision here to refer to the graceful verbal conveyance of poetic ideas, as in Lieder. Too bad we have pulled the word so far from its attachment to the idea of words capable of being sung. Here abstract, pure painterly form, in minimal doses, expounds, accompanies, and flatters thoughts which are in themselves perceptive, intelligent, articulate, dignified, witty, and as charming as gifts. The thoughts are personal but rather self-effacing, serious but full of human comedy, like philosophy discussed in bed.

The forms are understatedly self-effacing too, so much so that that term may seem too inaccurately heavy to describe the smudges, squiggles, tiny floating motifs, coolly tinted lettering, and casual longhand passages, that dispose themselves over the diagrammatically nondimensional surface. The larger motifs can take on direct reference to the verbal meaning; others seem to be just passing through the mindspace, like slight anatomical imperfections in an observing eye.

The beautiful painting No! Says the Signified evidences Arakawa at his best and most promising.3 A narrow chromatic band runs part way around the edge, half as a dislocated historical motif (neoImpressionist edge-optics modernist edges) and half as the setup for a multiple irony. To the extent that this band identifies the face of the work as a sure and fundamental expanse, on which everything else falls, is put, or occurs, it is undermined on several counts. First, the band is sharp-edged on top, allowing it to be read there either as an adjacent feature bordering the painting proper or as a glimpse of something behind the painting that is much jazzier than the obscuring surface to which we are obliged to attend. But the right-hand band, apparently of one substance with the other, bleeds onto the main field, implying that it is surely not behind the face and might even spill out onto it.

Then the cluster of two straight lines and one curled, stringlike line at the right comes into play. Each of the straight lines has at top and bottom the word “front” in pencil script, with an arrow pointing to the terminus of the line: each, in other words, suggests a tentative or possible cross section of the so-called picture plane, another angle in space at which that plane might as well have been established. These lines are close to one another but they diverge, like subtle adjustments of the whole orientation of the pictorial construct that have either been considered and dismissed or that propose themselves as alterations. Linking them is the stringlike, looping line—evoking both Duchamp’s stoppages and the illustrated squiggles in Wittgenstein’s lectures on esthetics—which compounds the ambivalence by introducing an element substantially identical with the two tentative “fronts” but which could not possibly be the edge of a plane.

The string line continues off the edge of the picture at the right, while to the left it is pointed at by a solid, right-angular arrow. This arrow is in analogy with another arrow at the far upper left of the work, that one having the legend “FOCUS HERE” attached to it by a line. Have we been wasting our own time with fruitless thoughts about alternative planes, since all the while we should have been “focusing there,” in a completely different area and at the concrete edge of the canvas? And yet the arrow with no legend also seems to carry as a legend the entire verbal text that spreads across the canvas in large but faint letters, and which is repeated at the bottom in smaller, but more insistent letters (similar to those of the words “FOCUS HERE”).

This main text reads “WHEN ‘ALWAYS AND NOT’ SIGNIFIES SOMETHING ‘THE SIGNIFIED OR IF’ BELONGS TO THE ZERO SET! HAVE WE MET BEFORE?” Besides revealing an affinity with John Cage, in its restful interruption of some inelegantly unwieldly thought, this repeated text functions in the painting in conjunction with the expressionistic splotch of paint with radiating sparklike spatters at the center of the canvas. That splotch has two things attached to it. There is an analytical/hierarchical pattern to the left, a diagram which is itself abstracted from diagrammatic use (whether in grammatical notation, kinship studies, genealogy, or corporate organization). In its lower and more complex regions this pattern develops mutations, including clustered, nondifferentiated arcs, a stub, a missing line, a splattered line, and, overall, a sense of geometric order in a state of organic fudge. Logically balancing this structure on the right-hand side of the large central blob is a wholly different entity, a sentence linked to the blob by an arrow—“NO! says the signified.” This sentence, both intrinsically textual and also a rich “passage” in pure paint, is utterly man-made and luridly ruddy with life; its importance as a resolution and punch line is reflected in the title.

With great visual aptness and delicacy the painting embodies the poignant (and rather comical) moment when the truly reasonable intellect loses patience with analysis. Much more refined than the relatively easy pleasure of pattern formation, what we have here is a beautifully balanced, articulate exercise in the experiential qualities of reason. More honorable than a mockery of the intellect, Arakawa’s painting reveals the mind as a sentient organ capable of its own sophistications and dissatisfactions. That thoughts like these can themselves become embodied in a pleasing plastic object is all the more amazing.

In view of the logical clarity of the handbook, it is strange that the closer we get to purely visual values in the paintings the more we tend toward mute admiration. The doctrine that visual art takes over where words fail was a commonplace in Romantic art theory. But what makes our silence all the more acute here is that the artist has already coolly worked out the entire verbal system by himself before moving beyond it.



1. Benedetto Croce, Aesthetic as Science of Expression and General Linguistic, trans. Douglas Ainslie, New York, 1960, p. 142; italics in original.

2. Alloway’s perceptive essay, which is more useful for dating and other questions than the book itself, has been published in English in three parts: 1) “The Mechanism of Meaning; Work in Progress, 1963–1971,” Extensions, New York, No. 7, 1971; 2) “Arakawa: The Mechanism of Meaning,” Art International, November, 1972, pp. 31–37; 3) Extensions No. 7, 1971, from the illustration of Re-assembling (drawing) to the end.

3. The other paintings in the show (in addition to a work in progress not exhibited as a painting) were Blink, Courbet’s Canvas, The Given, and There.