PRINT October 1984


JIM STARRETT IS A PAINTER who suffers signs gladly. The grid armature of his paintings hardly buckles as it rides out the storm of symbols: knife and comb, cross and Odal rune (symbol of RuSHA, Hitler’s office of race and resettlement), ladder and chair, the Nazi paraphernalia of swastika, iron cross, and the SS double lightning bolt dangling from rosary beads of blood, and, perhaps most conspicuously, a photo-portrait of Pope Pius XII, often juxtaposed with the SS skull-and-bones insignia of death. Those who live by death and those who promise immortal life—are they far apart? This is the world-historical problematic of Starrett’s pictures: why did the prince of peace not speak out against the Nazi atrocity, the Nazi crime against humanity? Why did he not use his ethical office to speak out against evil? By what right does authority exist if it does not exist for the right? Starrett’s pictures boil the issues down to terse, epigrammatic visions of petrified signs, all of whose tension has flattened and been neutralized by being made to seem too well designed. Theatrically juxtaposed, the signs are manipulated in scale until they make the devastating point of the work: the inadequacy of all authority.

Starrett, a Catholic, is a pacifist who paid for his convictions with a year in jail while in the United States Army. (After enlisting in 1961, he tried to declare himself a conscientious objector, but the Army convicted him on an absent-without-leave charge before his request could be processed.) Pacifism is an opportunity for him; it is not neutrality, not indifference, not just another kind of discourse—his pictures fight the idea that this is all that painting can be—but a martyr’s stand against the inhumanity of war. His paintings are prison cells of self-consciousness. His self-limiting choice of residue from a seemingly obsolete discourse, his abstention from contemporaneity are a form of penance, of abjection, like that of people who humble themselves by making the sign of the cross while on their knees, in artificial, self-imposed crippling. He stages the prison cell in which he was actually incarcerated as a kind of torture chamber, in which he is tortured by the signs of the choice facing him. He elevates his personal choice between the military and pacifism to a universal level by reconstituting or reconceiving it as the choice between Catholicism and Nazism, the victimized Jews and the victimizing devils of death. The Pope represents Starrett’s possible self-betrayal, his hiding behind neutrality and institutional-business-asusual—preservation of the institution at all (moral) costs—as the Pope did. But this is not the subject of the painting. Starrett didn’t take that possible road, but it haunts him, not because it tempts him, but because the choice he actually made implicitly repudiates his Church, violates a code of behavior set by its leader, suspect though that code was. The agony of this situation is Starrett’s cross, his predicament. The pictures are meditations on a situation in which Starrett’s choice leaves him out in the cold, beyond the comfort of any institution. Starrett in a sense has formulated a visual “plague on both your houses.”

The icy clarity, the acidic colors, the rigid structure of Starrett’s pictures articulate his renunciation. The impersonality of the pictures startles, in view of the horrendousness of the theme, but it is appropriate. The prisoner’s body, not his consciousness, is missing, because such impersonality, such antiheroism, such antivanity make clear the analytic/intellectual character of the pictures and separate them from simplistic ideological messages. In Starrett’s work “formalism” has found a new world-historical use without becoming preachy.

Starrett’s paintings are Kafkaesque; one can think of them as Gregor Samsa’s room in “The Metamorphosis” without the bug Gregor, or as the machine in “The Penal Colony” which imprints on the prisoner the reason for his punishment. Starrett fits into the procrustean bed of the picture as the bug, the criminal. The signs are the teeth in the penal machine revealing his secret crime: that he was committed to a good (the Catholic Church) that was just as bad as evil (the Nazi church). Also, the pictures represent Starrett’s discovery that the Catholic Church couldn’t be turned to for succor at the time of his suffering. He couldn’t fall back on it, because it had “fallen.” But there is more to the Kafkaesque space than that: the speechlessness, the silence of the Pope, become emblematic of the death, the silence imposed by the Nazis on their victims. Kafkaesque space is as much about the silence of those who take the victim’s lot for granted—Gregor’s parents thought there was nothing really unusual in the fact that he had turned into a bug, it just made housekeeping that much more difficult—as it is about that kind of silencing involved in the creation of a victim. In Starrett’s pictures all the signs reek of death—that is part of their impersonality. (Starrett’s pictures have a lifeless crystalline structure which his acidic colors of decay complete; in his earlier works, which are generally all gray, this death-predicated coloration is more explicit.) Like Kafka, Starrett compounds the negative force of death by giving it to us not just as the threatening silence at the end of the narrative but throughout, in the form of signs of death. All his signifiers, whatever they refer to, are caught up in a world drama of ethical meaning and united in a dance of death by the macabre momentum of its negative force.

Something else is at stake in Starrett’s pictures: art itself. Its relationship to authority is brought into question. In conversation, Starrett notes that the Mondrianesque grid he employs developed “simultaneously” with the Weimar Republic and continued uninterrupted, in magnificent detachment, through the Hitlerian period. Can Mondrian, for many the greatest representative of pure painting, the greatest abstractionist, be regarded as the Pope Pius XII of the Church of Art, “fiddling” with his art as the world burned (literally)? Is the famous silence of abstract art akin to that of the Pope? Is its famous autonomy like the Pope’s neutrality, a speechlessness designed to preserve the holy institution of art? Was that autonomy gained at the same moral cost? One might of course say that art never claimed to be its brother’s keeper, as the Christian church did, but at a time when humanity is threatened with destruction and enslavement what other role does an institution have?

Starrett’s painting has evolved from dynamic, expression-oriented works (in the last half of the ’70s) to carefully constructed, radically poised grid pictures (from 1979 on). There is a change in medium, from graphite on paper to acrylic on canvas. And above all, there is a change in the way the signs, which give the pictures their teeth, are handled. In the early works they charge the totality of the picture, moving across its field in an often violent Sturm and Drang way, chaotically bouncing off one another and irrationally juxtaposed. They are like exploding bombs. In the last graphite works they are strong-armed by the tightly knit grid that suddenly emerges as an all-controlling “rational” element, bringing the signs under the control of space, which they previously had free rein in. The signs have now lost their energy in a kind of dramatic repression. In these post-1979 transitional pictures the signs are ghosts of themselves and, manipulated at will, shells filled with esthetic explosive. From late 1981 on the signs have equal weight with the now not so obvious yet still implicitly structuring grid, which has mapped out a shallow illusionistic stage-space—“unconsciuosly” set the limits of the pictorial prison cell. In the works since 1979 there is a greater integration of sign and art, a kind of estheticization of the sign which confirms its death-dealing, death-ratifying, fatal character. Good and evil meanings are dictated by the signs. The comb is a limited good, because he can use it to care for himself, in a situation of evil imprisonment represented by the threat of the knife. All relatively conventional, the signs are estheticized and, in their elegance and eloquence, terrorizing. At the same time, they are tropes in a “long-circuited”—to use Harry Stack Sullivan’s term—therapeutic program, involving a “working through” of material “once banished from consciousness as too dangerous.”1 Pacificism is a kind of working through of signs of war and death to reaffirm the sanctity of human life.

For Starrett, the goodness of Raoul Wallenberg is the alternative to the evil of Pope Pius XII. This is evil understood, as Starrett says, the way Hannah Arendt understood it, in her conception of its banality. Evil people are simply stupid, banal, insensitive, going about their business, refusing to intervene in the world’s affairs, to become political. For Starrett it requires conscious effort to be good; evil is effortless, thoughtless. Starrett has compared his paintings to the pages of a newspaper; the small scale is important, forces the viewer to read the pictures subliminally (the signs strung together in banner headlines, thrusting through the defenses of the unconscious), making a kind of oblique communication of news. Starrett’s signs imprint steadily, unremittingly; the very “cynicism” of his color and esthetic organization—which he believes helps rather than hinders his pictures’ statement of a moral dilemma in which both sides are repudiated—helps the media-slick look of manipulated communication, a discourse shredded into signs reconstituted, in quasi collage fashion, in a new reality. In the last analysis it is the banality of the signs themselves that make the “decorative” evil point of the work; that is, that show the deadliness of institutions, the ultimate source of authority, themselves.

Starrett emerged from his closed, expressionistic, visceral recollection of his imprisonment for pacifism, with its sense of endless, turbulent duration, to the creation of a unique style of pacifist transcendence, where transcendence has world-historical rather than simply esthetic meaning. Roland Barthes has spoken of style as having “its roots only in the depths of the author’s personal and secret mythology, that subnature of expression where the first coition of words and things takes place, where once and for all the great verbal themes of his existence come to be installed.” One might say that for a Catholic painter like Starrett, growing up not only with consciousness of Catholic mythology, but also during World War II when there was strong consciousness of Nazi mythology—the strongest consciousness of evil there was at the time (the Communists now have that monopoly)—the mating of these signs constituted the great visual theme of his existence. It was through art, imbued with his pacifist intention—and helping sustain it—that he was able to transcend the great visual theme both mythologies constituted. For it was by esthetically establishing and enforcing the equivalence of the signs of both mythologies that he was able to admit to himself what, when in his pacifist imprisonment he was thrown back on himself with no sustaining mythology, he had suspected: that Catholic and Nazi authority were the same to the extent that they led to the same kind of victimization, created the same kind of silence of death. By restoring a political dimension to estheticism Starrett saved it from becoming the “white indifference” of another discourse,2 recreating it as a mediation of life.

Correct behavior, wrote Claude Lévi-Strauss, requires “that nothing should be brought about too precipitately.”3 To the contrary, Starrett shows that correct behavior means acting precipitately, headlong, when the occasion and need arise—means breaking the rules of conventional correct behavior as signaled by the insulating and standardizing signs which are its agents. It means bringing them into question by estheticizing them. Starrett shows these signs, Catholic or Nazi as they may be, to be fascist, authoritarian signifiers, and implies that the conventionally correct, pious behavior they demand and trigger can cause the “powerlessness or unreason” Lévi-Strauss says such behavior fears. Correct behavior can become suppressive, a form of living death, which is why “incorrect” behavior, such as pacifism, can sometimes never be precipitate enough. Starrett’s works not only justify his pacifism as being far from precipitousness ordinarily understood—far from incorrect—but show that precipitate, mythology-transcending pacifism can restore the meaning of individuality.

Donald Kuspit is a frequent contributor to Artforum and the author of The Critic Is Mist: The Intentionality of Art (UMI Research Press, 1984). His next book, Leon Golub: Existentialist/Activist Painter, will be published by Rutgers University Press.



1. Ralph R. Greenson, The Technique and Practice of Psychoanalysis, New York: International Universities Press, 1967. vol. I, p. 29.

2. Michel Foucault, “History. Discourse and Discontinuity,” Psychological Man, New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1975, p 231. Foucault here takes the point of view of death/discourse, scornfully mocking the attempt to “reconcile” oneself with them and find one’s “meaning,” such as Starrett attempts through his pacificism.

3. Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Origin of Table Manners, New York: Harper 8 Row, 1970, p. 507.