PRINT December 1984


Apollinaire, Eye to Eye, and Jean Cocteau and the French Scene

“I HAVE EXPERIENCED MY greatest artistic emotions, when I suddenly discovered the sublime beauty of sculptures executed by the anonymous artists from Africa. These passionate and rigorously logical works are what the human imagination has produced as most potent and most beautiful.” Picasso’s earliest recorded statement on art was transcribed by Guillaume Apollinaire, who may even have been with him when he looked into a shop window or visited the Trocadéro collection in Paris. For Apollinaire this marked one stage in a lifetime’s research; by 1918, the year of his death, he had published (with Paul Guillaume) the first book on primitive art in France, and had even become a civil servant working to establish travel grants for historians of primitive culture. This scholarly study reprints details of Apollinaire’s library and his art collection, and sifts through his writings for references to primitivism of all kinds, stressing his “midwife” role in the creation of the Demoiselles d’Avignon and his attempts, with Picabia and Duchamp, to push painting and poetry nearer together, moving the new form toward hermeticism and the art of the insane. It successfully establishes his position as the first 20th-century French expert on primitive cultures.

Katia Samaltanos, Apollinaire: Catalyst For Primitivism, Picabia, and Duchamp, (Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press), 228 pp., 68 black and white illustrations.


THE CRITIC WHO DEFINED post-Minimalism was always a label-minded man, confident that categorizing every shift of emphasis would pay off. Twenty-four pieces published between 1961 and 1983 show Robert Pincus-Witten at his best and worst. Oddly, both extremes proceed from the same impulse: to bring history and contemporaneity into closer contact. In the best essay here, on white-on-white painting, his expertise as a scholar of French Symbolism is brought to bear on the question of the meaning of contemporary monochrome art. In the worst, “Mel and Dorothea: Rehearsing One’s Coolness,” a new conception of art history is being offered: the string of journal entries edited to tell a story. Only in a very few cases—Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin would be two—is it worth going to critics to find out something through finding out about their personal lives. Setting aside the question of where a distinction is to be made between “history” and “gossip”—Mel Bochner’s accusation against Pincus-Witten—it is easy to take the position that Pincus-Witten squanders his considerable talents as an analyst of art, especially of certain types of abstraction, in order to hog the spotlight. Of course there is no such thing as objectivity; that point was taken long ago, but critics are supposed to find strategies to serve the work, not themselves, through criticism. Pincus-Witten has proved his worth as a writer, but beginning with his journal entries he has often wandered into sloppy writing and the support of second-rate art. Yet if worldly rather than artistic success seems to preoccupy him now, the reason may be creative ambition—the wish to become a diarist as great as the Goncourts. Maybe this explains everything. “I am not a writer” Pincus-Witten remarks at the start of “Mel and Dorothea.” Surely he is.

Robert Pincus-Witten, Eye To Eye: Twenty Years Of Art Criticism (Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press), 248 pp.


THE TROUBLE, AS WE ARE always being reminded, is that Jean Cocteau did so many different things. This harmless collection of essays, apparently written for readers with no prior knowledge, makes little attempt to bring the disparate strands together. Nor does it offer much that is new. The first third is wasted on gassy biography that can be studied better elsewhere. The second two-thirds consist of one good essay by Kenneth Silver on Cocteau and popular French culture; a patchy account of Cocteau’s drawings by Pierre Chanel; and fairly good chapters on his knowledge of music, theater, and movies by Ned Rorem, Neil Oxenhandler, and Stephen Harvey respectively. The problem could have been tackled by dealing with recurrent patterns throughout Cocteau’s life work, by employing psychoanalytic methods, by studying not his theater but his theatricality, not his movies but his conception of what film can do. Perhaps Rorem’s quirky experimental essay on music comes nearest of all to the spirit of Cocteau by a combination of anecdote, guesswork, research, and sheer intelligence. The others deal with his achievement, not his potential. What saves this book is the picture research by Christopher Sweet; every page is visually, if not intellectually, stimulating.

Jean Cocteau And The French Scene, eds. Alexandra Anderson and Carol Saltus (New York: Abbeville Press), 240 pp., 75 black and white illustrations.


Stuart Morgan contributes regularly to Artforum.