PRINT December 1986


Artboriculture. Making mulch of labels.

When leaves are collected, pressed, and dried—eventually varnished, even bleached, and sometimes also dyed or painted—they provide a most welcome enrichment of any color paper collection.
—Josef Albers

I HAVE BEEN TRYING TO teach myself how to identify trees this autumn, with the help of their changing shades. The blurry Monet-ishness of spring is of little mnemonic use, and summers, like the paintings of Veronese, suggest principally the suffused and suffusing pleasures of rich, established green. Fall foliage is by far the most vivid didact. Like others of my kind this century in cities, I can recognize a trained dog when I see one, and I do know pigeons, but the names for most of the rest of the fauna, and almost all of the flora, have for me the plangent ring of certain pretty-sounding languages I don’t speak, such as Arabic and Portuguese. Since I am also the kind of person who loathes research, for whom a library reference room is sometimes necessary and almost always depressing—indeed, a morgue—this self-assigned tree-watching lesson has been moving along slowly, though with rather expansive ramifications.

Following an early-September visit to an arboretum—or tree museum—on Long Island, I made a rudimentary list of color-clues to deciduous trees. These have been crumpled between the leaves of my address book since:

sugar maple, sumac, sassafras: these
turn flame red, orange
red maple, dogwood, scarlet oak: go
dark rich red
poplar, beech, tulip tree, willow: go
mountain ash: goes plum purple or
eggplant, with clusters of reddish
oak, beech, larch, elm, hickory, sycamore:
go tan or brown
locust: stays green long, then yellow
black walnut: leaves drop too fast to
change much.

These are the English common names, and common adjectives, and they are of course labels. Language—thought—would not exist without an urge to identify. But identifications are apt to be mistaken when made independent of observation. The gradual disappearance of the skills of observation has been the paradoxical result of the urge to label ever more infinitesimally and precisely. Diderot’s encyclopedia and the taxonomies of Linnaeus may have been breakthroughs for knowledge inspired by direct contact and observation, but they led to a veritable cult of inventory—a virtual religion during the industrial age, and by now the overriding organizing principle of life: a habit of shortcuts leading to short meanings. To label something is surreptitiously to possess it and file it away, and this now-noxious prerogative is in large part responsible for the increasing inability of the modem vocabulary to encompass nature—or art—at all. Description, a casualty of the cult of the label, has been out of fashion in fiction and criticism for the better part of this century Yet descriptions—the particulars—are the bricks and mortar of meaning.

This enfeeblement of descriptive language, and compulsion toward ever more specialized labeling, are leading us instead to ignorance. In a 1979 book—an essay, really—called The Tree, the novelist John Fowles characterized this new brand of ignorance. “Aut Caesar, aut nullus,” he wrote. “If I can’t be Caesar, I’ll be no one. If I can’t have the knowledge of a scientist, I’ll know nothing. If I can’t have superb close-ups and rare creatures in the nature around me, to hell with it,” To characterize this moment, with its countless little Caesars of art, one might add, “If I can’t be a connoisseur of brands, if I can’t find a ready label to attach to it, then I won’t deal with it at all.”

The exigencies and inaccuracies of willful, often reckless labeling have monopolized most critical discussions of art for the last twenty years, and have in effect slotted many artists at the very moment of their first mark. These categorical straitjackets are the dead matter of discourse and saltpeter of art, consigning the breath not only of the present but of the incipient future to the archives. What we began to see six or seven years ago, insistently and overwhelmingly, was art that challenged the regimentation of labeling—that looked backward in order to move forward, that was simultaneously abstract and figurative, conceptual and romantic, and that tossed together some of the styles suggested by preexisting labels, perhaps in hope of avoiding new labels. Yet the cult of inventory we’ve inherited seems to prevail, and to breed unstoppably, creating subspecies of labels to farther convolute meaning as fast as a word processor can redact. And it would appear that art is obligingly being made to confirm the characteristics proposed by a priori labels. Term after term, the labels are creating substitutes for observation, projecting surrogates for description, and even for art, so that when next month we run across some such aerobic bit of language as “neopostfuturism,” “pseudohyperrealism,” or “bioneogeo,” the label might seem the thing itself, might seem enough, and we might miss the turning of a painted leaf.

In virtually every mythology of the earth the icon of knowledge has been a tree, from the tree in the story of Eden (more likely a date than an apple, given the Middle Eastern climate), to the tree under which Gautama Buddha spent his first night of illumination (usually thought to be a fig), to the olives and laurels of enlightenment, to the worshiped oaks of the druid Celts, who first made a fuss about mistletoe. There are specific trees still growing, a few remaining cedars of Lebanon, for instance, and some Japanese cedars, that have individually lived through all of this, that have, in fact, witnessed the entire documented record of civilization. The greatest Gothic cathedral, with branching buttresses and burl-like saints, resembles nothing so much as a forest chamber, in which elusive distances and refracting enclosures, currents at once oceanic and of impossibly intimate nuance, disorient us and displace us to the spot we truly occupy.

If I am sounding D.H. Lawrentian bells, this is December, the month filled with uprooted fir trees that will be cast off into streets filled with homeless people. This is a city full of artists seeking avenues to identity, and sometimes slipping away along well-labeled side streets. City of human nature. Forest of souls. Icons at large.

Lisa Liebmann is a writer and critic who lives in New York Her column appears regularly in Artforum.