PRINT March 1988



“UP IN THE AIR,” “all at sea,” “spaced out.” These old (and newer) formulae render the experiences and forfeitures of displacement. In this common parlance, internal, psychic disruption is measured by a preposition—a “state of being-in-place”—paired with a nonland base. While technology has to an extent subdued these unterrestial ethers—air, space, sea—and partly overcome their friction, such clichés identify a fundamental inertia in the (physical) economies of movement. And this despite the booming vectors of data communication. The body, anyway, does not travel like information.

Nowhere has the languidity of the body (the artist, and the new body, the object) been so determined as in the practices of visual Modernism. The body’s underlying drive has been surprisingly localized, domesticized, and finally, in the heyday of abstraction and beyond, made crushingly static—introverted, prepossessed, or transcendental. What was this strange desire for, in Barnett Newman’s words, “a truly abstract world which can be discussed only in metaphysical terms”? Or all that ceaseless contemporaneity, that self-reflection and belly-watching, that constant refinement of means and materials, all those refractory urban bohemias, and imaginative withdrawals, and long-suffering phenomenological assertions? “One has to impoverish one’s mind,” “get down to . . . some kind of blankness,” said Carl Andre. For what?

Not that we need some reactionary rappel à l’ordre, such as that proffered by Charles Jencks in his gratuitously reclassicizing Post-Modernism (1987). And there can be no more Flauberts in Egypt or Holman Hunts in the Holy Land. These gallant pastnesses cannot simply be retrieved or relived. For, under the dispensation of the Modern, representation became hermetic and analytical (Cubism), life was stilled; everything was mediated, imaged, and subjected to the controls of form and the immediacy of self.

Or so it was by and large for the School of Paris, whose furled esthetic is epitomized in Henri Matisse’s easy quietism, in the kind of armchair restraint that had him fend off the “euphoria” of his trip to Tahiti in 1930 by deliberately conjuring “visions of Provence.” The bottom line for the “imaginative” (Modern) artist in Matisse’s view was that (his) “complete development” could only be attained “on the soil where he is born.” Don’t move. Slow down.

Though a hard-core mentalist just the same, Jean Dubuffet was at the other extreme of the introspection of modernity: he willed the eradication of difference for the sake of a subliminal “fantasmagoric irreality.” “Every place, for my eyes, [is] equal to every other—I see little use in traveling.” “My operation is to erase all categories and regress toward an undifferentiated continuum.” Anal eyes.

Modern art is, of course, well-supplied with exiles and émigrés, the literalists of the body’s displacement, engendering a great portage of visions. But their reimaginations were wistful and precious, nostalgic returns to a half-felt place of origination, born in them, submerged in them, and passionately reallocated from memory: “I respond to modern life as an Armenian from Van,” said Arshile Gorky in New York City.

That “other” Modernism of Dada pseudomachines, oneiric Surrealist nonplaces, and allied conjugations of the everyday and the ephemeral—Kurt Schwitters, Robert Rauschenberg, Pop—could be equally and oppositely passive, even fetishistic in its reinscription of the immediate, the transitory, and the at-hand. Both vernacular Modernism and high-brow formalist Modernism alike have spent much of the time clearing their consciences of history and counting (alternative) otherness out of court. Either the mind or the body won’t move. There are no life rafts on the bateau moderniste.

Splash! While Modernism past-the-post has occasionally taken the plunge, the high-flying rhetoric of appropriation offers more in the way of buoyant deconstruction than of radical displacement—much of it is smarter Pop and brawnier conceptualism, still cleaving to the reference system of modernity. Simalacrity/indifference. But much of this closure has already been unsutured, here and there; let’s unpick some more of the stitches.

John Welshman, an art historian and critic, is currently visiting professor in the Department of Art, Design, and Art History at the University of California, Los Angeles. He will contribute this column regularly to Artforum.