PRINT April 1988



THE COORDINATES OF THE COLLEGE Art Association’s (CAA) annual obstetric, its cirque imaginaire, are (conventionally) a place—this year Houston; a locale—the assembly halls and concourse zones of the corporate hotel; a new body of disciplinary, worked materials—papers, voices, slides; and a panoply of would-be disciplined “others”—margins, reinterpretations, and intertexts (words on gender, on philosophy, and notably on the place [or nonplace] of contemporary visual practice and criticality in the privileged domain of “history”).

The guarantors of these positions—the axes, if you like, that fix them in the social, in the economic—are: the university system, whose special legatees are sent to imagine and perform the outgrowth of their “field”; the publishing industry, which bodies forth these and other imaginations (its particular operation is usually signaled in its base[ment]-level fair, a kind of picturesque carnival of determinations); and sponsorship from foundations (the Getty) and in the future perhaps from corporations (Reader’s Digest, we hear). This totality is, of course, beyond assimilation and beyond recall. It unfolds each year as a multiply articulated spectacle, projected in front of a shifting audience as so many needs, desires, irrelevancies, and special interests. But when we glimpsed the flashing scales of the Art-Historical Leviathan at the Hyatt Salons this February, the beast appeared to have evolved.

It was confected in three unequal portions—a quartet of large-scale symposia addressing outstanding contemporary issues, some thirty “Art History” sessions, and a dozen “Studio” sessions. Of these, it was significant that three of the showcase symposia attempted, respectively, to assess the usefulness of the critical methodology of “deconstruction”; to discuss, with some of its foremost protagonists, the contribution of the Marxist tradition; and to examine the various operations of power in (and out of) Art History. This last symposium in particular exemplified the negotiation (or cooptation, as it may be understood) of the traditional apparatuses of Art History—iconography and style—with larger social and political formations. In more or less persuasive disguises, this antidote to the closures of connoisseurship and formalism, periodization and loose generalities, seems to have delved to the depths of the discipline, and, in the process, to have loosened up its circulation remarkably.

There seems to be more at stake now in the study of images and image systems than good taste and neat comparisons. Or, as Norman Bryson, organizer of the deconstruction event, has put it,1 Art History has finally experienced a kind of “extra-territoriality”: a willingness to enter a dialogue with history, feminism, criticism, film theory—wherever.

At Houston, this dialogic effort was abetted by the overlap between the CAA conference and the Women’s Caucus for Art. The result was the co-sponsorship of sessions such as “Engendering Art,” with revisionary presentations on “. . . Rubens and the Mystification of Sexual Violence,” “Theorizing the Male Gaze: Some Problems” (there were many), “Leonore Krasner as L.K.,” and “. . . The ”Photographic Nude." But, foraging as we were bid beyond the fairy-tale stacks of the Houston downtown (which steam in winter), the contradictions of the art world were ready to pounce and reassert themselves at every turn—nowhere more so than between the impeccable, high-bred, art-home Modernism of the Menil Collection and the parable-laden neogothic appurtenances of the Guerrilla Girls’ installation at the DiverseWorks space.

Spinning between these two unalignable points, southern Texas put on its finery, represented itself (in “Texas Art” at Richmond Hall, a Menil annex), and hung on for the whirligig. Shuttle buses plied to the Rothko Chapel. And, most compelling commentary of all, Gretchen Bender put on her eight-channel video installation, “Total Recall,” 1987, at the Museum of Fine Arts, a chorus of the causes and effects of our televisuality. This and the drift of the sessions meant we could really ask, though we could never pronounce, “who’s town?”

John Welchman, an art historian and critic, is a visiting scholar in the Department of Art History and Archaeology at Columbia University, New York. His column appears regularly in Artforum.



1. In his introduction to Norman Bryson, ed., Calligram: Essays in New Art History from France, New York and Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1988, p. XIII. Academico-cocktail question of the month: “Well, Pip, how many of these little stories have you read already, hmm?”