PRINT April 1989


PERHAPS BECAUSE THE 1980s are the next to last decade of the 20th century, they have been a period in which much critical discourse has focused on closure. The dropping of the curtains on Modernism, individualism, conventional narrative, and abstraction have all been pronounced faits accomplis. Many artists have consciously used methods and materials that signify agreement with these theoretical agendas. Appropriation, for example, tells the viewer that the artist doesn’t believe in originality, while the use of a seemingly nonhierarchical collage esthetic is a clue that the maker questions traditional distinctions between popular culture and “high” art. It has also been suggested that the use of photography and the presentation or manipulation of store-bought items signify , critical stabs at both Modernist styles and commodity culture.

If we look closely at movies, television, newspapers, magazines, advertisements, and commercials as indexes of that commodity culture, it is ultimately clear that the product most briskly promoted today is a new, improved model of the self: a more fit, alluring, seductive, witty, intelligent, wealthy, highly motivated, and desirable perpetual-motion machine, both endlessly fulfilled and endlessly fulfilling. According to the mass media, we can all obtain this perfectly integrated self, an encapsulated being in which productive mind and hygienic body work in perfect tandem with one another. Moreover, one of the equations mass media and commodity culture implicitly support is that the hygienic (nonsecreting and unwasteful) body is the only possible home for the productive (moneymaking, and therefore generative) mind, and vice versa. Are we, as informed consumers, offended by this equation because we don’t believe in it, or because we do?

The fact is, the Perfect Self has been a striven-for ideal since at least the time when Plato delineated the desired attributes of the citizens of his Republic. It was the inspiration for Augustine’s writing of his Confessions, 397–401, and for Descartes’ Meditations, 1641. Since the French and American revolutions, which mark the beginnings of the political and social self, each epoch has developed its various paradigms of individual identity. Rousseau’s “Noble Savage” is followed by Rimbaud’s “Je est un autre” and Nietzsche’s “Superman.”

The beginning of our century is marked by Freud’s paradigm of the psychological self. Freudianism posits that the individual, in order to approach completeness and fulfillment, must uncover and address the forces of its repression; and in Freud’s model of the self (ego, id, and superego), it is in the conflict between reason (the conscious mind) and the instinctual impulses that these forces of repression take form and operate.1 While a wide range of thinkers have contested and modified Freud’s theories, his fundamental notion—that the public self is a conditioned construct of the inner psychological self—nevertheless casts the largest shadow across the breadth of this century’s terrain. More than anyone else, Freud is nearly everywhere. To reduce it to the mundane: without Freud, it is unlikely that there would be a perfume named “Obsession.” In fact, in assigning the name of a behavioral condition to a perfume, the manufacturer of Obsession unknowingly affirms Norman O. Brown’s insight that “however much the repressed and sublimating adult may consciously deny it, the fact remains that the life is of the body and only life creates values; all values are bodily values.”2 In naming their perfume—something that simultaneously disguises the body’s ”natural“ odors and enhances its powers to charm and attract others—the manufacturers suggest a kind of physiopsychological transference; for implicit in that name ”Obsession" is the company’s promise to transform the buyer’s bodily secretions, her waste, into something ethereal yet simultaneously useful.

Isn’t it curious, then, that the psychological self, a persistently used (and abused) image in our culture, has been increasingly relegated to the periphery of contemporary painting? Certainly, much attention is currently being paid to explorations of the social construction of identity in the mediums of photography, film, video, and performance. Yet for the most part, both critics and curators too easily dismiss attempts by artists to re-present the self imaginatively through the medium of paint. This is, however, to shunt aside a rich arena in which we might examine both the subtleties and complexities of our bodily existence—however mediated, diminished, marginalized, or fragmented our experience of that existence may be. For one could say that painters, particularly self-portraitists, implicitly agree with Willem de Kooning, who proposed that paint was invented because of the existence of the flesh. If one of the drives of art is to close the gap between itself and life, then painting—the medium that most concretely reifies both the split and the connection between the flesh and body—may be singularly qualified to take on that project.3

Within the domain of the history of painting, for example, the image of the woman looking at her self (her body) has been subjected, marked, inscribed, diminished, and shattered—largely by men. However, to propose that women artists can’t re-present themselves through the medium of paint is to further hierarchize the canon of visual practice. It is to subtly imply that a woman cannot overcome years of subjugation and become a great painter. Instead, painting is a closed book, whose chapters, both painted and written, are marked entirely by men.

The present circumstances, I would argue, offer a fundamental choice for artists. One can strive to become, as Ad Reinhardt characterized it, the artist who wants to articulate “the last painting anyone can paint,” or “the first of the last paintings.” The last painter, by reidentifying the delineated effects of artistic tradition, serves as the ultimate eulogist of his or her time. He or she presents the viewer with the perfumed corpse of the perfect self. Or one can hope to become, as Philip Guston proposed, “the first painter,” the one who arrives “not at a state of ignorance but at a state of knowing only the thing you know at the time—and that is what is concrete.” The first painter, recognizing only what is in front of him or her, presides over his or her own death and (re)birth. If the last painter, as judge and prosecutor, points at the world as the metaphor for self, if he or she accuses the commodity culture (the body politic) for failing to deliver the perfectly integrated model of mind and body, then the first painter, in the tradition of witness and victim, points to the self (body) as a metaphor for the world. Last painters carry on an I-you dialogue, inviting the viewer to join a similarly minded (bodied) group reacting to the imperfections of his or her socially constructed identity—the surface one presents to others. First painters, on the other hand, carry on an I-thou dialogue, enjoining viewers to search for hidden or repressed meanings around, beneath, and within that surface; first painters ask their viewers, like them, to become witnesses to the process by which the self might recover that which has been deformed or marked by institutions of culture. Clearly, within the realm of self-portraiture, the last painter and the first would have vastly different notions of what is possible.

Somewhere Wittgenstein says: “To imagine a form of language is to imagine a form of life.” This is philosophy as proposal rather than as description. The imaged (the projected?) self-portrait is too, by its very nature, a speculative act; it exists as conjecture rather than as material fact (formalist abstraction) or positivist knowledge (contemporary realism). Self-portraiture imagines a language, which is quite different from proposing a style. Whereas style is a tool, deployed to negotiate pre-existing norms, language is one of the means by which the self articulates the parameters of its own existence. Thus, while traditional canon-making has required that we group artists together according to critically validated styles, consequently eliding subjective differences in favor of objective similarities, the tradition of speculative self-portraiture—largely a 20th-century phenomenon—suggests far more subtle alliances.

Certainly, within Modernism’s construction of art history, self-portraiture would lose its validity around the time abstraction triumphed over figuration, the multiple point of view triumphed over the singular assertion, the universal was elevated above the individual, the bodiless realm of essence was deemed more valid than the earthly evidence of the material. Self-portraiture, unless it could be critically validated as an exercise in denoting the efficacy of a particular vision of surface (Pablo Picasso, Oskar Kokoschka, Andy Warhol, Chuck Close), or neatly consigned by critics to its maker’s “idiosyncratic” notion of history or social dynamics (John Graham, Lucian Freud, David Hockney, Alice Neel), was suddenly seen as too indulgent, too messy and metaphoric. And because of self-portraiture’s inevitable connection (however tenuous, severed, and elusive it might be) with Freud, the 20th century’s primary decoder of the “repressed” self (and its connection with the complex matrix of post-Freudian discourse in our time), it has become the most troublesome aspect of painting to write about. For while much of today’s artmaking serves as a strategic illustration of theories regarding the historical erasure of the self, self-portraiture presupposes that a self, its body, can still be recognized, delineated, and investigated; it believes in the rhymes of autobiography and archetype. It posits that, like language, paint is both a highly mediated system and a constantly changing organism, both anonymous and personal, both a medium and a membrane that permits a recuperative and therefore imaginative response to the conflict between the public (surface) self and the personal (hidden) self. Among other things, this suggests that a painting’s meanings, like those of the self, take shape at various levels and depths, and may be slow to reveal themselves.

It is, however, through this potent and problematic ambiguity that the painted self-portrait attempts to shove the multiple meanings of the formed and de-formed face and body back onto the stage of history—a history that has all too consistently sought to eliminate the self, particularly when it asserts its existence as Other (Auschwitz, Hiroshima, and the government of the Union of South Africa are some of the most blatant examples in our century)—and onto the stage of an art history that, with the hegemony of post-Holocaust formalist interpretations, served to isolate the act of painting from the horrors unloosed in the body politic.

THE PROBLEM OF the mind/body (spirit/flesh) dichotomy is one of the ongoing burdens and continuing themes of Western civilization, explored and debated over the centuries by philosophers, theologians, scientists, analysts. “I think, therefore I am,” wrote Descartes. However, as Arthur Dan-to points out, Descartes went on implicitly to characterize feelings as merely “muddled modes of thinking.”4 Descartes’ characterization of self, flipped on its side, could be (and in fact has been) deployed to confirm the conviction that those who did not think (therefore did not feel) did not, in essence, have souls. (Thus animals, according to Descartes, did not have feelings; were, in effect, soulless—and we’re all well aware how animals, conceived of in this way, have fared in our culture.) Skew Descartes’ notion just a bit farther, and it can be used to support the conviction that those who do not think or feel like us do not have a right to exist. (The Final Solution, the Klan, current writings and activities on the part of the extreme right in relation to the AIDS crisis, for example.) If, in fact, our culture more or less rests on the notion of the mind-body split, psychoanalytic inquiry represented an early-20th-century attempt (albeit culturally conditioned, and thus limited) to heal that rupture. By digging beneath the surface, beneath appearance and manifestation, Freud argued, one could uncover the initial sources and dynamics of one’s repression to discover the ”real"—if not perfect—self.5 Moreover, Freud argued, this process would benefit not only the individual, but society in general:

we may insist as often as we like that man’s intellect is powerless in comparison with his instinctual life, and we may be right in this. Nevertheless, there is something peculiar about this weakness. The voice of the intellect is a soft one, but it does not rest till it has gained a hearing. Finally, after a countless succession of rebuffs, it succeeds. This is one of the few points on which one may be optimistic about the future of mankind. . . . 6

The struggle to locate a process of personal integration and rehabilitation (of mind and body) in the context of an equally problematic rupture, that of the terrifying split/fragmentation of human experience (the social body), is the implicit project of the speculative self-portrait.

This is quite different from the implicit aims of the self-portrait in the past. Rembrandt’s self-portraits, for example, in which the artist dons a variety of costumes, affirm his status in a tradition of artistic genius, for Rembrandt sees himself as belonging to that tradition and facing the same essential conflict as he depicts, for example, in his Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer, 1653—that of the tension between the temptation of the earthly, successful self and the desires of the spiritual, transcendent self. In Rembrandt’s painting, one of Aristotle’s hands rests on the bust of Homer’s head, his other hand on the gold chain and fine clothes adorning his own body. Using paint mimetically, Rembrandt delineates the chain with thick, tactile strokes, thus making an equation between the substance of paint and the materiality (materialism?) of our earthly existence. Yet, at the same time, Rembrandt diffuses the entire work with an underpainting that produces what seems to be an inner, glowing light, suggesting the presence of God within everyone and everything in the world. That world, then, is a largely stable and sanctified one, in which the individual marks his [sic] progress in the journey toward death. Frida Kahlo’s self-portraits, on the other hand, in which the artist paints herself wearing various masks and disguises, challenge this notion of harmony and order. Kahlo’s consistently imprisoned or deformed images quite explicitly announce the impingements of both social and personal dynamics on a fixed,stable identity. Indeed, Kahlo’s paintings suggest how such dynamics have altered the terms on which any human being can fashion a self-image. This, in fact, becomes a central issue for all the significant self-portraitists of our century. By bearing witness to the intricacies of a fragmented or diminished existence, they propose an alternative language for the self, a language of difference.

AFTER BEING CRIPPLED in a bus accident in 1925, the bedridden Kahlo taught herself how to paint, deriving her inspiration from Mexican religious art, particularly retablos and ex-votos. Whereas high Cubism merges the figure with the ground, thus denying the body, Kahlo made the body—her body—the central focus of her richly articulated paintings. It is one of art history’s most revealing events that one of the greatest self-portraitists of this century is a woman who spent most of her life in constant physical, and therefore often psychological, agony—and chose to make that pain the central theme of her work. With a seemingly brutal detachment, Kahlo’s work is about the insistent presence, sensitivity, and vulnerability of the body, with that sensitivity enacted across every inch of the “skin” of the painting. As Kahlo pointed out, Breton and his circle "thought I was a Surrealist, but I wasn’t. I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality.”7

In her paintings, that reality took three primary forms: that of the body damaged; the body masked; and the body attempting to merge with, but ultimately separated from, nature. The image of being simultaneously joined and severed recurs frequently in Kahlo’s oeuvre. She depicts herself on a hospital cot, blood-red arteries floating into the sky around her attached to a fetus, body parts, some kind of machine; she depicts herself resting on the ground, branches and leaves flowing out of her chest and into the dry earth; she depicts herself with an open chest revealing a columnlike spine driven through with nails; or in a wheelchair, cradling her heart in her hands.

In My Birth, 1932, she depicts a hooded woman above a bed; Kahlo is the force presiding over the painting. Beneath this disembodied portrait, a shrouded form lies on that bed, a bloody head emerging from between the spread legs. My Birth depicts an irresolvable conflict between a woman’s mind and her body. In My Birth, we are offered the image either of a woman giving birth to her own intelligence, or of a woman denying her own intelligence in order to give birth. What the painting won’t allow us to do is to reconcile these two possibilities; the rupture cannot be healed. For Kahlo’s armless body swaddled in sheets is an embalmed life force that can only give birth to a stillborn child, both the infant in the painting and the painting itself.

Historically, self-portraiture has been a male province; and culture’s way of looking at self-portraits and processing their information has been determined by the predominantly masculine values and attributes of our culture (issues of authority and power frequently and conventionally find their way into discourse about self-portraits, for example). By insistently focusing on the body, more specifically the female body—its fragmentation, isolation, and oppression—Kahlo’s work reclaims the province of self-portraiture as an arena for the representation of the self as Other. The marks of difference that Kahlo recognized in herself, and inscribed into her paintings, become metaphors for a condition shared by all women: the misshaping, disguising, and disfiguring of their bodies and selves by patriarchal culture. At the same time, by using painting—its practice—to depict giving birth to a self, Kahlo inscribes in this predominantly male tradition indelible evidence of its limits. Kahlo’s achievement, then, as visual practitioner, represents far more than a mere insinuation of a woman’s image into the “neutral” territory of art history. For as Griselda Pollock points out in her Vision and Difference, we can find, by the late 18th century, the very definitions of art and artist emerging out of assumptions about gender difference. “It is far too simplistic to argue,” Pollock writes, “that women were left out or discriminated against. Rather the evidence suggests the active construction of difference. . . . The category woman artist was established and the sexual discourse in art constructed around the growing hegemony of men in institutional practices and in the language of art itself.”8 Kahlo’s self-portraits, I would argue, in much the same way that Pollock characterizes the dynamic of current rigorous feminist inquiry, serve ”to expose [modern art history’s] underlying assumptions, its prejudices and silences,”9 revealing the ways in which "the feminine stereotype . . . operates as a necessary term of difference, the foil against which a never acknowledged masculine privilege in art can be maintained.”10

The self-portrait, then, in Kahlo’s hands, becomes a highly personal, but also highly interventionist, enterprise. If Kahlo’s output has been marginalized in the mainstream discourse of art history, it is not because she failed to keep step with her times, I would argue, but because it has taken more than 30 years for the questions she addressed in her work to be acknowledged as central, and for the “first painters” of today to recognize in her work—and use—what is immediately in front of him or her.

The work of Jasper Johns has been the focus of constant and intense attention since his first solo exhibition, in 1958. While Kahlo received little or no attention from formalist critics, Johns has been heralded as the formal master of the cool, detached statement and hermetic meaning who rejected the emotionalism of Abstract Expressionism and paved the way for Pop art and Minimalism. In his monograph on Johns, for example, Richard Francis writes: "The works are difficult to explain because they deal, often, with the problems specific to making paintings. They are, in that respect, technical, and their vocabulary is that of picture making and comparable with the language of scientific discourse.”11 For nearly three decades, Johns has been misrepresented as a self-reflexive formalist who uses irony and banal literalness to express both his doubts and ideas about painting.

Consequently, though many writers have acknowledged Johns’ “variations” on motifs found in the work of Edvard Munch, for example, they have been content,for the most part, to define these affinities in terms of formal relationships. “That [Johns] gave Munch a central role in his art seemed” to Judith Goldman “odd [because] Johns aimed for an impersonalness while Munch, who painted dread and dangerous passions, represented its antithesis.”12 And referring to Johns’ series of paintings “Between the Clock and the Bed,” 1981–83, for example, Mark Rosenthal wrote: "The title Between the Clock and the Bed is the same as that of a painting by Edvard Munch, in which the artist stands uncomfortably between a grandfather clock and a bed with a coverlet decorated in a crosshatch pattern; his studio is the background. Posed between evocations of time and death (or sex), Munch seems desperate, a fragile individual caught among implacable forces. Johns creates an abstract analogue for the situation that is present in Munch’s paintings.”13

In fact, Johns’ reference to Munch in his early-’80s work provides both direct and indirect clues to the profoundly personal (not to be confused with auto-biographical) nature and aims of all his work, from the earliest “targets” centered beneath body parts to the most recent works depicting the wall behind a tub. Johns’ paintings, like those of Munch, bear witness to an intense anxiety and discomfort with traditional definitions of selfhood; an anxiety, in Johns’ case, relentlessly focused on reifying states of both psychic and physical dissolution, absence, and invisibility. In contrast to the tradition of male self-portraiture as an act of assertion, that of the subject reinscribed within existing patterns, Johns posits the subject in and as those patterns, ultimately offering not an abstract but a concrete analogue for society’s persistent projection of the male body as neutral, value-free turf.

In a recent article, Jonathan Weinberg, using a phrase coined by Norman O. Brown, suggested that Johns’ work represents the expression of an “excremental vision.”14 Certainly it seems that Weinberg is on the right track with his examination of the anal trope in Johns’ work as an ”embodiment of [our] society’s structure of limits and its peculiar mechanisms for controlling human experience.”15 But it seems to me that we could follow Weinberg’s argument down a companion path to understand more about the fundamental nature of those controlling structures.

Weinberg proposes that Johns’ persistent use of Munch’s crosshatch suggests a “cover, enclosing the ’secrets’ of the work of art within,”16 secrets that Weinberg allies with Johns’ conflation of art and excrement. But I would go further. In using the crosshatch motif (a motif traditionally employed to describe volume) in order to articulate the surface (the skin of the painting), as in Scent, 1973–74, Johns inverts traditional principles regarding surface and flatness. Rather than reifying the essence of the painting as materialist surface-object, Johns’ works become precise maps of dissolution; self-portraits in the first-painter tradition that, in fact, articulate another fundamental “secret”—the fact of the nongendered body’s transparence in modern discourse—precisely by making visible the heavily inscribed skin of that, and therefore his, bodilessness. Moreover, if we recall de Kooning’s notion of paint as flesh, then Johns’ use of encaustic, a mixture of pigment and wax, underscores the notion of medium as body. Bees, those examplars of efficiency and economy, gather nectar, which they exude as wax from the underside of their abdomens to make the honeycombs of their hive; in other words, what comes out of the bee’s body becomes the body that shelters it, and enters into a social body that renders the bee’s individuality insignificant. Similarly, the body in Johns’ work becomes indistinguishable from the body that houses it, rendering that individual body peculiarly invisible. Perhaps, as Johns’ title suggests, we can’t hope to see or touch this bodiless body, but we can catch a scent of its existence.

The same year, significantly, that the exhibition “Frida Kahlo and Tina Modotti” (organized by the Whitechapel Art Gallery) began its tour, and traveled to the Grey Art Gallery in New York (March 1–April 16, 1983), Johns started moving away from the crosshatch motif. Very likely, it was in New York that Johns first saw the exhibition, and, paradoxically, found in Kahlo’s intensely body-oriented work a further way to articulate the complementary anxiety of bodilessness so insistent in his own. In his 1983 Racing Thoughts, Johns depicts a wide array of objects, like those floating in Kahlo’s hallucinatory bathtub in one of her most allegorical self-portraits, the 1938 What the Water Gave Me. However different the two works are in style, both suggest a state of mind when one is uninhibited and open to suggestion. Both use a seemingly detached, nonhierarchical documentary approach. Moreover, while Kahlo presents “fantastic” and Johns more culturally mediated images, both painted assemblages suggest a flowlike connection among their diverse elements. Kahlo situates herself (and simultaneously her viewer) in the bathtub, looking down at her foreshortened lower body, where her daydreaming generates pictures and scenes from her erotic life; Johns’ Racing Thoughts, which some critics have deemed an anecdotal collage, is every bit as symbolic, for each of the “actual” things in Johns’ composition can be read as signs for the interior and exterior body. The truncated water faucet located in the bottom right-hand corner suggests that his seemingly disjunctive images, with a turn of the wrist, might flow into an unseen tub. With radically different formal choices, both painters give palpable form to interior states of mind, related to yet alienated from their physical presence.

Similarly, in Untitled, 1988, Johns reworks the image of Picasso’s Lady in a Straw Hat, 1936, dividing the image and assigning one part to each side of his canvas. In the center of his piece, a gestural outline recalls the posture of a man afflicted by Saint Anthony’s fire in Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece, St. Anthony Assailed by Monstrous Demons, 1510–1515. If here again Johns is performing his “signature” manipulation of formal references, he is also once again “borrowing” from and reinterpreting Kahlo. With the placement of a water faucet in the bottom center of the painting, Johns invokes the notion of the viewer within the painting, the passive witness, but one who has also actively “tapped” his or her imagination, allowing seemingly disjunctive images to emerge and stand in as reflections of the feeling self. Like Kahlo’s My Birth, Johns’ painting—with the conjunction of the “melting” woman’s split head and Saint Anthony’s contorted, “watery” body, with the conflation of head and torso so that mouth might also be read as vagina or anus, with the melting wax suggesting both the impulse to create and the need to expunge—suggests the notion of a primal and profound desire: that of giving birth to one’s own body, one’s own naked, vulnerable, and assailed self. That such implications might be read on the surface of Johns’ work coincides, interestingly, with one of Freud’s most compelling descriptions of the relationship between mind and body:

A person’s own body, and above all its surface, is a place from which both external and internal perceptions may spring. It is seen like any other object, but to the touch it yields two kinds of sensations, one of which may be an equivalent to an internal perception. . . . Pain, too, seems to play a part in the process, and the way in which we gain new knowledge of our organs during painful illnesses is perhaps a model of the way by which in general we arrive at the idea of our body. The ego is first and foremost a bodily ego; it is not merely a surface entity, but is itself the projection of a surface.17

I would like to propose that Johns’ work is simultaneously the projection of an interior surface and an attempt to witness the operations of that mystified self in an exterior world that has, in history, defined that male self as itself, acknowledging no distinction between the gaze and the world in which that gaze operates.

Kahlo, in order to inscribe her psychic marks of difference, had to distance herself from the dominant styles of her day, Cubism and Surrealism. Johns, in order to inscribe the membrane, the skin of the internal and external values that constitute a relentless nondifferentiation, literally inverts the principles of the prevailing orthodoxies of both the Abstract Expressionist tradition his work breaks from and the post-Modern outlook it presumably prefigures. Like the ego itself—for which Freud finds the best analogy in the“ ’cortical homunculus’ ”of the anatomists, which “stands on its head in the cortex, sticks up its heels, faces backwards and, as we know, has its speech-area on the left-hand side,”18 Johns’ work persistently revels in upending conventions, hiding its face (or part of it, anyway) on the back of the canvas (the placement of the two components of Picasso’s Lady in a Straw Hat, for example, suggests that this painting wraps around the back of Johns’ ”self-portrait," and therefore contains it), and all the time speaks out of the left side of the mouth in asserting its intentions. For if Kahlo was quite open in declaring the autobiographical underpinnings of her work, Johns consistently claims for his project autobiography’s polar opposite (or at least late Romanticism’s version of it):

I have attempted to develop my thinking in such a way that the work I’ve done is not me—not to confuse my feelings with what I produced. I didn’t want my work to be an exposure of my feelings.19

Freud says the body “is seen like any other object.” And, as a series of self-portraits in the first-painter tradition, the works of both Kahlo and Johns simultaneously mark out and remark the conventional boundaries of seeing by negotiating its vaporous edges, where object and subject flow into one another; where body and mind cannot be clearly isolated nor clearly joined.

ON THE SAME terms that conventional criticism has identified Johns and Kahlo as laborers in different traditions, it has deemed the work of Johns and the late work of Philip Guston worlds apart. Johns—the Pop-presaging deployer of found images, and the cool, abstracting manipulator of/commentator on validated styles; Guston—the renegade Abstract Expressionist who turned to blatant narrative, and virtually emptied his work of any reference to the predominant styles of his time. Johns, who asserted that “I didn’t want my work to be an exposure of my feelings,” and Guston, who declared, "I got sick and tired of all that Purity! Wanted to tell Stories.”20 And more than that, wanted to tell a particular story:

When the 1960’s came along I was feeling split, schizophrenic. The war, what was happening to America, the brutality of the world. What kind of man am I, sitting at home, reading magazines, going into a frustrated fury about everything—and then going into my studio to adjust a red to a blue.
I thought there must be some way I could do something about it. I knew ahead of me a road was laying. A very crude, inchoate road. I wanted to be complete again, as I was when I was a kid. Wanted to be whole between what I thought and what I felt.21

To tell that story, to express that desire, Guston had to turn to the then discounted modes of allegory, symbolism, and metaphor, and to the work of such artists as Max Beckmann, Giorgio de Chirico, and Carlo Carrà, who had been relegated to marginalized positions in the critical discourse of Guston’s time. (Might not parallels be drawn between Guston’s use of these artists and Johns’ use of selftaught American figures such as Herman Melville, Hart Crane, and George Ohr, and a further parallel be made to Kahlo’ use of retablos and ex-votos?) Thus, like Kahlo and Johns, but under different circumstances and for different reasons, Guston had to reject official dictum regarding these artists and their work. He had to learn, in other words, how to use paint to interpret the evidence of his own condition, his own time, in the works of these “mentors.”

During the ’50s, when painting his Abstract Expressionist works, Guston was known to stand extremely close to his modest-sized canvases, using small brushes to articulate the finest nuances. But by the ’60s, as he wrote to Dore Ashton, “Like Babel with his Cossacks, I feel as if I have been living with the Klan, riding around empty streets, sitting in their rooms smoking, looking at light bulbs. . . . ”22 And so we can say that Guston, in his early paintings of hooded figures, began his project of self-portraiture by proposing the self as social participant. And yet, the society he paints is one in which everyone—whether accuser or accused—hides his or her face from the world. Finally, driven ”to see what it looks like," Guston turned to bigger brushes, and stood back as he painted, about arm’s length from the canvas— just about the distance one takes when getting dressed before a mirror.

Among the paintings Guston had in mind when he painted his Head and Bottle, 1975, for example, was Carrà’s The Drunken Gentleman, 1917. In Carrà’s composition of slightly skewed verticals, an elongated about-to-be-tipsy head perches on a pedestal; in the left background, on the same table, rests a long-necked bottle. In Guston’s painting, emphatically horizontal, a bright green bottle rests on its side; a bulbous, boulderlike head that has become almost one huge, staring eye seems to have toppled over to balance over the bottle. Here again, as in the work of Kahlo and Johns, is a self-portrait whose fundamental energy emerges out of expressions of body and bodilessness, and out of paint’s capacities to “embody” those anxieties and strictures. If both Carrà’s and Guston’s paintings posit an analogical relationship between the bodiless head (the human figure) and the headless body (the bottle), Guston’s takes one step further, suggesting that in the Sisyphean effort to reconcile body and mind, the real burden is the mind itself. Grown to gargantuan proportions, Guston’s depicted head seems too large to be supported by anybody. Or, instead, that head has become a body in itself.

At the same time that, split by that almost mouth-like perceiving eye, Guston’s isolated cerebral entity bears an uncanny resemblance to Freud’s diagrammatic rendering of the structure of the mind in The Ego and the Id,23 it also recalls Weinberg’s description of Johns’ Target with Plaster Casts, 1955: “But if the target is the artist’s eye, or his entire face, as when we speak of the face of a target, it is also his anus.”24 Indeed, Guston’s ”targetlike" head stares down at the green bottle, from which a red liquid spills onto the table—like paint from the red-bristled paintbrush in the foreground, but also like blood, like shit. This mind has become the surrogate body, the repository and reflection of all the suffering the self takes in, endures, and expunges. In this context, it’s relevant to note how Guston’s portrait directly reckons with the attitude pervasive in Modernist art discourse, and perhaps best summarized by T.S. Eliot:

The more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates; the more perfectly will the mind digest and transmute the passions which are its material.25

Of course, this is Johns’ credo, raised to a higher level of diction. In some sense, it is the attitude with which Johns prefers to be read, and which has rendered him a “mainstream” artist, and the attitude that Kahlo seemed to ignore, thus rendering her a“marginal” artist. But, as we have seen, both Johns’ highly mediated images and Kahlo’s intensely unmediated ones enter into a dialogue with this view; Kahlo’s by explicitly speaking the language of the Other, Johns by speaking in code within the accepted discourse. Guston, for his part, turns to caricature (which derives its power, of course, from the ways in which it emphasizes the norm by deviating from it) and allegory to take Eliot’s premise to its reductio ad absurdum. The more perfectly the mind digests and transmutes the passions that are its material, Guston’s work posits, the more the mind must expand, swell, mutate to accommodate the displacement. All three of these artists, then, strive to give (re)birth to and sustain their inscribed selfhood. Like Orphic witnesses, their heads severed from their bodies by the bacchants, these first painters go on singing, survivors from the land of the dead who find notes to speak to the living.

WHICH BRINGS US to the question—is the Orphic model still a valid trope for contemporary self-portraitists, for those born after the end of World War II? Clearly, such artists, coming after the Holocaust, that ultimate fracture of the body politic, cannot serve as actual witnesses of that event, but as inheritors of a transformed culture in which the burnt ashes of millions become the fodder for the money-making spectacles of adventure movies and TV miniseries. The toxic fumes of history have become a salve for the viewer who believes in happy endings. We begin anew, the mass media tells us.

But perhaps to continue to paint at all in a time when it is considered an outmoded activity is to resist a widely accepted, hygienic solution to contemporary art practices. And perhaps precisely because painting itself has come to be identified as a marginalized project, it becomes an even more apt haven and metaphorically charged site for inscription of the diminished, imperfect self. Anna Bialobroda and Archie Rand are two artists who are attempting to discover evidence of their bodily existence in paint. Has the self, its body, been erased completely? Is it possible to give birth to a self-image? Is it possible to witness at all? These are the questions that both Bialobroda and Rand repeatedly take on in their work.

Bialobroda, for example, is currently working on several groups of “self-portraits” that address issues of image, memory, history, and cliché. In one group, the central focus is on a whitish, faceless figure alone on a stage. In Bluff, 1987, the eyeless, swaddled figure stands at the edge, surrounded by burning doors and windows, facing empty rows of plush red seats. Her reflections in the windows suggest that the seemingly empty auditorium is underwater. Bluff asks: Is the woman as heroine-victim an inescapable role? Has consumer culture made this role synonymous with existence? Is the woman real or is she performing, that is, bluffing? In another series, Bialobroda takes the viewer’s position. In Representation, 1988, a severely cropped, high-cheekboned, androgynous face looks into a mirror. Of course, the image of a woman looking at herself in a mirror is an art-historical image most often produced by men. Among the many paintings that come to mind one could cite Picasso’s Girl before a Mirror, 1932, Roy Lichtenstein’s Girl in Mirror, 1964, Balthus’ Japanese Figure with Black Mirror, 1967–76. However, instead of working in this tradition, Bialobroda aligns herself with Marcel Duchamp’s The Large Glass, 1915–23, and Johns’ Target with Plaster Casts, by making the viewer see through his or her self. The self, in fact, becomes the window through which one views the painting. Instead of looking at a woman looking at herself, we must look at our selves looking at the woman. Looking becomes a gendered act.

Finally, in works such as Endangered, 1988, Bialobroda depicts a close-up view of a fenced-in area on a projected movie screen that has been identified by a sign as “Endangered.” Splitting the title, in what can be seen as an extension of a Johnsian method, Bialobroda places “End” on the right side of the screen, and “Angered”on the left. Behind the fence is a rocky mound with an open cell door. One demarcated area (the rocky mound, which contains a cell) is placed within another demarcated area (a fenced-in zone) within another (the grisaille film screen), within another (the auditorium), within even another (the painting hanging on a wall in a room), so that both the painting and the self are multiply marginalized and circumscribed by commodity culture. However, rather than lamenting this circumstance, which would be to sound the horn of nostalgia for a return to the old times, Bialobroda employs a painterly documentary approach for an open-eyed appraisal of the status of both painting and the self, culture’s body and the self’s body. In all of her recent paintings, by focusing on the self in the zones of commodity culture and mass media, Bialobroda is able to begin examining the crucial issue of what kind of distances occur between seeing and experiencing, between consuming and witnessing.

In the summer of 1987, the painter Archie Rand began work on a series of self-portraits based on Rainer Maria Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus, 1923. Rilke referred to this sequence of 64 sonnets as a dictation he “endured and received.” In setting himself the task of completing 29 self-portraits based on the second group of Rilke’s sonnets, Rand determined that he too could not command inspiration to appear,but that he had to be a kind of conduit who ,willlessly, could reach the unstable realm of analogies, free associations, and constant metamorphosis. The notion of the artist as a worker on behalf of the Other, as the selfless body through which the Other speaks, parallels Johns’ use of encaustic. The painting becomes both the house and body for the Other.

But in fact Rand’s “Rilke” series marks his most recent investigation of a subject that has preoccupied him since he began painting, while still a teenager, in the late 1960s. In the course of a career that has included the painting of large murals based on Jewish themes, Rand has always attempted to let the Other speak. In the late 1960s, for example, during the Vietnam War, Rand produced his “letter” paintings. Using acrylic, gels, mops, his hands and fingers, and all sorts of tools one associates with cake decoration, he worked on bolts of canvas up to 20 feet long. In these paintings, he wrote the names of mostly bebop musicians, doo-wop groups, hit songs, and forgotten tunes. To name, of course, is to limit, circumscribe, and mark an identity. But to let the Other(s) name themselves is also to memorialize and remember. (Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial, 1982, in Washington, D.C., is a powerful example.) Music, particularly popular music, represents both a form of remembering and an act of erasure of other forms and selves. Rand’s “Letter” paintings pay homage to mostly black musicians, and, in so doing, remind us that singers such as Elvis Presley became famous for their appropriated versions of the Other. Moreover, Rand’s particular interest in Charley Parker and Rilke may have another significance. Both men defined their art as an act of receptivity. Parker improvised and thus revitalized cliché music and banal tunes. He literally brought them back to life. Like Parker, Rand wants to be a conduit, a self that contains other lost selves. And yet, at the same time, he knows this project is doomed to failure. One is severely limited in speaking for others, one is always circumscribed by one’s own place—and often privilege—in history. In part, this might be why he chose Rilke’s poems as the framework for his more recent project. Like Bialobroda, Rand chooses to examine the bounded zone of what is possible in our culture.

In XV, After Sonnets To Orpheus, 2, Rand depicts a large head floating (or growing) from a tree, beneath which a glowing orange figure wields an axe. In order to become a conduit, Rand must knowingly sever his intelligence from its roots. He must, in other words, give up control:

And if the earthly no longer knows your name,
whisper to the silent earth: I’m flowing.
To the flashing water say: I am.
—Rilke, Sonnets to Orpheus, #29

Today, Bialobroda and Rand, deploying a practice considered by many to be outmoded and retrograde, offer up the self-portrait as a “quotation,” one as rich, perhaps richer than most, for exploring the possible options left for the self and the Other. And by invoking attitudes that were prevalent during World War II, they are not denying history, but resisting the notion of what our culture has deemed of historical “necessity.” For at the close of the 20th century, self-portraiture’s goal, when imaginatively striven for, is not in clinging to the illusion of perfect self, but in exploring as both subject and subjected that which commodity culture is rapidly transforming into object.

John Yau is a poet and critic. He is currently working on a book about Jasper Johns, and his Radiant Silhouette: New and Selected Works 1974–1988 will be published in September by Black Sparrow Press, Santa Rosa, Calif.



1. See Sigmund Freud, The Ego and the Id, rev. ed. James Strachey, tr. Joan Riviere, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1962.
2. Cited in Jonathan Weinberg, “It’s in the Can: Jasper Johns and the Anal Society,” in Genders 1, Austin, the University of Texas Press in cooperation with the University of Colorado at Boulder, Spring 1988, p. 51.
3. In fact, painting’s practice, with the surface of the painting by now conventionally referred to as “the skin,” has repeatedly been described in terms associated with either the tender or violent confrontation with the body—“smearing,”“caressing,” “secreting,” e.g. (And “Jack the Dripper,” remember, was the mass media’s response to Jackson Pollock.)
4. Arthur Danto, in the foreword to Susanne K. Langer, Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling, abridged edition by Gary Van Den Heuvel, Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988, p.v.
5. See particularly chapter 2 of Freud’s The Ego and the Id.
6. Quoted in an excerpt from Freud’s The Future of an Illusion in The Nature of Man, ed. Erich Fromm and Ramon Xirau, New York and London: Collier Macmillan Publishers, 1968, p. 243.
7. Quoted in Ann Sutherland Harris and Linda Nochlin, Women Artists: 1550–1950, Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art in association with Alfred A. Knopf, 1977, p. 336.
8. Griselda Pollock, Vision and Difference: Femininity, Feminism and the Histories of Art, London and New York: Routledge, 1988, p. 46.
9. Ibid., p. 24.
10. Ibid.
11. Richard Francis, Jasper Johns, New York: Abbeville Press, Inc., 1984, p. 11.
12. Judith Goldman, The Seasons, exhibition catalogue, New York: Leo Castelli Gallery, 1987, n.p.
13. Mark Rosenthal, Jasper Johns: Work Since 1974, London and Philadelphia: Thames and Hudson in association with the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1988, p. 54.
14. Weinberg, p. 43.
15. Ibid., p. 54.
16. Ibid., p. 50.
17. Freud, The Ego and The Id, pp. 15–16.
18. Ibid., p. 17.
19. Quoted in Weinberg, p. 40.
20. Quoted in Robert Storr, Philip Gaston, New York: Abbeville Press, 1986, p. 52.
21. Quoted in ibid., p. 53.
22. Cited in Dore Ashton, Yes, but . . : A Critical Study of Philip Gaston, New York: Viking Press, 1976, p. 164.
23. Reproduced in Freud, The Ego and The Id, p. 14, fig. 1.
24. Weinberg, p.43.
25. Quoted in Langer, p. 50.