TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT May 1998

LETTERS TO THE EDITOR

LETTERS TO THE EDITOR

NO METHOD TO THE MADNESS

To the Editor:
Two books on Picasso were reviewed in the spring 1998 issue of Bookforum. Billy Klüver’s A Day with Picasso: Twenty-four Photographs by Jean Cocteau partakes of the genre “history as gossip” (it reads like the society page of the Sunday Times, with the usual nod at old-timers and identification of the fashionable). Rosalind Krauss’ The Picasso Papers, resolutely opposed to such glamorization, provides what I see as the first serious historical explanation of Picasso’s “return to Ingres” in 1915, and of his subsequent decade of pastiche production. The comparison between the books is all the more telling in that the two touch on the same issue: Klüver abides by the cliché that Cocteau was the major force behind both Picasso’s conversion to neoclassicism in the late ’10s and his involvement with the Ballets Russes, while Krauss shows, among other things, how this could hardly have been the case and how Picasso’s turn to pastiche is the logical outcome of a crisis occurring in Cubism in 1914.

It is a sign of our times, I suppose, that Klüver’s trivia should be enthusiastically praised in Bookforum while Krauss’ radically new analysis should be treated somewhat tepidly. Michael Fitzgerald ends his review of Klüver’s book by saying that “it demonstrates that long days spent in the archive, poring over maps and testing facts, can deliver a fascinating story and fill important holes in our knowledge of even these much-studied periods of art history.” Which holes? That one of the characters in these photos was a fashion model known as Paquerette? If the book demonstrates anything (and I would have expected Fitzgerald, a Picasso scholar whose work I respect, to say so), it is that not every fact constitutes a historical event, and that no matter how much time one spends in the archives, one needs a theoretical model if one is to endow facts with historical meaning. Klüver offers us nothing that helps us understand Picasso’s art of the time. Perhaps the editors of Bookforum felt the same way, for the review of A Day with Picasso is printed next to that of Isaac Mizrahi Presents the Adventures of Sandee the Supermodel, as if to imply that both books fall in the same ephemeral category. But this mild criticism by capillary action is not enough, given Marjorie Perloff’s failure later in the issue to underline what is new, not only critically but also historically, in Krauss’ account.

Granted, Perloff says something about Krauss’ extraordinary use of the Freudian concept of reaction-formation to explain the reappearance of color in the Cubist productions of 1914 (by way of the presence of a stippled wallpaper, which pastiches Seurat), or the growing mechanization of the (abstract, ready-made) line and of the (photography-based) modeling in the neoclassical drawings of 1919. And she does call Krauss’ analysis of pastiche “as persuasive as it is brilliant.” But this instance of praise is only a foil allowing for a quick dismissal of the larger claims in the book.

Though Krauss’ analysis of specific works and series is one of The Picasso Papers’ strongest points, I would have hoped to read in Perloff’s review an assessment of its methodological quality. This would have entailed not only recognizing Krauss’ “long days in the archives” “testing facts” but also contrasting it with that of Klüver (or of anyone else working in the same vein), for Krauss’ method demonstrates again that facts do not signify by themselves and that one must have a theoretical model in mind to be able to arrange facts in a meaningful sequence. For example, Krauss would not have stumbled upon Picabia’s caricature of Picasso’s “Ingresque” portraits, and so brilliantly perceived its effect on Picasso’s subsequent production, had she not been dissatisfied with the current historical explanations of Picasso’s neoclassicism—either endogenous (Picasso as a consumer of style, pastiche as collage) or externalist (the Cocteau cliché)—and searched for a theoretical model (Freud’s concept) that would be at once external and internal. That there is no historical work without a theoretical standpoint is something that is undoubtedly hard to grasp in this country, dominated as it is by empiricism and positivism. But given that Krauss’ book so fearlessly argues the case, I expected the point to be made—even by way of a critique—in the review.

Rather than emphasize this methodological aspect, Perloff chose in fact to dismiss Krauss’ uses of several other theoretical models. Failing to mention that Krauss is responding to a fairly vicious attack by Patricia Leighten, who had tossed Bakhtin’s “dialogism” at Krauss’ skepticism over the importance to be accorded the content of the newspaper clippings used by Picasso in his pasted papers, Perloff says that Krauss’ is “misapplying” the Russian writer, implying that Leighten’s gross distortion is to be vindicated. More important, Perloff ignores what I see as the most interesting twist in Krauss’ structuralist account: that it is inclusive, and that, yes, it can take in the Balkan wars and the local news item, provided that these bits of information are not transformed into the master signified of the works in question. I also find rather disingenuous Perloff’s comments on Krauss’ use of Adorno’s analysis of Stravinsky’s pastiching. Adorno’s jeremiad about the fraudulence of pastiche is pitted in the book as a direct answer to the much more prevalent and generalized lamentations against high modernism as itself fraudulent. Epitomized by Gide’s novel The Counterfeiters, the latter lies at the core of the whole “return to order” in the late ’10s: it attacks modernism as “lacking” (as without meaning, as without “humanity”), as unmoored from any stable referent (the gold standard). And indeed, with the advent of abstraction, the readymade, and the photomechanical aesthetic, the anxiety of fraudulence was pronounced in the late ’10s. Far from accepting Adorno’s position at face-value (as Perloff seems to believe), Krauss refers to it in order to show that Picasso’s Cubist pastiches were already a reaction-formation (that is, a symptom of such an anxiety) to these new historical objects, just as Stravinsky’s pastiches were responding to Schoenberg’s “inhumanity.” Adorno felt that his job was to defend the humanism and subjectivity of Schoenberg’s high modernism: nothing could be more foreign to Krauss’ endeavor with regard to Picasso.

In fact, one of the most extraordinary passages of Krauss’ book concerns Picasso’s careful fabrication of his own secretive persona, and his conception of his pictures as cryptic messages that future scholars would have to decode: these gambits are both pitiful and lethal, fatal booby traps into which most in the Picasso industry have fallen. Klüver’s book provides more grist to this worn-out mill of “art as autobiography” while Krauss attempts to sabotage it. I regret to see that on the scales of Bookforum commonplace drivel carries more weight than a book as new as Krauss’ in its conception (will no one say it’s beautifully written?) and in the interpretations it offers.

Yve-Alain Bois
Cambridge, Massachusetts

Marjorie Perloff replies:
Yve-Alain Bois complains that my review of Rosalind Krauss’ Picasso Papers is “somewhat tepid,” an odd epithet, given that I refer to the central chapter (which takes up more than half the book) as “stunning,” “brilliant,” and “wholly persuasive” in its revisionist argument about the curious turn Picasso’s modernism“ takes in the ’10s and ’20s. Bois evidently feels that I have been insufficiently attentive to Krauss’ theoretical framework: ”that there is no historical work without a theoretical standpoint,“ he reminds us, ”is something that is undoubtedly hard to grasp in this country, dominated as it is by empiricism and positivism."

Not only is the slur on the US here quite unnecessary (what is the evidence that our critics are less theoretically inclined than those in other countries?), but the fact is that my caveats about Krauss’ first two shorter chapters had to do with precisely the opposite situation: I found them somewhat undertheorized, their application of Adorno and Bakhtin, respectively, being less successful than the complex and subtle formal/psychological readings in “Picasso/Pastiche.” In the case of Adorno, for example, the issue is not whether Krauss fully accepts Adorno’s defense of Schoenberg’s high modernism but that Adorno’s clear-cut dichotomy between Stravinsky and Schoenberg seems to be taken as a given.

The Bakhtin case is more complicated. Bois assumes that my criticism of Krauss’ discussion of dialogism in Picasso's collage—a discussion written in response to Patricia Leighten’s earlier Bakhtinian reading of Picasso—“impli[es] that Leighten’s gross distortion is to be vindicated.” It implies no such thing. Leighten takes the voice of the various newspaper fragments used in collage to represent Picasso’s own voice: “the news items accumulate to project an image of French politics as venal, power-mongering, and posing a crazy threat to all those values of humanity and civilization that Picasso’s work had always embraced.” Krauss quite rightly objects to this reductive, ideological reading. But her own claim that we cannot know “who speaks” in these polyphonic, dialogic collages is not much more convincing than Leighten’s account of “re-monologizing.” The “voice” of a given newspaper fragment—say a stock-market report—is, so Krauss argues, played off against any number of other collage pieces, signifying “voices” that literally undercut one another. And she discusses (as she has in her earlier essays on Picasso) the ambivalence of figure/ground relationships or the fact that a “black rectangle that elongates the blue plane of the violin’s face to produce the solid opacity of its neck is also coerced by an abutting white shape to read as the transparency of shadow.” And so on.

The problem here is that image (or cited newspaper headline) is not equivalent to discourse. A collage can have a great deal of formal and structural indeterminacy and ambivalence (e.g., the figure/ground oscillation) and yet bear witness to its author’s “monologic” control. Indeed, Bahktin is not talking about fragmentation and the interplay of contradictory images but, as Krauss herself notes, citing Problems of Dostoievsky’s Poetics, “a plurality of consciousnesses with equal rights and each with its own words.” Dialogism is not a matter ofjuxtaposing different voices, as in the case of Apollinaire’s “Les Fenêtres"—a brilliant lyric but one that Bakhtin himself would surely have judged to be monologic so far as the poet’s own value system is concerned. Rather, it deals with allowing opposing psychological and philosophical perspectives to coexist. In short, a form of negative capability, a way of being no one would particularly attribute to Picasso or to Apollinaire.

“Will no one,“ Bois concludes plaintively, ”say it [ Picasso Papers ] is beautifully written?“ I don’t know about ”no one“ since Bois is, I take it, objecting not to all reviews of Picasso Papers, but only to mine. Since he has raised the issue, however, I shall respond. Presumably ”beautifully written“ refers especially to the rhetorical flourishes of chapter 2, ”The Circulation of the Sign,“ with its repetition of ”Who speaks? Who tells this story?“ and its serial response on the order of ”At first they seem to cycle through the crystal space like so many radiant facets of an absent jewel,“ or ”At first they circulate through the crystalline space, its whiteness their ‘medium.’ . . .“ If I find these bravura passages less than ”beautiful,“ it may well be that I am suspicious of their faux-naïf irresolution. Krauss, after all, is a critic who emphatically does know ”who speaks,“ whether in a given stock market report, whose fragments are collaged onto a canvas, or in the ”classical" Portrait of Jean Cocteau in Uniform. And it is her own authoritative theory of modernism—her superb understanding of historical change, formal articulation, and psychological reaction—rather than her adaptation of Adorno or Bakhtin or even Freud that is finally so compelling.

ROOTING AGAINST SMITHSON

To the Editor:
Referring to “A Tree Dies in Brooklyn” (Artforum, February 1998): we would like to point out to you and the necrophagous curators Amrhein and Conley that Smithson’s Floating Island is highly derivative of Leonardo’s Allegoria della Barca. Indeed, trees being moved on a barge is still an everyday sight in Venice to this day. Spiral Jetty was also simply lifted from Codex Atlanticus.
If Messrs. Amrhein and Conley want to go digging, let them go back to the source and return to Leonardo what Smithson borrowed from him.

Ben Jakober
Mallorca, Spain

Frances Richard replies:
Mr. Jakober is absolutely right. In resurrecting projects by Robert Smithson for contemporary exhibition, Joe Amrhein and Brian Conley of Pierogi 2000 have—knowingly and wittingly—performed a “necrophagous” act. It is part of the nature of artistic endeavor to reach back into the vault of ideas that have gone before, to sample tidbits from the wealth of remains left by one’s aesthetic ancestors. No one involved in the Pierogi project has made any bones about this—returning for sustenance to the body of Smithson’s work was their stated purpose all along. Why shouldn’t Smithson have done the same thing? Of course, sometimes ideas are lifted deliberately, sometimes osmotically. Whether Smithson robbed the conceptual grave of Leonardo’s Codex Atlanticus is open to debate, but would it be problematic if he had done so? Spiral Jetty appears and disappears in the Great Salt Lake; barges with trees circulate in Venice and maybe (if the money comes through) in New York; what goes around comes around. Da Vinci, like most artists and engineers after him, must have known what it felt like to see interesting designs languish unrealized in his notebooks. If he was looking down on Brooklyn in May of last year, he was likely pleased.

EXCEPTION NOTED

To the Editor:
I seldom buy Artforum because the articles and artists covered don’t interest me. So I wanted to thank you for the terrific article on Elizabeth Murray (“Ifs, Ands, and Buts,” March 1998). I hope you’ll include more pieces like this.

Laurie Jiobu
San Francisco
via e-mail