PRINT May 1999


T.J. Clark

ANYONE LOOKING FOR A SYSTEMATIC ACCOUNT of modernism in T.J. Clark's new book, Farewell to an Idea, will be disappointed. Clark, whose foundational work in the social history of art has furnished some of the strongest readings of cultural modernity to date, does not fail at producing such a comprehensive theory—it is simply not his objective. Like a good postmodernist (which he is not), Clark knows that overarching systems are impossible, although this knowledge, one feels, is uncomfortable for him. Systems, after all, are what modernism seemed to promise. Wouldn't we all want to believe in the possibility of remaking the world perceptually with the gorgeous toolbox of modernist abstraction? Don't we all (at least on some level) want to produce a diagram like Alfred Barr's unutterably poignant flowchart of modernism—poignant because, like Borges's map, its complexity can only reproduce the real, not reformulate it as knowledge? For me one of several undercurrents of loss that circulate in this book—signaled by the Farewell of its title—is a loss of faith in any comprehensive explanatory paradigm, which, in Clark's career, would be Marxian analysis. But there is also a further loss at stake: the expiration of modernism itself as a movement and a set of formal operations that sought to resist and negate the social world that produced it. I'll admit I had hoped that someone who possesses Clark's interpretive brilliance, historical rigor, and prodigious skill as a writer would have undertaken the folly of forcing modernism to make sense. But Clark refuses such a totalizing narrative, and for good reasons—not the least being that modernism is an art of contradictions, and its best practitioners were always acutely aware that resolution is impossible.

If there is no comprehensive framework linking the seven essaylike chapters of Clark's book, there is a consistent mode of looking (and an attendant way of writing) that inheres in his wide-ranging analyses. For what Clark attempts to do in Farewell is to bring into focus the social nature of form through a series of “limit-cases” spanning from David's Death of Marat, 1793, to Pollock's Number 1, 1948. Most chapters turn on a single painting or a small body of work in which the struggle of signifying social transformation is particularly pronounced. It is at such moments of representational crisis—the limit-cases—that innovation becomes necessary and modernism advances. While ostensibly straightforward, this approach brings together traditions that have often been imagined as thoroughly antithetical: modernist formalism and the social history of art. Clark's way of bringing about this (often uncomfortable) synthesis centers on what he calls “the conditions of representation—the technical and social conditions—of [a] historical moment.” In other words, his analysis takes as its object not simply an artwork's “meanings,” or the intentions of its author, or its reception by various publics, but the synergy between these social forces. The questions he asks are not on the order of “What does Malevich's Black Square signify?” but rather, “How does a particular revolutionary society make statements—and at least provisionally eloquent ones—that are as ostensibly mute and impoverished as a black geometric form on a white canvas?” This is formalism, but not quite Greenbergian formalism. It is a formalism in which painting is shown to absorb into itself the social conditions of its possibility, and to represent them too—even if only as a play of irreconcilable antinomies. What Clark has done, in other words, is to produce a Foucauldian archaeology of modernism that is haunted by the modernisms of Greenberg and Michael Fried.

As readers of Foucault are well aware, producing an archaeology—or charting the patterns of knowledge that prevail in a particular period by dwelling on the limits and conventions of representation rather than on its sources or intentions—requires a different form of expression from logical argumentation. And indeed, each substantial chapter in Farewell builds by accretion. There is a persistent restlessness in Clark's text: He moves from register to register, shuttling between long passages of formal analysis and equally elaborate political exegesis. His tone is changeable too, .encompassing breathtaking poetic precision, as in phrases like “the grid shivers,” as well as Lear-like fulminations against imagined opponents. But this mobility is balanced by the extraordinary density of his prose, producing a kind of readerly vertigo in which ponderous blocks of text float gently into alignment, insinuating rather than insisting on their interconnections. To use one of Clark's favorite terms, the book hectors as it seduces. Sometimes this strategy is prodigiously successful, as in his discussion of the chaotic and dire conditions of the Soviet Union in 1920—the time of Lissitzky's abstract propaganda board exhorting workers to their benches in Vitebsk. In this chapter, “God Is Not Cast Down,” Clark's own discourse effectively mirrors the representational crisis he is describing. But in “The Unhappy Consciousness,” a chapter on Pollock, his resistance to other species of modernist contradiction is intense. Although his evocation of Pollock's propulsive line brilliantly captures the ebb and flow in the work, Clark, like Greenberg in his canonical “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” cannot abide the encroachment of mass culture on modernist painting. He treats with searing contempt the Cecil Beaton photographs in Vogue in which Pollock's paintings set the stage for the drop-dead elegance of ‘50s fashion. To Clark, “the photographs are nightmarish”—they embody what he calls at the outset of the chapter the “bad dream of modernism.” Apparently modernism's bad dream is the domestication of its nihilism—the acknowledgment that any act of negation may be recuperated as fashion. But didn't this contradiction—the endless cycle of commodification and negation fundamental to capitalism—already exist at the heart of Dada and Surrealism, those modern movements that Clark pointedly excludes from his discussion? And doesn't it emerge within other practices he approves of such as the Cubist collage of Picasso and the productivist experiments of the Soviet avant-garde? It would be easy to say that the utopian aspirations of Varvara Stepanova and Liubov’ Popova's abstract textile and costume designs are incommensurable with the cynical consumerism of Vogue. And yet, as the work of an artist like Marcel Duchamp attests, the antinomy between commodification and negation is not always modernism's troubled unconscious—its “bad dream.” It has also served precisely as modernism's productive field of conscious operations.

The Vogue photographs raise another set of questions that are central to Clark's analysis in Farewell: the place of the body in modernist painting. Time and again representations of the body—its fleshy matter—are interpreted as the historical locus of modernist contradiction and fragmentation. This representational crisis of the body is the most material manifestation of a more thoroughgoing stress placed on the operation of metaphor in modern painting. In Clark's limit-cases particular paintings short-circuit the prevailing epistemological equivalences between bodies, things, words, and meanings at the time of their making. It is Clark's particular genius to have conceived a rhetoric that captures the tortured back and forth in these works between totality and dissonance, hope and despair. A passage from his discussion of Pissarro's Two Young Peasant Women, 1892, captures Clark's gift for describing contingency: “The two figures' incompleteness does not flatten or derealize them. They are strongly enough modeled to occupy space; a space which belongs to them ... and to which as viewers we have partly gained access; but only partly, that is the point—so that we end up getting a sense of figures and relations, but only a sense. ... [The painting] means us to be in limbo. We have come in close—too close to get the whole picture.” In this painting as well as the others Clark analyzes, the substance of contradiction in representation—its particular species of materialism (and I, like him, mean this term to encompass an economic and a historical dimension)—typically centers on the body. It is through the representational disposition of modern anatomies that the individual and the collective are situated within the social.

In a review of this length I can only indicate schematically the complex trajectory Clark charts for the modern body in painting. Suffice it to say that Death of Marat and Two Young Peasant Women establish an association between an individual body and the body of the People, or of a class. As a revolutionary martyr Marat was seized upon by David to signify an unprecedented entity in French painting: a republican body politic. Clark beautifully captures what was at stake in David's painting when he writes, “From the point of view of those trying to represent it ... the body of the People was always sick. It needed some radical purging. And ultimately there was only one way to do this. It had to be killed in order to be represented, or represented in order to be killed. Either formulation will do. Marat is the figure of both.” It is in Cubism (and later Abstract Expressionism) that this to and fro of killing and representing results in the extraction of carnality from mimesis: “The body will end not by being robbed of its objecthood, but by being given back another—a new kind of coherence and centeredness, of demarcation from other things, and of otherness to the viewer.” The pivot between this public collective body of the French Revolution and the involuted, remapped “private” body of Cubism is—remarkably—the fear of castration as embodied in Cézanne's late Bathers, whose weird distortions Clark sees as a parallel process to the psychic reworkings of experience theorized by Freudian psychoanalysis.

That a phantasmic performance of castration should play such a role is perhaps less surprising than one would expect. After all, it proclaims itself as a farewell, and more, the farewell of a father. The title is drawn from Wallace Stevens's poem “The Auroras of Autumn,” and the following lines are quoted in the book's epigraph:

Farewell to an idea... The cancellings,
The negations are never final. The father sits
In space, wherever he sits, of bleak regard

Indeed, Clark is a patriarch in the domain of art history—it is a paternity he has earned and deserved. But I cannot agree with his diagnosis. Under the sign of other of its practitioners—Duchamp, for instance, for whom Clark has nothing but scorn—modernism has continued to be a generative cultural force. It points the way not toward a withdrawal from consumer culture (is such a withdrawal possible?) but to a historical analysis of the relations between bodies and things, liberation and discipline—precisely those issues that must be at the heart of any contemporary cultural criticism. I, for one, am not yet ready to say goodbye.

David Joselit, associate professor in the Department of Art History, University of California, Irvine, is the author of Infinite Regress: Marcel Duchamp 1910-1941 (MIT Press).


T.J. Clark, Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999), 451 pages.