PRINT December 1999


Homi K. Bhabha: The times are out of joint, perhaps never more so than when we are seduced by that decade-end desire to say, One last time, what was the great work of the ’90s? The ’90s began in the late late ’80s with the big bang of The Satanic Verses, and the decade dribbles on with small arms sniping around an elephant-dung madonna. In between times, we realize how powerful is the appeal to religious orthodoxy; how insecure our sense of the secular; how fragile any idea of global cultural understanding; how the politics of art rarely lies in the artifice itself, but all around it, in the machinations of mayors or the pieties of priests; how the translations and juxtapositions of the postcolonial artist establish hybrid agendas that properly confuse the old and the new, combine the avant-garde and the avant la lettre, and question the synchrony and homogeneity of “the present,” “the modern,” “the postmodern,” “Us and Them.” The artist in the ’90s takes the heat for a long moment of transition and poses the question that The Satanic Verses dared to utter: How does newness enter the world? Not without what some call offense, others originality, still others quackery. In all cases we must acknowledge that judgment is most anxious and nervous when it speaks loudest.

Linda Nochlin: The best art book of the decade? That’s a hard one, but certainly the best and most innovative book by a new author is Ewa Lajer-Burcharth’s dazzling Necklines: The Art of Jacques-Louis David after the Terror (Yale University Press, 1999). The title gives some hint of the wit and intellectual ambition of the volume, for it refers both to the preposterous costumes of the post-Thermidorean “jeunesse dorée” and to the savage work of the guillotine during the Terror. In its brilliant rejection of traditional art-historical categories (in favor of the body and gender as the major foci of historical analysis), Necklines goes a long way to change the way we look at Jacques-Louis David, the Revolution, and visual representation during this period. As provocative and readable as it is richly documented, Necklines sets a precedent—and a high standard—for the art-historical efforts of the next decade and the new century as a whole.

Jeff Wall: I think Michael Fried’s Manet’s Modernism, or, the Face of Painting in the 1860s, Thierry de Duve’s Kant After Duchamp, both published in 1996, and T.J. Clark’s Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism (1999) are the most significant books on art published in the past several years. These three authors, along with a few others, notably Thomas Crow, have created a kind of art history that is meaningful not in relation to contemporary art, but as an aspect of it. Their analysis is done not just as history but as a way of writing, now. It is an act of writing, that is, of speaking, and that is why all these books are written very much as their authors speak. They practice art history but are not confined by any definition of it. They write with an aesthetic as well as an intellectual aim, so they are close to both the creation and the actual experience of art, which is where I feel they want to be.

Walter Hopps: Marcel Duchamp is the astounding artist of our century. The number of theoretical and critical writings on Duchamp, which began to appear during his lifetime, continues to grow. Three catalogues raisonnés of his work have appeared: the pioneering monograph by Robert Lebel, in 1959, and two editions of Arturo Schwarz’s catalogue, in 1964 and 1997. Jennifer Gough-Cooper and Jacques Caumont created a Duchamp biography of sorts, though their bizarre approach resulted in a virtually unreadable tract. Finally, a carefully researched, evenhanded account of this seminal figure’s life was achieved: Calvin Tomkins’s Duchamp: A Biography (Henry Holt, 1996). The artist, if anything, preferred to do without a biography—he felt it beside the point. Nevertheless, an account of his life needed to exist, and Tomkins was the person to write it. Without any theoretical huffing and puffing, he chronicles Duchamp’s complex life in one slim, gracefully written volume.

Carlos Basualdo: Just as the most “influential” book of the ’90s was probably a title from the ’80s, the strongest texts of the ’90s may not exert their full influence until the next decade. My choice, then, is a predictive one: Perhaps one of the most important books for the coming decade will turn out to be Eric Hobsbawm’s Behind the Times (Thames and Hudson, 1998), a brief and, at moments, caustic polemic against the avant-gardes of the twentieth century. The British historian’s argument is uncomplicated to the point of simplicity: What were called avant-garde practices (both the historical avant-garde and the “neo–avant-garde”) were contained within a small circle, failed to connect to the people or adapt to new realities, and remained in a way closer to the previous century than to this one—in other words, behind the times. Today, as some of the most interesting artists are attempting once more to erase the boundaries between art and society, this book—and others like it—could serve as a milestone.

Arthur C. Danto: There has been a good bit of recent speculation on art after the end of art, but almost nothing on art before the beginning of art. Hans Belting’s magnificent Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image before the Era of Art (University of Chicago Press, 1994), traces the devotional image from the fall of Rome to the beginning of the Renaissance, covering en route the Iconoclastic movement, which shook the Byzantine empire for more than two centuries. Pictures were of interest only if miraculous—like the image of Christ on Veronica’s veil. And they were valuable only if they wrought further miracles. The power of an image descended through its copies, making any distinction between original and copy irrelevant. Aesthetics was neither here nor there. Our concept of art celebrates the artist, originality, and the look of art. But aesthetic triumph is small compensation for the loss of real power, and we have sought substitutes for it ever since. In an odd way, Duchamp’s indifference to aesthetics, his distrust of the artist’s hand and eye, his unconcern with copies, resurrect tenth-century attitudes. And given Duchamp’s domination of the current scene, we are in some way closer to the world of the devotional image than to what we thought was our own past.

Yve-Alain Bois: Always on the lookout for old forgotten books being accorded a new life, I thought to nominate the translation of Alois Riegl’s 1902 The Dutch Group Portrait announced for this fall by the Getty, but the book has been delayed and as I know only the few fascinating excerpts that have appeared in English (Riegl’s German far outdistancing my baby-talk level), I had to change gear. Still, my desire to point to Riegl led me to the last book I read that brought to mind his phenomenal intelligence and stunning intertwining of social and formal analysis: Wu Hung’s Monumentality in Early Chinese Art and Architecture (Stanford University Press, 1995). I could go on and on about it, but for lack of space I’ll just signal what fascinated me most: Wu Hung does not treat objects as illustrations of diverse and changing worldviews. On the contrary, with him the objects become historical actors, makers, not simply markers of history. I clearly remember my stupefaction when I devoured the book in draft form at the beginning of the ’90s: If the field of art history was still able to produce works of this quality, with implications so wide-ranging—for me it is on a par with Foucault’s The Order of Things—then there might yet be hope for the discipline.

Robert Rosenblum: Picassomaniacs like me welcome solid new foundations of fact for future flights of fancy. With the support of Marilyn McCully’s impeccable scholarship, John Richardson launched in 1991 a biography of Picasso that now, in two volumes, gets us to 1917, providing a New Testament update of Alfred H. Barr’s equally bedrock monograph of 1946. The prose is so swift and nimble that, even if this were merely a life of the mayor of Málaga, we would read it breathlessly; but given the titanic subject, every precise and gossipy detail about friends, artists, dealers, and lovers casts new light. Unlike most artist biographies, this one needs—and gets—hundreds of images, producing a seamless weave of life and art. I am cliff-hanging for Volume 3.

And speaking of indispensable, I couldn’t live now without editor Jane Turner’s awesome Dictionary of Art (Grove, 1996). I crib from those thirty-four volumes daily.

David Reed: Several years ago in Rome, I was startled, even frightened, when I chanced on the tomb of Jean-Germain Drouais (1763–88). I had always admired his paintings, but could never explain my intensely emotional response until I read Thomas Crow’s Emulation: Making Artists for Revolutionary France (Yale University Press, 1995). Standing at the tomb, I had remembered the lament of Drouais’s teacher, Jacques-Louis David: “I have lost my emulation.” And somehow I had felt acutely the loss that David and Drouais’s peers felt, and shared in their mourning. The dilemma of their time had been how to resolve the conflict between tradition and innovation, community and rebellion—dilemmas all too familiar today. Crow makes these tensions vivid, and their relevance to contemporary practice makes Emulation one of the most memorable books of the decade.

Herbert Muschamp: Rem Koolhaas and Bruce Mau’s S,M,L,XL (Monacelli Press, 1995) was the most important architecture book of the decade. It went far toward collapsing the distinction between architects and city planners. However, Adam Phillips, the British psychoanalyst and incomparable prose stylist, is the writer whose work made the deepest impression on me during the ’90s: On Flirtation (1994); On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored: Psychoanalytic Essays on the Unexamined Life (1994); and Winnicott (1989).
Like Koolhaas, Phillips has a nimbly dialectical way of thinking that lets him edge his way into all sorts of issues. I once asked Phillips whether he thought his ideas were applicable to cities. It was a relief when he said yes—since I’d already started to apply them (in a book on the contemporary city that I’m working on now).

Molly Nesbit: It was a conversation that began in Paris in the ’80s and appeared for the sharing in the ’90s. At first Bernard Cache’s part in it would appear only as a citation in Deleuze and Guattari’s What is Philosophy? (Columbia University Press, 1994). But it was made clear that Cache had come with a concept of the frame that pulls away from the building, thereby furnishing a figure through which to think images in things themselves, outsides on insides, and more. Such frames select vectors and proceed. Deleuze and Guattari moved them to painting, seeing composition to be a matter of blocs of sensation—Mondrian’s points, Seurat’s dots—but literature would have versions of this too. They cited Virginia Woolf’s saturated atoms. (Cache’s manuscript would appear first in translation, in English, as Earth Moves [MIT Press, 1995].)

Thoughts like these have advantages. All of them bring heightened degrees of mobility to the idea of the physical image. The meditation that results offers us much since the old standards by which formal coherence is measured have become manifestly outmoded when it comes to considering the fluidity and strangely dynamic surfaces of the art being made today.