PRINT Summer 2007

Jay Sanders

Guy de Cointet, Tell Me, 1979. Performance view, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1979. Denise Domergue and Helen Mendez.

IT’S A PERFORMANCE taken up a thousand times a day: The gallerist, museum tour guide, or art collector stands in front of an enigmatic painting, takes a deep breath, gestures toward it—an object in need of an explanation—and opens her mouth. . . .

For art audiences, the primary point of contact with an artwork is often the social space right in front of it (modern art as verbal production). In Guy de Cointet’s work, however, this space becomes the art itself. He creates a staging area to enact a theater of “understanding,” “appreciation,” and “decoding”—fundamentally reorienting the nature of his paintings, making them into a kind of prop. Cointet’s contemporary and friend William Leavitt, who also produced “prop paintings”—works made specifically to function as theatrical objects—describes this approach as “a way to avoid modernism,” a means of conceptually circumventing the trajectory of “painting” and the critical measures applied to the medium. By being presented onstage, a painting can at the same time step off the stage of painting history.

Situated in this way, Cointet’s paintings are fashioned specifically to participate in their own custom-made fiction. A beautiful actress in a stylish dress, say, stands before the audience, the painting or paintings already on view behind her. Her monologue, in its marvelous storytelling, takes the paintings on riotous journeys through space and time—a narrative like a carnival ride or an adventure movie, only starring a painting. (It is art as performed fantasy, as entertainment.) Of course, the “painter,” too, must be a fabrication. As if a precursor to today’s artistic efforts toward creating “paintings without painters” and other forms of fictive production, Cointet produces The Paintings of Sophie Rummel, 1974, a suite of screenprints by Huzo Lumnst, and dramatic presentations of books by Dr. Hun or Qei No Mysxdod.

Even when Cointet’s performances aren’t happening, then, they are still there, embedded in the very structure of these objects of our attention. The performance is always “about to start,” and we’re there in extended anticipation, waiting to hear the script that will, for example, unlock the flat, impenetrable codes of numbers and letters comprising the canvases. The paintings, in other words, are structured as visual aids to their own revelation. The poet Tan Lin, in his recent book 7 Controlled Vocabularies (2006), posits an analogous contemporary condition, where art objects fully commingle within the highly evolved field of domestic “lifestyle,” an aesthetic space where culture is reduced to code: “Paintings like words can be read as an equation for any number of diagrammatic surfaces: inexactitude, thought, the false arc of the historical. All paintings should be flow charts of paintings and inhabit a decorated space.” Cointet’s paintings operate like science fictions­—paintings as ambient code, triggering dreams.

Guy de Cointet, Tell Me, 1979. Performance view, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1979. Helen Mendez and Jane Zingale.

The artist’s fully developed plays, which came slightly later, convey a similar ontological ambience. Adopting the mode of television melodramas, his actresses move through the set, talking with one another about love affairs and home life, sharing anecdotes and gossip. But in a manner resembling that of test laboratories where certain environmental conditions are held constant, the sets and props these characters find themselves surrounded by lack the ornamental and defining attributes of “design” that allow forms to become specific objects. Instead, everything in Cointet’s performance work is kept as a volume—a basic shape with a basic color. A red cone, perhaps. Or orange cubes. Rectangles in black, green, and blue. A pink diamond. The plays demonstrate that everything one touches becomes media, a surface point for committing a momentary hallucination of definition. Objects are open codes for domestic lifestyle. An example from Tell Me, 1979: “Where’s my comb? Oh, there it is.” (The actress knocks over a large stack of orange cubes.) “Oh! My precious book!!” (She begins picking up and restacking the blocks.) “Half a sentence is broken! . . . I’ll fix it later. . . . But there, I’m afraid one word is beyond repair. . . . What a shame, it’s an important word.” Like flashlights shining in the dark, the actresses verbally identify and engage each colorful form, whose tenacious blankness only erases any residual meaning at the moment that the women move on to something else. As content fails to adhere or accumulate, we can never feel comfortably oriented to what we see.*

In a rare statement on his own work, published posthumously in 1984, Cointet explained, “In my performance pieces there is a progression in the dialogue, but there is nothing so striking as plot.” He produces, he continues, something more like walking tours through the decor of the set:

What I like is the texture of the characters interacting with the objects and shapes and feeling completely at ease with them. . . . The audience sees arrangements and piles of painted geometric forms. During the course of my plays these forms are talked about and their identities revealed. After the audience discovers what everything is, sometimes they’re even more confused.

Guy de Cointet, Tell Me, 1979. Performance view, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1979. Jane Zingale and Helen Mendez.

This choreography bears a resemblance to the work of another Frenchman, filmmaker Jacques Tati and, in particular, to his first color film, Mon Oncle (1958), and its complex kinetic movements among people and household objects. While the film is specifically a parody of domestic modernization, the bold primary colors of the furnishings (a yellow chair, blue patio umbrella, green sofa) set in a fictitious ultramodern house—as well as the stark gray/white interior’s contrast with the bright green front lawn—nevertheless encourage the same kind of heightened visual comedy between people and things that Cointet achieves on the stage. Chairs and tables at a garden party are shuffled in a highly choreographed but “clumsy” manner; futuristic interactive household gadgets populating the home’s interior operate in radically unexpected ways—extended domestic scenes are lost in the cacophonous pleasure and visual slapstick of people moving objects through a landscape. And life at home is an ongoing series of inept negotiations (physical and emotional), resulting in a kind of busy-looking “sameness.”

Indeed, both directors avoid developing the interior life of their “characters,” preferring basic caricatures instead—and in Cointet’s case, the emotional ups and downs and domestic humdrum of soap operas. His actresses appropriately “overact,” adopting a style that is somewhat saccharine in the context of performance art. (In this regard, one might also note that Tati’s stylistics were quite out of step with the New Wave.) Just as the plays trace contextual outlines around shapes scattered about the stage, so, too, the theatrical deliveries outline a wide array of performed emotions. In Cointet’s earliest performances—dramatic “readings” of his nonsensical books—the actress or actresses would run through a rainbow of staged emotions, from assertiveness to sexual desire, from rage to sorrow or frustration. Like someone turning the dial on a radio, drifting through stations, Cointet cross-fades freely among the emotions that might be expressed over the course of a play. In his last completed piece, Five Sisters, 1982, this modulation became Cointet’s focus: No props whatsoever were used and the audience’s attention was drawn instead to changes in the moods of the “sisters” that corresponded with the changing colors of the stage lighting (designed by artist Eric Orr). As Cointet explained, “For example, to relax, you need blue light. A character says, ‘It’s so blue,’ and she slowly starts becoming completely blue. Another character is very sensitive to the sun; in fact, she can’t stand it. Once in a while a bright yellow square appears; when she sees it she starts to get sick, and then becomes completely upset, out of her mind.” Decor modulating mood, emotions as changing lights. Lin writes:

Set for Guy de Cointet’s De toutes les couleurs, Théâtre du Rond-Point, Paris, 1982.

What are emotions we are about to have in a future already present? The era of emotions is over. One prefers a mood or mood predictor (mood rings, glo-balls, bio-feedback devices, etc.), which in turn become logos for products, which in turn become product-emotions, which in turn become consumers (by-products). In this way the consumer is always ahead of the feelings she is having, just as with Muzak whose décor can minimize any room or elevator in the minute before one walks into it.

Why not have a more sophisticated relationship with objects? What are the artistic possibilities of activating nonadministered forms of information and nonprescribed uses of things? How can we reoccupy the betweenness of our interactions?

While Cointet’s work during the ’70s and early ’80s is unique, it nevertheless may be set within the context of a few artists working simultaneously on both coasts of the United States. His focus on performed-object manipulations, on semantic complexity—and on working within “genres,” with an open-ended phenomenological approach to meaning—brings to mind Michael Smith’s solo stage works like Let’s See What’s in the Refrigerator, Comedy Routine, and Busman’s Holiday Retreat Revue. One also remembers the intensely economical tabletop “Spectacles” of Stuart Sherman and John Zorn’s Theatre of Musical Optics. (Significantly, all these artists found inspiration in the Ontological-Hysteric Theater of Richard Foreman.) The same might be said regarding Leavitt’s stage pieces and Mike Kelley’s early lectures, which appeared in Los Angeles at the same time that Cointet was producing work. And so Cointet’s example makes it clear that complex undercurrents remain in art history, still lacking sufficient feedback, requiring another deep breath.

Jay Sanders is a curator and writer living in New York.