PRINT Summer 2007

Marie de Brugerolle

GUY DE COINTET’S FINAL PLAY was never performed during his life, but in a tribute to the artist shortly after his death in Los Angeles in 1983, at age forty-nine, one of his longtime actresses, Jane Zingale, and the mime Tery Arnold decided to stage and film the work. The Bridegroom was the very last writing that the enigmatic Frenchman ever put to page. The setting is quite ordinary—a family’s living room, complete with a couch, a door that opens onto the street, and a curtained window. At the beginning, we meet Pamela, who is seated, wearing a white mask and black shirt and black leggings beneath a skirt. She is sad. Her aunt Harriet arrives; she tries to give her niece hope. Something, however, is immediately amiss: Aunt Harriet speaks in monologues, whereas Pamela answers in mime (and, just once, with a scream). And when Aunt Harriet points through the window to a young man, Peter, and suggests that he would make a nice boyfriend, Pamela quickly pulls out a suitcase full of shoes, dresses, makeup, magazines, jackets, and perfume—and then rushes out the door. Aunt Harriet, now alone, follows quickly but then stops at the window, where she turns to the audience and says sadly, even mournfully:

Goodbye, my Calvin . . . Goodbye, Charles Jourdan, Adios, little Saint Laurent . . . Adios, Cosmopolitan, Playgirl . . . Adieu, my Guccis . . . So long, Estée Lauder, Oil of Olay . . . Farewell, Vidal Sassoon . . .

Perhaps Aunt Harriet is disappointed to lose certain outfits Pamela took. Or perhaps she is somehow saying good-bye to her own youth. Regardless, in this final monologue, the last words written by Cointet, it is clear that products take on the qualities of people—even seeming like actors offstage, as this spoken list resembles so much name-dropping—while actors, in their interactions, can seem more like objects, speaking in a language set somehow at a distance from their own emotions.

You might be forgiven if you thought that Cointet was himself just such a figure out of the pages of fiction, for his personal story can, on occasion, seem too incredible to be true. Drifting through his life were figures ranging from Andy Warhol’s muse Viva, with whom Cointet shared a studio loft in mid-’60s Manhattan, to Marshall McLuhan, who was once spotted at a Venice, California, bookstore purchasing a copy of Cointet’s completely encoded newspaper, ACRCIT (see Perkins). Known informally by some in the Los Angeles artistic community during the ’70s as the Duchamp of LA, Cointet today is the stuff of hearsay, or even legend—a figure spotted in the background of photographs of early Paul McCarthy performances like Class Fool, 1976, or said to have stood at the head of classrooms at CalArts, where John Baldessari would sometimes invite him to guest teach (“an alternative to the Finish Fetish artists,” Baldessari says). Someone, in other words, with a powerful hold on the imagination and yet who now seems all but lost to time, a figure nearly as inscrutable as the wealth of encoded drawings and books he produced; and as uncanny as his plays incorporating snippets of television soap operas, Baudelaire, Mexican radio, and conversations overheard on the streets as dialogue. In his own time, Cointet was recognized for his ability to execute “mirrored handwritings”—an artist who was ambidextrous, he possessed the ability to write a correct line with his right hand and its reverse with his left, like Leonardo da Vinci—and, similarly, he produced an oeuvre to mirror contemporary society so that we would recognize its conventions better. As theater critic František Deàk once wrote of Cointet’s structuralist approach in plays such as Tell Me, 1979—in which fashionably attired actresses variously describe a white cardboard square featuring the black capital letters A, D, M, and T (though their actions imply that they are simply waiting for one woman’s boyfriend to join them for dinner, which he never does)—the artist juxtaposed “lifelike casual conversation with contrived literary language . . . [pointing] out that both are particular styles and that, with a certain distance, the casual conversation will appear contrived as well.” Only, now it is the artist himself whose reflection is difficult for audiences to see.

Born in Paris in 1934, Cointet would live in many countries over the course of his life—Germany, Morocco, Algeria, to name a few. The son of a French general, he was forced in his youth to move every two years. Of these locations, it could be said that Algeria was the most formative, with its port city Oran the place where he became childhood friends with designer Yves Saint Laurent and—more significantly for Cointet’s eventual move to the United States in 1965—fashion photographer Jérôme Ducrot. Together the trio flipped through the pages of the magazine Jardin des modes, which inspired them to pursue fashion, design, and art (a tripartite interest apparent not only in The Bridegroom but in Cointet’s glamorous casting and costuming for theater pieces throughout his life). Saint Laurent would eventually leave for Paris, having won a competition sponsored by Dior. Cointet, failing in the same contest, would take a more circuitous route, landing first at the École Nationale Supérieure d’Art de Nancy (1954–57), in eastern France, before spending two years in the army as part of a required military service during the Algerian War. Finally, in the late ’50s he moved to Paris, where he started working with the commercial agency Havas, designing advertisements for products such as Le Chat laundry detergent, Hollywood chewing gum, and Amora mustard.

It was likely with this work in advertising that Cointet began to strike a balance in his art between language as pattern or decoration and language as something instrumentalized or, more plainly said, text with a “goal.” For a time, he made drawings and paintings using newspaper and magazine articles as elements of collage. But his real innovations—when he first used letters as abstract motifs—began only when he moved to New York as an assistant to Ducrot. The latter was already sharing a studio with Viva, who today recalls seeing Cointet there on a daily basis, starting to make his own work, which consisted of movable ladders made from colorfully painted dowels. (The objects, which likely owe something to George Brecht’s Ladder, 1962—for which the viewer was asked to paint the top and bottom steps white and black, respectively, and fill in a spectrum of hues on the rungs in between—seemed a kind of obscure signage.) Viva soon introduced him to Larry Bell, who subsequently took on the young Frenchman as his assistant (a few of his famous glass boxes were assembled by Cointet, in fact), which required a move to Los Angeles soon thereafter, in 1968. In this locale, far from his European origins—and as part of an artistic community that included the likes of William Leavitt, McCarthy, Allen Ruppersberg, and James Welling—Cointet fully immersed himself in his linguistic investigations, which took the form of books, works on paper, and works in space.

Cointet’s engagements with language were from the start much indebted to literature and, in particular, to the prose style of Raymond Roussel, whose novels such as Impressions of Africa (1910) featured narratives taking place in exotic lands, all rendered in crystalline texts composed according to obscure rules (see Leavitt). Underscoring the artist’s literary sensibility, his drawings of the early ’70s feature colorful geometric forms upon which Cointet would handwrite his titles, often lines taken from Edgar Allan Poe or Jorge Luis Borges. Indeed, the latter’s “Garden of Forking Paths” might be the most important of these references, appearing in a 1971 drawing with the clarity of a manifesto—speaking to the way in which Cointet’s practice is one of infinite digression, where meaning is kept perpetually open. (Intriguingly, in his later drawings Cointet would use penciled grids to break letters down into constituent lines, spelling out titular phrases such as SHE IS IN WONDERFUL SHAPE! or BACK IN JAMAICA. Before completing these drawings, Cointet would erase the grids, so that this “writing” would appear simply as abstract decorative patterning. As in Poe’s “Purloined Letter,” what you are looking for is hidden in plain sight; the game here is not to find the solution, which is obvious from the title, but to guess the code and its elementary units.)

Such was the open-ended effect of his printed matter as well, which comprised a kind of typoésie—to use a term coined by Jérôme Peignot to describe language that rests on the border of the visible and the legible (and which is more evocative in its valences than, say, concrete poetry). In 1971 Cointet also produced a limited-edition newspaper, ACRCIT, whose “articles” appeared in braille, Morse code, and other forms of encryption, and which he distributed through local news outlets, as if to make consumers who came upon the work question the legitimacy of the “information” being offered them (see Perkins). Shortly thereafter he began making books with increasingly esoteric titles like A Captain from Portugal, 1972, Espahor ledet ko uluner!, 1973, and TSNX C24VA7ME, 1974, as well as a collaboration with Bell, Animated Discourse, in 1975 (see Bell). This new artistic direction, however, no doubt partly involved a look by Cointet back at his own youth, when he was obsessed with invented languages, mathematical games and riddles, the Inca codex, and military ciphers. The last might well have arisen given his family heritage; according to his friend Jeff Perkins, stories circulated in ’70s Los Angeles that Cointet had grown up in a castle that flew heraldic flags. (And, in fact, his family’s house, which still exists in Burgundy, was designed after the Polygone—a military structure invented by Mauban during the reign of Louis XIV—and has a strange labyrinthine quality. Seen from above, the house even assumes the shape of a crystal.) But one cannot discount his more general cultural interest in wartime radio broadcasts, where, again, messages could be hidden, as it were, in the open. One thinks twice about Cointet’s use of language when considering prosaic government-agency communiqués during World War II such as “the carrots are cooked.”

Yet Cointet’s mature interests were still more philosophical or, perhaps more accurately, mystical, creating in his audiences the sense that something is hidden and must be revealed—as if there might be some revelation of the irrational in the quotidian. To offer just one example of his approach here, the lettering in A Captain from Portugal seems merely a kind of cuneiform script; at the end of the small volume, a pyramid-shaped text presents a code with which one might decipher the tome. As it turns out, however, the words in Cointet’s text are not separated by spaces, but rather with still further punctuation that requires deciphering; entire passages are also in Portuguese, so that even a decoded text remains somehow hermetic. The true stakes of his work, then, are not in a text’s final meaning, but in the recognition that everything is ciphered—suggesting that it is more important for us to find relationships among things than to seek any kind of truth.

It was only a matter of time before Cointet would move into real space, as he sought to stage his books, adding another dimension to such relationships. His first effort was Espahor ledet ko uluner!, a presentation in May 1973 at the Cirrus Gallery in Los Angeles, for which he recruited the midget actor Billy Barty to improvise a talk based on the artist’s book of the same title and steeped in pseudoscientific discourse. (Although Barty had appeared in numerous movies, at that time he was most familiar to audiences as a regular on the televised Colgate Comedy Hour, where he would impersonate Liberace while a chandelier spouted shaving cream. See Perkins) But more of an indicator for the evolution of Cointet’s practice was The Paintings of Sophie Rummel, 1974, in which Viva stood before twelve of the artist’s new paintings composed of red letters and numbers on white canvas (consisting of license plate and phone numbers found randomly, together they seem like nonsensical signage, or else eye charts). Ultimately, for audience members these became paintings and texts at the same time that they were representations of paintings and texts—in short, props. Viva read aloud from sheets containing the exact same text, introducing different potential meanings by using a variety of intonations and rhythms of speech as she revisited the passages over and over. Is it praise? Adoration? Puzzlement? Depending on the intonation, “1256” could be a tragic number.

Here we get a hint of how Cointet’s practice of the visual poetry of letters would move toward one of objects. In subsequent productions he literalized language onstage by rendering books as enormous volumes, for example, making them into narrative accessories that stood alongside other geometric stage props that would seem like things, signs, and characters simultaneously, as actresses or actors spoke to them—and, more to the point, as these objects appeared to trigger dialogues between the actors moving among them (who occasionally even “introduced” the objects to the audience). In the monologue work At Sunrise . . . a Cry Was Heard, 1976, a painting was again both signifier and signified, tool and symbol: The actress Mary Ann Duganne refers to the work throughout the play, seeming to take her words from the canvas, looking to the image and then to the audience as she tells the story of an artwork whose origins could be found in hieroglyphics. (In other words, the characters painted on the canvas remained “dead letters” unless they were “acted out” with intonation and body language that created meaning for the audience. “A painting is always a text,” Cointet once said.) In Going to the Market, 1975, such painting-texts were framed by jagged forms of various colors. Blue evoked a river, green evoked the grass; when the actress pointed to green, she was speaking of a prairie. The decorative elements were themselves always already a text, in other words, again falling between visibility and legibility. As artist Mike Kelley recently said of his first experience seeing such set designs:

It struck me that [Cointet’s] props, at least the abstract geometrical ones, were analogous to phonemes in language—they were visual phonemes, primal forms. He used language abstractly. In his drawings, too, he utilized letter forms in an abstract, graphic manner—but at times they were arranged into recognizable words and phrases. It was the same in his performances; there was the same play with abstract/representational tension.

Or, as Cointet himself wrote in one of his later works, Iglu, 1977, quoting Baudelaire’s “Correspondances” (1857) without citation, “Nature is a temple of living pillars where often words emerge, confused and dim.”*

Yet still important here is the role of intonation—and of sound more generally—in Cointet’s play with language and code. In an interview just before his death in 1983, he discussed this aspect of his work in a manner suggesting that individual words could be as variable as his structuralist streams of readymade language taken from television melodramas and modern literature alike. “I make dialogue part of the action,” he said, continuing:

and it’s hard to say when a conversation starts and when it is finished. You realize it’s finished only when you get onto another one. People speak differently even in the same language: people in the street, all the different classes of society, tell different jokes and talk differently; they have their own vocabularies and special ways of explaining things. These styles are very simple, as well as structured.

Such attention to the effect of sound was informed by his four close collaborations with Robert Wilhite, whom he met in 1972, and which included important plays such as Ethiopia, 1976, and Iglu. (The pair worked together for only two years.) For the latter piece, Wilhite—who often fabricated the objects onstage for Cointet’s productions—made wooden furniture, authored music, and composed a sound track featuring prerecorded phrases from a Spanish-language course. (There is also a “silent harp,” an instrument that—in a kind of nod to John Cage—produces stretches of silence.) In the recording, words that sound similar yet have vastly different meanings—recalling Roussel’s preoccupation with homophony—are intermittently spoken as part of a conversation among four characters whose language ranges from advertising taglines to poetry, with one mood change marked by the arrival of a telegram with terrible news. Today, Wilhite says that, while words in a work such as this could take on the quality of objects, he “saw the opportunity for injecting sound within a narrative format and thereby enlarging the ‘sculptural’ aspect of my sound-making.” Sometimes, he adds, the objects he made for their collaborations produced sounds “not intended to be ‘music.’ Instead, the sounds were similar to verbal descriptions in that they gave the objects identities.”

Yet in describing sound’s effect within his staged collaborations with Cointet, Wilhite also cites the influence of Russian Cubo-Futurist poet Velimir Khlebnikov (1885–1922): “For Khlebnikov, a shift in sound that produced a shift in meaning was a shift in the structure in the universe.” For his part, Cointet took a more sober view of sound’s role in his work: “It’s not music, it’s more codes,” he said. Nevertheless, as far as the duo’s final collaboration is concerned, one must say that a major shift in structure—and one pregnant with implications for Cointet’s art as we see it today—did take place. For Ramona, 1977, there were minimal props; he and Wilhite instead took as their set the main entrance to an abandoned building at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, a structure with a grand French Renaissance facade and staircase. Accompanying the production was a trio of musicians who wore hats with black netting covering their faces, as well as black leather gloves; with rhythms determined by chance, they played gongs, each one of a different metal (stainless steel, bronze, and copper) and a different shape (circle, triangle, and square). The story was that of a “sensitive young woman,” Ramona, who has just moved into a house overlooking the Pacific Ocean, which is “not so passive on this particular evening.” But most remarkable here was how the facade becomes a kind of seamless scenery; even a window above the balcony, where most of the action takes place, frames the actresses so that they seem like figures in a painting. In the plays that followed Ramona, Cointet, looking for new “correspondences,” for the most part moved away from objects, instead composing works in which each scene appeared under lighting of a different color, for example. Whereas Cointet had once held a mirror to society’s codes and conventions, toward the end of his life he seemed prepared to move into society itself, imagining a theater in the street (as well as, more playfully, in a swimming pool). “How strange that the narrow perspective lines always seem to meet, although parallel,” says the character John Bentley in Ramona. And so it might have been with Guy de Cointet and the codes he discerned all around him, creating an art—as well as an artist—that we seek to decipher today.

Marie de Brugerolle organized the first European survey of Guy de Cointet’s work, at the Musée d’art moderne et contemporain, Geneva, in 2004.

Translated from French by Jeanine Herman, with additional translation by Yves Seban and Tim Griffin.