PRINT Summer 2007

Matthew Brannon

Guy de Cointet, A Page from My Intimate Journal (Part I), 1974, ink on paper, 30 x 22 1/2". Photo: Billy Jim.

GROWING UP in places like Alaska in the 1970s and Montana in the ’80s, I was used to seeing advertisements before I saw the real thing. Eventually, I realized that everything was right there—in the posters, the previews, the signs, the reviews. You could become obsessed with, say, a film from the posters alone; you didn’t have to see the movie to understand. Later, in graduate school, after making a few terrible paintings, I curated student shows and ran the visiting artist program, finally becoming more interested in the promotional residue than in the events themselves. Today posters form the core of my work: They loosely mimic advertising through the balance of text and image; their flat-footed appearance and immediacy are countered by their poetic component; they are full of content but fail to deliver. These are lessons I learned from Guy de Cointet.

I’m sure I first heard of Cointet in Paul McCarthy’s New Genres class at UCLA, but I didn’t really take note until another student, Jon Pestoni, a living archive of the esoteric and obscure, showed me Cointet’s work on paper (“on paper” being very significant in terms of the above). Like Conceptual art with a capital C, the work was something you could imagine yourself producing. But more important, I thought, you literally felt yourself reading; you were very aware of the fact that you were looking at ink on the page. The work was visually hard to define, yet somehow very familiar; it looked pretentious but also casual; it was intimidating but full of humor; and it never seemed a discrete end unto itself. In other words, everything looked like a prop. I loved it before I understood it.

And yet, in fact, before you read anything, you’ve already understood so much. The choice of type, of color, the layout, how it was printed, the paper—all this tells you an almost infinite amount before you read something. Designers understand this. And it is something Cointet understood. He forces us to focus on the components of language we typically ignore. He pokes fun at the clarity one usually demands from a text and instead draws our attention to textual limits—something he also managed to do in his performances, using language in an open-ended way, employing it in a literary fashion, or using street, camp, or popular tongues. In all these endeavors, you suspect the joke’s on you. But you also feel flattered to be involved in the construction of meaning.

Consider a print Cointet made in 1974, called A Page from My Intimate Journal (Part 1). The title is handwritten at the top of the work and is as important as the printed letters below: It suggests that the artist is disrupting the idea of, and demand for, autobiography (another lesson I learned from Cointet). I doubt the work is truly a page from his diary. But even if it were, and even if we could translate the text, how would his private life inform ours? Just what is it we need art for—to find a person in a paper trail? In this regard, I think that Cointet’s fabled interest in the soap-opera genre is telling. Indeed, I like to think that the title of this work is pure camp: Sure, it might look like an eye doctor’s exam, but it’s actually something deep and private, something I’m sharing.

Of course, an artist is free to speak in voices other than his own. And the time between an author’s writing and an audience’s reading is potentially infinite. Yet writing is nevertheless a self-conscious act; one anticipates that people will bring to your work not only intellect but also biases about what art is and has been. It makes perfect sense to me that Cointet would, then, make work disallowing a passive reception; work for those who love language and everything messy about it; work that some will easily dismiss, believing it will never add up to anything. In this regard, I know that to write about Cointet today is to participate in a form of mythmaking. Yet perhaps his general obscurity in the history books to date may still be attributed to his art, which is resistant to just what we desire to discover in him. And so Cointet’s work will never fit.

Matthew Brannon is an artist living in New York. His exhibition “Where We Were” is on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art at Altria in New York through August 26.