PRINT October 2007


“Invisible Colors”

IN HIS SHORT ESSAY “The Storyteller,” written in 1936, Walter Benjamin reflects on the impoverishment of soldiers returning from World War I, observing that they have “grown silent—not richer, but poorer in communicable experience.” At the root of this impoverishment, he says, is Chokerlebnis: the reduction of experience to naked information, wherein media (“every glance at a newspaper”) has the power to shock. Today we might quickly grasp Benjamin’s meaning by recalling, for example, the Vietnam War image of the young man with a pistol to his head, which reduced our experience of that conflict to little more than a photographic image bite—thereby pointing a pistol at our heads as well.

There is, however, a potential role for art in our engagement with such conditions, and this possibility in our contemporary context was the underlying subject of a noteworthy exhibition curated by Karina Daskalov this past summer at the Marian Goodman Gallery in Paris. Titled “Invisible Colors,” the show took its cue specifically from a crusade against the “regime of the image” launched recently by T. J. Clark in his books Afflicted Powers: Capital and Spectacle in a New Age of War (2005), coauthored with his fellow members of the political group Retort, and The Sight of Death: An Experiment in Art Writing (2006). (A copy of the latter was placed atop the gallery reception desk, testifying to its immediate significance here.) As Clark puts it, the televisual clips played over and over since 9/11, as well as the autocratic power they have promoted, compose the political context and impetus for his aspiration to create “the opportunity for sustained attention,” as well as for his proposal “that visual images carry within them the possibility of genuine difficulty, genuine depth and resistance.” The result, he hopes, would be a way of life “in which the image-life of power could [at] once be derided or spoken back to.”

In The Sight of Death, Clark’s refusal of media takes form in an elongated exploration and revisitation of a pair of Poussin paintings, which he seeks to see and resee in all the complexity of their compositional resonance. The book, he says, is intended to provide “the simple, central pleasure of looking that drives things forward—and the astonishment at what one or two pictures have to offer, if you give them half a chance.” Appropriately, then, the concern of “Invisible Colors” was ritardando—the slowing down of our perception, so accustomed has it become to image bites (even within the art world, given the frantic pace of art fairs and biennials). Unfolding in four rooms, the show began on the ground floor with works devoted to a kind of hallucinatory repetition. For example, Gabriel Orozco’s Ventilator, 1997, featured a lazily turning ceiling fan, each of whose three blades trailed a swath of toilet paper behind it; and Oswaldo Macià’s Calumny (Envy, Hatred, Ignorance, Truth), 2007, suspended five globular pendants, from which wafted a variety of fragrances. Goodman’s subterranean spaces then displayed two works, each devoted to the constant revisiting of a single image. James Coleman’s Slide Piece, 1972 –73, projected the exact same Ektachrome— depicting a gas station in Milan where several cars are parked—through a slide carousel’s worth of “advances,” which were accompanied by taped commentary that sounded like that of a docent leading tourists through a museum. Marcel Broodthaers’s 1973–74 film Un Voyage en mer du Nord (A Voyage on the North Sea) filled the second room with an opulently obsessive survey of a nineteenth-century seascape.

As if in response to Clark’s incitement to the pleasure of looking, Coleman’s Slide Piece slows vision to the pace of the formal analysis of its voice-over, which describes the repeatedly projected photograph in painful detail, often fixating on figure/ground reversals. For instance, the word TOTAL, situated above the gasoline pumps, is initially viewed as an o encaged by the sides and struts of its two flanking t’s; disengaged from this grid, the letter surfaces into the foreground of our visual focus. (Coleman says that he wrote most of this commentary until, having exhausted his own patience, he advertised for writers who continued the analysis—which is ironic, given the narration’s intense focus. Because Ireland, where Coleman lives, is full of people sure of their own identities as writers, he jokes, he had more offers for this job than he could handle.) In so confronting the fluctuation between figure and ground, Slide Piece clearly develops from Coleman’s beginnings in Italian Conceptual practice, where he responded in film and painting to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s investigations into what it could mean to say that we see an aspect of an image—though the gestalt psychologists also confronted this dilemma when they displayed the famous duck/rabbit diagram (where the very same drawing can be taken “now as a duck” or “now as a rabbit,” according to whether we see the head’s two projecting blades as beak or ears).

For its part, Broodthaers’s Voyage is nothing but astonishment. Constantly panning his camera over the surface of an academic seascape he picked up at a shop on rue Jacob in Paris, the artist allows his film to unfold in a series of close-ups of the painting, each given different “page” numbers. The prow of a schooner under sail (page twelve), say, accompanied by a longboat filled with fishermen (page thirteen), churns up the green waves of the sea through which it cuts. It soon occurs to the viewer that these pages of visual details could be offering a narrative of modernist painting, as a tight shot of turbulent water recalls Édouard Manet’s marinescapes, such as The Battle of the “Kearsarge” and the “Alabama,” 1864; and as subsequent focus on a swath of gray pigment pinning the billowing sail back to its mast (page ten) brings us forward in time, suggesting a vision of Piero Manzoni’s “Achromes.” The climax of this musée imaginaire is reached (on page eleven) when nothing but the weave of the white sail is seen, filling the entire screen with a magnificent monochrome and bringing to mind Stéphane Mallarmé’s 1893 poem Salut, with its closing celebratory toast to the artist’s blank page—“to whatever was worth the white care of our canvas.”

Voyage was screened on a wall opposite Broodthaers’s Bateau Tableau, 1973, a projected slide sequence, with each still image synchronized to the details revealed by the moving camera. This facing slide show could similarly be a lecture on the history of painterly modernism, from Manet’s conception of pictorial flatness to Robert Ryman’s monochromes. Indeed, while the works’ domination of the room might remind us of Broodthaers’s earlier explorations of installation art—his Un Jardin d’hiver (Winter Garden), 1974, or Museum of Modern Art, Department of Eagles, Section des Figures (The Eagle from the Oligocene to the Present), 1972—his double commitment here to painting as a specific medium and to a magnificently slow exfoliation of painting’s history would argue against such an association.

The commitment to painting’s specific history and genius (to use Barthes’s term) parallels what a recent Clark interviewer posed to the art historian as his “heated response to contemporary ‘image-culture’; a critique of current trends in academic art history; and an impassioned argument for the value of time spent looking at works of art, making more than good on its claim that ‘astonishing things can happen if one gives oneself over to the process of seeing again and again.’” As Clark eloquently responded:

This pleasure and astonishment are unnegotiable. Nothing the world can do to them will make them go away. And yes, I agree: the world does plenty. Pleasure and astonishment seem to me qualities that the world around us, most of the time, is conspiring to get rid of. Or to travesty . . . by which I mean the full range of human possibilities . . . and sympathies that make up the human, as far as I’m concerned. Recognitions and sympathies, but also losses and horrors and failures of understanding. Everything the present ecstasy of “information” wants us to transfer to trash.

Benjamin’s shock results from media; Clark’s “trash” is the effect of the televisual’s control of our lives so that we “are accustomed from an early age to living in a constant flow of visual imagery.” In other words, he says, “The imagery is designed not to be looked at closely, or with sustained attention.”

Clark’s reference to flow is impossible to read without thinking of Raymond Williams’s characterization of television itself as “total flow,” something ever more pertinent today. Clark focuses on it as the enemy of his commitment to “sustained attention,” and “Invisible Colors” proudly flies the banner of Clark’s resistance.

Rosalind Krauss is university professor of twentieth-century art and theory at Columbia University.