PRINT Summer 2008


A New Novel

Alain Resnais, L’Année dernière à Marienbad (Last Year at Marienbad), 1961, still from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 94 minutes. X (Giorgio Albertazzi) and M (Sacha Pitoëff).

IF ONLY IN THE SPIRIT of rhetorical gamesmanship, it seems entirely worthwhile to ask whether the concept of the avant-garde, or neo-avant-garde, is not totally irrelevant when it comes to discussions of artistic production today—even if considered simply a kind of measure against which the latter might be judged (and, almost invariably, deemed inadequate). But in suggesting as much, maybe one should scrutinize less the art than the metaphor underlying the critical model, insofar as the kind of military engagement providing the basis for such terminology is also long since a thing of the past. Certainly, in our ambiguous era of “war without borders,” to gravitate to the front lines would be altogether beside the point (or worse, to fall into a trap laid by convention): It would be to look past what is right before the eyes, out in the open yet surreptitious. Indeed, when considering any language to describe art’s functioning today—seeking to underline its potential within this historical present—perhaps one should heed philosopher Antonio Negri, who, speaking about May ’68 in these pages last month, suggested that “confrontations and struggle” constituted merely that political event’s “‘modern’ aspect”—whereas its actual character, taken in full view, manifested a quite different, subtler, nonbinary logic, for which the models of modernity (and, by extension, postmodernity) could not, and cannot, account. What is that logic, and how admit its implications in art?

The possibility of our ministering to such matters subtends the current issue, which harbors numerous pressure points where the language of modernism (and of its foil, postmodernism) is brought specifically to bear on questions of contemporary art, if often only to be tossed away or retained superficially. Take, for instance, the fate of the “ism.” The distant remove of the suffix from today’s context would seem confirmed by the extended consideration of French novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet, who died this past February at the age of eighty-five. Landing on the literary scene in the early ’50s, the author was, writes scholar Denis Hollier, hailed by no less a personage than Roland Barthes as “the long awaited Copernicus who would liberate [the novel] from its conventional anthropocentrism.” And yet today, a half-century later, Robbe-Grillet’s theorization of the nouveau roman—a rejection of nineteenth-century realism and its hierarchical tethering of description to chronological narrative—has no adherents even while remaining the last programmatic treatment of the genre. (However influential Robbe-Grillet’s work, no countermodel ever arose in its wake.) Similarly, if more poignantly, the diminished role of artistic “movements” is suggested by an interview with eighty-eight-year-old painter Maria Lassnig, who observes, “I have been working long enough to establish my own tradition, from realism through Surrealism, art informel, automatism, and I don’t know how many other isms.” If Susan Sontag once described modernism as a paradigm that operates by way of overturning, then Lassnig would seem a veritable figure of modernity, defined as she is by her repeatedly casting aside different models for artmaking. And yet today she asserts that this approach has itself given way to a more tactical kind of engagement, with different artistic maneuvers from the past making guest appearances in her work, which varies from canvas to canvas: “[The isms] don’t simply disappear, of course, but are somehow still present even in my most recent pictures.”

What, then, happens when the overturning that defined modernism is itself overturned, with the result that past moments are never done away with, their residues instead seeming to accrue? When, to put it another way, the critical models of previous eras do not, or cannot be asked to, function as they once did? Should we understand this conundrum as yet another iteration of a weary “I can’t go on, I’ll go on”? Or might there, in fact, be some unexpected terrain to mine in the inability to get past, or to overturn, what came before? The latter scenario suggests an unexpected, changed relevance for Robbe-Grillet, particularly as Barthes saw the author “opening up a space where humans and things, narration and description, would finally . . . coexist peacefully in mutual indifference.” Consider as well Andrea Fraser’s lucid account of Michael Asher in this issue. One surmises in Asher a figure more than worthy of the New Novel: While he destroys each of his works and so, in a sense, remains depthless within the “narrative” of the market—thereby committing himself to what may be “the most radical enactment of the ambivalence that underlies avant-garde traditions of artistic negation,” as Fraser puts it—he nevertheless allows these works to accumulate in description, in the surfaces of pictures and the geometry of architectural schemes outlined on the page. (Perhaps here the archive and the New Novel are not so different. And, after all, as Fraser concludes, “There are also books.”)

Significant in this regard is how the term neutral threads through these pages—and with implications that are intriguing for their shifts. Fraser argues that the now “orthodox” view of Asher pertains more or less exclusively to his critique of the ostensibly neutral institutional frame, whereas his greatest innovation, in her view, is his exposure of the positions that artists themselves occupy and act within. But elsewhere, it seems neutrality itself might offer a mode of critique, no longer something to attack—after all, who still believes in the neutrality of the institution?—but to be employed. In the work of Robbe-Grillet, according to Hollier, the methodology suggests a “recoding of things in their neutral and nonlinguistic quiddity, in their naked thereness.” And some fifty years later, Robbe-Grillet finds an unlikely visual counterpart in Wade Guyton, who—like Lassnig, it must be said—navigates the sheer weight or volume of history (though he himself may have lived through less of it). His practice acknowledges artistic movements of the past, but not to provide a stable “place” for them, existing as they do in his work as contemporary transplants. An impasse, perhaps, but hardly impassive, suspended, as the scene is, in productive tension.