PRINT Summer 2011


Cathy Wilkes, Non Verbal (detail), 2005, oil on canvas, mannequins, aluminum tray, corn oil, LCD screen, stroller, mixed media. Installation view, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh. Photo: Ruth Clark.

IT IS 1946. The war has just ended, and Henri Michaux, an avant-garde poet turned painter, finds himself haunted by faces: “As soon as I pick up a pencil or a brush, ten, fifteen, twenty of them surge up to me on the paper one after the other. And most of them wild. Are all those faces me? Are they other people? From what depths?” In Michaux’s works of the period, these questions are redoubled on the page, where the human face is reduced to a zero-point of legibility. A year earlier, Michaux had started on a series of faces using thin washes of gouache, watercolor, and ink to evoke the eerie cohort. Fugitive, tortured, these small works on paper distill the basic attributes of the face: the ghostly outline of a head and the bare, and occasionally grotesque, indications of eyes and a mouth. The faces came to him from within, Michaux claimed, each with its own persona: horror, misery, joy, and so on. They belonged to him, he concluded; they were his faces, the grimaces of a host of inner selves. But they were trapped on the inside, unable to get out:

Behind the face with its motionless features, deserted, now no more than a mask, another superiorly mobile face contracts, seethes, simmers in an unbearable paroxysm. Behind the set features, desperately seeking a way out, expressions like a pack of howling dogs . . . Lost, sometimes criminal faces . . . Faces of sacrificed personalities, “I’s” stifled, killed, by life, willpower, ambition, by a propensity for rectitude and consistency.¹

The story of modernist painting could be written as a story of the face—beginning with Manet’s Olympia and ending in crisis, with Jackson Pollock’s Eyes in the Heat, or the monstrous child-animal faces, as disturbing in their way as Michaux’s wraiths, that proliferate in the work of the Cobra group at roughly the same moment in the 1940s. In the period immediately after the war, however, representations of the face all but disappeared from painting. Why? And what explains the face’s uncanny return in the work of so many contemporary artists—among them Cathy Wilkes and Josh Smith, whose work I’ll examine below?

To find answers to these questions, we will need to return to the beginning of the postwar period, to 1946. The bewildered tone of Michaux’s essay indicates the distance between then and now: We have come to take notions of the divided self as something of a given, but in the wake of World War II this schism was still being formulated, giving rise to a vast theoretical discourse in the decades that followed. Michaux’s projection of a division between the inner and outer face presages Jacques Lacan’s theorization of the “split subject” of psychoanalysis, for example. In fact, postwar continental philosophy is positively brimming with theories and philosophies of the face, from Emmanuel Levinas’s to Giorgio Agamben’s. It was in these years, too, that American cognitive psychologists discovered that the construction of faciality as such is contingent rather than innate. As far as art-critical diagnostics go, though, it is surely Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari who have furnished us with the most useful definition of the face. In their magnum opus, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Deleuze and Guattari consider the face to be a machine that sets up shop at the site of the human head but is not bound there.² Faces can appear anywhere: on walls or in the clouds, in dappled shadows or the bark of a tree. In fact, anything that gives the impression of staring back at us—a clock, an unpaid parking ticket, an expensive gift—can be said to have a face. Faces are what lift objects into the realm of signification; they are also what delimit the interiority of things, implying an agent behind the mask.

But make no mistake: The facial machine is by no means benign. Though it takes up residence on the surface of things, the face cannot fuse with the matter it enwraps. To query the human visage, then, is to confront the face as something autonomous, contiguous with the body but not tethered to it. Left to its own devices, Deleuze and Guattari argue, the body is a wild, unruly multiplicity of impulses, affects, and gestures; but when colonized by a face, this multiplicity becomes organized around the absent center of the I, the empty signifier underpinning all meaning making. As such, the face is a template for a power relation that projects itself across historical horizons (early modernity, industrial modernity, postmodernity), morphing as it goes along, but always turning on the colonizing relationship of surface and unity against interiority and multiplicity.

This symbiotic relationship can be discovered in every facial apparatus. Money is a face, for example, that wraps itself around the body of the commodity-object. Because the face is always alien to the body to which it attaches, face-body relations are fraught with antagonism and even open hostility. At a certain point, which Deleuze and Guattari connect to the ascendance of Christianity and designate as “year zero,” the face came to dominate the body absolutely: In a manner alien to the pagan subjectivity it displaced, Christian subjectivity formed itself in relation to an abstract, unitary, fully autonomous godhead with total authority over the bodily realm. And, as it happens, year zero also marks the birth year of modern painting—or, to be more precise, of early modern painting. The advent of Christian figure painting made it possible to render visible the subordination of the body to the abstract face, but it also opened up a new field of covert resistance to facial authority.³ And this jockeying between the authority of the face and bodily affect would come to characterize the dialectical field of modern painting in the centuries that followed.

Here, however, I’d like to pose a second year zero—one that designates a point of rupture in the trajectory of modern painting. Nineteen forty-six does not mark the end of figuration per se; it is rather the point at which the image of the human body ceases to be a site of resistance to the authority of the face. Afterward, such resistance might take other forms or operate in other media, but this antagonism would no longer play out in the arena of painting.


Josh Smith, Untitled, 2010, mixed media on panel, 60 x 48.

AMONG EUROPEAN MODERNISTS of the late 1940s, Michaux was not alone in his obsession: It was his exposure to the work of Jean Dubuffet in 1945 that ignited his interest in faces, inspiring his later meditations on the topic. Indeed, in the yet-to-be-written history of modernism’s crisis of faciality, Dubuffet might be the central protagonist. A self-proclaimed champion of “anticultural” values, Dubuffet had embarked on an all-out assault on the figure during the war years, reducing the body to a cartoonish outline and the face to a stupefied grin—parodies of figure painting, but figures nonetheless. Whereas the Abstract Expressionists would suppress figuration, Dubuffet remained devoted to the figure in the aftermath of the war. Though he was one of the only French painters of his generation whose work was taken seriously by the New York abstract painters and their critics, he would come to pursue a different path, a welding of figuration and materialism.⁴ In his works of the late 1940s, Dubuffet brought figure painting to the breaking point, retaining only the essential propositions of figuration, whatever they might be. Central to these investigations was his series of monumental portraits, which the artist would come to refer to as his “grandes têtes” (big heads). In the process of making these works, Dubuffet managed to extract from the crisis of painting a genuinely new concept of the figure. This was, I will argue, a crucial moment for twentieth-century art, portending both the best and worst that could be expected of painting in the years to come.

The idea for a series of portraits came to Dubuffet in August 1946, when Florence Gould, the moneyed hostess of a literary salon he frequented, proposed that he make portraits of the other guests, among them Michaux. Though the artist had painted portraits in the preceding few years, the pictures he made at Gould’s suggestion threw him into a new sort of mania. In the months that followed, he would make hundreds of portraits of sitters from Gould’s circle. These works were intended as a wholesale travesty of the genre; Dubuffet toyed knowingly with the appearance of his subjects, giving them traits and costumes they did not have or wear—fat men became thin, the bald acquired flowing manes, and so on. This was more than mere caricature. The point, the artist explained, was to make “effigies” as opposed to mirror images, or even psychological studies, of his subjects. He would begin by preparing his canvases horizontally on the studio table, slathering the shape of the figure onto the canvas. Following this initial partitioning of figure and ground, he went about torturing the thickened paste—his term was haute pâte—into a state of geological roughness, adding sand, ash, and charcoal dust to bring the surface texture to the proper consistency. Only when the pâte had been worked over extensively would he begin to sketch out the portrait itself, incising the figure’s features directly into the painted batter, touching up here and there with paint, caking the surface with more ash and sand, and repeating until the picture seemed finished—a process that sometimes took weeks to complete.

Three extraordinary portraits from this series were recently on view as part of the permanent collection of the Centre Pompidou in Paris: Two late canvases, Pierre Matisse, portrait obscur (Dark Portrait) and Dhôtel nuancé d’abricot (Dhôtel with a Tinge of Apricot), both dating from July–August 1947, hung side by side with an earlier portrait, Michel Tapié soleil (Michel Tapié the Sun), done in August 1946. The larger-than-life scale of these works is often lost in reproduction, as is their thick, densely worked materiality. As paintings of faces, they are strikingly oversize, so much so that in some cases the facial features no longer cohere when seen at close range. Two of the portraits at the Pompidou, those of Pierre Matisse (Dubuffet’s New York dealer) and Michel Tapié (the art critic), render the model’s head as a giant pancake, though that is no indication of either man’s bigheadedness. Dubuffet liked, as he put it, to “inscribe faces which are in reality gaunt and angular inside a roughly circular shape, the form of a gourd or a tart.” This pancaking of the model’s head could be comical or mystifying, and in the case of Michel Tapié soleil it is decidedly the latter. This has something to do with Dubuffet’s use of materials: In addition to the usual infusion of ash and sand, he has applied bits of twine and pebbles to the canvas to accentuate the details of Tapié’s bulbous moon face and miniaturized body. Most important, though, Michel Tapié soleil takes the face out of the picture and puts it squarely on the canvas surface, like a work of graffiti rather than of portraiture. This maneuver served Dubuffet’s efforts to depersonalize the portraits, wrenching the face free of the particularities of the sitter’s body. The effect was to facialize the canvas, orienting the surface-level composition around the symmetry and centrality of Tapié’s mustachioed face—a move that foreshadows many of the key innovations of postwar American modernism, from the reiteration of the canvas rectangle to the exploration of the matter of paint. Frank Stella’s Marriage of Reason and Squalor, 1959, is waiting in the wings, as is Jay DeFeo’s Rose, 1958–66.

Jean Dubuffet, Dhôtel nuancé d’abricot (Dhôtel with a Tinge of Apricot), 1947, oil on canvas, 45 5/8 x 35. © Fondation Jean Dubuffet/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.

But Dubuffet did not make this leap. In fact, the solution of the graffiti face does not seem to have much satisfied him. Looking again at the portrait of Tapié, I think I can see why. Too much of the painting happens on the surface, such that the face’s grip on the stuff of the painting—its material substance—comes across as weak. The conjuncture of face and matter fails to conjure up anything like a bodily presence. Paint does not add up to flesh, in other words. This failure of embodiment seems to have caused Dubuffet real frustration in the early months of the project. Though he rejected the idea that portraiture had to be about resemblance, a portrait still had to evoke somebody, even if it was just that—some body, which is to say, nobody in particular. Hence the breakthrough of the later portraits: His paintings of July and August 1947, of which Pierre Matisse, portrait obscur and Dhôtel nuancé d’abricot are key examples, evoke the stuff of the body without reneging on the facialization of the canvas surface. In these works, face and flesh no longer coincide at the level of disegno, but they continue to inflect each other nonetheless.

To make this strategy work, Dubuffet had to find ways of making paint more than mere stony geology, and of evoking the body without drawing it. Instead, the presence of the body had to emanate directly from the painted ground. In the end, he achieved this quality by ratcheting up the size of the grandes têtes and by distorting the outline of the figure’s body beyond recognition, so that there could be no confusion of the drawn body and the corporeality of the paint. Color played a crucial role as well. The skin tone of the Matisse portrait varies between bruise-black and inky purple, shot through with traces of red lipstick—and I am describing not the figure’s lips but the effects of Dubuffet’s much-labored underpainting. Dhôtel nuancé d’abricot achieves this effect by different means: The face of the subject, novelist André Dhôtel, is a tangle of deep incisions, but the real event of the painting is not the caricature itself. Rather, it is the flashes of red, burning peach, and mustard that electrify the space within its incised furrows, and their contrast with the chalky white of the skin. Something in this canyonland of paint is evocative of the body, even if only as an absence, the object around which these traces of color might once have cohered. It is not someone’s body, but it is somebody. It was here, in his intransigence, that Dubuffet arrived at his radical reimagining of figuration, conceiving the figure in terms of generic corporeality—depersonalized, and even degendered.⁵ As such, the portraits can be seen to anticipate modes of counterfacial resistance that would proliferate in decades to follow. If the authoritarian face could not be overcome, it could at least be countered with a bodily absolute.

But this strategy would not be pursued in painting after 1946. Even Dubuffet would come to backtrack from his innovation in the years that followed. Rather than a triumph, 1946 marks the date of painting’s full subsumption to the authority of the face, heralding the flattening of surface and the purging of interiority that would culminate with post-painterly abstraction. As the represented face dropped away from painting, then, painterly faciality moved toward its apogee. Henceforth, artists who sought to resist the regime of the face and to accommodate bodily interiority would turn to other modes of practice—performance, sculpture, film. In 1946, Dubuffet found himself at the crossroads of this schism; that is to say, he found his investigation of the human face leading toward ever more extreme articulations of corporeality on the one hand and faciality on the other. Though each of these possibilities—absolute face versus absolute body—would attract partisans in the decades that followed, Dubuffet himself withdrew from the field. His portraits took the face and body as far as they would go without coming apart or collapsing into each other; surviving their rupture would be a task for other artists, and other subjects, to navigate.

But wait: Aren’t Dubuffet’s portraits meant precisely to negate the historical genre of portraiture? Shouldn’t we be talking about the politics of art brut, or the covert operations of the informe, the undoing of figuration at the primordial site of subject-formation? What is year zero if not another name for the “zero degree” of painting, i.e., the modernist project of returning the medium to its limit conditions? No doubt these are relevant questions, but I think they misread the historical stakes. The crisis of faciality should not be attributed to painting alone. To lack a face of one’s own, and/or to wear a face copied from magazines, movies, or TV; to feel oneself reduced to the bare life of the body, whether at the shopping mall or in the custody of the police: These are facts of life in the metropolitan West. The history of the face tracks the evolution of domination: While, in the early modern period, the face dominated the body from an abstract remove (i.e., the face of God), after 1946 these abstractions were atomized into the vast apparatus of social control called biopower and spectacle by its most trenchant critics. This transposition marked an epochal shift in the equation of power and resistance, opening up new avenues of exploitation but also furnishing new means of dissent.

Cathy Wilkes, Non Verbal (detail), 2005, oil on canvas, mannequins, aluminum tray, corn oil, LCD screen, stroller, mixed media. Installation view, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh. Photo: Ruth Clark.

On one side of the face-body divide, postwar youth, feminist, and queer movements would make use of what I am calling “generic corporeality,” advocating the transformation of bare life into radically new ways of living, while on the other side, in the war rooms of spectacular control, metropolitan life would be reorganized around increasingly disembodied modes of experience, with every available surface converted into a luminous facial screen—beginning with the TV set and culminating in a ubiquitous array of digitally manipulated image streams. There are social conditions, in other words, underpinning the crisis of faciality in painting. This is not to say that Dubuffet reflected on these conditions with any great sophistication, but that he lived them, or at least was able to imagine what living them might mean. The same can be said of the next generations of artists, those who anteceded Dubuffet and whose work accepts the face-body schism as a fait accompli. In this regard, a short history of faciality and its twentieth-century discontents would get much out of Andy Warhol, Donald Judd, and Dan Flavin, but also Eva Hesse, Paul Thek, and Carolee Schneemann. These artists—all of whom, not coincidentally, had moved away from painting—internalized the crisis of faciality deeply; for them, there was no question of looking on from the outside. I am suggesting, then, that we read the zero-degrees of postwar art in terms of the absolutes of postwar life. In our own moment, as postwar capitalism enters a decidedly new phase of crisis, it seems crucial to ask how the face-body dialectic continues to inflect developments in contemporary art and culture, and how painting might reveal and respond to that dialectic.

TWO CONTEMPORARY ARTISTS come immediately to mind, though they may initially seem quite the odd couple. The first is Cathy Wilkes, a Glasgow-based artist best known for her meticulous assemblage-based installations, which earned her a Turner Prize nomination in 2008. Wilkes’s installation Non Verbal, first exhibited in 2005 at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh, seems particularly relevant. It comprises a host of found objects, mostly household wares, including a stroller, a flat-screen television, a pair of salad bowls, and a shallow basin filled with cooking oil and harboring, among other things, a DVD player and a remote-control device. The key elements of the installation, also found objects in their own way, are the two female mannequins standing on either side of the TV set. Each mannequin has a small abstract canvas affixed to its face. The canvases themselves are intimate works, painted quick and loose, a thick daub here, a thin wash there. They are the products of Wilkes’s hand, though she does not label them as works in their own right. In one of the two canvases, two circular shapes read insistently as eyes, making the painting a sort of mask for the mannequin—an expression for the expressionless, perhaps. Speaking about her use of mannequins, Wilkes explains that she employs them to help imagine what a viewer might be feeling or seeing in the space of the exhibition. It is a gesture that works both ways: The mannequins confront viewers as stand-ins for the absent artist as well as for the absent users and consumers the objects call to mind. That is not to say, though, that the gap between artist and viewer is easily bridged. Separation is a key term for Wilkes, summing up the limit conditions of interpersonal experience:

Even during the most intimate experiences when I have extended beyond myself, far out of my limits, my body and mind; the births of my children, the deaths of my parents, separation has remained unbridgeable. I rely on my feeling about this, our separation from each other, me the artist, and you . . . There’s no expectation that an audience will participate. And no need for someone to fully understand. At the same time, through contemplation and communion, all objects can become transcendental.⁶

Wilkes’s meditation on family life, alienation, and transcendence strikes me as particularly important for understanding the face-body dyad in its contemporary form, pointing as it does to a regime of facialization operative within the sphere of social reproduction—the home, in other words. This tallies with what Marxist critics have come to understand about the restructuring of capitalist societies in the late twentieth century, and the expansion of the commodity into the most intimate quarters of the everyday. As theorist Silvia Federici notes, the process of postwar economic restructuring began with the induction of female workers into the labor force en masse, and has proceeded on the assumption that women would continue to shoulder the unpaid work of social reproduction.⁷ At the same time, computerized design technologies have made possible a revolution in the sphere of everyday consumption, refining the “face” of manufactured objects to correspond one-to-one to the “profile” of the consumer. It is not surprising, then, that Wilkes has found the objects of the post-Fordist household so deeply shot through with alienation. Her response, it seems, has been to revive—though in ways utterly contemporary—Dubuffet’s painterly tactic of counterfacial resistance, which had been left in cold storage almost since its discovery.⁸ Paintings function in Wilkes’s exhibitions by bodying forth a sort of homeless expressivity—affect without a proper owner, faceless interiority that is simply someone’s—that is, as it were, generic—and that can be passed from person to person. This approach to the medium, which art historian David Joselit has recently diagnosed in terms of the transitive insertion of paintings into networks of circulation and signification,⁹ puts Wilkes in the company of a handful of other artists, including Jutta Koether, Ida Ekblad, and Rachel Harrison, who treat abstract painting as one mode of practice among others. However, for Wilkes, this frictionless circulation is circumscribed by the gallery enclosure: Affect might flow freely in the exhibition space, but in the sphere of the everyday, and most particularly in the close quarters of the domestic sphere, such communion is strictly delimited by the presence of others—other bodies, other faces. For Wilkes, paintings are meant to undermine the barriers of everyday separation and to open up connections between people. Of course, this is an ambiguous gesture: In Non Verbal, the two small canvases both obstruct and liberate vision, blocking the mannequins’ view while opening a conduit between invisible worlds of feeling.

Josh Smith, Large Collage (New Museum) (detail), 2009, eighteen mixed-media collages on panel, each 60 x 48.

Ambiguities of this sort are crucial to Wilkes’s project; her point is not to negate the face outright but rather to transpose the site of face-body struggle—the site of painting, that is—from gallery to home and studio (as adjunct to domestic space). Though modest in scope, this transposition signals a major shift in the relationship of art to its space of exhibition. Through much of the late twentieth century, the white cube played the role of the facial machine par excellence, a site where autonomous faciality arrayed itself against a homogeneous mass of spectatorial bodies. But this system would prove inflexible to a fault, breaking down under the pressure of the bodies it had been invented to neutralize. Long since inoperative, the white cube is rendered completely obsolete under the current regime of microfacial control. With the autonomous face in the process of dissolving itself directly into the fabric of everyday life, the gallery container demands to be repurposed or cast aside. Wilkes’s work, displacing the gallery as the primary site of contestation, makes strides in this direction. Her process is by all accounts opposed to the separation of studio work from everyday life: When assembling an installation in the studio, for example, Wilkes often appropriates objets trouvés directly from her home, culling her own unwashed salad bowls, jam jars, dishes, and plates, which she folds back into the weave of everyday life once an exhibition has ended, their gallery sojourns merely brief interruptions in their domestic lives. She has also made the home a site of production/exhibition in its own right. For example, Wilkes will sometimes hang a painting in progress above her bathtub for weeks or months, washing it clean from time to time in the manner of a nurse or caretaker. In this gesture, the unfinished canvas takes on multiple roles: as a vulnerable body, like that of an elderly parent or child; as an object of reverence, its washing echoing the Christian ritual of washing feet; and as a yet-to-be-identified presence, to be propitiated as well as interrogated. These ambiguities speak to the vitality of domestic space as a site for painting—not as a substitute for the gallery (that is, not abandoning it as a space of display) but as a testing ground for experiments with face and gesture, embodiment and affect.

COMPARE WILKES’S WORK, then, to that of Josh Smith, the New York–based artist who first gained renown for using the letters of his generic, all-American name as raw material for neo-abstract painting. If Wilkes is finding new ways to contest the face, Smith has embraced it. Wilkes’s paintings are almost always small, understated, and quietly emotive, and almost always appear as part of installations, while Smith’s canvases are large, extroverted, wildly gestural, and dashed off as quickly as possible. Whereas Wilkes might spend weeks dwelling with a single unfinished painting, Smith produces canvases by the dozen, sometimes generating an exhibition’s worth of work in under a week. In the past decade, Smith has emerged at the forefront of a revival of gestural abstraction, confounding the distinction between high-modernist expressivity and the impossible coolness of “conceptual” painting. For example, in a well-known gesture cribbed from the Warholian playbook, Smith has standardized the format of his paintings, almost all of which measure sixty by forty-eight inches (though there are deviations from this format, notably his small “palette paintings,” most of which measure twenty by sixteen inches, one-third the size of the larger canvases) and are priced equally according to size. Hung cheek by jowl on the gallery wall, these works proclaim their status as commodities in no uncertain terms.¹⁰ Like many of his colleagues, Smith switches fluidly between the laptop and the canvas, repurposing digital photographs of older works, sometimes downloaded from his own website, in order to furnish motifs for new paintings. Rather than playing the manual against the digital, though, Smith’s work aims to dissolve the distinction between these terms, treating the canvas as a sort of laptop—that is to say, as a machine that facilitates the interchangeability of images and signs, connecting painting to, rather than cordoning it off from, networks of value and reproduction. Smith’s collapsing of digital and manual production accounts, in part, for his cut-and-paste approach to painting; he treats even finished works as “files” to be manipulated en abyme. As such, he has been quick to signal his indifference to the legacy of modernist abstraction: “Ultimately [my paintings] end up being emotional but they don’t mean anything, they were intended to be sort of a caricature of abstraction. But they end up pure abstract paintings. I don’t care so much about how they look because I know how they look. It’s not an issue for me, I’m not concerned about how they look. I know how they’re going to look: they are going to look like abstract paintings.”¹¹

Jean Dubuffet, Pierre Matisse, portrait obscur (Pierre Matisse, Dark Portrait), 1947,* oil, sand, and gravel on canvas, 511⁄8 x 383⁄8. © Fondation Jean Dubuffet/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.

In 2005, Smith exhibited a ream of some 717 drawings of faces at Taxter & Spengemann in New York. The drawings each measured five by eight inches; per usual, Smith produced them at a furious pace, repeating a set of stock gestures, swoops and wiggles of the hand, to play endless variations on his subject. Though the face drawings do not, as in Dubuffet’s portraits, attempt to conjure up a body of any kind, Smith has refrained from facializing the paper surface outright: These are not graffiti faces, despite their oblique reference to certain genres of street art. Though Smith claims to have done them more or less automatically, “without thinking or looking,” the drawings go well beyond the zero degree of faciality, in some cases spiraling toward an excess of decoration, with heads banded in stripes, adorned with densely looped wrinkles and strung-out fried-egg eyes. One senses a combinatory logic at work in the progression from face to face: Smith seems to cross-match one set of gestures with or against another, playing each image off the next, so that the series mutates as it unfolds. I have my doubts about whether the artist’s eyes were closed during the process.

Smith’s faces are no mere one-off experiment: He has filled at least seven artist’s books with face drawings and has incorporated faces into a handful of other books as well. Yet he has never made a series of paintings based on the face. To say this polemically, I do not think the human face is paintable for Smith, though he comes close in his recent paintings of skeletons and dragonflies, which debuted at Luhring Augustine in New York in February, or the paintings based on leaves and fish that he has been doing since 2009. The problem is one of redundancy: His paintings already have a face—the face of the commodity. Smith’s Warholian operations, his uniform sizing and pricing of paintings and the arbitrariness of his motifs, are designed to facialize his canvases absolutely, overcoding them in advance with purely abstract faces. This is not an incidental facet of Smith’s oeuvre: Far from deconstructing the commodity status of the art object, his paintings wear this mask gladly—and to their benefit. The artificial equivalence of Smith’s work belies a ferment of pictorial waywardness that tends to rule out questions of quality. His paintings are all equally unruly, but also equally boneless and bodiless. Or at least, they should be. As far as I am concerned, Smith’s work is best when it does not attempt to suture the body and the face back together; he is at his best, in other words, when the only face of painting is its exchange-value or brand name. The same cannot be said of his drawings and artist’s books, which wear the commodity face less comfortably. For this reason, though, it is possible for Smith to draw what he is unable to paint.

Make no mistake: Smith’s canvases are not the salvation of abstract painting; they are a means of surviving the afterlife of the white cube even as the support system of the postwar world collapses (or is privatized) around us. In this sense, they have more to do with the modernist past than the artist himself would likely want to admit. For this reason, Smith’s paintings are eminently useful: Any installation of his work has the effect of making visible the gallery’s obsolescence—the whiter the cube, the better. Smith’s current installation of paintings in Greenwich, Connecticut, at the Brant Foundation Art Study Center, which features some of the artist’s largest and most wildly colored canvases to date, only confirms this rule, while facade becomes face at this summer’s Venice Biennale, where Smith has emblazoned the Biennale’s title, ILLUMINATIONS, in monumental letters across the front of the Palace of Exhibtions. The face of the white cube has a devoted partisan in Josh Smith, maybe the last of his kind. There are many compelling reasons to want to preserve the autonomous separation of face and body, and to uphold the doxa of postwar modernity. We should not take Smith’s partisanship lightly.

In the world outside the gallery, though, it is difficult to ignore the growing entanglement of face and body, whether in the fractured mirror of spectacle or the constrictions of private space. We cannot afford to leave the contours of the face unaddressed. Perhaps painting will play an active role; perhaps it will simply be a bellwether, reminding us of the stakes of the face as year zero winds down its final hours. In either case, it is up to us to think face and body together in the time that remains—we who have never had faces of our own and whose bodies are foreign to us. Painting is one tool in our arsenal.

Daniel Marcus is PhD candidate in the history of art at the University of California, Berkeley.


Cathy Wilkes, Listen to God, 2005, oil and mixed media on canvas, 8 1/8 x 10.


1. Henri Michaux, “Thinking about the Phenomenon of Painting,” in Darkness Moves: An Henri Michaux Anthology, 1927–1984, trans. David Ball (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press), 1994, 311–12.

2. See Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987).

3. Early modern painting’s resistance to faciality was strongly conditioned by its revival of pagan motifs. For a recent account of the stakes of pagan iconography in the Italian Renaissance, see Malcolm Bull, The Mirror of the Gods: Classical Mythology in Renaissance Art (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).

4. On Dubuffet’s materialism in the 1940s, see Andrea Nicole Maier, “Dubuffet’s Decade” (PhD dissertation, University of California, Berkeley, 2009).

5. The claim I am making about generic corporeality and gender dovetails with a presentation given by Sarah Hetherington at “Communicating Forms,” a conference held at the University of Chicago on October 21–22, 2010. Hetherington’s paper gave a fascinating reading of figuration and embodiment in the work of Amy Sillman and Willem de Kooning.

6. Cathy Wilkes (Milton Keynes, UK: Milton Keynes Gallery, 2008).

7. See Silvia Federici, “Precarious Labor: A Feminist Viewpoint,” text of a lecture delivered in October 2006 at Bluestockings bookstore in New York, as part of the discussion series “This Is Forever: From Inquiry to Refusal.” Accessible online at

8. I do not mean that Wilkes has revived Dubuffet’s project intentionally; I only wish to imply that her work shares a tactical affinity with Dubuffet’s portraits of 1946–47.

9. See David Joselit, “Painting Beside Itself,” October 130 (Fall 2009): 125–34.

10. A similar logic of commodification applies to the many artist’s books and posters Smith has produced, which can be acquired by way of his own publishing house, 38th Street Publishers, at mass-market prices (almost always under $50).

11. Josh Smith, Abstraction (New York: Luhring Augustine, 2007), n.p.