PRINT May 2023



Yve-Alain Bois with his Body Sculptures in Paper, Paris, 1968.

An Oblique Autobiography, by Yve-Alain Bois; ed. Jordan Kantor. San Francisco and New York: no place press, 2022. 376 pages.

THE PUBLICATION of Yve-Alain Bois’s latest book marks a watershed in the oeuvre of this influential scholar. What is the place of this most personal (and most surprising) of Bois’s publications in the arc of a career that extends from his cofounding of the groundbreaking journal Macula in the mid-1970s to teaching positions at Johns Hopkins and Harvard to his tenure as professor at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Studies, a position he held from 2005 to 2022? What insights does this “autobiography” reveal about its author?

Consider the curious title. The word oblique suggests a line that diverges from a straight line or a thought that has been indirectly expressed. As Bois confesses in the introduction, as he began to arrange this “pile of homeless essays” into a published volume, he came to think of the book as not quite an autobiography so much as an “involuntary” memoir, an “autobiography in disguise.” And so the book’s protagonist is often a witness to the events or exchanges he describes, a member of a seminar (those of Roland Barthes and Hubert Damisch), or a reader of another scholar’s work. The narrator is less interested in the me than in the you, less concerned with immortalizing his own exploits than with examining the impact of other people’s “texts or works of art” in the “constitution of [the critic’s] identity.” The Yve-Alain we meet in An Oblique Autobiography is not yet fully formed: We read about his meetings with the likes of Jacques Derrida and Lygia Clark and his productive conversations with fellow scholars Guy Brett, Rosalind Krauss, and Nancy Troy. We learn, too, about purely imaginative relationships, as described in the author’s essay on Robert Klein, whose work made a strong impression when a youthful Bois debated whether to pursue a promising studio career (the precocious artist was offered a gallery show at the ripe age of seventeen) or to study art history, a field whose calcification in France during the ’60s and ’70s nearly drove him from his future vocation.

Autobiography “has to do with time, with sequence and what makes up the continuous flow of life,” Walter Benjamin wrote. Benjamin was describing conventional autobiography, as prevalent in his era as in our age of confessional podcasts, celebrity docuseries, and navel-gazing memoirs that begin in the author’s childhood and lead us through adolescence to an avowedly well-adjusted maturity, where the unruly ribbons of experience are tied into a neat little bow. Bois eschews this linear arrangement. Where Benjamin’s Berlin Childhood Around 1900 is a text composed entirely of fragments, An Oblique Autobiography is a compendium of recollections arranged in reverse order of their publication. (The book opens with the 2022 essay “Angels with Guns,” on Brett and the artist David Medalla; the final chapter, “Picabia: From Dada to Pétain,” Bois’s indictment of the Picabia family’s ruthless censorship of his monograph on the artist, was first published in 1976.) Yet even this “order” is provisional. Anecdotes of first encounters with artists and thinkers are scattered throughout. Bois dispenses with diachrony. His discovery of Klein’s writings in a bookstore in Pau in 1970 appears fairly early in the book, his sighting of photographs of Clark’s work and 1968 meeting with Clark herself some eighty pages later. We meet Barthes in Bois’s chapter on Damisch and again in “Writer, Artisan, Narrator,” his moving reminiscence of the critic’s seminar.

Guy Brett with Lea Lublin’s 1975 Interrogations sur l’art, Discours sur l’art (Interrogations into Art, Discourse on Art), Serpentine Gallery, London, May 1975. Photo: Teodoro Maler.

Yet Bois’s portrait of himself as a young and not-so-young man is not a dry recitation of positions and ideas. The author has written new introductions to many of the essays. These asides are often quite revealing (some are almost as long as the texts they introduce). From Jean Clay, with whom he cofounded Macula, he absorbs the necessity of taking in the entirety of an artist’s oeuvre before attempting to write about it and comes to share his friend’s aversion to psychological analysis—a distaste developed even before Bois studied with Barthes, whose 1963 book On Racine scandalized the French literary establishment by omitting any mention of the playwright’s biography. Clark introduces Bois to a phenomenological model of spectatorship concerned with the activation of the viewer and to an understanding of Mondrian’s art as a “destructive” project that subverts the purist conception of Mondrian advanced by the influential critic Michel Seuphor. (Seuphor’s study of the Dutch artist was the first art-history monograph Bois owned.) The theorist Paul Ricoeur, an acquaintance of Bois’s intellectually curious father, Roby Bois, directs his attention to Umberto Eco’s theory of the “open work.” (Writes Eco in his eponymous 1962 book, “The form of the work of art gains its aesthetic validity precisely in proportion to the number of different perspectives from which it can be viewed and understood.”) Klein confirms Bois’s instinctive suspicion of historicism: the idea, propounded by T. S. Eliot and Clement Greenberg, that poets and artists exist in a relatively unbroken chain of “influence” and “resistance.” These and other figures supply Bois with an arsenal of critical tools that will prove essential. And where more proprietary scholars, attached to the fiction of their own uniqueness, might hesitate to divulge their sources of inspiration, Bois is not shy about invoking the names of friends and colleagues who helped shape his thinking and enumerating their lessons. So confident is the author in his achievement that he does not hesitate to credit the influence of others upon his formation—an impact that we can only imagine in several instances was entirely reciprocal.

Our attachments, the ones that really mean something, that change us indelibly and forever, are not so clearly defined.

For “achievement” is not Bois’s preoccupation. The great theme of An Oblique Autobiography is the practice of scholarship, the life of the scholar. The narrator we come to know is not Casaubon, the solipsistic researcher in George Eliot’s Middlemarch, indifferent to the thoughts and emotions of others. The scholarly pursuit is understood as amiable, dialogic, and fully lived. Though the volume’s contents include art criticism (much of it originally published in October, where Bois has long been an editor as well as a contributor), book reviews, and even an unpublished letter to the editor of the New York Times blasting a journalist’s insulting obituary of Derrida, the most affecting texts are the most diaristic, especially those that bring us back to Bois’s youth. “Angels with Guns” enlists the same narrative techniques and granular attention to detail as such celebrated essays as “Matisse and ‘Arche-drawing’” and “Kahnweiler’s Lesson,” in which Bois leads the reader on archival journeys through the careers of Matisse and Picasso, respectively. Where the former describes Matisse’s arrival at his unique understanding of color as a relationship of quantity and quality in The Joy of Life, 1906, the latter advances Bois’s interpretation of the papier collé as a staging of the inexhaustible play of signification (the ultimate demonstration of Eco’s “openness”) after Picasso’s epiphanic sighting of the Grebo mask and creation of the famous paper Guitar, 1912. “Angels with Guns” is almost obsessively archival. An account of Bois’s relationships with the aristocratic Brett and the mercurial Medalla from the early ’70s until the recent deaths of these dear friends, this chapter draws on extensive personal correspondence to evoke the events and personalities he recalls so meticulously. His introduction to his study of the painter Christophe Verfaille is as much a work of literary prose as the essay it precedes. Here, as in his Brett-Medalla memoir and the superb “Some Latin Americans in Paris”—an account of Bois’s relationships with Clark and the German Mexican artist Mathias Goeritz—diachrony is marshaled to capture multiple ongoing conversations and the social milieus in which they took place. Detailing Bois’s introduction to Verfaille at summer camp and the sporadic reunions of the two friends after the former relocated to the US in 1983, this devastating preamble also narrates Verfaille’s physical decline and death in relative obscurity at age fifty-eight.

Christophe Verfaille, Untitled, 1991, acrylic on wood, 13 7⁄8 × 14 5⁄8".

Bois’s essays on Matisse and Picasso culminate in eureka moments. Having tried on inherited styles and approaches, both artists arrive at a discovery that transforms their practices. The disparate elements cohere; the “author-system” is revealed. Matisse becomes the Matisse we know. Picasso invents collage. The essays in An Oblique Autobiography never achieve such crescendos. Perhaps this is part of the obliquity of the book, as expressed in Bois’s subtle avoidance of confessionalism and in his recognition that our attachments, the ones that really mean something, that change us indelibly and forever, are not so clearly defined. To put it another way, the formats of the memoir and the art-history essay are not reducible to each other. There are no eureka moments in this book, for there are no eureka moments in our relationships. Even after the friend is no longer with us, the friendship continues in the memory of the one who remains, and in acts of writing, as this extraordinary, elegiac volume reveals. As I read An Oblique Autobiography, I almost felt as if some of Bois’s friends and intellectual companions were looking over his shoulder as he was typing his text, or over my shoulder as I was reading it, so vivid are his recollections of their intimacy. 

James Meyer is curator of modern art at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, and a contributing editor of Artforum.