New York

George Brecht

Onnasch Gallery

George Brecht is an artist whose special capacity is to extend the bounds of the iconographic. Brecht, who was involved in the Happenings of the 1950s with Kaprow, Dine, and the others is at his best when he establishes a milieu that seems slightly anachronistic in its imagery. Brecht approaches the post-Hiroshima world through icons that seem lodged in the age of Surrealism rather than of Pop, in the age when the bowler (derby) hat still stood for both the clown and the capitalist. That age was the one that saw the end of European domination, in the arts as elsewhere.

One is inclined to think of Cornell when confronted with Brecht, because some of Brecht’s most intriguing work consists of collections—juxtapositions of tiny objects. But Brecht’s concern is less with Cornell’s world of private fantasy than with the potential that historical detritus and trivia have for turning an individual psychology into a marker for the time in which the individual lives. Brecht’s work isn’t quite what it seems. Above all, it seems to me that the Edwardian rubbish that Brecht likes to use is meant to have—does have—a strictly contemporary relevance. Or, if contemporary seems a bit strong, a relevance to the recent past, which denies the timeless quality that tends to accrue to nostalgia stimulation of this sort.

This erosion of timelessness is facilitated by the interpolation of new materials among the old and by a reference to a kind of situationalism that is—or seems to be—generically very recent in origin. A table full of cards, each bearing bits of information printed on but torn from another context (usually a context dependent on reproduction, such as advertising, technical drawing, map-making, etc.), turns out to be—indeed—a card table, on which one can playa game of semiological juxtaposition—provided one can think up some rules. Brecht’s work, like the work of many others in the present and the recent past, seems to invite a kind of participation that it doesn’t actually permit.

This, I think, is what the nostalgia material is all about. A white cane and an orange are placed on a chair. This arrangement might suggest that, via the human accouterments which represent clothing as the orange—organic and entropic—implies flesh (a body), one is meant to “project” oneself into the space of the chair. But this is complicated by the fact that no one carries a cane anymore, so that one ends up shut out of the chair’s space by a symbolism that is, nowadays, idiosyncratic rather than general.

When idiosyncrasy seems to be at work one is, I think, entitled to play hunt the archetype. If we’re shut out from the chair by the orange and cane—as we shouldn’t be if it were a chair by, for instance, Bruce Nauman—we are bound (more likely) to ask what the orange and cane are for. And if they can’t stand for anyone, then one supposes it probable that they—and, by association, the hat—stand for someone, or a particular sort of person. And apart from Charlie Chaplin and Winston Churchill—the juxtaposition of Churchill with a white cane sets a delightfully refreshing tone for thinking about the Second World War—they seem to stand for George Brecht, and Brecht’s view of the artist.

The show, which is a retrospective (1957–73), provides ample evidence that Brecht is fond of this kind of hat. There’s a piece in the show that documents the travels of one from England to Germany (another instance of the conditional sort of relationship that Brecht has with current art thinking). The hat isn’t purely idiosyncratic though, despite Brecht’s personal affection for (of) it. Nor is it archetypal in any broad or vague sense. Its archetypal significance is, as I’ve suggested, precise. It links Brecht with the age of Magritte, and in that stands as a link with the art—or antiart—of the pre-American dominated avant-garde; connects Brecht with art history—bourgeois culture—while putting art history in its place.

The white cane—like a magician’s wand, and a Fred Astaire prop, as well as the badge of the blind—appears self-explanatory, given the implications of the hat.

Brecht’s is an art of irony, as an art concerned to manipulate anachronism in the context of the immediate present must be. For this reason—and no doubt because of my own personal inclinations too—I think Monument to the Revolution (1970) is one of his most far-reaching works. It consists of a bell jar containing a tower made of doll’s-house furniture. Our grannies used to keep stuffed birds in jars like these because a bell jar will maintain a vacuum indefinitely. A more apt comment on the thinking of the left would be hard to find, and I don’t mean just the thinking of the activist left. One thinks too of Roland Barthes, announcing comfortably from his professorial chair that he’s a Marxist in thought but not in practice. An art of irony is an art of complication, and Brecht seems to find an echo in a letter that James Joyce wrote to Harriet Weaver: “. . . It is a bewildering business. Complication to the right of me, complication to the left of me, complex on the page before me, perplex in the pen beside me, duplex in the meandering eyes of me, stuplex in the face that reads me. And from time to time I lie back and listen to my hair growing white. . . .”

Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe