New York

Marcel Broodthaers

John Gibson Gallery

Is there anyone of the postwar generation (of people, not Abstract Expressionists) who does not have a friend or relative who at one time put together a large and ambitious vision of American life with paste, scissors and old copies of Life magazine? Collage-making is as easy (and as difficult) as making a sentence (success in both depends on one’s ability to distinguish shades of meaning). The collage is the quintessential Surrealist format, a means to illustrate the essential meaninglessness or antirationality of the world once man rejects the existence of God. “But how meagre this poetry that has a chalice for overture, God’s useless thunder for refrain. As soon as the human imagination turns elsewhere, how closer to miracles everything is,” writes Louis Aragon in the preface to the first Surrealist exhibition of collage in 1930.

The Surrealist feels trapped by the legends of his culture. His revolutionary promise is that everyone is divine (an artist), because miracles (epiphanies of comprehension) are the gifts of everyone’s subconscious. Aragon writes: “The miracle . . . is . . . an extraordinary displacement. The dead displaced from their tombs, giants from their size, sylphs from their lightness, roses from the season.” The type of intelligence needed to devise (really to recognize) illuminating collisions of icons, at least of the visual kind, is essentially a critical one. For Duchamp, for instance, art-making was a function of his impeccable taste. He recognized cultural icons for what they were and “displaced” them from their familiar contexts, providing his audience with “miracles” of insight into the nature of our post-industrial revolution institutions (including art).

The current lull in painting and sculpture production, and perhaps new amazement at the predictive accuracy of some of Duchamp’s work, has revived interest in Surrealism as an attitude toward art- and legend-making. A movement that seemed all washed up 30 years ago has two new champions: Joseph Beuys, an ex-art professor, and the late Marcel Broodthaers, an ex-art critic.

The recent show of Broodthaers’ collected editions is a critic’s playground. The work begs for criticism at the same time that it beggars it. Broodthaers’ word-image collisions are like pleas for help in an obsessional code that asks to be translated at the same time, as part of its message is always that words obstruct meaning, that written criticism is ever an inadequate response to a work of art. Thus the target of Broodthaers’ Surrealist iconoclasm is language itself.

A thoroughgoing, formalist type critical approach to Broodthaers’ work where every element is comprehensible in relation to the whole is doomed to frustration; not only because, as in Roman, a pastiche of Une Semaine de Bouté, Ernst’s collage pastiche of etchings by Gustave Doré, the references are so récherché, but because every deliberately ambiguous element will have almost as many interpretations as interpreters. The final lesson is always that language is a prison. One is reminded of John Thwaite’s remark about Beuys; that every commentator gets the Beuys he deserves. So, though Broodthaers is providing delectable opportunities to discuss such eclectic notions as that Lesbian love is a metaphor for the 19th-century romantic tradition (the knower and the known being one and the same), such discussion reveals less about the art than about the reviewer.

Broodthaers’ wife, who encouraged him in 1963 to begin making art out of his casual doodles and critiques, is the one who actually put his collages together, with Broodthaers looking over her shoulder interpreting and free associating about each state of the work as it progressed. One suspects that esthetic decisions under these circumstances were made on the basis of which arrangement of elements inspired the most exalted critical monologue. My personal prejudice is that to the extent I suspect a work was made expressly to titillate critics, I see that artist making a career first and art second. That there is matter here for many more graduate theses in art history than there is in the work of an artist like Gorky, for example, should not lead one to the conclusion that the achievement it represents is in any way greater.

I would like to thank Jacques Houis of the N.Y.U. French Dept. for his help in preparing this review.

Ross Skoggard