Newport Beach

Buzz Spector

Newport Harbor Art Museum

Theoretical discourse has become increasingly keyed on the twin axes of hermeneutic (German) and deconstructive (French) practice. This is a somewhat unequal dialectic, largely because Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes, et al. tend to be explained and interpreted within the German tradition, as if they have been secret Hegelians all along. It is thus refreshing to find an artist like Buzz Spector collapsing this opposition. By appropriating the workings of hermeneutics allegorically, he transforms them—playfully, punningly, erotically—into pure jouissance.

Spector takes the book itself as his medium. By tearing, carving, painting, adding objects to, or stacking found volumes, he produces book-objects that re- and deconstruct accepted notions of language, as well as the narrative conventions of the literary and the artistic text. In an individual volume, such as Encyclopedia, 1982, Spector “violates” the book by progressively tearing away its pages from gutter to edge. Formerly the container of a legible text, the book becomes an appropriated fragment, contained by, and a constituent part of, a new discourse or “text” that is innately allegorical. It no longer communicates the ideas and words of an original “author,” but rather acts as a catalyst for transformative meaning production, by both Spector and the viewer. Ironically, in Altered LeWitt, 1985, Spector subjects an artist’s book by Sol LeWitt to similar violations, only to discover that LeWitt’s trademark grid is still visible. Not only is LeWitt’s abstract image a perfect signifier for the abstract nature of language itself, but Spector’s physical appropriation suggests a cunning reversal: LeWitt’s formal vocabulary recolonizes Spector’s strategy in the very act of its own seeming desecration.

The semantic richness of Spector’s work is amplified by his deliberate referencing (hermeneutic homage) and punning (jouissant subversion) of textual forebears such as Jorge Luis Borges, Stéphane Mallarmé, and Marcel Broodthaers. Mallarmé and Broodthaers come together in a work entitled Mallarmé, 1987–88, in which Spector presents a volume of the French Symbolist’s verse and a seashell in a cabinet inscribed with the last three lines of Mallarmé’s poem, Salut, 1893. This text can be read as a toast not only to the creative influences of both artists, but also to their audiences, who have the near impossible if rewarding task of trying to interpret such obtuse verse. Although the shell can be read as a symbolist objectification of part of Mallarmé’s text, it also signifies Broodthaers’ own appropriation of the poet in Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard. Image. (A throw of dice will never abolish chance. Image., 1969), as well as his use of shells and cabinets in much of his own work. Spector, as allegorizer of allegorists, not only places himself within a respected lineage, but also plays constructively on this tradition, deny- ing the continuity of history through a combination of perpetual difference and deferral.

Borges’ story, The Library of Babel, in which the universe is seen as a vast archive of incommensurable knowledge, serves as an appropriate paradigm for Spector’s act of ironic reification in Toward a Theory of Universal Causality, 1984–90. Some 6,500 found books are stacked to form a stairway and most of the volumes are hidden, so the library’s accumulated wisdom is largely concealed and inaccessible. Upon climbing the stairs, Zarathustra-like, to the summit of knowledge, nothing is achieved; the stairs dead-end into the gallery wall. Books, as synecdoches for all learning and linguistic structure, are not routes to absolute wisdom. Instead, Spector is perhaps suggesting that it is the performative building and climbing of the stairs that is the point: the transformative power of art lies in its status as an act of production, in the movement beyond simple allegory into the realm of pure play.

Colin Gardner