New York

Robert Walser and Joan Nelson

Both the young American painter Joan Nelson and the Modernist Swiss writer Robert Walser seem drawn to the miniature as if to the vanishing point in a composition: to the idea that a sign or a mark gains in significance the closer it comes to disappearing.

A novelist, poet, and author of myriad short-prose pieces, Walser early on in his career met the exacting standards of such fellow writers as Robert Musil and Franz Kafka. In the decade prior to committing himself to an asylum, he composed his drafts in pencil on found pieces of paper—receipts, business cards, envelopes, postcards—in a hand so insanely minute that it has taken two Germanists 12 years just to begin deciphering these “microscripts.”

Mounted behind Plexiglas and accompanied by translations and scholarly tracts, this selection of Walser’s texts looked like a library display destroyed by some alarming, scriptlike bacteria. Microscript no. 51, 1927, was written on the back of a rejection letter from a German literary magazine, Simplicissimus, the pompous letterhead of which was faintly legible through the aging paper. Here the “microbes” seemed to be commenting on themselves: most of the page was covered with two unidentified blocks of prose; two poems (“Lindbergh” and “Apparently You’re Very Poor”) spilled down the remaining margin in a Talmudic column of vermicular pencil marks.

Walser had a mad scientist’s gift for incorporating, at a variety of levels, themes suggested by the found paper, as well as for attending to the formal constraints imposed by its dimensions. In the case of rejection slips, he would often draft one or more stories or poems on them, submit this new work to the same place, then, if these too were rejected, compose yet more work on the fresh rejection and resubmit it in turn. Read through their material conditions, these miniatures are simultaneously heroic, mocking, and mock-heroic—a unique articulation of Modernism’s absurdist branch.

For the marginal details that compose the center of Nelson’s gorgeous, tiny landscapes, this artist, like a careful post-Modernist, turns everywhere: to Polaroids, found snapshots, thrift-store paintings, and catalogue reproductions of Bellini, Altdorfer, Bosch, and Lorrain. Nostalgia saturates them all equally—nostalgia for the margins she has made central, nostalgia for beauty she has marginalized, nostalgia for the now mythic aura of the original. It doesn’t matter how many mediations a given landscape involves. One work might be based simply on a photograph, another on an original Bellini via a photograph via the printer’s choice of colors. The important thing here is that in each instance Nelson maintains the size of the images she incorporates and so, by depriving herself of even this space for assertion, extends the less-is-more logic of the miniature. The textured opalescent density of Untitled (from Snapshot, 1920s), 1993, with its postage-stamp Fairfield Porter pines and Icarus-less Pieter Bruegel sky, betrays how fiendishly deceptive this self-effacement really is.

Just as Walser’s microscriptural prose works, thematizing failure and self-marginalization, complement and corrode Modernism’s epic impulse as embodied by James Joyce’s Ulysses or Hermann Broch’s The Sleepwalkers, Nelson’s miniatures are as bold a gesture as their opposite in contemporary art.

Thad Ziolkowski