New York

Henri Michaux

The Drawing Center / Michael Werner / Zabriskie Galery

Looking at Henri Michaux’s drawings, I can’t help but think of D.W. Winnicott’s squiggle games. The pediatrician-psychoanalyst would draw a line on a piece of paper, his young patient would draw one in response, and so on, until some image or other appeared. The point was to break the ice of the child’s unconscious, to let the slush pour forth in vivid associations and waking dreams. So it is with Michaux: One mark leads to another in drawings that are best understood as reflexive attempts to find a self that is not always there, that sometimes surfaces as if distorted in a dark mirror.

Michaux’s drawings, a selection of which were recently on view, are the barest, most unstable concatenations of lines, marks, and doodles, here in color, there pitch black; they are atavistic, inchoate saibblings, at times nearly legible, yet always on the verge of indecipherabdity. But the Rorschach-like provocativeness of the image that may or may not appear is less the point than the apparent rapidity with which the marks were made. Michaux was fascinated by speed. In his 1966 book The Major Ordeals of the Mind and the Countless Minor Ones, he declares, “Speed! Can we forgo extreme speed? Can the mind forgo it? For those who have experienced the unforgettable accelerated tempo of mescaline, speed invariably remains the problem, doubtless the key to many others.” In what today reads as a neo-Rirnbaudian attempt to deliberately derange the senses in order to become a seer—or, as Michaux says, to become sufficiently “disoriented” to experience “the abnormal”—he declares his ambition “to lift the veil from the normal” His drawings are an attempt to render the speed of what he saw as the unfettered unconscious of schizophrenics, those under the influence of drugs, and idiots savants. He prefers “the dementias, the backwardnesses, the deliriums, the ecstasies and agonies, the breakdowns in mental skills” they experience, “more than the all too excellent mental skills of the metaphysicians.” Michaux acknowledges his own sense of being abandoned by his mind only to discover new “alert areas I scrutinized as best I could.” His drawings are the fruit of that scrutiny.

From an art-historical point of view, Michaux is a Surrealist, preoccupied with the “marvelous” and simulating insanity in order to realize it. But he is more than just a clever simulator: His writing suggests that he in fact suffered from some variety of mental illness. He describes adolescent schizophrenics’ “deep hatred of. . . those ’sensitive people’ around them who do not ’feel’ them,” while his own drawings reveal an excruciating sensitivity to such people. Each little figure, each quick line, each blurred inner landscape is not just another display of routine automatism and calligraphic dexterity (I am thinking especially of the ink-blotty ones) but rather a violent eruption of the internal saboteurs that stalked his psyche. It is the speed with which these demons pursue him—the velocity of his own “ravaged self-consciousness,” as he calls it—that his marks convey, not the manufactured rapidity of Surrealist spectacle. Like the work of Fautrier and Wols. Michaux’s drawings show a mind disturbed by its own sensitivity and unable to hold together except when operating at recklessly high speed.

Donald Kuspit