New York

View of “Raymond Roussel,” 2015.

View of “Raymond Roussel,” 2015.

Raymond Roussel

Galerie Buchholz | New York

View of “Raymond Roussel,” 2015.

Difficult author; reclusive aesthete; visionary fabricator of fantastic objects literary, conceptual, and material: The reputation of Raymond Roussel (1877–1933) often precedes him. In photographs he is a pale, impeccably groomed man with a resplendent mustache. A shy smile pairs oddly with the wild energy in his gaze. His writings, allegedly incomprehensible to all but the most committed appreciators of his day, still receive less attention than his biography or, perhaps more accurately, his legend.

Galerie Buchholz’s recent exhibition was the latest view into the Roussel annals. It also functioned as a housewarming: Heretofore exclusively a Berlin concern, Buchholz now has a foothold near the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Behind the robust facade of a town house of the sort normally occupied by foreign embassies, Buchholz’s three-room offering of Rousselania was an extremely welcome addition to the neighborhood and felt, more generally, like a happy return to a fan favorite. Roussel’s work never gets old—partly because of how strange it is and partly because so few people have actually read it.

Roussel wrote long, formally and conceptually complex poems, as well as novels. He is best known for 1910’s Impressions of Africa, a novel that he published at his own expense and later mounted as an elaborately costumed play. The structure of the novel is famously based on the punning difference between two otherwise identical, seemingly insignificant phrases: les lettres du blanc sur les bandes du vieux billard (the white letters on the cushions of the old billiard table) and les lettres du blanc sur les bandes du vieux pillard (the letters of a white man about the bands of the old pillager). Beginning with the first of these two arbitrary images, Roussel concludes twenty-six chapters later with the second; in the pages between, he describes the court of an imaginary African king at which, in a fantasy of colonialism reversed, a troupe of European entertainers are detained and forced to enact various impossible tableaux.

Like the prose of Marcel Proust, Roussel’s oeuvre marks the encounter of Victorian representational styles and ideas about time with those that would come to characterize modernism. Unlike the prose of Marcel Proust, Roussel’s writings are not concerned with phenomenal reality. Instead, Roussel wanted his readers to consider unreal visions already mediated by writing or other technologies, not experiences but rather images of experience; he was a practitioner par excellence of the trope of ekphrasis, or description of another work of art in writing. In Impressions of Africa, in what amounts to a displacement of lived time by performances and scientific experiments, unusual devices give rise to new images and texts. There are light-projecting plants; a glass-enclosed mechanical orchestra powered by the thermal sensitivity of “bexium,” an imaginary metal; a photomechanical painting machine. These “machines correspondantes,” as Gilles Deleuze called them, have the additional effect of rendering ornament essential rather than “removable,” as in Walter Pater’s formulation. For Pater—whose emphasis on stylistic economy was influential for modernists from Proust to Ezra Pound—the “surplusage” of decorative language diminishes meaning. Pater’s rules are passionately flouted by Roussel, whose nearly nonsensical ekphrastic delays, or stoppages, produce exciting excursions into speculative artistic and scientific practice.

Buchholz helpfully parsed Roussel’s relationship to Proust by means of the inclusion of two editions of Proust’s prose-poem collection Les plaisirs et les jours (Pleasures and Days), published in 1896, the year before the appearance of Roussel’s first novel-in-verse, La doublure (The Understudy). Even more startling and immediate were enlargements of a series of Roussel family snapshots, some taken by Raymond, including a close-up of Madame Roussel and a pet dog with eyes that appear to be made of glass. Here we glimpsed a largely unknown corner of the archive.

Yet far more space in this modest gallery was devoted to the better-known reception history: Roussel’s influence on artists from Marcel Duchamp (who attended a performance of Impressions of Africa) to Joseph Cornell to Marcel Broodthaers; his connection to Surrealism; the American poet John Ashbery’s oft-cited importation of Roussel’s work into American English; Michel Foucault’s early monograph. Such diverse adulation for the show’s subject was reassuring, but the sheer quantity of materials that were included in the exhibition, along with recent works by Cameron Rowland and Henrik Olesen, among others, felt a bit like a missed opportunity. Though for Roussel more was always more, he always advanced via carefully designed procedures. More and more we want narrative and arrangement, space to think about the overwhelming amounts of information we receive; it might have been nice to consider the ways in which Roussel’s miraculous inventions anticipated this desire.

Lucy Ives