Issue #39 The Tank
BY Matthew Bowman, Harry Cooper, Gordon Hughes & Molly WarnockMay 11, 2022
BY Matthew Bowman, Harry Cooper, Gordon Hughes & Molly WarnockMay 11, 2022
Painting, Writing, Plasticity
For overly long now, the Hungarian painter Simon Hantaï has had a rather subterranean impact upon art history and theory but a more evident influence, thankfully, on a number of painters such as Daniel Buren, Michel Parmentier, the Supports/Surfaces conglomerate, and later figures; he has become a painter’s painter, if you will. Hantaï, furthermore, has been important, perhaps even paradigmatic, for a couple of generations (at least) of French philosophers—people such as Jacques Derrida, Jean-Luc Nancy, and Georges Didi-Huberman, for example. Despite that centrality, however, there has been little in the way of sustained art-historical examination into Hantaï’s work, especially outside of French academic circles. That situation began to change with the ground-breaking Wexner exhibition, As Painting: Division and Displacement. Curated by Philip Armstrong, Laura Lisbon, and Stephen Melville, As Painting spotlighted complex parallels between currents in French painting mostly from the 1960s onwards and aspects of minimalist and postminimalist practice in the U.S. Molly Warnock’s recently published book Simon Hantaï and the Reserves of Painting builds upon the foundations constructed by that exhibition and, through sustained analysis of both Hantaï’s canvases and writings, provides the most extensive reading of the artist to date.
Contributions to The Tank are often polemical; polemics, though, tend not to be my personal strong suit, especially when I’m in fundamental accord with the discussion in Warnock’s book. But there is intellectual merit in—as the Situationists once put it—demanding the impossible. “Impossible” is admittedly an overly strong word here, since it is really a case of reimagining Hantaï and the Reserves of Painting as a significantly larger and more convoluted tome—one, on that account, capable of extending its manifold analytical threads into a virtually infinite tapestry. Because of the almost microscopically fine-grained examination undertaken by Warnock, which reaches its apogee in the scholarly empathy through which she phenomenologically conjures Hantaï’s corporeality—right down to the specific posture of his hand gripping various implements—as he labors upon the canvas, there is perhaps a certain value in stepping back to enlarge our purview. That is to say, there is a value as long as “stepping back” is a means for helping us to observe more closely.
As the central node of Warnock’s book is an ambitious and painstaking work by Hantaï titled Écriture rose (1958-59), which incorporates writing in an all-over manner upon the canvas. The first three chapters, interlinking the manifesto texts produced by Hantaï in parallel to different circumstances, build up to her analysis of that painting, which is then discussed at length in the fourth chapter. And, in turn, the subsequent four chapters, tackling Hantaï’s better-known and more highly regarded pliage canvases, work through the consequences.
The fundamental question is where this leaves discourse in correspondence to painting; that is, how do we concretely imagine the transaction between painting and writing? It is worth our while to press that question because of its importance to Warnock’s own engagement with Hantaï. But it’s also a question that is arguably left under-resolved in her book, despite all the parallels rendered between painting and writing. This is perhaps surprising insofar as there was a widespread reconsideration of writing in French “postwar” intellectual culture that fed into painting that can be drawn upon here. For example, Maurice Blanchot’s essays, his deeply philosophical examination of literature—the space of literature—that stemmed in part from rethinking Mallarme’s legacy, had a major influence upon the emergent poststructuralist scene of the 1960s—especially Barthes, Foucault, and Derrida—that would subsequently feed into the practices of Buren and Parmentier. If Blanchot’s thought underpins Barthes’s notion of textuality and Derrida’s references to arche-writing and spacing, then it is noteworthy that Blanchot is mostly absent from Warnock’s book. That absence makes it difficult, in some respects, to comprehend more profoundly how writing and painting are intertwined in Hantaï’s oeuvre. Yet I’m not going to overcome Blanchot’s absence—or the absence of those who directly followed in his wake—but instead step onto a slightly different track by seeking to grapple these matters through the writings of Jean-Luc Nancy (another figure, of course, who has been influenced by Blanchot). The benefit here is that Nancy, unlike Blanchot, has given considerable time to both painting and writing.
In a couple of essays written on the French artist François Martin—“Catalogue” and “Painting (and) Presence”—Nancy raises several perspectives upon the relationship between painting and writing, all the while trying to avoid the art-theoretical clichés that customarily weigh in upon analyses exploring that relationship. Foremost amongst these is painting and writing’s utter and irrevocable separation that has often terminated in the major claim that writing cannot bespeak, encapsulate, recreate, or articulate the painting to any genuine degree whatsoever. That is to say, when confronted by the surface of the canvas, the words we proffer are supposedly destined to fall short; painting can only be seen, not discoursed upon. Nancy’s interrogation of that claim is, at bottom, reflexive: at stake here is a question of how he, qua writer/philosopher, can do justice to Martin’s paintings. While that problem is fully generalizable, it possesses extra force in this specific context, it appears, because Martin is a friend and contemporary of Nancy; Martin is in a position to reply to Nancy’s texts on his painting in a manner that Caravaggio—for instance—is naturally unable to do so.
But it is not merely a question for Nancy of grounding and legitimating his own writing vis-à-vis Martin’s paintings, though that is certainly important to him. Also fundamental here is Martin’s own writing in relation to the canvases he paints. At stake, then, isn’t so much the exteriority of the writer to the painter in this relationship but rather the degree to which (or whether at all) writing is exterior to painting. Moreover, as one carefully and repeatedly reads though both of Nancy’s essays, it gradually dawns upon us (or me, at any rate) that Nancy is comported towards philosophizing writing’s correspondence to painting largely because of how Martin’s painting is already comported in just that way. That is to say, writing is internal rather than exterior to the fact of painting when it comes to Martin. And this is potentially emblematic of painting and writing as such, thereby strategically making Martin’s oeuvre an indispensable point of entry into a whole constellation of longstanding questions and debates.
“On Painting (and) Presence” is Nancy’s most sustained examination of the relationship between painting and writing vis-à-vis Martin. It is also the text in which his own status as philosopher writing about the work of painting is thoroughly reflected upon. At the heart of the essay is a question regarding to what extent there can be any intertwinement between painting and writing correlated with a repeated worry or suspicion that, ultimately and fundamentally, the two mediums are destined to remain non-isomorphic: “there is an incapacity, an infirmity, an impossibility inherent to writing about painting.”1 But that incapacity, Nancy remarks, is perhaps something that writing is not compelled to account for; rather, writing “is obliged to take into account that it will never account for [this incapacity]” (OPP 342). Because this incapacity is deep-rooted, there is no readymade discourse from which writing upon painting can proceed. Instead, it is a matter of beginning anew, seeking to trace the gesture of painting.
If one can envisage any commonality that can bring painting writing and painting together, at least to some degree, it is one premised upon a notion of plasticity. Probably with Jean-François Lyotard’s book Discourse, Figure in mind, Nancy proposes:
What has been suggested, what François Martin’s Semainier suggests, is that figure and discourse, the plastic and language, while cutting into each other, also belong to the same plasticity: but how is this plasticity the same, by what spacing of itself, by what distance between painting and discourse, is this very distancing of the plastic to plastify, to figure and/or to speak? That is the question […] the primal given […] Paintings functioning as asignificant signs, with plastified significance, and in the face of them, signs writing “plastic,” writing tracing “painting” and plastifying itself in the word… (OPP 345)
Whilst this statement would come under interrogation at several junctures of Nancy’s argument—partly because he oscillates between the necessity of writing and its apparent incapacity—it nonetheless provides an anchor for his reflections. The notion of plasticity would recur throughout, and Nancy would, furthermore, explore the possibility that painting is a form of thinking (a possibility that has underscored discussions of specific artworks being definable as “theoretical objects”). In one way or another, Nancy echoes Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s contention that “no thought ever detaches itself completely from a sustaining support”2 by emphasizing the materiality or plasticity of thinking, a plasticity fully registered in the activity of writing and painting.
In conjoining writing and painting on the basis of a shared foundation in plasticity, Nancy is, quite directly, rearticulating a similar element found in Hegel’s writing. Stephen Melville has suggested that Hegel implicitly conjoins sculpture and philosophy—rendering the latter into a reinvention or “replication” of the former at a higher level of the dialectic—insofar as both seek to engender and depend on a certain plasticity.3 Although sculpture/philosophy is different from painting/writing, it should be noted that, for Hegel, the plasticity he ascribes to philosophy stems from philosophy being written and read, the necessity of words as the medium of philosophic articulation. We can observe that in certain passages such as the following: “it is only the kind of philosophical exposition which rigorously excludes the ordinary relations among the parts of a proposition which would be able to achieve the goal of plasticity.”4 Crucial to understand here is that achieving plasticity does not involve the translation of some nearly ineffable idea into the concreteness of words; rather, at stake here is a sense that ideas, content, can only emerge part and parcel of their plastic form. Again, quoting Hegel: “And it was not as if these ideas and doctrines were already there, in advance of poetry, in an abstract mode of consciousness … and categories of thought, and then later were only clothed in imagery by artists and given an external adornment in poetry; on the contrary, the mode of artistic production was such that what fermented in these poets they could work out only in this form of art and poetry.”5
This detour has been to mark the conjunction between Nancy and Hegel on the point of plasticity, but their differences need also to be mentioned. After all, Hegel’s reference is to classical sculpture, whereas Nancy is speaking of painting. And while Hegel perceives classical sculpture as embodying the perfect balance of form and content in which everything is present and nothing withheld, thereby suggesting that plasticity is the term selected to designate that condition, Nancy’s engagement with painting and writing is characterized by understanding both as evincing a discretion that manifests a reserve constitutive of both. Correspondingly, Nancy construes plasticity in tandem with the reserve it produces and thus also as installing a withheldness in, rather than simply behind, presence or coming-to-presence. It is partly due to this that writing is faced with incapacity when it seeks words for painting; but it is also the case because of that that writing can gesture towards painting’s essential reserve insofar as it almost seems to help make it cognizable, perhaps even plastify that reserve. Writing, it seems, generates dis-course rather than discourse in its aspiration to write—or touch—upon painting.
Nancy has, of course, written on Hantaï as well, and to that degree, my focus upon the texts written on Martin may seem rather eccentric if it were not for their focus upon painting and writing’s potential correspondence. But notwithstanding the substantial differences between Martin’s and Hantaï’s paintings—a complex figuration on the one side and an equally complex abstraction on the other—Nancy’s words in many respects equally fit the latter as they do the former. For example, “Catalogue” can practically be read as appertaining to the small but ambitious catalogues Hantaï produced—such as the one accompanying the Sexe-Prime: Hommage à Jean-Pierre Brisset et autres peintures de Simon Hantaï, 1955—that are carefully analyzed by Warnock in her book. And furthermore, Nancy’s attentiveness to the blanks in Martin’s works, which nearly serve to indicate a useful parallel the spacing important to Jacques Derrida’s concept of arche-writing as well as the blanks of Mallarmé’s pages, can similarly be read in light of Hantaï’s works of the 1960s and 1970s and their own deployment of unpainted grounds. Indeed, it is perhaps conceivable to propose that if the discretion of Martin’s paintings, the cutting of objects and entities from their quotidian environs in order to make them present is what creates reserve and spacing, then it is operation, for Nancy, that suggests or even produces a homology of sorts between painting and writing. That is to say, arche-writing becomes internal to painting in Martin and, by extension, to Hantaï. Nancy, intriguingly, speaks of an “archi-plasticity,” and it is a useful question to ask whether or how this specifically relates to Derrida’s arche-writing.
All this, undeniably, is far too schematic and likely does not do sufficient justice to the complexity of Nancy’s reflections. But hopefully it provides enough of an overview, thereby allowing a glimpse of how Nancy’s syncopated chiasmus—simultaneously conjoining and separating painting and writing, Martin’s artworks and Nancy’s text, and ultimately Martin and Nancy themselves—can help unfold more exactingly how writing becomes constitutive of Hantaï’s practice during and after Écriture rose. And indeed, when one notices that the luminous soft-rose field dominating the canvas is built from innumerable layers of writing, then the shared plasticity of writing and painting becomes utterly unmistakable.
In bringing matters to a close, it strikes me as worth proposing another consequence of Hantaï’s bridging of writing and painting. For the present context I will not delve deeply into this matter, but it’s notable that the years following that particular moment also witnessed the development of the concept of the “theoretical object” —a key term that would be highly important to French art historians like Hubert Damisch and Louis Marin and subsequently be fully expanded by the Dutch art theorist/filmmaker Mieke Bal. That concept, to be sure, took a number of years to attain the relative clarity that it possesses for contemporary art-historical writing, but its hazy outlines are readily detectable in structuralist writers such as Louis Althusser, Roland Barthes, and Claude Lévi-Strauss, particularly in their foundational notions of “theoretical practice” and “model.” By design, however, these notions largely underlined a tendency to reproduce theory and practice as semi-autonomous domains.
As the 1960s progressed, it became increasingly necessary to recast the theory/practice division by reperceiving theory in materialist terms or at least encourage suspicion against the ideological effects that supported such a division. Phenomenology’s complex interweaving with structuralism during this period can arguably be comprehended as one instance whereby a materialist theory became imaginable. Damisch, for instance, drew from both the late writings of Merleau-Ponty and developments in Lévi-Strauss’s structural anthropology while also putting them to the test of painters such as Piet Mondrian, Jackson Pollock, and, crucially, Jean Dubuffet.6 It is through the conjunction of these diverse figures that he would later explore the concept of the theoretical object.
Hantaï, too, could also be said to be a forerunner in the concept of the theoretical object. No doubt more needs to be unpacked here, yet it perhaps moves us quickly enough to the heart of the matter if I propose that the function of the “theoretical object” is to reengineer the art historian’s interpretative stance vis-à-vis the artwork insofar as the former tracks the artwork’s own capacity to generate theoretical reflection rather than import and marshal a pre-packaged theory into its orbit. Construing theory as always already immanent to the artwork and understanding the art historian’s job as to recognize and rearticulate that theory surely involve at bottom understanding writing and painting as intimately woven, as sharing a common plasticity. Hantaï’s work, as Warnock’s book demonstrates, is indispensable for grasping the later emergence of the theoretical object in art writing.
For those of us attracted to Simon Hantaï’s work for its rigor and resplendence from 1960 on—and I am one of them, having been alerted years ago by Yve-Alain Bois as well as Warnock herself to the folded-painted-unfolded paintings known as pliages—this monograph offers a challenge, or really a multiple scandal. Who knew that Hantaï had been so involved with Surrealism (first of the Breton, then of the Bataille variety) and thus with both eroticism and Marxism, but also with the embarrassingly bad painter Georges Mathieu and then with a conservative brand of Catholicism? (For that matter, who knew about Hantaï at all?) Outside of France, not many. I only knew because I had read Warnock’s first book on Hantaï, focused on the 1950s, which has still not been translated.1 How inconvenient these investments are for the dominant formal-teleological reading of Hantaï as a radical renovator of modernism—a painter who, looking back to Cezanne’s non-finito, Matisse’s cut-outs, and Pollock’s all-over,2 offered a bridge from there to the future, in particular to the Supports/Surface group with its critique of subjective expression and its attentive dismantling of the medium of painting. “This reading of Hantaï’s art has real power,” Warnock admits,3 and indeed, photographs of the wall of Hantaï’s studio reveal reproductions of all three of these artists (SH 190). But it also has real blinders.
To remove these blinders, Warnock dedicates the book’s first and larger half, “Writing & Painting,” to the pre-1960 Hantaï, focusing on three manifestos that he composed in 1955-1958, the latter two of which are as much visual as verbal objects: “Une démolition au platane”4 (A Plataneous Demolition), co-written in 1954 by Hantaï and Jean Schuster of the Breton circle; Sexe-Prime…, an exhibition, canvas, and associated fold-out brochure or dépliant5 shown at the Galerie Kléber in 1956; and a show at the same gallery in 1958 featuring the painting Souvenir de l’avenir along with another dépliant with even more elaborate notes and diagrams. Along the way, she does an impressive job of triangulating Hantaï’s interests among those of a host of artists, writers, and philosophers. But the payoff, for me at least, comes in the second half of the book, where Warnock argues that many of these pre-1960 interests, far from being abandoned, continued to inform the pliage work in various transformed ways. More about that shortly.
I admire these first chapters for the way they unfold Hantaï’s shifting intellectual commitments as well as for their close readings of his work. Warnock makes forays into the intellectual world of Hantaï’s postwar Paris and then uses her findings to guide us across and into the complex surfaces of the paintings themselves, many of which are buried in vaults and seen far too rarely. The focus is tight, which is arguably appropriate for the first scholarly monograph on the artist in English, and her command of the material is impressive without being showy.
However, I would have liked the lens pulled back a little.6 There is a passing reference to Vatican II of 1958-1959 (SH 100) but only as it relates to Warnock’s suggestion that Hantaï seized on Catholic liturgy in part as an antidote to Harold Rosenberg’s then-popular notions of action painting and private mythmaking (SH 98-99). A little more attention is given to the Soviet repression of the 1956 uprising in Budapest, Hantaï’s country of origin, as a context for his turn away from Marxism (SH 9, 72). But social history, French politics, the artist’s biography—all these have no place in Warnock’s account, even though the artist lived through such a turbulent period in European history.7 And even when it comes to the artistic sphere, I found myself wondering about resonances with those who were not in Hantaï’s orbit, such as Lucio Fontana (for his cuts) or Mark Tobey (for his calligraphy).8 Closer to home, what of the critic Jean Paulhan? While he did not take note of Hantaï as far as I know, his concept of the “commonplace,” developed in his 1941 essay, “Les Fleurs de Tarbes,” might have been a good point of reference in discussing Hantaï’s preoccupation with community, communion, and communication in all their modern-day difficulty, a trio that Warnock establishes and underscores (SH 5). Paulhan argued that common words and expressions are not useless clichés to be avoided at all costs in an avant-garde search for originality but rather “a means of conciliation between the individual and the community … based on conventions and a common language.”9
Especially impressive in the first half of the book is Warnock’s unpacking of Peinture (Écriture Rose) of 1958-1959, the last monumental canvas Hantaï made before his adoption of pliage—less a painting in any standard sense than a massive tissue of tiny inscriptions of scripture, theology, and Continental philosophy. For Warnock, to put it in a nutshell (and her exposition could have used a few more of those), this painting performed several operations (SH 93-97): it answered psychic automatism, which had previously seduced Hantaï, with an abrupt “deacceleration of gesture”; it embodied a revised take on Pollock focused less on action than on atomization; and it entailed a spiritual exercise of impersonality, passivity, and indifference inspired by the writings of a now-forgotten Jesuit priest named Gaston Fessard. As my mind wandered (I confess) in and out of Warnock’s exegesis of Fessard’s synthesis of Ignatius of Loyola and Hegel, I thought of Bartleby the Scrivener’s credo of passivity (“I would prefer not to…”) and wondered whether the character from Melville’s story might have been on Hantaï’s mind as he performed his own daily scrivening of the Catholic liturgy every day for a year starting in 1958 on the first Sunday of Advent (SH 89). In any case, “these negotiations,” Warnock writes, referring to the operations just mentioned, “result in an altogether new conception of his medium; they are the indispensable context of his turn to folding” (SH 92).
This brings us to the second half of the book, “Folding & Cutting,” and to some deeper questions. Warnock begins this second half by declaring, in one of her more nutshell moments, that pliage “assumes—allegorizes—a new conception of community, one explicitly staked on the inevitability of reserve: a constitutive opacity or caesura at the heart of our dealings with others” (SH 120). The word “allegorizes” certainly deserves those offsetting dashes, for what the intentional slippage from “assumes” to “allegorizes” does to the argument is dramatic. (You know what happens when you allegorize, right?) Warnock is proposing, to put it only a little too simply, that the unpainted areas revealed whenever Hantaï unfolded his folds represent our entangled, ineluctable condition of opacity to one another. As she writes in the chapter on the series of Tabulas (1979-1982), “The Tabulas ‘rewrite’ Écriture Rose, refiguring the earlier painting’s complex mutual threading of self and Otherness—here recast as the interplay between painted and unpainted—to include more fully one’s primordial implication in the finite others all around us” (SH 182). What worries me about such readings—and I have floated them myself with regard to Mondrian and others—is that they treat paintings as doing philosophy. Or to put it another way, the removal of those formal-teleological blinders can result in readings that make abstract paintings (if they are abstract, there’s the rub) representational. Such is always the risk, a risk that can perhaps be controlled but not banished by tying those readings as closely as possible to the material, formal, and phenomenological details of the paintings themselves.
To come to grips with this worry, I will conclude by paying attention to Warnock’s sixth chapter, “Figuring Finitude 1,” which as it happens was first published in nonsite.org’s Issue #6 in 2012. As such, it may not represent Warnock’s latest thinking, but she preserved it almost verbatim in the book, and of all the chapters, it shines the clearest light on the issue I am raising.
To summarize: Warnock begins by asserting that a pair of four-lobed or “quatrefoil”10 Meuns from 1968, hung next to each other in a 1999 show and reproduced side by side in its catalogue (likely by the artist), are a sexed pair, the black one having a painted penis where the brown one has reserved vaginal slits (SH 135). In support of this, she adduces Hantaï’s frequent comparison of his unfolding process to “spreading vaginas” (SH 138), as well as the clear concern with sexual difference in his early work, particularly a pair of 1953 paintings, Femelle-Miroir I and II, which each depict a naked female who seems beset by space aliens. In a reading of this pair that extends for 15 paragraphs (I do wish she had spent as much time on a couple of Meuns rather than getting drawn back so often to the early work), Warnock suggests that I depicts a menacing, vagina-dentata female, while II suggests a male being dismembered or “becoming other,” and she maps that difference onto one between the relative flatness of the first painting and the “aspiration to sculpture” of the second, which includes an actual mirror and bones (SH 142). In this way Hantaï was “rotating” Breton’s concern with gender towards the very non-Surrealist “question of medium” (SH 144). Yet equally important to Warnock is the “yearning for plenitude” in the latter work, or really in both, which then gets taken up very differently, she argues, in the all-over texture of such paintings as Peinture (Écriture Rose), with its search for a “higher, ‘supraindividual’ fullness … beyond male and female, beyond bodies, beyond the human” (SH 144). This quasi-religious yearning is what Warnock sees pliage as “interrupting or checking … by bringing the body of the support itself actively in play” (SH 144).11 In short, with pliage Hantaï reached all the way back behind the gestural scrapings, scribblings, and scribings of his late 1950s work to the more embodied and gendered Surrealist paintings of the early 1950s.
So, the pliages are about sex, not religion. But Hantaï’s return to sex was conflicted: by allowing the unpainted canvas back into play, he was once again courting the threat of dispersion or lack that he associated with the female and with painting in all its flatness, as opposed to the fullness of the phallic and the sculptural. One of the nice things about the emphasis on medium specificity in this account is how specific it is to Hantaï’s studio practice: pliage entailed a repeated passage from painting to sculpture and back as Hantaï took the flat canvas, crumpled and sometimes knotted it into “a variously three-dimensional volume, from light relief to pneumatic sack,” and eventually returned it to the condition of a flat painting on a wall (SH 144). In his first pliages, he sought to mitigate the shock of the unpainted in various ways (refolding, repainting), and it was not until the Meuns that he could accept large areas of reserved primed canvas, which is what makes them so beautiful and daring—their “shift from choked or crowded to positively denuded central zones” (SH 151). So, what happened? Here Warnock’s mastery of Hantai’s biography comes in handy, for his engagement with both Cézanne’s non-finito and Matisse’s cut-outs can be dated to 1967, which is just before the Meuns, when an artistic residency at the Fondation Maeght brought him close to the former’s studio at Aix and the latter’s chapel at Vence. Both of these masters, Warnock reminds us, struggled to preserve something of the sculptural in painting: witness the former’s worries about the “sapping of mass and volume” in his mature work (SH145) and the latter’s interest in “‘carving’ into color” (SH 147) with the cut-outs. And their joint lesson (Warnock attributes it more to Matisse) that painting was “constituted entirely by rapports” (SH 151) allowed Hantaï to get over his horror vacui by flattening any privilege of painted over unpainted.
A final move in the argument—really a required one by this point, given its psychoanalytic grounding—is that Hantaï’s acceptance of the unpainted or the reserve (to use the word that Warnock enshrines in the subtitle of her book) entailed “the liquidation of his longstanding resistance to the femelle body as that which lack as a solid core” (SH 151). Here Warnock brings on Jacques Lacan, who, like Hantaï, had an ambivalent transit through Surrealism.12 And this allows a final act of mapping, one that goes beyond simple biological facts or features to an idea of gender as a matter of styles of assertion and expression in the world:
One might then say that “sculpture” and “painting” line up for Hantaï roughly as “masculine” and “feminine” do on Lacan’s chart, sculpture being that which “thinks—poses—itself punctually and directly,” while painting is marked from the first by a fundamental reserve and therefore “asserts itself only mediately, though a unity which it is not.” (SH 159)
Thus is Warnock able to abstract her argument, and Hantaï’s work, beyond gender “toward a more difficult figuration of the fundamentally split and knotted nature of subjectivity … to recognition of his [the Lacanian patient’s] finitude and contingency” (SH 159). Notably, this puts Hantaï in the position of analyst as much as patient, which is exactly where Warnock wants him. Psychoanalysis does not so much explain Hantaï, argues Warnock implicitly, as it serves him as a conscious tool, an “allegorical context in which to think through the problems of painting” (SH 159).13
This allows Warnock to avoid the appearance of psychoanalyzing an artist (and after all, what art historian wants to be accused of doing that these days?). And if the artist is psychoanalyzing himself, it is less through aspects of imagery or composition (a phallus here, a vagina there) than through pliage as a practice “in its own right” (SH 159). This suggestion feels true to the intense physicality of Hantaï’s pliage practice, and it is something Warnock might well have emphasized more.14 It also makes me feel better about Warnock’s opening gambit in the chapter, where she found sexual organs in the pair of Meuns. In retrospect, I can see that Warnock was not pointing to the unconscious eruption of sexuality or figuration within these abstractions but rather to Hantaï’s decision in choosing to pair these works thirty years after they were made, and perhaps even in determining their orientation, to create yet another manifesto of sorts, a retrospective key to what he himself saw as abiding themes of his work, or what he wanted us to see. And the fact that the phallus in the black Meun is painted while the vagina in the brown one is not aligns so well with the Lacanian framework as to suggest the Hantaï, at least as a post-facto curator or critic of his own work, meant every bit of it.
If there is a blind spot in all this, it has to do with blindness. Warnock does cite Hantaï’s statement that that though folding, he blinded himself. “‘Se crever les yeux.’ La main qui plie doit être aveugle” (SH 248n52: Gouge out my own eyes. The hand that folds must be blind). She sees this sincere, even urgent deployment of an Oedipal trope as contrasting with the more knowing and distanced address of such issues in the earlier pliages with their frequent phallic suggestions. Hantaï seems to have gone from illustrating Oedipus to living it for Warnock, and I wish she had said more about that too. In addition, the fact that Hantaï suffered a period of blindness for four months at the age of seven after an attack of diphtheria seems too important to overlook, whatever one’s theoretical position on the interpretive uses of biography.15 Still more puzzling is her silence on what seems to me a fundamental precedent for the equation of blindness with reserved areas, namely such paintings by Jackson Pollock as Cut-Out (1949) and Out of the Web: Number 7, 1949. As I suggested about these two works in my one and only foray into Hantaï criticism, written shortly after having read Warnock’s chapter as it appeared on nonsite.org in 2012, in which I proposed Pollock as an anxious influence on Hantaï:
Because what the cut-outs revealed was canvas board or Masonite with visible, random smears and scrapes, they appeared to offer an order of experience different from that of the painted canvas around them, an order of neglect: “like a kind of blind spot, a kind of defect in our visual apparatus; it is like part of our retina that is destroyed.”16
The memorable quotation is not from Hantaï, as one might guess, but from Michael Fried’s Three American Painters (1965). Perhaps Warnock, a Fried student, wanted to take her own path by not pursuing Pollock too closely, at least not this Pollock. Still, these exceptional paintings, in which Pollock either sought to declare the utter abstractness of his webs by demonstrating that figuration could only subsist in them as an absence (Fried’s argument) or was pulled irresistibly back to figuration for a moment at the height of his abstract period, are an essential point of reference for the Meuns.
I am left in a familiar position after reading a great monograph: that of knowing more about the artist than I ever imagined and wondering whether I want to know all of it. In choosing the two Hantaï paintings that I have been able to acquire for the National Gallery of Art, a blue Meun from 1968 and a red Etude from 1969 (the former thanks to the generosity of Hantaï’s widow), I was careful to avoid paintings that might suggest figurative readings. Perhaps I was wrong in that. Warnock has convinced me that Hantaï wanted his pliages to sustain psychological and philosophical readings, if not figurative ones, to serve as allegories of human relation and subjectivity, but that is still not how I experience them. Maybe that will change on my next encounter.
“In The Continuity of Painting Itself”
One of my more tangential thoughts while reading Molly Warnock’s Simon Hantaï and the Reserves of Painting had to do with the way in which so many of my most powerful aesthetic experiences have felt hard won: occurring not in a burst of visual instantaneity at first sight but slowly, through a kind of conversion, as resistance, struggle, and dawning comprehension transform work that I thought I didn’t like into work that I more than like—into work that, you might say, I love. Case in point, the paintings of Simon Hantaï whose work, prior to reading Warnock’s book, I thought I knew moderately well (I didn’t) but suspected, without quite knowing, that it wasn’t for me. His signature folding technique smacked of gimmick, I thought. Or worse, what Benjamin Buchloh describes as a “rendering of the painterly process [into a] semimechanical … almost technical” operation.1 For Buchloh, such a “semimechanical” technique is not only the great virtue and innovation of Hantaï’s paintings, but it also aligns them ideologically and morphologically with the décollage rips and tears of Jacques de la Villeglé et al., adding fuel to my suspicion. Hantaï’s brief but close association with George Mathieu likewise did him no great favors in my eyes. Nor for that matter did his spiritualism, which inclined his abstraction, I believed, towards a certain Yves-Kleinesque Catholic-mysticism. But like I say, seeing—or reading Warnock’s book, being made to see—an artist’s work as it deserves to be seen, shifting from provisional suspicion to outright enthusiasm, is powerful thing. And as such, the occasional nits that I pick with Simon Hantaï and the Reserves of Painting feel fairly trivial by comparison. But—such is my brief—I’ll pick them all the same.
Straight out of the gate, Warnock sets the terms of her argument: rather than understanding pliage as “a mere technique,” (“mere gimmick,” I might say) it is to be understood, rather, “as a fully generative procedure, answerable to the deepest issues and questions in painting as a whole” such that “it can become legible only within particular circumstances, on the far side of a certain traversal.”2 The appeal here is to Stanley Cavell and Michael Fried’s shared claim that modernism serves as a condition whereby, as Warnock glosses it, “the established conventions of a medium no longer allow for communication or seem to actively block it.” In response to this exhaustion or blockage or sense that in one way or another, for some reason or another, a given pictorial convention can no longer be taken for granted and must instead be earned, newly affirmed, or otherwise reinvented, select artists develop what Cavell calls “automatisms” such that, unlike a mere aesthetic novelty, genuine innovation can produce, despite an almost unavoidable initial hesitation or resistance, a sense of “conviction” (conversion?) in its audience. As one aesthetic convention replaces another, new forms of artistic response and innovation follow in its wake, as fresh becomes stale becomes fresh ad infinitum. Warnock quotes from Cavell’s 1971 The World Viewed to describe this process, but one could also look to his essay “A Matter of Meaning it,” published two years earlier in Must We Mean What We Say?: “Why couldn’t we allow Pop art, say, or Cage’s evenings, or Happenings, to be entertainments of some kind without troubling about art?” asks Cavell. And yet, he insists, “we are troubled.” Why?:
Because for us, given the gradual self-definitions and self-liberations over the past century of the separate major arts we accept, Pop Art presents itself as, or as challenging, painting; Cage presents his work as, or as challenging the possibility of, music … It would be enough to say that objects of Pop Art are not paintings or sculptures, that works of Cage and Krenek are not music—if we are clear what music is, what a piece of music is. But the trouble is that the genuine article—the music of Schoenberg and Weburn, the sculpture of Caro, the painting of Morris Louis, the theater of Brecht and Beckett—really does challenge the art of which it is the inheritor and voice. Each is, in a word, not merely modern but modernist. Each, one could say, is trying to find the limits or essence of its own procedures. And this means that it is not clear a priori what counts, or will count, as a painting, or sculpture or musical composition.3
In the absence of a medium’s unambiguous and timeless criteria, the “task of the modernist artist, as of the contemporary critic,” Cavell claims, “is to find what it is his art finally depends upon; it doesn’t matter that we haven’t a priori criteria for defining a painting, what matters is that we realize that the criteria are something we must discover, discover in the continuity of painting itself.” And to do this, Cavell concludes, “we need to discover what objects we accept as paintings, and why we so accept them.”4 This guiding premise organizes the entirety of Warnock’s book, as chapter by chapter, period by period, she demonstrates how Hantaï reinvigorates—more, reinvents—the medium of painting, first in his raclage or scrapping works begun in 1955 as he processed the work of Pollock and Mathieu through their apparent opposites in Surrealism and Duchamp and again, in a further act of invention, with his pliage paintings as he worked Minimalism through Matisse and Cézanne.
So, what was and what prompted the blockage that necessitated Hantaï’s reinvention of his medium? One answer to this, not found in Warnock’s reading, is provided by Serge Guilbaut and Natalie Adamson. Both have focused attention on what Guilbaut describes as French art’s “rapid loss of symbolic power” following 1945 and the widespread perception that this loss marked “the closing chapter of a long hegemonic history.”5 As a result, certain contemporary commentors such as Edouard Jaguer became increasingly scornful of critical, curatorial, and artistic efforts that artificially sought to recapture France’s lost modernist mojo in the guise of either gestural abstraction chaud or geometric abstraction froid. In both cases these two dominant strains of postwar French abstraction were seen to (re)capture a certain distinctively Gallic aesthetic esprit purportedly manifest in the interwar École de Paris. Gestural abstraction thus advanced a loose association with Matisse under such rubrics as “decorative,” “chromatically charged,” “hedonistic,” and “serpentine,” while geometric abstraction referenced such precedents as the Delaunays and the Cercle et Carré group, appealing to “order,” “reason,” “balance,” and “harmony” in an appeal to the inherently (so claimed) Cartesian spirit of French cultural production. In both cases for Jaguer, the results were irredeemably anachronistic: “Before these stylish or austere mosaics, we rest indifferent (except for the ‘pleasure of the eyes’). These decorative elements have nothing to do with our Apocalypse. We cannot recognize ourselves in them.”6 The “Apocalypse,” of course, refers to the tidal wave of historical catastrophes that spanned the Second World War into the early Fifth Republic, leaving French cultural prestige in ruins: the shame of Vichy, widespread collaboration with the German occupation, French complicity in the Holocaust, two disastrous colonial wars of independence and the collapse of the French Empire (from the battle of Dien Bien Phu in the Spring of 1954, to the Algerian uprisings a few month later, to the 1958 referendum on African independence and the granting of that independence two years later, to the Evian Accords for Algerian independence in 1962). It is this “Apocalypse” that separates not only the first École de Paris of the 1920s and 1930s from its abstract repetition-as-farce post-1945, but also the American abstraction that was suddenly taking France by storm. It is this “Apocalypse,” in short, that effectively rendered hollow, outdated, and slightly pathetic the perceived efforts to jump start the battery gone flat of French modernism. This was the blockage. Or at least this is one form of it—the dominant, some would say, most pressing form—and so its near total absence in Warnock’s account is striking.
Another form of historical blockage—the form that concerns Warnock—has to do with the progressively rationalized and standardized administration of everyday life within postwar France. Warnock is on very solid ground here given that, as she notes, Hantaï clearly describes the progressive movement of the irrational into the rational as one of his guiding artistic concerns. Describing how early Surrealist efforts to tap into an irrational poetic language have congealed into its rational opposite, Hantaï and his co-author Jean Schuster write in their 1954 (published 1955) essay “A Plantaneous Demolition”: “No sooner is the irrational actualized by poetic vision than it, under the impulsion of philosophic intelligence, becomes rational. This dynamic economy of knowledge implies a perpetual overcoming by poetry by itself. Yesterday’s irrational is today’s rational.” If this sounds a lot like a version of the claim that established conventions “no longer allow for communication or seem to actively block it,” that is indeed how Warnock takes it. Thus, Warnock notes how Hantaï and Schuster’s essay accuses Surrealism of having lost its dialectical force, resulting in “a failing that has led not just to stagnation but rather to actual regression.” As a result, Warnock continues:
Hantaï and Schuster call upon Breton and his group to acknowledge the present as a radically different historical moment. Where the interwar period had seen a vast effloresce of inventive new techniques of engagement with the painterly surface … the years following Breton’s return to Paris [after the war] had been marked less by a comparable expansion of means than by a concerted return to those earlier practices. (SH 18)
As Warnock notes, this hollow repetition of early surrealists’ techniques and procedures is a problem for Hantaï and Schuster not simply because they are opposed to repetition as a matter of principle but rather because no matter how “radical the processes in question may been at one time … they are no longer capable of unleashing the excess that surrealism is supposed to have released. Exhausted through repetition, they appeal now to emotion alone” (SH 18). Or as Hantaï and Schuster put it in their essay, “What we question in the persistence of certain procedures is not their continuing ability to move us but their ability to move us beyond emotion … Reality ceases to be at stake as soon as the inevitable process of rationalization arrives at its term.”
Again, this “inevitable process of rationalization” carries an unavoidable historical charge in the context of postwar France. For as Kristin Ross details, the immediate postwar period marked “the dawning of a new economic and social era in France comparable to that of the beginnings of French industrialization in the 1830s and 1840s.” Thus, as Ross notes: “Economists agree that the consolidation of a Fordist regime in France in the decade or so before 1968—a period of ‘growth without precedent of capitalism in France,’ the peak decade, that is, of the thirty-year postwar economic boom—was an extraordinary voluntarist and thus wrenching experience.” And in this sense, Ross continues, the “social type of the jeune cadre [young middle manager], that high priest of Fordism” can been seen as “something of a national allegory for the modernizing France of the 1950s and 1960s. Midway between owner and worker, managing the proletariat but punching a time clock too, the cadre, like France itself, was a ‘dominated agent of capitalist domination.’”7 This broader historical framework for Hantaï’s “dialectic of rationalization” (SH 27) is, once more, nowhere to be found in Warnock’s telling. The extent to which this absence of history is or is not a problem for Warnock’s book I’ll get to shortly, but for now I will simply say that my number one complaint when it comes to writing on abstract art concerns the (ab)use of history (and “theory” and biography, etc.) as a mechanism to avoid looking closely at the work itself—as a means, that is, to write around rather than within the art. Warnock not only avoids this most grievous and commonplace of art historical errors, she is at her best when looking closely and interpreting Hantaï’s paintings. The question is whether she avoids the trap of historical context to a fault.
The most pronounced difference, however, between Warnock’s book and other writing not just on postwar French abstraction but on this period generally lies in her ability to breathe new life into the now atrophied concept of reification (whereby instrumental reason is subsumed into all aspects of art and life). And in so doing, it almost feels as if her argument performs a similar revivification to that claimed for Hantaï. Two art historical/theoretical approaches to the issue of reification have dominated the writing on postwar French art. The first, strongly associated with the Situationist International, examines the well-trod tactic of détournement, in which art turns the forces of capitalist reason against itself.8 The other, aligned with the Frankfurt school and exemplified in the writing of Benjamin Buchloh, views any effort to reassert the creative hand of the artist in the face of an implacable “culture of administrative rationality” as not only doomed to failure but worse, a deluded and hopelessly nostalgic yearning for an irreparably lost romantic ideal of the artist (DPD 29). Accordingly, Buchloh sees Hantaï as rethinking Matisse through the anti-intentional, mechanistic precedent of an artist such as Duchamp. But in Buchloh’s case, he sees Matisse’s papiers découpés as surrendering the traditional, expressive tools of brush and pencil for the purportedly more mechanical, depersonalized, anti-expressive tool of scissors to cut paper that has had color “mechanically” applied to it. Rather than forcing the issue of the dead and dying gesture of the artist’s touch, however, Matisse failed to grasp the significance of his own technique, seeking instead to “renaturalize the gesture of drawing” (DPD 27). But if the full anti-expressive implications of the découpages eluded Matisse, they did not escape Hantaï who, as Buchloh describes it, “attempted to conceive of a new type of painting of pure—almost self-generated—design outside of an author’s intentional composition” and in so doing forced the opposition “between the artisanal and the mechanical, between intentional choice and aleatory chance” (DPD 27).
The sharp difference between Buchloh and Warnock, then, lies in their divergent understanding of post-Surrealist “automatism.” For Buchloh, “the increasingly mechanized morphology of late Surrealist automatism” leads through Pollock and Georges Mathieu into an “accelerated automatism as a signal for the painting of the future, since painting as a practice could no longer remain within the protected spaces of traditional perceptual and artisanal order.” Hantaï takes this “accelerated automatism” to its fully automated conclusion for Buchloh, producing an anti-intentional, self-generating, and mechanistic process in the form of the pliage, a technique in which “painting could acknowledge its relegation to utter iterability” and thus “publicly abdicate all past claims to the heroism of a deeper singularity, to forms of experience more profound than those of the lowest of its common spectators” (DPD 31). Warnock, obviously, presents a very different view of automatism. In her reading of Hantaï and Schuster’s essay, Warnock describes their critique of Surrealist automatism as a kind of tyranny that the artist or poet is powerless to resist. Indeed, for Breton: “It is true of surrealist images as it is of opium images that man does not evoke them; rather they ‘offer themselves to him spontaneously, despotically. He cannot chase them away; for his will is powerless now and no longer controls the faculties.’”9 Against this view of automatism, in which the artist becomes a kind of transcription machine given over to the surrealist process, Warnock reads Hantaï and Schuster’s conception of automatism as positing a “dialectic of rationalization” (SH 27) that sublates the antipodes of “supposed subjective reality controlled by the ‘ego’” on the one hand and “supposed objective reality derived from a rationalist interpretation of physical laws” on the other.10 Rather than Buchloh’s straightforward progression from “the artisanal” into “the mechanical,” Warnock presents instead a more rigorous dialectic between the personal and the impersonal, which “gradually dissolve[s] [Hantaï’s] understanding of automatism into something else—ultimately, I want to say, into a certain thought of medium” (SH 29). Which is to say, in other words, Hantaï’s reconceived understanding of surrealist automatism gradually gives way to something like Cavell’s understanding of automatism.
Buchloh, perhaps not surprisingly, anticipates the threat posed by Warnock to his understanding of Hantaï’s automatism. Indeed, for Buchloh, there are only “two methodological options for answering the question of how such enormously important work as Hantaï’s … could have emerged out of the context of 1949.” One option—quelle surprise—is his. The other
would be the one that the formalists have already given us for some time: that the languages of painting, like all other langues, operate in relative independence of the historical contexts within which they find themselves, but that—working through comparison and contradistinction to the paradigmatic changes that occur within the langues of painting at any given moment—they are in a perpetual state of change and adjustment within themselves.
If on the face of things this sounds like a fair description of Cavell’s or Fried’s account of a medium, it isn’t. But it is, “formalism” aside and with no small degree of irony, a pretty good summary of Buchloh’s own work. In his swipe at formalism’s historical remove, for example, one could hardly say that Buchloh presents us, by way of contrast, with a detailed historical picture of post-1945 France. Rather, Buchloh’s “history” appears first and foremost as an orthodox acceptance of Marxist reification followed by a view of art that evolves “historically” through, as he puts it, “comparison and in contradistinction to the paradigmatic changes that occur within the langues of painting at any given moment,” creating “a perpetual state of change and adjustment within themselves.” If that’s formalism, then Buchloh is guilty as charged.
More to the point, however, Buchloh’s understanding of “formalism” as operating exclusively on the level of langue completely misunderstands Warnock’s (and Cavell’s and Fried’s) conception of how a medium evolves. For, if one had to use such Structuralist terms, Cavell’s understanding of the ever-changing conventions of a given medium operates not simply on the level of langue (the rules and conventions of a signifying system, pre-existing and independent of the individual user) but also, crucially, on the level of parole (the individual speech act). For as Cavell stresses, the conventions of a medium are at once deeply relational and internal, general and specific, such that “both the ‘outer’ variance and the ‘inner’ constancy are necessary if a concept is to accomplish its tasks—of meaning, understanding, communicating, etc., and in general guiding us through the world, and relating thought and action and feeling to the world.” Thus, Cavell continues, “to say that a word or a concept has a stable meaning is to say that new and the most various instances can be recognized as falling under or failing to fall under that concept.”11 Even when used in radically new or unusual or poetic ways, words have a certain necessary stability of meaning in the sense that they must adhere to the laws of conventional linguistic usage in order to be comprehensible to a competent speaker. They can stretch or reshape or play with the langue of linguistic conventions (grammar, concepts, rules of use, etc.) but to make sense they must still be used correctly. At the same time, the generic meaning of a word as one might find it in a dictionary is hollow outside of the voice, context, and specific utterance of its parole—outside of what Cavell calls its “life world.” “What is left out of an expression if it is used ‘outside of its ordinary language game’ is not necessarily what the words mean (they mean what they always did, what a good dictionary says they mean), but what we mean in using them when and where we do. The point of saying them is lost” (TCR 207).12 What separates Buchloh’s reading of Hantaï from Warnock’s so-called formalism, then, is precisely this relation between a generic concept and a specific utterance. Which is to say that for Buchloh, Hantaï’s pliage operates as a general function of technique, in which meaning is not examined in specific instances—to do so would be to fall prey to formalism—but, as it were and in his terms, as a kind of langue. It is pliage in-and-of-itself, in its interchangeable “iterability,” that produces meaning for Buchloh, much like the word “tree” stands for all specific occurrences of trees. Warnock, by stark contrast, situates both a relational understanding of Hantaï’s work vis-à-vis artistic antecedents (Matisse, Duchamp, Cézanne, Pollock, Mathieu, etc.) and in a series of tightly focused, detailed, and nuanced readings of individual works. If, for Buchloh, any given work of pliage makes his point just as well as any other, for Warnock the devil, and the meaning of that devil, is always in the details. It was this combination of relational and internal, of langue and parole, that converted me from skeptic to believer.
That said, there are inevitable instances where I disagree with how Warnock sees things. Thus, for example, her retrospective reading of a script-like graphic effect back into Hantaï’s 1955 Peinture, in which the “the long, serpentine paths have an implicitly ‘writerly’ quality” (SH 36) feels a bit forced to me. Rather than man-made, script-like forms, it’s hard for me not to see these horizontal lines as summoning something natural, like the magnified growths of a tree trunk, the successive lines of waves washed up on a beach, the geological stratum of a rock face, or the accumulated layers on an oyster shell (etc.). Likewise, in another early abstract work with the same date and title, not only does Warnock’s claim of a “cursive,” “quasi-graphic” quality to the marks again feel overstated, I see no reason why they suggest “a strong impression of left-to-right movement.” Nothing that I see in the paintings supports this such that one could not just as easily see them moving in the opposite direction. Indeed, Warnock makes this point several times only to contradict herself by reading a photograph of a Hantaï painting as being “on the verge of overflowing into the reader-beholder’s space,” moving, that is, from right to left. But as I say, such disagreement are not only few and far between and inevitable, they are, or should be, the very stuff of art historical interpretation.
To wrap things up, I do, however, have two moderately substantive criticisms that I’d like to offer. The first circles back to the issue of history. As Cavell argues, the production of meaning occurs when expressions “are said (or, of course, written) [and, I would add, painted, danced, performed, photographed, etc.] by human beings, to human beings, in definite contexts, in a language they share” (TCR 206), and these “shared contexts,” as he goes on, are “the forms of life which contain the criteria in terms of which our concepts are employed, in which, that is, they are of a world” (TCR 226). Or, as Stephen Mulhall puts it: “In short, on Cavell’s reading … to say that words possess a grammatical schematism is to say with full dialectical rigor that the meaning of words [and paintings, photographs, musical compositions, etc.] are essentially, always already to-be-unfolded; hence, they live and move and have their being in history, with all its complex conditions and vicissitudes.”13 In many contexts and situations, perhaps most, the pressures of history do not perforce impinge on the dialectical development of established and reestablished artistic conventions. But in the case of the “Apocalypse” that permeated postwar French modernism, and regardless of Hantaï’s Hungarian origins, it’s hard for me to see how it could not. Indeed, there are two salient historical moments that Warnock describes in relative detail as having an impact on Hantaï’s work: the Budapest uprising in 1956 and the French anti-immigration Pasqua laws of 1993/1997. But was it really the case that Hantaï only concerned himself with historical events when they concerned him personally? Again, I find this hard to imagine.
My second bone of contention has to do with Warnock’s interpretation of Hantaï’s so-called “subjective colors” that mix optically in the nervous network of the beholder’s eye. As Warnock describes Hantaï’s use of “phenomenal color effects,” they “heighten the immaterial and unlocalizable chromatic impressions produced by the optical interaction of pigmented areas and blank reserves” (SH 194). One reviewer of Hantaï’s work, describing the effect of what the nineteenth-century chemist and optical scientist Michel-Eugène Chevreul famously termed “simultaneous contrast” (although Warnock doesn’t use the term) thus wrote of the artist’s “ever changing colors: lilacs, mauves, grayish or more rose-tinted mauves, depending on the intensity and angle of the light” such that there appears “an absolute of immateriality and delocalization, because no colored matter corresponded to the real color of the canvases, because the lilac was not present but as called, suggested, provoked by the encounter of eye and light” (SH 210). For Warnock, the fact that the “colors, exposed to the contingencies of beholding, combine to produce [a] phenomenal bloom” serves as “a powerful, unexpected reminder that there is no reading that is not finite and no escape from the contingencies of situation” (SH 215). Although Warnock’s claim for simultaneous contrast—that all readings are bound to the contingencies of a situation down to the individual beholder—may sound on the face of things like a version of Cavell’s “definite contexts,” it differs in a couple of important ways. First and above all, as Cavell stresses, our participation in “forms of life” require “mutual attunement or agreement in criteria,” and to attain such attunement, we cannot look to the private chromatic effects of simultaneous contrast that, no longer bound to the surface of the canvas, are “delocalized” as an idiosyncratic and uncommunicable experience within each individual viewer (TCR 168).14 Simultaneous contrast, in other words, varies wildly not only from person to person based on a near infinite variety of factors but within a specific viewer from one moment to the next. As a result, the “phenomenal bloom” that Warnock describes produces a purely subjective experience of color rather than “mutual attunement or agreement in criteria.” And by the same token and for similar reasons, once the meaning of a given artwork is given over to the contingencies of its site—“abandoned,” as Jacques Derrida describes it, to the “essential drift” of each specific situation—then as Walter Benn Michaels notes, “the same mark [or color, etc.] in different contexts will be understood to have different meanings and that the author’s attempts to control the meaning of his or her utterance is in principle doomed to failure, since for the utterance to ever function as an utterance (for the mark to mean), it must be able to function in contexts other than the one in which it was produced.”15 Or, put otherwise, our experience of a given work by Hantaï will change according to the foibles of our internal physiology and corresponding optical response just as it will change according the lighting conditions (etc.) of one museum context over another, but the meaning of the work will not. What is finite, in other words, is not the “contingencies of situation,” which, changing from viewer to viewer and moment to moment, are in fact theoretical infinite, but the meaning of a work, which doesn’t change.
I’ll end as I started, with a tangential thought: reading Warnock’s book, it felt to me like the product of time. Necessarily so. This is the kind of interpretive writing that requires painstaking research, long hours of looking, careful writing, editing, and rewriting, and years of thought. Maybe the problem with so much art historical writing is that it just happens too fast?
My sincere thanks are due to nonsite.org for organizing this forum, and to Matthew Bowman, Harry Cooper, and Gordon Hughes for their thoughtful and challenging contributions. Reading and engaging closely with another scholar’s work is an act of generosity, requiring a serious investment of time and labor. Naturally, I am pleased by their many positive comments on my book. We disagree on various matters—it would, I suppose, be a rather dull conversation if we didn’t—but they are disagreements worth airing, and ones that have repeatedly stimulated me to think about and beyond my book in fresh ways. I am grateful to all three writers for making space for Simon Hantaï and the Reserves of Painting in their libraries and in their lives.
In the course of their responses, my interlocutors make various speculative references to artists and writers they would have liked to see discussed, or discussed in greater detail, in relation to Hantaï, from Jean Dubuffet and Maurice Blanchot to Jean Paulhan and Lucio Fontana. Others will likely have their own wish lists, and this seems to me right and good for an artist of Hantaï’s depth and breadth. Nonetheless, I will leave such mentions aside in the following. Instead, I shall primarily engage four main topics I take to bear upon the book’s fundaments and core claims. The first of these sections doubles as a brief statement of my overarching orientation to Hantaï’s art, the remaining three move among the responses by Bowman, Cooper, and Hughes as the subject requires. I close with a few odds and ends.
I want to begin with a term that figures crucially in Simon Hantaï and the Reserves of Painting and whose significance is not to be conflated entirely with interpretation.1 That term is “reading,” and it appears throughout my study in several closely related ways. It is, first, integral to what I present as Hantaï’s achievement: namely, his passage from an early fantasy of the automatic message as a phenomenon that eludes reading to his mature understanding of painting as a medium inevitably bound up in it. It is also, consequently, the term that I use most often to describe Hantaï’s relationship to artworks and texts from the past and present alike: the operation by which he makes expressions, both his own and others’, present to himself. And it is, finally, the term that most adequately captures the nature of my own engagement with Hantaï’s paintings and writings, the sense I have sought to make of them.
Here I wish to explicitly remark two objectives. My book lays out what I believe was most essentially at stake for Hantaï at the moment of first painting, publishing, or exhibiting many key works—in other words, his intentions within the context of origin. But I have also, no less crucially, attended to numerous instances in which those very same creations came to signify for him in previously unforeseen ways. Simon Hantaï and the Reserves of Painting is largely a story about the complexities of practice: developments in the studio repeatedly occasioned fresh recognitions on Hantaï’s part regarding his work to date, and those recognitions, in turn, often fed directly into the production of new paintings, writings, and so forth. As such, it is equally a story about the ways in which his works outrun his intentions. Hantaï, I claim, not only grasped that this was happening but came to understand the continued exposure of his oeuvre to reading—its capacity to appear otherwise—as an enabling condition for his signature painting method.2 The 1958-59 canvas Peinture (Écriture rose) marks the turning point, and Bowman and Cooper are right to single it out as the crux of my account as a whole.
Reading, as I aspire to practice it, is necessarily aspectual, as signaled throughout my book by phrases such as “read in this light … ” or “read against this background … ”; but it is not, for all that, arbitrary. Rather, both the light and the background are of the oeuvre. Articulated through, and finally inseparable from, sustained descriptions of specific works and groups of works, the readings in my book require testing in the face of those objects. The plural matters: it is less a question of what any one work means (intrinsically, so to speak) than of how various moments hang together—and how those constellations are reconfigured in time. How this or that aspect matters is inseparable from when it appears significant.
This is, one might note, a decidedly post-Hegelian approach to the work of art, and it is no coincidence that writers such as Georges Bataille, Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, or even Gaston Fessard—all of whom defined and specified their thinking through sustained encounters with Hegelian thought—were key figures for Hantaï, as they have been also for me in the course of making sense of Hantaï’s achievement. But one needn’t see an insistence on reading as a practice that potentially exceeds interpretation as an exclusive hallmark of French thought; Stanley Cavell has his own version of this, one no less pertinent to my purposes. And I would hope that my immense debts to Michael Fried’s writings are clear to all.
This commitment to reading informs all that follows here.
History and historicity
Take, for example, one of the central questions posed by these responses, having to do with the relationship of Hantaï’s work to history. Both Cooper and Hughes suggest that history plays a minor role in my account. By this they mean that I address a limited number of specific sociopolitical events that took place during Hantaï’s lifetime, and it is true, as Hughes notes, that I am primarily interested in two in particular: the Budapest uprising of 1956, which features centrally in chapter three, and the so-called Pasqua laws ratified in France in the nineties, which appear in my concluding pages.3 Hughes, I take it, would be especially interested to pursue pliage’s enmeshment in the large-scale transformations of capitalism in postwar France. I do not deny the potential interest of such a project, should it prove capable of keeping both the formal and the philosophic particularity of Hantaï’s art fully in view.4 My book, however, has a different objective. It seeks to recover the internal logic of a body of work that I claim puts forward a unique understanding of historicity as such. (As Fried has noted, “historicality comes in various forms, not all of them governed by the norms of the social history of art.”5)
This is why the Hungarian uprising occupies such a key position in my narrative. The tragedy in Hantaï’s homeland is not just one of any number of historical occurrences that conceivably could have been discussed in this study, nor does it figure here simply because, as Hughes suggests, “it concerned him personally.” Rather, it is the event more than any other that leads the painter to the mode of historical imagination (he calls it “dynamic eschatology”) at the heart of his mature practice; and that imagination, in turn, is explicitly conceived as a form of reading, the drawing of new connections among elements dispersed in both time and space. Breaking definitively with the fantasy of linear unfolding Hantaï associates with dialectical narratives of both the Hegelian and the Marxian varieties, pliage materializes his newly achieved understanding of the past as a support or ground that has to be gathered up and unfolded anew with every present, with all the reserves and remainders folding invariably engenders.
From this point forward—or rather, from this point up to the dissolution of his pliage practice in the early eighties6—Hantaï steadfastly eschews public commentary on contemporary events, a stance in marked contrast to that of many of his most prominent heirs, from Daniel Buren and Michel Parmentier to the painters variously associated with Supports/Surfaces. His silence on May 1968, a central juncture in postwar French studies, may seem especially surprising. It is nonetheless consistent with his deliberate turn away from the historical genre of the avant-garde manifesto, with what I present as his painting’s appropriation of writing on a deeper level. Continuing in the tradition of spiritual exercise evoked by Écriture rose, much of pliage amounts to a sustained rereading of Hantaï’s own prior work, as when he takes over and transforms some early Surrealist tableaus by way of the Meuns, or Écriture rose itself by way of the Tabulas. In that sense the practice turns “inward.” Yet the paintings never cease to pose the questions that I suggest drove Hantaï at the end of the fifties and that catalyze his turn to folding: “What is the historical being that constitutes us? What is the sense of the history in which we find ourselves? How is truth possible for a being plunged in the perpetually shifting relativism of events? What kind of liberty does he enjoy there?”7 In other words: How do we stand toward one another and the world?
A second question raised by Hughes has to do with what I make of Hantaï’s exploration of phenomenal color, from the eponymous pinkish glow of Écriture rose—an effect originally unforeseen by the painter—to the various hues brought forth by the later pliage work. Hughes zeroes in on my account of Hantaï’s final group of publicly exhibited pliage canvases, the 1982 Tabulas lilas—more specifically, on a review of those works penned by two contemporary critics, Dominique Fourcade and Yves Michaud. (Hughes mistakenly attributes it to “one reviewer,” a slip that is not without interest for what follows.) Praising the white-on-white paintings, which were then on view at the Galerie Jean Fournier, the two men describe the appearance of “ever changing colors: lilacs, mauves, grayish or more rose-tinted mauves, depending on the intensity and angle of the light”; they additionally claim that, in producing these effects, Hantaï’s work has achieved “an absolute of immateriality and delocalization, because no colored matter corresponded to the real color of the canvases, because the lilac was not present but as called, suggested, provoked by the encounter of eye and light” (SH 210).
I pause here to note that Hantaï himself came to resist the ways in which Fourcade and Michaud overlook or in fact cancel the paintings’ materiality, without on that account simply renouncing his interest in phenomenal color. Hughes does not engage this dimension of my argument or the subsequent works by Hantaï to which it refers but instead uses Fourcade and Michaud’s lines to make a larger point about what he sees as the fundamentally misguided nature of any account in which such color effects would play a leading role (and in fact, his essay tacks back and forth between Fourcade and Michaud on the Tabulas lilas and some of my own remarks on Écriture rose without noting the different objects and contexts). His reference throughout is to Cavell’s notion of “definite contexts,” which he glosses by stating: “our participation in ‘forms of life’ require ‘mutual attunement or agreement in criteria.’” Hughes then excludes phenomenal color from this purview, writing: “to attain such attunement, we cannot look to the private chromatic effects of simultaneous contrast that, no longer bound to the surface of the canvas, are ‘delocalized’ as an idiosyncratic and uncommunicable experience within each individual viewer.”
We do well to linger over Hughes’s language. We have just read, in quick succession, that the effects in question are “private”; the experience of them, “idiosyncratic” and “uncommunicable.” He will soon refer to “a purely subjective experience of color,” the italics now serving implicitly to impugn experience itself. Yet nothing in the material Hughes has just quoted supports these heavily freighted descriptors. (Nor, I submit, do they follow from my own descriptions of Écriture rose or the earlier Tabulas that I suggest “rewrite” that landmark work.) For, whatever one makes of their exclusive emphasis on optical effects, Fourcade and Michaud have just detailed at some length exactly what they see; moreover, their shared experience of the colors in question—various shades of lilac (lilas) and mauve—registers as both explaining and confirming the justness of the paintings’ title: they are, indeed, Tabulas lilas, despite the absence of any purplish paint literally applied to their surfaces. The fact that this is a jointly authored text thus turns out to be highly pertinent. Communicating what they have seen, the two critics invite readers to test their perceptions in turn.
But what of that ominous italicization of experience? Here, I think, we feel most clearly the gravitational pull of a vision of interpretation fundamentally at odds with the emphasis on reading at work throughout my book. For what really concerns Hughes is the suggestion that “the meaning of a given artwork” might be “given over to the contingencies of its site.” Turning to Walter Benn Michaels’s critique of the Derridean conception of iteration, Hughes supplements the relevant quote with a bracketed addition to get his point across: the danger is that “the same mark [or color, etc.] in different contexts will be understood to have different meanings”; therefore, “the author’s attempts to control the meaning of his or her utterance is in principle doomed to failure.” Hughes concludes: “our experience of a given work by Hantaï will change according to the foibles of our internal physiology and corresponding optical response just as it will change according to the lighting conditions (etc.) of one museum context over another, but the meaning of the work will not.” This argument claims two things simultaneously. On the one hand, it asks us to see individual colors as invested with specific meanings; this is the upshot of the bracketed addition in the Michaels quote. On the other, it requires that we cleanly separate the actual effects of color in a given Hantaï painting—effects in which the painter himself was deeply invested and that he sometimes used his titles to underscore—from the work’s presumed meaning.
My response is straightforward. The colors of Hantaï’s later pliage paintings do not “have” meanings at all, not in the sense Hughes asks us to imagine—in the sense, so to speak, of properties, to be recovered through interpretations that rigorously bracket out the beholder’s experience.8 (If I drop the “phenomenal,” it is because everything Hughes says about the contingency of called color can and historically has been said about color generally; furthermore, phenomenal color is directly dependent upon applied color.) On the contrary, Hantaï embraces color’s volatility—its inherent fragility—as allegorical of finitude as such. Rooted in commonly shared features of human embodiment, the relevant effects speak to the necessarily aspectual nature of our experience. They therefore have everything to do with how we stand toward works that are, in turn, primordially exposed to beholding.9 Or, to use my preferred term, attuned to what I present as the true revelation of Écriture rose: to reading.
It seems to me, in reading Hughes, that his quarrel is with Hantaï himself, as if the painter were wrong to be interested in this order of color effects—indeed, as if he were operating with an incorrect theory of interpretation. My claim, I suppose, is that we shall miss the sense of Hantaï’s enterprise so long as we seek an interpretation where there is, as it were, “only” reading to be done.10
Philosophy, allegory, theory
A third main thread has to do with the extent to which Hantaï’s painting—and, I suppose, visual art generally—should or should not be understood as a philosophical context. Or, to put matters slightly differently, whether it is right to suggest that works of art pose questions or indeed posit reflections of a philosophical order, whether they themselves “do” philosophy.
The latter formulation is the one Cooper adopts in voicing a concern not simply about the overall tendency of the readings in my book but about passages in his own writing, as well. He picks up on my overarching claim in Part II that pliage “assumes—allegorizes—a new conception of community,” asking rhetorically: “You know what happens when you allegorize, right?” His answer, later in the same paragraph, appears to be that readings of the sort to which I am committed (and which he too has at times put forward) effectively render abstract paintings “representational.”
Reading Cooper’s thoughtful, step-by-step reconstruction of the central argument of my chapter on the Meuns—his test case—it does not seem to me that he fundamentally disagrees with my account, though he does propose ways it might be extended. I appreciate his keen attention to the text and welcome his contributions. Nonetheless, the larger worry he raises about philosophically-inflected readings merits further discussion, and it’s worth noting that one might equally answer his rhetorical question with “no”: we mostly do not know what happens when we allegorize. Not for nothing was the term a contentious one in the early eighties debates about postmodernism.11 My own usage derives largely from Cavell and brings us back to reading. The key passages from The Claim of Reason follow upon the idea of “seeing something as something” (“what Wittgenstein calls ‘interpretation,’” Cavell notes):
Putting together the ideas that noticing an aspect is being struck by a physiognomy; that words present familiar physiognomies; that they can be thought of as pictures of their meaning; that words have a life and can be dead for us; that “experiencing a word” is meant to call attention to our relation to our words; that our relation to pictures is in some respects like our relation to what they are pictures of; —I would like to say that the topic of our attachment to our words is allegorical of our attachments to ourselves and to other persons. … My words are my expressions of my life; I respond to the words of others as their expressions, i.e., respond not merely to what their words mean but equally to their meaning of them. … To imagine an expression (experience the meaning of a word) is to imagine it as giving expression to a soul.12
The idea of the allegory of words is that human expressions, the human figure, to be grasped, must be read. To know another mind is to interpret a physiognomy, and the message of this region of the Investigations is that this is not a matter of “mere knowing.” I have to read the physiognomy, and see the creature according to my reading, and treat it according to my seeing. The human body is the best picture of the human soul—not, I feel like adding, primarily because it represents the soul but because it expresses it. The body is the field of expression of the soul. (TCR 356)
In the encounter with another, seeing is always already reading. Expression, here, appears another name for the allegoresis of the soul as it unfolds into visibility—that is, legibility—by way of the body, with all the opportunities for misreading that inevitably follow. Yet there is no other, notionally more direct way for it to show itself. (In a further step, Cavell recalls that Hegel’s aesthetics give “philosophical expression” to the same conviction, asserting that “[the] human shape [is] the sole sensuous phenomenon that is appropriate to mind” [TCR 357].) I have approached Hantaï’s paintings as fields of expression in roughly this sense: places where thought becomes visible, where Hantaï works out ideas that necessarily take just this form. I would like for my writing to continue the work of articulation I take to be happening within them.
Bowman, for his part, usefully brings in the concept of the “theoretical object,” and indeed some of what I mean by reading in the context of Hantaï’s art is captured by the imperative Bowman associates with such objects: to construe “theory as always already immanent to the artwork.” I nonetheless find myself resisting his claim that the “fundamental question” raised by my book is “where this leaves discourse in correspondence to painting; that is, how do we concretely imagine the transaction between painting and writing?” He suggests that this core issue is “left under-resolved” in my account, “despite all the parallels rendered between painting and writing.”
My concern is that the question, framed in these terms, is ahistorical. Simon Hantaï and the Reserves of Painting does not proceed from the premise that there is a special problem about the relationship between painting and writing generally. Rather, it seeks to understand how writing matters to this painter in particular. Nor do I take my project simply to elaborate parallels between painting and writing; rather, I have sought to show how the status of writing in Hantaï’s practice changes over time. A further claim is that painting and writing in this corpus cannot be thought through satisfactorily apart from the operations that dominate the book’s second part—first folding, then cutting.
Thus, while I find myself in broad agreement with Bowman’s reading of Nancy’s ruminations on plasticity and have no quarrel with the suggestion that some of Nancy’s claims in his writings on François Martin might be read as pertaining, in a general way, to Hantaï’s dépliants of the 1950s, I fail to see how these reflections, in and of themselves, can “help unfold more exactingly how writing becomes constitutive of Hantaï’s practice during and after Écriture rose.” (More exactingly than what?) What risks being lost here is precisely the historicity of the works in question. This absence of historical pressure, I should add, is a source of perennial dissatisfaction to me with Nancy’s essays on visual art generally; it is one reason among others why my book engages him around concepts of spacing, reserve, unworking, and so forth primarily in the context of his writing on community—writing that has then to be rethought through the specifics of Hantaï’s practice at that particular moment.13 (My object, I am tempted to say, is “historico-theoretical.”)
I can’t help wishing Bowman had set his interest in plasticity explicitly in relation with my book-long emphasis on exposure or—the place where these topics arguably converge most obviously—the more focused reflections on painting versus sculpture at the heart of my chapter on the Meuns; this might have clarified how near or far apart we finally stand.
Odds and Ends
1) Hughes is not convinced that at least one of the paintings I describe as possessing “an implicitly ‘writerly’ quality” (SH 36) in fact looks writing-like; I would suggest that he and other interested readers compare the scraped gestures on the canvas with Hantaï’s signature as reproduced on the cover of the Sexe-Prime brochure (SH 48, fig. 16). More generally, he takes issue with my claim that the paintings exhibit a left-to-right movement. I am not going to reargue the point here; I spell out my rationale in the book (for a quick summary, see SH 47), and readers can assess my case for themselves. I will, however, note that the instance in which he suggests I contradict myself concerns a theatrically staged photograph that shows the work in question lying on the floor as opposed to hanging on the wall, the painted surface dramatically foreshortened and partially cropped on all four sides in a rushing oblique view—hardly normal viewing conditions. My reading therefore approaches the photograph as a distinctive visual document in its own right, answerable to the rhetorical imperatives of the brochure in which it appears.
2) I was surprised to read that Cooper believes I do not “comment” on the “foreshadowing of the pliages by the dépliants” Hantaï produced to mark his two defining solo exhibitions of the later fifties. I guess it comes down to what one means by comment. I attend at great length to the phenomenology of folding and unfolding the two brochures in my sustained readings of those objects in chapters two and three (it is hardly happenstance that I already deploy the language of the “unfolded support” with respect to the chronologically later brochure [see SH 81]) and come back to them explicitly from the perspective of Hantaï’s turn to pliage (see SH 123). Dépliant, meanwhile, is left in French throughout to maintain the linguistic link to pliage. It should nonetheless be clear from my extended descriptions that the folding at issue in the brochures is necessarily distinct from the various kinds of folding that result in pliage paintings. That is, whereas “folding” is clearly an important term in Hantaï’s thought long before his mature appropriation of his signature painting method—I underscore another, even earlier instance in which Hantaï’s first published text describes the geometry of Duchamp’s Large Glass as “fold[ing] itself in accordance with the unforeseen twists and turns of desire” (SH 28)—we have to do more with a series of leaps, each one retroactively charging the ones before, than with a straight line. In other words, far from “resist[ing] the usual emphasis on pliage as the dominant lens for Hantaï interpretation,” as Cooper suggests I do, I repeatedly ask: What kind of folding, and to what end? This is a plea in favor of greater specificity in the face of different objects.