17 September 2012

Blank Generations

Related to a topic I touched on earlier, and will likely -- in some form or another -- return to again in future posts...

In the latest edition of the e-flux journal, Amelia Groom writing about the legacy of the monochromic tableau, offering a hopscotching jaunt through its various manifestations over the years. From Wittgenstein to White-Out, from Malevich's Suprematist black square to Rauschenberg's Erased DeKooning to Alfredo Jaar’s May 1, 2011. As palimpsest or formalist endgaming tactic, as the result of emptying-out or of everything-at-once, as deliberate and incidental. A musing on what is and what isn't (or once might've been) there, or on what we see when there's no "there" to see.

Groom's account largely favors the white version of the monochrome -- the proposal of the blank, or emptied, tableau as a sort of pictoral "degree zero." Recurring through the history of 20th-century art in various contexts, the monochrome is often cited as the most extreme exemplar of modernism's alleged "puristic" impulses. But aesthetically, the monochrome has always has a theoretically slippery legacy -- constituting more of a neither/nor than as an either/or proposition for the viewer. Despite her passing mention of "Modernity’s dream of the tabula rasa," Groom suggests as much by citing earlier precendents, particularly by including the parodic monochromes done in the 1880s by Paul Bilhaud and Alphonse Allais of the Parisian Incohérents group. For instance, Allais titled his all-red monochrome "Tomato Harvest by Apoplectic Cardinals on the Shore of the Red Sea," a sort of forerunner to what would become a recurrent cartoonists' joke in the century that followed...

In some ways, the monochrome can be seen as a theoretic hybrid, the irresolute product of two competing strains of early modernist aesthetic thought. The first part being the rationalist, reductive formal logic of High Modernist "pure abstraction," replete with all its Neo-Platonic positivist baggage. The other part is that of an earlier impulse -- the mystical, Romantic, skeptical and anti-rational sensibilities of Symbolism. Each could be said to aim ultimately for a certain sort of "transcendence" or another; yet each tendency plotted different routes, since each having conceived of the destination in unlike terms. The former's claims to rationalism and objectivity, versus the latter's aesthetics of the sensate and subjective correlatives, the unknowable sublime, ineffability and metaphysical uncertainty, and the like. In keeping with that neither/nor nature, it inherently (and invariably) amounts to a visual paradox.*

The everything-and-nothing trope that runs throughout Groom's essay prompts me think of another, even earlier, precursor -- the famous "black page" from Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy. Sterne's black page has been interpreted as serving two purposes. By one account, the page is regarded as an assertion about the limits of language and of thought itself -- the inexpressibility of grief, the incomprehensibility of death and non-existence -- as the narrator contemplates the passing of the character Parson Yorick. (That which surpasses articulation, devours the page, the mode of address momentarily giving way to an excess of alingual signification.) Yet, at the same time, the page exemplifies something else. That being a bit of proto-pomo monkeyshines on the part of the author; of Sterne not only setting challenges for the book's typesetters and publisher, but also a "meta" exercise in drawing the readers' attention to the format of the printed book as an object, as well as to the artifices of the literary narrative itself.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

* I suppose one could reduce these two conflicting positions under the respective rubrics of philosophic versus the poetic tendencies. And one could argue that there's a third aesthetic thread interwoven with this history -- the more literalist and archly materialistic impulse of the Constructivist orientation. What's more, it could be argued that it's ultimately this Constructivist approach that served and the underlying principle behind the monochromes frequent reappearance throughout the 20th century. Groom's article, curiously, allows almost no room for considerations along these lines. Admittedly, my account above is couched exclusively in terms of the history of painting, where Groom cites it in the context of more contemporary, non-painterly media. But since she makes no distinctions to this effect, I suppose the divergence is neither here nor there.

No comments:

  © Blogger template 'Solitude' by Ourblogtemplates.com 2008

Back to TOP