The Artwork Caught by the Tail: Two on Francis Picabia from MIT
‘They’re so cold, these scholars! May lightening strike their food so that their mouths learn how to eat fire!’ This was the epigraph (from Nietzsche) to Picabia’s first collection of poems in 1917. George Baker’s The Artwork Caught by the Tail seems to promise, at last, some truly fired up scholarship. ‘Art history has never looked like this before’ gasps the blurb on the metallic gold dustwrapper. ‘But then again, Dada has never looked like art history.’
This identification of the text with its topic (a scholarship finally suited to its subject) is continually reiterated through the book. In a paradox that is only appropriate to Dada’s contrarianism and (self-)negation, we learn in the introduction that ‘…the best, if not the only way to introduce a book on Dada is to open with a statement of that which the book will not be. And so: This will not be a book on Dada’. Yet, through ‘a strategy that art history has not yet been able to envision’ the study will ‘remake its own art historical form in the guise of the Dada work it brings to light’. Apropos the exclamations of ‘Voila!’ and ‘Ici!’ with which Picabia announced Dada in a 1915 issue of 291magazine, Baker proclaims, ‘And so it began with a voila. And so too does this book.’ (His first and subsequent chapters then recurrently open with the words ‘Here is an image of Picabia’.)
Throughout the text it is pointed out how previous art historians (not named) have failed to think outside the box in the way Dada surely requires. They have overlooked significant works, facts, episodes or revealing conjunctions, failed to understand whole aspects of Picabia and Dada. But this is perhaps inevitable, the implication is, given the willed elusiveness and contrariness of the man and the movement. His 1922 exhibition at the Dalmau Gallery in Barcelona, for example, has been ‘largely forgotten’, featuring works that have ‘never received their due…hardly received even the beginnings of an interpretation…destined to be forgotten’. It has been ‘relagated to the trash heap of modernist art history, exiled from any of its central accounts, a lonely footnote to the dissolution of the Dada movement…’ And Baker wonders if Picabia’s trip to Barcelona to mount a major show in (supposedly) an obscure venue, ‘didn’t slip out of the history books precisely because it cannot be read’. He elaborates:
I think it means – let me venture this at least – that the whole endeavor was particularly, intimately attached to Dada, to its own brand of inscrutability. It means that the Barcelona show was deeply representative of what Dada means (for me), part and parcel of a movement that was never more powerful that when it was in full flight [Baker means retreat, presumably, not élan] or when it was devolving into absolute disintegration. Dada was a complete success in just those moments when it could only be judged a total failure. When it missed its target. When it self imploded. To proclaim its death was, then, to do its work. It was to reveal Dada’s work as a form of death, of non-work, of what I have called “unworking” and dissolution. (p.214)
Understandably, then, conventional art history has quite missed the point. It has accepted the apparent marginality of certain critical events or images, settled for accepted evaluations, familiar assumptions about what Dada (and perhaps modernism in general) is – about which its major figures are and what their works mean. By contrast, Baker warns us, he will be ‘rupturing the monograph structure perhaps definitively’, producing an ‘anti-monograph’ that in the true spirit of its subject will reimagine its material, offer ‘counter-intuitive writhings’ and a ‘heated conversation’, adopting a ‘methodology of the between’, discovering a dialogue among media and artists, a wrenching and reconfiguring of fundamental symbolic terms. It will forge a critique that might both mediate between and get beyond previous dead-locked models (broadly Freudian and Marxist) for thinking about modernism and the Avant-Garde.
Wow. Any reader weary of post-structuralist pieties, or of old-fashioned canonical narratives, might surely seek refreshment here. Artists themselves might even be moved to read the book. One has already plugged it in Art Forum as a personal favorite; and a peer endorsement on the back cover calls Baker ‘one of the few art historians capable of writing for artists, making artists the primary beneficiaries of their thinking, and also’ (just to be clear) ‘writing for the purpose of inciting new artistic production.’
In fact, truth to tell, the experience of reading The Artwork Caught by the Tail is very similar to that afforded by much recent institutional scholarship. Bataille, Lacan, Marx, Freud, Saussure and Benjamin are the key thinkers invoked. Derrida, Deleuze & Guattari, Foucault, Barthes, Baudrillard and Jameson are heavily referenced. October-associated authorities such as Krauss, Bois and Buchloh are all on hand. Meanwhile the rhetorical tone reminds one of T. J. Clark, among others, in its tendency, despite – or rather by – parading high intellectual seriousness, shamelessly to glamorize its subject, and by association its own intellectual project.:
A marginal period, a marginal figure, a blind spot for art history: It is the argument of this book that from this half-forgotten, not-yet-congealed historical moment can emerge a rereading of the terms of Dada, a revision of its central practices. More: From this nebulous blind-spot, from the margins and the borderlands of the interregnum, a reversal can be achieved, a shifting of Picabia from the margins of modernism to its center, as well as a revision of the actions and the progressions of the avant-garde in general and of its supposedly central formal or critical paradigms. (p.10)
Of course to recognize that all this drama belongs (pace protestations) very much within the arena of academia is not to dismiss the book. Academics are as real an audience as any other group – say artists (many of whose practices are anyway now closely associated with academic theory), or ‘general readers’. It is a skewed logic that would seriously suggest Dada art needs a Dada kind of art history, any more than Impressionist art would require impressionist art history. Picabia himself would have no time for this book, but that hardly condemns it.
What Baker really offers, perfectly reasonably, is high-end, post-modern theorising, with just a touch of unconventionality in honour of his subject’s way-outness. The book’s only real eccentricity comes in the form of a sixty-page epilogue – an apparently loose, but no doubt carefully crafted, ‘conversation’ between various voices. Phrases and ideas from (among many others) Picabia himself, Tzara, Joyce and Beckett, plus various theorists and writers drawn on earlier in the book, are interwoven with speculative authorial (or anonymous, disembodied) remarks and questions. Broadly it seems intended to reiterate the themes and issues in a way that better suggests the principles of dialogue and ‘the between’ essential to Baker’s notion of Picabian Dada. It reads a little like dictaphone ruminations the author might have made while deep in the process of redrafting his text. Some may find it engaging, others (as Baker acknowledges) embarrassing.
But what new insights and propositions do we really get from this book? Bringing Picabia from the margins to the center of art historical discussion is in itself hardly an issue: he has long been a canonical figure for his Dada work and early abstract painting, and the reputation of his later career is now firmly revived too. (For a truly overdue reassessment art historians might turn to his neglected colleague Serge Charchoune, who showed remarkable abstractions at the Dalmau Gallery in 1916 and 1917, who conceived of an abstract form of ‘painting-film’, who contributed mechanomorphic drawings to 391, whose vast body of experimental poetry, prose and aphorisms, mostly in Russian, remain unknown and whose long career yielded some of the most individual painting of the twentieth century. His diagrammatic ‘portrait’ of Picabia and his especially conspicuous contrubution to the latter’s key painting L’oeil cacodylate appear in this book but go unmentioned. Even a reimagined art history of the marginal has its blind spots and its unquestioned priorities.)
The real substance of this book, though, accrues around two or three main ideas. One is to do with medium specificity, a second to do with symbolic economies and exchange (borrowing from the thought of Jean-Joseph Goux); and a third (welcome) notion is – put very crudely – that Picabia should be seen as less of a nihilistic anti-artist than he often has been; that he found, through and beyond Dada’s rupturing and refusal of meaning, a new space for affirmation and signification, indeed for joy and love.
Regarding medium specifity, Baker discusses the output of Picabia (and his collaborators/colleagues, primarily here Duchamp, Man Ray , Erik Satie and René Clair) under category headings. ‘Dada Painting’, ‘Dada Drawing’, ‘Dada Photography’ and ‘Dada Cinema’ each get a chapter. It is not clear why other ‘disciplines’ such as ‘Dada Poetry’, ‘Dada Event’ or ‘Dada Publishing’ do not feature, but the important intention seems to be to resist usual assumptions that Dada implies the mere dissolution of art forms and genres (a dissolution typified in the readymade taken as a proclamation that ‘from today, medium is dead’), or that Dada can be in any simple or inevitable way defined against a modernist mainstream that fetishized ‘pure’ form. A complex idea of medium specificity has been on the agenda for a while in Rosalind Krauss’s writing, and clearly for Baker the insistence on individual media (and then their interplay) is intricately bound up with other concerns including Picabia’s short-circuiting of symbolic economies and his surprise ‘happy ending’. Yet the impression (on initial reads admittedly) is that the medium categorizations are not in fact deeply structural in this book. Baker’s close and clever – sometimes preposterously strained – readings of many key works do not seem to significantly rely on or emerge from his media divisions.
It might be relevant simply to note here, though, that Picabia, for all his extra-curricula dilettantism, was undeniably a painter making paintings, as evident in the current show Duchamp, Man Ray, Picabia at the Tate in London. Here the feebleness of Man Ray’s late noodlings and the progressive dilution of Duchamp’s efforts (or, in the case of Etant Donnés, his dreary silliness) are in sad contrast to the energy and self-renewal of Picabia’s painting, culminating in the impasto and spot pictures. His power, and indeed his liberation, is achieved through – while of course not guaranteed by – full engagement with an art form. His colleagues’ apparently greater openness ends in lassitude and insignificance. Picabia might be similarly a ‘real’ poet – a practitioner in the specific medium of poetry – judging from the new, densely annotated translations by Marc Lowenthal. But Lowenthal’s volume alone is not sufficient to demonstrate that. Without the French in parallel one is at a loss to really appreciate and evaluate Picabia’s radically disjointed verse. Indeed facsimile reproduction on facing pages would be necessary in many cases to register how the typography, layout and juxtaposition of images could effect meaning. Some effort is made to follow mise-en-page and shifts of font size, and some of the diagrammatic (mechanomorph) ‘poems’ feature as line illustrations; but it is very hard to assess Picabia’s poetry just from Lowenthal’s book. One can never be sure when one is lost in the work’s intentionally scrambled meaning and when one is just lost in the translation. (Matters are made worse by interference from the volume’s own graphic design style, which borrows from early modernist publicity for each title page, and gives a spurious impression of transcribing Picabia’s originals.) Even so, one is conscious of how mesmerizing, rich and startling some of Picabia’s collaging, randomizing, and destabilizing of language can be. And it is the poetry that remains interesting (as poetry, however crazy), while the odd, uncategorizable pieces of polemic, fragments of theatrical projects, pseudo manifestos and the like are amusing, but of essentially historical interest.
The most difficult strand in Baker’s book, finally, involves his use (and, he admits, abuse) of J.-J. Goux’s elaborations on Marxist ideas of exchange values – concepts of ‘general equivalents’ governing ‘symbolic economies’. (The thinking has been previously co-opted for art theory in Rosalind Krauss’s The Picasso Papers.) Very broadly, the notion has to do with ultimate value sources or authorities (the Father for the ‘exchange of subjects’, the Phallus in transacting objects of desire, Money itself for commodities, Language for semiotic exchange) exerting their power while – and through – becoming necessarily reserved, intouchable, removed from direct use in pure form. Baker suggests all sorts of ways in which Picabia and Dada might be seen to be transgressively apprehending/annulling the withdrawn but all-controlling general equivalent, via concerns with oedeipal patricide; transgendering/ hermaphroditism; masturbation/castration; conception without father/mother; counterfeiting/devaluation (loss of the Gold Standard); demystification of autograph/signature; liberation of art from representation/representation from reality, and so on. But this précis no doubt garbles and misrepresents what is a super-complicated schema, further inflected by, among other things, Saussure’s ideas of linguistic sign, Benjamin’s ideas of the loss of the unique artwork’s auratic authority, Barthes’ ideas about photography’s absent (past) subjects, and Freud’s ideas (via Deleuze via Kaja Silverman) of identity as structured in relation to Father and/or Mother. Along the way many of Baker’s individual observations may seem questionable (e.g. he describes the mechanomorph drawings as ‘tracings’, closely related to photography and thus about an ‘indexical’ relationship to the absent referent); but the reader may be too intimidated by the abstruseness of the arguments to risk a quibble. Elsewhere Baker is silent on things that seem to cry out for comment, such as how Picabia’s endless series of cliché Spanish Ladies relates to issues (central here) of reproduction and series vs. originality and uniqueness; or more glaringly how Dada’s recurrent Christian references might relate to the ultimate ‘general equivalent’ (surely) of a transcendent God. But again such matters would be best raised only by a someone fully versed in the academic thought being drawn upon.
Baker is of course right that commentators have not got far in interpreting Picabia’s work. But that is true for many of even the most celebrated canonical artists (often indeed overrated precisely because no rigorous criticism has been brought to bare), let alone for artists genuinely (and by a similar logic) underrated. This book certainly takes a strenuous look at Picabia’s Dada works, and perhaps its main insights are such that they could not have been put much more accessibly for the lay audience. But much more remains to be said, much more straightforwardly. Take for instanceThe Merry Widow (La veuve joyeuse), a canvas bearing a photograph of Picabia in his car, pasted above a line drawing of same (p.198). Baker’s reading is typically super-sophisticated. He sees the two images implying a ‘proliferating chain’ like frames in a film strip. He sees a ‘single self image erupting in to two’. He sees Picabia ‘married to his machine’. He gets intimations of promiscuity, of liberation from patriarchal law. He sees photography opening up for Dada ‘a scene of alternate or entirely repressed symbolic economies’. He sees the work in dialogue with Duchamp’s Fresh Widow and Large Glass, an allegory of artistic media (photography above drawing) with photography occupying the zone of the Bride (in terms of the Large Glass) and thus being ‘somehow linked to gender and feminity again’. He sees painting and drawing ‘not replaced by the photograph, but…infected by it’. Thus,
The work of appropriation or the copy that lay at the heart of Picabia’s mechanomorphs was both confirmed here as a photographic principle and (however subtly) shifted. Now, rather than being replaced by the photograph, the work of art starts from it. The photograph lies as an initial model for the work of art – a model that does not replace but lies in communication with both painting and drawing, which proliferate from the photograph as starting point. However, to place the photograph at the origin of the work of art is to place what has been called a “copy without an original” at the place of origin. We seem once again to have veered close to the groundless ground that belongs to the maternal signifier, [it is there that Baker locates Picabia’s ultimate positivity] or at least to a symbolic economy outside the law of the general equivalent form.(p.205-6)
All that, the non-academic will sigh, is as maybe. But The Merry Widow is certainly a very incisive experimental commentary on the nature of art and the condition of painting (the raw canvas is a conspicuous signifier), of drawing, of photography, of linguistic naming and describing, of representation in general. The complex conventions and implications of titling, signing, dating and labelling – literally with a label in one case– are all wryly pointed up (to the extent that the details of title, date, medium, dimensions, ownership, location and copyright restriction, all of which this book dutifully prints below the reproduction, have their own particular absurdity revealed). The title, suggesting a loss that is really a liberation, of course may allude to painting freed (by photography, partly) from ‘faithful’ (or any) depiction. The ironies and ambiguities at work in all the possible relationships between all kinds of signs and what they signify – this is of course the very stuff of the work. The fact that the author – the signatory – is also (in one way, or more) the subject, further multiplies the puzzle. In how many ways is Picabia ‘in’ this work, we find ourselves asking. So much is so significant here: that he looks at the viewer; that he cannot have taken the photo; that he presumably did make the drawing (of the photo, of himself looking now at himself); that his intentions in the work are knowingly, inevitably, open-ended; that he is nevertheless firmly in the driving seat; that the car, as well as the photograph, ‘dates’ the work to the machine age, as much as the numbers ‘1921’ at the lower right; that a rude horn features prominently (sounds can also be signs, and the double image here is a visual ‘beep-beep’ to get our attention); that the work is such that we cannot tell whether the small rectangular hole in the lower left of the canvas (patched from behind) is ‘intentional’, another authorial interrogation of the field of signification, or some later incidental damage; that Picabia smiles mischievously and saucily, not just at his own art games but as if he would make a widow merry, or even somehow be the merry widow (he looks like a sporty dyke); that the title could be pronounced ‘la verve joyeuse’….
So much still needs saying, in plain words, about this and so many of Picabia’s works. About why they are so terrific (when they are; and why not when not). The Merry Widow, from 1921, makes so much subsequent neo-Dada art look so utterly obsolete and routine. This kind of brilliant explicitauto-critique in art by definition cannot be sustained, and Picabia’s salvation (aside from, or perhaps congruent with, whatever liberation he achieves from the tyranny of the ‘general equivalent’ in George Baker’s terms) is that he internalised the lessons of his Dada phase and went on to be an engaging, risky, variable, powerful painter.