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Pictures

Author(s): Douglas Crimp


Source: October, Vol. 8 (Spring, 1979), pp. 75-88
Published by: The MIT Press
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Pictures

DOUGLAS

CRIMP

Pictureswas the titleof an exhibitionof theworkof TroyBrauntuch,Jack


Goldstein,SherrieLevine, RobertLongo, and Philip Smith,whichI organizedfor
ArtistsSpace in the fall of 1977.1In choosing the word picturesfor this show, I
hoped to convey not only the work's most salient characteristic-recognizable
images-but also and importantlytheambiguitiesitsustains.As is typicalofwhat
has come to be called postmodernism,this new work is not confinedto any
particular medium; instead,it makes use of photography,film,performance,as
well as traditional modes of painting, drawing, and sculpture. Picture, used
colloquially, is also nonspecific:a picture book mightbe a book of drawingsor
photographs,and in common speech a painting,drawing,or printis oftencalled,
simply,a picture.Equally importantfor mypurposes,picture,in its verbform,
can referto a mentalprocess as well as the productionof an aestheticobject.
The following essay takes its point of departurefromthe catalogue textfor
issues and addressesan aestheticphenomenon
Pictures;but it focuseson different
implicitlyextendingto many more artiststhan the original exhibitionincluded.
Indeed, although the examples discussed and illustratedhere are very few,
necessitatedbythenewnessand relativeobscurityof thiswork,I thinkit is safeto
say that what I am outlining is a predominantsensibilityamong the current
generation of younger artists,or at least of that group of artistswho remain
committedto radical innovation.
1.
Pictures,New York,Committeeforthe Visual Arts,1977.The exhibitionsubsequentlytraveled
to theAllen ArtMuseum,Oberlin,theLos AngelesInstituteofContemporayArt,and theUniversityof
Colorado Museum, Boulder. I wish to thankHelene Winer,Directorof ArtistsSpace, on threecounts:
forinvitingme to organizethe ArtistsSpace exhibition,therebygivingme theopportunityof seeinga
wide varietyof currentworkin studios;forsteeringme in thegeneraldirectionoftheworkI have come
to findso engaging; and, most particularly,forher commitmentto showing the workof a group of
young artistsof major significancewhich would otherwisehave remainedpublicly invisible.

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76

OCTOBER

Art and illusion, illusion and art


Are you reallyhere or is it only art?
Am I reallyhere or is it only art?
-Laurie Anderson
In his famous attack against minimal sculpture,writtenin 1967,the critic
Michael Fried predictedthe demise of art as we then knew it, thatis, the artof
modernistabstractpaintingand sculpture."Artdegenerates,"he warnedus, "as it
approaches the condition of theatre,"theaterbeing, according to Fried's argument, "what lies between the arts."2 And indeed, over the past decade we have
witnesseda radical break with that modernisttradition,effectedpreciselyby a
preoccupationwith the "theatrical."The workthathas laid mostseriousclaim to
our attentionthroughoutthe seventieshas been situatedbetween,or outside the
individual arts,with the resultthat the integrityof the various mediums-those
categoriestheexplorationofwhose essencesand limitsconstitutedtheveryproject
of modernism-has dispersedinto meaninglessness.3Moreover,if we are to agree
with Fried that "the conceptof artitself. . . [is] meaningful,or wholly meaningful, only within the individual arts," then we must assume that art, too, as an
ontological category,has been put in question. What remain are just so many
aesthetic activities,but judging from theircurrentvitalitywe need no longer
regretor wish to reclaim, as Fried did then,the shatteredintegrityof modernist
painting and sculpture.
What then are thesenew aestheticactivities?Simply to enumeratea list of
mediums to which "painters" and "sculptors" have increasinglyturned-film,
photography,video, performance-will not locate themprecisely,since it is not
merelya question of shiftingfromthe conventionsof one medium to those of
another. The ease with which many artistsmanaged, some ten years ago, to
change mediums-from sculpture,say,to film(Serra,Morris,et al.) or fromdance
to film (Rainer)-or were willing to "corrupt" one medium with another-to
presenta workof sculpture,forexample, in the formof a photograph(Smithson,
Long)-or abjured any physical manifestationof thework(Barry,Weiner)makes
it clear thattheactual characteristics
of themedium,perse, cannotany longertell
us much about an artist'sactivity.
But what disturbedFried about minimalism,what constituted,forhim, its
was not only its "perverse"location betweenpainting and sculptheatricality,
2.
Michael Fried, "Art and Objecthood," Artforum,V, 10 (Summer 1967), 21; reprintedin
Minimal Art: a Critical Anthology,ed. Battcock,New York, E. P. Dutton, 1968, pp. 116-47. All
subsequentquotations fromFried are fromthis article;the italics throughoutare his.
3.
This is not to say that there is not a great deal of art being produced today that can be
of itsmedium,only thatthatproductionhas become thoroughly
categorizedaccordingto theintegrity
academic; take,forexample, the glut of so-calledpatternpainting,a modernist-derived
stylethathas
not only been sanctionedwith a stylename, but has generateda criticalcommentary,
and constituted
an entirecategoryof selectionforthe most recentWhitneyMuseum biennial exhibition.

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77

Pictures

ture,4but also its "preoccupationwith time-more precisely,withthedurationof


experience."It was temporalitythatFried considered"paradigmaticallytheatria threatto modernistabstraction.And in this,too, Fried'sfears
cal," and therefore
were well founded.For if temporalitywas implicitin theway minimal sculpture
was experienced,then it would be made thoroughlyexplicit-in factthe only
possible mannerof experience-for much of theart thatfollowed.The mode that
was thus to become exemplaryduring the seventieswas performance- and not
only thatnarrowlydefinedactivitycalled performanceart,but all thoseworksthat
were constitutedin a situation and fora durationby the artistor thespectatoror
both together.It can be said quite literallyof theartof theseventiesthat"you had
to be there."For example, certainof thevideo installationsof PeterCampus, Dan
Graham, and Bruce Nauman, and morerecentlythesound installationsof Laurie
Andersonnot only requiredthepresenceof thespectatorto become activated,but
were fundamentallyconcerned with that registrationof presence as a means
toward establishingmeaning.5What Fried demanded of art was what he called
to it as a stateof "grace") in
"presentness,"a transcendentcondition (he referred
which "at everymomenttheworkitselfis whollymanifest";whathe fearedwould
replace that condition as a result of the sensibility he saw at work in
minimalism-what has replaced it-is presence,the sine qua non of theater.
The presencebeforehim was a presence.
-Henry James
An art whose strategiesare thus grounded in the literal temporalityand
presence of theaterhas been the crucial formulatingexperiencefora group of
artistscurrentlybeginning to exhibit in New York. The extentto which this
experiencefullypervadestheirworkis not,however,immediatelyapparent,forits
theatricaldimensionshave been transformed
and, quite unexpectedly,reinvested
in thepictorialimage. If manyof theseartistscan be said to have been apprenticed
in the fieldof performanceas it issued fromminimalism,theyhave nevertheless
begun to reverseits priorities,making of theliteralsituationand durationof the
performedeventa tableau whose presenceand temporalityare utterlypsychologized; performancebecomesjust one of a numberof ways of "staging" a picture.
Thus the performancesof Jack Goldstein do not, as had usually been the case,
involve the artist'sperformingthework,butratherthepresentationofan eventin
such a mannerand at such a distance thatit is apprehendedas representationof that which is
representationnot, however, conceived as the re-presentation
but
condition
of
that which is
as
the
unavoidable
of
even
prior,
intelligibility
present.
4.
Friedwas referring
to Donald Judd'sclaim that"the bestnew workin thelast fewyearshas been
neitherpaintingnor sculpture,"made in his article"SpecificObjects,"ArtsYearbook,8 (1964),74-82.
5.
Rosalind Krauss has discussed this issue in many of her recentessays,notablyin "Video: the
Aestheticsof Narcissism," October, 1 (Spring 1976), and "Notes on the Index: SeventiesArt in
America," Parts 1 and 2, October,3 (Spring 1977) and 4 (Fall 1977).

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JackGoldstein.StillsfromThe Jump.1978.
Two years ago Goldstein presentedTwo Fencers at the Salle Patino in

feetfromtheaudience,bathedin thedimredglowof
Geneva.Distancedsomefifty
musictakenfromHollywood
a spotlight,
accompaniedbythesoundofrecorded
theirathletic
in
enacted
two
men
swashbuckler
soundtracks,
routine.6
fencing
gear
as
if
as
present.Like
yetjust certainly,
spectral,
Theyappeared
deja vu,remote,
and gymnastof Goldstein'searlierperformances,
the contortionist
theywere
looked
nevertheless
of
the
but
in
the
there,performing
space
spectators, they
After
one
vivid
of
but
like
the
nebulous
virtual,
dematerialized,
images holograms.
fencerhad appearedto defeatthe other,the spotlightwentdown,but the
continued;leftin darknessto listento a replayofthebackground
performance
to remember
thatimageoffencingthathad
the
audience
wouldattempt
music,
In
if
in
this
as
memory.
alreadyappeared
doublingbymeansof themnemonic
mechanism
the
by whichmemoryfunctionsis made
experience, paradoxical
the
is
replaced.(Roget'sThesaurusgivesa child's
apparent: image forgotten,
ofmemory
as "thethingI forget
definition
with.")
Goldstein's"actors"do notperform
roles;theysimplydo what
prescribed
would
the
German
as
do, professionally,
Hollywood-trained
they
ordinarily
just
in
and
on
film
A
and a
barks
cue
Goldstein's
GermanShepherd,
shepherd
growls
in a golden
ballerinadescendsfrompointein A BalletShoe,and a lion framed
Thesefilmsshoweither
logo tosseshis headandroarsin Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
or
with
little
or no difference,
that
are
repeated
simple,split-second
gestures
exhaust
themselves.
for
actions
that
to
more
extended
Here,
appear
slightly
example,is thescenarioforA BalletShoe:thefootofa dancerin toeshoeis shown
on pointe;a pairofhandscomesin fromeithersideofthefilmframeandunties
theribbonoftheshoe;thedancermovesoffpointe;theentirefilmlaststwenty-two
seconds.The sensethatitsgestureis a completeone is therefore
byits
mitigated
and
multiplepsychological tropologicalresofragmented
images (generating
6.
Goldstein's phonograph records,intendedboth as independentworks and, in some cases, as
sometimesno longer than a
soundtracksforperformances,
are made by splicing togetherfragments,
fewseconds,of sound fromexistingrecordings,paralleling his use of stockfootageto make films.

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nances) and its truncatedduration;the whole is but a fragment.


The impressionofa completedaction (one fencerdefeatstheother)combines
with a structureof repetition(the matchis one of constantattackand parry)so
that no action is reallybroughtto closure; the performanceor filmstops,but it
cannot be said to end. In this respect the recent film entitled The Jump is
exemplary.Shown as a loop, it is a potentiallyendlessrepetitionofrepetitions.A
diverleaps, somersaults,plunges, and disintegrates.This happens veryquickly,
and thenit happens again, and still a thirdtime.The camerafollowsthecourses
are not
of the threedivers,framingthemin tightclose-up,so thattheirtrajectories
of
each
like
fireworks
into
the
center
diver
bursts
discernable.
Rather,
graphically
the frameand withina split second disappears.
The Jumpwas made byrotoscopingstocksuper-8footageof high divesand
lens thatdispersedtheimage into
shootingtheanimationthrougha special-effects
jewellike facets.7The resultantimage,sometimesrecognizableas diver,sometimes
amorphous, is a shimmering,red silhouetteseen against a black field.Time is
extremelycompressed(the runningtimeis twenty-six
seconds)and yetextremely
distended(shown as a loop, it plays endlessly).But the film's temporalityas
experienceddoes not residein its actual duration,nor of coursein anythinglike
the synthetictime of narrative.Its temporalmode is the psychological one of
anticipation.We wait foreach dive,knowingmoreor less when it will appear,yet
each time it startlesus, and each time it disappears beforewe can really take
satisfactionin it, so we wait forits next appearance; again we are startledand
again it eludes us. In each of Goldstein'sfilms,performances,
photographs,and
phonograph records,a psychologizedtemporalityis instituted:foreboding,premonition,suspicion, anxiety.8The psychologicalresonanceof this work is not
7.
Rotoscopyis a techniqueof tracingover live-actionfootageto make an animation.
Each of the artistsdiscussed here might be said to workwith the conventionsof a particular
8.
genre;if thatis the case, Goldstein'swould be thoseof thedisasterfilm.In the movieEarthquake,for
thirdofthefilmis nothingbuta narrationabout an impendingearthquake;yet
example,theentirefirst
when it comes,we are takencompletelyby surprise.

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80

OCTOBER

thatof thesubjectmatterof his pictures,however,but of theway thosepicturesare


presented,staged; thatis, it is a functionof theirstructure.Goldstein's mannerof
exemplifiedbythetechniqueused forThe Jump,the
stagingtheimage is perfectly
of
a
of the
technique rotoscopy, process thatis botha trace(ing)and an effacement
filmedimage, a drawing thatis simultaneouslyan erasure.And that is what any
staging of the image must always be. The temporalityof these picturesis not,
then, a functionof the nature of the medium as in itselftemporal,but of the
mannerin which thepictureis presented;it can obtain in a stillpictureas well as
a moving one.
Here is a picture:It shows a youngwoman withclose-croppedhair,wearing
a suit and hat whose styleis that of the 1950s. She looks the part of what was
called, in thatdecade, a careergirl, an impressionthatis perhaps cued, perhaps
towersof the big
merelyconfirmedby the factthatshe is surroundedby theoffice
But
those
another
in
role
this
city.
skyscrapersplay
picture.They envelop and
isolate the woman, reinforcingwith theirdark-shadowed,looming facades her
obvious anxiety,as her eyes dart over her shoulder .. at somethingperhaps
lurkingoutside the frameof the picture.Is she, we wonder,being pursued?
But what is it, in fact, that makes this a picture of presentiment,of that
which is impending?Is it thesuspicious glance? Or can we locate the solicitation
to read thepictureas if it werefictionin a certainspatial dislocation-the jarring
juxtaposition of close-up face with distantbuildings-suggesting the cinematic
artificeof rear-screenprojection?Or is it the details of costumeand makeup that
mightsignal disguise?It is perhaps all of these,and yetmore.
The picturein question is nothingotherthan a still photographof/bythe
artist Cindy Sherman, one of a recent series in which she dresses in various
costumesand poses in a varietyof locations thatconveyhighlysuggestivethough
thoroughlyambiguous ambiences.We do not know what is happening in these
pictures,but we know forsure thatsomethingis happening, and thatsomething
is a fictionalnarrative.We would nevertakethesephotographsforbeinganything
but staged.
The still photograph is generally thought to announce itselfas a direct
transcriptionof the real preciselyin its being a spatiotemporalfragment;or, on
thecontrary,
it mayattemptto transcendbothspace and timebycontraveningthat
very fragmentaryquality.9 Sherman's photographs do neither of these. Like
ordinarysnapshots, theyappear to be fragments;unlike those snapshots,their
fragmentationis not that of the natural continuum, but of a syntagmatic
sequence, that is, of a conventional, segmented temporality.They are like
quotations fromthesequence of framesthatconstitutesthenarrativeflowof film.
Their sense of narrativeis one of its simultaneous presence and absence, a
narrativeambience statedbut not fulfilled.In short,theseare photographswhose
9.
See, forexample, Hollis Frampton,"Impromptuson Edward Weston:Everythingin Its Place,"
October,5 (Summer 1978),especiallypp. 59-62.

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i~ii,
rdlDi

me-?

8Bis-i:
::ii::`
el.:-

Cindy Sherman. Untitled.1978.

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0?Rffi
...wi
.
.........

RobertLongo. Still fromfilmforSound Distance of a


Good Man. 1978.

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83

Pictures

conditionis thatof thefilmstill,thatfragment"whose existenceneverexceedsthe


fragment."10
in thisveryspecial kindofpicture
The psychologicalshock thatis registered
can best be understoodwhen it appears in relation to normal filmtime as the
syntagmaticdisjunctionofa freezeframe.The suddenabjurationofnarrativetime
solicits a reading that must remain inside the picture but cannot escape the
temporalmode of which it is a fragment.It is withinthisconfusionof temporalities that Robert Longo's work is situated.The centralimage of his three-part
tableau performance,Sound Distance of a Good Man, presentedlast year at
Franklin Furnace, was a film,showing, with no motion at all (save for the
flickeringeffectof light thatis a constantfeatureof cinema) the upper torsoof a
man, body arched and head thrown back as if in convulsion. That posture,
registeringa quick, jerkymotion,is contrasted,in this motionlesspicture,with
thefrozenimmobilityof the statueof a lion. As thefilmunwound it continuedto
show only this still image; the entirefilmconsistedof nothingbut a freezeframe.
But if the film'simage does not traverseany temporaldistance other than that
literaltimeof the performedeventsthatframedit on eitherside, its composition
followed a rathercomplex scenario. Longo's movie camera was trainedon a
photograph,or more preciselya photo-montagewhose separateelementswere
excerptedfroma seriesof photographs,duplicate versionsof the same shot.That
shot showed a man dressedand posed in imitationof a sculptedaluminum relief
thatLongo had exhibitedearlierthatyear.The reliefwas, in turn,quoted froma
newspaper reproductionof a fragmentof a filmstill taken fromThe American
Soldier, a filmby Fassbinder.
The "scenario" of this film, the scenario just described, the spiral of
excerptation,quotation thatmovesfromfilmstillto stillfilmis, of
fragmentation,
course,absentfromthefilmthatthe spectatorsof Sound Distance of a Good Man
watched. But what, if not that absent scenario, can account for the particular
presenceof thatmoving still image?
Such an elaboratemanipulation of theimage does not reallytransform
it; it
fetishizesit. The pictureis an objectofdesire,thedesireforthesignification
thatis
known to be absent. The expression of that desire to make the pictureyield a
realitythat it pretendsto contain is the subjectof the work of Troy Brauntuch.
But, it mustbe emphasized,his is no privateobsession.It is an obsessionthatis in
uses pictures
the verynatureof our relationshipto pictures.Brauntuchtherefore
10. Roland Barthes,"The Third Meaning: Research Notes on Some EisensteinStills," in ImageMusic-Text,trans.Heath, New York,Hill and Wang, 1977,p. 67. The appearance ofthefilmstillas an
object of particularfascinationin recentartisticpractice is so frequentas to call fora theoretical
explanation. Both Sherman's and Robert Longo's works actually resemblethis odd artifact,as does
that of John Mendelsohn, James Birrell,among others. Moreover,many of its characteristicsas
discussedby Barthesare releventto theconcernsofall theworkdiscussedhere.In thiscontext,it is also
interestingto note thatthe performancesof Philip Smithwerecalled by him "extrudedcinema" and
had such revealingtitlesas Still Stories,Partial Biography,and Relinquish Control.They consistedof
multiple projectionsof 35-mm.slides in a sequence and functionedas deconstructionsof cinematic
narrative.

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84

OCTOBER

whose subject matteris, froma humanist point of view, the most loaded, most
chargedwith meaning,but which are revealedin his work to be utterlyopaque.
Here is a picture:
1:_-::
::::ii::::::
ME::

.
sm.:: ':"'-'::--'Zii
It appeared as an illustrationto the memoirsof AlbertSpeer with the caption
"Hitler asleep in his Mercedes,1934."11Brauntuchhas reproducedit as thecentral
image of a recentthree-part
photographicprint.The degreeto which theimage is
fetishizedby its presentationabsolutelypreventsits re-presentation;
itselfphotographic, Brauntuch's work cannot in turnbe photographicallyreproduced.Its
exacting treatmentof the most minute details and qualities of scale, color,
framing,relationships of part to part would be completelylost outside the
presenceof theworkas object.The above photograph,forexample,is enlargedto
a widthof eighteeninches,therebymakingitshalftonescreenvisible,and printed
on the left-handside of a seven-footlong bloodred field.To the rightof this
pictureis a further
enlargedexcerptof it showingthebuildingin thedistanceseen
just above thewindshieldof the Mercedes.The panel on which thesetwo images
so thattheensembleof
appear is flankedby two otherpanels positionedvertically,
photographslooks diagrammaticallylike this:

photoill.
above

excerpt

photoof Nuremberg
rallylights

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Pictures

85

The two verticalpanels are blown up photographs,as well, although theyare too
abstractedto read as such. They are, in fact,reproductionsof a fragmentof a
photographof the Nurembergrally lightsshining in parallel streaksagainst the
vast expanse of darkness. They are, of course, no more recognizable than the
right-handfigurein the above photograph is recognizable as Hitler, nor do
theydivulge anythingof the historytheyare meant to illustrate.
Reproduced in one book afteranother about the holocaust, already excerpted, enlarged, cropped, the images Brauntuch uses are so opaque and
as to be utterlymute regardingtheirsupposed subject.And indeed
fragmentary
the most opaque of all are the drawingsby Hitler himself." What could be less
revealing of the pathology of their creator than his perfectlyconventional
drawings?Everyoperation to which Brauntuchsubjectsthesepicturesrepresents
thedurationof a fascinated,perplexedgaze,whose desireis thattheydisclose their
secrets;but the resultis only to make the picturesall the more picturelike,to fix
foreverin an elegant object our distance fromthe historythat produced these
images. That distanceis all that thesepicturessignify.
Although the manipulations to which SherrieLevine subjectsher pictures
are farless obsessivethan Brauntuch's,her subject is the same: the distancethat
separatesus fromwhat those picturessimultaneouslyprofferand withhold and
the desirethatis therebyset in motion. Drawn to pictureswhose statusis thatof
cultural myth, Levine discloses that status and its psychological resonances
throughthe imposition of verysimple strategies.In a recenttripartiteseries,for
example, Levine cropped threephotographsof a motherand child accordingto
theemblematicsilhouettesofPresidentsWashington,Lincoln, and Kennedy.The
currencyof the mythswith which Levine deals is exemplifiedby those profiles,
takenas theyare fromthefacesof coins; thephotographsare cut out of a fashion
magazine. The confrontationof the two images is structuredin such a way that
theymustbe read througheach other:theprofileof Kennedydelineatesthepicture
of motherand child, which in turnfills in the Kennedyemblem.These pictures
have no autonomous power of signification(picturesdo not signifywhat they
picture); theyare provided with significationby the manner in which theyare
presented(on the facesof coins, in the pages of fashionmagazines). Levine steals
themaway fromtheirusual place in our cultureand subvertstheirmythologies.
11. AlbertSpeer,Inside the ThirdReich, New York,Macmillan, 1970,ill. followingp. 166.It was of
courseWalterBenjamin, a victimof the veryhistorythismemoirwould recount,who asked,"Is it not
the task of the photographer-descendentof the augurs and the haruspices-to uncover guilt and
name the guiltyin his pictures?"But thenhe added, "'The illiterateof the future',it has been said,
'will not be the man who cannot read the alphabet, but the one who cannot take a photograph'.But
mustwe not also count as illiteratethephotographerwho cannot read his own pictures?Will not the
caption become the most importantcomponent of the shot?" ("A Short Historyof Photography,"
Screen,Spring 1972,24).
Brauntuchhas used these drawings,which have been extensivelypublished, in severalof his
12.
works.Perhaps even moresurprisingthan thebanalityof Hitler'sdrawingsis thatoftheartproduced
inside the concentrationcamps; see Spiritual Resistance: ArtfromConcentrationCamps, 1940-45,
New York, JewishMuseum, 1978.

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87

Pictures

Shown as a slide projection last Februaryat the Kitchen,the mother-andchild/Kennedypicture was magnifiedto a height of eight feet and diffused
througha streamof light.This presentationof theimage gave it a commanding,
theatricalpresence.But what was the medium of that presenceand thus of the
work? Light? A 35-mm. slide? A cut-out picture from a magazine? Or is the
medium of this work perhaps its reproductionhere in thisjournal? And if it is
impossible to locate the physical medium of the work,can we then locate the
original artwork?'3
At thebeginningof thisessay,I said thatit was due preciselyto thiskind of
abandonmentof the artisticmedium as such thatwe had witnesseda breakwith
modernism,or more preciselywith what was espoused as modernismby Michael
Fried. Fried's is, however,a veryparticularand partisan conceptionof modernism, one thatdoes not, forexample, allow fortheinclusion of cinema ("cinema,
even at its most experimental,is not a modernistart") or for the preeminently
theatricalpainting of surrealism.The workI have attemptedto introducehereis
whose roots are in the symbolist
related to a modernismconceived differently,
aestheticannounced by Mallarm,'4 which includes works whose dimension is
of
literallyor metaphoricallytemporal,and which does not seekthetranscendence
the materialcondition of the signs throughwhich meaning is generated.
a
Nevertheless,it remainsuseful to considerrecentwork as having effected
as postmodernist.But ifpostmodernismis to
breakwith modernismand therefore
have theoreticalvalue, it cannot be used merelyas anotherchronological term;
ratherit mustdisclose theparticularnatureof a breachwith modernism.15
It is in
thissense thattheradicallynew approach to mediumsis important.If it had been
characteristicof the formaldescriptionsof modernistart that theywere topographical, that theymapped the surfacesof artworksin orderto determinetheir
structures,then it has now become necessary to think of description as a
stratigraphicactivity.Those processesof quotation, excerptation,framing,and
stagingthatconstitutethe strategiesof theworkI have beendiscussingnecessitate
Needlessto say,we are not in searchof sources
uncoveringstrataofrepresentation.
or origins, but of structuresof signification:underneatheach picture thereis
always anotherpicture.
A theoreticalunderstandingof postmodernismwill also betrayall those
attemptsto prolong the life of outmoded forms.Here, in brief,is an example,
Levine initially intended that the threeparts of the work take threedifferent
13.
formsfor the
purposesof thisexhibition:theKennedysilhouetteas a slide projectionin thegallery,theLincoln as a
postcard announcement,and the Washingtonas a poster,thus emphasizing the work's ambiguous
relationshipto its medium. Only the firsttwo partswere executed,however.
For a discussion of this aestheticin relation to a pictorial medium, see my essay "Positive/
14.
Negative:a Note on Degas's Photographs," October,5 (Summer 1978), 89-100.
15. There is a dangerin thenotion ofpostmodernismwhichwe begin to see articulated,thatwhich
sees postmodernismas pluralism, and which wishes to deny the possibilitythat art can any longer
achieve a radicalismor avant-gardism.Such an argumentspeaks of the "failureof modernism"in an
attemptto institutea new humanism.

1978.
SherrieLevine.Untitled.

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88

OCTOBER

chosen because of its superficialresemblanceto the picturesdiscussedhere: The


WhitneyMuseum recentlymountedan exhibitionentitledNew Image Painting,a
show ofworkwhose diversityofquality,intention,and meaningwas hiddenbyits
being forcedinto conjunction for what was, in most cases, its least important
characteristic:
recognizableimages. What was, in fact,mostessentialabout all of
the work was its attemptto preservethe integrityof painting. So, forexample,
included wereSusan Rothenberg'spaintingsin which ratherabstractedimagesof
horsesappear. For the way theyfunctionin her painted surfaces,however,those
horses mightjust as well be grids. "The interestin the horse," she explains, "is
because it dividesright."16The mostsuccessfulpaintingin theexhibitionwas one
by RobertMoskowitzcalled The Swimmer,in which theblue expanse fromwhich
the figureof a strokingswimmeremergesis forcedinto an unresolvabledouble
readingas bothpainted fieldand water.And thepainting thus sharesin thatkind
of ironytowardthe medium thatwe recognizepreciselyas modernist.
New Image Painting is typicalof recentmuseum exhibitionsin itscomplicwith
thatartwhich strainsto preservethemodernistaestheticcategorieswhich
ity
museums themselveshave institutionalized:it is not, afterall, by chance thatthe
era of modernismcoincideswith theera of themuseum.So ifwe now have to look
foraestheticactivitiesin so-called alternativespaces,outside themuseum,thatis
because those activities,those pictures,pose questions thatare postmodernist.

16.
In RichardMarshall,New Image Painting,New York,WhitneyMuseum ofAmericanArt,1978,
p. 56.

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