Once upon a time in Paris, there was a short-lived meeting place in the form of a journal called Tiqqun, which, in two volumes, published anonymous philosophical writings that combined resonances of Agamben, Benjamin, Foucault, Heidegger, and Schmitt. Then there was no more Tiqqun, or Tiqqun went on hiatus. Its dissolution, according to rumors, had something to do with 9/11 and disagreements over the way to proceed in its wake. Sometime after this, an anonymous video, And the War Has Only Just Begun ..., dated 2001, circulated on the Internet. Over various still and moving images (burning twin towers, black-bloc rioters, anonymous metropolitans framed in a cafe window, eating alone), a voice addresses the "lost children" who have awoken from their "prescribed sleep" and ruminates on how "the Party" is to be built. In retrospect, the film seems a key intermediary, following on the heels of Tiqqun and prefiguring The Coming Insurrection, a book published in 2007 (as L'Insurrection qui vient) by La Fabrique, its authorship credited to something called the Invisible Committee. A certain similarity in tone between Tiqqun and The Coming Insurrection was obvious, the crucial transition perhaps summarized as one from theory to action: It was now time to build "the Party," to gather those who had woken.
Meanwhile, the passage of a few people through a rather brief moment in time: young graduate students who decamped to the Correze village of Tarnac, where they lived communally, read a lot of books, ran a general store, and "raised carrots without masters or leaders," as their parents wrote in an open letter after they were arrested and became, infamously, the Tarnac 9. The probable cause had something to do with "pre-terrorism," the main evidence for which was the text of The Coming Insurrection. (The bibliophobic French police also considered the communal library of five thousand volumes highly suspicious and made a list of titles they considered especially dangerous.) One of the nine stayed in jail for more than six months, uncharged. The purported Invisible Committee of one, he was interviewed on the front page of Le Monde but, to date, has gone to great lengths to remain unseen (in deep sub-subcomandante style, he insisted on being transported from prison in the trunk of a friend's car). When the book appeared in English from Semiotext(e) this past May, a Fox TV pundit waved it around over a montage of burning and looting from across the globe. "The extreme left is calling for violence!" The book flew off the shelves--purchased mostly, it seems, by fringe right-wing apocalypse fantasists, a strange but fitting plot twist that quickly faded into the banality of the daily news.
Far more compelling is the text itself. More than any literary work I read this year, it deserves the designation "most provocative and interesting book," due to its tone, style, urgency, black humor, and unqualified rejection of our entire civilization. All positions on the left are rotten and defunct, ecology is a sham, earnestness and activism are accessories to spectacle (and therefore all organizations are to be avoided), and in this new phase of capitalism, work is no longer even a means of producing commodities and wealth but a form of sheer discipline that renders citizens docile and self-subjugating. It's a bleak assessment, but leavened by those symptoms that most starkly contradict the absurd notion that there exists one social fabric, a "common" good: for instance, the coexistence of the musical genre "alt-folk," in which the petite bourgeoisie "dissects the state of its soul," with the Parisian rap group Mafia K'1 Fry, who embody the harrowing state-within-a-state intensity of the banlieue. A society that includes such oppositions is proof enough that a total collapse of civilization is not imminent--it is already happening. "It is within this reality," we're told, "that we must choose sides."
The book is broken down into seven circles, each critiquing a different aspect of post-Fordist society, followed by a manual or set of potentialities for organizing in the ruins. One hears, unmistakably, Debord, but with crucial differences. Debord imprecated his readers instead of gathering them in: Our lives were shabby, ersatz, nouveau, while his was knightly and gallant. In The Coming Insurrection, the voice not only resists accusation, it relies on neither ego nor even a single subjectivity for its rhetoric. "This book is signed in the name of an imaginary collective," the introduction states. "Its contributors are not its authors," but rather "scribes" of the contemporary "murmurings" around them. Yet the voice has a distinct tone and style, crystallizing sentiments that seem perhaps more poignant for their anonymity.
The first circle, "I Am What I Am," is named after an inane Reebok ad slogan: "Decades of concepts ... to arrive at a pure tautology. I = I. He's running on the treadmill in front of the mirror in his gym. She's coming back from work behind the wheel of her Smart car. Will they meet?" Easy enough, we think, to poke fun at them--Reebok's "I." But suddenly the voice turns dark and introspective: "WHAT AM I, then?" it asks. "Since childhood, I've been involved with flows of milk, smells, stories, sounds, emotions, nursery rhymes, substances, gestures, ideas, impressions, gazes, songs, and foods. What am I? ... Everything that attaches me to the world, all the links that constitute me, all the forces that compose me don't form an identity, a thing displayable on cue, but a singular, shared, living existence from which emerges--at certain times and places--that being which says 'I.'" "I" the reader, like "I" the voice of the text, am duped by the myth of fixed identities. And yet "I" am the accomplice of the voice addressing the problem. This voice and "I" meet, but not as individuals--rather, as an "attachment," to borrow a term from the text itself, an experience or truth that ties isolated beings to one another. "Attach yourself to what you feel to be true," we're told, under the heading "Find Each Other," a directive that functions on the premise that there already exists a clandestine community that can (or that longs to) distinguish attachments from "dependencies," which falsely construct a self of commodities, dubious memberships, work, and the myth of "being someone." (In the film, these dependencies are referred to more lyrically as "electrodes"--the pharmacy electrode, the TV electrode, the jeune fille electrode.) The longing to form natural attachments is effectively staged: Who would pass up such a possibility? ... By merely reading the book, "I" not only commune in the body of the text with others who desire a more authentic life; in effect "I" become the narrator who asserts the desire, in one simple ontological roll or flop into a space left open by subtlety of tone as much as by the book's non-authorship.
This is how we find each other--by seceding from I = I. Love, here, becomes a metaphor for the formation of communes. "All power to the communes!" the voice of The Coming Insurrection concludes. But this declaration is best taken in light of its own humorous and playful precedent, the conclusion of the video: "I'd really like to build the Party with you. That is, if you're free ... "
RACHEL KUSHNER, A WRITER BASED IN LOS ANGELES, IS THE AUTHOR OF THE NOVEL TELEX FROM CUBA (SCRIBNER, 2008). (SEE CONTRIBUTORS.)
The occasion of the greatest intellectual stimulation and the most superb rhetorical skill I experienced in 2009 has yet to become a book. It was T. J. Clark's suite of six Mellon lectures at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, this past spring. The lectures are collectively titled "Picasso and Truth"--which, since Cubism is generally thought to be an exercise in stretching visual truth as far as it will go, could have seemed to most of the audience an ironic subject.
The lectures took the audience from Picasso's work of the 1920s up to the creation of Guernica and were titled "Object," "Room," "Window," "Monster," "Monument," and "Mural." One of the rubrics Clark develops in handling Cubism's analysis of the repertory of still-life objects (guitar, wineglass, newspaper, pipe) is "room space"--the locale of Dutch genre painting's invention of the autonomous, democratic subject, a space challenged by the enormous windows Picasso placed behind the pedestal tables in his works of the '20s, which build on paintings he made in 1919 at Saint-Raphael. To maintain the interiority of the room in the face of this invasion means, Clark says, that for Cubism at the time, "being itself is being in." The early '20s, moreover, marked a split in Picasso's work between the remnants of synthetic Cubism's transparent, luminous planes and the onset of his neo-classicism, in which enormous nudes with bloated toes and fingers seem chiseled out of stone or marble. Clark's convincing contention is that these two manners--rather than dividing "truth" into separate and incompatible heaps: the first formal or syntactic, the second unalterable and subsistent--accord with the idea of the truth of the object Wittgenstein was developing at that very time in his Tractatus when he insisted, "Objects are simple. ... They cannot be composite," thus recoding Picasso's polarities into his own division of substance and form.
As is obvious from the above summary of the arguments of the lectures "Room" and "Object," "Picasso and Truth" cannot be compressed into the space offered by this format. Fortunately, they need not be: As is the custom, the lectures will be published in the Bollingen Series (by Princeton University Press). And in the meantime, they can be heard on the National Gallery's website, at www.nga.gov/podcasts.
ROSALIND KRAUSS IS PROFESSOR OF TWENTIETH-CENTURY ART AND THEORY AT COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY IN NEW YORK.
In a year when the remaking of the book into an electronic shopping appliance went into high gear, there was no end to ponderous reflection on the fate of paper and printing and on the optical properties of illuminated screens. One of the very few texts that provided any truly valuable insight into this development did not even address it (having first been published, in Italian, in 2006). Giorgio Agamben's What Is an Apparatus? (Stanford University Press)--or, more specifically, the twenty-four-page title essay in this slim collection--is a stunning performance of intellectual condensation in response to its self-posed question. What many others might have chosen to examine in the course of four hundred pages, Agamben pursues within the political framework of the pamphlet, a discursive tradition that elides the distinction between analysis and agitation. The tract is a lucid demonstration of his historical-etymological method, taking us across two millennia of related theological and philosophical problems of governance to a concise account of the current phase of capitalism, with its massive proliferation of apparatuses and its production of "the most docile and cowardly social body" in all of history. Apparatuses are inseparable from the processes that have made us human, but they are not understandable through notions of media, tools, or instrumentality. Agamben has no hesitation about challenging the discourses on technology which claim that the solution to the problem of apparatuses today is a matter of discovering alternative ways to use them. By his historically articulated definition, to the contrary, an apparatus is what uses us. It is anything that externally captures, controls, or models the behaviors of human beings--a fiercely unsparing account of the cell phone is his most memorable case in point. Agamben's critics fault him for, among other things, a strategy of rhetorical provocation and hyperbole, but his language in this essay seems appropriate for the urgency of the situation he identifies: the near extinction of politics and the destruction of our capacity to communicate with one another about what we share in common.
JONATHAN CRARY IS MEYER SCHAPIRO PROFESSOR OF MODERN ART AND THEORY AT COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY IN NEW YORK.
"Avant garde art will now be available to every home in America, and the joys of aesthetic participation will be denied none," proclaimed the short-lived art quarterly Landslide in 1970. The journal--which had hitherto championed the work of such budding avant-gardists as Brian Shitart--offered its readers AAAARRGH! An At Home Happening in Five Fragments, complete with a step-by-step guide that could be followed by anyone. Such unexpected moments of hilarity crop up throughout In & Out of Amsterdam: Travels in Conceptual Art. 1960-1976 (Museum of Modern Art)--in the case of the Landslide anecdote, in the essay contributed by Phillip Van den Bossche, who explains that the periodical, which appears to have been intended as a satiric foil to magazines like Artforum, was produced anonymously by artists Bas Jan Ader and William Leavitt. Published in conjunction with the moma show of the same name, curated by Christophe Cherix, In & Out of Amsterdam joins the ranks of recent exhibition catalogues--including Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin, 1950s-1980s (1999), Behind the Facts: Inter-funktionen 1968--1975 (2004), and Public Space, Two Audiences: Works and Documents from the Herbert Collection (2006)--that have made important contributions to a revisionist history of Conceptualism. What is unique about this publication is the hilarity, which mirrors the tongue-in-cheek attitude often displayed by Conceptual artists in both Europe and the US.
Throughout, the publication reflects Cherix's attempt to dislodge Conceptual art from its pentecostal pedestal--to shake up what Art & Language once called the "puristic stylistic fetishism" that "sanitizes the memory of Conceptual Art and denies the dialectical complexity of human cultural experience, neglecting that many Conceptual artists assumed an adolescent posture in the form of an ironical spectacle that eventually evolved into a more conspicuous life." Accordingly, within Cherix's frame of reference, Conceptual art is a hybrid suffused by praxes such as Cobra, Situationism, Fluxus, Happenings, Utopian social experiments, the Living Theatre, Otto Muehl's AAO commune, and Hollywood. In his own essay, Cherix widens the historical and geographic scope of the global Conceptual project (at least within Europe and the US), arguing for the Netherlands and Belgium as a crucial constellation and citing collectors, galleries, and museums that boosted and bankrolled the movement even as it remained peripheral in the United States. Christian Rattemeyer, meanwhile, challenges the historiographical hegemony of Harald Szeemann's 1969 "Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form" by bringing to the fore Wim Beeren's near-simultaneous "Op Losse Schroeven" (Square Pegs in Round Holes) and by elaborating on the formative institutional collaborations in Northern Europe between Willem Sandberg's Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and Pontus Hulten's Moderna Museet in Stockholm in the early 1960s.
At the core of In & Out of Amsterdam,, publication and exhibition alike, is Art & Project, an initiative founded in the Dutch capital in 1968 by Geert van Beijeren and Adriaan van Ravesteijn. Transposing the exhibition-making enterprise into a bulletin format that could be distributed via the mail, van Beijeren and van Ravesteijn instigated such works as Sol LeWitt's Amsterdam maps and Charlotte Posenenske's 1968 floor-plan installation, the last project she created before leaving the art world. As was the case with parallel initiatives like the magazines Interfunktionen in Cologne and Avalanche in New York, Art & Project contributed to the validation of documents, open letters by artists, postcards, instructions, charts, and maps as cultural artifacts with their own legitimate claims on an art context. In & Out of Amsterdam, with its careful attention to archival material, does justice to the relevance of the document--but without smothering its own adolescent nature.
MARTA KUZMA IS DIRECTOR OF THE OFFICE FOR CONTEMPORARY ART NORWAY IN OSLO.
If you care about New York Conceptualism and Minimalism, you're used to gray: the photocopied documents, the black-and-white photographs, and the other achromatic artifacts of the era's challenge to traditional visual affect. There's a grayness, too, to most narratives about the period: The 1960s have received so much art-historical attention that even brilliant arguments only a decade old can seem positively hoary. So I nearly fell out of my chair when I opened up Julia Bryan-Wilson's Art Workers: Radical Practice in the Vietnam War Era (University of California Press) to the section of color plates in the middle. It's telling that she found them necessary (and managed to get them, no easy feat in lean times for academic publishing). The jolt of seeing something like a 1970 telex installation by Hans Haacke in full color is comparable to what happens as Bryan-Wilson follows the "art worker" idea through the careers of four protagonists--Carl Andre, Haacke, Lucy Lippard, and Robert Morris. In color, familiar works are somehow made to look more historical even as they feel more contemporary. This book's focus on the contradictory but pervasive identification of art with labor circa 1970 does the same for the intersection of artistic and political cultures at that moment.
The fulcrum of Bryan-Wilson's story is the Art Workers' Coalition, the collective of antiwar artists, critics, and others who around 1970 launched now-famous protests against the art world's entwinement with the US military-industrial complex. Her central task then becomes to unravel the implications of the AWC members' decision to organize themselves not just as artists but as workers. In one direction, this leads to a renewed emphasis on the work of making art, even when--or precisely when--artists wanted things to look straight from the steel mill. (Just how does one procure dozens of Styrofoam planks, or sheets of pure magnesium? And from whom?) In another, it leads to the artist as flexible manipulator of information, paid largely in cultural capital: the exemplary postindustrial worker. Following her key figures' lead, Bryan-Wilson examines conditions of production--economic, physical, and sexual (the most revelatory chapter is the one on Lippard, in whose life and work feminist and artistic rethinkings of labor intersected). She dives into the historical nitty-gritty with archival finds (such as Lippard's apology for being late with a set of twenty-two art reviews: "slight delay as I had a baby last week"). But she also pulls back for wide views of a remarkable collective and individual redefinition of art-making, one that turns out to be important for understanding Minimalism, Conceptual art, feminist art, and institutional critique. Above all, she attends to effort, in both physical manufacture and the creation of a politically conscious artistic identity. These artists sweated over problems of art's politicization. Restoring period meanings to everything from those telex machines to hard hats, literally turning over artworks to find out how they were made and of what, Art Workers works hard, too. It makes for a vivid picture of artistic activism, essential both for the art history of the 1960s and for today's discourse on art and politics.
CARRIE LAMBERT-BEATTY IS AN ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF VISUAL AND ENVIRONMENTAL STUDIES AND OF HISTORY OF ART AND ARCHITECTURE AT HARVARD UNIVERSITY.
As a child on holiday on the island of Rugen, off the Baltic coast, I was fascinated by the strange and beautiful buildings of East German civil engineer Ulrich Muther: rescue workers' watchtowers that evoked both tree houses and spaceships; peculiar restaurant-pavilions by the .sea. He never got the recognition he deserved, but I think Muther, who died two years ago, should be ranked alongside innovative and influential designers such as Felix Candela, Buckminster Fuller, Pier Luigi Nervi. and Frei Otto. (Candela, in fact, was his mentor.) He was a pioneer of the hyperbolic-paraboloid structure, which deploys a tensile curve that happens to be exceptionally strong, cheap, and graceful at the same time.
Rahel Lammler and Michael Wagner's small but exquisite book Ulrich Muther: Schalenbauten in Mecklen-burg-Vorpommern (Niggli Verlag) collects photographs of a number of Muther's buildings dating back to the mid-1960s, mainly located on or near Rugen (where he was born) but with some as far afield as Libya or Kuwait. These constructions were once at the forefront of architectural engineering; they proclaimed the technical prowess of the GDR and transmitted a more exciting, energetic image than that of a typical prefab Plattenbau ("panel building," or tower block). And unlike the Plattenbauten--once desirable places to live, now subject to demolition--Muther's buildings retain their substance and impressive appeal. They still serve as blueprints for the creative possibilities of architecture.
CARSTEN NICOLAI IS AN ARTIST AND COMPOSER BASED IN BERLIN AND CHEMNITZ, GERMANY.
This year saw the release of a translation of Justine Frank's lost pornographic novel Sweet Sweat (Sternberg Press/Extra City). More than a standard translation, and more than the republication of an out-of-print classic, Sweet Sweat is the creation of artist Roee Rosen--as is Frank herself. The novel traces the life of a French-born Jewish girl named Rachel. She is abducted by a dissolute count, who spares her life after smelling her sweet sweat. The two become lovers, fueling each other's perversions and provoking a sex-and-crime-filled spree through Europe. The accompanying biographical and critical essays--written by Rosen under his own name--are illustrated with reproductions of Frank's artwork, in which Jewish symbols, sexual imagery, and Surrealist motifs are combined. Throughout, Rosen painstakingly constructs Frank's life as part of twentieth-century culture and history--a part that never existed, but should have. Arriving in Paris from her native Belgium in her midtwenties, Frank clashes with Breton and has a doomed affair with Bataille before moving to Palestine in 1934. There, our enfant terrible refuses to follow Zionist conventions and pinches out a miserly existence with the help of her only friend, Fanja Hissin. In 1943, she walks out of the apartment they share and is never heard from again.
Sweet Sweat is alleged to be the key to understanding Frank. Written in a style indebted to Sade and Bataille, the novel is thinly veiled avant-porn without much porn (many of the illicit pages are claimed to be lost). What we are left with is a fake roman a clef that demands Frank be accepted within a male-dominated history--and also with the question, How might we best celebrate this obscure artist now?
PRIMARY INFORMATION IS A NEW YORK-BASED ARTS NONPROFIT FOUNDED IN 2007 BY JAMES HOFF AND MIRIAM KATZEFF.
Artist Adrian Piper is one of the most important figures in the first generation of Conceptualists; this simple art historical fact is not very well known among academic philosophers.
Philosophers. Adrian Piper's latest book, Rationality and the Structure of the Self, is causing a revolution in the field of ethics; this simple philosophical fact is not very well known among art professionals.
That both of the above statements are true, though not irreconcilable, points to the mutual ignorance of the zworlds of art history and philosophy. Piper, however, happily transcends this condition: Rationality and the Structure of the Self is the crowning achievement of a lifetime of philosophical reflection. Although the text was made available to the public in mid-2008, a work of this magnitude takes time for the reader to fully appreciate it. (Part of its scope, in fact, owes to Piper's refusal to publish the abridged versions insisted on by both Cambridge and Oxford University presses, in favor of releasing the complete two-volume work on her website, www.adrianpiper.com.)
Initially, Piper's study of ethics stemmed from her reading of philosophy as she launched her artistic career in the 1960s, but she went on to become a professional philosopher, and her book has had a transformative impact on the field. In brief, the study of ethics has been locked throughout the twentieth century into a combative opposition between Humean and Kantian conceptions. The Humean conception, largely dominant, is the more cynical and is founded on the belief-desire model of motivation plus the utility-maximizing model of rationality. The Kantian conception, by contrast, regards freedom, autonomy, and moral obligation as taking priority over the satisfaction of desire and the maximization of happiness. Piper, in a double conceptual move, first reveals the aporias of the Humean conception and points out the logical faults and inadequacies of this model when facing the three metaethical problems of moral motivation, rational final ends, and moral justification. In a dramatic rebondissement, she goes on to prove that some of the aporias of the Humean legacy can be solved only if treated as special cases of the Kantian theory. However, she surprises everyone (Kantians included) by revealing that the Kantians themselves have tied their own conceptual hands by ignoring Kant's first Critique and focusing instead solely on the Critique of Practical Reason--thus not enabling themselves to found their position on a stable conceptual base. In layman's terms, Piper stands Humeans and Kantians back-to-back, pointing to the disingenuousness of the former and the laziness of the latter. A telling anecdote is that Cambridge University Press had to solicit manuscript evaluations from more than thirty professional Humean philosophers, all of whom refused to read Piper's text, realizing the book's theoretical threat to their own position!
Ultimately, Piper's text does more than add another keystone to the time-honored edifice of ethical inquiry; it provides an avenue of hope and a way out of the gridlock that afflicts our familiar theoretical landscapes. The young artist Ellie Krakow offered a testament to this potential:
Piper's take is hopeful, offering the perspective that people are innately able to manifest transpersonal realities. She posits that when we are deeply engaged we cease to be egocentrically absorbed. This point is key--it proposes that intellectual engagement can shift how we relate to our own thinking, to each other, and to a discourse as a whole.
These few words speak volumes: Piper's book should not be missed--by philosophers, of course, but also by art historians and artists who share an interest in venturing beyond our egocentric, doxa-oriented fields of certainties into a transpersonal, communication-based rational exchange. The latter is always riskier than the former, but far more gratifying, too.
JOACHIM PISSARRO IS BERSHAD PROFESSOR OF ART HISTORY AND DIRECTOR OF THE HUNTER COLLEGE GALLERIES.
Studyo Osep (Aras) was published this past fall to coincide with the opening of a retrospective exhibition of the work of Osep Minasoglu at Istanbul's Galeri Non. One of Turkey's oldest living professional photographers, now age eighty, Minasoglu was born into an Armenian family and worked for six decades as a show-business and set photographer even as he lived through many dark episodes in Turkey's recent past. The project grew out of his ten-year friendship with the twenty-seven-year-old artist, writer, and social scientist Tayfun Serttas. who organized the exhibition and is the author of the book, which he describes as "almost a photographic encyclopedia ... of Turkish history." Much more than a catalogue, it is divided into three parts: a biographical introduction, reproductions of Minasoglu's photographs with narratives detailing various aspects of his work, and an oral history.
That the content is composed from many interviews with Serttas is further evidence of what makes this book special compared with many other biographies: It is enlivened by an extremely personal approach. While Studyo Osep offers a paradigmatic example of a life story that is at once ordinary and extraordinary--what microhistorians call a "normal exception"--it is also a thoughtful and important effort by Serttas to introduce a great friend to a larger public.
BANU CENNETOGLU IS AN ARTIST AND THE FOUNDER OF BAS, A PROJECT SPACE IN ISTANBUL DEDICATED TO ARTISTS' BOOKS AND PRINTED MATTER.
An American artist, Kristen Alvanson--out of curiosity or simply boredom, it's not clear--travels to Istanbul to meet a mysterious online contact. The contact never turns up. However, Kristen, as she relates in her journal, does find a manuscript called Cyclonopedia, which in turn purports to be based on the disturbing and disordered notes of an Iranian archaeologist who disappeared while researching a very eccentric theory about oil's role in history. So begins Cydonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials (published by Melbourne's repress), a nihilistic but fanciful tour de force of meta-fiction. Kristen, in addition to being a character, is the creator of the book's magnificent cover; she is credited on the title page beneath Reza Negarestani. who is the book's author--and also the author of the manuscript Kristen finds. In this welter of attributions, of course, it becomes doubtful whether Negarestani really wrote the book at all, but whoever the author is, he or she has a profound knowledge of, or a profound imagination about, Middle Eastern archaeology and Islamic mythology, to say nothing of contemporary petropolitics.
Apocalyptic visions and solar catastrophes have been making their way into my own work, so Cyclonopedia feels especially resonant to me, but its urgency isn't just personal. The text strips away its own layers to reach a bedrock of premonotheistic symbols and tropes--subverting, as it goes, common understandings of "East" and "West" and the relation of these ideas to each other. Creating its own lexis via a Deleuzian philosophical constructivism, building a quasi-scientific machine with madly beautiful illustrations, Cyclonopedia is marked by a peculiar theoretical style. It discovers hidden paths to a kind of chthonic knowledge; from its speculative abyss issues a horrific "philosophy of oil." Gazing into this confounding complexity of groundless grounds thrilled my new awareness.
PAMELA ROSENKRANZ IS AN ARTIST BASED IN ZURICH.
After visiting an artist friend living in one of Gregory Ain's idiosyncratic prewar residences--which, I learned, was designed also to function as a Communist meeting house (replete with a secret compartment in the bedroom floor for hiding sensitive documents)--it was a real pleasure to come across Gregory Ain: The Modern Home as Social Commentary (Rizzoli), Anthony Denzer's inspiring monograph on the pioneering Los Angeles architect (1908-1988). Like his mentors, Richard Neutra and Rudolph M. Schindler, Ain was one of America's most prominent experimental architects in the '30s and '40s, but his design priorities were, by contrast, intrinsically tied to left-wing politics through a deep affiliation with the Communist subculture of LA.
Motivated by radical clients as well as by these political commitments, Ain translated his objectives into innovative formal terms, often in opposition to the corporate social values and institutional authority of the home-building industry and the Federal Housing Administration. Denzer reveals the unique contingencies surrounding each project--the clients' particularities, the authorities' resistance, and Ain's intensely inventive design solutions for eccentric-sites--making clear that the architect's significant contributions to modern housing were necessitated by specific practical problems. Ain's genius lies in the subtle encoding of progressive social configurations within modest home designs and Tract-housing patterns. His practice of an architecture of resistance contributed to his blacklisting in the 1950s--he designed very little afterward--but its critical rigor remains embedded in his existing buildings and has prevented them from slipping into the retro luxury that has befallen many less purposeful constructions from the era.
JAY SANDERS IS A CURATOR AND WRITER LIVING IN NEW YORK.…