Books. (Best of 2002)
Christopher S. Wood
Anne M. Wagner
Two books very different in approach and subject matter stand out this year: Richard Meyer's Outlaw Representation: Censorship and Homosexuality in Twentieth-Century American Art (Oxford University Press) and Georges Didi-Huberman's L'Image survivante: Histoire de l'art et temps des fantomes selon Aby Warburg (Editions de Minuit). Meyer deftly combines a close reading of individual works and intelligent social and political synthesis. Outlaw Representation not only sheds light on such important figures as Paul Cadmus, Andy Warhol, and Robert Mapplethorpe but demonstrates the remarkable role that censorship--whether governmental, unofficial, or self-imposed--has played in shaping those careers and the formal language of the art concerned. Meyer also understands the term homosexual as a complex and ever changing one, not a simple label. Didi-Huberman's book, at first glance a forbidding scholarly tome, is anything but. Not that it doesn't involve an impressive amount of research, but the ideas and interpretatio n are what really count here: the author's idiosyncratic, brilliantly illuminating approach to the work of an equally challenging precursor, Aby Warburg. It is a great read, and one hopes it will be expertly translated as soon as possible.
This year the book I most enjoyed reading--and am still savoring, because it's to be tasted in little sips, like a great wine--is Ed Ruscha's Leave Any Information at the Signal (MIT Press), a collection of the artist's writings and interviews. With the book's cleverly understated physical appearance-it looks like it belongs in the "do-it-yourself home repair" genre--and its huh? title, to use a favorite Ruscha phrase, you are immediately plunged into the artist's peculiar sense of humor, a unique blend of laconic pessimism and down-to-earth humility. In many ways he occupies a position today similar to that of Duchamp a half century ago (and like the old fox he constantly denies being the moralist that he is). One of my favorite pearls in the book is the quip, "Look, I'm just another member of the food chain." Another gem is Ruscha's 1972. dream of the "Information Man" telling the artist about the fate of his books once they have left the warehouse ("only 171 are placed face up with nothing covering them .. . seven have been used as swatters to kill small insects such as flies and mosquitoes," etc.): "Wouldn't it be nice," Ruscha asks, "to know these things?" Throughout, Ruscha gently mocks as a vainglorious illusion the idea that art might play a political role. The only thing he wants to do, he writes, is induce a bit of "head-scratching." In the context of the lamentable spectacle offered today by our politicians, this ploy might be the best antidote.
Christopher S. Wood
Published in French exactly thirty years ago, Hubert Damisch's A Theory of/Cloud/: Toward a History of Painting (Stanford University Press) is something like a theoretical handbook, spare and elegant, to the European painting system established in the Renaissance and dismantled in the twentieth century. Damisch shows how the pictograph "cloud," at the moment of its appearance in the works of Mantegna and Carreggio, came to designate everything that the new painting system failed to grasp or failed to acknowledge: mystical experience, the aleatory, the infinite, the void, formless form. The cloud also pointed to the concealed mechanisms--connotation, "seeing-in," theatrical engineering--that made pictorial representation possible in the first place. The book has been read by too few American art historians. But here it is, finally, in Janet Lloyd's translation, none too soon but also, I hope, not too late. …