The Frame and the Mirror: On Collage and the Postmodern

The Frame and the Mirror: On Collage and the Postmodern

The Frame and the Mirror: On Collage and the Postmodern

The Frame and the Mirror: On Collage and the Postmodern


If the postmodern is a collage--as some critics have suggested--or if collage is itself a kernel of the postmodern, what does this mean for our way of understanding the world? The Frame and the Mirror uses this question to probe the distinctive question of the postmodern situation and the philosophical problem of representation.


Doubtless, the first questions that will greet this book will concern the strange juxtaposition announced in its very title. Collage, the technique “invented” (more on those scare quotes in a bit) by Braque and Picasso in 1911 and 1912, has been taken by a long tradition of readers, including such venerable names as Golding, Fry, and Greenberg, as the quintessential modernist art. How, then, to justify its centrality in a discussion of the postmodern?

To understand my reasons for thus abusing standard art history, it’s important to recall the accounts by which cubist collage and its offshoots have so often been taken as modernist. Though there are varying reasons for making that claim, most of them start from the historical moment of collage’s appearance (right in the midst of the avant-gardist explosions that transformed painting in the early years of this century) and add to that history a basic intention of the collage-artist: in pasting materials from outside of the world of painting onto a canvas, the artist apparently tries to get around the basic painterly conventions of representation, conventions that distance the painting from the immediate reality which we believe ourselves to inhabit. For example, Robert Motherwell’s interest in collage is typically modernist when he writes that

[t]he sensation of physically operating on the world is very
strong in the medium of the papier collé or collage, in which
various kinds of paper are pasted to the canvas. One cuts and
chooses and shifts and pastes, and sometimes tears off and
begins again. In any case, shaping, arranging such a relational
structure obliterates the need, and often the awareness of rep
resentation. Without reference to likeness, it possesses feeling
because all decisions in regard to it are ultimately made on the
grounds of feeling.

Depending upon viewpoint, modernist artists and critics have interpreted this reality either as a “materiality” of the canvas and objects placed upon it or as an abstract “flatness” of the painterly plane, but in either case the point is that collage attempts to embody a kind of immediate presence beyond the necessity of representation. For the modernist, collage amounts to a kind of short circuit of the distance always implied by signification, indication… representation.

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