The unavoidable avant-garde

I would like to begin by considering two powerful readings of the work of Sherrie Levine—the first an article by Stephen W. Melville entitled "Not Painting: The New Work of Sherrie Levine", which appeared in Arts Magazine, February, 1986; the second a catalogue essay by Rosalind Krauss written for Levine's exhibition at the Mary Boone Gallery in September 1989 and reprinted in October 52.

Melville's article takes up Levine's Gold Knots series of 1986. He begins with Levine's remark that we may see in the bare wood of these pieces an allusion to Arte Povera and its "impulse to find a margin in which art can still work". He then reminds us that "wood is the material of the frame as gilt [the gold plugs in the wood] is the stuff of ornament". "Both of them", he goes on, "are what Kant calls 'parerga', accompaniments to work, 'erga', rather than works themselves".

That is, Melville sees the Gold Knots as works about the frame, the parergon, in its most general sense. The Gold Knots attempt to speak of the frame, attempt to frame the frame, attempt to frame themselves framing.

And Melville would be quite right, after Jacques Derrida, in seeing Kant's discourse on the frame as lying at the centre of modernism. Greenbergian formalism, for example, was precisely as attempt to speak of the framing of art, of what was and what was not proper to painting. We can see Levine's Gold Knots as working within a whole tradition of modernist self-enframement: Frank Stella, Kenneth Noland, Ad Reinhardt, Josef Albers, the targets, bull's-eyes and Chinese boxes of later Abstract Expressionism. But with this one difference: if, for modernism, this self-enframement was undertaken on the understanding that there was some final essence of art waiting to be revealed, delimited at the centre of all those framings, for Levine the act of framing is endless, abysmal. There is no possibility of any final closure of the work upon itself: that gesture which frames the work, enables it to reflect upon itself, also unframes it, opens it up to an outside for which it could never finally account. That frame which frames the work will always belong outside the work, having to be framed in turn. What frames the work but what can never be framed is the frame itself.

This might be understood as the post-modernist turn in Levine's work: she is not simply opposed to that modernist project of self-definition but rather asks what is excluded to allow it. It is not that modernism is over (indeed, the point would be that it could never be over), but that the very gesture which makes it possible also makes it impossible. That object of which it speaks incessantly—the frame—is just that object which, because it does allow us to speak of it, can never be finally spoken of. And this accounts for the important ambiguity of the Gold Knots, their place in Levine's oeuvre. After her literal appropriations of the "photographic ready-mades", the pencil drawings from Schiele, Malevich and Turner, the Gold Knots appear to have something original about them, manifest a certain desire to make a new object. They are not only post-modern, we might say, but modern. And this allows Melville's splendid conclusion:

We may feel invited to place these things, along with their accompanying striped generic abstractions, beside Alan McCollum's generic paintings and frame-heavy simulacra, but Levine means these objects to count nevertheless as works and not simply as allusions to works. These things that are not paintings frame themselves framing themselves with only an absence, a not, at their centre—which is to say there is a centre, and it is marked and remarked, traced and represented, not wholly absent, a painting after all, knot painting.

The Gold Knots mark neither an end to art nor a new beginning, are neither post-modern nor modern, but rather speak of the way that art lives on forever as a meditation upon its own end. Art frames its end, but what allows it to do this would be some moment after it, some new frame, which would have to be itself framed. Again, it is not that art has not ended: art has always ended, every avant-garde is the end of art this is modernism itself. But insofar as art can present this end, it has also not ended; there is always a new avant-garde required to speak of this end, to give it its meaning. Melville concludes: "Art goes on, gets done, does not end: repetition beyond exhaustion"—and we might hear in this an echo of Lyotard's famous paradox from Reply To The Question: What Is the PostModern?, where he speaks of the way that post-modernism precedes modernism, that "post-modernism thus understood is not modernism at its end, but modernism at its very beginning—and this beginning is always recurrent". For we might say that it is this frame, this frame which can never be itself framed, which allows modernism, the closure of modernism, but that it is this frame which also ensures that modernism can never be closed, that this beginning (or end) which is modernism must always be recommenced. Art lives on, then, as the incessant attempt to trope this nothing, this frame, Which in a sense would not exist until it is framed but that then would no longer be the same object: it would then be framed but no longer the frame.

We see the same logic being played out in Krauss's article, this time not in terms of Derrida's deconstruction but in terms of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari's theory of desire. In her article, she considers Levine's Untitled (Bachelors) series of 1989.

Here too Levine’s work is seen as a kind of mise en abyme, an essay about framing—seems perhaps in three ways. First of all, there is that series of enframements constituted by the vitrines and the frosted glass containers inside them (and, like the Gold Knots, we would want to note that both in a sense frame nothing: if obviously those hollow glass crystals inside the vitrines are empty, then so too must the vitrines be understood to be empty—or, more profoundly, both frame at once something and nothing: there is nothing prior to them, we cannot say what anything is before it is framed; and the frame necessarily frames something, it would not begin to frame unless there was an implied something there to frame). Secondly, the work is a kind of emblem of capitalist consumption in general—we might think here of the connection between these vitrines and those glass arcades of the great shops (les grand magasins, the name of one of the Bachelors), eulogised by Charles Baudelaire and Walter Benjarnin. Levine is wanting to speak here, in other words, of the art market itself as a crucible of the whole capitalist project, the buying and selling of art works as somehow representative of the wider economy, these vitrines as embodiments of the medium of exchange (and we would want to speak of how, like these little framed nothings, the objects in capitalism are nothing until they are framed or exchanged; the enigma of the medium of exchange, like the enigma of the frame, is that it is at once what everything stands in for, attempts to frame, exchange something for, and what cannot finally be stood in for, what is excluded from every framing or exchange, excluded to allow every framing or exchange). Thirdly, the work is a kind of mise en abyme because of that series of names, without origin or end, that it invokes: of course, Duchamp and his Large Glass (the objects inside the glass cases are in fact three-dimensional recreations of the "malic molds" from Duchamp's The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even), but also, as Krauss notes, "Rodin, Brancusi and, closer to us, Morris, Andre, Hesse".

Krauss brilliantly connects this self-reflexiveness to that moment of forever deferred consummation Duchamp spoke of in the Large Glass, where the Bride passes out over the cemetery of the uniforms and liveries below and where "production and inscription would become the same thing". It is a place, says Duchamp, "where the erotic energy of the 'shots' is locked forever in a 'mirrorical return"'. The bachelor machine, says Krauss, "produces this fold of the one over onto the other as a moment of pure intensity—but, as Duchamp emphasises, this consummation, this self-equivalence, would always be deferred. And we might make explicit what is only suggested in Krauss's text and say that what she really means by the relationship between the Bride and her Bachelors here is that between Duchamp and Levine—what the work stages is the always deferred consummation between Duchamp and Levine, the at once pure and impure folding over of Duchamp onto Levine. For, as Krauss makes clear, Levine literally adds nothing to Duchamp's Large Glass. Duchamp already had the idea of casting the malic molds in three dimensions:

To cast the Bachelors in glass and then to frost the glass is therefore to add nothing. It is to accept Duchamp's Bachelors, his malic forms, readymade. It is to do nothing more than to occupy that historical position that can be called the Duchamp effect.

But Krauss continues:

The only thing here that is added to the Duchamp effect is what is subtracted, namely, the effects of cutting the Bachelors from the rest of the apparatus, from the glider, the sieves, the grinder, the scissors, the splashes... and finally of separating each Bachelor from his fellows. The isolation is what is added. It is, we could say, an added subtraction.

This would be that at once already fulfilled and always deferred consummation of which Duchamp speaks. This absence, this nothing which Levine adds is at once always stood in for and in the end could never be stood in for, for it would be precisely what is excluded to allow that standing-in. It would be this nothing, this minute difference, between Duchamp and Levine which at the same time allows the imitation of one by the other, the pure folding over of one onto the other, and makes it impossible, and which means that Levine could only be like Ducharnp by being less than Duchamp, by subtracting something from Duchamp (but also adding something to Duchamp, for we could not see this three-dimensional quality in Duchamp until after Levine had imitated him). And Krauss then goes on to explain, quite rightly in my opinion, that this does not go against Deleuze and Guattari's theory of desire, in terms of which she reads the work: this subtraction is not a lack. Rather, as we say, this subtraction, this nothing added to Duchamp's original, this supplement, is a thing itself, something positive—or, at least, if it is negative, transcendental, always excluded, it is also always stood in for, positive, what allows the Bachelors from the very beginning to be produced. Krauss notes, that is, that Deleuze and Guattari's theory of desire is not meant to be a simple immanence: they are always speaking of the simultaneity of the transcendent and the immanent, reterritorialisation and deterritorialisation, their polemical point directed against those who believe either is possible without the other. The cut is a flow; castration is not merely a lack, but also productive, fullness. Hence Krauss's emphasis on the various series that comprise the piece (the series of artists' names to which Levine is connected, the series of institutional effects with which the work intersects). Each element of the series stands in for that final, missing one, but whatever it is would be nothing outside of those others; there is no transcendental over-coding of the series possible without it also becoming only one of many, one of the, as Krauss says, "infinite names of history". And this is perhaps why, despite all the names around the pieces—Bachelors, Livreurs de grands magasins, Cuirassiers, etc—they still remain untitled, are called, for instance, Untitled (The Bachelors: Livreurs de grand magasins).

Here too, then, Levine's work is understood to be about "nothing"; but a nothing that is not simply nihilistic, absent. It is also a nothing that can be seen only in its effects, that is nothing other than its effects, that is absolutely immanent in the world. It is this nothing that the work attempts to frame and to frame itself framing; but it is also this nothing which continues to escape the work, to which the work remains responsible, which continues to incite—the desiring effect Krauss speaks of—further frames, to produce more work. As Krauss concludes, in a passage that echoes some of Lyotard's recent pronouncements on the name, on the unrepayable debt we owe the name, how the name authorises the perpetuation of art:

To release desire into a world without a subject, a world in which proper names form a series among themselves, a world in which the name claims nothing, 'means' nothing, even though it continues to produce: this is a description of the Levine effect.

There is a remarkable congruence of Melville's and Krauss's rhetorics. Both are absolutely not negative, but are profound pleas for the continuation of art: Melville's as the endless task of framing that nothing which the frame is, what is excluded to allow the closure of Greenbergian modernism; Krauss's as the infinite responsibility to the great names of art, names which are themselves nothing, say nothing, but to which we are nevertheless forever indebted. Art becomes the incessant attempt to present this unpresentable, to think its own assumptions, its own framing, knowing that it is only going to constitute one more framing of this nothing, another in an endless series of names. This would be the dignity and futility of art, what means it will never be accomplished, will never succeed, and what means it will never end, that there must always be more art to speak of this failure.

It is a logic that begins to consume all of art making and theorising in the late '80s in the wake of that nihilism of Popism, transavantgardeism, etc, of the first half of the decade. It corresponds to a re-reading of those French theorists whose work makes up the lingua franca of contemporary art criticism over the last ten years. They are no longer seen as simply doing away with the original, opening up an illimitable field of simulacra, as in the late '70s and early '80s. Rather, they are now unified around the logic of the sublime, the simultaneity of the original and its copy, the advocacy of "nothing"—a nothing that is at once already stood in for and always excluded, that would at once authorise their efforts to speak for it, defend it against all attempts to speak for it, and ensure that they could only repeat the same mistake themselves: precisely attempting to speak for this nothing. It is a nothing, then, that is at once totally devalued, nothing, and the only possible standard of judgement, the only remaining criterion for an ethics today. It is both a nihilism and a subtle—perhaps the only possible—overcoming of nihilism, the only way we have of opposing the "anything goes" of contemporary capitalism, the art market, which levels everything, which makes all things, all names, truly the same.

I have nothing to oppose to all this. It is a form of logic that cannot be, strictly speaking, opposed. I could only speak myself in the name of a certain nothing arguing that these logics exclude a certain nothing—against these logics which think more profoundly than I ever could that there is always a certain nothing excluded from any system, any logic, any framing. As Melville and Krauss say, this logic is nothing in itself, nothing to be argued against; it only adds a certain nothing, a certain not, to what it is brought to. So that—and this is the irony of my position here—in attempting to argue against these forms of logic I can only follow them all the more completely. My argument would be just that next step authorised by them, authorised more profoundly by them than by any other discourse. I am only repeating the same logic myself, I am myself only adding a certain nothing to them.

And yet, at the same time, I want to speak of a certain true repetition to these discourses, a certain real exclusion of novelty, of the event, precisely in their infinite openness to them, their rhetoric of an infinite indebtedness to them. Art as (about) its own mise en abyme, the impossibility of its closure, henceforth becomes the only way we can speak about art. They are great articles—and I have tried to do them justice in my summary of them—but there is an uncanny and disturbing similarity to their arguments, despite their apparent differences. In other words, what I foresee—however distantly prefigured in these articles on Levine, and others like them—is the construction of a sort of post-structuralist meta-model: a paradox, of course, because post-structuralism is, more than anything, about the limitations of any model, the impossibility of any final meta-statement-and yet it is just this which has become the only possible model of art. We will soon see, with an increasing fluidity in these post-structuralist discourses, a deeper appreciation of their fundamental identicality, the same tropes being applied indiscriminately to all art: differance, the sublime, the unpresentable, the parergon, nothing, etc, etc. For the power of these discourses is that, if they are not anything, in a sense only subtract a certain nothing from the work, repeat meticulously the context in which they are found, it is also for this reason that they are totally translatable, apply to everything. In their very openness, the unmatched power with which they are able to speak about the openness of all systems to their other, the way they speak more profoundly than we ever could of their own incompletion, their own inability to dominate other discourses—it is in this that they have become today all-powerful, omniscient, the only way we can any more think.

Again, it would make no sense to simply argue for some kind of revivified historical materialism against these post-modern discourses, as so many want to do. These discourses arose originally—and quite profoundly—as an attempt to speak of the collapse of this materialism, of those Enlightenment standards of judgement (Reason, Truth, Progress, History, Humanity) which underpinned this materialism. To simply oppose this materialism to post-modernism, therefore, would be merely to beg the question. The peculiar aspect of our dilemma today is that these post-modern discourses can only be interrogated in their own terms, or that these discourses already speak, better than we ever could, of their own limit: it is these post-modern discourses that would finally make possible this materialism. Lyotard in his Reply To The Question speaks very well of the way it is this post-modern unpresentable that allows the presentation of modernist materiality:

One recognises in all these instructions the axioms of pictorial avant-gardes insofar as they're all devoted to alluding to the unpresentable by visible presentations. The systems of reason, in the name of which, or with which this task has been able to sustain and justify itself all merit great attention, but they can only really be formulated on the basis of a dedication to the sublime in order to legitimise such a dedication. That's to say, really, they are formulated in order to mask that very dedication. They remain inexplicable without the incommensurability of reality which is implied in the Kantian philosophy of the sublime.

Lyotard's avant-garde is not anything present, but what is always unpresentable; it is not so much any actual moment in the history of art, but is at once what every avant-garde stands in for, tries to present, and what is excluded by that presentation, to allow that presentation. It is at once always represented, nothing other than its various representations, and unpresentable, excluded by every possible representation of it. In terms of Melville's and Krauss' articles, we might say that Lyotard's avant-garde is like that frame or name which is excluded to ensure that everything can be framed or named; it is the fact that the end is always deferred insofar as we can still speak of it. Lyotard thus guarantees the perpetuation of the avant-garde: the avant-garde can never end because it is only the avant-garde that could think this end, make this end possible, ensure that everything can be presented or exchanged. Lyotard's sublime unpresentable is a profound renovation of the notion of avant-gardeism in the wake of the collapse of those Enlightenment ideals which served to make it possible. And yet does it not also end it—not so much in the sense Lyotard speaks of, that the avant-garde has always ended but only the avant-garde could think this, but precisely because of this logic itself? Are we not henceforth doomed to think forever, endlessly, the thought that this last thought, the thinking of that last thought, will defer that end of which it thinks, that thought is and has always been the thinking of this last thought, of the unthought implicit in thought?

For us, living after the hypothesis of an unpresentable avant-garde (though there could be nothing after it, nothing beyond it), the horror is that there is now nothing left to think—and that even the thinking of this has been accomplished. What for Lyotard and those others seemed so invigorating, so bracing, a call for experimentation in the arts, is already beginning to seem, a mere ten years on, terrifying in its implacable destiny, the endless futurity it maps out for us. What for them seemed an argument against a promiscuity in thought and art, the imposition of the most rigorous possible standard of judgement, singular in its effects, the attempt to think the singular, the single object in thought, has become promiscuity itself, found everywhere, explaining everything, the only thing we can any more think.

We are like that man in Barges' The Zahir, obsessed, transfixed, by a coin precisely because it is not anything, is that nothing, that representation of representation or medium of exchange which allows everything else to be represented or exchanged but which cannot be represented or exchanged itself. We become obsessed with that coin because we can never say what it is, because we can only exchange it for something else, because it is always excluded by our thinking of it: we are always not thinking of that coin. The avant-garde would be driven not so much by historical destiny (as was thought in the '40s and '50s), nor by desire (as was thought in the '60s and '70s), but by a kind of monomania, a consumption by a logic that is the—always secret, always excluded, but true and real—meaning of the world. If there is an object to art today, if we can still speak of an object in art, it would be like this Zahir: at once represented and unpresentable, what everything stands in for and excluded by that standing in: the frame, the name, the sublime, difference, differance, woman, the recursive rule of chaos theory, etc, etc. We cannot say what this object is, it is nothing, but it is for just this reason that we can think of nothing else but it.

notes: 

A version of this text was delivered at the forum for the exhibition Banal Art, held at Sydney's Artspace. It was also delivered at the Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane. The spoken feel has been retained in the present essay.