The Anachronic Scene Twice

How to describe the chunky tool that pilots Christopher S. Wood and Alexander Nagel’s Anachronic Renaissance (Zone Books: 2010)? The anachronic’s object, at least, is clear: it is the work of art, and the orientation it extends to the art historian. As the reader is told in the Introduction:

The work of art when it is late, when it repeats, when it hesitates, when it remembers, but also when it projects a future or an ideal, is “anachronic.” We introduce this term as an alternative to “anachronistic,” a judgmental term that carries with it the historicist assumption that every event and every object has its proper location within objective and linear time. (13)

For these authors, who challenge calendrical time as much as those modes of art history that wholly refuse it, a crisscrossing study of the European Renaissance offers the most rewards for a referral to the gregarious artwork. They write:

What was distinctive about the European Renaissance, so called, was its apprehensiveness about the temporal instability of the artwork, and its re-creation of the artwork as an occasion for reflection on its instability. (13)

What I find confusing is this: that artworks do more than create occasions for art-historical reflection on wayward time; but that this experiencing of time as wayward is seen to belong to the work of art, through an array of materials, media, motifs and types that are not merely illustrative, nor representative, but are genetically akin to the anachronic sight lines they disclose. With Michael Baxandall’s placid assertion, “We do not explain pictures; we explain remarks about pictures,” in mind, I question the work of art’s ability to recursively fashion time upon itself, prior to art history’s “remarks”. My paper begins by considering the artwork’s priority, before going on to propose how the anachronic is enabled by a “structural thinking”, one that must be read symptomatically against the backdrop of art-historical method.

Part One

As Nagel and Wood’s account elaborates, the anachronic is dependent on two reactants: Originally, there is the artefact’s substitutional economy, in which, as the authors explain, ‘the work d[oes] not merely repeat the prior work… Rather, the work simply is its own predecessor’ (11); and upon this ground there is a figure, authorial performance, whose innovative adjustments of available conventions foreground substitution in a multitude of ways. Together, then, substitution and performance generate a magical interplay that gradually speeds up through the Quattrocento’s shrinking cycles of self-knowing –– and the work of art guards their chronic oscillation like a cipher. Taken as read, Anachronic Renaissance proceeds by zoning in on those episodes in art’s working – up to and including their sources – that are knowingly anachronistic; and it is in the authors’ capture of these episodes, that the anachronic potential of such anachronistic material is leveraged. This is a strong and divisive precis, yet it is perhaps necessary, given time constraints, to exaggerate the book’s historically sensitive and self-reflexive strategy into a blunt, paranoid instrument of itself.

Chapter Four offers a typical example. The authors’ discussion of the Venetian painter Vittore Carpaccio’s Saint Augustine in his Study (c. 1503), begins by describing (and I quote), ‘The roster of objects and images vibrating anachronistically in the picture’s background… Deliberate anachronisms’, as the authors surmise, that ‘fe[e]d back into the symbolic machinery of the picture.’ Scanning past piles of books, ‘meteorological curiosities’ and other scholarly ‘bric-a-brac’ that fill the shelves of Saint Augustine’s study, the reader’s gaze is led to rest on a freestanding bronze Christ atop an alter, recessed in the rear wall of the painting.


Surrounded by vegetal ornament, and situated near to a statuette of Venus, this Christ figure was weighted by Carpaccio, so the reader is told, because it defied common knowledge of Augustine’s hatred of paganism by consolidating Christianity’s Antique pictorial life for the contemporary Renaissance viewer. To evidence this, the authors track the origins of the Bronze Christ, beginning with a group of biographers who predate Constantine, through Eusebius, a fourth-Century church historian, whose ekphrasis was later elaborated upon by Gregory the Great – note the ‘special glow of the statue’s face’ – to the thirteenth-century hagiographies of the Golden Legend. Having conducted a whistle-stop textual history, in all of half a page, the authors state that

The Bronze Christ cited in the painting was not merely, for Carpaccio, a modern work functioning as an ingenious hypothesis of a lost ancient work. The bronze Christ did not just “stand for” or refer poetically to antiquity. Rather, the statue was for him an antique work. (41)

It cannot be doubted that Carpaccio’s insertion of this Antique Christ was a deliberate choice, a performance, whose token untimeliness served to reflect a “clash of temporalities”, so called, that were otherwise already apparent in the painting’s scene, only awaiting their reactivation. Taking their cue from the bronze Christ’s apostrophe to a substitutional chain, the authors relay a performativity that diagrams what they call ‘the structural condition of artefacts.’ And it is here, in its structural form, that the priority of the work of art lies.

Upon a reflex, one might argue that the authors’ detection of the anachronic within Saint Augustine does more than simply reactivate this particular artwork’s plural and discordant origins; that, as corollary to this, detection effects an opening within the bounds of art history for the performance of a critical prowess, one that mimics the vitality of artistic process itself. This charge is easily made. For on the other hand, what kind of knowledge and method direct the anachronic’s twenty-eight case studies? How can the artefact’s zigzagging passage through time credibly be restated, without the interim work of iconography, albeit a kind of work that is silenced in the finale? “According to the texts…” is only one rhetorical refrain the reader encounters on the wayside, in ways that seem, in the end, to have served an auxiliary purpose.

But iconography is an auxiliary science, meaning that a readiness on the authors’ part to distance themselves from the father figures of art history is besides the point; in fact, Nagel and Wood read more like executors of a misunderstood will than as wilfully disobedient. Though a critical lexicon of referentiality is consistently deployed throughout Anachronic, its workings are still immanent to the humanistic programme of their forebears, one that is rendered plastic and projective through a relicensing of attention to the work of art. They are certainly willing to historicise Aby Warburg’s attachment to pathos and Erwin Panofsky’s transatlantic harnessing of iconology as distinct from post-structuralist over-valuations of this earlier project (as when, for instance, they question the legitimacy of Georges Didi-Huberman’s heralding of the medieval image, after Warburg, as ‘a disruption of the coded operations of the sign.’) Calling the authors out on charges of critical play simply won’t wash, then; it doesn’t square with the sheer historical serendipity of these stories and the pleasure they partake of therein, such that, without the safe house of art history’s symbolic forms, would lose face.

Yet, there must be another way to apprehend the allover buoyancy of the anachronic’s dominant terms, without losing sight of this confusing compact between work of art and art historian. Perhaps reading laterally away from Anachronic Renaissance will lead to some resolution.

Part Two

Like a line from that fabulous maker, oft-quoted in art-historical monographs, Jorge Luis Borges, the authors sign off on the Introduction to Anachronic in a way that invites the reader to dream whole worlds:

This book [they augur] is not the story of the Renaissance, but nor is it just a story. It imagines the infrastructure of many possible stories. (19)

I query the occurrence of the word “infrastructure” in the context of this promissory ending. To whom or to what do these “possible stories” belong? To the work of art, the reader, or to the authors themselves? For a story of the anachronic to emerge in the first place, the listener is reliant on some triangulation coalescing between points that otherwise have no way of reaching one another. Usually, such a question itself intimates a linguistic field conditioned by a general equivalence that routes all utterances. As I see it, however, the authors’ regular ascription of action verbs to the work of art suggests not only that it originates this whole storytelling process – and, by extension, that the artwork’s position within a substitutional mode of production is more important than the authorial performance that attends to it like a foil – but that the work of art, having presaged these ‘many possible stories’, will eventually survive them, through what must now be understood as its infrastructural primacy within the terms of the anachronic. Thus the work of art traverses this linguistic field with relative ease, exempt from the gravitational magnitudes of maker, style and history alike. Naming this special status is not only a reader’s affective response to the piling up of time lost and found, one that returns on the work of art’s world-making faculty, but it also follows on from the authors’ technical descriptions of the artwork. As noted earlier in the authors’ Introduction to Anachronic:

The work [of art] can represent itself either as a “structural object” or as a relic. It can represent itself either as a magical conduit to other times and places or as an index pointing to its own efficient causes, to the immediate agencies created it and no more. 

Here, “structural object” steers the reader away from the historical recognition of magic whose shorthand is substitution, towards a register that is far more reflective of its own procedures as art-historical method. Elsewhere, the work of art is cast as a “message whose sender and destination are constantly shifting,” evoking fields like linguistics and, more distantly, electrodynamics. Such moments of procedural self-reflection, which are enriched by historical detail that is first marshalled, then disengaged, cumulatively distil a synchronic form of structuralism, one that implicitly modulates the ratio of substitution to performance which everywhere frames the anachronic’s “clash of temporalities”. It is finally this synchronic form, and the culinary movement that undulates beneath it, that I query.

Part Three

An interest in structuralism will come as no surprise to readers of Nagel and Wood. Where Nagel’s Medieval Modern (2012) tracks renewed possibilities for premodern artistic modalities through twentieth-century practice, Wood has written judiciously about the art historian’s experience of war exile through Anglophone, Italian and French contexts. It is worth concentrating briefly on Wood’s twinned introductions, to Panofsky’s early essay, Perspective as Symbolic Form (1924), and The Vienna School Reader (2000); both of which he translated and edited for Zone Books in an effort to acquaint American Humanities with the generational crossfire of Austrian-German Kunstwissenschaft. These two magisterial commentaries serve as a spirit level to the anachronic, in that they are strictly bounded by duties of transmission and reception.

Through a comparative analysis, Wood plots what he calls the ‘awkward chronological coordinations of art history and intellectual history’ (18) that stymy the application of any synchronic account of the artwork. The ideal ‘strategy’ for players ranging from early Formalists like Heinrich Wölfflin and Alois Riegl, to proponents of Viennese Strukturanalyse such as Hans Sedlmayr and Otto Pächt, to Panofsky’s own brand of Neo-Kantianism, was (and I quote) ‘to isolate the work [of art] temporarily in order to grasp more clearly its deep structural principles, and then ultimately to reinsert the work into its primordial environment on more legitimate grounds.’ (8). This operation proves tricky, for the requirements of philology mean any divergence from a study of the work’s material circuits necessitates some theoretical compensation (insofar as the artwork’s immediate environment has to be bracketed in order to access its deep structural principles). The lodestar for such cryogenic attempts was, as Wood explains, Riegl’s notion of Kunstwollen, translated here as “artistic will”. His explicative task is thus two-fold: to describe the various refinements on Kunstwollen; and to compare the relative limitations of those refinements.

Kunstwollen, so the reader learns, was a deliberately unacademic, homespun notion, referring to the act of will behind the work of art, as opposed to the work itself. By delving past content and style, past ‘function, materials and technology,’ Riegl’s prose sought to isolate the formal rhythms of the will across large chunks of slow time. Submerged on this value-free plane, beneath the epiphenomenal world, where masterpieces melt into material culture, he implemented a series of oppositional formal criteria – ‘haptic and optic, internal and external unity, coordination and subordination’ and so on – to configure the Wollen of a corresponding Weltanschauung, or ‘world-view’. It was the severance of those particularities that animate the work of art as an aesthetic object, which enabled this worldliness to come into view as a series of formal developments. No doubt, submersion risks a parallactic view of things.

As Wood informs his reader, Panofsky extended Riegl’s artifactual apprehension of the world by refining Kunstwollen into a set of a priori transcendental categories, or “symbolic forms”, that, again, ended a hair’s breadth from the actual materials of the work of art. ‘Perspective made a promising case study,’ Wood explains, ‘because it described the world according to a rational and repeatable procedure… [and because it] encourages a strange kind of identification of the art-object and the world-object.’ (13) By way of example, Wood comments elsewhere that: ‘Panofsky the cultural historian simply absorbed Picasso into the “unified stylistic field” by comparing cubism to Einstein’s theory of relativity.’ (VSR: 50)

Where Panofsky transformed Riegl’s will into a special sort of cognition, the Second Vienna school reprised Kunstwollen by relegating Riegl’s still philologically-sensitive Weltanschauungsphilosophie behind the work of art’s structural principle. Sedlmayr especially credited the vision of the art historian with an ability to “see through” the artwork’s stylistic and representational efflorescence; to alight on that marginal surface detail or effect, the artwork’s macchia, which would reveal its non-visible quality, or Struktur. This paradoxically empathic, as opposed to scientific, form of apprehension, accelerated the strategic period of analytical quarantine – noted earlier – to such a great extent, that the artwork’s immediate environments totally receded from view, to be replaced by a parallel universe, a “Welt im Kleinen”. Thus Struktur led to a kind of solipsism, and it is less surprising to learn that Sedlmayr was a member of the Nazi party. But what does all this portend for Nagel and Wood’s later description of the “structural object”?

In his Introduction to the Panofsky essay, Wood makes the following assessment:

The flaws of Viennese Strukturanalyse were the flaws of any structuralism; it was driven by a certain sentimental faith in the organic integrity of culture, in the mysterious interconnectedness of events; and consequently it tended to leave the crucial link between work and world strangely unexamined. (11)

In spotlighting these conversations and this procedural statement, my intention is not to figure the anachronic as such another act of ‘sentimental faith,’ even if the propensity of “infrastructural” leads in this direction. For the anachronic’s kinship with the work of art’s plural and discordant origins gives rise to an irreconcilable view of things, one that perpetuates an agonistic relaying of world-view and Welt im Kleinen. I do however want to register a feeling of readerly exhaustion that accompanies both the methodical involution of Kunstwissenschaft, and Nagel and Wood’s devolution of method to the work of art. To illustrate the procedural circularity that triggers this exhaustion, here is another quotation from the Anachronic’s Introduction:

 A materialist approach to historical art leaves the art trapped within its original symbolic circuits. It tends not even to notice that the artwork functioned as a token of power, in its time, precisely by complicating time, by reactivating prestigious forebears, by comparing events across time, by fabricating memories. (18)

One can see how painless it would be for the social art historian to reverse the term’s of this criticism, by questioning the dubious historical proprioception accorded to the work of art; and how this would in turn lead Nagel and Wood to double back on the artefact’s substitutional economy, in an infinite regress. Michael Ann Holly has written eloquently about the experience of melancholy attached to the perpetual reversibility of the art historian’s endeavour. Yet rather than end with this impasse, I want to make some closing statements about language use.


Nagel and Wood’s chunky tool, the anachronic, is finally a statement about art history; and in this sense, it is an effect of the work of art. After substitution and performance, one can extrapolate an inventory of such terms from the text that demonstrate the work of art’s infrastructural priority. Sometimes these mechanical words accrue massively in clusters, as when the authors describe Jan van Eyck’s Three Marys at the Tomb of Christ (ca 1425–1435) as a painting that ‘coalesces around the modelling operation. The artwork is a metamodel, the model of a model. It mimes the modelling operation.’ (70) Elsewhere, a historical term like spoliation figuratively stands in for the artwork’s inward upheaval (41). At staged intervals throughout the book’s miniature histories, the authors are at pains to reformulate and newly define the “structural object” that gives rise to the anachronic; and it is due to the recursion of such attempts at defining the work of art as a structural object, I argue, that the anachronic ineluctably hardens into the book’s blindspot.

** At some point I will extend this paper by reading the anachronic with George Kubler’s The Shape of Time (1962). Kubler’s short book recognises that the readerly exhaustion one experiences with ‘Anachronic Renaissance’ comes from the historian’s attempt to reconcile meaning and structure. By approaching the problem that sits behind “the anachronic” with a degree of sustained and systematic openness, one that crucially makes space for the artist, Kubler enables the very interconnectedness that, in Nagel and Wood’s later (though less developed) book, reflects only the exchangeability of each object-of-study.

This paper was first presented at Time Immaterial: Studies in Anachronic Art History (York University, 11 November 2016).** 

PUBLIC SPEAKING: On the meaning of “I” in the artist’s open letter


Of the many ways artists have sought to intervene into conversations that surround what they do, the open letter is perhaps the most Janus-faced, in that it is a form of making-public that seeks to call out the machinations of the art world. But how can an artist publish one without inviting suspicion that she or he is also, and perhaps even primarily, using this ostensibly non-artwork, open-access form to air her or his artist-profile by other means?

Follow link to Texte zur Kunst below:


Paul Maheke, “I Lost Track of the Swarm”, South London Gallery, March 18 – May 22 2016


On the night preceding the closing day of his first solo exhibition, I Lost Track of the Swarm, showing at South London Gallery, Paul Maheke performed at a party thrown by @Gaybar at DRAF. In the middle of a circle of gallery-partiers and queers, Maheke modulated his step like a concertina through one continuous phrase, locking eyes with whoever happened to be standing in front of them. The room was into it, into his dancing. With Maheke’s white outfit illuminated by four floor-lying fluorescent purple tubes, everyone’s energy was absorbed by a kinesis that, refusing to perform, was difficult to see. We fell silent.

A few days later I saw Maheke again, this time in conversation with New York-based activist and artist niv Acosta, as part of a programme of events Maheke had coordinated to run alongside his show. During the Q&A an invigilator, who was present in the audience, raised his hand and told the speakers that I Lost Track offered “a space to relax,” in response to which an artist and woman of colour, also sitting in the audience, commented on the acrylic sheets that had hung down from the architraves of the first of two exhibition rooms, suffusing its listening environment with light crystals. “Lavender suits brown skin,” she said.

Those diaphanous sheets represent one of several design modifications that work to subtly rezone the domestic interior of SLG’s upper rooms. In the first room you enter, the warp and weft of the former vestry’s wooden floorboards are covered over with a homely white rug, inviting repose. Two sets of Sennheiser headphones tacked to the wall play a mix produced by London-based artist Nkisi (Melika Ngombe Kolongo), of NON Worldwide, a collective of African and African diasporic artists. Nkisi’s mix, which may or may not accompany the second room’s movement – we don’t know – synthesises West African club beats with minimal electro and traditional songs from the clan of Maheke’s father in Congo (Leele). Two wall-mounted speakers play this collage of sounds at a minimal hum, in response to the neighbours’ complaints. I feel like dancing but instead lie down to listen. “In the midst of lavender rooms we are dancing towards transformation.” These are words that reach the listener from a distance, connecting you to the mother law of a matriarchal lineage, drawing you closer to a history written through the body ­­–– a gesturing that, absent from view, returns you to yourself.

In the second, larger room, three metallic poles are set in triangle formation; they support monitors that rise up from the ground like people. There is a single grey panel sown onto finely netted curtains that are drawn around the window bay, masking the natural light coming in from the North. “The wavering of the swarm as a resilient flicker; a gesture towards transformation,” is digitally printed there. Overhead a light box weighs down like a new sky, eerily containing species of grass insect, clumps of dirt, and wavy strands of hair. Later I learn that these are in fact pieces of scattered plastic, but the effect remains the same. Lavender light is collected from the bare floorboards and held up there, in the light box, where it drops over skin, hair and clothes, softly reckoning movement, a swarm.

Under this subterfuge we see Maheke dance, without audio, via each of the monitors. He holds a light source in hand, intermittently transferring this to his belt, so that a silhouette grows and shrinks over the intersecting white planes of the video backdrop. For periods of time the monitors phase into stillness, reenergising the light of the canopy as we stand below. Movement, when we do see Maheke, starts with the hips, and spreads outwards through slowly twisting limbs, sexily and sombrely, like a fugue without music.

‘A world against you can be experienced as your body turning against you,’ writes Sara Ahmed on her feminist killjoys blog, in a 2014 post comparing racism to an attack on the immune system. Beginning with the epidermis, Maheke’s I Lost Track provides the affective tools and space, without fixing on representation, for audiences to meditate on brownness and blackness in the context of the contemporary art institution.

This text is included as part of the following exhibition: Paul Maheke, In Me Everything is Already Flowing, ROOM E-10 27 at Center, Berlin, 16 December – 12 February 2017.

Why I’m not talking about my artwork

This statement of intent, which this paper takes as its title, appears at the head of an open letter published in 2015 by the artist Adrian Piper. Discussing the effect of the artist’s critical engagement with her or his own practice, Piper writes: ‘The result was that the artwork itself was often, and usually incorrectly, viewed through the lens of my pronouncements about it, as autobiographical. That I had asserted P was taken to be a statement about me, rather than about P.’ In other words, Piper’s commentary on her production is converted, via the operations of art history, into a proprietorial relation –– the artist’s words become evidence of what the Canadian political theorist C.B. Macpherson, whose writings were circulated through artistic discourse of the eighties by the artist Terry Atkinson, in the UK context at least, has termed “possessive individualism”.

The format of the open letter has been mobilised to different ends, notably by a generation of postwar artists. Often, as with Piper’s letter, or, for instance, with Yvonne Rainer’s 1980 rejection of the critic Arlene Croce’s ‘revisionist sense of history,’ this type of intervention has had the obverse effect of further enshrining the authority of the artist’s author-function. Clearly, the epistolary form is distinct from, say, the conceptual artist’s détournement of the labour contract –– it does not seek to enter the art world via the mechanisms that support it. This paper will therefore consider the open letter, penned by the late-career artist, as a form of expression of property ownership.

* This abstract belongs to a paper that will be presented at World Picture Journal’s “Property” conference, to be held at Cambridge University later this year.

Amy Sillman (edition text)

Screen Shot 2016-08-29 at 13.48.19

Ink on paper, 30 x 22 1/4 inches (76.2 x 56.5 cm)

‘What makes Ad Reindhardt great,’ Amy Sillman opines in “notes on the diagram,” her zine essay of 2009, ‘is the split that makes up his greater whole: not just his solemn geometric abstractions, nor his uproarious collages, nor even the distance between them exactly, but the circulation between them, a circulating economy in which solemnity is equivalent in value to satire.’ Such an observation not only doubles back on Sillman’s practice, describing her own quizzical relation to AbEx – one spun on the structure of a joke –; it also figures painting itself as ‘simply one technique of the body for those dedicated to the handmade,’ as Sillman wrote for Artforum’s 2011 “AbEx” issue.

Drawn from an ongoing series, the above ink on paper is best considered as part of a network. ‘The subjectobject quality of passage’ that David Joselit names in his Painting 2.0 catalogue essay, which is here metabolised into fleshly reds, pinks and tectonic greys through an arrangement of concupiscent splotches, is presented via the further layer of mediation of an inkjet print on Arches paper. Not only are these pieces simply ‘where the indexical sign predominates,’ as Hubert Damisch has written, but they also gloss the iPhone/iPad animations and experimentations with spoken poetry to which Sillman has turned her hand –– as evidenced by Stuff Changes, a recent exhibition of Sillman’s work at Sikkema Jenkins & Co in New York. Ultimately these drawings demonstrate how line, shape and colour remain operative through multiple forms of language, and that is a relief.

The Mattress in Yvonne Rainer’s Parts of Some Sextets (1965)

Image 11 Parts Sextets close up

This paper analyses the mattress as a key support in the early choreographic practice of Yvonne Rainer (1934-). Rainer’s mid-career memoir, Work 1961-73 (1974), features an appendix titled ‘Etymology of objects, configurations, and characters’, which tracks the use of props across her time with the Judson Dance Theater (New York, 1962–) and thereafter. Rainer has pointed to the ‘multiple dramatic and psychological connotations’ that underwrite the mattress: sleep, illness, comfort and sex all lure the spectator to read proto-feminist elements into the dance work. Through a close reading of Parts of Some Sextets (1965), I want to situate the mattress against the ‘discussion about work, task and the elimination of stylisation’ that has come to typify this period of Rainer’s practice. It is important for my argument that the seduction induced by the performance misreads the mattress, which only appears to literalise such a discussion. That this prop disabuses a reading of task-oriented movement speaks to the vitality of image and illusion in Rainer’s work. Rather than defer to aesthetic discourse, however, I want to reframe the mattress by turning to feminist revisionary readings of Hannah Arendt’s account of the private, as forwarded by political theorists including Linda Zerilli and Bonnie Honig. As the latter has written: ‘The human body is, for Arendt, a master signifier of necessity, irresistibility, imitability, and the determination of pure process.’ In closing, I will present a more recent, feminist performance that deploys the mattress on the University campus, after Ana Mendieta’s Untitled (Rape Scene), 1973. Emma Sulkowicz’s Mattress Performance (Carry that Weight), (2014-15) brings the spectator’s private, domestic attachment to the mattress into question, in a way that sheds light on Rainer’s earlier project.

*This abstract belongs to a paper that I will present at the 13th International AHRA conference, to be held at the Royal Institute of Technology, in Stockholm, later this year. The theme of this year’s conference is “Architecture and Feminisms: Ecologies, Economies and Technologies”

S-105 (Eva Hesse, 1968) and the Matter of interpreting the “Not Quite artwork”


S–105 is both one and a part of Eva Hesse’s leftovers from her New York studio practice of the late sixties. My paper concerns the art historian Briony Fer’s writing about these castoffs. In 2009, Fer curated a monographic exhibition she titled “Studiowork” that I was lucky enough to visit twice, at the Camden Arts Centre in London and again at the Fodació Antoni Tàpies in Barcelona. The designation “Studiowork” is subsumptive in the way of a concept; it supersedes the critic Lucy Lippard’s “test pieces”, taken from her 1976 monograph on Hesse, and organises a group of secondary and predicative terms that are worked through over the course of Fer’s catalogue essay, among them, “sub-object”, “obscure specimen of natural history”, “specimen without a species”, “art historian’s nightmare”, “remainders of remainders”, and most provisionally of all, perhaps, the “not-quite” artwork. Anne Wagner has elsewhere attended to ‘the titles that, with considerable deliberation, Hesse adopted for her sculptural works’ (309), but here I want to focus on the art-historical exchange between Eva Hesse and Briony Fer, and in so doing I hope to address a key question of the ‘Image Matter’ call for papers, namely: How can writing about and through art accommodate affective objects?


Selected almost at random, I argue that S–105 is typical of this inquiry. It is hemmed in by the conceptual act of naming and subject to readings of mimetic inscription. And again I refer to… an offcut of fibreglass through which pieces of rubber tubing have been threaded. ‘Of course’, Briony Fer writes, ‘the indirect and tangential connections are everywhere – and to everything – if we choose to see it.’ (23). Consider the following observation about Hesse’s practice made by the art historian Anna Chave:

Layered as it is with abstract references to female anatomy – with forms suggestive of breasts, clitorises, vaginas, foetuses, uteruses, fallopian tubes, and so forth – Hesse’s art might be considered a visual demonstration of écriture feminine, the practice of a woman “writing the body” recently espoused by some French feminists. (100)

What I imagine Briony Fer would aim towards, instead of this convergence on theory, would be the close reading of an as-yet-unnamed ‘specimen of an unusual sort [that is], not [of] any body we would recognise’ (110). The difference to Anna Chave’s reading exemplifies the basic formal integrity of Fer’s art-historical practice, from which only a provisional orientation can develop; one that, in the words of Hesse, approaches ‘non-art, non-connotive, non-anthropomorphic, non-geometric, non, nothing, everything, but of another kind, vision, sort, from a total other reference point’.

In the catalogue essay Studiowork Fer everywhere reads against the “cult of pathos” in Hesse scholarship that, as she sees it, first transmutes the artist’s tragic death into the fragility of latex, gauze, rubber, before recovering identical clues to a body of work that, undergoing the chemical process of disintegration, is itself in the process of dying. Suspended between the provision of due care and a total industry of reverence, ‘each is for the other the middle term.’ Yes, identifications proliferate – and there are many instances in Fer’s essay that confirm or confront this; what concerns me here, however, is not how Fer criticises this interpretive tendency in general. Instead, I want to focus on how the semiotic act of naming intervenes into this proliferation, i.e. into that which modulates this naming in turn, and what the implications of this are for writing about Hesse’s work.

I was born in Hamburg, Germany. My father was a criminal lawyer. He had just finished his two doctorates and I had the most beautiful mother in the world. She looked like Ingrid Bergman and she was manic depressive. She studied art in Hamburg. My sister was born in 1933 and I was born in 1936. Then in 1938 there was a children’s pogrom. I was put on a train with my sister.


So Eva Hesse tells Cindy Nemser during an Artforum interview published in the same month of her death, May 1970. To recapitulate: Hesse left Hamburg in 1938 via Kindertransport before emigrating with her family to New York a year later. At the height of Abstract Expressionism she received training in the application of colour and shape from Josef Albers at Yale, through a programme that he evolved from the Bauhaus’s Vorkurs, or “preliminary course”. In 1965 Hesse undertook an artist’s residency in the defunct upper part of a textiles factory in Kettwig-an-der-Ruhr, Germany. There she began to work in relief with industrial materials left over from the production process, as well as those leftovers delivered to her by workers laid off from the factory. A year later and in New York again, Hesse purchased latex and other industrial materials from a store on Canal Street in order to produce small and large-scale sculptural works. In addition to these Hesse experimented with smaller test pieces, in some cases barely modifying the material in hand . Upon the event of her death in 1970 at the age of thirty-four from a malignant brain tumour that her main assistant Doug Johns believed was a consequence of prolonged exposure to latex, whose labour in turn was required by Hesse through bouts of hospitalisation and intensive surgery, through which she turned her hand to the lightness and strength of paper, drawn over, at times, at others, lent form, the contents of Hesse’s Bowery studio were packed in cardboard boxes by her sister, Helen Charash, and transported to the Berkeley Museum Archive.

How is the art historian to proceed when confronted with this data? Cynically, the literary theorist Leo Bersani writes the following sentence in The Culture of Redemption (1990): ‘Experience may be overwhelming, practically impossible to absorb, but it is assumed that the work of art has the authority to master the presumed raw material of experience in a manner that uniquely gives value to, perhaps even redeems, that material.’ Bersani is wary of the writer who, positing loss, permits himself to conceptualise on behalf of, and through means other to it, the processes of thought that went in to the work. But Bersani has in mind certain modernists, like Proust and Benjamin, and a lateral focus on the pastoralizing of gay sex during the US AIDS crisis. In The Melancholy Art (2013), the art historian Michael Ann Holly mitigates this polemic with a disciplinary qualification:

The practice of art history provides an oxymoronic twist to this by-now-common characterization. The very materiality of objects with which we deal presents historians of art with an interpretive paradox absent in other historical inquiries, for works of art are at the same time lost and found, past and present. (98).

As Holly suggests, it is insofar as the art historian is joined to her object-of-study via the material transactions and –substantiations of Einfühlung, “in-feeling”, empathy, that a paradox emerges. In the first moment, the exercise of kinship in the face of the artwork discovers the following incommensurability : ‘Something remains; something gets left over long after explanations are exhausted’. (97). In the second moment, the art historian negates this relation of kinship in order to restore the commensurability of the artwork, and in doing so involuntarily delivers the object of art history to the data of the history of art. For Holly, the to-and-fro of this paradox constitutes art history’s elegiac basis in melancholy; i.e., its basis in that which constantly relicenses and returns us to this this density of attention. There is a question here about disciplinary fields of inquiry: where Holly and Bersani are variously concerned with how experience makes of interpretation an object of pensive unrest, Briony Fer is engaged with things, and the kinds of thinking these as-yet-unnamed not-quite artworks make possible. As I now want to consider, Fer’s Studiowork practices a formalist logic that recognises and moves beyond the kind of interpretive unrest just outlined.

I want to focus on Fer’s notably different kind of question: What if this thing is my model of thought? It has become like a refrain, or mnemonic for me in writing this paper. How does Fer respond to the ‘something remains’ of the artwork, without producing identifications, or turning on the tools of interpretation? I want to consider a long quotation from Studiowork in which Fer describes Hesse’s ‘creative work’:

It is something about the way art gets made out of not just the material stuff of everyday life, but its habitual rhythms. The very fact that Hesse’s living and working spaces intersected made this reciprocity all the keener. All this may not sound momentous enough to account for the kind of creative work that Hesse was involved in. But that would be precisely my point: that great outpourings of expressive feelings are not relevant to making art. Much more so is the both simple and complex fact of how you group things together… It is an intricate pattern of thought made visible in actions of handling, placing, removing and replacing. Sub-objects from this point of view, tend not to come singly. They are ruled by pure contingency, which makes it possible for a studio leftover to turn so readily into a new idea or even a new work. (76).

Briony Fer places a thesis-like emphasis on the phrase how you group things together. Grouping things together describes Hesse’s ‘creative work’, but it could equally refer to the iconographical labour of the art historian. In its material and conceptual variations, this string of words captures in English the sense that inheres to the German word for ‘concept’, Begriff, which refers both to the object as it falls under a concept, but also to the tangible properties belonging to it. As this passage indicates, grouping things together involves a form of recognition that is rooted in the ‘habitual rhythms’ of ‘the artist’s living and working spaces’. By dwelling in these spaces, the historian is inured to ‘an intricate pattern of thought made visible in actions of handling, placing, removing and replacing’, and because the studiowork ‘throws presuppositions about form and process in the air’ (38), process and form are found to be retrievable as long as words are being combined via an ‘iconography [that] is contingent rather than inherent’ (171).

The ‘not-quite’ staves off that ‘something remains’; it is the ‘not-quite’ that keeps the beat going; the ‘not-quite’ that, being ‘work without making a work’ (24), adds its work to the work of the historian. Out of this ‘pure contingency’, then, comes the promise of ‘a new idea or even a new work’.

Yet something does still remain. The ‘material stuff of [Hesse’s] everyday life’ may enter into some kind of reciprocity, but this ‘material stuff’ is not – at least ‘not quite’ – transmuted into those habitual, now bipartite rhythms, and it is not for us to veil the social division of labour that separates the artist from the historian by hypostatising the historian’s inference about the artist “thinking through material”. The studiowork does obtain to a positive value (this is what allows it to be grouped together), but the value it does have, is shared out through its material processes. […]

Screen Shot 2015-10-07 at 16.34.13

In the last section of this paper, and because S–105 is only typical of this inquiry, I want to consider a major late work whose borders are patrolled by the studiowork. As Fer tells, ‘[Contingent] was made for the [1969] exhibition ‘Art in Process IV’ that was held at Finch College Museum of Art, New York… [It] consisted of eight sheets made of cheesecloth to which various sections of latex and fibreglass were attached.’ (174). For Rosalind Krauss, Contingent locates, even redeems, a quotient of expression at the ‘boundary between the institutions of painting and sculpture’ (32); she writes that, ‘In the language of anamorphosis… we are positioned at the edge from which the meaning of death is understood literally as the condition of the world disappearing from view’. But notice how this language expresses Hesse’s mastery of 60s minimalist discourse through that legend long imaged by Artforum’s May 1970 cover; in other words, Krauss identifies a metonym.

Pivoting on that other kind of studiowork, the notation, Fer returns her reader to the index of ‘how you group things together’ with an observation about Contingent taken from the artist’s notebooks : ‘Piece is in many parts. Each in itself is a complete statement.’ (174). Hesse’s ‘looking process’ is then tested out against S–168 and S–169, the ‘not-quite’ artworks that border Contingent and, when grouped together, form a ‘working process’. First, the particularity of S–168, which Hesse gifted to her friend Naomi Specter, exacerbates the artist’s sense that the eight sheets of Contingent are possibly eight works, with those eight works possibly devolving to others besides. Taller in scale, more composite in comparison, S–169 diverges from S–168 through the ‘addition of fibreglass’ to its coat of cheesecloth and latex; an addition that, when viewed inductively, suggests why in Contingent ‘the visual and the tactile are impossible to separate.’ (177). Fer opens up a clearing between Contingent and its two test pieces, through which the presence of ‘different modalities of viewing’ – of which Krauss’s ‘language of anamorphosis’ is canonically one – are to be considered. Glimmers of art world discourse still remain, but these glimmers are now contingent upon how the work is grouped in relation to the studiowork of the artist’s ‘living and working spaces’. Out of this comes the possibility of ‘another kind of optical scope or device’ (180) :

If you look close-up you can see the gauze just showing through like the ghost of a vast and spidery grid… In her statement on Contingent, Hesse wrote: ‘see through, non see through, consistent, inconsistent, enclosed tightly by glass like encasement just hanging there.’ Not a glass box any longer, but it is almost as if the function of the glass sides of a display case is now literally embedded in the materials. (179-180).

Screen Shot 2015-11-04 at 17.42.08

Sol Lewitt first came up with the idea of containing his friend’s ‘small gifts’ in a commercial pastry case; his method of installation was to lay the studiowork side by side, in twos, as if they were to be viewed in a museum setting, as commodities, or during an anatomy class, like specimens to-be-dissected. Yet Hesse, as Fer writes, ‘was afraid… of what she often referred to as ‘prettiness’ and the kind of preciousness that is easier to recognise than it is to explain.’ (110). The most extended formal reading in Fer’s Studiowork describes Hesse’s reworking of the function of the display case. The lower shelf is thickened with round metal washers, while small objects and materials fill the gaps between the allotted studiowork. Through ‘layering and the multiplication of layers’ (106), Hesse’s additions stimulate a ‘cross-fire between pieces’ (101) that no longer retain ‘clear formal divisions’ (97). I believe that Fer’s formalist approach captures the ‘cross-fire’ between the studiowork that is ‘literally embedded in the materials’ of a work like Contingent.

The names, tags and passwords by which Fer constantly reorients the “not-quite” artwork are provisional (always), additive, (con)textual and on the move; together they form a preponderance that is at one with ‘the way in which work circulates inside and outside the studio and is in permanent movement’ (114). As I see it, Briony Fer recognises that the “something remains” of interpretation is akin to the “not quite” of the artwork; in Studiowork this recognition is generously shared out and made relatable for the reader through the act of naming.

I want to end by foregrounding S–105 as it subsists through that other kind of glass box, the Yale catalogue raisonné. In this context, S–105 is a page-thin image printed on glossy paper that is cold white and that, as attested to by the copyright notes, ‘meets the guidelines for permanence and durability of the Committee on Production Guidelines for Book Longevity of the Council on Library Resources.’ If Hesse’s studiowork consumes its minimalist pastry case through an additive ‘cross-fire’, the formal logic of Fer’s Studiowork spells out the sublation of that other glass box.

Screen Shot 2016-02-03 at 17.35.46