Printer Friendly

Facing the Real: Arman's Accumulations.

In 1959, Arman (b. Armand Fernandez; 1928-2005) began work on a series of assemblages that would soon help to establish the new, object-based realism of postwar France. Called the Accumulations, these collections of like objects amassed inside shallow vitrines came to represent the principles of Nouveau Realisme as defined by the movement's critical champion, Pierre Restany. Drawing on what he saw as the immediacy and directness of found-object assemblages by Arman and his contemporaries, Restany asserted that realism in the media-saturated 1960s depended on a resistance to depicting reality, in favor of presenting that reality as the work of art itself. It was an argument against image and for authenticity, and it required a commitment to embracing "the real" in its tangible, material form. The Accumulations appeared to Restany to exemplify these tenets: here were objects "directly borrowed from the world of the real" (1) and presented as themselves so as to be perceived as themselves. (2)

Arman, however, saw his work differently. In a 1960 text entitled "Realism of the Accumulations," he defined his own vision of realism and its incarnation in the series, which he designated not assemblages but surfaces. "I do say surfaces," he declared, "because even in my volumetric compositions, my will is always pictorial more than sculptural, which means that I want to see my propositions taken in in the optics of a surface rather than of a realization in three dimensions." (3) This statement is an admission of motives that runs counter to the prevailing discourse of Nouveau Realisme, as promoted by Restany. And what it reveals--and even more compellingly, what the form of the Accumulations themselves betrays--is that the stakes of Arman's project ultimately lay not in the real objects as such, but in the new modes of perception that were coming to define our relationship to those objects. The study that follows demonstrates the ways in which these pivotal works represent Arman's probing of a critical development in postwar French life: the felt shift toward knowing the world through vision rather than more direct experience.

The crux of Arman's realist project, as manifested in the Accumulations, thus hinges on a thematics of vision. That he exploited assemblage as a means of approaching that thematics speaks to his understanding of a new relationship between object and image, a fluidity that was coming to define the new reality. What the conventional (Restanian) assessment of Arman's Accumulations ignores is the crucial fact that the objects alone, culled from the real world, are not the work of art. The work of art is those select objects, contained within a transparent case, and mounted on the wall. And it is that presentation--the placement of the appropriated objects behind a glass or Plexiglas barrier, and the hanging of the whole composition on the wall--that constitutes the artist's critical intervention. It is through this mode of display, this turn from individual material entities to the unified "optics of a surface," that Arman's realist project must be interpreted.

With this critical intervention, Arman did indeed present "the real"--not the concrete and unedited objects that Restany touted, but rather the reality of those objects in the present world, and the reality of our relationship to them, as they seem to oscillate between material and spectral, immediate and distanced, real and simulacral. Accordingly, as this essay will argue, Arman's pursuit of "direct presentation," that fundamental aim of Nouveau Realisme, turned out to reveal the impossibility of directness itself, and became instead a discourse on the dialectics of object and image.

An Emergent Vision of Realism

Crucially, Arman developed the Accumulations at a moment when the very nature of "the real" was the subject of sustained debate. In the face of the exceptionally fast postwar advancement of the American capitalist model in France, contemporary theorists sought to account for consumerism's effect on human experience--an effect some saw as a kind of "occupation" of daily life by mass production and mass media. (4) Among the most vocal critics of this advancement was the Situationist Guy Debord, who opened his 1967 treatise The Society of the Spectacle with the declaration, "In societies where modern conditions of production reign, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation." (5) Debord further asserted that as the real world was taking the form of simple images, simple images were coming to be experienced as real beings. Under these conditions, the world could no longer be directly grasped, he argued: it could be contemplated only as image, and thus the spectacle "naturally finds vision to be the privileged human sense." (6)

I do not suggest that Arman was sympathetic to Debord's anti-capitalist stance, or that he was engaging directly with the Situationist notion of spectacle. (7) Rather, I wish simply to call attention to the centrality of the question of real and simulacrum in France in the 1960s, and to propose that Arman's realist project centered on his addressing the question of whether such a thing as an unmediated experience of "the real" was even possible. For it stands to reason that the perceived threat of the world not literally becoming image but being experienced as image was a driving force behind the call for a "new realism" in art--a realism that would abandon image, depiction, representation, or simulacrum altogether. (8)

In the art criticism of the period, we find innumerable references to those desiderata, as reviewers assess the realism of given artworks based on the presence of "the real" itself, in all its genuine, tangible, material authenticity. For instance, in a 1963 review of Arman's early series of Allures d'objet--works on paper made by inking found objects and then stamping, rolling, or dragging them across the support--Alain Jouffroy praised the compositions' originality yet lamented, "But the trace of an object is not the object; its imprint, though still 'poetic,' does not attain the degree of virulence of the lived, the real, the palpitating, the true." (9) Such were the criteria, in the early 1960s, for the new realism: a kind of authenticity and directness that even an index of a real object failed to capture.

The importance of Arman's Accumulations is that they reveal that even the real objects themselves--ostensibly more virulent, more real, more true--fail in the same way that the indexes do. There is no authentic, immediate experience possible with Arman's "directly presented" objects. Significantly, it seems Arman discovered this truth only in the process of transitioning from the index to the object. He in fact made his first Accumulation in 1959 while working on an Allure d'objet: he recounts that he had amassed a box full of radio tubes that he intended to ink and impress, and as he looked at that box, it suddenly occurred to him to nail a sheet of transparent plastic to the front of it and stand it upright. (10) The idea was for the objects themselves, rather than their material traces, to constitute the work of art, thus increasing the "realism" of the composition. But by encasing these objects in the shallow space of a rectangular box whose sides are opaque, Arman made it so that the only way to perceive the contents was to look at the work frontally, where the transparent face lies. The Accumulation thus presents itself as surface: like a painting, its mode of address is a strictly two-dimensional confrontation.

That the experience of Arman's work lies solely in the flat optics of the composition, despite the presence of three-dimensional objects, reflects a vision of realism that accounts for, rather than fights against, the felt slippage between things and images of things, which Debord would later codify as spectacle. Arman's objects, shielded behind a transparent barrier, are flattened--not literally but figuratively, in the sense of being neutralized into a diffuse surface that reads en bloc, as a single image. And that resulting image is crucial, for if Arman's goal in presenting real objects had at first been to elude the image--to skirt representation in order to get at something more "real" and more immediate--then the Accumulations demonstrate the impossibility of escaping image, for image now is reality; "the real" cannot be wrested from its simulacrum.

On both a material and a structural level, these works fight against their own three-dimensionality in insisting on a pictorial address. The objects presented are at once proximate--in that they are physically there before us--and distant, because inaccessible. Contained behind the transparent frontal pane, the objects are available only to vision, which crucially strips them of their function as objects. They are at once themselves and an image of themselves. (11)

Jouffroy would conclude in 1963 that the distancing enacted by the vitrine that is so crucial to Arman's realist works makes them an unlikely candidate for realism. He wrote, "To look at an Arman tableau is to face blinding reality, to bump up against something seizable and self-evident." But he qualified that initial response by conceding that the object "is never, in Arman's work, what it is when we encounter it on a table, in a drawer or in a cupboard.[...] The situation that the artist has imposed on it prohibits us from grasping it like we do every day: it distances itself, it passes to the other side of a river, and, for a bit, becomes an inaccessible example.[...] Strange realism," he concluded, "that consists in distancing the viewer from reality, while in appearance everything is ordered and composed in such a way as to bring it closer." (12)

Jouffroy's ambivalent stance on the nature of the Accumulations as both "tableau" and "blinding reality," and his observation that the very things that seem so proximate in fact remain most evasive, echo in an important way the contemporary debates about the very nature of "the real." The vitrine transforms the "blinding reality" of the objects into a visually consumable "tableau." We are teased with the seeming directness of "the real," displayed right there before us, just as Restany promised--and yet we are foiled by the impossibility of accessing that real as anything other than a flat image. Despite the presence of real, tangible things, vision is the only human sense we are invited to use--anticipating Debord's comparable diagnosis of the new spectacular society.

While the initial discovery of the impossibility of direct presentation in the Accumulations seems to have been serendipitous, it is clear that Arman soon embraced this paradox and adopted it as his own personal realist project: a realism built to contain the discrepancies observable in the contemporary world, where real and simulacrum coexist, and where even directness yields dissociation. As Arman continued to develop the Accumulations over the next five years, his intervention in the compositions became increasingly pronounced, with the objects becoming more conspicuously organized for a particular effect.

Such interpolations went largely unremarked in the criticism at first, due to the discursive force of Restany's prolific writings, which insisted that Arman's realism was a strictly objective one. (13) Restany downplayed the artist's intervention in order to assert the directness, immediacy, and objectivity--and thus the realism--of these works. His claims centered on the idea that the objects were self-composing, that their arrangement in the cases was determined solely by what Restany called "the determinism of chance directed by the object." (14) Granting agency to the objects, rather than the artist, was a means of defining Arman's practice as unmediated presentation--as opposed to representation, which would implicate the artist in some kind of creative enterprise that would distance the final product from "the real."

While some Accumulations do suggest a certain deferral to the objects, which often seem to have been allowed to fall into place naturally, the illusion of utter acquiescence to the "will" of the objects is in most cases quickly dispelled by their obviously intentional arrangement. In some instances, objects are attached by wire to the back of the box, creating dispersed and balanced compositions of like forms. But even in the more free-form Accumulations, such as Indications of 1962 (fig. 1), the artist's hand can be discerned. Here, every pressure gauge is frontally oriented, its face pressed against the glass pane to meet our gaze. The suggestion that these objects simply fell into place in this way, through a direct action of deversement, is untenable.

Rather, the Accumulations are intentional works, and while their status as such undermines their realism on Restany's terms, it is in fact what defines them as realist on Arman's terms. Arman's realism depends on a certain illusion of objectivity: an illusion that quickly gives itself away, to the point where one must surmise that it was designed to fail, to expose its falsity under the evident influence of the artist's hand. The widespread call for objectivity in art--the very definition of realism as unmediated presentation--relied on an assumption that "the real" itself was a material, graspable thing, separate and different from image. Arman's realist project instead seeks a means of expressing the paradoxical oneness of thing and image of thing; "the real" in 1960s France, he shows us, is always already mediated. It is at once mediated in the sense of interceded--having something between the real and the beholder--and mediated in the sense of being affected and even transformed by media.

Evidence that Arman's realism involves a mediated reality lies squarely in the vitrine itself, the glass or Plexiglas case that contains the objects, delimits the work of art, and makes possible the transformation of object-experience into image-experience. Echoing Restany's claims, Otto Hahn described Arman's practice as "the raw presentation of the accumulation, that is the non-intervention on reality." But unlike Restany, Hahn qualified that statement, adding, "or, at least, intervention limited to the placing behind glass." (15) That small qualification--that it is not so much non-intervention as a particular kind of apparently minimal intervention--has significant ramifications for the work of art. Indeed, the vitrine is the primary aspect of an Accumulation; it is the component that, in Arman's studio and in his conception of his artistic project, elevates a pile of objects to the status of a work of art. And it is the element that assures the Accumulation's particular address to the viewer, transforming the objects behind it into purely visual material.

In fact, Hahn acknowledged that although Arman's works are made of real objects, stripped from the industrial world, it is not the objects that interest the artist, but rather his relationship to them. At one point, Hahn argued that in amassing these objects, "[Arman] wants to neutralize the profusion of their qualities, of their functions--he demarcates them, freezes them, renders them distant and unoffensive." (16) This is the work accomplished by the vitrine: the setting apart and dissociation of the objects, so that they are available only for vision and not for use; they lose their object-quality in favor of image-quality. The implication for Arman's realist practice is that he observes this distancing between the object and himself--this degradation of experience to a merely visual register--in the world at large. This is "the real" as Arman knows it: always already mediated, dissociated, unreal.

Indeed, as early as 1960, critic Claude Riviere had problematized the dissonance between the volumetric works and their pictorial address when she wrote that "Arman wants only to establish a new real, that which will make from the condensed forces of the manufactured object another given and will endow the object with a value more pictorial than sculptural." (17) She recognized in the Accumulations a transformative operation that, rather than depicting the objects pictorially, turned them into a single, pictorial object.

Riviere again confronted the odd pictorialism of Arman's Accumulations in 1961, when she reviewed two realist exhibitions in Paris that included his work. (18) In her essay, Riviere sought to put her finger on just what was meant by "realism" in the context of the current art. Questioning how one was to understand the objects pasted to the Nouveau-Realiste Daniel Spoerri's compositions, for instance, she posited: "The object is what is represented before us and we can see it as a whole or by taking advantage of a single element." (19) By "represented," Riviere seems to have meant, literally, re-presented: Spoerri's objects are taken from the context of a meal, where they were first presented to dinner guests as the contents of a feast; now, they are re-presented to us, the audience, as the remains of a meal-event, a realist composition. Arman's Accumulations, on the other hand, are less straightforward: not mere re-presentations of objects, but something new altogether. "But how does one translate Arman's work of accumulation into a new reality," Riviere asks, "since it presents itself before our eyes as something concrete, that is, as a vision resulting from a cinematic mechanism?" (20) Riviere's invocation of the term "vision" to describe the compositional whole of Arman's Accumulations is revealing. In contrast to the straightforward objectness of Spoerri's compositions, where individual dishes and bottles and scraps are laid before us as themselves, Arman's works enact a transformation away from objectness and toward vision, toward the optical, toward screen (note her invocation of cinema). Riviere echoed the common observation that the object, in Arman's hands, undergoes a certain disintegration, "since the repetition brought about by accumulation tends toward the destruction of the utilitarian quality of the object." (21) Once again, it is becoming sign.

Objects, Images and the Perpetual Spectator

The Accumulations'" imagistic mode of address, which invites only passive visual contemplation, is not only central to our experience of the works but is key to Arman's realist project, which aligned in important ways with much of the literary and social theory of the 1950s and 60s in France. Just as Debord and his Situationist circle were theorizing the felt slippage of being into appearing, of tangible reality becoming experienced as visible sign, (22) novelists such as Alain Robbe-Grillet and literary critics like Roland Barthes were advocating a writing style composed of surface description that concealed no depth, to match the increasingly superficial image-world of postwar modernization. (23)

Given Debord's observation that vision was becoming the "privileged human sense" in this new image-world, Arman's use of the vitrine can be seen as part of a project of accounting for or problematizing what was felt to be the new way of being-in-the-world, as a kind of perpetual spectator. In a sociological study of the vitrine as cultural artifact, Martin Roberts has argued that the vitrine, as display case or shop window, is a perfect instance of the separation that Debord saw between lived experience and its reified representation in consumer culture. (24) For Roberts, the vitrine functions as a construct that establishes the objects behind it as spectacle and the people before it as spectators--and its power lies in "inviting yet denying possession of its contents." (25) This is the work enacted by the transparent facade, both as window and, in Arman's case, as pictorial framing device: it at once makes available and denies access; it offers objects for visual consumption but denies tangible use--which is to say, it disallows immediate experience of the objects and cancels their functional value, replacing it with only sign value. (26) In the Accumulations, then, the sheet of glass or Plexiglas that stands between the beholder and the objects displayed performs an ontological transformation of those objects. The realness and presentness of the objects are challenged by the vitrine that denies access to them in their full material reality. What we are given, instead of tangible objects, is a representative image of those objects.

In this way, the vitrine works in tandem with the overwhelming proliferation of like objects to achieve an effect of unification and abstraction. Hector Obalk has described this phenomenon by way of linguistic example: when one encounters an Accumulation of pliers, Obalk asserts, rather than speaking of a few pliers or a dozen pliers or twenty-five pliers, one is tempted to speak of "some pliers," the way one would talk about "some water" or "some sugar." (27) The semantic distinction is more pronounced in the French language, where des pinces becomes de la pince, taking on the indefinite article reserved for unquantifiable things like sugar or water, but also abstract ideas--de la quantite, du gaspillage (quantity, waste). The countable not only becomes uncountable--it also becomes abstract; it enters the category of ideas. And the paradox here is the effect of that critical mass on the measure of reality contained in these compositions: the quantity at once provides a greater concentration of the "real" thing, and strips that "real" thing of its "realness," emptying it into image.

On the topic of quantity, Arman declared in "Realism of the Accumulations" that "a thousand eye-droppers are more eye-dropper than a single eye-dropper." (28) He was making reference to a well-known proclamation by Henri Matisse: "a square centimeter of blue is not as blue as a square meter of the same blue. A thousand square meters of blue are more blue than one square meter of blue." (29) Arman paraphrased Matisse in his own text before suggesting that the same rule applies to objects. He thus asserted that amassing a greater quantity of an object is akin to having a higher concentration of a color--it expresses the idea "eye-dropper" more effectively than a single eye-dropper could. Or, stated another way, Arman linked quantity to realism: with a greater number of the same thing, the measure of reality is greater. The collection of like objects combines to form a single, concentrated signified. This declaration attests that Arman's goal in multiplying objects is to attain a more "real" realism. Again, though, his means of accomplishing that objective has the paradoxical yet predictable effect of abstracting the real things he collects and presents. With the premium placed on quantity, the collection of objects inevitably reaches that critical mass wherein the identity of the object is lost to the overall identity of the mass.

The thematics of vision at the heart of Arman's project is thus reinforced by both the inherent qualities of the vitrine itself and the effects of multiplication. But the Accumulations go even further in this sense, as their very form underscores their limitations as purely visual consumables. Arman does not simply declare his intention to treat his Accumulations as surfaces: in both his selection and his arrangement of objects, he deliberately foregrounds the experience of looking. The Accumulations make inescapably conspicuous for the viewer the conditions of her own act of perceiving, and they do so in several ways.

First, the vitrine itself as surface reflects back to the viewer the image of herself in the act of looking--a reflection that not only shows but also thwarts that very act, as the reflections on the pane of glass at times occlude visual access to the objects behind it, showing the viewer herself instead, as spectator. Even more striking, Arman underscores the "to-be-seenness" of his surfaces, by purposefully arranging the objects so that they radically face the viewer. (30) The "facingness" of the objects in Arman's Accumulations, once remarked, is unmistakable, and comes to overwhelm and even supersede the other kinds of thematic connections one might find in his choice of objects. For instance, again and again in the series, we find repetitions of various bulbs, reflectors, and lenses--all radically frontal, meeting the viewer with a direct face-to-face confrontation (figs. 2 and 3). It is no coincidence that light bulbs, reflectors and camera lenses all function in the real world as analogies to or surrogates for the human eye: Arman's Accumulations insist on that surrogacy, as multiple exemplars line up behind the surface to stare outward and meet the viewer's gaze as its equivalent.

Pressure gauges (fig. 1) and clocks (fig. 4) take the analogy further. Literal faces look out of the vitrine, facing forward in formation despite the innumerable other configurations they could be expected to assume if the thesis of artistic non-intervention were true. (Recall Restany's oft-repeated claim that the objects arranged themselves, that "the real" was allowed to self-compose, or Hahn's assertion that Arman's "only intervention" was the "placing behind glass" of the objects culled directly from the real world.) In looking at these works, and especially at the consistency with which the grid-like, frontal arrangements of round, eye- or face-like objects repeat, it is implausible that such compositions were anything but an intentional choice by the artist. Rather, the faces seem composed.

If such examples were not conspicuous enough, Arman also provides us with instances in which actual faces--in the form of dolls' heads or whole bodies--face out of the vitrine, staring back at the viewer, as in Massacre des Innocents (Massacre of the Innocents) of 1961. And if the dolls were still not enough to convince the viewer that she was intended to take note of her act of viewing and position as spectator, a 1961 accumulation of dolls' eyeballs, entitled Petit Argus (Small Argus), surely makes the point.

Taken together, the Accumulations of eye- and face-surrogates paint a new picture of Arman's chief preoccupations in conceiving a new realist art. Given the frequency of such compositional strategies, we might rethink certain assumptions about Arman's choice of objects--assumptions that have tended to dominate the literature on this work. Much has been made of the undeniably evocative objects in many of Arman's Accumulations, (31) and while I do not wish to contest the importance of memory and history inherent in such poignant items as gas masks and children's dolls, I do want to redirect attention to another crucial aspect of them: their insistent address to the eye. Indeed, Arman himself invited such attention, not only in composing the works the way he did, but in describing the way in which he selected objects for his assemblages:
   [T]he chosen object is not chosen
   according to dada or surrealist
   criteria: it is not a matter of
   decontextualizing an object from
   its utilitarian, industrial or other
   essence to give it, by a choice of
   presentation or an inclination of
   its appearance, a determination
   entirely other than its own; for
   example: anthropomorphism,
   analogy, recollections, etc. [...]
   [I]t is on the contrary a question
   of re-contextualizing it in itself, in
   a surface sensitized x times by its
   duplicated presence. (32)


Rather than simply signifying war and violence, then, the gas masks (fig. 5), multiplied, encased, and facing outward, become more sets of eyes meeting our gaze from behind the vitrine. The eyeglasses in Argus extra myope (Extra Myopic Argus) of 1961, conjuring images of the piles of personal effects confiscated in Nazi concentration camps, are also metaphors for looking and seeing, their transparency redoubling that of the vitrine, referencing the tradition of the "painting as window" but turning it on its head. That window now asks us to look only at it and not through it and onto another world--there is nothing to see beyond the surface despite the fact that, thanks to its literal transparency, we now have that ability. And the dolls, an evident elegy to innocence lost in the same wars that produced the necessity for household gas masks, are also human surrogates, a repetition of our own reflection in the glass that separates us from them.

With these works, Arman makes clear that he, like many of his contemporaries, was engaged in the question of perception as it related to the new reality and, by extension, realism. He asks not just what is our new reality, but what is our relationship to it? How do we come to know it? The answer, it seemed, was that increasingly, we were coming to know our world through vision. (33)

The direction Arman's Accumulations would take over the course of just a few short years affirms his central interest in questions of perception. By 1964, the Accumulations were becoming abstract, reflective surfaces: aesthetic arrangements that eschewed the connotative objects that might distract the viewer's focus from the self-reflective act of perceiving. Instead of eyeglasses and personal cameras, we encounter things like cog wheels and ball bearings (fig. 6). As Suzi Gablik remarked of the new works, exhibited in Arman's 1965 solo show at the Sidney Janis Gallery in New York, "The repetition of objects which formerly caused them to appear strange and unassimilable (i.e., an enormous glass case filled with gas masks) has become totally digested into bland, honeyed textures and grids. [...] No longer heroically shoring up bloody noses and cracked crowns, he has focused on mere surface configurations." (34)

Gablik thus picked up on both the aestheticization and the abstraction of these compositions, and the loss of meaning of the objects encased therein. The bloody noses and cracked crowns that she evokes are references to the humanistic or anthropomorphic quality of the more suggestive objects--objects that we cannot help but associate with our daily lives or our collective memory of war, childhood, or trauma. The textures, grids, and surface configurations that Gablik observes in the newer Accumulations, by contrast, comprise objects that have a merely plastic value: oxygen cylinder pressure dials, nuts and bolts, simple metallic disks. In these types of works, Gablik laments, the objects are diffused into dull, superficial patterns, leaving behind the arresting effects achieved by the more evocative works.

Gene Swenson agreed, noting in 1964 that the differences between the more recent phase of Arman's work and the earlier period were minor, except that "[t]he objects presently accumulated [...] tend to be new; they are often metallic and shiny. [...] The objects are arranged in clearer, purer, and more beautiful patterns. These accumulations of objects, filling shallow boxes under glass [...] produce all-over effects which relate Arman, formally, to Tobey and Pollock." (35) But it is not just a formal connection to abstract painting that Arman achieves here. The alloverness of the later Accumulations contributes to the radical frontality and superficiality of the works; it enhances their pictorial nature. The textures of small, impersonal items create an impenetrable bloc in their density. Vision cannot pierce beyond the surface; it can only stop there and be reflected back. The to-be-seenness of these works makes conspicuous that the objects are to be merely seen. The same was true of the earlier iterations: the eyeglasses, gas masks, dolls' heads, and clock faces were also to be merely seen, and not felt, handled, or used. But now the possibility of use is even further removed, as the objects themselves become more impersonal, and the imperative to "take in" these Accumulations "in the optics of a surface" is even more authoritative.

The new Accumulations were essentially becoming image, that is, becoming so abstract that the objectness of the objects was almost entirely lost. (36) They were fulfilling a maxim that Arman articulated in 1965 when he declared, "the small accumulated objects lose their identity to become surface." (37) As a result of that evident transformation in the Accumulations of the mid-1960s, critics were beginning to find that Restany's widely accepted claims about Arman's realism rang false. The notion that Arman refrained from the allegedly "American" (read: less realist) practices of "the ordering of compositions, the orchestration of plans, the internal organization of space" (38) could not be sustained in the face of the dematerializing surface configurations of these most recent works.

As we have seen, however, Arman's artistic practice had never quite aligned, in fact, with Restany's Nouveau-Realiste vision, for he was always arranging harmonious compositions, only in a relatively discreet manner. The question thus becomes not whether Arman's work lost its realism, but what his realism was in the first place. This study has shown that Arman, in "presenting the real," sought to account for the new status of that "real," as something that was always already mediated, set up for visual consumption only. His gradual progression to the aestheticized abstractions of the mid-1960s only confirms that any interest he had in the objects he accumulated was superseded by his interest in the effects produced by his display of them. His Accumulations thus stand as a testament to the preeminence of vision that Arman observed in the new mediatized society. Rather than seeing the Accumulations as direct reflections of compulsive consumption--the amassing of ever more "stuff" as the market shifted from the artisanal to the disposable--we might see them as ruminations on visual consumption. In echoing back to the viewer our own act of looking, they assert themselves as studies of perception itself, and invite us to contemplate not only the visual data before us but our limited and limiting relationship to them as spectators.

Endnotes

(1.) In 1966, Restany described Arman's practice thus: "[Upon] the tabula rasa of the painting-object, he accumulates new objects and the latter are not transcribed, drawn or reproduced but directly borrowed from the world of the real." See Pierre Restany, "Arman et la logique formelle de l'objet," in Arman, ed. Jean-Michel Bouhours (Paris: Centre Pompidou, 2010), 265. Originally published in Arman (Brussels: Palais des beaux-arts, 1966), n.p. This and all translations from the French are my own unless otherwise noted.

(2.) Such objects met Restany's criterion for realism, which called for "[the] real, perceived in itself and not through the prism of conceptual or imaginative transcription." Pierre Restany, "La realite depasse la fiction," in 1960, Les Nouveaux Realistes (Paris: Musee d'art moderne de la ville de Paris, 1986), 267. Originally published in Le Nouveau Realisme a Paris et a New York (Paris: Galerie Rive Droite, 1960), n.p. Restany made this claim about all Nouveau-Realiste artists; in other instances, he extolled Arman as the artist whose work best exemplified this commitment.

(3.) Arman, "Realisme des accumulations," in Arman, ed. Jean-Michel Bouhours (Paris: Centre Pompidou, 2010), 251. Originally published in Zero 3 (July 1961), 208-209.

(4.) For a thorough study of France's experience of rapid modernization, see Kristin Ross, Fast Cars, Clean Bodies: Decolonization and the Reordering of French Culture (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1995).

(5.) Guy Debord, La Societe du Spectacle (Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1992), 15. Italics original.

(6.) Debord wrote, "The spectacle, as a tendency to make one see by means of various specialized mediations the world which can longer be grasped directly, naturally finds vision to be the privileged human sense, which for other epochs was the sense of touch; the most abstract, the most mystifiable sense corresponds to the generalized abstraction of present-day society." Ibid., 23.

(7.) Debord and his Situationist circle were certainly aware of Arman. Throughout the 1960s, they were highly critical of the Nouveaux Realistes for their "reactionary" reprisal of Dada tropes. Debord in particular saw Nouveau Realisme as capturing the negative, scornful parts of the new reality without critiquing it, thus participating in the degradation of culture and of daily life. See Guy Debord, letter to Raoul Hausmann, March 31, 1963, published in Correspondances, vol. II (Paris: Artheme Fayard, 2001), 204; and G[uy]-E[rnest] Debord, "Perspectives de modifications conscientes dans la vie quotidienne," Internationale Situationniste, no. 6 (August 1961), 22.

(8.) Recent scholarship on postwar art has shed light on the plurality of notions of realism in this period. What those notions had in common was an effort to define a new relationship between realism and "the real," not as a one-to-one translation of reality into representation, but as something more direct, with the real itself being implicated in the work of art in a more immediate way. See the discussion of Restany's notion of "direct appropriation" in Jill Carrick, Nouveau Realisme, 1960s France, and the Neo-avant-garde: Topographies of Chance and Return (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2010), 19-44; the outline of "object strategies" that defined various forms of postwar realism in Julia Robinson, "Before Attitudes Became Form--New Realisms; 1957-1962," in New Realisms: 1957-1962, Object Strategies Between Readymade and Spectacle (Barcelona: Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, 2010), 23-39; and the overview of realism's resurgence in the postwar years in Alex Potts, Experiments in Modern Realism: World Making, Politics and the Everyday in Postwar European and American Art (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), 1-65.

(9.) Alain Jouffroy, "Arman," in Arman, ed. Jean-Michel Bouhours (Paris: Centre Pompidou, 2010), 266. Originally published in Arman (Milan: Galleria Schwarz, 1963), n.p.

(10.) Arman, in Daniel Abadie and Arman, "L'archeologie du futur," in Arman (Paris: Editions du Jeu de Paume, 1998), 40-41.

(11.) In an essay on the Accumulations' relationship to capitalist systems, Jaimey Hamilton argues compellingly that in Arman's vitrines, "things started to become images of things." She uses this observation to argue that the Accumulations at once reflect and participate in the capitalist system of mass production and homogenization that Jean Baudrillard was theorizing at the time. See "Arman's System of Objects," Art Journal 67, no. 1 (2008), 61.

(12.) Jouffroy, "Arman," 266.

(13.) The enormity of Restany's role in the establishment, development, and promotion of Nouveau Realisme, as well as the career of Arman, cannot be overstated. Restany was such a prolific writer of catalog essays, journal articles, and books on the movement and its artists that his voice alone came to define Nouveau Realisme as well as the individual reuvre of each member artist. Arman later claimed that the whole of Nouveau Realisme was nothing but an invention of Restany's, and that the latter "wanted to be the pope of a movement." (Arman, in Abadie and Arman, "L'archeologie du futur," 47.) Even a cursory study of the art criticism from the period attests to the power of Restany's voice: critics both friendly and hostile to Nouveau Realisme borrowed his terms and phrases to explain the artwork they were reviewing; they echoed his claims about the pieces' meaning without necessarily acknowledging that they were doing so; and they made claims that suggest more familiarity with Restany's proclamations than with the artworks themselves. A chapter in my dissertation addresses the significance of Restany's voice in great detail. See Jennifer Watson, "Realism and Representation: Arman, 1954-1964" (PhD diss., Johns Hopkins University, 2015), 12-75.

(14.) Restany wrote of Arman's process, "Beyond appropriation, the object determines its own accumulation. [...] It contains within itself the determining factors of its piling up and of its proliferating, repetitive multiplication. [...] For each object there exist differing thresholds of accumulation. [...] From the start, a central intuition is in command, and it is clearly that of the determinism of chance directed by the object." Restany, "Arman: A Radical Portrait of Modernity," in Arman 1955-1991: A Retrospective (Houston: The Museum of Fine Arts, 1991), 42.

(15.) Otto Hahn, "Materiaux et techniques chez Arman," Art Press 16 (February 1975), 15.

(16.) Otto Hahn, "Arman," undated typescript (ca. 1972). Fonds Pierre Restany, Archives de la critique d'art, Rennes.

(17.) Claude Riviere, "Ivresse de la liberte creatrice," Combat, August 15, 1960, 7.

(18.) The exhibitions were Restany's "40 Degrees Above Dada" at the Galerie J, and "41 Present Portraits of Iris Clert" at Clert's eponymous gallery.

(19.) Claude Riviere, "Realisme, concret et vie," Combat, May 22, 1961, 7.

(20.) Ibid.

(21.) Ibid.

(22.) Debord wrote that the sign of spectacular society was "an obvious degradation of being into having ... [which] leads to a generalized slippage from having to appearing." He further asserted, "Considered according to its own terms, the spectacle is the affirmation of appearance and the affirmation of all human life, that is social life, as mere appearance." Debord, La Societe, 19-22. Italics original.

(23.) Robbe-Grillet and Barthes were advocates of the Nouveau Roman, or New Novel. See Robbe-Grillet, For a New Novel: Essays on Fiction, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Grove Press, 1965); and Barthes, "Objective Literature," in Critical Essays, trans. Richard Howard (Evanston, Ill: Northwestern University Press, 1972), 13-24.

(24.) Martin Roberts, "Mutations of Spectacle: Vitrines, Arcades, Mannequins," French Cultural Studies 2 (October 1991), 216.

(25.) Ibid., 217.

(26.) As Hamilton has suggested, Arman's vitrine also bears analogy in this way to Baudrillard's display window, which he described in his important text of 1968, The System of Objects: "Glass works exactly like atmosphere in that it allows nothing but the sign of its content to emerge." Baudrillard, quoted in Hamilton, "Arman's System," 61.

(27.) Hector Obalk, "L'art evident, deuxieme partie (sculpture)," Art Press 126 (June 1988), 32. Obalk was referring to a later work, Arman's Souple et brillante of 1976, a free-standing (that is, not encased) Accumulation of universal pliers, soldered together. Despite this work's different format from the earlier Accumulations that are the subject of this article, his observations on the uncountability of the objects and the semantic distinctions that that quality brings about are enlightening for this discussion as well.

(28.) Ibid.

(29.) Arman paraphrases this statement, without attribution, in the same text, stating, "let's recall the historic phrase: a thousand square meters of blue are more blue than one square meter of blue." Arman, "Realisme des accumulations," 251. Matisse's original words are quoted in a 1971 interview with Louis Aragon, but the phrase certainly predates that conversation. A 1956 text by Raymond Escholier quotes Matisse's related phrase, "A kilo of green is more green than a half-kilo of green." See Henri Matisse, Ecrits et propos sur l'art, ed. Dominique Fourcade (Paris: Hermann, 1972), 129; and Raymond Escholier, Matisse, ce vivant (Paris: Artheme Fayard, 1956), 135.

(30.) I borrow the term "to-be-seenness," as well as the related "facingness," from Michael Fried, who has used them most notably in his studies of contemporary photography and of the paintings of Edouard Manet. See Fried, Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008); and Manet's Modernism, or, The Face of Painting in the 1860s (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998).

(31.) Benjamin Buchloh reads the Accumulations as "memory images" of the repressed trauma of the Holocaust, while Carrick argues compellingly that the works, in employing "outmoded" objects, evoke both past consumer spectacle and past historical disasters. See Buchloh, "Plenty or Nothing: From Yves Klein's Le Vide to Arman's Le Plein," in Neo-Avantgarde and Culture Industry: Essays on European and Amer ican Art from 1955 to 1975 (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2000), 257-284; and the chapter "Restaging Commodity Spectacle" in Carrick, Nouveau Realisme, 67-101.

(32.) Arman, "Realisme des accumulations," 251.

(33.) It is tempting to relate Arman's interest in visual perception to the "myopic grazing" and the "vernacular glance" later posited in response to Robert Rauschenberg's work of the period, or to the so-called "matte reading" that Roland Barthes advocated in his literary criticism. See Yve-Alain Bois, "Eye to the Ground," Artforum International 44, no. 7 (March 2006), 245-248; and Brian O'Doherty, "Rauschenberg and the Vernacular Glance," Art in America 61, no. 5 (September/October 1973), 82-87.

(34.) Suzi Gablik, "Reviews and Previews," Art News 63, no. 10 (February 1965), 11.

(35.) Gene Swenson, "Arman and esthetic change," Quadrum no. 17 (1964), 87.

(36.) Tita Reut identifies this dematerialization as part of Arman's project of dealing with objects; for her, from the moment Arman introduced the object into his work, it became a process of "annihilation" by different means. In the Accumulations, it is the quantity and homogeneity that effect the destruction of the object. See Reut, Arman: La traversee des objets (Paris: Hazan, 2000), 14. But in 1962-1964 especially, the Accumulations took a distinct turn toward the abstract. Jan van der Marck attributes this evolution to the artist's beginning to frequent New York, where he was exposed to both the surplus of Canal Street and the glamour of Pop art. See van der Marck, "Arman: The Parisian Avant-Garde in New York," Art in America 61, no. 6 (November-December 1973), 94.

(37.) Arman, in Jouffroy, "Arman," L'OEil no. 126 (1965), 26.

(38.) Pierre Restany, "Le nouveau realisme et le bapteme de l'objet," Combat-Art, February 5, 1962, 2.

Caption: Figure 1. Arman, Indications, 1962, manometers in a wooden box, 31 x 20 1/2 x 3 in. (79 x 52 x 8 cm). Private collection. [C] 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP Paris. Photo courtesy Fondation A.R.M.A.N.

Caption: Figure 2, left. Arman, Cycloflat, 1960, bicycle headlights in a wooden box, 27 1/2 x 15 3/4 x 5 in. (70 x 40 x 13 cm). Private collection. [C] 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP Paris. Photo courtesy Fondation A.R.M.A.N.

Caption: Figure 3, right. Arman, Les Catadiopres (Reflectors), 1960, reflectors in a wooden box, 15 1/4 x 11 3/4 x 19 3/4 in. (39 x 30 x 50 cm). Private collection. Private collection. [C] 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP Paris. Photo courtesy Fondation A.R.M.A.N.

Caption: Figure 4. Arman, Alarm Clocks (Reveils), 1960, alarm clocks in painted wooden box, 23 1/2 x 47 5/16 x 5 in. (59.7 x 120.2 x 12.7 cm). Collection Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, gift of Debra and Robert N. Mayer from the Robert B. Mayer Memorial Loan Collection, 1983.85. Photo: Nathan Keay, [C] MCA Chicago. [C] 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.

Caption: Figure 5. Arman, Home Sweet Home, 1960, gas masks in a Plexiglas box, 63 x 55 x 7 3/4 in. (160 x 140 x 20 cm). Inv. AM1986-52. Musee National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, France. Photo: [C] CNAC/MNAM/Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY. [C] 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP Paris.

Caption: Figure 6. Arman, Small Galaxy, 1964, ball bearings embedded in Plexiglas case, 16 3/4 x 21 7/8 x 2 3/8 in. (42.5 x 55.5 x 6 cm). Private collection. [C] 2018 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP Paris. Photo courtesy Fondation A.R.M.A.N.
COPYRIGHT 2018 Southeastern College Art Conference Review
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2018 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Armand Fernandez
Author:Wester, Jennifer Watson
Publication:Art Inquiries
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUFR
Date:Jan 1, 2018
Words:7596
Previous Article:Radical Reconfiguration: Appropriation, Assemblage, and Masked Hybridity in Jean Dubuffet's Postwar Portraits.
Next Article:An Interview with Stacey M. Holloway.
Topics:

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters