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The Picasso Papers.

The Picasso Papers, the title Rosalind Krauss has given her collection of essays on the artist's work, puns nicely on the book's concerns. To begin with, the essays included are occasional papers rather than chapters in a chronological or topical study of the work. Second, Krauss' Picasso is very much the artist of papier colles. Third, one of the book's central premises is that the post-World War I abandonment of the gold standard in favor of "token money" in the form of a circulating paper currency is emblematic of a "modernist literature that stakes its aesthetic integrity on the free play of its signifying elements." And finally, the genre of these essays is that of the legal brief: "papers," in this sense, refers to the mounting of significant if not incontrovertible evidence, as in "Pentagon Papers."

The 121-page essay called "Picasso/Pastiche," the centerpiece of the collection, is a stunning example of historical and critical scholarship. "Between 1916 and 1924," Krauss begins by noting, "as pastiche became more and more the medium in which he practiced, Picasso did increasingly fatuous work - arch, decorative, empty - work that seems unreconcilable with the formal rigor of cubism and yet, given the unrivaled example of that earlier brilliance, work that must somehow issue from a logic internal to it and not from a set of external circumstances." "Picasso/Pastiche" addresses the causes and circumstances of this curious (re)turn to the "classical" and the decorative.

The "Ingresque" portraits Picasso began to produce in 1915 may be understood, Krauss suggests, as a "reaction formation" (Freud's term) to the success of the new technological art that came into its own by the mid-teens, specifically, the new status of the photograph as an art medium along with the new machine art exemplified by Picabia's mechanomorphic drawings. Successive issues of 291, for example, featured Picabia's now famous drawing of a spark plug called Portrait d'une jeune fille americaine as well as essays of homage to Stieglitz by Marius de Zayas and Paul Haviland, the latter referring to the camera as "the image of [man's] eye; the machine is his 'daughter born without a mother.'" The same year, Krauss notes, Picasso began his portrait of Vollard, in which the "pastiche of Ingres performs a reversal that is nonetheless a repetition of all the despised fruits of mechanomorphism: its frontality, its symmetry, its relentless linearity, its coldness, its (to say the word) classicism."

If the "photomechanical conception of art," in which "the readymade combines with the photograph," represented one threat to Picasso, the other, seemingly opposite, one was "pure abstraction." For "both abstraction and photography accommodate themselves to the industrial condition of serialized production . . . the structures arrived at by abstract painters - the grids, the nested squares, the monochromes, the color fields - are themselves submitted to the mark of the multiple." Both photography and abstraction, in other words, were perceived as a threat to "the unique, the original, the nonreplicable" - and hence to Picasso's role as individual genius.

In "reaction formation," Krauss notes, "the symptoms are merely inverted versions of the instincts they are supposed to defend against." Just so, the "hardened line" of the "Ingresque" portraits, a line that encases the bodies of Picasso's sitters "with its ever more emphatically thick, uninflected contour, stiff and sinuous at the same time like a stubbornly continuous wire," can be read as pastiche of Picabia's mechanomorphic drawings. "[T]he reality lying now behind the Ingresque mask is indeed the automation of art, of which the Kodak is, in fact, the more than adequate sign." And further, Krauss argues in the second part of her essay, the new series of collages Picasso now begins to produce, collages in which strong color and the divisionism of Seurat are introduced for the first time, can be understood as a comparable reaction formation to the "machine" an of Picabia, Leger, and the despised Futurists. The painted representation of a sheet of stippled mauve wallpaper, as in Pipe and Sheet Music, 1914, functions, writes Krauss, as a "kind of Trojan horse smuggled within the walls of cubist analysis"; in its substitution of painted copies of wallpaper surfaces for actual collage, it reintroduces the very "decoration that Cubism disdained."

As an analysis of how and why Picasso's Cubist aesthetic of the prewar years gave way to what Krauss takes to be pastiche classicism and pastiche collage, her account is as persuasive as it is brilliant. But the book's larger brief for Picasso's turn to pastiche as one characteristic of modernism in general is less convincing, perhaps because the leap from practice to theory - from what is a close, meticulous, historically informed formalist-psychoanalytic reading of individual works to large-scale aesthetic and cultural generalization - is problematic.

Consider the book's other long essay, "The Circulation of the Sign." Krauss has written before on Picasso's collage and its calling into question of the representability of the sign: notably in "In the Name of Picasso" (1981; reprinted in The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths, 1985) and in a fine earlier version of "The Circulation of the Sign," written for the MOMA symposium published as "Picasso and Braque" (1989). But in the new version, she wants to do more: specifically, to undercut those scholars like Patricia Leighten and David Cottington who have tried to read Picasso's collage ideologically by interpreting the meanings put forward in the newspaper fragments, as well as those others (Edward Fry, Robert Rosenblum, Christine Poggi), who have dared to find mimetic elements in it. If the latter are dismissed as "vulgar" and "silly," the former fail to see that Picasso never speaks with a single voice in his collage, and that, whatever the newspaper fragments might tell us about the politics and culture of Picasso's moment, their voice is but one voice among many.

Here Krauss is applying Mikhail Bakhtin's theory of heteroglossia and dialogic discourse - or rather misapplying it. For Bakhtin's point, in Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, the text she rites, is that in a "polyphonic" novel like The Brothers Karamazov, the discourse of a character - say, Ivan - is itself "deformed" by the incorporation of sideward glances at someone else's words, by imagined rejoinders from opponents, by public statement, hearsay, legal cliche, and so on. Heteroglossia is not a matter of pitting Ivan's point of view against Alyosha's but of making Ivan's discourse itself resonate with a number of counter-perspectives.

The analogy, in the case of Picasso, would have to be a newspaper fragment that might itself be open to complex and contradictory readings - a fragment, moreover, whose status as part of Picasso's aesthetic structure would be equivocal, as it was to be, decades later, in postmodern collage. But as Krauss herself insists, the newspaper signifiers in Picasso's collage by no means "speak" for the artist - his ironic perspective on them is obvious enough - in which case Bakhtinian dialogic discourse is beside the point.

Even more questionable, to my mind, is the application Krauss makes in her introduction, "A Penny for Picasso," of Adorno's well-known distinction between Schoenberg's "authentic" modernism and Stravinsky's "fraudulence," the latter's betrayal of what, as Krauss summarizes it, "is internal to the medium itself." Coming from a critic as sophisticated as Krauss, this is a curiously old-fashioned argument, given that Adorno's binary opposition between a "right" and "wrong" modernism has been broadly discredited by such leading music theorists as Richard Taruskin. Indeed, Adorno's is a sophisticated version of the opposition Krauss introduces at the opening of "A Penny for Picasso" (this time using Andre Gide's novel The Counterfeiters as her emblem) between gold coin (the authentic) and the simulacral "empty currency" of paper money. Can the complexity of the early century really be reduced to such easy binaries?

"The historical logic of modernism itself," Krauss concludes, "[is that] the newly liberated circulation of the token-sign always carries as its potential reverse an utterly devalued and empty currency." So extravagant a statement might itself be submitted to a Bakhtinian analysis, which would replace the univocality of Krauss' "modernism" with a more nuanced "modernism" composed of texts exhibiting what Wittgenstein called family resemblances. And further: it bears saying that, if Krauss is right, modernist theoretical writing would be subject to the same analytic and psychoanalytic principles as the "creative" texts of Picasso or Stravinsky. What reaction formation, one wonders, was the motor driving Adorno's Philosophy of Modern Music?

Marjorie Perloff's most recent books are Wittgenstein's Ladder: Poetic Language and the Strangeness of the Ordinary and Radical Artifice: Writing Poetry in the Age of Media. She is Sadie Dernham Patek Professor of Humanities at Stanford University.
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Author:Perloff, Marjorie
Publication:Artforum International
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1998
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