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The Summer 2003 Artforum features an interview with art historian & theorist Jean-Claude Lebensztejn (here or here), who was one of my teachers in school. He filled in at UVa after retired-MOMA-curator-turned-teacher William Seitz died, and I had him for a 2-semester modern art course. Much as I regretted missing Seitz's anecdotes about writing the first doctoral thesis on the Abstract Expressionists, curating "The Responsive Eye," and so forth, I was extremely lucky to have Lebensztejn for a year. One of the coolest things he did was show up one day apologizing for not bringing his slide tray, and announcing that he would be discussing the one slide he happened to have, Paul Klee's Voice Cloth of the Singer Rosa Silber (I prefer his translation to MOMA's). This is a very abstract piece with layers of painterly detail and a few collaged alphabet letters. Lebensztejn proceeded to talk about it. And talk. And talk--for the entire class period, he perceptively and relentlessly theorized about this one small work, weaving in details of Klee's history and philosophy. It was enough to make a kid want to be a critic.

I remember Lebensztejn was interested in Photorealism, which he calls Hyperrealism, and in the interview he discusses a recent show he organized on the subject. Most of the Q&A is very clear and readable, but I found the following paragraph tough going:

Like all the most interesting forms of art of this period, Hyperrealism questioned Charles S. Peirce's famous trichotomy of icon-index-symbol, in which one finds constant slippages from one to the other. This is the case with Francis Bacon but also with Willem de Kooning or even, in the literary domain, Francis Ponge. In Bacon or Ponge, the main slippage would be between object and sign—for example, paint becomes a body, or a body becomes paint; in de Kooning, especially during the '50s, icon and index are monstrously mixed. In Hyperrealism, again, there is a two-way exchange between photographic index and icon.
That just screams for some follow-up questions, but interviewer Jean-Pierre Criqui is eager to move on to Robbe-Grillet and Flaubert's Bouvard et Pécuchet so we don't get any clarification. I believe the "which" in the first sentence should be "that," so it's clear that the slippages in question are the painters' and not Peirce's. Also, why backtrack to Bacon and de Kooning if we're talking about Richard Estes and Chuck Close? A writer, Ponge, is mentioned and then dropped. A distinction is made in the last two sentences between "object and sign," and then "icon and index," and finally "photographic index and icon." All of this is especially hard to follow without a brush-up on Peirce's categories of the sign. (Briefly, an icon is an exact copy, such as a mirror or portrait; an index is a "trace" that has a dynamic relationship to the object, such as a barometer or sundial; and a symbol is an arbitrary, learned designation, such as "Exxon" for a specific multinational oil company).

I gather Lebensztejn treats a photo as an index (as does Rosalind Krauss) but it would seem to me in many instances to be a pure icon, just like a mirror image. Obviously painting the photo complicates the "integrity" of the copy. Hopefully Lebensztejn's catalog essay straightens all this out. Here's another excerpt that's less convoluted; as an artist who painted Hyperrealistically for years I found it especially resonant:

This insistence on the literal copy is the most caustic aspect of Hyperrealism, undoing what had been the basis of art for five hundred years: the judicious imitation, which was sought by the painter Zeuxis, who chose what was most beautiful in nature. In a word, let's call it artistic idealism. This was Hyperrealism's most decried aspect from the outset: the truly useless character of this painting. Why paint paintings of this sort when they are closest to what they are copying? From this point of view, Hyperrealism completes the modernist destruction of classical aesthetics.
What's "caustic" about Photorealist canvases isn't so much that they're "closest to what they are copying" (Zeuxis also strived for that) but that their choice of subject matter seems so arbitrary--anonymous storefronts, bad passport photos, ads. What's destructive to classical aesthetics is the removal of the "judicious" from the painter's program; to the Photorealists, choosing to paint a luxurious bunch of grapes is just a privileged form of delectation. Or perhaps by judicious, Lebensztejn means enhanced or aestheticized? Then it would be caustic to paint in a literal or deadpan way as opposed to "prettying up" the rendering. Again, the catalog may be more illuminating.

UPDATE: A few more thoughts here.

- tom moody 7-06-2003 10:25 pm [link]