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Artforum, Summer 2003: Jean-Pierre Criqui interviews Jean-Claude Lebensztejn
TO BE A STUDENT OF ART HISTORY IN PARIS DURING THE EARLY '80S WAS not especially exhilarating, but for me Jean-Claude Lebensztejn's courses at Nanterre University and at the Ecole Normale Supérieure, like Hubert Damisch's seminars at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, were exceptions. I remember his classes, devoted to the beginnings of abstract art and to Romanticism, in which knowledge was mobilized not to anesthetize the subject but, on the contrary, to reconstruct in lively fashion the artistic stakes for Mondrian, Constable, Caspar David Friedrich, Novalis, and Nerval. In addition, I recall this unusually intense—and seemingly distant—professor wearing a Minnie Mouse watch, which struck me as an interesting indicator of his attitude toward popular culture.
In fact, if I attended these lectures, it was because my opinion of Lebensztejn was already formed. In 1981, he published a book titled Zigzag that convinced me that the study of art history, while sacrificing nothing in terms of erudite and precise formal analysis, could have a different look. The very layout and typography of this large collection of essays on Dubuffet, Matisse, Frank Stella, El Greco, and "Hyperrealism, Kitsch, and ‘Venturi'" displayed a new conception of what books could be as material objects as well as spiritual instruments. An editor's note toward the end of Zigzag refashioned a phrase from Mallarmé in one of the funniest—and indeed most profound—remarks I have come across in a book by a critic or historian: "All this minutiae testifies, uselessly perhaps, to some indifference toward future scholars." (In the "Bibliographie" of his Poésies, Mallarmé had written: "All this minutiae testifies, uselessly perhaps, to some deference toward future scholars.")
The dozen or so books that Lebensztejn has published since Zigzag only confirm the diversity of his interests and singularity of his intellectual position—whether in his impressive work on the philosophy of imitation and the link between neoclassicism and romanticism, L'Art de la tache: Introduction à la Nouvelle Méthode d'Alexander Cozens (Editions du Limon, 1990), or in his reflections on music, based on a madrigal by Monteverdi, in Imiter sans fin le chant de l'aimable Angelette (Editions du Limon, 1987). His latest book is no less surprising: Miaulique: Fantaisie Chromatique (Le Passage, 2002) investigates the "music of cats" (a rather evolved tradition, it turns out—recall Rossini's "Cats Duet," Scarlatti's "Cat's Fugue," and Chopin's "Cat Waltz") and its representation in literature and the visual arts since the eighteenth century. The topic of the following interview is "Hyperréalismes USA, 1965–75," an exhibition conceived by Lebensztejn that goes on view this month at Strasbourg's Musée d'Art Moderne et Contemporain. Given Lebensztejn's long-standing engagement with the movement and its artists, this exhibition promises a stimulating rereading of a curious blip on the time line of recent art. —JPC
JEAN-PIERRE CRIQUI: What's surprising in retrospect about Hyperrealism—or Hyperrealisms, as the title of your exhibition would have it—is the explosion of the movement, which was as forceful as it was brief. It was born around 1966, and its peak coincided with Documenta 5 in 1972, after which it lost momentum. How do you explain this fleeting glory—and lasting disaffection?
JEAN-CLAUDE LEBENSZTEJN: I think that state of things has to do with an ambiguity in Hyperrealism itself. The art was perceived by certain observers as reactionary and by others as radical. The conjunction of these two divergent interpretations, according to which the work was eminently accessible and popular but also linked to other contemporary avant-garde movements like Minimalism and Conceptual art, was behind both its success and its eclipse.
Jean-Claude Lebensztejn, Paris, 2001.
JPC: One might also point out that the big names linked to the movement—Malcolm Morley, Chuck Close—were not Hyperrealists for very long.
JCL: If you take a narrow point of view, Malcolm Morley was the first to abandon Hyperrealism. His famous 1970 painting Race Track literally put an end to the thing, crossing it out, and marked a total rejection of the movement on his part. But, in fact, there is in this rejection itself a logic implicit in Hyperrealism.
JPC: How would you describe this narrow definition of Hyperrealism?
JCL: Essentially, Hyperrealism operates with traditional, framed paintings in oil or acrylic that are photographic in nature. Photography is generally at both ends of the chain—at once the source of Hyperrealism's accessibility and the reason for its estrangement from the public. Some realist, nonphotographic painters—the so-called studio realists like Alfred Leslie or Philip Pearlstein—said, "If this is going to look so much like a photo, why paint it?"
JPC: In your catalogue essay for the exhibition, you describe a sort of "instability" in Hyperrealism's foundation, which you also see as marked from the beginning by an "outdated" quality.
Joseph Raffael, Lion (detail), 1971, oil on canvas, 81 x 51".
Chuck Close, Leslie,1973, watercolor on paper on canvas, 72 1/2 x 57".
JCL: The movement's "datedness"—its apparently reactionary counter to a century of modernity, which seemed to do away with all the heroic efforts of modernist artists since Manet—struck everybody. The instability, meanwhile, was immediately found in the many alternative names given to Hyperrealism, like Photorealism and Radical Realism, or "Superrealism," which Morley preferred. The last term actually predated Hyperrealism, having been used in the 1920s by Picabia and Mondrian, who published an article in 1930 titled "L'Art réaliste et l'art superréaliste" [Realist art and superrealist art]. This nominal instability reflects the contradictory mechanisms within Hyperrealism, in particular the contradiction arising in a kind of painting that, even while apparently accessible, refutes the foundation of classical aesthetics—namely, the difference between art and nature, between imitation and copy.
JPC: You also suggest that Hyperrealism demonstrates a rejection of abstract art that is nevertheless paradoxical—like abstract art, it emphasizes surface, but only by concentrating on pictorial issues. And so Hyperrealism diminishes the importance of subject matter while aspiring in its production to a sort of process without subject, effectively erasing the author.
JCL: The most interesting thing about this erasure is its inseparability from the reaction against modernist artists. The situation is analogous to Flaubert, who kept very close to realism but aspired to make a work without a subject—"a book about nothing," as he said. In Hyperrealism, you get the impression that the subject matter is very present but of no importance and also that the painting is very present but of no importance. This insignificant presence—or the insignificance of the presence—is intriguing. The Hyperrealists paint objects belonging to the cultural reality in which they live—an urban or suburban reality—but always, except for Joseph Raffael and perhaps Morley, in terms of the mediocre, or the average. This feature has to do with a neutralization of ambivalent feelings. There is a mixture, as in Pop, of love and hate—but stronger still is the neutralization, insofar as Hyperrealism does not take up Pop's irony and sometimes even seems to critique it.
JPC: In contrast to Pop, what was the Hyperrealists' relationship to the photographic image?
Robert Bechtle, Potrero Intersection 20th and Arkansas, 1990, oil on canvas, 40 x 58".
JCL: Lawrence Alloway, who baptized Pop, spoke of "Post-Pop" in relation to Hyperrealism. An Englishman who emigrated to the United States, Alloway was not only the first interpreter of Pop but also the best. He saw the movement not only as an art made with a panoply of objects from consumer society but as an art that produced images whose objects were themselves images: icons of icons. Pop transmitted this dual representation to Hyperrealism—which became a unique kind of Pop, in the sense that its practitioners used images that were exclusively photographic in origin, eschewing other Pop models such as comic strips, posters, and tin cans, and the artiness with which these images were presented. Hyperrealism submitted photography to a very perverse game and was inscribed in a theory of art that has dominated the last half century. 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.
JPC: The figurative minutiae of Alain Robbe-Grillet's nouveau roman has also been brought up in relation to Hyperrealism. But, to return to the centrality of the copy among the Hyperrealists, consider Flaubert's Bouvard et Pécuchet and the writer's obsession with recopying during the preparatory phases of his books.
JCL: 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.
JPC: We know that the unconscious was a decisive question for many artists of Abstract Expressionism. Does Hyperrealism, which in many respects appears to be Abstract Expressionism's negative image within the history of American art, accord any sort of role to the unconscious?
Don Eddy, Toyota Showroom Window 1, 1972, acrylic on canvas, 48 x 68 1/2".
Maxwell Hendler, Beer Bottle, 1968–69, oil on canvas, 9 x 10".
JCL: Yes, an enormous one. At least for the artists I've known, above all Morley and Raffael. Many artists from that generation spent some time in the hands of a shrink, and this is integrated into their art—in the case of Morley, in the form of what he calls "mis-takes." His acceptance of mistakes as the return of the repressed is absolutely acknowledged by him and may well have also been acknowledged during his Hyperrealist period. The first visible manifestation of this is found in The School of Athens , where he leaves part of the figures misaligned by mistake—where one strip, with the brains of the main philosopher, is displaced to the right by one square of the grid. I think that the role of the unconscious in Hyperrealism also consists, as I said, of neutralizing adverse forces, or those actions of the more or less unconscious superego. Morley himself sees the Hyperrealist years as repressive and retentive.
JPC: Yet another paradox is that Hyperrealism was an opportunity to invent a number of ways of painting. This is the antitraditionalist side of the movement.
JCL: In my catalogue essay, I borrow Duchamp's notion of the infra-thin: The closer the sign is to its object, the greater the challenge for the painter to invent ways to go about his work. There is, in fact, a process-art quality to many of these artists. What interests me is that these processes can reveal themselves and also hide themselves—and are perhaps more interesting when they do the latter. Moreover, in certain abstract artists you find a similar taste for the invisibility of art. In an interview he gave for the catalogue of the recent Rothko retrospective, Brice Marden explained that what interested him in the later Rothko was this invisibility of the painting.
JPC: Like abstraction, Hyperrealism also displays a keen attraction to the void, a sort of amor vacui. One thinks of the California artist Maxwell Hendler, a very singular figure in the movement, who now paints only monochromes.
JCL: Yes, but he paints extraordinarily complicated monochromes, with multiple superimposed layers of resin. Hendler, who was a Hyperrealist from 1965 to 1975, was noteworthy for the time he took to execute a work—once he took five years to paint one painting twelve inches wide. He painted in a hyperphotographic manner, but not after a photo. He is also someone whom the other artists in the exhibition—with the exception of Don Eddy, who is also from California—had not even heard of.
Richard Estes, Flatiron Building Reflected in Car with Figure in Bus, 1966, oil on Masonite, 36 x 48".
JPC: Doesn't Hyperrealism's very particular mixture of traditionalism and invention constitute a kind of neoclassicism? You say that Richard Estes is a "neo-neoclassicist."
JCL: Yes, but Estes is a separate case in that he is vigorously antimodernist. The "neo" in Estes's neoclassicism stems from his painting from a set of photos. Here again there are two different aspects in play, the public and the artists: Some members of the public and critics considered the whole movement antimodernist; but as far as I know, only Estes totally rejects the tradition of modernism. He overtly refuses the entire modernist tradition from Manet to Pollock. He likes only the realists, and prefers the Americans like Eakins, Sheeler, and Hopper, as well as photographers such as Atget and Berenice Abbott. My idea of his neo-neoclassicism has to do with his declarations that recall neoclassical artists like the sculptor and theoretician Toussaint-Bernard Emeric-David, who extolled a selective imitation. In other words, the combination of a principal model and others serving to correct it, which has to do with the neoclassical theory of "la belle nature," or selecting and combining the most beautiful parts from different bodies. That said, each Hyperrealist has a different relationship to tradition and modernity. When Morley reconstructs this grid in space that is illustrated in Dürer—Morley has always used a grid system, from 1965 to this day—and which for all I know Dürer never used, we are dealing with something preclassical or protoclassical that denotes another form of "neo."
JPC: I have the impression that the Hyperrealists hardly mentioned the American photographers who were their contemporaries, or who immediately preceded them, and with whom they maintained a number of formal as well as iconographic affinities. I am thinking primarily of Lee Friedlander and his work on windowpanes.
JCL: Perhaps that's a sort of denial. But above all, the photography at the source of Hyperrealism could never be artistic photography.
JPC: What about Hyperrealist sculpture? In Duane Hanson's work Supermarket Shopper , a fat woman loaded down with groceries is herself a sculpture, but her shopping cart is a real shopping cart containing real merchandise. How do you interpret this material heterogeneity?
JCL: Unfortunately, our exhibition includes very few sculptures—some "sculptures by painters," like Artschwager and Vija Celmins—but it's not for lack of trying to borrow them. I would really have liked to include Duane Hanson, for example. I am interested by his rupture of the semiotic line between the sign and the object, which makes the object become its own sign. Even if the means differ from those of painting, this example possesses the same radicality as copying photography in painting.
Robert Cottingham, Roxy, 1972, oil on canvas, 78 1/2 x 78 1/2".
Vija Celmins, Pencil, 1968–85, oil on canvas on wood, 3 x 66 x 3".
JPC: Your exhibition includes several European examples of Hyperrealism.
JCL: Only four painters—Gerhard Richter, Franz Gertsch, Gérard Gasiorowski, Jean-Olivier Hucleux—in order to show that this is not a purely American phenomenon. The ideal would have been also to devote a section to "Hyperrealism" before Hyperrealism: Peto's trompe l'oeil, Precisionism, etc.
JPC: Was Richter ever really a Hyperrealist?
JCL: Yes, I think so. I mean, let's say he was a proto-Hyperrealist around 1963 or '64, when he made these portraits after snapshots or mediocre newspaper photos. All these sneering, grayish, blurry images . . .
JPC: Can you be Hyperrealist and blurry?
Richard Artschwager, Office Scene, 1966, acrylic on Celotex in metal frame, 42 1/8 x 43 7/8".
JCL: The first Hyperrealism was blurry, because the photos that served as sources were generally of poor quality.
JPC: You've planned a film program for the exhibition. Is there a Hyperrealist cinema?
JCL: Perhaps not. But the selected films come from a critical aesthetic without being critical—let's say they are critiques of a certain American petit bourgeois mediocrity but they play the game at the same time. You can watch exploitation films like Blood Feast , a gore movie by Herschell Gordon Lewis, or Deathdream , by Bob Clark, which are both set in a Hyperrealist Florida—isn't Florida like a caricature of the Hyperrealist world? I would say that John Waters, among other directors, also has a relationship with Hyperrealism. His cruel and ambivalent vision of the middle class, and the lack of distance in his representation of it, seem very close to the Hyperrealist presentation of such themes, albeit more overtly satirical. Moreover, there will be examples of independent, primarily structural cinema, as in Kenneth Anger and Peter Kubelka. Akira Mizuta Lippit's essay for the catalogue reveals their analogy to the processes we find in Morley's Race Track, for example. What distinguishes the programming, as well as the entire exhibition, is the idea that there is no true Hyperrealism—there is no Hyperrealism, in itself, that really exists in the world. Like other artistic categories, Hyperrealism is a construction that obliges the art or cultural historian to rethink constantly the objects of his or her inquiry.
Translated from French by Jeanine Herman.
Jean-Pierre Criqui, editor in chief of Les Cahiers du Musée national d'art moderne (Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris), is the author of Un trou dans la vie. Essais sur l'art depuis 1960 (Desclée de Brouwer, 2002). He is the curator, with Alfred Pacquement, of the exhibition by Jean-Marc Bustamante presented at the French pavilion of the Venice Biennale.
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