Lee Bontecou

Lee Bontecou made her most famous work in the late '50s and early '60s, just when AE was waning as a coherent and dominant movement. Indeed, her work has more often been seen as a precursor to Minimalism (the next big thing for male artists), and its relation to AE is rather tenuous.

Mostly, what ties her work to AE is the simple fact of making huge rectangular canvas things to hang on walls. In the context in which she worked and showed her work, making steel-and-canvas reliefs that exploded the traditional picture plane was a direct challenge to a movement that relied on it; at once in the way of physical assault and insofar as she revealed the made-ness of the picture plane, its status as an object composed of armature and, crucially, a particular kind of cloth. 


Lee Bontecou, Untitled, 1962. Canvas, welded steel and wire construction, 144.78 x 138.43 x 55.88 cm. Coll. Manfred and Jennifer Simchowitz. Photo: Brian Forrest.

But of course the connection goes beyond that, to the idea that part of the point of "art" is to communicate a powerful emotional charge, and to do so through bodily contact with a monument (Bontecou's works are in fact smaller, in two dimensions, than many AE paintings). The black hole at the (at least conceptual) center of her works, which is at once seductive and terrifying, does this very well. 

Women action painters (or women v. action painting?)

I have a convoluted relationship with Abstract Expressionism (hence AE). That is to say, i have a great love for much AE painting, and for the notion of painting in which painting itself is the object; but the ideology of AE is so strongly masculinist and american-imperialist that it is hard to feel much but revulsion for the movement itself. (E.g. Harold Rosenberg, "The American Action Painters," The London Magazine 1.4 (July 1961), http://www.poetrymagazines.org.uk/magazine/record.asp?id=9798.)

So as i go along my merry way, i keep in my head a folder with the label "women artists who offer cool responses to AE." Responses: alternatives, ripostes, expansions? These artists allow me to bridge the gap, to celebrate AE as a catalyst for other research and other work.Or, put another way, they fulfill the promise of AE in a way that the movement itself could not.
Needless to say the work of these women can be and should be read in many other ways; they are not reducible to a movement in which they did not partake. But that is the angle through which i wish to view them for now.

As i write posts, i'll add names and links below. And they will share the "women action painters" tag.

1. Lee Bontecou (b. 1931)


Three Trees part II: Rembrandt

Looking at Proust's words for the connection seemed to lead nowhere except to the bare kernel of "three trees." So allow me to jettison Marcel for a little while and look closely at the Rembrandt print itself for answers, focusing on the issue of time.
Time is not a theme of the work as it is of, say, contemporary still lives. There is movement, activity: a carriage traveling, a behatted person fishing, cows grazing, an artist etching, a couple frolicking in the shadows. On a longer time scale, trees and cities growing, and sea becoming land. But this interchange of state is not, or not obviously, here evoked as the devouring menace of Time which wastes all things - rather, there is a humdrum, cyclical time of days and years in which we act. Much more clearly thematized is the social world of work, creation and procreation, and the distance that separates actors from each other as they pass each other by, unknowing. Social and spatial relations, not temporal ones, are the immediate object of the print.

Nonetheless this print works temporally. It does so in two ways. First, it structures our viewpoint to be temporary and unstable: as we saw, we are located at an elevated standpoint, with the trunks of the trees at eye level. It appears to follow then that we, too, are on a high road; the diagonal of the road on which the trees perch connects with the slight rise of the printing plate itself somewhere to the right of the painting, enhancing our own sense of travel. As our gaze moves from left to right, we come closer to the subject matter, as if we were in fact moving closer.
The other characters on high ground are a passing carriage and a sketching artist; each in its way is a stand-in for both Rembrandt and us: observant, distant, and transitory. Moving to the right beyond the frame.

Here it is worth pointing out how artificial is the exercise i am engaged in now, of circling and sampling the etching as i attempt to build a narrative analysis. Use of details is highly useful for the purpose of communicating a narrative (and helps break up the wall-of-text effect). It in no way corresponds to the experience of the work (in my case on a wall, which we know has always been a display modality for etchings), which is one of active movement from left to right or right to left, perhaps punctuated by a moving closer, a peering further into the depths of the landscape. But the whole never disappears, and so its power to situate the viewer spatially as mobile in the landscape is ever present in a way that it is not when manipulating the digital object.

The other way in which Rembrandt evokes time is of course weather (in French the same word: in search of lost weather?). The etching is framed by a stormy sky, with dark clouds above and streaming rain to the left suggesting a stage curtain about to fall. To this large motion is added the apparent seething of the most distant clouds and, at the same time, birds flying into what seems to be (at least due to their presence) clear sky.

These lines of ink convey several things. They depict, with great skill, a stormy sky; or rather they evoke it well enough that we complete the image, transpose all of our experiences with stormy skies, add in colors and light and most crucially, emotion. Of course all representation relies on the viewer to fill in the gaps, but there is clearly a difference between the more schematic and obviously artificial mode chosen here and highly specific depiction of, in particular, the three trees themselves, in which the medium is disguised. Given the small size and monochrome nature of this piece, a depiction of a stormy sky so conceived would have been less awe-ful than this one, which requires the viewer to more fully engage her memories and experiences.

The several distinct layers of crosshatching, as well as differing weights of lines, communicate the impression of great depth. The many directionalities of the lines create a sense of movement and instability, and the eye wanders around the clouds, fascinated.
Rembrandt, at this point in the etching, draws attention to its facture, to its coalescing from a large number of lines. And because he does this, the lines themselves, as well as what they represent, create the two key impressions of depth and movement, of great space and little time, which set the stage for the entirety of the scene.

Rembrandt image

The facture of the storm clouds suggest an appropriate mode of viewing, but this mode is ambiguous. On the one hand, we have the sense of a fleeting moment, a brief opening into great distance. On the other hand, the storm clouds insist on their irreality, their status as etching, and by extension the long and painstaking process of their creation. So, on the one hand, the viewer seems almost to intrude on a private moment of the universe, by accident to be present when distance and light break in upon the world; on the other she is made aware that the moment shown is fabricated and static, not really a moment at all.

This etching makes visible the means by which these three stunted little trees come to signify much more than that: their framing, both by the overall arch of clouds which define the scene in general and by the storm clouds in the rear, which echo the shape of the trees themselves, focusing the eye towards them; the way that they are outlined directly onto white paper, made monumental and distinct from their surroundings by the stark contrast at their edges; and the insistence on the transience of both effects.
The combination of these three factors is an impression of revelation, of the inbreaking of meaning, or perhaps rather meaningfulness (but isn't that an ugly word?).

The trees themselves remain obtrusively ordinary, even as the light and the frame give them gravitas.

One of the ways we are tempted to resolve this contradiction is by thinking of something coming through or behind the trees. Indeed, the stark contrast between the dark shadows on the trees and cast by them and the very bright landscape behind confirms the sense that the trees are, if anything, in the way.
What is perhaps difficult to see from a digital reproduction is the transparency of the trees themselves.
An etching effectively is composed of two layers: paper and ink, applied in this as in most cases at one moment in time from a singular printing plate. Although there are many ways to differentiate within the ink layer - through different weight of line, the use of burin and drypoint (most visible in the fishing figure at far left) as well as etching, and very often in Rembrandt the addition of clouds of ink to the printing plate outside of the incised lines - the paper layer is largely undifferentiated. Most of the time, this is unproblematic: the viewer of a print abstracts paper into "lighter color" and allows it to signify whatever context requires it to signify - here a plank of wood, there the open sky. Cross-hatching and other techniques are read as differing shades and textures, and then the viewer projects the whole thing into a three-dimensional landscape. It's a complicated process, made more so by the consistent awareness of facture, of the (here virtuosic) lines of ink that bring the image into being.

In a small, barely noticeable way, this process breaks down in the trunk of these trees. I can identify three factors: first, the heightened contrast between dark and light, such that swathes of untouched paper are juxtaposed with densely crosshatched representations of rough bark; second, here paper as a highlight in the foreground is adjacent to paper as light in the background, separated only by an outline; third, the light which strikes the trees comes from the side, but the effect of the clouds is such that one thinks it would come from behind.
In person - and hopefully i've said enough that this will come through even when all is homogenized into pixels - the impression is unmistakably that light comes through the trees. The trees are made to be transparent, such that something (meaning, Beauty, intimations of eternity...) shines through them. And all the time it is piercingly clear that that which transpears is merely the paper itself and the light reflected off it.

To return to the question of time, then, i would argue that there are two different temporalities at play here, each structured around a contradiction or paradox. In the sphere of the signified, we have the cyclical time of life and work, the rushing time of the storm, and the eternity of the moment which breaks through them. In the sphere of the signifier, we have the brief, almost punctual instant depicted, the long and painstaking process of depiction, and the (relatively; i.e. apart from the slow and ineluctable degradation of all objects) static nature of the resulting work. The success of this print is that all of these levels of temporality are visible and maintained in tension with each other.

Both of these concerns - how eternity breaks into ordinary experience, and how art transfigures experience, including the experience of eternity, to preserve it - are of course the central concerns of Proust's writing, especially in the climactic recollection-moments, of which the Three Trees is one.


Three Trees part I: Proust

Rembrandt van Rijn, Three Trees, etching with drypoint and engraving, 1643. Image filched from the Boston MFA, subsequent details from the Morgan (Rembrandt's print-making technique leads to variations between impressions).

As i walked through a lovely hallway of Rembrandt prints in the Boston MFA, i saw this one and spent a blissful quarter of an hour just staring at it, taking it in, enjoying the details, the crisp line, the deep black. And i thought: "Those are Proust's three trees."

One of the things about loving Proust is that it's always appropriate to bring Proust up in conversation, because a sudden rapprochement between unrelated things for reasons that are very vague is a Proustian sort of thing to do. Proust, so to speak, is its own retroactive segue.

So this probably isn't really unrelated: Proust, like many people, considered Rembrandt a paradigm of the artist; he also knew Rembrandt's oeuvre extremely well. So it might be that this (very famous) etching was in Proust's mind when he wrote about seeing three trees; it might be that others have made the connection and i remembered it as though it was my own; it might be that the formative experience of reading Proust, which was more or less contemporary to my first real encounters of Rembrandt and conditioned them, imposes itself still, is constantly, as it were, on call when i look at works of Rembrandt's; it might even be that this etching, which i had certainly seen before even if i could not then recollect it, carried with it precisely that weight of familiarity which is the hallmark of the Proustian moment.

Or it could be none of those things.

I looked through my boxes, pulled out my worn copy of Remembrance of Things Past and looked for the three trees. I realized i had misremembered: there was a bell tower (le clocher de Martinville) where i first looked for them, and they weren't in Combray at all but in Balbec. 

Nous descendîmes sur Hudimesnil; tout d'un coup je fus rempli de ce bonheur profond que je n'avais pas souvent ressenti depuis Combray, un bonheur analogue à celui que m’avais donné, entre autres, les clochers de Martinville. Mais, cette fois, il resta incomplet. Je venais d’apercevoir, en retrait de la route en dos d’âne que nous suivions, trois arbres qui devaient servir d’entrée à une allée couverte et formaient un dessin que je ne voyais pas pour la première fois, je ne pouvais arriver à reconnaître le lieu dont ils étaient comme détachés, mais je sentais qu’il m’avait été familier autrefois ; de sorte que, mon esprit ayant trébuché entre quelque année lointaine et le moment présent, les environs de Balbec vacillèrent et je me demandai si toute cette promenade n’était pas une fiction, Balbec, un endroit où je n’étais jamais allé que par l’imagination, Mme de Villeparisis, un personnage de roman et les trois vieux arbres, la réalité qu’on retrouve en levant les yeux de dessus le livre qu’on était en train de lire et qui vous décrivait un milieu dans lequel on avait fini par se croire effectivement transporté.
Je regardais les trois arbres, je les voyais bien, mais mon esprit sentait qu’ils recouvraient quelque chose sur quoi il n’avait pas prise, comme sur ces objets placés trop loin dont nos doigts, allongés au bout de notre bras tendu, effleurent seulement par instant l’enveloppe sans arriver à rien saisir. Alors on se repose un moment pour jeter le bras en avant d’un élan plus fort et tâcher d’atteindre plus loin. Mais pour que mon esprit pût ainsi se rassembler, prendre son élan, il m’eût fallu être seul. I.717 (page numbers from the Pleiade)

Rereading this passage, perhaps appropriately, the similarity seems to slip away. 
There is a similarity of setting - the three trees are in each case elevated, part of a roadside berm, and viewed from an equally elevated point, a high-placed road from which they are a little set back, en retrait - in very broad terms, although nothing about Proust's words suggests the fields and the people in them, the settlement in the background, or the sea, barely visible in the distance.

But this piece of flat landscape, almost quotidian but for the way in which the whole picture condenses into a line of light on the horizon, is constitutive of the power of Rembrandt's etching, as much as the three trees which dominate the composition. By contrast we know nothing of the immediate context of Proust's trio: somewhere in Normandy, on a raised road, on the way from an ivy-covered church to another, tree-lined road, in the late afternoon ... we have a temporal context, but not a visual one. The trees step forth from undifferentiated ground, from nothing at all. 
The only impression i have when reading the text is of golden, serene light. That comes mostly from the pages immediately preceding and following this passage, although perhaps there is something in the sonority of his language, in bonheur, in the implicit throwback to (golden-green) Combray, in the sense of enveloping haze.
It is this impression, however vague, which most challenges the connection which seemed so self-evident when i stood before the etching.

Proust tells us nothing about what the trees look like. They are, for us as much as for him, insaisissable, ungraspable. They make un dessin, a design or drawing, but he cannot say where he has seen it before. (Is that it? the simple word dessin, our point of linkage?). We have one adjective: old.

Rembrandt's trees, though they have some marks of age, or rather of weathering - a dead branch off the top left of the clump, the bite which seems to have been taken from the right, the bumpy rough curves of all three trunks - are no more old than they are young. Three stunted little trees in exposed and probably sometimes salty location, they might rather be read as a marker of this landscape's relative youth and marked artificiality than as a connection to some sort of Past, whether rustic or aristocratic.

But if Proust gives us no specifications of his trees, it is because they stand for a moment of revelation (unveiling, transparency) which is let go unstudied and unthought. Presumably the narrator himself, years later, remembers no more than "three trees" because he never put in the work to fix the dessin itself or that which shone through them.

Ou bien ne les avais-je jamais vus et cachaient-ils derrière eux, comme tels arbres, telle touffe d’herbe que j’avais vus du côté de Guermantes, un sens aussi obscur, aussi difficile à saisir qu’un passé lointain, de sorte que, sollicité par eux d’approfondir une pensée, je croyais avoir à reconnaître un souvenir ? Ou encore ne cachaient-ils même pas de pensée et était-ce une fatigue de ma vision qui me les faisait voir doubles dans le temps comme on voit quelquefois double dans l’espace ? Je ne savais. Cependant ils venaient vers moi ; peut-être apparition mythique, ronde de sorcières ou de nornes qui me proposait ses oracles. Je crus plutôt que c’étaient des fantômes du passé, de chers compagnons de mon enfance, des amis disparus qui invoquaient nos communs souvenirs. Comme des ombres, ils semblaient me demander de les emmener avec moi, de les rendre à la vie. Dans leur gesticulation naïve et passionnée, je reconnaissais le regret impuissant d’un être aimé qui a perdu l’usage de la parole, sent qu’il ne pourra nous dire ce qu’il veut et que nous ne savons pas deviner. Bientôt, à un croisement de route, la voiture les abandonna. Elle m’entraînat loin de ce que je croyais seul vrai, de ce qui m’eût rendu vraiment heureux, elle ressemblait à ma vie.
Je vis les arbres s’éloigner en agitant leurs bras désespérés, semblant me dire : Ce que tu n’apprends pas de nous aujourd’hui, tu ne le sauras jamais. Si tu nous laisses retomber au fond de ce chemin d’où nous cherchions à nous hisser jusqu’à toi, toute une partie de toi-même que nous t’apportions tombera pour jamais au néant. En effet, si dans la suite je retrouvai le genre de plaisir et d’inquiétude que je venais de sentir encore une fois, et si un soir – trop tard, mais pour toujours – je m’attachai à lui, de ces arbres eux-mêmes, en revanche, je ne sus jamais ce qu’ils avaient voulu m’apporter ni où je les avais vus. (I.719)

There is then, an opening to imagine that, in some extravagant round around time, this is what would have resulted from the narrator's encounter, if prolonged. These shades, these mute loved ones, which he lost by not looking back, we can make of them what we will.


Background figures

This crucifixion scene by Joos van Cleve (c. 1525, Flanders) in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts has rather unusual background activity.

The crowd of tormentors are leaving, becoming progressively less exotic in appearance as they reach their (very Dutch) towns and villages; their leaving highlights the isolation of the three principal personages.

(This shot and the master are official. Blurry ones below are mine. The blues are really very cool, as in the museum's photographs; mine are much too yellow.)

The first travelers were still talking about the event, even interacting with it on the picture plane. One of them, perhaps the one is the red hat, is presumably the centurion, forever changed by the experience, but identification is unclear. Those further away (on Christ's left hand) are resolutely leaving, faceless (though their spears are more pointedly aimed towards the nearly dead Christ). 

Later the returning crowd melts into the day-to-day life of the background.

I'm very interested in the use of atmospheric perspective in this painting, which seems to connote more than mere distance: note how this cottage is lit in the same blue light, although it is in front of some still-green trees.

In the city behind, human figures are in full color. And look at the abrupt transition on the near side of the bridge! Below: another official detail, mostly for its beauty.

To give a totally spurious interpretation, i would suggest that the blue points to the overlap between the historical and the heavenly Jerusalem, one condemned to oblivion and the other created by the event shown in full color in the foreground. The real (walled cities and countrysides, more or less embellished) is rendered unreal. In either case, those who left the foreground can't fully return, are lifted from the distance in some way.
I do find this unsatisfactory, however, and the picture still appealingly puzzling.

Nothing, however, is as puzzling as this (to the left of the big rock; the wavy line above is Christ's loincloth). Is it the next step in the story? The cross does appear to bear no corpus. Or is it another, mundane crucifixion?


Throne of Wisdom

One of my favorite Marian genres is the Sedes sapientiae, the Throne of Wisdom. So imagine my surprise when, in the Boston MFA's small and jumbled medieval room, i saw this particularly beautiful (and late) example (click through for more official images):

Virgin and Child, wood with polychromy, 154.9 x 53.3 x 45.1 cm, French, 1210-25.

Medievalists (my former professor Jacqueline Jung is at the forefront of this movement) have been critiquing photography and display practices for their flattening effect on some sculpture. Here, for instance, the picture is taken from an unnaturally high angle. From lower down, it is possible to meet the Virgin's gaze, and the statue takes on a much more serious dimension:

(My apologies for the shoddy picture)

One should always, when encountering sculpture even more than two-dimensional work, move around, forward and backwards, and up and down. Although this is useful to get a grasp on the piece as a whole, it also helps to uncover the priviledged viewpoint(s): in this case, the moment(s) when the statues become interlocutors, engaged in a dialogue with us. This happened when my eyes were level with Mary's feet (incidentally, other museum visitors seem to frown on kneeling in galleries), which tells you something about at least some subset of original viewing conditions.
About another factor, however, i can only speculate: the effects of variable light. Lit by windows and candles, all medieval sculpture was much more mobile in situ than it is in museum galleries. In this case, for instance, the deep folds of the cloak at Mary's throat presumably caught more motion than the rest of the sculpture, leading to the appearance of movement in the head. Furthermore, i suspect that the very spare carving of facial features, much less detailed than the draperies, had a great deal to do with variable light as well: given that it is cast shadows which enable us to read the faces, having a relatively unspecified expression, but with a relatively deeply carved mouth in particular, might allow for manipulation in a ritual context.She seems benevolent and serene in this even lighting - might she not be somewhat foreboding in others? Without experiments, it is hard to say.


The Three Marys

Undoubtedly the strangest image I have yet seen of the empty tomb, from a small presentation of Mannerist print-making at the Boston MFA. Mannerism is extremely strange in general, of course. But this was the highlight of the room.

Jacques Bellanges, etching and engraving, 1613. Boston Museum of Fine Arts.


Imagined Communities, not the book you thought it was

Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities is one of those ubiquitous books. One that's always on some syllabus, that gets brought up over and over in the footnotes of most scholarship on nationalism or ethnicity written in the past twenty-five years, whose title, as a definition of "nation," pops up everywhere. Sucked dry, as Anderson puts it in the afterword to the 2006 Verso edition, by the "vampires of banality."
So naturally, when it was suggested that i read this book as a theoretical framework to use re: my bachelor's thesis, i was resigned. "Time to finally read that book," i thought, assuming that for most intents and purposes i'd already read it.*
I was completely wrong.
This is the single-most cited line: the nation "is an imagined political community - and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign."** Perhaps an author will also cite one of the explanations for all of those words: limited, for instance, in that nation is a concept that inherently selects a small section of humankind under its purview, and assigns the rest to other nations; or imagined in the sense that "nation" allows someone to consider those s/he's never met as co-nationals. And all this is fine and dandy, and has become accepted terminology, etc. but it's all just terminological groundwork. It's a priori, and it's not the point of the book.

Imagined Communities is an attempt to understand the mechanisms which gave rise to the phenomenon thus defined, and which allowed its spread. It's an attempt to do so mostly from the Marxist tradition, albeit with a New Left bent. It's somewhat aimed at demystification, insofar as a historical account of a phenomenon inherently denaturalizes the phenomenon, but that's not its primary purpose; in fact, it's somewhat more positive towards nations that one might think.
Anderson identifies three fundamental structural conditions for the rise of the nation.
The first is the least fleshed out, and the least convincing, although a central enough plank to modernization narratives: the decline of universality through a decline of eternity. Belief in eternity provided (in timeless medieval culture) a way to connect events together and give them meaning; and this meaning belonged to a universally valid framework guaranteed by its possession of eternity. By contrast, the modern world is characterized by "homogeneous, empty time" in which events happen simultaneously with no connection on the level of meaning. This, among other things, allows for the conception of a "limited" community coexisting (in simultaneity) with other limited communities. Anderson cites the novel and the newspaper as forms of cultural production reflecting this important shift.
The second is the arrival of print-capitalism in Western Europe.*** Capitalist printers, seeking to sell ever-greater numbers of books, outgrew the Latin-literate segment of the population and moved to producing books in the vernacular. Here as elsewhere Anderson stresses the interplay between fatality and arbitrariness: the fact of linguistic diversity is fatality, the specific language distribution arbitrary. So, to maximize readership, eventually print-languages developed which could be relatively read by speakers of closely related vernaculars, in as broad a net as could be cast: print-French, for instance, in the langue-d'oïl language zone, or print-English in Enland and lowland Scotland. These print-languages "created unified fields of exchange and communication below Latin and above the spoken vernaculars"**** and over time, given the relative infrequency of translation, created common points of reference for speakers of all the spoken vernaculars under a print-language umbrella. This argument, incidentally, leans very heavily on an Annales-school book, L'Apparition du livre by Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin, which i have not read but clearly should.
The third condition comes along with a bit of a polemic, for Anderson argues that it was met first in the creole communities of the New World: what became the USA, Peru, Brazil, etc. It is the existence of geographically bounded administrative pilgrimages. By administrative pilgrimage, he means the movement of state officials from a post in a market town, to administrative post in a larger center, to administrative post in a larger center... This pilgrimage, as it developed in the early-modern state, has two crucial characteristics. First, it is "spiraling," meaning that one doesn't typically move up from a small town to its larger center but to a place at the next administrative level elsewhere on the network, unmooring the administrative class from local loyalties. Second, the spiraling is not total: metropolitans (peninsulares) can move through the levels of colonial administration, from Lima to Mexico, then end up at top jobs in Madrid, but white colonial subjects (criollos) typically can not only not expect to get top jobs in Madrid but also in a colonial administrative zone outside their own. 
With these two factors, members of the administrative classes developed a "consciousness of connectedness" with other criollos from their administrative unit (say, the viceroyalty of New Spain), which they did not share with criollos from elsewhere in the empire and which was defined over against people born in the Metropole.*' And so they developed a sense of themselves as Peruvian, Venezuelan, etc. (or Pennsylvanian or Virginian) and as American-not-European; their experiences gave a real meaning to the somewhat-arbitrary administrative boundaries of vast empires; and they were key players of independence movements.
Educational pilgrimages, typically in close parallel, were also key.

Under these three key conditions, Anderson argues, a sense of nationalism arose more or less organically, first and foremost in the New World. Nationalism quickly became modular, however, with other groups coming to view nation-status as something to aspire to. And some of the factors that had led to the creation of nations became constituent parts of nationhood (e.g. bounded administrative territory, common (preferably unique) print-language, national education systems and presses...). Anderson discusses two different groups: nationalist revolutionaries, individuals among linguistic "minorities" like Magyars or Catalans, who self-consciously sought to promote their vernaculars to the status of "legitimate" print-languages so as to claim nationhood;**' and imperial states who imposed "official nationalisms" as defensive mechanisms against the potentially destructive nationalisms of their lower classes, through processes like Russification - compulsory language teaching in particular - and the invention of a "national" mythos for such awkward constructs as Great Britain or the Russian Empire - or, even more awkwardly, the British Empire.***'
The line between the two is not, however, especially easy to draw, especially in "the last wave." A great example is the imposition of "bahasa Indonesia," an artificial administrative pidgin of the Dutch East Indies, as the "national" language of a new thing called Indonesia; an "official," state-imposed form of nationalism, but also the self-conscious nationalism of a revolutionary group, arising organically from the life experiences of the bureaucratic class - who naturally used Bahasa Indonesia to talk to each other. 

Overall, i found this argument extremely convincing. More convincing than most arguments i've heard that claims to condense 3-500 years of global history in 200 pages. Perhaps a great part of its explanatory power is that it does assign a great place to contingency: nationalism feeds on itself, features that are originally arbitrary become self-consciously sought as part of a model to replicate. I also greatly appreciate that the movement of ideas in this account goes both from the bottom up and from the top down. That said, like any historical account, i don't doubt that much of it might be called into question - dating eras in particular is something all of us enjoy playing at too much to ever agree to any "first."

Also, was it useful to my project? Not really.

I also think this about Eugen Weber's Peasants into Frenchmen and Hobsbawm's Invention of Tradition, on similar topics. It may be time to get on that.
** Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities (London: Verso, 2006), 6. Page numbers, incidentally, are substantially the same in the 1991 edition.
*** Print-capitalism and not merely print: Anderson points out that print in China and Korea did not have the same effect, because it was not deployed by actors interested in maximizing their sales of a mass-produced commodity. Ibid., 44.
**** Ibid.
*' Ibid., 56.
**' Chapter 5, "Old Languages, New Models," ibid., 67-82
***' Chapter 6, "Official Nationalism and Imperialism," ibid., 83-111. 


Hopper Drawing at the Whitney

I went and saw the Whitney Museum's big summer show, "Hopper Drawing." It was, in fact, a very well-put-together exhibit. It accomplished what, i think, is one possible purpose of an art exhibit: to teach through the placement of objects, with minimal explanatory text. In this case, perhaps, the task was relatively easy: Josephine Hopper had bequested to the museum the couple's artistic estate, including a very large corpus of drawings. So the museum organized a look at Hopper's drawing practice, as a key to understanding his painting. In the center, a group of floating drawings (unattached to any particular painting or series), around it a set of galleries, each featuring a painting or series and the drawings from the museum's collection which were part of its creation. It seems easy enough, but it was still well-handled and unobtrusive; i felt that i walked out with a very different - and perhaps more accurate - conception of Hopper and Hopper's work.
Of course what i learned might not have been what the exhibit was intended to teach - the generally blessedly spare wall text had excessively numerous references to "great" work, and certainly flowed from an understanding of Hopper as genius which was clearly shared by the majority of the other museum-goers (or at least the loud ones). This seemed odd to me because the exhibit's design seemed to me to pick apart both Hopper the artist and, more to the point, "Hopper" the myth.

So the following is a record of my personal and peculiar encounter with the Hopper Drawing exhibit, and conclusions that i drew from it. Some of these things are obvious and boring, others less so.

Hopper was a nineteenth-century artist.
This of course is a flippant way to say it, but it communicates. It communicates, actually, two things: the most important is the degree to which his academic training continued to define his artistic practice: life drawing, both in and out of class, and generally a sketching practice that assumes that objects, especially human beings, can be isolated and drawn without their background; and the conception of drawing as instrumental and necessary to painting, are habits Hopper picked up in art school (at the turn of the century) and never appeared to drop or challenge.
The other thing that i mean is that, before he became famous, he made work that clearly belongs to the tradition of Belle Epoque caricature and illustration. It is, in fact, funny to see how "French" some of these early works are given Hopper's status as a quintessentially "American" artist.

Couple Drinking, 1906. Watercolor, pencil, and chalk on paper, 34.3 x 50.5 cm. Note that - unlike in your classic Hopper - these types are solidly situated socially and not at all situated spatially (Hopper did many sketches of nudes sans backgrounds, on which see below. But this is a finished drawing, framed by a rectangle and part of a series, not a working sketch). Note also that they have a reciprocal relationship to the artist. (This and subsequent images are lifted from the Whitney's web site.)

It is perhaps instructive to attempt to analyze the various way in which Hopper's "American" and "twentieth-century" works - in other words, the "Hopper" corpus - set themselves apart from these early works.
The image above, for instance, largely exists within the tradition of (here fairly light) caricature. Its characters exist in relation types. In other words this and other drawings of Paris street life, positions its subjects in a socio-economic web, even when that positioning is ambiguous (boundary-crossing being constituted by and constitutive of boundaries), and posits contrasts between these character-types and other character-types sharing, say, the Tuileries on a Sunday morning. In contrast Hopper's American subjects all look the same: white, overwhelmingly middle-aged, typically of unspecified class - unspecified not because it is ambiguous but because it is deemed unimportant - and, after a certain date, mostly modeled by the artist himself or his wife Jo.

One other contrast might be drawn, which is the obvious importance of photography and film in Hopper's mid-century work (disclaimer: i am totally ignorant of Hopper's relationship to photography beyond visual evidence, mostly from this exhibit; it seems, however, that he did not make use of photographs as such in his painting). The shift in subject matter and style is paralleled by a partial shift in drawing practice: he abandoned pen-and-ink (which focuses on line and lends itself to caricature) in favor of chalk, with its degrees of density, of light and dark, and its consequent ability to resemble the photographic "eye" as much as the human one. This shift in medium seems to have a chicken-and-egg relationship to Hopper's framing devices, which are always designed to give the impression of a photograph, with the relatively narrow angle of view and flat projectionEdward Hopper (1882–1967), Study for Nighthawks, 1941 or 1942. Fabricated chalk and charcoal on paper; 11 1/8 x 15 in. (28.3 x 38.1 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase and gift of Josephine N. Hopper by exchange  2011.65
Study for Nighthawks, 1941-2. Fabricated chalk and charcoal on paper, 28.3 x 38.1 cm. There is line of course, but the emphasis is on the play of lights and darks. There is a much greater claim to objectivity in this drawing than in the previous one - this claims to be in effect a visual capture of a specific time and place, the other claims to be the index of an encounter between three human beings.

The photographic effect - the claim that this is a cropped bit of visual reality at a particular place and time - is it seems to me one of the important reasons for the famous sense of isolation or alienation in Hopper's oeuvre. Hopper typically situates the viewer in a transitory position: going down a set of stairs, driving on a highway, entering a hotel lobby. This feels strange for painting in that painting implies an extended period of time and in this is unlike a photograph which actually is the index of a moment. So Hopper causes the viewer to feel paralyzed, approaching something ze cannot approach and which cannot respond to zer approach.

Hopper was a much better hand with charcoal than with oil paint
The first thing this exhibit taught me is that Hopper was a great draftsman. His drawings suggest a real facility with the medium (mostly chalk) as well as a long engaged study in the forms and textures they can create, both in themselves and in relation to their representational referent. In the Nighthawks study, for example, the few strokes of white chalk to suggest reflections in the foremost window and the very light charcoal for the street seen through the back window, economically suggest the transparency, the sense of a palpable volume of light which defines the space here. It's also quite pretty as pattern.
So, after walking through a room full of interesting and varied drawings, it comes as quite a shock to get to his oil paintings, which are clumsily and laboriously painted, neither interesting explorations of the medium of oil on canvas, nor successful representations of the visual world. I will make a limited exception for Nighthawks (zoom in through the Google Art Project), which is coloristically and spatially interesting, but even there...

Nighthawks, 1942. Oil on canvas, 84.1 x 152.4 cm. Much of the drawing's textural richness is lost: people, bricks, and sidewalk appear carved from the same stuff, and the front pane of glass has completely disappeared. The characters in the smaller drawing, although just lightly sketched out, were more expressive thanks to the interplay between line and shading. And overall, the sense of real depth and spatiality is much greater - alleviated only by the painting's larger scale. 

One could suggest rather easily that the famous alienation of Hopper's paintings derives in large part from this lack of ease with the medium. His painted people are stiff and awkward, the surface of clothes and skin awkwardly mismatched, in a way that his drawn figures typically are not.
In particular Hopper often has trouble integrating the figures into the overall painting, a problem exacerbated by his academic working method. In his studies, figures are typically elaborated out of context, after or alongside composition sketches (this is why the figures in the nighthawk sketch have very different poses from the ones in the finished painting). When he brings it all back together in the final product, often his figures don't seem to fit in terms of lighting, texture, and color composition.

Study for Morning in a City, 1944. Prefabricated chalk on paper, 56.2 x 38.1 cm. 

Morning in a City, 1944. Oil on canvas, 112.5 x 152 cm. This juxtaposition, i think, speaks for itself: there is absolutely no connection between background and figure, even the thematic light failing to convince. Wouldn't the light be behind her/to her right, standing where she is?

If i am convincing, and we can situate the "Hopper" effect in the intersection of the intentional (e.g. framing devices and a dialogue with photography) and unintentional (i.e. Hopper's difficulty with the medium of oil painting), then perhaps any of the following can follow:
1. This can be an excuse to dismiss Hopper, and his heroic-white-male mythos.
2. Hopper can come to stand for the evocative power of failure. His failures to project his idea - his reframing of his visual world - onto the canvas yields a somewhat evocative vision of communicative failure, and this medium-is-message interpretation adds depth to the our experience of the paintings. After all, for all their technical superiority, Hopper's drawings are hardly world-changing stuff; doesn't the somewhat stiff paint-handling, that inability of the scene to hang fully together, add that "Hopper" je ne sais quoi?
3. Both of the above. To dwell more on Morning in a City, we see on the one hand a very typical and uninspiring development: Hopper appropriates the body of his wife and transforms it into the body of a generic (and, of course, white) Woman, on which he then projects his (white, male) artistic Vision. On the other hand, surrounding the woman is a visible seam, a mark of the materiality of the medium and of the artist, of the white man's inability to fully impose his Vision on the world, either represented or representation. Woman here escapes the space created for her. In this reading Hopper both stands for a type of disembodied Artist that radical art production of the past decades has largely been interested in tearing down; and for the seeds of this destruction.


Hiking with a friend, or, how feminism makes everything better

This summer i did a lot of day hiking. I did some with my family - and i did some with M, a feminist friend from college. The experiences were radically different. With my family, a dynamic would develop where one or more persons would either be able to walk faster and farther than others, or believe that they could/should do so. And they would make that obvious to everyone, and pressure others into walking at this faster pace, and not take them seriously if they wanted, or needed, to stop.
And none of this happened with M. There were many reasons for this, but one of them lay in the techniques - the routine behaviors - that we had both learned in or from explicitly feminist communities, techniques that, for various reasons, I was not able to bring to bear on my family's dynamic.
  • Checking in: both soliciting information ("how are you feeling?") and giving it spontaneously ("i'm starting to feel some strain on my ankle") before it has direct consequences. With my family, no one said "i'm tired" unless it was a distress signal: "i need to stop now."
  • Always acquiescing to the other's request for a break, a glass of water, a picture, whatever. Consequently, we stopped with some frequency, always earlier relative to tiredness level than with my family. 
  • Generally matched pace and non-verbally kept track.
  • Made all decisions collaboratively and in good faith. E.g., traded a backpack back and forth at even intervals, unless modified by verbal agreement. No wondering "If i ask zim to carry the backpack for five minutes now, will ze keep it for five hours until we get back down, and refuse to hand it over?"*
These routine behaviors, you might say, boil down to two values: respect for the other person's personhood and, correspondingly, zer wishes, and open communication and trust. But these values relied on the behavioral patterns for their actual existence in the world. In other words, the point is not that i or even M are always wonderful respectful people living in perfect mutual trust. but that we were trained to ask certain questions and respond in particular ways to other's words - especially to particular code phrases like "i need x" (in other circumstances "i'm not comfortable" or "i don't feel safe" are more obviously code phrases to which one is trained to respond) - and this training enabled us, at least in this relatively low-stress situation, to behave better towards each other than we otherwise would have.
The relationship between core values - doubtless historically determined to some extent but as close to a solid thing as there is in ethics - and the formulations we use and the behavior we train and encourage is not one of necessity. These behavioral patterns are contingent and doubtless imperfect. One flaw i can point out is that they depend to some extent on code phrases; they are much more effective within the community than without, such that i could not simply behave in this way with my family and expect it to work. More crucially, this flaw means that these very systems can end up functioning as behaviors of exclusion, a violation of core principles; that is, people who have not received this training and do not respond appropriately are punished (usually by being treated less well socially) and can be chased away. Probably we could have come up with many other, and some better, systems to bring our values into real existence in the world. Doubtless we will; as these behaviors hopefully train us to be better people, and more alert listeners, and to better enact our values, we will correspondingly adjust the behaviors.**

These values, and these behavioral patterns and formulations, are ones in which feminist communities train people. I'm sure that other justice groups do the same, but my experience of it is specifically with feminism.*** A lot of this training is implicit, absorbed by osmosis when one spends time in feminist communities or with feminists.
And a lot isn't. It's the consent workshops everyone hates to sit through; it's trainings for educators and people in charge; for me, it was Yale Swing & Blues (a wonderful stealth-feminist group) organizing everything from dance-etiquette trainings after dance lessons to large volunteer workshops where we discuss what to do when someone makes you uncomfortable, how to gently prompt people into trying the other role, how to call out people, that you don't offer feedback, how not to create a hierarchy...
I've been aware of it: aware what a difference it makes, aware of my own behavior and how it contributes positively or negatively, aware of safe and unsafe spaces. But this - hiking - was the first time i realized so explicitly that feminist training can make things better even in ways that on the surface have little to do with feminism.

*A lot of these sound like specific complaints, and they are, because that's the best way to illustrate what i'm trying to say. That is, I do not aim to complain about my family. They're wonderful people behaving in ordinary ways, without the benefit of feminist training. I really had a great time hiking with them; there were just a lot of little things that grated, and that made the experience just a little bit more fraught than it could have been. These little things were noticeable to me, and prompted these reflections.
**In fancy philosophical terms, virtue ethics.
***Yet a third digression: this seems to me to be somewhat of an American thing. The anecdotal evidence: i've encountered it much more among Americans than not (among a sub-group of Americans of course), and the French word for "safe" is ... "safe." Of course I haven't hung out enough in French or German or Mexican queer-feminist circles.