“Strange Addition: The ‘Arpocryphal’ Cardboard Reliefs”
September 2018, Nasher Sculpture Center, The Nature of Arp Symposium. Available on YouTube.
Arp’s practice of constructing and circulating stories of doubtful authenticity frustrates the historian’s access to the “truth” of events. Similarly, the cardboard reliefs layer themselves upon real space, creating jarring juxtapositions that draw the “real” into the artwork and call the artwork’s reality into question.
Art is a Black Hole: Duchamp, Arp, and 'The Transported Man'
September, 2018, Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum, Michigan State University.
The spirit of Dada pervades Marc-Olivier Wahler’s exhibition, “The Transported Man," at the Broad Art Museum. This talk focuses on two major figures of Dadaism, Hans Arp and Marcel Duchamp, whose contributions and ideas loom large over postwar and contemporary works in The Transported Man by Piero Manzoni, Ugo Rondinone, Ceal Floyer, Robert Gober, and others.Like Arp and Duchamp, artists in “The Transported Man” work in the gap between—or instantiate a gap between—what we typically think of as the artwork and the enabling and framing conditions of illusion and appearance. These enabling conditions include the frame (and its avatars the mirror and the window) and the pedestal, but also the wall and the floor. Artists play throughout the exhibition with the arbitrary and seemingly magical power of these devices that have been conferred the capacity to make Non-Art or the everyday disappear or recede from view while making Art appear before our eyes.
February 2017, College Art Association annual conference, "The Dialectics of Procedural Violence" panel (Chairs: Jaleh Mansoor and Vanessa Parent), NYC
My talk uses a 1947 letter by Henri Matisse, in which he bemoans the recent pruning back of the trees of Vence, as a springboard for rethinking his cut-outs. Focusing in particular on the cut-outs of 1949-1954, I propose that these objects work through paradoxical interconnections between the “joy of life” and the forces that would curb it, enabling Matisse to ask questions about the fate of the modern—as an aesthetic but also a political project—in the wake of World War II. Two years after the fall of the Vichy regime and the atom bomb, Matisse’s letter lamentsthe “injury” of the trees and likens the effect to the life-sucking force of the atomic bomb, suggesting that his cut-outs may be more deeply haunted at the formal and procedural levels by recent large-scale brutality than has been previously acknowledged. Even more compellingly, the letter indicates that recent historical violence had begun to inflect the artist’s definition of abstraction, the art of “no…analogy.” While Matisse’s letter regards the mundane act of pruning as a violation of the uninhibited growth of his beloved shade trees, his cut-outs position organic growth and the incursion of cutting into paradoxical interdependency: Matisse’s acanthus leaves and seaweeds owe their “growth” precisely to the operation of cutting. In them, I argue, we can detect Matisse, far from championing a regressive return to untainted nature, using abstraction to negotiate those threats to the organic he had come to consider inevitable facets of modern life.
Definite Means: Modernism's Cut-Outs
May 12, 2016. Department of Art History, Dartmouth College
This talk provides an overview of my current book project, Definite Means. Definite Means examines the cut-out as a “means” of art-making and knowing obscured by dominant narratives about collage and the historical avant-garde. It does so by looking at the cut-out practices of three sculptors whose careers span the length of modernism—Auguste Rodin, Hans (Jean) Arp, and Henri Matisse. The project establishes découpage (cutting out)—a practice that, I argue, is to be distinguished from collage—as a major modernist technique that answers urgent questions about the modernist abstract artwork by negotiating key tensions of the period, such as between between the organic and the machinic and between the growth of living things and violence.
April 21, 2016. Leslie Center for the Humanities, Dartmouth College.
This talk focuses on Walker’s identification with a particular figure from literary history—the character of Topsy from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1853 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, an abolitionist narrative that relied heavily on racist stereotypes to convey its message. The talk reads Walker’s work through Stowe’s novel and its attendant visual culture. As a way into Walker’s work, I I focus in on moments in Stowe’s novel when Topsy transgresses plantation hierarchies by helping herself to objects that, by virtue of her enslavement, do not and can not belong to her. In these moments, Topsy asserts her right to art-making, composing or signifying—in one case, by stealing ribbons, in another by “plucking” flowers to make a bouquet, and most transgressively by stealing and cutting bonnet trimmings “to pieces.” Looking more closely at the character of Topsy and Walker’s potential identification with her provides a new perspective on the relationship between Walker’s favorite artistic procedure of cutting and the racial/racist iconography of her work.
Impressing the Public
February 2015, College Art Association annual conference, "Techniques of Reversal" panel (Chairs: Jennifer L. Roberts and David Pullins)
When Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827) relocated his “popular museum of natural science and art”to Philadelphia’s Independence Hall in 1801, he also installed a physiognotrace, a device for rendering profile silhouette portraits of museum visitors. Existing scholarship has characterized Peale’s museum as a microcosm of a harmoniously hierarchized democracy within the nascent republic. But a more disquieting figuration of the museum’s relation to its public emerges if we attend to the ways the physiognotrace drew its sitters into Peale’s network of displayed specimens by taking their physical impressions. By uncovering correspondences between the silhouettes and a range of “impressive” activity that preoccupied the artist-impresario—from life masks to animal hides turned inside out for taxidermy, from sculptural to orthopedic casts—this talk reveals how a series of “negative intelligences” were central to the educational mission of Peale’s institution, where citizenship was attained more through negative complementarity than one-to-one representation.
Enclosure/Disclosure: Hans Arp’s Cardboard Reliefs
March 2012, Princeton University Art Museum
This talk addresses Hans Arp’s Shirt and Tie (1927), an example of the low reliefs in painted cardboard that this artist began making in 1924. I contextualize Arp’s cardboard reliefs within Arp’s earlier wood relief practice of the 1910s, drawing out important differences between this new body of low reliefs in cardboard and the earlier works. While affiliated with Dada in Zürich in the 1910s, Arp had produced reliefs by sawing and nailing together much thicker planks of painted wood (typically about 1” deep). In these later reliefs, most of which Arp made in Paris while affiliated with the Surrealist group, he turns to the thinner material of cardboard and brings this lower relief practice into contact with the rectangular frame, a device with which his reliefs of the 1910s had previously dispensed, and which Arp had come to call a “useless crutch.” But even as Arp allows the frame to enclose his cut-outs, he undermines its enclosing function by practicing cutting-out differently: in his cardboard reliefs, he begins to cut through the cardboard pictorial support, shaping openings in it. In some of these works, one of which can be seen at the Museum of Modern Art, Arp allows these holes to diclose the gallery wall behind. In Shirt and Tie, Arp has not cut through the support but instead through his central cut-out figure: four holes in the blue and white cut-out reveal the dark painted ground to which the cut-out has been applied. Arp explores the capacity of cutting to delimit negative figural space, and thereby also to disclose the space behind it. In this way, he allows the cut-out to undermine – and even rival – the enclosing and disclosing function of the frame.
April 2011, "Reconsidering the Historiography of the Historical Avant-Gardes" conference, CUNY Graduate Center, NYC
This talk considers Hans Arp’s 7 Arpaden (1923) – the portfolio of seven lithographs that Arp produced under the imprint of Kurt Schwitters’ Merz journal – as a set of “typographical microbes” that deform the ideal, static bodies of typography from within. Borrowing the phrase from Tristan Tzara’s “Dada Manifesto 1918” – in which he denigrates the newspaper as “flabby, insipid flesh reproducing with the help of typographical microbes” – I consider how Arp’s prints, like Tzara’s earlier metaphor, force contact between two rather different kinds of figure: the static type body, whose silhouette is determined ahead of its printing and standardized to stamp out the same form each time, and the microbial body whose motility is guaranteed, on the contrary, by the mutability of its contours. Attending to both the form and format of Arp’s series, the paper argues that Arp presents his seven inked specimens within the conventions of typography only to debase the ideal figures of printed letterforms by making them appear capable of movement. It also considers the importance to this project of deforming of Arp’s choice of the greasy medium of lithography.
‘Ein Kriechende Amoebe’ [A Creeping Amoeba], figure 7 from Ernst Haeckel, Anthropogenie […], Leipzig: W. Engelmann, 1874, vol. 1, page 110. Photo: Boston Medical Library, Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine.