October 1, 2012


Press release for Karin Davie solo exhibition at Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York, 1999.

I don’t keep very many gallery press releases but here’s one that I’ve held on to: the announcement for Karin Davie’s 1999 solo show at Marianne Boesky. This page of energetic sketches by Davie is as noteworthy for what it doesn’t contain as for what it does: no descriptions of the work, no mention of the artist’s past accomplishments, no attempts at interpretation. In the most economical way possible, Davie reminds us that art and what it expresses (form and content, if you will) are ultimately one and the same, that what an artist has to say is found primarily in the art itself, not in the discourse around it. She also makes a subtle political point by refusing to relinquish the presentation of her work to some anonymous gallery employee. By drawing her own press release, Davie takes a position similar to Martin Kippenberger, who believed that artists should take responsibility for all aspects of their careers.

I just asked Davie, via email, what inspired her unconventional press release. Here is some of her answer: “I didn’t think that I (or the gallery) could adequately describe the work or my ideas and create the right context for the work. I also thought that it was a somewhat contrived and tired idea to always write things for the press that sometimes ended up sounding forced and weren’t accurate or that meaningful. . . . I was hoping that it might keep things more open for the writers and critics to frame the work a bit differently and also allow them to see that my work really comes out of a need to say something that skews expectations. . . . “

This 13-year-old gallery mailing treats its recipients as autonomous individuals, as people who don’t need to be told what to think or how to look. That was refreshing then and is still inspiring. And so, too, are Davie’s paintings.

July 16, 2012


“If you want to understand what I do, you must gather a few documents, read and look, and then things will be clear.” Raymond Hains

It was in 2005 that I acquired this copy of the June 1962 edition of Critique, the wide-ranging, influential French journal then directed by Georges Bataille. My copy is noteworthy because of its marginalia, described thus by the Parisian book dealer who sold it to me (I translate): “14 lines of handwritten annotations by Raymond Hains on the last page concerning 4 pages of the review.” The article that attracted the annotator’s attention is Jean Roudaut’s “Les exercises poétiques au XVIIIe siècle.” Ostensibly a review of some recent editions of 18th century French poetry, it is really an occasion for Roudaut to work out his ideas on the nature of language. Chief among the ancien régime authors he discusses is François-Georges Maréchal, Marquis de Bièvre (1747-1789), whose pun-filled verse drama Vercingetorix had recently been republished by J.-J. Pauvert.

What is particularly intriguing about these sparse pencil and ballpoint pen annotations (vertical lines in the margins of the article marking a few brief passages and, squeezed into the sides of an ad near the back of the issue, some page numbers and keywords) is that the Marquis de Bièvre played an important role in the development of Hains’s art. For most of the 1950s, Hains’s artistic practice consisted of removing torn posters from the streets of Paris and exhibiting them. Along with his friend and sometimes collaborator Jacques de la Villeglé, and later François Dufrêne and Mimmo Rotella, he was seen as practitioner of décollage, a term that risks obscuring the fact that he presented his ripped and defaced posters without alterations. But in the early 1960s, following his enlistment in the Nouveau Réalisme movement, Hains’s work underwent a radical transformation. First, he shifted his interest from torn posters to palissades (the billboards or lengths of plank fencing that posters were often pasted onto) that he found around the streets of Paris. The palissades gradually gave way to newly made (rather than found) sculptural objects such as a giant toy wooden horse wrapped in fabric (Néo-dada emballé ou l’art de se tailler en palisade, 1963) and enlarged painted-wood versions of matchbooks and matchboxes. Then, from the 1970s on, he moved into more conceptual territory, filing his shows with documentary photographs, vitrines displaying carefully selected objects (books, printed ephemera, items purchased in stores), and the occasional street find. From the time he stopped exhibiting torn posters, everything Hains presented in galleries and museums depended on chains of verbal puns and cross-references usually involving proper names. In the catalogue of the 2002 Hains show at the Moore College of Art and Design in Philadelphia (one of his few solo exhibitions in the U.S.), Christine Macel describes Hains’s discovery of this approach:

“In 1959, shortly after presenting his first billboard piece, the Palissade des Emplacements réservés, at the first Parisian biennial for young artists, Hains looked into the window display of Editions Clartés and saw the publisher’s new encyclopedia open to the ‘Entremets de la Palissade,’ a dessert consisting of  ‘an avalanche of confectioner’s custard held in by a palisade of ladyfinger biscuits.’ Following which, at a dinner party, he met Geneviève de Chabannes la Palice, the descendent of the Seigneur de la Palice, who gave his name to the pastries known as Les vérités de la Palisse (which Hains would photograph in 1988). In 1963, he came upon a poster advertising a show about the Seigneur de la Palice being put on in Lapalisse, in the department of Allier. He tried to make it there, but was late, and, in the end, happened upon a text about the Marquis de Bièvre, a famous punster, who would be the central figure in his 1986 show at the Fondation Cartier at Jouy-en-Josas—this being in the Bièvre valley.”

Hains, who died in 2005, said that it was one of his fellow affichistes who pointed him to de Bièvre: “It was thanks to François Dufrêne that I discovered the Marquis de Bièvre in 1963, at the time when I was making puns about palisades.” Throughout his life, Hains seeded his work with references to the 18th-century wordsmith and reportedly kept a copy of Vercingetorix close to his bedside. Celebrated for his wit at Versailles, de Bièvre was also the author of the entry on puns (in French, calembours) for the supplement of Diderot’s Encyclopedia. (When the Revolution erupted, the Marquis quickly fled to Bavaria, where he died in 1789.) His punning was not limited to writing. On the grounds of his chateau he planted a row of six yew trees, where he would take women he hoped to seduce. Approaching the row of trees, he would announce that they had arrived at the “l’instant des six ifs.”  In French, the word for yew tree is if, and the phrase des six ifs sounds like the word décisif; de Bièvre and his target had arrived at “the decisive moment.” In Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, Freud cites another of Bièvre’s puns, a connection Hains acknowledged in a vitrine-work at his 1986 Cartier Foundation show that included several volumes by de Bièvre and a copy of the French translation of Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious. The entire show was titled “Hommage au Marquis de Bièvre.”

Is Jean Roudaut’s article the “text about the Marquis de Bièvre” to which Christine Macel alludes? If so, do the annotations in my copy of Critique mark the moment when Hains’s interest in puns crystallized? The date, June 1962, means that it is possible for Dufrêne, who died in 1982, to have passed a copy to Hains in 1963, or dropped a hint that made Hains seek it out. Of course, it is also possible that Hains only came across this text years later, perhaps while preparing for his Bièvresque 1986 Cartier show. But whenever he read and annotated Roudaud’s article, one can easily see why it would have interested him: it offers compelling historical and philosophical arguments for the importance of exactly the kind of wordplay around which Hains structured his art.

Roudaud begins by acknowledging the widespread belief that no poetry of lasting importance was produced in 18th century France. While insisting that he doesn’t intend to “rehabilitate” the verse of this period, Roudaud suggests that it has been misunderstood and, further, that the achievements of the Romantic poets of the early 19th century depended, to some extent, on what was written in the 1700s. By “twisting” language with such seemingly frivolous techniques as puns, intentional Spoonerisms, elaborate riddles and metagrams (texts where verbal metamorphoses are accomplished by changing one letter of a word at a time), as well as more standard poetic devices such as rhyme, meter and alliteration, poets such as de Bièvre examined the nature of poetry, Roudaud says, “with a care and seriousness whose only equal is the 20th century reflection on the legitimacy of the novel.” In a turn of phrase clearly indebted to Jean Paulhan’s Les Fleurs de Tarbes, ou, la Terreur dans les lettres (1941), Roudaut claims that it was only possible for certain Romantics to become “terrorists of thought” because they had been preceded by these “terrorists of language.”

For Roudaut, the aim of the poet is, through a “series of subterfuges,” to “make us notice the hidden relation between sound and sense, the word and the thing.” Unexpectedly, he finds among the relentless wordplay of the court poets of 18th century France a “radicality” that he connects to Marcel Duchamp, whose punning titles and other word games pose similar challenges to existing mental habits. Oddly, Hains doesn’t highlight the sentences about Duchamp nor any of the passages in which Roudaut eloquently argues in favor of the fragmentation of meaning. Instead, what draws his attention are some of the vintage puns and anecdotes cited in the article, jeux des mots he may have filed away for future use.

Did Hains find in “Les exercises poétiques au XVIIIe siècle” confirmation of his own sense that puns were more than amusing games?  Did it introduce him to his beloved Marquis? What other questions, answerable or not, are posed by this yellowing, slightly marked-up, 50-year-old periodical?