Home Architect James Meyer on the autobiography An Oblique by Yves-Alain Bois

James Meyer on the autobiography An Oblique by Yves-Alain Bois

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Yve-Alain Bois with his body sculptures in paper, Paris, 1968.

Yve-Alain Bois with his Paper body sculpturesParis, 1968.

An oblique autobiographyby Yve-Alain Bois; ed. Jordan Kantor. San Francisco and New York: no place press, 2022. 376 pages.

THE PUBLICATION of the latest book by Yves-Alain Bois marks a turning point in the work of this influential researcher. Where does this most personal (and surprising) publication of Bois fit in the arc of a career that spans from his co-founding of the groundbreaking journal Smudges in the mid-1970s to teaching positions at Johns Hopkins and Harvard to his tenure as professor at the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton, a position he held from 2005 to 2022? What information does this “autobiography” reveal about its author?

Consider the curious title. Word oblique suggests a line that deviates from a straight line or an indirectly expressed thought. As Bois confesses in the introduction, as he began to organize this “pile of homeless essays” into a published volume, he came to believe that the book was not enough an autobiography as much as an “involuntary” memoir, a “disguised autobiography”. Thus, the protagonist of the book is often a witness to the events or exchanges he describes, a member of a seminar (those of Roland Barthes and Hubert Damisch), or a reader of another scholar. The narrator is less interested in the Me that in the Youless concerned with immortalizing one’s own exploits than with examining the impact of the “texts or works of art” of others in the “constitution of [the critic’s] identity.” The Yve-Alain that we meet in An oblique autobiography is not yet fully formed: we have read about his meetings with Jacques Derrida and Lygia Clark and his productive conversations with fellow academics Guy Brett, Rosalind Krauss and Nancy Troy. We also learn about purely imaginary relationships, as described in the author’s essay on Robert Klein, whose work made a strong impression when a young Bois debated whether to pursue a promising studio career ( the precocious artist was offered a gallery exhibition at the age of seventeen) or to study the history of art, a field whose calcification in France in the 1960s and 1970s almost turned him away from his future vocation.

The autobiography “has to do with time, with sequence and what constitutes the continuous flow of life”, wrote Walter Benjamin. Benjamin was describing the conventional autobiography, as prevalent in his day as it is in our day of faith-based podcasts, celebrity docuseries and navel-gazing memoirs that begin in the author’s childhood and take us through adolescence. towards a clearly well-adjusted maturity, where the unruly ribbons of experience are tied in a pretty little bow. Wood avoids this linear arrangement. Where is Benjamin Berlin Childhood Around 1900 is a text composed entirely of fragments, An oblique autobiography is a collection of memories arranged in reverse order of their publication. (The book opens with the 2022 essay “Angels with Guns,” about Brett and artist David Medalla; the final chapter, “Picabia: From Dada to Pétain,” Bois’s indictment of ruthless censorship of the Picabia family on his monograph on the artist, was first published in 1976.) Yet even this “order” is provisional. Stories of first encounters with artists and thinkers are scattered throughout. Bois dispenses with diachrony. Her discovery of Klein’s writings in a Pau bookstore in 1970 appears quite early in the book, her viewing of photographs of Clark’s work and her encounter in 1968 with Clark herself some eighty pages later. We find Barthes in Bois’s chapter on Damisch and again in “Écrivain, Artisan, Narrateur”, his moving reminiscence of the critic’s seminar.

Guy Brett with Lea Lublin's 1975 Interrogations on Art, Discourse on Art (Interrogations into Art, Discourse on Art), Serpentine Gallery, London, May 1975. Photo: Teodoro Maler.

Guy Brett with 1975 by Lea Lublin Questions about art, Discourse on art (Interrogations into Art, Discourse on Art), Serpentine Gallery, London, May 1975. Photo: Teodoro Maler.

Yet Bois’ portrait of himself as a young and not so young man is not a dry recitation of positions and ideas. The author has written new introductions to many essays. These asides are often quite revealing (some are almost as long as the texts they introduce). By Jean Clay, with whom he co-founded Smudgeshe absorbs the need to consider an artist’s entire body of work before attempting to write about them, and comes to share his friend’s aversion to psychological analysis—a distaste developed before even that Bois studied with Barthes, whose 1963 book On Root scandalized the French literary establishment by omitting any mention of the playwright’s biography. Clark introduces Bois to a phenomenological model of the viewer concerned with viewer activation and an understanding of Mondrian’s art as a ‘destructive’ project that subverts the purist conception of Mondrian advanced by the influential critic Michel Seuphor. (Seuphor’s study of the Dutch artist was the first art history monograph held by Bois.) Theorist Paul Ricœur, an acquaintance of Bois’s intellectually curious father, Roby Bois, draws his attention to the Umberto Eco’s theory of the “open work”. (Writes Eco in his eponymous 1962 book, “The form of the work of art acquires its aesthetic validity precisely in proportion to the number of different perspectives from which it can be seen and understood.” Klein confirms Bois’s instinctive suspicion of historicism: the idea, proposed by TS Eliot and Clement Greenberg, that poets and artists exist in a relatively unbroken chain of ‘influence’ and ‘resistance.’ These and other figures provide Bois with an arsenal of critical tools that will prove essential.And where more exclusive scholars, wedded to the fiction of their own uniqueness, might hesitate to divulge their sources of inspiration, Bois does not hesitate to invoke the names of friends and colleagues. who helped shape his thinking and enumerate their lessons. The author is so confident in his achievement that he doesn’t hesitate to credit the influence of others on his formation – an impact we can only imagine in several instances was entirely reciprocal.

Our attachments, the ones that really mean something, that change us indelibly and forever, are not so clearly defined.

Because “accomplishment” is not Bois’ concern. The main theme of An oblique autobiography is the convenient of erudition, the life of the scientist. The narrator we know is not Casaubon, George Eliot’s solipsistic seeker Middle-walk, indifferent to the thoughts and emotions of others. Scholarly pursuit is understood as amiable, dialogical and fully lived. Although the contents of the volume include art reviews (much of it was originally published in Octoberwhere Bois has long been an editor as well as a contributor), book reviews, and even an unpublished letter to the editor of the New York Times castigating the insulting obituary of a journalist on Derrida, the most touching texts are the most diarctic, especially those which bring us back to the youth of Bois. “Angels with Guns” uses the same storytelling techniques and close attention to detail as famous essays such as “Matisse and ‘Arche-drawing'” and “Kahnweiler’s Lesson”, in which Bois takes the reader on journeys of discovery. archives through the careers of Matisse and Picasso, respectively. Where the former describes Matisse’s arrival at his unique understanding of color as a relationship of quantity and quality in The joy of living1906, the latter advances the interpretation of Bois du papier collé as a staging of the inexhaustible play of meaning (the ultimate demonstration of Eco’s “openness” after the epiphanic appearance of the Grebo mask by Picasso and the creation famous paper Guitar, 1912. “Angels with Guns” is almost obsessively archival. An account of Bois’s relationship with the aristocratic Brett and the mercurial Medalla from the early 1970s until the recent deaths of these dear friends, this chapter draws on extensive personal correspondence to relate the events and personalities he remembered so meticulously. His introduction to his study of the painter Christophe Verfaille is as much a work of literary prose as the essay it precedes. Here, as in his Brett-Medalla memoir and the superb “Some Latin Americans in Paris”—an account of Bois’s relationship with Clark and German-Mexican artist Mathias Goeritz—diachrony is mobilized to capture multiple ongoing conversations and the social settings in which they took place. Detailing Bois’s introduction to Verfaille at summer camp and the sporadic reunion of the two friends after the former moved to the United States in 1983, this devastating preamble also recounts Verfaille’s physical decline and death in relative obscurity. at the age of fifty-eight.

Christophe Verfaille, Untitled, 1991, acrylic on wood, 13 7⁄8 × 14 5⁄8".

Christophe Verfaille, Untitled1991, acrylic on wood, 13 7⁄8 × 14 5⁄8″.

Bois’ essays on Matisse and Picasso culminate in moments of eureka. After experimenting with inherited styles and approaches, the two artists arrive at a discovery that transforms their practices. Disparate elements are coherent; the “author-system” is revealed. Matisse becomes the Matisse we know. Picasso invents collage. The tests in An oblique autobiography never reach such crescendos. This is perhaps part of the book’s slant, as expressed in Bois’s subtle avoidance of confessionalism and in his recognition that our attachments, the ones that really mean something, that change us indelibly and forever , are not so clearly defined. In other words, the formats of the dissertation and the art history essay cannot be reduced to one another. There are no eureka moments in this book, because there are no eureka moments in our relationships. Even after the friend is no longer with us, the friendship continues in the memory of the one who remains, and in the acts of writing, as this extraordinary elegiac volume reveals. as i read An oblique autobiographyI almost had the impression that some of Bois’s friends and fellow intellectuals were looking over his shoulder as he typed his text, or over my shoulder as I read it, so vivid are his memories of their intimacy .

James Meyer is curator of modern art at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, and editor of Arts Forum.

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