“Paper Chase”

The Picasso Papers,  by Rosalind Krauss.  New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998.  xiv + 268 pp.  76 black and white illustrations.  $23.00

Marjorie Perloff

published in Bookforum, April 1998, pp. 37, 40 (see also Letter to the Editor Column in May Issue, response to Yves Alain Bois.)


The title Picasso Papers nicely puns on the concerns of Rosalind Krauss’s new book.  To begin with, the essays included are occasional papers rather than chapters in a chronological or topical study of the work.  Secondly, Krauss’s Picasso is very much the artist of papier collés–collage papers.   Third, one of the book’s central premises, of which more below, is that the post-World War I abandonment of the gold standard in favor of “token money” in the form of a circulating paper currency is emblematic of a “modernist literature that stakes its aesthetic integrity on the free play of its signifying elements.”   And fourth, the genre of these essays is that of the legal brief:  “papers,” in this sense, refers to the mounting of important if not incontrovertible evidence, as in “Pentagon Papers.”

The 122-page essay called “Picasso / Pastiche,” which is the centerpiece of The Picasso Papers, is a stunning piece of historical and critical scholarship. “Between 1916 and 1924,” Krauss begins by noting, “as pastiche became more and more the medium in which he practiced, Picasso did increasingly fatuous work– arch, decorative, empty– work that seems unreconcilable with the formal rigor of cubism and yet, given the unrivaled example of that earlier brilliance, work that must somehow issue from a logic internal to it, and not from a set of external circumstances.”  “Picasso / Pastiche” addresses the causes and circumstances of this curious (re) turn to the “classical” and the decorative.

The “Ingresque” portraits Picasso began to produce in 1915 may be understood, Krauss suggests, as a “reaction formation” (Freud’s term) to the success of the new technological art that came into its own by  the mid-teens, specifically, the new status of the photograph as an art medium along with the new machine art exemplified by Picabia’s mechanomorphic drawings.  The September-October 1915 issue of 291, for example, featured Picabia’s now famous drawing of a spark  plug called Portrait d’une jeune fille américaine as well as essays of homage to Stieglitz by Marius de Zayas and Paul Haviland, the latter referring to the camera as “the image of [man]s eye; the machine is his ‘daughter born without a mother.’”  The same year. Krauss notes, Picasso began his portrait of Vollard, in which the “pastiche of Ingres performs a reversal that is nonetheless a repetition of all the despised fruits of mechanomorphism: its frontality, its symmetry, its relentless linearity, its coldness, its (to say the word) classicism.”

If the “photomechanical conception of art,” in which “the readymade combines with the photograph,” represented one threat to Picasso, the other, seemingly opposite, one was “pure abstraction.”  For “both abstraction and photography accommodate  themselves to the industrial condition of serialized production. . . . the structures arrived at by abstract painters–the grids, the nested squares, the monochromes, the color fields–are themselves submitted to the mark of the multiple.”   Both photography and abstraction, in other words, were preceived as a threat to “the unique, the original the nonreplicable”–and hence to Picasso’s role as individual genius.

In “reaction formation,” Krauss notes,  “the symptoms are merely inverted versions of the instincts they are supposed to defend against.”  Just so, the “hardened line” of the “Ingresque” portraits, a line that encases the bodies of Picasso’s sitters “with its ever more emphatically thick, uninflected contour, stiff and sinuous at the same time like a stubbornly continuous wire,” can be read as pastiche of Picabia’s mechanomorphic drawings.   “The reality lying now behind the Ingresque mask is indeed the automation of art, of which the Kodak is, in fact, the more than adequate sign.”  And further, Krauss argues in the second part of her essay, the new series of collages Picasso now begins to produce, collages in which strong color and the divisionism of Seurat are introduced for the first time, can be understood as a comparable reaction formation to the “machine” art of Picabia, Leger, and the despised Futurists.  The painted representation of a sheet of stippled mauve wallpaper, as in Pipe and Sheet Music (1914), functions, writes Krauss, as a “kind of Trojan horse smuggled within the walls of cubist analysis”; in its substitution of painted copies of wallpaper surfaces for actual collage, it reintroduces the very “decoration that Cubism disdained.”

As an analysis of how and why Picasso’s cubist aesthetic of the pre-War years gave way to pastiche classicism and pastiche collage, Krauss’s account is as persuasive as it is brilliant.  But the book’s larger brief for Picasso’s turn to pastiche as a turn characteristic of modernism in general is less convincing, perhaps because the leap from practice to theory — from what is a close, meticulous, historically informed formalist-psychoanalytic reading of individual works to large-scale aesthetic and cultural generalization — is problematic.

Consider the book’s other long essay, “The Circulation of Signs.”  Krauss has written before on Picasso’s collage and its calling into question of the representability of the sign: notably in “In the Name of Picasso” (1980; reprinted in The Originality of the Avant-Garde, 1985) and in a fine earlier version of “Circulation of Signs,” written for the MOMA symposium published as Picasso and Braque (1989).  But in the new version, she wants to do more: specifically to undercut those scholars like Patricia Leighten and David Cottington who have tried to read Picasso’s collage ideologically by interpreting the meanings put forward in the newspaper fragments, as well as those others (Edward Fry, Robert Rosenblum, Christine Poggi), who have dared to find mimetic elements in it.  If the latter are dismissed as “vulgar” and “silly,” the former fail to see that Picasso never speaks with a single voice in his collage, and that, whatever the newspaper fragments might tell us about the politics and culture of Picasso’s moment, their voice is but one voice among many.

Here Krauss is applying Bakhtin’s theory of heteroglossia and dialogic discourse–or rather misapplying it.  For Bakhtin’s point, in Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, the text she cites, is that in a “polyphonic” novel like The Brothers Karamazov, the discourse of a character– say, Ivan– is itself “deformed” by the incorporation of sideward glances at someone else’s words, by imagined rejoinders from opponents, by public statement, hearsay, legal cliché, and so on. Heteroglossia is not a matter of pitting Ivan’s point of view against Alyosha’s  but of making Ivan’s discourse itself resonate with a number of counter-perspectives.

The analogy, in the case of Picasso, would have to be a newspaper fragment that might itself be open to complex and contradictory readings–a fragment, moreover, whose status as part of Picasso’s aesthetic structure would be equivocal, as it was to be, decades later, in postmodern collage.  But as Krauss herself insists, the newspaper signifiers in Picasso’s collage by no means “speak” for the artist–his ironic perspective on them is obvious enough– in which case Bakhtinian dialogic discourse is not at issue.

Even more questionable, to my mind, is the application Krauss makes in her introduction, “A Penny for Picasso” of Adorno’s well-known distinction between Schoenberg’s “authentic” modernism and Stravinsky’s “fraudulence,” his betrayal of what, as Krauss summarizes it, “is ostensibly  internal to the medium itself.”  Coming from a critic as sophisticated as Krauss, this is a curiously old-fashioned argument, given that Adorno’s binary opposition between a“right” and “wrong” modernism has been discredited by such leading music theorists as Richard Taruskin.  Indeed, Adorno’s is a sophisticated version of the opposition Krauss introduces at the opening of “A Penny for Picasso” (this time using André Gide’s novel The Counterfeiters as her emblem) between gold coin (the authentic) and the simulacral “empty currency” of paper money.  Can the complexity of the early century really be reduced to such easy binaries?

“The historical logic of modernism itself,” Krauss concludes, “[is that] the newly liberated circulation of the token-sign always carries as its potential reverse an utterly devalued and empty currency.”   So extravagant a statement might itself be submitted to a Bakhtinian analysis, which would replace the univocality of Krauss’s “modernism” with a more nuanced “modernism” comprised of texts exhibiting what Wittgenstein called family resemblances.   And further: it bears saying that, if Krauss is right, modernist theoretical writing would be subject to the same principles as the “creative” texts of Picasso or Stravinsky.  What reaction formation, one wonders, was the motor driving Adorno’s Philosophy of Music?