An Oblique Autobiography 
by Yve-Alain Bois, edited by Jordan Kantor.
No Place, 375 pp., £15.99, December 2022, 978 1 949484 08 3
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Originstories of artists are ubiquitous, but those of art historians are not. Yve-Alain Bois, the pre-eminent French art historian of his generation, narrates his own beginning in this book about his key encounters with artists, theorists and curators. Born in 1952, Bois travels with his mother and little brother from a small town near Bordeaux to Paris (he thinks he was nine, she puts him at five). They are headed to the maritime museum, but for some reason it is closed, and on the spur of the moment she takes the boys to the nearby Musée National d’Art Moderne. For Bois the memory is vivid to this day. There is the Brancusi studio donated to the French state by the Romanian sculptor, a room of Léger paintings, a huge ‘allover’ canvas by the Canadian Jean-Paul Riopelle, a great Matisse cutout. Return visits confirm Bois in his desire to be an artist, and soon he knows exactly what sort: ‘a geometric abstract painter’.

As a teenager Bois writes blind letters to well-known figures and works odd jobs to fund solo trips to Paris, where he haunts galleries and museums chaperoned by a family friend, the critic Jean Clay, who teaches him how to look at painting. Though still in high school, Bois is swept up by the events of May 1968, after which he connects radical art with radical politics whenever he can, an avant-garde commitment that is affirmed when he meets the Brazilian artist Lygia Clark two years later. In 1969, aged seventeen, Bois is offered an opportunity to exhibit his paintings in Paris, which he has the good sense to turn down, and his interests take a theoretical turn. At the suggestion of another family acquaintance, Paul Ricoeur, Bois reads his first book on aesthetics, The Open Work by Umberto Eco, and buys his first book of art history, Form and Meaning: Writings on the Renaissance and Modern Art by Robert Klein, which includes an intriguing essay on ‘the eclipse of the work of art’. Soon Bois is obsessed with the transformations in American art glimpsed in the pages of Artforum, and contrives to visit the United States as an exchange student. Though stuck in rural Pennsylvania, he manages a few trips to New York, including momentous visits to the Museum of Modern Art, where he catches a Frank Stella retrospective, and the Guggenheim Museum, where he sees a Moholy-Nagy exhibition.

On his return to France, Bois gives up his own artmaking, and after a tedious course in Pau he decides against art history too. The siren call now comes from critical theory – the avant-garde of this period. To his surprise Roland Barthes accepts him into his seminar on semiology at the École Pratique des Hautes Études, which Bois joins in autumn 1971. Barthes urges him also to study with Hubert Damisch, who becomes his other great mentor, steering him back towards art history. At this point Bois is all of nineteen. He calls his youth ‘immodest’, but really it was precocious. His writing has retained its verve for more than fifty years – intellectually curious, conceptually brilliant, often witty, sometimes petulant.

Bois sees Barthes and Damisch in almost structural terms as ‘two perfectly complementary guides’. Philosophically they have much in common: ‘the same enemies, the same structuralist past … the same capacity to actualise their inquiry, to make it relevant hic et nunc’. Affectively, though, they are very different: Barthes plays the ‘seductive pied piper’, Damisch the ‘tough love’ father. Pedagogically, too, they take opposite approaches. Barthes teaches his students how to pare a project down to ‘a couple of essential issues’, while Damisch shows them ‘how independent fields of knowledge can rub against one another, and how new ideas emerge from such friction’. Damisch is also alert to the way an apparent flaw in a mode of thought or practice might serve as an actual foundation, how ‘a structural system can only be “proven” through a central exception – that it is what cannot be taken into account by a system, framed by it, that explains it and at the same time makes it possible for it to survive.’ Bois extracts this methodological lesson from A Theory of /Cloud/ (1972), where Damisch shows that clouds, precisely because they cannot be drawn in one-point perspective, played a major role in the development of this epochal technique. If this sounds like deconstruction, that’s no accident (by this time structuralism has given way to its poststructuralist critique), and in his own work Bois will often look for the deconstructive ‘cloud’ in whatever artistic system is in question.

For his part Barthes demonstrates ‘how to write by writing in front of us’. ‘Let us show ourselves in the speech-act,’ he says. ‘Let us write in the present.’ What Barthes passes on, then, isn’t a method per se but ‘studio techniques’, ‘a thousand practical recipes’ that each student is left to adapt in his own way (the seminar is mostly male). ‘Always look, behind Nature, for History,’ Bois writes, recalling the early Brechtian criticism in Mythologies (1957), while ‘Nothing that seems trivial is meaningless’ echoes Barthes’s 1968 exposé of ‘the reality effect’ in realist fiction. He derives another lesson from S/Z (1970), in which Barthes articulates the many codes at work in a single Balzac short story. Bois glosses it in this way: ‘We have to look at things very closely, at the end of our nose, as materially as possible, because only this slight near-sightedness frees us at the outset from the myth of Depth.’ For the poststructuralist Barthes, meaning dances on the surface of a text; it is ‘in the grain’ of things that ‘the real flavour is found.’

My favourite piece of Barthesian advice runs in a different direction: ‘It’s when you lift your head that you’re really reading.’ The greatest gift a work can bestow might be the semi-free association it inspires. ‘Barthes applied this floating quality to the entire sphere of language, to reading, to every utterance, to all conversation,’ Bois says, and follows up with a tip of his own. Wait for ‘the click’ in your response to a given piece, ‘that sudden, insouciant turning of the key’ that releases a rush of ideas. ‘Let a swarm of thoughts bounce off a snap; let the signs proliferate over and around an opposition, an analogy, before putting them in order.’ Finally, Barthes conveys to Bois ‘the Principle of Unbelief’, a scepticism about method in the very practice of it. ‘Beware of Theory,’ Barthes says, ‘it is a great castrator.’ Bois draws three corollaries from this warning: retain ‘the right to abjure’ (admit when you are wrong about a work); ‘the right to bypass’ (not everything that seems urgent needs to be taken up); and ‘the right to safeguard’ (keep old authors handy – you never know when you might need them). If ‘no theory remains true for ever,’ it is also the case that ‘critical ideas should not be let go of prematurely.’

Even in his early essays Barthes had an inkling of deconstruction, of the way concepts are often constructed out of opposed terms that can be picked apart. This is ‘how one begins’, Bois understood him to be suggesting. ‘Posit a paradigm in order to produce a meaning and then be able to divert, to alter it.’ Bois also learned this approach directly from Jacques Derrida, whom he read in high school and met during his studies in Paris: ‘First overturn a hierarchical opposition, then dispel its binarism by the introduction of a new concept.’ Derrida commissioned the 21-year-old Bois to write an essay on Matisse, his first of several for the illustrious journal Critique, which he took as a rite of passage: ‘I knew, after passing this test, that I could, if I wanted to, become an art historian.’ Bois later returned the favour when he asked Derrida to turn his notes concerning Martin Heidegger on Van Gogh into an article that Bois published in Macula, the journal he launched with Jean Clay in 1976. An Oblique Autobiography includes a stirring eulogy for Derrida, who died in 2004, and a scathing rebuttal of the insipid obituary published by the New York Times.

Like Derrida, Bois was born in Algeria, and his early years, spent in a mountain village, coincided with the Algerian War (the family returned to France in 1959). During the war his father, a scholarly Huguenot minister, was a figure of suspicion on both sides – to the Algerians because he was French, and to the French because he was sympathetic to the Algerians. This ambiguous, even deconstructive, position may have left its mark on his son. Certainly Bois sees a benefit in ‘foreignness’, which he explains as ‘the freedom with which the stranger can look at a complex cultural system without having to fully know or understand the rules of its game, a freedom that often enables the foreigner to pick and choose what is most vibrant (and most controversial) in a given culture’. He ascribes this lesson above all to Lygia Clark, who in her Paris exile ‘creatively misread’ the European tradition of abstraction as she developed her own Neoconcrete practice. ‘My first artistic epiphany was the discovery of the work of Mondrian,’ Bois tells us, but ‘my adolescent reading of his art, standard at the time,’ took it to be a ‘Neoplatonic paean to pure form’. ‘“Au contraire,” Clark told me, “Mondrian is all about destruction.”’ Mondrian also hinted at this understanding (‘I think the destructive element is too much neglected in art’), and it prompted Bois to discover in his painting a perpetual deconstruction of the fundamental conventions of the medium – a relentless undoing of the oppositions of figure and ground, line and plane, colour and noncolour. This lucid account of Mondrian was laid out beautifully in the retrospective Bois curated with Angelica Rudenstine and Joop Joosten in 1994.

Mondrian grew up in a Calvinist family, a background that may have inclined him to a semi-iconoclastic idea of abstraction. Might Bois’s Huguenot formation have had a similar effect on him? He would object to psychobiography of this sort, but his deconstructive understanding of abstraction is a throughline in his writing. He brings it not only to austere painters like Martin Barré but also to expansive artists like Clark: ‘Her goal was to undo the empty/full, inside/outside oppositions upon which planar geometry and rationalism are based.’ It also led Bois to highlight ‘noncompositional’ strategies wherever he found them. In abstract painting these devices include the monochrome, as initiated by Malevich and reiterated by many postwar artists; the grid, as proposed and then overcome by Mondrian; and various chance operations and found forms, as deployed by Ellsworth Kelly among others. (Kelly is another artist to whom Bois has long been committed.)

Bois wrote his dissertation for Barthes and Damisch on conceptions of space in Malevich and El Lissitzky, and not long afterwards he delved into Russian and Polish Constructivism as well as Dutch De Stijl. Such interests, no less than his methods, made Bois foreign to the dominant concerns of art history and criticism in France as well as the United States. His primary targets in both countries were the same: a reductive use of iconology, which ‘mistakes the meaning of a work of art for its referent’, and a superficial application of formalism, which attends more to the way artworks appear morphologically than to the way they signify structurally. Bois considers it perverse that iconographers look for hidden themes even in abstract artworks, and that formalists simply delight in the ‘pure visibility’ there. Hence the two complaints that recur in his book, first about the intellectual poverty of postwar French art writing and curating, second about ‘the dogma of modernism’ promulgated by Clement Greenberg and his followers.

Greenberg saw modernist art as part of the Enlightenment project to ground every discipline in its own ‘area of competence’. To pursue its proper mission, painting had to highlight its medium-specific properties, ‘flatness and the delimitation of flatness’ above all; everything else was deemed more or less extraneous. For Bois this version of modernism boiled down to two operations: essentialism and historicism. The first posited an essence to painting, and the second tasked artists with the gradual revelation of that essence. For a good stretch this mix of Kantian and Hegelian thought helped to shore up modernist art history and to pilot contemporary art criticism. Museums also liked it since it offered a fairly straightforward story to tell, from Manet to Stella. And so ‘modernist painting’ sailed along, skirting such islands as Dada, Surrealism and Constructivism, until it finally ran into the sand in the 1960s.

Bois wasn’t the only one objecting to this model of modernism. By the late 1960s, Leo Steinberg had proposed ‘other criteria’ to the ones marshalled by Greenberg, and by the early 1970s Rosalind Krauss had become a vocal apostate from his formalism. Bois embraced both; indeed Krauss counts as his third great intellectual encounter after Barthes and Damisch. Bois met her in 1977, soon after she had founded October with the film theorist Annette Michelson and he had launched Macula with Clay. The two journals had the same opponents: iconographic art history and formalist art criticism, not to mention all belletristic writing. And Krauss and Bois had similar projects: they wanted to use the tools of structuralism and poststructuralism to renovate modernist art history and contemporary art criticism, fields that the leading French theorists had mostly overlooked. Along with other October authors, Krauss parsed postmodernist practices, which had only then fully emerged, with poststructuralist concepts. Bois, who was sceptical of the rubric of postmodernism, did much the same with modernist practices (many of these essays were collected in 1990 in Painting as Model).

This double unpacking became the principal project of October in its first decade (Macula folded after four issues, and eventually Bois became an editor at October). Krauss published her landmark book in this vein, The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths, in 1985. In a review Bois made the salient point about its Nietzschean credo: ‘that to be a real historian, one has to be a critic; that one cannot give an historical account unless one has a critical theory.’ This triangulation of history, criticism and theory was already in play in Krauss’s previous book, Passages in Modern Sculpture (1977), where she rethought sculpture since Rodin not only through two modes of thought, phenomenology and structural linguistics, that were contemporaneous with its development, but also from the perspective of recent Minimalist and Post-Minimalist practices, both of which relocated the meaning of the artwork in its material surface and public setting rather than in any hidden core or private intention that transcended time and place. Soon these affinities led Bois and Krauss to undertake important collaborations, such as, in the early 1980s, a semiotic rewriting of the Cubist collages of Picasso and Braque, as well as, in the mid-1990s, an exhibition and book titled Formless which highlighted the attacks on aesthetic form that had erupted intermittently in 20th-century art (here the theoretical guide was Georges Bataille).

Already in his 1971 seminar on semiology Barthes had pointed Bois to ‘the historical link between modernism and the awareness that language is a structure of signs’. This link had been forged by two formalists of a very different sort, the Russians Roman Jakobson and Yury Tynyanov, who were not only close to modernist artists but also crucial to the subsequent development of structuralism by Claude Lévi-Strauss and others (Lévi-Strauss, alas, didn’t share their modernist commitments). In effect Bois used Russian Formalism to break the hold of the American variety; it also launched him on a central line of inquiry. Russian Formalism, no less than modernist art, was responding to a fundamental predicament in modern culture at large: if neither Nature (aka the referent) nor God (aka the transcendental signified) anchored representation any longer, what did? If representation had gone wobbly, what grounded art?

Thisis the dread problem – or the wonderful opportunity – of ‘the arbitrariness of the sign’, as Ferdinand de Saussure called it, which modernist art worked variously to contain (as in ‘the delimitation of flatness’ in painting) or exploit (as Cubism did with its multivalent signifiers and Dada with its chance experiments). How to remotivate an art that had become arbitrary? This is the imperative behind key notions in modernist discourse, such as ‘the inner necessity’ proclaimed by the idealist Kandinsky and ‘the truth to materials’ demanded by the materialist Tatlin. Nothing, not even the simple idea of composition as a hierarchical division of a canvas, was immune from the threat of arbitrariness. For Bois one modernist solution was to ‘abolish composition by suppressing division per se (the monochrome) or by adjusting this division so that it became an index of the surface in question (modular grid; symmetry; deductive structure; adequation of figure and field)’. By the 1960s another solution was to move out of painting altogether into object-making in space, as long as those objects were simple, indeed ‘Minimalist’, and so could be seen as motivated by their physical surroundings.

In this light an attention to form is not at all a turn from history. ‘It’s remarkable how often one hears it stubbornly repeated that formalism is congenitally antipathetic to history,’ Barthes once complained. ‘I myself have always tried to state the historical responsibility of forms.’ This last phrase is prized by Bois, who reads it in a double sense: not only is form responsive to history, and historical situations inscribed in artistic transformations, but any such transformation is accountable to its present, and it is only thus that it is historically responsive in the first place. In short, there is an ethics as well as a historicity in all artmaking, even the most abstract kinds. To frame art in this way is also to ease the stark opposition between semiotic and social-historical approaches that divided modernist art history in the 1980s and 1990s. Bois was a central voice in this debate, first at Johns Hopkins (1983-91), then at Harvard (1991-2005), and finally at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, but that story is, for the most part, beyond the scope of An Oblique Autobiography.

How can an autobiography be oblique? One way is to present its parts in reverse chronology as Bois does. This allows us to see how his concerns persist rather than how they develop; he is opposed to any historicist narrative of necessary evolution even when it comes to his own thinking. But this embargo also prompts a question. More than once Bois mentions his ban on the word ‘influence’ in his writing and that of his students. ‘Precursor’ is also forbidden. ‘No one ever considered himself or herself as someone else’s precursor; indeed, no one could,’ the philosopher of science Alexandre Koyré once remarked. ‘And to envisage someone as such is the best way to preclude the possibility of understanding his or her work.’ Yet how can an autobiography ignore influences and precursors? Bois gets around the first prohibition with an unexpected reference to Harold Bloom, who argued in The Anxiety of Influence (1973) that influence flows both ways, that the latecomer can affect the predecessor too; ‘a spark between poles’ is how Bois phrases it. (T.S. Eliot had made much the same claim several decades before in ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’.) Bois sees the ‘creative misreading’ that Lygia Clark visits on European abstraction in these terms. As for precursors, he prefers to think in terms of elective affinities – of ‘declensions’ of artists and ‘constellations’ of critics (this last echoes Walter Benjamin). ‘This book is an inventory of encounters,’ Bois tells us at the outset. ‘It takes two to tango.’ Often, though, more than two are involved. He begins with an intimate account of a discursive throuple that he enjoyed with the English critic Guy Brett and the Filipino artist David Medalla, detailing how the three friends influenced one another, mostly at a distance, over the years.

Still, how can a person indoctrinated in ‘the death of the author’ write an autobiography? Here ‘oblique’ takes on another meaning. Bois tells his story through encounters in a manner that almost inverts, say, Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes (1975). Where Barthes looked for his own image mirrored in that of others, here we mostly glimpse Bois to one side of his reflections on mentors, collaborators and friends. ‘Oblique’ also alludes to his persistent interest in different kinds of perspective. He has written on the parallactic viewing that the sculptures of Richard Serra often require of us, and has worked for years on an account of axonometric projection in art and architecture (it appears often in Lissitzky and De Stijl), which dictates no vanishing point within a picture and no viewing point in front of it. This book is oblique in that sense too. It reminded me of the passage in A Berlin Chronicle (1932) where Benjamin tells of his attempts to diagram his life. His first try is ‘a series of family trees’, and, though he is devastated when he loses this drawing, the scheme is rather conventional. He then hits on the idea of a life imaged as a labyrinth. ‘I am concerned here not with what is installed in the chamber at its enigmatic centre, ego or fate,’ he tells us, ‘but all the more with the many entrances leading into the interior. These entrances I call “primal acquaintances”; each of them is a graphic symbol of my acquaintance with a person whom I met … through neighbourhood, family relationships, school comradeship, mistaken identity, companionship on travels, or other such – hardly numerous – situations. So many primal relationships, so many entrances to the maze.’

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