Radical Coherency: Selected Essays on Art and Literature, 1966 to 2005

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“We got to talking”—so David Antin begins the introduction to Radical Coherency, embarking on the pursuit that has marked much of his breathless, brilliantly conversational work. For the past forty years, whether spoken under the guise of performance artist or poet, cultural explorer or literary critic, Antin’s innovative observations have helped us to better understand everything from Pop to Postmodernism. 

Intimately wedded to the worlds of conceptual art and poetics, Radical Coherency collects Antin’s influential critical essays and spontaneous, performed lectures (or “talk pieces”) for the very first time, capturing one of the most distinctive perspectives in contemporary literature. The essays presented here range from the first serious assessment of Andy Warhol published in a major art journal, as well as Antin’s provocative take on Clement Greenberg’s theory of Modernism, to frontline interventions in present debates on poetics and fugitive pieces from the ’60s and ’70s that still sparkle today—and represent a gold mine for art historians of the period. From John Cage to Allan Kaprow, Mark Rothko to Ludwig Wittgenstein, Antin takes the reader on an idiosyncratic, personal journey through twentieth-century culture with his trademark antiformalist panache—one that will be welcomed by any fan of this consummate trailblazer.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226020969
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 3/15/2011
  • Pages: 384
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

David Antin is professor emeritus in the Department of Visual Arts at the University of California, San Diego. A poet, critic, and performance artist, he is the author of ten books of poetry, including Talking, Talking at the Boundaries, Tuning, What It Means to Be Avant-Garde, i never knew what time it was, and John Cage Uncaged Is Still Cagey. He received the PEN Los Angeles Award for Poetry in 1984 and has received fellowships from both the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.

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Table of Contents



Art Essays

Warhol: The Silver Tenement

Alex Katz and the Tactics of Representation

Jean Tinguely’s New Machine

Lead Kindly Blight

“It Reaches a Desert in which Nothing Can Be Perceived but Feeling”

Art and the Corporations

Video, the Distinctive Features of the Medium

Have Mind, Will Travel

the existential allegory of the rothko chapel

Duchamp: The Meal and the Remainder

Allan at Work

Literary Essays

Modernism and Postmodernism: Approaching the Present in Modern American Poetry

Some Questions about Modernism

radical coherency

The Stranger at the Door

The Beggar and the King

“the death of the hired man”


Wittgenstein among the Poets

john cage uncaged is still cagey



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First Chapter

Radical Coherency

By David Antin

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2011 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-02097-6

Chapter One

Warhol: The Silver Tenement

Wittgenstein once pointed out that "a proposition is an image of reality." It almost seems as if the most curious aspects of Warhol's work grew out of an examination of the converse statement "an image is a proposition about reality." This conviction certainly underlies the cliché that "one picture means more than a thousand words," which suggests that somewhere embedded in the image there is a proposition that cannot be stated in a thousand words. That is to say, there is such a proposition and it is unclear.

This touching faith in the meaningfulness and intelligibility of the seen gives a certain portentousness to almost any of the images surrounding us, provided they happen to dominate our attention. Who has not been tricked into regarding intensely some isolated numeral or enigmatic fragment of a label blocking the view from a doorway? I know a poet who wrote a poem on the sign ... ZEN FOODS. Consider the News of the Day. A man in a Chesterfield, carrying a briefcase, is seen descending the steps of a building. A reporter holding a microphone walks up to him and says, "Have you anything to say about your meeting with the President, sir?" The man answers, "No comment," and walks out of the picture. Still, we are left with the disturbing impression that there is something that we have seen. It is this disturbing sense that Warhol can count on.

In his most recent show, the back room at Castelli's was plastered with citron-colored wallpaper onto which had been silk-screened 73 fluorescent pink cows (somebody counted them). Not whole cows, cow heads. The large trapezoidal face magnified to the point of incipient disappearance did not have sufficient dots to fill out the nose or the horns and stared blankly out of the wall. They were nevertheless recognizable, and recognizability is the only indispensable characteristic of an image. (If it is not recognizable it is not an image at all.) Pushed one step further, it is Elsie the Borden Cow. It is POP ART. It is BANAL. It is funny or vicious, depending on your taste. But change the affect slightly.

The foolish trapezoidal faces, enlarged to a painful scale—the point of incipient disappearance—did not have sufficient dots to fill out the nose or the softly rounded horns and stared mournfully out of the wall. They are sorrowing clowns. "They are all of Us."

Warhol is the master of a communication game that elicits the false response. The image is presented and the affect flickers back and forth, enigmatically back and forth in the case of the cows.

Take the early comic strips. A blow-up of Nancy is incredible. (This is generally what makes it so impossible to reproduce the work of Pop artists, for unlike the work of fine artists, theirs has to be seen in the original.) On the small scale of the comic strip Nancy, it is acceptable because it reads in the logic of its convention. It translates into its message so fast it is scarcely an image at all, i.e., it dissolves into Mr. Bushmiller's conception of the comic. Taken at the scale of the Warhol blow-up the drawing convention becomes insane. There is all that empty space between the contours marking the legs, the eyes are black holes, there is no nose, the hair is a crenellated football helmet, and that ribbon—it is monstrous. But it is still Mr. Bushmiller's Nancy, which does not threaten us like the fleas under Robert Hooke's microscope or disgust us like the excreta under Swift's. In the end it is enigmatic.

It is enigmatic because there is no apparent context to which it can be related, and yet the scale, the centrality suggest that there is some context. It can be taken as axiomatic that an image always seeks a context. In fact, images are habitually so dominated by their contexts that removal effects an astonishing change, as is seen in collage. It's also very strikingly apparent in details of large paintings. In his early essay on mannerism, Walter Friedländer describes in the following manner a female figure in Rosso Fiorentino's Moses Defending the Daughters of Jethro: "She is surrounded by frightened lambs, her arm outstretched in fright, a light cloak around her otherwise exposed body, sheer astonishment on her pretty face." The violent action of the painting appears to have conditioned Dr. Friedländer's response to the detail, because the face of the girl, viewed in isolation, is as impassive as a Greek mask, which it strongly resembles, and the animals, if they are in fact lambs, are as deadpan as Warhol's cows. What is more, the face of Moses himself, who is striking some fallen assailant, could if transposed be seen yawning in sleep instead of contorted with effort or anger. The context is what is all-determining.

But this drive to seek mood behind the image of the face is what Warhol works with in the Presleys, in Cagney, in the Marilyns. Absurdly in the case of the Presleys. Two canvases, four images, of the star as gunfighter at the point of the "showdown." What is shown? The blankfaced star faces the spectator, the drawn pistol in one hand, the other held near the hip. The four images are the same, but they are not alike. They have all been printed with different degrees of clarity, at faintly different heights on the canvas. An arbitrary change of color from one canvas to the next shifts everything. From left to right you read out "purposeful rage," "affronted innocence," "murderous sullenness," "terror." Nonsense! You go back and read it out again. It is indisputable that there is a subtle shift from image to image as the eye traverses the two canvases. But is it in the images themselves? From one canvas to the next there is a sharp jump as the color shifts. Everyone knows color affects mood. How? But the whole thing is ridiculous. It is a staged promotion shot. There is no mood. And yet ...

In the Marilyns the sense of hidden meaning is enhanced by public tragedy. There is the gay, familiar, openmouthed face. Surely lurking somewhere behind it is some cue, some information communicating a private agony. This is the conviction that spewed up columns of drivel in the papers, reams of poems, learned dissections by psychiatrists and sociologists. It was also this that led Myshkin in The Idiot to say that if he had been a painter he would have painted nothing but the faces of men about to be executed, the faces of the condemned. The belief in the moment of truth made visible. This conviction also compels subway riders to stare into the faces of the British Heath Killers or the untroubled features of the strangled bride in the pages of the Daily News. Consider Warhol's Thirteen Most Wanted Men. So captioned they are a sinister crew and we can all detect the marks of depravity on their ravaged faces. But change the caption. They are: Founders of the Little League, Board of Directors of a Soft Drink Company, Worker Priests, Members of New Evangelical Religious Sect. In each case we can read the marks of their lives back into the photographed faces. Take the Golden Electric Chairs, a centered, empty electric chair in an empty room, the straps loose, the leader cable visible in the grain of the news photo overcolored yellow. I once worked with a man who told me he had written away to see if he could get tickets for himself and his wife to attend Lepke's execution because he thought it would be an experience to remember.

This impulse to touch tragedy or, more broadly, meaning, is the basis also of the Jackies. The face of Jacqueline Kennedy, as familiar as royalty, caught in a public disaster, seen over and over again on the television screen. In the newsreels, the newspapers. The individual shots of her are now as familiar as the Stations of the Cross. This is where she gets out of the car, her skirt covered with blood; here she watches Lyndon Johnson being sworn in; here she attends the funeral. The images are so well known that they are recognizable even when only the barest cues to the image remain. And in the Warhol canvases, the image can be said to barely exist. On the one hand this is part of his overriding interest in the "deteriorated image," the consequence of a series of regressions from some initial image of the real world. Here there is actually a series of images of images, beginning from the translation of the light reflectivity of a human face into the precipitation of silver from a photosensitive emulsion, this negative image developed, rephotographed into a positive image with reversal of light and shadow, and consequent blurring, further translated by telegraphy, engraved on a plate and printed through a crude screen with low- grade ink on newsprint, and this final blurring becoming the initial stage for the artist's blow-up and silk-screening in an imposed lilac color on canvas. What is left? The sense that there is something out there one recognizes and yet can't see. Before the Warhol canvases we are trapped in a ghastly embarrassment. This sense of the arbitrary coloring, the nearly obliterated image and the persistently intrusive feeling. Somewhere in the image there is a proposition. It is unclear.

The Flowers are somewhat different. Here a photograph of flowers from a Kodak journal has been interfered with. The grays are removed and what emerges are floppy-shaped petals and signified grass in decisively unnatural colors: fluorescent blackish greens, orange, gold, purple. I have heard the Flowers described as funny, as a put-on. And they are absurd. The pathetically limp shapes in contrasting brilliant and absurdly somber color. They resemble those photomurals that interior decorators used to put on office walls, particularly the large four-foot canvas. But the flowers are shaped like baggy-pants comedians (no interior decorator's touch) and somehow they resemble more closely Watteau's traveling players. It is practically impossible to say what the object of the pathos in Flowers is. Warhol manipulates an almost impossible pathos. It is, in a sense, the images themselves, their awkwardness, their insubstantiality, their unnaturalness. Watteau's comedians are also awkward, insubstantial, and unnatural. At the same time Warhol insists on, and we are always aware of the unjustifiable nature of, the feeling. If this is a put-on, it is a good thing to remember that all of Zen is a kind of put-on and that a Zen master is nothing other than a master of the spiritual put-down.

This doubleness of affect is especially peculiar to the films. A remarkable thing about Blowjob was that when Allen Ginsberg saw it he was reported to have said, "The whole theater lit up when he came." While Paul Blackburn told me, "The thing never came off at all; he was like hung-up, man." This is clear-cut contradiction, and again it was a case of reading out the proposition from the image of a face. The Thirteen Most Wanted Men or Founders of the Little League? How do we know anything was going on at all in Blowjob? All we saw was the image of a face, peculiarly blank. Perhaps what we recognize is that enigmatic, introspective smile of one turned back upon himself. We recognize the same smile in Haircut, in Eat, in Leonardo's angels. Does this suggest a new interpretation for La Gioconda?

More impassive than the Flowers but very similar are the Elizabeth Taylors. In this work the image lies in a very narrow space slightly in front of the canvas, and it is in this narrow field that the "ideal," expressionless face separates into a series of floating superimposed colors (Clement Greenberg, take note)—the eye shadow, the lips, the hair. The ideal face is transformed into a curious mask. It is not to be doubted that this is an "ideal" face despite the terrifying flesh tones out of Woolworth portraits, the mad eye-shadow and the wig-like hair. This is, after all, Liz. Warhol specializes in the Beautiful People and is probably the last significant "ideal" painter since Ingres (I call him a painter since he generally uses canvas and colors it). The ideal is to a great extent determined by its situation (pose) more than by its intrinsic appearance, and Warhol favors extreme frontality for the face, the chin slightly elevated and shadowed underneath (for men). This is the position taken for his own "ideal" portrait and for the multiple prints of Rauschenberg as the "Beautiful Youth." The main requisites for the beautiful face are traditional: youth and blankness, which almost amounts to the same thing. But under the spell of the hieratic pose (to which we have long been acculturated and whose significance we instantly recognize) we forget Warhol's age and Rauschenberg's pear-shaped body. There is only the curious seediness of the printed photographs. In the case of the Rauschenberg it at times almost obliterates the image entirely. The mechanical defects in the process are preserved and magnified and give a sense of wear and tear, of aging, to an ageless image of romanticized youth.

It is not an accident. In the Jackies, the magnification of the image and the suppression of gray values give her a remarkably ugly nose. Rauschenberg is almost consumed by underdevelopment; Warhol menaced by shadows spreading from under his jaw and threatening to engulf him, the same shadow spreading from the cleft in the chin of some unidentified actor in one of the films shown at Warhol's new discotheque. This seediness is a shadow hanging over all his images of the beautiful. Eye shadow in the macabre face of his astonishing singer Nico, who so beautifully resembles a memento mori, as the marvelous deathlike voice coming from the lovely blond head sings, "Let me be your mirruh! Let me be your mirruh! Let me be your mirruh!" repeated each time with the precision of a cracked record; five o'clock shadow in the case of the beautiful Gerard. For who is seedier than Gerard Malanga? (Henry Geldzahler.) After prolonged exposure to Warhol's work, seediness emerges as almost a spiritual category. As a kind of inevitable consequence of the beautiful and its lesser and more pathetic forms, the chic and the fashionable. Everything Warhol touches becomes intricately seedy, and maybe even unsuccessful (beautifully though). The discotheque is a case in point.

The Exploding Plastic Inevitable on a Wednesday night—set in the barnlike upstairs hall of the Polski Dom Narodne. With few people present, three films are projected simultaneously toward the front stage. In a panel on the left, Eat, Robert Indiana eats his mushroom silently and self-consciously. Center, Vinyl. In an endless juvenile delinquent routine Gerard Malanga keeps lighting cigarettes meaningfully until he becomes the victim of some obscure and ludicrous torture arrangement, which, correctly, is all preparation. On the right, Banana. The banana has been eaten many frames ago and a beautiful female impersonator in full dress lies on a couch while Malanga, this time well-dressed in nineteenth-century Viennese gentility, with another actor, looks on significantly (Freud and Breuer? An abortion?). The movies, all homemade and showing it, have a consistently attractive, ratty look. Rotary mosaic mirrors and stroboscopes flash light through the rather windy depths of Polski Dom Narodne's upstairs hall. There is intermittent high-decibel rock and roll and a few dancers. A little man walks around quietly emptying ashtrays. Fragments of a film soundtrack mix with the music. Gradually more people come and dance. Robert Indiana changes colors and seems to be looking at the scene. After a while there are no more films and there is much more dancing. Finally the Velvet Underground itself, with Nico singing. Dancing are Ingrid Superstar, Gerard Malanga, and Mary Woronov. Nico, perfect as a cadaver, sings "Let me be your mirruh! Let me be your mirruh! Let me be your mirruh!" Warhol, this precise moralist, has moved right into the teeth of the discotheque world brilliantly, but the most remarkable effects of his Exploding Plastic Inevitable seem to depend on the hall being half empty for quite some time, i.e. on his not doing good business. Otherwise you never get to hear the films (Hedy: "Do you know who I am? I have fourteen thousand dollars in uncashed checks right here in my bag!"), the slow buildup more typical of Judson Church than a discotheque. Otherwise it turns into just another discotheque. Warhol's success depends upon his failure, on being a magnificently cracked "mirruh" with the silver chipping off . But with the natural confidence of a renaissance man, he has moved from medium to medium creating his priceless and beautifully shoddy works. (They are priceless because there is no way to set a price on them.) He has moved from painting to film, to the taped novel, soap opera, the discotheque, all sharing the same precisely pinpointed defectiveness that gives his work its brilliant accuracy. I have heard that his next move will be into architecture and that he is now planning a silver tenement. But the Sculls will move in, and he will have failed again (beautifully).



Excerpted from Radical Coherency by David Antin Copyright © 2011 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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