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by Donald Kuspit
Conrad Marca-Relli may have been written out of art history -- there’s no mention of him in H. H. Arnason’s magisterial History of Modern Art (even though, in his 1971 book on Marca-Relli, Arnason celebrated his special place in the history of collage) -- but the exhibition at Knoedler & Co. in Manhattan of Marca-Relli’s "New York Years 1945-1967" makes it clear that he not only has special place in the particular history of collage but a crucial place in the general history of modern art.

The collage is an idiosyncratic patchwork of incommensurate materials and discrepant images -- a sort of discombobulated grouping of dissociated parts into a bizarre whole. They don’t clearly hold or belong together: they seem to be thrown together by chance, just as they seem to have been found by chance. The collage seems to be more of a decomposition than a traditional composition -- an entropic devolution of art rather than an evolutionary advance -- a destabilizing attack on the holistic vision of the traditional picture, in which the parts are integrated into a self-consistent whole, rather than a fresh way of realizing the absurd complexity of vision. The collage is not a constructed picture, but a deconstructed picture, a sort of anti-picture or picture puzzle in which the parts do not fit together, and some seem to have been lost, or were missing to begin with.  

The collage "deconstruction" seems mad and "artless," but there is a certain method and artfulness in its madness. On the surface, the collage looks incoherent, even chaotic, but its randomness serves as a device for gaining freedom from everyday consciousness and meaning and accessing unconscious meaning: conceived to be in "free association" rather than randomly and mindlessly chosen, the parts become "deeply" meaningful, to the extent of forming a thoughtful pattern, however uncanny and contradictory of everyday meaning and patterns of thinking. Instead of being at odds, the parts become subliminally linked -- magnetically attached to one another, as it were. The physical friction between them sparks unconscious perception, the gaps in meaning between them fills with unconscious fantasy. One can read one’s unconscious fortune in the tea leaves of the collage -- Tristan Tzara’s idea of the collage poem makes the point clearly -- for each of them is imbued with unconscious feeling. The "visual thinking" of the unconscious takes an indeterminate, fluid collage "form," as the dream shows. The collage also involves condensations and displacements, and also seems like a mistake of consciousness, which is why one tends to forget it, confirming its transience -- unless one forces oneself to remember it -- when one awakens from its spell. In contrast, the visual thinking of consciousness -- consciously made art as distinct from art made unconsciously by chance (impulsively "improvised" informal art as distinct from cognitively "calculated" formal art, art with a short intense time-bound life as distinct from art that is ambitiously permanent and timeless, that transcends its times even as it reflects them, transcends itself however uniquely itself) -- aims at seamless integration in which there is no sign of discrepancy and contradiction and every part seems pre-determined, that is, in its proper, fixed, logical place. The illogical, "inconclusive," "unfinished’ collage is a product of inner necessity while the rationally readable, discursively clear, consciously finished picture is a product of outer necessity, to use Kandinsky’s distinction. 

The collage has become the model for the avant-garde work of art (assemblages and installations are in effect three-dimensionalized collages). It has become a tradition in its own right, and one just as tediously clichéd as the tradition of the avant-garde. It has gone downhill, as it were, since it first appeared, indirectly, in 1867, when the French critic Babou perceptively described Manet’s Music in the Tuileries as a construction of patches -- "the Baudelaire patch, the Gautier patch, the Manet patch." The collage element is in effect a patch, and what Babou called Manet’s "mania for seeing things as patches" became the avant-garde mania for seeing patches as things in their own right. Zola "begged" the viewer of Manet’s painting "to draw back to a respectful distance, and he would then have seen that those patches live, that the crowd speaks."

But today it is not clear what the crowd of patches that constitute the collage have to say. They rarely add up to a picture of a recognizable object or coherent scene, as Manet’s picture -- still a picture for all its fragmentation into patches -- does. Cézanne also noted Manet’s penchant for patches -- what became his own "exceedingly minute fragments," that is, patches attenuated into so-called "touches." In his late paintings they nominally hold together to form an image, but the objects and scenes it represents seem increasingly hallucinatory, and finally seem to dissolve into thin air -- into nothingness, leaving a more or less empty canvas, an "unfulfilled art," an unrealized art mistakenly regarded as "mysterious." It is this "ineffable" nothingness -- the blankness that Cezanne’s canvases tend to become, this stuttering speechlessness that has been misconstrued as the unspeakableness of pure silence -- that is the key to understanding the importance of Marca-Relli’s collages, that is, his use of patches made of canvas to patch up the blank canvas, as though to acknowledge that it is the "origin" of painting, but, more crucially, to signal that it has come to an end -- has fallen as flat and become as empty as the blank canvas with which it began.

His most important collages -- for example, "Project F" L-14-62 (1962) -- remind us of this flat emptiness by modestly covering its shameful nakedness with its own material. The "nails" that hold the canvas patches to the canvas are indeed nails in the coffin of painting. At the same time, each of Marca-Relli’s canvas patches functions as a cut-out painterly gesture -- they have a peculiar affinity with Matisse’s late cutouts -- suggesting that his involuted tautological procedure carries abstract painting to an ironical self-referential extreme -- a place from which any return to brushwork painting is a regressive decline from hermetic self-perfection. He has come to realize that his own intense painterliness was a dead-end. In his book on Marca-Relli, Arnason wrote that "collage always maintained the ‘ascendency’ in its battle with "expressionistic paint movement," but he didn’t realize just how much.

The question that haunts Marca-Relli’s collages is whether their victory over painting is Pyrrhic, that is, whether in the act of rendering painting meaningless and hollow they have reduced collage itself to hollow meaninglessness. In Picasso’s Still Life with Chair Caning (1911-12), officially the first collage, painting and collage are in uneasy balance if not entirely at odds -- the work falls into painted and collage parts, however much some of the aggressive painterliness tries to encompass the collage, integrating it into the painting as a dubious "part picture" (painting dirties its hands with collage, as Picasso’s dark brushwork suggests). But in the works in which Marca-Relli shows collage triumphant -- in no need of painting as a foil or dueling partner (as it is in the Picasso) -- it loses the presence it gained in holding its own against powerful painting, suggesting that without the dramatic conflict between painting and collage each becomes tediously itself, and neither can be regarded as credibly "avant-garde," however tedious and meaningless avant-gardism has become.  

"Conrad Marca-Relli: The New York Years, 1945-1967," Sept. 12-Nov. 14, 2009, at Knoedler & Company, 19 East 70th Street, New York, N.Y. 10021.

DONALD KUSPIT is distinguished professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.