Texts on (Texts on) Art, by Joseph Masheck

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Although he has been writing art criticism for the past four decades, and now stands on the more distinguished side of life, Joseph Masheck begins his new essay collection, Texts on (Texts on) Art, by introducing readers to his boyhood self. “Art history appealed to me as a youth in two different ways,” he writes. “There was first of all the then still contemporary high modernist excitement of the works of two great artists: Mondrian, only a few years gone, and Mies van der Rohe, still thriving. But there was also… excitement in the promise of research into origins and influences, an approach to historical understanding that seemed marvelous from as soon as I became aware of it.” This vision of young Masheck—thrilling to intellectual pursuits and seeing seminal artists as vital and within arm’s reach—stays with us as we delve into his ten lively essays that explore art, texts, history, and perception.

His goal is one of “sourcing:” to trace artistic phenomena throughout history, with the question of influence ever in mind. “I always want to know, even with contemporary art: Where have I encountered such a thing before.” Masheck shifts fluidly among disciplines, painters, and periods—drawing connections between art and psychoanalysis, architecture and philosophy, Jarry and Joyce and Duchamp—as he pursues his “extensive project in sourcemanship.”

In such fluidity, of course, there lurks the danger of being facile. Masheck acknowledges as much, both in his introduction (where he gives a nod to the existence of “mere coincidence”) and throughout the book (where, with respect to one detail, he admits his “already fragile historical speculation”). These acknowledgments disarm the reader’s skepticism, as does Masheck’s explanation of his project: “frankly, I hardly care, at least to start, whether the artist was conscious of a particular source or not. That is a mere point of curiosity compared with whether such and such a move has ever been made in the game.

But what convinces us more than anything else is Masheck’s scope of knowledge. This game—the game of ideas and of art—clearly holds just as much delight for Masheck now as it did when he was a boy, and his enthusiasm is fueled by a deep, broad command of his subject. (And, one would assume, this command is in turn fueled by his enthusiasm). To get to it: one of the more provocative essays aims to connect the subversive artist Marcel Duchamp with the conservative pragmatic philosopher George Santayana. The point of connection resides in the mind of a Harvard undergraduate, a onetime student of Masheck’s, who studied with Santayana and claimed that he resembled “Leonardo’s Mona Lisa with a little pointed beard.” This image evokes Duchamp’s readymade L.H.O.O.Q., a cheap postcard reproduction of the Mona Lisa with a mustache and goatee penciled in.

Masheck dutifully explores the probable likelihood of a deliberate connection, but already the reader, like the author, is beginning to see such as an exercise as a “mere point of curiosity.” The important part—the urgent part—arises when Masheck begins to overlay the thoughts of these two great, yet disparate minds: “Santayana really deserves only one bad mark, for not taking modern art seriously…the main reason why he decided to go with beauty…was not after all so unlike Marcel Duchamp’s rejection, in the next generation, of ‘retinal’ value: namely, that art seemed in general insufficiently rational, which suggests that his stance was maybe less unlike Duchamp’s celebrated Leonardesque portrait of the cosa mentale than tends to be supposed.” In placing these two figures together, Masheck asks us, implicitly, to rethink the connections we have always accepted without thought, and to make room, perhaps, for less expected ones.

Other sourcings are less comical—or, at least, deal with less comical material. The second essay considers the early-twentieth-century American painter Albert Pinkham Ryder alongside Matisse and the art critic Roger Fry (who coined the term “postimpressionism”). The connection between Ryder and Fry is a well-documented one; the exploration that Masheck makes here is a possible tie between Ryder and Matisse, forged through textual similarities between Matisse’s Notes and Fry’s writings on Ryder. The ninth essay returns to Duchamp, but in the more somber context of Joyce and linguistic colonialism. Duchamp’s Large Glass famously includes the image of a funnel, an image which Masheck reads alongside (among other texts) a passage from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Near the end of that book, Stephen Dedalus (who, incidentally, also expounds his theory of aesthetics) argues with his dean about the English-ness of the word for funnel.

It should be said that Masheck’s activities here do extend considerably beyond sourcing. Throughout these essays there is the beating, insistent pulse of the question of art: what is it, what is it not, and what is its status today? Masheck may not care so much about the precise answer to this question, but he does care fiercely about the question’s subject. A streak of social protest runs through the texts: in a pair of essays that discusses religion and art, Masheck pushes against the “bourgeois-materialist West.” Herbert Marcuse, he observes, pointed to art and religion as “the only two departments of Western culture not hopelessly contaminated by capitalist exploitation. …now that the artworld is overrun by insider-traders for whom criticism is an unwelcome obstruction, we must be down to one.”

But it’s the final essay that asks the art question with the most directness. Here, Masheck considers Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes; contemporary artist Mike Bidlo’s replicas of the Brillo boxes; and critic Arthur Danto’s question of the “end of art.”

When Warhol produced his Brillo boxes in 1964, he exhibited art objects indistinguishable from the actual mass-produced product. Danto declared that, in this moment, art had reached the end of its imitative purpose. “Why,” Danto asked, “were these boxes art when their originals were just boxes?” Masheck responds to this issue in light of Bidlo’s works, which have since recreated this ostensible final moment. Masheck’s response is previously unpublished. “What happens now,” he asks, “when Mike Bidlo goes and re-does the Warhol Brillo Boxes anew, interjecting their once perversely good-sport cheer into the downbeat early ‘nineties?” Masheck’s analysis sees Bidlo’s Brillos, in part, as “almost imperceptibly more refined…as like inevitably idealized adult recollections of youth.”

One senses here, as in the introduction, Masheck’s unshakeable affection for the works that he critiques. He concludes by quietly, yet assuredly, asserting the place of the critic alongside Bidlo’s (and, one thinks, nearly all) work: “it is not that the second-time embodiment has no authentic ‘birthday,’ but that in a way it has two—or a birthday and a ‘name day’ too.”

Catherine Tung is a writer and musician living in Brooklyn. More from this author →