Under-erasure: On the Historical Record
by Saul Ostrow
Some artists slowly fade away, while others are gone in an instant — and others linger — some artists in their lifetime endure on the force of their personality and dogged persistence, while others fall out of step with art’s developments. Some artists are judged as not fulfilling their promise; others who were known and acknowledged in their lifetime, for one reason or another do not make the canon regardless of their contribution or participation. The reasons are many — and not merely a question of fashion or the marketplace. The market is voracious and capricious — but in the end not the final determinate — many artists survive.
What I’m interested in, are those artists who come to exist just out of sight, the nearly erased — the ones who have become under-known yet persist as a trace in memory. These artists known/not known are different than the vast majority who were never known outside their circle of friends — those are the forever lost. Sometimes, a spectral artist comes to be judged to having been prescient, deemed to have skipped a step, or had intuitively taken a left turn while everyone else in the pack turned right. By any manner of circumstances, their work came to be misunderstood, misrepresented, and marginalized, yet it restively lingers on in the margins awaiting new critical perspectives. These artists may be recalled, which ends their days as phantoms and exiles. Having become visible again, their position becomes self-evident and they come to represent missed opportunities — making explicit that things could have been otherwise — that there are alternatives histories.
To the unaware, on those momentous occasions when an artist has stepped out of the wings to be “rediscovered,” it appears that the artist and their work has miraculously converged with art’s emergent subjectivity — their work now has the capacity to speak to a new generation who appreciates the differences that for so long kept the artist from the mainstream. Obviously, revising the canon – re-inscribing the trajectory of art takes some effort – the keepers and teachers of the canon have a vested interest in critically maintaining the status quo. As an institution, they are happier to expel an artist, than include an overlooked or forgotten one — even at times the politics of culture deem it necessary. Subsequently, if the market and fashion drives an artist’s return, they may fade away and return, over and over again. This is because an artist’s return is not based on past associations but can only take root by demonstrating the relevancy of their deviation to either their time, or ours.
What has generated these reflections on the status of the artist is my interest in the Japanese artist; Shusaku Arakawa and his near invisibility since the late 70s. The erasure of his career is not reducible to his having left painting nor to the fact that today’s “machinery for art’s appreciation” tends to value works that are defined by accessibility of style, narrative, or theme. Instead, Arakawa’s disappearance is due to the fact that he does not fit in with how the days preceding the emergence of Pop, Minimalism and Conceptual Art have come to be represented. He has been excluded from the critical and art historical record that is built on sustaining such repeated and replicated core concepts as progress. As such this history does not recognize the Neo-Dadaism of the 60s, with which Arakawa is associated with, as a symptom of a nascent Post-Modernism. To acknowledge the importance and breath of artists who worked under this heading would necessitate the rewriting of the period between the 50s-70s and diminish the importance of the currently established Post-Modern of the 80s.
There is a second reason that Arakawa’s work is disruptive. Unlike most of his peers – his work operates on the visual-perceptual-cognitive level. His diagrammatic paintings offer the viewer multiple ways of engagement, all of which are contingent on the terms of the existence of their underlying literary and literal texts. In the case of the works that make up his encyclopedic cycle of paintings The Mechanism of Meaning (1963-71), his deconstructed images, words, and symbols serve as vehicles of meaning as well as self-referentially referencing of the painting as an event. In other terms he simultaneously presents something to look at, as well as to be performatively heeded. Intentionally, Arakawa crisscrosses these possibilities, resulting in our having to sort through the cognitive breakdown, that is a consequence of the short-circuiting of the work’s visual and linguistic programs.
As he developed these works over the course of the 60s-70s, Arakawa’s apparent objective was to undo, divert, or fracture, and disrupt the viewer’s assumptions concerning the means of comprehension. Consequently, because at that time, post-structuralist semiotics had not yet been popularized, his audience lacked the means to make sense of Arakawa’s work. Subsequently it was labeled as conceptual or associated with Fluxus. Yet the fact that Conceptual Art comes to be less analytic and more narrative, leads to Arakawa coming to be homeless, and existing just out of sight — yet, the work naggingly persisted — lingering in the peripheries — until now when its critical perspectives are more accessible. Subsequently, with an awareness of his critical importance Arakawa’s days as a specter may be brought to an end.