On Books

Fear is the mind killer

On October Files, MIT Press

22- Bruce Nauman, edited by Taylor Walsh, 2018

24- Michael Snow, edited by Annette Michelson and Kenneth White, 2019

26- Donald Judd, edited by Annie Ochmanek and Alex Kitnik, 2021

For readers of art theory in other hemispheres, for students who are not familiar with the terror of theory, there was a moment when a ‘fearsome intellectual’ rather than a fearsome intellect, was actually an emblem of power within both the New York city art sphere and academic circles in North America and Europe.  The journal that may have been the incarnation of this, the October quarterly, was a groundbreaking endeavor by its founding editors, Annette Michelson and Rosalind Krauss. In 1976, the journal was launched with a revolutionary program that would revisit major western art movements of the 20th century and champion a selected number of contemporary artists. With the arrival of the irreplaceable Douglas Crimp in 1977, it would contribute to the foundation of an ongoing exchange between film, video, performance, activism and theory. Its initial post-formalism ceded its stance to post-structuralism, as Michelson and Krauss surrounded themselves with a group of men that included Yves-Alain Bois, Hal Foster, Craig Owens, Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, Denis Hollier, and John Rajchman. This group of formidable thinkers greatly contributed to the advent of French theory in American and British universities, where Derrida, Foucault, Baudrillard and others made a second home.

October Files serve to retrace a formative history, and address how it has carried over into the twenty-first century. Its collection of indispensable essays and articles ranges from the 1960’s to 2018; they are taken from October itself, and from publications including Art News, Art forum, Parachute, as well as numerous exhibition catalogues. Yet while the journal also embraced psychoanalysis and feminism, of the twenty-six titles published so far in the collection, only six are devoted to women artists, which also speaks to the nature of the power relationship a number of journal editors and heads of museum departments in the eighties and nineties entertained with male artists. Each file is prudent enough to include texts by women written after that period. But in spite of all the deconstruction at the core of October, its framework remains largely phenomenological in its belief that the work -made by specific artists- defined the era

Encountering texts on Bruce Nauman, Michael Snow, and Donald Judd, when the current era defines so much of the work, produces revelation, reverence, and rage. The body of work is prodigious in its quantity, its diversity, its intellect, its scale, and its ruthless absence of compromise in its questioning the nature of the medium and the practice explored by each of these artists. These three titles are clearly labors of love. Michael Snow had always been an exemplary figure for Annette Michelson (who passed away during the making of this book) since her early Art Forum Days. Her seminal Toward Snow (1971) is included here as are Snow’s Notes for Rameau’s Nephew (1977).  Oddly, this title’s nostalgia exudes a rare generosity of longing, the product of the artist’s Canadian-ness which characterized his own cunningly playful formalism, and is a joy to read.

Donald Judd, dear to Rosalind Krauss, is also well served; the book includes Lynn Cook’s Re-ordering Order (1989) and Krauss’ Material Uncanny (1998). But Robert Slifkins Donald Judd’s Credibility Gap (2011) should become required reading for a generation at odds with the fierce committing to one thing. The book succeeds in containing a discussion of minimalism and objecthood that is in turn transcended through an examination of Judd’s writings which were given new form and purpose by the Donald Judd Foundation and David Zwirner. 

The Bruce Nauman file, which bears the imprint of Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, contains one text that appeared to be defiantly published by October in 1992: Three Statements on the Recent Reception of Bruce Nauman which introduced the language ahead, that spoke of the artist’s ‘white male rage, cowboy persona and sensationalism’ (1) while offering new readings of his puns, his humor and use of language, beyond Duchamp, yet allowing for the philosophical dimension of a practice steeped in isolated activity. Because…how could one even try to dismiss Nauman? 

And yet the text speaks to a turning point in the voice of future writers and the artists they will write about. But in light of the history told by this series, and the one October left out, that saw Douglas Crimp leave, there is another brave collection that needs to emerge.

1-My only encounter with Bruce Nauman was very much about that cowboy persona, and I never wanted to get over it. I took part in early events that had writers from different journals discussing emerging movements that were gaining notoriety through forms and mediums that did not belong to the October canon of the time. There was very much a position that was not about the qualities or problems of those movements, but rather that they were deemed not worthy of discussion. I was among the much younger writers, in awe of the discourse and method displayed, yet already keeping in mind this maxim, il vaut parfois mieux s’en tenir à fréquenter les lectures que leurs auteurs (it is at times perhaps best to limit oneself to a relationship with the texts than with its authors).

S.

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