The Concert Was Not a Success: On the Withdrawal of Withdrawal
In addition to being hot,1 the subject of withdrawal in contemporary art is both morbid and arguably cursed. By cursed I mean ultimately indomitable, and this for a number of reasons. Never mind that it paradoxically proceeds contrary to the nature of art history, which is additive and not necessarily subtractive. A history of withdrawal is a history of absences. Of lacunae. Of sudden and gradual stops. Of blank spots, which are not always easy to locate and whose motives are complex and variegated. Any history of the subject will inevitably be as sprawling and multifaceted as there are types of withdrawal, which therefore stubbornly resists any systematic, scientific, and, perhaps most importantly, theoretical approach toward being dominated. I am partially inclined to see the story of withdrawal as the Don Quixote of art history, as if there were a parallel between it and the numerous ill-starred attempts to translate Miguel de Cervantes’s masterpiece into moving images (I am thinking in particular of Terry Gilliam and Orson Welles2). As if both—one a novel, which is romantic and fanciful to the point of delusion, and the other, both a subject and an act, whose essentially romantic nature might well be capable of engendering if not delusion then illusion—were unportrayable.
However, to make the Quixote claim would be to unjustly dismiss a considerable amount of work and reflection already invested in the issue of withdrawal, which, over the past decade or so, has developed into a small, if idiosyncratic, field of inquiry and research within the larger field of art history. That said, if the Quixote parallel holds any water, it is not necessarily due to the lack of rigour of the researchers and thinkers occupying this burgeoning field, but I would argue, because, as already stated, the field itself is so fraught with instability and heterogeneity that the elusive celluloid Quixote begins to seem like an appropriate mascot. Any hope for coherence is unlikely to come from within the subject of withdrawal itself, which is to say, no matter how deep you dig, a unifying root cause and subsequent theory will probably always remain just out of reach. Coherence, on the contrary, is best sought from without, which is to say, in the discursive formation of the field itself. In other words, why have we recently become interested in withdrawal? What is it about this particular moment that has rendered these formerly invisible absences visible? And, perhaps most importantly, what is at stake in withdrawal now? But before going on to address these questions, it is necessary to map out the field and some of its key players.
Consisting of curators, writers, and artists, some of the main figures grappling with withdrawal include Jean-Yves Jouannais, Alexander Koch, Bob Nickas, Krist Gruijthuijsen, and Ben Kinmont. Their contributions, the significance thereof, and their approaches vary widely. The French art historian, theorist, writer, and editor Jean-Yves Jouannais could be considered a discursive precursor of a contemporary interest in the subject of withdrawal thanks to his book Artistes sans oeuvres: I would prefer not to (1997), but this work is more preoccupied with fictional artists and writers who never made art or wrote than living artists and writers who stopped making art or stopped writing. In addition to inventing a writer, a certain Félicien Marbeouf, Jouannais presents and considers fictional characters in Artistes sans oeuvres such as Gustave Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pécuchet and Herman Melville’s Bartleby on the same level as real people, and in doing so, could be said to genealogize an archetype. More of a literary curiosity lodged squarely in the belles-lettres tradition of dandyism than a methodical interrogation of withdrawal as a subject, Jouannais’s contribution foreshadows the emergence of this field, all but formalizing it as a subject of interest.3
If anyone could be considered the pioneer of withdrawal, or Kunst Verlassen4 (leaving art, or dropping out), as an object of consistent thought and research, it would have to be the German curator, theorist, and gallerist Alexander Koch. Having organized an exhibition on the subject as far back as 2002,5 Koch has written and lectured extensively on dropping out while going on to develop what is, to date, probably the most cogent and rigorous theoretical and historiographical framework with which to consider it. Consequently, any serious engagement with the subject must necessarily confront Koch’s theoretical edifice before attempting to develop a new one. Although Koch has registered his research over the past decade in a series of texts and lectures,6 the most extensive and representative elaboration of his theory appears in KOW’s “General Strike” issue (Issue 8, 2011), the main points of which I will do my best to sketch out here.
After arguing in the introduction for the legitimacy of such a historical pursuit (the willful termination of artistic careers) by virtue of what he perceives as the critical agency and political content of dropping out, he goes on to define the phenomenon according to a set of strictly delineated parameters. He begins by establishing his definition of dropping out, which I quote in its entirety here: I use the term dropping out of art to describe, generally, the social translocation and, more specifically, the social practice of an actor whom we can localize in the field of art at a point in time X but not at a later point in time Y, and who wanted this to be the case.7
Thus, according to him, a dropout is someone who voluntarily withdraws from the field of art entirely. He is sure to specify that dropping out must be voluntary and not involuntary, as in the case of failure, by virtue of the fact that elective invisibility is presupposed by a no less elective former visibility. Furthermore, dropping out does not include moving from one position in the field of art to another (e.g., artist turned curator or gallerist), a phenomenon with which the history of art teems. He also dismisses cases of political suppression and suicide, the latter going beyond mere withdrawal from art into an irreversible withdrawal from life.8 Having sketched out these parameters Koch then moves into much more specific territory, outlining three categories, of which only the final constitutes bona fide dropping out. These are: ostentatious inaction; communicative inaction; and radical inaction.
Disruption or refusal characterizes ostentatious inaction, and such gestures are linked to certain expectations or artistic conventions regarding production, which are subverted. Some classic examples that Koch cites include John Cage’s 4’33” (1952), Yves Klein’s Le vide at Galerie Iris Clert (1958), and Robert Barry’s During the exhibition the gallery will be closed (Amsterdam, Turin, and Los Angeles, 1968). Inscribed in a heavily codified avant-garde tradition, these works thus continue to be, despite their negative form, discursively and aesthetically productive.
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About the Author
Chris Sharp is a writer and independent curator currently based in Mexico City, where he co-directs, with the artist Martin Soto Climent, the project space Lulu. He is Editor-at-Large of Kaleidoscope magazine, a contributing editor of Art Review, and his writing has been featured in numerous magazines and Web sites including Afterall, Mousse, Art Agenda, and Artforum.com, among others. He is currently preparing a number of exhibitions, including, Stay in Love at Laurel Gitlen and Lisa Cooley galleries, New York, in 2014.