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Not Even Wrong

Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe and Sylvere Lotringer: A Conversation

Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe is an English-born abstract painter who lives in Los Angeles, where he is represented by the Shoshana Wayne Gallery, Santa Monica. A well-known art critic as well as artist, he teaches in the Graduate School of the Art Center, Pasadena. He has published Beyond Piety: Critical Essays on the Visual Arts, 1986-1993 (Cambridge University Press,1995); Beauty and the Contemporary Sublime (New York: Allworth Press, 2000) and with Frank Gehry: Frank Gehry, The City and Music: Architecture and Theory (London: Taylor & Francis, 2001).

SL: You are both a painter and a critic, and I assume you became a critic because you're a painter. Often there's hardly any other way of getting things out there, except by doing it yourself.

JGR: I'll tell you anecdotally how I started to write art criticism, and also answer your question in a slightly better way. I started by accident. I was in a bar with Bobby Pincus-Witten, who was in charge of reviews for Art Forum. I was trashing the reviewers he used and he just said, Well, if you think you can do better, then why don't you write some reviews? And so that's literally how it started. Had that not happened I'm sure I would have written some things, but they wouldn't necessarily have been in Art Forum every month. The reason being, I think, that for painters -- maybe like some poets -- there's always the sense you have of things being missed out, or not talked about in the right way, and this desire then to take the matter into your own hands. I think that's really what a lot of my art criticism has to do with.

SL: You're giving people credit for missing out on things.

JGR: (Laughs) When I started I was more than happy to give people credit, and I'm still prepared to do that, but nowadays the art world has become so rigid that it's a different sort of matter than when I started. When I had that conversation with Pincus-Witten, it wasn't that I thought that Don Judd was trivial or something, but I thought that he was getting some things wrong, or being overly broad, which is my main criticism of art criticism, by the way. Always too broad.

SL: You don't think that there were people being wrong in ways that would be productive?

JGR: Yes! But I think nowadays they're just generally wrong. (Laughs) That's the distinction I was working toward. It's the American physicist Paoli, I think, who used to describe other physicists as wrong or not even wrong. When I started, I was dealing with people I thought were wrong, now I'm dealing with people who are not even wrong.

SL: So did you try to be wrong yourself, in the right way?

JGR: In art or in criticism?

SL: What about art?

JGR: Well, since 1986 my painting has been based on turning painting upside down, by making color take precedence over drawing, and marginalising the latter by literally keeping it in a margin. But I'm not sure where I stand with that now. It certainly wouldn't be enough to just be working with that, at this point. But there never was a time when they were just about that...The reason I'm hemming and hawing here is, I'm not so sure that propositions which are founded in negation haven't become a sort of habit. So I'm not so sure that I work so confidently in a way like that now, as I would have been, when we were both younger.

SL: What do you attribute the change to? Has it anything to do with French Theory?

JGR: Yes, but it has to do with what's been done to French Theory. I think that's one of the things of which we might not want to lose sight here, that we can discuss French Theory, and we can also discuss what's happened to French Theory. Then there's a kind of third condition between those two, which is where we'd both be contextually.

SL: First of all, where did you first hear about "French Theory," or got to know that such a thing existed?

JGR: Oh, I knew about the Socialisme ou Barbarie group, Roland Barthes and the early Jacques Derrida before '68, before I came to America.

SL: So you still were in England then when you heard of it.

JGR: Yes, but to spring forward, the real arrival of French Theory as a sort of unified thing, referred to as such on the back of dust jackets -- something one could think of politically -- is the early '70s in New York. It didn't comes to New York in the order in which things happened in France. It really is Barthes who spearheaded it in England, as well as in America. Screen Magazine was having Barthes write about Walter Benjamin and Brecht, and there is a piece about plastics which is burned into the memory of everybody. That's the Barthes that drives the wedge. No one ever was really able to get all the way through Elements of Semiology without help. But Writing Degree zero was a big hit when the two were published together, as you will recall. But I don't think it was a big hit here for the same reasons that it was a big hit in France. I think the reception it got here had to do with being excited about the question of the muddling up of the past-historic with the past perfect used in conversational French. That was the stuff that could be analogized to a sort of high culture/low culture argument. And that was what got Barthes a good reception here.

SL: Are you talking now as a critic or as a painter?

JGR: Oh, I'm just talking as someone who was in New York at this time. As a painter, I would have to go elsewhere. I think that if you want to talk about French Theory and my painting, then I think it would have to do, not with Barthes, not with Baudrillard, but with Derrida first. He gives you a language with which you can talk about surfaces that are not bodies. You can talk about deferral. Derrida's seventies writing on deferral is tremendously exciting for abstract painters.

SL: Why so?

JGR: Because it literally gives you a language with which you can talk about the non-representational. I think de Man comes to do something comparable in certain respects also. Of course, this would be thinking that was lopping off things, using things selectively.

SL: A question though. You said it gave you a language to talk about abstract art. But did the talk about it come first, or the painting?

JGR: The painting came first. But I would point out that there actually isn't any writing of Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe's in which I use Derrida to talk about painting in a straightforward way, excepting one. There's a long essay on James Hayward in the Beyond Piety book, which does that job. Hayward never read Derrida and in all likelihood, never will, and so that's a sort of example. But I never use critics in a straightforward, systematic way, or very rarely.

SL: I'd like to start with the painter. Of course, it's difficult to differentiate between the two, but I would be interested to know not just what help you can get from French Theory to talk about things, but what can you do with it as a painter who is confronted by painterly issues.

JGR: Well, I think I can do this for you fairly straightforwardly. The question is: What is there for non-representational painting to do once it's actually become non-representational painting; once it's got over a long, roughly one hundred year period in which it comes into being, and has various lives, which include Mondrian, and is then reinvented by the Americans. And then as a result of internecine American wars, is reinvented once again. So, it's fifty years from Kandinsky's first Abstract Painting as it's called, in 1912, to, say, Don Judd in 1966. If you wanted to historicize it, I think there's roughly five phases in which abstract painting has actually had to become something and decided it's taking over the world. But what do you actually do with abstract painting, when you're at a point where there isn't any conceivable mileage to be gained out of imagining it in terms of what it's not.

SL: No longer opposing representation as a way of being something at all.

JGR: When you've run that sucker into the ground. The answer is, it would seem to me, that you find yourself with a kind of Heideggerian question which is: well, what's this?

SL: So back to the plastic.

JGR: Back to the plastic, back to the surface, and I would say that this is Gilbert-Rolfe.

SL: Which one?

JGR: The painter. I would say that you're driven to Heidegger because the one thing that the Americans insist upon (and it's not just the Americans), is that abstract painting is about flatness. But vision tells us that nothing can be flat, and it is that which drives us to Heidegger. So "What am I looking at?" and "What is this depth that this surface is constantly insisting on producing?" is a depth that can't be analogized to what we've come to call Cartesian space, or perhaps Newtonian space...

SL: Or perspective.

JGR: Or perspective, sure. But perspective is about movement, and that's why it stays deep. It's got to have space for things to move. So it can't be flat. That's obviously where Derrida comes in. It's Derrida's deconstruction of Heidegger which gets you into the way of actually thinking about what you're doing, thinking about what might be involved here, because what Derrida does to Heidegger is that he shows the difference between writing and speaking. And so, yes, this gets us away from expressionism in painting, while continuing to be painting, well, if that's the right word -- discontinuing, maybe. And at the same time, the very things that Derrida wants to privilege, to use that word, the things he works with, are things that are readily recognizable for the painter. They are the questions of: How one can begin anywhere? They are the questions of how continuity is a condition of fragmentation. Derridian deferral offered a way out of fragmentation as always invoking a prior condition of unity or wholeness. They are the questions of parataxis, and this, by the way, is how later -- because I came to all this later -- this is how I also found that Gilles Deleuze similarly could become interesting, or useful. Deleuzian singularity and multiplicity also avoid the nostalgia inherent in the idea of fragmentation, and more importantly for me, Deleuze speaks about the possibility of surfaces without insides, and at the same time of surfaces that, in being surfaces, are spatially mobile in ways that again are indescribable in terms of the language of solids and voids. And I could say here that underlying what a non-representational painter would be thinking about is the remark that Greenberg made about Pollock. Whether you like him or not, Pollock is the first painter ever to use line without dividing the world into solids and voids. This resonates among abstract painters, and therefore it connects up with Deleuze. In a certain sense it is conceivably misleading, but at the same time quite useful, and I would say that the monad idea is also attractive for similar sorts of reasons.

SL: So what you were saying is that in order to address theory as a painter, you basically refer theory to theory, which is criticism, and there's Heidegger and Derrida, and then Greenberg. There's no beginning there either.

JGR: No.

SL: You were talking about origins, and I guess what you were saying about Derrida is that it frees you from the anguish of the beginnings. Because there's never any real starting point.

JGR: I actually agree with you. I should have answered more straightforwardly. Making paintings, you're always trying to make something -- I think Sol LeWitt put it best -- that you haven't seen before. You can't see anything until you've got that. Whereas theories always come into view on the grounds of their usefulness, because they do actually seem to provide the language to explain something which you're already doing. I can think of all sorts of ways in which what I do is illuminated by the writing of philosophers, but I can't think of any instance in my own work where I got an idea for a painting out of a philosopher.

SL: Theory is like a sounding board to what you are doing. It doesn't have to be something from which you derive formative ideas. It is something that makes you less lonely.

JGR: I wouldn't dispute the thought. You want this stuff to be talked about and looked at in the right way, and I think you can have a more fruitful discussion about non-representational painting by referring to Derrida. But there is another proviso here. A lot of the time you are using Derrida, or whomever, against something too. Because this question of getting painting looked at properly is taking place in a situation where people don't want to look at abstract painting. They certainly don't want to look at it in the terms that one wants them to look at it in, but rather only to see it in narrow historicist terms that essentially exclude it. So, it certainly is a question of language being used to describe something both because that's the best language for it and also because that language is the best language with which to unhinge or destabilize these other languages which get in the way.

SL: Kathy Acker once told me that discovering French philosophes gave her a way of verbalizing what she was doing in language. And it was good for her to realize that other people were doing the same thing she was. You stop being alone. It affects the range of issues that you're dealing with. You can recontextualize them differently. It makes you part of another kind of history.

JGR: Yes, I think that's right, But I don't think I would have been likely to have had quite the same relationship to French theory as Kathy, because I don't think I ever experienced it as foreign in the same sort of way. It was with me from early on in my life. Philosophy is philosophy and one has a sense of where, nationally speaking, different traditions stemmed. I just think they're the most exciting guys in my lifetime, and so those are the ones that I've tended to use most. And certainly, with or without abstract painting, they are people who had provided the best way forward and also the best way out of various kinds of dilemmas of discourse.

SL: Could you imagine being a painter, as you are now, not having been steeped into French Theory?

JGR: I honestly don't know. I think that's a really interesting question, but hard to answer categorically. Let me put it like this: I started to make and exhibit work in the United States in 1970. I came here because of the paintings of Barnett Newman. I still think he is a tremendously important thinker, but what I've never been able to put up with on the part of the Americans -- or on the part of Anglo-American culture, or on the part of Protestantism and empiricism, all the things I can't put up with -- is the notion that there are simple ways of dealing with the complex. The reason I liked Stella is that he had the balls to at least try and complicate Minimalism. He said, We've got it to a debate, now we've got to start again, and this stuff has become more and more fucking complicated. That's what I like about Stella, although I don't think he's really got it to work. And it's what I like about Thomas Pynchon too. So from the beginning my own work has been very much about complexity as something which is explicit, not implicit. Something you can see, not something you have to believe in.

SL: And complexity has to be constructed.

JGR: Yes, of course, but this goes to that other question of how painting is irreducibly lodged in the language of phenomenology at the end. Whatever succeeds phenomenology, it's always coming back to this phenomenological language. And so, just to finish this thought, my own work has gone through two cycles: arcs of complexity and the question of disjunction, of parataxis, of complexity as a complexity having to do with the mutual coalescence in one place of things that have nothing to do with one another. I think that would have been part of my work with or without Jacques or Gilles. But I can't imagine that it would have looked the same, because everything they've had to say about this has seeped in so thoroughly that I think there are almost certainly decisions that they will have either hurried up or things that I don't even have to think about. I can take leaps, once it's there, that one will never know. You have to understand that painting, like any of the arts, tends to get going on the basis of lingering over propositions which are powerful in themselves. All that Deleuze has to say about a repetition not repeating becomes redolent with implications which are productive without necessarily leading to any kind of illustration of Deleuze.

SL: There's no one to one relationship.

JGR: No.

SL: But it makes every gesture you make more complex.

JGR: Oh sure, there's a nice point there that we might want not to ignore. Particularly since it involves an uncontrollable wordplay. In the nineteenth century the word "abstract" meant the opposite of what it means now. When a French painter painted a woman and a critic described him as having "abstracted" the woman, what he actually meant was that the painter had added all these connotations to the woman. He had lined her up with the concept of classical model, this was the abstraction.

SL: It's in relation to a model?

JGR: Yes, so Manet would paint the portrait of someone, and it would be described as abstract. Abstraction didn't have to do with simplifying form. And so the other way of answering your question is that abstract painting which didn't take into account Derrida and Deleuze as ways of thinking of how the surface is working would probably not be very interesting. That would probably be one of the things that would identify uninteresting abstract art.

SL: It would not even be wrong.