Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 2, 2019
Sebastian Egenhofer Towards an Aesthetics of Production Trans. James Gussen. Zurich: Diaphanes, 2018. 208 pp.; 48 b/w ills. Paper $30.00 (9783037348857)

The translation of Sebastian Egenhofer’s Towards an Aesthetics of Production makes a work of great synthetic ambition available in English. It is at once a theory of modernism, an intervention into metaphysics, and an account of aesthetics under capital. In fact, the subject of Egenhofer’s book is synthesis itself: the means by which the semblance of a coherent world is produced from “pre-synthetic Becoming” (81) and art’s capacity for unconcealment. The book’s art historical horizon is European modernism and its consequences, with substantial case studies on Piet Mondrian, Marcel Duchamp, Michael Asher, and Thomas Hirschhorn. Egenhofer’s wager is that only a “transcendental materialism” or “materialist formalism” can release the history of art from positivism in its social historical, formalist, or semiological guises (58, 217).

Toward this end, Egenhofer develops the concept of “production,” which does not refer to the artwork’s physical manufacture or medium. Instead, “production” designates the relation between the “constituted world” and the unrepresentable substrate from which it is forged (219). What is “produced,” in Egenhofer’s sense, is the “plane of representation itself,” understood capaciously as visual semblance in art, space-time in consciousness, ideology in social systems, and the image-world of spectacle (9). The artworks Egenhofer defends are those with the disillusioning capacity to open representation to “the dimension of its production” (167). This crack within semblance is what Egenhofer calls “truth.”

The first half of the book develops an extended analogy between modernist art and the Kantian critique of consciousness, an analogy that turns on perspective. The perspectival projection of a three-dimensional image onto a flat surface produces an illusion only for a viewing subject situated precisely in space and time. Similarly, for Egenhofer, consciousness “screens off” a “cross-section” of the “non-aspectual” real, to produce a phenomenal world “tethered” to “the here and now of the perceiving body” (34, 51). Modernism thus shares the fundamental problems of philosophy after Kant: Is the thing in itself thinkable or representable, undistorted by apperception? How to characterize the “immanent infinitude” outside human cognition without attributing phenomenal qualities to the noumenal (9)?

Egenhofer’s Mondrian is an artist struggling against the “tragedy” of “perspectival consciousness.” Mondrian’s Neo-Plasticism—its planes of primary color and variations of white, set into irregular grids of orthogonal black lines—should not be confused, Egenhofer insists, with a “positivist” reduction of image-making to its material substrate. He argues that such a “realism of the signifier” has obscured the metaphysical aspirations of abstraction, so insistently described by its first practitioners (56). According to Egenhofer, Mondrian sought not only to oppose the illusionism of perspective, and thereby “the constitutive illusion of consciousness,” but fundamentally to lift the “veil” and open representation onto the “universal” (85, 59).

How to make manifest, in visual semblance, what is by definition unrepresentable—that is, representation’s conditions of possibility? Egenhofer’s solution to this impasse is a model of temporality irreducible to the intraworldly and linear time of history and experience, oriented instead to the “absolute past” that subtends it, a time that is strictly “pre-perspectival (non-subjective)” (67). Mondrian, in Egenhofer’s view, moved the “materialized screen of the image” earlier, prior to its stabilization by perspective, back to a point where a “pre-objective,” “dynamic, vitalist, and energetic” world is translated into appearance (64, 89). Mondrian’s planes and grids are not self-referential signs, Egenhofer argues. Instead they construct, in semblance, a relation to a “real” anterior to the “screening” of consciousness, which Egenhofer describes, following a Deleuzian genealogy (from Spinoza to Nietzsche to Bergson), as chaos, Becoming, or “universal kinetics.”

Egenhofer’s account of an infinitude preceding the “tragic” finitude of consciousness runs up against a problem endemic to earlier phenomenological and neo-Kantian accounts of modern art, such as those by Maurice Merleau-Ponty or Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler. Like these predecessors, Egenhofer constructs a metaphysical analogy between the modernist quest for a form of representation “before” perspective and the achievement of the absolute, that which is “before” consciousness, whether characterized as Husserlian noema, Bergsonian durée, or Spinozan natura naturans. Yet, one of the central “tragedies” of modernism is that this transcendental “before” turned out time and again only to be a historical “after.” Once Alberti’s window had been definitively shut, the modernist artwork was trapped in social reality—on “this side” of the picture, to use a favored formulation of Egenhofer’s—exiled into the “post-perspectival” conditions of objecthood, use-value, language, or even nonexistence. Egenhofer’s emphasis on the metaphysics of abstraction against positivism risks losing the dialectical tension between the before and after that defines modernism, perhaps nowhere more poignantly than in Mondrian’s own dream of art’s dissolution in the architecture of the future.

Egenhofer further develops the analogy between perspective and the “constitutive finitude of consciousness” in his chapter on Duchamp (107). In Egenhofer’s account, the “narrative” developed in Duchamp’s The Large Glass (1915–23) and its explanatory notes—on the unconsummated quest of the bachelors for the “four-dimensional Bride”—represent a sort of speculative tale about the capacity to access, through semblance, the higher-dimensional plane from which our finite world is produced. Just as the perspectival image opens a flat surface to the illusion of spatial depth, Duchamp imagined that “the dimension toward which three-dimensional space can be hollowed out or deepened . . . is time” (121). The Large Glass’s “inquiry into the theory of dimensions” constitutes, for Egenhofer, an “iconographic” “context” through which to read the totality of Duchamp’s work (129, 132). The artist’s readymades, he proposes, were “envisioned from the beginning as elements of the Large Glass,” “as the spatial expositions (deferrals) of the four-dimensional Bride.” (129, 138). Even if one accepts the contention that the meaning of the readymades is bound to The Large Glass, one faces a conundrum that has divided generations of Duchamp scholars: to what extent does Duchamp’s dense “semantic web” of notes cohere (131)? While Egenhofer ingeniously reconstructs Duchamp’s logic, one cannot forget that the artist built a perfectly functioning theoretical system that operates toward a senseless end. The Bride remains forever indifferent to the bachelors’ futile efforts.

When Egenhofer gives the readymades room to breathe apart from the system of The Large Glass, he offers a profound account of their temporality. A readymade’s “déclaration” installs what Egenhofer calls a “heterochrony” in the aesthetic present: as a commodity, it contains invisible sedimented layers of past labor-time; yet as an artwork, it functions like “the aperture of a camera,” accumulating a posterity of interpretations that “remains interminable, open to the future” (133–34).

The critique of the commodity that the readymade initiated but, in Egenhofer’s view, did not fully “consummate” becomes central to the later chapters on Hirschhorn and Asher. The Hirschhorn chapter could have introduced the book, for it provides a philosophical and art historical précis. There, Egenhofer makes a major claim that the “site of illusion” shifted in the postwar period (167): no longer focused on the epistemic critique of perspective and consciousness, the urgent mission for artists since is to unveil the substrate of “dead, abstract labor” underpinning the “fetishized semblance of the world of commodities” (152, 148). For example, Egenhofer contends that Hirschhorn’s packing tape and Xeroxed images constitute a “figure of resistance” to spectacle through their “precarious materiality,” built from the cheapest realm of commodity and image circulation (170, 147).

For his part, Asher offered a way out of the minimalist “dead end of producing self-referential objects,” which had amounted to a “fetishization of the material signifier” (177). Producing no “object” for visual engagement, Asher instead referred the “abstract visibility” of the art context to its conditions of production (162). These conditions are not, Egenhofer proposes, reducible to the architectural frame of the institution: they are economic and temporal. Accordingly, labor-time is the crux of Egenhofer’s analysis of Asher’s 1977 work at the Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art, where the artist used his budget to pay participants an hourly wage to remain in the exhibition space during public hours, free to do what they wished. In Egenhofer’s brilliant reading, Asher did not reveal the literal space of exhibition or institute a “utopia of direct communication” (201) but instead related the visibility of art to its economic base through the medium of time. The disbursement of Asher’s funds counted down the exhibition’s end; the participants consumed this money and time on the condition of becoming “pictorial figures”—and then disappeared (201).

Egenhofer’s final move—to bring Martin Heidegger into the picture—is, he admits, a political “sore point,” but one required by the “crisis of presence” instated by modernism’s “extroverted relationship to the world” (216, 220). Drawing from Heidegger’s definition of truth as aletheia or “the unconcealedness of beings,” Egenhofer proposes that the artwork can never be reduced to its spatial presence or temporal presentness: rather, it is an event that opens a “strife” between material and phenomenon, present and past, finitude and infinity. Art’s capacity for truth depends, in Egenhofer’s view, on its status as “a thing that does not cling to the consistency of what it already is” (293).

The book’s vast chronological scope and transcendental aspiration makes a series of objections unavoidable: Does the tactical choice to critique “positivist formalism” from within its established canon not mimetically replicate the latter’s exclusions, resulting in case studies of white men working in a rather narrow tradition? Did social art history not irrevocably provincialize European modernism’s claims to universality by rooting them in the historical contradictions of bourgeois subjectivity? Does “the aesthetics of production” not demote the intraworldly finitude and historicity of politics to secondary status? Egenhofer’s analyses of the spectacle-commodity economy suggest that the book’s blind spots could be illuminated through the very mode of questioning it develops. For example, one might continue an inquiry made elsewhere by Egenhofer himself and probe the relation between Rosemarie Trockel’s knitted pictures and the matrix of gender difference. Or one might trace the incommensurability between Cameron Rowland’s readymades and the unfree and racialized prison labor they crystallize. Such a confrontation with the stubborn gap between semblance and the conditions of its genesis is precisely the challenge of Egenhofer’s production aesthetics. 

Trevor Stark
Assistant Professor of Art History, Department of Art, University of Calgary, Canada

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