Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 22, 2020
Susan Laxton Surrealism at Play Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019. 384 pp.; 16 color ills.; 154 b/w ills. Paper $27.95 (9781478003076)

In Surrealism at Play, Susan Laxton weaves an alternate history of Surrealism through the concept of play, a historically underacknowledged (yet, in her telling, constitutive) element of the movement. This is serious play: play as process not product, as action and experience. Play undergirds the Surrealists’ ambition not only to remake the art of making art but also to reform intersubjective relations and modern experience; it is a critical force available precisely because it is “not work, not serious, not part of normal life, unreal, inauthentic” (12).

Laxton’s crucial interlocutor is Walter Benjamin. Indeed, one could understand her project as unfurling from a footnote in Benjamin’s most famous essay: “What is lost in the withering of semblance and the decay of the aura in works of art is matched by a huge gain in the scope for play [Spiel-Raum]” (“The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility,” 1936, in Selected Writings, vol. 3, Belknap Press, 2002, 127n22). The anchoring term of her project, Spielraum may be translated as both “room for play” and “scope for action.” In other words, it is at once an arena of ludic freedom and a training ground, for Benjamin’s play was not opposed to regimes of discipline and training but continuous with them.

Fundamental to the historical moment of Surrealism’s emergence and Benjamin’s writing, Laxton explains, was Taylorism and the “rising ideology of rationalized labor,” which saw the human body “reconceived in machinic terms that measured value by way of efficiency and capacity of work” (21). To these exigencies visited upon the modern subject, the Surrealists responded not with a denial of the mechanization, technological functionalism, and “disciplining of space-time” (20) everywhere remaking experience but rather with an exaggerated embrace of the machine. Seizing upon industrial media and automated processes, they planted their art practice at this “intersection of chance and technology” (23). Providing an end run around means-end rationality, they pursued collaborative, aleatory strategies that rendered technology useless through play. Laxton describes the result as a radically open understanding of art that risked even the possibility of meaning nothing. For Benjamin, she writes, art’s “ludic dimension” was the source of its critical power, “through a pronounced refusal of functionalism that, under the conditions of industrial capitalism, could only be perceived as a threat to the dominant social order” (5). So, too, for the Surrealists.

Laxton unfolds her argument across four chronologically sequenced episodes in Surrealist history, closing with a narrative of postwar decline that, for scholars of the movement, may carry a familiar ring. The first chapter, “Blur,” considers Man Ray’s cameraless photographs, dubbed “rayographs,” as paradigmatic of Spielraum. “Composed” independent of hand and eye, they were both open to chance and mechanically produced. Why “Blur”? Because the in-betweenness implied by the term, its suggestion of shuttling between two places, describes both the rayographs and the conditions of their making. They are at once original, unique prints and, as reproductions of arbitrarily grouped objects, recorded readymades; literal depictions and indecipherable abstractions; agents of truth and instigators of uncertainty. In emerging in the époque floue of the early 1920s, when Dada began to tip into Surrealism, the rayographs also originate from a temporal “blur” of flux and transition. For Laxton, the rayographs turned photography, an instrument for transcriptive recording, against itself. Instead of the clear functionalism of the well-oiled machine, they returned a “deep inscrutability” (71), “as though too much play in the machine parts had thrown the assembly line into chaos” (66).

The next chapter, “Drift,” approaches the Surrealist practice of errance through the album of Eugène Atget’s photographs that Man Ray compiled in 1926. An expansion of Laxton’s earlier book Paris as Gameboard: Man Ray’s Atgets (2002), it is one of her most accomplished chapters, deftly revealing how Man Ray’s assembly rewrote Atget’s commercial, documentary images as Surrealist text. The term “errance” describes the Surrealist act of purposeless and undirected wandering. A kind of ambulatory automatism, it demonstrated a new mode of being “developed in resistance to the relentless utilitarianism of the efficient modern subject” (85). When coupled with the Surrealists’ receptivity to the spark of psychic phenomena, errance transformed Paris into a “ludic field of desire” (93), thrumming with the pulse of the unconscious. This practice gives sense to Man Ray’s album with its random, apparently unmotivated collection of prints. Laxton describes the selection process itself as an act of errance, conducted in the Paris that existed in Atget’s archive. In addition to this structural analysis, Laxton also delves into the individual photographs, parsing recurrent images of ragpickers and sex workers, carnivals and shop windows to suggest that their meaning is fundamentally unstable and relational.

In the third chapter, “System,” Laxton advances a masterly rereading of the exquisite corpse, which, together with “Drift,” most clearly articulates what she calls Surrealism’s “modern critical ludic” (24). No innocent diversion, the exquisite corpse (a game comprising sequentially collaborative drawings) pried apart received ideas about the unified body, the self-possessed subject, the authorial signature of the creative process, and the interdependence of the three. The making of these drawings was highly regulated, an adherence to order that guaranteed their randomness. The first player would draw a “head” at the top of a paper sheet folded like a fan, extending the lines slightly beyond the first pleat, then fold back their drawing and pass it along. The result was plural and intertextual, with each participant citing the one (or ones) that came before. It performed, Laxton writes, “from within the very machinelike parameters that were perceived as automating every aspect of life” (182–83)—inhabiting the machine, but churning out fractured, ludicrous, and obviously malfunctioning bodies.

In Laxton’s telling, the exquisite corpse heralded a signal change. Whereas Man Ray’s 1922 rayographs figured “the subject’s encounter with the unconscious” (71) and his 1926 album served as a “direct record” of errance (133), this immediacy began to disintegrate in the exquisite corpse. Automatic processes started to be understood as the residue of thought, not thought itself. The intervention of Sigmund Freud is crucial here. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920; French translation, 1927), Freud theorized the repetition of traumatic events as a means of gaining mastery and thereby accessing the cultural realm. Laxton identifies the exquisite corpse—which, when finally unfolded, stages a confrontation with the unknowability of one’s own mind—as a game riven with trauma on this order. Accordingly, it carried its own dimension of loss: “Through the exquisite corpse, the surrealists may have taken their revenge on drawing and the visual arts, but it was at the cost of having to enter the very realm they had critiqued: when they ‘gained language’ through the practice of exquisite corpse, they also facilitated the move of psychographic images into the institutions of art” (169). The game began to shift.

Finally, in “Pun,” Laxton follows Spielraum to the rue Blomet and the early 1930s work of Joan Miró and Alberto Giacometti. Her key uniting figure is author Raymond Roussel, who deployed wordplay, repetition, and especially the pun to empty language of its signifying function. This spirit of expanded possibility infected the rue Blomet Surrealists, particularly these two. Thus: Miro’s collage-based paintings, in which collages assembled from mass-media reproductions and diagrams are transfigured, through “an extremely disciplined exercise of twinning and difference,” into oil paintings of biomorphic abstractions (207). Through this method, abstraction itself becomes automatic, acquiring the “cool indifference of the mechanical apparatus” (212). The same spirit animated Giacometti’s contemporaneous sculptures. As demonstrated by No More Play (1932), his gameboards seem built to defy purpose, touching off a complicated relay of signification that ultimately refuses the possibility of fixed meaning. These objects not only proposed a collapse between the historically discrete categories of use-objects and art-objects; per Laxton, they also rewrote subject-object relations, making the space of the sculpture coextensive with that of the viewer, akin to the “radical opening of spatial experience that characterizes Spielraum” (244).

In the postlude, a suggestion floated in “System” returns with a vengeance. Laxton first sifts through the postwar play theories of Johan Huizinga, Émile Benveniste, Roger Caillois, and André Breton, and she touches on the Surrealist Spielraum roots of the Situationist International, Fluxus, and Happenings. This is a valuable historiography, and her tracing of the movement’s afterlives is sensitive, if overbrief. Yet we must revisit the exquisite corpse. In the early 1930s, participants began to execute these drawings in colored pencil on black paper that, crucially, was no longer folded. These changes gave the final compositions a significantly more unified and aestheticized look. Laxton writes that “to actually call them exquisite corpse images amounts to a betrayal of surrealism itself” (177), one among many betrayals that decade, when Surrealism as process—which ran technological procedures through the twisting irrationality of the Surrealist machine—gave way to Surrealism as product. She describes “a crisis within the surrealist movement itself, as it sold out the critical promise of surrealist play to the institutions of art and the agency of the master artist” (250).

While this book reconfigures Surrealism as activity and “fully politicized praxis” (271), then, it is also a familiar story. Its arc parallels numerous existing narratives of the history of Surrealism and of the avant-garde more broadly, in which the original revolutionary potential is variously betrayed, institutionalized, and commodified. Laxton’s project is a major accomplishment, matching extensive imagination with scholarly rigor, yet one must wonder at this ending. Recall Freud’s lesson that the child’s acquisition of self-mastery carried a valence of loss. For Laxton, it seems to have been all loss, unified capitulation. In foreclosing the possibility of a postwar Surrealism still committed to Spielraum—one that found new forms rather than merely petering out or selling out—the loss belongs to her readers, too.

Natalie Dupêcher
Assistant Curator of Modern Art, the Menil Collection, and Doctoral Candidate, Department of Art and Archaeology, Princeton University