– Spring 2015

R.H. Quaytman: Paratexts and Palimpsests

Richard Birkett

R.H. Quaytman, Constructivismes, Chapter 13, 2008, oil, silkscreen ink, gesso on wood and shelf. Installation view, Almine Rech Gallery, Brussels, 2009. All images courtesy the artist and Miguel Abreu Gallery, New York

[The paintings] display images and patterns generated by the specifics of the place in which they were first shown. On another level, [they] negotiate something more complex. They function as a suture between two movements: the transference of the pictured image onto a painted presence/present that laterally, instead of frontally, directs attention; and the subsequent circulation of the painting as it either folds into the archive of the book/studio or embarks into the world — archive to ark.

— R.H. Quaytman, Spine1

Poetry is never a personal possession. The poem was a vision and gesture before it became sign and coded exchange in a political economy of value. At the moment these manuscripts are accepted into the property of our culture their philosopher-author escapes the ritual of framing — symmetrical order and arrangement. Are all these works poems? Are they fragments, meditations, aphorisms, events, letters?

— Susan Howe, ‘These Flames and Generosities of the Heart: Emily Dickinson and the Illogic of Sumptuary Values’2

The poet Susan Howe’s second work of literary criticism, The Birth-mark: unsettling the wilderness in

  1. R.H. Quaytman, ‘Name’, Spine, Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2011, text printed on the cover.

  2. Susan Howe, ‘These Flames and Generosities of the Heart: Emily Dickinson and the Illogic of Sumptuary Values’, The Birth-mark: unsettling the wilderness in American literary history, Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1993, pp.147—48.

  3. S. Howe, ‘Introduction’, The Birth-mark, op. cit., p.2.

  4. Ibid., p.4.

  5. Ibid., p.1.

  6. Susan Vanderborg, ‘The Palimpsest as Communal Lyric: Susan Howe’s Paratextual Sources’, Paratextual Communities: American Avant-Garde Poetry since 1950, Carbondale and Edwardsville, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2001, p.79.

  7. Howe moved from painting to poetry in the mid-1960s, although her work has recently been shown within an art context again. The recent work TOM TIT TOT (2013) comprised of a series of letterpress prints and later a book, formed the centre of her 2013 solo exhibition at Yale Union in Portland, Oregon. Fragments of the work were later shown as part of the 2014 Whitney Biennial in New York. The work now also exists as an artist’s book, with design and artwork by R.H. Quaytman, published by the Library Council of the Museum of Modern Art, New York (2014).

  8. Howe has described how she ‘often think[s] of the space of a page as a stage, with words, letters, syllables, characters moving across’. ‘An Interview with Susan Howe’ (with Maureen N. McLane), The Paris Review, no.203, Winter 2012.

  9. Luke Cohen succinctly sums up the naming of Quaytman’s practice as painting despite its dominant use of techniques of photographic reproduction: ‘The artist defines painting negatively. Painting is approached as a suture through discussions of mediums of other material categories, such as photography, writing and architecture.’ L. Cohen, ‘Catachreses: On Rebecca H. Quaytman,’ Texte zur Kunst, March 2010, p.136. It should also be noted that the use of silkscreen printing in order to transfer the photographic image to a support is a legibly material process, open to surface incident and facture.

  10. It is widely cited — not least in interviews with the artist, and in the self-authored publications Allegorical Decoys and Spine — that R.H. Quaytman is from an eminent artistic family: Susan Howe contributes the ‘H’ to the abbreviated moniker; the painter Harvey Quaytman is the artist’s late father; her late stepfather, sculptor David von Schlegell, and half-brother, writer Mark von Schlegell, complete this close artistic genealogy. See R.H. Quaytman, Allegorical Decoys, Gent: MER. Paper Kunsthalle, 2008, and R.H. Quaytman, Spine, op. cit.

  11. R.H. Quaytman, ‘Name’, Spine, op. cit.

  12. Talisman Interview, with Edward Foster’, in S. Howe, The Birth-mark, op. cit., p.158.

  13. During her lifetime very few of Emily Dickinson’s poems were published, and those that were underwent heavy editing on the part of the publisher and editor Samuel Bowles (in the journal Springfield Republican) and editor George Parsons Lathrop (in the anthology A Masque of Poets (Boston: Roberts Bros., 1878)). Dickinson instead developed a private mode of ‘publishing’: she transcribed finished drafts onto folded stationery that she then arranged into groups and sewed together, into packets or ‘fascicles’. See The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1982), edited by R.W. Franklin.

  14. Howe addresses Dickinson’s poetry as representing a ‘contradiction to canonical social power, whose predominant purpose seems to have been to render isolate voices devoted to writing as a physical event of immediate revelation’. S. Howe, ‘Introduction’, op. cit., p.1.

  15. Af Klint was associated with a group of four other female artists under the name de Fem (The Five), formed in 1896. The group conducted seances, making extensive notes on the ‘messages’ received, which in turn influenced automatic drawings and the development of abstract forms in af Klint’s paintings.

  16. R.H. Quaytman, ‘de Fem’, in Daniel Birnbaum and Ann-Sofi Noring (ed.), The Legacy of Hilma af Klint: Nine Contemporary Responses, Cologne: Buchhandlung der Walther Koenig, 2013.

  17. S. Howe, ‘Introduction’, The Birth-mark, op. cit., p.2.

  18. R.H. Quaytman, ‘de Fem’, op. cit.

  19. R.H. Quaytman, ‘Date’, Spine, op. cit.

  20. In writing on Quaytman’s approach to the archive, the art historian Jaleh Mansoor states: ‘Quaytman flips the archive, turning it on an axis that reprioritises the psycho-emotive sedimentation of the subject. In doing so she places the archive on the same side as the subject, a frame for consciousness rather than an impersonal repository.’ J. Mansoor, ‘Painting, Folding’, Parkett, no.90, 2012, p.104.

  21. R.H. Quaytman, ‘Collection’, Spine, op. cit.

  22. Roland Barthes, ‘The Third Meaning’ (1970), A Barthes Reader (ed. Susan Sontag), New York: Hill and Wang, 1982, p.323; quoted in R.H. Quaytman, ‘Allegorical Decoys’, Allegorical Decoys, op. cit., p.12.

  23. As highlighted by Vanderborg, the term ‘palimpsest’ was used by the poet H.D. as ‘a metaphor for the project of the woman poet writing through a patriarchal cultural history to recover traces of elided female myths and signs.’ S. Vanderborg, ‘The Palimpsest as Communal Lyric’, op. cit., p.62.

  24. R.H. Quaytman, ‘Allegorical Decoys’, op. cit., p.9.

  25. Rhea Anastas, ‘Not in Eulogy Not in Praise But in Fact, Ruth Vollmer and Others: 1966—1970,’ in Nadja Rottner and Peter Weibel (ed.), Ruth Vollmer 1961—1978: Thinking the Line, Stuttgart: Hatje Cantz, 2006.

  26. There are two anomalies to this system of sizing. From the inception of the system in 2001, one painting size was elected that does not ‘nest’ into the others — it was intentionally chosen to create a ‘fissure’ in the logic of the system. A second anomalous size (larger than any of the existing panel sizes) was added in 2012.

  27. S. Howe, ‘These Flames and Generosities of the Heart’, op. cit. p.143.

  28. Both Kobro and Strzemiński were born in Russia and moved to Poland in the 1920s. Quaytman’s grandfather, Mark Quaytman, was a Jewish immigrant to the US from the city of Łódź in Poland, where the artists lived and worked from the mid-1920s until their deaths.

  29. Władysław Strzemiński, ‘B = 2; to read’, in Constructivism in Poland 1923—1936 (exh. cat.), Essen, Otterlo and Łódź: Folkwang Museum, Kröller-Müller Museum and Museum Sztuki, 1973, p.62.

  30. W. Strzemiński and Katarzyna Kobro, ‘Composition of Space’, L’Espace Uniste (ed. and trans. Antoine Baudin and Pierre-Maxime Jedryka), Lausanne: L’Âge d’Homme, 1977, p.106.

  31. R.H. Quaytman, ‘Allegorical Decoys’, op. cit., p.21.

  32. In chapters such as Ark, Chapter 10 (2008) and Passing Through the Opposite of What It Approaches, Chapter 25 (2013), the architecture of the exhibition space becomes a central subject, either through its depiction in photographs or schematic diagrams. In others, including iamb, Chapter 12 (2008—09) and Quire, Chapter 14 (2009), the hanging of a painting in a certain space, impacted on by a specific phenomenological context, is documented and translated onto the surface of a new painting.

  33. Yve-Alain Bois, ‘Strzemiński and Kobro: In Search of Motivation’, Painting as Model, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1990, p.146.

  34. R.H. Quaytman, ‘Łódź Poem, Chapter 2’, Spine, op. cit., p.53.

  35. These hand-painted motifs also bring to mind the reorientation of the paintings when placed on storage racks, showing just their edges like the spines of books.

  36. R.H. Quaytman, ‘Medium’, Spine, op. cit.

  37. R.H. Quaytman, ‘Łódź Poem, Chapter 2’, Spine, op. cit., p.53.

  38. W. Strzemiński, ‘Unism in Painting’, in Constructivism in Poland 1923—1936, op. cit., p.91.

  39. R.H. Quaytman, ‘Name’, Spine, op. cit., n.p.

  40. R.H. Quaytman, ‘Collection’, Spine, op. cit., n.p.

  41. Quaytman’s chapters have included staged images of artists and curators including Dan Graham, Andrea Fraser, K8 Hardy, Matt Mullican, Thomas Beard, Susanne Ghez and Hannelore Kersting. Crudely speaking, these individuals form part of Quaytman’s social network — they are friends, and people encountered as part of her working life as an artist. Their presence makes palpable certain connections to artistic lineages, while complicating these associations through the implication of personal exchange. For instance, Quaytman was Graham’s studio assistant, and while his work around perception and subjectivity is of clear relevance, in iamb, Chapter 12 these canonical concerns are detoured through a further reference to the nineteenth-century British artist John Martin, whom Graham has referred to as the ‘first sci-fi artist’. Extending from those within Quaytman’s direct milieu, the artist also infers other subjects through more associative reference: for instance poet Jack Spicer is cited through the appearance of his poetry in I Love-The Eyelid Clicks/I See/Cold Poetry, Chapter 18 (2010—11); and David von Schlegell through images of his public sculptures in Boston in Exhibition Guide: Chapter 15 (2009).

  42. W. Strzemiński, ‘Modern Art in Poland’, L’Espace Uniste, op. cit., p.143.

  43. S. Howe, ‘Submarginalia’, The Birth-mark, op. cit., p.39.

  44. Quaytman has spoken of the trauma of dealing with the storage of Harvey Quaytman and David von Schlegell’s artworks after their deaths. R.H. Quaytman, ‘Collection’, Spine, op. cit.

  45. R.H. Quaytman, ‘The Call of the Wind’, Allegorical Decoys, op. cit., p.31.

  46. S. Howe, ‘These Flames and Generosities of the Heart’, op. cit., p.136.

  47. R.H. Quaytman, ‘Spine, Chapter 20’, Spine, op. cit., p.375.

  48. Susan Howe, ‘Incloser’, The Birth-mark, op. cit., p.45.