Michel Alexis

"The Birthday Book"
January, 1997


University of Denver &
Elga Wimmer Gallery

Barry Schwabsky

Alexis: From Visual Text to Textual Vision

The gesture of writing and that of drawing (more broadly, of making a picture) are remarkably similar in appearance. With good reason, we speak of “the hand” as a synecdoche for both. Likewise, we receive the marks produced thereby in a way that seems identical, through the eye. But elsewhere, invisibly, the two process diverge: they transpire, according to neurologists, in different areas of the brain.

Textual and pictorial activity are as inextricably intertwined as they are fundamentally distinct, perhaps even antagonistic. At least since Cubism, painters have taken two fundamental approaches to this dilemma: either to purify painting of all literary resonance (or as much as possible) in order to present a wholly visual phenomenon, or else to display precisely this conflicted enmeshing by bringing the textuality of its materials to the surface of the work. (other possibilities seem to lead outside painting altogether: subordination of the pictorial activity to the text becomes illustration; distillation of the text from the picture, working towards a “purely” textual art, led in the 1960s to a new genre, conceptual art.)

In New York, the fortuitous conjunction of major retrospectives of the work of Ellsworth Kelly and Jasper Johns has made this bifurcation in the path of painting peculiarly vivid of late. Michel Alexis, it is clear enough, has followed the second path, that of Johns rather than Kelly. “It is clear enough,” I just said, and already I feel compelled to retract my words, because in his newest paintings Alexis has deliberately restrained, without in any way eliminating, the textual dimension of his painting. He has rechanneled the relation between textuality and visuality in his work, so that it has shifted its identity, from what might be called a visual text to a textual vision.

Stephane Mallarme wrote of the anxiety provoked by the blank page, with its imperious demand to be filled with writing. For Alexis, we may imagine, as he begins covering the surface of one of his canvases with words extracted from a little-known text by an author more read-about than read, the presence of some already existing writing functions to alleviate a similar anxiety about beginning; paradoxically, it allows him to begin his more self-evidently pictorial part of his painting process, not with a blank canvas, but with a canvas that is neither blank nor yet pictorial. Alexis’s source is Gertrude Stein’s Birthday Book, a text written in 1924 and given for publication to Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler with the intention that it be illustrated with Picasso’s engravings. When the project fell through, the text languished, and it only came to light with the 1957 publication of Volume 7 of the Yale edition of Stein’s uncollected writings.

Stein’s text is a murmuring of language not too fraught with the importunings of “meaning.” Its editor in the Yale edition, Donald Gallup, refers to it as “a decorative work…an exercise with words.” For Alexis, the text exists mostly to be suppressed as such: what was at first safely not-pictorial, or at least-not-yet pictorial, only gradually, as the painter’s work continues, develops into a potential threat to the incipiently pictorial, an energizing challenge to the painter’s ability to synthesize heterogeneous material. It ends either by being subsumed by the painting—in this case writing is reinscribed by the painting as having been always already pictorial (and the choice of the Birthday Book is most appropriate for this, since according to Gallup, “Stein was concerned principally with the appearance of the words on a printed page,” which is to say that hers is a visual text more than a conventionally literary one)—or else it is simply irretrievably buried somewhere in the mix, perhaps somehow felt as a subliminal textural hum, but no longer seen.

This is a highly oblique way to enter into the process of painting, one might say—all the more so in that the frottage technique Alexis uses to register Stein’s text onto his canvases is in itself quite indirect, since it involves stenciling the words in relief onto a hard ground against which the canvas can then be rubbed. The text, in its initial presence on the canvas, has already been placed at more than one remove. Given that almost all the results of this process are destined to disappear, especially in the recent paintings of the Birthday Book series, and in contrast to the Stein’s Diary paintings of 1994 and 1995 where the text was far more evident, it’s hard not to think that there is a process of disavowal going on (Ceci n’est pas une peinture, as Magritte might have said)—an attempt to lose track of the origin through feints that are at the same time repetitions. This blend of repetition and difference has the effect of something like punning, and as a strategy it brings Alexis that much closer to Stein, for whom (to quote the Birthday Book) “the fourth of January reminds one the fourth of January and so forth, and so fourth and January.”

The next step is to cover the canvas with an irregularly gridlike ground made of gesso and paper. Already much of the frottaged text is shrouded, but the fact that this surface is so clearly made of collaged sheets—and this will remain quite evident in the finished painting—keeps the notion of writing to the fore. Contrary to Mallarme, the blank page here emerges after writing, in its wake. At last, lines and colors begin to traverse this already densely insinuative domain, this surface which is not that of literature but is thick with the aroma of writing. Alexis’s graphic line is intoxicated with that lush perfume. It twists and spirals fitfully through this writerly atmosphere like a moth around a flame, sometimes gliding atop the surface but just as often gouging into it to raise scarlike passages—traces of a strangely delicate violence.
For in these paintings it is, above all, line that returns us to the freshness of origins. And given the way the paintings are begun, it should be no surprise that Alexis’s errant lines do not spread across the expanse of the canvas to involve its entirety in a single web, like those of Brice Marden, but rather coil back in on themselves to affect the self-containment of characters in some unheard-of script. Isn’t this the cursive line of writing, of handwriting, though here liberated from the discipline of inditing known and recognized letters? This must be what writing looks like to a child who has not yet learned to read, and who therefore sees not what is written, but simply writing. In order to inscribe something written, writing itself has to become transparent, invisible; but in order to perceive writing once more, as we do in these paintings, we must allow ourselves to be taught to stop reading and see.