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. ◼︎