Alex Katz’s late pop art masterpiece Roundhill of 1977 looks at us, as does all painting.[i] This is the place of the gaze in the scopic field as Lacan dictates it, a position of absolute alterity, which we cannot see but that sees us. Yet a painting is not only looked at by Lacan’s theory of the gaze, it is also capable of looking over the theory and testing its limits suggesting that Katz’s painting could actually teach us something about the gaze as well as serving as an illustration of its workings. What I will go on to do in the following three studies of three painters is to allow their work to look at what Lacan has to say about scopic metonymy, and through their work, find a place for the eye in this schema which Lacan, for whatever reason, mostly ignored.
What I would suggest Katz’s work sees as it gazes down at us, for example, before anything else, is the current state of our desire in contemporary culture, something Lacan is unable to do. Katz’s work is part of a second generation of “pop” artists who apply the Warholian cool surface of the pop image and its utilisation of mass cultural iconography to apply to a wider field than simply pop culture itself.
Like his contemporary Larry Rivers, Katz applies the pop image to a world that is not always that popular such as, in this case, the private world of the American bourgeoisie at their leisure. The five figures are all individually, and as a group, caught up in the gaze but in a self-consciously scopic way. Like the Freudian hero who knows too much Freud in Italo Svevo’s classic psychoanalysis of psychoanalysis, The Confessions of Zeno, the occupants of Roundhill are performing a knowing, and thus inauthentic, role pre-ordained for them by the very discourse that we would seek to apply to them. While the gaze remains other here, the subjects in the frame know all about is strangeness and immediately the gaze begins to be tamed.
Katz’s self-consciousness in relation to the law of the gaze here is intense suggesting more than passing familiarity with its workings. His painting, then, can be read as a development of Lacanian theories in the way it takes up the gaze and basically parodies its god-like aspirations. The separation of the eye from the gaze in the process of the scopic is immediately addressed with the eyes in the painting either placed behind sunglasses, turned away from us, or closed in a squint to facilitate reading in bright sunlight. This is a difficult gesture on his part. The eye is the organ that we use metonymically to stand in for the gaze as I have stated, but just as the penis is not exactly the phallus, so too the gaze is not in the eye but is rather contained elsewhere. The eye merely leads us to the presence of the gaze, proposes the possibility of the gaze if you will.
In Katz’s painting, this act of leading us to the gaze is ultimately a wild-goose chase. Like Poe’s purloined letter, the thing that we search for, the gaze, is so much before us that we cannot see it. It acts like the powerful sunlight in the painting, blinding us so that we must use some intermediary screen to protect our eyes from it. The painting forces us to squint at the role of the gaze here, because to look at it straight on would permanently destroy the eye.
Katz, it would appear, is already aware of the first aporia of the eye in relation to the gaze, that it is a trick suggesting the need for enlightenment, but really imposing the necessity of some other thing to screen our eyes from the light.
Another aporia, or logical blindspot, in relation to the gaze is that it has something to do with the subject and the intersubjective, perhaps the way we see others seeing us. Again, Katz is assiduous in undermining this. Whilst the tension between the figures clearly establishes a complex five-way intersubjective zone with the space between each figure almost humming with desire in all its manifestations, these figures are held in a chiasmus of desire in the scopic which means the I/you set of the process of desire is problematised.
In fact, in Katz’s work in general, there is very little “I”, very little of the subject of desire. Instead, each figure seems to be held in a second person relation that is peculiar to the intense intersubjectivity of coterie groups. They are close enough not to be a “them,” the very distant position of the third person as other, but the relations between the figures are so caught up in a multiple inter-subjectivity—so much so that is it hard to ascertain who is looking at whom, who is the central subject, what is the relation between the individual figures and the like—that the idea of the “I” as singular and central is unavailable.
Thus, if there is intersubjectivity it is very much in the entre or between-space of the subject of uncertainty or the I-as-you. Therefore, just as there is no legitimate gaze here, there is also no subject to be gazed upon. In both instances, the eye/I homonym is parodied by the painter. The eye of looking and the I of being looked at dissolve into something more playful, subtle, and hard to grasp.
Roundhill, as the circularity of its title suggests, presents us with the endless chiasmus of the beginnings of a process of desire that is very much of our time in that it is not subject centred, nor is it held within a traditional subject/object relation. Rather, the painting presents the subject-subject relation, or more accurately subject-subject-subject-subject-subject, a five pointed interlacing of unspoken desire within which it is impossible to define the actual position of any one subject except in relation to the other four.
Each subject is also simultaneously an object and this midway status between subjectivity and the objective is, of course, the second person position of the “you.” This not only suggests the more environmental models of subjectivity one finds in John Bowlby and modern cognitive linguistics, but it also participates in a radical questioning of subject/object dichotomies that are the basis of object relations theory.
Lacan would not be disapproving of Roundhill one suspects, for his work on the gaze notes how the role of painting is not to elucidate the gaze but exactly to tame it as Katz attempts to do. He calls this process dompter á regard in contradistinction to trompe l’oeil or the tricking of the eye typical of late renaissance and baroque art. The image here invites us, within Lacan’s schematisation, to lay down our gaze. This means to renege upon our promise to the object petit a, which was the promise of lack that the bar in the formula of metonymy instigated.
For a time, at least, when held within the taming gaze of Roundhill we are actually capable of forgetting that we lack. The image seems to suggest that we can live through the exploitation of our desire rather than be subject to its exploitation of our impossibility to ever cross the bar. At this stage, it can been argued, we are able to see that the apparent linguistic materiality of metonymy, that links word to word, is in fact more generally a feature of all the matter of signification, linking stuff-to-stuff. This is not all. In addition, the true role of metonymy in the formation of the subject can only be accessed through the scopic field and is best understood through analysing the exact ways in which painting is able to tame the gaze.
The taming of the gaze, Lacan argues, is predicated on the role of the screen within the entrelacs or interlacing of the chiasmus of the gaze and the “I”. The subject lacks. It lacks the object. The object that is missing is the mutilated aspect of subjectivity, the subject of uncertainty that is the process of desire. This is normally amply dealt with within enunciation, a fact which links desire to language, that is, to say “I am” is to place subjectivity within a re-iterable code that can be reproduced endlessly even when the enunciating subject is no longer present, and not only this but by its very nature to say “I am” is already to usher in its trace phrase “I am not.” And whilst the gaze is the missing piece within the scopic which the subject places in the position of being-lacked, in other words the phallus, it knows nothing of lack.
When Katz’s image invites us to lay down our gaze, it is not to give us something that we might call plenitude. Rather it gives us back our lack. It seems to say “yes you lack, and it’s okay”. Roundhill gives back to us, not so much our subjectivity as it actually is, but our subjectivity as a subject, blown up on a screen for all to see. As Lacan notes: “In what is presented to me as space of light, that which is the gaze is always a play of light and opacity. And if I am anything in the picture, it is always in the form of the screen, which I earlier called the stain, the spot.” (Lacan, 1994, pp.96-7). Lacan’s point is that in removing the gaze from the equation the subject is actually liberated from subject-status, from its mutilated state of lack which the unavailable plenitude of the object a is the cause and result of. In this way it ceases to be a subject for a while and becomes an object, becomes the picture or something to be looked at rather than gazed upon.
I have tried to access this strange situation before through my theory of the object of enunciation or the placing of oneself in the position of the object as object, before the subject comes to include it in the I/you or me/it set of desire. Through an analysis of the poetry of James Schuyler, a contemporary of Katz and fellow New Yorker, I considered a possible autobiography for the subject designed around an ethical respect for things and the danger posed to them by representation which I termed taxonomic autobiography. There is no space to go into this in any detail but respect for the thing before it becomes a love object is central to Lacan’s seventh seminar on ethics and in general his interest in the real.
In Roundhill we see ourselves as we truly behave, to paraphrase another member of Katz and Schuyler’s New York School John Ashbery, but we can only do that because those people there on the screen, they are us, or rather we are them in that we are able to occupy the reduced position of the stain on the screen that is a kind of contingency subjectivity. This subject can exist without the reminder of lack because it is reducible to a state of such brevity that there is no space for lack. The subject becomes a mere spot of paint on the canvas before us:
The gaze many contain in itself the object a of the Lacanian algebra where the subject falls, and what specifies the scopic field...is the fact that, for structural reasons, the fall of the subject always remains unperceived, for it is reduced to zero. In so far as the gaze, qua object a, may come to symbolize this central lack expressed in the phenomena of castration, and in so far as it is an object a reduced, of its nature, to a punctiform, evanescent function, it leaves the subject in ignorance as to what there is beyond appearance... (Lacan, 1994, p.77)
Without plenitude, there can be no lack and the very idea of subjectivity falls. The subject is reduced to a dense spot, not even adumbrated. In a travesty of the mimicry of real being, it is reduced to nothing. The screen of painting allows us to see this no-thing or the subject not as an object given to be seen, which is the gaze, but as a speck. This is what the subject without an object is reducible to. Therefore, if you like, Roundhill presents the subject without the object in a fake form of lack that can only come about through the agency of the gaze. Because the gaze does not lack, it is only in placing the gaze out of sight that the structural precondition of lack to subjectivity can be negated briefly, allowing us time to see ourselves. This is how the painting is then both opaque and transparent.
Roundhill shows us who we are beyond the gaze, but can only do so through the gaze, by interposing, between the gaze and the subject, itself as a screen. James Schuyler uses a similar technique of interposing on behalf of the object using instead the activity of naming things as a kind of screen, speaking up or enunciating on behalf of the object away from its implications for the subject itself. Such a strategy is more utopian than anything else of course, because in Katz’s work it is apparent that just because we cannot see the gaze in the painting, in fact because we can see it all too clearly, it can still see us.
Analysing Roundhill’s “commentary” on the operations of the gaze, we can tentatively state that the scopic field finishes desire off in two ways. First, it is the complement to the invocationary drive of language and signification. It would not be possible to understand the means by which subjectivity is formed by the permissiveness and resistance of metonymy without an analysis of the role of the gaze and the screen within the scopic. As we have seen, it is the way the screen interposes between the subject and the radical Other of alterity which gazes over the subject, that attenuates the mutilated subject to such a degree that the gift of lacking can be given. The screen is a background against which both the permission of self-elision and the resistance of signification to self-plenitude occur. Without these two elements, there would be no metonymy and no Lacanian subject. To put it succinctly, desire, as a theory of the phallus, castration, and language, is incomplete without the accompaniment of the screen, the stain, and the gaze.
Second, whilst central to desire and the phallus, the scopic field is not only an essential part of this metonymy, it also contributes its own metonym. The homonymic relationship between “eye” and “I” is not just a play on words. It is a reminder of the permanent bar between signifier and the signified, taking us to a part of the process of desire that the phallus alone is insufficient to explain. The “I” of the castrated phallic subject is shadowed by the “eye” of the scopic realm, and just as art has reproduced the trauma of castration many times, so too it has presented us with allegories of the cutting off of the eye. The modern master of the allegory of the “castrated” eye is the late nineteenth century French symbolist painter Odilon Redon and it is to his obsessive reworking of the eye as a metonym for being and desire that we now must turn.
[i] Alex Katz, “Roundhill” 1977.
[i] Alex Katz, “Roundhill” 1977.