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Under Glass: Agamben and the Museum

As ever in Agamben's philosophical archaeology there are, according to him, two contesting theories of poiesis in the period of aesthetic modernity. The first concentrates on the role of the artist as god-like being of creation (the sovereign or common).  The second on the art object itself as thing unto itself (artistic bare life or the proper).  Naturally the two positions are connected in that, as we always see, god needs the world to give his power of making specific instances of operativity, while the world needs god to retroactively found its power of particular making.  In this way then we can 'easily' read Agamben's first book The Man Without Content in light of one of his most recent, The Kingdom and the Glory.  If we were to do this then we can say that the universal power of creation founds of course every specific object created, but that without these objects created pure creation remains merely a potential and thus inoperative.  There is, therefore, no relationship more ripe for indifferential suspension than the signature of art during the period of modernism.  In my own consideration of Agamben's modernism I concentrated on subjectivity and poiesis in relation to sovereign creation (Watkin, Literary Agamben Chapter 3).  Agamben, however, is as interested in things as he is beings and so now we turn our critical gaze to the art object itself, especially its simultaneous creation and negation during aesthetic modernity.

Within the logopoietic project of taking art as a parallel means of thought to that of philosophy--with the ultiumate aim of indifferentiating the common (philosophy) proper (art) oppositional economy which defines the signature art in the west and thus suspending this signature for good--place is of central importance. It has been the exteriority of art that has marked it out for philosophy as first despised object, then servant to thought, and finally thought’s salvation, the positions of Plato, Hegel and Heidegger respectively. Thought is in the mind, contained within a concept of subject that it founds and destabilises. Art, we know, has been placed in an outside zone but forcibly and artificially. Art has, in effect, been forced to occupy the place of the despised common or homo sacer (an included exclusion).

If art is not outside, where should art in fact be? By the time of the advent of modernism the place of art is a contested and compacted room. Within the aesthetic modern age in which we still tarry with joy and a heavy burden, each definition of art brings with it its own environment. Art for us is increasingly seen as an object in the world, result of subjective poiesis and criticism. It is also seen retrospectively and with increasing nostalgia as transmissibility within a tradition of experience. Here the space of art is stretched and pegged to the four corners of the total cultural environment, past present and future. This is a place-less and object-less concept of art as medium for the transmission of common experience (are as pure communicability).  In terms of art as poiesis, Agamben's and our own favoured term for the designation of an art that thinks, the work of art is the coming to presence of something and so is a zone of truth, a-letheia, the un-veiling of a truth previously withheld from view. This is the famous Heideggerian lichtung or lightening clearing.

The room of such an art is becoming arboreal, like Max’s bedroom in the great novel by Sendac. Art can also be within the modern epoch the negation of a number of these positions. A place of irresolvable and often tragic contentiousness. Thus art is taken by we moderns as a conception of what can and cannot be art, the ontological decisionist stance of the modern critic/spectator. In this manner art is the space of the coming to presence of art as such, a path through the woods to a clearing that turns out to be nothing other than a path through the woods to a clearing and so on. Just as much as art was conceived by the moderns as once-transmissible, it is naturally now described as the non-transmissibility of the pure creative act, ex nihilo, out of nothing into pure shock. Such an eventful art almost immediately comes to also be seen as inter nihilo, into nothing, resulting in the nihilised isolation of an art object without content, a pure conception or of the aestheticised object whose sole content and meaning resides it is self-consciousness of having no content at all. This is the art without content emerging from the hands and mouths of the women and men without content all of whom are modelled on Musil’s marvellous Ulrich, the great man without qualities. No one single definition of art pertains in aesthetic modernity, no sole landscape is settled. Art is all of these things contained in a stanza which is capacious enough to allow all these contesting claims to art to enter and be in relation, and injudicious enough to avoid trying to choose between them. Art, by which we must always mean modern art, is the place of the displacement of the concept of art, a negative yet potentially constructive space. Or at least this is the theory of the art object that can be construed from the later pages of Agamben’s early, great treatise on art and modernity, The Man without Content.


Agamben’s discourse on the object is highly charged with Marxism and ideas of commodity fetishism. It is these early considerations of the art object as fetish that allows Agamben to declare that in our age all art is reduced to ‘the exhibition of an impossibility of using, of dwelling, of experiencing’ (Prof. 84). All art objects, in other words, are eventually to be found in a museum of our regard. The place of art, in other words, is under glass, and the role of the logopoietic thinker is to crack the pane.

It was during the 18th century that the first publically accessible museums came into being and it is probably not insignificant that there seems to be disagreement over which was the first museum. As is well known the name museum comes from the Greek meaning seat of the muses and was originally a term for a scholarly learning. The first musea were akin to modern universities comprising of libraries and so on. By the 18th century the term was more widely used as a location to house artefacts, things to be looked at but not necessarily read. This shift in meaning leads to a debate as to whether the British Museum or the Louvre was the first publically accessible museum, all depending on a very Anglo-French debate over what constitutes ‘the people’. Is the public everyone or those who represent the people of the state? Either way, it is the origin of the shift in meaning of museum from the word to the thing, writing to the image, that most interests Agamben in his essay on the European tradition of the Wunderkammer or cabinet of wonder commencing around the beginning of the middle ages. These promiscuous collections, as he calls them, were made up of such diverse elements as alligators, canoes, antlers, sawfish teeth, minerals and statuettes, to sample some of the elements of the famed collection of Hans Wurms. That said, through such confounding diversity ‘only seemingly does chaos reign in the Wunderkammer, however: to the mind of the medieval scholar, is was a sort of microcosm that reproduced, in its harmonious confusion, the animal, vegetable and mineral macrocosm’ (MWC 30). Thus a central element of the Wunderkammer was metonymy: the diverse, seemingly random, parts of an apparently capricious collection, in fact emulated in part the whole that was nature. In Britain, a significant example of the modern cabinet is the Pitt-Rivers museum in Oxford which, across town from the Ashmolean, proposes a permanently alternative pre-modern view of the collection. The second quality of the Wunderkammer that Agamben highlights is its discursive nature. Having explained the synecdochal nature of the collection he adds: ‘This is why the individual objects seem to find their meaning only side by side with others, between the walls of a room in which the scholar could measure at every moment the boundaries of the universe’ (MWC 30). In this sense, therefore, the museum presents a double syntax of the object. Its synecdochal qualities resemble nothing so much as generative grammar where the whole of the universe of language is reduced to a number of representative items, NP VP and so on. On the other, it also emulates structural linguistics with meaning dependant not on a deep structure but on a surface proximity. While it is ideologically essential that modern institutions such as Tate Modern present their collections based on entirely different, scholarly principles, the rehanging of the Tate’s collections based not on historical periodisations but thematic relations allowed for just such powerful juxtapositions and in effect transformed the foremost museum in the country into a medieval cabinet of wonder. Albeit housed in a vast, groaning eviscerated factory.

The beginning of the end of the Wunderkammer is traced by Agamben to the year 1660 with the publication, in Antwerp, of the first illustrated catalogue of an art museum, a work entitled Theatrum pittoricum by one David Teniers. In Teniers’ rhetoric Agamben already finds that of the modern museum and senses the death knell of the cabinet of wonder soon to be replaced by the museum. This is further confirmed with the publication in the same year of Boschini’s Carta dal navegar pittoresco which contains a detailed guide to seventeenth century Venetian painting. It also includes a description of an imaginary, perfect galley. This is a location within which the diversity of art works can find some kind of architecturally assured order or as Agamben says, appropriating the saline, nautical tang of the text: ‘It seems that for Boschini, his imaginary gallery is in some way the most concrete space of painting, a sort of ideal connecting fabric that is able to ensure a unitary foundation to the disparate creations of the artists’ genius, as though, once abandoned to the stormy sea of painting, they could reach dry land only on the perfectly set up scene of this virtual theatre’ (MWC 32) One can sense here the pre-cursor of the modern style of galleries reified most recently in the naming of the White Cube gallery in Hoxton. This provision of a fabric contravenes the law of proximity to be found in the Wunderkammer in that it replaces a syntax of display, each work coming to meaning in relation to its proximate works, and invokes instead a diction of display, each work displayed as a single word surrounded by space. Proximity, the very basis of the synecdochic power of the Wunderkammer, is replaced by separation, the basis of the modern, metaphoric space of the museum. The museum, it transpires, is yet another material manifestation of the prevalence of scission within metaphysics.

Two other qualities of Boschini’s imaginary gallery become important to Agamben. The first is the fact that Boschini is so convinced of the importance of gallery space to the monstration of art that ‘he even compares the paintings sleeping in the halls of the gallery to balms, which, in order to acquire their full power, have to rest in glass containers’ (MWC 32). Agamben speculates that similar assumptions, that art is edifying only when matured under glass, is behind the modern practice of sending art directly from the hand of the artist to the hall of the museum. {insert quote from art magazine here]. This aside, the rise of the museum, better to term it the transformation of the museum from seat of learning, through cabinet of wonder, to hall of preservation, is indicative of the essential Heideggerian assumption behind Agamben’s, and indeed contemporary philosophy’s, central theory of modern art:

What is certain, at any rate, is that the work of art is no longer, at this point, the essential measure of man’s dwelling on earth, which, precisely because it builds and makes possible the act of dwelling, has neither an autonomous sphere nor a particular identity, but is a compendium and reflection of the entire human world. On the contrary, art has now built its own world for itself (MWC 33)

Or to put it on Hegelian terms, art is no longer the sensible presentation of the idea, but is the sensible presentation of the idea of sensible presentation. The museum breaks open the syntax of the cabinet, smashes its glass frontage, and displays the objects therein alone, in a hall, surrounded by space, to be ogled and appreciated merely because, in effect, they are in the museum.
This almost cruel ostracism of art leads Agamben to the second quality of modern art to be found in the inception of the art gallery, that of distanciation. ‘Consigned to the atemporal aesthetic dimension of the Museum Theatrum’, while the work will retain indeed increase its double aura (metaphysical and financial) the actual space of the work will, Agamben predicts, dissolve so that it will come to resemble the convex mirror Boschini wished to hang in his gallery, ‘where,’ he says with satisfaction, ‘the object, instead of coming closer, steps backward, it its advantage’ (MWC 33). These Works Are Fragile! Do Not Touch! No Flash Photography Please! Do Not Feed The Exhibits! The result of this is a paradox that Agamben simultaneously delights in and bewails, namely the logic of apotropaicism: ‘We believe, then, that we have finally secured for art its most authentic reality, but when we try to grasp it, it draws back and leaves us empty-handed’ (MWC 33). Unless, of course, we buy an imprinted postcard, mug, tea-towel, T-Shirt, set of underwear in the gift shop, in which case we can own the work, as many copies as we like.

One cannot help thinking that the long journey to the first and last art, art as art, is to be located in these three metaphoric spaces. In its first existence as the seat of the muses, the museum is nothing other than the zone of poetic dictation, and one has no interest in the manifestation of art as in object, but only as a means of knowing the truth. Here the museum is really the seat of the muses, if one takes the muse in Agamben’s sense as dictation. The museum is the space where poiesis facilitates the coming to presence of truth. This is symbolised precisely, I believe, in the difference between the library and the museum. The library requires thought whereas the gallery merely requires your spectating presence. The second space is that of the cabinet. For the first time the museum is a place of objects not ideas, and they are located under glass because they are rare, auratic, precious and singular. Yet they are held within a single, metonymic, syntax: the cabinet. They are not so much objects of curiosity as curious objects demonstrating a compendium of the wonders of God’s creation: nature. In an odd way, much like the monster in literature and art, their uncanniness does not undermine transmissibility, but further confirms it. Like Agamben’s Homo Sacer, these cabinets are held in a necessary zone of indistinction the better to secure nature’s sovereign, unified diversity. Two facts Agamben neglects to mention in relation to the collapse of the cabinet in favour of our third symbolic space, the theatre, are traceable directly to the Enlightenment: the rise of science and of universal rights. The objective classificatory systems of science replace fairly rapidly the compendia of earlier traditions, so that by the time the surrealists begin to revive the tradition with their own Wunderkammer of objets trouvees, it is precisely not to provide compendia but wild juxtapositions of items which is the main concern. Taxonomy has replaced the compendium and the Wunderkammer become ideological tools to preserve in perpetuity objects which are torn from their taxonomic syntaxes and forced into new a-syntactical, tabular and thus effectively poetic metaphoric juxtapositions. While at the same time the decision to make the Louvre free to all several days a decade, converted the rights of private ownership into that or the public good. Museum’s ceased to be closed collections and the doors of the gabinetto were thrown wide open for all to peer inside. This strikes one as the aporia at the heart of any Heideggerian theory of aesthetic transmissibility, for the modern museum, source of the collapse of arts dwelling amongst us, seems to result from precisely the accessibility of art to all.

I have already hinted at a continuing, mutating life for the Wunderkammer in modern art through the work of the surrealists. For them, however, what is placed in a box behind glass is not a compendium or some form of digest or epitome. The origin of the word epitome resides in the Greek to cut but, like compendium, it also retains the meaning of miniaturisation. In contrast, the effect of the modern, surreal cabinet is, of course, anamorphic gigantism rather than perfectly proportional miniaturisation. The juxtaposition of two objects produces a metaphor charge between the two greater than the sum of the parts. Artistic versions of this can be seen, for example, in the famous Lobster phone where the two objects placed together have a profound, aesthetic anamorphism or gestalt. This was never the intention of the cabinet of wonder and, in fact, this is not the feature of the cabinet that is retained by the greatest exponent of the work behind glass we have ever known, supposed surrealist Joseph Cornell.

Under Glass
Cornell’s assemblages do not benefit, on the whole, from the gestalt of alienating juxtaposition, the greatest development of the modernist arts, but rather sustain a greater uncanniness due to their medieval origins. They create microcosmic unities that are unsettling, rather than macrocosmic isolations and subsequent recombinations. The influence of Cornell on the contemporary art scene can be felt strongly in the preponderance of vitrines and taxonomic art works of which the most significant practitioner is Damian Hirst. That the most ‘influential’ artist of the present moment should be an adept of the glass cabinet and its more sculptural outcropping the vitrine should first to be traced back to Koons before noting how in Hirst the majority of his attention is given to the content of the box rather than boxing itself. While this content can be controversial, divided calves and sharks, it can also be staid and taxonomic, shells, giving a clue as to the true genius of works that are not destined to appear behind glass in a museum, but which incorporate glass and the very staging of the Theatrum pittoricum.

Three works by Cornell, who was far from prolific, present us with the vital link between the Wunderkammer and the theatre space of the contemporary vitrine. The first of these, ‘Pharmacy’, provides a clear line of influence from Boschini to Hirst. It displays behind a glass fronted cabinet door a modernist grid in the form of four glass shelves each then bisected by glass partitions resulting in twenty cells or [cabins within the cabinet.] In each cabin is a glass specimen jar containing a single object or class of objects: shells, minerals, butterfly wings, what looks like gold. Here, almost as if Cornell knew of Boschini, which seems almost impossible to think, precious balms have been placed under glass so as to attain power over time. In some senses a form of ready-made, in that it reproduces the industrial fittings of an actual Pharmacy, the difference here between Duchamp and Cornell is the emphasis on the craftsmanship, the techne, which Cornell has applied to the work. In some senses this is the archetypal Cornell work and, perhaps, one of the forgotten masterpieces of modernism encapsulating, indeed subdividing and displaying, the very condition of an art in a world where art no longer has its dwelling amongst us on earth. Art is, instead, on a wall, subdivided and, most importantly, behind glass.

In a slightly later work, ‘Cockatoo and Corks’, Cornell comes closer to the surrealist side of his surrealist-constructivist affinities with a clear juxtaposition of objects placed under glass. The cut-out image of the Cockatoo occupies the majority of the top cabin in the work which occupies around two thirds of the total cabinet. Even so it feels cramped in there. In its beak the bird holds a string attached to the door of an embedded cabin attached to the top right of the cabinet, pent inside of which are several corks. The door of this sub-cabinet is divided into four sections. Corks litter the floor of the Cockatoo’s cage/cabin, and the architecture of its restricted life, perch, feeding station and so on, are primarily fashioned from cork. In the lower cabin of the cabinet, we find a complex of subdivisions totalling seven cabins of varying shape and size. The central cabin, that largest, holds the machinery of a musical box. The cabin to the right communicates with the home of the bird by means of a cork which passes through the dividing ‘floor’ to the habitat above. In the remaining cells are what resemble pill boxes and a few more corks. While the relationship between the bird and the corks remains mysterious to me in that I have never been drawn to the caging of flying or for that matter scampering beings—perhaps corks once used for the bird to chew much like cuttlefish bones—the dominant effect is the complex syntax of the work. The various divisions of cabins into sub-cabins, of miniature cabinets within cabinets, as well as the stratification of the work into foreground, subground and inserted ground not only add to the effect of claustrophobia, but make one engage with a reading of the interior world of the cabinet. It is, in effect, a sophisticated architectural vision of a form of museum.

These two rather different works come together for me in the sparse and thus, for the desubjectivised critical spectator, provocative ‘Window Fa├žade’. Here the cabinet of ‘Pharmacy’ appears to have been raided and the content of six shelves subdivided into four making thirty cabins have been looted. While in this box the shelves and walls are not glass as was the case in ‘Pharmacy’, each cabin is fronted by its own piece of glass a small number of which have suffered shivering or impact fractures. It feels as if junkies had raided the pharmacy, or the people had finally looted the Louvre. I find it a somewhat terrifying work. Away from the sentimentality of the found objects that occupy much of Cornell’s work, Benjaminian objects of lingering aura such as old photographs and excerpts from provincial publications, this piece has a much sharper vision. The cabinets of our imagination and of our institutions have been attacked, and the things held inside have been imbibed, stolen, broken, or maybe just flew away. It is Cornell’s masterpiece, impossibly moving and enigmatic.

Taken together these three works provide a fascinating illustration and development of Agamben’s theory of the museum. The first literalises the adoption of a industrial and scientific paradigm, that of the medicine cabinet, to represent the new status of the art object when placed under glass by modern means of isolation, classification and democracy. The second presents the possibility of a complex, constructivist visual rhythm of the procedure, suggesting that the very act of vetrification could be the source of aesthetic power. A dream most fully realised in a work such as Hirst’s astonishing ‘Mother and Child’ and then left to drain away in his recent works. Finally, the third has an almost Messianic edge to it. We arrive at the cabinet of wonder when all the exhibits have been lost to carelessness, greed, events, lack of vision, or simply time. This is a haunting work in which the very hall of the museum has, lacking exhibits, becomes itself the exhibit, much in the way the turbine hall has become the most powerful visual experience of any visit to Tate Modern, or the exterior of the Guggenheims regularly outstrip the collections held within as we rapidly run out of masterpieces to show in them.

Poetry, as yet, is not kept in a museum. Not that there are not literary museums, but as yet poetry remains free from glass. This may not be for long. Of all the literary arts poetry is most under threat by modern publishing, reading and even academic habits. Even I, co-keeper of the Archive of the Now, have an office full of thin volumes that I will never have the time or inclination to read. They are each, for me, a kind of terrible and admonishing cabinet, for the only thing worse for art than being kept under glass is being held between covers, unseen by any but the most professional and obsessive eye. Poetry is, like the majority of the visual art works in the world today, already in the archive. If the modern art work suffers the contracted transaction from production to display and preservation, passing from the studio directly to the gallery, literature runs the risk of an even more deadly transaction, from the study to the archive.

If poetry is the archetypal western art, and the act of museumification or vetrification is the archetypal modernist aesthetic gesture, there must be some link between poetry and the gallery. As we will see, Agamben traces this link through Baudelaire and the fetish, but poets are in general figures of catholic tastes with time on their hands and perhaps drawn by the fiduciary promise of a modern ut pictora poiesis, they often wander into galleries and studios. Auden of course famously wrote 'Musee Des Beaux Arts', while in Williams’ Paterson a flood bursts into the library and washes all away. These two represent two modes by which poets enter the gallery, either in reverence, witness Bishop’s wonderful ‘descriptions’ of art works, or with nihilistic intentions. During the hey day of the New York School, many works were written about the complex relationship between the visual and written arts. Of these, Ashbery’s ‘Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror’ remains one of the most sustained considerations of ut pictora poiesis ever written and, due to Ashbery’s admiration for Cornell, leads us towards some closing words on art behind glass.

Ut Pictora Poiesis

‘Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror’ is Ashbery’s masterpiece work of 1975 for which he was awarded the three major literary prizes in America. Widely read as a consideration of postmodern issues pertaining to identity, self-reflexivity and representation, it consists of Ashbery’s reflections, literally, on the painting of the same name by the mannerist painter Parmigianino, now housed in Vienna. The use of a convex mirror, away from considerations of subjectivity, simulacra, and the like, also allows Ashbery to consider the inter-relation between creation, display and, of course, glass. Later we will come to consider the centrality of apotropaicism in Ashbery’s ‘Down by the Station Early in the Morning,’ a work that ends, as does this poem and also Ashbery’s Three Poems with an assault on, or at least exit from, the halls of display. Indeed across these three remarkable works Ashbery touches on the three zones of the history of art display as I have detailed them. In ‘Down by the Station’ it is a library, original seat of the muses, that the wrecking ball ventilates brutally. In Three Poems it is a theatre. While ‘Self-Portrait’ comes to an close with the exiting of an art gallery. In contrast to ‘Down by the station Early in the Morning’, which concludes on the aforementioned apotropaic gesture, ‘Self-Portrait’ commences precisely in the modern paradox that Agamben has noted of the way in which the work of art on display invites merely to push one away:

As Parmigianino did it, the right hand
Bigger than the head, thrust at the viewer
And Swerving easily away, as though to protect
What it advertises. (SP)

At the end of this long piece, as Ashbery seeks to quit the poem/museum/analogy (‘As Parmigianino did it’ being a classic statement of ut pictora poiesis), he returns again to this image of welcome/warning: ‘Therefore I beseech you, withdraw that hand, / Offer it no longer as shield or greeting, / The shield of greeting…’. What is fascinating here is the means by which Ashbery conflates the apotropaic with the anamorphism of the modern museum. The hand is literally looming out of the work, although not yet as the beginning of a progression from the Renaissance to modern art that one can detect in the mannerists for, as Ashbery points out, the anamorphic hand is actually the result of acute observation or a realistic depiction of optics. That said, it is a harbinger of what is to come on the surfaces of Picasso or the narrative of Molly Bloom. The hand here, master metonym for the creative process, is both pushed out of the compendia of this small painted masterpiece, and also provides the complex distanciation of a post-assimilable art, that which invites one into the gallery precisely to display the unassailable alienation of the modern art work.

Ashbery is a creator-spectator throughout the poem in his complex reworking of ut pictora poiesis which is, in effect, the absolutely correct interpretation of the phrase through a full understanding of what poiesis actually means. Like the poem which could be a useful companion to this work, O’Hara’s “Why I am not a painter”, Ashbery and his friend both understand that any similarity between poetry and painting comes not from a comparison of the finished work, which is not to say that paintings and poems do not share aesthetic commonalities, but through the act of working or making. For poiesis means not the making of an object but the act of coming to truth through making and it is this which Ashbery the postmodernist shares with Parmigianino the post-Renaissance mannerist. Ashbery, therefore, as observer-creator, exists in the same space as the figures of Frenhofer and the nephew in being both the artist alienated from poiesis by the Ut or spectatorship, and the spectator able to present the perfect critique of the work of art which, however, as a poet not a painter, he could never hope to emulate. This is the most full investigation, therefore, of the much abused syntagm ut pictora poiesis combining, as it does, creation, observation and alienating separation. Parmigianino is not the first painter to use or even to depict a mirror, but he is the first to use a distorting mirror and as such he too becomes a self-alienating, desubjectivised creator-spectator. Ashbery hints at this in a contradictory interpretation of the painting as both modernist museum and medieval cabinet of wonder. At first he exhorts,

But your eyes proclaim
That everything is surface. The surface is what’s there
And nothing can exist except what’s there.
There are no recesses in the room, only alcoves
And the window doesn’t matter much…

This distinction is a troubling one for in fact an alcove is defined as being a type of recess. That said to recess means to go deep while an alcove is itself a shallow, vaulted space. Recess is the result of perspective, while an alcove is an anamorphic space or vaulting as the result of distortion perhaps. Remarkably, Boschini’s work (and of all modern writers Ashbery is perhaps the most likely to know of this obscure work) describes almost word for word the effect of distorting flat space into a false recess to which Ashbery refers here: ‘The work on the ceilings, which are flat, molds them into arches, and transforms them into vaults. Thus he gives to concave spaces the look of flat ones…’ (MWC 32). What Ashbery is clearly alluding to in his comment on the recess-less alcoves of painted space is that the painting is a realistic portrayal of the effects of light on surface, the mirror, so that literally there is no perspective here as the painter is copying a surface not actual space. Here he seems to dismiss the metaphoric potentials of the cabinet with its recesses and glass frontages for a form of display that is entirely reflective, negating poem as capacious stanza in favour of the surface aesthetic of the visual arts. Yet he goes on to conclude ‘I see in this only the chaos / Of your round mirror which organizes everything / Around the polestar of your eyes which are empty’. The picture, therefore, is a cabinet of wonder still, a compendium of potential chaos organised not on the side by side proximity of what is displayed, but in the modern nothingness of the artist’s gaze. For how can a self-portrait be contained in a Wunderkammer, whose precise purpose is desubjectivization in the face of God’s world. Here, rather, we witness desubjectivization in the face of man’s own ingenious self-reflective creation.

About midway through the poem, Ashbery becomes less concerned with the solipsism of subjectivity and surface, and moves rather through the contested hallways of several institutions and city locations that mark the complex history of production and reception for this particular work. The first of these is Rome, ‘where Francesco / Was at work during the Sack: his inventions / Amazed the soldiers who burst in on him; / They decided to spare his life’. Having been saved by the wondrous power of his invention the artist’s life is spared. The poet then speaks of Vienna, where he first saw the work in 1959, and then ‘New York / Where I am now’, producing a complex of temporal and spatial shifts to further add to the rich soup of the poem’s reflection on the act of invention through epochs and layers of reflection and display. As he says of this complex syntax, itself a kind of cabinet of wonders, ‘Our landscape / Is alive with filiations, shuttlings’. This being the case when he finally comes to occupy the gallery space, it is hard to state at which point in time he is and, increasingly, whether the spatial co-ordinates are real, imagined, remembered, or a comment on a space contained within the image in question:

Yet the ‘poetic,’ straw-colored space
Of the long corridor that leads back to the painting,
Its darkening opposite—is this
Some figment of ‘art’, not to be imagined
As real, let alone special? Hasn’t it too its lair…?

This darkening corridor mirrors in negative the looming anamorphism of the painter’s hand suggesting an alternative depth to the poetic in contrast to that of painting. The space of the museum becomes, here, overlaid with precisely the dark qualities of poetry—linearity, depth, darkness, memory, imagination, figuration and realism—resulting in the museum itself becoming, not so much the dwelling place of art displaced as we saw from its dwelling on earth amongst us, as art itself. This corridor becomes transformed in the dark arts of poetic, associative thinking into the temporal flow of the present, the tension between the now of reception and the then of his first encounter with the work and before that its invention being felt across the whole of the poem’s cabinet form. This multiform space, first corridor, then lair, then water way, ‘as the waterwheel of days / Pursues its uneventful, even serene course?’, is eventually made to speak:

I think it is trying to say it is today
And we must get out of it even as the public
Is pushing through the museum now so as to
Be out by closing time. You can’t live there.

We are left with the same profound, modern anamorphic apatropaicism we began with when Francesco’s hand loomed out of reality/the painting/memory/time, both inviting us and warning us to stay away. The corridor leading into the gallery where the work is held behind the glass of the Viennese Theatrum pittoresco, at first leads us back to the painting for one last glance, yet at the same time it is an institutional space. The museum will close and we must be out of there before it does. Just as the soldiers of the Sack were allowed brief entrance into the cabinet of Francesco’s inventive wonders, so we too, the hoards of modern spectators, are allowed a glimpse of the truth of art, before we are expelled and the glass case closed on the cabinet against the gathering dust and degradation of time. Such a sad confession the artist makes at this point: marvellous though the corridors of art are, we are only welcome as visitors. Never forget, he seems to warn, that while we can sit on the seat of the muses for an epoch or more, we are in effect only keeping it warm for their return. So settle down in the gabinetto of the wonders of modern art, but don’t become too comfortable. One day poiesis will return to its dwelling, and all we interlopers in the corridors of creation, will be flushed out onto the streets.


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John Ashbery, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror
(Manchester: Carcanet, 1977)
First Published (New York: Viking, 1975)

Close Readings and annotations of every poem in the collection March-April 1997 in preparation for In the Process of Poetry: The New York School and the Avant-Garde (Bucknell UP, 2001)


· Shoptaw notes that this return to poetry is dominated by images of waiting, that narrative (especially fairy-tale) returns, as do the musically based titles, there are no prose poems and no fixed forms such as sonnets of pantoums, most are free verse paragraphs, also bring forward a new American speech, more direct and inclusive.

“As One Put Drunk into a Packet-Boat”, 1-2

· Shoptaw notes this was the original title for the collection, marking a self-consciously Romantic return to poetry, recording the thoughts of “I” from afternoon to night, just outside a childhood country home. Has a pastoral crisis narrative in that a summer storm gathers but passes leaving the poet relieved i…

Deleuze, Difference and Repetition

For a long time I have felt that poetics has not taken into consideration a great deal written about issues pertaining to difference and repetition to be found in contemporary philosophy. As poetry's whole energy and dynamic is based on a fundamental relation to differential versus repeated units of sense (sense both in terms of meaning and the sensible), any work on difference and repetition would be welcome. That some of the greatest thinkers of the age, notably Deleuze and Derrida, have made both issues core to their whole philosophical systems is so remarkable that poetics is impoverished if it does not fully acknowledge this.

Not that I am one to talk. Although I am aware of the centrality of Deleuze's work to postmodern poetry, I have as yet not been able to really address this but in Poetry Machines I began that work at least. In preparation for the few hundred words I wrote there, here are the 10,000 words I annotated in preparation.

Deleuze, Gilles. Difference and …

John Ashbery, Some Trees

John Ashbery, Some Trees
(New York: Corinth Books, 1970)
Originally published (New York: 1956)

Close Readings and annotations of every poem in the collection March-April 1997 in preparation for In the Process of Poetry: The New York School and the Avant-Garde (Bucknell UP, 2001) currently in the process of complete update (2013)

"Two Scenes," 9

This is a poem about duality so in this sense the title actually refers to what the poem is ‘about’. John Shoptaw notes, for example, the phonic mirroring of the poem which he sees as an element later phased out as is the “linear introversion” to be found here. Thus we have the following phonic recurrences: “we see us as we”; “Destiny...destiny”; “News...noise”; “”; “-y” and rhymes of section 2; and “...old man/...paint cans”.

This simple but subtle semiotic device is then developed structurally as well, as the title hints. So ‘scene’ 2 reflects back internally onto ‘scene’ 1. “Machinery” recalls the train as does the canal; g…