Elisabeth Frost: on Rachel Blau DuPlessis

  Elisabeth A. Frost
  Fordham University, New York City, NY.

  The Arte Povera of Graphic Novella

  JPR 06

Paragraph One follows: — 1:

It is fitting that Graphic Novella is entirely black and white, printed on matte paper (no glossy plates), in familiar, large dimensions: eight and a half by eleven inches. [See Endnote 1] DuPlessis’s points of departure are found materials, especially newspaper, with its particular print generated — we come to intuit — somewhere at the juncture between analog and digital technologies. There are cut-up photographs, from various eras over the past several decades. There are bits of string, bits of fabric. From this physicality arises discussion of the materiality not just of the work of art but of its components themselves.


DuPlessis reflects on glue (‘adhesion’), on her own acts of juxtaposition, and on the procedures involved in layering bits of papers and found artifacts, all literally cut and pasted onto pages. At the same time, the artist’s awareness of changing technologies enters in through conversations with friends and colleagues about just how to construct these text-image collages. What about Photoshop? one friend asks (100). Right — why not cut to the digital chase?


One simple answer is that DuPlessis’s collage work — her method — predates those technologies. She has dated her first experiments with collage to the mid-1960s. But although this work continued sporadically (in evidence, for example, on several of her book covers), DuPlessis didn’t begin a real practice — a commitment to making collage — until the early 2000s.


In 2002, she called a notebook devoted to visual work her ‘Fed Up Collage Book — fed up with not doing this yet’ (‘Desiring Visual Texts’). So this work is at once longstanding and a long time coming. It also needs to be said that DuPlessis has in fact been doing this work all along, since collage method and aesthetics inform all of DuPlessis’s work, from her early poems to the recent publication of The Collage Poems of Drafts.


Still, the choices made in Graphic Novella signify far more than either practical considerations (access to software, knowledge to use it, simple stubbornness) or the weight of longstanding practice. This work created through literal cutting and pasting offers a subtle critique, as well as a tribute to, the pre-digital modernist artists whose archaic methods DuPlessis borrows. [A note on Fluxus: “In 1963, an artist named George Maciunas put forward a rallying cry for a new movement in art, one that he would call “Fluxus.” Like many of his avant-garde predecessors and peers, he chose to make his case known in the form of a manifesto. The document was itself a work of art, composed of several dictionary definitions of the word “flux,” from which Fluxus takes its name, followed by handwritten notes that expanded on its various meanings. Beneath the entry defining flux as a purging or discharge of fluids, Maciunas wrote in an insistent hand: “Purge the world of bourgeois sickness, ‘intellectual,’ professional & commercialized culture, PURGE the world of dead art, imitation, artificial art, abstract art, illusionistic art, mathematical art, — PURGE THE WORLD OF ‘EUROPANISM’!”… Fluxus’s spirit of rebellion against the commercial art market, elitism, and the conventions of both art and society had its roots in Dada, Futurism, and Surrealism, while its irreverence and youthful energy were in tune with the burgeoning counterculture of the 1960s.” For more, see What is Fluxus? at www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-fluxus-movement-art-museums-galleries.]


It matters deeply that these pages are cousins to collages by Picasso or Schwitters, more than they are related to any late twentieth-century conceptual art or contemporary large-scale digital prints. It matters that the old-fangled methods register with a reader/viewer as themselves the content of the work. The reason is not nostalgia — quite the opposite.


Through the texts enmeshed in and/or glossing each collage, DuPlessis historicizes method. Even as she draws our attention to her love for the earliest pioneers of collage, she also conducts a critique of the more damaging strains of modernism still manifest in contemporary culture and politics. DuPlessis develops this critique in reference to several movements, but one — whose methods and idioms differed dramatically from their modernist precursors — is especially resonant: Arte Povera.


In reaction to the formalism of 1960s Minimalism — and to Minimalism’s modernist precursors — the artists associated with Arte Povera often employed common materials, from rocks and soil to fabric scraps and industrial metals. These non-aesthetic materials worked to critique the fetishism of ever-marketable, high culture objets. Their non-representational works point to the ephemeral: for one thing, these materials are the opposite of archival. But they also highlight natural and time-based processes (from natural decay to the effects of fire) over notions of completion or ‘perfection’ — dailiness over the quest for aesthetic transcendence.


In this way, performance and unorthodox installations reflected a non-commercial and ephemeral, experience-based art, while even more permanent objects shared the emphasis on unlike materials meeting in surprising juxtaposition. A golden circle of wax shimmers on a lead sheet in a mid-1980s wall relief by Jannis Kounellis, creating an assemblage at once flat and sculptural, sublime and mundane. In an early work by Alighiero Boetti, ‘Untitled (Invitation),’ similarly unorthodox materials (fabric, plexiglass, cork, polymer tubing, electric wire) are categorized and labeled in a grid; again the assemblage confounds genre, designed for wall hanging, yet marked in its dimensionality, gesturing at formalism while undercutting it. [See Endnote 2]


For DuPlessis, such methods are hardly new. The notion of inviting dailiness into the artist’s work, as well as its participatory reception, has been an ongoing part of her practice since she first began Drafts, and it informs all of her work as a poet-critic and feminist theorist. But since completing the 26-year project of Drafts, DuPlessis seems even more dedicated to embracing the ‘interstitial’ nature of being, writing, and making. The poems in the volume Interstices take the form of ‘ledgers’ and ‘letters,’ which simultaneously capture particular moments of address and, at the same time, reflect on the author’s lifelong committment to poetry and cultural criticism.


Here, as in Graphic Novella, there is a keen sense of DuPlessis’s fascination with the mail art movement and especially with the irreverent and innovative work of Ray Johnson. The playful, even whimsical, tone of the poems is integral to their rhetoric — they are documents in a dialogue. DuPlessis has noted the particular influence of mail art on all her collage. The extraordinary poem Draft 94: ‘Mail Art’ is also a testament to this longstanding influence and to DuPlessis’s engagement with a pre-digital, snail-mail aesthetics — one devoted to literal artistic exchanges.


But to my eye, the dual sources of constructivism and Arte Povera are even more crucial to an understanding of DuPlessis’s project in Graphic Novella. In contrast to the lyric quality of Draft 94: ‘Mail Art’ and the poems of Interstices, and likewise in contrast to the gorgeously-hued Churning the Ocean of Milk (DuPlessis’s chapbook-length collage poem that takes as points of departure a Hindu creation myth and the author’s journey to Cambodia), Graphic Novella is, as its title suggests, more reliant on the broad gestures of graphic arts and more prose-like in its deployment of text.


The book is hardly narrative — in this sense, it is stubbornly neither a ‘graphic novel’ nor a ‘novella.’ And although the collages themselves might well have incorporated color in their originals, for the sake of these pages, the book enthusiastically embraces its black-and-white aesthetic and its constructivist roots: its allusions are to the early twentieth century origins of collage and to the grittiness of newsprint.


In this way, our traveling companions are devices that would have been quite familiar to Schwitters (named by DuPlessis as a particularly strong influence). Several wrist watches — contemporary in style but all with traditional ‘face’ and ‘hands,’ rather than the numerals that indicate a digital format — remind us of ancient tropes (tempus fugit) by way of modernist motifs (Dali’s melting clocks, say). Similarly, we repeatedly encounter a camera, aimed pointedly toward us or toward objects within the field of the collage, as if reminding us of our work as viewers, our implication in the work of art, and the now-lengthy history of photography as a technology.


One pair of Canons ‘frames’ the following self-conscious text (the more so, via quotation marks): ‘ “calls attention to constructedness…” ’ /“constitutes the viewer” / etc.’ The lengthy text on the facing page expands the zone of serious play: ‘Canons face each other and shoot,’ DuPlessis wryly notes: ‘And yet these lenses face only each other. What are they depicting — only each other’s mise en abyme? Or are they aimed at you? […] Or perhaps these lenses are like two tanks. Artillery across the trenches of the viewed viewers’ (36).


Even the technology of war alluded to here is archaic — trenches, artillery — evoking the first world war rather than drone attacks. This pre-digital series of images in Graphic Novella reminds us of layered histories — of emerging and outmoded technologies, of attendant aesthetic debates, and of the frightening impact of violent conflicts. This reference to the historical period of the first collage artists perhaps aligns us as well with some of the more emotionally unresolved notes in Graphic Novella: ‘Every act is an act in the poetics of yearning,’ DuPlessis reflects (18).


As low-tech as a watch, the news in Graphic Novella also comes via print, not screens. [See Endnote 3] News itself functions as material, much like the handwritten portions of the collages, which hearken back to an embodied page that DuPlessis has explored since the very beginnings of Drafts in the volume Tabula Rosa.[See Endnote 4] In this way, Graphic Novella reveals DuPlessis’s devotion to what she calls ‘the materiality of the materials’ (‘Desiring Visual Texts’). Newspaper functions as waste revivified through salvage: found material.


An experience familiar to anyone who has unpacked a box of old possessions is recounted in a note explaining the source of a 2002 obituary that DuPlessis cites: ‘I had used the newspaper page […] eleven years ago to wrap a breakable. Just now, I opened it’ (60). The ‘now’ of the poet-artist’s reality becomes our own, even as the news is dated and documented, acknowledged as ‘the past,’ not the lyric present.


Such brief but linguistically adept moves align with DuPlessis’s account of her collage process: “Re-contextualizing ‘the scavenged,”’ she engages in ‘the transposition of junk. The picking up of packaging, ripping it randomly. An a-consumeristdétournement.’ With her commitment to ‘the recycling element,’ both aesthetic and ethical, she states a straightforward desire: ‘I want the debris, the refuse’ (‘Desiring Visual Texts’).


In this context, consider these gorgeous lines from Draft 111: ‘Arte Povera’:



present themselves
as if prescient
about their own responsibility
to resist abandonment.
They will address
the imprint of our time:
interpreting its murky path
with the force of their postulates
about the unfinished. (Surge 125)


This is the ‘matter’ of Graphic Novella, rendered in more lyrical terms — the mundane stuff that resists ‘abandonment,’ the junk that we overlook, though it bears the ‘imprint of our time.’ Arte Povera, devoted to discarded scraps and fragments, to detritus, thrived on assembling such ‘envoys’ of time’s passage. In this way, it is a riposte to the spare formalism of the Minimalist years. Similarly, DuPlessis’s self-reflexive assemblages veer more toward deliberate excess, as the constructions on most of the recto pages become fodder for glosses on the verso pages, mostly comprised of text only.


The self-commentary is ‘meta’ on more than on level: ‘How to write?’ DuPlessis asks, segueing immediately into a ‘reading’ of the accompanying collage on the facing page: ‘But the very letters are coming loose! A ball of gibberish falls out. Is that thing on the bottom a clue or a clew? This a detective story? It says it is’ (and indeed ‘it’ does: ‘This whole book now is going to be a detective story of how to write,’ reads a typeset line within the collage ([26-27]). As a linguistic version of Arte Povera — a language-object testifying to the ephemeral — DuPlessis’s text offers another ‘clue’ by way of further self-reference: ‘Say instead that this is graphic. This is a novella. The eternal is a hopeless rag. The symmetrical an already rejected goal.’ Yes, emphatically so — this work is aesthetically graphic, unassuming in genre (hence the almost-feminized term ‘novella,’ rather than the hefty and masculine ‘novel’), a ‘rag’ made of its own scraps, which themselves relegate ‘the eternal’ to the trash heap. In this way DuPlessis perpetually lets us in, lets us play, and gives pride of place to the fleeing and the flown.


Which brings me to my final point: the now that is not nostalgic, that is in fact replete with the devastations of war and ecological disaster — all of which must be part of the work as well, part of its ethical imperative, its witness (or, as DuPlessis puts it in a wonderfully warm pun, its ‘withness’). Arte Povera rejected the preciousness of modernist formalism and the pretension of archival materials in order to bear witness to its present moment; DuPlessis brings the low-tech collage methods she honors into dialogue with a bleak contemporary cultural and political landscape.


A series of collages (and facing texts) meditate on the effects of PTSD and a related but distinct syndrome, called moral injury, wrought by the Iraq War (86-88, 94-5). Ecological disaster surfaces, terrifyingly, along with the ongoing challenges and losses resulting from the Fukushima disaster and the dangers of fracking (102-4, 111). Following a list of woes worthy of the end of days (glaciers melting, pesticides perhaps causing autism, shooting sprees, the ‘whole country [gone] crazy’), a pair of rhetorical questions creates a sharp pun through juxtaposition with a collage of three watches on top of one another on the facing page: ‘When to do the work of understanding and repairing? Is there time?’ (103).


In such stark meeting of ‘traditional’ collage methods with contemporary crises, our current horrors are unexpectedly contextualized through the very ‘historical’ means that DuPlessis employs: that is, in hearkening back to early modernism, DuPlessis digs up the roots of the present in the past. We learn of the influence of Le Corbusier’s modernist vision for cities on the architects of apartheid (106). It was, in fact, his philosophy that ushered in a generation’s worth of destruction (‘urban renewal’) in New York and Philadelphia — both homes, past or present, to DuPlessis — as well as other cities in the 1960s, engineered by autocrats like Robert Moses, who obliterated whole neighborhoods in an economic and racial ‘cleansing’ whose devastation continues to this day.


DuPlessis (one of our keenest scholars of modernism) encounters Le Corbusier in the District 6 Museum and Information Center in Cape Town, where his views are invoked in a 1976 document: his ‘“re-vitalising process,”’ with its “Surgical Method” and ‘“cleared ground,”’ provided a rationale for the National Party’s implementation of apartheid in South Africa. ‘This is one of the origins of the townships,’ DuPlessis notes, and sums up tersely: ‘A certain kind of modernism has a lot to answer for’ (106).


Indeed. And in this way DuPlessis assiduously avoids nostalgia. Finally, Graphic Novella inquires less into the aesthetics of collage — which it embraces — than into its ethics. By commenting on her own methods, and by layering documented historical moments within the work, DuPlessis shows by counter-example what it means not to do so — to remove context, to resituate found artifacts in a ‘purely’ aesthetic gesture.


Graphic Novella begins almost deceptively, with a series of self-reflexive assemblages that leave us unprepared for the moral punch in the second half of the book, when wit and playful composition yield to an interrogation into the legacies of ‘a certain kind of modernism,’ from Le Corbusier’s influence on the ‘theorists’ of apartheid to the post-consumer waste-scape of our current ecological disaster zones. By the end of Graphic Novella we are all too aware of the costs of various kinds of ‘doing business,’ from advertising to fracking — and of the dangers of an art that becomes complicit or complacent in the face of it.


In fact, what is Arte Povera but a response to the excesses of ‘a certain kind of modernism’? But DuPlessis herself has never needed that corrective: in contradistinction from its scope, Drafts was never driven by either ego or cultural pretension, embracing instead the provisional ongoingness captured in its title. In similar — and fitting — fashion, Graphic Novella eschews self-dramatization, even as it engages in self-reference. It is a profound act of cultural work that only DuPlessis could have given us.


And there is a further gift. In Graphic Novella. DuPlessis’s typical generosity allows for the full range of our human feelings, for all our affects to be engaged — for a certain emotional salvage to take place through wit, through pleasure, even in the face of crisis. Despite it all, as she puts it in Draft 111: ‘Arte Povera,’ ‘It is impossible to avoid / fractions of joy’ (Surge 123).


[Note 1] …Familiar to US residents, that is: the size of typical US-Letter-Size typing paper. Most other inhabitants of the world use A4 size typing paper: 210 by 297 millimetres, or 8.3 by 11.7 inches. Folk may look up the mathematical and cultural rationale behind the A paper sizes here: http://www.papersizes.org/default-tsta.htm?utm_expid=76296969-1417.4bVLtC1wRZm8nlOqDVQzSQ.1&utm_referrer=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.papersizes.org%2Fa-paper-sizes.htm

[Note 2] See Nancy Spector, Guggenheim Museum, https://www.guggenheim.org/artwork/2377, concerning Kounellis’s 1987 untitled work; see the Musem of Modern Art, https://www.moma.org/collection/works/95571?locale=en, on Boetti’s 1966-1967 work.

[Note 3] In fact, there is very little reference to digital technology in Graphic Novella. In addition to the brief mention of Photoshop, a computer monitor appears on only rare occasions (see, for example, p.61).

[Note 4] See my essay ‘Splayed Texts, Bodily Words: Serial Form and Handwriting in Feminist Poetics,’ which discusses work by DuPlessis, Kathleen Fraser, and Leslie Scalapino: The Contemporary Narrative Poem: Critical Cross-Currents, ed. Steven Schneider (Iowa, 2012), 221-244.

  Works Cited

DuPlessis, Rachel Blau. Churning the Ocean of Milk. Alligatorzine 169 (2014). http://www.alligatorzine.be/pages/151/zine160.html. Web.

——𔃀. Draft 94: ‘Mail Art.’ Jacket 37 (2009). http://jacketmagazine.com/37/ma00.shtml. Web

——𔃀. Graphic Novella. West Lima, WI: Xexoxial Editions. 2015. Print.

——𔃀. Interstices. Cambridge, MA: Subpress. 2014. Print.

——𔃀. Surge: Drafts 96-114. Cromer, Norfolk U.K.: Salt Publishing. 2013. Print.

DuPlessis, Rachel Blau and Maria Damon. ‘Desiring Visual Texts: A Collage and Embroidery Dialogue.’ Jacket2 (March 25, 2013). http://jacket2.org/article/desiring-visual-texts. Web.


A poet and critic, Elisabeth Frost is the author of The Feminist Avant-Garde in American Poetry (Iowa, 2003), All of Us: Poems (White Pine Press, 2011), the chapbooks Rumor (Mermaid Tenement, 2009) and A Theory of the Vowel (Red Glass Books, 2013), and Bindle. (Ricochet Editions, 2015, a collaboration with the artist Dianne Kornberg). She is co-editor of Innovative Women Poets: An Anthology of Contemporary Poetry and Interviews (Iowa, 2006), and her essays, reviews, and interviews have appeared in Contemporary Literature, Genders, How2, Postmodern Culture, and The Women’s Review of Books, as well as in many edited collections, including The Cambridge History of Modern American Women Poets, American Women Poets in the 21st Century; The News from Poems: Essays on 21st Century American Poetry of Engagement; and We Who Love to Be Astonished: Experimental Women’s Writing and Performance Poetics. Frost has received grants from the Rockefeller Foundation-Bellagio Center, the Fulbright Foundation, the University of Connecticut Humanities Institute, the MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, and others. Frost’s collaborations with the artist Dianne Kornberg have been shown at museums and galleries across the U.S. Frost is Professor of English and Women’s / Gender / Sexuality Studies at Fordham University (New York City), where she is founder and editor of the Poets Out Loud Prizes book series from Fordham Press.


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