Allegories of Painting

John Haber
in New York City

David Salle, Julião Sarmento, and Dosso Dossi

As I picked up the Friday Times, I could already taste the weekend. I wanted slow, easy days away from hard work and the winter sun. I wanted storytelling, but not too much heavy reading. Dosso Dossi's Melissa (Villa Borghese, c. 1515)

And you know, art had the same idea—only some critics call it allegory. I want to ask how the term applies and how it has changed. First, however, a quick weekend overview will help. From Dosso Dossi in the Renaissance to David Salle and Julião Sarmento, the tales have only grown stranger.

Away for the weekend

After twenty years of stardom, David Salle still "projects the distinct impression of being about ideas without offering a ready proof that any ideas are actually there." This, one understands, is nothing against Salle. It is, the Times insisted, "one of the most attractive things about his art." Was I still clinging to delusions of art's deep intentions? Museums, the paper suggested, gave them up long ago.

Julião Sarmento, a Portuguese artist, may or may not tell stories, too. His headless women appear trapped in interiors they never chose, like the lives they could not fashion or create. Their submission speaks of deadened feeling and sexual drama. The thick black line, set against stark, white canvas, lends poignancy to feminist outrage.

Or does it? "It would be a mistake," the Hirschhorn notes, "to simply ascribe literary motives or interpretations." The paintings are "too fragmented in their imagery, too indirect in their mode of representation." I have felt this way before, but I had better get used to it. "If a narrative underpins a Sarmento painting, it is one written deep in the imagination of the viewer."

Meanwhile the Met takes on Dosso Dossi, a rather minor Renaissance artist of, says the Times, "indecipherable sophistication." Forget the earthy style of such contemporaries as Jacob Bassano, with his Flight to Egypt. Dossi's gentle, streaky brushstrokes display "the perfect gift for the ineffable in nature." That gift extends right down to his wooden drawing and static poses. They suggest some kind of story, but their charm lies in bright colors, hazy sunlight, and an air of fantasy.

Dossi spins allegories that one interprets at one's peril, much like his greatest influence, Giorgione in Venice. Dossi, says one textbook, "tamed Giorgione's hostile nature." Giorgione, in turn, brought Giovanni Bellini into the High Renaissance. What poetry can explain forest scenes of clothed men and naked women? It could account for a cute little dog next to Dossi's enchantress. It might even make Salle's angels tolerable.

And then I thought of the most provocative allegories in town, in a New Museum retrospective of David Wojnarowicz. The artist, who died in 1992, loved stories. He made them feverishly, in every media from painting to video. He gave voice to AIDS sufferers, to an art world confronting censorship, and to an East Village scene on the edge of danger. And yet the stories never add up. The paintings have the deadening colors of comic strips.

The impulse and the dream

All these artists project the illusion of ideas, but there is no way out of this movie. Larger than a Jackson Pollock and centered higher off the ground, Salle's canvas functions as both screen and projector. Craig Owens, an influential theorist before his death in 1990, loved to invoke the movies, too. However, he preferred a different metaphor. He saw fine art's unity of form and meaning dissolving, as if in a film dissolve. But he called it the "allegorical impulse."

Reminded of a medieval Everyman as the image of God? Think again. Beginning with Robert Rauschenberg, Owens wrote, artists spin out image upon image, and these signs remain mere images. Art no longer reveals hidden connections, not even to see through them. Its "pathos," Owens argues, is that it makes connections impossible. But how can allegories take leave of the text, and who gets to set the moral?

To find out, take each artist a little more slowly. Salle has not changed his images, for one, but he has begun to accept them for what they are. They stay arbitrary conjunctions, but they do not make a fuss of fighting each other either. They even look pretty, if also pretty silly. When an angel hovers over half a painting's worth of white splotches, it does not trumpet the value of greeting cards or make fun of abstract painting. Grant them both their fifteen minutes of fame.

The works could be the postmodern equivalent of Jasper Johns, in his superb late, cryptic split images. Like Johns in gray, Salle both hides and flaunts the reflection on himself, and he, too, has come to love paint. Sure, the works may not stick in memory, but he accepts that, too. Memory would imply continuity.

Sarmento is more provocative, but he has a lot to overcome. The museum's exterior looks like a reinforced gun turret. I have fantasies of the Hirschhorn going to war against the Whitney's bunker. Inside, the floors hold surprisingly few galleries, almost always in the middle of a rehanging. Sure enough, despite the big banner out front, the exhibition fills only two rooms, in a small corner off the middling permanent collection.

It is a tribute to Sarmento that I still remember one sculpted figure. Bent achingly over a kitchen table, her flattened body merges with its iron shape. She raises the tough question of a man's role in feminism. She also brings alive the elusiveness of allegory.

Going to the dogs

Finally, take another look at Dosso Dossi. The Met knows how to trumpet greatness, and it treats him with the reverence of a master. Yet it, too, prefers in the end to stop making sense.

I find any Renaissance retrospective, even one as good as last year's of Filippino Lippi, a treat and yet also a disappointment. Inevitably, some major works cannot move from their site in Europe. The Met tends to hide its limitations, too, by selective attributions and wall labels. That happened for Lippi's father, Fra Filippo Lippi, one of the period's first and greatest. Here, however, the Met's strategy works. I left the show almost as dreamy as the paintings.

The Met takes into account how Dossi worked. Although roughly chronological, the show sets off different genres. A central room brings small panels together to suggest the grander commissions left back home. A final room then focuses on late works in collaboration with others. Their harsh lines and colors could represent a restorer's over-cleaning. Mostly, however, they help one grasp the particularity of Dossi's landscape style.

One sees how Dossi's literary bent and patronage led him to painting about the arts. Take that woman and her dog. They derive from Torquato Tasso's sixteenth-century epic poetry, which was to influence the English tradition as well through Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene. The woman, a sorceress, turns men into animals. And back then dogs meant hunting creatures, with a nastiness far from house pets.

This is an art of magic and transformation. It cannot look down on an animal, for the Renaissance sought truth in nature. The woman's dog looks silken and content. And she herself, clothed in radiant color, gazes upward to the sky.

Dossi identifies with both humanity and nature, because he fears them both. He also makes artistic truth hard to find. His art has the power to release men from bondage, like his tiny background figures recovering human form. At the same time, it immerses them in nature, in a shimmering landscape. It reflects on the arts of narrative and poetry, but it also hides its meanings from all but the few. Historians still debate over some of the myths and their meaning.

Politics outside history

Allegory used to mean something like Pilgrim's Progress. It gave every person's passage through ordinary life an eternal meaning. It made life simple and readable as well. Salle, Sarmento, and Dossi all flirt instead with nonmeaning. What explains the difference? Consider some changing accounts of allegory on the way to Owens's insights.

Romanticism had rejected allegory, because it rejected a realm of belief above everyday life. Life was too important to require a subtext. Madame Bovary's town, Flaubert declared, "is worth Constantinople." Prefer to imagine that I am talking about lords and not country people, George Eliot joked in Middlemarch? Go right ahead. But you can do so only because ordinary fools matter enough to stand for lords.

Writers like these understood the elitism inherent in allegory from the time of Dossi. They chose instead a single, seamless reality—until Modernism soon burst the seams. Walter Benjamin made the classic statement in The Origins of German Tragic Drama. He looked on allegory as a device, with a special historical context. Like Bertolt Brecht or modern painters, Benjamin wanted to make art and life alike a lot less self-evident. By positing a split between the most progressive art and its meaning, allegory could have subversive value.

Peter Bürger took the next step in the 1970s. He articulated a "theory of the avant-garde" that depended on disjunctions. The German critic developed a whole vocabulary of avant-garde devices. His list included montage, chance, and (yes) allegory. In a related move, Paul de Man found in poetry an "allegory of reading." In true postmodern fashion, he meant an allegory of the unreadable.

Owens kept the entirety of Bürger's civil code—of random events, fragmentary gestures, and allegory. Codes, the semiotician's text, in fact became the dominant conception of the image. Only they have nothing left to rebel against like a proper modern rebel, no magic in art other than meaning itself. Is there room left even for Dosso Dossi's self-conscious puzzles about art as poetry?

What, he asked, makes Rauschenberg's Allegory an allegory? The painting "seems to be declaring the fragments embedded there to be beyond recuperation, redemption; this is where everything finally comes to rest." In place of a rebellion, one has the "pathos" of rebellion's failure. As it happens, Owens's rebellion succeeded, although he himself died young of AIDS. Nonetheless, a lot gets swept under the rug when art theory gets millennial.

Completing the circuit

Owens wants allegory to do double duty. It reaches across centuries with a fixity of form and purpose. It becomes, in short, a genre like landscape or still life. Jan Vermeer had his own allegories of painting and faith. Yet allegory also becomes the mark of the postmodern, a bursting of signs that once bore significance. It becomes a sign that has ceased to signify.

Owens wants to recover the political impulse in art, after decades of formal perfection. He wants to salvage political anger and popular culture after real mass movements have lost their promise of redemption. To pull it off, however, he has to step outside of art's history, to an unchanging ideal for an esthetic elite. To salvage allegory, he subtly changes its meaning.

Owens has a real point. One can reduce art neither to text nor to instinct. His allegories plead for a middle ground. For him, looking may be pre-verbal, but what I see is caught up in who I am. And who I am is always caught up in the stories people tell each other. Artists respond by telling still more.

In James Joyce's Ulysses, in a dazzling and difficult meditation along the beach, Stephen longs for the ding an sich, Kant's "thing in itself." To find it, Stephen immerses himself in phenomena. He also cuts himself off, however, from ordinary language and from others. Still, he has to give it a try, to get rid of some excess baggage, starting with his sick friends.

Leopold Bloom brings Stephen a connection, but at a further risk of madness. The brothel scene near the end could stand as the undoing of Stephen's hopes back on the strand. The liberation of desire turns upside-down his hoped-for liberation of perception and the physical world. Bloom can accept the consequences, and so he gets to go home. Stephen, the angry idealist, can only vanish into the night.

For Joyce an artist encompasses both Stephen and Bloom. Artists today know that that they cannot. Art and humanity can neither become text nor get past words. Art can only rediscover their frailty, a frailty that persists as long as each person lives among others. Artists create a representation of themselves and what they know, but then it takes on a life of its own. What artists and viewers hoped was "us" does, too.

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David Salle showed in January 1999 at PaceWildenstein. "Dosso Dossi, Court Painter in Renaissance Ferrara," ran at The Metropolitan Museum of Art through March 28, 1999. Julião Sarmento has a small show at The Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Gallery through June 20, 1999. I touch on "Fever: The Art of David Wojnarowicz," which ran at The New Museum of Contemporary Art through June 20, 1999, and is the subject of a separate article, as is the Wojnarowicz video, "A Fire in My Belly."


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