Christopher D’Arcangelo (1955–1979)

Christopher D’Arcangelo, Post No Art (ca. 1975)
, paint on etched glass
, private collection, Berlin, installation view, ​documenta Halle, Kassel, documenta 14, photo: Mathias Völzke

In 1974, at the age of nineteen, Christopher D’Arcangelo embarked on a series of paintings using rudimentary stenciled letters painted on a monochrome ground. Inspiration for the series came, at least in part, from the linguistic turn in the advanced art practices to which he was then exposed. The previous year he had begun working as an assistant at the John Weber Gallery, a pioneer of the burgeoning art district of SoHo, where he fostered a number of close friendships and working relationships with artists such as Stephen Antonakos and Daniel Buren. Stenciled letters were a device D’Arcangelo’s father, Allan D’Arcangelo, had employed in his paintings a little over a decade earlier, although when the elder D’Arcangelo came to prominence as a Pop artist in 1962, they had all but disappeared—no doubt too indelibly associated with the work of his renowned peers, Jasper Johns and Robert Indiana, to carry full signatory weight.

The paintings from 1974 each contain a rudimentary sentence, which begins by addressing the viewer with an anaphora (a rhetorical device in which successive sentences begin with the same line or phrase): “WHEN YOU ARE LOOKING AT THIS PAINTING…” The subject of the independent clauses that follow alternates between the artist and the viewer to produce two distinct sequences. The first sequence pictures, in each case, the artist undertaking a different rudimentary activity (twenty, according to preparatory notes), which purportedly takes place at the moment of the painting’s reception: for example: “WHEN YOU ARE LOOKING AT THIS PAINTING THE ARTIST IS THINKING OF HIS PAST.” The series then extends to the second sequence, in which the same activities are now delegated to the viewer: “WHEN YOU ARE LOOKING AT THIS PAINTING YOU ARE THINKING OF YOUR PAST.” One activity in both sequences, however, stands apart—the making of the painting itself. In the first sequence, the painting in question reads: “WHEN YOU ARE LOOKING AT THIS PAINTING THE ARTIST IS MAKING THE PAINTING.” While that sentence conflates the moment of the painting’s production with its reception, in the second sequence it goes one step further and conflates artist and viewer: “WHEN YOU ARE LOOKING AT THIS PAINTING YOU ARE MAKING THE PAINTING.” As such, its place in the series corroborates, not without a certain degree of acuity, Marcel Duchamp’s understanding of the “creative act” as completed in the act of reception. The two sequences in the series conclude with separate statements that further underline the Duchampian relinquishment of the artist’s handwork as the primary purveyor of meaning. Quoted here from D’Arcangelo’s preparatory notes, the first statement reads: “On the [date] the artist took all the stencils that were used to make these paintings and wrapped them in a bundle and threw them off the George Washington Bridge”; the second statement differs only by a change in location—this time, New York’s “East River.”

The candidness with which D’Arcangelo opted to jettison the materials used to produce his stencil paintings proved decisive; from then on, he would, it seems, abandon conventional object-making altogether. The stenciled letters nevertheless remained—although he transferred their inscription from the traditional media of paper and canvas to his own body. He was clearly aware, in so doing, of that shift’s inherent erotic charge. A black-and-white photographic close-up, presumably from late 1974 or early 1975, reveals as much, in what is undoubtedly an image of D’Arcangelo’s hand: while the latter veils his partner’s otherwise naked groin, uppercase stenciled letters adorn his wrist with the word “ART.” The image’s eroticism is made all the more salient by the fact that his partner, Cathy Weiner, then studying photography, not only served as model but, moreover, co-authored the image. The erotic suggestiveness of marking the body henceforth persisted when D’Arcangelo moved the inscriptive surface from his hand to his back, for it not only eschewed his hand as authorial mark-maker, but also now relied on another—presumably his partner—to stencil him; primarily through her photographic documentation, Weiner would, furthermore, continue to be his work’s primary witness.

While the stenciled letters can be placed in an artistic lineage that includes his father’s early Pop paintings, another line, although less immediately legible, underpins the statement D’Arcangelo chose to inscribe on his back. His previous work had foregrounded the discursive conditions of painting: that is, in its most elementary state, as an activity whose meaning derives from its relation to other activities. Now the discursive paradox, hitherto at play between artist and viewer, shifts to the first-person pronoun in a paradoxical utterance—at once constative and performative—which conflates, ex improviso, artist with anarchist:

WHEN I STATE THAT
I AM AN ANARCHIST, I MUST
ALSO STATE THAT I
AM NOT AN
ANARCHIST
TO BE IN KEEPING
WITH THE
(….) IDEA
OF
ANARCHISM
LONG LIVE
ANARCHISM

While D’Arcangelo’s statement first appears at a clear remove from the linguistic statements and phrases of his older conceptualist peers, it nevertheless borrows from them, and does so shrewdly. Firstly, the ellipsis (with four instead of the conventional three dots) in parentheses no doubt derives from the work of Lawrence Weiner, where it variously serves in Weiner’s “statements” of the same period—as it does for D’Arcangelo—to indefinitely suspend any closure of meaning.1 In so doing, it serves to extend, as did D’Arcangelo’s stenciled paintings, the Duchampian delegation of the “creative act” to the viewer, which Weiner had stressed in his inaugural “Statement of Intent” from 1969:

1. The artist may construct the piece
2. The piece may be fabricated
3. The piece need not be built

Each being equal and consistent with the intent of the artist the decision as to condition rests with the receiver upon the occasion of receivership.

A similar play of difference and equivalence underscores D’Arcangelo’s anarchist statement. In contrast with Weiner, however, that play extends beyond the discursive object to encompass the enunciating subject, given that it encompasses both the open, elliptical meaning of anarchism (as discursive object), on the one hand, and D’Arcangelo’s anarchist (dis)identification (as enunciative subject) on the other. As such, it occasions a far less consistent set of choices for receivership. Yet, like Weiner’s earlier exemplar, D’Arcangelo’s statement immediately took on programmatic status and, henceforth accompanied, in various forms (stenciled, stamped, and typewritten), all his subsequent works up until his only “official” participation as an exhibiting artist in a group show at Artists Space in September 1978.

Secondly, the paradox inherent in D’Arcangelo’s statement (“WHEN I STATE THAT I AM… I MUST ALSO STATE THAT I AM NOT…”) is clearly indebted to the work of Ian Wilson. In 1969, Wilson designated oral communication as his unique medium, having hitherto relinquished the discrete object for the spoken word alone. D’Arcangelo had, on a number of occasions, assisted Wilson in rehearsing his “Known and Unknown” discussions, which Wilson had begun in 1972. In a notebook entry, penned just prior to formulating his anarchist statement, D’Arcangelo applies Wilson’s dialectical formula of “the known and unknown” to anarchism: “There can be no communist, socialist, or Marxist in a Capitalist society. An anarchist can exist in any social system because his is in both the known (the existing social system) and the unknown (no social system).”

Encouraged by Wilson’s recourse, in formalizing his verbal practice to Greek philosophy, D’Arcangelo read Plato’s most notoriously difficult dialogue Parmenides, from which Wilson had derived the title of his discussions. It is the final sentence of Parmenides—and no doubt the most enigmatic in the entire Socratic canon—that is inscribed, not unlike a “quotation without quotation marks,” at the heart of D’Arcangelo’s anarchist statement: “Let us say,” Parmenides concludes, “whether one is or is not, it and the others both are and are not, and both appear and do not appear all things in all ways, both in relation to themselves and in relation to others.”2 To which a young Socrates replies, as the dialogue comes to an end: “Very true.”3 Indeed, in an early draft of his statement, D’Arcangelo had placed the word “TRUE” within parenthesis—albeit, like the word ANARCHISM, stenciled upside down:

WHEN I STATE THAT
I AM AN ANARCHIST, I MUST
ALSO STATE THAT I
AM NOT AN
ANARCHIST
TO BE IN KEEPING
WITH THE
(TRUE) IDEA
OF
ANARCHISM

In its final elliptical form, however, the statement takes on the added meaning of “anarchism without adjectives”—the ellipsis thus marking the place of an absent adjective that would otherwise qualify D’Arcangelo’s “IDEA OF ANARCHISM.” As such, it recalls the deployment of the term ”anarchism without adjectives” as an epithet of non-sectarianism in the anarchist movement of the late nineteenth century, beginning in Spain, where it originated in the writings of the Cuban-born Fernando Tarrida del Mármol, and several decades later in the U.S., where it was adopted, in principle, by Voltairine de Cleyre.

Unfortunately, it is not possible to ascertain whether D’Arcangelo knew of the term or not; his only apparent historical reference to anarchism appears in a note, penned in 1975, in which he openly borrows from Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s renowned rallying cry “property is theft.” By way of a simple syllogism, D’Arcangelo’s note, headed by Proudhon’s name, bluntly comments on the commodification of art: “Property is theft. Art is property. Art is theft.” It is not improbable, however, that D’Arcangelo knew of Proudhon’s penchant for “antinomical thinking,” as George Woodcock portrays “the direct ancestor of the organized anarchist movement”4 in his seminal study—widely available as a paperback in the 1970s—Anarchism: A History of Libertarian Ideas and Movements. At the beginning of a chapter devoted to Proudhon titled “The Man of Paradox,” Woodcock notes that the first self-proclaimed anarchist “passionately avoided the encouragement of any party or sect to support his views and […] proudly displayed the fluctuations and contradictions of his thought as evidence of its vitality.”5

Paradox aside, what distinguishes D’Arcangelo’s statement with considerable salience—not least of all from his older conceptualist peers—is, as such, his engagement with the word anarchism. Nothing prior to 1975 indicates that an artist would consider employing that term as a central and conspicuous element in their work. That decision is, indeed, altogether unprecedented. For, in the wider culture, it transgresses a near century-long vilification of anarchism as a political movement and philosophy. Indeed, since the beginning of the twentieth century, the American public had largely assimilated the anti-anarchist rhetoric that had begun—in a time of intense class-war ideology—with the Haymarket Massacre (in 1886) and had culminated (in 1901) in response to the assassination of President William McKinley. In a speech to Congress two years later, McKinley’s successor, Theodore Roosevelt, portrayed anarchism as “a crime against the whole human race.” Although McKinley’s assassin, Leon Czolgosz, was U.S. born and had acted alone, Congress subsequently passed the first of several immigration acts that sought to exclude entry to the U.S. of any person “who disbelieves in or is opposed to all organized government.” These eventually led to two of the most renowned advocates of anarchism, Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, being extradited from the U.S. to the Soviet Union in 1919.

Yet, in 1975, D’Arcangelo’s deployment of the term also breached a more tacit prohibition in the context of the post-war American avant-garde; that is, against the earlier, historical avant-garde’s claim to equate aesthetic innovation with social transformation. In his detailed reading of the controversy surrounding Daniel Buren’s censored work for the Sixth Guggenheim International Exhibition in 1971, “The Turn of the Screw: Daniel Buren, Dan Flavin, and the Sixth Guggenheim International Exhibition,” art historian Alexander Alberro writes: “Whatever overt ideological positions the avant-garde initially might have been identified within its European forms were substituted with a model of the avant-garde that was perceived by many to be nothing more than an implementation of the market principles of capitalist economy. These factors did much to popularize the notion that avant-garde art was in principle indistinguishable from any other range of commodities in capitalist economy and therefore non-threatening.”6

It so happens that D’Arcangelo was acutely aware of that very notion, as affirms an undated poster from 1974–75. Stenciled with silver spray paint on newsprint paper, it reads:

THE IDEA THAT TODAY THERE IS NO AESTHETIC MOVEMENT RULING THE VISUAL
ARTS IS INCORRECT.
CAPITALISM RULES.
IS THIS NECESSARY?

That statement stands as a timely response to the emerging debates within advanced art theory over artistic pluralism in the 1970s. Yet, D’Arcangelo’s anarchist statement proves even more opportune, for it wittingly breaches the cultural prohibition on anarchism less than two years ahead of its transgression in popular culture with the advent of Punk. The Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the U.K.,” when it was released to an unsuspecting British public in November 1976, made that transgression all the more blatant, not only because it reiterates the popular myth that conflates anarchism with terrorism (the song’s lyrics briefly listing the acronyms of the armed insurgencies of the day), but also, with added vitriol, the words “anarchist” and “antichrist.” This is not to suggest any existing conduit between D’Arcangelo’s emergence as an artist in 1975 and the aesthetics of punk, as it emerged over the following two years. Yet it is nevertheless uncanny that every one of the tropes or signifiers D’Arcangelo deployed in the illicit actions he undertook in New York’s major art museums beginning in January 1975 would inadvertently turn up, in one way or another, in that context. Perhaps this is not so uncanny in light of Dick Hebdige’s apt description of the accouterments of Punk as “tokens of a self-imposed exile”7—that is, as so many signs of subservience turned against itself.

—Dean Inkster


This text is an excerpted version of “Anarchism without Adjectives: On the Work of Christopher D’Arcangelo 1975–1979,” which in turn stems from my work on the exhibition of the same title, which I co-curated with Sébastien Pluot in collaboration with Pierre Bal Blanc at the CAC Brétigny, Brétigny-sur-Orge, France (July–August 2011); Richard Birkett and Stefan Kalmár at Artists Space, New York, USA (September­–October 2011); Xabier Arakistain and Beatriz Herraez at the Centro Cultural Montehermoso, Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain (December 2011–January 2012); Mihnea Mircan at Extra City Kunsthal, Antwerp, Belgium (September 2012); and Michèle Thériault at the Leonard & Bina Ellen Art Gallery, Concordia University, Montreal, Canada (September 4–October 26, 2013).

1See Benjamin Buchloh, “The Posters of Lawrence Weiner,” in Neo-Avantgarde and Culture Industry (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2000), 564; see also Lawrence Weiner, General & Specific Works (Villeurbanne: Le Nouveau Musée/Institut d'art contemporain, 1993).

2Plato, Parmenides, 166c, in Plato, Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper, trans. Mary Louise Gill and Paul Ryan (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997), 397.

3Ibid.

4George Woodcock, Anarchism: A History of Libertarian Ideas and Movements (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1963), 98.

5Ibid.

6Alexander Alberro, “Daniel Buren, Dan Flavin, and the Sixth Guggenheim International Exhibition,” October 80 (Spring, 1997):  61.

7Dick Hebdige, Subculture: The Meaning of Style (London: Routledge, 1979), 2.


Posted in Notes on 07.07.2017
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