Total Expansion of the Letter
Avant-Garde Art and Language After Mallarmé
440 pp., 7 x 9 in, 60 b&w illus., 10 plates
- Published: May 26, 2020
How cubism and Dada radically reimagined the social nature of language, following the utopian poetic vision of Stéphane Mallarmé.
At the outset of the twentieth century, language became a visual medium and a philosophical problem for European avant-garde artists. In Total Expansion of the Letter, art historian Trevor Stark offers a provocative history of this “linguistic turn,” centered on the radical doubt about the social function of language that defined the avant-garde movements. Major cubists and Dadaists—including Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, and Tristan Tzara—appropriated bureaucratic paperwork, newspapers, popular songs, and advertisements, only to render them dysfunctional and incommunicative. In doing so, Stark argues, these figures contended with the utopian vision of the late nineteenth-century poet Stéphane Mallarmé, who promised a “total expansion of the letter.”
In his poems, Mallarmé claimed, “the act of writing was scrutinized down to its origins.” This scrutiny, however, delivered his work into an indeterminate zone between mediums, social practices, and temporalities—a paradox that reverberates through Stark's wide-ranging case studies in the history of the avant-garde. Stark examines Picasso's nearly abstract works of 1910, which promised to unite painting and writing at the brink of illegibility; the cubists' “hope of an anonymous art,” expressed in newspaper collages and industrial colors; the collaborative, cacophonous invention of “simultaneous poems” by the Dadaists in Zurich during World War I; and Duchamp's artistic exploration of chance in gambling and finance. Each of these cases reflected the avant-garde's transformative encounter with the premise of Mallarmé's poetics: that language—the very medium of human communication and community—is perpetually in flux and haunted by emptiness.
As certain artists experimenting in the postwar orbit of John Cage well knew, it was not he who introduced the conceptual scope of chance and musical metric into the language of art. In his brilliant book on Mallarmé's legacy—sure to correct the record—Trevor Stark positions the Coup de Dés as the first score of the twentieth century. Inhabiting industrialism's destruction of the subject, and an infinite abstraction—as chance gave way to indeterminism—Mallarmé encoded his best-known poem with score-like traits (time/realization) and ambiguity (language's readymade indeterminacy); thus he cast the death of the author like a bottle thrown at sea. Such stakes are clear because Stark makes them so. With not a word or a sentence wasted, he adroitly guides us through the Mallarméan dimensions of three pivotal experiments: Braque and Picasso's introduction of text into pictorial space (1910/1912); the temporal-auditory collage of Tzara's simultaneous poems honed in the collectivism of Zurich Dada; and Duchamp's ultimate transvaluation of art/work in Monte Carlo. The often-startling fruits of Stark's meticulous research are presented with a light touch, a space for realization; yet we sense the intellectual and “intermedial” virtuosity the author brings to the task—handling, deciphering, hearing, seeing, translating, across disciplines, languages, and time(s)—to convey his cases and insights to 21st-century readers with the force of contemporaneity.
Julia E. Robinson, Associate Professor in the Department of Art History at New York University; curator of the exhibition John Cage & Experimental Art: The Anarchy of Silence and editor of the accompanying catalog
Very few people can see the clear drops in Mallarmé's lines, much less find language for them. Trevor Stark has shown how Mallarmé's lines came down like spring rain on the next generation—Picasso, Braque, Tzara, Laban, Ball, Duchamp. The work of art was propelled forward, mysteriously. Art history, too.
Molly Nesbit, Professor of Art, Vassar College
Stark himself, however, proves to be a lucid communicator, effectively articulating fresh perspectives on each of these already exhaustively discussed topics, writing revealingly on poetry, dance, theatre, roulette, and visual art. This is an important contribution to modernist studies.
“Total Expansion of the Letter does an immense service to studies of the European avant-garde from Picasso to Duchamp. It brings fresh, beautifully nuanced, and important perspectives even to this well-trodden ground, while maintaining unstinting attention to salient detail. It is that most pleasing of studies: rooted both in fruitful archival research and propelled by sustained and theoretically sophisticated arguments that—it is to be hoped—will urge new generations of scholars toward rigorous engagement with the avant-garde from which we still have so much to learn, perhaps now more than ever.”