The front cover of Lucy R. Lippard’s I See/You Mean, republished in 2021 by New Documents after decades out of print, is a pale shade of violet. On its lower left side, a map of what appear to be sea currents, signalled by a series of arrows; its upper right side may depict land, with rivers marked as lines. The first edition, published by the feminist press Chrysalis in 1979, carried a version of this same design, but in a deep blue. How might we interpret the change? Towards the end of Lippard’s book, we read that blue ‘is complete calm, depth of feelings, the medium of empathy’, while violet might express ‘emotional insecurity’ or a desire for approval. An additional change has been made to the back cover, which now features a black and white photograph of the author. Looking down at something out of frame, Lippard could be standing at a desk or table, perhaps reading something or examining images, writing or annotating (the question of whether she was an ‘artist’ rather than a ‘writer’ was raised around the time of the book’s writing). Barely visible in the background are the ordered panes of a glass door, a hint of a structure that permeates I See/You Mean: the grid.
I See/You Mean is an entropic novel, one constantly on the verge of disintegrating into fragments. Lippard is principally known as an art critic and curator, and her book derives from the North American art world of the late 1960s, a period in which Lippard was working as a researcher for art books to support her writing career, was a mother to a young son, and participated in activist groups like Art Workers’ Coalition and Women Artists in Revolution. The writing of the novel coincided with some of her most renowned artistic projects, and their concerns are legible within it. One was Six Years (1973), whose lengthy subtitle gives an account of Lippard’s ambitions for the work:
Six Years: The dematerialisation of the art object from 1966 to 1972: a cross-reference book of information on some esthetic boundaries: consisting of a bibliography into which are inserted a fragmented text, art works, documents, interviews, and symposia, arranged chronologically and focused on so-called conceptual or information or idea art with mentions of such vaguely designated areas as minimal, anti-form, earth, or process art, occurring now in the Americas, Europe, England, Australia, and Asia (with occasional political overtones), edited and annotated by Lucy R. Lippard.
Another was a series of conceptual art exhibitions she organised between 1969 and 1974, often referred to as the ‘numbers’ shows because each was titled after the population of the city in which they were staged (the last of these, featuring only women artists, c. 7500, was held in Valencia, California). The third was the set of ‘feminist essays on women’s art’ collected in From the Center (1976). I See/You Mean, then, dates from a time when Lippard’s minimalist and conceptualist allegiances were being overwritten by feminism.
Lippard’s novel is on its surface an oblique portrait of New York’s avant-garde scene. One chapter, ‘Log V/Everybody’, for example, describes a party through a range of devices: unattributed snatches of speech, lists of conversation topics (‘Ad Reinhardt, money, day care, science fiction, Angela Davis’), movements (‘D to G to C and M and R’), data about guests (‘69 of the people at the party who live in New York City live below 14th Street; 18 live on the Upper East Side’) and their interactions (‘26% talked to people they had never met before; 17% of these because they felt physically attracted’). The quasi-systematic, quasi-rational cataloguing of information lies somewhere between Lévi-Strauss’s structuralist accounts of kinship systems and Dan Graham’s language piece March 31, 1966, with its list of measurements from the artist to the nearest subway station, to the paper in his typewriter, the ‘.00000098 miles’ between his cornea and retinal wall.
Most of I See/You Mean centres on four characters called A, B, D and E. Its most typical device is the description of imaginary photographs. Julia Bryan-Wilson has speculated that, used to writing about images as a critic, Lippard felt the need to invent some to hang her fiction on. Their effect is to conjure something of the solidity of the index, as well as distance. In photographs, unlike the movements of consciousness that have predominated in the modern novel, we see characters frozen and from outside. The additional representational form sets us at a remove from the characters, particularly as photographs are by their nature always in the past tense. The ekphrastic passages are interspersed with dated diary entries, lengthy quotations from other books, fragments of characters’ internal monologues, star sign information, I Ching readings (which might make us think of Lee Lozano’s 1969 I Ching Piece). Applied to the characters’ relationships, their jealousies, their pleasures, their arguments about feminism, writing and sex, these devices are ways of ‘managing experience’, to use Eve Meltzer’s phrase for the repressions and returns of affect in conceptual art.
I See/You Mean embodies a decentred, intimate positivism: the accumulation of documentation never amounts to a totality. If anything, it starts to break down. Diagrams such as the one carried on the book’s cover reduce their objects to a state of conceptual order, but in doing so reveal the way the objects they depict – the deep complexity of oceans, tides and shores for example – exceed their dimensions. The ocean is the book’s central metaphor for this dialectic between form and feeling. At one point, there is a description of a series of photographs demonstrating the effects of different wind-speeds on the sea surface; this is followed by a dated fragment saying ‘I need the sea to be the book’s armature; no – its medium’. Elsewhere, an account of sea currents might just as well denote the movements of emotion:
‘…there are deep flows, generally as slow drifts of immense masses of water, and these are of equal significance with the superficial currents in the whole system of mixing and interchanging of water masses … Ocean currents are caused by conditions existing in the water as well as by outside forces. Of the internal causes, most prominent are those due to differences in pressure; unequal pressure results when one part of the ocean is heated to a higher temperature than another … There may be internal waves at several different levels, and each series of waves may have some effect on those above and below’.
At another moment, two women discuss the orgasmic potential of the sea:
What turns you on?
Well, if I think about the ocean – the idea or image of the ocean, something cool and clear and wet and all-enveloping. Sounds of waves breaking, the rhythms all the same but different, crossing each other, and endless. It rocks me out of my head and thoughts and inhibitions, I suppose.
I can see that. Oh yes. The sensual curve of a wave, like a body, the build-up. I’d never thought of it as directly erotic.
Anything moving or changing or heaving or curving. But slow.
The desire for the sea stems from the way it carries along, swallows up, obliterates the subject. The book begins and ends on the beach – the edge of the ocean, where human figures can still stand before being encompassed by its depths.
I See/You Mean’s dedication reads ‘For Susana, who always understands the sensuous grid’. In Rosalind Krauss’s account, the grid is the exemplary form in modernist art, symptomatic of visual art’s desire to emancipate itself from literature, narrative and discourse, and to declare its autonomy from nature, mimesis and the real world. What happens when the grid is brought back into literature – as in the book’s various devices of description, measurement and commentary – and applied to events and states of mind? In I See/You Mean, the absolutism of the grid is compromised. Its grids are all partial and incomplete – tentative frameworks drawn in coloured pencil, to test a logic of feeling. The novel is sensitive to the grid’s edges, the places where its claims to reason and totality are problematised. This is a social fact as much as a philosophical one. At the party, we are informed that the only two black people see each other across the room and ‘exchange ironic glances’. While the book’s initial grid of characters (two men, two women) might suggest a heterosexual logic, as it progresses A sleeps with B (a woman) and E (a man, who is gay), as well as D, her partner (and has an affair with Oliver, one of the two black guests at the party). To say the grid is sensuous, moreover, is not only to say that this abstract structure is brought into contact with bodies and all the psychological confusion they bring with them. It is to say – as Meltzer has – that grids are already sensuous. The clarity of grids is enticing. There is a beauty in their aesthetic. We can become deeply attached to them.
‘Feelings are facts’, says Yvonne Rainer. This is another statement of emotional positivism. Rainer’s films from the early 1970s share a great deal with I See/You Mean: the New York art scene, minimalism as it encounters the effects of the women’s movement, the cool presentation of emotionally charged material, taxonomic methods applied to the interpersonal. The final sequence of her Lives of Performers (1972) restages photographs from a book documenting G. W. Pabst’s film Pandora’s Box (1929): representations of representations of a representation. About three-quarters of the way through, ‘No Expectations’ by the Rolling Stones starts to play, catching the spectator off guard. Pop music’s contrasting quality of allowing the listener to access and feel their emotions renders the moment, for me at least, almost unbearably moving. (‘Moving’ is a key word in the Rainer dictionary: ‘No to moving and being moved’ is the most over-quoted phrase in her writing.) Yet Rainer lets the Rolling Stones do this work for her. Everything on screen remains carefully controlled. I See/You Mean concludes differently. The structuring devices appear less and less frequently, while the distanced account of the various characters yields to a focus on A, speaking in the first person. Her narration resembles Lippard’s own life (she is in Spain, finishing a book, alone with her young child). This is close to – maybe is – ‘autobiography’. It is tempting to think that one of the determinants of this difference is feminism, a label that Rainer was still wary of embracing at the time, unlike Lippard, who said that writing the book made her into a feminist.
I see – the visual; you mean – language, literature. (Spoken aloud, ‘see’ and ‘you’ sound like ‘C’ and ‘U’, more letters.) We could interpret the book’s title in light of the feminist theories of the gaze elaborated shortly after, which posit women as the screen onto which the fantasies and fears of the male looker are projected, subjecting women to their meanings. Optics is one type of grid; language is another. Still, ‘I’ and ‘You’ are ambiguous here – could ‘I’ be the writer of the book? To ‘mean’, also, is not only to have meaning for another, against one’s will; it can also be to intend, which implies agency. And meaning is not only the bloodless work of signification, but the carrying of resonance, emotional weight. Seeing and meaning may sometimes be opposed, but they can also be connected (‘I see what you mean’). If Lippard’s title remains enigmatic, this may be because it is happy to slide between the analytical clarity of the grid and the mess of experience that eludes its grasp.
Read on: Caitlín Doherty, ‘Between Ego and Libido: On the Work of Carolee Schneemann’ , NLR 138.