If a text may be illustrated, may a painting be texted? Two recent books by noted artists answer that question in the affirmative but in sharply different ways.
But again, if a painting is to be texted, what kind of text should it be? Is this painting (a writer may ask) the visual equivalent of a lyric poem? Or is it an editorial or a short story or a travelogue? Ann Beattie calls her book on 26 paintings by Alex Katz a "reading" of his work. Ntozake Shange characterizes the "word paintings" of her subtitle as responses in the call-and-response manner of black music.
Neither writer claims to be functioning as an art critic, but Beattie's book does involve her in criticism, while Shange's does not. Shange, responding to Patrice Viles' art necklace, "The Wedding," writes a seven-page story, "Twanda B. Johnson's Wedding," whose first sentence spreads its tail like a peacock: "I married myself today in front of the $6,000 opal next to the $4,000 aquamarine from Brazil where I seduced a taxi driver for the sheer pleasure of such gloriously full lips, licking my forehead at the red lights, long black curls seeping through my individually applied aqua-blue super-long lashes: dew in a tropical place." Shange has taken Viles' necklace as a call to fiction and has responded with an exuberant story of her own.
But is it not pure conceit to call such a story a response? I don't think so. As a work of art, a necklace may be non-representational, but it will always be referential: It refers to the female neck, to adornment and to the settings of adornment. By referring to none of these settings of necessity--as, for example, a graduation gown refers of necessity to a graduation--the necklace refers to all of them in potentiality. It becomes the openest of open invitations to the viewer's or the writer's imagination.
Shange has been careful to choose for her book abstractions, montages and highly interpretive photographs that offer just such open invitations. These works have an extremely wide range of potential reference--they might be about almost anything--even as, like dreams, they are intensely self-involved. Shange's word paintings--poems, stories, visionary fusions of memory and fantasy--match them well. Like Twanda B. Johnson, they may be married to themselves, but so are the works to which they respond. Call-and-response can induce this effect in music--a kind of trance a deux. Shange tries to induce the same effect in pictures and print.
How completely the mood changes when we turn from Shange to Ann Beattie! Shange never speaks in her own voice; Beattie always does. Shange is oracular, oneiromantic; Beattie is analytic, conversational. The writers are different, of course, but so is the art.
The 26 paintings by Alex Katz that Beattie chooses to talk about are all of real people, people whom Beattie might call on the telephone, and indeed not just because they are still alive but also because they live in the same white, upper-class, artistic/literary, Eastern U.S. world that she lives in and writes about. In fact, Beattie did telephone some of them as she worked on this book. She had questions to ask them about what it was like to pose for Katz.
Beattie seems to recognize in Katz an artist who, like herself, has tied himself very closely to a shared, real, "nonfiction" world and yet has not become simply the reporter or biographer of it. An undreamlike fiction like Beattie's, a fiction that never loses its head and rarely raises its voice, will rightly be read as commentary, as roman a clef in the very broadest sense. Katz's paintings are also commentary in this sense, visual roman a clef. But even as he gives us the clef by naming his subjects, his paintings remain roman. They are near to but not quite of the nonfiction world. How do they do this? Clearly, the question engages Beattie deeply.
They do this, it turns out, largely by Katz's enhancement of his subjects' blocking, in the theatrical use of that word. Who is downstage? Who is up? Who is in the spotlight? Who is not? By a director's answers to these questions, he can establish a relationship between two characters that will be unmistakable to the audience. So can an artist.
Most interestingly, however, what Beattie learns from Katz's subjects is that, by and large, he does little direction of this sort--or just enough. To three couples whom he painted as they walked in a forest meadow, his only instruction was that they should touch in some way. One couple held hands. Another walked arm in arm. The third embraced so fully that they all but stopped walking. Katz noticed this, remembered it, painted it. What Beattie notices is first Katz's noticing and then his enhancement of what he has noticed.