Andrei Molotiu co-curated the recent show Silent Pictures , is the author of the recently published anthology Abstract Comics, and of the equally recent Nautilus, a collection of his own abstract sequential art. This Spring ArtLexis held an exhibition of his work. Taken together Molotiu’s activity adds up to something like a campaign for “abstract comics” as a new and specific genre of contemporary art. In the interview below Andrei and I discuss what might be considered the rules of the game.
Ibn al Rabin, The Empire Strikes Back
CS: You express disinterest in equating the abstract comic with abstract animated film. And so I am looking at this image, Ibn al Rabin's The Empire Strikes Back, and noting how very different it is than your own work in that it moves from frame to frame quite legibly within a narrative.
AM: Well, yes, this kind of gradual transformation is one of the “established” (if we can call it that) modes of abstract comics, and people like Ibn al Rabin or Lewis Trondheim have done really fascinating things with it; personally, however, I am interested in different kind of effects in my own comics. Sometimes when you have only such gradual transformation in an abstract comic you may almost feel like you are dealing with storyboards for animation; the shapes go from point a to point b to point c and give the illusion that you are following them through time—though an abstract comic, by definition, cannot have a sense of diegetic time (because no representation means no diegesis, no fictional world in which time can have a meaning; because introducing a sense of represented time implies moving away from the simple presence of graphic events on a page). When you get a sense of represented time, a sense of illusion seeps in, and the comic becomes almost like a time graph, with the panels in the sequence showing events that take place some set time interval apart. So there is something a bit paradoxical about Ibn al Rabin’s comics, especially the ones in the book Cidre et schnapps, from which this page comes. They have titles that suggest a diegesis, a mimetic narrative, but on the other hand they are just blots on the page enacting that narrative—perhaps allegorically? I think they work better, for me at least, if you don’t give in to the mimetic temptation, if you actually see them as blots on a page.
Andrei Molotiu, Realm of Coral in 24x24: A Vague Epic
To see them as blots on a page also means, in a way, to see them as simultaneous, and to realize that the perceived passage of time is a construct, resulting from the visual juxtaposition of the panels. I think it’s important—for abstract comics, and also for comics in general—to not lose this sense of simultaneity, of the unity of the layout, where you can see all the panels (on a page or a double page spread) at once. If you do lose that sense, you end up conceiving a comic as just a storyboard, and I think that does a disservice to the potential of the medium; comics offer a complex reading structure that suggests time differently than an actual time-bound reading or viewing experience. You can contrast it to the reading of a (prose, as opposed to graphic) novel, where the reader simply follows along a string of words; and though many words do co-exist on a single page, you don’t tend to think of their co-presence on the page as an aesthetic component of the novel. Visual juxtaposition—and therefore, from one point of view, simultaneity—is however an active aesthetic component of the comic medium. One thing that is interesting to me about abstract comics is exactly that they contain no preexisting narrative and therefore no excuse for a sense of diegetic time. You’re not following a story, so what you are left with are the actual visual elements on the page (panels, shapes) that move your eye from panel to panel but outside of a fictional time frame.
The other side of the equation is the distinction between abstract comics and abstract painting. In the Michael Fried/Clement Greenberg take on abstract painting you’re supposed to take in the painting’s composition at once, instantaneously. Well, abstract comics won’t let you do that either: the juxtaposition of panels that suggests a kind of simultaneity (therefore going beyond simple storyboard reading) at the same time denies instantaneity: you can’t take in both the layout and each individual panel at once, you have at least to keep transitioning from one to the other, and from panel to panel in traditional reading order, etc. So I think that comics work in between these two extremes, the linearity of storyboards or prose, on one hand, and the instantaneity of abstract painting, on the other. Rather they have more of a complex tabularity, I guess, by which I means something like a table (say, the table of elements), which contains both simultaneity and sequence. And abstract comics, I believe, are especially well-placed to exploit this complex structure. Does that make sense?
CS: Yes it does absolutely, I had a real appreciation for your use of Jackson Pollock’s piece in your anthology, recently in Third Mind, but it appeared as an anecdotal aside and a failure if you will because Jackson Pollock is doing “One” over and over and over again, very much involved in that sense of an at-once-ness, and the painting by Jasper Johns, Alley Oop, was a beautiful counterpoint to that. I’m going to quote what you say in an earlier interview: “I think that, oftentimes, abstract comics do end up maintaining more of that graphic energy, and I think that they can draw attention to this very powerful tool in the vocabulary of comics that may have been lost in a number of art and alternative comics.” It is almost an address to action painting, only here most apparent through the lens of Jasper Johns work, and what occurs in the Johns is an abstraction of narrative as you move from left to right and frame to frame.
Jasper Johns, Alley Oop, 1958
AM: You're referring to my discussion of Pollock's Red Painting 1-7, from 1950. I gave a talk at CUNY where I expanded on Jackson Pollock beyond what I said in the introduction to the book. There is a Hans Namuth photograph of his studio from 1951, in which you can see a number of his black and white paintings that he painted side by side, on a single piece of canvas, and that piece of canvas looks like nothing so much as an abstract comic strip. Greenberg always discussed the importance of a painting’s being aware of its edges, of the frame, but Pollock was doing absolutely nothing of the kind; rather, he was just eyeballing it. He would put about three different compositions on a single canvas, sometimes side by side, in a row, sometimes in more complex arrangements that look even more like abstract comics. The way they were originally created they did not have the “instantaneity” or unity demanded by Greenberg or Fried, the canvas was divided and you tended to focus on one panel at a time, therefore needing time to explore the entire piece. But usually he went on to cut them apart and then exhibit them only one “panel,” so to speak, at a time. [I have, since the interview, found a couple where he didn’t cut the panels apart, such as “Number 7, 1951” and “Untitled (after CR # 328)”.] It’s interesting that his original impulse, occasionally at least, seems to have been more towards this kind of juxtaposition of compositions, because the side-by-sideness, if that’s a word, was then completely negated in the cutting. From a Greenbergian perspective such juxtaposition was unacceptable, because it fragmented the overall composition, kept if from being unified. Furthermore, it brought in a time element. The only [other] time he didn’t do that was in Red Painting 1-7, from 1950.
Jackson Pollock, Red Painting 1-7, 1950
I’ve loved Pollock for a long time, and surprisingly enough—because most people think it’s his poorer work—I’ve always been partial to his black and white paintings. I’m struck, whenever I see them in a museum, by the pure phenomenological experience of the dried black pigment stuck to the fibers. There’s such a tremendous energy in those paintings, and one thing I’ve tried to do (not always consciously, but I can see it in retrospect) has been to recapture this energy and put in the service of what I call sequential dynamism—the visual forces, in a comic, that can lead you across the page from panel to panel and that in a way create a different kind of frozen moment, one in addition to an action painting’s frozen movement of the brushwork, the artist’s hand that moved across the surface of the canvas. In abstract comics you have the additional movement of the juxtaposition of panels, the suggestion of reading direction that is given by the composition, the vectors of force in each panel. And when I say “frozen,” it is because the abstract comic sits there, as any comic does, waiting to be put into motion by the intention of the viewer, of the reader, and also to put into motion the visual attention of the viewer. Comics, so to speak, both are awoken by the viewer and they awake the viewer’s gaze and sense of reading.
CS: I was fascinated by the use of the word gutter to describe the space beteen frames and the difference between paintings and comics and films is that in the comic book the frame is in the picture and there’s something very important about that. The frame being in the picture is somehow the device that pulls in the attention of the viewer differently. An abstract comic can be very decorative and full as though they were all-over paintings in that about-to-become wallpaper sense of things. But then you might notice that there is an almost palpable mobility of the frames themselves. It makes me think of this toy by Dan Graham.
Dan Graham, One, found here.
So this gets me to your exhibition at ArtLexis. The piece was called 24x2: A Vague Epic, and as 24 pages on the wall it covered the gallery. Since it is available as a folio, there was for me an interest in shuffling, in my agency as a viewer being such that I could actually control the narrative. But in fact what I learned was that even though these arrived as a folio of loose sheets there was a very definite narrative in that they were pinned to the wall from beginning to end. There’s not the sense of agency and chance that I was at first invited to consider. Can you say something about the kind of agency that interests you, as something that is appearing from beginning to end in a deliberate way without giving someone the agency to actually shuffle?
AM: Well, generally with regard to abstract comics, I’ve been interested not only in creating panel-to-panel sequentiality, but also in placing within each one of my pieces some kind of “narrative” arc, such as one that might lead from a low-key beginning to higher intensity and then ending low-key again. Not all abstract comics need to do this; for example, the pieces in the anthology by Richard Hahn don't really do this, they exhibit more of a pulse and rhythm that vibrates from panel to panel, a movement in and out of the picture plane, but no arc per se. But personally I’ve always been interested in the possibility of still maintaining such an arc—let’s call it a “sequential arc,” maybe, like a narrative arc but within abstract form. At the same time, in 24x24 in addition to this arc I was concerned with the unity of the layouts, so in a way each page in that series forms a kind of hybrid picture that can be read both as a unified layout with a grid imposed upon it and as a sequential arc.
Andrei Molotiu, 24x24: A Vague Epic, installation view at Artlexis, 2009.
I should add that the pages were created sequentially. They were laid out panel by panel, one at a time, and the unified composition only appears out of the juxtaposition of those sequential images. I only realized this was going to be a series after I’d made the first three or four, and then I said to myself, ok it has to be a series of twenty-four because that is (more or less) the traditional number of pages in a comic book story, and also because there were twenty-four panels in each strip. In this series, probably more than I’ve done in other pieces, I started to put more or less descriptive titles on each page that somewhat took them beyond pure abstraction, as for example happens in—and this has always been a huge influence on me—Jackson Pollock’s Full Fathom Five. Once you contemplate the meaning of the title you begin thinking of space in the sea, you begin thinking of coral, of seaweed, and therefore it is not purely abstract, it becomes an underwater space. Obviously not a perspectival space, but a space where everything is afloat at every level; and such a “floating” space, if you will, itself tends to become abstract inasmuch as it differs from the box space of the Renaissance, where everything is weighed down to the ground.
As I began giving the pages titles, more or less akin to Pollock’s Full Fathom Five, I realized that I was actually toying with images that were right on the threshold of legibility—right beneath it, perhaps but which could suggest to people this or that kind of representational shape. I was reading recently a review in The New Yorker, of the new Kandinsky show, and the reviewer said he could never enjoy this one painting by Kandinsky because he always sees a football helmet in it; and there’s also the story of Braque telling Picasso that he could see a squirrel in one of his cubist paintings, and Picasso basically going off and destroying his painting by trying to get rid of the squirrel. But I don’t mind when people find such representational elements in my pieces, especially in my 24 x 24 pages—as long as this recognition remains vague and uncertain, more along the lines of a Rorshach blot. I actually enjoy it when people interpret these abstract shapes as figurative elements, even though they were not intended as such. Anyway, to make a long story short, I found that adding the title gave a kind of direction to the interpretation of the piece, structured the viewer’s experience as to what he or she might find in it; and when arranging the piece as a print series, with each plate printed in a different color ink, I found that color suggested a mood for that reading. I found myself trying to give the entire series the feel of a barely remembered film from one’s childhood, like The Empire Strikes Back, which I haven’t watched since I was twelve but still remember fondly (funny, I wasn't even thinking of Ibn al Rabin's piece when I came up with this notion!). Trying to recall that movie, I don’t remember anything but my sensations, and tremendously vague memories of the imagery, mostly moods. So, in a way, with 24 x 24 I was trying to suggest in the present moment that vagueness of memory (through the vagueness of abstraction in which one nevertheless may be able to find some figurative shapes, and through the titles, which almost work like chapter headings for some DVD of a long-forgotten epic film), the memory of a story more as a sequence of moods than of events—and that’s why I called it a “vague epic.” Admittedly, “vague” is also my own bilingual pun, coming from Stéphane Mallarmé, my favorite poet (you can find my translation of his Afternoon of a Faun here.) Mallarmé was always interested in an effect of vagueness in poetry, but for him vagueness, le vague, also related to the notion of the wave, la vague. Same word, different genders. (And clearly, waves relate to my underwater imagery.) Mallarmé is probably my greatest influence, when he talks about the music underneath poetry. For him surface meaning in poetry was only necessary so that poets don’t get stoned—I mean attacked, reviled—by the public. The true meaning of poetry is the abstract music under the words. In the same way, I’ve been trying to get at the music underneath the images, the graphic music that underlies sequential art.
CS: This is what I like about the introduction of that piece by Jasper Johns, and I was thinking very much of abstraction as a sort of unconscious moving through the narrative. I can tell you from a viewer’s experience what your work looked like in the gallery: My initial response was that this is very cool, as in that register of cool as opposed to hot. The gutter is now literally the wall, the abstraction is very decorative, and it took time. The colors became cues, spotting the wall as a kind of punctuation in time. For someone literally standing in the middle of the room and looking at everything from the distance, slowly - and I haven't yet even reached the point where I understand that there is a beginning and an end - I’m beginning to see what the gutter is doing - that it is in a very literal way creating a discretion between one thing and the next. I then began to see that there are different topographies, each page was giving me a view that was really quite specific, there are even different angles of viewing. It became clear that there wasn’t an homogenous space from one page to the next that had been simply sliced apart. This was not immediately evident but gradually evident. So the way that you’re talking abut the epic as something that can belong to a childhood memory, that earning of one’s way past some field and into another where sensations are evoked and specific but not articulated as though they belong to ... well in this case the fall guy is narrative but we don’t even need narrative anymore at this point. And it’s only after this point that I understand enough to ask the question “Can these be shuffled around?” can I arrange them at whim?, and there’s a clear narrative I’m told. It’s not until that point that I go up to them and I read the titles. I am moving around the room, checking back and forth, trying to ascertain with effort some sort of meaning that I’m being guided towards which ultimately fails. I don’t know if anyone has ever told you what it was like to look at that hanging in the gallery.
AM: I’m tremendously grateful to you for telling me all this. In many ways that’s how I wished it to be read. I don’t want to say you were “correct,” but it confirms that I was able to create them in such a way so as to convey the experience that I’d had myself and that I was trying to convey.
You mentioned Jasper Johns, and I hadn’t quite put this together before now—but I think there is a connection between what I do in 24 x 24 and what Jasper Johns did in his painting Alley Oop. There, Johns pasted a Sunday Alley Oop page to his canvas and covered it with just blotches of paint, blotting out the representational details but leaving in the larger shapes, so that abstraction is revealed as a kind of unconscious of the representation—he draws out the vagueness, the abstract wave of shapes that’s underneath the narrative of the Alley Oop story. This is close to what I was trying to do in 24x24 and more generally in my abstract comics. One of my favorite comic artists is Jack Kirby, who did a great amount of comics from the ‘40s through the ‘80s. You can see a transformation of his work around the mid-sixties, and I believe that at the time he is beginning to learn form Lichtenstein, noticing the powerful abstraction of form had always been there in his own work but becoming more and more self-conscious about it. Especially in 1965 to 1975, his work becomes so graphically powerful and intentional, and I find myself enjoying it not so much for the storylines but for the unconscious abstraction underneath the story, that gives the story its graphic weight. In a way, in 24x24 or in my piece Expedition to the Interior I’m almost providing for the reader’s conscious experience something that I experience, in other comics, as the unconscious. Of course, abstract painting itself was trying to do that, with Kandinsky already trying to provide harmonious compositions, like he had seen in earlier art, but without the distraction of representational form. But abstract comics do this for sequential art.
Andrei Molotiu, Expedition to the Interior
CS: This is really what made me interested in Stanley Cavell and his thoughts about automatism. He’s talking about film but he’s interested in the camera, and the relation film has to what he refers to as the photograph’s automatism. In The World Viewed, published in 1971, he’s describing film as being in a situation in which it hasn’t realized itself as a medium, and that it’s become a way in which we look out at the world and we hide behind ourselves as we do so.
AM: What does he mean by that?
CS: He says, and here is literally the passage: “Our condition has become one in which our natural mode of perception is to view, feeling unseen. We don’t so much look at the world as we look out at it from behind the self. It is our fantasies, now all completely thwarted and out of hand which are unseen and which must be kept unseen.”* Film hides us in the dark, as it were. And so he wants to fight for film’s potential, for film to fully realize itself as a medium, by leaving this place where we look out at the world from behind the self.
AM: So it’s referring simply to the notion of film as a voyeuristic medium, where the body of the viewer is hidden?
CS: Yes, and so he comes upon this word automatism as a way of, you were talking about energies as moving from frame to frame, and he’s speaking of medium-specificity as having this unconscious automatism, and of not being given a priori: “one might say that the task is no longer to produce an instance of an art but a new medium within it... The failure to establish a medium is a new depth, and absoluteness, of artistic failure.” He continues, “In calling such things automatism's I do not mean that they automatically insure artistic success or death but in mastering a tradition one masters the range of automatism's on which the tradition maintains itself, and in deploying them one’s work is assured a place in that tradition.” Because of your own resistance to film and interest in the dynamic sequentiality of the comic I’m drawn to the sense of this word “automatism” as a way of understanding the dynamics of the medium, which is now a growing international scene of abstract comics. You’ve shown that it is only the conditions of visibility, what I’m pointing to as automatisms that are already visible in the medium, which have to do with what you were referring to as their graphic energy. Cavell is putting pressure on film and narrative and still, much in the way that you want to be resistant ...
AM: I would have to go back to Cavell’s text for a full understanding of what he means by “automatism,” but one thing we might be saying here may have to do with the subconscious ways of reading or scanning the page that are involved in taking in any comic—does that approach “automatism” in the way you are using it?
CS: Yes, and it is true that I may be pushing the word a little bit closer to you than it actually is. Another thing I can’t help think about is the little conversation we had about Bergson’s Matter and Memory, you were actually thinking of this quite seriously before you embarked on Abstract Comics.
AM: Yes, I have something on Bergson that was published in a web journal, actually, a good while ago. If we are going to gather everything that I’ve done and look at what it has to do with abstract comics, let me go back quickly and say that I did study with Stanley Cavell. I was half film and half studio-art major (fortunately they were in the same department), and there was an active debate between my film-studies advisor, Vlada Petric, the curator of the Harvard film archive at the time, and Cavell. Petric was always concerned with identifying the specifically “cinematic” in cinema, declaring some films not at all cinematic, inasmuch as they didn’t do anything interesting with editing, camera angles, what have you. I’m sure this influenced my notion of sequential art, wanting comics do more than simply represent, narrate. But, on the other hand, Cavell’s response was that the moment you put something in front of a camera and film it, transferring an image of reality onto celluloid, it becomes automatically cinematic; and so the debate was between the cinematic as a kind of active intentional quality put into the piece by the artist, and the cinematic as a preexisting condition of the medium itself. Within comics such automatism may relate to the pre-set structures of reading—from top to bottom, left to right—which already create a kind of pre-existing dynamic of reading; but the visual experience of the comic can be enhanced through the more active, intentional introduction of sequential dynamism—which I suppose would correspond to Petric’s notion of the cinematic.
Andrei Molotiu, 24x24: A Vague Epic, installation view
CS: Are the new pieces in which you are thinking of animation, is that a new step for you or have you been thinking about it for a long time?
AM: That goes back to having done film and animation back in college. When I was 15, 16, like everybody else I wanted to direct, to be a film-maker, but in college, after having studied both film and studio, when having to make a choice for my senior thesis I decided to go to studio. But I’ve always felt caught between the two. More immediately, my recent flirtation with animation started a couple of months ago when I simply couldn’t settle on a color scheme for a comic I had created, and so I decided, why not just try all colors, shift the color continuously? I thought I remembered Photoshop has some animation capabilities, and it took me about half an hour to figure out how it works. So, for that piece Flow, I made the colors shift from top left to bottom right—enhancing the direction of reading a comic—looping through the entire color spectrum. When I finished it I thought that’s kind of cool, the design itself can stay put but the colors can shift, and I thought that’s the only way for an abstract comic to contain animation and yet still remain a comic, not become animation. Then a Finnish visual poet who had found our abstract comics blog back in April and discovered the notion of Abstract Comics, she’s done a lot of them since, Satu Kaikkonen, posted a blog entry saying she wanted to try animated abstract comics too, partially because she found what I had done unsatisfactory, too limited. That got me thinking about how far the notion of animated comics could go. This is a debate not only in abstract comics, by the way, but even in mainstream comics, you see some web comics from Marvel or DC containing limited animation—and critics say that then they stop being comics at all. The question, for me, is whether one can maintain the abstract relationships of shape to shape, from panel to panel, across the comic’s grid, once you’ve added movement inside the grid. If you add movement, is it still a comic? To some extent I’m not sure it is. The thing about comics is that still images create the illusion of dynamic movement, so the moment you put an actual, time-based movement within each previously static image, within each panel, it works against that illusion of movement, that sequential dynamism born out of still images which I see as the essence of comics—or at least of abstract comics. Nevertheless, in some way I wanted to explore the edge between comics and animation, and to some extent I don’t see this as a major direction but a brief exploration; I’m not sure how far I will go into it, because I really think of abstract comics, pure comics, as the main field I want to explore. But I think also having done all these abstract comics I needed a break, to clear my mind for a while. My most recent, For Bruce Conner, is the one I’m happiest with. Yes, it is inspired by Bruce Conner’s films but even more immediately inspired by Bruce Conner’s drawings, which I’ve been utterly bowled over by—for example the little ink drawing hanging as a scroll in the Third Mind show, which was absolutely one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen (the tiny reproduction of it in the catalog is disastrously small and conveys nothing of its effect). So the animation that I made started from a hand-drawn remix that I had done about half a year ago of a Bruce Conner drawing, and it somehow felt appropriate to animate it. I ended up cutting it up into quarters and arranging it in four panels, and having each panel loop through an animation cycle, so that it’s both static and dynamic, and each cycle is a slightly different length. The movement in each panel is from the top left to the bottom right, again to emphasize the direction reading of a comic, but because they have different cycles the overall composition of the four-panel piece changes gradually, as the four panels start in sync, fall out of sync, then take a very long time to fall back into sync—so that almost at no moment is the composition ever the same. So I like the idea of a combination of the grid structure of an abstract comic with movement, it becomes a kind of hybrid medium, but I still think the animation makes it a unified image more than a comic where you would read the panels in order, 1,2,3,4. On the other hand I’ve found that, if I force myself to impose that sequential reading, and, say, look at panel one for the duration of a cycle, then shift to panel two and—if it’s halfway through a cycle—I wait for a new cycle to begin and then watch that entire cycle, then move on to panel three and so on, it is quite satisfying. It does weird things to one’s sense of rhythm.
CS: I’m interested in how the animation is in relation to the gutter and you mentioned that you were going to the edges. What came up for me (and this is very opportunistic) is that in JStor you can type up a name to see what happens and so I typed up Bruce Conner as I was interested in the fact that you had chosen his work as the vehicle with which you would step in to this new form - a questionable form you’re saying. What came up was a pretty interesting short little essay from October called “Observations on the Long Take,” by Pierre Paolo Pasolini. He’s interested it seems in Bruce Conner as someone who is really involved in montage and what it is that montage does.** Here’s a nice little passage, "The language of action is thus the language of non-symbolic signs in the present tense; but in the present it makes no sense, and if it does, it does so only subjectively, and in an incomplete and mysterious way." He is interested in montage as opposed to the long take in that it is the cut as the ending that produces meaning. I’m interested in thinking of these abstract comics - and I’m coming at this from an art-historical perspective, I don’t know anything about comic books, I never even read them! - But I’m really interested in the fact that the page of the comic book has frames that appear as the picturing. And it is not neutral in that it even has a name, and that the gutter is actively producing meaning. I like very much that Pasolini was thinking about the language of action as a language of non-symbolic signs and what it means to cut into that...
AM: As I said, I was also a film studies major, and this goes back to the basic debate between the long take and montage, between André Bazin and Eisenstein. For Eisenstein the meaning of film comes from the cut, the edit. Bazin was more focused on the long take, and clearly this inspired the debate I mentioned earlier between Petric and Cavell (Bazin, like Cavell, was more interested in the phenomenology of film photography, which is better expressed in the long take); but in terms of the drawn medium of comics, there is a very close parallel between the way meaning arises between the panels, in the gutter, and the way that Eisenstein discussed the notion of the edit. Eisenstein started from a notion of dialectics—well, dialectical materialism, as he was supposed to say under the Soviet regime—and for him there was a dialectical relationship between the two shots united by a cut, with the resulting meaning being greater than the sum of the two parts. This is not really different from what Scott McCloud discusses, in his book Understanding Comics, with his notion of closure. For McCloud, comics are inevitably fragmented, but as we read them we effect this closure from panel to panel that makes us perceive continuity across each gutter, when in fact there is no continuity, there is only a cut. Sometimes closure can be achieved very easily, automatically, such as in what McCloud calls moment-to-moment transitions. On the other hand, there are transitions where closure is not so automatic, such as when two completely different things happen in the two panels, and you are the one who has to put the two things together, to find the continuity. The best example that McCloud gives—and the subject may seem rather cliché, maybe because he is so imbued with traditional comic-book narrative or maybe because he is doing it ironically—shows in the first panel a man yielding an axe, screaming “I’m going to kill you” as he chases another fellow; in the second panel all you see is a cityscape with a scream sound-effect rising over it. We automatically assume that the second panel is occuring immediately after the first, and the scream rising over the cityscape is the scream of the person who was killed by the axe murderer. But clearly a lot of assumptions on the part of the reader play a role in this act of closure, in order to unify the narrative—as McCloud says, it is the reader who decides to let the axe drop. To go back to abstract comics, this has been very useful for me to realize that abstract comics did not have to work only in the gradual transformation—apparently “moment-to-moment”—way we discussed earlier, when we were talking about the work of, say, Ibn al Rabin. Clearly the closure is effected there very easily. But in many of my comics I avoid such a gradual transformation and like to juxtapose images where you cannot see a clear transition the one to the other—but you are, ideally, effecting the closure abstractly. I guess I’m proposing that closure does not necessarily need story, representation, to function. It’s more like getting two very different sound events that still make sense rhythmically or even melodically, one after the other.
Erasing Dreamland, by Mark Charles Brown, 2006
CS: The interest in Bruce Conners is very specific in supporting what you said, and the background is that the film alluded to by Pasolini is Report, a film of Kennedy being shot. What I was noticing in the Mark Charles Brown's interpretation of Conners [above] is a similar but filmic interest in what happens when different frames are cutting into the movement of a scene.
AM: Well what it reminds me of is Abel Gance’s Napoleon, 1927 or so. The movie is mostly projected with only one projector, but in the final sequence all of a sudden two more projectors kick in, and the screen goes from being the traditional 3:4 ratio to a 1:4 ratio, an incredibly wide screen. In this final sequence—the conquest of Italy—the three screens sometimes are synchronized, sometimes are out of sync, and it becomes an amazing visual experience, an ecstasy of imagery. It’s done with tinted film, and to celebrate Napoleon’s victory the left screen becomes tinted blue, the right red, transforming into the French flag itself.
Abel Gance, Napoleon, found here.
An effect of this is that it makes you aware of film as a spectacle presented to you while you are in the auditorium, as oppposed to allowing you to be a voyeur, in the dark, and sucking you into the diegesis of the film. When you have only one screen you get one diegesis to be sucked into, but having three side by side you are too aware of the spectacle of projection to remain simply a voyeur. I guess you get the same thing from Nam June Paik’s installations—many TVs at the same time function very differently than the fascination of a single one—or from Christian Marclay’s pieces with three or four side by side screens, with montages of different music clips.
CS: What happens when the shift is made as it has been from the frame by frame appearance of the comic book as it appears on a page, and a page that is going to be turned - which is a very specific thing - and referring to this thing called the gutter as what appears between each page when it is pinned to the wall?
AM: Well, beyond the gutter you have two more things in any comic, you have the little valley in the spine between two pages (is there a word for that?) and the rhythm of page to page turning, which is a very powerful tool in comics. Artists who have made longer abstract comics have taken into account the experience of the viewer upon turning the pages, not only from the point of view of shifting from one page to the next, but also knowing the impact of a shape or graphic event being on the right-hand or left-hand page, on the verso or recto. For the anthology I asked the contributors whether they wanted their piece to start on the left-hand side or the right-hand side, and most had clear preferences. This effect, this dimension is also currently used in conventional comics—for example in a superhero story you might have the big reveal of the villain as you turn the page, and therefore you get a kind of visceral experience of this revelation. Clearly this effect is not quite possible in an exhibition, because if you put the pages side by side on the wall you don’t get the experience of turning the page. The difference between a book experience and a wall experience, if I may say so, is if I may that a wall experience is a second-degree tabular experience—that is, not only are the panels side-by-side in the space of the page, but the pages are side-by-side in the space of the wall. On the other hand, this way on the wall you get a second degree gutter, so to speak, which for me becomes quite powerful, but in a different way. This issue—book versus wall—has been to some extent debated in the notion, and the movement, of gallery comics spearheaded by the artist Christian Hill, who has pushed for comics made specifically for the gallery. In the show, when we placed Patrick McDonnell’s pages on the wall, side by side, their compositions seemed to move up and down across the pages, almost in a wave. If you step back and see the whole comic at once you can get the feeling of the narrative arc in one glance, and then you can step closer and read it frame by frame.
Going back to our discussion of my animation, it would be interesting to begin questioning the use of the gutter in cinema and animation. We were drawing an equivalence between the comic book’s gutter and the film’s cut, when discussing Eisenstein and McCloud, but if you project two or more reels side by side, you really get a double gutter, in a way a gutter in space and one in time, and that deserves to be more explored.
CS: I would like for posterity’s sake to ask you about the show that was at MoMA, Comic Abstraction. You were just describing a real ambition to exhibit comics in a gallery context...
AM: What was funny about the show is that I was working on my Abstract Comics book when I learned that MoMA was doing a show called Comic Abstraction and I thought “Oh my god, I’m being scooped!” But their focus turned out to be really quite the opposite of mine, because abstract comics is about a series of juxtaposed abstract images, while Comic Abstraction turned out to be concerned with traditionally unified abstract works—paintings, mostly—which happened to contain rendering elements derived from comics. The only piece that might have had some overlap was by Rivane Neuenschwander. She colored in the pages of an old Uncle Scrooge comic, maintaining the panels and graphic rhythm of color from panel to panel, together with the empty word balloons. But overall they are two very distinct movements. My concern about the Comic Abstraction show at MoMA is that it continued the logic of their 1990 High/Low show, which is basicaly a logic of high art’s appropriation of popular, and supposedly anonymous, culture. To some extent, MoMA still seems to be able to enshrine “popular culture” only when it has been appropriated in high art. There was a good example of this in the Comic Abstraction catalog (which I don’t happen to have on hand right now), in the entry for an artist who made large murals by copying explosions from a comic book. The catalog showed the comic-book panel that had been copied, but only labeled it as the source for the painter’s imagery, giving it no other credits whatsoever. Clearly it was from a recent comic, written and drawn and inked and colored by somebody—by people who have names. The panel must have been scanned from the actual comic, so they could have easily found the names of its creators. Not labeling it as anything but a (apparently anonymous) source for the mural denies the agency of the comic artists, and suggests that such lowly imagery is only given merit through its appropriation in “high” art.
CS: It’s a curator’s sensibility to appropriate in such a way. As you began talking I had this strong reaction to the manner of appropriating, and thinking of Jasper Johns’s painting and how important Leo Steinberg’s essay “Other Criteria” was, or is for me, in finding another way to talk about early Pop Art paintings as flatbed picture planes.*** I like very much your efforts in all of this to have some integrity about what is actually visible in a medium, and this is what I was trying to get at with regard to automatism.
AM: The overall tendency in what I am doing is completely to ignore high and low hierarchies, and to realize that powerful formal developments have arisen with as much creative agency at every level of culture. Jack Kirby is as important for me as Jackson Pollock, and I draw no distinction between the two in the way that MoMA, for example, might.
Jack Kirby, Thor, found here.
* Stanley Cavell, "Automatism," in The World Viewed, Harvard University press, c. 1971, pp. 101-108.
** Pier Paolo Pasolini, Norman MacAfee and Craig Owens, "Observations on the Long Take," October, V. 13, Summer 1980, pp. 3-6.
*** Leo Steinberg, "Other Criteria," published in Other Criteria, University of Chicago Press, c. 1972.
Catherine Spaeth, c. 2009