Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 26, 2022
Lucy Bradnock No More Masterpieces: Modern Art after Artaud New Haven: Yale University Press, 2021. 240 pp.; 60 color ills.; 19 b/w ills. Hardcover $65.00 (9780300251036)

Lucy Bradnock’s No More Masterpieces: Modern Art after Artaud offers a reassessment of Artaud’s reception among artists in the United States (and particularly artists who could be grouped within the American avant-garde). Looking at the period when his work was introduced to the English-speaking world in the 1950s and tracing its circulation through informal networks and official publications, Bradnock deftly demonstrates the challenges, limitations, and opportunities of Artaud’s emergence in the United States. The result is a well-researched and highly readable reconsideration of his legacy and influence there.

Artaud’s texts—often opaque and contradictory—offer fertile ground for artists, who can interpret them as they please, but these same opportunities can challenge scholars, who must sort through Artaud’s work and life to present them in productive ways. Bradnock skillfully tackles this challenge, upending common assumptions that have dominated the discussion of Artaud’s influence—such as the association of Artaudian cruelty with violence and terrorism directed at the audience (133)—and demonstrating how the specific texts and information about Artaud that were available to artists, along with the cultural context of the moment when they encountered those texts, resulted in a distinctly American interpretation of his work. In doing so, she offers new insights into both overlooked and thoroughly explored territory about Artaud himself and the American artists he inspired.

It is easy to overlook the roles editing and translation play in how we receive foreign texts. We might be aware that translators make choices when rendering a work in a new language, but unless we are reading a work across multiple translations or in conjunction with the original we aren’t necessarily aware of the interpretive leaps being taken—what is being cut and what we don’t have access to in the first place. For an author like Artaud whose complete works span twenty-six volumes of scattered and sometimes contradictory thought—much of which has not been translated from French into English—this process of selection is even more influential. Bradnock makes clear how the works made available to the English-speaking world shaped Artaud’s reception and influence.

Though Bradnock offers interesting analyses and profiles of individual artists and their work, her focus is on artistic circles and networks. She brings new perspectives to how Artaud’s ideas circulated and demonstrates how the figures we associate with artistic movements were never working in a vacuum or creating great ideas from nowhere, that other overlooked figures (often women) were shaping these currents as well. Her critique of the “popular focus on John Cage as a lone progenitor” of the work at Black Mountain College and its subsequent influence on the avant-garde (a popular conception I imagine Cage himself would reject), demonstrates that her book will not follow the “great man” theory of artistic development (27). Instead, she foregrounds the college’s “collective and collaborative logic” through, for example, her discussion of Rachel Rosenthal, an active member of the New York and Los Angeles avant-garde scenes, whose “knowledge of Artaud predated Cage’s” (27). This is not to say Bradnock ignores Cage or other artists commonly cited in this lineage, such as Allan Kaprow (chapter four). Indeed, she offers new ways of thinking about Cage’s and Kaprow’s work in relation to Artaud that draw out some of the more subtle notions of Artaud’s theories on theater and performance, especially in relation to intimacy, scale, and indeterminacy and how they relate to a wider network of practitioners.

I found this network of relations particularly informative, with Bradnock demonstrating how artists were in conversation with both Artaud and each other. This underlying thread of “in conversation with” brings together seemingly divergent works through a common Artaudian discourse. Bradnock identifies a “discursive matrix ‘Artaud’” that shifts according to “geography, chronology, and context” (201). Like Artaud, these artists interpreted the source work freely, misinterpreting and reinterpreting his work to create art that forwarded their own goals. They used Artaud as a jumping-off point to create work relevant and responsive to their own context and historical moment.

As Bradnock points out, there was little biographical information available about Artaud, and his texts came to “stand in for Artaud himself” (12). The artists she discusses draw from Artaud in much the same way he appropriated Indigenous Mexican and Balinese traditions; they are not reverent to their source of inspiration, but freely interpreted his work and discarded what didn’t suit their purposes (201). To apply the kind of language Artaud himself might use, Bradnock’s text suggests how Artaud’s ideas spread through a psychic and physical contagion, influencing avant-garde circles on the East and West coasts of the United States.

Bradnock decenters the East Coast scene, which so often dominates discussions of fine art, performance, theater, and live art in the United States. While there is much discussion of East Coast artists, (in addition to Kaprow and Cage, for example, she discusses Carolee Schneeman and Nancy Spero in chapter five), the exciting part of the text is seeing how these ideas moved between the coasts. Geographically, it would be interesting to take this further, looking at Artaud’s influence on artists outside of the major centers of New York City, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. How did his work manifest in the more rural confines of Fresno, California, where Judy Chicago briefly set up the United States’ first feminist art program at Fresno State? How did Artaud’s legacy impact artists who stayed in Cleveland or who were working in the South?

Again and again the book upsets dominant binaries. For Bradnock, Artaud is both “modern and postmodern,” serving as a counter to the “model of rupture” that has often characterized the evolution of postwar art (25). Appropriately, one of Artaud’s own key inspirations, Alfred Jarry, could also fit this category and Bradnock’s characterization suggests the potential for a much broader reconfiguration of these paradigms. She makes a strong case for seeing Artaud’s legacy as wider than works that focus on “a frenzy of destruction and chaos or the cowering of an audience in the face of hollering actors” (131). For example, her consideration of his concept of cruelty demonstrates how it can be smaller and more subtle than the violent spectacles with which Artaud is commonly associated. This is evident in her deconstruction of the oft repeated binary between Brecht’s and Artaud’s work, and his influence on artistic practices based in indeterminacy, such as Cage and Yvonne Rainer (chapter 1). While Rainer’s No Manifesto (1965) contains statements that might be considered at odds with Artaud’s vision (“No to spectacle.  . . .  No to involvement of performer or spectator” (60)), Bradnock shows how her work engages with his “metaphysical proposition” to create new modes of engagement  (61). And if I apply Artaud’s language of virus and contagion, Bradnock’s examples demonstrate how his influence mutated as it spread through the American avant-garde.

In looking at the specific and selective view that artists in the English-speaking world had of Artaud, Bradnock illuminates how the myth of Artaud the impossible practitioner was born. This is, however, a myth that she sometimes falls into herself. While she offers alternatives to stereotypes and binaries that have become part of the standard story of Artaud, I sometimes wanted a more explicit discussion of Artaud the historical figure (and active practicing artist), and its relationship to the mad, mythical Artaud passed down through varying texts. Occasionally, this manifests in the conflation of the utopian leftism of the artists Artaud influenced with his own politics (122). Scholars such as Naomi Greene and Kimberly Jannarone have convincingly argued that Artaud’s politics align more closely with fascism than the liberal artists he inspired; integrating these viewpoints into her discussion may have further illuminated the particular context and development of the “American Artaud.” But this is a small quibble considering Bradnock’s focus is on Artaud’s influence in the context of the United States and she acknowledges these challenges and contradictions (123).

The book concludes with a discussion of Terry Allen’s Ghost Ship and the notion of Artaud as a “semifictional entity” (205). While there is a flesh and blood Artaud, a wicked theatrical practitioner with a decade of experience as an actor and director, this is not the Artaud the Americans in Bradnock’s book encountered. Instead, they received Artaud as a ghost, a mishmash of biographical information and selected texts and, for those who couldn’t read French, choices made in translation. In France, Artaud was a person first, a mythological figure second; in America it is the reverse, through his introduction as a mad prophet of the avant-garde. As her book makes clear, the Artaud haunting the United States seems very different from the one haunting France. Closing the book with a quote from Artaud, “clear ideas . . . are ideas that are dead and finished,” Bradnock raises the tensions between the virus of Artaud and his mutation through the American scene, leaving room for “new scrutiny” from other scholars who can build on her insights (207).

Blake Morris
Independent scholar