JTF (just the facts): A total of 20 photographic works, framed in white and hung against white walls in the single room gallery space. Each piece in the set of 20 consists of a photograph opposite an offset-typed page from the English translation of Jean-Paul Sartre’s philosophic book, Being and Nothingness. Seventeen of the photographs are black-and-white; 3 are in color. All are pigment prints on rag paper, produced in an edition of 6 with 2 APs, and sized 21 x 13.25 in. A book of the same title as the show was published by Nazraeli Press in 2009 and is currently out of print. (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness is a towering monument from the glory days of Existentialism that attracts almost no visitors anymore. Originally published as L’Être et le néant in 1943, and translated into English in 1956, it purported to resolve basic issues on the nature of consciousness and reality and did so in more than 600 pages of dense, abstruse, convoluted, and vertiginous prose. As the book was the Paris philosopher’s response to a similar tome, Martin Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit (Being and Time), following the arguments can be doubly difficult, requiring a knowledge of highly technical phenomenological terms as interpreted in both the German and French philosophic traditions. Aspiring intellectuals everywhere during the 1960s displayed the book on their shelves (I still have my paperback copy) and learned to quote the phrase “existence precedes essence” as a summary of Sartre’s world view. In truth, few of us actually made it through chapter I.
John Divola has treated this sometimes unfathomable work as if it were the simplest text in the world. Mining the pages for sentences, phrases, or images with a concrete reality, he has used them to generate a set of photographs. Sartre’s searching weltanschauung becomes in his devious hands an instruction manual, a crude picture machine, I Ching for Dummies.
For example, if Sartre in the chapter on “The Existence of Others” wrote “when from my window I see a man walking on the street,” Divola has taken (or found) a black-and-white photograph that describes those words. In the chapter titled “Immediate Structure of the For Itself,” Sartre wrote, “After glancing at the sky, I state ‘It is possible that it may rain.’” Divola has responded with a photograph of dark gray clouds above a line of trees.
His project (titled The Green of This Notebook) consists of 20 such literal examples: a page of texts from Sartre (each relevant passage highlighted in yellow—the only color in this half of the piece) paired with a corresponding illustration.
In the show’s press release, Divola acknowledges that some viewers might interpret his appropriation of Sartre as verging on “pretense and pomposity.” He claims that the intent of the artwork, though, is neither to mock the book nor to aggrandize himself. Sartre was a novelist, playwright, biographer—and an art historian—as well as a philosopher. He understood the literary value of particulars and throughout Being and Nothingness sought to ground his heady speculations in observations from his daily life.
Divola sees common purpose in his approach to photography and Sartre’s to philosophy. “For me as an artist using photography,” he writes, “this relationship between the specific (indexical) nature of an individual photograph and its abstract reception as an image is central to my interest in the medium. I make photographic imprints from specific circumstances and I hope to bring these images into a dialog with abstract notions of iconography, social history, and individual expectations.”
The Green of This Notebook is related to other Divola projects, such as As Far As I Can Get, a series made by pressing the self-timer on his camera and running away from it as fast as he could. (Both were shown at the Hammer Museum in 2000.) As with many Minimalist or Conceptual endeavors, making art by following a set of arbitrary rules can reduce egotism and sentimentality but runs the risk of leading to a reductio ad absurdam conclusion.
Divola’s investigations don’t proceed in a clear direction but they do tangentially address some basic philosophic questions about motion and the nature of sensations, which Sartre and philosophers from Aristotle to Wittgenstein have puzzled about. The first text of the set is: “I was on a narrow path—without a guard rail—which goes along a precipice.” (The illustration is a crumbling cliff-face in black-and-white.) The last text is: “If I eat a pink cake, the taste of it is pink.” (The photo shows a yellow cake covered in pink icing on a counter while a blurry hand removes a slice.)
Divola notes that while the aim of Sartre’s book is “to be academic and ‘objective,'” the examples interspersed throughout the text from his daily life (visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory) “cannot avoid the subjective…. The specificities of Sartre’s context, Paris in the early 1940’s, are embedded in his examples….I like to think of my project as an index of my specific conditions and the circumstances of the West Coast of the United States in the late 1990’s.”
Divola may think he is joining in the spirit of Sartre by erecting cloud castles of sober abstractions out of personal experience, but the effect is more comic than ruminative. The photograph he has chosen for the phrase “I can run away at top speed because of my fear of dying” shows a middle-aged guy (Divola himself?) in a baseball cap scampering up a hill. Sartre’s death-haunted version of Existentialism seems time-stamped, applicable to post-war life on the streets of Paris, and less urgent when exposed to the sunshine of California.
And yet, a project that may have begun as a challenge or a lark actually has something profound to say about language and images. Using lines of text as an algorithm to induce photographs, the pictorial medium that is supposed to be most connected to the real world, Divola proves that they are always poised between general abstraction and specific cases. His photographs may be grounded in his West Coast experience but aren’t so private as to be inscrutable. His reasons for taking a picture of a pink cake may be hard to understand but the picture itself isn’t.
Being and Nothingness is nothing special as a text for this sort of exercise. It doesn’t take more than a word or two (noun, adjective, or verb) to make a picture in our minds. A Modernist novel, allergy-pill disclaimer, laundry list, ransom note, or recipe could be an equally rich source of material for a photography machine constructed along Divola’s lines. As more than one philosopher has observed, language and images are connected at the root of consciousness.
Collector’s POV: The set is priced at $40000 unframed. Divola’s work has only been intermittently available at auction in recent years. Prices have generally ranged between $1000 and $10000, but these few data points may not be particularly representative of the actual market for his work.