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Black Cat Publishing
ISBN 978-90810418-2-9
25 €
Essay by B. Van der Heide
180 pages, 149 colors illustrations
design Studio Laucke Amsterdam


Bart van der Heide*
Intentionally Unexpressed
The pictorial production of Delphine Courtillot

pub_2 The relationship between text and image in conceptual art is usually a problematic one. When the conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth takes distance from an image-oriented view of works of art in the late 1960s, replacing it with a theoretical definition of art in general1, the modern work of art reaches the point where it determines its own theory and is able to maintain itself by means of this theory. The tone thus seems to be set for a view of art that has explicitly rejected formal aesthetics in favour of “... art theory disguised as art, or art disguised as art theory.”[2]

The assignment of this theoretical position within conceptual art ultimately seems to be more important than the visual properties of artworks. Yet, in the work of Delphine Courtillot (Paris, 1972), the pictorial form assumes a dominant role once again, while her visual narrative appears to lack any unequivocal story line. Her work opts for the construction of a mythical rather than a literal assignment, thereby driving a wedge between the conceptual artwork and its didactic basis. Critics who expect every artist to provide clear-cut statements when it comes to descriptions of his or her artistic production would appear to have little to go on in this respect.

In order to further analyze this singular position within conceptual art, we can refer to Rosalind Krauss’s discussion of the work of the ‘appropriation’ artist Cindy Sherman.[3] “The narrative impact of [...] images tends to submerge the elements through which the situation is constructed,” says Krauss, “elements such as depth-of-field, grain, light, etc., which, it would seem, are too easy to dismiss as merely ‘formal’ integers, whereas they function as signifiers crucial to the semantic effect.” Sherman’s work, placed almost directly by conceptual discourse into a feminist pigeonhole, is, in Krauss’s eyes, not purely linked to an engaged conception. Krauss, on the contrary, resolutely opens the way to the individual voice possessed by conceptual works of art and their narrative construction. For Krauss, it is this construction that is chosen by Sherman as the starting point so as to exclude any single narrative source or origin. The ‘Film Stills’ series in which Sherman uses herself as a model for representing various film genres can in this respect serve as an example. The photographs refer to films, the originals of which are nowhere to be found. Like no other,
the use of the film still as a form of representation is able to demonstrate this absence of origins.


publi_3 For Krauss, this striking view is not substantiated by the discourse of the 1970s (including that of the aforementioned Kosuth); instead she goes back further to Duchamp’s prototype of the ready-made from 1913.[4] With the goal of breaking open the artisanal relationship between works of art and their maker, Duchamp chooses to replace the traditional or mechanical source of objects by their temporary, mutual artistic functioning. Ultimately it is a question of the choices that have led to the use of objects within the specific context in which they are placed by the artist. “Choice is the main thing, even in normal painting”, says Duchamp[5], thus elevating time based strategic choices to an aesthetic form. Even in the case of painting, the application of colour and paint would be more important than the finished result. A colour of pigment is thus equivalent to a urinoir, for example, as Duchamp extends the artist’s field of play beyond the limits of the canvas. From this point of view, Sherman could just as well have painted if it had helped her aesthetic strategy.[6]

Yet, within the purview of conceptualism, the status of painting remains ambivalent, to say the least. The constitutional relation between a painting and its unique process of creation by the artist him- or herself tends to be demonised within conceptual art production. Successful applications of figurative painting in conceptual art can therefore until today be counted on the fingers of one hand. In the end it is Delphine Courtillot who successfully fills the lacuna between painting and its conceptual application and manages to employ her own means of sidestepping the origin of her gouaches. Painting is used within Courtillot’s oeuvre as a rendering of various forms of reproduction such as performance, theatrical staging and photography, whereby the medium seems to lose the constitutional relationship with its creator. The painting even appears to acquire the status of a ready-made, when elements like over-exposure, cropping or lack of focus testify to a photographic source; a source that becomes physically visible when both photograph and painting function beside each other. And yet the painting continues to preserve its need for authenticity, although this tends to lie within the context of the creative production – as the final stage of a succession of strategic decisions.


One More Time
The mystification of the ready-made

Delphine Courtillot’s artistic point of departure is centred, so it seems, around the absence of origin. With regard to an unequivocal narrative source, the artisanal ancestry of the individual works or the actors in her ‘mise en scéne’, Courtillot sabotages any reference to their origin in favour of the way they function artistically between themselves. In keeping with the heritage of Duchamp, Courtillot demonstrates that it is not necessary for conceptual works of art to have an unequivocal basis. That is, the work derives its aesthetic right to existence outside itself, even outside the artist. In a classic Duchampian manner, Courtillot shifts the urgency of her work from the artist to the art context. The role of the spectator in this should not be underestimated: “[...] the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualification and thus adds his contribution to the creative act”, says Duchamp.[7] Duchamp thus suggests that the creative choices of the artist, in other words ‘the Creative Act’, can only function when these become visible within the spectator’s perception and participation. In this respect, the artist partly relinquishes the authorship of his or her work of art.


publi_4 In itself, this viewpoint is not exceptional within conceptual art. Jack Burnham already defined this step towards context as ‘Systems Aesthetics’ in an article published in the magazine Artforum in 1969.[8] Burnham, however, saw this context as determined by social, rather than technical aspects: “The specific function of modern […] art has been to show that art does not reside in material entities, but in relations between people and the components of their environment.”, according to Burnham. In this point of view, the step towards a didactic agenda of conceptual works of art is quickly made and, in the following decades, appears to have become the rule rather than the exception when it concerned the aesthe-tical judging of the artworks. Courtillot, on the other hand, appears, like Krauss, to reverse the roles and to allow the conceptual work of art to once again determine its own context without it being dependent on a social or political purpose. In her case there is a reversion to the ‘inert matter’[9] of the ready-made, in which the previous history of objects is subordinated to their temporary artistic function.

With this position in mind, it is interesting to look at Courtillot’s use of traditional forms of artistic representation in her work. With regard to the absence of authorship, a remarkable play becomes visible in the transition from photography to painting. While Courtillot’s gouaches mask the presence of the author since her ‘hand’ is guided by a photograph, the author of her photographic work, on the other hand, becomes explicitly visible. An artist like the aforementioned Cindy Sherman tries to keep the moment of the photographic exposure as trans-parent as possible by using a technical camera, professional studio lighting and a fixed camera position. In Courtillot’s images, the camera seems to claim its own ‘personality’ through the technical deficiencies displayed in the result. The photographs attest to the use of a lightweight camera which, confronted with a far from ideal working environment, has no chance of recording the predetermined, temporary situation in accordance with reality. An outdoor wall photographed at night, for example, is reduced by the reflection of the camera flash to a two-dimensional cutout because every significant detail is flattened by the beam of light. Under the same circumstances, what were originally innocent snowflakes have become fist-sized bullets. These technical limits are only evident at a later stage, when the photograph is eventually reproduced. Yet Courtillot intentionally relinquishes control of the pro-duction when she prefers to see her own role within the frame of the picture as a recurrent figure in her time-bound enactments. The camera as ‘inert matter’ thus becomes a lively commentator, as it were, a crown witness of a vanished event.


publi_5 Courtillot not only ascribes an essential characteristic to inert objects out- side the picture, but also within it. In her gouache One More Time (2005) a female figure holds a little statue of a woman close to her breast.The stylised face of the figurine is the only facial expression offered to the spectator, since the face of the woman is turned away. In itself the figurine is not the most eye-catching element in the picture, but when it appears that its use is not limited to just one incidental picture, a broader narrative seems to reveal itself. Courtillot systematically repeats attributes such as a pocket torch, a mask or a piece of clothing within different staging and all of them appear to fulfill a similar role. In One More Time, visual elements such as the female figure, the hermetically closed façade in front of which she is standing or the cinematic nature of the camera angle become comparative elements between a larger group of pictures. While the figurine in gouaches such as One More Time or Coconut Art (2004) is ritually borne into the picture, it functions in Slide Mountain (2005) more as an arbitrarily placed element in a domestic interior. Even though the figure of the woman in all three pictures is facing away from the spectator, the similarity lingers with this comparison. It is not long before the spec-tator is confronted with the formal incoherence between the individual pictures and the subordinate role assigned to the human figure in them.

From this point of view, it seems that the measure in these pictures is the human being, a bearer of an obscurely charged attribute, consistent with its use in Greek tragedies. In Sophocles’ ‘Electra’, for example, Agamemnon’s signet ring is the only witness to his death. As a ‘recognition token’[10], this ring represents a crucial key between the actual event and its interpretation by two rival poets.[11] Balancing between the true meaning and the poetic form, it is ultimately only the wearer of the ring who can distinguish fact from fiction and indicate the most accurate interpretation. Sophocles decides indeed to reveal the hidden history of the signet ring at the end of ‘Electra’ by uniting wearer and attribute with each other.[12] In the images of Courtillot, however, these two elements do not come together. The narrative link between the pictures turns out to be incoherent, so that the spectators of Courtillot’s work are left standing, as it were, before the final act: all that remains for the viewer is the poetic form.

In short, whereas Sophocles devoted a play to the writing of a play, Courtillot, it seems, devotes her production to the making of art in general. Courtillot constructs the myth of artistic practice step by step through the ritual use of the ready-made and shifts this ready-made status to the medial playing-field that is nowadays at the conceptual artist’s disposal. She uses artistic forms of representation as ready-mades and, with the absence of origin that would appear to be the necessary consequence of this, constructs a poetic openness for the purpose of a greater number of meanings.

However, new problems appear on the horizon here. The overt use of conceptual works of art is namely problematic when an attempt is being made to pass an aesthetic judgment, since the meaning of the work is not unambiguous and can therefore differ per spectator. Nevertheless, the position of an artist like Courtillot should not be confused with ambi-valence. Her work is rather a critical position within the dominant model of mediation in current artistic discourse, whereby it is assumed that everything is or can be mediated. What makes her position interesting is that it lies outside her individual works and within a broader development of the conceptual artwork: “[...] between the unexpressed but intended and the unintentionally expressed”.[13]

Bart van der Heide is an art historian living and working in Amsterdam and London.


1. According to Kosuth, “Being an artist now means to question the nature of art”, Joseph Kosuth ‘Art after Philosophy’, Studio International, October 1969.
2. Thierry de Duve, ‘October’, No.70, autumn 1994.
3. Rosalind Krauss, ‘Cindy Sherman 1975-1993’, Rizzolli 1993, p. 56.
4. Under the pseudonym R. Mutt, Duchamp submitted a urinal for the selection of the Armory Show in 1913.
5. Marcel Duchamp in a radio interview with Georges Charbonnier, RTF, 1961 in Thierry de Duve ‘Kant after Duchamp’, Massachusetts, 1996, p. 162.
6. Krauss’s approach opens a timeless critical framework for the work of Sherman as well as for subsequent generations of artists like Courtillot. This critical framework has lost none of its relevance despite Sherman’s recent public statements about wanting to return to painting. Sherman: “I’d like to go back to painting! I’m sick of all this photography and video. There is so much of it. It’s almost annoying.” See ‘Cindy Sherman talks to David Frankel’, Artforum, March 2003.
7. Marcel Duchamp ‘Session on the Creative Act’, Convention of the American Federation of Arts, April 1957, Houston/Texas.
8. Jack Burnham, ‘Systems Aesthetics’, Artforum Vol. VII, No.1, September 1968, pp. 30-35.
9. “This phenomenon is comparable to a transference from the artist to the spectator in the form of an aesthetic osmosis taking place through the inert matter, such as pigment, piano or marble.” says Duchamp op. cit. (note 7).
10. See Ann G. Batchelder, ‘The Seal of Orestes. Self-Reference and Authority in Sophocles’ Electra’, London 1995, p.122.
11. By the two rival poets Electra and Clytemnestra.
12. The wearer of the ring turns out to be Orestes, the son of Agamemnon.
13. See Duchamp op. cit. (note 7)