Date of Degree

9-2020

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Ph.D.

Program

Art History

Advisor

Siona Wilson

Committee Members

Claire Bishop

Wayne Koestenbaum

Branden W. Joseph

Subject Categories

American Art and Architecture | Contemporary Art | French and Francophone Language and Literature | Reading and Language | Theatre and Performance Studies

Abstract

This dissertation provides the first detailed study of the work of French artist Guy de Cointet (1934–1983), specifically the books, objects, and performances he produced in Los Angeles between 1971 and 1983. Much of this work mined pop-cultural sources—genre fiction, magazine advertising, and television serials—for texts, which he reused in deliberately obfuscated ways: in pseudonymous publications written in code or invented languages, as well as in sigil-like paintings that doubled as props for performances in which actors delivered contradictory interpretations of the encoded objects. I argue that Cointet’s appropriations of the visual and narrative logics of postwar culture provide a unique vantage point onto the evolving mechanisms of consumerism, increasingly pitched at subjective identifications, desires, and anxieties.

Each chapter analyzes a key moment in Cointet’s professional development. Chapter 1 reads ACRCIT (1971), an anonymous newspaper whose contents are encrypted in various codes, against contemporaneous developments in the idea of “information”—its evolution in the scientific literature of the Information Age, as well as its serial permutations in 1960s–70s Conceptual art—at a time of widespread anxiety about political truth-telling. Cointet’s unintelligible newspaper turns out to be a compendium of code-themed quotations from adventure and sci-fi stories, self-help books and travel guides, as well as treatises on cultural theory, zoology, and mathematics. ACRCIT’s parodic secrecy responds to a thread of humorous intrigue in Conceptual art, from the work of Robert Morris to Sol LeWitt to the Art & Language group.

Chapter 2 analyzes three of Cointet’s earliest performances, Espahor Ledet Ko Uluner!, CIZEGHOH TUR ND JMB (1973), and At Sunrise, A Cry Was Heard (1974), in which professional actors delivered scripted monologues that purport to “interpret” a coded object for the audience in discordantly enticing ways. In addition to considering Cointet’s relationship to theater and the energetic Southern California performance art scene, the chapter traces his investment in mass culture to the flood of consumer goods that attended Marshall-Plan aid to Europe in the 1950s and concurrent critiques of “Coca-colonization” by French intellectuals, including Simone de Beauvoir and Georges Perec. This French tradition of “critical consumer portraiture” was a likely model for Cointet’s early performance personas.

Chapter 3 examines Cointet’s collaboration with artist Robert White on Ethiopia (1976) and IGLU (1977), multi-act works with multiple characters, distinguished by their use of three-dimensional stage props—colorful cones, cubes and spheres—that, while mimicking the appearance of Minimalist sculpture, can also be manipulated to produce comically discordant sounds. Cointet and Wilhite’s props invoke the presumed difficulty and austerity associated with high modernism only to demonstrate how easily it translates to the passive pleasures of mass culture.

In chapter 4, Cointet’s final staged work, Five Sisters (1982), is considered against the context of evolving feminist discourse over the course of the 1970s and the commodification of identities around sexuality, illness, and health, contrasting his work with that of Southern California women artists such a Barbara Smith and Eleanor Antin. The chapter also considers the camp and queer resonances of Cointet’s work and self-presentation, linking the artist’s elusive persona to Andy Warhol and Warhol “superstar” Viva—a friend of Cointet’s, whose proto-feminist camp suggests a foundational model for much of Cointet’s performance work.

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