Illustration by Hannah K. Lee.
A bit of a theory, more a corner-of-the-eye noticing than an airtight argument: in the course of long artistic careers, women are more likely than men to change form and style, Proteus-like. Immediately, reader, I hear you thinking of exceptions. Well, Bob Dylan, yes, sure. Picasso. Pasolini. Indeed - you'll get no argument from me. Radical breaks in style are technically gender neutral, and there are certainly men who have roamed among forms, styles, and even media. When Virginia Woolf wrote, in her diary, "The sign of a masterly writer is his power to break his mould callously," she was speaking of Henry James's risky sentences, not of her own. I am speaking of a tendency, one that seems to be more noticeable in women working in the twentieth century and beyond, perhaps owing to the fact that more work by women has found its way into the world since 1900. It may also be that the modernists unleashed form-breaking as an artistic technique, and that women are more likely to continue in that vein of the modernist tradition.
Consider, for instance, the difference in the trajectories of a few pairs of more or less evenly matched leading artists and contemporaries: Joni Mitchell and Neil Young; Toni Morrison and Philip Roth; Roni Horn and Eric Fischl. In each medium - popular music, literature, and visual art, respectively - the woman has broken form, shed a skin, with each phase of her career, whereas the man has returned to ever-deepening iterations of the sound or sentence or imagery with which he began. The pure, center-parted, chorus-and-verse folk sound of the Joni Mitchell of "Ladies of the Canyon," from 1970, is a far cry from the open, asymmetrical, uncategorizable Joni Mitchell of the "Turbulent Indigo," from 1994. During the same period, Neil Young's "Harvest" (1972) and "Harvest Moon" (1992) are just a shade or two removed from one another formally. Figuratively speaking, he's wearing the same flannel shirt. The beauty lies in the way that time has acted upon it, where it's faded, where it's been patched. In contrast, the beauty of Mitchell's artistic arc lies not only in the success of each individual project but also in the leap that she makes from one album to another. We listen to that break, that silence, as carefully as we listen to the music.
Toni Morrison often writes mythic or near-mythic stories that incorporate elements of folklore, the supernatural, and the mystical. However, the fable-like atmosphere of, say, "Sula," from 1973 (which begins, "In that place, where they tore the nightshade and blackberry patches from their roots to make room for the Medallion City Golf Course, there was once a neighborhood"), makes a radically different music from the speculative thickets of prose in "Paradise," from 1997, or the allegorical spareness of her most recent novel, from 2012, "Home." Her breakthrough novel, "Beloved," dissolves its own form in the critical final third, shifting into stream-of-consciousness poetic monologues among its three main characters; it's as if the thundering emotional content of this section of the book must find a new mode altogether. Roth, in contrast, has rung the changes, with an ever more blistering and melancholic mood, on various chords of Roth-ness, from Portnoy to Zuckerman, up to and including "The Counterlife," in which a chorus of Zuckermans sing together. He has worked these changes within a small range of novelistic forms.
The much lauded visual artist Roni Horn got her Master's in sculpture from Yale in the seventies, but in the course of her career she has moved, among other media, from watercolors to photographs to floor-sized installations and mats of poured gold. On a plane some years ago, I was flipping through an issue of W that featured a series of photographs of Horn, assembled, by her, under the title "AKA." It's a simple project in concept: Horn at different moments of life, from a teen-ager with seventies hippie hair to an adult with the gentlemanly look that she sports now, but the images are so radically different that they might be representations of altogether different women with different lives. Some of these women make watercolors, others pour gold, but all are equally weighted, viable, and true without being central. In roughly the same period of time, the artist Eric Fischl, also much lauded, has hewn closely to painting, particularly to scenes of what might be described as suburban psycho-noir. He seems to be investigating a cluster of primal scenes from different angles, peering through the windows of the same house again and again.
Let me be clear: I am not assigning genders to these two ways of working and then pitting them against one another. The pleasure of Neil Young is neither more nor less than the pleasure of Joni Mitchell; ditto Morrison, Roth, Horn, Fischl et al. The world is better with all of them in it. But I notice this female inclination toward breaking form wherever in the world I go.
* * *
Not only do I see it in the present and near-present - I also see it in the past. Recently, at the Whitechapel Gallery, in London, on the outskirts of post-industrial Shoreditch, a career-spanning exhibition of the German Dada collagist Hannah Höch was on view. Höch began her career, in 1916, as an embroidery-pattern designer, a good vocation for a girl at that time, especially one whose parents ended her education at fifteen, so that she could help out at home. She went on to become one of the foremost innovators of photomontage, using images cut from magazines, layering them on top of one another, and then tearing bits open to ask questions about what we see, how it's made, and how it might be transformed and reconfigured. In 1934, she wrote, "Whenever we want to force this 'photo matter' to yield new forms, we must be prepared for a journey of discovery, we must start without any preconceptions; most of all, we must be open to the beauties of fortuity. Here more than anywhere else, these beauties, wandering and extravagant, obligingly enrich our fantasy."
Meanwhile, at the Pompidou Center, in Paris, an extensive career-spanning exhibition of the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson was also recently on view. Cartier-Bresson is famous for his philosophy of "the decisive moment" in a photograph, the unrepeatable glimpse of the real. One of the founders of Magnum, he is widely credited with inventing the visual language of photojournalism in the twentieth century. The exhibit is dedicated to the idea that there isn't one monolithic Cartier-Bresson but, rather, many ("il n'y eut pas un, mais bien plusieurs Cartier-Bresson"), shifting with the demands of history and of the artist's temperament. To some degree, this is true - Cartier-Bresson made imagery that at some times was more Surrealist, at others was more Atget-like, and, late in life, showed the influence of his Zen studies - but he never wavered in his belief in the photograph, as a form, to reflect reality, like a mirror held at different angles. He believed in the straightforward relationship between light and paper. Höch remained dubious.
Both Höch and Cartier-Bresson were heavily influenced by the Surrealists, as was Federico García Lorca, their poet counterpart in Spain. In 1933, Lorca could have been speaking for all three of them when he wrote, in "Theory and Play of the Duende," "The arrival of the duende presupposes a radical change to all the old kinds of form, brings totally unknown and fresh sensations, with the qualities of a newly created rose, miraculous, generating an almost religious enthusiasm." The duende was everything to Lorca. (Though "soul" might be the closest translation of duende, the word also implies "devil.") He writes, "The duende is a force not a labour, a struggle not a thought. I heard an old maestro of the guitar say: 'The duende is not in the throat: the duende surges up, inside, from the soles of the feet.' Meaning, it's not a question of skill, but of a style that's truly alive: meaning, it's in the veins: meaning, it's of the most ancient culture of immediate creation."
Without duende, according to Lorca, art is nothing but empty technique. All three of these major left-wing European artists sought the duende, but whereas Cartier-Bresson, who is known for the elegance of his formal compositions, sought it within photography's claim to the real, and Lorca sought it within the classic traditions of flamenco and lyric poetry, Höch sought it by literally tearing up different low, mass-cultural forms and roughly pasting them together, with the seams foregrounded. In her sui-generis collages, a pair of eyes often looks out forcefully from several layers of incongruent, shredded commercial imagery, like a soul staring out from within a ruin of stock forms. The depiction or, perhaps, the perception of subjectivity is always a rough collage.
* * *
A bit of a theory: female artists often seek the duende in this way, by cutting up and cutting through received forms, by remaining skeptical of form and artistic tradition, however beautifully composed or elegant. Why? It's tempting to argue that those who are excluded signal their exclusion in their work. It's also tempting to suggest that women change physically more radically and more frequently than men do, from menarche to menopause, and so on. One might gesture as well toward the cultural imperative that women play different roles - mommy, vixen, virgin, hag, etc. However, I would suggest another possibility: if gender is among the first forms, the first powerful cultural constructs that we learn, then it is often the case that what comes along with gender, for women, is an alienating distance. If being a girl means ______ (fill in the blank with any of your favorite limiting received ideas and practices, from foot-binding to "The Rules"), then am I a girl? What is it to be a girl? Do I take the deal or not? Which part? Gender, for many girls in many places, doesn't fit all that well. It cuts here, it binds there, it wrinkles too easily, it's impossibly expensive, and it lasts for only one or two seasons; in severe cases, it strangles. For many boys, the gender that the culture hands them fits fine, cradle to grave. They hardly ever think about it. Moreover, why look a gift horse in the mouth?
Of course, this alienating distance does occur for some boys, and it may well have contributed to the vibrantly protean careers of Edmund White (compare, say, his early, super-twirly novel "Forgetting Elena" to the later austerity of "A Boy's Own Story"), Andy Warhol (pick any two years), and David Bowie (pick any two months). We can see a similarly explosive incommensurability in Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man," which changes styles radically from page to page and from section to section. That novel, in thinking about race, constantly works the fissure of doubt between what is seen and what is felt; style and form are always crucial and always wrong. There is no such thing as a natural fit between form and content. Seamless elegance would be tantamount to erasure.
If, however, the alienation that women and other Others often experience can be painful, it can also be liberating. It interposes a primal question mark between feeling and form, and it can kick off a lifelong quest to find a form that fits and/or inculcates a certain looseness and play in one's choice of form at any given moment. There's a doubt, a shadow, a friction between the inner world and the perception or the shape of the exterior container. That shadow between feeling and form, which may begin in gender, releases artistic energy all one's life. The paper is always torn, the eyes always peer out from within borrowed shapes.
"I'm travelling in some vehicle," Joni Mitchell sings on her 1976 album "Hejira." "I'm sitting in some café." It could be that the vehicle is form. Could be that the café is style. Could be that feeling like a perpetual traveller, never entirely at home, is something that women often feel in this world. Woolf wrote, "I mean that I have to some extent forced myself to break every mould and find a fresh form of being, that is of expression, for everything I feel or think." Could be that Proteus, who assumes many shapes but is subject to none, is a productive figure for the artist to steer by. At the very least, the evidence suggests that for a number of significant women artists in the past hundred years or so, this has been the case.
Stacey D'Erasmo's fourth novel, "Wonderland," will be published in May. Her most recent book, "The Art of Intimacy: The Space Between," was published last year.