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From Art to Barthes, and Back Again

Yve-Alain Bois Has Been Up and Down the Ivory Tower

By Lan N. Nguyen

At 16, Yve-Alain Bois was a self-proclaimed artist--an abstract painter, no less.

He later abandoned that identity, but not the field altogether. For today, Bois, a recent arrival at Harvard (snatched from Johns Hopkins University), is the newly-endowed Pulitzer professor of modern art.

"I wasn't going to be this ridiculous circus animal--an abstract painter at 16, so I stopped," says Bois, whose worn pipe and sensible shoes make him look more traditional than his interests might suggest. And Bois, in some sense, adopts a conservative approach to a less-than-classical field: he's somewhat suspicious of theory "with a capital T," as he puts it.

"You do have this feeling [in the American educational system] of this strong urge not to miss the latest political fashion, which I resist," Bois says. This is a resistance, Bois adds, that is based in part on his early training with the very theorists who occupy the current vogue. As a student at L'Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes in Paris, Bois received a master's degree and a Ph.D. under the tutelage of Roland Barthes, a French structuralist, and art historian Hubert Damisch.

"He is very much interested in the tradition of modernism and is skeptical of post-modernism and commercialization of and by artists," says Nancy J. Troy, chair of the art history department at Northwestern University. "He believes in an active, creative tradition."

Rebuilding at Harvard

Bois was lured away from Johns Hopkins, where he taught 20th century art history, to help bolster the modern art division here in Harvard's department.

His appointment in Fine Arts is part of a larger effort to rebuild a department weakened in the past three years by professors retiring or leaving. The departure of prominent modern art historian T.J. Clark for the University of California at Berkeley left the department temporarily without a contemporary art scholar.

For his first year at Harvard, Bois is scheduled to teach one class in the fall and two courses in the spring. All three course offerings draw from his own recent research, which is how he likes it, he says. Rather than instructing students on something he has already mastered, Bois prefers to engage his and his students' interest in a topic that they are both discovering at the same time, he says.

"I like to do seminars on things I am discovering...based in the way I was educated in school," says Bois. "If I am doing something I know already, I'm bored. And if I'm bored, I'm boring."

Bois says the way Barthes, his mentor, taught was to write a book before the eyes of his students. As a student, he saw Barthes' In the Seminar emerging from its earliest stages. "He was very amazing because basically he was writing in front of his students," Bois says. "We literally watched him writing a book."

Bois says he also plans to fully utilize Harvard's numerous museums by organizing classes to attend exhibits. What drew him to Harvard was the potential to work closely with the museums, he says. In the fall, Bois will be teaching a seminar, called Fine Arts 273, "Europe-America: Problems of the 1950s," which will explore the anticompositional and antitheoretical strategies of European and American artists after World War II.

"A lot of artists at the time for various reasons and with absolutely different means were interested in how not to compose," says Bois. "They had a lot of reasons to do that. One of the reasons, I think, was a distrust in authority."

Upcoming Book

In the spring, Bois will be teaching a seminar on axonometry, or the mode of representing solids. The class--Fine Arts 275s, "Axonometry as a Cipher of Modernity"--will examine the invention of axonometry in the 19th century and its rebirth in the 20th century. The course will draw extensively from research he has already done for an upcoming book on the history of axonometry.

Another subject he has written about extensively will be taught in a spring course, Fine Arts 176x, "Piet Mondrian and De Stijl." The class will examine the early 20th century movement and collaborative effort among a group of Dutch artists and architects.

But there are no current plans to teach a Core class, or assume charge of Literature and Arts B-16: "Modern Art and Abstraction," popularly known as "Spots and Dots." Bois says he will eventually teach a large survey course, but he must first become accustomed to the Harvard system.

"It takes some time," says Bois. "I want to get acquainted with the whole thing. Sometimes these classes are gigantic, and I want to know how to deal with a huge crowd."


Bois is a prolific scholar. He has written several books, many articles and numerous reviews of exhibitions and printed works. His topics have varied from Piet Mondrian to El Lissitzky, and from the theory of Dutch architecture to Cubism.

In a new book called Painting the Model, he has brought together several of his previously published essays and reviews. Bois is currently working on a project about Ellsworth Kelly, an American modern artist.

Despite his broad interests, however, Bois has remained close to his training. Bois' scholarship is primarily concerned with how art is presented and presents itself, collegeues say. "His scholarship combines an approach shaped by his training with Barthes," says Johns Hopkins Professor Michael Fried, who was one of the two modernists in the department with Bois. "It is the best of structuralism and historicism."

"He is attentive to context and organization within art works," says Norman Bryson, professor of Fine Arts here at Harvard.

But scholars are quick to say that he is not an American formalist, someone who is only interested in how styles evolved. His emphasis on representation has produced "an amazing richness of interpretation" which formalism would never have allowed, says Bryson.

"'Formalist' is such a dirty word," Bryson says. "American formalism is a stagnant and uninteresting movement. I would not associate Alain's formalism with American formalism."

For Bois, his identity, both as historian and theorist, is still more complex. "I am a formalist who does not believe we can separate form and content, so it is not exactly formalist," says Bois. "If I am a formalist, let's say, my motto is more the Russian formalist than American formalist."

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