Arresting Figures: Vincent Tangredi (1980)

“Arresting Figures: Vincent Tangredi,” (1980), Vanguard, 11:2 (March 1982), pp. 18-21.

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This article was written in 1980 and submitted to Vanguard but it took the magazine a couple years to publish it. Then the editor asked me to write the italicized introduction introducing the article. All this because the magazine did not publish articles on single works of art. Or was the delay resistance to the semiotic or Textual analysis forwarded here that took time to catch up to? By 1983 this discourse was just beginning to being taken up and on its way to an orthodoxy, a doxa Barthes would say. Time to change strategies!

Arresting Figures: Vincent Tangredi

Since his first exhibition at A Space in 1974 and at the Carmen Lamanna Gallery since 1975, Vincent Tangredi has worked with some conjunction of photographic image and text or with the presentation of text alone. The work has grown in complexity from object to installation, from sculpture to wall ensemble, and in language, from laconic “conceptual” statement to “literary” narrative. (But even here it could be argued that the texts stamped in metal and hung on the wall maintain a sculptural tradition, or that along with minimal and postminimal art the installations concern perception and the body.)

Generally, the work has been self-referentially descriptive, from the first objects to the latest narratives. That is, the formal presentation, and the metaphor of its framing device, became cues to the development of the content, or in other words, the production of its narrative. This content often took on a disturbingly violent character because of the relations it assumed between the sexes, or through the violence of presentation or, rather, representation itself. The formal closure of this content in the work’s own mechanisms was violent.

Text functioned as gesture, but too often as a closed, subjective system of record and response. Although an intention and narrative could be disclosed, the texts’ opacity, density and fragmentary association worked against comprehension. The installation 1902, exhibited in 1980, is exceptional to this date in Tangredi’s work for the relaxation of this violence and displacement of the sexual content into broader historical and cultural constructs, and for the clarity of its representational and narrative structures.

In its presentation, or, more properly, representation here, 1902 is one moment in a practice of construction, viewing/reading and writing, each of which assume no critical precedence over the others. The work takes place in the writing, is represented in the writing according to a model that is common to the construction of the work, its viewing and the critical writing itself. That is, the writing mimes the work, but also produces it in its own construct of reading. But at the same time, the writing is bound to the limits of representation of the work and to a formal model of representation which it sees, borrowing linguistic categories, as a structural figure. The problem of reference is left in suspension.


There is nothing original here. A description will show it to be nothing but an accumulation of elements—fragments of text, old tourist photographs, a colour reproduction of a Re-naissance painting—all loosely assembled in the space of an art gallery, and already given. And yet, within the already given, something
originates: a new work, another desire.

The installation has a date for a name: “1902”. Five photographs contemporary to that date from the cardinal points of Piazza San Marco in Venice record the ruin of the collapsed Campanile of that year. Along the same wall of the gallery six metal panels (three pairs of brushed copper and aluminum) with etched text narrate a presumed sexual encounter on that day of collapse. On the wall opposite hangs a large framed colour reproduction of Venetian painter Gentile Bellini’s Procession of the True Cross in St. Mark’s Square (1496).

Contained within the gallery, on the walls of a gallery, these elements constitute a work; but their origins are diverse: an original source in other works; and their forms of “expression” are different: text, photographs, painting reproduction, each fragments of different codes. If these elements are discrete, like separately hung paintings, and, at this point, non-hierarchical in their distribution, how are we to read this ensemble at first except to make a circuit within the gallery, as in any painting exhibition? What prescribes a unity, but does not make the work a whole, is this circulation, which is a type of reading.

Movement is bi-directional for the viewer: along a vertical axis, so to speak, when standing in front of individual elements (a photograph, the Bellini reproduction, the metal panels); along a horizontal axis when circulating through the space of the gallery. Unity occurs when the principle of the vertical axis projects itself along the horizontal. This is the poetic function as Roman Jakobson has described it: “The poetic function projects the principle of equivalence from the axis of selection into the axis of combination.” (In linguistics, the axis of selection is also known as the metaphoric or paradigmatic and the axis of combination as the metonymic or syntagmatic. Lacanian psychoanalysis has extended this linguistic structure to Freud’s formulation of the unconscious: condensation as metaphor and dis-placement as metonymy.)

The principle of the projection of the metaphoric into the metonymic regulates the history of 1902, in (1) the construction of the ensemble; (2) its spatial display in the gallery; (3) the narrative of the text; (4) my reading of the narrative; and (5) my “reading” of the ensemble through my movement in the space. What is projected and drifts or drives through the text-ensemble is a figure. It moves through the narrative, through the ensemble, and moves the viewer, by working through. This figure is not an object within the text, necessarily recognizable, like a human body, nor is it the meaning. Something figures as an image within a conventional code, or, rather, in the space between codes, this space through which the viewer moves, superimposing scene on scene, superimposing the “other scene” of the unconscious on the scene of the Piazza San Marco of this work. The irrational body of the viewer disrupts the scene of the work as much as the figure disrupts and constructs the viewer. Within the ensemble and for the viewer, this figure reflects the necessity of a construction; and this necessity is outside an objective referent or subjective association.


Across the space of distribution of the elements we find relations of both similarity and contiguity. The elements can be telescoped into one another, or can stand beside each other (respectively, in a paradigmatic series or a syntagmatic chain). Text, photographs and reproduction denote similar representations. That is, they refer both to each other in their likenesses and to the same suspended exterior referents. At this moment, can the two axes act coherently together without need to refer to an exterior? In fact and theory, the two axes sustain that coherency: they are the structural figure of representation. As Claude Lévi-Strauss writes, “The first aspect of bricolage is thus to construct a system of paradigms with the fragments of the syntagmatic chains.” The artist, Vincent Tangredi, locates the fragments: “1902 is a work that involves the subjective use of a relationship with architectural and historical principles as presented through Picture Research (a name created to investigate and research), the fall of the Campanile of St. Mark’s, and the historical painting of St. Mark’s by Gentile Bellini.”

Although the different elements that construct the work are displayed in their differences, and even though each undermines the authority of the others, there is no clash of codes. Certain codes are confounded, however: for instance, a text is inscribed in metal on a wall rather than in a book; we must read it in a position reserved for viewing a painting in a gallery, while the painting is now a reproduction. The question is, what functions within the installation as a whole as a Text? Are the photographs and reproduction functions, elements or references of the written text (and in some presumed hierarchy)? What is the relation be-tween image and text in their separation?

Immediately I can say the text obviously does not have a meaning that is clearly and quickly decipherable and that explains the images: the images do not illustrate the text; the text does not caption the images. The text does not secure meaning, nor delay it and eventually deliver it, as much as divert it, displace it and keep it moving.

Which direction do the references go? Can the references function coherently within the limits of the ensemble or must they refer to an exterior, or anterior, object or event: Venice, Bellini, the collapse of the Campanile, etc.? A relationship of reference does exist, and it is one of relay: the text refers to other texts and images. Historical and cultural documents serve as pre-texts, in the sense that the Bellini reproduction, Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice and the historical collapse of the Campanile are pretexts for the making of Tangredi’s 1902, as well as being parts of it. Thus, the references are, initially and problematically, both intrinsic and extrinsic to the work. But what is extrinsic to the work is not necessarily the “real” world of reference, but a cultural code already in place.

Relay is reinforced by the text, by citation in the “margin” of the text — the copper “margin” of the middle panels stating “THE PAINTING in the manner of Gentile Bellini” and “THE PIAZZA in the manner of Thomas Mann.” Need the reference, in the manner of Bellini or Mann, go “beyond” the text to those other texts and “beyond” those to the physical and historical referent Venice? Are they merely ideological markers for “Venetianness” like so many souvenirs? If the work refers outside itself to Venice in such a subjectively suffusive way, then any association is possible. The question, however, is not one of arbitrary reference, but what circulation is motivated by the construction of the work. To rearticulate the interior-exterior, reference-referent problem once again is to reassert the dual axes of metaphor and metonymy. (“In the manner of” suggests the historical style Mannerism and the over-coded conventions of second generation epigones who are “unoriginal” or original only within a code. To suspend origin and originality is to question “Who speaks?”. Is the text written now by the artist “in the manner of,” or written/ spoken by the narrator/voice in 1902, although the Mann story was written in 1911?)


What initially relates the constituent elements of the ensemble to each other is their spatial display. This space is the conventionalized space of the gallery, bound by the walls on which the elements hang. But the space of the ensemble is not unified; it does not inform meaning, like the perspectival space of a Renaissance painting, for instance. The Bellini painting is representative of a code of perspective and within this installation the code of reproduction. It is ordered on a logic of spatiality that positions the viewer standing in front of it, operating him or her through a logic of meaning based on that perspective of space. But it is only one of the perspectives of codes, in the sense that Barthes wrote that the “code is a perspective of quotations, a mirage of structures,” for the viewer within the space of the gallery. Perspectival positioning of the viewer is dispersed both in the multiplication of-codes (the Bellini painting is only one of the codes operative) and in the space of the gallery (there is no one position for viewing through the different codes).

The grid of perspective has traditionally controlled reproduction as a tool for the representation of reality. Displacement of the Bellini within the space of the installation, in relation to the other elements, no longer allows the viewer to be fixed in front of the implied perspectival space of the reproduced painting. Consequently, it cannot create that one perspective of univocal identity as a reproduction of the viewer in that viewing in that space. And as a reproduction of a painting named “Benin’,” it does not have the authority of presence of an original work. Unfixed from identity, non-originary and yet not reproduced in ideological formation, the viewer assumes a position for himself or herself. Or, rather for the viewer, it is a question of what identifications are made and what movements are compelled. This is no critical act of deconstruction; although codes are fragmented, a combinatory figure winds its way through them. But while the viewer’s body is a physical relay, he or she is also a rupture within conventional codes, that is to say, a delay.


Three major codes construct the written text of 1902: cultural (the names Bellini and Sansovini); historical (the events of 1902; the site of Venice); and narrative. This narrative is: a fiction within the history and traces of the collapse of the Campanile; a monologue or text of sexual encounter within the occasion of that historic event. If I have not arrived at the narrative, that is, the text and subject of the text, until this point, it is because the text at times seems unnecessary as a focus for deciphering meaning; it is as if the narrative is already there in the movement of the viewer. The text is more a display of a narrative than a story; its presentation on the wall of a gallery attests to this.


The narrative is not to be read for its theme, subject or meaning. What constructs and moves through the narrative is a figure. This is not a property, representation or sign of some-thing else, a reference or association. It is more the gesture of a body: “Everything seemed posed as gestures,” the text reads. Our reading is both produced and directed by that figure which organizes the text through a scopic geometry of desire. “The delicate plea-sure of observing this person was a demonstration in geometrical force”, reads as if it were a description of the perspectival construction of the Bellini painting. In this, the text is similar to another narrative of gaze and desire—Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice in which “desire projected itself visually” for the protagonist. Operating according to the poetic function, at times this figure literally is excerpted from the text, as in the italicized lines which interrupt the text at two points before completing itself in the last panel: “My thoughts were of his bed/The gilded Angel lay undressed/My thoughts were of his hand/The gilded Angel lay with torn wings.”


As these fragments of different codes play through each other, so they also circulate the viewer, internally and marginally, the viewer who is already a “tissue of quotations” according to Barthes. For the viewer of this Text is subject to the operations of the ensemble, but is also a personal subject moving through the disjunctions. With no fixed position, the viewer is dispersed as much as controlled. But decomposition through the work leads to construction within the work: figure and viewer are constructed within the ensemble, as the ensemble. The figure is a working through: it drives through us, and only works through our agency.

The ensemble is constructed from different and discontinuous codes. Each fragment has an identity in a code — the Bellini to the code of painting, for example. Standing in front of each fragment, the viewer makes an identification, and is brought into identity with the work through establishing meaning to that fragment. We thus have the series: code-fragment-identity-meaning-stasis. But as the metaphoric is projected into the metonymic, in both an overcoding and undercoding of identity, the figure locates itself as the poetic function. The viewer is both before and beside, in identity and drift.

The operations of reading produce the subject of both the text and the viewer. Reading may be traumatic identification, in which case there is no movement, only resistance; or reading may be a motion in the space to another place: desire is what attracts from another place. Desire is produced by an image, by the figure: by the other in the case of the narrative; by the code in the instance of our reading.

There is no one figure, as there is no one viewer—they intersect. The ensemble is fraught with ambivalence. The aggressive and passive structure the relations within the text as a surrogate for an ambiguous sexuality, and alternate in our reading and movement. Within the gallery, we figure both in the space of the ensemble and the space of our reading. Prefigured on the level of representation, in the architectonics of the visual imagery—in the Campanile and its collapse—we fluctuate be-tween the order of the procession in the painting and the disorder of the collapse in the photographs.