Arts Magazine - October 1985

Max Coyer

by Richard Martin

Jean Cocteau asserted that opium smooths the corrugating folds “which allows us to think we live a long time,” thus flattening time and memory. By a pressing homage, Max Coyer is attempting a similar suppression of time in his “quotations” derived from Cocteau’s Opium illustrations. For the French artist, these drawings were the coda and cure for addiction, acknowledging the figure restructured by torment and by a construction of the tubular opium pipes which became for Cocteau in 1928-30 a reconstitution of Cubism. For their deeply personal significance, the Cocteau studies can be seen as the heritage of the artist’s association with Apollinair and Max Jacob, inhaling the Paris avant-garde in the 1920’s as deeply as the smoke of the pipe.

The wounded, obsessive visions created are hollow-eyed cadavers and pipes which invade and escape the figure like a fibrous disease, perversely ambivalent as phallic tubes and medical conduits. That Coyer has returned to these works by Cocteau in a time when opium is tamed to be a fragrance more often than the raw material of art testifies to his proclivity to art which is historically and visually compelling, but also insinuates a personal history. Coyer’s 1984 studies after Dora Maar are, in some measure, the legend as well as the art’ his Opium series is a stretching of the tight folds of history as well s a fascination with the troughs where memories hide.

If Cocteau is the basis of Coyer’s Opium series, it is with the sense of distance and of metaphor that Coyer requires in his art. Of the distance, coyer acknowledges that Americans see European tradition at a distance from original works of art, generating imaginative reconstruction and the probability of seeing work not as it is, but by a visually false perception His concept of quotation depends on the obscurity of the original text, almost as if the direct quotation were necessarily always an interpretation. Indeed, in the Opium series, Coyer interprets freely from the Cocteau source. Of the metaphor, Coyer also insists on his own synthetic interpretation of the work, seeing Cocteau’s Opium as a larger parable on denying a habit and withdrawing from exiting beliefs. He even sees the metaphorical cure in reference to modernism and argues that “modernism became a habit” and “tenets of modernism like a drug” are being reevaluated in the work. in seeking the largest metaphor about the Cocteau drawings, Coyer also allows for their disassociation, hoping that the naive viewer will comprehend the work without knowing the connection to Cocteau.

If art and literature are both present in Coyer’s Opium series, so too is architecture. In his constancy of interest in the example of de Chirico, Coyer returns once again to a fascination with the surrounding space of the figure in his paintings. In coyer’s Opium # 4, he has taken from Cocteau the young man leaning backward almost in extremis, vulnerable, erotic, and distended. As this line drawing is transfigured by Coyer, the hero/victim is on a three-dimensional rectangle projecting from an uncertain depth into the viewer’s space with an almost 3-D veracity and horror. In accordance with Cocteau, he has determined the figure by line, creating the head with cartoon gestures and defining the white chest by merest symbols of forms marking armpits, nipples, and crotch.

The same premise is reconstituted in Fallingwater in which the figure is seen as before, but mitigating it erogenesis in an all-over gray of the figure. He is, however, placed within a vista of orthogonals leading to a horizon, and the suspension of the figure, slightly less extreme than in Opium # 4, depends on the outlines of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falingwater seen from below. The cantilevered porches of the house cut in to the space of the painting as they do into nature, securing the figure by forces pinning abdomen and legs like a giant architectural Soloflex machine. But the presence of architecture transforms the solitary figure and brings the ambiguity of space to a scale for painting, now no longer the line drawings of a book illustrator.

In like manner, Wright is the inspiration for Johnson’ Wax, an Opium figure in the midst of the swirling columns of the Racine building. The reference to architecture brings the headless and pipe-limbed and -limned figures to different compositions from the Cocteau drawings in their dependence on the black and white contrast on a white page as a field. But to place these figures of torment and abandon into evocative architectural constraint is also to acknowledge that they are earthbound and contextual. Cocteau described, “It is difficult to lie without opium after having known it because it i difficult after knowing opium to take earth seriously.” But Coyer continues to take earth and its edifices seriously and plants them as the context for his shattered figures.

Is a distinction, then, as simple as Cocteau’s experience with opium being rendered subjectively with himself or the isolated figure as the focus of the work, whereas Coyer treats Opium more objectively? After all, even de Quincey reviewed a biography of Coleridge in order to provide an analytical and removed appraisal of opium-eating in Blackwood’s Magazine. In part, this distinction exists in the media chosen as Coyer’s drawings and paintings are never the personal revelation made by Cocteau. Rather, they are a chronicle of a significant personal experience of another person as seen by a biographer (Coyer professes special admiration for Francis Steegmuller’s biography of Cocteau) and visualized within a larger world filled with issue unrelated and anomalous for Cocteau. In this manner, Coyer’s work is quotation, but the quotation is set into a new rhetoric. an artist capable of reinstilling a classical suite of traditions with values for this century, Cocteau is seen anew in Coyer’s vision of him.

There is a story that Cocteau visited Edith Wharton when Bernard Berenson was also a guest at lunch. Cocteau defended Picasso, showing Berenson a collage which Berenson raged against. As the lunch party sided with Cocteau, Berenson left in frustration and disappointment. Cocteau had won the day, perhaps perversely as what he had shown Berenson was a fictive Picasso, one which Cocteau had fabricated the night before in anticipation of confronting Berenson. In such a tale, there is the art which convinces and wins the day, but there is also the plausibility of art’s simulacrum to continue to make the argument of art’s importance. (Harm Bouckaert, October 1 – 26)

Pictured: Fallingwater,r 1985, Oil on canvas, 60 x 46″