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  • The Look of Reading: Book, Painting, Text
  • Leah Price (bio)
The Look of Reading: Book, Painting, Text, by Garrett Stewart; pp. xvii + 411. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2006, $65.00, £41.00.

This is a book that every thinking person will want to read and to look at. Both acts are equally necessary, because it juxtaposes two media: a series of images that in themselves would make up a substantial coffee-table book, and a dense double-columned text weaving together theoretical argument, visual analysis, and a whirlwind tour through half a millennium of Western art. The Look of Reading defines a spectrum stretching from the portrait (in which the book can be too easily dismissed as either prop or means of passing the time of sitting) to the still life with books. What interests Stewart is the opposite of ekphrasis: not a verbal representation of visual art, but a visual representation of written matter. More specifically, he focuses on the representation of human engagement with such an object—that is, on the rise and fall of reading.

Despite the brilliance with which Stewart himself tacks back from art-historical to literary-theoretical methods, his subject is less the dovetailing of the visual with the verbal than their constitutive tension. Once the illuminated manuscript gives way to the printed page on the one hand and the easel painting on the other, alphabetic characters are exiled from visual art; what replaces them, however, is the human figure (usually female) reading, most often holding a book that invites and resists reading by the viewer. Impossible to view a representation of an inscribed page without trying to decipher it—but increasingly impossible to satisfy that urge, as the enlarged lettering of pages represented in medieval art gives way to striations, abstract squiggles, or a simple wash of gray framed by white margins. And while viewers seem impelled to puzzle at the title of the books being read, unless they happen to be Bibles, the painter usually leaves us guessing (25). By making the reader's face more legible than the page that it faces, early modern art "hollows out cause from within effect" (105); like a catalyst, the book disappears in the reaction it precipitates (151). By the time we reach Picasso, text bifurcates into the printed pages used in collages (legible but not represented as being read) and representations of reading (whose object can be as illegible as a gash of white) (279).

Organized chronologically, this is history with an internalist bent: despite periodic allusions to silent reading and print capitalism, it engages more heavily with the history of art than with the history of books. We might expect Stewart's story to end with abstraction, at the moment when any genre scene—including the scene of reading—disappears. But the argument continues, and what replaces the represented reader, at this point, is what he calls the "lexigraph": a surface variously inscribed, incised, and scored, with spaced and lineated marks that invite viewers to take over the act of reading themselves. Invite but also thwart, because the lexigraph remains torn between alphabetic characters and geometric abstraction; in that sense it circles back to the illuminated manuscript, with the difference that it now offers at once "the lure of recognition and the rebuff of the accidental mark" (333). At the same time, "the image surface tends toward a pagelike sheet for inscription rather than a picture plane" (337). In turn, the illegible scrawl at the border between drawing and writing finds its mirror-image in the mechanized letter forms of conceptualism, at the same moment when [End Page 531] book or page shapes that frustrate our expectation of inscription give way to writing unframed by page or book, let alone by a represented reader. Illegibility returns to haunt conceptual art, now with a sharper temporal dimension: thus, Ann Hamilton's installation "tropos" (first performed in 1993), where a woman runs a cauterizing tool, in place of an eye, over lines of text. "Painting involves duration envy" Stewart declares in one of many one-liners (87). Because reading involves "putting in time," painted reading makes visible the difference...


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pp. 531-532
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