Notes on the Diagram

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This is the third, previously unpublished version of “an endlessly revised essay” that Amy Sillman started in 2009 during a residency at the American Academy in Berlin. The first version was published in the O.-G., v. 1, “Zum Gegenstand / Das Diagram” (2009), which Amy Sillman elaborated in parallel with her solo exhibition “Zum Gegenstand” at CarlierGebauer, Berlin, May 2–June 13, 2009. The second version appeared in the O.-G., v.1–2, “American Edition” (2009), published on the occasion of a presentation of drawings by Sillman at the Sikkema Jenkins booth, Art Basel Miami Beach, 2009.

In this sense, a subject is “a nothingness, a void, which exists.” (Lacan)

—Slavoj Žižek, Organs without Bodies

A virtual particle is one that has borrowed energy from the vacuum, briefly shimmering into existence literally from nothing.

—David Kaiser, American Scientist magazine

The Higgs boson is apparently the most powerful particle on Earth, but it has never been seen.

—2009 Wikipedia article on the Higgs boson

Look who thinks he’s nothing.

—Punch line of a joke about a priest and a Jew

One paints when there is nothing else to do. After everything else is done, has been “taken care of,” one can take up the brush.

—Ad Reinhardt, “Routine Extremism”

I can swim like everyone else, only I have a better memory than them. I have not forgotten my former inability to swim. But since I have not forgotten it, my ability to swim is of no avail and in the end I cannot swim.

—Franz Kafka

What happens next? Of course, I don’t know. It’s appropriate to pause and say that the writer is one who, embarking upon a task, does not know what to do.

—Donald Barthelme, “Not-Knowing”

In 2009, I got a grant to live in Berlin, arriving with barely any German language under my belt. An old friend, who seemed in the know, warned me: “German is a spatial language.” I have no sense of space, so it sounded ominous. I got what she meant fast at my first German lesson, when they said that in German you can’t just ask “where?”—you have to specify where to or where from. And German grammar went on from there, a thicket of specificities. And German history was a veritable morass. I was an American: I hadn’t read Hegel or Schlegel! But once I got into it, I went into an accelerating state of diagram fever, going a little crazy thinking about how everything in the world is a diagram. I took a seminar on diagrams at the Freie Universität with Danish diagram expert Frederik Stjernfelt; I got new diagram study-buddies, my mind stretched out with increasingly dizzying interconnectivity; everything started to make a weird kind of sense, and I got it: everything was related to everything else. The Enlightenment, Romanticism, Symbolism, modernism, Bad Painting, it was all locatable on one big map. I also sheepishly realized that I was probably the last person to figure this out—that this diagram thing had already been laboriously theorized by many others. But thinking about the diagram liberated my work. Abstraction itself suddenly seemed like one big diagram of moving time and space. The process of making something go away from “realness” to abstraction seemed like a big memory-diagram—things seen and then registered in the mind’s eye undergoing a process of being stripped clean, or becoming a bit tattered and distorted as they move off into your past. I was planning an art show at the time, and I also thought, if everything is everything, then why not hang things all together: satirical diagrams next to figure studies next to abstract paintings? I would just need some way to explain it all, a kind of translation device. And what is a zine if not a slapdash chance to present one’s own epiphanies? And what is a diagram but a way of holding disparate ideas together?

So I began planning my exhibition with everything in it, from abstract paintings to comical seating diagrams, to figure drawings to a zine on a table. Let jokes be paintings, paintings be memories, and memories be meaning. I decided to write an essay about diagrams for my first zine (and I’ve been slowly adding to it ever since).


Diagrams are great because you can put anything in them. No wonder they have been so useful for generations of kooks, mystics, Cubists, ecstatic poetics, Dadaists, Futurists, and weird scientists. A diagram is a perfect visual schema for posing impossible things, invisible forces, enigmas like the future—all posed as perfectly plausible vectors. The diagram even outdid the camera as the early twentieth century’s best new thing because it could depict things in the universe that exceed the eye, like particles, waves, and quarks. A diagram’s scale is endless. It can indicate how dwarfed we are by the universe, or how busy the microscopic world is, all mapped out on the back of some envelope. Tides, black holes, white dwarfs, red rings around Saturn, crazy particles, the waves of the Big Bang, all teleporting around in unstable ways, all this stuff and how it interacts can appear equally on the diagram, democratically, like the pedestrians in Times Square or the people in a Saul Steinberg cartoon all walking around together. The diagram’s arms, its vectors, embrace everything at once. Parts are not distinct from wholes, and divisions between aesthetic formats don’t have to exist. Diagrams aren’t medium-specific: everything is a continuum; everything is relational. In this sense a diagram is utopic, showing how things should or might go, reenvisioning things expansively, not merely describing them categorically. It can include contradictory grammars, fragments, part-objects, nouns and verbs, acts and objects. As a painter, I was on solid ground, then, because I already knew that paintings are both things and events. And one of the first things artists learn is that scale and size are different. Scale is relational, whereas size is just measurement. Likewise, a mere page in a notebook, a flimsy joke, a drag act, can change the world. My own life was altered definitively by the aesthetic detonating charge of a confessional 16 mm George Kuchar film, Hold Me while I’m Naked (1966), in which an erstwhile filmmaker from Queens tries in vain to complete a porn film. It affected me way more than beholding the majesty of the Pergamon Gate, or beholding the Mona Lisa. (Likewise, in Freud’s famous diagram, the idea of a Baby holds the same valence as Shit!) Any little thing, impure as can be, can change your life.

My favorite diagram thinking was about painting and language: Gilles Deleuze, Charles Olson, David Joselit. In Deleuze’s book on the painter Francis Bacon, The Logic of Sensation, the very concept of the diagram is an action, not a thing but a moment, a moment of transformation. Perhaps inspired by the visual portals, stages, and furniture that Bacon sets his figures against, Deleuze’s “diagram” is his way to describe the action of Bacon’s figures as they transform agonistically. David Joselit’s essay “Dada’s Diagrams” describes diagrams as a kind of container, a come-one-come-all structure for representing the polymorphous perversity, the rupture, of the early twentieth century: “Far more important than [Francis] Picabia’s adoption of a vocabulary drawn from industry in his ‘machine drawings’ is the model of polymorphous connectivity between discrete elements that these works deploy in order to capture the uneven economic and psychological transformations and the jarring disequilibrium characteristic of modernity.” The poet Charles Olson’s manifesto from 1950, Projective Verse, also describes a kind of spatial diagram of action. He imagines language as a set of something like arrows—utterances as projectiles that ride out of the poet’s mouth and land in the world, demarcating a sort of invisible forcefield. This kind of invisible language-force might be subtle but it’s big: the relational aesthetics of language as a force.

I always felt that what made the painter Ad Reinhardt great wasn’t the otherworldly clarity of his abstract paintings (I wasn’t really that into the religious way that people would gasp when they finally saw the colors); it was the fact that alongside his austere experiments with pure color and structure were his diagrams about the art world, which included puns, mockery, and sarcasm. It was the split of his greater whole, the parts mapped together, neither his solemnity nor his jokes but the passage between such states (and, in between those two, his deadpan slideshow presentations of shape-forms). When I realized the larger diagram of his work, I realized that what was great was his circulation system, an economy of high and low parts given equal value. I had never been able to resolve the two coasts of my own sensibility, my love of cartoons with my love of serious-minded abstraction. But diagrams made me realize that they were related, constituted precisely by the interactions between them. All the good funny Modern art (like Daumier, Guston, Reinhardt, Beckett) was tragicomic. Making art came from the same psychic pneumatics that Freud mapped out as the origin of jokes: distillation and compression. The joke work, the dream work, the art work: all of these were ways to cope. Ways for the mind to grasp what it has seen, moving it from the optic nerve to the mind’s eye as it moved from the present to memory, via abstraction. Jokes were the bailiff of high art, getting it out of its cramped quarters, and providing skepticism so you didn’t love it too much.


At first I was in this love affair with diagrams. Weren’t they wonderfully inclusive models of multiplicity, contradiction, and change? Weren’t they democratic? That was before I read Benjamin H. D. Buchloh’s sobering essay on Eva Hesse, “Facing the Diagram.” In his more critical eyes, the diagram was also a manifestation of social conditions, a state of quantification, surveillance, and bureaucracy. Diagrammatic works like Duchamp’s Network of Stoppages (1914) or Hesse’s drawings from 1966–67 therefore also registered “the total subjection of the body and its representations to legal and administrative control.” This diagram was not my protagonist! Was the diagram also a form of violence? Was the flip side of the feeling of the “authentic” body always bounded by the “externally established matrix” of conditions? Was the body even possible without the conditions surrounding it? Oh god, Buchloh was probably right—I had been filled with euphoria, but the diagram and painting were linked, and in the bad sense: the same problematics that I had faced in painting were back to haunt me with the diagram.

Postwar painting, which I loved, was riddled with the same problems. It was the same sentimental stuff that Ad Reinhardt was attacking with his diagrams, with his stubborn refusal to be boxed in. When I first learned about AbEx painting as a student, I had felt liberated by it, not oppressed—the way it located thinking as something you do with your body—the way that by including the body in intelligence, you were attacking something. I felt that gesture painting was done with a kind of political body, maybe akin to the poets and their projective verses. I went for the idea that gesture painting was a form of expression lying between language and image, an utterance that implicates the maker, along the lines of “the personal is political.” I got out of the AbEx-by-genius-men problem by seeing how many women painters there were, how many great painters of color there were, and thought the problem wasn’t the art but the art history. Art history was wrong. Critical theory didn’t seem wrong but I got out of the commodity problem by focusing on drawing, not painting. Could I also get out of the diagram-as-control problem by thinking about the way a diagram makes you think? Could emancipatory possibilities exist in new thinking? Could instrumentalization be defeated? Could diagram-thinking/studio practice/painting go “beyond control”? I felt intuitively that the answer had to be located in some way in something messy: accidents, negations, a spill, some excess found on the floor, some physical inexplicability, the idea of desire, urges, pleasure, which I thought was exactly bound up with the not-knowing part of the art-making process, the drawing process as entirely separate from value-formation. This was not utopian, it was just practical: thinking and hoping that exactly where those arrows of Projective Verse land is where something like being and life can be felt. As in Emily Dickinson:

I am alive—I guess—
The Branches on my Hand
Are full of Morning Glory—
And at my finger’s end—

At finger’s end, beyond the graph, off the chart, in the realm of not-knowing, lay the weird unformed excess, the chora, not information. The fact that I don’t know what word will come out of my mouth next, exactly, when speaking a sentence, or what jerky motion I’ll make when taking a step, or whether I’ll continue living past the bus stop at all, made me turn to the idea of improvisation as a kind of conscientious reminder of how fragile everything is, how unstable and unknowable. The diagram’s best form, painting’s best aspect, seemed to lie in its unknowns, its silence, its way of not working out, or being at risk, a matter of fate, ruin, or possible resuscitation. Painting was dead, but it surprised me. So, isn’t there an end zone, an offstage in the theater? The painter Charles Garabedian said making a painting is like purposefully stumbling around in a fog near a cliff. It’s a mess of unknowns, beyond diagrammable. So it seemed like the very idea of knowing was where the problem lay, maybe. The diagram only shows us the stuff arrayed in a space. The diagram doesn’t consider its errors. Therefore, comedy, accident, mistake, is the corrective for the diagram, because it includes everything the diagram can’t even hope to establish as a solid: spasms, screwups, sabotage, refusal, stupidity, the saggy droop between the vector showing “what you did” and what really resulted. Whatever is incalculable, including the feeling of a mistake. I’d like to see the diagram of that. Failure and dread. That’s why I still loved abstraction, because we knew it didn’t work, that it was a failure, a paradox, a realm of both potential and unchartability. David Joselit wrote that the “act of reconnection does not function as a return to coherence, but rather as a free play of polymorphous linkages which … remains a central motif of modern (and postmodern) art.” Diagrams are failures, paintings are failures, and life is a failure. The diagram can only do so much. The rest is as Donald Barthelme asks, “What happens next?” And then the answer is, “I don’t know.” That’s what a good diagram indicates: that there are things beyond control.


Based in New York City, Amy Sillman is an artist whose work consistently combines the visceral with the intellectual. She began to study painting in the seventies at the School of Visual Arts and she received her M.F.A. from Bard College in 1995. Her work has been exhibited internationally, including at the Whitney Biennial in 2014; her writing has appeared in Bookforum and Artforum, among other publications. She is currently represented by Gladstone Gallery, New York.

Excerpted from Faux Pas. Selected Writings and Drawings., by Amy Sillman, published by After 8 Books and distributed by Artbook | D.A.P.

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