Pierre Huyghe, now subject of a LACMA show, has credited Raymond Roussel (above, 1877-1933) as a key influence on his work. Roussel was an eccentric poet, novelist, and playwright who was much admired by Duchamp and the Surrealists. That connection has received much attention; not so his relevance to conceptualism. Yet it’s easy to see why Huyghe finds him interesting: Roussel’s books are largely descriptions of imagined artworks incorporating living beings.
It was Roussel who conceived (in print) a giant earthworm that plays Hungarian waltzes by hurling droplets of water at the strings of a zither; a wind-powered machine that constructs a mosaic out of human teeth; an aquarium containing the animated head of French revolutionary Georges Danton. Compare that to what you’ll find in LACMA’s Resnick Pavillion: a statue whose head is an active beehive; a film of a monkey, wearing a human mask and wig, acting as a waiter in a post-apocalyptic Japanese restaurant; an aquarium in which a hermit crab inhabits a reproduction of Brancusi’s Sleeping Muse.
“Raymond Roussel is the most fortunate young millionaire of Paris,” reported the Cleveland Plain-Dealer in 1910. “He’s so rich he doesn’t know what to do with his money.”
One way to look at it: Roussel was the J. Seward Johnson of French literature. Like Johnson he used his inheritance to pursue his creative ambitions. Unlike Johnson, Roussel was despised by the masses and celebrated by the avant garde.
Roussel’s self-financed 1912 theatrical production of Impressions of Africa provoked riots (the year before Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring). One of the attendees was Marcel Duchamp, who later declared: “Roussel showed me the way.”
Giacometti said that his early work, The Palace at 4 A.M. particularly, was directly inspired by Roussel’s novel Locus Solus. For Jean Cocteau, Roussel was “genius in its pure state.”
Roussel didn’t return the affection, complaining, “People say I’m a Dadaist, but I don’t even know what Dadaism is!”
It’s said that literature lags the visual arts by 20 years. Roussel might have been 20 years ahead—though his appreciation by other authors peaked well after WWII. Roussel was celebrated by Foucault, Robbe-Grillet, and Perec. John Ashbery learned French just to read Roussel.
There is a literary component to Huyghe’s LACMA show. The attentive visitor will encounter books by Joris-Karl Huysmans, Adolfo Bioy Casares, and Philip K. Dick (all of whom might be connected to Roussel, though there is no book by Roussel himself, unless I missed it.)
Roussel created words, not objects. Of course, well into the 1970s, conception art was typewritten words on paper, to be realized if and when. Wrote Sol LeWitt, “The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.”
Roussel’s posthumously published essay, “How I Wrote Certain of My Books,” could be considered the first manifesto of conceptualism. In it he revealed the secret formula behind his literary production. Roussel would select two sound-alike words or phrases (like maybe grandfather’s clock and grandfather’s claw) and free-associate a suitably bizarre way of juxtaposing the two. In hindsight, the method evokes the games of John Cage and Charles Gaines. Roussel’s “novels” are little more than catalogs of wunderkammers of objects inspired by this method. Impressions of Africa and Locus Solus are all description and no plot, and barely even involve the passage of time (an anti-narrative vision that Warhol was to realize in film with Empire).
For his New Impressions of Africa (1928)—a poem having nothing to do with the similarly named novel and play—Roussel hired a detective agency to find a suitable artist to supply illustrations. The agency found Henri-a. Zo, an otherwise forgotten Salon artist and illustrator. Zo was commissioned to create illustrations from Roussel’s cryptic instructions.
The methodology is close to that of John Baldessari’s commissioned paintings of the 1960s. Below is Zo’s response to Roussel’s demand for “A waterskin in the desert, with water gushing from a hole seemingly deliberately made by a traitor’s sword. No people.”