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Anthony Auerbach

Structural Constellations: Excursus on the drawings of Josef Albers c. 1950–1960 is the title of my doctoral dissertation (UCL, 2004, completed under the direction of Prof. Norman Bryson in the Slade School of Fine Art) in which I elaborated a set of historical and theoretical approaches to Structural Constellations.

The dissertation falls into three unequal sections, each exhibiting a series of documents for analysis, reflection and discussion. The arrangement and treatment of the topics functions to place historical markers, to assemble theoretical models and to unfold partial narratives, ‘returning in a roundabout way to its original object.’ [note 1]

i) On Constellation and Interpretation: Walter Benjamin and Theodor W. Adorno
The opening section traces the modalities of the term Konstellation as it was exchanged between the two writers in their historical-philosophical work and their personal correspondence. The study highlights the shifting ambitions and alternating spatial and temporal aspects of the concept from its evocation in Benjamin’s study of German Trauerspiel (1925), through its adoption by Adorno in his programme ‘Die Aktualität der Philosophie’ (1931), to its role in the epistemology of the Arcades Project (1935–40), the epistolary controversies of the same period and the legacy of this unfinished discussion in Adorno’s late work up to Negative Dialektik (1966).

ii) On Constellation and Drawing: the semiotics of star maps
This section proposes a semiotic ‘assay’ of star maps, that is: a test of their quality and purity as signs. The history of celestial cartography offers and exemplary archive of how the negotiation between knowledge and representation is mediated by drawing because, on star maps, a sharp distinction can be made between the base data (as also contained in the star catalogues and effectively constant) and the map data (the changing information and graphic elaboration provided by the map). The graphic elaborations on star maps are constellations. The study examines moments of reform (or attempted reform) in the post-Ptolemaic tradition of celestial cartography, including a treatment of previously neglected nineteenth-century maps. The interpretation of Peirce’s semiotics advanced here provides analytical tools which are of considerable value in assessing the epistemological import of operations and devices such as projection and the grid which came to occupy a visible and central role in artistic practice with the advent of perspective and became prominent again amid twentieth-century attempts to reform the Renaissance tradition.

iii) On Structure and Representation: epistemological wish-images
That geometry could be both the guarantee and the abyss of representation calls for an historical as much as a structural explanation. This section (nearly twice as long as the other two) considers drawing as the site of the entanglement of art and geometry. Its ten episodes examine the changing role of drawing in geometry, the role geometry — mediated by drawing — has played in art and beyond that, what epistemological or ideological claims — mediated by geometry — have been made by or for art.

  1. Geometry and Drawing
  2. Dürer and Alberti: Veils
  3. Monge: Descriptive Geometry
  4. Farish: Isometrical Perspective
  5. Haüy: Crystallography
  6. Necker: An Optical Phenomenon
  7. Cubism: The Gossip
  8. Van Doesburg: A New Dimension
  9. Lissitzky: The Constructor
  10. Albers: Structural Constellations

i) Reprise: Aesthetic Theory
The concluding pages of the dissertation pick up where Section I broke off, introducing discussion of Adorno’s last work, Ästhetische Theorie. This section draws the threads of the foregoing essays together by suggesting a reading of Adorno’s ‘structural constellation of the conduct of aesthetics’ after Albers, reflecting on the dialectical patterns deployed by the artist and the philosopher, the work of language and the notion of ‘lateness’.

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  1. ‘Method is a digression. Representation as digression — such is the methodological nature of the treatise. The absence of an uninterrupted purposeful structure is its primary characteristic. Tirelessly the process of thinking makes new beginnings, returning in a roundabout way to its original object.’ Walter Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, trans. by John Osborne (London: NLB, 1977), p. 28. [back to text]