Fragmentation, Layering, Discrepancy:
The Artistic Practice of the Lettristes
Adviser: Hal Foster
Monika Isia Jasiewicz
Art and Archaeology
“Having a productive writing or editing day in the library felt like a really good workout; I came out tired, but excited about what I had accomplished.”
Here’s something you’ll find out very quickly at Princeton: Seniors freak out in March. Many departments have their theses due in April, so March is crunch time. When I was a junior, one of my senior friends went nocturnal for two weeks. He said that working while the whole world was sleeping made him less likely to get distracted. Another friend moved into the library of Charter Club with a giant box full of papers and emerged only to eat meals—in the same building. So, having observed the plight of my elders, I assumed that my senior year would look similar. I thought I’d spend my spring break and the weeks following it locked in the library, chained to my carrel desk. Instead, I used my vacation to visit friends and family. I caught up on the entire first season of Glee. I wasn’t stressed. In fact, I never got less than eight hours of sleep a night in March. And then I accidentally finished my thesis two weeks early.
Before you start hating me, you have to realize that it’s not that I never lost sleep over my thesis. I just reached the apex of my thesis-induced panic in October, not March. For me, the most challenging and frustrating part of producing a senior thesis was not the actual writing, but conceiving of and refining ideas. I was haunted by the word “original.” Write something original! Have an original thought! You need an original proposition here! So it was that I spent one crisp fall evening sitting on a bench on campus, crying on the phone to my mom, complaining that I’d never figure out what the main argument of my thesis was.
I had a topic at that point, but it was still so broad that I couldn’t see what direction my argument would take. I had stumbled into my topic by total chance, and I worried that I had been rash in deciding to take this subject on. Starting my freshman year, I had consistently been drawn to artists and movements that explored the connection between visual art and language. My very first Dean’s Date paper at Princeton was about René Magritte’s use of written words in his paintings. My spring junior paper, similarly, examined the appearance of handwriting in the paintings of the American postmodernist Cy Twombly. So when I first encountered Lettrisme, a French neo-avant garde art movement in which language and signification were key issues, I immediately thought, “There’s my thesis!” It seemed like the perfect topic: obscure enough to give me the chance to say something new, but connected to more well-known movements, like Situationism, so that it seemed relevant and important. Writing about Lettrisme would give me the opportunity to continue thinking about language and art, and I would get to use my French language skills in my research. Best of all, I knew that there was a sizeable collection of Lettriste graphic art housed at the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University—just a 20-minute train ride away from Princeton.
I met with Professor Hal Foster to discuss a possible thesis on Lettrisme right before summer break. He gave me a few books to read and sent me on my way. I was confident and excited to learn about an art movement that I knew almost nothing about. Then, sometime toward the end of the summer, the panic started to set in. As I read the texts Professor Foster had recommended, I realized that I really knew nothing about Lettrisme. I was afraid that I didn’t know enough about postwar Paris to contextualize their artistic practice. And the more I read, the more confused I became. Most writing on Lettrisme comes from the founders of the movement themselves, and, as I quickly realized, they have a tendency to overstate their own importance. How could I believe what the Lettriste founder, Isidore Isou, said about Lettrisme’s significance when he (literally!) liked to call himself “the Messiah”? The secondary texts that I read on Lettrisme weren’t of much help, either. I found myself instinctively disagreeing with their key points, though I couldn’t yet quite articulate why. I just sensed that the Lettristes were not as pessimistic as scholars seemed to suggest they were. Yes, their poetry and graphic art divided up the word to the level of the syllable and the letter, but I didn’t think the Lettristes were actually out to destroy language, but rather to create it anew.
Beyond my vague, intuitive sense of Lettrisme’s essential optimism, though, I feared that I didn’t actually have that much to say about the movement. I was also intimidated by the prospect of studying specific artworks from the Zimmerli’s collection that had never been written about before. Part of the reason why I chose to major in art history was that I loved doing independent visual analysis, but up until I began my thesis research, I had never needed to start from scratch. I usually had some background to inform my “reading” of a particular artwork. When I first took the train to New Brunswick to see Lettriste graphic art, however, I was only familiar with Lettriste theory, and not so much with their practice. How would I take my interpretations of these deeply theoretical texts and apply them with the ink-and-paper artworks that were spread out on the table in front of me?
The answer was simple: Just do it. I was so caught up in waiting for that lightbulb moment. I didn’t realize that instead of instantaneously coming up with a brilliant “original” take on Lettrisme, I had to let myself work through the theories and through the artworks patiently, carefully, and thoughtfully. While I worked, my “original” insight seeped into my thought process slowly, subtly, so that I almost didn’t notice it until I was ready to articulate it.
It was at that pivotal moment of first articulating my thesis that having a personal adviser became so important. I have a distinct memory of going into Professor Foster’s office toward the end of my first semester and telling him about a whole bunch of hazily defined ideas that I had. I said that I saw the Lettriste fragmentation of language as an essentially optimistic gesture. I explained that I was interested in the ways in which the Lettristes layered and combined different forms of signification in their graphic art. I also told Professor Foster about my interest in the discrepancy between word and image in Lettriste cinematography. I thought I was presenting him with a jumbled mess of ideas and that I still didn’t have a clear direction. Professor Foster listened to me talk and then gave me the one big push that I needed. “It sounds like you’re identifying three conceptual principles,” he said. “Fragmentation, layering of signification, and discrepancy.” Just like that, I saw it all fall into place. My thesis suddenly had an outline, a chapter structure, even a title. What’s more, once I figured out what my three big ideas were, I quickly realized how they tied together.
From that point forward, the actual writing of my thesis was pure joy. It was so fulfilling to finally be able to put these vague, amorphous ideas down on paper in a logical narrative. Yes, writing 100 pages was a lot of work. But it wasn’t a lot of stress, because I knew where I was going and how I was going to get there. I set a schedule for myself: I would write one chapter every two weeks. I had to depart from the schedule a little when I had to go out of town for law school interviews, for instance, but generally speaking I stuck to it. Professor Foster was incredibly helpful, giving me back comments on each chapter within a few days of my completing it. Having a productive writing or editing day in the library felt like a really good workout; I came out tired, but excited about what I had accomplished. As soon as I knew what I had to say, saying it came naturally. And then I finished my thesis two weeks early.
So if you want to have the stress-free senior spring, as I did, take this bit of seemingly paradoxical advice: In order to write quickly, you must first think slowly. Don’t freak out if you find it frustrating that you can’t come up with a brilliant idea to revolutionize your discipline overnight. Read as much as you can, observe as closely as you can, and marinate in the ideas for as long as you can. Then write at a steady pace, and you’ll be done before you know it, without losing sleep. Just don’t tell your friends when you finish your thesis early. There’s no use stressing them out when they’re nocturnal, and it will be nice to still have friends when all those theses are said and done.
Fragmentation, Layering, Discrepancy:
The Artistic Practice of the Lettristes
Monika Isia Jasiewicz
Townsend Martin, Class of 1917, Professor of Art and Archaeology
“... what she thus produced was an account of the Lettriste movement that overturned the received idea about the group.”
You can tell from the above what a pleasure it was to work with Isia Jasiewicz. She’s super-smart and very organized, but she’s also wonderfully funny and engaging—and her prose is a joy to read, as full of her personality as it is of her ideas, both of which are lively, searching, and winning. I looked forward to our meetings to discuss her ideas and to go over her drafts, for, however intellectually gifted Isia is (and she is indeed), she also was always open to more suggestions for looking, reading, and looking. That is, she was genuinely interested in her own mind, and that was her greatest asset from the start: to see the thesis as a chance to delve and to discover, not as this last chunk of homework, huge and horrendous, to get through. I have to say I missed the panic on her part: Every time we met, Isia already had converted anxiety into energy, and that really helped me guide her along. That said, Isia gives me more credit than I’m due: She is the one who came up with her three key notions (I just branded them). In fact, I learned as much from her thesis as she did, and, selfish though it sounds, from the perspective of the professor, that is one allure of the Princeton thesis: to be taught as you teach.
In many ways her text is an ideal example of art-historical work. Isia found her own archive—a collection of understudied work by the Lettristes, a little-known group of postwar artists, housed at nearby Rutgers. She then read as much as she could on Lettriste practices, including writings and films, and brought this knowledge to bear on her archive. Rather than force a concept on this material, she let the material form its own ideas, so to speak, and that, too, was a crucial move on her part. As Isia says, in a typically smart turn of phrase that might be the secret formula of every excellent thesis, “In order to write quickly, you must first think slowly.” That lesson enabled her to go beyond the very good to the truly terrific, for what she thus produced was an account of the Lettriste movement that overturned the received idea about the group. In her view, Lettrisme was not simply another destructive or Dadaistic avant-garde but a movement that used its methods of fragmentation and juxtaposition for purposes of visual and verbal renewal.
There is another further lesson here: You can study art history at Princeton and go on to another field—like Yale Law School, where Isia is now. Legal questions of property and provenance are often crucial to the study of art; witness the many controversies about antiquities and artworks expropriated during the Holocaust. So I like to think (and I believe Isia does too) that her two kinds of interest and expertise will meet again in her life, and that her passage from Princeton art history to Yale law will count as a win-win for all concerned.