Mud and the poetics of art history

Lytle Shaw's "New Grounds for Dutch Landscape"

Jan van Goyen, Landscape with Two Oaks, 1641, Rijksmuseum.  Photo by the author.
Jan van Goyen, Landscape with Two Oaks, 1641, Rijksmuseum. Photo by the author.

New Grounds for Dutch Landscape
Lytle Shaw
OEI editör, 2021, 304 pages, $19.95, ISBN 9789188829085

In 1980, The Great Book of French Impressionism was published by authors Keller and Kelder. While the uncanny similarity of their names might imply collaboration or relation, the two were competing authors of two different books with the same name. That year, two different New York presses decided to print a Great Book of French Impressionism, Keller’s containing 207 color plates while Kelder’s contained 241, leading Artforum to quip that for this reason alone Kelder's great book should be the "greater" one since it was more difficult to carry. Their judgment on this latter volume was snarky and swift, with the former not even meriting comment: it was no better than an "orderly card index."  

1980 was a long time ago, and perhaps now a truly card-index art history would be conceptually cool—I mean, I once tried to catalogue all the trees on the façade of the Orvieto Cathedral, but was defeated by the task. But this kind of color-plate connoisseurship, high on informational value, low on literary or critical originality, still dominates art historical publishing, where an orderly and dutiful form of writing, even for the most avant-garde and genre-bending work, seems as much a psychic problem as it is an institutional one. The Barthes-inspired art history of Didi-Huberman has done substantial critique of this problem, and proposes art writing that "extravagates" when faced with an unsettling detail, writing "ekphrases that are endless, reticulate, aporetic."[1] More recently, James Elkins, art historian at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, has been doing detailed forensic analyses of what exactly makes art history writing not interesting; in his own work, he has even pivoted to experimental writing, perhaps from sheer frustration with the discipline's demand for informational objectivity allied with its not surprising but exhausted tendency towards cultural mandarinism.[2]

What, then, would a "poetics" of art writing look like, one which is responsible to the facts of the matter, yet still laying the field open for extravagations and speculations? Lytle Shaw, poet, critic, and sometimes theorist of the non-human materialities that undergird and un-gird contemporary art, whose work has included intellectual pranksterism and collaborative sculpture-fiction, has written a surprisingly trenchant account of the sleepy suburb of Dutch landscape art, with emphasis on the trench. Because one could also say that Lytle Shaw has written the book on art historical mud. Through his analysis of the intractable and contingent borders of Netherlandish idylls narrowly reclaimed from swamp in the paintings of Jan van Goyen, Jacob van Ruisdael, and Meindert Hobbema, Shaw has found the disquieting prefigurations of his more contemporary interests in experimental poetics and land art. He starts the book with an evocation of these more modern influences, and gives a rationale for his "new ground" of Dutch landscape: "Dredging up alternative genealogies of contact and idiomatic richness, negating monumental time while cultivating experimental modes of ongoingness, proliferating temporalities beyond dominant frames and measures": this is what causes him to start his inquiry in the spirit of William Carlos Williams and Charles Olson, while ending with a bravura account of how the prehistoric majesty of what would become Caspar David Friedrich's Alps is transmuted through millions of years of tectonic drama, carried off by the Rhine, to finally form these paintings' muddy topic.[3]

What we know of Dutch painting from this era may be the following: because of the wide-ranging impact of the Protestant Reformation, including a destructive era of Beeldenstorm, Northern painters would turn away from pointedly religious imagery and embrace the spiritual modesty of the everyday.  This would manifest itself in the emphasis on portraiture, landscape, and vanitas still lives. In addition, the formation of the independent Dutch Republic and consequent incorporation of the Dutch East India company veritably invented what we know as capitalist individualism; thus, painters were more likely seen as craftspeople with a specialty rather than geniuses with a patron. Although Shaw is never ungenerous with his art historical colleagues—his detailed and meaty footnotes alone should put that notion to rest—he does at one point call such narratives "docent-speak."[4] With the consciousness of poetic materialism in hand, he attempts to get beyond these repeated stories that frame his chosen genre of landscape. He neither partakes of the tendency to glorify these landscapes as proto-democratic, nor of the now seemingly hilarious anti-Dutch sentiment of the English who thought "the entire country an insult to nature"—an attitude which, although superannuated, has leached unperceived into our critical waters.[5] Instead, he preserves the initial strangeness of these paintings by categorizing them as a form of "earth writing . . . a messy and incomplete process, always subject to the transformations of recalcitrant matter."[6] As with T.J. Clark's recent attempt to write about Cézanne when all seems to have been said, Shaw enters an old discussion but does so with the sense that if the Dutch could not take their very ground for granted, so too should his scholarship not overly rely on the hardened certainties of hundreds of years of inherited knowledge.[7]     

As well, Shaw refuses the more contemporary tendency to see (or ignore) these paintings as merely the visible symptoms of invisible colonial violence elsewhere.[8] Rather, he distinguishes artistic posthumanism from economic inhumanity in a number of passages that take Dutch colonialism seriously, yet which refuse to annihilate some of the more utopian tendencies latent in the facture of these often-overlooked paintings: "we can justifiably speak of the turn away from people toward mud puddles, trees and marshes as a liberating posthumanism.  Here, there was a real benefit to be had by decentering man from the landscape, and opening up a new relation to time."[9] For instance, by rescuing the existential and artistic sense of what materially happens with the wet-on-wet paintings of van Goyen—a process that, as Shaw continually points out, reiterates the improvisation and gamble of land reclamation at the point of the brush—he challenges our distance and dispassionate consideration of landscape by coming from the direction of materialist analysis rather than ideological critique. These optics allow us to see, for example, how the waterfalls of van Ruisdael were not merely pretty pictures hiding a darker reality, but were in themselves invitations to non-conformity and prohibited pleasure in a country where severe penalties were meted out to those who did not contribute to communal labor when the dikes risked collapse, in a torrential spectacle similar to Ruisdael's deceptively staid cascades. "Just to look for an extended period, to appreciate the scene, was to be slightly guilty."[10] But yet, the falls continued to exert their fascination, at once formless, formative, and pre-formative; he alternately refers us to Williams' Paterson and Lyn Hejinian's My Life for poetic modes of thinking about what he calls these "pre-national" waters.[11]

By dwelling in the undifferentiated pre-matter of these paintings and their shared subject, Shaw gives us the paintings' præsens—a word Didi-Huberman links to its Latin cognate—not their "present," but rather their "pre-sense."[12] This "not yet" or "quasi" of a painting allows viewers to have a renewed appreciation of the risk of its making; it also gives us an open-ended perspective on what the painting prefigures. Dutch art of the 17th century already contributes to a kind of mystical Great Book of Impressionism. As Shaw emphasizes, it is imbued with futural potentiality. Yet, while it is commonly agreed that these landscapes led us to those of Monet, Pissarro, and Cézanne, what is less often admitted is that the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists retrospectively invented the Dutch Golden Age based on their own moves away from history, myth, and religion, towards nature, realism, and the newly-won freedoms of art composed en plein air. Part of Shaw's method is the appreciation of this temporal art of artistic co-invention.[13]  

He takes things one step further by describing these paintings as "ambient sound poetry," "ambient remix," or even "ambient vanitas."[14] What artistic reinventions are still possible by revisiting these always-newly rutted paths with their metamorphic and reflective puddles? To me, the appreciation of Dutch landscape painting as noise art opens the canal locks for the cargo of more forgotten strains of Impressionism that go beyond the empurpled prettiness of the French. The moody mudscapes of Belgian Impressionists Guillaume Vogels, Cesar de Cock and Albert Baertsoen emerge from the mist. There's even a dank Mondrian in the Vatican, Bend in the Gein with Poplars (1907), which shows how deep the channel cuts between van Goyen's humble muck and the Dutch abstractionist's geometries. And this channel, of course, takes us downstream to the whole continent of 20th-century art, which decenters the subject by way of its noise, privileging the human indeterminacy and risk that comes from improvising and collaborating with the materials at our disposal, the not-yet-made of our chosen mud.  

Piet Mondrian, Bend in the Gein with Poplars, 1907, Vatican Museum.  Photo by the author.Piet Mondrian, Bend in the Gein with Poplars, 1907, Vatican Museum.  Photo by the author.


[1] Georges Didi-Huberman, Confronting Images: Questioning the Ends of a Certain History of Art, trans. John Goodman (University Park: Penn State UP, 2005), 269.

[2] James Elkins, What Is Interesting Writing in Art History? (2014), <>.

[3] Lytle Shaw, New Grounds for Dutch Landscape (Stockholm: OEI editör, 2021), 30.

[4] Ibid., 193.

[5] Ibid., 89.  This particular barb comes from the poet Andrew Marvell, but the ripest anti-Dutch slurs in the book come from John Ruskin.

[6] Ibid., 92.

[7] See T. J. Clark, If These Apples Should Fall: Cézanne and the Present (NY: Thames & Hudson, 2022).

[8] "[W]e are perhaps at a point in art history where a collective belief in the pathos of the invisible has lead art historians to overlook, or treat as superficial, the potential elements of social art history that are visible in so many paintings." Ibid., 157.  He continues, as an aside, in the footnotes, "Even the founders of social art history bemoan this development" (186).

[9] Ibid., 161.

[10] Ibid., 138.

[11] Ibid., 140.

[12] Didi-Huberman, Confronting Images, 269.

[13] In a footnoted riposte to Object-Oriented Ontology, he says that objects are amenable to such co-invention: "I see the surplus latent in objects, the more or less endless dimensions we have yet to mobilize in our descriptions, as the basic energy source of writing, with the result of successful writing being, among other things, a new relation to those objects."  Shaw, New Grounds, 283.

[14] Ibid., 197, 234, & 239.