Joseph Nechvatal’s Decalcomania and the Final Fulfillment of Death


by Robert Kleyn

Vanguard Magazine

March 1984

A shifting from absence to presence, a looming up and receding away characteristic of being itself, is an effect of Joseph Nechvatal’s technique. In its essential incompleteness, this work refers only to the final fulfillment of death. Nechvatal’s skillful draftsmanship snares our gaze in a dense network of lines, together with the conventional agents of modern death (President Reagan, nuclear missiles, tactical bombers) and the prototypical innocent victims (children). The cartoonish rendering of the figures is almost obliterated by the seemingly random hatches which might well be the detritus of the technological terror that is the artist’s dread. The hatches from which we cannot hide; the agents of destruction continue to emerge, taking on their very nervous form from the stuff of their dissolution, their loss, their secret unity.

Although Nechvatal makes drawings, he prefers to display them as photographs, just another veil over the source. The image, Nechvatal insists, is superfluous, devalued, and there is a value in withholding it from free circulation. Furthermore, our look has become so insolvent that exposure to the original image, without the benefit of the veil, might destroy it completely. Only a mechanically reproduced image insufficiently safe, uniform with regard to its visual surroundings. The same uniformity is also evident in the patently overall quality of Nechvatal’s decalcomania, heightened by the repeated figures of a combinatorial algebra of fear.

There is an impersonal consistency to Nechvatal’s work, a consistency that faces the void through the impersonal instruments of mass annihilation. The artist succeeds in canceling out the uniqueness of his individual trace, at the same time constructing a substitute identity in the overall appearance of his work.

The subject is invisible; yet its secret is a fundamental identity that is everywhere in the work. The identity is developed within the parameters of the look: the black of the graphite, the black of the silver emulsion, the stock vocabulary of figures — all point to the preoccupied look of codification. How little seperates this operation from ciphering.

By maintaining secrecy, the sourse of power is concealed; power, after all. Is dangerous to those who mistake it for a value rather than an agent that enables the artist to realize his being as an artist.