Yve-Alain Bois

Bois is the most influential figure on the way I think and write about architecture. Yet, Bois himself rarely writes about architecture – he is an art historian specialising on 20th century abstract art. He has written extensively on Mondrian, Picasso, Matisse and Barnett Newman among others. The fact that he does not write about architecture means that his work is taken as a model rather than a reference for findings or results that I happen to agree or disagree with. In Bois I also find an ally for certain topics that I have been investigating: an interest in the role of form, a desire to understand the definition or specificity of things, a sceptical and critical approach to postmodern theory and methods, and an interest in modernism as more complex, fluid and open idea than is generally accepted.

Before going further, a clarification is in order. If you have read the entry on ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ you might suspect a contradiction in my use of art theory to inform ideas about architecture. The short explanation is that it is possible to turn to art, science, sociology, literature, music or anything else, in order to test ones understanding of architecture without having to believe that architecture is any of those things. If you accept that architecture (like any other field) has its own intrinsic properties then you must remain attentive to its specificity when you compare it to work or theories in other fields.

This involves a certain amount of ‘theoretical borrowing’ which Bois warns against. Bois’ method relies on paying close attention to the object of inquiry, its specific form, in order to determine what theoretical approach is most productive [1]. This is the opposite of what many believe about theory, which is that you adopt one and arrive pre-armed with it to all your objects of inquiry. The theoretical borrowing Bois critiques refers to borrowing and applying without adaptation and without first consulting the object under scrutiny. So for example, one decides that deconstruction is a rather cool way of analysing texts and that it should produce interesting results if applied to architecture. The two pitfalls are 1) not allowing for the differences in literature and architecture and 2) assuming that deconstructing an object will tell you the most important things about that object. It will tell you something, but it may not be the most significant or meaningful aspect of the object. This is, in fact, what happened in the late 1980s and early 1990s in architectural discourse [2]. This does not mean that you can never borrow, adapt or translate theory developed in one area to another. Bois arrived at a reading of Matisse’s work that showed how it operated very close to some of Derrida’s deconstructive tenets. That is, it was ‘close’ and mimicked ‘some’ aspects. This is very different than simply applying deconstruction ‘to’ Matisse’s work or suggesting he was a deconstructivist.

The most important aspect of Bois’ work, for me, is his attention and interest in form. Depending on your background, experience and age, you may not be aware of the extreme negative connotations associated with the term ‘form’ and ‘formalism’. If your work is called formalist it is shape making, self-referential, and made without reference to history or other external factors. It is another way of saying something is meaningless. There are differences in the use of the term in art history as compared to architectural discourse. In art history it is largely to do with a way of reading art such that you focus on the object without reference to anything outside it (biography, history, technique, culture, site, etc.). In architecture it generally refers to the work itself. That is, in the first it is a fault in the way something is analysed and in the second it is a fault in the object itself. In both cases there were never really many practitioners of formalism in that strict sense [3]. Instead, what is really being critiqued is an interest in form. What Bois does, however, is more than just be interested in form; he is concerned with how the thing produced by the artist contains the ideas that the artist is interested in. This is where the battle lines are drawn. Bois is often at odds with those that claim that the meaning of artworks resides somewhere besides the object itself – in personal biography, in purely subjective arenas, in observation, or processes, for example. These areas may matter, but ultimately, if an artist chooses to make something, that thing has a role to play in what it means. To deny that the product matters or suggest that it is of minor importance is problematic.

Bois’ approach does not mean that things outside the object are not taken into consideration. For example, his work on Picasso looks at his relationship with Braque and his take on Pollock doesn’t ignore the process behind the paintings (dripping paint rather than application with a brush). What the formalist approach entails is a close reading of the product to see how it embodies, represents or otherwise results in various meanings. In the case of Pollock, we discover how the paint drippings are woven to create not just contradictory optical results (different spatial interpretations) but physical ones (dripped lines that go over and under other dripped lines). Such analysis does not lead to closed and absolute findings, as is often claimed, but explain how it is that multiple interpretations are actually possible (optical, material, compositional, technical, etc.).

Nor does this approach treat everything in the same way, as suggested by the stance against ‘theoretical borrowing’. As a result, Bois has developed various models that explain the significance and distinctness of artists normally thrown together under stylistic labels. One is the ‘technical’ model, where the process plays a signifying role in the final product (e.g. Pollock) and another is the ‘perceptual’ model which makes work which relies on how the viewers optically take in the work (e.g. Newman). These models, generated from the work itself, cut across the stylistic and historical categories of ‘abstract expressionism’ that normally encapsulate Pollock and Newman.

What is interesting is that this approach goes beyond what things look like despite being about close observation. Bois argues that the negative connotations associated with form and formalism is not to do with being intrinsically bad ideas, but with having been practiced so poorly. That is, what has passed for formalist critique has simply not been rigorous enough, it has not looked closely enough at its objects [4].

Now I have not said much about architecture. I think that the value of what Bois is doing with regard to art history is obvious for architecture. If the form of an artwork can be shown to play a central role (this is not the same as saying it is the most important) then surely the form of architecture, the building and its spaces, must be equally if not more significant? Yet architectural production and pedagogy has shifted largely to a focus on design process, when not devote solely to its representation. Concepts have become more important than design results. Creativity in coming up with ideas is celebrated over resolution. Presenting your work in new and innovative ways trumps the content of the proposal itself. For some, there is a belief that a ‘correct’ process guarantees a ‘correct’ outcome. In all of these, form – in our case, a drawn proposition for a building form, but form nonetheless – is secondary when not irrelevant.

I don’t have the room and time here to go into how and why the form of architecture is significant – see the entry on Michel de Certeau’s ‘Everyday’ for a taster. This is not, specifically, what Bois helps me with. The surprising outcome is the number of ideas that can be contained within, pass through or be evoked by form. For many, the idea in being interested in the problems of proportion, spatial relationships, specific dimensions, material resolution, joints, details, surface articulation and so on is seen to be an interest in empty things. That is, they are seen as disconnected artefacts that cannot produce meaning in themselves. To design with these things in mind is to leave the world behind. Yet, isn’t this a kind of naïve utopian belief? Who really believes that one can operate entirely within a vacuum? Robin Evan’s has shown how the formal arrangement of rooms reflects the societal structure of its time (see ‘Figures, Doors, and Passages’). To work with shapes, articulations, configurations and hierarchies of a plan is to work on the structure and order of a society. To be interested in the composition of a façade is to engage with the representational and symbolic systems (and beliefs) of your culture. To put it another way, I believe that to work on form is to work on representations, beliefs, structures, orders, and hence society and culture itself. What then, does it mean to be disinterested in form?


Bois’ work is quite extensive so for those interested in reading further below are short introductions to some key texts.

Painting As Model

This is Bois’ first book – a collection of previously published essays. My copy is nearly falling to pieces, with only one or two essays not getting frequent re-reads. The introduction called Resisting Blackmail sets out Bois methods and position with respect to postmodern theory as fashion. Matisse and ‘Arche-drawing’ looks at the relation between Matisse’s drawings and paintings suggesting an investigation that parallels some of Derrida’s propositions about the relationship between speech and writing. The De Stijl Idea is probably the best essay on De Stijl anywhere. It pursues one of three definitions possible for the movement – De Stijl as an idea (the other two are De Stijl as a journal and De Stijl as a group of persons). The distinction sounds simple but once you read it you realise that everything else muddles up the categories and hence any understanding of the movement. Strzeminski and Kobro: In Search of Motivation is a fantastic overview of two unknown Polish artists from the 1930s who define some rather interesting parameters for architecture. This has been a very influential essay and I will be writing on this separately. Piet Mondrian, New York City looks at one painting by the artist and is a masterclass in detail formal analysis. Perceiving Newman uses the ‘perceptive’ model to show how Newman’s work toys with our sense of seeing. This particular essay uncovers how the (simple) surface image of things can often mask complex structures, processes and meanings. Ryman’s Tact does a similar thing for this artists who has only ever painted white canvases. Painting: The Task of Mourning looks at the then current post modern fashion for pronouncing the death of ‘X’ (painting, capitalism, authorship, etc.). It is fairly theoretical but a good overview of early postmodern thought. Painting As Model is based on a review of a book by Hubert Damisch and provides a kind of overview of both Bois’ and Damisch’s approach to painting (and form).

A Picturesque Stroll Around Clara-Clara

This is masterpiece of research and writing that takes in theories of the picturesque, the work of Robert Smithson and Le Corbusier, and the idea of parallax, all in the development of an analysis of one sculpture by Richard Serra. It is, I believe, the best overview of Serra’s work in general. This essay also demonstrates the complexity of formal analysis and dispenses with any ideas that it is ahistorical, limited, closed off and non-contextual.

Piet Mondrian and the Theory of Architecture

This essay was a revelation as I had no idea when I first read it that Mondrian had theorised about architecture. It is wonderfully detailed and brings out the fine complexities of his thought – not always consistent or perfectly formed.

The Semiology of Cubism

This is one of Bois’ ‘definition’ essays – that is, where he attempts to define a term, concept or thing (The De Stijl Idea is another). This essay demonstrates the benefit of formal analysis in trying to understand what makes something unique. Whereas many historians fall over themselves trying to define what the earliest cubist painting is, or what is transitional, and so on, Bois answers the question by asking: ‘What does cubism do that no other type of painting did before it’. So while some paintings ‘look’ cubist, they in fact do little more than Cezanne had already done. Once the underlying characteristic is found we learn that the first cubist work isn’t even a painting.


[1] In some cases objects defy existing theoretical categories and lead to the development of new theories. These objects are called ‘theoretical objects’, a term borrowed from one of Bois’ mentors, Hubert Damisch. Theoretical objects are said to emanate theory that redefine our understanding of an area or mode of production. Photography is an example of a type of production that generated its own theoretical models.

[2] There was also a fatal flaw in the way deconstruction was adopted by architects. Developed by Derrida as a method of analysing texts for the complexities of meaning, architects turned it into a method for designing. Worst of all, they assigned it the role of communicating directly one particular set of beliefs: that the world was fragmented, irrational, fluid, contradictory, and indeterminate.

[3] In art history, Clement Greenberg is the main culprit although Bois has shown how he wasn’t really a formalist, i.e., he wasn’t very attentive to the specific conditions of the object but rather focused on what it appeared to be. In architecture it’s harder still to identify such formalists. One might suggest that the paper projects of Peter Eisenman and John Hejduk of the 1960s and 1970s fits the description, but their projects were always self-consciously theoretical or pedagogical.

[4] Bois picked up this ethos of ‘looking closely’ from his teacher Roland Barthes, who advocated looking at things in their ‘fine grain.’ Roland Barthes and his book ‘Mythologies’ is in the queue for a future entry in this blog.


One thought on “Yve-Alain Bois

  1. Pingback: Structuralism | The Sleep of Rigour

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