Monday, October 17, 2011

The Phallus as Part-Object in Postmodern Art

In her essay, “Posing the Phallus,” Mignon Nixon, a scholar who studies sexuality and aggression in art since 1945, focusing in particular on questions of feminism and gender politics, addresses the phallus as part-object in postmodern art.  Her intention is to uncover the reasons why the phallus was posed “so often and so insistently” between the mid-1950s and late 1960s.[1]
 Mignon Nixon
Nixon claims that the artworks she has chosen to examine “parody the phallus” and thus, use the phallus as part-object rather than carrying a phallic signifier.[2]  In this sense, Nixon follows a Kleinian theory of the phallus as part-object in opposition to Lacanian theory which views the phallus as signifier of desire.  During the institution of these diverging theories of pyschoanalysis, an idea arose that the phallus as signifier would eventually supersede the phallus as part-object.  However, whereas the part-object appears to return as a logic for bodily art in postmodernism, Nixon argues that the part-object has always existed within the drives of artists and is simply surviving until the enactment of drives in postmodernism.[3]  She views the part-object as having remained in postwar art at the level of the drives and, in this sense, is structural to postmodernism. 
Nixon looks to works by Marcel Duchamp, Jasper Johns, Yayoi Kusama, Eva Hesse, and Louise Bourgeois to locate the phallus as part-object’s existence in postwar art.  She uses Kleinian psychoanalytical terms to explain her theory and relates the part-object to the formation of infantile subjectivity, a phase in which the infant views the breast as a part and not a whole mother.  In this process of splitting the object, the infant views one object as two; a good breast which produces food and a non-existent bad breast which, in its absence causes the child to go hungry and grow frustrated.[4]  The appearance of the part-object or the whole-object is the only avenue by which to satiate the drives inherent in infants.  This theory, which Melanie Klein extended from Freud’s work, explains the libido and death drives remaining, seemingly dormant within humans well into adulthood.  Nixon equates the part-object survival in postwar art as the result of a death drive in postmodernism.  Postwar art, insists Nixon, uses the part-object as a counter-term to the phallic signifier to show a phallic symbol as an emblem of patriarchal authority and the fetish, which is different than how the part-object is used in contemporary art. This then proves that the phallus as part-object existed and is, thus, persisting as a death instinct.  Nixon finds that “in its…resistance to the Oedipal logic of renunciation and radical break, and in its enactment of a perpetual fissuring, the part-object marks the operation of a self-destructive imperative.”[5]  For Nixon, the part-object is surviving within drives rather than returning to manifest from them. 
Throughout her examination of this theory, Nixon looks to art of the mid-1950s to the late 1960s to locate the phallus as part-object.  She finds it operating as such in certain works by Marcel Duchamp; those titled Objet-Dard and Feuille de Vigne Femelle both of 1951. 
Marcel Duchamp. Objet-Dard,1951. Galvanized plaster with inlaid lead rib, 7.5 x 20.1 x 6 cm. Private collection. 
The phallus as part-object in these works by Duchamp indicate that “its function is disruptive, and that these interruptions are repeatedly staged.”[6]  The survival of the part-object in the work of a few artists illustrates how it is linked to the history of postmodernism.  Works such as Jasper Johns’ Target with Plaster Casts of 1955, Nixon claims, “ground the symbolic in the drives.”[7]  
Jasper Johns. Target with Plaster Casts, 1955. Encaustic canvas with plaster casts, 129.5 x 111.8 x8.9 cm. Private collection.
To Nixon, Johns’ work is situated within the history of the part-object in that it comments on, not only the idea of symbolism, but the logic of the symbolic.  
Yayoi Kusama. Infinity Mirror Room--Phalli's Field (or Floor Show), 1965.
Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirror Room—Phalli’s Field (or Floor Show) of 1965 is one of her many works which Nixon identifies as being a “photographic mode of production” which is “permeable to the drives.”[8]  In this way, Nixon observes that the part-object is not just a fragment but also a logic of production.  Both Eva Hesse’s Ingeminate of 1965 and Louise Bourgeois’ Fillette of 1968 illustrate that “the separation between body and object is comprised by touch, and the aesthetic autonomy of the work[s] slip on a pun and gag.”[9]  The parody of the phallus made by these works was heightened when the artists individually posed with their respective artworks, in essence, posing the phalli for photographs.  By touching these objects, Nixon believes that the “art objects as part objects” idea became more solidified within the drives.[10] 
Eva Hesse. Ingeminate, 1965.

Robert Mapplethorpe. Louise Bourgeois (holding Fillette), 1982.

Nixon describes these artworks adequately, ensuring to explain their context as relating to her argument.  However, she does not express the works as they were exhibited initially nor go into great detail in explaining materials used or methods of construction.  It is clear that Nixon is not concerned so much with the physicality of the objects themselves, aside from the formal qualities, but perhaps is more interested in the ideas they portray and exude.  Nixon’s purpose for examining these artworks is to effectively lend evidence to her case.  She does not provide any judgment or evaluation of the artworks aside from how they operate within her proposed theory.  It seems that she does not find it necessary to comment on the art as ‘good’ or ‘bad.’  An underlying notion throughout the text asserts that these works were selected from the canonized, thus their status as high art make them worthy of such an in-depth analysis.  Perhaps this is why Nixon forwent any evaluations or possibly the purpose of her essay just did not necessitate judgment of the artworks.  
Much of Nixon’s essay is devoted to analyzing the chosen artworks from a psychoanalytic approach.  The ardent analysis is often based on her interpretations of the artworks.  She grounds these expository observations within an art historical framework which lends a scholarly credence to her words and philosophical findings.  Throughout her analysis, Nixon clearly conveys her ideas despite the denseness of the topics which she breaches.  She locates the artworks within a time period and elucidates parallels to the psychoanalytic theories of that same period.  Nixon’s essay illustrates the efficiency of using a method of analysis which developed concurrently with the artworks being examined.  This approach allows a revisionist art historian to adequately inform his or her criticism and draw connections between social, psychological, cultural, and other factors at work in the mentality of a period.

Work Cited
Nixon, Mignon. “Posing the Phallus.” October 92 (Spring, 2000): 98-127. Accessed
October 15, 2011. doi: 779235.

[1] Mignon Nixon, “Posing the Phallus,” October 92, (2000): 98.
[2] Ibid., 98-100.
[3] Ibid., 102.
[4] Ibid., 103.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid., 106.
[7] Ibid., 108.
[8] Ibid., 115.
[9] Ibid., 120.
[10] Ibid.


  1. Thanks for this, Dayna. A lucid summary of a difficult, beautiful piece.
    I want to take issue with your closing remarks. From a psychoanalytic perspective, what use are categories of "good art" and "bad art?" Such evaluations of the artworks would be out of place in Nixon's writing. So I don't see why you would fault her for not evaluating the art in terms of "good" and "bad." Her concerns are different.

  2. A really good explanation - the issue I wondered about was the selection from the `canonised` does this matter. Can you explain this necessary term `canon` please?