American Lazarus and the Renaissance of Rabo Karabekian

by Wilson Taylor

“But like every movement, abstraction must have a direction, and it is on this that everything depends.”

- György Lukács, “Realism in the Balance,” 1938

“I think it can be tremendously refreshing if a creator of literature has something on his mind other than the history of literature so far. Literature should not disappear up its own asshole, so to speak.”

- Kurt Vonnegut, Palm Sunday, 1981

A Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man

Vonnegut presents Bluebeard as “a novel and a hoax autobiography” of “erstwhile American painter Rabo Karabekian.” Karabekian, who also appears in Breakfast of Champions and Deadeye Dick, is a renown Abstract Expressionist, famous for works of abstract minimalism such as The Temptation of Saint Anthony and Windsor Blue Number SeventeenBluebeard offers Vonnegut a more direct voice to interrogate the role of art in representing and transforming the human world. While many of Vonnegut’s novels celebrate the transformative potential of art, Bluebeard represents Vonnegut’s most sustained discussion of aesthetics. The contours of Karabekian’s career, oscillating between realism and abstract expressionism, allow Vonnegut renewed perspective on art, the human, and the catastrophe of history. Bluebeard is a catalogue of the tension between these two modes of representation and the modes of being they engender. 
Karabekian, an Armenian immigrant and descendent of survivors of the Armenian genocide, passes through three general aesthetic phases catalogued in his autobiography. First is his valuation of mimesis, or pure representation, a phase which is realized in his apprenticeship under Armenian-American realist Dan Gregory. Karabekian leaves Gregory after a dispute over the merits of modern art, and befriends a group of Abstract Expressionist painters, an auspicious circle which includes de Kooning, Rothko, and Pollock. In this second phase of Karabekian’s career, he realizes himself as a modern artist in search of pure aesthetic abstraction. This aesthetic phase is also Karabekian’s most fruitful, and Karabekian becomes famous for his pieces of abstract minimalism. He hones a style of painting large canvases with a single color of commercial paint, Sateen Dura-Luxe, before placing one or more strips of neon tape representing the soul. The third phase of Karabekian’s career is a return toward representational art. However, whereas the first stage of his aesthetic development was mimetic realism, the final stage is realized in a transformational or dialectical realism. After moving through the mimetic and the aesthetic, Karabekian, in his old age, finally becomes a revolutionary. 

Ultimately, Vonnegut locates a transformative and redemptive potential in realism. Karabekian, identifying with Lazarus, stages his own renaissance through a realism not of representation, but of transformation. Karabekian’s final redemption of the signified, through his celebration of the transformative power of realist representation, attempts to cultivate new modes of seeing and being in the viewer. His final painting, Now It’s the Women’s Turn — throughout most of the novel only alluded to only as a void, a mystery veiled in a potato barn — inaugurates a transcendent and humanistic counter-history through aesthetic transformation. Karabekian’s aesthetics of transformation resonates with Vonnegut’s own “telegraphic schizophrenic” literary mode, which, while deeply surreal, absurd, and existential, revolves around his transcendent humanism, which centers and sustains his narrative voice. 

Through a Glass, Darkly: On the Mimetic Regime 

Karabekian explores the mimetic or representational artistic phase under the tutelage of Dan Gregory, a painter famous for his uncanny photorealism. Gregory’s realism resonates with Jacques Rancière’s analysis of the mimetic regime of the arts. The mimetic or representative regime of the arts, writes Rancière in The Politics of Aesthetics, is distinguished by the imperative of art to “make copies resembling [its] models.” Rancière describes this imitative view of aesthetics as organizing “ways of doing, making, seeing, and judging... bringing the arts under the yoke of resemblance.” He continues: “it is not an artistic process but a regime of visibility regarding the arts.” Gregory attempts to instill in Karabekian a certain mode of seeing in accordance with this regime of visibility. “Draw everything the way it really is,” instructs Gregory, underscoring his celebration of objective and mimetic representation as the purpose and end of aesthetics. Tellingly, Gregory holds Picasso, whom Vonnegut revered, to be “Satan.” 

In a perfect analogue to his aesthetic approach, Gregory recounts his own training as a realist, in which he was instructed to paint a perfect replica of a ruble. The value of art, suggests Gregory, is equivalent to its “negotiability” in the marketplace. Gregory’s flattening of art is made literal as his art capitulates to and replicates the empty mechanics of capitalism; his works are sold as advertisements. In turn, Gregory poses to Karabekian similar tasks of bland representation, demanding Karabekian recreate certain scenes, such as the reflection of a room in dusty mirror, on canvas. Karabekian develops a fine photorealistic touch, but, as he is repeatedly criticized, his paintings lack any “soul.” In their perfect presentation of an objective image of the world, they fail to infuse any humanity. Gregory’s mimetic vision leaves no room for the human.

Karabekian further identifies realism with a certain deluded arrogance. As Karabekian makes literal in his military role as a camouflage artist in World War II, representational art presents a false image of reality that obscures the subjective experience of the human. Gregory, for instance, is a fascist and devotee of Mussolini. Gregory’s regressive political tendencies mirror his representational aesthetic fixation, both of which neglect the existential experience of the human in favor of a strict discourse of representation. Gregory’s passion for Mussolini recalls Otto Waltz’ embarrassing passion for Hitler’s painting and politics in Deadeye Dick. As Walter Benjamin suggests in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, fascism relies on the “aestheticization of politics,” which parallels Gregory's own mimetic fixation. These fascist sympathies, Vonnegut suggests, stems from a corruption of Gregory’s “ontologico-aesthetic model,” to borrow a term from Rancière. Mimetic representation, Vonnegut suggests, cannot communicate or represent the human experience. Gregory sacrifices the ontological human for the aesthetics and ethics of mechanistic reproduction. 

Karabekian criticizes Gregory’s failed “ontologico-aesthetic model” as reducing art to “counterfeits” and “taxidermy,” reifying the human in history while mummifying subjectivity. He suggests that Gregory’s paintings are “truthful about material things, but they lied about time,” which is to say that they also lied about being. His taxidermist aesthetics misrepresent subjectivity, reifying the existential struggle of the human into discrete moments in time. Karabekian continues, in a passage that echoes the temporal deconstructions and humanism of Vonnegut’s fictions, “He lacked the guts or the wisdom...to indicate that time was liquid, that one moment was no more important than any other, and that all moments quickly run away... Life, by definition, is never still.” There is no life in Gregory’s paintings. In their stillness beckons only death.

Karabekian, who writes his autobiography after breaking away from Gregory’s influence and aesthetic approach, peppers his memories with belittling ironies — “Nobody could counterfeit images in dusty mirrors like Dan Gregory.” The attempt to capture the appearance of the world is meaningless when experience is ignored. Gregory’s imperative to “draw everything the way it really is” reduces subjective reality to a mirrored plane, ignoring that reality, as Marx implores in his “Theses on Feuerbach,” must not only be interpreted, but transformed. Gregory can only see the human through a glass, darkly — his mimetic obsession obscures human experience and subjectivity, and representational art is distilled into painting counterfeit images in dusty mirrors. Karabekian yearns to see the human “face to face,” as it were.  

Discourses from the Whirlwind: On Abstract Expressionism and the Aesthetic Regime

Karabekian rejects the representational realism of his tutor and seeks liberation in Abstract Expressionism. As opposed to the reifying impulse of Gregory’s mimetic phase, Karabekian suggests that Abstract Expressionism more fully comprehends and communicates the human experience because it, unlike representational realism, knows that “time is liquid.” In the paintings of the Abstract Expressionists, “birth and death are always there.” This constant oscillation is crucial to Vonnegut’s own aesthetic visions of the human, and he seems to find a visual analogue to his literature in the abstract minimalism of Rabo Karabekian. Karabekian’s leap into expressionism is at first a liberating move, as he rejects the limits of his tutor and of the mimetic regime, and finds a more honest and human aesthetic mode. His Oedipal rejection of Gregorian mimesis allows Karabekian to recreate his aesthetic visions of the human.

Karabekian achieves fame and prestige as an Abstract Expressionist as he develops a style of painting which captures the fluidity of time and attempts to communicate the sacrality of human existence. He pioneers an abstract minimalism in which he fills a canvas with a single color of industrial paint, Sateen Dura-Lux, before placing a single strip of neon tape. In Breakfast of Champions, Karabekian defends his famous painting The Temptation of Saint Anthony explaining, “Each strip of tape was the soul at the core of some sort of person or lower animal” in a uniform field of light and color. He presents a similar defense in Bluebeard. Karabekian’s expressionism allows him to disregard the crude materialism of Gregory’s mimesis and focus his aesthetics on the celebration of that which is “sacred” to the human. Whereas Gregory’s art reified the human frozen in time and space, Karabekian explodes these absurd determinants in order to sacralize the human bound within.

Abstract Expressionism offers Karabekian another framework to imagine and express the human outside the mimetic strictures of Gregory’s representation. However, his explosion of the mimetic regime is not entirely redemptive, and ultimately dissatisfying. In particular, Karabekian is concerned that his art lacks engagement with the human or the world. He repeatedly laments, echoing Derrida’s formulation of the postmodern, that his art “was about nothing but itself.” In order to dramatize and render absurd this self-enclosed episteme and the ephemerality of modern art, Karabekian’s paintings disintegrate. His industrial grade paint, Sateen Dura-Lux (promised to “outlive the smile on the Mona Lisa”), peels off of Karabekian’s canvases, which hang blankly from gallery walls.  

Rancière designates the “aesthetic regime” as offering a new identification of the arts, an identification no longer connected to the mimetic regime’s processes of “doing and making.” Rather, the aesthetic regime is distinguished by “identifying art in the singular and [freeing] it from any specific rule... by destroying the mimetic barrier” and erecting art as an “autonomous form of life.” Rancière marries the aesthetic regime to the historical process of modernity (and post-modernity, which, according to Rancière and Fredric Jameson, is merely an intensification of the process of modernity and does not represent an epistemological or ontological break from the modern), suggested that the modern is distinguished by this new artistic autonomy, this rupture between art and the social world. Rancière locates in Schiller a central articulation of the self-enclosed episteme of modern art’s “pure instance of suspension” in its lack of social or existential engagement. As Karabekian laments, his paintings are only about themselves. Abstraction, if only for its own sake, forecloses against itself.

New Wine in New Wineskins: On Karabekian’s Subversive Renaissance

The dissolution of Karabekian’s paintings and identity forces him to explore new modes of being and creating. Referencing the French folktale “Bluebeard,” in which a nobleman’s forbidden chamber foments tremendous mystery, the secret of Karabekian’s new aesthetics are veiled in his potato barn. After the disintegration of Windsor Blue Number Seventeen, Karabekian strips its canvas to a tabula rasa and creates, in its absence, a new aesthetic vision of the human. Whereas the Bluebeard of French folklore wreaks terror in his chambers as he recreates a primordial and patriarchal violence against his multitude of wives, Karabekian’s barn is a womb for the cultivation of new life and new narratives of redemption. In his barn are born new histories. On his blank canvas and in the tatters of the postmodern, Karabekian engages in the mysterious work of creating the world anew. 

His final revelation is a subversive masterpiece of realism, Now It’s the Women’s Turn. A vivid recreation of Karabekian’s experience “when the sun came up the day the Second World War ended in Europe,” his painting situates the viewer “on the rim of a beautiful green valley in the springtime.” Assembled in the valley are over five thousand former soldiers acclimating to the sunshine, the springtime, and the newness of peace. Each soldier, Karabekian explains, has a story, and the painter rediscovers and recreates the human. The painting explores a radically new aesthetic mode; Karabekian rejects both the lifeless mimesis of Gregory and the self-enclosed aesthetics of expressionism and discovers a dialectical and transformative realism. By slipping into the recent past, into the sublimity of peace and “pure human wonder,” Karabekian attempts to inaugurate a redemptive counter-history disconnected from the ravages of war and the terror of history. As Vonnegut writes in Player Piano, "A step backward, after making a wrong turn, is a step in the right direction." Now It’s the Women’s Turn explicitly inaugurates a new history of redemption as a rejection of the terror of history heretofore. His return to realism is a revolutionary move.

Karabekian’s painting, depicting the first daybreak of a new history, recalls Vonnegut’s invocation of the sacrality of Armistice Day. Writing in Breakfast of Champions, he suggests that, in the sublimity of Armistice in 1918, when violence receded from the earth and peace whispered in, soldiers heard in “the sudden silence... the voice of God.” Vonnegut insists that “we still have among us some men who can remember when God spoke clearly to mankind.” God enters human history in the moment of peace. Similarly, Karabekian’s Now It’s the Women’s Turn explores this hierophany — the sudden breaking of the divine into the world. Karabekian’s masterpiece is a revelation and annunciation of the divine, of God in history and God in humankind. “Life itself can be sacramental,” Karabekian insists. As Renaissance artist Leon Battista Alberti suggests in his 1435 tract On Painting, “Painting contains a divine force,” and the realist painter can approximate the creative powers of God. Karabekian attempts to wield this creative force of the divine in his cultivation of redemptive counter-histories. Vonnegut’s sense of the sacred resonates with his transcendent humanism as he weaves new narratives of redemption. The rising sun is the sacred illumination of a new history; the sun rises to the new millennium of messianic time.

Part of this divine redemption of humankind is realized in Karabekian’s recovered unity of subject, a yearning echoing in Vonnegut’s fictions since Slapstick. Whereas Gregory’s mimesis promotes a crude materialism, and Karabekian’s expressionism an unabashed (and ephemeral) focus on the abstract, Karabekian’s redemption is realized through the dissolution of this false dualism and the restoration of subjective unity. After deploring the behavior of the corrupted “meat” of his body (in opposition to his sacred soul), for most of his autobiography, Karabekian revels in his radically human aesthetic vision. “I had my strongest vision yet of human souls unencumbered, unembarrassed by their unruly meat.” Karabekian, after painting his masterpiece, is able to conclude — “Oh, happy Meat. Oh, happy Soul. Oh, happy Rabo Karabekian.” Karabekian, breaking out of history and traditional aesthetics, stages his own renaissance through his redemptive aesthetic. He has become Lazarus. Moreover, Karabekian seeks to inaugurate this new history in order to alleviate the alienation of modernity, asserting the new primacy of what Marx identified as the restored “species-being” of a redeemed humanity. 

Karabekian’s return to realism as an inauguration of a counter-modernity represents a true synthesis between representation and expressionism in an overcoming of Oedipal anxieties. Realism can offer a more existentially and politically potent ontologico-aesthetic models than expressionism. Realism, writes György Lukács in his 1938 essay “Realism in the Balance,” is distinctly capable of discovering and dismantling the “network of relationships” of oppression and suffering, and that discovery “creates a new immediacy.” Whereas expressionism is awash in its own signifiers, and its abstraction is itself a capitulation to the totalizing abstraction of capitalism; realism — in its immediacy, its exploration of gaps and contradictions, and its intense focus on the human — is a more dialectically charged aesthetic form. According to Fredric Jameson, “the final dialectical subversion of the now automized conventions of an aesthetics of perceptual revolution...[is] realism itself.” Realism, Lukács suggests, is alone capable of exploding what Walter Benjamin calls “continuum of history.” As Lukács insists, grasping at what Fredric Jameson refers to the “levers of creation,” aesthetics “must have a direction.” The aesthetic must be invested in the political and in the human. The dialectical antidote to fascism’s “aestheticization of politics,” insists Benjamin, lies in the “politicization of art,” which is realized in Karabekian’s redemptive return to realism. The cultivation of new “ontologico-aesthetic models” can help create new worlds and new beings. Art, he suggests, must liberate and must redeem. 

In championing the subversive aspect of this return to realism, Vonnegut advances beyond his celebration of Abstract Expressionism in Breakfast of Champions or Deadeye Dick. In his invocation of transformational realism and in his zeal to inaugurate redemptive histories, Vonnegut continues to interrogate the limits of the postmodern. In this way, Karabekian is a nearly perfect analogue for Vonnegut himself, as both struggle to communicate a certain synthesis of skepticism and sincerity through a new aesthetics of the human. Karabekian’s return to realism mirrors Vonnegut’s own telegraphic schizophrenic literary mode in his exploration of new modes of representation with deep humanist sympathy. Vonnegut shares Karabekian’s dissatisfaction with the self-enclosed epistemes of modern art because of a lack of political or existential engagement. Any art that is not grounded in the human experience is narcissistic and ephemeral, Vonnegut suggests. Visual art, like literature, “should not disappear up its own asshole.” 

Karabekian’s redemption suggests that the unstable category of the avant-garde is not a signifier of form, but of content and dialectic. The creation of new beings and new histories must be foregrounded in the exploration of new aesthetic forms, but the existential human must foreground any aesthetic imagination. Art cultivates a framework of human recreation, and this aesthetic-ethical capacity must be directed toward redemption. Rabo Karabekian’s masterpiece approaches what Fredric Jameson identifies as “the crux of history beyond which we have not yet passed.” And where we have yet not passed, Vonnegut dares to imagine.