Like many of the titles we at Zone Books are proud to have published in recent years — Christopher Heuer’s Into the White, Mitchell Merback’s Perfection’s Therapy, and Amy Powell’s Depositions, among them — Pop’s vibrant book, A Forest of Symbols is driven by crucial questions internal to art history but which, in their realization, are fundamentally transdisciplinary in extraordinarily creative ways. This creativity is well-reflected in the far-reaching interview excerpted below, in which Pop discusses, among other topics, what drew him to symbolism, the potential symbols have to communicate a common visual language, and the outsized influence of Edgar Allan Poe.
“ZONE BOOKS: What drew you to questions of symbolism?
ANDREI POP: I always had a soft spot for artists and writers labeled symbolists, if only because they were often picked on. They were supposedly overblown or overwrought or incomprehensible, they ignored nature, dabbled in the dark arts or art for art’s sake, were neurotics or egoists or anarchists or decadents — the last was even a popular name for the whole movement. Yet what these criticisms missed is the humor and the intelligence of this art, which often turned its razor wit against itself and its makers: the artist’s futile attempts to represent the world for other human beings. Then I was struck by what seemed a pure linguistic coincidence: the fact that mathematicians of the era spoke of ‘symbolism’ too, e.g., the mathematician-philosopher Whitehead even wrote a book with this title. They did not mean art, but just the technical notations they used to express logical proofs. It turned out, on closer investigations, that these two apparently opposite practices both involved getting unreliable, subjective, self-centered human minds to pay attention to subtle nuances of drawn or printed or otherwise inscribed figures, for the purposes of coming to understand each other and recognize objective truths they could share. I was hooked.”