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Modern Art Theory Put to the Test in Paris

In plain English, 'L'informe: mode d'emploi, at the Pompodou, is anything but an academic exercise.

August 04, 1996|Susan Kandel | Susan Kandel is a regular art reviewer for Calendar

PARIS — Thanks to a long history of cultural voyeurism extending from Alexis de Tocqueville to Jean Baudrillard, the French have enshrined a particular mythology of our country: Americans are barbarians, yes, but with an uncanny knack for getting things done.

We, too, have our own beloved myths about France--Paris in particular. For example, we all know that nothing ever changes there: Return five, 10 or even 20 years after your last trip, and you will find the same cafe on the same corner, with the same surly waiter ready to fling croissants at you. Part of what lures you back is the certainty that Gericault's magnificent "Raft of the Medusa" will be hanging in the Louvre's Great Hall and that, despite the success of this year's animated film, there will never be a Disney Store selling Quasimodo mugs kittycorner to the Cathedral of Notre Dame.

All of which makes it pretty interesting to contemplate the fact that neither Notre Dame nor even the Eiffel Tower is the most popular tourist attraction in Paris. That honor goes to the Centre Georges Pompidou, whose crayon-colored, inside-out, neither Modern nor precisely Postmodern architecture once inspired shudders.

It is even more interesting, in this context, to contemplate the Pompidou's summer exhibition, "L'informe: mode d'emploi" (Formless: A User's Guide), a cagey but extraordinarily buoyant exhibition continuing through Aug. 26 that upends a whole slew of stereotypes. These concern the much ballyhooed postwar "triumph" of American art, the nature of the Modern and the difficult relationship between theory and practice.

Despite featuring more than 200 paintings, sculptures, assemblages, photographs and videos by everyone from Robert Rauschenberg and Eva Hesse to Yayoi Kusama and Piero Manzoni, "L'informe," co-curated by Rosalind Krauss, professor of art history at Columbia University, and Yves-Alain Bois, professor of modern art at Harvard, had better odds than most to function as an academic exercise. The curators are well known within the contemporary art world as editors of the influential, theory-saturated journal October and, true to form, they have titled the exhibition--and borrowed their organizing principle--from a resolutely esoteric notion first trotted out by Georges Bataille in 1929 in the pages of the short-lived Surrealist review Documents.

"L'informe," as described by Bataille, is a sort of anti-concept--something that resists definition and in fact militates against the whole possibility of definition, of classification, and thereby, of order. Krauss and Bois, however, are not out to examine Bataille's relationship to art, nor vice versa; rather, they use this term as a device, or a grid, through which to read the art of this century.

Students of art history have long memorized Clement Greenberg's reading: From Cezanne to Pollock, painting purposefully marches toward "flatness," tacitly acknowledging the picture plane. This restrictive theory has often been challenged--Krauss, herself a former Greenbergian, has been among the most ardent.

Her work has entailed championing the distinctly "non-retinal" achievements of Duchamp and the Surrealists. She has also supported later generations of artists--like Robert Morris, Bruce Nauman and Cindy Sherman--whose art is characterized by anti-idealism, mordant wit and a predilection for the fantastic.

This exhibition would seem to have appropriated Bataille in the service of Krauss' two-decades-long project. The result, however, is not an alternative Modernist trajectory in which dissolution rather than form is paramount. Instead, she and Bois propose an expanded field in which form is no longer the occasion to block content.

Mike Kelley's "The Riddle of the Sphinx" (1991) is exemplary in this respect. The sculpture is a huge, multicolored afghan that sprawls across the floor, concealing various unidentified, lumpy mounds. Emphatically nonspiritual, Kelley's spectacle eschews the whole metaphysics of elevation and occupies instead the earthly realm of the horizontal. Indeed, Kelley's "The Riddle of the Sphinx" is included in "horizontality," the first of four sections (or "operations," as the curators refer to them) into which the show is divided.

The others are "pulse," "base materialism" and "entropy." Admittedly, they more than occasionally seem like overlapping, arbitrary designations.

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