This sprawling exhibition is curated by Rosalind Krauss and Yves Alain Bois. But up front they have placed another celebrity, a person who seems to have created an entire theoretical universe devoted to subversion. It is the French critic and philosopher George Bataille, and in this context it doesn't really matter that he never seemed to take a very great interest in questions of aesthetics, and that the small part of his writings that deals with art seems to use the artworks in question mainly as examples towards what is, to him, larger and more important questions. For Bataille may be linked to the group of French surrealist, particularly since he made himself well known and unpopular as one of their harshest critics. And this is the basis for the construction on which this exhibition is built. Bataille attacks surrealism, probably because it is close at hand as he is about to formulate his own philosophy. And, to the extent that you may find modern artists that both escape Bataille's criticism and also seem to work in ways consistent with the general drive of his thought, the opposition seems like a true art historical finding, ready for display.
This is, of course, a terrible simplification. Krauss and Bois would certainly contest this version of the turn of events. "We have not made an exhibition that deals with the theme of modernism", they would say, "we have not made an exhibition about a theme at all, if by theme you mean that quintessentially art historical impulse to create neat categories out of the chaos that is art. We only wanted to show how one of Bataille's most radical ideas, the idea of the "informe" as that which breaks up any form, category, concept or meaning can be seen as an operative principle in a number of modernist works. As the title shows, we simply wanted to provide a guide to the workings of the informe." So, one would think, it's Bataille illustrated. And within the exhibition some of the illustrations Bataille chose to accompany his writings are shown alongside work chosen by the curators, as one continuum. This is a clever move towards covering up the disjunctions between a fascination for the philosophy of Bataille and the often categorizing agenda of art historians and curators. But, like the return of the repressed, it doesn't quite stop the modernism as theme or concept from popping up in unexpected places.
To see how all of this does or does not relate to the theme of modernism, one quick look at Bataille's take on surrealism is needed. For, according to Bataille, surrealism may have wanted to bring on revolution through a valorization of the low and dirty and rejected, such as eroticism and the unconscious. But surrealism had no true understanding of the workings of the low, he said: all it did was to turn it into an ideal, to associate it with the eternally high and meaningful sphere of art, to pass it through the usual transcendental mechanisms. In this way the surrealist love of the low does not differ one iota from the frenzied relegation of all aspects of life to "value" and "meaning" that more or less sums up bourgeois society. But life cannot be reduced to meaning, Bataille said. There are dimensions be it the dimension of the erotic or the sacred that keeps destroying the unifying impulse of sense. And the way modern society denies that which does not make sense, shows up its rationalist drive at its most grotesque.
To counter idealism Bataille introduces what he calls "base materialism", and the notion of informe describes its workings. For the informe is not a concept, it does not describe a quality or a characteristic, such as for instance the word "formless" does. The informe is pure destructive action, what indifferenciates and confuses the world of meaning and form and its clear-cut differences. And this is where Krauss and Bois puts Bataille to such good use, for what else but the question of form of "good" or "significant" form was the main agenda of modernism? It is typical of this theory of modernism that the erotic aspect is more or less denied, says Krauss. The various optical theories that fed into the single-minded focus on visual form appealed to a notion of the eye as a purely abstract organ, cut off from the bodily pulses to which it is connected. A relationship is established that excludes everything but the axis between the eye and framed forms mounted vertically on the wall.
But on the other hand there is no shortage of modern artists who, at one point or another disrupt this notion of pure vision. From Warhol's oxidation painting to Cindy Sherman's glossy foodstuff, from Picasso's sand paintings to Rauschenbergs gold paintings. From Hans Bellmers convulsive dolls to Gordon Matta Clark's architectural interventions ... the list goes on and on, and the exhibition gradually takes on the aspect of a catalogue of "forbidden" or "rejected" materials. But, because of their canonized status, some of them are presented as paradigmatic. Pollock, paint dripping downwards, his body sweating it out in a field that disrupts the verticality of pure vision through its low or animal horisontality, is a main case. Another inevitable figure is Marcel Duchamp, whose well known take on "precision optics" seemed to be the precision and eternal pulsating stamina of the eye as a sexual organ. And between these two giants of disruption lie the whole vast field of modern and recent art in which work equals "process". Not just any old process, though: Krauss' and Bois are meticulous in selecting the kind of process works that may be linked to the principle of entropy, the relentless and useless emptying out and tapping of energy for which Robert Smithson became famous.
But the prominence of Pollock and Duchamp (or maybe their their participation in the show) makes it terribly hard not to fall back on a reading of the exhibition as yet another take on modernism. For where Gordon Matta Clark so obviously introduces non meaning in the vast field of meaning that is city planning, architecture and living spaces, the workings of the informe in Duchamp and Pollock seem inextricably bound to the quite limited field of meaning that is artistic modernism. And, inevitably the exhibition seems to present a list of the shrewd anti idealists versus the idealist fools of official (read Greenbergian) modernism. As a result, a rather one-dimensional and monolithic vision of the "real" modernism seem to hover over the exhibition as a superior truth that cannot be questioned, only tampered with.
But questions inevitably arise, particularly as to the inclusion of certain artists and the exclusion of others. One line of exclusion is interesting and well argued. The curators have avoided any contact with work that somehow sets its pride in demonstrating or playing with that area of the rejected that Julia Kristevas called the abject. The abject (or the showing off of excrement etc.) is not synonymous with the workings of the informe, since Kristeva sees the abject as an intermediary between subject and object, between non meaning and the production of meaning. As rejects, the diverse abject horrors seem to point out the precise limits of meaning, an action that affirms the priority of sense rather than doing away with it. There is of course a potential confusion here between base materialism and the focus on different kinds of "matter" or "materials": It is essential to Batailles theory that his base materialism could never be said to be this or that specific thing. It is only an operation on a given thing or phenomenon, not your average primal soup. But despite the analytical rigor of the curators, the exhibition itself does not seem entirely immune to this confusion.
The primal soupy character of a large number of works makes it hard to see what makes them avoid ontologizing matter that is, unless the main task of this primal soup is to be the informe of modernism's form. It is, for instance, not entirely clear why Robert Morris' miasmic fields of felt and other woolly materials are the "right" kind of materialism, whereas Joseph Beuys' lumps of felt and grease is the "wrong" kind. The exclusion of Beuys is instructive, because it demonstrates that Krauss' and Bois' first criteria was to make sure there was no trace of idealism in the artist's intentions. Despite the many elements in Beuys' works that would seem to link him directly to Bataille, his ultimate dream of a "social" or collective sculpture seems inherently idealist. But Krauss and Bois never take into consideration the eventual informe workings of these works, below and beyond their intended effects. The feeling of categorical slippage that may be a common experience of a first encounter with his fat covered chair does not qualify here. There is of course also the question of how to interpret Beuys' idealism. His quasi-shamanist stance and his many hysterical supporters certainly makes him into a highly dubious figure, but might not the same shamanism, the same drive towards an continuous and undifferentiated collective creation in some ways link him to Bataille's conception of the sacred? And symptomatically isn't it these very qualities that makes Beuys so hard to swallow for many theoreticians with formalist (or closet formalist) leanings?
These questions of alleged idealism are notoriously hard to sort out, and similar ambiguities inform other exclusions and inclusions. But then the exhibition is itself riddled with ambiguities. While often delightfully liberating in its precise interpretations of single works, it also seems suffocating in its handling of "big truths". Unrelentingly didactic, it does manage to show the informe as an operative principle, but is itself also hit full force with Batailles criticism. In a way an obsolete and stupid old contradiction makes itself felt again: The desire to write art history (that is to control the art historical field called modernism) seems to collide head on with the desire to simply let the artworks "work". And it seems somewhat paradoxical that this successfully didactic exhibition makes you want to turn against art history.
Joseph Nechvatal @ Paris