School of Paris

Ever since New York supposedly stole the idea of modern art from Paris, we've tended to think of that former center of the art world as a loser. It was, however, never really a matter of theft. Modernism more or less packed itself up and emigrated here— along with the Surrealists and abstract artists who fled Europe during World War II. In any case, the notion that France lost its quotient of avant-garde radicalism long ago has been with us ever since.

Besides, it was sometimes said, Paris was too concerned with the old cuisine of painting to conceive a raw new art tough enough for the Cold War world. Maybe once or twice a decade France produced a major artist. But it was hard to imagine that Daniel Buren, Jean-Pierre Raynaud, and Annette Messager had anything much in common. Or to think that Sophie Calle and Louise Bourgeois might share an interest, much less an obsession. The word on the Soho streets has long been that France produces the theorists— structuralist, deconstructivist, simulationist, Situationist, whatever. But the U.S. makes the art.

Well, tant pisfor the smug New York art world and the tattered remains of its self-centered parochialism. The current decentered and presumably undeluded decade still has tricks up its sleeve: "Premises," subtitled "Invested Spaces in Visual Arts, Architecture, and Design From France, 1958­1998," has come to the Soho Guggenheim to finally set us straight. With curatorial precision and post-Cartesian logic, this supershow from the land of theory is heavy with rhetorical baggage but not so weighted down it can't pack some levity, too. Organized by Bernard Blistène and other curators and staff of the Centre Georges Pompidou in collaboration with the Gugg, it's a pellucid exhibition that veers between architectural sculpture and sculptural architecture, between public ideals and private realities, between sleek sterile surfaces and festering psychic depths. And, by the way, it also seems to propose an overarching French ethos having to do not only with the quotidian and the existential, but also with the impeccable versus the intolerable.

Putting theory into action: the reconstructed wreckage of Arman's Conscious Vandalism (detail, 1975)
Robin Holland
Putting theory into action: the reconstructed wreckage of Arman's Conscious Vandalism (detail, 1975)

Absurd as the idea may initially seem, this exhaustive and exhausting show may convince you that French art— and architecture and design— has been for the past four decades a coherent entity. (One that's expansive enough to absorb the Bulgarian-born Christo, the Swiss Jean Tinguely and Thomas Hirschhorn, the Dutch Rem Koolhaas, the Italian Renzo Piano, our own adopted Bourgeois, and others who've lived or worked in Paris.) What makes it cohere is an awkwardly postutopian, ambivalently nihilistic, and nuttily rational shared obsession with space: psychic territory, cluttered room, vacant cell, confining enclosure, soaring public structure, or the populist idealism of a housing development. The word premises, after all, can mean a proposition or mental construct. But premisesis also a domain to be occupied, a physical space.

The show's prologue is a window on Broadway choked to the gills with a '90s-style accumulation of artful debris by Thomas Hirschhorn. But "Premises" really starts with Yves Klein's apocryphal leap into the void, which wordlessly relates to everything else— from Le Corbusier's elimination of dividing walls to Jean Nouvel's transparent facade for the Centre Cartier. Among the astonishments is a reconstruction of the hotel room that was Daniel Spoerri's home, studio, and art installation from 1959 to 1965. With its hot plate, dirty dishes, and unmade bed as well as the artist's dinner assemblages protruding from the walls, it's a real-life match for Edward Kienholz's equally sleazy early tableaux. Ben Vautier's 1962 bedroom installation (for a "Living Sculpture" performance) in a Parisian storefront gallery is neater but just as startling, and far more complex than his subsequent scripty work.

Few in New York know that Christian Boltanski's early video performances were as wretched as Paul McCarthy's, or that in 1975, Arman, whose sliced violins we've long dismissed, took an ax to a furnished living- and dining-room installation and smashed everything in it to smithereens. The resulting wreckage is displayed here, along with a video of the artist in action. Bertrand Lavier, better known for his impastoed kitchen appliances, startles too, with a carpeted installation of bulbous abstract sculpture and hard-edge Cibachromes on aluminum based on Disney cartoon details; the result: virtuality incarnate. Down in the cellar, Daniel Buren updates himself with a new Exploded Cabin, and an office installation, Readymades Belong to Everyone by Philippe Thomas, reminds us that a French neoconceptualist explored radical corporate authorlessness in the '80s.

Upstairs, "Premises" makes its most breathtaking leaps— between Bourgeois's cage, Messager's nets, Raynaud's tiled corridor, Jean-Marc Bustamante's caged birds, and Absalon's stark modular cell, implying that they're equivalent spaces of confinement in an "inventory of repressive typologies." This exhibition can make you think of the Bastille, Malraux's museum without walls, the student barricades of '68, and Duchamp's sweet birdcage (Why Not Sneeze?) simultaneously. It can make you suspect that Jean Nouvel's solar-lens windows on the facade of the Institut du Monde Arabe refer not only to arabesque ornamentation but to the guillotine.

As art and architecture alternate in the intertwining double narrative, the concept is reinforced by the exhibition design. The spaces are suffused with frosty light from semitranslucent scrims that bracket the alternating architectural episodes. Semitranslucent cubicles also shelter film and video works tracing a parallel exploration of space (from Costa-Gavras and Chris Marker to Gina Pane and Pierrick Sorin). Without losing sight of its core, "Premises" careens from the collapse of public space (Christo's compressed storefront) and the decay of public surface (Raymond Hains's peeled posters) to the violation of privacy (Sophie Calle's snooping chambermaid ruse). The death of modernism is demonstrated most overtly by Alain Séchas's grotesquely unforgettable Professeur Suicide. The convergence of art and cinema has its apogee in Pierre Huyghe's perfectly disjunctive projection of a crew affectlessly dubbing an unnamed film (Poltergeist?) into French. In the show's context, this piece becomes a metaphor for our fellow "society of consumption, spectacle, and control," where strict functionalism meets sassy surreality, and rigid order periodically erupts in anarchy.

Catalogue essayist Sylvère Lotringer describes the curatorial concept as "unfolding in its complex spirals the very space of thought." I'd go further: this exhibition has the structure of a double helix. Wreaking havoc with American presumptions about French art, it rearranges the genetic material of recent art history. And despite a good deal of theorizing about Deleuze, Debord, Virilio, and Godard in several catalogue essays, the exhibition presents its radical and comprehensive thesis with a certain funky je ne sais quoi that's not only lucid but ludique. I suspect that Jacques Tati, bumbling through a perplexing material world, is the true presiding spirit of "Premises."

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