"Rendezvous: Masterpieces from the Centre Georges Pompidou and the Guggenheim Museums" at the Guggenheim Museum, Oct. 16, 1998-Jan. 24, 1999, 1071 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10128.
"Premises: Invested Spaces in the Visual Arts, Architecture and Design from France 1958-1998" at the Guggenheim Soho, Oct. 13, 1998-Jan. 11, 1999, 575 Broadway, New York, N.Y. 10012.
People in New York were talking about French art again, however briefly, thanks to a pair of exhibitions that opened this fall at the Guggenheim museum. The massive "Rendezvous" at the Frank Lloyd Wright building uptown places over 300 French and American paintings, sculptures and drawings side by side in a recap of the modernist contest between Paris and New York. Downtown, at the Guggenheim SoHo, "Premises" surveys new developments in French art and architecture since the Tachiste period.
"Rendezvous" is an ambitious assembly of great works, made possible only because the Pompidou, which has never lent its permanent collection abroad, is closed for two years for extensive renovations. The exhibition is in effect an open storeroom financed by the French state. The Guggenheim, similarly, has explained its relentless expansion (back when justification was thought necessary) with reference to its bulging storage vaults. We are presented, then, with a 20th-century survey that has been prompted by -- what? something like "facility management?" -- rather than any curatorial imperative.
The result is exactly what you might expect -- a predictable march of masterpieces. Organized by Bernard Blistène at the Pompidou and Lisa Dennison at the Guggenheim (and designed by Andrée Putman), the curating is marked most clearly by the careful pairing of works, a French one here, an American one there. No fighting please, we're pals. The "thrill" of international museological cooperation would be deadly were it not for the subtext. In the battle for artistic priority, let the French win some of the match-ups (Masson, 1941, v. Pollock, 1947; Klee, 1936, v. Kelly, 1952) because everyone knows that New York won the war.
As elementary as it is, the compare-and-contrast structure is elucidating and original at times. It is great to see Matisse's Study for Le Luxe I with the finished painting Le Luxe I (both 1907) -- it helps make the completed work more focused. Other pairings include Matisse's The Dream (1935) and Picasso's Woman with Yellow Hair (1931); Picabia's Cacodylic Eye (1921) and Widow (1948); Giorgio de Chirico's Premonitory Portrait of Guillaume Apollinaire (1914) and The Nostalgia of the Poet (1914).
It's always a pleasure to get to see Matisse's proto-Minimalist French Window at Collioure (1914), usually at the Pompidou but here in a corner in the alcove room halfway up the Guggenheim's first ramp. Other treats include Henri Michaux's trance-induced mescaline drawings of 1958-9, works that are rarely seen in the U.S. The pairing of Bram van Velde's Untitled (1965) with Mark Rothko's No. 18 (1963) is interesting -- the colors are the same, the works are dissimilar, they compete together well. The comparison of Miro's Blue Series (1961) and Alexander Calder's Red Lily Pads (1956) is exceptional also, a gorgeous, atmospheric environment.
Later juxtapositions accentuate the anemic side of French post-war art production. Examples include the unfortunate pairing of Nouveau Realiste Martial Raysse's Suddenly Last Summer (1963) with James Rosenquist's much superior President Elect (1960-1), Alain Jacquet's Luncheon on the Grass with Roy Lichtenstein's Grrrrrrrrrrr! (1965) and Cesar's Ricard (1962) with John Chamberlain's Dolores James (1962). "Rendezvous" also contains an insufficiently comprehensive showing of the Support-Surface group (missing in action: Olivier Mosset).
And only such an over-designed exhibition could situate the work of Brancusi, one of the best sculptors in the round, in a manner that makes circulation impossible. Eleven Brancusi works are corralled on a raised platform at the foot of the ramp. And the contextual impropriety of entombing Sleeping Muse (ca. 1910) and Head of a Child (1913-15) at the bottom of imposing Plexiglas cylinders is not just curatorially insensitive, but absurd. I couldn't help but think of Michel Leiris' comments in L'Age d'Homme: "Nothing seems more like a whorehouse to me than a museum…. In it you find the same equivocal aspect, the same frozen quality…. In both, you are in a sense under the sign of archeology; and if I have always loved whorehouses it is because, they too, participate in antiquity by their slave market aspect, a ritual prostitution."
Downtown, at the Guggenheim SoHo, the extensive mixture of avant-garde architecture and contemporary installation art that makes up "Premises" is much more theoretically driven -- so much so that organizers Blistène (again) and Guggenheim curator Alison Gingeras must be eating art theory texts for breakfast instead of croissants and cafés au lait.
Playing on the theme of the premise, be it a physical locality or intellectual postulate, the exhibition sprawls through three floors -- inaugurating the Gugg's long-promised basement space. It seems pleasantly experimental -- video stations, architectural models, slide and film projections, large-scale sculpture and photography, all arrayed in rooms loosely demarcated by translucent plastic scrims on which the video and slide projections are shown.
On view is a great early Happening by Arman -- a roomful of smashed furniture -- and a classic Christo piece, an almost shy storefront with a covered window. Other pieces are dated 1998 and seem custom-made for this show: a long corridor completely lined with his trademark white tiles by Jean-Pierre Raynaud; a huge cage filled with all manner of sexual mementos by Louise Bourgeois; a mirror-and-monochrome (no stripes!) maze by Daniel Buren; an installation of netting and bulbous pillows by Annette Messager.
Other outstanding works should be credited: the Yves Klein room including the 16mm film The Void (1957); Sophie Calle's detective-story photographic series, The Hotel Room (1983); the white plywood monk's cell by the late Israeli artist Absalon, titled Cellule no. 3 (1992); Jean Marc Bustamante's group of Minimalist white birdcages with cute little birds in them, called Suspension I, Something is Missing (1997); Sarkis' Tresors de Mnemosyne-Le Lieu de Lecture (1998), a kind of reading room with pictures; Etienne-Martin's Le Manteau (Demeure 5), a massive coat of rope and canvas made by the "professor of monumental sculpture" who died in 1995.
One should also mention the architecture. However annoying the gassy pronouncements of vanguard architects may be, in France they actually seem to get commissions. "Premises" includes flashy presentations of several designs rather more interesting than giant blowups of a lipstick or chiffonier.
As in "Rendezvous," the curatorial hand is heavy in "Premises," particularly in the forced linkage of "social constructions of the private and the public self" with exhibition spaces intended to suggest membranes, cells, cages and dematerialized cyber-zones. Divided into five themes, each attempting to trace an experiential somatic experience of various strains of art-making, including "Sites of Memory" and "Zones of Communication/Spaces of Exchange," the curatorial rationale is, as one might expect, rather antiseptic and alienating.
It's no surprise that Sylvere Lotringer in his catalogue essay calling "Premises" an example of "curatorial art… [whose]…explicit purpose is not to showcase individual artists but to create an installation of its own on the scale of the entire museum space."
Accompanying these two shows are two steroid-pumped 600 and 700 page catalogues. These publications testify to the enlightened seriousness of the French fonctionnaire's art patronage, while keeping in the background the unpleasant reality that the state-regulated art market and collecting activities function as a necessary evil to compensate for the persistent lack of financial support from the private sector.
The lack of self-criticality on the part of the French art system is glaring. It refuses, at the end of the 20th century, to address serious problems contemporary art faces in France today. One of the results is the large number of French artists living in exile in the U.S. in order to flee the top-heavy bureaucratic system and the general sense of mistrust and apathy towards contemporary art felt by the French public.
As if in illustration, banished from any mention in the "Rendezvous" catalogue's footnotes, main texts or illustrations is the seminal work of the painter Simon Hantai, who it seems intractably refused to participate in the exhibition. Erasing an artist out of the history books out of irritation is an unforgivable example of curatorial injudiciousness on the part of Blistene that merely compounds the artist's own hubris.
Unfortunately, competitive curatorial egos roam freely in this exemplar of a "historical montage" type show predicated on a "magazinage des idees" approach to curating -- an impetus driven home to the point of near incoherence at the "Premises" exhibition. "Le musée imaginaire" of Andre Malraux, touted in the catalogues as one of the guiding ideological precepts for both shows, is supplanted by "le musée inimaginable."
Both positions result in historical impoverishment to the detriment of future scholars. If "Rendezvous," in spite of its mistakes, has a stodgy and comme il faut aspect to it, the "Premises" exhibition downtown has an initial quality of purposeful resistance and opaqueness.
DOMINIQUE NAHAS is a French critic and independent curator working in Manhattan.