Punishment and Decoration
Hohenthal und Bergen, Cologne, Germany
Subtitled ‘art in the age of militant superficiality’, this exhibition started life as a text, written by Michael Corris and Robert Nickas and published in Artforum in April 1993. The show itself was curated solely by Corris, but many of the artists used to illustrate - or decorate - the magazine feature were among the 29 included in the exhibition. Well, 28 in the end because one, Daniel Buren, ceremonially announced the withdrawal of his work (by fax) during a public symposium convened at the gallery to discuss the project.
Buren’s strategic withdrawal - ‘as punishment for [his work being] used as decoration’ - says something about the exhibition or something about Buren’s anxieties about this kind of exhibition. But first there is some need to characterise what it was that Corris put together in the gallery. On the one hand Corris has presented an extended illustration of an argument about the legacy of modernist painting and the monochrome; on the other hand he has orchestrated a striking curatorial spectacle wherein individual paintings are treated as raw materials in a larger quasi-abstract composition. In either case it is clear that individual works have to some extent been relegated to components in some larger design. Very clear: in strategically overcrowding the L-shaped gallery and in hanging paintings above door frames, over windows and on top of each other, it becomes impossible to look at works individually. The viewer feels constantly pushed back, in an attempt to find an ideal space where these various ‘details’ might resolve or dissolve into the greater composition. Of course no such actual space exists. In order to gain some sort of overview of the exhibition it becomes necessary to rethink it in another form: as a kind of map. And the key to the map is Corris’ text.
It would be nice to think that, if there is a text behind this exhibition, there might be another painting, or its shadow, behind the text. And such a presence is acknowledged. Corris’ argument, and selection of work for the exhibition, has one key term: the monochrome. Its historical existence is the curator’s conceptual and literal starting point. Works by Yves Klein, Lucio Fontana and John Latham are included as representatives of a kind of modernism-in-the-margins which, it is argued, have retained a potency which was opaque to the high modernist culture of New York. It could also be argued that the Minimalist and Conceptualist critiques - or continuations - of high modernism also owe a large debt to the genre of the monochrome. (Consider for example the early ‘secret paintings’ or mirrors of Art & Language, or Laurence Weiner’s ‘removals’, or Joseph Kosuth’s ‘definitions’, or the use of colour by Don Judd, or the surfaces of Carl Andre.)
For Corris, contemporary painting of value acknowledges the historical significance of the monochrome, but only by abusing it in practice. This ‘abuse’ takes a variety of forms or enacts a range of processes - literally diminishing or embellishing the painting through cutting, erasing, or adding to the surface-as-surface; or through forms of physical, optical or chromatic excess; or through the application of non-high-art materials and motifs; and so forth.
In effect many of the examples of painting included in the exhibition look rather more polite, tidy and restrained, and a lot less Sadean in their degradation and debasement, than the image of them that Corris developed in his text. But the argument about the monochrome and after remains vivid in spite its weaker illustrations; the implication being that this remains a project in a process of unfolding, rather than a finite set of paintings. And to some extent the curator has compensated for the weaker moments in the show in the strategically excessive arrangement of the works.
For some however, this arrangement of the works itself represents a form of abuse, a derangement of the work. This is where Buren comes in - or goes out, as the case may be. Here is an artist who knows a thing or two about installing his work in and around that of others to the point where it appears always to have got there first, and he didn’t get where he is today by allowing other people to do the same to him. While it is pretty much accepted by artists, if reluctantly, that the work of criticism does not so much explain the work of art as continue it in some way, the idea that the curator (or artist as curator, or whatever) might do something similar seems, at least to some, to be pushing it a little far.
The question of why this might be was discussed at the gallery symposium, as was the apparently separate question of what exactly it is that makes the activity of painting now so different from, say, 30 or 40 years ago, when the monochrome first became plausible as painting. But perhaps the two questions are more closely related than they seem. The assumption that things in art are deeply different now from then is commonly held, but it is far less easy to specify where those differences lie. Paintings, after all, are still made of similar things and in similar places. Nevertheless, the demand that things be different doesn’t go away - too many jobs depend on it. So much has been invested in the idea that we have to prove it to ourselves in whatever ways that remain open: by hanging work differently, for example. Contextualists will tell you that this counts for rather a lot, and certainly a work of art is altered in some way by being placed in a different relationship with other works of art or bits of architecture. But in other ways it remains the same: if it didn’t preserve an independent identity in some very strong sense, how could we ever become aware of it having changed? If Corris’ strategic derangement of a variety of paintings from the last 30 years succeeds as an exhibition it is because, paradoxically, his apparent iconoclasm is underwritten by such a recognition of the identity and independence of painting.