For decades, modern art tried to avoid specific associations and narratives by using ‘pure’ forms and materials. Michael Fried condemned anything that might trigger associations as ‘unmodern’, declaring ‘what you see is what you see’. The exact opposite could be said of the art of Barbara Bloom. But what would that be? What you see is what you don’t see? In Bloom’s exhibition RSVP, much of what was shown was something the eye couldn’t detect.
Take for instance the room-filling installation The French Diplomat’s Office (Un) (1997). On the wall hung a coloured print of a watercolour that Bloom found at a flea market. It showed a room with heavy curtains, pictures on the wall and wickerwork furniture on the geometrically patterned rug. In the back area of the room stands a table and a Louis XVI chair. The peculiar mix of modernist and historical elements reminded Bloom of the office of a French diplomat, hence the work’s title. The gallery contained a kind of ‘replica’ of this room: the rug with the geometrical pattern lay on the floor, but the items of furniture were missing – present only by their ‘footprints’ which were woven into the rug at the positions shown in the watercolour. The pictures on the walls, too, were visible only as grey patches. The rug also bore two sets of footprints, made by a pair of women’s and men’s shoes respectively. They led to the sofa, then on to the window. One pictured the two of them sitting on the wickerwork sofa and strolling across the room.
Bloom used the same strategy of evoking an imaginary picture in other installations in the exhibition that were grouped under the title Semblance of a House (2013/15). Here, the role of the watercolour template was played by wonderfully designed texts. One could, for example, read of the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci, who in 1596 tried to teach the Chinese how to build a ‘memory palace’. Ricci’s approach was based on three elements: facts, fiction, and a blend of the two. The same applied to this installation about memories, the extent to which they are facts, and when they become fiction. It’s a fact that the American composer George Gershwin regularly played tennis in Beverly Hills with fellow composer Arnold Schönberg, a European émigré almost twice his age, as one of the texts states. But the idea that they played on a grand piano is a fiction, like the piano shown here, actually a glass vitrine containing rows of Torah pointers. The outstretched fingers of these pointers are meant to turn the pages of the Torah – and one imagined them being used to turn pages of a musical score.
Bloom filled her show with other people who could not possibly be in the same room together, turning it into a kind of imaginary salon. At a round table, a meeting took place between Nefertiti, Jesus, Émile Zola and Amy Winehouse. Under the table’s glass top was a collection of playthings: a Roman dice from the 2nd century, another from Ancient Egypt, a board from the Chinese game of mah-jong (co-developed, legend has it, by Confucius) and a chess piece from India. According to the artist herself, she understands all these objects as ‘placeholders for thoughts’. Unlike in classic conceptual art, here it was not the ideas that trigger associations, but the objects.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell