'L'Informe: mode d'emploi' ('The Formless: Instructions for Use') is an immensely provocative and frustrating show. Co-curated by Yve-Alain Bois and Rosalind Krauss, its premise is to sift through the granary of Modernism with a sieve of a new design. Against the conventional idea of ineluctable progress from one -ism to another, against the concept of the primacy of pure vision so truculently propounded by Clement Greenberg et al., and against the commonplace that the artist is the ultimate form-giver, they posit an alternate reading. The show's eminence grise is George Bataille and its point of departure is his notion of l'informe, first published as an entry in the 'Dictionnaire critique' in Documents, the magazine he directed from 192930.
According to Bataille, 'formless is not only an adjective... but a term serving to render déclassé the requirement that each thing have its own form... Actually, for academics to be happy would require the universe to take shape. All of philosophy has no other goal... On the other hand, to say that the universe resembles nothing and is nothing but formless is the same as saying that the universe is like a spider or a blob of spit [crachat]'.
Bois insists that the curatorial purpose was not to define l'informe (although the catalogue belies that claim), but to 'deal modernism's cards a new hand... so that certain works can never be read as before'.
To that end, they have elaborated four categories as vantage points from which to reconsider work made by very different artists over a span of some 60 years from the 30s through to the 80s. But, in the spirit of formlessness, the show's structure is not chronological. This yields a cross-generational exhibition that allows artists to appear in more than one category, suggesting unexpected affinities.
Each section is intended to subvert or contradict a given of Modernism and the primacy of pure vision. Thus the first category, 'Horizontality', in which gravity is implicit, is posited against verticality, with its assumption of an erect viewer whose perceptual apparatus depends on a cone of vision. 'Base Materialism' is based on Bataille's scatological notions of 'the science of filth' or 'that which is other', and works to undermine traditional materials and hierarchies. 'Pulsation', suggesting time, movement and repetition, rejects the totalising of abstraction and suggests libido versus cognitive unity. The final category, 'Entropy', countermands abstraction's claim of imposing order over chaos and transcending material reality, and collapses the figure/ground distinction.
'Horizontality' is the most straightforward: it opened with Duchamp's Three Standard Stoppages (191364) and ended with a large Mike Kelly Afghan carpet, The Riddle of the Sphinx (1971), encompassing works from a Jackson Pollock to Andy Warhol's Dance Diagram (1962), and Oldenburg's Sculpture in the Form of a Fried Egg (1966) to Eva Hesse's Seven Poles (1970), which can be read as collapsing onto or rising from the floor. 'Pulsation' began again with Duchamp this time his Rotoreliefs leading to film and video by Bruce Nauman and Paul Sharit's destabilising various aspects of perception, as well as kinetic works such as David Medalla's Bubble Machine (196394) and Pol Bury's 2270 Points Blanc (1965). 'Base Materialism' included the widest range of artists: from disquieting photographs by Wols, Picasso collages, and paintings by Lucio Fontana, Jean Fautrier and Jean Dubuffet, to Warhol's Oxidation Painting (1978), Robert Rauschenburg's Dirt Painting (1953) and Cindy Sherman's large back-lit photographs of her face covered with a variety of unnameable materials. The range of 'Entropy' was equally large, spanning torn papers by Hans Arp and accumulations by Arman, to the documentation of a Smithson pour piece, Gordon Matta-Clark's Threshole (19723) and Alan McCollum's Natural Copies From the Coal Mines of Central Utah (19945), large, garishly coloured casts of dinosaur footprints found in the ceilings of mines.
Those familiar with the work of Bois and Krauss will not be surprised to find their arguments closely reasoned, densely historical and infuriatingly polemical. On the other hand, they do give us something solid to crunch on, as opposed to the recent spate of ill-considered ensembles brimming with unfocused opportunism and vapid eclecticism. But Bois and Krauss have set up very strict parameters whose rigidity and inflexibility result in inevitable exclusions. Although the catalogue essays give reasons for some of these omissions, they seem arbitrary; one suspects the curators have other agendas.
Joseph Beuys, for example, although discussed in the catalogue, is rejected as his work was deemed to be contaminated with idealism and too Utopian in its striving for transcendence. Likewise, Piero Manzoni's 'Achrome' series is included in the 'Base Materialism' section, but his Merda d'artista (1962) is not because it might suggest a 'fetishisation of excrement which is foreign to Bataille's thought'; this is despite Bois' assertion that 'the notion of the foreign (heterogeneous) body allows the marking of the subjective, elementary identity of excrement (sperm, menses, urine, and faecal matter) and of all that has been regarded as sacred, divine or marvellous'. More disturbingly, and despite the clarity of Bataille's statements, Feminist work is almost completely avoided. Indeed, there are only four women in the show (Eva Hesse, Yayoi Kusama, Lygia Clark and Cindy Sherman) and work about the body and its fluids is summarily excluded. No Hannah Wilke chewing gum pieces, no Judy Chicago Menstruation Bathroom (1972), no Carolee Schneeman Meat Joy (1964), no Kiki Smith. Krauss reads Sherman's work through a Freud-Lacanian filter, dwelling at length on penis envy, castration anxiety, woman-as-fetish and the great Wound. Theory-driven to this extent, the exhibition functions ultimately as an illustration to the ideas elucidated in the texts, and this approach begins to assume the same kind of totalising narrowness for which Greenberg is reproached.
Leaving the exhibition, I noticed one of the urban nomads who camp out in front of the Pompidou and use its toilets. As she stepped onto the escalator she hooked a well-aimed, amorphous crachat against a concrete pillar, where it entropically began to obey the laws of gravity, blurring the boundaries between the horizontal and the vertical. The following day I happened upon her again in the Forum des Halles. She was sitting in a corner, crooning softly to herself while stroking her forearm with a toothbrush. Bataille would have been proud of her.