PARIS — Where the newness of art comes from (when it comes) is something of a conundrum. The New Presentation of the Modern Collection at the Centre Pompidou Musée National d’Art Moderne (the second largest collection of modern and contemporary art in the world, after the Museum of Modern Art in New York) attempts to remedy this conundrum by pointing out and celebrating certain shrewd and ardent theorists, art critics, art historians, publishers, editors, poets, and thinkers who helped shape Modern art’s prevailing theories and tastes. As selected by Pompidou director Bernard Blistène, these influential figures of theoretical inquiry are shown putting forth key concepts that inspired and framed the artworks made between 1905 and 1965. These theorist-activators made decisive and often underappreciated contributions to the history of art in the 20th century. I have never seen such a display of recognition for the thinkers of art before — including Guillaume Apollinaire, Louis Aragon, André Breton, and Georges Bataille — and it held me in thrall.
Entire galleries or display niches (here dubbed “dossier displays”) celebrate these thinkers’ conceptual enthusiasms and passionate polemics by combining their publications and archival documents with the work of artists in their intellectual circles. The first set of dossier displays are tip-of-the-hat appreciations of Georges Duthuit, poet Blaise Cendrars, Apollinaire, Jean Cocteau, Will Grohmann (a German art critic and art historian specialized in Expressionism and Abstraction), poet/novelist/editor Louis Aragon, Breton, Bataille, Jean Paulhan (a critic and the publisher and director of the magazine Nouvelle Revue Française, or NRF), Isidore Isou, Michel Ragon, Pierre Restany, Italian feminist art critic Carla Lonzi, and magazine editor André Bloc. December will see a new round of cognoscenti commemorated including Gertrude and Leo Stein, Wilhelm Uhde (the German art collector, dealer, and critic), Brazilian poet Oswald de Andrade, black French poet Aimé Césaire, critic and Marcel Duchamp expert Robert Lebel, Bohemian-born Swiss historian and critic of architecture Sigfried Giedion and his wife Carola Giedion-Welcker (who formed a circle of vanguard artists in Switzerland), French essayist and Surrealist poet Francis Ponge, book publisher Bernard Gheerbrant, writer/poet/artist Alain Jouffroy, and English architectural critic Reyner Banham. The list could go on and I hope it does — why not Henri-Pierre Roché, Georges Wildenstein, and Paul Éluard?
The current installation of art from the Modern collection curiously begins with brooding, figurative, Expressionist works by Georges Rouault. His volatile figurative paintings and drawings are powerfully constructed and dense with suggestive significance. What is especially engaging here is to be in the presence of electrifying work full of fed-up conviction. Whether or not you agree with the artist’s spiritual morality scarcely matters. Rouault means to provoke. This work’s muddy vigor, mixed with severe moral judgments and rue, took me to an inventive, symbolist, ethical place that calls into question materialist values in the interests of metaphysical ones. It’s a novel place from which to begin laying out an intelligent history of 20th century art — one done without carefully applied quotation marks.
The enduring satisfaction of Rouault’s sodden gallery is followed with a colorful nod to the scandalous Salon d’Automne show of 1905, with “wild beasts” Henri Matisse, André Derain, Maurice de Vlaminck, and friends. The artists were described by the condemnatory critic Louis Vauxcelles as fauves due to their use of bright, improbable, unmixed colors. The utter perfection of Matisse’s “Luxe, calme et volupté” (1904), with its schematized female forms, slightly distorted perspective, and clearly visible brushstrokes, showed that the Fauvists were no longer thinking of painting as a symbolic means of representing ethical judgments on subject matter (as Rouault did), but as an end in itself. Interesting themselves above all in its material aspects. Perhaps that is why “Luxe, calme et volupté” — and, indeed, much of the Modern art that follows — appears so bittersweet to me now. Although that Matisse is passionately beautiful, it also suggests a sense of despondency concerning the calm luxury of materialism.
Materialism is an issue at the heart of how art is made, received, and treated today in two ways. Firstly because of the designation of art as high-end commerce, style, and luxury. Take, for example, that recently resold and mediocre $179.4-million Pablo Picasso painting. Rampant economic materialism (an overly skeptical and narrow approach to experiencing and theorizing life) has brought wealth consciousness and narrow branding into art. Much excellent art produced is in all probability little known to us, having fallen between the bars of gold. The art we do see often cleaves to the Modernist idea of art-for-art’s sake, a theoretical objective that has devolved into vapid art-about-art materials. This version of materialism as a formal ambition parallels something like Willem de Kooning’s reductive position that painting is about paint. That kind of approach seems oblivious to the idea that there is more to do with art than art, and unresponsive to newer, more stimulating theoretical propositions for art about coded materiality, intermedia techniques, machine perception, post-human ethics, and expanded consciousness. Truly significant works of art require dynamic contemplation, not just lukewarm admiration of their serene sumptuousness.
Visitors to the Pompidou are forcefully reminded by the theory dossiers sprinkled throughout New Presentation of old materialism’s inadequateness for cultural life. These theorist-activators put forth philosophically challenging, ambiguously poetic, and keenly wistful aesthetic programs. As such, they are unsuitable to delighting with dumb luxury the 1% of our contemporary gilded age.
The second reason materialism is an important issue today is less brooding. It starts by re-reading the interviews with Rosi Braidotti, Manuel DeLanda, Karen Barad, and Quentin Meillassoux (prominent new materialist scholars) in Rick Dolphijn and Iris van der Tuin’s book New Materialism. That open-access work and the just-released, discordant, contradictory, and superb theory sourcebook Realism Materialism Art, confirm that philosophical materialism (sometimes called “neo-materialism”) is a très tendance (trendy) topic in recent art theory. In 2012 I attended the Speculative Realism-based conference Aesthetics in the 21st Century in Basel, where Graham Harman criticized Relational art and praised the formalist, media-specific aesthetics of Clement Greenberg, where art objects are free of the “tyranny of context.” Andrew Cole has just outlined and rejoined Speculative Realism’s new materialism (summing up its overreach) in the summer issue of Artforum. And, earlier this year, the esteemed German art journal Texte zur Kunst devoted a themed issue to Speculative Realism.
Realism Materialism Art picks up the German gauntlet, offering an even larger overview of an extraordinarily diverse selection of new realist materialist philosophies (all wishing for a reality that can be known without being shaped by and for human comprehension) that have been spinning around Speculative Realism: hyper-chaos, cellular automaton, vitalist materialism, post-humanism, materialist idealism, speculative materialism, non-philosophy, plasticity, flat object-oriented ontology, etc. This contradictory diversity, while being philosophically interesting, points to the slight hope of finding a theoretical center of gravity (or sense of connective purpose) for art today. Granted, following the influx of subjective-narcissistic personal narratives and identity politics that has swamped art, a move toward the objectivity of matter has a certain pull. Yet for a bona fide alternative take on contemporary and Modern art and impersonal objectivity as interrelated with spirit — materialism’s bête noire — see Charlene Spretnak’s new book The Spiritual Dynamic in Modern Art: Art History Reconsidered, 1800 to the Present.
At the Pompidou, we are called to take notice of old materialism and other cogent — if neglected — meditative projects for past art. Amid the popular (and market) success of the iconic, colorful materialism of Modern art, a counter-narrative is laid out via these theorists’ dossiers. Between the jazzy monographic sections of artworks by Georges Braque, Picasso, Sonia and Robert Delaunay, Fernand Léger, Vassily Kandinsky, Frantisek Kupka, Alberto Giacometti, and Jean Dubuffet, there are corrective salt licks of pensive thoughtfulness.
Most of these theoretical approaches for art give the impression that an intimate, low-lit room at 3am is the proper headspace for works like Man Ray’s “Marcel Duchamp Obligation pour la Roulette de Monte Carlo” (1924). This cool, staged photo diptych conveys a feeling of sassy, slow motion, late-night activity that has something of smoke and perfume about it.
The particular, perverse grace of Man Ray’s “Duchamp” makes it one of the most seductive works here, and one of the most disquieting. Poet Guillaume Apollinaire (1880–1918), one of the earliest passeurs (go-betweeners) celebrated with a dossier display for his championing of avant-garde, radical ideas in art, may be the one most responsible for this coolly disquieting nocturnal sensibility. In his own work he experimented with the calligram, a visual poem whose typographic composition forms an image. Apollinaire was a prolific art critic for L’Intransigeant and founded the magazine Les Soirées de Paris, where he reported on the emergence of Fauvism, Futurism, and Cubism — and also wrote on the art of Africa and Oceania. Close to Braque and Picasso, he is famous for promoting and explaining Cubism, publishing his pioneering Les Peintres cubistes in 1913. He coined the word Orphism (for the Delaunays’ coloristic Cubism) and Surrealism (that Breton adapted from him). Polish by birth, Apollinaire enlisted in the French army in 1915 and died at the age of 38 as a result of his war injuries and the flu pandemic.
Starting with the death of Apollinaire, a dark, viral, irrevocable pathos has always been buried in the materialism of Modern art, like a permanent crease. Dim sniffs of dissatisfaction appear increasingly evident in the Pompidou galleries following the Cubist rooms of Braque and Picasso, which are devoted to Dada (including a newly acquired Raoul Hausmann, “Portrait of Hanna Höch,” from 1916) and Surrealism. A heady lacework of mnemonic languor, spun around the two World Wars, is woven throughout these rooms, and punctuated by the dossier displays’ darker currents: the two brilliant antagonists Georges Bataille (1897–1962) and André Breton (1896–1966).
There is often an oblique, drowsy, and distinctly post-war mood in the art Bataille and Breton supported, where secret gratitude (for surviving) and freedom are tinged with memory and melancholy. This is evident in Breton’s own assemblage composition, “Objet à fonctionnement symbolique” (1931), and the newly acquired Salvador Dalí, “Objet surréaliste” (1936). I believe this melancholy is the reason why, during Surrealism’s exile in America from the beginning the Second World War, the movement turned towards self-created myth, where threshold-states of moody consciousness dominate. The melancholy artworks in the Surrealism room, like Gisèle Freund‘s portrait “Jean Cocteau Paris” (1939), map out an eerie mental zone of falling darkness or rising lightness, in-between states close to slumber and influenced by drink, yet wide, wide awake. Both the Bataille and Breton dossiers combine these contradictions into an unsure mix of breezy public confrontations and gruesome private terrors. There is perplexing intimacy mixed with the cold largeness of abstract fatalism, mixed in turn with Marxist materialism.
In New Presentation, room 21 is devoted entirely to Breton and displays an amazing 255 of the objects and artworks he collected, which formerly adorned the walls of his studio at 42 Rue Fontaine. This collection represents a melancholy work of total art. Arranged in seemingly random proximity are works by Picasso, Francis Picabia, Joan Miró, Duchamp, and Roberto Matta. They are mixed with a substantial collection of Oceanic, Pre-Columbian, and North American dolls, masks, and objects, as well as miscellaneous found objects, stones, and stuffed birds. In accordance with the wishes of Aube Elléouët-Breton (daughter of André Breton and Jacqueline Lamba), Breton’s writing desk is presented here together with the objects that stood on it — among them a Papuan sculpture.
The entire installation is full of intelligence, grace, and sensuousness: a monument to Surrealist commotion and one of the most fascinating rooms to be explored in terms of the material of shady myth, an important theme for Breton. That theme led Breton to his Le surréalisme en 1947, the exhibition designed by Duchamp that marked Breton’s reappearance on the Paris scene after World War II. It was entirely devoted to the invention of myth, as was the exhibition Breton organized in New York in 1942 subtitled On the Survival of Certain Myths and on Some Other Myths in Growth or Formation. At the Pompidou, we also are exposed to the journal Minotaure, which brought together the two paths of Surrealist thinking about materialism and myth, represented by the theorist-activators Breton and Bataille.
Bataille’s dossier display is likewise dripping with dark, mythic stuff, engaging as it does with the journal Documents that he founded in 1929. A librarian, libertine, paleologist, archivist, radical thinker, and author of erotic fiction, Bataille took an active role in avant-garde art and the literary scene by objecting to what he saw as the aestheticism and sentimentality of the Surrealists. Consequently, he became Breton’s antagonist from the intellectual ultra-left. Following World War II, as the founding editor of the journal Critique — after authoring the transgressive philosophical books Inner Experience (1943), Guilty (1944), On Nietzsche (1945), and Accursed Share (1947) — Bataille’s thought emerged as a viable alternative to Jean-Paul Sartre’s then-reigning philosophical school of Parisian Existentialism. Bataille’s accomplishment spans disciplines and genres so thoroughly that capsule accounts cannot do it justice, but his thinking consisted of a meditation on — and fulfillment of — transgressions through excess. Bataille showed us that sanctioned excess is generally implied in much of art’s sensual richness. Most of the art he liked and supported — like André Masson, Unica Zürn, Pierre Klossowski, and Hans Bellmer — is complexly allegorical in a way that provides an interior, twisted view of World War II. Many of the uncanny works in his brand of Surrealism have the moony undertones of bad sleep, fever dreams, and sexual hallucinations.
Bataille’s idea for art was to double down on materialism. He developed the concept of “base materialism” during the late 1920s and early ‘30s as an attempt to break with what he perceived as mainstream modern materialism. He did so while reinventing the social rituals and mythical narratives that sociologist and anthropologist Marcel Mauss had seen as ensuring the cohesion of primitive societies. In 1937, Bataille and Masson created Acéphale, a weird Surrealist myth promulgated through a journal and a “secret society” bound together by a “sacrificial” rite. Besides secret sacrifices, Bataille promoted an art of non-productive excesses and expenditures found in forms of lamentation, spectacle, poetry, erotic activity, and mystical endeavors. In some of these practices he emphasized the need for a sense of loss that must be as great as possible in order for that activity to take on its fullest meaning. In the terms Bataille proposes for art, any restricted economy, any sealed arrangement (such as a definition, image, identity, concept, or structure) produces more than it can account for, hence it will inevitably be fractured by its own unacknowledged excess, and in seeking to maintain itself — against its own, rationalized logic — will crave rupture, expenditure, and loss. More specifically, for Bataille the term “expenditure” describes an aspect of frivolous erotic activity poised against an economy of production.
Following the Dada and Surrealism rooms in New Presentation are two devoted to Jean Dubuffet and Alberto Giacometti, where I forced myself to forget that one of Giacometti’s existential, bronze pointing men, “L’Homme au Doigt” (1947), had recently fetched $141.3 million at auction. Across from Dubuffet is room 38, which is devoted to the 1940s and certain Spatialist approaches to a dematerialization of architecture, painting, and sculpture. Key theoretical texts here include Gyula Kosice’s Manifiesto Madi and Lucio Fontana’s Manifesto Bianco of 1946. Works “Concetto spaziale La fine di Dio” (1963) by Fontana and the newly acquired “Volume” (1959), by Dadamaino, exemplify these theories of dematerialization. Other movements represented here offer different understandings of the spatiality of the artwork in relation to its environment, including Arte Concreta (1948), Groupe Espace (1951), Arte Nucleare (1952), spatio-dynamism (1952), the Zero Group (1958), and NUL (1961). These dematerialization activities are followed by those of Op and Kinetic art, L’Art Informel (Informal Art), Fluxus, and the Nouveaux Réalistes. A whole room is devoted to Lettrism, with a dossier on Isidore Isou.
Isou (aka Jean Goldstein) was born in Romania and arrived in Paris in 1945, where he fell in with poet and artist Gabriel Pomerand. Together they sparked the creation of Lettrism in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, where Maurice Lemaître soon joined them. Published by the NRF in 1947, Isou’s “Introduction à une nouvelle poésie et à une nouvelle musique” laid out the principles of Lettrism as an “avant-garde of avant-gardes,” a total art project simultaneously theoretical and practical, aesthetic and political, aimed at the formal revitalization of art through the power of the letter (considered by them to be the basic material of all expression). Isou gathered around himself many artists, such as Roberto Altmann, Jean-Louis Brau, Roland Sabatier (represented here with his “Sculpture filiforme supertemporelle” of 1964), Jacques Spacagna, and Gil J Wolman, the creator of films and film-sculptures without images such as “L’Anticoncept” (1951). Here, Wolman is represented by the recently acquired “Un Homme saoul en vaut deux” (1952).
Isou, whose declamations and dramatic interventions recalled Dadaist days, influenced writers and thinkers such as Guy Debord (author of the essential book The Society of the Spectacle and founding member of the Situationist International), François Dufrêne (a sound poetry pioneer known for his use of décollage within the Nouveaux Réalistes group), and Paul-Armand Gette.
Less familiar to me was Georges Duthuit (1891–1973) — an art critic, Byzantinist, ethnographer, and poet close to the poets André du Bouchet, René Char, and Yves Bonnefoy — to whom a dossier display is devoted. Duthuit carved out a distinctive niche for himself at the intersection between the Byzantine and 1950s Abstraction. There is a new acquisition that compliments his interests here; the German abstract painter Ernst Wilhelm Nay’s “Inferno Halleluja” (1964), which was influenced by the Art Informel movement. Developing a radical critique of the mimesis of Western art, Duthuit saw post-war abstraction (back to Matisse) as the culmination of an aesthetic of the decorative that originated in Asian art. Like Bataille, Roger Caillois, and the Surrealist writer and ethnographer Michel Leiris, Duthuit combined interests in contemporary art and ethnography, producing a series of works like Une fête en Cimmérie (1947–50), in which his poetical text on the Inuit is accompanied by Matisse lithographs. Exiled in New York during the Nazi occupation of Paris, Duthuit became a conduit between the two cities’ art scenes, editing the Paris-based English-language magazine Transition between 1948 and 1950, assisted by his friend Samuel Beckett.
Also new to me was the combative visionary Michel Ragon (born 1924). His dossier display sketches out his activities in the ethics of anarchism as a poet, historian, essayist, novelist, and critic of architecture and art (his first critical essay was on outsider artist Gaston Chaissac in 1946). Ragon championed CoBRA, L’Art Informel, Kinetic art, Art Brut, and abstract art. Speaking of which, Barnett Newman’s work represents abstract art superbly in the Centre Pompidou installation, with four large, smoothly matching paintings, including the majestic and freshly restored “Shining Force” (1961).
Ragon’s room creates theory links to the art of Chaissac, Dubuffet, CoBRA artists Jean-Michel Atlan and Karel Appel, German-French painter Hans Hartung (represented by his gestured and darkly beautiful “T” from 1956), architect Jean-Benoît-Vincent Barré, sir blackness Pierre Soulages, Op and Kinetic artist Yaacov Agam, and non-figurative sculptor Étienne Martin. Like a cabinet of curiosities, the room provides a kaleidoscopic portrait of Ragon and his many-sided theoretical and literary publications. His concern with architecture is represented in models and drawings by members of the Groupe International d’Architecture Prospective (GIAP), which Ragon founded in 1965. With Yona Friedman, Paul Maymont, and Guy Rottier, he championed an architecture of the future while denouncing the functionalist urban planning of the post-war years. Nearby, room 37 is devoted to the structural elements of Jean Prouvé’s prefabricated buildings.
The last dossier room is devoted a personal friend of mine, the cultural philosopher Pierre Restany (1930–2003), champion of Yves Klein and leader of the Nouveaux Réalistes group of the 1960s. Nouveau Réalisme (New Realism) was the European answer to the American Neo-Dada of Fluxus and Pop art. The group included Martial Raysse, Arman, Yves Klein, François Dufrene, Raymond Hains, Daniel Spoerri, Jean Tinguely, and Jacques Villeglé — and was later joined by César, Mimmo Rotella, Niki de Saint Phalle, and Christo. Restany defined this group of artists as sharing new perceptual and technological approaches to reality.
He edited the Milan-based magazine D’Ars and was an acerbic but generous art critic who offered a fresh perspective on debates around Pop and abstract art. A crusading author of articles, essays, and manifestos, he wrote and spoke widely: on architecture as art (he wrote regularly for Domus), Lynn Hershman Leeson, Yves Klein, Carlos Ginzburg, Jean Fautrier, Nicola L, Arman, Alain Jacquet, Shigeko Hirakawa, César, and others. When I knew him he was very interested in the no-logo movement and the effect of the (then-emerging) digital technology on representational imagery. Indeed, he organized a show about it called Logo / Non Logo with Robert C. Morgan and Ellen F. Salpeter for New York’s Thread Waxing Space in 1994. Restany was keen on the de-materializing and re-materializing role that digital technology brought to the arts, while always stressing to me that art that has no theoretical dimension does little more than present itself to market.
Restany was a tremendous philosophical talker and, over dinner or drinks, would close his eyes, stroke his beard, and begin talking in a stream of engaging intelligence that ranged from art historical nuggets to his vision of a networked future for art. It was the likes, for me, not seen since the Buckminster Fuller lectures I attended at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. Artists and critics loved Restany, and his photo permanently hangs at the entrance of the Palais de Tokyo, where he served as president.
Of course, Modern art had many limitations in terms of theory, gender, and race, as we know. Among other problems, its materialism tended towards domination. But some of its philosophical aspects did have a lightness of touch that corresponded to sangfroid seriousness. Even Dada’s studied silliness was serious in its social intentions. Much of today’s mainstream market art, still theoretically ironic, detached, and jaded, tries to pull off imitations of the luxury materialism found in Modern art. Some of it may even get the surface details right. But I find much of it lacking in a theoretical vision capable of stimulating and framing how matter matters in the creation of actual artworks. The editors of the Realism Materialism Art book — Christoph Cox, Jenny Jaskey, and Suhail Malik — almost state as much in their introduction, explaining that due to the incongruity of competing speculations on materialism there “is then no uniform or particularly consistent account for the current conditions, ambitions, and framework of realism, materialism, and art.” Materialism, they continue, “does not look to provide a coherent panoramic vision that would underwrite a new philosophy of art.” I agree with them. Perhaps sensitivity to codes matters more that matter.
To those who say that all art is made from materials, and thus exists as a form of materialism, I respond that all art is conceptual and imaginative because the experience of the consciousness of art exists socially and conceptually. Consequently, after surveying the plethora of new theory concepts that the heterogeneous, neo-materialist views on metaphysics provide art — including my own, “viractual,” where the computed (virtual) merges with the corporeal (actual), creating art objects that incorporate digital technologies — I find it unlikely that any current neo-materialist thinker can command the kind of sway on artists as the people to whom the New Presentation dossier displays are devoted. My hunch is that the application of a coded de- and re-materializing philosophical imagination is required, one that values practices that use codes to break down and transform the material of art into fresh forms of cultural creation.
New Presentation of the Modern Collections from 1905–1965 continues at the Centre Pompidou (Place Georges-Pompidou, 4th Arrondissement, Paris) through May 22, 2017, though the current configuration of “dossier displays” will close on November 27, 2015.