MuseumsWeekend

The Uses of Dismemberment: MoMA’s Exquisite Corpses

Installation view of Exquisite Corpses
Installation view of "Exquisite Corpses," featuring, (left) Carlos Rojas, “Apolo 0.9” (1966) and (right) Hans Bellmer, “Doll” (1936, cast 1965), painted aluminum (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

Dr. Frankenstein’s monster, as discussed in last week’s post, was assembled out of discarded body parts — an exhumed limb here, a torso there — with everything “awkwardly sewn into a corporeal pastiche.”

It is impossible, at least for those reared on the tenets of Modernism with a capital M, to utter the word “pastiche” without thinking of the 20th century’s Grand Inquisitor, Clement Greenberg (1909-1994), and the famous dictum from his essay, “Abstract and Representational” (1954):

In fact, it seems as though, today, the image and object can be put back into art only by pastiche or parody — as though anything the artist attempts in the way of such a restoration results inevitably in the second-hand.

Quoted in full, however, Greenberg doesn’t sound quite so partisan or despotic:

Yet my experience — which includes Velasquez and Corot as well as Mondrian and Pollock — tells me nonetheless that the best art of our day tends, increasingly, to be abstract. And most attempts to reverse this tendency seem to result in second-hand, second-rate painting or (as far as the latest generation of sculptors is concerned) pastiche, pseudo-archaic sculpture. In fact, it seems as though, today, the image and object can be put back into art only by pastiche or parody — as though anything the artist attempts in the way of such a restoration results inevitably in the second-hand. Not that most of contemporary abstract painting and sculpture is first-rate — far from it, most of it being just as bad as representational art and, more often than not, worse. But this still does not prevent the very best of it from being the most genuinely ambitious and very best of recent art.

It is important to note, though it may sound heretical to postmodern ears, that Greenberg is commenting on the obvious.

Peter Doig, “Untitled (Figure in Mountain Landscape)”
Peter Doig, “Untitled (Figure in Mountain Landscape)” (1999), oil and watercolor on paper, 11 ¾ x 8 ¼ inches.

By the time he was doing his most important writing, in the aftermath of the Second World War, Europe had all but blasted itself apart, taking its visual traditions with it. The American Empire was burgeoning, and abstraction had emerged as the battering ram to shatter depleted Europeanisms and provincial Americanisms alike, fully liberating art from its past.

Wouldn’t it seem reasonable for those hardy souls trying to make sense of their time, Greenberg among them, to assume there could be no going back to the status quo ante?

Even if Greenberg’s quote, in context, is broader in outlook (“Not that most contemporary abstract painting and sculpture is first-rate — far from it, most of it being just as bad as representational art and, more often than not, worse”), it is no less highhanded in its disdain.

The function of such sweeping pronouncements, which pay heed only to “the most genuinely ambitious and very best,” is that they peel away the clutter of complexity (that is to say, the clutter of reality), leaving the spine of their argument clear and intact.

There is a benefit to that kind of certainty. It reveals the tenor of the time, it traces the fashions upon which fortunes rise and fall, and it formulates a readily identifiable building block of history.

This sort of single-minded argument may leave out what artists as diverse and influential as Alice Neel, Max Beckmann, Alberto Giacometti, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo were doing at the time, not to mention what Willem de Kooning was up to with his perturbing “Women” paintings, but it provides a concrete surface to bump up against.

And younger artists did a considerable amount of bumping — most notably Robert Rauschenberg and Larry Rivers, who put “the image and object … back into art” by embracing pastiche and parody with a vengeance. Jasper Johns, always the odd man out, was also very much in the mix, though his ironies were less blatant and more poetic.

But that was so long ago. Johns is blessedly still with us, but everyone else is gone. The thrusts and parries of those years have become another episode of art abhorring a vacuum, and for all of Greenberg’s later propagandizing about the essential flatness of the picture plane, his shrill emptying out of art did little more than open up a space for everything and anything to rush back in.

Joan Miró “Drawing – Collage”
Joan Miró, “Drawing – Collage” (1936), crayon and decals on paper (image via MoMA) (click to enlarge)

These thoughts, from Dr. Frankenstein on, were prompted by Exquisite Corpses: Drawing and Disfiguration at the Museum of Modern Art, a show that all but ignores the concrete blocks outlined above. Think of it instead as the fly ash and slag cement that hold the blocks together.

The show itself is revelatory in its pairings and dead-on in its selections. And its use of the “collaborative, chance-based parlor game called ‘the exquisite corpse’” as an organizing principle (as stated in the press release) provides it with a strong structure even if the premise is problematic.

The press release describes the game of Exquisite Corpse as being popular in Paris during the 1920s among “artists and poets in the Surrealist circle” who took turns “adding onto each other’s drawings and collages” of the human body, a process “that resulted in fantastic composite figures.”

The next sentence, however, is the meat of the matter:

Though this kind of aberrant figuration associated with Surrealism has at times been overshadowed by modernism’s more well known engagement with abstraction, it recurred throughout the twentieth century and continues to be seen in contemporary art.

For “modernism’s more well known engagement with abstraction,” see above.

The range of works stretches from 1917 (two incomparably elegant pencil drawings by Giorgio de Chirico) through 2004 (a work in colored ink by Aaron Johnson, one in pencil by Michael Landy and a collage by Wangechi Mutu).

The inclusion of the de Chiricos, which predate André Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto (1924) and, consequently, Surrealist parlor games, already undermines the historical consistency of the theme, if that’s the kind of thing you care about.

Frankly, it doesn’t bother me that Exquisite Corpses may be based on a curatorial feint, simply because its undercurrents run so deep — deeper than the uses that the organizers (Samantha Friedman, Curatorial Assistant, with Jodi Hauptman, Curator, Department of Drawings) have concocted for their selection of dismembered and transmogrified heads, torsos and limbs.

The show categorizes these images into groupings related to bodily composites (cue Dr. Frankenstein), fragments, prostheses, hybrids and the like.

Pablo Picasso, “Two Figures on a Beach”
Pablo Picasso, “Two Figures on a Beach” (1933), ink on paper, 15 ¾ x 20 inches.

None of this has much to do with the chance operations of Exquisite Corpse, which is usually played with a folded piece of paper (as evidenced in a few of the examples on display) that conceals the completed segments from the next player.  At the end of the game the drawing is unfolded to shrieks of astonishment and delight all around.

What it does instead is lay out a neatly encapsulated overview of the continuing centrality of the body in Western art, which the stresses of the twentieth century did little to change. The radical modernist departure from the tradition of “the human figure as a symbol of perfection” (again to cite the press release) began in earnest with the revulsion over the seismic irrationality of World War I. The analytical experiments of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque notwithstanding, this is when the body in art turns against itself.

The failure of rationality in human affairs has been a chronic condition since the Reign of Terror, as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) attests, reaching epidemic proportions in the last century. (How it affects the one we’re in now is a tale yet unwritten, but with the bulk of the first decade condemned to the Bush/Cheney years, the early signs aren’t good.)

The fear that our excesses are forever beyond our rational control becomes an entrenched form of existential horror, manifested in art through a horror of the body, with sex organs singled out for particular alarm, which in turn becomes an exercise in mordant comedy from artists who see no exit beyond laughing into the abyss.

The work in this show is a case in point, overbrimming with equal parts biliousness and id, embodied in exquisite grotesqueries by Picasso, Jim Nutt, Joan Miró, Hannah Höch, Louise Bourgeois, Georges Bataille, Georg Baselitz, Peter Doig, Nicola Tyson, Valie Export, Hans Bellmer, Nancy Grossman, Robert Gober, Maria Lassnig, Paul McCarthy and George Condo, along with the loathsome Chapman brothers, whose three offerings are the sole contemporary contributions to the schema of the Exquisite Corpse.

Georg Baselitz, “Peitschenfrau”
Georg Baselitz, “Peitschenfrau” (1964), ink on paper, 24 ¾ x 19 inches (image via MoMA) (click to enlarge)

Curiously, of the 88 pieces in the show (despite the subtitle, Drawing and Disfiguration, there are also examples of sculpture and photography) only five works are included from the post-WW II period (1945-1959), when Clement Greenberg deemed the image in art “second-hand, second-rate.”

Is this a symptom of institutional bias, made concrete by a dearth of representational work from that era in MoMA’s collections? (Possibly.) Or a case of backward-looking curatorial orthodoxy? (In this day and age, unlikely.) Or, just maybe, could it be that the strongest work of those fifteen years was indeed abstract, as Greenberg suggests?

It is all but an article of faith that Abstract Expressionism was fueled by a Surrealist impulse, which makes it all the more interesting to notice how the human figure drops out of this exhibition during that time, only to experience a resurgence later on.

Through this lacuna, we implicitly bear witness to the intolerable memories of World War II, watching them consume the psychological imperative to make art. Only after those memories fade, and art can again be contained within an image, does the body make a comeback.

The distortions displayed in this show, as the press release informs us, are meant to “disorient us from our most familiar referent — our own image — as artists play out personal, cultural, or social anxieties and desires on unwitting anatomies.”

In fact, they have the opposite effect, drawing us into an acute awareness of how enslaved we are to our senses, anxieties and desires. We are not the rational animals we think we are, but barely held-together corpora ready to fly apart at any moment.

The cruel and sardonic images in Exquisite Corpses remind us that, yes, such monstrosities are indeed our bodies and — no matter how far we try to back away — we’re stuck with them.

Exquisite Corpses: Drawing and Disfiguration continues at the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) through July 9.

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