“Fear of Form”

Roberta Smith has a review in today’s NYTimes of an exhibition currently up at Bard that was curated by three Europeans.  “It originated last October at the Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art in Oslo, where it was organized by Gunnar Kvaran, the museum’s director, working with two high-profile critic-curators: Daniel Birnbaum, director of the alternative space Portikus in Frankfurt, and Hans Ulrich Obrist, the Swiss co-director of exhibitions at the Serpentine Gallery in London.”

It focuses on contemporary American art by artists mostly in their 20s.  Smith’s review makes it sound symptomatic of so much recent work that’s heavily dependent on a late-pop conceptual-construction-installation sensibility.

Here’s an extended excerpt:

The show has an endgame, end-time mood, as if we are looking at the end of the end of the end of Pop, hyperrealism and appropriation art. The techniques of replication and copying have become so meticulous that they are beside the point. This is truly magic realism: the kind you can’t see, that has to be explained. It is also a time when artists cultivate hybridism and multiplicity and disdain stylistic coherence, in keeping with the fashionable interest in collectivity, lack of ego, the fluidity of individual identity. But too often these avoidance tactics eliminate the thread of a personal sensibility or focus.

I would call all these strategies fear of form, which can be parsed as fear of materials, of working with the hands in an overt way and of originality. Most of all originality. Can we just say it? This far from Andy Warhol and Duchamp, the dismissal of originality is perhaps the oldest ploy in the postmodern playbook. To call yourself an artist at all is by definition to announce a faith, however unacknowledged, in some form of originality, first for yourself, second, perhaps, for the rest of us.

Fear of form above all means fear of compression—of an artistic focus that condenses experiences, ideas and feelings into something whole, committed and visually comprehensible. With a few exceptions, forms of collage and assemblage dominate this show: the putting together (or simply putting side by side) of existing images and objects prevails. The consistency of this technique in two and three dimensions should have been a red flag for the curators. Collage has driven much art since the late 1970’s. Lately, and especially in this exhibition, it often seems to have become so distended and pulled apart that its components have become virtually autonomous and unrelated, which brings us back to square one.

It may be worth coming back to this.

The Bard Center for Curatorial Studies’ website for the exhibition is here.

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