Yve-Alain Bois

  • “Moves”

    I am not a great fan of the fad for guestcurated exhibitions culled from a museum’s collections. How vain is the notion of the curator-as-artist that they convey! There are exceptions, of course: the “Artist’s Choice” series at MoMA, for example, was unexpectedly lacking in pretense while providing valuable information about the way artists thought.

    But what if it is the very form of the exhibition, the exhibition as form, that is at stake rather than the subjectivity of the curator? The first guest-curated show to have been conceived in such reflective, typically Modernist terms was “Raid the

  • Early Lead

    FOR YEARS I SAID to students and friends that Jasper Johns was an American Braque (though I did not realize how true that was; the final confirmation came with John Golding’s recent show of Braque’s late work and David Sylvester’s account of it). I always added that he was a Braque without a Picasso by his side. But, that was before Walter Hopps’ breathtaking exhibition six years ago of Rauschenberg’s early pieces. I was late in coming to Rauschenberg’s work, but since Hopps’ show I’ve been convinced that, in the relationship between the two artists, a relationship about which there has been so

  • Kelly's Coup

    Standing in front of Ellsworth Kelly’s recently painted canvas, Red Curves, 1995, (among the latest works included in the Guggenheim retrospective), with its inimitable irregular shape resulting from the offset encounter of two most regular contours (two arcs), one cannot but wonder how it could feel so fresh, so oblivious to doubt, so joyful even, given the number of monochrome shaped panels the artist has produced, from the ’50s on. Each time it’s the same tease (just enough complexity for the simplicity to emerge as an unexpected gift, just enough simplicity for the force of the effect to


    The possibility of a new taxonomy for the art of this century, most especially an unruly one, carries with it a strong charge, a genuine kick. It’s doubly appealing when it promises to thrust aside a dominant, seemingly unquestionable presupposition and bring its repressed opposite into full view, not just as a theoretical hypothesis, but as an unsuspected historical reality for decades. Of all the art-historical insurgencies against the high ideals of Modernism, then, few seem so radical or so far-reaching in their ambition to turn the tables as the Centre Georges Pompidou’s summer 1996 exhibition “L’Informe: mode d’emploi” (The formless: instructions for use). Taking as its paradigm Georges Bataille’s enigmatic postulation of the informe—a term that admits of no definition, defies definitions as such, even denies essentially that things have “definition”—the show subverts the presumed sine qua non of art, the making of form, with a shift to an art predicated on form’s undoing. That some two hundred pieces of evidence should be laid out in a manner that squelches such habitual curatorial principles as style, period, oeuvre, and theme is a mere by-product of the informe’s declassifying power. The exhibition functions instead by way of the informe’s “instructions for use,” a set of “operations,” permeable and provisional, proposed to do violence as much to the precepts of Modernism as to form itself.
    The show’s cocurators are Rosalind Krauss, Meyer Schapiro Professor of Art History at Columbia University, and Yve-Alain Bois, Joseph Pulitzer Jr. Professor of Modern Art at Harvard. If their credentials are academic, their loosing of the informe on artistic practice, discernible in their work for a number of years, is decidedly not. From Passages in Modern Sculpture to The Optical Unconscious, from her contributions to Artforum in the ’60s and ’70s to the founding and stewardship of October, Krauss’ repudiation of Clement Greenberg’s formalist line has permitted her to observe the evolution of contemporary art, to nab it and tag it, with a Darwinian precision and intelligence. Her rereading of Modernism in its reciprocal relations with contemporary production, especially via the paradigm of “the photographic,” has made her contemporary art criticism’s principal force to contend with. Carrying commensurate European intellectual baggage of the post-Structuralist/October variety, Bois has been more closely associated with the austere regions of abstraction: Constructivism, Mondrian, Barnett Newman. Yet the vision of painting’s capacity to induce thinking expressed in his Painting as Model no doubt explains the resilience with which he has encountered Lucio Fontana’s expressionism, or with which he has passed from abstraction to the issue of noncom-position. Both Krauss and Bois have indicated that Bataille’s informe surfaced in their work at first because of its heuristic interest. With “L’informe: mode d’emploi,” it now designates a corpus, as well as a grid for reading it.

    LAUREN SEDOFSKY: You’ve chosen as the title of your show “L’Informe.” The word is untranslatable, indefinable, opaque. Is this a form of provocation?

    YVE-ALAIN BOIS: In a way it is. The word’s untranslatable, but you can find approximations: formless or formlessness. But it’s not a concept. Indeed, it’s an anticoncept. Were you to define it as a concept, it would be the concept of undermining concepts, of depriving them of their boundaries, their capacity to articulate the world. It’s provocative in the sense that we wanted to undo some categories, and we recognized the capacity of the informe

  • Focus: “Abstraction in the Twentieth Century: Total Risk, Freedom, Discipline”

    Why is it that one comes out of “Abstraction in the Twentieth Century: Total Risk, Freedom, Discipline” with the somewhat depressed feeling of having nothing to say, nothing in particular? Perhaps the answer lies in the program of the show, that is, in the meager hint of such a program offered by Mark Rosenthal, its curator, in the introduction to the lengthy accompanying catalogue: “My aim is to present the kind of overview of this century of abstraction that an art historian living a hundred years from now might write—that is, to imagine having the increased perspective and objectivity that

  • The Matisse System

    One of the most striking things in any big retrospective of Henri Matisse is how diverse his art is and yet, within this diversity, how a fundamental core unifies more than half his production and the important half at that. Indeed, it is probably universally admitted by now that whatever the charms of the so-called “Nice period,” of 1917–30, the great Matisse is that of the years 1905–17 and then 1931 to his death; and I don’t think anyone would deny that the 1911 Atelier rouge (Red studio) has more in common with the 1948 Intérieur rouge (Red interior), for example, than either work has with