PRINT September 1982

Stalling Art

Our heroes after a long and strenuous voyage through sinister valleys and dark forests finally arrive in the English Garden, and at the gate of a splendid palace. At least such a subtitle reflects our desire for a clear order and a quiet atmosphere.
—Rudi Fuchs artistic director of Documenta 7

OUR MERCEDES-BENZES may have driven at incalculable speeds down autobahns past sinister valleys and dark forests to a refuge from profuse chaos, but our voyage finds neither English Garden nor splendid palace—just the remnants of them, displaced, in the parks and palaces that are, as usual, the sites for the exhibition. Taming the wilder beasts into a metaphorical park opens a delightfully slippery territory for someone who wants to avoid issues. The park, a gathering point for lovers from Roman de la Rose to Rousseau’s Julie ou La Nouvelle Héloïse and beyond, cultivates nature, adjusts it to human proportions, subjects it to imitative standards. Parks are places where people are encouraged to study and appreciate nature. Nonetheless, the park is composed of natural entities; placed in cities, it contrasts with the “jungle” of barbaric exploitation found in the edifices of steel and concrete. “Heavenly bliss and eternal calm” speak from the park’s scenery—hardly a place for the raw arena of nature. Urban and expressionist figuration bring the street into the drawing room, another place where rampages and profusions are civilized.

But the assumption that this is an ideal situation is unethical, because there is work to be done. (“It’s too late to be grateful/It’s too late to be late again/It’s too late to be hateful”—David Bowie, Station to Station.) Where there is work to be done it cannot be surrogated by a stroll in the park. At a certain point in history, delaying techniques are not just harmless. If you don’t flex your muscles you’re going to get limp. This far-out-on-a-limb position of nondialectical meaninglessness—indeed, direct avoidance of conflicting meaningful issues—leaves one with unanswered questions: why is this art here, and what does it mean?

Rudi Fuchs alludes to the “attractive tradition of taste and discrimination” that became principles of selection and exhibition. For a year or more he has shaped Documenta 7 around his core group of artist-peers to be a serene celebration of their art, yet at the last minute a sizable proportion of artists with whom Fuchs felt little sympathy fell into the show. His serene English Garden became weeded over with artists he didn’t want. This new art happened. Am I supposed to feel sorry that it upset his harmonious layout? Fuchs pulls his final card: “. . . because we did not want a nervous exhibition but one which would honor the dignity of art, we had to create conditions of tranquility.” A world that is too “nervous” and fraught with “social perversion” threatens the tranquillity of perfectly manicured lawns and obsessively pruned hedges. The domestication of native flora resembles what Robert Smithson warned against: “The function of the warden-curator is to separate art from the rest of society. Next comes integration. Once the work of art is totally neutralized, ineffective, abstracted, safe, and politically lobotomized it is ready to be consumed by society.”

The blockbuster shows of the last few years (Westkunst, held last year in Cologne, and London’s Royal Academy of Arts’ “A New Spirit in Painting,” in 1981, among others) have argued, often through historicizing means, for or against the resurgence of figurative imagery in painting. In all of these shows and even in the criticism surrounding them is the recognition of the urgent need for reevaluation. The look and attitudes of this new art may signal an end to a whole era of Modernism, principally to a notion of vanguard culture. Allegory, quotation, idiosyncracy, and mixtures of genres and cultures are threatening official Modernism, with its teleological principles of abstraction in ideation and form where intellect, order, structure, and methodology dominate, often canonized in moral terms. People now recognize that there is a need for analysis, and the grounds for this should have been laid in Documenta 7. But with all its means, funds, and public it purposely chose not to pitch in.

The director and the committee obviously fronted the works they preferred, those of the conceptual and Arte Povera generation and their followers. The new art of the last few years, the art they belittle, blew up like a storm. With the bureaucratic response typical of a mammoth insurance company Documenta 7 just “dealt” with it by including it as a last-minute tempest-tossed cargo and then stacked it willy-nilly on the dock. This tardily selected work compounded the problem of giving elegant care to privileged motives, and the new funky stuff became whitewashed in its subsumption to the overall doctrine. One is not encouraged to think pussy in a church.

Statements abound in the mere moods and demimodes of youth. Often those are its only weapons and means of expression; i.e., their very contribution of youth. Like a jester who refuses to articulate in the Queen’s English, youth’s best jokes will not work. Not necessarily because they fail to conform to the highest rules or even because the queen has no sense of humor, but because she was groomed not to respond to their language. The jester/artist and the queen usually remain in their particular environments. Fuchs hangs out with the generation of artists famed for all having received a university education (as was not previously the habit of artists), while the jester propels himself by potent farts in a universe trouvé.

Most of the work that represents the original positions of Arte Povera and conceptual and earth art is retroactively distorted by the “take” that it is “nature-like” in the placid setting of the “park.” This is site-specific work, but “site-specific” used to mean the antithesis of gallery installation. Mario Merz’s slate-stone igloo, whose sloppy chicken-coop-style construction betrays the hand of a self-conscious rustic, ends up here as farcical as a “Green Acres” episode.1 Being site-specific with an igloo over a brook is like selling primary-color cutout armchairs in the lobby during a lecture on Matisse. And Daniel Buren, an avatar of site-specificity, is trivialized into a makeup man who only highlights architectural features. All far from Smithson’s remarks on the subject; how can a park contain site-specific work when parks are Cultural Confinements of nature?

If Fuchs in fact was striving for the coexistence of nature and culture, then Cy Twombly would have been the only one who fulfilled it. He is the only Modern artist who can make one think that nature is a Modern structure. His work has always affirmed culture’s deepest traces—writing and mythology—as if they were simply nature. Twombly’s rhapsodies over the vine leaf and the name of Bacchus demonstrate how effectively he integrates the Modernist concern with cadenced, serial transformation with figurative investigations into archetypes and ambiguity. Moreover, in his work the Modernist pursuit of ideal abstraction also reverses itself into the simplest affirmations of material and the index. His alchemies blend all the supposed antagonisms that this show failed to confront. He is the hinge, the door, the building—the metaphor and proof for the whole exhibition. His work neatly sidesteps the overt issues of the conflict in art now: the conceptual versus the painterly, the Modernist versus the regressive. If Twombly can be the pictorial realization of a nonconflicting, all-inclusive possibility of coexistence of nature and culture, then Fuchs should have put nobody but Twombly in the show.

The 20th century has not been able to merge or resolve the dissimilarity between a cement brick and the human limbs. This was not an issue for the precapitalist past because the human limbs handmade the brick. Only in specialization and alienation do the two become separate. As a result of this we have witnessed two parallel tendencies in architecture and design: the minimal white cube of the Bauhaus and the clutter of the anthropomorphic. Documenta, intended to be all about design, not only doesn’t recognize these inevitable facts as a problem, but worse, does not advance either. The idea of an imperial sublime originating from a central empire became smudged with newcomers. Its confines swelled with the aberrant lingos of the Swiss, Spanish, Italians, and who knows what else. There is more charge in the crusty slums than at Documenta, devoid of either order or elegance in its taming of the filthy present. Curator-nabobs would like to luxuriate in their institutions guarded by high-concept monitors and searchlights scanning the fields. One can create a fake landscape, a design out of much art that generates the designer’s fantasy with great visual flair. Much of this discussion points to the question: who is the author of art? The authority of the image and the work opposes the authority of placement and design. Does the meaning of the work now reside in its content, or in its relationship to other art?

One curatorial procedure deserves mention: I call it fixed roulette. The work of each artist is not grouped together, but spread out and juxtaposed with the work of others. Work may gain support from its connections with nearby varying situations, or it may be bowledover or merely exhibited. The categories, roughly, are Support, Conflict, and Neutrality. This procedure is amplified by changes in the quality and quantity of work by each artist. The biases and favoritism of the Documenta team find easy entrance. The fact that individual artists’ works are shown not in just one place but scattered throughout the exhibition, engenders a special rhythm between the work’s fragmentation and its repetition; this rhythm’s ascending frequency builds upon successive encounters with the work.

The largest of the three exhibition buildings, the Fridericianum, is the focus of Documenta 7. On the first and second floors we encounter the statement proper of the show: installation. Overall, this is an exercise in curatorial skill. The installers hang the works in technical/visual connections that aspire to grandeur, relating wall to wall, corner to corner, scale to scale, gesture to gesture, color to color, myth to myth. One admires the craft of the installers as they connive your passage from area to area. Throughout, relations occur between floors as well as on them; only organized walkers or spectators with X-ray vision can catch all the connections. Flashbacks and significant symmetries abound. It is a marvelous display of skill, but fraught from the outset with ideological stumbling and maneuvered murder, especially of the imagist work from the Mediterranean.

While one discerns in the Fridericianum a lack of analysis replaced by an abundance of poetic meandering, in the next space, the Orangerie, the hanging shows evidence of a curatorial putsch. Installation here is based more on tried practice and bears the stamp of mechanistic professionalism. The internal articulation of the lovely architecture is characterized by, for example, diagonally posited temporary walls, like jetties beside a harbor. A dynamic rhythm forms areas with long, continuous vistas. This becomes a vehicle for working out dialectical contrasts, such as the masterful argument made by stringing together artists as diverse as Troy Brauntuch, Robert Mapplethorpe, Robert Longo, Jack Goldstein, Lawrence Weiner, and Alan Charlton. The works extend into media as diverse as drawing, photography, cast relief, written statements, and abstract and figurative painting. The widespread diversity achieves unity by gradations in the color gray that they all have in common.

Down the garden path, the NeueGalerie is a berserk, small-time model of Documenta 7’s general principles and practices. Elsewhere the gala visual effects distract us from detecting the methods. Here they are more barren and pedestrian and show real evidence of the bricolage curation. Except for a limited few—Jonathan Borofsky and Hans Haacke, to name two—the material here reads mostly as the leftovers from what the curators really wanted to deal with.

As in the Apocalypse description of the heavenly Jerusalem whose streets are paved with gold, in the main entrance of the Fridericianum the art, too, is gilded. A single column by James Lee Byars, focally placed, stands alone. Down the corri d’oro, the viewer prospects for art. A giant wall component of Jannis Kounellis’ installation is gold-leafed. As with Byzantine mosaics viewers ascend to the higher spheres while the gold works out its abstract, shimmering distortion of space. A golden yellow Georg Baselitz painting flanks the area; its gridded background is echoed on the other side by Luciano Fabro’s grid sculptures in tinseled metals, including gold. Hop-scotched across the walls of the corri d’oro are Giulio Paolini’s small-scaled, lyrical, conceptual texts, each framed in gold. The yellow brick road concludes with Mario Merz’s twig-and-slate spiral.

The installation is fond of establishing trivial correspondences between artworks. Not just Joseph Kosuth’s large upside-down reproductions of old masters to Baselitz’s upside-down imagery, or Kosuth’s typeface X to A.R. Penck’s drawn X, but Penck’s acidy yellow primary colors to two per_penck_dicularly placed Gilbert & George works of the same hues, not to mention superficially equivalent motifs, scale, and composition. It’s perfect. Trust me. This contiguous mimicry boomerangs visual details from three rooms away, as if parallel paint marks by Penck had anything to do with stripes painted on a wall by Sol LeWitt. Sighting around the corners, motifs are verified or dishonored, reconstituted by memory, played up or programmed. Fragments of things magnetize our glances by uncanny resemblances. This policy of relational installation evokes recombining letters within words: an anagrammatic labyrinth of detail twists deeper and deeper as marks become equated with content, gestures with forms. You either say, “Bravo, bravo! The curators are divas!” or reflect, “This is unnecessary.”

The spatial subdivision of the corri d’oro folds into another wing on the same floor of the Fridericianum. The Penck/Gilbert & George conundrum resonating an urban milieu is mirrored by a Richard Long, Anselm Kiefer, and Andy Warhol tripling. As if Long’s concentric-circle rock floor piece projects via perspective into Kiefer’s huge landscape of an elliptical vortex, another spiral. The famous piss paintings by Warhol, which with the passing of time will become increasingly corroded, are another evocation of the theme. This is the nature room. It harkens back to feudal turfs vis-à-vis the other room.

The show’s cynosure, a double-story central room, is where by virtue of the scope of space the hanging is supposed to show off its operative features. Based on ideological, formal, or scale resonations among work of a polyglot cast, installation here reaches its multistory heights of concoction. Or was it flamboyantly muted academic montage, their version of mannerist delirium? Anyway, suppose Alice fell into this constellation Wonderland. Almost despite standing still, a redundancy of assembled motives transports us through a wing as if we were on roller skates. The pacing accelerates itself in the geometric beauty we are so familiar with. (I guess this is the work the curators are true wizards at. If we did not allow them to boast their skills, it would be like asking Raquel Welch not to boast her titties under a slight silk blouse on her way to stardom.) Thus propelled, at a speed way past visibility limit, individual statements by Robert Mangold, Richard Long, David Rabinowitch, Jan Dibbets, Richard Serra, and JCJ van der Heyden become no more than a fast race of circles, rectangles, and triangles in this bold exhibition swirl of off-color basic geometric forms. Even Reiner Ruthenbeck, with his volumetric permutations of the theme—objects in bondage to oversized tables—is like a mere breeze through the general tunes of square, triangle, and circle. Well, installations need to be tuned. But too many similar vibrations in the dynamics of the treble will produce a false note, will spoil the message. There should be more definite meaning in every installational phrase than simply sacrificing the work’s content to the special-effects production of a bundle of afterimages.

On the other wing, however, this dynamic pathway short-circuits into an amorphous arena, a static space which never shifts into gear. This is the infamous Italian ghetto. Pictures here, as elsewhere all through the grounds, are crammed together, overlap (physically!), and are muddled by hanging. This portable, self-contained medium, by its very definition, isolates a condensed microcosm and thus needs inordinate zooming distances. Pictures funnel and create suctions. They absorb and project. They tell stories, they are elaborately framed, they exude coloristic temperature or emotive content. They engage in photographic mimesis or cinematic strategies. The curators of Documenta’s generation seem more capable of conniving an earthwork into a museum interior than of showing the hardware museums were intended for in the first place. It is doubtful they’d know how to hang an Uccello (even though the perspective there is laid on the grid). But to think that the curators have floundered with problems that would have been everyday for their predecessors is not quite the whole truth. It is even worse. By not attending to the inner dynamic of pictures, distorting them by sabotage hanging, they create a setup in which the new painting is shown as if in a limbo between private genesis and public exhibition, and thus presented as mere daubery stuff. Something not appreciated, yet displayed; not understood but in fact argued against, has produced these omnipresent lurking negations, suspended in visual stupor.

Or you can take a different pass through a curio collection of pan-iconographic this-and-thats and follow the installation structure of choppy handheld pans until you decipher that the art here is populated with scores of figures holding up their hands. They are the different manifestations of the raised arm—historical, mythological, scientific. From Bruce McLean’s man holding up a tape measure through the sci-fi figures of Keith Haring, to Judy Rifka’s acrobatic females . . . and, yes, we have boxers, saints, wimpy winners, sports champs, and headhunters, we’ve even got crucifixes and Jonathan Borofsky’s colossi. Why, it’s enough to make you throw up your hands. And, ladies and gentlemen, don’t worry, we make connections. We’ve got your late-night urban white girl tangled up with the black-man myth (Elvira Bach), and in the next room we’ve got paintings by the Black Man Himself, Jean Michel Basquiat. What an insult. (His paintings should have been near Cy Twombly’s.) We’ve got women, too. More insults. In more ways than one. Women, via a double tokenism, were handpicked to represent those genres Documenta 7 seems to feel uneasy with—U.S. citizenship, video (Dara Birnbaum), performance (Joan Jonas), sociopolitics (Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, and Martha Rosler), photography (self-image propagation from Katharina Sieverding, the antinuke, super-tech amazon, to Cindy Sherman’s homespun studio-still glamour), all installed with fearful symmetry which is hideously echoed in the case of the double entendre—the twins, Barbara and Gabriele Schmidt-Heins, who have of all things a stylistically identical double stall. Quintuple tokenism is achieved by exhibiting Klaudia Schifferle, who is 1) female 2) young 3) Swiss 4) punk and 5) painter, and who profited from Documenta 7’s erroneous conviction that there is such a thing as “punk painting.” If you think to call this passage a tour de farce is a typo, well, if it is, it’s a $3-million typo.

Grabbing at straws for some theme that will let the show go on, the curatorial team partook of the recurrent institutional spaying. The hygienic approach puts its white gloves on by pushing sexual, nebulous, funky, promiscuous subject matter into a mini-show of sex and ritual strictly supervised by Roman Catholic hysterical discharges. Hermann Nitsch presents Documenta’s largest painting on, of all places, the ceiling. Under this bloody canopy he proves that he is only using the art world as sanctuary for his extra-artistic urges. Next to this guru of intestines stands another Viennese, Günther Brus, whose work explores dream imagery at its genital, nightmare best. Morbidity of the flesh finds its dance macabre in a painting by Mimmo Paladino. Pierre Klossowski, Balthus’ brother, saturates his subject matter in pornography. Well-drafted drawings, as artsy as fetish illustration demands, equivocate between being art-as-fetish and fetish-as-fetish. This suite climaxes with a very beautiful fresco by Francesco Clemente.

An exhibit with a decided lack of analytic programming, as this is, becomes not only a show of skills, of handmade (manual) intellect and eyeballed methodology, but also a sort of purgatorial panorama of contemporary art, compounded by an incredible number of just small solutions. A curatorial display based on juxtapositions relates to the time/space collage of film editing. The vanguard investigations of V.I. Pudovkin, Sergei Eisenstein, and Bela Balazs into the effects of filmic montage have provided a reservoir of relations, of possible modes of dynamic presentation. But this interpretation of Documenta’s display is mostly my projection, not the result of the efforts of the curators. The effect of horizontal/vertical coordinates—which the curators rely heavily upon—is one of stabilization and monumentalization. The rigid grid-mindedness and obviously posited symmetries and parallels that abound here prove in essence that the mentality is to sidetrack uncertainty. Diagonals, which in cinematic motion indicate emotive energy, are here employed in such dumbfoundingly inane ways as hanging art of opposite ilks in diagonally opposed halves of rooms (Niele Toroni with Markus Lüpertz, or Richard Paul Lohse vis-à-vis Emilio Vedova). This is not energy. This is cliché.

This spectacle employs visual ellipses and a few clumsy flashbacks, propped up in a style familiar from scores of blockbusters. It’s padded out with aging stars and various paranoid bits of business (Julian Schnabel’s absence), enlivened by the spotty garnish of forbidden fruit (Robert Mapplethorpe’s presence), pivoted on a precious (golden) central sequence.

If you do not frequently assess who you are, you eventually become your process. Curators who become art professionals can come to know nothing of art and its impulses. They become jobbers. With the current increase of nationally based financial support for huge international exhibitions and the concurrent fervent strategies of institutional perpetuation, the jobbing curator comes more and more to move in an arena in which nothing, no job, is at risk—except perhaps the art. Like Italian condottieri, those flamboyant mercenaries who waged war for Renaissance city-states, these curators jump from place to place and demonstrate that loyalty to art need not be an issue of vocational faith but merely one of professional habit. A permanent and fatal mood lingers as the arbiters of exhibitions fall into dull respectability and tedious defensiveness. This is part of the high price art has to pay for having an infrastructure. Meanwhile art happens somewhere else. Documenta has not been blessed by curatorial guts, so this given professionalism is a curse.

You might have noticed that your slightly masochistic topographer has carefully kept an analytic discussion of specific art off the map. I wrote about Documenta. There was more than an occasional great work at Documenta; some of them surfaced in spite of Documenta. Documenta wasn’t about art. It alarms me that this is how I had to write about it.

Edit deAk reviews exhibitions regularly for Artforum.



1. A television comedy in which a sophisticated couple moves to a farm in the country; starring Eva Gabor.