PRINT April 1985


THE HIRSHHORN MUSEUM’S EXHIBITION “Content: A Contemporary Focus, 1974–1984" was perhaps America’s most ambitious entry into the big international-survey sweepstakes which has raged for the past five years. This Washington, D.C. exhibition also turned out to be one that continually expanded and contracted in my head, with every plus met by an equal minus. Sometimes it has seemed daring and innovative, at other times confused, familiar, and just plain mousy—not to be taken too seriously; at still other times it has also seemed dangerously stupid and regressive. Basically it failed, falling dramatically short of its high goals, but it was a compelling failure, intermittently extreme and eccentric enough to be a useful tool for further thought.

Despite indications to the contrary, this show can be taken as subtle encouragement of artistic conventionality and timidness. Close scrutiny also revealed that its inclusions, taken as a whole, contradicted many of the inferences drawn by its three curators, who, by and large, did not examine carefully enough the evidence they had gathered. But it lived up to the demand often heard during the Museum of Modern Art’s “International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture’’ last summer: that almost any position is better than none. Its main achievement may lie in simply taking a certain argument about the reentry of a supposedly form—free “content” into contemporary art to such an extreme that it revealed much—often quite inadvertently—about the options and attitudes of the present moment.

As its name stressed, this show cast a much wider net than the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s “Human Condition” exhibition last summer, or Houston’s Contemporary Arts Museum’s “The Heroic Figure’’ of the fall, the thrust of both of which was primarily figurative. “Content” surveyed the last decade with a very specific purpose in mind: to show the unexpected return of legible meaning and reference to contemporary art during this period—“a critical juncture in twentieth century art,” according to a brochure available at the exhibition’s entrance. Containing work by nearly 150 artists, it approached the Modern’s survey in size and was similarly egalitarian in selection, but was instead intently multimedia. Its goal was to restructure our comprehension of the recent past, and it succeeded, at least temporarily, in giving it an unexpectedly unified look.

Basically, the show sought to weld conceptualism and other forms of post-Minimalism; ’70s pluralism; and the most apparent market and critical successes of the early ’80s into a credible post-Modern alliance. Although it took the possibly unprecedented step of excluding Georg Baselitz, it built on a core of the same roster of international art stars who have been supplying shows around the world for the past several years. To this it added an even bigger group of American and European conceptual , process, story, installation, and arte povera artists, some “New Image’’ painters, some formerly regional presences now floating along in the mainstream, plus some unusually resilient emigres who made it over from the outskirts of Modernism just before the borders shut down. Was anything missing? There was no pattern and decoration and almost no abstraction, and their absence, especially that of the latter, contributed to the show’s unfamiliar, coherent look.

“Content”’s hero was conceptualism, the straw that broke the Modernist camel’s back—but a conceptualism of a narrowly defined sort which concentrated on language to the exclusion of artists such as Mel Bochner, Dorothea Rockburne, Barry LeVa, and Daniel Buren. The show began with big, dazzling, still obscure wall—text pieces by Joseph Kosuth and Lawrence Weiner. The high points of the exhibition were a few beautiful installations—particularly Joseph Beuys’— the only things with enough bulk to withstand the leveling effects of the show’s vague and overlapping groupings. Its emphasis in terms of the latest art was on nee-Expressionism, its precedents and derivations, although the term and most other labels were largely avoided: everything since conceptual art is now to be called post-Modern.

Jumbling together art, pertinent quotes from the artists, and sundry other text panels in archeological disarray, this extremely leaden show did manage to make everything look vaguely the same, or equally interesting, like specimens or evidence. Its crowded arrangements encouraged a tendency to scan, read, and rush on. The endless blur of semilegibility turned the Hirshhorn’s circular floor plan into a spinning treadmill which revolved faster with each attempt to make sense of it. As one exited from the show’s last gallery- which contained work by Julian Schnabel, Michael Tracy, Mimmo Paladino, Enzo Cucchi, Sandro Chia, Aldo Rossi, and Walter Pichler, all redolent with religious iconography the large-print texts of Kosuth and Weiner wheeled back into view, giving one the temporary illusion of moving toward the future.

The show got some of its visual homogeneity and its preachy anti-Modernist stance from the near exclusion of abstraction; even more came from the message telegraphed by the title, highlighted in orange on the catalogue’s gray cover. While phrases like “meaning,” “reference,” “subject matter,” and “content” are used interchangeably throughout the catalogue, it is “content” that has the last word. Chosen for the show’s title, the term defines the change under scrutiny in simplistic, even brutal terms, and this kind of brutality—to the art, to the eye, and to thought—permeates the show. In specifying “content” as something that has “returned” to art since 1974 or thereabouts, the exhibition set up and exploited a false dividing line, denigrating Modernism as something concerned only with form, and assigning to post-Modernism the higher function of content. In doing this, it helped perpetuate the tendency to limit content to subject matter—a misunderstanding that is one of the most primitive aspects of current art thinking.

Content is perhaps the most elusive, elastic term in the critical vocabulary; the meanings of the word itself never stop. Perhaps it can be stretched to include such ideas as narrative meaning or reference, but surely it can’t be limited to them. It encompasses art’s presence, intentionality, effectiveness, and even its ambition, and it is inherent in any art that survives a generation or two of attention. The interdependency of form and content is not merely some Modernist/formalist sleight of hand, but basic to the way art is made and experienced. And the commitment to content is absolutely not the private legitimatizing property of post-Modernism, a claim implicit in this show’s title.

The claim is made explicit in Howard Fox’s wrongheaded catalogue essay, “The Will to Meaning,” which may be the most vivid aspect of the entire enterprise. Of the show’s other two curators, Miranda McClintic wrote an essay entitled “Content: Making Meaning and Referentiality,” and Phyllis Rosenzweig compiled a chronology in essay form. Both pieces are more rational and more descriptive, and admittedly, their writers come off more credibly—but they are also less engaging. Fox’s essay states the exhibition’s ambition most boldly; his writing gives the show’s spin its convoluted theoretical buzz. Treatments of the change this exhibition scrutinizes have ranged from Douglas Crimp’s and Craig Owens’ psychoanalytically-based post-structuralism all the way down to Tom Wolfes neo-conservative trend-mongering. Fox’s version, a pastiche which somehow manages to owe something to both these extremes, would be better titled “The Triumph of the Will to Meaning.” Weirdly open to a reactionary reading, it appropriates “Content” for post-Modernism, restricts the vision of Modernist art, and becomes more righteous as it goes.

At certain points Fox might be speaking from the floor of the House of Representatives—although the word “humanism” doesn’t creep in until the last sentence. He sees post-Modern art as “given to the expression and exploration of shareable experience and values.” He continues: “Emotional and intellectual ‘values’ are precisely the cultural elements that Modernism tried to distill out in its quest for an autonomous art . . . ” A little later on: “Post Modern art entails not just seeing, but thinking . . . ” And finally, Fox contends, “the Moderns thus had succeeded in reversing the traditional Western idea of art as a moral agent.” Modernism, in Fox’s mind, seems to be some kind of monolithic hoax, which he somehow manages to see as both amoral and antiintellectual, while post-Modernism, the guardian of values, restores the faith. No wonder this exhibition ended with a Christian grotto.

To give him his proper due, Fox does state at one point that today’s artists are “synthesizing and integrating artistic form with non-art content,” but the weight of his argument is to the contrary. What comes across most strongly is a case of severe antiformalist backlash which seems puritanical, vision-phobic, and particularly American in the way it reduces things to absolutes. He writes like someone with an implicit mistrust of sensate retinal experience, and this is what is conveyed in the show he has helped select and install—an absolute indifference to the look or the experience of looking at art. His position is also somewhat familiar because it’s a kind of reverse late Greenbergism, another exclusionary stance based on blinkered prejudiced vision. Fox’s post-Modernism is erected on a fiction of Modernism so narrow as to be unrecognizable, a cartoon villain. (He makes all “the Moderns,” as he calls them, sound like clichés of third-rate Minimalism.) This seems particularly outmoded for the moment, when both our data and consciousness of the Modernist period are rapidly expanding again. Ultimately the appended name of post-Modernism itself implies a period obsessed with understanding the Modern as well as expressing an intention to do something other. It raises the question of how clean the succession has been, and whether the two areas will remain distinct as thinking about them proceeds. I don’t disagree that the post-Modern is different from the Modern, at least in degree, but their intensely symbiotic relationship which keeps both in a state of flux is as important as any sense of abrupt break. A further problem is that Fox’s fiction of Modernism becomes the basis for a fictional post-Modernism which, for all its seeming breadth, leaves out more than it lets in because it so downplays the role of form. And limiting Modernism’s achievement turns out to limit art’s ambition in general; it’s this sense of limited ambition, of lowered sights, that was discouraging. In his closing sentence Fox’s prognosis for the ’80s is subtly grim and troublesome: art is “not to provoke an indifferent culture but to create a new one.” How the second can be achieved without risking the first is not broached, but coming on the heels of the various references to “shareable values” these final words have an ominously bureaucratic, cog-in-the-wheel sound. This is not the future that the conceptual artists at the start of this show had in mind, and I can’t imagine that many of the other artists would find the directive to conform implicit in “shareable values” very appealing.

While exaggerating the differences between the Modern and the post-Modern, this exhibition simply herds everyone onto the post-Modernist ark and sets sail, but is actually set adrift. The failure to make crucial distinctions between things that look superficially alike but are not, and connections between things that look different but respond to similar imperatives, leaves the entire exhibition in an amorphous limbo of unexamined meaning. Any reference is a good reference, any attempt at meaning is relevant. There is no engagement with the various oppositions within current art practice, oppositions made all the more difficult because they exist even among the best and most ambitious artists. Rosenzweig’s chronology, for example, lists the founding of magazines such as The Fox and October right along with Tony Shafrazi’s all-male, unfortunately titled, “Champions” group exhibition. Although she does specially cite these magazines in her introduction as evidence of the growth of “Marxist/structuralist/poststructuralist theory,” there remains an implicit opposition between activities of this sort and the way that “graffiti” art, as she puts it, is marketed, which at the very least is a large topic for discussion—especially in a catalogue that pays such lip service to poststructuralism. Similarly, within the show, there is a continual confusion of subject matter in any state with serious artistic intention, of relatively innocent, straightforward depictions of the world with skeptical worldly reference built upon an equally skeptical self-reflexive examination of the means of communication. Thus Les Levine’s illustrational words and images are seen in company with Barbara Kruger’s surgical dissections of the causes and effects of oppression; Derek Boshier’s jokey Frightened Cowboy is juxtaposed with Joe Zucker’s cotton-ball painting of a cotton-bale hauler, a material image which alludes to the economic structure underlying the stuff he paints on and with; and John Ahearn’s cheerfully idealistic direct plaster casts of actual humans are near Andy Warhol’s images of celluloid images.

These confusions stem from the way the exhibition’s hero, conceptual art, is, like “content” itself, appropriated. First the show limits conceptual art to its most purely linguistic branch, then it refuses literally to look at it. As a result conceptual art’s narrative aspect, artificially isolated, is used to validate a lot of conventional narrative and representational art. Despite Fox’s contention that the return to content is the connecting link between ’70s and ’80s art heretofore mistakenly seen as pluralistic, ultimately this show does little more than present the same tired pluralism in a slightly different, more topical guise.

The notion that conceptual art was unconcerned with form is an idea with much currency, but perhaps it is time to see that it is repudiated by the best work in this area and by the progress conceptual and younger artists have made. It’s difficult to think of the big works by Kosuth and Weiner as formless or nonoptical, even though they are essentially dematerialized, or to ignore the way John Baldessari makes you see language as images, and images as language. Similarly, we can talk about Kruger’s use of the “picture plane’’ in the delivery of her messages. The effectiveness of both Kruger’s and Jenny Holzer’s work resides in part in their unorthodox and highly self-conscious use of forms (in every sense of the word) which confront “shareable values” in both art and life. In their work medium and message are inseparable, and nothing is taken for granted. This worldly articulateness of recent art which has made the Hirshhorn curators such avid post-Modernists has a formal side which they ignore.

The curators generally neglect to consider that the new emphasis on so-called content relates to a new kind of form, that there are specifically visual tactics by which today’s artists are seeking new ways to fuse subject matter to the indissoluble unit of form and content. Cutting across styles and media, these stem from various uses of multiplicity, fragmentation, juxtaposition, and the articulation of complex space—both mental and visual. These devices are variously apparent in the work of Alice Aycock and David Salle, John Baldessari and Julian Schnabel, Anselm Kiefer and Barbara Kruger. They are prominent in the work of artists not included at the Hirshhorn: Robert Kushner and Kim MacConnel, Jennifer Bartlett (especially in Rhapsody, 1975–76) and Sigmar Polke—who is particularly missed under these circumstances. They are also present, in a more subtly layered way, in Eric Fischl’s warpings of supposedly real time and space, and in Sherrie Levine’s imposition of a second making on previous originals. And they have also been an aspect of the past decade’s best abstract act, as seen in the achievements of Elizabeth Murray and Judy Pfaff, as well as of Frank Stella. The degree of fragmentation, the extremeness of articulation, may be a measure of achievement, as singleness and wholeness was for the Minimalists: Salle has taken it further than Fischl, for example. Overturning the Minimal ideal, parts have become as important as the whole, and not in a traditionally compositional or hierarchical way. In much of this period’s best art, parts are in conflict, open or covert, with each other, with the whole, and with the very idea of wholeness. It is a quality that runs through the look and feel of our art and through our criticism, as it does through our times.

There’s nothing in this that hasn’t already been said by various critics writing from various positions on various artists, whether it’s Jeff Perrone on Kushner and MacCannel (and better yet on Schnabel), Robert Pincus Witten on his “Maximalists,” or the poststructuralist critics on their carefully screened conceptualists and post-Modernists. While there are profound differences in their viewpoints, these writers, and probably most of us, are writing around the same issue, which is the need for a much more elaborate structure, a way to bring things together without turning them into a blur.

To their credit, this is what Fox, McClintic, and Rosenzweig are after; their show is a suggestive step in the right direction. They grant curating a theorizing if not exactly a critical function, and they point to the need for the “critical juncture’’ to be creatively examined through exhibitions. They also blast things wide open, organizing an exhibition which does not validate a single medium, nationality, or a series of highly visible reputations. (They could have gone further and shown that winnowing off abstraction from everything else is an obsolete distinction too.) But they also knock the supports out from under themselves in the process, hanging the whole amorphous mess on free-floating “content” without paying enough attention to form or giving enough credit to Modernism.

What’s finally so depressing about this show, in addition to its continual confusion of serious subject matter with serious artistic intention, is the feeling that there is no visual sense to be made of any of this, that there is no hope in working and thinking directly from what is seen. It may be that the attention to the “critical juncture’’ is not sustained enough. There is a crucial need for the nature of the break, if any, between Minimalism and conceptual art to be rigorously reexamined at this point. And the treatments of these two phenomena must at least be reversed as long as simplistic approaches to form versus content are in operation. Just as we must examine conceptualism more thoroughly in terms of “form,” similarly we must scrutinize Minimalism for its subject matter. But the real issue is that the terms “form” and “content,” and maybe even “subject matter,” must increasingly be seen as completely interdependent, as emanating from the same visual infrastructure, before the critical structure we need will become clear. Three times within the “Content’’ catalogue, reference is made to Stella’s famous statement, “What you see is what you see,” as an indication of the old order. “What you see’’ is still what we all, artist and viewer alike, must start with. As time passes we are seeing, and demanding to see, more and more between, behind, and beyond.

Roberta Smith is an art critic who lives in New York.