PRINT Summer 1993


IN A RECENT EXHIBITION BY Jean-Marc Bustamante, one room—either the first or the last in the show, depending on the visitor’s route—was dark. Inside, on the far wall of the space, which was empty except for a modest projector on a tripod, you could watch Michelangelo Antonioni’s film La Notte (The night).1 No displacement or appropriation here, no desire on the artist’s part to absorb the film somehow into his own work: just a “presentation,” a screening, in conditions recalling more intimate times and circumstances the family watching home movies, say, or the showing of films at school. Given Bustamante’s age, the very date of La Notte—1960—evokes childhood.

Yet the presentation at the same time suggested a more sophisticated conception. For one thing, it implied a truly spatial experience, even a sculptural one: the spectator had to move about, stand, or sit on the floor, breaking the habits, the rituals, of ordinary movie-watching before being able to decide what attention to give the film’s black and white images. And many of those images themselves—the entire scene, for example, of the game between guests at a party—seemed to function as references to what the viewer had seen, or would shortly see, elsewhere in the exhibition: particular ways of handling duration, light, silence, and architecture. But these parallels were left for us to untangle and appreciate by ourselves; they didn’t have the overdetermined character given them by this kind of listing. On a broader level, then, Antonioni’s film, both in the way it was shown and by its very presence in the exhibition, recalled the type of relationship of art and artist to viewer on which Bustamante’s works are based—a nonauthoritative rapport, a kind of fertile indeterminacy, which the artist terms the “entre-deux” (the “between the two”), and which at its best can allow the viewer to become “equally responsible for the work.”2

This indeterminacy appears in Bustamante’s very earliest works, the “Tableaux” and “Paysages” (Landscapes) of the late ’70s—color photographs of views that are, in the artist’s words, “without any overparticular documentary quality or character.”’ Their aim is pictorial but not picturesque: made with an eight-by-ten-inch view camera, they have a certain heightened quality of light and an accuracy of visual information, and, in an effect reminiscent of allover painting, everything on the surface has the same precision and weight. Indeed, the eye has no clear point of focus on which to concentrate. The ensuing back-and-forth between two regimes of vision—a scanning of the field and an attention to particular points—demands from the viewer an expanded time frame of looking, a certain duration beyond the moment of the first glance. Yet nothing seems to merit such attention; nothing is revealed in these images if not a total absence of spectacle, indeed of any event whatsoever.

Most of the pictures contain no human figure. But traces of humanity are everywhere in these scenes of roads, planted fields, telephone poles, shelters of different kinds (bus stops, for example), and houses (sometimes under construction, their materials displayed like letters in some invasive alphabet). These sites are anything but urban, but you know somehow that the city is never far away—that these are edges, borders, zones of demarcation. Piles of sand, concrete blocks, a stack of bricks, red-lead-coated metal structures—looking at the photographs now, you can’t help noticing that some of Bustamante’s later works seem to appear here, as if waiting to be put together. Stationnaire II (Stationary II, 1991), a series of concrete boxes each containing the same photograph—a frontal view of a curtain of trees—reverses the logic of this order: instead of the photograph containing the construction, the construction contains the photograph.

Beginning in 1983, Bustamante and the artist Bernard Bazile collaborated under the name BazileBustamante. “At the end of the ’70s, there were practically no more objects. Our association under that name was a way to produce objects again—varied, heterogeneous objects—and to justify that heterogeneity by erasing the identity of the artist, based as it is on the assumption of a biographical personality,” notes Bustamante.4 The two artists focused on the manufactured object, and in particular on the advertising image, the pictograph, and the logo. They might combine, for example, a limited-edition carpet by Sonia Delaunay, a reduction of a table and two chairs to their essential signifiers in the form of cut-out steel outlines, and two fluorescent-light tubes, all laid flat on the floor to constitute Le Tapis (The carpet, 1985). For BazileBustamante, the supermarket shelves, as easily as Diderot’a encyclopedia, might contribute treasure-troves of motifs to be recycled or rerouted.

Bustamante’s first works after the collaboration came to an end, in 1987, retained something of the heterogeneity that had been a feature in the work of the team but was missing from his earlier photographic work: Le Sac (The bag) is a combination painting and engraving, on the underside of a sheet of glass, of a stylized bag motif, and La Table et la voiture (The table and the car) combines two found objects—a small glass car placed on a little wooden table. Other pieces put a jumble of iconography and references to allegorical ends, as in the immense Les Fleurs (The flowers, 1987), a group of blue blossoms painted under glass, in which the flowers’ pistils, along with the black interstices between the petals, may be read as an image of the sinister logo that at least in France has come to represent the AIDS virus. Yet the body of sculpture Bustamante showed in Paris in 1988, in his first solo exhibition after resuming work under his own name, had a new kind of detachment, more interior and certainly calmer, by his own acknowledgment “a new departure. . . . When you’ve been round the world, you come back home.”5 Indeed, the show took an openly domestic turn. Intérieur I (Interior I, 1988) was a large, two-part, horizontal panel standing low to the floor—something between a card table and a bed. Intérieur III, 1988, created the same kind of “entre-deux” in familiar objects and tools by evoking a hybrid cradle and wheelbarrow, though a heart-shaped hole in the bottom accentuated the object’s nonfunctional character. The same feeling, always accompanied by a vague sense of physical malaise, occurred in Intérieur II, 1988, with its four rounded wooden cots (including mattresses) incongruously stacked up at an angle to the wall. A 1980 photo from the “Tableaux” series showing a closed round house, trim and spruce as a model or toy, set the tone of the show, which was completed by Verre bleu (Blue glass, 1988), a simple, shimmering surface suspended two or three centimeters off the floor.

Bustamante’s move toward the intimate, the familiar—the affects of the domestic sphere, at once private and communal—must be interpreted, it seems to me, as an attempt to reconnect fully with experience. Let’s go back a bit: in an essay in Partisan Review in 1949, Clement Greenberg predicted a brilliant future for the “new sculpture” in the following terms: “Sculpture has always been able to create objects that seem to have a denser, more literal reality than those created by painting; this, which used to be its handicap, now constitutes its greater appeal to our new-fangled positivist sensibility, and this also gives it its greater license. It is now free to invent an infinity of new objects and disposes of a potential wealth of forms with which our taste cannot quarrel in principle, since they will all have their self-evident physical reality, as palpable and independent and present as the houses we live in and the furniture we use.”6 Over the next dozen years Greenberg changed his mind on this issue, and no longer considered the possibility of a future for sculpture other than a pure, optical state, a phenomenological “mirage”7 (what Anthony Caro would try to achieve with his painted sculptures of the early ’60s). This turnaround, I think, reflects the fact that what for Walter Benjamin in the late ’20s, in “One-Way Street,” had been merely a symptom appeared thirty years later with the full weight of self-evidence: “Heat recedes from things. Contemporary practical objects repel man, gently but insistently. In short, he must daily make an enormous effort to surmount the secret resistances—and not only the open ones—that confront him.”8

Since mirages are unable to provide the stuff of thought and creation in any reliable way, it was left to Minimalism to take account of this “hostility” on the part of the object. It was Minimalism that put the gazing subject “back on its feet” in three-dimensional art, in works that didn’t make formal novelty or compositional invention their primary concern, but that nevertheless assured a renewal, a deepening, of experience. Minimalist sculpture remains an important reference for Bustamante and other artists of his generation, but at the same time poses a challenge: those who want to preserve a sensitive, active echo of Minimalism must also try to displace it, to put it to the test of new postulates, to cross it with media and classes of objects hitherto foreign to it. I am thinking, of course, of those uses of photography, for example, or of allusions to furniture, that were abundant in ’80s art, encouraging a belated recognition of “divergent” ’60s work such as that of Richard Artschwager (in whom Bustamante acknowledges an interest). Thus in Inventaire (Inventory, 1989) Bustamante moves away from the readymade to play on the Minimalist grid, elaborating a series of variations on certain everyday objects. The library is the model for this bookshelflike framework, each square containing wooden rectangles and a mirror—an object usually entirely at the service of vision, yet here rather difficult to see, introducing a semantic shift that opens the work up to interpretation.

Crucial to Bustamante is the paradigm of the game. There are ties with childhood here, and with the exploration of the “third zone” between subject and object that D. H. Winnicott, in Playing and Reality, counts as a childhood precursor to what for the adult becomes the zone of cultural experience.9 The game is one of the first modes of spatial organization we learn. Inside the space or scene that it delimits, movements can be made that are regulated yet unpredictable, indeed unlimited, in their combinations. And one can step out of this space at will; it is “removable.” Then one can open it up again without altering its specificity.

Consider, then, Stationnaire I, 1990, and Stationnaire II, both of them series of boxes—again, an echo of Minimalism. But the distribution of these boxes in the space is left to the discretion of whoever installs the piece. As in a game, then, there are a number of fixed elements and an open number of possible arrangements. Consider also the three orange-and-white “Sites,” 1991–92, large, very low, flat steel daises that Bustamante says he considers “real and imaginary places; they determine spaces that are deposited, displaced, floating, incomplete in relation to a known reality. These places are accessible and at the same time forbidden, present and at the same time in a state of becoming.”10 Uniting opposites, this “at the same time” reveals the essential instability of this work—the “double distance,” both near and far, in which we must visualize it. Besides evoking the fantasy of childhood games, it also restores some sense of “aura,” in Benjamin’s sense of the term.11

Play is the profane aspect of ritual, traces of which it buries and preserves. in a work from the series “Lumières” (Lights, 1991), children hold hands in a ring beyond a swimming pool. The series is constituted of black and white photographs silkscreened onto Plexiglas sheets; the effect is to dematerialize the image, which lies as if held in suspense between its transparent support and the wall to which it is fixed, and that gives it its particular luminosity. Play is equally explicit in Bac à sable (Sandbox, 1990) literally a sandbox, which I like to see as a distant descendant of the one Robert Smithson saw during his memorable 1967 visit to the “monuments of Passaic.” Smithson later made that visit the subject of a sort of narrative a clef on how the return to childhood places is lived as experience of the impossibility of experience; the outlines can be discerned here of the dialectic between site and nonsite that was ultimately determining in the artist’s work:

The last monument was a sandbox or a model desert. Under the dead light of the Passaic afternoon the desert became a map of infinite disintegration and forgetfulness. . . . Every grain of sand was a dead metaphor that equaled timelessness, and to decipher such metaphors would take one through the false mirror of eternity. This sandbox somehow doubled as an open grave—a grave that children cheerfully play in.12

Bustamante’s Bac à sable II, 1991, in which the sandbox is covered over with a red-lead-coated metal lid, similarly evokes the funereal side of every game.

Last year, in a site-specific work of a kind new to him, Bustamante took part in an architectural competition to create a design for a public square in Montreal. The project incorporated various distinctive elements from his own oeuvre, attempting, for example, to treat this immense space as intermediary between the public and, if not the private, at least the necessary withdrawal that accompanies the return to the self. Throughout, the composition preserved a sense of playful indeterminacy. Both open and closed, organized by simple horizontal planes (tables or platforms with no apparent use), Bustamante’s square, had it been built, would have been a space of reflection disturbed by the possibility of play.

Jean-Pierre Criqui is an art historian and critic who lives in Paris.

Translated from the French by Diana C. Stoll.


1. The exhibition was at the Stedelijk Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, in 1992

2. Jean-Marc Bustamante, in conversation with the author.

3. Bustamante, in an interview with J. F. Chevrier, “Jean-Marc Bustamante: Le Lieu de l’art,” Galeries Magazine, February/March 1990, p. 79.

4. Ibid., p. 80.

5. Bustamante, in an interview with J. Sans, “Jean-Marc Bustamante,” Forum, May–August 1992, p. 71.

6. Clement Greenberg, “The New Sculpture,” The Collected Essays and Criticism, ed. John O’Brian, Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1986, 2:318.

7. See the version of the same essay published in Greenberg, Art and Culture: Critical Essays, Boston: Beacon Press, 1961, p. 144.

8. Walter Benjamin, Sens unique (1928), French trans. Jean Lacoste, Paris: Maurice Nadeau, 1988, pp. 158-59. Published in English in One-Way Street and Other Writings, trans. Edmund Jephcott and Kingsley Shorter, London: NLB, 1979.

9. D. H. Winnicott, Playing and Reality, London: Tavistock Publications Ltd., 1971.

10. Bustamante, in an interview with C. Francblin, “Jean-Marc Bustamante: le proche et le lointain,” Art Press no. 170, June 1992, p. 24.

11. On the notion of “double distance” in relation to the ideas of “place” and “aura,” see Georges Didi-Huberman, Ce que nous voyons, Ce qui nous regarde, Paris: Minuit, 1992, especially pp. 103–23. The reading of this work is indissociable from that of the author’s following book, Le Cube et le visage, Paris: Macula, 1993.

12. Robert Smithson, “The Monuments of Passaic,” Artforum VI no. 4, December 1967, p. 51. Republished under the title “A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey,” in The Writings of Robert Smithson, ed. Nancy Holt, New York: New York University Press, 1979, p. 56.