PRINT Summer 1996


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 to do the job.

ROSALIND KRAUSS: The informe is a historical marker, like using terribilità if you’re talking about Michelangelo. Certain foreign words plug into pieces of art history or the history of ideas. It’s a liberty one can take. We wanted not only to plug the informe into a certain place in 20th-century French philosophical thought, but also to mark the exhibition as beginning in the ’20s. This is a historical exhibition that sweeps over a time roughly cosynchronous with High Modernism and is to be thought of as an alternative to High Modernism—not the lately fashionable alternatives such as iconography and content, or narrativity, but this other very powerful, rich alternative that took endlessly Protean guises: in the ’20s, Marcel Duchamp’s rotoreliefs, Picasso’s trash collages, Jean Arp’s torn papers, Giacometti’s horizontal sculptures; in the ’60s, Cy Twombly’s graffiti, Robert Morris’ threadwaste, Warhol’s shoe paintings. The informe is not about a form or a style but rather this Protean quality. We wanted to plug all this into a word with its own particular conceptual weight—Georges Bataille’s—and to give the exhibition a certain historical spin.

LS: You’re making an ambitious effort at declassification, which plays on the prestige of Bataille’s antiproject. A brief description of his “antiproject” would be useful.

Y-AB: In the late ’20s Bataille was defining his “philosophy” in opposition both to Surrealism, which he perceived as a disguised idealism, and to Western metaphysics in general. The Socratic opposition to anything that cannot have a form in the sense of eidos, or concept, is plugged into the Surrealists’ almost religious interpretation of the marvelous. In Bataille’s project, which he calls “atheological” or “scatalogical,” the informe is something like a first principle that defines what is excluded from Western metaphysics. The informe is understood as something that’s going to undo categories.

LS: There’s also the aspect of the incompleteness of Bataille’s own work.

Y-AB: That’s part of it, too. Bataille spent his life thinking the antiproject: how to undo man, undo utopia, humanism, rationalism, systems. One way to undo the system is by not making one. So none of his works were finished. He was someone who constantly undermined the possibility of—

LS: —the possibility of that closure?

Y-AB: Yes. And even the ambitious undertaking of the review Documents [edited by Bataille over its two-year existence from 1929–30], in which the text on the informe appeared, was partly planned to be unfinished.

RK: It was left unfinished not just because Georges Wildenstein, the patron, got bored with it, or found it too outrageous, but because Bataille had reached the end of the possibility of art’s positing the kind of critique he saw as necessary. The last text he published in Documents, “L’Esprit modern et le jeu des transpositions” [The modern mind and the play of transpositions], is a farewell to Documents, a way of saying he was going to have to move on to another field of protest.

Y-AB: And it was written before he knew that Documents was going to be stopped. So it’s a farewell that programmed the conclusion of the magazine before the end.

LS: Your show has two vectors of assault: toward the accepted principles of High Modernism, and art conceived as a thematics. How did you decide to formulate these two assaults within one show?

Y-AB: For many years I’ve been against an iconological reading of Modern art. I’ve been appalled that traditional art history denies that abstraction exists. We constantly have to battle against this ridiculous folding back of the work onto its referent. Ours is basically a post-Structuralist position. It’s also important to note that the informe has been transformed in recent years, especially in America, into a thematics of “abjection.” We thought it urgent to disengage the operation described by Bataille as the informe from this thematic reading. It’s a total misconception of his project.

LS: As your program, you set up four principles of High Modernism—the vertical, the visual, the instantaneous, and the sublimated—and counter them with four operations of the informe—horizontality, base materialism, the pulse, and entropy. In the context of Bataille, all these “fours” seem a bit pat.

RK: We wanted to counter the problem of thematicization with the idea of operation, a way of building relationships and units of experience that would not be thematic in kind, but something else. We came up with these four operations. Had we come up with five or three operations germane to Bataille’s project, then maybe we would have come up with three or five Modernist principles to combat. It’s an alignment of each operation against a Modernist precept.

Y-AB: Horizontality against verticality. Base materialism against the elision of matter in the high version of Modernism. The pulse against the exclusion of temporality. Entropy against structure.

LS: Given this “deconstructionist” slant, do you conceive of the informe as something that was repressed by art history? After all, the corpus of artistic work has been available.

RK: We’re not saying the work was repressed. Art history has a variety of ways of understanding formlessness which always recuperate it in relationship to theme. One of these is expressionism: it’s essentially recuperated as some version of the human subject and its various psychological states. Another typical problem is art history’s failure to deal with those aspects of a given artist’s work that touch on the informe. When I began thinking about Duchamp’s rotoreliefs in relationship to the informe, what struck me was that, in the mountain of literature on Duchamp, the rotoreliefs are the works that are not discussed. There isn’t any frame within which to discuss them.

Y-AB: Or Picasso’s Surrealist sand reliefs, or his plant with the roots that Bataille had photographed by Brassaï. It’s not by chance that Clement Greenberg didn’t talk about the fact that Pollock painted on the floor. Harold Rosenberg spoke of the arena for action, but he didn’t take the floor into consideration. We had to wait for artists like Robert Morris or Andy Warhol to really think about it as a determinant in the shaping of Pollock’s work.

RK: The art-historical understanding of High Modernism has an incredible number of blind spots. We feel that we’re filling them out.

LS: Would you say that you’re creating not only a new grid with which to read works of art but also a new corpus?

Y-AB: It’s a transverse corpus, allowing what’s been hidden by the system suddenly to appear.

LS: Reciprocally, how does this new reading and new corpus impact on established works? By putting a Pollock next to Claes Oldenburg’s fried egg, what do you get?

Y-AB: You get people to look at the little keys and the cigarette butts in the Pollock. It’s not a major achievement, but it gets people closer to the art.

LS: How does the fried egg bring the trash into relief?

Y-AB: Because a fried egg is flat in the pan. Plus, we’re hanging Oldenburg’s fried egg from the wall onto the floor. Giving the force of gravity and the quality of the paint the final say, or cutting the link between the artist’s brush and his hand or “inner being”—all this comes from the fact that Pollock worked on the floor. This aspect of Pollock’s work liberated many aspects of the practice of painting.

RK: There’s a certain resonance between artists that forms a system through which artists have interpreted each other—it isn’t just the art historians who are doing the interpretation, or the critics who are setting up the categories, and it’s not just artists who are contemporary with one another or part of the same movement. There’s a history made by one artist reading another artist’s work, and creating a kind of living commentary on it. We want to set up the chain of resonances in which, say, there is Pollock, then Warhol’s interpretation of Pollock, then Edward Ruscha’s. The movement—the interpretive leap—doesn’t go simply to the issue of horizontality and the graphic line, but the graphic line now understood as writing, as language, and what this movement toward the horizontal does to the possibility of the sign to hold out against gravity. Then we get Cindy Sherman’s yield to gravity, or Mike Kelley’s. We have a set of responses, and a sense that some new category is emerging, of which these artists are aware.

Y-AB: It’s a re-restructuring of the field. Duchamp’s Trois Stoppages étalons [Three standard stoppages] definitely has something in common with Pollock. But this was not an interpretive possibility before.

LS: But you’re not going to show the Pollocks on the floor.

Y-AB: No, we wouldn’t want to do that; he framed them as paintings and put them on the wall—

RK: But we’ll have a Dance Diagram by Warhol on the floor, because he showed it that way.

LS: To what extent might your restructuring extend to works that exemplify the accepted precepts of High Modernism? Take Rothko, for example.

Y-AB: Well, I happen to like Rothko, but I cannot imagine him entering into this discourse at all. Rothko would be cast as an oppositional figure.

RK: It isn’t about making a new reading that will then apply to everything.

Y-AB: It’s against this totalizing, in fact.

LS: I understand the show is cast against this kind of totalizing effect. But just as the now-parochial vision of High Modernism was applied massively to everything, it’s hard not to imagine that your four operations might open up new interpretive possibilities.

RK: Well, I’ll tell you something, it has loosened us up. It does shake up the brain a bit, and you begin to see things you wouldn’t have expected to see. When Yve-Alain was working simultaneously on the show and a catalogue text on Mondrian’s development, he saw that formlessness figures very importantly in Mondrian, saving him from an academic reading. You had to get there to understand Mondrian’s daring. Formlessness does a lot of work.

LS: You’ve indicated that the operations could be extended and that the show will demonstrate their porousness. Why did you choose the notion of “operations,” which sounds vaguely mathematical?

Y-AB: It’s an old Structuralist notion.

LS: But one borrowed from mathematics to make Structuralism sound scientifically proper—a conceptual constraint would have been anathema to Bataille.

RK: But Bataille uses the word operation himself when speaking about Manet’s Olympia. The way he gets out of the informe being taken as a category, a concept, a meaning, or a theme is by saying: we don’t define this word, we give it a job to do. For the contributors to Documents this idea of things having jobs had a strong ethnographic connection. The so-called primitive object was a fetish and was thus performative. It escaped objecthood altogether by participating in the performance of ritual. This seemed a potent alternative to Western metaphysics in which concepts and objects get married and stabilized. It was that stability that Bataille wanted to attack. The performativity of a certain type of art, together with Bataille’s definition, was a very tempting example for us to follow.

LS: What’s radical in your project is the switch from the long-standing notion of art as the making of form to that of art as the undoing of form, the world, the universe—

Y-AB: The rational thinking that organizes it.

RK: It’s our contention that certain artists did that. It would be pretentious to claim we’re doing that. We’re simply trying to respect and retrieve the projects of artists who had the radical idea to undo form.

LS: Why do you begin with horizontalization?

RK: It’s a very efficient way to understand the field of form. The position of the Gestalt psychologists was that form is vertical—a very Bataille-like thought—an extension of the human species having gotten off its forelegs and onto its hind legs, becoming vertical and thereby detaching itself from the ground and moving into a relationship to the space around it, a relationship of distance. Distance involves the constellation of an object of vision, a field in line with the body’s verticality, in a plane that is fronto-parallel with the plane of vision. Operationally speaking, if you flatten the object onto the horizontal field, you’ve moved it away from the visual, the condition of form, onto a field that attacks the notion of form.

The movement from the vertical to the horizontal is a big statement to make within art. You’re really bucking whole traditions. I was struck when William Rubin, one of the few Modernist art historians who supported Surrealism, stated that Surrealism had contributed nothing to the formal history of Modernist sculpture. Yet Giacometti’s decision to make sculpture that was nothing but horizontal, nothing but base, was a radical formal break only addressed recently.

LS: The reference to Gestalt psychology is appropriate for the period when Bataille formulated the informe, but what we now know about the physiological act of seeing is at variance with these Cartesian axes.

RK: The perception of art and artmaking over the centuries has been organized in relationship to those Cartesian coordinates. Whether that’s the way vision really works or not. . . .You look completely—

LS: Go ahead and finish—

RK: What, my sentence on how you’re looking? (laughter) With gravity-free experience—cyberspace or space travel—we might be able to project imaginatively into a world in which those coordinates are not determinant. But that wasn’t the case up until the last five years or so. So we’re not some sort of academics hanging on to a bunch of old-fashioned Gestalt psychological positions. Whether there’s another notion of how perception operates or not, the clinging to this outmoded notion of what the coordinates are has been the case willy-nilly, up until almost today.

LS: Rosalind, in your piece in the show’s catalogue you focus on what you see as aspects of horizontality in Cindy Sherman’s work. Since it’s crucial for the show, why is her use of horizontality sufficient to suggest the low?

RK: She’s locating her work in relation to a whole media culture that plays its own game with the vertical image, this perfected, armored, shining, phallic fetishization of the body. Insofar as its target is the fashion and publicity machine, pulling the body out of the vertical axis is an attack on “image.” It’s an attempt to lower these forms. Is that satisfying as an answer? I’m probably never going to satisify you. (laughs)

LS: On that point you may never satisify me. (laughter) It seems to me insufficient to get to Bataille’s sense of low.

RK: To get to the low in Bataille’s sense is almost impossible for art to do anyway. (laughs)

LS: To get a handle on the low, could you flesh out the second operation of the informe, base materialism? I should underscore that it’s the only operation that comes directly from Bataille; the three others are extrapolations.

Y-AB: Bataille was trying to define matter in such a way that it doesn’t become part of a dialectic or an ontology of what matter should be. He takes matter as the object of rejection of metaphysical systems.

LS: For him, all materialisms had traditionally been idealist systems.

Y-AB: He seizes on that issue many times. Base materialism is an operation to lower the idealist or metaphysical system.

LS: Which turned Bataille toward what he called “the obstinate fact of concrete things,” real presence.

Y-AB: He wants to prevent anything from being taken as a symbol for anything else—being transposed or deciphered into anything else. It’s matter as something irreducible. I stumbled on the heuristic strength of Bataille’s nonconcept of base materialism while working on Lucio Fontana. Most exhibitions had presented Fontana as this boring artist endlessly making his little slits. But that was only part of his production, and not the most interesting. Base materialism articulated the relationship between the plain scatology in Fontana’s sculpture and the notion of kitsch, or culture as waste.

LS: You’ve written that nothing is farther from Bataille than excrement, now you’re offering examples of base materialism as excrement.

Y-AB: Nothing is farther from Bataille than the ontologization of excrement, its transformation into theme. For him, excrement is functional. Bataille’s not interested in shit as it’s supposed to be. What he attacks in idealist materialism is the invention of a straightjacket for matter, the postulation of what it ought to be. Excrement’s not shit; it’s what’s excluded. We have a lot of Manzonis in the show, but we left out Merda d’artista [Artist’s shit] for fear it would conflate operation and theme.

LS: I get the impression that you accept excrement when it constitutes an impossible impasto, the artwork’s material substance.

Y-AB: Context counts. What we emphasize in Jean Fautrier, for example, is not so much the impasto, but its kitschiness. There’s a complete split between the pastel color overlay and the impasto. Fautrier made his so-called highly expressionist pictures like mass-produced paintings you can buy at Sears. We do, however, emphasize the matter in Fontana and in Rauschenberg’s Dirt Painting. Rauschenberg’s painting really exemplifies three operations: obviously, base materialism; horizontality, because it’s on the ground; and entropy, because it’s mildewed and will eventually crumble. All it doesn’t have is the operation of pulse. (laughs)

LS: But couldn’t it be argued that, like Manzoni’s Merda, Rauschenberg’s Dirt Painting is literal rather than operational? That seems to be at the crux of your objection to thematicization.

RK: We like it, and we’re willing to have one literal work. Just as the horizontal is functional within a structure, in opposition to the vertical, base materialism is operational within a structure, functioning within its opposition to the “should be” of matter, that matter should be one thing. The base material is matter fissioning, becoming two things. On the Freudian model of the double function of organs, everything is structured in a high-low opposition. Matter is involved in the failure to hold together as one, to cohere in a single state of itself, because it’s endlessly fissioning.

That quality makes the Fontana cube emblematic of base materialism. It’s geometry falling into the condition of the low. It both coheres and doesn’t cohere. I agree with you, Rauschenberg’s Dirt Painting doesn’t have the same purchase on the high-low bivalence of matter. The more relevant example would be his black paintings, which turn high formalism into low materialism, producing a scatological version of the high ideal of the monochrome painting.

LS: All the while remaining an esthetic object. Doesn’t that pose a problem?

Y-AB: Sure.

RK: That’s the ultimate problem.

LS: Given that the operation of base materialism involves the scrutiny of concrete objects, I wonder why you didn’t confront installation art and its pieces of the world.

RK: We didn’t think of this extrapolation. Now that you’ve raised it, I think it would have been a very interesting thing to do.

LS: Bataille’s notion of fetishism is critical to the way base materialism is articulated, although it’s idiosyncratic in that he uses it to refer to the irreplaceable, irreducible object. An excellent example of the fetish “without transposition” can be found in the opening pages of (Bataille’s short novel] Madame Edwarda: She spreads her legs, opens her labia and says: Look. . . Is there anything comparable in the visual arts to this suggested lack of mediation? The examples of fetishism you offer are the Fontana cube and the burnt plastic.

Y-AB: Well, (laughs) at least the burnt plastic’s an object and it does give you the shivers the first time you see it. We’re dealing with the constraints of works of art. Fetishism without transposition is a theoretical position. From the beginning, we were asked: how can you formulate the formless, how can you write about a non-concept? You’re going to conceptualize it. Well, so what? It’s useful.

LS: Will this theoretical position be perceptible in the show, if we agree that art is, by definition, transposition? This was, after all, Bataille’s position on art.

RK: Wait, I object. What you set up was the opposition between transposition, which is a mediation, and an unmediated experience. The unmediated experience of an object like a work of art is when that work is performative, when it says, in the way you had Madame Edwarda say: Look, or act, or do. Ritualistic objects and propaganda are examples of works of art that are performative. The idea that works of art exist solely in a world of mediation and are never immediate needs to be examined.

Y-AB: Bataille himself had doubts about the possibility of art being anything other than mediated.

RK: Our position is not necessarily Bataille’s. We’re aligned with Bataille when it pleases us to be so, and not aligned when it doesn’t. Although Bataille gave up on art, artists didn’t. It’s not like art came to an end in 1930 when Bataille discontinued Documents. Artists continued to have projects we want to address and we have every right to do so. “Informe” is not a show about Bataille and art. It’s not a show about Bataille. The show is a kind of bet. The bet is that it is possible to make visible a Bataillean interpretation, a concept—whatever you want to call it—by sheer choice of objects which we reinterpret through this structure to make it something that can be thought in art. We’re not particularly interested in Bataille as an art critic, or Bataille’s tastes in art.

Y-AB: Bataille gave us the concept, or the nonconcept, of the informe—which helped us articulate many things that we couldn’t otherwise. And, in fact, for both Rosalind and me, this revelation came through our work.

LS: Eroticism is one of Bataille’s fiefs. How is the operation of the pulse modeled as transgression against form?

RK: Just as base materialism is about the fissionability of matter—the divisibility of any definition, its instability—the pulse is another form of instability: one that has a temporal dimension. Within the experience of the pulse, form is involved in a scampering along, a tracking of desire. Duchamp’s rotoreliefs track the instability of any form continuing to be itself, and desire somehow works its way through those channels, endlessly searching for another and another and another object. Desire maps onto this temporal unraveling of form.

LS: Yve-Alain, you’ve described the rotoreliefs as visual coitus.

Y-AB: That’s totally banal—

RK: It’s almost the standard reading of the rotoreliefs. But no one asks: What’s at stake? Form needs to exclude the temporal. Film is a temporal art; you have motion. But at any one moment, in most films, you have a stable image. The flicker effect in early films undid that stability. The image, in any given present, doesn’t cohere. Duchamp transcodes that flicker into a spiral pulse, into this other, more sexual throbbing. He transcodes it from the eye to another organ.

LS: What about Giacometti’s Suspended Ball, which is also in the show?

RK: The erotic quality is a caress that organizes itself in the imagined idea of the ball swinging over the wedge. But the caress utterly disorganizes the identities of either form. Once again, the idea of motion is coupled with the deontologization of the visual object. That’s really what the beat seems to do. Once you bring in actual sex, it’s literalization. It makes it too easy to miss the work’s operational quality, to overlook what’s at stake for form or the larger art project. It defuses the explosive, disruptive quality of the pulse as an operation with many possibilities.

Y-AB: It’s like when you stand in front of Robert Morris’ Footnote to the Bride. You look at something, and you can’t actually quite see what’s happening. It’s very slow. Suddenly the thing is moving to a point where you see it, and you have this flash: a breast. You feel totally dumbfounded.

LS: The fourth operation is entropy. Strictly speaking, it’s a measurement of increasing disorder in a closed system. Aren’t you using the term pretty loosely?

Y-AB: Yes, but it’s been used that way since the 19th century. It’s the process of gradual deliquescence of every system, and it suggested to us the gradual decrepitude of form. What had struck everyone, when the law of entropy was discovered by thermodynamics, was its cosmic consequences; it meant the sun would eventually become cold. Entropy is a gradual decrease in energy. Bataille’s view of expenditure might seem antientropic: the sun produces too much energy; the surplus has to be spent. But Bataille’s expenditure becomes waste, the invasion of the world by dirt and dust. We were guided by many artists’ interest in entropy. Robert Smithson’s use of the term was determinant in our reading. We were able to return to works like Jean Arp’s Papiers déchirés [Torn papers] and Duchamp’s Elevage de Poussière [Dust breeding]. It’s not a concept elaborated in Documents, although the review did publish a text by a scientist—

LS: Yes, Hans Reichenbach contributed a text indicating that entropy was merely statistical and that was the end of the issue for Bataille.

RK: I object to your objection. You’re taking everything to the letter of the text. I know you’re trying to provoke us. (laughs) With the show, we’re trying to construct a discursive space, using a founding text. But that text, which is Bataille’s, can be seen to have many resonances, even some that the founder couldn’t have foreseen.

LS: Granted. Still, it’s confusing to read that Jean Dubuffets melting in the heat are entropic, which is conceivable, but so are Bruce Nauman’s sculptures of interstitial space, because of a cooling effect.

RK: Why couldn’t they both be entropic?

LS: Because the change from empty space to solid, which you interpret as “cooling,” would yield a low-entropy state. It would make the Naumans into the Einstein condensates of art.

Y-AB: No, entropy was defined by [early 19th century French physicist Nicolas Léonard] Sadi Carnot as the gradual transformation of a structure into a state of indifferentiation, the reduction of energy to zero. That’s the way we use it.

RK: We don’t see why the Dubuffets couldn’t melt into indifferentiation or why the Naumans couldn’t clog up all the spatial interstices, producing indifferentiation in that way.

LS: A propos of indifferentiation, one of your beefs with High Modernism is that its sublation and sublimation expel the body. Yet the way the mirror reflections in Smithson’s Enantiomorphic Chambers trigger the informe—

RK: —also expels the body. With entropy, we make the distinction between the informe and High Modernism’s erasure of the distinction between figure/ground. It was essential to distinguish between High Modernism’s eradication of the body and this loss of the place of the self in the Smithson Chambers. When you’re talking about the nitty-gritty of form and not-form, you’re working close to the bone of how art gets made, how it signifies, and how certain discursive structures make similar effects signal something else.

LS: How did kitsch sneak into the show as a suboperation of base materialism?

Y-AB: Adorno claimed that kitsch is the production of waste, of the trashy by-products of culture, and thus a “poison” in every work of art that must be expelled.

LS: You’ve acknowledged that in order to recognize kitsch you need distance, as well as knowledge of that against which kitsch might be recognized. Therefore, you state explicitly that kitsch is dialectical.

Y-AB: The type of art we have in mind is an attempt to escape this condition of kitsch being dialectical.

LS: We’ll see whether art succeeds. For the moment, I’m sorely tempted to ask whether all the operations aren’t dialectical.

Y-AB: I think they’re not. To be dual and to be dialectical is not the same. Dialectics supposes a thesis, an antithesis, and a synthesis. We use the standard definition.

LS: So you go looking for unmediated kitsch.

Y-AB: Well, it’s complicated. There are artists who tried to escape this dialectical condition. Fontana produced kitsch even before he knew it existed. His father manufactured industrial tomb sculptures in Buenos Aires. Fautrier produced the Original Multiples not out of defiance of high culture or as part of an intellectual project. He wanted to make masterpieces available to the masses.

LS: Last year, Georges Didi-Huberman published La Ressemblance informe (Formless resemblance), a close reading of the short-lived review Documents. Cross-cutting between both the review’s articles and iconography he proposes a very different understanding of the informe: clashes of disparate images that yield an unforeseen resemblance, altering their meaning, that is, montage. He makes the connection to Eisenstein. What are your objections?

Y-AB: He tries to transform Bataille into a dialectician, whereas Bataille’s originality lies in his effort to escape from dialectics. Bataille is a dualist: there are two terms, not three. The word dialectic appears once in Documents, when Bataille was tremendously impressed by a lecture Eisenstein gave at the Sorbonne and Eisenstein was asked to publish a set of film frames in the review. Didi-Huberman turns that into proof that Bataille is a dialectician.

RK: It’s about magic words. He doesn’t have a theory; what he says I find incoherent. I don’t know what “formless resemblance” is supposed to mean.

LS: Yve-Alain, you’ve indicated that Didi-Huberman’s reading is not totally ridiculous; it’s quite close to what Bataille was doing when he applied the informe _to art.

Y-AB: Yes, but Bataille had a very traditional, figurative notion of art. Didi-Huberman is taking the Bataille line himself. Too bad. It’s not useful.

LS: So he may be right about what Bataille meant by the informe.

Y-AB: No, I think he’s wrong, because he reads the informe as theme. That might be what Bataille was doing when he himself thought about art and in this sense Didi-Huberman might be closer to his taste. But who cares? It’s like if you went hack to Freud’s texts, and wanted to argue that Freud was only interested in antique art. What’s the relevance?

LS: Rosalind, in the pages of the catalogue you devote to Hans Bellmer and the uncanny, you identify Allan McCollum’s Dinosaur Footprint as the “absolute particular,” “the utterly contingent this,” which would seem to be what Didi-Huberman means by “symptom,” the term that short-circuits “reconciliation” in his negative dialectic.

RK: I wish he’d said so.

LS: I’ll say so. What did you mean?

RK: It proposes a singular “this” against the concept, against systems that generalize away from the resistant fact of something. But I find it hard to talk about the symptom as some singular “this,” insofar as the symptom is part of a system of substitution.

LS: Can we try to wrap up the ultimate distinction between the informe and what the art world currently calls “abjection”?

RK: The whole effort of the show—as you’ve pointed out in your questions, and as we’ve indicated in our answers—is a Structuralist rereading of so-called abjection. Bataille argued that any structure produces excess or waste. What interests him is what waste does to the system, rather than the fact that the waste is shit or sperm. The system produces the heterogeneous at both the high and low ends: God and the lumpenproletariat are both examples of waste. That the lump in lumpen should be baby talk for shit is welcome to him, but not necessary. When Mike Kelley theorizes the lump in lumpen, he expresses the politicized view of this structure. For me, the literalization or banalization of this structure into thematicizable things is a travesty. Excess is the abject as operation and thus as informe rather than substance or theme.

LS: One last question. With all of this transatlantic theorizing, why are you doing this show in Paris?

RK: They’re the only ones that would have us.

LS: Is that true?

Y-AB: That’s true.

Hans Bellmer
Jacques-André Boiffard
André Breton
Pol Bury
Lygia Clark
James Coleman
Marcel Duchamp
Jean Dupuy
Alberto Giacometti
Eva Hesse
Yayoi Kusma
Eli Lotar
Man Ray
David Medalla
Robert Morris
Bruce Nauman
Jacques Prévert
Hans Richter
Richard Serra
Paul Sharits
Yves Tanguy
Jean Tinguely
Raoul Ubac

Marcel Duchamp
Eva Hesse
Mike Kelley
Robert Morris
Claes Oldenburg
Jackson Pollock
Edward Ruscha
Kazuo Shiraga
Robert Smithson
Cy Twombly
Andy Warhol

Alberto Burri
Jean Dubuffet
Jean Fautrier
Lucio Fontana
Piero Manzoni
Claes Oldenburg
Pablo Picasso
Jackson Pollock
Robert Rauschenberg
Bernard Réquichot
François Rouan
Cindy Sherman
Andy Warhol

Giovanni Anselmo
Jean Arp
Hans Bellmer
Mel Bochner
Jean Dubuffet
Marcel Duchamp
François Dufrêne
Robert Fiore
Oskar Fischinger
Raymond Hains
Piero Manzoni
Gordon Matta-Clark
Allan McCollum
Bruce Nauman
Claes Oldenburg
Pablo Picasso
Man Ray
Edward Ruscha
Richard Serra
Robert Smithson
Cy Twombly
Raoul Ubac
Jacques Villeglé