PRINT December 1996

David Sylvester


L’INFORME: MODE D’EMPLOI” (The formless: a user’s manual), at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, was one of the best theme exhibitions I have ever seen, one of the few that couldn’t have been done as a book or a film. The show’s intellectual interest was guaranteed, given that its curators were Rosalind Krauss and Yve-Alain Bois, but what made it great was the visual spectacle—the freedom and audacity, as well as precision and quality, in the selection and placement of the works. In four sections loosely organized around Georges Bataille’s notion of “the formless”— “horizontality,” “pulse,” “base materialism,” and “entropy”—a provocative network of relationships on the map of art, and life, was established through the kind of editorial knack Bataille himself demonstrated in Documents. Thus, perfectly chosen large-scale pieces by Mike Kelley, James Coleman, Cindy Sherman, and Gordon Matta-Clark were there alongside classics by Picasso, Duchamp, Arp, and Giacometti. Other key contributors, under one pretext or another, were Bellmer, Boiffard, Brassaï, Lotar, and Man Ray; Pollock, Dubuffet, Fautrier, Fontana, and Wols; Rauschenberg, Twombly, Oldenburg, and Warhol; Manzoni, Morris, Smithson, Serra, and Nauman. (With such an eclectic list, why was Beuys relegated to the catalogue, where he is the subject of a long denunciation—charged with being given to transforming the base into the transcendental rather than rejoicing in its baseness—it would have been more adult, having given utterance to that view, to display examples, allowing the visitor to make comparisons. When Krauss and Bois were appointed the exhibition’s commissaires, did they misread the contracts and think it said commissars?) But on the whole, the curators’ choices transcended the didacticism of the catalogue; “L’Informe” was animated by the compulsiveness of an artist’s creation.


In “Spellbound,” a generally unsatisfactory group show about film at London’s Hayward Gallery, DAMIEN HIRST, an outstanding artist, exhibited a movie—feature, not documentary—that was totally boring in a wrong sort of way. Is it a new or an ageless phenomenon when successful artists believe that their crap is gold?

David Sylvester is an art historian who lives in London. His most recent book is About Modern Art: Critical Essays 1948–1996 (London: Chatto & Windus).