New York

“The Art of Memory/The Loss of History”

New Museum

This exhibition succeeded insofar as it intended to present works that make us conscious of time and to demonstrate the workings of memory; but it failed, becoming inadvertently comical—a self-satire—in that it presented these works as socially and esthetically “radical.” They don’t live up to that self-made claim because they are informed by a hackneyed sense of what is radical. It’s comical to show Martha Rosler’s 1985 video installation Global Taste: A Meal in Three Courses, a neo-trendy conjunction of the subjects of colonization, the self, and the media/advertising, as advanced, or even significant, art, or as an important example of critical social consciousness: it is all too un-self-critical. Benjamin Buchloh has described it as “factographic” (can we say neoillustrative?); I prefer to regard it as having the worst case of the clichéd “managed negativity” that pervaded this exhibition.

Rosier, among others, achieves form by the facile strategy of juxtaposing different contents pertaining to the same reality; “radicality” is achieved by offering a simplistic interpretation of this reality. Many of the works in the exhibition simply don’t try hard enough to integrate content into form but allow it to stand out as irreconcilable, which shows the work to be naive and shallow as art. When the work is formally successful, content is lost sight of (which, I suppose, is what happens superficially in memory). T. W. Adorno has written that “the quality of an art work is largely determined by whether or not it meets the challenge of the irreconcilable . . . Content, far from being expunged, surfaces again as a result of form’s relation to the irreconcilable [world].” But when there is no significant formal effort to transform resistant content, the work as a whole collapses into its components. This exhibition seemed to suggest that artful remembrance is really a kind of forgetting of significance.

At first glance, much of this art strikes one as intelligent and analytic because it uses media-available information in a high-art way; at second glance, we see that it does little with that information. Bruce Barber’s framed Remembering Vietnam photoposters from 1985 juxtapose the same corporate advertisement—a nostalgic whitewash of the war—with three different quotations from The Winter Soldier Investigation: An Inquiry into American War Crimes (1972) and three discrete images or Vietnam reality. This "protest/accusation’’ art is not new; its use of juxtaposition to mimic the structure of a social contradiction hardly does the job any longer. One respects Barber’s moral intention, but the weak artistic terms in which it is presented seem to trivialize it. ls Barber doing any thing more than showing the art world his credentials as a thinking radical, and will his art passport help him pass as one in the extraart world?

There were many familiar names here—among others, Richard Prince, Sarah Charlesworth, Troy Brauntuch, and Adrian Piper. René Santos’ series of untitled portraits based on photographs of prominent 19th-century artists and simulated abstract paintings presents the look that is supposed to guarantee that one’s art will be in the vanguard: the integration of photography and painting to demonstrate “the social construction of representation.” Is Santos or any of these artists really significantly “critical?” I don’t think so. Their deconstruction of art and social representation (“public art”) is one and the same, generating an effect of parody/ irony; but this is no longer critically revelatory. Parody/irony has become an esthetic end in itself—and a cliché increasingly hard to breathe life into. (This points to the show’s examination of memory’s stereotyping, or generalizing, process.)

If that’s true, then Charlesworth’s Herald Tribune, September 1977, 1977, with its parched-earth-of-art approach, is probably the most beautiful work in the exhibition, because it is so extreme a parody of both an art object and a representation of reality. A photographic series of newspaper layouts from which all text has been eliminated and only the pictures remain, the work loses its identity as a critical seeing-through of the front-page-news/painting format and becomes a superior kind of vulgar abstraction—that is, an artfully staged negation, or finessing, of a vulgar social surface. Perhaps there is more art here, in terms of a formalist obscuring of reality, than I had originally thought.

Donald Kuspit