New York

Christian Boltanski

New Museum of Contemporary Art; Marian Goodman Gallery

Let’s forget Christian Boltanski, the master of melancholy and penance, the genius of gloom, commemorator of the Holocaust, and look at him in a different, strictly stylistic light: as a Minimalist redivivus. His work in both exhibitions shows a striking redundancy of rectilinear form. Box after box, face after face, candle after candle, cutout after cutout—Boltanski gives us classes of objects, not individual ones; typical forms, not particular ones. This is made especially clear by the wall of neatly arranged children’s clothes at Marian Goodman Gallery. Here, Boltanski’s art is systemic, his gloom is general; whatever intimate quality it may have is dissolved in its uniformity.

Beyond Boltanski’s seriality, his work has a Minimalist, fitted look—everything falls into place. Indeed, the pieces are rigid in their logic, which is undoubtedly part of their ritual import—they are, in effect, altarpieces—but what counts is their predetermined look. Boltanski’s reverence does not lead to transcendence, but to morbid involution. His altarpieces have no intense light with which to elevate and edify. Boltanski’s art betrays a number of Minimalist associations. His works’ surfaces, of whatever kind—from tin to photograph—have a militant flatness. A number of the photographs are blurred into nearly pure texture by means of enlargement and rephotographing. They emphasize secondary detail at the expense of primary shape, or, rather, set up primary shape as a static stage for secondary detail, making it all-consuming; the exaggerated detail creates heterogeneity within the homogeneous format. The work has a scenographic effect, only it isn’t really dramatic. Nothing truly happens; static immutability reigns, as in a tableau. All these factors contribute to the metaphysicalizing effect of the work. Flatness, stasis, the sense of predetermination and abortive drama—all create the illusion that the work is transcending its very obvious physicality in the act of declaring it.

Boltanski’s works seem stuck at the moment when the lights are dimming in a theater: we are bogged down in preparation for a deep, interior experience. But we are not really given such an experience; Boltanski never really puts us in interior blackness. Rather, his death-infected memories, reeking with absence, ready one for a nothingness that never truly appears.

Boltanski is caught in a twilight zone somewhere between Ad Reinhardt and Goya. He offers us neither absolute nothingness nor its intimation through the conjunction of world and personal history; neither the purity of absence nor the panic that occurs as its possibility becomes actuality. Rather, it shows a certain hostile emptiness. The hostility is strongly suggested by the schizoid disconnection with which his figures are presented. No doubt that is because they are prematurely distanced in memory and literally can never return from death, but also because they are touched with everyday banality, as the album-snapshot look of the photographs suggests. Boltanski’s style never remedies that mundane look, which is the real coarseness. He does not even make the suggestion of redemption. Instead, he creates a strangely nescient art, which may be more about the different, inconclusive ways we can forget than about remembering what is deeply buried and hurtful.

Donald Kuspit