New York

Syvia Kolbowski

That writing necessarily distorts the memory of the event it chronicles may be the principal irony of Sylvia Kolbowski’s recent installation, entitled Review, 1989. This time the culprit takes center stage. Raised to the status of this year’s exhibit, the various letters, manuscripts, student papers, and published reviews about Kolbowski’s previous show, Enlarged from the Catalog: USA, 1988, create a hall of mirrors in which the image of the original exhibit becomes remote. This collection is likely to elicit additional commentary—which, in turn, might inspire more art.

Taken together, the descriptions of the 1988 show are puzzling, indeed; the various writers’ impressions don’t add up to a coherent picture. The need to render vision in words constitutes art criticism’s Achilles’ heel, its most pathetic weakness. The following contradictory remarks are culled from some of the pieces Kolbowski puts on display: “The installation consisted of a series of display cases containing silk-screened images produced by an overlapping of plates from the original catalogue; a typical corporate couch; a map representing the superimposition of the floor plan for the American Wing over the floor plan of Postmasters Gallery; and an ample supply of Kolbowski’s altered American Wing catalogues.” “Plexiglas exhibition cases set atop white rectangular bases introduced the primary local vehicle for constructing the museum’s archival object.” “A plan of the wing was superimposed over the Postmasters floor plan, and display cases, a bench, and catalogues are strategically located near stairs and elevators.” “The nine display cases contain silkscreens resembling blueprints taken from the Met’s original catalogue. . . . The second room displays a silkscreen of the same nine images, reduced and arranged within one frame so that the specific origins of each disappear into the false unity of an abstract pattern.” “The unusual prints were displayed in such a manner that they could be looked at from any angle.” “Nine freestanding Plexiglas vitrines displayed collaged photo-silkscreen images of individual pieces from the museum’s collection. The dense overlappings and horizontal display of these collages obscured easy identification of the objects.” The descriptive permutations of the same basic scenario seem like something out of Alain Robbe-Grillet. Even a ghostly photo reproduction accompanying the very last text, John Zinsser’s Art in America review, offers only modest relief.

In Reviews, Kolbowski also references John Constable’s Study for Cumulus Clouds, 1822, by reproducing it in postcard form. The artist superimposed a string of 21 white blocks over the postcard image of Constable’s painting, a string that corresponds to the 21 pages of written documents Kolbowski has reproduced in blue, matted, framed, and put on display. Ordinarily thought of as things that block our view, for Constable clouds became the thing under scrutiny. Conversely, Kolbowski’s presentation of reviews doesn’t offer itself as a means to vision, but as an obfuscation of it. Yet just as Constable’s Romanticist painting only provisionally reconciles the expressive with the empirical, so the microcosmic history of Kolbowski’s last exhibit admits anomalies throughout. Even the artist herself, who is known to question power relations, consigns the student writers to anonymity while clearly identifying each of the art critics. In other words, information always comes with some agenda, hidden or not.

John Miller