New York


Vrej Baghoomian Gallery

The piece in Arman’s recent show I most liked was the only one that included the tops of the paint tubes in addition to the squeezed containers and their spilled contents. The round black caps serve as islands of control in the blaze of uncontrolled color, stable points in the shapeless flow. All of the “Monochrome Accumulations,” however, have an intensity, a dynamic that seems at once fierce and lyric, violent and tender. The sometimes random, sometimes regular arrangements are characterized by both orgiastic anality and abstract eloquence. The paint seems to become libido at its purest—which is libido as pure ambivalence—even while the works sardonically mock painterliness, and, indeed, painting. Arman has given us paint as both means and end, as both content and form; here painting is simultaneously obsessive theme and playful idea, retaining its Platonic purity by reason of the exact correspondence—indeed, oneness—of the idea and its materiality.

Through the years, Arman has assembled all kinds of things—particularly objects associated with the arts—at once violating and apotheosizing them, turning them into ruins even as he fetishizes them. The accumulation and compulsive repetition of nearly identical items both acknowledges the physical and social identity of the object and presents it as a metaphysical ideal. That is, the object becomes ontologically sacrosanct by reason of its potlatch presentation. Indeed, Arman’s accumulations are sacrificial acts that provoke a perverse kind of meditation on what they sacrifice. Here, it seems, the sacrificial victim is art itself, or more particularly painting as an elitist emblem of art. Arman’s problem is how to keep painting going when it seems obsolete, or at any rate, no longer credible. The answer seems to be, at least on one level, to exploit the exhibitionism immanent in all art that constitutes the explicit essence of painting. Arman in effect exhibits the virile member of modern painting—the paint tube and its liquid pigment—as an artistic thing in itself. He has made the phenomenon of painting into a noumenon; or has he made the noumenon of paint a phenomenon?

Dare I say that, whatever else they are, these works are beautiful? That is, for all their inherent wildness, the final result is peculiarly harmonious and particularly French. Let us not forget that even though Arman is officially American, he is temperamentally French, for he does the most lascivious things with style. In these works he brings to a climax the project initiated by Cézanne—the liquefaction of painting, until it seems nothing but a source of pure sensation. But whereas Cézanne preserved painting, Arman explodes it, and his sensations have a power of visibility that seems to exist beyond their physical site. He gives us sensation as an implacable absolute that seems to have dropped into art accidentally, as though resting on a flight across the ocean of the invisible.

Donald Kuspit