Allen Ruppersberg

Galerie Gabrielle Maubrie

Allen Ruppersberg’s autobiographical Conceptualism tracks his day-to-day life, without a trace of nostalgia for the metaphysics of self. It is in the elimination of its autonomy that the subject fears for itself, not based on an idealism whereby experience, in its immediacy, would rush in to fill the gap, but, rather, with respect to the mediation of multiple fictions, narratives, and stories that captivate the subject. Ruppersberg’s “Me” is a nomadic passage from narrative to narrative, a transference between life and fiction. Conceptual art is here a way of turning literature against the mythic construct of the artist. At the same time, Ruppersberg employs metaphor—its primary devices: the use of one word for another, someone else’s story as a vehicle to speak about oneself. Such is the narrative condition (both original and artificial) of the self—“The Myth of Metaphor” that Ruppersberg’s first Paris exhibition took as its title.

The show consisted of two installations. The first room was tiled in black and white as in the rooms in Dutch interior paintings, with the words “YOU” and “ME” added together (“YOU + ”ME“) or subtracted (”YOU - ME“). This game of oppositions figured the tensions of identity between self and other, artist and public, that animate Ruppersberg’s work. A series of pencil drawings entitled ”The Gift and the Inheritance,“ 1991, represents books from the artist’s library to which he is particularly attached and which will be given to the owners of the drawings upon the artist’s death. The drawing functions here as a substitute (metaphor) for the book. Ruppersberg draws the book (that is, the object), but retains the book itself. The drawing is the image not of the book’s story, but of the relation maintained between the subject and the fiction, and, in a way, between the artist and the collector, between the public and the private. It is an intimate, complex relationship, not without a certain pathetic emphasis (death as the conclusion of the work), nor a certain irony. This exhibition revolved around the myth of the ”bad woman," investing psychological and literary subcategories such as those of the Gothic and horror novel: the stories of Patty Hearst (on the cover of The Los Angeles Times), for example, or of the bewitched children in The Bad Seed, 1954, by William March, or in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, 1850.

This interweaving of fiction and biography is further emphasized by the presence of two letters—one from Virginia Woolf and the other from Katherine Anne Porter—both forged on hotel stationery by Ruppersberg who precisely simulated the writers’ styles. The group of works simultaneously provokes a sense of familiarity and one of artificiality resulting from the strange play on the writers’ correspondence and the choice of popular novels. Though sensationalistic and melodramatic, these texts influence the reader and thus the spectator.

The second installation, less successful, was based on a solitaire card game. The “playing cards,” arranged on the floor, consisted of posters for shows (such as one sees along the highways in California). Each of them posed an ironic question about life—“What should I do?” “Why do we fail?”—coming back again to the impossible presence of the self, to the self that can only be constituted through the mediation of the game. More humorous and direct, the visual impact of this work (House of Cards, 1991) nevertheless lacked the discretion and the distanced regard of the black and white tile installation. The game-playing aspect of “The Myth of Metaphor,” the taste for popular culture and its contingent ephemeral myths, does not contradict the narrative logic of this Conceptualism, but, rather, extends the artist’s field of action; for Ruppersberg fiction is an actual given of existence, not an esthetic category—a day-to-day element that introduces a gap between the self and the other. If Ruppersberg uses the mediation of fiction, it is not to flee reality via metalinguistic redoubling, but to make manifest the narrative nature of the world, its fictive texture. Far from reinventing the myth of the self as a stable essence, Ruppersberg’s art puts the subject to work as a nomadic substance, one that ceaselessly exchanges attributes with other narratives. Ruppersberg does not recount anything; he is not an illustrator. He only reveals the interpenetration of fiction and reality, books and life—a disgruntling prospect for those who think of fiction as merely a distraction without consequence, or a flight into the imaginary.

Olivier Zahm

Translated from the French by Diana C. Stoll.