New York


The Brooklyn Museum, Marisa del Re Gallery, Sonnabend

Arman seems to have striven throughout his career to reduce the artistic process to two simple operations: plus/minus, add/ subtract, accumulate/annihilate. These three exhibitions (the Brooklyn retrospective is Arman’s first major exhibition in a U.S. museum since 1974) make these two poles of his production clear: in series like the “accumulations” and the “poubelles” (trashcans), Arman’s assemblages are made by amassing and hoarding different objects of various worth; in series like the “colères” (tantrums) and the “combustions,” they are made, respectively, by smashing and burning objects. The irony, of course, is that even these latter methods end up creating objects; this is perhaps what Arman means when he claims that “there is no fundamental difference between accumulating an object or smashing an object, 1,000 objects are not fundamentally different from 1,000 pieces of the same object.” The end result in either case, one presumes, is art. But are matters really so simple? In Accumulation Informative, a work in the Brooklyn show, 18 bulky copies of the Sunday New York Times, dated November 16, 1969, are arranged in a gridlike manner in a shallow Plexiglas box mounted on the wall. The day’s head-line reads: “250,000 WAR PROTESTERS STAGE PEACEFUL RALLY IN WASHINGTON; MILITANTS STIR CLASHES LATER.” A photograph shows the protesters filling the vast field beneath the Washington Monument; their tremendous mass subtly reiterates Arman’s strategy of accumulation. A smaller headline declares that “TEAR GAS REPELS RADICALS’ ATTACK.” Are 1,000 objects really the same as 1,000 bits of a smashed object? A mass of protesters is a movement, a smashed protester a casualty.

Arman sometimes creates these accumulations using piles of trash, sometimes piles of commodities. For instance, in the new works presented at Sonnabend, Arman uses large grids of aluminum compartments to display various household items—clocks, fans, steam irons, teapots, espresso machines. The appeal of these works is like that of the store display: an attractive arrangement, a promise of abundance, the commodity as fetish. In some works, however, it is not altogether clear whether the objects in Arman’s assemblages are commodities or dejecta. In a work in the Brooklyn Museum show, Le Village des Damnés (The village of the damned, 1962), a glass cabinet is stuffed with small dolls (the title derives from a 1960 B-movie in which a rural village is beset by a mysterious group of children who turn out to be aliens). Are the dolls commodities or castaways? Are they castaway commodities? Either way, the vitrine ultimately serves to remove them from the cycle of consumption and waste. They become, like mummies or freak creatures preserved in jars of formaldehyde, objects of pure contemplation—museum objects par excellence.

The works at Marisa del Re, entitled “Arman/Cycles,” suggest that the artist is only too aware of how well his works lock into their institutional infrastructure. These new pieces are essentially reliefs of paint, disassembled bicycle parts, and paintbrushes mounted on canvas. In works such as Seurat’s Bike, 1992, Jasper’s Bike, 1992, and Balla’s Bike, 1991, Arman appears to be trying to ironize the situation by poking fun at some Modernist masters. Yet these mangled bikes are going nowhere. Moreover, even when he is working with trash, as in the “poubelle” series, the vitrine merely serves to interrupt the cycle of waste so that we can look at it. For instance, in the Premier portrait-robot d’Yves Klein (First robot-portrait of Yves Klein, 1960), Arman inverts a common portrait convention, wherein a subject is described through the display of his possessions, by seeking to characterize Klein through a selection of his trash: a snippet of Tintin, some old clothes, a few pages from Gaston Bachelard’s La Terre et les Rêveries du Repos_, a photograph, some sheets of paper colored with International Klein Blue, etc. Is Arman estheticizing garbage, is he violating the vitrine? Neither? There is ultimately a strange collusion between the two. The vitrine, which normally isolates objects from our touch, seems perfect for garbage. Is that Klein’s underwear? His dirty judo robe? Whatever it is, you don’t want to touch it. Moreover, as the materia prima for the portrait, the junk bears an inherent relationship to its subject. It is authenticated by its passage through the life cycle and thus becomes oddly auratic. It is the ultimate in unreproducibility. Perhaps it is not the face, as Walter Benjamin thought, but trash that will prove to be the final refuge of aura. And Arman, for all of his tantrums, combustions, piles of garbage, and so forth, will thus have given the autonomous object safe passage to the museum of the future.

Keith Seward