New York

Silvia Kolbowski

The term “Formalism” continues to suffer from a rather parochial reduction to the status of a code word that refers exclusively to a circumscribed species of painting and sculpture. This conventional usage will not be dislodged easily, even though its companion notion of artistic purity insists by definition on an enforced balkanization of media that is untenable today. Art practices that are conceptual and directed at institutional critique are not exempt from spiraling into the tautological extremities of formalism, especially when the methodological mantles of seminal precursor artists such as Michael Asher, Daniel Buren, Dan Graham, and Hans Haacke are actively reappropriated. During the ’80s, somewhat younger artists such as Louise Lawler and Silvia Kolbowski flirted with the perimeters of a conceptual formalism that threatened to undermine their frequently trenchant infiltrations into the system of art-world institutions. It became increasingly unclear whether such artists wanted to reinforce the attributes of a method per se, or draw attention to the object, site, or institution under critical scrutiny. Kolbowski’s recent projects have alluded to this somewhat paradoxical state of affairs, but have also invariably suggested a kind of resigned capitulation to the supposedly “total” logic of cultural systems. Yet her analytic strategies do maintain a significant resonance when framed in relation to already academicized discourses on the nature of social, cultural, and sexual power relations.

Kolbowski’s new project, the second component of a series entitled “Once more, with feeling,” 1992, also revealed the hidden “politics” of the cultural institution—in this case, it was the public realm of the art gallery that came under analysis. Here Kolbowski attempted to rebuke the traditional (i.e. Modernist) tenet that the gallery is a neutral, blank architectural space into which should be deposited the vestiges of the artist’s creative production. As the press release dutifully pointed out, the artist proposed not only to debunk the mythology of authorial originality and the uniqueness of the autonomous art object, but also to break down the neutralizing effects of the international-style, “white-cube” gallery architecture (which supposedly glosses over political, ideological, cultural, and social specificity).

Doesn’t all of this sound awfully familiar? Well, it should, because Kolbowski is certainly not entering into new critical territory. Neither has she managed to develop a visual language that might, at the very least, distract us from the utter conventionality of these sentiments.

The economically organized installation was comprised of a number of distinct yet related elements. A newly constructed wall established a “substitute” enclave inside the predetermined space of the gallery’s architecture; within this territory, the artist placed one thousand posters in five stacks (available at $25 a piece), a huge horizontal stack of the corresponding one thousand packing tubes, a sample poster hung casually on the wall, and a gold silkscreen of the poster’s photographic image (a shot of an empty section of Postmasters) enshrined, rather ironically, behind a metal cordon. As if Walter Benjamin’s work had not already been thoroughly acknowledged, Kolbowski here insisted upon rehearsing a simplified version of his argument for us: since it is no longer viable to make unique art objects, the artist is compelled to produce an endlessly mediated chain of facsimiles. The mass-produced poster, which functioned as both straightforward exhibition announcement and post-unique art object, was designed to unravel and decode the pristine neutrality of the gallery; three texts floated over the image, each alluding to distinct ways in which our culture represses contradiction and difference so as to manufacture the artificial image of normalcy. While this was undoubtedly the most provocative element of Kolbowski’s project, in the final analysis it evinced the type of critical exhaustion one usually associates with the formal rituals of academia.

Joshua Decter