New York

Sophie Calle

Sophie Calle’s exhibition is profoundly skeptical. With insidious understatement, which amounts to a kind of brutalization, works of art, artists, and viewers are shown up or, rather, deflated until they become absurd, even meaningless. It is as if neither artist nor spectator can “really” see works of art, as if they’re for the blind, for indeed there is nothing to see. Calle is a nihilist of the highest intellectual order: a nihilist who does not even believe in what she is engaged in—making art. She shows that the question of what constitutes artmaking is a problem beyond solving—a false problem because there is no such thing as art, only opinions that crystallize around a void. It is all pure mystification—a magic trick, maybe a paranoid conspiracy we perpetrate on ourselves.

She gives us two installations which are best described in Calle’s own words. In Blind Color, 1993, Calle writes, “I asked blind people to describe what they see, contrasting their sayings with descriptions by artists of their monochrome paintings. Works by Alan Charlton, Yves Klein, Piero Manzoni, Robert Rauschenberg, Ad Reinhardt, Gerhard Richter.” Last Seen, 1991, includes the text, “On March 18, 1990, five drawings by Degas, one vase, one Napoleonic eagle and six paintings by Rembrandt, Flinck, Manet and Vermeer were stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. In front of the spaces left empty, I asked curators, guards and other staff members to describe for me their recollections of the missing objects.” In Blind Color, the actual monochrome paintings are exhibited along with texts by the artists and blind people, none of whom agree on anything. The statements of both sound like hype—hype that has become indistinguishable from the truth.

And what is the truth in art, exactly? In Last Seen, Calle juxtaposes photographs of the empty spaces where the stolen works once hung with quasi-Proustean recollections that possess a pseudotranquility. The result in both installations is a veritable jamboree of free associations—a sound and fury of words that may signify nothing at all, or everything. Calle’s installations are simultaneously pregnant with profound meaning and brilliantly hollow.

What is the point of it all? To make more conceptual art that may or may not have something to do with art, if there is such a thing? Yet Calle’s “things” are so precise as to be sensuous, as though precision in and of itself were subliminally erotic. She has marvellous good taste—almost enough to pass for conceptual eloquence. In the end, her installations are a combination of what Clement Greenberg called “Good Design” and safe taste, which perhaps is the only way the dilemma of the relationship of works of art, artists, and viewers can be solved. She has brought art-at-the-service-of-the-mind to the cul-de-sac it was destined for, showing that all along it was an adolescent idea—a case of arrested development.

Donald Kuspit