New York

“The Return of the Cadavre Exquis

Rarely does the firstborn name its parents, but when the Surrealists first played a sort of parlor game in 1925, it resulted in the sentence “The exquisite corpse will drink the new wine,” and ever since the game has been known as the Cadavre Exquis. In the game, a piece of paper is folded into as many segments as there are players (usually three or four); the first player writes or draws something on the first section, which is then hidden in a fold as the second player adds something to the next section, and so on; until the “corpse” is complete, none of the players is to have a knowledge of the whole. “The Return of the Cadavre Exquis” demonstrates that new wine must generally be good for cadavers, as a veritable Who’s Who of over 1,200 contemporary artists participated in the benefit exhibition (initiated by curator Ingrid Schaffner and artists Kim Jones and Leonard Titzer) to produce an incredible array of works.

Exquisite corpses by artists such as André Breton, Frida Kahlo, and Joseph Beuys were included in the exhibition to set the historical backdrop. The “head” of a 1938 collage by Breton, Jaqueline Lamba, and Yves Tanguy is a fish astride a sphere that looks like a cross-section of its innards, while the “torso” is a sort of hydraulic device sprouting weeds and chalice for arms, all of which is balanced on a wedge of cheese and the legs of a skeleton. While such Surrealist works all look typically Surreal (they achieve, even if in spite of themselves, a stylistic unity), the contemporary exquisite corpses tend to break down into a patchwork of individual styles. In a 1992 work, Jim Shaw has drawn a kitschy head that looks like Jerry Lewis, crying with his mouth open to reveal a pair of buck teeth; Sue Williams has added a big, bloated belly inscribed “IMPOSSIBLE THINGS ARE HAPPENING EVERY DAY”; and Nicole Eisenman has contributed cartoonish feet that look like they’re running in place. While these three artists are not such strange bedfellow—s—all do caricatural graphic work——even the relative unity of their figure disintegrates into their very recognizable signature styles. In fact, many of these works look less like exquisite corpses than dismembered ones. In a 1993 work, male and female parts are cobbled together into some gender-confused Frankenstein: Kelly O’Bosky’s sketch of bare feet in a pair of open-toed pumps is topped by Vik Muniz’s photographic collage of what looks like men’s legs, above which hang two little brown sacks (breasts?) sewn on by Darren Brown beneath a sort of ’50s G-man head drawn by Sergio Bessa. Finally, many works dispense with the anthropomorphic corpse altogether in favor of the exquisite: in an elegantly spare work of 1993, Bruno Jakob dangles a sealed piece of paper from a thread, Harry Philbrick creates a translucent surface with a bubbly texture, and Felix Gonzalez-Torres pastes on a photograph of a gull seen against dark clouds raked by a shaft of sunlight.

To say that these contemporary exquisite corpses are stylistically disparate is not the least bit negative. No doubt these disparities result largely from the fact that the works were not produced beneath the banner of an ideologically cohesive (restrictive to some, like Antonin Artaud) movement such as Surrealism. The first exquisite corpses made by Breton and company were thought to unleash the power of a collective unconscious, but such rhetoric has rightly given way to a fresh set of paradigms, ones whose figureheads are less Freud and Trotsky than Deleuze and Guattari. If indeed in vino veritas, then new wines must bear new truths.

Keith Seward