New York

“Sense and Sensibility”

Despite Minimalism's lingering status as the apotheosis of American-style Formalism, it was never any more “content-less” than other art. Over the years, however, the meanings assigned this work have been subject to considerable revisioning. Michael Fried was among the first to question the neutrality of Minimalist sculpture, condemning its invasion of the viewer’s space as subversive theatricality. Rosalind Krauss viewed the deployment of highly repetitive structures as rooted in “the obsessional’s unwavering ritual,” rather than in rationality. More recently, Anna Chave fueled the escalating discursive wars over Minimalism’s interpretation with the charge that the movement’s mostly male practitioners wielded the language of formalist sculpture to articulate a “rhetoric of power.” Given this history, little prompting was needed to view the work of the handful of contemporary women artists presented in “Sense and Sensibility: Women Artists and Minimalism in the Nineties” in terms of a feminist displacement of Minimalist machismo.

The Museum of Modern Art has never been known for promoting social relevance in the arts. Indeed the institution has been notably reluctant to address the politics of artistic practice—let alone to champion political art itself—and its treatment of controversial subjects has been limited to a well-defined safety zone. Should we regard “Sense and Sensibility” as a long-overdue break with this institutional reargardism? To all appearances, with this exhibition MoMA threw its hat into the ring on two counts: first, by belatedly entering into the discussion of the complex ideologies that underwrite Modernist practice and its theorization; and second, by attempting to compensate for its neglect of previous generations of feminist art, thus ’fessing up to its own complicity in the marginalization of that work. Upon closer inspection, however, it is evident that MoMA neither accomplishes nor even genuinely attempts either.

Lynn Zelevansky, the curator of “Sense and Sensibility,” makes a very big claim in the opening paragraph of her catalogue essay: “Minimalism . . . has a place in the second half of our century akin to the one held by Cubism in the first half.” Not Pop art, mind you, not Conceptual art—the perpetual nemesis of the institution—but Minimalism. This assertion is suspicious because it asserts Minimalism’s hegemony in order to wrest a linear sequence from a network of competing trajectories. Cubism was an epoch-making innovation in that it collapsed Renaissance-style perspective into a surface geometry of fractured planes, foregrounding the tautological dimension of representation. Within a mere five years its formal vocabularies constituted an international style. Minimalism’s innovations were less earthshaking; though it did employ production values that challenged conventions of facture and decisively tested key notions of authorship and originality, much of its formal vocabulary and rhetoric was recuperated from previous Modernist moments. Zelevansky’s equating of Minimalism with Cubism, then, should be seen as largely rhetorical—as a pointed strategy that allows her to construct a mythology of origin and to make Minimalism’s influence over the second half of the century analogous to the wide net Cubism cast over the first. Crediting Minimalism with this exaggerated power, Zelevansky traces the dominance of the grid, geometry, and repetition—her rather simplified list of Minimalism’s principal common denominators—from the ’60s through “post-Minimalism” in the ’70s and into the final decades of the century. Here, the single thread of her argument begins to fray, exposing her proposition for the facile attempt at mastery that it is. Under the rubric of post-Minimalism, all manner of art and artists can be brought into the fold: “feminist” art can even be accounted for merely in terms of formal structure—a schema that would make Carl Andre and Hannah Wilke kissing cousins. The results are self-evidently ludicrous.

If MoMA has a genuine interest in the depth or difficulty of art inspired by or related to feminism, it would not be proffering the work exhibited here (as Zelevansky’s catalogue essay might lead one to believe) as recompense for all those female artists who never received institutional approval in the ’60s and ’70s. The works included in “Sense and Sensibility” either evidence a failure to articulate the complexities of gender, identity, and sexuality, and to grapple with their translation into representational form, that is as pronounced as the curatorial parochialism that brought them together, or they pointedly strain the program, revealing its limitations.

Polly Apfelbaum’s is among the contributions that never get beyond worn-out one-liners. She gives us colorful stains on white stretch velvet (signs of menstruation and the premenopausal female body) instead of the “seminal” sign of masculinity—the gesture. Folds of blotched velvet or gridded stacks of patches (as in Splendor in the Grass, Glory in the Flower, 1993) are displayed on the floor, suggesting the violation of the sanctity of the art object. Apfelbaum’s titles are rather playful and often refer to storybook characters—Snow White, Sleeping Beauty—presumably as a means of examining the roles traditionally assigned to women. Such froth, however, cannot mask the preciousness of her stains and velvet patches or the shallowness of her take on feminine experience.

Rachel Lachowicz, who also borrows narratives from fairy tales, presents a work entitled Broken Glass, 1993, which denotes cultural conventions of love and feminine beauty through iconographic reference to the Cinderella tale. Pairs upon pairs of glass slippers—some intact, some smashed—are intended to evoke the conflict of woman as the subject and object of desire, but could just as easily be interpreted as the rags-to-riches working-class dream come true.

Claudia Matzko’s “feminism” is equally remedial. Untitled (Tears 2), 1992—a wall-size grid of brass disks soldered to straight pins, pushed into the wall, and doused daily with a saline solution—renders women’s suffering transcendent. Predictably, Matzko’s elegant installations and sculptures equate female experience with purity, beauty, and “spirituality.”

By contrast, works by Jac Leirner and Andrea Zittel exceed the conceptual limitations of this curatorial conceit, pointing to one of the greatest weaknesses of the show: the attempt to ignore or even erase the differences among these artists. Leirner’s relationship to neo-Concretism or Zittel’s to the Bauhaus, not to mention the subtext of institutional critique embedded in Leirner’s consumer-culture quilts, stitched together from museum gift-shop plastic bags, or the problematic of scientific behaviorism that motivates Zittel’s work, are all damagingly obscured.

The erroneous assumption that waylays Zelevansky’s “feminist” reading is that such a thing as “feminine” experience exists at all—at least to the degree that we can identify and codify shared perceptions and psychologies through a body of iconographic signs. Such thinking reinforces conventional views of women and ignores the role of difference in the process of individuation. With Zelevansky’s feminism as the governor of content and the throttle on interpretation, important questions are overlooked. Consider the work of Mona Hatoum and Rachel Whiteread and their indebtedness to previous practice. Haroum’s installation, Light Sentence, 1992, is a literal grid of identical wire-mesh lockers stacked to configure a rigid, geometric prison-house that evokes confinement and conformity. The eerie glow emitted from a single naked lightbulb in slow, circular motion increases the sense of discomfort and desolation—qualities that also emanate from Whiteread’s Ghost, 1990, a plaster cast of the parlor of an abandoned house in North London. The specter that haunts both artists is the work of Bruce Nauman—his plaster cast of the dead space beneath a chair; his wire-mesh cage that both invites and intimidates viewers with subtle threats of torture. Do we dismiss the indebtedness of these artists to this key precursor because it belies the promise of a “feminist” reading?

Zelevansky’s attempt to maneuver women into the institution is no doubt well-intentioned, but the “sense and sensibility” she delivers is troubling. By showing work that is often little more than a platform for delivering platitudes about feminine experience, she implies that women artists are somehow circumscribed by traditionally “feminine” concerns. Flowers, menstruation, tears, broken dreams and storybook endings, servitude and sentimentality, ephemeral beauty and spiritual transcendence—did the curator get this script from Seventeen? In Zelevansky’s hands, and under MoMA’s auspices, “feminist” content takes a giant step backward to the pioneering days of Womanhouse when “feminine” iconography consisted of the most conventional images of the “second sex” and conformity of voice and spirit prevailed.

One of the major failings of the first-wave women’s movement and the art it inspired was its inability to critique itself. Spirited enthusiasm and lack of experience account for the narrowness of its vision. We came together only to discover how different we really are. And now the institution whose exclusionary policies serve as the textbook example of sexual discrimination opens its doors to us with an interpretation of history and contemporary practice that reinforces its authority, insults our intelligence, and presumes we should be grateful! This is business as usual, thinly disguised. Cosmetics and tears and sentiments about home and a little romp with Cinderella might be adequate to an adolescent sensibility, but endless rehearsals of the most mundane stereotypes of femininity have little interest for those of us, and our male counterparts, who long ago learned to question authority and to think for ourselves.

MoMA hasn’t changed its tune, it’s just temporarily shifted into a minor key. As far as “women’s art” is concerned, it’s telling us, elegance counts for more than intellect, and form takes precedence over content. If it’s got a good body—in this case, the pedigree of the grid, geometry, and repetition fit the bill—who cares what words come out of its mouth. What’s really at stake is the perpetuation of a formalist tradition and the ability of an institution to validate its own authority by absorbing dissent and neutralizing opposition to the hierarchical history it continues to advance.

Jan Avgikos