As an undergraduate, I took a survey course in art since 1945. The course followed a predictable, almost teleological progression, as Abstract Expressionism was succeeded by Color Field painting, Pop, Minimalism, Conceptualism, and . . . and then, sometime in the ’70s, everything fell apart. Suddenly, just as the course was coming to an end, just as we were breaking upon the present, the satisfactions of identifiable stylistic and intellectual currents wore out. Our professor characterized this moment as one of pluralism, introducing it as the consequence of our contemporary condition (postmodernism in its “weak” sense, as opposed to the “strong” version associated with Pictures artists, etc., a subject left out of this course’s purview). And pluralism was a big downer.

“A/drift,” an “exhibition-as-allegory” in the words of its curator, Joshua Decter, cast a wide net in what seems like an attempt to come to terms with weak post-modernist stylistic proliferations in the context of strong postmodernist theoretical elaborations, however tenuous their application. So, what precisely did “a/drift” allegorize? Decter, in a brief curatorial statement, said that the show “employ[ed] the idea of drifting to suggest the increasingly porous quality of today’s cultural life.” He then adumbrated eight “fluid zones”: “Elasticity,” “Carnal Matters,” “Almost Dumb, Distracted and Apathetic Enough,” “A Lovely Entropy,” “Lifestyles of the . . . ,” “TV Heads,” “Where Is the Identity?,” and “From Reticence to Smart Anger, Nihilism to Hope and Back Again.” While some of these “zones” bear rather ungainly titles, the field of reference with respect to recent art is quite easy to parse: the omnipresence (omnipotence?) of the mass media, the body and sex, abjection, a crisis in stable identity formations and a supplementary art of (affirmative) identity politics, etc. Decter’s introduction to “a/drift” also explicitly extended the visual field to movies, television, pop music, and fashion—which is to say, the exhibition belonged as much to the domain of “visual culture” as it did to art per se.

The porousness of which Decter spoke necessarily abrogates or at the very least (ironically) brackets the distinction between art and other cultural products. So in one rather pedestrian sense, “a/drift” simply reenacted the high/low antimony for the zillionth time. That it did so in a manner that was often visually compelling and entertaining was the exhibition’s greatest strength. Decter assembled an impressive array of famous as well as relatively obscure contemporary artists, most of whom could be said to belong to the Pop/Conceptualist dispensation. With some ninety-four artists working in painting, sculpture, photography, video, and mixed-media installation, the exhibition was certainly ambitious, its scope quasi-synoptic. (Decter even opened his own curation to “porous” interventions from other critics, viz. Olivier Zahm and Elein Fliess of the Parisian magazine Purple Prose.) The exhibition’s design, by Judith Barry and Kenneth Saylor, was very handsome. While “a/drift” was perforce pluralist in its inclusions, it avoided a messy, unhappy look. And the look, as we shall see, was key.

So then, why was this show so annoying? Part of the problem was the parsimony of critical voice; Decter’s statement is nugatory, and probably deliberately so. No doubt he intended the critical dimension to emerge chiefly through the juxtapositions of works as one navigated the various zones. For example, Decter articulated the zones “Where Is the Identity?”/ “Elasticity” through works by Georgina Starr, Stephen Shore, Catherine Opie, Dana Hoey, Karen Kilimnik, Larry Clark, Sharon Lockhart, Cindy Sherman, and Jack Pierson, among others. As it turns out, (elastic) identity was worked out primarily in photographic artworks that emphasize posing and/or the figure in repose. The curatorial ideal here is Benjaminian: to compose a critical text consisting entirely of quotations. This is a hard thing to do, and Decter can’t be taken too much to task for not quite pulling it off. At the same time, what he and the show’s designers provided in terms of textual markers and installational cues did provide enough information to figure out just what the “real allegory” of “a/drift” is. The exhibition’s very title is bloated with postmodern/poststructuralist signifiers: the notion of drifting evokes the names of Deleuze, Guattari, Lyotard; more distantly (but no less chicly), it recalls the dérive of the Situationists; the solidus itself materializes a sort of Derridean brisure. Writing of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, Slavoj Žižek characterizes the novel’s ideology as “spaghetti structuralism.” The curatorial and installational ideology of “a/drift” could very well be called spaghetti postmodernism. We aren’t really dealing with anything so ostensibly fancy as “discourse”; we’re dealing with themes, good old-fashioned themes like you might find in a Victorian novel—or, more precisely, in the Cliff Notes to a Victorian novel. What’s happened is that discourse, and all those other similarly critical-sounding words, has yielded to easy thematization—that is, yielded to precisely the sort of implicitly positivist language of description that those concepts were invented to resist.

The exhibition’s themes were literalized in the installation. The names of Decter’s various zones were not immediately apparent upon entering a gallery; rather, they had been pushed toward the floor and the edges of walls—you know, to the margins. Roundels were painted on the walls throughout in various Martha Stewart-ish colors. Surprisingly, they never overlapped, considering that a Venn diagram would concisely represent the elementary set theory of the zones. Sometimes we got a round aperture, allowing us to see into an adjoining gallery: porousness. Sometimes the circles projected from the walls as video display stations: hey, why not call these protuberances rhizomes?

Certain artists were interspersed through different zones—the Factory photographs of Stephen Shore and Billy Name recur, as do Raymond Pettibon’s drawings and Stephen Prina’s What’s wrong? . . . , 1996—which is fine. But the reigning leitmotiv must be Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ Untitled (Sand), 1993–94, four versions of which appear in different zones. Do you get the drift? Mutability, transience, terra incognita, shifting sands. Sand.

David Rimanelli contributes frequently to Artforum.