New York

Francis Bacon, Louise Bourgeois, and Franz Xaver Messerschmidt

The sculpture fitly arches, achieving a rare sanctity—what earlier commentators on the Sublime declared to be a grace beyond the reach of art. It is possible to say it represents a lithesome body caught as if springing out of an acrobat’s routine, where the back arches in midair so that the tips of the middle fingers can light on the heels of the feet. Louise Bourgeois calls this work Arch of Hysteria. And yet a serene equilibrium centers its form. Still, the sense of delirium conveyed by the title sits comfortably next to this sculpture’s poise, because the hub of rationality is absent; a head for this figure has never existed.

It is not that the sculpture is imperfect; rather—as Rosalind Krauss has written about Bourgeois—it is a “part object”: an undiminished expression of subjective, creative desire where the center of rational experience is not merely superfluous but antithetical to the work’s psychoanalytic reach. “The part-object,” Krauss writes in reference to the Kleinian term, “speaks to the imperiousness of the drives, to the rapacity of their demands, to the way the body can, in the grip of fantasy, be riven.” In this way, Arch of Hysteria is both an object of creation, springing from subjectivity, and destruction. This headless body is “fearful” in Kant’s sense, in which fear is a dynamical form of the Sublime, where one “can regard an object as fearful without being afraid of it.”

Arch of Hysteria is remarkably absent from this exhibition of the work of Bourgeois, Francis Bacon, and Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, yet the “awful” sculpture, reproduced in a closely cropped photograph in the dainty exhibition catalogue, serves well to broach the astonishing avenue of “fear” curator Jean Clair has created in this congress of “part objects.” From Messerschmidt, he has assembled a string of rarely seen self-portraits that heralded the Viennese Baroque sculptor’s encroaching insanity. His choice of Messerschmidt serves to encircle the works of Bacon and Bourgeois with a complex of creativity recoiling into terrible madness. Bacon is represented in kind by three shrieking, monstrous paintings never before seen in this country. In the company of the Messerschmidt busts, they are as traumatic as the four works by Bourgeois, including the notable Fillette (Little Girl) of 1968.

In his essay, the former Pompidou curator and current director of the Musée Picasso writes of the collections assembled by physicians and psychologists that filled the walls of the Lombroso Museum in Turin and the Ethnological Museum at the Trocadero. Inside, deformities were catalogued and delirious artifacts classed. Central to understanding Clair's exhibition is the way in which each physical deformity and vestige of psychosis was seen to be the seat of pure creativity while also expressing something gone asunder. He argues that these collections emerged at the heart of a modern aesthetic that touched Bourgeois and Bacon, if not somehow Messerschmidt too: “Once assembled and deciphered, they would become what the statues of Antiquity, the glyptotheca, had been to Academic teaching: the foundation of a new Science, a science, not of the Beautiful but of the True.” He is correct, but there is something yet more vital here than just a recounting of influences on influential artists.

Clair’s career is a history of conspicuous imagination. It has been imposing, as when he turned the 1995 Venice Biennale into a rectorate address on the history of the imaging of the body in the twentieth century. The only proper way to think of this obsessive display is as Clair’s obsessive display, a parade of his desires, one of those rare moments when the creation of an exhibition is felt more zestfully than its components—truly a sum greater than. Clair’s curatorial practice indeed evokes Kantian fear and awe, channeling a psychic experience that slings the viewer between hysteria and the sublime. Here, to his advantage, Clair, like the Arch of Hysteria, has freed his curatorial practice from an unhealthy overdetermination. This magnificent strength has been cited over and again in parallel cases of artists like Bourgeois, but here it applies to the effort of the curator as well.

Clair insinuates that “hysteria,” the “sublime,” and “desire” are more than abstractions ground down beneath a late modern drone. Our culture, he intimates, is tapping into extreme psychic experience, and these “fearful” avenues are worth exploring on contemporary terms. That said, he is immediately in synch with a younger generation of artists who sincerely wonder “where the origin of expression, artistic, or otherwise lies.” True enough, our culture registers introversive experience within art differently from the way we glimpse it flickering in the work of Bourgeois, Bacon, and Messerschmidt, but, seeing Clair’s exhibition, we are not all that far from the enchanting mystery of Robert Gober, the uncanny cosmologies of Matthew Ritchie, the awfully bewitching identities that are Cindy Sherman’s, the splendid savageness of Bruce Nauman, or the edgy mania of Carroll Dunham. Clair’s show offers the opportunity to regard historical and contemporary fields of artistic creation simultaneously. Like the lithesome body that is the Arch of Hysteria, both spring forth sounding a distinct timbre of fearfulness, but neither is afraid of confronting such truths.

Ronald Jones is an artist represented in New York by Metro Pictures and Sonnabend Gallery.