Gerhard Richter, Vier Glasscheiben (Four panes of glass), 1967, Installation view.

Gerhard Richter, Vier Glasscheiben (Four panes of glass), 1967, Installation view.


It is possible to say, if one has a slight taste for paradox, that from the very beginning there has only ever been contemporary art, and so the history of art in its entirety could be described as an interminable succession of contemporary moments. There is something of this Zeno-esque perspective in the subtitle of “Voici: 100 Years of Contemporary Art,” a show that presented such unusual pairings as Jeff Koons and Rodin, Sue Williams and Manet. The inclusion of Manet alone suffices to demonstrate that the strict limits of the century were blithely transgressed; in fact, the oldest work on view was a “photogenic drawing” made by Fox Talbot in 1839–1840, while the most recent contributions—commissioned for the occasion from Michael Snow, Dan Graham, and Sylvie Blocher—dated from just last year.

The cover design of the book that accompanied the exhibition (it’s only partly a catalogue—much of the text comprises analyses of various paintings by Manet not shown in Brussels) allows the word Voici to connect with both the show’s subtitle and the name of the author and curator, producing the alternate introduction “Voici Thierry de Duve” (Here is Thierry de Duve). It’s an appropriate reading, since we are clearly dealing with the project of one person and one person alone. Known for twenty-odd years for his numerous writings on Marcel Duchamp, de Duve also willingly confesses his admiration for the criticism of Clement Greenberg, though that does not in any way restrict the spectrum of artists in whom he is interested. De Duve is a Duchampian impassioned by the painting of Robert Ryman, ever ready to discuss aesthetic experience and judgments of taste. Here his goal was no less than to recapitulate the main themes ofart since the mid-nineteenth century in a show designed for the largest audience possible, and to do so, moreover, without abandoning his own subjective inclinations. With this in mind, he divided the somewhat worn spaces of the Palais des Beaux-Arts into three sections christened “Me Voici” (Here I am), “Vous Voici” (Here you are), and “Nous Voici” (Here we are).

“Me Voici” took as its subject the way an artwork presents itself to and establishes an encounter with the viewer. An impressive group of sculptures opened this section; prominent among them was Fausto Melotti’s Costante uomo (Constant man), 1936, a schematically anthropomorphic figure in plaster, larger than life, on whose chest a hand is engraved. One can read that hand as a gesture of greeting or as the explicit imprint of the artist on his creation, and these two interpretations might be said to sum up de Duve’s whole approach to art: that even when it takes the path of abstraction and turns away from any evocation of the preexisting world, it still remains intensely humanistic. “The best modern art has endeavored to redefine the essentially religious terms of humanism on belief-less bases,” de Duve writes. That’s hardly an idea that goes without saying: On the contrary, it demands discussion with respect to the patent antihumanism of so much work of the past century—or even the substrata of religiosity that shows up in the expressions de Duve uses, such as “le deuil de Dieu” (the mourning of God) or “la résurrection de l’homme sans Dieu” (the resurrection of the godless man).

For a mind indifferent to the death of God, “Vous Voici,” which was devoted to the various artistic forms of presenting spectators to ourselves, was probably the section most noteworthy from an art-critical point of view. It offered a number of suggestive juxtapositions, such as that of Gerhard Richter’s Vier Glasscheiben (Four panes of glass)—a piece of exteriority par excellence made by and large only of what and who surrounded it—with a well-known photograph by Lee Friedlander, Colorado (Self Portrait), both 1967. Works that used or depicted mirrors were numerous and of great quality. Among the former were L’uomo che pensa (The thinking man), 1962–93, by Michelangelo Pistoletto, a brilliant reflection—literally—on Rodin’s Penseur; Untitled Painting, 1965, by Art & Language, two mirrors on canvas that form a corner; and a rarely seen and menacing Richard Artschwager, Mirror and Wood Construction, 1962. Among the latter: a photograph by Florence Henri, Sans titre (Untitled), and Magritte’s L’Image parfaite (The perfect image), both 1928. At the center of a vast room devoted to abstract painting (from a 1917 Mondrian to a 1996 Kelly) was a contrastingly figurative Tête de jeune homme (Head of a young man), 1925, by Pavel Tchelitchev, which emphasized de Duve’s general humanistic thesis. But the star turn of this section was Viewer, 1996, by Gary Hill, a friezelike video that moves almost imperceptibly, in which seventeen men of various ethnic origins, wearing work clothes, silently stare at us.

Hill’s video acted as a transition to “Nous Voici,” which raised the general issue of community. The corresponding chapter of de Duve’s book, in which the notion of “the public” and its historical formation is notably envisioned, begins with the question “Qui ça, nous?” (“Who are we?”), allowing us to glimpse the extent of the problem. In whose name can a work effectively claim to “speak”? Isn’t every “we” immediately exclusive of another “we” that can only be reinstated by virtue of a cheap universalism? A way of ending without concluding, the last third of “Voici” was the most risky, and in its vaguely “Family of Man” way, the least satisfying. Nevertheless, the exhibition as a whole cut through the current cultural landscape via both the vastness of the questions it posed and the singularity of the position from which it proceeded. There should be more exhibitions of which this might be said.

Jean-Pierre Criqui is a Paris-based art historian and critic.

Translated from French by Jeanine Herman.