New York

“Project for a Revolution in New York”

Matthew Marks Gallery

Many galleries have upped the group show ante of late (particularly during the summer months) and, freed from the workaday routine of solo exhibitions, now offer group shows that aspire to the level of museum fare. Take “Project for a Revolution in New York,” which was on view in Matthew Marks’s West Twenty-fourth Street space. Curated by Mitchell Algus, a dealer known for his taste in and privileging of the overlooked and the eccentric, “Project for a Revolution in New York” was named for Alain Robbe-Grillet’s eponymous 1970 novel, and its object was to whet our taste for what Algus calls in his accompanying brochure “another history.”

This other history—one that existed despite (and perhaps to some degree against) the “American hegemonies,” as Algus puts it, of Abstract Expressionism, Pop art, Minimalism, Conceptual art, and Photorealism—is primarily European, and the group of artists he included worked in France, Germany, and Italy. The “feel” of the show was one of conscious (and thus often overdetermined) perversion on every level. Braid, 1969, Domenico Gnoli’s painting of the contours of a fat, textured braid, and Town & Country, No. 2, Peter Stämpfli’s 1972 painting of the contours of a fat, textured tire, approximate the dumbness Americans might attribute to what we think of as our own homegrown Pop, but there is a decisive turn here toward the seamier side, as evidenced by both images’ emphatic Surrealist styling. Indeed, the majority of the works openly flaunted their interest in the underbelly by visually indebting themselves to legacies of the likes of de Chirico, Dalí, and Ernst. Images that are hard not to describe on some level as Orientalist and/or misogynist abounded, a fact that Algus more or less acknowledges by branding the overarching theme of the show as one aligned with the “sado-erotic core” of Robbe-Grillet’s book.

A reviewer for the New York Times took issue with this aspect of Algus’s show, concerned that it reiterated all manner of sexist and violent modes of representation, discounting by doing so the fight against them undertaken by the women’s movement. And it’s worth pondering, in this vein, today’s appeal for and reading of decades-old photographs included here of, say, young naked women lolling in coffins or posing with guns in their mouths (these “still” photographs were snapped by Catherine Robbe-Grillet on location on a number of her husband’s film sets). Yet these and other such images of the female form in the exhibition, like Carlo Mollino’s 1960 Polaroid of a bare-ass, soft-porn bride, ought to be assessed for more than their lack of compatibility with feminist sensibilities. (Algus does acknowledge that there are only two women artists in the show and plenty of potentially problematic images of them therein, but he delivers a fairly rote justification—appealing to the shattered-male-ego-in-trauma defense that surfaced after both world wars.) Indeed, the bigger question takes us back to the practice of valuing the “minor.” In one sense, as a minor show, Algus’s was a success, offering access to works not invited into the official canon even though clearly in some kind of twisted dialogue with its tenets. But “Project”’s less compelling aspect was its seeming desire to exceed its own minor status. For while the work included was by turns truly good, curious, wonderful-awful, and sometimes downright disastrous, its strength was not to be found in any head-to-head battle fought in the name of revisionist history. It was when the show couldn’t shake its whiff of the secondary that it counterintuitively felt the freshest, calling into question just how such qualitative and historical differentiation gets done in the first place.

Johanna Burton