New York

Anna Maria Maiolino, In-Out Antropofagia (In-Out Anthropophagy), 1973–74, Super-8 film transferred to DVD, black-and-white, sound, 8 minutes 14 seconds.

Anna Maria Maiolino, In-Out Antropofagia (In-Out Anthropophagy), 1973–74, Super-8 film transferred to DVD, black-and-white, sound, 8 minutes 14 seconds.

“Delirious: Art at the Limits of Reason, 1950–1980”

The Met Breuer

Anna Maria Maiolino, In-Out Antropofagia (In-Out Anthropophagy), 1973–74, Super-8 film transferred to DVD, black-and-white, sound, 8 minutes 14 seconds.

Much ink has been spilled on Jacques Derrida’s passionate exchange with Michel Foucault around the latter’s publication of Folie et déraison: Histoire de la folie à l’âge classique (Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason) in 1961. I would like to recall that the primary issue for Derrida was not that madness was expulsed during the Classical Age, but that madness is always already internal to reason. A similar claim informs this compelling postwar survey of international art, but it does so by focusing on the procedures immanent to the artwork on display, while holding delirium as a clinical condition at bay. In the sections “Vertigo” and “Excess,” one tracks how curator Kelly Baum’s selection of seemingly logical aesthetic devices such as the grid, geometric abstraction, and seriality is in fact a harbinger of the opposite. Baum introduces viewers to the perceptual disorder of Sol LeWitt’s open-cube permutations, the affect underpinning a Lygia Clark Bicho (Creature), and the obsessive repetition characteristic of Yayoi Kusama’s work. Given the overriding display of abstract work in these first galleries, standards for attention are exceedingly high. Viewers are encouraged to identify structural operations shared by distinct works from disparate geopolitical contexts: from New York to Rio de Janeiro, and from Caracas to Paris.

Showcasing an emphasis on language and the body, artists in the “Nonsense” section interrupt words’ communicative function, be it through the leftover, typographic fragments of Jacques Villeglé’s torn posters or the bodily sounds of Anna Maria Maiolino’s Super 8 film In-Out Antropofagia (In-Out Anthropophagy), 1973–74. To quote Antonin Artaud (an inspiration, alongside Samuel Beckett, for some artists in the exhibition as well as for the curator), these works make “language express what it does not ordinarily express.” Nancy Spero appropriates Artaud’s vociferous postwar critique of power toward feminist ends in her Codex Artaud, 1972, interrupting speech and imaging against the body (a subject Lucy Bradnock takes up in her skillful catalogue essay). The exhibition’s bodily theme continues in “Twisted,” featuring Artur Barrio’s documentation of his “situations,” which evokes the disappeared victims of Brazil’s military regime, as well as Ana Mendieta’s photographs of physiognomic distortions achieved by forcefully pressing a glass pane against her face. Here, the dialectical tension at the heart of the other earlier sections gives way to works that indict society by mirroring, and thereby exposing, its violence.

While the exhibition mostly foregrounds deliberate aesthetic strategies, the visual diversity among the sections also provokes some confusion: Where does one locate “delirium”—in the work of art, in the artist, in the viewer, or in society? Such slippages are less a criticism of the curatorial premise than an indication of the challenges one faces when addressing irrationality in art. To be sure, the exhibition steers clear of the mystification of actual psychotic states, a trend characteristic of recent contemporary art exhibitions that have uncritically revived and glorified modern psychiatric patients’ creative production, as part of the turn to/interest in outsider art. Yet, perhaps unwittingly, literal delirium does appear through personal accounts, as with one wall text’s description of Joan Didion’s psychosomatic response to the events of 1968. Such lapses into biography are perhaps unavoidable, given delirium’s relation to (and sometimes provocation by) sociopolitical history. Some works, however, explicitly prompt vertiginous responses in viewers through sensory defamiliarization, as experienced in Robert Smithson’s Three Mirror Vortex, 1965, and through the disintegration of speech in the soundtrack to Gary Hill’s video of morphing rectangles within rectangles. (The exhibition and catalogue are also peppered with references to psychedelic experiences.)

Finally, it is worth noting that in “Delirious,” the most understated critique of rationality is enacted at the level of its architecture. Gallery partitions are purposely installed at an angle to the regularity of the floor’s gridded tiles. Within the hyperorganized museum space, which classifies and archives, these askance walls divert the grid, undermining its logical conceptual system and architecture; they introduce disorientation and disorderliness from within.

Kaira M. Cabañas