It wasn’t as easy as he’d been led to believe it would be.
It wasn’t as easy as he’d been led to believe it would be. It took courage. But what was it? A copy of the big painting of the same name, a copy of a painting by a woman named Sally? It wasnt easy to decide. Sally, of course, was also a woman who had made a big impression on the artist. Sally was a major figure in the early 70s, and this was her first solo exhibition in New York. So maybe its not surprising that she was the only woman in the exhibition. But then again, Sally wasnt the only one who had a big impact on the artist. The other woman in the room was Brigitte Barone, a fellow painter, and it was a pleasure to see her again in a group show with Sally, and she had a lot to say. I liked the way she was represented, and I thought it was great that Sally was represented by two of her best-known works, a pair of drawings from the 50s and a copy of the sculpture Sylvia Plaths Big Wheel, 1958, that she made in collaboration with the artist and that is also on view at the gallery. But it was the copy of the big painting that was the highlight of the show. Sally had made a copy of a painting by Max Ernst, and the copy was a kind of revision of the original. Sally had taken the original painting and turned it into a painting, and it was a very moving thing to see. And you couldnt help but think that this was the way Sally thought the original painting had looked.The copy was in a sense an homage. It was a kind of homage to an artist who had been a major influence on Sally. And Sally also made copies of her own work. And the copy was a tribute to a woman who had had done a lot to change the way we look at art. I mean, she was a major influence on Sally. And it was a tribute to Sally.
The exhibition took its title from a line from the eponymous short story by Jorge Luis Borges: Esta muy último, un paisagemundo—El paisagemundo is a small world. The phrase, translated into English as The little world, refers to a world of small things, a world of little things. But the phrase also refers to the world of a self-made artist, and the exhibition was a self-reflexive reflection on the exhibition process. As with any self-reflexive project, the results are bound to be idiosyncratic, and this is one of the artists major weaknesses. There were a few pieces that had an assured, almost clean, elegance to them, but they were of the same ilk, and the individual pieces were presented as if they were a collection of tiny objects, rather than as the works they were. The exhibition thus ended up being an exercise in curatorial elitism, and the artworks that were included were clearly not Borges and not his. It was a shame that the show was organized by an artist who has shown a great ability to manage the many possible permutations of his work. If the show had been a better example of how he can be used, it would have been more than worth the risk. The artworks included in this exhibition were by no means trivial; they are, in fact, wonderful and could have been better.
It wasn’t as easy as he’d been led to believe it would be. . . . But the paradoxical effect of this seemingly banal exhibition, its seeming ineffectiveness, is a powerful indictment of the shows somewhat privileged status as an unofficial milestone of conceptual art. When the show was first put together, in 1978, it was divided into two parts, one of which was curated by Douglas Crimp, the other by the artists, in collaboration with the architect Thomas Geiger. Crimps hypothesis was that the conceptual installation would have a greater impact when it was displayed in a more conventional space, and that the use of a more conventional space would have an appreciable effect on the viewer. The first part of the show consists of a selection of original and reproduction works from the 50s and early 60s. The majority of these are from the 80s, and the most interesting were made by artists who were around at the time but who have not been included in the exhibition. This show, however, is not a retrospective, and Crimp was not able to present them all. He does, however, present a large number of pieces by contemporary artists who are making significant contributions to the field of Conceptual art. The show is not intended to be an authoritative or even exhaustive survey, and Crimp does not attempt to present a definitive view of the field. He has, however, chosen to highlight the fact that Conceptual art is having a moment of ascendancy in the visual arts, and that this is one of the most important developments of the past decade.The work of the artists included in this show is somewhat scattered. There are several paintings by George Maciunas, a major figure in Conceptual art, and a painter with an impressive list of artists who have influenced him: Robert Morris, John Baldessari, Mary Beth Edelson, and Alfred Hitchcock.
The artist, who was born in the 1950s, was only thirty when he made his first photograph. And he has been known to be a curious character in the history of photography, which includes figures such as Henri Cartier-Bresson and François Truffaut, as well as artists who were more interested in the mediums history and contemporary importance. But while Truffaut is still the most visible example, and perhaps the most important one in France, he is not the only one to have been important in the eyes of the contemporary artists who took up photography. Many others were included in the exhibition, from Raymond Duchamp to Robert Mapplethorpe, and from the first days of film to the end of the twentieth century, when photography was first taken for a walk. One can only hope that the curators, in selecting the artists, will remember to mention these and other greats of their time, who gave the medium its place in the history of art.Yve-Alain Boiss is a Paris-based critic and writer.Translated from French by Jeanine Herman.