Delirious: Art at the Limits of Reason, 1950-1980. The Met Breuer, New York City, New York. September 13, 2017-January 14, 2018.
The three decades encompassed by this exhibition—1950-1980—was a disruptive, often violent period in the Americas and in Western Europe. The curatorial concept of Delirious proposes the simple equation of such historical turbulence with the disorderly forms and contents of a wide range of artworks of the period: “Delirious times demand delirious art.” The exhibition’s subsections, which segment the works and exhibition space, exhibit a similar schematism: “Excess,” “Vertigo,” “Twisted,” “Nonsense.” Such formulas, along with the exhibition’s broad evocation of “irrationality,” might seem unpromising for organizing a diverse group of works and guiding the viewer towards deeper understanding of the historical moment or its characteristic artworks.
Yet the selection of works is so rich and connections between them so suggestive, the exhibition’s framing is far surpassed by its overall effect. Not only because it mostly avoids neo-surrealism and its stock-in-trade dreams and poetic intoxications, but also because vague slogans such as “delirium” and the “irrational” open up into a more profound engagement with the entanglements between rationality and its irrational others. In an important 1977 essay on Sol LeWitt, Rosalind Krauss challenged the view of abstract act as celebrating the progressive conquest of the irrational by human reason. Instead, Krauss argued, inseparable from LeWitt’s fastidiously applied method is: madness. LeWitt’s finicky and exhaustive forms, Krauss suggests, resemble nothing so much as insane babble, indexing reason’s loss of ground and the gyration of forms over an abyss of evaporated meaning.
Sol LeWitt, Incomplete Open Cubes, 1974; San Francisco MOMA
If there is a—deconstructed—center of this exhibition, accordingly, it lies with the classic modernist emblem of rationality itself, the grid, and related abstract forms generated by methodical repetition.
Like other works exhibited here, from Mel Bochner’s Color Crumple #3 (1967) to Robert Smithson’s Three Mirror Vortex (1965)–
Stainless steel and 3 mirrors, 351/2 . 281/2 . 245/8 in. (90.2 . 72.4 . 62.5 cm), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Larry Aldrich, 1981, © Holt-Smithson Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY, Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Eva Hesse’s Accession #2 (1969)–
Galvanized steel and vinyl, 30 3/4 x 30 3/4 x 30 3/4 x 30 3/4 in., Detroit Institute of Arts, Founders Society, Purchase, Friends of Modern Art Fund and Miscellaneous Gifts Fund
–Tony Conrad’s film Cycles of 3’s and 7’s (1976), and Bruce Nauman’s video Slow Angle Walk (Beckett Walk) (1968), LeWitt’s works in this exhibition owe as much to the deranged “mania for symmetry” (Molloy) of Samuel Beckett’s prose as to the methodical investigations of Josef Albers or Max Bill. [see video: Sucking Stone episode, Samuel Beckett, Molloy] Rosalind Krauss’s tormented neo-grid—shaken, torn, twisted, full of drops and voids—is to be found everywhere in this exhibition, even in unexpected places, such as Dana Birnbaum’s video Kiss the Girls: Make Them Cry (1979) [Wikipedia: Birnbaum, Kiss the Girls/Make Them Cry, 1979], which utilizes footage from the American gameshow of the 1970s The Hollywood Squares, in which celebrities were seated in a three-dimensional “tic-tac-toe” set, or Martha Wilson’s grid of Breast Forms Permutated (1972).
Following Krauss’s lead, Beckett is one of the explicit reference points of the exhibition. Besides Nauman’s Beckett Walk video, also included are LeWitt’s and Jasper Johns’s illustrations of Beckett texts. Yet along with Beckett’s extended derangements of logic, another signature of Beckett’s work, his fragmented and decrepit bodies, also marks a number of works, such as Paul Thek’s geometrical boxes with wax models of meat;
Untitled from the series Technological Reliquaries, 1966, Wax, paint, polymer resin, nylon monofilament, wire, plaster, plywood, melamine laminate, rhodium-plated bronze, and acrylic, 14 × 151/8 × 71/2 in. (35.6 × 38.3 × 19.1 cm), Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, Purchase, with funds from the Painting and Sculpture Committee (93.14), © The Estate of George Paul Thek; courtesy Alexander and Bonin, New York
Lee Lozano’s untitled drawings (1961-63); and Situation T/T (1970) by Artur Barrio, who unfurled bloody packets of meat in an open sewer in allusion to the crimes of Brazil’s military dictatorship. Most powerful of the “Beckettian” works, however, is the eight-minute film by Brazilian artist Anna Maria Maiolino, In-Out Anthropophagy (1973-74), which draws upon the iconography of Beckett’s 1972 monologue Not I, in which a spotlighted mouth on a pitch-black stage spouts a continuous stream of words.
Samuel Beckett, Not I, 1972 [Video: Samuel Beckett, Not I]
Maiolino’s isolated mouths chew, speak, cry, accompanied by sound track of garbled vocalizations and electronic sounds. It is a wrenching image of the inability to speak, its gestures pointing all the more forcefully to loss of reasoned speech.
In-Out Anthropophagy (In-Out antropofagia) from the series Photopoemaction (Fotopoemação), 1973/74, Black and white analog photograph Photo by Max Nauenberg Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth © Anna Maria Maiolino
The other explicit reference point in the exhibition is the writer Antonin Artaud, both for his influential notion of a “theater of cruelty” and for his own madness, which led him to record the agony of bodily fragmentation, loss of meaning, and the collapse of speech.
Antonin Artaud, Notebook page
The most extensive engagement with Artaud is by Nancy Spero, in her Codex Artaud collage from 1972.
Codex Artaud XXI, 1972, Cut and pasted papers, printed text, watercolor, metallic paints, pen, and stamped ink, 681/4 × 2011/16 in. (173.4 × 52.6 cm), Cleveland Museum of Art, Severance and Greta Millikin Purchase Fund (2009.270), © The Nancy Spero and Leon Golub Foundation for the Arts/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Photo © The Cleveland Museum of Art
Yet other works, such as León Ferrari’s Letter to a General (1963) and Claes Oldenburg’s Letter Tenement (1960) resonate with Artaud’s disturbed incantations and spells, while the politicized protest of Leon Golub’s Vietnamese Head (1970) and Carolee Schneemann’s Viet Flakes (1965) turn Artaud’s call for a new spectacle acting directly on the spectator’s body into an intense standard for contemporary political art.
Carolee Schneemann, still from Viet Flakes, 1965