it's difficult to pin down a date, at some point during
the past thirty years or so a certain approach to the
concept of failure started making its presence felt in the
Perhaps we can locate the moment in the wake of the
declarations of various cultural deathsof the author,
criticism, painting, etc.when a general awareness of
finitude, of the inevitable effects of a limited set of options,
As is well known, the history of modernism was always
shadowed by deeply rooted anxieties which often manifested
in the products of culture: Francis
Bacon's paintings, Antonin Artauds theater, Samuel Becketts
plays and novels. While their often painful search for meaning was not
bereft of humor, it was preoccupied with calling attention to the many
and injustices of life in the mid-twentieth century.
The strain of
failure under consideration in this show might be thought
of as post-existentialist. When the categories under which
art was operating in the 1960s exploded, ushering in new
possibilities for innovation, artists thrived on the energy
and altered their practices accordingly. Yet this dynamic
moment was not to last: in the 1970s, as the dust settled
in the aftermath of late-60s utopianism, artists in certain
quarters began recognizing the collapse of collective hopesfor
a better world, for transcendence, for personal enlightenment.
This situation prompted a healthy phase of self-questioning that has yet to
reach a conclusion. At what point during the course of any creative act does
the artist recognize defeat? In another sense, can the very awareness of the
potential for disaster hinder ambition? The artists in this exhibition are
not flustered by such questions. In fact, they have consciously and quite happily
embraced the present condition and opted to devote their energies to an examination
of its most desperate ramifications.
Art & Language was among the first to deliberately and forcefully reckon
with the newly perceived obstacles to artistic practice. Once an international
collective of some 30 or more individuals, the group was reduced in 1976 to
Michael Baldwin and Mel Ramsdenwith the art historian Charles Harrison
as collaboratorand their subsequent work has centered on the demise of
modernism and the complexity of negotiating its legacy. The premise of the
Index: Incident in a Museum series is based on a quixotic endeavor: the infiltration
by these two British artists of an inaccessible space, namely, the Whitney
Museum of American Art. In the work included here, a sheet of plywood provides
the surface for a ghostly rendition of the painting that might be glimpsed
through several peep-holes, making a pointed commentary on the
restricted nature of meaning production and dissemination. As Michael Baldwin
wrote in 1986, Art & Language's practice has been a dialogue with
the conditions of failure and refusal in respect of the signifying languages
Since the late 1970s, Michael Smith's alter-ego, Mike, has occupied the
role of poster child for every hapless artist out to maneuver through the art
world. Mike is the sincere embodiment of the "artist's artist" and
as representative of Smiths naive, earnest side, he has to be kept at
a distance while always maintaining his connection to the "real" artist.
Yet in How To Curate Your Own Group Exhibition, Mike and Michael seem
to merge during the performance of an exercise in art-world strategizing. With
cards bearing the names of highly established artists, he imagines himself
in the company of virtual peershe calls it "elevation through association"and
reflects on the skills needed to make it in today's climate of hyper-networking.
No mention is made of the type of work sought after in this era of the artist
as entrepreneur; like many of Smith's projects, the emphasis is placed on the
arduous process of simply inserting oneself into the scene.
Sheila Pepe's work deals with a more elemental set of concerns: the conflict
between technical expertise and the more primitive need to create. Her rows
of lopsided, bisque-fired clay and plaster forms recall the amateur ceramist's
need to mold, to enter into the never-ending process of making objects despite
the initially thankless nature of such activity. By undertaking what she refers
to as "cheating craft," she attempts to suppress the artists
training while rediscovering the first, tentative gestures made when faced
with a mound of unformed clay. The end result is somewhat akin to what happens
when an adult tries to write by hand in the manner of a child: though the letters
may be backward, they still look too considered, too perfectly off-kilter,
to be accepted as truly innocent.
In her 16mm film, Perseverance & How to Develop It (a work in progress),
Jenny Perlin thematizes the search for a raison d'étre, but she looks
to sources other than herself for answers to the question of artistic commitment.
Having found a how-to book, published in 1915 as part of Funk & Wagnalls'
"Mental Efficiency" serieswhile Duchamp was busy producing
followed to the letter several manual exercises promoted as the means to find
the true path to personal fulfillment. Patience is clearly required: one drill
involves methodically tangling a ball of twine and, in longer sessions each
day, slowly and conscientiously pulling apart the mess youve made. With
its aura of last-ditch solutions, Perlins film offers the kind of panacea
that artists might find useful when faced with an empty studio, or a conspicuous
lack of ideas.
Although Olav Westphalen doesn't deal directly with the space of the studio
in his work, he does draw a connection between stand-up comedy and the performance
anxiety induced by bare walls. Hovering in the middle of the gallery, a self-supporting,
significantly undersized, red-velvet curtain alludes to a theatrical event
that may or may not materialize. There is a considerable degree of honesty
in his brand of blunt humor, and the impression conveyed is that he enjoys
wallowing in a state of voluntary mediocrity. His drawings are more pointedly
satirical with their playful references to various cultural clichésthe
prevalence of hackneyed post-structuralist theory in the art world, rejected
proposals for television pilots, self-defeating promotional effortsin
order to highlight the pathetic side of the drive for success.
It's possible to detect the somewhat nostalgic presence of modernism's
literary anti-hero in this show. The artists are actually in an ideal position:
enough time has elapsed since characters like Joyce's Leopold Bloom were
created that their circumstances can be addressed from a distance. With the
advantage of hindsight, the willingness to forge ahead is sufficient to override
any defeatist tendencies that might stand in the way of the pleasure of courting
1 H. Besser, Perseverance: How to Develop It
(New York: Funk & Wagnalls
Co., 1915), 109.
2 Michael Baldwin quoted in Paul Wood, "Art & Language: Wrestling
with the Angel," in Art & Language, exh. cat. (Paris: Galerie Nationale
du Jeu de Paume, 1993), 32.