What Is Art?
Nineteenth-century sugar silos from Southern Kerala, India.
After a recent visit to the Barnes Foundation and the nearby home of a private collector just outside Philadelphia, both of which demonstrated just how eccentric a collector’s vision and presentation could be, it was refreshing to see “Les Désordres du Plaisir,” a stunningly displayed collection of artworks and objects donated to the Centre Pompidou by Daniel Cordier.
Most of the pieces on show cannot properly be called “art” because they are either untouched natural objects (driftwood, for instance, or tree fungi) or were created for purely practical reasons – the massive hollowed-out tree trunks used in Southern Kerala, India, to store sugar, for example, or the smaller, eroded tree trunks used by the Fula people of West Africa as borders for wells.
For this show, these found objects have been taken out of context and displayed in ways they never were in nature or when being used for practical purposes (upright and grouped together, in the case of the objects made of tree trunks mentioned above) to show off their intrinsic beauty, to the point where it is sometimes difficult to distinguish which are intentional “art” and which are not. The found objects are completely removed from their cultural context and are not labeled (they can only be identified by referring to a booklet at the entrance to the show).
Each section of the exhibition groups one or more works of art with a number of found objects, finding echoes and contrasts in their forms, colors and textures. A horizontally slashed brown felt wall hanging by Robert Morris, for example, is grouped with the notched tree trunks.
Some of the artists whose works were chosen – notably Bernard Dubuffet – were influenced by “primitivism,” which makes it easier to group them with these objects. Other juxtapositions are less expected yet highly effective: “Jimmy Freeman” (1981) a black-and-white photo by Robert Mapplethorpe of a squatting, symmetrically “folded up” man who seems to be balanced on the stalk of his dangling penis is hung next to what look like a pair of carved bats. Not far away is a large-format color photo from the “Sense of Space” (2000) series by the Gao brothers, depicting naked people scrunched up into the compartments of a wardrobe, some of them reaching out to each other and others wrapped up in their own world, just as some of the pieces in this show call out to each other and others are remain proudly alone. A little farther along, you come to J.L. Parent’s “Ideal Library,” fake bookshelves that are themselves a cabinet of curiosities, like this exhibition, complete with a stuffed bird. Other artists represented include Brassaï, Louise Nevelson and Bernar Venet.
While the validity of grouping pieces intentionally created as works of art with utilitarian or natural objects may be questioned (Barnes hung hinges and other metal objects among his Cézannes, Renoirs and Matisses), this stunning, thought-provoking show – so beautifully lit and intelligently arranged – is sure to calm the protests of purists.
Cordier has donated 550 works to the Pompidou Center since 1973 and was one of its founding members. He collected the found objects in this new donation from non-Western societies around the world: Africa, the Americas and Oceania.
A concurrent show of works donated by Cordier is being held at Les Abattoirs in Toulouse, France, directed by Alain Mousseigne, who also selected the works for the Pompidou show.
Note: Since the above article was written I have visited another private collection that brilliantly combines artworks with natural objects: Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge, England, created by H.S. “Jim” Ede (1895-1990), a former curator at the Tate Gallery in London. Ede, who collected works by Ben Nicholson, David Jones, Christopher Wood, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Joan Miró, Constantin Brancusi and Alfred Wallis, among others, left his home and gallery to Cambridge University. Well worth a visit if you are in Cambridge.
Centre Pompidou: Place Georges Pompidou, 75004 Paris. Tel.: 01 44 78 12 33. Open 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Closed Tuesday. Métro: Rambuteau. Admission: €10-€12. Through March 23. www.centrepompidou.fr/
© 2009 Paris Update
Reader Nick Hammond writes: “The question of what constitutes art is a fascinating one. Surely a work of art cannot be defined solely by the intentions of its creator but also by the way subsequent viewers or collectors interpret them?”
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