A Review of Delirious: Art at the Limits of Reason, 1950-1980 at The Met Breuer, New York
Stepping into Delirious requires the abandonment of recent, conventional thinking about Post-War art and its presentation. As museum-goers, we have become inured to: solo exhibitions presented in rather lockstep, often chronological, fashion documenting an artist’s career or a movement; experiential environments designed to enthrall or entertain; and biennial-type surveys, which may or may not have intellectual cohesiveness, let alone stickiness. We frequently race through exhibitions sating a need for an art experience, much like an art fair. Worse yet, we have often “been there, done that” through social media and the Internet.
Delirious requires that we be present, using our eyes, ears, and brains as we cross the gallery’s threshold. Right at the entrance, Kelly Baum, the exhibition’s gifted curator, gives you the visual clues and cues you will need: compulsive work, convoluted work, deformed work, and garbled work. Straight ahead there is a stainless steel and copper “curtain” made by Gego, a vastly underappreciated German-Venezuelan conceptual artist. Behind, if not through it, is a geometrical canvas by Dean Fleming. To the left, are three joined canvases by Al Loving. To the right is a single-channel video by Bruce Nauman, titled Slow Angle Walk (Beckett Walk). Faintly, from around the corner, you hear the soundtrack of Tony Conrad’s Cycles of 3s and 7s. Welcome to the edge.
Delirious is an intellectual and aesthetic time capsule that nearly coincides with the Cold War. It addresses an exceptional range of art made in reaction to the inherent madness of the 20th century, which experienced two cataclysmic world wars, multiple dictatorships, economic disarray, and social upheaval. Its aftermath profoundly affected a generation of intellects—in art, theatre, literature, and music—who in turn challenged convention and rationality. If you are fortunate to have had a generous liberal arts education, you will recognize the legacies of Theodor Adorno, Antonin Artaud, Gilles Deleuze, and Herbert Marcuse. You will especially recognize the centrality of Samuel Beckett to 20th century thought and his contributions to this exhibition. In a sense, Delirious could have been subtitled, “Beckett’s ghost.”
. . . artists did all manner of strange things to unfamiliar materials. They also challenged good form, disobeyed the rules of grammar, performed bizarre tasks for the camera, indulged in excessive repetition, destabilized space and perception, and generally embraced all things ludicrous, nonsensical and eccentric.
No other mid-century thinker championed such diverse maniacal creativity as Beckett. This is not the “cool, detached, and ironic” of Marcel Duchamp and the Neo-Dada generation. Beckett “built incongruity into every aspect of his writing, from its motifs and subjects to its style and composition.” Baum acknowledges how her own interest in—perhaps an obsession with—Beckett triggered her nearly five years of research to complete this exhibition. She also references Rosalind Krauss’s 1978 essay, LeWitt in Progress, which challenges conventional thinking about LeWitt, the rational Minimalist. Krauss’s essay, which should be required reading, is crafted to incorporate lengthy passages from Beckett’s novel Molloy, underscoring repetition bordering on obsessive-compulsiveness, if not madness.
The exhibition is vaguely partitioned into rooms—actually ambiguous spaces—using sub-definitions of delirium: “Excess,” “Vertigo,” “Twisted”, and “Nonsense.” The relationships between the rooms and among “incompatible videos, sculptures, and paintings,” are what Baum describes as “a common desire to confound reason, to test the limits of what counts as reasonable.” (italics added.) By the time you have navigated the exhibition’s 107 works, the grid, for example, is no longer a rational structure. Howardena Pindell’s works are fluid; Sol LeWitt’s are structured, rule-based; François Morellet’s grids are map-like; Alfred Jensen’s irregular checkerboard investigates compositional logic.
The extent of Baum’s scholarship—and The Met’s commitment to exhibitions of ideas—is revealed in her extraordinary visual vocabulary. She deftly combines several under acknowledged artists, like Wallace Berman, Brian O’Doherty, and Nancy Spero, starting an animated conversation among them. She confronts museum-goers with unsettling objects, perhaps of objects of madness, like Nancy Grossman’s fetishistic sculpture Cob II (which could be the exhibition’s icon) and Paul Thek’s visceral, fleshy Untitled from the series Technological Reliquaries. Baum reunites Chicagoans from the Monster Roster (Nancy Spero and Leon Golub), with a Hairy Who (Jim Nutt), and a Chicago Imagist (Christiana Ramberg), who all fought Post-War normality and normalcy with tough in-your-face art making.
The exhibition’s layout and catalog’s authorship and design reflect exceptional partnerships. In Zoe Florence’s floor plan “rooms” are spaces and walls are places. There is manic organization that lets you carom between and among works: from mescaline drawings by Henri Michaux to Ruth Vollmer’s acrylic sculpture. You turn. You look. You think, “Look over there.” And then you bounce back. The Breuer’s iconic windows have been obscured. The small window over 75th Street has a scrim. The window no longer offers a view. It provides a filtered light near a crippled grid that is a ladder covered with barnacle-like growths by Yayoi Kusama. The large, iconic trapezoidal window in the building’s Madison Avenue façade is nearly occluded by a wall. The window and its enclosure become, as an enlightened gallery guard termed it, a watchtower, isolated and separate from the exhibition. These are simple, inspired gestures, jarring normal visitor expectations who are familiar with Breuer’s already subversive architecture.
The catalog is a tight creative endeavor, linking time and place, thought and emotion. Baum’s collaborative approach was further enhanced by Lucy Bradnock’s essay, Bite Your Tongue, a reflection on Artaud and the neo avant-garde. Tina Ryan’s Blown Circuits considers irrationality and the advent of technology in Post-War art. Ryan’s essay begins with a reflection on 9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering, the 1966 collaboration that launched the use of new technology. The essay ends with an important coda that considers the “aesthetic of glitch”—intentional failure—and how glitch art reflects the language of the irrational and blows the circuits of the viewer.
Delirious sets a high curatorial standard about working with ideas and not just objects. The exhibition slows us down to think more about the art encounter, if not a confrontation, which can be unsettling. To paraphrase Artaud, Delirious is like “an open door leading them [men] where they would never have consented to go, in short, a door that opens onto reality.”
Written by Clayton Press, a Contributor to Arteviste.