The Guggenheim Museum invites you to honor, with all your affective presence, the lucid and positive advent of a certain reign of the sensitive. This manifestation of perceptive synthesis confirms Tino Sehgal’s pictorial quest for an ecstatic and immediately communicable emotion.
No, wait a second. That historical invitation actually bore the name of Iris Clert, the infinitely forbearing Paris dealer, while the questing artist was Yves Klein, who confounded gallery-goers on an April evening in 1958 with the opening of his show “Le Vide”—The Void. Clert’s little gallery was utterly empty. Visitors imbibed blue cocktails, causing them to, well, void azure pee the following day. In the painting-dominated 1950s, just about any rebellious artistic gesture could be construed in terms of the pictorial, and the “matter” of pigment on canvas countered by an assertion of the immaterial, the immanent, the spiritual. Certainly Tino Sehgal’s is not a “pictorial” quest—the social, the relational, the financial (we are told in essays and press releases) are the pillars of his inquiry. But I daresay that a “reign of the sensitive” comes close to describing what was sought when Sehgal stripped the Guggenheim’s rotunda of everything but people from Jan. 29 to Mar. 10.
The museum’s ground floor presented only an entwining couple moving slowly through a sequence of upright and recumbent poses. You might have recognized a brief tableau vivant of Klimt’s mosaic kiss or Brancusi’s stone kiss, or detected in the detachment of the embraces something of Warhol’s filmed kisses. For me, the couple’s repeated risings from and descents to the floor more persistently evoked Oldenburg’s mechanized ice bag. Indeed, it was the machinery of Sehgal’s work, not its proclaimed spontaneity, that left the strongest, strangest impression.
The exhibition’s second and principal work, This Progress, is an inversion of Dante’s journey in the Inferno—one that had you ascending the Guggenheim’s rings with four Virgils of ascending age, in my case a poised little girl (“My name is Nina. Would you like to follow me?”), a youth, a 30ish man and an elderly gent. Asked by Nina to define “progress,” I replied that it signifies going forward, though that’s not always a good thing. She requested an explanation, so my inner fourth-grader used the word in a sentence: “The plague made its progress through the city.” Nina summed up my response to young Joe, who had suddenly materialized and, without missing a beat, began to talk about “viral” marketing. (Was Nina wearing a wire?) Michael replaced Joe and firmly directed the conversation to the infinitely banal subject of how computers control our lives. Last, genial Bob reminisced about a long-ago Fourth of July parade that included two surviving Civil War veterans. I began thinking about Larry Rivers appropriations and Life magazine photos, but Bob would hear none of it. He wrapped things up with a six-degrees-of-separation story about a chain of handshakes leading back to Lincoln. Then he shook my hand—the only Virgil to do so. Perhaps the others were afraid of viruses.
This Progress seemed a cool contrivance, and the smooth operators reminded me of escorts, walkers, courtiers. Overhearing some of the commentary repeated during my second (unaccompanied) climb made the enterprise more Marienbad than improv. Precision, coordination and follow-through: far from any serendipitous give and take, this was a campaign of utter calculation in which the only variable—that would be the civilians like me—was of as little consequence as the colors of the garments (the emperor’s new clothes, perhaps) being fed into a tailor’s press. Writing in the New Yorker, Peter Schjeldahl declared you’d better enjoy the visit “or else expose yourself as a hopeless grouch.”
I would split a hair: I’m not a grouch; I’m a critic.
The enterprise did present a clean intersection of Sehgal’s dual training in dance and political economy, a nontraditional background cited knowingly at the rate with which people once pointed to Jeff Koons’s stint as a Wall Street broker (though he had earned a BFA) to explain the advent of commodity sculpture. Sehgal is credited with having surpassed the conceptualists in purity for his refusal of any documentary material—photography, film, drawings—that might become gallery fodder. (I suppose you could say that Klein’s documentation was pissed away.) Not market-averse but market-wise, Sehgal editions his pieces for sale, and polices their subsequent restaging. His goal is to stanch the proliferation of objects, not to starve.
Klein had his own determined interlocutor, the artist Arman, who responded to Le Vide in 1960 with Le Plein (Full Up), for which he loaded Clert’s gallery with trash. It was a consumerism-acknowledging raspberry blown at Klein’s cheery metaphysics. For a couple of weeks last February, I thought that Sehgal’s Arman would turn out to be Gelitin, the Austrian collective whose show began at Greene Naftali in Chelsea the day before This Progress opened. Billed as a “happening,” Blind Sculpture found the quartet, blindfolded and assisted by celebrity-artist friends, spending 10 days fabricating a rambling, inchoate construction. The gallery was strewn with colorful heaps of materials (Styro-foam, chicken wire, wood, fabric) and beverage containers; little dogs romped; a naked piano player tickled the ivories with every (and I do mean every) appendage. I suppose the work was relational—one of the artists asked me for a light—but the boxing-ring square of bleachers that surrounded the action invited spectatorship and snapshots more than participation.
I visited twice, enjoying the silly chaos. But then the circus left town: a third trip revealed a hushed gallery installed with eight pieces by Gelitin, shaggy and rude, but looking for all the world like sculptures for sale. So, the choice of market critiques was between a slackerfest in frat-house squalor and a cloister-worthy stroll in clean colloquy. I think the superfluous, residual assemblages made the stronger brief for stanching the proliferation of objects. Surely that was Gelitin’s sly purpose all along.
Cover: View of Tania Bruguera’s installation Untitled (Kassel, 2002), 2002, video projection, performers, guns, 750-watt lights and mixed mediums; in Documenta 11, Kassel. Collection MMK Museum für Moderne Kunst Frankfurt. Photo courtesy Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase College.