How do you negotiate, or come to terms with, rapture? Shouldn't rapture be felt, rather than contested, adjudicated, or philosophized? To inaugurate the Museum of Contemporary Art's grand new building, curator Richard Francis has created "Negotiating Rapture," an entrance into the realm of the exalted, the sublime, the transformative. Like the term "rapture" itself - much less familiar than the overworked concept of the sublime - nothing about this exhibition is easy or expected.
Eleven artists, belonging to several of the generations active during the postwar era, appear in the following order: James Lee Byars, Ad Reinhardt, Agnes Martin, Bill Viola, Francis Bacon, Anselm Kiefer, Barnett Newman (with his quintessential The Promise, 1949), Bruce Nauman, Shirazeh Houshiary, Joseph Beuys, Lucio Fontana. The sequence generates some tough juxtapositions: how do you make the transition from, say, Bacon to Kiefer? Francis does it with vitrines, pithy displays of supplemental objects designed to initiate concepts and associations that bridge the gaps - the kind of "negotiation" called for in the exhibition's title. The passage from Bacon to Kiefer, for example, is keyed to Bacon's estheticized fantasies of sexual pleasure (rapture), which Francis links to Freudian notions of sexuality, art, and melancholia. The mediating vitrine, then, contains Durer's engraving Melancholia I, 1514, as well as Paul Klee's water-color Angelus Novus, 1920, a pictorial reference to disaster and loss that was once the property of Walter Benjamin, a Jewish victim of Nazism. Add to this a cabalistic diagram and the stage has been set for Kiefer's melancholic allusions to myth and modern German history.
With all these linkages, which often involve exotic or esoteric systems of belief, where, precisely, is the "rapture"? In his introduction to the show's catalogue (an ambitiously orchestrated volume, its contributors ranging from the cultural philosopher Homi K. Bhabha to the scholar of South Asian religions Wendy Doniger), Francis defines that mood as experience beyond one's physical bounds: "those moments of such exalted pleasure that we no longer recognize our rootedness in the material world." The connection to Bacon's heights of sexuality is obvious, but can rapture also be found in depths of melancholy? Do the reflection and meditation that melancholy summons constitute rapture? Clearly the exhibition approaches the rapturous by a wide variety of means; but this is not quite the same thing as creating the immediate condition of rapture. Francis, however, is too much of a post-Modernist (a term he and catalogue coauthor Sophia Shaw use frequently) to feel comfortable in distinguishing allusions to rapture from the real item. Post-Modernists - and Modernists too - know that language frames and negotiates all judgments of experience. As a result, a recognition of the rapturous, a verbal or pictorial self-consciousness about it, may be as fundamentally human as the transformative sensation and emotion itself, to which one's language never seems adequate.
Given all that Francis has arranged for his viewers to consider, the effect of individual works becomes uncertain. Will paintings by Martin, Newman, or Reinhardt produce a personalized sensation of rapture in the viewer, or will they communicate something of the rapture once felt so intensely (or figured as having been felt) by the artists in their studios? Does painting become an abundant source of rapture, its somewhat faded residue, or no more than an empty allegorical reference? "Negotiating Rapture" hedges its bets - if you can't feel rapture, you can still be informed of it. Yet Francis' exhibition tries to do more than merely assert an intellectual position, and this is what sets it apart from other studies in contemporary practice: its public may actually experience a shift in their mentality and mode of being. I'm serious. The exhibition induces such a remarkable …