The possibility of a new taxonomy for the art of this century, most especially an unruly one, carries with it a strong charge, a genuine kick. It's doubly appealing when it promises to thrust aside a dominant, seemingly unquestionable presupposition and bring its repressed opposite into full view, not just as a theoretical hypothesis, but as an unsuspected historical reality for decades. Of all the art-historical insurgencies against the high ideals of Modernism, then, few seem so radical or so far-reaching in their ambition to turn the tables as the Centre Georges Pompidou's summer 1996 exhibition "L'Informe: mode d'emploi" (The formless: instructions for use). Taking as its paradigm Georges Bataille's enigmatic postulation of the informe - a term that admits of no definition, defies definitions as such, even denies essentially that things have "definition" - the show subverts the presumed sine qua non of art, the making of form, with a shift to an art predicated on form's undoing. That some two hundred pieces of evidence should be laid out in a manner that squelches such habitual curatorial principles as style, period, oeuvre, and theme is a mere by-product of the informe's declassifying power. The exhibition functions instead by way of the informe's "instructions for use," a set of "operations," permeable and provisional, proposed to do violence as much to the precepts of Modernism as to form itself.
The show's cocurators are Rosalind Krauss, Meyer Schapiro Professor of Art History at Columbia University, and Yve-Alain Bois, Joseph Pulitzer Jr. Professor of Modern Art at Harvard. If their credentials are academic, their loosing of the informe on artistic practice, discernible in their work for a number of years, is decidedly not. From Passages in Modern Sculpture to The Optical Unconscious, from her contributions to Artforum in the '60s and '70s to the founding and stewardship of October, Krauss' repudiation of Clement Greenberg's formalist line has permitted her to observe the evolution of contemporary art, to nab it and tag it, with a Darwinian precision and intelligence. Her rereading of Modernism in its reciprocal relations with contemporary production, especially via the paradigm of "the photographic," has made her contemporary art criticism's principal force to contend with. Carrying commensurate European intellectual baggage of the post-Structuralist/October variety, Bois has been more closely associated with the austere regions of abstraction: Constructivism, Mondrian, Barnett Newman. Yet the vision of painting's capacity to induce thinking expressed in his Painting as Model no doubt explains the resilience with which he has encountered Lucio Fontana's expressionism, or with which he has passed from abstraction to the issue of noncomposition. Both Krauss and Bois have indicated that Bataille's informe surfaced in their work at first because of its heuristic interest. With "L'Informe: mode d'emploi," it now designates a corpus, as well as a grid for reading it. - LS
LAUREN SEDOFSKY: You've chosen as the title of your show "L'Informe." The word is untranslatable, indefinable, opaque. Is this a form of provocation?
YVE-ALAIN BOIS: In a way it is. The word's untranslatable, but you can find approximations: formless or formlessness. But it's not a concept. Indeed, it's an anticoncept. Were you to define it as a concept, it would be the concept of undermining concepts, of depriving them of their boundaries, their capacity to articulate the world. It's provocative in the sense that we wanted to undo some categories, and we recognized the capacity of the informe to do the job.
ROSALIND KRAUSS: The informe is a historical marker, like using terribilita if you're talking about Michelangelo. Certain foreign words plug into pieces of art history or the history of ideas. It's a liberty one can take. We wanted not only to plug the informe into a certain place in 20th-century French philosophical thought, but also to mark the exhibition as beginning in the '20s. …