As an undergraduate, I took a survey course in art since 1945. The course followed a predictable, almost teleological progression, as Abstract Expressionism was succeeded by Color Field painting, Pop, Minimalism, Conceptualism, and . . . and then, sometime in the '70s, everything fell apart. Suddenly, just as the course was coming to an end, just as we were breaking upon the present, the satisfactions of identifiable stylistic and intellectual currents wore out. Our professor characterized this moment as one of pluralism, introducing it as the consequence of our contemporary condition (postmodernism in its "weak" sense, as opposed to the "strong" version associated with Pictures artists, etc., a subject left out of this course's purview). And pluralism was a big downer.
"A/drift," an "exhibition-as-allegory" in the words of its curator, Joshua Decter, cast a wide net in what seems like an attempt to come to terms with weak post-modernist stylistic proliferations in the context of strong postmodernist theoretical elaborations, however tenuous their application. So, what precisely did "a/drift" allegorize? Decter, in a brief curatorial statement, said that the show "employ[ed] the idea of drifting to suggest the increasingly porous quality of today's cultural life." He then adumbrated eight "fluid zones": "Elasticity," "Carnal Matters," "Almost Dumb, Distracted and Apathetic Enough," "A Lovely Entropy," "Lifestyles of the . . . ," "TV Heads," "Where Is the Identity?," and "From Reticence to Smart Anger, Nihilism to Hope and Back Again." While some of these "zones" bear rather ungainly titles, the field of reference with respect to recent art is quite easy to parse: the omnipresence (omnipotence?) of the mass media, the body and sex, abjection, a crisis in stable identity formations and a supplementary art of (affirmative) identity politics, etc. Decter's introduction to "a/drift" also explicitly extended the visual field to movies, television, pop music, and fashion - which is to say, the exhibition belonged as much to the domain of "visual culture" as it did to art per se.
The porousness of which Decter spoke necessarily abrogates or at the very least (ironically) brackets the distinction between art and other cultural products. So in one rather pedestrian sense, "a/drift" simply reenacted the high/low antimony for the zillionth time. That it did so in a manner that was often visually compelling and entertaining was the exhibition's greatest strength. Decter assembled an impressive array of famous as well as relatively obscure contemporary artists, most of whom could be said to belong to the Pop/Conceptualist dispensation. With some ninety-four artists working in painting, sculpture, photography, video, and mixed-media installation, the exhibition was certainly ambitious, its scope quasi-synoptic. (Decter even opened his own curation to "porous" interventions from other critics, viz. Olivier Zahm and Elein Fliess of the Parisian magazine Purple Prose.) The exhibition's design, by Judith Barry and Kenneth Saylor, was very handsome. While "a/drift" was perforce pluralist in its inclusions, it avoided a messy, unhappy look. And the look, as we shall see, was key.
So then, why was this show so annoying? …