2, rue de Viarmes 75001 Paris
By JOSEPH NECHVATAL, May 2021
As of May 22nd there is an additional Rive Droite art museum in Paris called La Bourse de Commerce that shows selections of François Pinault’s contemporary art collection. Works in the collection rotate around within a circular Belle Époque building that formerly served as the commodities exchange building. So, for those that might harbor any lingering romantic notions about the high-mindedness of art as an intellectual-spiritual-political activity of change—led by visionary artists, imaginative art theorists, perceptive art critics and diligent art historians ~ here it is ~ in your face. Contemporary art—as framed here—is a commercial commodity validated within the limited confines of the art market. Exchanged and exploited for profit. Art market ~ stock market ~ same, same. Art traded as corn or coin. Until it is art no longer.
As the interesting César Aira pointed out in his David Zwirner book On Contemporary Art, the phrase ‘contemporary art’ is a post-art-agenda catch-all term—because there have been few robust recognitions of theory-based art movements since Conceptualism. It was a term cooked-up by the big auction houses. Relevant here is that Christie’s, the art auction house, was bought by Francois Pinault’s private holding group, Artemis, in 1998. Aira points out that after a flood of technique and idea-driven art movements that was Modernism, auction houses needed a new name to sell their art products. So they reached a consensus to give a conventional—if absurd—non-descriptive neutral name to art produced after 1970. In fairness, it is apparent that billionaire François Pinault is a contemporary art lover. Just not a particularly radical one. There appears to be little coherent taste to his passion for contemporary art, though there is loyalty to a group of artists he prefers.
The Pinault Collection is vast. It constitutes an ensemble of over 10,000 works that span from the 1960s to today. And I take Mr. Pinault at his word that his Bourse de Commerce project was born out of a desire to share his passion for the art of his time with the greatest number of people possible. After much wrangling, this old commodities exchange is the building that became available to him, and, even though the symbolism of it as a place of art is ill-omened, he has beautifully renovated it. Principally by having Japanese architect Tadao Ando add a mild minimalist gray cement ring into the central Rotunda that contrasts with the old panoramic painted mural above called Triumphal France (1889)—an unembarrassed parade of French colonialist exploitations. Embracing the theme of the Bourse’s trading floor, it makes no secret that Le Bourse de Commerce symbolizes home for France’s imperialist trade routes around the world. It was in this circular structure that commodity prices bounced around and the seeds of globalization were sown.
The title of the first group show there is simply: Ouverture (Opening). In an apparent attempt to wax lyrical about colonialism and capitalistic exploitation—everything in Ouverture rotates around Urs Fisher’s titanic sculpture Untitled (Giambologna) (2011)—a gigantic postmodern wax candle copy of the Mannerist sculptor Giambologna’s marble masterpiece The Abduction of the Sabine Women (1582)—a threesome of writhing figures swerving upwards. It is the main attraction in the Rotunda, but a standing man and a wildly diverse display of chairs, many designs of African origin, are also candle sculptures that too will melt away during the exhibition. If the burning down of candles moves you poignantly, Untitled will have an emotional effect on you. Otherwise, the forms are merely conventionally trompe l’oeil realistic casts and a typical postmodern exploitation of the past.
For the art works meant to last longer, boring—like the Bertrand Lavier’s trivial pop window droppings within 24 elegant display cases beautifully crafted in 1889—was the entire second floor’s sequence of paintings of the human figure. Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Florian Krewer, Xinyi Cheng, Claire Tabouret, Antonio Oba, Ser Serpas, Miriam Cahn, Marlene Dumas, Thomas Schütte, and Kerry James Marshall all failed to surpass an average art school visitation within this curvaceous cool space. That task was left to three immense Rudolf Stingel photo-realist paintings, with Untitled (Paula) (2012)—based on a photo of New York gallerist Paula Cooper smoking—being the best. The only other artist stretching the conceptual frontiers of painting proved to be David Hammons, with, Untitled (mirror) (2013), a gem of earthiness, Untitled (2008), an Arte Povera-esque shabby mess, and the delicate, uncommonly gentle, white-on-white Untitled (2010). These quasi-paintings/non-paintings were only a part of a much larger exhibition of Hammons’s work—which is the main attraction to La Bourse de Commerce, after investigating the new spruced-up space itself. Ironically, sadly, Hammons’s installation—that includes some of his most iconic pieces—felt here preoccupied with juxtapositions of rich and poor: like his flamboyant pop sculpture Untitled (2000). That said, Hammons is always winningly hard to pin down. The closest tradition for Hammons I have is probably Neo-Dadaism. His Black social-political provocations feel like capricious subversions, undercutting the cruel reminders of the reality of exploitation that surround his art.
On familiar postmodern ground, a large gallery was dedicated to photography and identity, gender, and sexuality. It featured groups of photos by Cindy Sherman, Louise Lawler, Sherrie Levine, Richard Prince, Michel Journiac—founder of Art corporel, the French 1960s-70s body art movement—and, the much loved Martha Wilson; founder/director of Franklin Furnace, the New York artist-run space that champions artists’ books, installation art, video, net art, and performance art. Lawler’s installation Helms Amendment (1989), places the critical and conceptual tools of her photographic practice in the service of political activism. Levine’s After August Sander (2012) and After Russell Lee (2016)—both feminist appropriations of the icons of a patriarchal history of photography—used to seem radically cheeky to me but now ensure the ludicrous within her sardonic sincerity. Sherman’s emblematic series Untitled Film Stills (1977–79) and Wilson’s Posturing (1972–73) and A Portfolio of Models (1974) deconstruct/reconstruct roles assigned to women by society. Wilson’s is a powerful play with the fluidity of gender. But besides Wilson, anyone who has been going to the Pinault Collection at the Palazzo Grassi in Venice will find little new here. And nothing much flouting of the approved well-worn mannerist contemporary art market tradition. Most of the artist’s eccentricities feel familiar now.
Like with the curvy circular Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum building built by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1959 in New York, the gravitational pull of the rounded architectural walls of the Bourse building and the glass dome draw the most intense attentiveness so far. WM
Joseph Nechvatal is an artist whose computer-robotic assisted paintings and computer software animations are shown regularly in galleries and museums throughout the world. In 2011 his book Immersion Into Noise was published by the University of Michigan Library's Scholarly Publishing Office in conjunction with the Open Humanities Press. He exhibited in Noise, a show based on his book, as part of the Venice Biennale 55, and is artistic director of the Minóy Punctum Book/CD project.view all articles from this author