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Modernism brushed against the grain

BOOKS Formless: A User's Guide by Yve-Alain Bois and Rosalind E Krauss. Zone Books, 1997. 304pp. £22.50. (Distributed by MIT Press)

Gordon Matta-Clark trained as an architect at Cornell University in the late 1960s but made his name as an artist, albeit one who engaged with architecture. Selecting properties that were slated for demolition, he transformed their interiors with cuts through floors and walls, creating ever more complex interpenetrating spaces. 'To visit his final works was to be seized by vertigo, as one suddenly realised that one could not differentiate between the vertical section and the horizontal plan, ' writes Yve-Alain Bois.

Matta-Clark was a central figure in an exhibition, L'Informe: Mode d'Emploi, which Bois and Rosalind Krauss curated at the Centre Pompidou (AJ 18.7.96); this book translates and illustrates the texts that accompanied it. The concept of the informe (the formless), drawn from a text by Georges Bataille, is used to counter the formalist theorising of Modern art, in which Clement Greenberg was pre-eminent. This is no simple reversal of Greenberg's emphasis, a foregrounding of 'content' instead of 'form'; rather, an attempt to locate 'certain operations that brush modernism against the grain'. 'Our project is to redeal modernism's cards - not to bury it, ' says Bois.

The book, like the exhibition, is in four (at first, surprising) sections.

Matta-Clark is included in the one devoted to entropy, in its many guises, along with his mentor Robert Smithson ('Glue Pour', 'Partially Buried Woodshed', etc). Here too is Ed Ruscha, 'census-taker of the little nothings that eat away at a city', whose photographs of empty parking lots in Los Angeles (their bays smeared with oil deposits) reflect a vision of 'the city itself as dust, as a mounting tide of nondifferentiation'.

A second category is horizontality: a reminder that visual art is not addressed only to the sense of sight.

Man takes pride in being 'vertical' (not on the horizontal axis of animals), but Greenberg's formalism 'presupposes the viewer's having forgotten that his or her feet are in the dirt'. Examining such artists as Jackson Pollock, Robert Morris and Andy Warhol (works made on the floor not the easel, and emphasising the pull of gravity), Bois and Krauss bring the body as well as the eyes into play - as also in the third category, pulse. Central there are Marcel Duchamp's Rotoreliefs - cardboard disks printed with spiral patterns that, once in motion, hypnotically corkscrew inwards and out. Their 'endless beat . . . plugs the 'purely optical' into the libidinal'; the visual and sexual are fused.

Last of the categories is base materialism: encounters with mud and mould (Robert Rauschenberg), burnt plastic (Alberto Burri), excremental chunks of ceramic (Lucio Fontana), and a row of cows' feet propped against the wall of a Parisian slaughterhouse (a 1929 photograph by Eli Lotar). Matter can't always be idealised, is the dominant message; it is often repugnant.

The artists and works that Bois and Krauss discuss aren't necessarily confined to just one of these categories; the classification is meant to be 'porous'. And, as 'redealing the cards' implies, it's not a new orthodoxy they propose, an erasure of formalist accounts. Accepted as such, it is seductively subversive, acute in its observations and alternative readings.

The book, of course, can't reproduce the immediacy of the exhibition. Works in the 'pulse' category, for instance, dependent on experience over time, can't really be translated into words - precise though the authors' descriptions are. And, in Bruce Mau's elegant design, 'base materialism' looks all too tasteful - open to assimilation by that 'purely optical' realm which is supposedly on trial. This doesn't matter very much. The arguments survive, and question not just conventional accounts of Modernism but also art historical certainties about period and style.

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