"Thread" exhibition

Cristinerose Gallery, New York, NY
September 4 - October 4, 1997
Co-curated by Mariacristina Parravicini and Tom Moody

left to right: Beverly Semmes, Ghada Amer, Ava Gerber, Ann Hamilton, Jim Isermann

Catalog essay by Tom Moody

In their 1996 exhibition at the Centre Georges Pompidou titled “L’Informe: mode d’emploi” (Formless: A User's Guide), critics Rosalind Krauss and Yve-Alain Bois revisited classic works of modernism by artists ranging from Alberto Giacometti to Eva Hesse, with a few recent pieces by Mike Kelley, Alan McCollum, and Cindy Sherman sprinkled in. Instead of discussing the artists' work in textbook terms, that is, in the vocabulary of formalism first enunciated by the likes of Clement Greenberg and MOMA curator Alfred Barr, they turned the textbook upside down, viewing the work through the inverting lens of French author and renegade surrealist George Bataille. In other words, they discussed it not in terms of form but rather “form’s undoing.”[1]

In making their revisionist survey, the curators discussed the art in terms of one or more “operations” based loosely on Bataille’s writings--Horizontality, Base Materialism, Pulse, and Entropy, which inverted the mainstream criteria of uprightness, purity, timelessness, and structure. Obviously they meant to shake up certain habits of thought with this perverse exercise, but there is a paradox in creating a “new taxonomy” for art based on a thinker who, as discussed below, advocated the breakdown of classifications. The curators went to pains to emphasize that their operations were overlapping and fluid, not standards for judging work per se but metaphorical tools for understanding it.

As I was preparing to write this essay about artists who incorporate thread or sewing into their work, it struck me that Krauss’ and Bois’ operations were tailor-made (pardon the pun) to describe the woven, knotted, tangled, and quietly subversive work in this show. This exhibition postulates thread as a protean, or shape-shifting substance, linking together a number of diverse art practices in the ‘90s. And now, with apologies to the two critics, I have adapted their anti-categories to explore further connections among works. In so doing, I have taken some liberties with Krauss’ and Bois’ text, just as they acknowledge they did with Bataille.

Base Materialism: Annette Messager, Ann Hamilton, Ghada Amer, Ava Gerber

Bataille believed that the task of rationalist philosophy (from which many precepts of art criticism are taken) was to ensure that “everything has its proper form, its defined boundaries, its limits,” according to Krauss. L’informe, on the other hand (which translates roughly into “formless,” and is expressed in oxymoronic phrases such as “round phallicism” or “rotten sun”) had a contrary mission: “to declassify, to strip away the ‘mathematical frockcoats’ that philosophy drapes over everything.”[2] For Bataille, the collapse of the distinction between binaries such as figure and ground, self and other, or male and female transgressed logic, which he saw as repressive.

Among the most important of the dualities Bataille sought to collapse were those of "pinnacle and base," or "immaterial and earthly." As Krauss explains:

In the anatomical geography of Bataille’s thought the vertical axis emblematizes man’s pretensions toward the elevated, the spiritual, the ideal: his claim that the uprightness separating him biologically from the bestial distinguished him ethically as well. Bataille doesn’t believe this distinction, and insists on the presence--behind the repressive assumptions of verticality--of lowness as the real source of libidinal energy. Lowness here is both an axis and a direction, the horizontality of the mud of the real.[3]

To this upright figure, Krauss explains, Bataille attached the “mythoanatomical legend of the pineal eye”:

The very opposite of Descartes’ belief that the pineal eye was the organ connecting the soul to the body, Bataille’s notion of the gland’s function is that it propels man upward, attracting him toward the empyrion--representative of all that is lofty--impelling him however to stare straight into the sun, becoming as a result, crazed and blind.” [4]

For the “sun,” one could easily substitute TV, computer games, Op art in corporate lobbies--the whole mesmerizing spectacle of optical culture. Decades after Bataille, we’re putting mathematical frockcoats on everything in the form of demographics, gene sequences, and the ultimate binary opposition: the computer’s one and zero. The artists in this show, faced with digital culture’s ubiquitous multiple choice exam, seem to want to determine their own intervals. Through their use of conspicuously handmade, non-virtual art and oxymoronic contradiction, they align themselves with “the low” and with Bataille.

Annette Messager, for example, bluntly pairs black and white photography, a medium associated with photojournalism and “objectivity,” with stuffed and sewn body parts--guts, veins, nerves--palpably exposing an “inner map” and laying it over one that is indexical and “outer.” Although her photos are personal, they are fragmented in the manner of John Coplans, and seem measured and detached in contrast to the organs, which are bluntly factual and horrific. This emphasis on the real over the represented, on the gross functions of the body over the detached operations of the eye, closely approximates Bataille’s notion of “base materialism.”

Similarly, Ann Hamilton probes the tangled roots of sexuality and organic life lurking beneath tidy abstract systems in Untitled (Hair Collar), 1993. She neatly embroiders the letters of the alphabet--units of rational communication--on a small piece of cloth, but when the cloth is turned over, the “threads” used to inscribe the letters are revealed to be long wavy horse hairs, intertwined in a frizzy mass. Perversely, the embroidered cloth is curled inward so that the alphabet speaks only to itself and the hair faces outward in an invaginated cloud, reminiscent of Meret Oppenheim’s fur-lined tea cup. Once again, the body prevails over reason and language.

Ghada Amer also embroiders, but her alphabet consists of the ritualized sexual poses of male-oriented pornography--girl with legs spread, girl separating buttocks, girl tonguing other girl’s labia--in repeated quasi­decorative patterns across the surface of a stretched canvas. Here, too, the thread departs from the implied continuity of the dotted line, jumping from one image to another in a meandering, random flow that recalls Pollock’s drips or Marcel Duchamp’s “standard stoppages.” Removing pornography from the dark confines of the sex-shop and spotlighting it in the gallery, then robbing it of its clarity and specificity with a kind of physical “static,” Amer’s work both reveals and obscures.

Hovering somewhere between figuration and abstraction, accident and intention, Ava Gerber’s work explores the connection between base materialism and “bricolage,” an improvised system based on available materials. Like a child’s favorite stuffed toy that has been patched and repaired again and again, or an African fetish that grows by accretion as it is added to by members of a tribe, each of her squat, floorbound figures have been pieced together in a chaotic tangle of cloth scraps, yarn, pillow stuffing, and decorative bric-a-brac. Although the work results from solitary labor, it mimics collective processes that are anathema to the modernist “genius” arriving at form analytically.

Horizontality: Robin Kahn, Beverly Semmes

As we have seen, base materialism is closely linked in Bataille with horizontality, while verticality relates to human uprightness, “a plane that is fronto-parallel to the plane of vision,” according to Krauss. “[I]f you flatten an object onto the horizontal field,” she says, “you’ve moved it away from the visual, from the condition of form.”[5]  Examples of this subversive horizontality include Giacometti’s No More Play, 1933 (resembling an occult game board), Andy Warhol’s dance diagrams, or Mike Kelley’s afghans covering mysterious lumps.

In a similar vein, Beverly Semmes’ oversized dresses often spill down from the wall into enormous pools of loose fabric on the floor. As Semmes has said, the emphasis in her work is planar, making the floorbound cloth more like painting “moved away from the condition of form,” than what we normally think of as sculpture. Occupying both wall and floor, Ballerina, 1997, with its band of pink sandwiched between two opulent masses of blue, appeals to our sense of color as much as a painting by Newman or Ellsworth Kelly, but in addition to its disorienting horizontal component, this particular “painting” includes loaded signifiers relating to the body, domesticity, fashion, identity-formation, and other aspects of human interaction.

Those “bands of color” are, after all, a dress: an oversized bodice and tutu, looking down on a cluster of crushed velvet pillows matching the fabric of the bodice. Alone, the dress resembles a costume for a ballerina with the build of a Sumo wrestler (or a dancing hippo in Disney’s Fantasia); joined with the pillows, it suggests someone with a very low self-image trying to blend in with the furnishings. In either case, the loosely-arranged pillows keep the piece oriented to the floor, to the mundane, so the viewer doesn’t float off into the abstract ether of Semmes’ saturated color.

Robin Kahn’s Family Tree II, 1995, makes another use of horizontality, wittily subverting the conventions of historical narrative. On a modest-sized quilt exhibited flat on the floor, she has embroidered the names of several dozen 20th Century women artists, including Sophie Tauber-Arp, Miriam Shapiro, Janine Antoni, Carrie May Weems, and herself. Normally a “family tree” is the quintessence of the linear and the vertical (and when applied to art, it can be unintentionally funny, as with Alfred Barr’s wildly elaborate chart tracing the origins of abstract art), but Family Tree II is more like a cross-section, with names arranged in concentric rings. Lest you think they tell a story (as tree rings do), Kahn has arranged the names achronologically, with Tauber-Arp in the outer circle, Eva Hesse in the inner, and Sue Williams in between. Art is thus presented as a community of shared interest, a continuum, not something handed down according to strict rules but something continuously reinvented in a place that is everywhere and everywhen at once.

Pulse: Mimi Smith, Jim Isermann

Clement Greenberg, when visiting an artist’s studio, would often cover his eyes, ask the artist to position a painting, and then remove his hands, as if to allow the work to speak directly, instantaneously, to his optical cortex.[6] The idea that slowness, or the incremental measurement of time, might have aesthetic implications never played much of a role in his criticism. For Krauss and Bois, “pulse” is another form of instability (anti-form), one having a temporal dimension (with obvious coital connotations, as suggested in pieces such Duchamp’s throbbing rotoreliefs or Giacometti’s Suspended Ball, 1930-31, with its implied pendular motion).

In “Thread,” “pulse” can be felt in the slow, labor-intensive processes of sewing or weaving, a feeling especially pronounced in the work of Mimi Smith and Jim Isermann. When Smith was living in Cleveland in the mid ‘70s and raising two small children, she patiently replicated the furnishings and architectural details of her home, room by room, in a series of large wall­drawings consisting entirely of yellow measuring tape and lengths of knotted thread. The thread gave a certain visual weight to these renditions of an armchair, TV set, staircase, etc, but more importantly it added a tangible suggestion of time, of the hours spent confined in the home.

Jim Isermann’s sculpture--a length of hand braided fabric coiled in a giant capsule shape--also smacks of time and suburbia. It’s the latest in a series of projects in which the artist has combined some labor-intensive craft such as quilting, hand-hooking shag carpet, or assembling stained glass windows to make near-flawless works unabashedly based on commercial knockoffs of fine art. As David Pagel has observed, the Wisconsin-native-turned-southern-Californian combines the obsessiveness of the Protestant work ethic with “the sunny optimism and unpretentious openness for which southern California is known.”[7] His piece here, almost literally a “time capsule,” is a densely-packed record of elapsed time with the breezy texture of a braided rug in a ranch-style bungalow--another Bataillean contradiction.

Entropy: Bill Davenport, Brigitte Nahon

Of course, what results from Isermann’s braiding and Smith’s knotting is unquestionably form (as are the rotoreliefs and Suspended Ball) but it is form that makes us cognizant of the time it took to come into existence, in contrast to the modernist abstractions that aspired to be as “given” and “increate” as a landscape, in Greenberg’s words.[8]  Krauss’ and Bois’ fourth operation, however, contemplates the ultimate dissolution of form over time, as entropy. According to its poet laureate Robert Smithson, entropy “contradicts the usual notion of a mechanistic world view. [I]t’s a condition that’s irreversible...moving towards a gradual equilibrium.”[9]  He gives the following example:

Picture [a] sandbox divided in half with black sand on one side and white sand on the other. We take a child and have him run hundreds of times clockwise in the box until the sand gets mixed and begins to turn grey; after that we have him run anti-clockwise but the result will not be restoration of the original division but a greater degree of greyness and an increase of entropy.[10]

Despite their cheerful demeanor, Bill Davenport’s sculptures and wall hangings, incorporating crafts and lumpen found objects, are intimately involved with the decay of order Smithson describes. His needlepointing, for all its precision, often has a failed, stunted quality, as if the images he sought to realize were constantly wavering in his mind’s eye (like the dissolving binary in Smithson’s sandbox). Loops, 1994, for example--resembling a pair of pixelated circles drawn by a child on a computer--is almost a parody of Greenberg-era formalism. Despite its mien of failure, the work conveys not a fashionable “patheticism,” but something closer to the sense of struggle in the face of an inevitable winding-down.

In Davenport’s work, entropy is an invisible attractor, felt but rarely seen, which is also the case with Brigitte Nahon’s sculptures incorporating found and industrial materials, which seem eternally poised on the brink of destruction. Massive concrete blocks sit on top of rows of glass bottles, or a large pipe leans precariously on a vertical pane of glass, and only a miracle--or more accurately, the artist’s practical knowledge of physics--keeps disaster at bay. Her piece in this exhibition presents this balancing act in microcosm. Threads are separated into fine strands and stretched around perfect spheres of clear plastic, then suspended from the ceiling. The only thing that prevents the spheres from falling and cracking is the tension on the threads, which, ruined for any other purpose, hang like arrested versions of the fraying cord in a thousand suspense films. Thus, a seemingly light and airy work camouflages a state of entropic co-dependency.

It isn’t hard to imagine the ideas of Bataille as a kind of holy scripture for a neo-primitivist cult, with Pulse, Base Materialism, Entropy, and horizontality as the sacraments. As a way of looking at art, these operations are like a cross between a zen koan and an industrial abrasive, keeping the viewer’s sensibilities off­balance while scraping away the encrustations of formalism that have a way of building up around art. As we have seen, the work in "Thread" provides an ideal--that is to say, base--proving ground for these operations.


  1. “Down and Dirty: Lauren Sedofsky talks with Rosalind Krauss and Yve-Alain Bois,” Artforum, Summer 1996 (hereinafter cited as “Sedofsky”), p. 90. See Informe: Mode d'Emploi (Paris: Center Georges Pompidou, 1996).
  2. R. Krauss, The Originality of the Avant Garde and Other Modernist Myths (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1993), pp. 63-64.
  3. Ibid., p. 80.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Sedofsky, p. 126.
  6. A. Danto, After the End of Art (Princeton: Princeton University Press,1997) p. 89.
  7. D. Pagel, “Jim Isermann: The Best of Both Worlds,” Art + Text, May-July 1997, pp. 67-73
  8. C. Greenberg, Art and Culture (Boston: Beacon Press, 1961), p. 6.
  9. R. Smithson, The Collected Writings (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), p. 301.
  10. Ibid., p. 74.

left to right: Mimi Smith, Robin Kahn, Bill Davenport