From a distance, the Beaubourg, Le Centre Pompidou, looks charged, electrified, like a kid’s lit-up Christmas toy—swinging, jazzy—an affront—a postmodern deconstruction of visible pipes and structure plunked into old Paris. Heating and cooling systems, escalators are all on the outside of the building and painted in Tinkertoy colors, an exciting disturbance in the heart of the ancient Jewish Quarter of Paris. As a building, it has the gravity-pull of a funhouse and is a provocation to a medieval quarter, a part of the city left intact when, in 1880, Baron Haussmann swept the city clean of its feudal antiques destroying 60% of Paris in the process. Most of what we think of as Paris with its wide avenues and Elysian parks, the monuments to the Republic, the look-alike apartment blocks, Hausmann made—buildings like soldiers on parade, marshal and ordered with wrought iron balconies banding at the third and fifth floors. All his order can give a lift to the spirit, a bit of safe harbor to the chaos of city life, but the meandering medieval neighborhood of the Beaubourg gives a contrasting lift—the anarchy of freethinking.
With Haussmann’s sewers and transportation scheme, open space, and streetlights, Paris transformed overnight into the most livable, sanitary and healthy city in Europe. It was Haussmann who gave us the Luxembourg Gardens, the Bois de Boulogne, and the promise of quiet order after the “terror” unleashed in the Revolution 100 years before, with chaos rippling through France for another sixty years. These days the Marais, the old quarter where the Pompidou was unloaded, for that’s what it feels like—a shipment of something unloaded off the back of a truck—is an attractant of its own, a chaotic charm-island in Haussmann’s dream of propriety. Trendy boutiques shoulder up next to wood-paneled kosher delis—where you won’t find a buttered ham baguette and for sure, not on Saturday.
The painted pipe and cage structure doesn’t move well with the other aristocratic monuments of Paris, but I suppose that is the point. It is a people’s museum. This is no stern marble box—a columned austerity proclaiming power. With all that color and discord, it doubles up as a delight as well as a psychoactive intrusion into so much architectural history, and for the tourist it’s a simple fact, exciting the will to see something new. At the same time, it feels good to be on the inside so you don’t have to look at the damned thing, and more disturbing is that it decays too fast; the rust and chipping paint are very visible as one gets up close. Ancient masonry mellows and meets the earth as an equal, but all this techno-tension sits like anti-matter against the old stone of Paris.
On this visit to the Pompidou I am alone and in a peripatetic drift through the strata of super-modern artworks watching the signifiers for what makes a work of art credible, peel away as I move from room to room. I like the Euro-slant, on the modernist canon, the same cycle of art movement supplanting movement everywhere in the 20th Century. The modernist juggernaut that rolled through my own art-school training—the questions posed were not aesthetic, “just make it new, and don’t just reinvent Cubism.”
I move on into a retrospective of the American Robert Morris. Morris was famous as a big-time Minimalist in the 60’s using industrial materials to fill museum spaces. A bona fide “Art Star.” Great swags of inch-thick felt slung across pristine museum walls made an authoritative manifesto of art stripped of romance. The usual signifiers of art, of craft, of harmony, were gone and those pieces remained as glowering presences of anti-meaning, the colossus of domination. Big bossy things that really did hold the space and for me as an art student made me feel puny. His work brought an archetypal instinct to the front, the giant must be defeated.
He had had a major exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington DC where I went to art school. Amongst the neoclassic columns and marble floors, he had placed 20 foot 16-inch raw wooden beams as though giants tossed them—seven or so of the big timbers. As the Morris exhibit came down the timbers were stored for months in the loading area of the museum. I worked back there doing odd jobs for the museum and making clay for the ceramics dept. I asked if I could use the beams for my own work. Sure, I was told, just send Leo Castelli $24,000 and they’re yours.
In this retrospective, at the Pompidou there were those same beams in those same configurations and the felt drapery on the wall, as well as a room filled with cyclopean fiberglass jugs gauzy and airy even for the size, suspended floating in the space, filling a gallery with pure presence. It felt as if there was a Goliath lurking, a dread feeling creeping up of being dominated. Something about his work was about battling with giants, some Oedipal wrestling with a stone sky-father waving a punishing stick. Morris’ most notorious work was a poster for a 1974 show, a photograph of him shirtless in a Nazi helmet with S&M regalia—a spiked collar and massive greasy chains draped around his shoulders finished me. What was he trying to say? “Hey, punk, get on or go away.”
Over the years Morris had changed and the magazine pictures of his work I had seen of late looked like a 180° turn toward the figurative. They looked downright romantic. The main room at the Beaubourg was showing large bronze works. They were portals and gateways in black metal, figures writhing out of the wall itself, toothy skulls and bones, apocalyptic burnt-out corpses, vivid nuclear hallucinations. They were frozen dramas, altar-like with dark phantasms, wrenching themselves free, free to face what? Many were frames for encaustic paintings—smears of red and black, flesh dragged across lonesome highways. Figures were bound with bronze rope, assassinations with sweeps of blood-crust wiping out any hope. “OK,” they challenged, “how do you be a free person with all this looming apocalypse?” Not much hope, but for the sheer willingness to make these things ripped out of the dreaded 3 AM nightmare world. That a mind of such minimalist rigor could move through a signature style and onto work that could have easily come out of the nineteenth century was evidence enough of the plasticity of the human spirit.
The gallery was silent but for the moans coming out of the leviathan plastic jugs. They had speakers inside or some sound device I hadn’t heard the first go-round. I was on my way to check out the sound when a cacophony broke the muffled underwater atmosphere of the museum. The guards, from the tribe of haughty scolds, were posted about with quick-to-chide finger wags lest anyone get too close to the art. Woe-betide any who would actually touch. These wardens of the State’s treasures were thrown into upheaval. In a sudden fracas, a large group filled the gallery shouting, laughing, calling across the hushed space. The group not only touched the works but were also rubbing their hands all over. The guards freaked, shouting, running around, their sanctum violated, their holy of holies so swiftly and completely invaded. Rushing in red-faced, the museum director clapped his hands three times, gave a great shout and it was quiet. He huddled with the guards, in the middle of the gallery. I listened in and heard that he had given his permission for the blind students (Les Aveugles) to touch the bronzes. The guards went back to their posts vibrating with inner conflict. The touching continued, the noise rising up again in happy contact with the art. It was a great contrast for Morris’ dark portentous visions. The blind putting a thumb in the father’s scowling eye.
“Seeing” Robert Morris’ work in this “light” I came to an appreciation, once again, that any judgment I carry is malleable, and in fact, the starting point for a journey of re-discovery. What is in the world is here. Morris made that an explicit point of his work and I came to love, once again, the hard way.