RÖING BAER BAUER BÜCK BÜCHSEMANN
BUDDENBROCK EHRLENBRUCH FRIEDMAN
GERNHÄUSER GRAF HUNKEMÖLLER KABBARA KIM
LORENZ MANTWILL MOHAMED NICOLIN REIJENGA
SPALLEK R. WINDER YUN
Idea of the Catalogue
‘… the minutely detailed history of the future, the archangels’ autobiographies, the faithful catalogues of the Library, thousands and thousands of false catalogues, the demonstration of the fallacy of those catalogues, the demonstration of the fallacy of the true catalogue…’
J. L. Borges, The Library of Babel
What a catalogue wants to be, according to its fraught etymology, is an overview, or a culling, of its subject – an ambition thwarted from the outset by the laws of physics and life’s vicissitudes, which put it in the way of cataclysms, catastrophes, catacombs. One of the oldest Greek texts that explicitly falls under this genre, the Catalogue of Women – apparently compiled in the eighth century BCE and often held to be part of Hesiod’s Theogony – recounts the mythical heroines celebrated in song. All that remains today of this glorious company are scraps, tiny fragments that only acquire some semblance of cohesion by dint of boundless conjecture and meticulous works of restoration, efforts which are themselves heroic in their own way. Like almost all of ancient culture, the pseudo-Hesiodic catalogue is a ruin, a rag: its incomplete character all the more regrettable, or vexing, as there was a clear will of ordering and completeness inherent in the enterprise. Vanitas catalogi! Köchel, Kirkpatrick, Venturi, Zervos – who among them will not have felt they were building their edifices on quicksand? But that is where the beauty of the gesture lies. Like the fool who tries to hold the river in his hands, the cataloguer grapples with the flux of the indefinite, the impossible. He knows he is doomed to approximation, even to error, and still he does not give up. And as for the simple art critic who is charged with decorating a bouquet of more or less improbable reproductions with his prose – even if this task, fortunately, tends not to have to conform to a strictly reasoned project – there is always something akin to wishful thinking in his activity. Starting with the assumption that people will actually read what he produces, that goes without saying – but the odd few are bound to come along at one point or another to encourage him to keep on building these castles in Spain.
Umberto Eco’s article, ‘How to Write an Introduction to an Art Catalogue’, published in 1980 in the Italian weekly L’Espresso, offers a lucid approach to the particular dilemma of criticism, which stems from a sentiment as insidious as it is persistent: What am I doing here? (When I could be … etc, etc.) A creature that since the foundation of the world of Being (to speak for a moment like Plato) has been convincingly atopos (in other words forever displaced, without hearth or home, in partibus like the most unfortunate of bishops), the critic is compelled by fate to construct various strategies of legitimation. In this regard Eco compiled a catalogue of the potential motivations of the individual he referred to by the acronym WIAC (‘writer of introductions to art catalogues), which I reproduce here on the basis that my presence in these pages is directly linked to my quoting of this article in a catalogue that was memorable for other reasons:
a) Corruption (very rare, for, as we will see, there are motivations that cost the artist less). b) Sexual reward. c) Friendship: in either of its two versions: genuine affection or inability to refuse. d) Gift of a work by the artist (this motivation is not the same as the following one, namely admiration for the artist; in fact, it is possible want gifts of pictures in order to accumulate a commercially viable stock). e) Sincere admiration for the artist’s work. f) Desire to link one’s own name with the name of the artist: a splendid investment for young intellectuals, since the artist will go to great pains to publicise the WIAC’s name in bibliographies for innumerable later catalogues, both nationally and abroad. g) Ideological, aesthetic, or commercial association, to promote a political movement or assist an idealistic art gallery. The latter raises a delicate question, which even the most resolutely altruistic WIAC cannot evade.
Whatever amendments might be made to Eco’s text (more than forty years have passed and many aspects of the microcosm it describes are no longer as promising as they might once have seemed), it remains in parts hilariously true, to the point, and deeply demoralising. Because now in the mind of the art critic there’s a little voice – let’s say it’s right at least as often as it’s wrong – that repeats over and over again this advice given elsewhere, in a larger context: curb your enthusiasm.
If we think about it, there is an obvious way to bypass all these difficulties, all these sufferings that arise from the critical condition – I mean the condition of the critic – which is for the artist to deal in person with the catalogue of their work.
(A most sensible initiative, if only to the extent that critics, in a fearful symmetry, would sometimes also gain by tackling the production of the objects they comment on.) In this vein, for an exhibition ‘at no 28, Broad Street, Golden Square’ in London in 1809, William Blake wrote A Descriptive Catalogue of Pictures, Poetical and Historical Inventions, Painted by William Blake, in Water-colours, Being the Ancient Method of Fresco Painting Restored and Drawings, for Public Inspection, and for Sale by Private Contract (I will refrain here from attempting to reproduce the typographical variety of this title page). The advertisement for the said catalogue, and therefore for the exhibition it accompanied, announced: ‘The grand style of Art restored; in FRESCO, or Water-colour Painting, and England protected from the too just imputation of being the Seat and Protectress of bad (that is blotting and blurring) Art.’ In short, I can see nothing but advantages to confusing roles and functions in this way. But I would not like to end without returning briefly to the Catalogue of Women, and to the avatar that Mozart and Da Ponte invented for it in their Don Giovanni, some twenty years before Blake’s exhibition. It is of course the ‘catalogue’ aria in Act I, Scene V, where Leporello recounts for Donna Elvira the list of his master’s one thousand and three lovers (a sign of another time, certainly, but remember, or rest assured, kind and gentle readers: his debauchery is ruthlessly punished in the end). Il catalogo è questo delle belle che amò il padron mio. And Leporello begins his litany, which he introduces with these words: ‘Look, read with me’ (Osservate, leggete con me). And if you’ve got this far, my advice regarding this catalogue is, above all, ‘Look, and try to imagine’.
Raum 106, Issue nr. 4. 2021. Eine suspendierte Ausstellung / A Suspended Exhibition by Klasse John Morgan & guests.
© 2021 Klasse John Morgan, Raum 106, Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, Eiskellerstraße 1, 40213 Düsseldorf. www.klassejohnmorgan.de
All works produced in collaboration with Michel Büchsenmann and Manuel Graf. The player is Bastian Buddenbrock.
Jean Pierre-Criqui is a curator of contemporary collections at the Musée national d’art moderne (Centre Pompidou, Paris), and the editor-in-chief of the art-historical quarterly Les Cahiers du Mnam.
Text © 2021 Jean Pierre-Criqui. German translation by Beate Susanne Hanen. English translation by Pamela Johnston.
Printing by Druckerei Kettler.