Pre-Apocalyptic Non-Modernism

We are come not only past the century’s closing, he thought, the millennium’s turning, but to the end of something else. Era? Paradigm? Everywhere, the signs of closure. Modernity was ending.
– William Gibson, Virtual Light

All the pieces are painted on wood, like icons. Strange.

New York City is an improbably complex construction. The grid pattern evident in a satellite photograph gleams from the Earth’s surface, as precise as the tracery etched into a microchip made at 7-35 Kitashinagawa 6-chome Shinagawa-ku, Tokyo. The Sony Corporation. Down at street level, the effect is more out of ancient Egypt, or the lost cities of the fertile crescent, complete with a Biblical rabble thronging the streets. But there is no “center” holding New York. It extends outwards is all, and backwards in time. It is the center. The precision of the city from space disguises the chaotic nature contained (compressed) by that multi-layered, multi-ethnic grid. The bars of this particular cage contain just enough “give” to let steam escape into space. Above hangs the sky, somehow archival — a daguerreotype. New York? Find the Atlantic on a map and follow the razor-thin line at 40 nautical degrees West. Head across the Azores atmospheric depression, follow the Maine coast down past the bobbing styrofoam garbage of the fin-de-siecle. You’ll hit New York City, an improbably complex construction.

Tunes from a doomed Continent, the Europe of the 30′s, waft from an old radio in the corner.

Given its size — its sheer spectacularity — there’s not all that much in the city that defies explanation. Unlike the geological strata defining the roots of Rome, or the vertical tree-rings of Troy, New York’s history is mostly self-evident. It’s exposed to the air, blackened by soot, or simply destroyed and carted off for land-fill. Photographed by the first glass negatives, filmed at the birth of film, it’s a pragmatic place — designed from coherent plans. New York’s culture, its music, even its criminal hierarchies and their rituals have all been well documented. Massive insectoid antennae crown the buildings, sending a steady stream of signals out — to a world with no immune system capable of resisting the city’s immense, Babylonian power.

All around, arranged on the old furniture, are books. They describe the art collection of Gertrude and Leo Stein.

Very little here defies explanation. How then to explain a temporal aberration, a flaw in the space-time continuum, hidden down an otherwise fairly ordinary street in Little Italy? How, in other words, to explain the Salon de Fleurus? I was speaking about this very point with the — well, host — of that establishment. “The best way, really, is to write a story,” he said. “We are talking about something which in its very nature doesn’t belong to the way we are treating it.”

Standing at the center, the host. An integral part of the installation.

What do you mean, I asked. The subject was his object: the Salon de Fleurus. And in order to gain some new perspective, we had temporarily left the grounds where such discussions normally take place — i.e., the Salon itself. But distance, on this given Saturday, failed to dispel the odd feeling of almost Tarkovskian temporal displacement that the object is so mysteriously capable of casting. “What we are doing now is we are vivisecting the Salon,” he said. “This very discussion has a modernistic, analytical approach. But maybe the Salon would be properly understood only within the terms of a different approach to art which is not yet established yet.”

That — mystery — renders discussion of the Salon almost beside the point. Mystery being mystery, as defined in the dictionary. But the discussion was the reason for our meeting. So we persevered, despite the garbage-grind of New York City, which rattled through our street-level conversation.

I agreed with him, but cautiously. The challenge, then, was to establish this different approach. But I wanted to see his larger point. He continued: “Vivesection means you have to kill something, then you can understand it. Anthropologists, for example, show up in a foreign society and they make a construct — they arrive with their own subject categories, and they compare their subject matter to their own society. The question then is, which is the correct method: to submerge oneself within the society — to find the relationship of all the internal elements of the society to each other — or, on the other hand, to constantly refer back to one’s own culture all the time?”

He paused, letting this Heisenbergian argument tick through its paces. “And this is applicable to the Salon,” he concluded. “Why constantly refer back to categories formed in the modernist period?”

I agreed, and allowed that I was ready to attempt to let the Salon’s inner elements find a satisfactory relationship to each other within my text. I did not want subject (or object) prematurely bathed in the formaldehyde of defunct artistic categories. And I attempted momentarily to eject ingrained modernism (and it’s post-erior) from my thinking. The sun, glinting off high windows, sent daggers of heat down to our table, which provided a platform for two cold glasses of strong espresso. The ice was rapidly melting. Mid-summer, 1993; the city had slipped its moorings and was descending towards the equator. A zone where the ocean boils.

I remembered idly opening one of the many books in the Salon de Fleurus, to read the following: Nowhere else in Paris — or in the world — could modern painting be found in such quantity and quality as on those three walls. As Leo later described his pursuit of the modern, he felt “like Columbus setting sail for a world beyond the world.”

But the reader, at this point, will require facts, details and dates. The dramaturgy and organizational principles, so to speak, of the Salon de Fleurus. I can only report that in December of 1992 I arrived in New York from a region of Europe that had descended into madness. There I met a friend in lower Manhattan; a retired artist chiefly known for his anonymity. This, in fact, was the “host” – but I did not know that yet. I was invited by him to visit a new “exhibition.” We proceeded to 41 Spring Street, where he pressed the buzzer to apartment #12. A Japanese man in his early 20′s soon appeared – slim, medium height, well groomed, tailored in the type of expensive silvery suit worn by all successful executives. After a brief introduction (my artist friend evidently already knew him), we were escorted through a faintly seedy hallway, past a series of doors, and to a cryptic inner courtyard. Beyond, after a hard left turn, we entered the Salon.

How to describe an event shaped as an apartment? The Salon unfolds like a box designed by anonymous artisans working not just with space, but with the substance of time, crammed like a stuffing into art history. A short hallway leads to the first of two dimly lit rooms; the lighting is provided by candles and several dim antique lighting fixtures. Heavy carpets muffle sound; the walls are defined by paintings in heavy frames. The paintings, though monochromatic, are readily identifiable as masterpieces. The old furniture, although culled from different periods of history, seems to belong in this configuration. In the corner, a bowl presents a still life: fruit on a table. Around this table, an ongoing conversation periodically swirls. Frequently, it is a conversation of exiles – people who have achieved some distance from their origins, for whatever reason.

What else? Near the table, a radio. In the next room, more paintings in irregularily-shaped frames – these depicting a series of rooms eerily similar to the contemporary rooms in which they find themselves; rooms with paintings on the walls, antique furniture, the objects and artifacts of a famous art collection, changing their configuration in space according to where they are in time.

As for New York – the city drops away, in almost imperceptible increments, as soon as the front door is closed. At an indeterminate moment, it has been wholly subsumed. It is simply – gone. It has taken its noise, art world, and commerce with it. And this, of course, is unprecedented. One source of the Salon’s mystery is its inexplicable power to impose its own will on surroundings not known for their humility.

In place of the city there is a kind of vacuum; inside this vacuum the 20th Century shimmers, like a fading mirage.

But it’s not so easy to ditch 31 years of ingrained thinking. My next question marked an immediate, ignominious return to a “modernistic, analytical” approach. “But what, then,” I asked, “can we call the Salon?” The Host answered patiently. “It is a definite break with modernism,” he explained. “You can find elements of modern art in the Salon, but in its entirety the Salon lies completely outside of modernism. If there’s any term that can be applied to the Salon it’s non-modern. It’s not post-modern. It’s not pre-modern. It’s only — non-modern.”

An imposing man with a bald head and invariably black clothing, the host is rarely at a loss for words. They function as tools adjacent to the main body of his subject/object. These words are delivered in perfect English, with a faintly Eastern European accent. Listen carefully to him and you can hear a meeting of ancient trading routes. A whiff of the Orient; cross-roads; cyclical, discrete, periodically warring cultural path-ways.

He paused for a minute, waiting for the scratching of my pen to subside. We both sat companionably, encased in the intermittent roar of street-noise. “In one strange way, this is how modernism may survive,” he resumed. “The originals may disappear, in the same way that we know Greek classic sculpture from Roman copies, or ancient philosophy via Arab translations. The greatest contribution of Arab civilization to the West was the preservation of ancient texts. Archemedes, for example.”

I nodded, sagely. In the presence of the host, I inevitably find that I have to scramble to disguise vast gaps in my knowledge. These gaps can’t be explained by the burning of the Alexandria Library. I was thinking of an observation I had made earlier — that the Salon was in some ways similar to a station play, or mystery play, in which the details of a god’s life are symbolically transubstantiated and reconstituted in the future — i.e., to now. A certain mythological way of thinking, evidently, was necessary to understand the Salon and its intention. Mythology being the science of myths, not the myths themselves. The repetition of motifs — apparent throughout the Salon — could be understood as being more mythological than semantic. It followed that one effect of the place is to render seemingly secular modernism on par with the theological heirarchies largely responsible for commissioning (and defining the subject of) art. In most previous epoches, anyway.

The Salon de Fleurus, in fact, exists only nominally now, at the beginning of the end of the century, in New York City. In another incarnation, at the end of the beginning of the century, it existed on a street of the same name in Paris. Many of the works contained within the Salon appear, and re-appear, almost continuously in all the intervening time — throughout the story of what became known as modernism. Cezanne. Matisse. Picasso. Their images have colonized our collective subconscious. And this, of course, is part of the nature of the mystery. Just as there are certain sub-atomic particles, impossible to explain, capable of being at two or more places at the same moment. New York art critic Kim Levin has called the Salon de Fleurus a “freak occurrence… rising through the cracks. This mutant, ‘authorless,’ iconic and iconoclastic space/time warp… conflates past and future.”

What is Levin (normally so cool-headed) talking about? Earlier, the host had started our conversation in an uncharacteristically factual mode. “The idea of the Salon de Fleurus is built on the bones of the famous Salon of Gertrude and Leo Stein, and there are two groups of paintings exhibited in the Salon that relate to it’s historical antecedent,” he said. “In one group are the works repeating images of the actual paintings from the collection of Gertrude and Leo Stein. The other group are works that depict the collection itself, in various stages of its evolution. Since all the works are repeating pre-existing images, they are transparent — the author is invisible. In viewing Picasso or Cezanne’s work, as represented in the Salon, there already exists a — transparency. The author of the reproduction is denying his or her own personality. The author is working in the service of the idea.”

Working also in service, the scratch of my pen subsides. Silence. Blast-furnace heat, New York City, high noon. No cars, no subways, no airplanes. Stasis. In the distance, trapped in warehouse canyons, the horizon glints. A bizarre silence spreads its heavy carpet across the baking city. The host breaks it. The Salon, he says, “is a place where time is not necessarily linear, but cyclical. All myths are based on the concept of the cyclical nature of time. When you transmit the story though the generations, you loose the original. In a similar way, by repeating motifs, these paintings are forgetting the originals. In pre-Renaissance icons, the canon was followed. The only obvious difference here is that the subject of these paintings derives from the origins of modern art.”

In other words, the Salon de Fleurus can be interpreted as a kind of temple, a Zone where the ideas encoded in modernism can have a free interplay, a paradoxical new relevance, outside their given space-time referent.

Some say the “event horizon” is already too crowded with too many stabs at immortality. No new space has been cleared, they indicate, for this or that artist, work or movement. This is a fatalistic view. Others are never satisfied with what they are offered; they think the world and its cultural production owes them surprise and stimulation. Jaded as addicts, they have never produced anything noteworthy themselves, and never will. Their sensibility is dressed in the trappings of a chosen theorist; slumped in the smoke of style without substance, they strive to appear bigger than they are by hitching an unauthorized ride. But they are good only for a sound-bite.

Why mention these people at all? We are discussing the Salon De Fleurus, perhaps the most radical step — is it forward? Or simply out? — within the field of art in the last twenty years. And in the end, as with all great art, it is inexplicable — like finding the grainy image of the building where you were born. Its address is written in spidery handwriting on the edge of a photo from the middle of the 19th Century. It falls out of an album from the recovered footlocker. Peering through the ordered layers of silver halide particles, you make out a window — your window. Through it, a small oval face, pointing a camera. At the future.

Beyond that, brick buildings, streets, the illustrious non-modern Hudson, glinting in sunlight.

***

(The Salon de Fleurus is at 41 Spring Street #12. Visiting hours are from 8:00 to 10 PM, Wednesday to Saturday, or by appointment. There is a phone, in the hallway: (212) 334-4952)

 

Michael Benson
Ljubljana, Slovenia
Fall, 1993

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