Duchamp, beholding the flowering of the New York art scene, once said
that "the great artist of tomorrow will go underground."
In at least one case, that prediction has proved truer than even the
grand old trickster may have imagined.
Salon de Fleurus (Fig. 1 & 2), an
art space inconspicuously situated in a rear building on Spring Street
in downtown Manhattan, is just about as far underground one can go
before hitting bedrock. Its two ornately furnished rooms are crowded
with paintings that closely resemble famous works by Picasso, Matisse
and Cezanne--except that they have been painted anonymously (Fig.
3 & 4). The familiar images bear no signatures, and
in the 10 years of the salon's existence, no one has stepped forward
to claim authorship. There is no advertising to peruse or forfend,
not a whit of ambition hanging in the air. An affable, insightful
gentleman is on hand to explain the environment to visitors, but his
involvement, by his own admission, amounts to no more than that of
"a doorman." To all outward appearances, the Salon de Fleurus
is a place without provenance.
at Salon de Fleurus
at Salon de Fleurus
Bidlo, The Fountain Drawings, 1998
all outward appearances" being the key phrase. In recent years,
various artists have gone down the art-copying trail, notably Sherrie
Levine and Mike Bidlo (Fig. 5). Casting further backward, one hits
upon the venerable tradition of apprentices copying their masters.
The complete removal of authorship from copied works, however, is
another story. All his life, Duchamp
flirted with the appearance of quitting art "in the professional
sense." Here, someone has done so in earnest.
effect is clear enough. Typically, the process of integrating art
into the world begins with an advance broadcast of the artist's personality,
often a single memorable word ("insane," "British,"
"doctor," etc.), which serves as a seed for all that follows.
At the salon, this strategy of reductionism has reached its apogee:
the viewer no longer knows whom to turn to for the expected explanation.
Like the spherical caves in E.M. Forster's A Passage To India,
the Salon de Fleurus is perfectly self-contained, canceling out every
echo with an opposing one, until one is essentially left with one's
and to what end? Ten years after the day I first sat in the salon
and breathed the pungent scent of mothballs, I am in no better position
than the average observer to answer this question. I still bring my
own ideas to the space, pitting my forensic powers against hints and
clues, with no hope of confirmation or denial. What follows are some
of the thoughts I've accrued in the presence of this artistic sphinx.
foremost, it is not really correct to speak of the Salon de Fleurus
as an art space. This may explain why so few have tried. It has been
described as a curiosity, a recreation of Gertrude Stein's storied
salon, a sardonic comment on Modernism, a masterful reflection of
the same, and more.
the analysis, it has mobilized no great hope for the rebirth of Cubism--and
understandably so. The salon may be about art spaces, but that is
not the same thing as being one.
strictest sense, we cannot even call the individual paintings art,
just as we cannot know if prehistoric cave painters would have consented
to today's definition of the term. Indeed, the only time any objects
from the salon have only been classified as such is when they have
appeared outside their original context, as in their recent inclusion
in the Whitney Biennial.
aborigine, seeing his dreamings in a plush uptown gallery, would certainly
appreciate the paradox.
entered the realm of archeology, then, but of archeology of what?
Having opened a fault line between image and word, the salon seems
to demand a re-examination of art criticism, which has become increasingly
reliant on personality to find its way. Perhaps, in referring to the
most iconic of Modernist painters, it seeks more specifically to disassemble
the story of Modernism, which has been selling so many T-shirts of
Picasso, Matisse, and Cezanne have been interpreted in such widely
varying ways by now that the spectrum would seem to include all possible
responses to anything. In this sense, the salon has benefited from
its longevity. The varied attempts to explain its contents--as a hoax,
as an experiment, as a subversive act--mirror the whole range
of interpretations of 20th-century art. With each unconfirmed reading,
the next prospect is trotted out, until the final exhaustion of Modernism
at Salon de Fleurus
perhaps, is a conclusion worth living with: where Duchamp introduced
familiar objects as works of art (albeit in a magisterial act of misdirection),
the Salon de Fleurus manages to cast familiar art works back to the
unknown (Fig. 6). The structure of what
we see is, if not shattered or exploded, at least rendered expertly
tenuous, like a house with all of its nails removed.
this stage in the game, it is worth asking whether such an intriguing
project can ever bear offspring. Or rather, if it has, how would anyone
know? With no one on hand to confirm or deny, anyone can lay claim
to the salon as an influence--provided, among the infinite interpretations,
he can discover what constitutes lineage. A space is open, waiting
to be recognized and claimed, Should that come to pass, we can look
forward to a growing body of work that is not only brilliant in its
implications, but expansive as well.