"Christian Boltanski: Lessons of Darkness"
December 9 1988 - February 12 1989
“The impetus for this exhibition of the art of Christian Boltanski was a trip to France that we mad together to view contemporary art in November 1985. Our extensive travels through ten provinces, under the auspices of the French ministries of Culture and Foreign Affairs, yielded much information about the active art scene and brought to out attention the work of a host of young, exciting artists. During the trip we were also able to meet for the first time with Christian. Although we were familiar with some early pieces that had been exhibited in New York at Sonnabend Gallery, neither of us was aware of the changes his art had recently undergone, or of the beginnings of his ‘Monuments’ and ‘Ombres’ (Shadows). It quickly became apparent that one of France’s most important artists, so influential to the younger generations we were visiting, had not received the exposures on this side of the Atlantic that his work merited. Boltanski had garnered a solid following in Europe, but there had never been an extensive showing of his work at an American museum, This exhibition, then, serves two purposes: it functions as an introduction to his work from the early seventies to present, and it provides a more focused look at a few specific themes which have remained consistent concerns throughout his career.”
-Lynn Gumpert and Mary Jane Jacobs, from the catalogue Preface

“Christian Boltanski’s work is about life; he loads his work with images of people…His highest goal is for his art to be mistaken for life itself. To Boltanksi, uniting art and life is essential in order to make effective and meaningful work. ‘For me,’ he has remarked, ‘painting isn’t provocative or moving, only life is moving. But I am an artist and therefore all I do is termed art. I can only postpone the viewer’s awareness of my work as art. One day, of course, it’s forcibly discovered. The fascinating moment for me is when the spectator hasn’t registered the art connection, and the longer I can delay this association the better.’ Working with this goal in mind, he has defined since 1968 his own unique position on what it means to be and avant-garde artist: art for Boltanski, is avant-garde when you cannot name whether it is art or life.”
-Mary Jane Jacobs, from the catalogue Introduction

“Notions of death and memories of childhood form a creative reservoir from which Christian Boltanski continually draws to make his art. Although these themes at first appear at odds with one another, they share some fundamental similarities. We never know death directly; as Wittgenstein has succinctly observed, ’Death is not lived through.’ Thus we must broach the subject from a distance, from observation. And while childhood is most definitely lives through, when analyzed or discussed, it is again almost invariably from a distance, from the vantage point of adults who must rely on fragmented recollections and observations. For Boltanski, memory, too, plays an important role, and is inextricably linked to both childhood and death. It is through this lens of memory –how we remember childhood and how we memorialize the dead—that Boltanski explores these two momentous markers for mortal existence: the beginning and the end. If death, memory and childhood can be postulated as major subjects for Boltanski, contradiction—deliberate confusion of public and private, collective and individual—quickly emerges as a principal strategy by which he examines these themes. Although a good deal of his early work appears to focus on his own youth and his oft-pictured refusal to assume the status of adulthood, Boltanski’s concern is not with autobiography so much as with a shared and collective notion of childhood. And though Boltanski’s preoccupation with death centers, in part, around his own demise, his interest, again, is not in his own eventual death, even mass death, as he indirectly addresses the inconceivable numbers who dies in concentration camps during World War II, Yet Boltanski’s contradiction is not only the saying of one thing and at the same time, its opposite; it is also acknowledged that life is never either black or white, but filled with ironies and inconsistencies.
Despite his continual return to the theme of death and, as we shall see, his unusual and somewhat sinister approach to childhood, Boltanski’s work is not morbid or depressing, and ultimately, speaks of life. As one critic astutely notes, it goes in two directions at once. The strategies of contradiction and irony that underlie Boltanski’s work are illustrated by an observation from survivor of the Belsen concentration camp: In my happier days I used to remark on the aptitude of the saying, ‘When in life we are in the midst of death.’ I have since learned it’s more apt to say, ‘When in death we are in the midst of life.’”
-Lynn Gumpert, from the catalogue essay
New Museum curator
Partner museums
Guest curator
Courtesy the artist and New Museum, New York