Detail of untitled drawing. 1995. Ink on paper. Collection the artist.

Messager is very much a part of an international, postmodern generation of artists who challenge the idea of art as avant-garde invention and its separation from society. Beginning in the 1960s, artists such as Marcel Broodthaers, the Fluxus group, and Joseph Beuys, inspired by Marcel Duchamp, based their art less on artistic models of the past and more on philosophical inquiries into accepted conventions of artistic activity and representation. In France these artists included Messager's friends Jean Le Gac, Paul Armand-Gette, Gina Pane, and Christian Boltanski, who came of age amidst the social discontent of late-sixties France. This was a period of student rebellion and great disorientation that prompted one student chronicler to write, "Something has tipped over in our universe. Two and two do not quite equal four any longer. We are being impregnated by a certain new shifting of ideas, of sensations."*


The Story of Dresses (Histoire des robes). 1990. Dress, crayon on paper, string, and safety pins in glass and wood box. 11 13/16 x 62 1/2 x 3 1/4 inches. Collection the artist.

All universal values were suspect, and defiant practices were naturally adopted from earlier artistic movements which countered modernism's utopianism, humanism, and rationalism. In its refusal to submit to rational process, Surrealism was seen as exemplary oppositional practice and was co-opted as a central revolutionary strategy. Also significant were new ideas coming from philosophers and social critics who began to reinterpret the great modern thinkers Marx, Freud, and Sartre, among them Guy Debord, Roland Barthes, and Michel Foucault. These philosophers were interested in the structure of society, from the dynamics of politics and economics to the functions of language and visual representation, and much of their work was invested in the critical examinination of cultural institutions.

* Jean Claude Kerbouch, "My Pale Nights," in Marcel Jean, The Autobiography of Surrealism (New York: Viking Press, 1980), 443. The essay originally appeared in the newspaper Combat.

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