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Yve-Alain Bois - Biography

Yve-Alain Bois, Ph.D., is a critic, curator and historian of art. Professor Bois holds the Roland Barthes Chair at the European Graduate School (EGS) where he conducts intensive seminar on Art and Film. He was born in Constantine, Algeria on April 16, 1952. Yve-Alain Bois was the Joseph Pulitzer Professor of Modern Art and Chair, Department of History of Art and Architecture, Harvard University and is currently a Professor of Art History at the Institute for Advanced Study in the School of Historical Studies at Princeton University.

Yve-Alain Bois received an M.A. for his work on El Lissitzky's typography from the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes in Paris in 1973, and a Ph.D. in 1977 on Lissitzky's and Malevich's conceptions of space from the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, both supervised by Roland Barthes. Yve-Alain Bois was also one of the co-founders and a co-director of the Macula magazine (1976–79) and of the Macula book series, 1976 to the present. He is a contributing editor to Artforum. In 2004, a few days after Jacques Derrida’s death Dr. Bois sent a powerful letter to the editor of the New York Times to protest against the obituary, which had unfairly represented the philosopher’s work and life:

Rather than trying to explain Derrida’s philosophical enterprise, and give at least some ideas about his trajectory--from phenomenology to structuralism to, yes, their “deconstruction"--Mr. Kandell sets the tone right away, already dismissing Derrida as an “Abstruse Theorist" in the title of his hatchet job. After a caricatural description of deconstruction as “the method of inquiry that asserted that all writing was full of confusion and contradiction," and a not-so-subtle underscoring that Derrida was French (and thus anti-American, if suppose: one wonders if Mr. Kandell works for the Bush administration), Mr. Kandell spouts one derogatory term after the other. Structuralism is a “slippery philosophy," Derrida’s explanations are “murky," his books “off-putting to the uninitiated," and so on.

Yve-Alain Bois is a highly esteemed art historian who has been broadening the horizons of this discipline with new approaches originating from French philosophy and critical theory. His research and academic engagement took place at the most prestigious institutes world-wide, such as Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (Attaché 1977-81, Chargé de recherche, 1981-83); Johns Hopkins University (Visiting Associate Professor, 1983-84, Associate Professor, 1984-89, Professor, 1989-91); Harvard University (Joseph Pulitzer, Jr., Professorship of Modern Art, 1991-2005, acting chair, Department of History of Art and Architecture, 1999-2000, chair, 2002-2005); Institute for Advanced Study (Professor, 2005-); Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres (2002); Member, American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Yve-Alain Bois work as an art historian puts him in a different position than that of a postmodernist. He often calls himself a formalist, drawing on value judgements of good and bad. These formalist elements are essential in his writing. Yve-Alain Bois says, "One of the things that cultural studies, gender studies, postcolonial studies etc.—the realm of the “studies"—sought to achieve was to open up a discourse that appeared to be fairly closed. Yet it actually levelled out—in the name of difference—the questions that ought to be asked of the work of art. The questions the “studies" ask are always the same. This is where I defer. I do not speak about “differences", but always ask myself, when in front of any art object: what is its specificity? When people ask why I wrote about a particular work, the answer is usually because I wanted to understand why I like it. I am interested in something, I want to understand why; that is why I write about it."

Yve-Alain Bois is a co-editor of the Journal October, a curator and noted philosopher of art. A specialist in 20th-century European and American art, he has written extensively on a wide range of artists, from Matisse, Picasso, Malevich and Mondrian to post-war American art (among others, Barnett Newman, Ellsworth Kelly, Richard Serra, Orbert Ryman, Brice Marden, Donald Judd, Edward Ruscha and Mel Bochner).

Yve-Alain Bois published the following book, Matisse and Picasso (1998), for which he received the Alfred H. Barr award in 2001 and it is generally credited for being a significant contribution to twentieth-century art history. It is not difficult to see why because in this work Professor Bois argues that Matisse and Picasso deeply studied and considered each other’s work when they painted or sculpted many of their respective art. Focusing on the far less examined second part of their careers Professor Bois convincingly shows that they would have apparently challenged and influenced each other greatly.

In 1996 in Paris together with with Rosalind Krauss, Dr. Bois was the curator of the exhibition “L’informe, mode d’emploi" at the Centre Georges Pompidou. The book accompanying the exhibition was published in English a year later in 1997 with the title Formless: A User’s Guide. In the book a rich and influential picture of the formless is drawn. In spite of modernism’s repression of it in favor of formal mastery and thematics of art, they show how the formless has nonetheless always managed to resist and persist. They do that not only by tracing it throughout the history of modernism but also by bringing it into focus in the contemporary production of art. Furthermore they go into its meaning as an operative tool and attempt at delineating its power. This is done by offering new analyses of many of the most important twentieth century artists.

In Painting as Model (1990), which is a collection of essays inspired not only by structuralism but by post-structuralism as well, Yve-Alain Bois succeeds in redefining the importance of theory in today’s still largely influenced by modernism context of critical thought. In doing so Dr. Bois manages to bring together critical theory and historical research in such a way as to reconcile them. He warns us of both on the one hand the uncritical acceptation of theoretical fads and on the other of the temptation to reject theory altogether. Instead, he argues, that if theory is to be of critical use it must be applied on the specific needs of a particular issue. Yve-Alain Bois does all of this as he gives us a close reading of not only texts but paintings as well.

Yve-Alain Bois has contributed to many more notable texts including a study of Barnett Newman’s paintings (Reconsidering Barnett Newman, 2005), and Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism (with Benjamin Buchloh, Hal Foster, and Rosalind Krauss, 2004). In Sophie Calle: Did You See Me? (2003), together with Christine Marcel and Olivier Rolin, he helps analyze the often controversial work of conceptual artist Sophie Calle, who is also a professor at the European Graduate School where she teaches film and photography.

Professor Yve-Alain Bois has curated and co-curated several influential exhibitions in the past decade, including Piet Mondrian, A Retrospective (1994-95) at Gemmentemuseum, The Hague, The National Gallery of Art, Washingtin, and the Museum of Modern Art, New York. In 1996, he curated with Rosalind Krauss L'informe, mode d'emploi at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. Most recently, he also curated the exhibitions Matisse and Picasso: A Gentle Rivalry at the Kimbell Museum of Art (Fort Worth, Texas, 1999), and Ellsworth Kelly: The Early Drawings 1948-1955 at the Fogg Artt Museum (Cambridge, MA); this latter exhibition was also shown at the High Museum (Atlanta), the Chicago Art Institute, Kunstmuseum (Winterthur), and other venues (1999-2000).

Yve-Alain Bois is a Professor of Art and Film at the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland, where he teaches an Intensive Summer Seminar.