October 27, 2008

Mining the Vain

In the late 1970’s, artists began to investigate the institutional validation of art by art museums and galleries. The investigational methods used by these artists included appropriation and “site specific” installation that raised questions about both site-specificity itself and the historical imperative of museum practice.(1)

Their body of work followed a trajectory begun by 1960’s interventionists (Daniel Buren) and conceptualists (Mel Bochner, Marcel Broodthaers and Hans Haacke) who initiated an “analysis of the discursive framing devices” and “institutional conventions of exhibition and display.” Sometimes referred to as situational aesthetics, this movement considered the “mode of address” within the sites where the public encountered art in its allocated spaces and how this institutional environment affects one’s perception and experience of art.(2)

Certainly it is always beneficial for solid art museums to acknowledge conceptual art and, although a safe exhibition bet in ’08, the relationship of Californian artists to the first conceptualist wave is amply evidenced in MOCA Geffen’s Index: Conceptualism in California from the Permanent Collection.

The usual suspects are here: Ed Ruscha, John Baldessari, Douglas Huebler, Wallace Berman, et al, along with a few lesser-knowns like David Ireland. A bevy of “post-conceptual explorations” suffers from a lack of sufficient context much needed to relate the youngsters’ work to earlier forebears. One revelatory aspect of conceptualism/postconceptualism is this nearly de rigueur need for supplementary material, i.e., wall texts, essays, lectures that substantially aid public access to the work.

Much of Index takes the form of retrospective nostalgia as the various objects, documents and installations are rendered precious and historic in a meticulous and conventional museum display. It is decidedly ironic that these “classic” de-skilled photographs, stains, vain pronouncements and pseudo-critical posturings have now become “relics” apparently in need of re-validation. Thus, these works are returned to us (again) as “art” in the sanctity of an authenticating reliquary where they are “safely absorbed and integrated into the codex of exhibition topics.”(3)

No work in Index could be more tellingly relic-like than Chris Burden’s “re-do” of his 1986 MOCA installation, “Exposing the Foundation of the Museum.” Just as he did twenty-two years ago, Burden dug down through the foundation of the same building in Los Angeles and constructed three sets of wooden stairs that would allow MOCA’s visitors to descend into the pits. Ostensibly to “expose” the museum’s status as the contextual site where “art” resides, Burden’s reliance on the “discursive framing device” of the museum to achieve his work’s “meaning” was fully contingent upon the institution’s blessing. Thus, Burden’s “dig” at MOCA was (and is again) effectively neutralized as institutional critique.

It is worth noting that Burden’s 1986 MOCA dig was installed at the then “Temporary Contemporary,” a site that is now officially permanent as the MOCA Geffen. That knowledge has caused at least one discerning critic to question the veracity of Burden’s installation as either intervention or institutional critique:

“Burden did not intervene in the new museum on Bunker Hill [now called MOCA Grand], but dug into the concrete floor of the existing warehouse. He thus did not expose the foundations of the museum but dug up the floor of the wing in which the museum allows itself to be alternative, where so-called subversive interventions are simply part of the program. It is simply unthinkable that Burden would have touched the genuine museum, or that wing where MOCA profiles itself architecturally and institutionally as a museum. His freedom is the result of a fallacious operation. An architecture that is supposed to be alternative by nature is used by the MOCA Los Angeles as a simulacrum of productivity and freedom, underwritten by a belief that an alternative packaging guarantees an alternative programme.”(4)

So why would Chris dig up MOCA again?

Whether it was ever officially “institutional critique” is still very much in play as current critics are (again) doubting the autonomy of Burden’s Index installation and see it instead as “freed from being part of an authoritative structure and re-cast as liberating, hilarious and contingent.”(5) This contingency cedes much of Burden’s relevance to Index, and possibly to conceptualism as well, inasmuch as his submission to this particular exhibition might be read as an exercise in vanity.

Image: Exposing the Foundation of the Museum (1986/2008); © Copyright by Chris Burden; cell-phone image by MCB at MOCA Geffen.


1. See Louise Lawler’s untitled 1978 installation at Artists Space, New York and Michael Asher’s 1981 contribution to The Museum as Site at Los Angeles County Museum.

2. Buchloh, Benjamin. “Allegorical Procedures: Appropriation and Montage in Contemporary Art” in Art After Conceptual Art (A. Alberro, S. Buchmann, eds.), Cambridge, 2006, 37.

3. Ibid., 39.

4. Davidts, Wouter. “Art Factories: Museums of Contemporary Art and the Promise of Artistic Production, from Centre Pompidou to Tate Modern” in Fabrications, Vol. 16, No. 1, June 2006, 31.

5. . . . might be good

October 15, 2008

Chalkboard Talks

I was invited to participate in a "thematic conversation" that the "Floating Lab Collective" has organized as part of the "Close Encounters" exhibition at American University Museum at Katzen Arts Center. The conversation participants also include Kathryn Cornelius, John James Anderson and Welmoed Laanstra, and our topic is "The Intersection of Art and Society".

I must admit I am looking forward to interacting with the tables and chairs specifically constructed for the talks that are "painted in blackboard paint so they can be utilized as a recording surface." The event begins at 1:00 pm - call 202-306-5643 for more information.

October 6, 2008


The text paintings “by” John Baldessari are both Modernist critique and a primer of conceptual art. Executed by a “sign-painter” from Baldessari’s instructions, these works fulfill the basic tenets espoused by Sol Lewitt [“The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.”(1)] and Lawrence Weiner [“The artist may construct the piece … The piece need not to be built.”(2)] in that they effectively focus our attention on the idea behind the work.

For example, if we consider the physical aspects of Baldessari’s “Exhibiting Paintings”, we can see that it consists of words painted in acrylic on stretched canvas. The work then exists within the realm of painting both through its use of traditional painting materials (paint and canvas) and its address of basic pictorial elements. Thus, Baldessari’s work embodies subtle allusions to Modernism and disjunctive relationships like “figure-ground” that would become standard terminology in 20th Century discourse about painting, causing “modern” painting to be judged inaccessible to many unfamiliar with its jargon.

What could be more accessible then than words? Words incorporate legibility, carry information and involve “active” participation. Baldessari only requires his “viewers” to become “readers.” Herein lies a fundamental yet often overlooked theoretical aspect to these dead-pan paintings because they encompass distinctions between “looking” and “reading.” As Simon Morley points out, Baldessari and Weiner understood that language could “direct viewers towards becoming more than the contemplators of an aesthetic object – the model of reception within the modernist paradigm.”(3)

The reasons for such attempts to transition art’s audience from viewing to reading are obvious enough – to privilege concept over object, to engage the intellect beyond surface aesthetics – yet the “act” of reading is not truly “passive” and the legibility of an image does not inherently “carry” legibility of “meaning,” after all.

In “Exhibiting Paintings”, Baldessari’s “real” concept is hidden beneath its “art” context of art materials and institutional validation (a museum). The irony here is that a work that seems ostensibly transparent in an approach to its “reading” actually requires more language in the form of supplemental materials (critical reviews, art history, lectures) that might help us to comprehend the work’s concept and “meaning.”

Ironic as well is Baldessari’s use of text from a popular “How To” book for artists. Presumably the “expert” knowledge given here is accepted as “fact” yet we can almost imagine Baldessari’s snickers of derision as his “sign-painter” inscribes the words. Mocking these somewhat na├»ve assumptions about art is par for the course in “modernism” and resurrects (again) the dichotomy between the “high” and “low” arts. But perhaps semiotics is the great equalizer here, as both his contractual laborer and Baldessari are dealing with “signs,” and neither purveyor has exclusivity rights with regard to the “meanings” conveyed through their chosen system of representation – language.

Image: “Exhibiting Paintings” (1967-1968); acrylic on canvas; © Copyright by John Baldessari.


1. Lewitt, Sol. “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art”, Artforum, 5, No. 10, June 1967, 79.

2. Weiner, Lawrence. “Untitled Statement (1970)”, re-printed in Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art, (K. Stiles and P. Selz, eds.), Berkeley, 1996, 839.

3. Morley, Simon. Writing on the Wall: Word and Image in Modern Art, Berkeley, 2003, 142-143.