March 11, 2010
Watch The Paint!
A few weeks ago I gave a gallery talk at the Hirshhorn Museum on Allen Ruppersberg’s As the Crow Flies / How I Miss the Avant-garde. I hustled down to the Hirshhorn early because I wanted the chance to find out if Al’s piece could still be handled by the public. When originally shown at the 2008 Armory show, the piece, composed of several multi-colored, laminated posters with perforated holes along their top edge, was able to be handled by viewers and re-arranged on the wall-mounted L-hooks that accompany the piece.
The museum guard in the gallery wasn’t sure whether it could be handled since there was no text that explained that it could. I explained to him that it was originally intended to for public interaction. I then called Ryan Hill, the Hirsh’s curatorial research associate and witty Pop provocateur, and he clarified that Al’s piece was now installed according to the curators' decision and could not be handled.
When the audience for my talk arrived, Ryan and I engaged in a brief repartee about this initial interactive aspect of Al’s work and how it has now become part of the Hirshhorn’s collection and no longer available for the museum’s visitors to “re-hang.” I then suggested that we might consider this artwork analogous to a car that had been purchased: when an original owner puts a car on sale, he would allow people to give it a “test drive” to try it out. Now that the Hirshhorn has purchased the work, we can think of it as being “parked in their driveway.” They have the right, as new owners of the commodity, to effectively close-down that interactive component: it’s now “hands off” and “watch the paint!”
This situation poses interesting questions about those works in art history that were originally conceived to be touched, handled or manipulated by the viewer. In fact, some of these objects would not be fulfilling their manifest intention without being handled. For instance, Robert Morris’s 1962 Card File was conceived as a work that documents its own creation in the many notecards within the work. Without being able to read Morris’s various statements and thoughts that were involved in “making” his work, the viewer would not be able to fully understand the nature of the work.(1)
Al’s piece hangs in the Hirshhorn in a particular curatorial fashion that exhibits one dimension of the work. Composed of these posters with printed text (names of famous “avant-garde” artists with birth dates and dates of death, terse phrases about “me and you”) one of the ideas this work addresses is the vulnerability of meaning by allowing text to be partially masked by over-lapping and adjoining posters. This alteration of the potential meanings leaves this work in a potential state of “becoming” where the work has many installation possibilities.
I am struck by the sad fact that the conception of some artworks like Al’s exist temporarily whole, as the artist intended, up to that point when the artwork takes on its “valued” commodity status, especially in the sense of being in a museum collection. Obviously, if the work was bought by a private collector then that collector would have the right to interact and participate in the re-installation and re-arrangement of the posters.
Again, the car analogy is the only way to come to a compromise and conclusion to this dilemma by the fact that we consider that artworks are ultimately a commodity. Once purchased, whether by private collector or a museum, the artwork can be “parked” yet this may prove to negate or diminish these kinds of participatory, interactive artworks and keep them from achieving their potential goals.
[The Hirsh has a podcast of my gallery talk HERE.]
Image: As the Crow Flies / How I Miss the Avant-garde (2008); Ink on paper with laminate; dimensions variable; as installed: H22xW476 inches). © Copyright 2008 by Allen Ruppersberg; photograph courtesy of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.
1. We should not forget Duchamp’s With Hidden Noise or Franz West’s “adaptives” which were also meant to be shaken or handled, respectively.