Reevaluating the Object of Collecting and Display

Article excerpt

The work of art as a physical object singularly rooted in time and place and bearing the weight of its commercial status was redefined in the latter half of the 1960s. Two decades have come and gone and yet museums with collections of contemporary art have not met the challenge presented by the ground-breaking practice of many of the leading artists of our time. Because it has built ideas involving the problematics of collecting and display into its very content, the art of Dan Graham, Marcel Broodthaers, Daniel Buren, and Michael Asher deserves particular consideration here.

These artists have anticipated the recent revision of attitudes toward the place of the art object within the context of the traditional contemporary art exhibition by thematically examining how and where a work literally and figuratively stands in relation to its institutional setting. They have, moreover, participated in laying the groundwork for the current debate surrounding museum collecting and display as this has been taken up by a younger generation of artists as well as by historians and curators.

Outside of temporary installations in the United States and abroad, the works of these and other artists, as well as the thinking behind them, have not been adequately represented by museums, which are generally resistant to radical artistic change.(1) Because of this resistance, museums run the risk of not educating their public about alternatives to conventional notions of collecting and display at the very time they still can acquire works that most successfully broaden aesthetic horizons.

Specific works by Graham, Broodthaers, Buren, and Asher exemplify how each, along with others of their generation, have called the commodity status and collectibility of the traditional work of art into question. In different ways, their work has taken stock of the socioeconomic factors underlying the conditions of the contextual placement of art in order to make manifest hidden realities informing institutional modes of display.

Already in the mid-1960s, Dan Graham (American, born 1942) had precociously and incisively noted that works of art depend as much on economics for their support as they do on physical walls. His magazine pieces, which he abandoned in 1969, are crucial to any appraisal of recent artistic innovation. Having run his own gallery from 1964 to 1965, Graham experienced the economic realities behind the idealized "white cube."(2) He reflected: "I saw contradictions in both the work and in the gallery structure I was part of. After the gallery closed, I began to make art which I felt could resolve some of these contradictions through bypassing the gallery structure altogether."(3)

Graham placed his first works of art in magazines, coming to the idea of using publications as a context. Figurative (1965), one of a number of Graham's magazine works,(4) appeared in Harper's Bazaar in March 1968. A section of an actual cash-register receipt, with the amounts paid for numerous inexpensive items aligned in standard columnar fashion (placed arbitrarily by Harper's Bazaar) is bracketed on page 90 between two advertisements, one for Tampax and the other for a Warner's bra. Representational material and presentational method are thereby fused in that the work is to be seen simultaneously on the page and inside the magazine that contains it. The shopping receipt, signifying the result of a commercial exchange, contrasts with the two surrounding ads signifying the potential for such an exchange. Figurative, thus, not only brings the commodity status of art into view but also makes it part of its thematic content. Additionally, it hitches the cash receipt, otherwise a free-floating and unanchored "found object," to the timeliness of a magazine-itself in circulation-instead of to the purported timelessness of a gallery space.

Marcel Broodthaers (Belgian, 1924-1976), in his few but poetic and alluring installations, similarly sought to resist the creation of a single object that, passing through the commercial system, would seek its final resting place in the museum without serving a self-critical and social function. …