MARY JANE JACOB AND MICHELLE GRABNER, EDS. The Studio Reader: On the Space of Artists Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010. 328 pp.; 69 b/w ills. $73.00; $35.00 (paper); $7.00-$21.00 (e-book)
In "The Function of the Studio" (1971), conceptual artist Daniel Buren defined the artist's studio in terms of "frames, envelopes, and limits," limits that he, as a standard-bearer of institutional critique, saw as stifling and untenable. For Buren, this privileged space of artistic production had become nothing more than an "ossifying custom." He aimed to demystify the studio by calling it a "commercial depot" for curators and dealers and then render it irrelevant through his commitment to site-specific art. Once a work leaves the studio to be installed in a museum or gallery, Buren argued, its meaning is irrevocably compromised and "neutralized to the extreme." Unmoored from its site of inspiration and creation, it loses its intentionality and connection to its conditions of production. Unless artists have the authority to demand their work be preserved in their studios in perpetuity, like Constantin Brancusi (a hero of Buren's), dien it is better to shutter the studio and shift all art making outside its walls (pp. 156-62).
The model of the studio Buren critiques is a modern one, and its tropological features were articulated 140 years earlier in Honoré de Balzac's tale of artistic genius and failure, The Unknown Masterpiece ( 1831 ).' Balzac's image of the atelier is a cramped, cluttered, and sky-lit space - the dusty lair of a solitary male painter whose bric-a-brac emanates an aura of mystery and genius. The story ends with the master painter Frenhofer in a state of total despair, having just realized - through the eyes of his visitors, - that his painting is illegible. The result of ten years of struggle, his depiction of a beautiful woman has amounted to "Nothing, nothing!" - a formless "wall of paint."2 Balzac dramatizes a central dilemma of the studio as a mental and physical space, where art emerges from a fusion of immaterial concept and material craft: Is genius to be found in the object, or is it located in the artist's mind? If the former, does the work lose its luster outside the studio, without the trappings of genius? If the latter, how do viewers appreciate conceptual brilliance without, as Buren writes, "visible evidence . . . that allows an understanding of process"? How do they know whether Frenhofer's woman or Buren's stripes are not a scam?
Balzac's and Buren's views of the studio are typically seen as diametrically opposed, with Buren as the disillusioned, clearsighted critic of Balzac's myth, but they actually share a good deal of common ground. Frenhofer's "wall of paint" metaphorizes the studio as a space of oppressive limits and delusions, presaging Buren's essay; and although Buren "distrusts" the studio as an auratic and idealizing space, he nonetheless attributes to it an "energy essential to [art's] existence." Like Balzac, he has affection for the "clutter" of studio space, and he waxes nostalgic when recalling his first studio visits as a young man. Disillusion over what happens when art leaves the studio grounds his critique, suggesting that the problem lies not in the studio but in everything else: the institutions that prey on it (pp. 160-61).
Buren's essay serves as a strange centerpiece for The Studio Reader, an anthology of texts whose stated purpose is "to revisit the studio and resituate it in contemporary times"(p. xii). "The Function of the Studio" falls roughly in the middle of the book, and its critical proposals are paraphrased (and sometimes directly cited) throughout. But Buren 's call to leave the studio is often distorted as more antistudio than it was. The anthology's other primary purpose is to "confront the myths" surrounding the studio (p. xiii), and to this end a passage from The Unknown Masterpiece serves as the epigraph to the introducüon. This introduction presents Balzac's model as a romande fantasy ripe for debunking, but many of the contributors to The Studio Reader, sometimes writing under the veil of critique, perpetuate myths of the studio instead. …