David Robbins


    Maurizio Cattelan’s 3-D cartooning is, every time out. Piero Manzoni’s cans of “artist’s shit” are, while his white Achromes are the furthest thing from it. Warhol’s Brillo Boxes are examples, but his paintings aren’t. Painting almost never is, in fact, although Kippenberger’s always is. Jack Benny did it remarkably, but only once; ditto the Ramones. Another rock band, the Replacements, embodied it their entire career. Ernie Kovacs brought it to TV, and for some twenty years David Letterman has remained a gleeful practitioner. Jeffrey Vallance consistently pulls off an anthropological version of it. The Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles is a walk-in version. John and Yoko were the first to take it global, and Andy Kaufman smuggled it into stand-up. To date, many more men than women have done it, but that imbalance has faded in recent decades. Thirty years ago Eleanor Antin contributed one of its landmarks, and Vivienne Westwood has been no slouch at it either. Fame has nothing to do with its effectiveness; there’ve been countless anonymous examples. Lots of people have done it a few times; few people do it for long.

    WHAT IS IT? It’s concrete comedy. Since emerging in the Western industrialized nations in the early decades of the twentieth century, concrete comedy has yielded a wide array of conceptual objects and existential gestures. Like its more conventional cousin, concrete comedy has accepted the imprint of many different sensibilities: smart and dumb, vulgar and refined, nasty and sweet, blunt and baroque. Estimable examples have come from figures associated with art or show business, from amateurs unconcerned with amusing any audience other than their friends, and from corporations whose comic output

  • David Robbins

    I WORKED AT ANDY WARHOL ENTERPRISES FOR A LITTLE more than a year, from late ’79 to early ’81, a period when the Factory was located at Broadway and Seventeenth Street. Getting hired there was a stroke of good luck for a kid from Wisconsin (even if the job offer had resulted from a fancy social connection), and I beamed all of a twenty-two-year-old’s energy at the opportunity. Weekdays I performed beginner’s editorial tasks at Interview magazine, then at the peak of both its formal inventiveness and its social clout; at night I sometimes lugged equipment around for the company’s lame TV version

  • 1985: The Replacements’ Tim

    Time for decisions to be made / Crack up in the sun, lose it in the shade.

    —The Replacements, “Hold My Life”

    WHAT THE BEATLES WERE TO LOVE and the Sex Pistols to anger, the Replacements were to screwing up. Not merely or accidentally hapless, the original members of the band—Paul Westerberg, brothers Bob and Tommy Stinson, Chris Mars—made a loopy lust for failure the basis of a collective comic persona. While their contemporary Martin Kippenberger, another born comedian, fitted the self-conscious, balletic pratfall to the world of gallery and museum, the Replacements tailored it to a pop-music

  • ABC TV

    AS NEITHER THOROUGHBRED BOOMERS NOR GEN-XERS, the members of the demi-generation born in the late ’50s and early ’60s—my own—have always felt like history’s mutts. Proximity to, and thus osmotic knowledge of, the utopian ’60s fantasies entertained by older siblings wasn’t the same as participation in them: We were too young. Too young as well, though only just, to claim as our own the funny, sour, dystopian response to the failed premises of the Revolution—punk (which response, of course, had also “failed”). Fittingly—and comically—the period of our own delivery into maturity coincided with a