David Robbins

Left: Cover of David Robbins’s  Concrete Comedy: An Alternative History of Twentieth-Century Comedy (2011). Right: David Robbins, Four False Endings, 2010, four panels, acrylic on canvas on Masonite, dimensions variable.

The artist and writer David Robbins moved to New York in 1979 and worked for a wide range of luminaries, from Andy Warhol to Diana Vreeland. During that decade he also began exhibiting his work at Gallery Nature Morte and published interviews with artists in REAL LIFE Magazine, among other publications. His latest book, Concrete Comedy: An Alternative History of Twentieth-Century Comedy, will be published this month by Pork Salad Press.

“CONCRETE COMEDY” is a term I coined in the late 1980s or early ’90s to describe the comedy of doing rather than saying––the comedy of things and gestures. It’s a broad class of comedy, a sensibility that’s manifested in lots of disciplines, and it includes some objects that appear in galleries or museums. We’ve grown accustomed to gallery-sited objects or installations that aspire to perform comedically, but believe me, when I started exhibiting that kind of work in New York in 1984 and ’85, it was definitely odd man out. New York art at that time was neo-expressionist, Pictures generation–derived, deconstructive-slash-critical, or Dia high-serious. Comedy in art was performed––think Mike Smith or William Wegman––but it definitely wasn’t integrated into objects that hung on the wall or stood on the floor. There was a hole, and I started filling it.

In 1988, Christian Nagel, who knew my comedic bent, turned me on to the work of the German comedian Karl Valentin. Celebrated for his film and stage comedy, Valentin also made comic objects, producing them from 1915 through the 1930s. A revelation, they made me realize that my instincts were more in a comedic than an artistic tradition. Finding out about Valentin derailed my “art” career––ask any of my ex-gallerists!––because from that point on I really put comedy first. I stopped thinking through an art framework and instead dug into the idea of the comic object, which work occupied me for more than a decade.

Valentin was clever enough to realize that his objects needed their own context, and he created one: the Valentin Panoptikum, housed originally in the basement of the Hotel Wagner in Munich. I too felt the need to make a context that naturalized my instincts, so I started researching the history of materialist comedy. Valentin’s context creation involved a physical space, whereas mine became a book that pulled together an alternative history of modern comedy, a book that took me ten years to research and write. Last year, Jacob Fabricius volunteered to publish it, Carol Greene and Greene Naftali extended a helping hand, and this past spring we completed production. It’s a completely different take on comedy—not a history of, in curator-speak, “artists who use humor in their work,” but a history of comedy that has taken material form. It’s the first of its kind. The world will never be the same!

Since the early twentieth century, concrete comedy has shown up in every area of material culture and public theater—art, fashion, politics, sports, advertising, pop music, architecture, film, and TV––it’s in every aspect of public life. Sometimes it announces itself––Maurizio Cattelan’s marble sculpture of an enormous hand giving us the finger, sited in front of the Milan bourse, comes to mind––and sometimes it’s super subtle. Harold Koda, curator at the Met’s Costume Institute, educated me about the sly wit of Coco Chanel, who, for instance, made a few design changes to maid’s uniforms and sold the result to wealthy women. These two examples give you some idea of materialist comedy’s range. There are hundreds more; as a basic human invention comedy accepts the imprint of an infinite variety of sensibilities.

Concrete comedy is a hallmark of the modern sensibility. It begins with Valentin, the first person to consistently create objects of comic intent, and with Marcel Duchamp, who was the first to thematize the question of the artist’s seriousness, and then it spreads. Warhol during his deadpan ’60s phase, Andy Kaufman, Martin Kippenberger—all can be regarded as concrete comedians. Something caused comedy to expand beyond merely verbal wit, and the innovation held. Why? We can only speculate. Perhaps a concrete comedy that engages the theaters of the real world felt more empowering than did just speaking funny lines. Comedy is always about a relation to power. There’s always a jester and always a king, even if the “king” now takes the form of mass media, capitalism, and the other ruling abstractions of our time. And the jester always represents a threat, because the jester, in accepting his role, has announced his intention not to seek the throne. He’s playing another game, and that makes him dangerous.