Critics’ Picks

Haim Steinbach, Backyard Story, 1997, painted steel and particleboard shelving unit, cotton clothesline, wood clothespins, cotton clothing and underwear, painted metal grills, plastic jack‑o’‑lanterns, wood logs. 112“ x 24' 3/4” x 36".

Los Angeles

“Take It or Leave It”

Hammer Museum
10899 Wilshire Boulevard
February 9–May 18

Assembling works by thirty-six artists from the late 1970s to the present, “Take It or Leave It” underscores the dynamic and often blurry intersection of appropriation and institutional critique. Tempting questions arise: Does appropriation’s critique always reflect upon its exhibiting institution? In want of a discursive frame, must institutional critique always employ some form of appropriation?

“Take It or Leave It” aggregates works likely necessary for its task by artists including Louise Lawler, Sherrie Levine, Haim Steinbach, and Fred Wilson. It transcends the expected by presenting both signature works by these artists from the 1980s and some of their more recent pieces. Also presented are media, such as painting, usually omitted from histories of either appropriation or institutional critique, like Sue Williams’s fiery joke painting Spiritual America, 1992. Such inclusions give “Take It or Leave It” a self-conscious elasticity, revising history while writing it.

Andrea Fraser’s Museum Highlights: A Gallery Talk, 1989, a video of a faux docent tour scripted entirely of quotations, introduces the show and may have also inspired its method. Powerful juxtapositions that tempt taboo, such as Glenn Ligon’s Notes on the Margin of the Black Book, 1991–93, as threatening cyclorama for Paul McCarthy’s Michael Jackson Fucked Up Big Head Big Foot (MJFUBH), 2010, exemplify the extreme potential of this method to complicate both past and present. Acting as the finale to the exhibition is Stephen Prina’s elegiac installation The Second Sentence of Everything I Read Is You: Mourning Sex, 2005–2007, a singing memorial to Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Possibly too many works surround this already affective piece, including Mike Kelley’s Craft Morphology Flow Chart, 1991, Fred Wilson’s Slit, 1995, and David Wojnarowicz’s Crash: The Birth of Language / The Invention of Lies, 1986. All this threatens to overwhelm, but in so doing honestly dramatizes the challenge of “Take It Or Leave It”: how to make history of what remains largely present.