PRINT February 1985


ONLY AN EAGER GRAVEDIGGER WOULD ARGUE that “Jonathan Borofsky,” the “retrospective” that began at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and is now at the Whitney Museum of American Art,1 is Borofsky’s final or only word. His is among the most open-ended, responsive, and responded to of art, and if anything gets more so as time goes on. The fact is, however, that Borofsky’s work has repeatedly expressed reservations about its own efficacy. “Self-deprecating” is an adjective rarely used in discussions of his work. Instead, the work’s effusiveness and diffusiveness can stir murmurings about “unstable ego boundaries” and “oceanic feelings.” But despite the ubiquitous self-portraits throughout the installation, depicting Borofsky on top of the world or as a cranium bulging with cosmic awareness, it’s more to the point to describe this as a humble persona.

Of course the work’s casualness is itself a critique, but a piece like Dancing Clown at 2,845,325, 1982–83, the famous clown-ballerina that dances on a cubist stage (as one would dance on a heaving grave) to the tune “I Did It My Way,” is more specific in its doubt. A representative of the arts, the ballerina controls the motion of a levitating styrofoam lifesaver by means of a string held between thumb and forefinger. As the circle jumps, its movements seem to synchronize with the movements of the figure’s leg—the dance becomes a knee-jerk reaction, the artist a puppet on his own string. With the addition of the Emmett Kelly head, Borofsky’s "way’’ appears to be, on his own testimony, that of the clown. We could dignify it with the title of jester because Borofsky both enjoys a jester’s privilege of being allowed to say anything, to exemplify every silly conceptual, perceptual trick that the rest of us throw away as sophomoric, but this is to take the edge off his self-accusation by elevating his foolishness to a hired role. Take also the construction in which a canvas with an image of a Cambodian mother holding her dead baby is propped up with a pole like a tent and accompanied by a litter of papers illiterately bewailing litter. It gives an even stronger indication of a sense of the way in which art can sometimes make political events a shelter for its own babbling redundancies, trashing even that self-made space. But it’s not the activist aspect of political art that might frighten him, it’s the prominence of self, of personality.

As you entered the exhibition in Philadelphia you saw a parodistic pseudoretrospective of Borofsky’s own making in Age Piece, begun 1972, a collection of art objects, often highly “respectable,” made by the artist between the ages of 8 and 30 (with blanks left for 34 and 40; Borofsky was 32 when he began the work). The corridor culminates in a huge corner-canvas self-portrait of Borofsky as a bit of the devil, Old Man Time, and Baby New Year. From this figure’s forehead escape other, smaller Borofskys, acetate astral projections streaming back down the hallway where the work was installed, in a direction opposite from that of the literally constructed chronology—in flight from the very concept of a retrospective. This bursting out from a cumulative order formed a prologue to the viewer’s experience of moving from the small grid-hung pieces in the hallway to the release of the two huge rooms full of kinetic pieces, murals, videos, etc.

Given this, it’s difficult to know how to take all the hoopla surrounding this exhibit. It’s good to see Borofsky’s scatterings brought together, but, quite properly, they remain no less scattered. Yet the timing of this one is right because of the ascendancy of a generation of younger artists whom Borofsky has surely influenced. But, then, they have by and large picked up on the ripped-open “expressionist/surrealist’’ esthetic but left out Borofsky’s reservations. Likewise, the incredible density of publicity for the show in the city of Philadelphia reached the level of an uncomfortable seduction, replacing Borofsky’s critical foolishness with well-meaning buffoonery. As an educational institution, the museum is right to do all it can to get people in to see the work. And the unending procession of articles in Sunday supplements and “shoppers,” the dance parties in the installation sponsored by local radio stations, are, on the one hand, a logical response to Borofsky’s populism. On the other hand, though, seeing promotional Borofsky self-portraits at every bus stop contradicts one meaning of his work. For all his confessional tactics, in fact by means of them, Borofsky laments the cult of the personality. His personal ambitions (I dreamed I was taller than Picasso at 2,047,324, 1973) and disappointments (the childishly awkward painting “Mom, I Lost the Election” at 1,933,095, 1972), are too mockingly offered to be taken otherwise.

Jeanne Silverthorne is an artist who lives in Philadelphia. She writes regularly for Artforum.


1. The exhibition will also be shown at the University Art Museum, Berkeley; the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; and the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington. DC.