PRINT October 1990


ALMOST 30 YEARS after Robert Rauschenberg hung his now-famous paint-encrusted bed on a gallery wall, Jessica Stockholder hitched a mattress to the side of a garage, painted it red, and initiated a practice that, if nothing else, appreciably strains dominant artistic protocols.

Stockholder’s work since then—gangling installations and sculptural combines characterized by a slapdash facture and hands-on approach to materials—has, in fact, been greeted by a fair amount of head-scratching: a litany of reservations from “arty” to “willfully idiosyncratic,” not to mention misunderstandings about the iconographic significance of the recognizable found components she employs and misconceptions about her relationship to a range of previous avant-garde strategies.

The significance of Rauschenberg’s gesture hinges, in no small measure, on whether we see his “synthesis” of an essentially European Dadaist impulse and the painterly formalism of the New York School as a fertile crossroads of two “great traditions,” or as a less urgent transition en route to Andy Warhol, freighted with a debilitating nostalgia for American-type abstraction. Equally subject to the complex vagaries of a particular artistic milieu and moment, Stockholder’s project reads as slight or significant, depending on whether her efforts are perceived as an irredeemably local stylistic pendulum swing based on a harebrained misunderstanding of recent art history, or as a decisive revisioning of a range of precedents, Rauschenberg’s not least among them.

The 30-year gap that separates Rauschenberg’s gesture from Stockholder’s moment is literally full of beds: Claes Oldenburg’s foreshortened single, Robert Gober’s stoic twin, John Armleder’s wall-mounted king replete with end tables. When Arthur Danto worried in a 1973 essay ostensibly devoted to Rauschenberg’s work that “it is with such unentrenched objects like combines and emerubies, that the abysses between life and art are to be filled!”’ he could scarcely have guessed at his prescience. He was in even less of a position to anticipate the elaborate mutations that would beset the artwork in the ensuing 15 years. It is precisely these baroque twists and turns that have determined the way Stockholder’s art plays at the beginning of the ’90s.

A century of vanguard repetitions has wreaked havoc with the idea of an avant-garde. It has also brought to the fore the institutional stake in perpetuating that idea, with the upshot that much of the significant art between the two beds has, in one way or another, internalized this insight. If the art of the first half of the century tracked the art object through a series of contortions aimed at testing its ontological status, the art of the second half—the art after “art after philosophy” (with the second “after” meant in the temporal sense)—has proGressively come to reveal art’s institutional status. Art now seems less a stable ontological category than a mutating field of conventions. One of the upshots of this perception has been a decade dominated by all manner of self-conscious doublings and play with the conventions of art, from Wallace & Donohue’s burlesque of the painting’s traditional wooden support, to Philip Taaffe’s simulated paintings, which opened a gap between “art” and the historically venerated object, to Sherrie Levine’s pristine doubles unoccluded by invention or commentary, to Richard Prince’s rephotographed advertisements that bleed banal images for a queer plenitude he has called their “fictional” quality. It is this curious second-degree relationship to representation in general, and the styles of Modernism in particular, that informs Stockholder’s work in an oblique though ultimately decisive way, enabling her to reanimate a whole roster of sleepy pleasures.

The two aspects of Stockholder’s work that occasioned the most perplexity were the reinvestment of what might conditionally be called “formal” concerns—the emphasis on quirky juxtapositions of material and on awkward dislocations of scale—and the related introduction of painted shapes on top of her assemblages. Up against an art intent on foregrounding its commodity status and on parading the absolute object-lust induced in the viewer under the sign of art, what could seem more beside the point than occluding that experience with a whole range of hands-on internal articulations—what could appear more gratuitously flimsy, more “arty,” than a swath of plain paint wending its way across an eclectic jumble of detritus and onto the gallery wall like a half-finished ’70s supergraphic?

Stockholder employs paint and color to assert unlikely, and always somehow palpably conditional, unities between incompatible materials and objects. In one large-scale installation, Indoor Lighting for My Father, 1988, a column of lumpy cloth balls made of stuffed jockey briefs is juxtaposed with a huge bale of hay, painted the most surprising turquoise and propped precariously atop several pilings of two-by-fours. A cluster of real oranges set into a cement block further complicates matters, proposing a visual analogy between the organic real fruit and the larger cloth balls. The strained connections and elusive texture of associations she thus sets in motion override the denotative sense of the individual components. In this work, for example, it takes a certain amount of time even to identify the paint-splattered underwear as such. Rather than tap into the layers of associative meaning the objects might suggest, Stockholder skips across the surface by the most improbable syntagmatic routes, dragging a nebulous cargo of dissembled meaning in her wake.

In a cultural climate in which we automatically read the world as an overdetermined social text, what is initially most difficult to swallow is the fact that even perfectly recognizable found objects—a car door, a wig, a standard folding table—have been selected by Stockholder more for their formal, material, or general typological attributes than to convey any sense of their origin or past use. Rather than cuing a meditation on style, class, and the middle-American scene, a kitschy “antiqued” bureau at the center of her most recent installation, Where It Happened, 1990, at American Fine Arts, Co., in New York, is milked for its formal and material qualities. Less a sign heavy with social and archaeological significance than a unit of stylized or ordered material, the bureau takes on meaning only in relation to an apparently less-differentiated pile of rubble that includes bundled cardboard, carpet, plaster, cement, and raw asphalt.

This is not to suggest that the objects Stockholder employs are suddenly stripped of extra-artistic connotations and rendered magically neutral; Stockholder is simply more interested in the fundamental way meanings are generated—in how differences are perceived and read—than in revealing a specific social subtext. In a modest piece, a common two-by-four is casually propped against a gallery wall next to a shorter but similarly sized powder blue plank. The shared dimensions clew us to take the plank as a painted length of lumber, but, on closer inspection, it proves to be of featherweight Styrofoam. A couple of kitschy plastic grapes nonchalantly wired to the wooden plank complete the lazy symmetry. Stockholder manages to take this most ignoble tchatchke and present it, simultaneously, as fake fruit, with all its connotations of obvious artifice, and as a small orb of translucent aqua with its own intense, material beauty. It is precisely this yield of unadulterated “formal” pleasure that sticks in the throats of potential Stockholder converts.

The materials Stockholder brings together are frequently almost incommensurable: she will combine a block of cement and the most ephemeral tissue paper, or a raw section of Sheetrock with a geometric shape of paint that screams high art. Visual syntax is her subject matter, and Stockholder plays off the viewer’s habits of mind and expectations. Her touch is always too fussy or too broad, too flimsy or too deliberate. She has a knack for second-guessing an ingrained artistic protocol and deliberately throwing a wrench in the works. Where a too-palatable unity threatens to assert itself, Stockholder is likely to muck it up with an unexpected detail. In Kissing the Wall #5 with Yellow, 1990, she slips a gratuitous two-by-four under each leg of a standard chrome-and-cane dining chair, which itself holds a cargo of containers painted with swatches of color. Frequently straining the relationships between the components she employs to the brink of illegibility, Stockholder perpetually asks how much difference can be accommodated before order disintegrates into nonmeaning.

While Stockholder’s characteristic relaxed manner and repertoire of materials share superficial affinities with arte povera, the tone of her work ultimately has as little to do with the fire-and-ice poetics of that movement as with the knee-jerk taste swing to a “poorer” facture occasioned by a decade of cooler meditations on institutional determinism. For Stockholder, slipshod fabrication is more a means to generate the strained visual syntaxes that have become her signature than the result of a constitutional regard for the cast-off or degraded. Despite the recent ruckus over junk and detritus, Stockholder’s works are no more about disposable culture and American iconography than Henri Matisse’s ravishing Piano Lesson is about the forced imposition of culture on children.

What gives Stockholder’s brand of formalism a low-key heretic urgency from the start is the fact that the much-decried hegemony of American-style formalism is more perceived than real. There seems to be an almost universal tendency to grope for the stable referent—the tiny register of autobiography or narrative—in an artwork, rather than to attend to its structural givens and the new meanings these might generate. Even more to the point is Stockholder’s historical relationship to the protocols governing the pictorial investigations associated with high formalism. If Rauschenberg’s ready-mades are frequently bound by a normative formal arrangement—a play of reiterations off the rectangular support—that diminishes the potency of his photomechanical and readymade innovations, reducing them to another moment in the well-worn history of collage, Stockholder treats the codes of pictorialism as a language, and painting as a sign of painting as opposed to a practice freighted with a sense of its ontological specificity—as one language, one set of conventions, among others. It is not that she is immune to the pleasures of pictorial invention, but that she writes the contingency of their tried and tested unities into the work. The decisive twist is that by experiencing these languages as wholly “conventional,” as detached from the essentializing undertow of American high formalism, Stockholder has liberated formal pleasure and opened up a realm of pure play.

In retrospect Stockholder’s bed piece looks like a rather astute commentary on the current status of the readymade, and a “position” piece that quite literally maps out the “expanded field” in which she continues to operate. Mounted on the shed wall midway between a solid blue rectangle (actually a painted door) tipped off the edge of the roof and a large aqua reflection painted directly onto the grass below, the bed seems to demonstrate just where the assisted readymade falls in the larger representational order: between the real object (the painting) and its reflection. Of course, the real object is already a painting (i.e., an imitation), and its reflection is a painted (or reflected) one. To further complicate matters, Stockholder claimed the entire garden as a readymade, painting onto the lawn, so that the red berries on an adjacent bush, the rest of the garden, and even the open sky above become part of the composition.

What is specific and different about Stockholder’s use of the readymade is that she is not so much interested in testing the boundaries of art and life. Instead, she treats the readymade as a readymade in a field that also admits a gamut of other artistic conventions, including the pictorial and sculptural traditions and a roster of avant-garde strategies, which are employed as generic signs and deployed as anchors. One signature device is the single unit—a small piece of fabric or a sheet of Plexiglas bolted onto the wall—that, while functioning as a discreet sign of the pictorial, also serves as an equivalent term against which she positions a much more elaborate assisted object. In the large installation, Where It Happened, a bunch of real lemons set into the plaster, along with several abstract swatches of paint across the rubble, snapped the whole piece into a realm in which the pictorial was freed to be experienced both in formal terms and as pure artifice or convention. Suddenly the work suggested—not simulated or appropriated—an enormous Cubist still life come unhinged, a hyped-up, vertiginous burlesque of the generic genre.

The same second-order approach also informs Stockholder’s relationship to the dematerializing strategies of the ’60s. Where the undifferentiated modular or serial units associated with the antiform strategies of the ’60s were still laden with the sense of a final gesture, it is as if Stockholder had looked at the random dispersions of a Barry LeVa or a Robert Morris and noticed instead how wholly bound they are by the protocols of the museum. Stockholder’s work may seem random, but she plays this convention with a light-hearted, almost pop, insouciance. The special and, I want to argue, historically specific pleasure that she engenders—which separates her “formal” practice from that of a whole bevy of pallid salonists who are comfortably milking late formal idioms in a normative way—has everything to do with this second-order vantage point.

By the same token Stockholder never transcends or transforms the space she works with in the manner of much recent installation art; rather, she flat-footedly occupies it so that her intrusion is everywhere hamfistedly present. When the gallery door was opened, it just about bumped Where It Happened. The other end of the installation trailed off into “arty” nonresolution. Instead of obscuring the gallery and her own intrusion in the space with an atmospheric unity geared to transport us someplace else, Stockholder gave us an awkward art experience, and its awkwardly pointed artiness provided much of its exhilaration.

Through an in some ways surprising inversion, Stockholder’s efforts are less aptly described by the tag “artabout art” than by the earlier and seemingly archaic trope of “art for art’s sake.” If she echoes the dematerializing strategies of some ’60s artists, these exist in her work solely as moments of artistic figuration used to comment on the way we figure. Her program has nothing to do with contemporary proposals that radically test the ancient boundary between art and life by proposing a modulation within the sign of art that might accommodate or be subsumed by political activism (viz. activist/artist Gregg Bordowitz’s conflation of “picturing” and actually “making” a coalition). Nor has Stockholder’s practice much to do with self-conscious interdisciplinary investigations of the conventions and institutions of art (e.g., Louise Lawler’s assembling and disassembling of our institutionally trained habits of seeing). Stockholder’s is a more rarefied meditation on meaning-making; she plays the conventions of art not so much to coax specific dark contents to visibility within a given structure as to present plays and models on visibility, which locates her squarely in that less-embattled side of post-Modern culture—the realm of pure play. While to the wholly fledged it may look as archaic as a beret-capped painter before the Eiffel Tower, Stockholder’s art is neither a belated decadence nor an amnesiac rehash of period manners. Her meditations on how we build and perpetuate visual order can lead us at least to the fringes of meaning, where anxieties about the orders we implicitly condone enter the field of vision. Confronting formal decadence as convention, she allows old forms to rustle defiantly back to life.

Jack Bankowsky is an assistant editor of Artforum.



1. Arthur Danto, “The Last Work of Art: Artworks and Real Things,” in Aesthetics: A Critical Anthology, ed. George Dickie and Richard J. Sclafani, New York: St. Martin’s Press, p. 554.

The title for this article was derived from the title of a work by Wallace & Donohue: (SP)LIT GIRL/BLUE CHAIR (Image as Fact as Fact as Image (Sp)lit) or Part of the Obligatory Artist’s Chair Series, 1988.