PRINT January 1992


TWENTY YEARS AGO New York’s Museum of Modern Art initiated a series of modest shows, called “Projects,” to “keep the public abreast of recent developments in the visual arts.”1 On the surface this sounds like proof of the Museum’s commitment to contemporary art, but it would be more accurate to say that the series only enabled the Modern to avoid a more substantial involvement with new work.

The “Projects” series was launched after one of the most ambitious and controversial contemporary-art shows in MoMA’s postwar history, the “Information” exhibition of 1970. This broad, anarchic survey of Conceptual art constituted the museum’s response to charges of its indifference to all but the most traditional forms of Modern painting and sculpture. Attacks on the institution’s conservatism, leveled by individuals and by groups such as the Art Workers’ Coalition, had grown clamorous by the end of the ’60s. Yet “Information,” organized by Kynaston McShine, generated the kind of critical response that trustees find repugnant.2 It was in this context that the “Projects” series was conceived, as if to placate both those in the boardroom and those on the streets.

These modest showcases were always handled discreetly; they were never allowed to impinge on the museum’s primary business (apparently defined as enhancing and maintaining the permanent collection; organizing monographs of favorite Modern masters—Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Joan Miró, Frank Stella; and staging theme shows largely devoted to compatible historical subjects). Even so, after a surge of increased activity in 1978, the “Projects” series gradually disappeared from MoMA’s calendar—just in time to miss the radically interdisciplinary post-Modernist art of the ’80s. The newly expanded Modern opened in 1984 with the mammoth “International Survey of Recent Painting and Sculpture,” but as an indication of the museum’s resolve to deal with contemporary art, the show backfired. By addressing new art without budging from the media-based departmental grid, it offered dramatic proof of the museum’s continuing unwillingness to accommodate the work of the day. In this context, the rebirth of the “Projects” series in 1986 seemed more compensatory than convincing, though the program still endures, somewhat isolated, now as then, in gallery space between the lobby and cafeteria.

Twenty years after the first “Projects,” and one year after hiring a new curator, Robert Storr, in the Department of Painting and Sculpture, the Modern is now headlining Storr’s first curatorial effort, “Dislocations.” As a show of seven works of installation art by as many artists, the exhibition resembles a museum-wide “Projects.” Nevertheless, “Dislocations” is the first serious attempt in two decades to establish MoMA’s credibility as a venue for contemporary art.

As such, the show raises questions about the current appeal of installation and site-specific art, about its heritage and contemporary meaning. What did Storr see in this highly visible genre that attracted him to it as the best way to introduce a new curatorial initiative? One thing he might have discerned in the works of Louise Bourgeois, Chris Burden, Sophie Calle, David Hammons, Ilya Kabakov, Bruce Nauman, and Adrian Piper is evidence of the importance of avant-gardist traditions that art museums in general, and MoMA in particular, have found difficult to accommodate.

Virtually all contemporary installation art depends upon a handful of vanguard models. These include Dadaist environments—whether polemical, like the 1920 Erste Internationale Dada-Messe in Berlin, or disorienting domestic ones like Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbau of 1924 or so—as well as the radically interactive Russian Constructivist display techniques pioneered by such artists as El Lissitzky during the same period. What all of these approaches shared was a determination to transform spectatorship; to rouse individuals from the chronic passivity implicit in the conventional notion of the art audience, a passivity paralleling the torpor urged on the individual in modern civic society. Contemporary artists who work with installation may likewise be attracted to the idea that they can engage the viewer in active esthetic processes that will lead to the production of potentially challenging or disruptive meanings. To the extent that such an intention deviates from MoMA’s usual practice, Storr deserves credit for supporting it.

Consistent with the logic of Schwitters’ interior, Bourgeois’ Twosome reiterates the combined terror and bemusement that surfaced in Marcel Duchamp’s mechanomorphic brides and bachelors, and that spawned Surrealist progeny such as Alberto Giacometti’s The Couple (Man and Woman), 1926, and Miró’s Sculpture-Object, 1931. But whereas Duchamp, Giacometti, and Miró effected disturbances on an intimate scale, Bourgeois’ mechanized phallic whatsit is large enough to live in—an increase in size that yields diminished emotional returns. More akin to the display techniques introduced by Lissitzky, Burden’s Other Vietnam Memorial encourages viewers to interact with giant steel-and-copper “pages” that pivot off a vertical axis. By feeling the weight of its elements, by running one’s fingers over the tight braille of three million names representing those who died on the “other” side during the Vietnam War, one tries to sense the enormity of their losses during America’s intervention in that conflict.3 As a room-sized Rolodex, Burden’s monument has bureaucratic connotations that effectively convey the disregard for human life in general, and for Asian life in particular, that fueled the war.

The idea of office-equipment-as-monument brings to mind another, more recent model for contemporary installation, one that was also for some time marginal in MoMA’s art history: Pop art. Burden’s monument repeats Claes Oldenburg’s early-’60s gesture of greatly magnifying vernacular forms. Together with his early environment The Store, 1961–62, Oldenburg’s enlargements challenged the discursive framework of institutions like the Modern by exposing the arbitrariness with which it systematically privileges some forms of cultural expression while devaluing others.

At its location in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, The Store was also the site of performances that, like the earlier Happenings, added a performative dimension to installation. In “Dislocations” that tradition variously informs the works by Kabakov, Nauman, and Hammons. Kabakov’s Bridge contrives the spatial index of a fictional “event” to communicate an allegory of revolution in which “little people” overcome the odds to disrupt an authoritarian meeting. Nauman’s Anthro/Socio depends upon advanced video technology, a puzzling text, and a remarkable performance to convey a menacing allegory of consumerism: on three separate tapes that run simultaneously, a stentorian baritone in tight close-up, seen both right-side-up and upside-down on monitors and in video images projected on the wall, orders “Eat Me/Hurt Me/Feed Me/Help Me,” “Feed Me/Eat Me/Anthropology,” and “Help Me/Hurt Me/Sociology.”

Hammons’ Public Enemy most nearly effects the sense of turbulent disarray that many Happenings left behind. In a gallery littered with autumn leaves, hung with streamers and balloons, and divided by a police barricade and a low, looping wall of sandbaglike sacks of cement, Hammons has trained automatic weapons and explosives on a huge representation of the monument of Theodore Roosevelt—on horseback, with subservient black and Native American attendants walking on either side—that stands outside New York’s Museum of Natural History. As a celebratory assertion of the imminent demise of institutionalized racism and colonial hubris, Public Enemy’s success comes not from its rhetoric, which only mirrors that of Roosevelt’s monument, but from its situation inside the Museum of Modern Art.

It is the site-specific art in “Dislocations” that supplies the show’s most obvious critiques of the museum and its culture. Calle’s Ghosts, for example, which puts a populist spin on the insinuating strategies of ’70s Conceptualism, is predicated upon the temporary removal of paintings from the Modern’s permanent collection (for loans, conservation, etc.), and effects a territorial intrusion upon that collection’s hitherto inviolate precincts. Installed directly on the wall where the missing painting hung, each of Calle’s five “ghosts” consists of written and rudimentary visual recollections of the absent work, accounts that the artist has solicited from a cross-section of museum employees. By framing as “art” these sometimes affecting, sometimes banal, distinctly nonexpert descriptions of the museum’s masterpieces, Ghosts suggests the potential wealth of meanings that conventional modes of esthetic analysis and display exclude. As is often the case with Calle’s work, the physical realization of Ghosts is its least successful aspect, having been diluted by a superfluous third element: an arty large-scale rendering of the missing painting that underlies the entire block of text.

The installations by Hammons and Piper indicate the debt that site-specific critique owes to a final historical model, the readymade. Piper’s What It’s Like, What It is, No. 3 takes as a found object the museum-ready esthetics of Minimalism, only to use them just as the ancient Greeks did their wooden horse at Troy. Dead center in a pure white cube of a space that Piper has designed as a Minimalist arena stands a roughly man-sized white box. Four wall-length steps of generous width provide seating around the room’s periphery. In a critical departure from the abstract, phenomenological speculations of Minimalism, a video monitor is embedded at eye level in each of the box’s four sides, and at any one time each registers the face, profile, or back of an African-American man’s head. Turning every so often to confront spectators head on, this man tells you, in measured tones, not who he is but what he’s not: “I’m not rowdy. I’m not horny. I’m not scary. I’m not shiftless. I’m not lazy. I’m not servile.” Setting an animated life-size semblance of a black man inside a white box in a white room, Piper evokes the situation of someone trapped inside a prison house of stereotype. The symbolism rapidly expands to readings of institutional esthetics and social structures. By smuggling inside the museum’s walls the experiences of people who hitherto have had little reason to feel welcome there, Piper confronts and effectively deconstructs the art history with which museums in general, and MoMA in particular, have been most comfortable.

FIVE OF THE SEVEN ARTISTS in “Dislocations” (Bourgeois, Calle, Hammons, Kabakov, and Nauman) reappear in the Carnegie International in Pittsburgh. Like its European and South American rivals, this triennial exhibition at the Carnegie Museum of Art tends to be realized as a massive potpourri of contemporary work by established American and European artists. In this year’s model, however, organizers Mark Francis and Lynne Cooke, determined to enliven the show and to lend it a degree of thematic unity, have also turned to installation and site-specific art. There are works in “Dislocations” that prove that the genre can still generate deconstructionist effects. But the Carnegie International proves the opposite: at a time of dwindling enthusiasm for contemporary art, especially for its socially engaged manifestations, installation work can help to reconstruct the museum’s prestige.

Describing the intended focus of their survey, the curators note the interest of many contemporary artists in institutional modes of collecting, systems of display, and methods of organizing and disseminating information. Many of the 43 artists they selected were encouraged to visit Pittsburgh in advance, scout the museum, and address their works directly to the Carnegie Institute, a building that advances the late-19th-century desire to unite the arts and sciences by including a concert hall, a public library, and a museum of natural history as well as one of art. Yet very few works—among them Hammons’ Yo-yo and Mike Kelley’s Craft Morphology Flow Chart—produce the kind of resistant friction that can summon the vanguard heritage of contemporary installation. The tone of the survey is established instead by the academic refinement and high production values in the works by Richard Avedon, Tony Cragg, Richard Deacon, Lili Dujourie, Lisa Milroy, Katharina Fritsch, Reinhard Mucha, and Juan Muñoz, to name only a few.

Moreover, to the extent that Hammons and Kelley address the museum critically (one by foregrounding racial tokenism, the other by parodying connoisseurship), they also deviate from the curators’ “guiding principle”—“the reality of the museum, rather than a notion of the ideal or imaginary museum,” for “the specificity of the museum has created possibilities and opportunities. ”4 One telling manifestation of the idea of such a meta-Carnegie was Unreadable Humidity, by the Chinese-born artist Huang Yong Ping, a discreet yet aggressive work that is installed in the stacks of the Carnegie Library’s music and art department. In order to find the (surplus) art publications from the library’s collection that constitute Unreadable Humidity, it helps to follow one’s nose, not one’s eyes. In a reference to death and regeneration that recalls the double-edged interventions of Joseph Beuys, Huang has returned these publications to the malodorous condition of decomposing pulp.

Perhaps it is equally fitting that in addition to producing this mass of decaying art discourse, the guiding principle of engaging Andrew Carnegie’s 19th-century institution should also yield twelve tons of bones. Allan McCollum’s Lost Objects consists of 750 concrete casts of dinosaur bones from the collection of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Tightly arranged on a low bier, they occupy the indoor sculpture court of the art museum, where, painted a range of glossy earth tones that evoke McCollum’s “Surrogate Paintings,” 1978–, more than bones, they fail to summon the Southwestern setting where these fossilized remains (the “original” copies) were found. Sadly reversing the rule of thumb in McCollum’s successful projects, the direct experience of these lost objects is less absorbing than reflection on the idea that informs them.

Francis and Cooke have further departed from Carnegie tradition by commissioning works for locations outside the museum. Most of these demonstrate how very remote such projects have become from their immediate historical antecedents: the esthetic practices developed by individuals and collectives working outside the gallery and museum system in the late 1970s.5 Characteristic of the generally conciliatory tone of such work today are Maria Nordman’s frail arboretum, Four Rivers: Penn and Liberty Ave. at Stanwix Street 1991–, and Ann Hamilton’s offerings—the latter work also typifying the current fashion for following Gordon Matta-Clark’s example to the point of using sometimes abandoned old buildings. offerings occupies a gutted row house in a working-class section of Pittsburgh’s North Side. The house, which lacks interior walls, is now home to a flock of tuneful canaries. On the third floor, a vitrine lit by heat lamps contains beeswax casts of human heads. As these slowly melt, the wax spills onto the floor and, through it, to the ceilings and floors below, where it simulates stalagmites and stalactites. This site-specific work, which sweetens historical memory with metaphysics, has less to do with the avant-gardist logic of the readymade than with the pre-Modern tradition that locates religious art in churches. Also consistent with Christian tradition, and even more problematic, is the fact that to the extent it addresses the residents of this neighborhood “in transition,” offerings has less to say about human agency and the present than about obsolescence and the past. It is, after all, such neighbors who would be best equipped to decipher this work’s interpretive key: that canaries have been used to test the safety of air inside coal mines.

Noting that the decision to focus on the museum “does not entail a rejection of the kinds of critiques of the museum that burgeoned in the late sixties and early seventies,” Cooke and Francis have acknowledged the critical heritage of installation and site-specific art.6 The exhibition includes works by several artists who are associated directly with that critical tradition, including Michael Asher, Dan Graham, and Richard Serra. Their contributions, as well as those of younger artists such as Judith Barry, Louise Lawler, and Christopher Williams, suggest a curatorial commitment to this critical tradition.

But as the works of Asher, Graham, and Serra have helped elucidate, all art acquires its meaning and value in a particular context. And in the context of this exhibition such work cannot mean what it might under different circumstances. Notwithstanding the curators’ references to the precise situation of Pittsburgh, and to the role of the Carnegie in the life of the city’s inhabitants, this survey contains no discernible references to the AIDS crisis, unemployment, homelessness, or any other fact of contemporary life.7 At the Carnegie, “facts” invariably refer to esthetic preoccupations, as in Facts Not Opinions, three pieces by Deacon that consist of one or more artworks and other objects, plucked from the museum’s collections at the artist’s request, and posed on sculptural bases of his own design.

In such a situation, the opacity of, say, Asher’s untitled installation can only blend into the nearly total retreat to the museum and its culture that this exhibition more than reflects; it actually promotes.

Now, . . . at the beginning of the nineties, a swing seems to have occurred back to the museum as a preferred site of activity. At its best, this renewed attention does not entail a rejection of the kinds of critiques of the museum that burgeoned in the late sixties and early seventies but, rather, implies that the museum, notwithstanding its ideological characteristics, might still be preferable to much else as a space for imaginative, contemplative, and critical experiences.8

INSTALLATION ART, whether site specific or not, has emerged as a flexible idiom; so flexible, in fact, that it can function all at once as a means of deconstructing the museum and of reconstructing it. With its vanguard heritage and readymade rhetoric of contextuality, no wonder this genre has acquired its current appeal. These qualities should not, however, obscure the way in which installation is actually functioning at this time. For just as often as it may engage people in a process of producing challenging new meanings and constructing new publics, it may also function as a fetish. With the marketplace for contemporary art all but dried up, and with diminished government funding for the arts and increased meddling in the conduct of individuals and institutions, this idiom may well continue to be called upon to stand in for other manifestations of visual culture. Those forms, by naming as well as by responding poetically to the facts of contemporary life, will continue to be overlooked by museum curators who, like people everywhere, must fear awakening one cold morning to learn that they too have been made obsolete.

David Deitcher is an art historian and critic who lives in New York.


1. “Projects” (press release), “Projects” file, archive of the Museum of Modern Art, New York. The first project was an interactive video installation by Keith Sonnier.
2. See, for example, Hilton Kramer, “Show at the Modern Raises Questions,” The New York Times, 2 July 1970, p. 26; and “Miracles, ‘Information,’ ‘Recommended Reading,’” The New York Times, 12 July 1970, p. II:19. In the first of these drubbings, Kramer wrote, “There is a fundamental contradiction involved in devoting a large museum exhibition to a phenomenon that is, in its essence, a polemic against the whole concept of museum art and the museumization of art.”
3. Since the identities of the Vietnamese dead are not known to us, Burden created permutations of 4,000 Vietnamese names to arrive at the estimated three million casualties.
4. Mark Francis, “State of Change: An Introduction,” in Carnegie International 1991, exhibition catalogue. Pittsburgh: The Carnegie Museum of Art, 1991, p. 19.
5. Two exceptions: Christopher Wool’s billboard on Pittsburgh’s North Side recycles a fragment from a text he has used in his paintings. By stating what, in this context, is patently false—“THE SHOW IS OVER”—the billboard recalls the antilogical effects of late-’70s and early-’80s works by artists like John Fekner and Jenny Holzer. And Tim Rollins + K.O.S., in addition to showing paintings at the institute, have created a special collection at the Homewood Branch of the Carnegie Library, to which they have donated one copy of every book they have worked with, each supplemented by original drawings.
6. Francis and Lynne Cooke, “Preface,” Carnegie International 1991, p. 14.
7. The curators planned to show Derek Jarman’s new film Edward II as part of the exhibition, but the distributor refused to grant permission. The movie would have brought a much needed, albeit token, queer perspective to the exhibition. A retrospective of Jarman’s films has been scheduled.
8. Francis and Cooke, p. 14.

Dislocations” closes on January 7, the Carnegie International on February 16.