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PRINT November 2004

CONCRETE COMEDY: A PRIMER

Maurizio Cattelan’s 3-D cartooning is, every time out. Piero Manzoni’s cans of “artist’s shit” are, while his white Achromes are the furthest thing from it. Warhol’s Brillo Boxes are examples, but his paintings aren’t. Painting almost never is, in fact, although Kippenberger’s always is. Jack Benny did it remarkably, but only once; ditto the Ramones. Another rock band, the Replacements, embodied it their entire career. Ernie Kovacs brought it to TV, and for some twenty years David Letterman has remained a gleeful practitioner. Jeffrey Vallance consistently pulls off an anthropological version of it. The Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles is a walk-in version. John and Yoko were the first to take it global, and Andy Kaufman smuggled it into stand-up. To date, many more men than women have done it, but that imbalance has faded in recent decades. Thirty years ago Eleanor Antin contributed one of its landmarks, and Vivienne Westwood has been no slouch at it either. Fame has nothing to do with its effectiveness; there’ve been countless anonymous examples. Lots of people have done it a few times; few people do it for long.

WHAT IS IT? It’s concrete comedy. Since emerging in the Western industrialized nations in the early decades of the twentieth century, concrete comedy has yielded a wide array of conceptual objects and existential gestures. Like its more conventional cousin, concrete comedy has accepted the imprint of many different sensibilities: smart and dumb, vulgar and refined, nasty and sweet, blunt and baroque. Estimable examples have come from figures associated with art or show business, from amateurs unconcerned with amusing any audience other than their friends, and from corporations whose comic output was committee generated and approved. Concrete comedy makes room for all—object makers, comedians, actors, rock musicians, MIT students, and traveling salesmen—and accords all equal weight as instances of an embodied comedy of theatrical gesture and artifact.

Radical as such leveling may seem, it’s

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