PRINT November 2004


FOR SEVERAL YEARS NOW, DAVID ROBBINS’S standard biographical note has begun with a similar sentence: “David Robbins has had more than thirty solo exhibitions in the United States and Europe, and participated in many group exhibitions.” And judging from his recent work, that would seem to have been enough. Robbins made a name for himself in the mid-1980s with a series of conceptual works that used the New York art world itself as material for comedy, as in The David Robbins Show, 1986, and The Art Dealers’ Optical Tests, 1987. Most penetrating of all, his seminal 1986 piece Talent comprised eighteen portraits of New York artists (Jeff Koons, Cindy Sherman, Jenny Holzer, et al.) in the form of eight-by-ten-inch, black-and-white promotional headshots. His success garnered many invitations to exhibit in Europe, and between 1988 and 1995, Robbins lived what he amusingly describes today as “a sort of international art-bachelor life.” The new European context triggered an important shift in his work, as he recalls: “It removed not only the layer of art-world referencing, but other layers as well––all the pop and American mass-media references and all the language-based references. Living in countries where I didn’t speak the language forced me to invent and rely more on physicality and gesture. The humor became more behavorial, less verbal, more about doing, less about saying.” This shift proved central to Robbins’s understanding of “concrete comedy,” which he discusses on the following pages.

During his European “grand tour,” Robbins found that certain smaller cities such as Brussels, Naples, and Stockholm stirred his imagination more strongly than did major capitals like Paris or London, which for him “have very strong egos, and unless you have sufficient strength of character, you end up bending your production to their needs.” So when he returned to the States, Robbins decided that it would be healthier to skip New York for Milwaukee, Wisconsin, his hometown. By removing himself from the New York art world, which overvalues the production of objects, Robbins could exercise other talents like writing and theater, and in so doing he reinvented his practice by creating new alternatives to existing “artistic rituals.”

“Ice Cream Social” best characterizes Robbins’s artistic “second life.” Initiated in 1993, the live event began––improbably enough––with the desire to make a dot painting and with a question: “How to exhibit an abstract painting, and to ‘program’ it so that it invites readings other than the ones traditionally attached to abstract art?” As Mark Baskin, Robbins’s alter ego in his Ice Cream Social novella (1998), intuits, “The painting ought to reference something public instead of private, something not so much inside people as between them.” Baskin ponders further: “‘Programming’ could be accomplished by inaugurating the painting into public life in a place apart from the usual haunts of art, since a memory of that novel, ‘inappropriate’ context would necessarily be built into the painting’s experience, and thus into the experience of encountering the painting afterwards.” And so he decided that the most “logical” place to exhibit his painting was a Baskin-Robbins ice cream parlor, and the most “appropriate” painting for this setting would be pink with brown dots, echoing the company’s standard decor.

Robbins threw a traditional social, replete with free ice cream, refreshments, and a few dozen guests, who mingled while Robbins recited a poem about gathering to the gathered. He subsequently recounted the event in his novella, published in collaboration with Purple Books in Paris and Feature Inc., his New York gallery. (It was reissued last month by JRP/Ringier Kunstverlag AG, Zurich.) This book has since served as a matrix for new “Ice Cream Socials” staged in Chicago, London, and Des Moines, where the event drew over eight hundred people. Although these later incarnations included a mix of cast members and guests, they did not strictly adhere to a script. They remained parties. For Robbins, the “Ice Cream Socials” are to be understood not as conceptual artworks but as attempts to move beyond existing categories of cultural practice.

Robbins recently took “Ice Cream Social” a step further by writing a television script, the blueprint for which appeared in the closing chapter of his 1998 book. In 2003, the script was selected for the Sundance Channel’s first TV Lab. and a pilot was produced. (It premiered last month at l’ARC/Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, where it is now on view in the exhibition “Art, Television, and Video: Utopias of Yesterday, Stakes of Tomorrow?”) Robbins’s feature-length script about “Ice Cream Social” is currently under consideration as part of the Sundance 2005 Feature Film Program. “I want full access to my own imagination,” he explains, “and if your imagination has been imprinted by TV shows and movies and pop music and art, you might want to try doing all of them.” Throughout the decade-long history of “Ice Cream Social,” Robbins has progressively furthered his goal of operating within entertainment culture, extending “art context attitudes” and experimentation into the mainstream. He comments:

There’s something very attractive about the challenge of working in the mainstream. There’s also something very interesting about redirecting it toward higher goals than box-office grosses. There’s a part in my movie script where a woman from an entertainment think tank describes the cold war as the war between Fun and No Fun. She says, ‘The US was fun and the Soviet Union was no fun. And fun won.’ Ever since, mainstream culture has basically been an extended celebration of that moment of victory of fun over no fun. Well, I don’t think you can keep doing that forever. The culture has had a problem for a while now, because they seem not to know what the next step is, the next level. . . . To my mind, the next level is to make fun substantive.

Robbins’s aims and methods have made him an important point of reference for artists of subsequent generations, most notably Pierre Huyghe, who commissioned him to write a text for his 2003 book Le Chateau de Turing. The production process of “Ice Cream Social”––from the first dot painting and live event to the novella, TV series, and movie script––resonates with other multifarious projects such as Matthew Barney’s Cremaster cycle or Philippe Parreno and Huyghe’s Annlee project, in that they all suggest radical new forms for the contemporary art exhibition. These artists resist the traditional temporal structure of exhibitions, instead proposing ongoing projects that constantly oscillate between process, object, structure, and exchange. It is Robbins who pioneered this approach, suggesting that an artist’s calendar need no longer be determined only by the rhythm of successive shows. “Thirty solo exhibitions” is enough; the time frame is now set by a different clock. The goal is to make art engage a more varied production, a broader context, a life cycle all its own.

Hans-Ulrich Obrist is a contributing editor of Artforum.