PRINT October 2005


AT SOME POINT, THINGS BECAME UNSECURED, hooks unable to reach the eyes—or no eyes at all but only hooks, jabbing blindly into anything. Hurt jabbing.

So much current art presents the viewer with a surplus of “personality,” but personality faked. Well, perhaps not exactly faked, but too often sadly overwhelmed by the various cultural effluvia the artist deploys—cartoons, historical styles, goth monstrosities, Paris Hilton, etc.—supposedly to express “individuality” but which finally only intensifies a detached intimacy with whom- or whatever, a cold, brittle kind of connection born of alienation, risking and revealing very little (nothing at all perhaps) about anything or anyone. * How does any artist—any person, even—find an eye for his or her hook in the inundation of the world, almost every bit of it commodified, mediated, copyrighted (whatever that means anymore)? If art can no longer convey any sense of self, however fractured, mutable, or diffuse, what’s left for either?

It’s a question of realism, in the sense Roland Barthes lays out when considering the impossibilities of the Marquis de Sade, explaining how “reality” and Sade’s writing are “cut apart”—the latter not linked by any obligation to the former—and seeing the exciting power and importance of this. While “an author can talk about his work ad infinitum,” the theorist observes, “he is never bound to guarantee it.” Before reaching that libertine conclusion, however, Barthes first ponders (in a brief aside) a possible suturing of that cut, as well as some kind of guaranteeing rapprochement: “Why not test the ‘realism’ of a work,” he asks, “by examining not the more or less exact way in which it reproduces reality, but on the contrary the way in which reality could or could not effectuate the novel’s utterance? Why shouldn’t a book be programmatic?”

Writing this in the aftermath of May 1968, and when Vietnam was bathing so much in a bloody aurora (perhaps not unlike the light in which you’re reading now), Barthes saw in things “cut apart” both art and the imagination’s liberation. Yet he paused to test realism not by how art reproduced the world but, paradoxically, by how the world might produce its unruly, fantastic ideal. Contemplating the programmatic as opposed to the prettily descriptive, he imagined art effectuating something in the world as a glowing sign of its realism and our reality (our realism and its reality). In other words, he was already seeing something like hooks jabbing, and how this effected any I.

B. Wurtz, Know Thyself (socks), 1992, mixed media, 19 1/2“ x 20 1/2”.

In 1973, a young B. Wurtz made an ink-on-paper drawing using an elementary script. It read:

JAN. 1973

Few would deny that sleeping, eating, and keeping warm are important, but why would anyone have to be told or reminded of it—especially as art? Only Douglas Huebler might have committed such a disarmingly simple observation to paper. Perhaps the anomalous lowercase-cursive penmanship is the first indication that things should be taken as they appear and then some. Arriving hot on the heels of a period when most artists using language would have deployed typewritten or printed text, Wurtz pops next door to borrow a cup of aesthetic sugar, producing something with the look of a shopping or to-do list, more like a note stuck to the fridge than anything Information-Conceptual art impresario Seth Siegelaub would have published. The decision to handwrite the text proffers not only the intimacy and nonprofessionalism of personal correspondence but also, as art, its style and associations. I like the abbreviation of the month, which clarifies that this isn’t really the work of a child, but rather has been made by someone who knows that the choice between spelling out J-A-N-U-A-R-Y and abbreviating it results in different effects as well as different kinds of understanding. (When is the concept of abbreviation understood and expedient? Is it a state of emergency, calm, or enlightenment when one realizes what matters and what doesn’t?) As with the artist’s abbreviated first name (“B.”), the elision of information conveys as much as any boldface declaration—i.e., that this is a text by an artist whose name reveals nothing about his or her gender or background, yet whose drawing quietly declares things of importance not for a coterie but for everyone. I enjoy the assured but not-manifesto-like tone: Of many important things, here are three upon which survival might depend. Personal effectuation in the world instead of mere referential jabbing.

BORN IN 1948 IN PASADENA, CALIFORNIA, AND educated at UC–Berkeley, Wurtz would continue to be guided by the principles of Three Important Things even after receiving his MFA from CalArts in 1980. Although he works in various media (drawing, photography, painting, sculpture) and sometimes conflates them all, he is an artist continuously attracted to found objects, particularly their recyclable potential: “It saddens me that there is so much waste in our culture. I guess I’m very aware of everything I use and try to ‘tread lightly’ on the earth. . . . I think my philosophy of living extends to the way I make art, the found objects certainly are a way of recycling. . . . While I do make objects—in a way it would be more accurate to say that I rearrange objects that already exist.”

Twenty years after writing down his three important things, Wurtz noted their influence on his use of found materials more specifically: “A few years ago I decided to limit the found objects I use to those having to do with food, clothing and shelter, the basic categories”—a statement which might be adumbrated by pairing sleeping with shelter, eating with food, and keeping warm with clothing. Similarly gentle, resonant directives appear as elements in his many kinds of work, whether Combines, paintings, or drawings: LOOK AT YOURSELF; DON'T LOOK AT ART / LOOK AT THE WORLD; THE REAL IS NEAR. In the mixed-media work on paper Untitled, 1992, the words to be nothing in bold, scribbled-over capitals arc to the right of palm-to-palm, Rorschachlike handprints—twin astral relatives to primary-school hand-turkeys—while I KNOW NOTHING, stuttering nonknowledge echoing the scribbled occlusion to the palms’ left, repeats around the palmprints in smaller, graphite, cursive script. For anyone who might unimaginatively dismiss such philosophy as the confessional laxity of a faux-naïf doodler, there is another drawing, from 1990, in red lowercase-cursive text: MY CAT, WITHOUTH A SECOND THOUGHT, WOULD EXHIBIT ALL OF MY ART. Wurtz, an artist of James Schuyler–like precision and second thoughts, acknowledges how he, in this instance, is not like his cat.

By limiting his found objects to these basic categories—food, clothing, shelter—Wurtz produces an Oulipean bounty. For a survey of his work, “70 + 30 = 2000,” presented in 2000 by Gallery 400 at the University of Illinois at Chicago, the artist, according to a statement on the title page of the exhibition’s catalogue, “chose a selection of [his] artworks made from a thirty-year period, 1970 until the present.” On the contents page, he suggested “looking at” his selection according to eight different classifications blossoming from his three categorical roots: “plastic bags”; “tin cans”; “buildings”; “shoelaces”; “socks”; “food containers”; “buttons”; and “a psyche.” This instructive list of coordinates for the artist’s materials and concerns could be unpacked in greater detail: magazine mailers (including Artforum’s), dry-cleaning covers, and shopping sacks of all sorts (especially in blue); soup, tuna-fish, and cat-food cans (labels removed); pyramids, monuments, and maquettes; athletic and dress shoelaces; argyle and tube socks, and business hosiery; culinary “after-effects” including jade-colored cardboard berry containers, net produce sacks, tin cake pans, anchovy boxes, bowls, cups, and glasses; and psychologically charged “unpleasant private thoughts” and “secret words” hidden in nailed-tight boxes. All of them are items familiar to any American, “anonymously” designed by someone.

From such readymade stuffs, Wurtz has constructed winsome and utterly particular things resembling block stacks, assemblages combining and contrasting two- and three-dimensional possibilities, puzzles without solutions, photo-cum-sculpture hybrids, and makeshift cubbies, the tin cans or empty shoeboxes that organize the nuts and bolts of the imaginary. Take Look at reality, 1990–91, for example. Five tin cans are perpendicularly attached in an “X” formation to a wooden panel that’s been finger-painted turquoise and brushily painted black. Out of each can hangs a single rag or cotton undergarment—pink, yellow, or striped—except for the upper- and lower-right- corner cans, which house, respectively, a white sports sock and a fold of canvas with black and turquoise paint scumbled at the top. The cloths link kitchen to studio, dish towels to painter’s rags; the cans suggest the possibility of finding forms to contain anything, even absence. A small cursive script at the top of the panel softly urges LOOK AT REALITY. Look at the strangeness of the ordinary, the unlikeliness of it all, this arrangement of use and uselessness, life and art. It’s a debunked Combine that allows banal materials to remain so close to their use value—even seeming to revel in it—that many people would blush with embarrassment. Its seeming casualness is unerring, a meditation on how form, even when unnameable or immediately unrecognizable, girds the aesthetic, a syntax that life resists until it’s over but that makes art art. The piece uses effectuation as reality check: There’s something so curious and apparently awkward about the work—which becomes a quiet balancing act between, among other things, painting and painted sculpture—that it would seem to have modeled itself on something from life (say, a studio corner or pantry organizer), and yet it’s the aesthetic object that encourages a (re-)looking at reality.

Wurtz’s unerring artistry derives from his close attention to the supposed inartistry of life, to the patterns found within the haphazard, and to myriad overlooked things. Wurtz, from his 1993 book daily life: “I need to do something to the found object to bring it into the realm of art. There needs to be a tension between what most people consider really pathetic objects, throw-away or mundane items—objects which I feel have an intense beauty not only in how they look, but in how they function in the world—there needs to be a tension.” The tension arrives in something so close to failing that it seemingly should fail—but somehow doesn’t.

Wurtz has cited Marcel Duchamp, Eva Hesse, and Andy Warhol as influences, going so far as to paint a triptych of three separate parts, pairing each of their names with a monochromatic color—respectively, green, yellow, and red—winkingly obvious brushwork covering pentimento of each artist’s work, the monochromes emblazoned with an identical Wurtzian icon of a house (shelter) enclosing a T-shirt (clothing) whose heart is a bowl (food). The work pays homage to those artists whose appropriations from life created readymade aftereffects in the world: Consider snow-shoveling after Duchamp; biology after Hesse; Campbell’s soup after Warhol. In attempting to grapple with the weird continuities, plangent idiosyncrasies, and oblique humor of Wurtz’s project, one might also want to bring the Eameses, Richard Tuttle, Ree Morton, and Paul Thek into the mix. Wurtz should long ago have become a key point along an axis from Tuttle to artists as different as Vincent Fecteau and Rachel Harrison. But complicating any “starting with Tuttle” would be the incomprehensible absence of that artist’s work in such a supposedly seminal history as Rosalind Krauss’s “Sculpture in the Expanded Field” (1979), not to mention L’Informe (1996), or even a more-wayward text like Edward Lucie-Smith’s Art in the Seventies (1980). Of course, supposed artistic lineages can be just as dopey as helpful: Compared to Wurtz, Tuttle can seem like a fussy but disgruntled ex-Marimekko employee; whatever the media, there’s always signature Tuttle-esque design and finish to his goings-on. By contrast, one of the reasons Wurtz might continue to sign his works is that he frequently disarms many preconceived artistic notions, at least at first, in the way he toys with that which is obviously often beneath consideration—“elementary” handwriting, painting techniques, and assembly (“blocks”)—all the while quietly, wittily playing with contemporaneous art modes, testing the stability or usefulness of art-historical categorizations and pieties.

So much art history can come to not much more than branding rather than a pleasurable looking at, opening up, or questioning of what art could or can be. In Untitled (diptych), 1982, Wurtz has some fun with all of it. Painted, not silk-screened, in black on white, the left-hand canvas of the pair depicts various political, corporate, religious, and monetary logos and symbols—dollar sign, swastika, McDonald’s arches, hammer and sickle—all floating around the bordered words KNOW THYSELF, whose capitalization mimics careful stenciling. In the right panel, Wurtz replaces the familiar symbols and logos with a collection of mostly doodles whose origins are mostly impossible to place—a cartoon cobweb, a spiral, a god’s eye, a banner—and paints the same words in a lowercase-cursive script. It’s a funny yet moving painting, and must have seemed totally uncool in relation to the stern commodity art that was popular when it was made.

Funnier and stranger still, but resonantly related, is the sequence of photographic and sculptural works made between 1984 and 1988 in which black-and-white, typically grandiose pictures of what look like serious architectural structures are juxtaposed with the homely little sculptures (a metal container, a stainless-steel bowl on a block base, a wooden castle) that are their actual subjects. The photographs in Untitled (four views), 1988, initially appear to be images of an ancient monument, but we soon realize that they really depict the small found piece of concrete block Wurtz has poised in front of the photographs on a little tabletop and tiered base. He sutures the grandiose flight of fantasy to the actual in order to eye anyone’s place in it, where knowing thyself would seem to entail knowing the scale of things, what’s what and the rhetoric of how it’s represented, understanding when things are (as one Wurtz drawing puts it) NOT IMPORTANT IN THE BIG PICTURE.

Knowing what’s not important in the big picture necessitates having a notion of what the big picture is, or what it could be, as well as knowing how one comes to terms with importance. Art for Wurtz is an important thing, even a survival method, but it’s also not heart surgery. Perhaps it’s best when it effectuates the big picture, the big questions, without being a big picture. The artist knows when an abbreviation is enough. Wurtz’s consistent lack of pretension in his work—his ability to keep a lightness to his proceedings while never ignoring important things—allows anyone room to take on big questions, effectively getting around to asking what art might still matter as well as why and how. An artist friend told me that when Wurtz was in grad school at CalArts, fellow students would tease him about the pretentiousness of his signature by asking: “What could B. Wurtz?” I relish that story—because of what it says about the pretentiousness of the students. I asked Wurtz about his signature in an interview at his New York studio in March 2005:

It just seemed natural to sign my work on the front; Picasso certainly always did it. I originally wrote “Bill Wurtz” but at some point began shortening it to “B. Wurtz.” It was probably just easier and quicker, especially if I was using a paint brush.

But then at some point I began thinking of “B. Wurtz” as a persona, the person who made this art. Art always has a personality behind it; it is a human activity. But in my mind the personality must never overwhelm the art, or overshadow it. I realized that I liked the name “B. Wurtz” because it had no sex attached to it. To me it had the right balance between being really honest about who I was but still remaining somewhat of a mystery. I wanted people to know I made my art, but whatever they didn’t know about me I wanted them to look for in my art.

It is interesting to me how many people have assumed I was a female. That’s certainly a whole subject in itself.

It would be difficult to imagine Wurtz having become the artist he is without having breathed in feminism’s “personal is political” oxygen or without having considered the politics of the domestic space; but, not unlike Morton, he never forgot to breathe out, sigh, and laugh, understanding domestic nonrepresentation—and even abstraction’s dailiness. A piece of planed board slants up at about forty-five degrees, balancing and balanced by a dowel-like wooden “leg” with a ball foot—Untitled, 1989. At the low end of the tilted board rests a shiny, empty, squat tin can. A piece of plaid cotton drapes over the point where the board and leg meet one another, as if airing out from drying dishes, hiding entirely the manner in which they’re attached. Perhaps they’re not. By covering the joint so matter-of-factly, Wurtz emphasizes both what’s right before our eyes and just out of sight, deflecting the object’s lovely, hokey mystery back on the viewer. In much of his work, Wurtz considers attachment, what fastens, locks, hooks, or secures. He often uses—I’m almost tempted to say thematizes—different kinds of fasteners, brackets, ties, and links that never complete their appointed task: The actual buttons sewn on his paintings, in which the color and form of the paint application follow both the button’s circularity and the linearity of raw, unstretched canvas’s weave, have no buttonholes to be slipped into; the plastic ties and twist ties seal nothing off and often just dangle; the slide latches and locks never mate. Shoelaces rarely lace up anything but languidly link bits of wire in quasi-s/m bondage configurations, or are simply suspended between curving support wires on wood display stands, often in a sexy, ballsy, jockstraplike low hang. They appear, well, cut apart, unhinged, insecure.

But consider another way of looking at it. In Untitled, 2002, Wurtz places two found wood blocks on a small wood board. One of these is dinky, a metal eye screwed perpendicularly into its center; the other is towering, rectilinear, and sprouts white, plastic-covered wire snaking down like a fading firework, a nail, and an arch of raw wire, curving over and up to become a hook. This arch supports a foblike wood block from which dangles a tidy metal hook. The sculpture is thus balanced between functioning as a device to display the longing hook and eye and the sculpture’s puzzling, abstract form. It puts questions of scale and importance in relation to use and uselessness. Self-knowledge is a way for someone to attach him- or herself to the world, but, as is often the case, it—the balance of finding one’s form in one’s function and function in one’s form; what can be known and what remains unknowable—is neverending. The sculpture shows no apparent reconciliation, no immanent union of the hook and eye. The eye will only find its hook when anyone who bothers to look imagines—effectuates—it into place, becoming both what attaches and unlocks things from their meaning. Looking at, as well as beyond, hooks the eye, hole, and whole.

Bruce Hainley is a contributing editor of Artforum.