PRINT April 2008


“The Object in Transition”

At this point I feel a little guilty when people want to buy [my latex works]. I think they know but I want to write them a letter and say it’s not going to last. I am not sure what my stand on lasting really is. Part of me feels that it’s superfluous and if I need to use rubber that is more important. Life doesn’t last; art doesn’t last. —Eva Hesse, 1970

Eva Hesse, Expanded Expansion, 1969. Installation view, J. Paul Getty Museum, 2008. From left: Exhibition copy of a section of the work, 2007; original left section; and original central section in storage crate.

“THE OBJECT IN TRANSITION: A Cross-Disciplinary Conference on the Preservation and Study of Modern and Contemporary Art” took place over two days this past January at the Getty Center in Los Angeles. It brought together art experts in various disciplines working on sculpture, painting, and mixed-media artworks, with attention paid to such diverse topics as “the importance of an artwork’s surface, dealing with process, the artist’s voice and intent, the life and death of objects, and methods of improved collaboration.” While the panel presentations provided a healthy mix of conservators, curators, and academics, the audience was weighted toward conservation experts. And one can certainly detect a conservation bias in the conference brochure’s contention that “the interpretative problems that have arisen in relation to durability and ephemerality in modern and contemporary art have been exacerbated by an art historical methodology that has tended to privilege theoretical interpretation and not concrete object study. Thus, the descriptive knowledge that arises from object-based study and the study of artistic techniques is something that has increasingly left the field of art history and become primarily the domain of conservators.”

In positing such a strong opposition between theoretical and material engagements, this statement is misleading. Theoretically adventuresome art historians are quite as well equipped as old-school formalists to engage with objects, describe art, and study technique. A related misconception—and one vigorously disputed by Yve-Alain Bois on day two of the conference—is the idea that academic art historians base their research on photographs, as opposed to direct encounters with art objects. Anyone who has worked with curators or conservators will be familiar with the caricature of the slothful, ignorant, aesthetically indifferent academic. Meanwhile, in the ivory tower, professors and graduate students flatter themselves with the myth of the methodologically challenged museum drone. All such charges are little more than symptoms of what Freud calls the narcissism of small differences, namely the tendency for any two parties engaged in the same enterprise—in this case the business of thinking about art—to overvalue every trifling distinction that could make one’s own side look better.

The Getty conference was an important step in overcoming this mutual ressentiment. In such a climate, there is great political value in the mere act of people from these disparate domains collaborating in public. Clearly sensing this need for solidarity, the organizers invited interdisciplinary teams of art experts, including some artists, to treat such diverse matters as the status of unfinished works (centering on the case of Piet Mondrian), the place of exploratory and rejected works (Barnett Newman), the issue of refinishing by conservators and by artists (Roy Lichtenstein, Sol LeWitt, David Novros), and the challenges of documenting time-based media (Bruce Nauman) and of registering subtle differences in surface and light (Newman, James Turrell). These presentations, which took various forms, were complemented by loosely themed panel discussions at the end of each half day, in which the presenters were encouraged to place their respective projects in a wider context. (Video recordings of the entire proceedings can be viewed on the Getty’s website.)

On the night before the conference proper, there was a public roundtable featuring artists Rachel Harrison, Paul McCarthy, and Doris Salcedo, speaking with curator Elisabeth Sussman and conservator Christian Scheidemann about their production processes and related issues of preservation. McCarthy proved the most provocative of the panelists, recounting—with Sadean thoroughness and detachment—the pigheadedly involuted stages in the development of his productions, in particular Bossy Burger, 1991. Every time this work is reinstalled, the artist dons a chef’s hat and an Alfred E. Neuman mask and bespatters a room made of pieces of a disused Hollywood sitcom set with ketchup, mayonnaise, milk, and turkey bones, in precise imitation of an ur-performance shown on a monitor that continues to be part of the work once installed. The mess from the preceding installation is never cleaned up, leaving the countertops, furniture, and walls encrusted with the residue of each prior rendition. As a further complication, the partially used containers from past productions accrete in tidy, mold-encrusted rows—especially disgusting when one considers that the work has been installed about a dozen times since 1991.

Paul McCarthy, Bossy Burger, 1991, milk, flour, ketchup, mayonnaise, turkey bones, bowls, cooking utensils, dolls, chef costume, mask, and set from television show Family Affair. Performance view, Rosamund Felsen Gallery, Los Angeles. Photo: Vaughan Rachel.

In the ensuing panel discussion McCarthy confirmed that Bossy Burger could eventually be be perpetuated by anyone capable of assembling the set and following the complex choreography. This conceit of self as prosthetic—the artist as interchangeable machine part—beautifully accords with McCarthy’s famous obsession with mechanized rubber mannequins, which hump trees or barrels until they fall apart, only to be subsequently reused in static works. The next logical step would be for McCarthy to have himself pickled and put on permanent display, in the manner of Lenin or Jeremy Bentham—though in his case it would probably have to be a botched job. As intrigued as he is by the idea of Bossy Burger being perpetuated by future generations, McCarthy made it clear that he is also “completely OK with pieces that have different life spans”—anywhere from fifteen seconds to thousands of years. And he regrets the fact that “the market is driving this whole concern for art to continue to exist for infinity, and it completely limits what art can be and what materials you can use.”

Although McCarthy stole the first night, in the ensuing conference Eva Hesse’s decaying sculpture Expanded Expansion, 1969, emerged as the main crucible for concern over artistic intention, conservation ethics, and market influence. Portions of the work—which is made of sheets of rubberized cheesecloth supported by fiberglass poles—had even been shipped in for the occasion. These were displayed alongside a new exhibition copy of a section of the piece (authorized by the estate and gingerly referred to as a “material mock-up”), which gave visitors a vivid sense of how the work itself might have looked when new in 1969.¹ Whereas the original Expanded Expansion had darkened, hardened, and disintegrated, the “mock-up” was luminously bright, and ethereal enough to shudder at the breeze from a passing body. To heighten the drama, a panel discussion focusing on the work included a fascinating Getty-sponsored film documenting the making of the “mock-up” under the direction of Hesse’s fabricator Doug Johns. (Johns was in the audience, as was Helen Charash, Hesse’s sister and sole heir.)

While there can be no question, given the history and condition of the work, that Expanded Expansion was central to the issues on the table that weekend, the conference participants may have reached for the Hesse worry beads a little too often. In chairing the final session, Jeffrey Weiss (then still director of the Dia Art Foundation) registered his own Hesse fatigue by inviting the panelists to move beyond “quasi-biographical” interpretations of her art. “I have never been to an event relating to Eva Hesse,” he confided, “when this didn’t start to happen: that people spoke of the sadness of it, on the one hand, and of the poetry of the sadness of it, on the other.” Is it really necessary, he asked, to keep linking the deterioration of her sculptures to her untimely death? Nobody took up his challenge.

In the same session, Weiss pointed out that although case studies were critical to the collective preservation project, it would surely be good to start formulating some “larger precepts and principles.” He invited thoughts toward a philosophy, an ethics, or a poetics of interdisciplinary analysis and preservation. Tellingly, the only direct reply to these musings was a negative one: Bois questioned the very possibility of formulating overarching precepts and principles, claiming that “every work of art requires . . . a different, ad hoc solution.” Of course, Bois’s rock-kicking response could itself be taken as a sign of a pragmatic and materialist philosophy of interpretation and perhaps even be worked into a guiding principle—which is not to say that such a gloss would get us anywhere.

Alternatively, one could forgo such principled myopia and attend to broader issues looming on the margins of the conference. At one point, an audience member asked what role the “market value of works such as Eva Hesse’s play in keeping these works alive.” In response, Jill Sterrett, director of collections and conservation at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, elicited spontaneous applause with her observation that the influence of the market was “the elephant in the room”—one that institutions like to “keep out of the discussion.” (Did anyone recall that McCarthy had ferociously attacked that very elephant?) From the audience, art historian Nancy J. Troy went so far as to implore future conference organizers to place “more front and center” certain “structuring aspects of our culture . . . the politics, the power structures . . . copyright, the legal.” For her, a focus on such neglected issues “would be fascinating as parts of what we’re all trying to envision as the next step.”

I’m not convinced that such an expanded discussion is indeed the best way forward. No amount of fretting or informed debate will ever enable a community of art experts to materially affect economic and political power structures. We would be lucky just to alleviate restrictive copyright regulations—and I would sooner leave that fight up to people with the patience to squabble with lawyers. Since markets and laws are inescapable facts of culture, we of course need to recognize their existence, as surely as we need to obey the law of gravity. But that doesn’t mean it would be especially helpful for us to put either of them at the center of our next discussion.

From my curatorial perspective, a more productive next step—and one much closer to Weiss’s unheeded call to principles—would be an extensive answer to the New York Museum of Modern Art conservator Jim Coddington’s exhortation that we ask ourselves what we are saving, and who we are saving it for. Coddington’s “we” might ideally designate a community of conservators, curators, academics, and artists (all present and accounted for at the Getty conference), as well as art librarians and archivists (neither present nor accounted for). I would hope to see these various producers, custodians, and interpreters of art committed to the examination, preservation, and exposition of art and evidence pertaining to the production and reception of art for the benefit of fellow researchers and a wider public.² My intention in lumping together art and evidence about art in this way is, on the one hand, to emphasize the potential pertinence of any evidence to every aspect of interpretation, preservation, and exposition and, on the other, to urge every member of this hoped-for community to face the fact that we cannot (and should not) always make a hard-and-fast distinction between the work itself and things commonly regarded as context or supporting evidence.

Such questioning of the ontological status of the artwork is nothing new. It has been going strong for at least a generation among theorists (“context is just more text”) and for about a century among producers of art or anti-art. Indeed, given the abundance of Duchampian and Dadaist modes of artistic production in the past half century, the material traces of much ontologically challenging art have been piling up in museums, with the result that philosophical questions about where art begins and ends are no longer merely academic. Good luck trying to acquire, store, or present vintage performance art, environmental art, Conceptual art, or appropriation art while maintaining a clear distinction between art and context, art and life, art and artifact, art and interpretation, high and low, original and copy, or completion and incompletion.

To put it differently, try approaching Bossy Burger while clinging to your copy of the American Institute of Conservation’s Code of Ethics and Guidelines for Practice (“Cultural property . . . is an invaluable and irreplaceable legacy that must be preserved for future generations”). It could get messy. The problem is not with the code itself, but rather with the quaint tendency of us curators and conservators to think “art objects” when we read “cultural property.” As indicated by the title and the topics in the Getty conference, museum knowledge workers are a materialistic bunch, instinctively clinging to the tangible object as if the art were somehow all in there.

When will we come to realize that the biggest challenge facing art museums today is the transition of art away from the object? In the end, I couldn’t help feeling that the Getty conversations kept boomeranging back to Hesse because, for all the difficulties of Expanded Expansion, its gracious and romantic decay is such a comfortable armchair when compared with McCarthy’s cogently deranged and eminently unpreservable art-as-biohazard. The biggest elephant in the room may have been wandering in the gap between our winsome heroine and the dude in the Alfred E. Neuman mask.

In our capacity as preservers of cultural property, we are generally ill equipped to deal with the challenges of McCarthy’s art. If, however, museum workers were to start aligning ourselves more consciously with archivists and academics, really committing to the acquisition, interpretation, and display of art and evidence about art; if we were to work more collaboratively and purposefully in assembling not just art but also detailed conservation, fabrication, and installation specs; if we were to stop privileging the supposed Ding an sich over the idea and the document; if we were to give more credit to facsimiles, including authorized exhibition copies; if we were to become half as concerned with explicating artistic process as we are with showing material products; if we were to escalate the use of new technologies in sharing our expertise with one another and with a wider public—if, in short, we were to develop better knowledge networks within and among institutions and begin to reconceptualize the art museum as something more akin to a classroom, a laboratory, a history museum, an archive, or a theater—only then could we come up with a workable system of collecting and displaying concepts, installations, performances, and the informe. In the case of Bossy Burger, this may ultimately allow us to preserve the art while throwing the material effluvia in the trash, where they belong.

Graham Larkin is curator of European and American art at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, Ontario.


1. The room also included two 1966 paintings by David Novros (one of them remade by the artist in 2006), a discarded Barnett Newman canvas, and a wooden maquette for Roy Lichtenstein’s Three Brushstrokes, 1984, a recently repainted aluminum sculpture outside the entrance to the Getty Research Institute.

2. These terms are by no means self-evident. An exposition of art and evidence about art could take the form of a conversation, an exhibition, or a lecture. Or it could mean publication in any form: article, book, catalogue entry, wall label, website. The evidence—sometimes inhering in the object, sometimes extraneous to it—could likewise appear in any number of guises. For instance, it would include (1) descriptions of the genesis, life, and death of artworks (conception, execution, exhibition, display, acquisition, interpretation, alteration, decay, destruction, conservation) as recounted by various commentators (artists, their friends, their relatives, their fabricators, curators, conservators, dealers, collectors, critics) in various forms (letters, diaries, account books, published writings, sound and video recordings); (2) material traces of this same arc of existence, as evidenced in the works themselves and in extraneous materials including working equipment, supplies, test pieces, and rejected works; and (3) reproductions or restagings of works (by way of photography, video recording, facsimile, performance), in addition to accounts of such reproduction and refabrication. These three categories of evidence are by no means mutually exclusive. For instance, a photograph of a work may reasonably be viewed as a form of description or interpretation, and even as a material trace—thus placing it in two or three categories at once.