Daniel Spoerri

Centre Georges Pompidou

Some people collect art (or stamps or coins); others just collect. Daniel Spoerri is decidedly in the second category. As this retrospective demonstrated, he has been collecting everything from eyeglasses, vegetable peelers, and shoe trees, to artificial limbs, animal horns, and the worktables of his artist friends for at least the past 30 years. Unlike the rest of us, Spoerri has not simply filled his closets with the flotsam and jetsam of daily life. Nor, in most instances, has he opted for the artistic alternatives of estheticizing or appropriating it; rather, to use his own term, he has “trapped” it in a permanent, public form.

Spoerri first exhibited the object-laden tabletops and wall sections that he calls Tableaux-pièges (trap-panels) in 1960. By that time, he had a decade of dance and theater behind him, he had dabbled in concrete poetry, and through his friendship with Jean Tinguely, had just become a charter member of the Nouveaux Réalistes. The fact that he had spent more than half of his life changing countries, cities, languages, and even names (he was born Daniel Isaac Feinstein) after fleeing his native Romania to escape the Nazis, was probably not irrelevant to the ad hoc nature of his work.

Over the years, Spoerri has embarked on a host of other ventures with deliberately and delightfully provocative titles like Palettes d’artistes (Artists’ palettes), Marchés aux puces (Flea markets), Eat Art, Détrompe l’oeil (“Dis-illusionism”), Trésors des pauvres (Treasures of the poor), Pièges à mots (Word traps), Musées sentimentaux (Sentimental museums), and Ethnosyncrétismes (Ethnosyncretisms). When this elaborate taxonomy is examined in its entirety it becomes apparent that Spoerri’s basic project still consists of “trapping” the world around him. Also apparent is the fact that Spoerri (like the Dadaists before him) vacillates between two impulses: to perform his task as mechanically as possible (in the spirit of the Nouveaux Réalistes) and to exploit the intangibles of chance and the unconscious.

The dichotomy looms large in the recent works from the “Palettes d’artistes” and “Marches aux puces” series. Both are spinoffs of the original Tableaux-pièges and date back to the early ’60s. In their 1989–1990 incarnations, the “artists’ palettes” “trap” the worktables of various artists, ranging from old friends like Arman and César to Spoerri’s young companion Katharina Duwen. Nothing seems to have been left behind: not the paints, pencils, brushes, rulers, felt-tipped pens; not the ashtrays and cigarette butts; not the doodles and the spills, not the lamps, the radios, the blowtorches; not even, in several cases, the legs of the tables. Some of these “palettes” become fairly huge constructions jutting off the gallery walls. The interest, of course, lies in the details and the differences in the notion that these material remains (re)constitute a portrait of the artist. The two that belong to women, for example, are immediately identifiable.

The “Marchés aux puces” by contrast, are strictly Spoerri; the fruits of his collecting seem to plumb the depths of his unconscious. Bursting with suitcases, drawers, ceramics and statues, the ubiquitous shoetrees, and an unending supply of animal remains (skulls, horns, hoofs, skins, ostrich eggs), these bulimic assemblages—like Spoerri’s own Grande table de travail (Large worktable, 1989) in the “Palettes d’artiste” series—go beyond the visual (self-)portrait and delve into the intricacies of autobiography. They are witty, morbid, vaguely menacing, and rife with the incongruities and obsessions that memory implies. They also provide reassurance to all of those in search of a past that, with a bit of genius, it is indeed possible to assemble one.

Miriam Rosen