New York

Bill Schwarz

John Gibson

Unlike Haim Steinbach or Jeff Koons, near contemporaries whose work can be seen as part of a tradition of readymades, Bill Schwarz focuses his critical attention not so much on the commodity’s newness but on its obsolescence. In this show, he distributed 12 farm-implement readymades—large-scale machines on the verge of disappearing from the scene of production—throughout the gallery. Although little has a deeper place in the American imagination than farming, the muteness peculiar to the readymade object made it difficult at first to gauge the critical force behind Schwarz’s collection of implements. Ultimately, however, his conflation of the romantic utility of farming and the no-comment status of the readymade is the source of the show’s achievement: a pointing up of the objects’ marginality that paradoxically restored to them a formal, and social, power.

Take, for instance, the rusted disc harrow (all works 1995), its harness tipped forward like a divining rod on the gallery floor. Designed to break up and level plowed ground, the harrow simultaneously pointed to the absent tractor necessary for the fulfillment of its “proper” function, as well as to a bygone era of agriculture. But readymades reflexively engage their own lineage as much as issues of facture and transfiguration: the harrow points as well to Marcel Duchamp, to Jean Tinguely, and to a spectrum of more recent machine art, such as that by Mark Pauline and Kazumi Tanaka. Beyond this inevitable invocation of its sculptural ancestors, Schwarz’s disc harrow managed to trace, like a tide leaving striations in the sand, the object’s retraction into itself, a pulling back from the implied source of its power—in this case, the tractor necessary for its use and its identity.

Grain separator, horn clipper, stone mill, pedal grinder—all of Schwarz’s pieces are severed from their links to power sources, whether machine or, in the case a huge wrench, human. Each thing stirred and began, it seemed, to wake up to what it might be apart from its instrumentalized objecthood. But if this awakening was a liberation from instrumentality, it was also a loss and an abandonment. Freed from criteria of usefulness, these tools could stand for themselves. Here, they seemed to become even more obsolete under the benevolent, estheticopolitical gaze of the art world. Yet that status of Schwarz’s farm-implement readymades was ultimately inseparable from their having been passed over by ruthlessly “forward marching” technological change, and this loss of face and place in a hierarchy of objects recalled the way in which vast portions of the contemporary American workforce are being rendered expendable.

As art, Schwarz’s readymades wanted it all, of course—wanted to be simply themselves, as objects, wanted to be specific farm implements with specific, poignant histories, and wanted to appear both liberated from the slavery of use value and abandoned by institutional power. Art is ambitious that way, and so is Schwarz’s quietly emotional work, though what it says takes time to work out.

Thad Ziolkowski