New York

Marcel Broodthaers

In 1964 the Belgian poet Marcel Broodthaers abruptly declared himself a visual artist, qualifying his career change with the celebrated provocation he issued on the occasion of his first one-person show: “I, too, wondered if I couldn't sell something and succeed in life. For quite a while I had been good for nothing. I am forty years old . . . The idea of inventing something insincere finally crossed my mind and I set to work at once.” In the scant twelve years before his death in 1976, Broodthaers’ “insincerity”—a precisely calibrated series of responses to the culture industry and its assimilation of vanguard resistance—yielded a body of work of enormous influence and, inevitably, considerable exchange value. Indeed, if posterity is any judge, he succeeded rather nicely in life.

Broodthaers’ amazing (some would say hermetic) body of work is predicated on what he termed a “negative attitude . . . specific to the stance of the artist,” an attitude exemplified by his descriptions of his career transition as opportunistic and of the work he produced as inauthentic. This work includes painting, sculpture, photography, performance, film, multiples, texts known as “Open Letters,” and what has come to be known as installation art. The parodistic installations fall into two broad categories: one consists of projects related to his fictional museum, the Musée d’Art Moderne, which he began in his apartment in 1968 and which ended with its inclusion in Documenta V in 1972. (It was re-created for Documenta X.) Following his work on the museum, Broodthaers continued to develop his art of resistance in installations known as “Décors,” in which he simulated various aesthetic environments, including mini-retrospectives of his own work.

There was something of virtually every phase of Broodthaers’ career in this small retrospective, which was also pressed into double duty, commemorating both the Marian Goodman Gallery’s inaugural show twenty years ago, which featured Broodthaers, and the final exhibition at his daughter Marie-Puck Broodthaers’ Galerie des Beaux-Arts in Brussels last year. This show largely re-created Marie-Puck Broodthaers’ show within a facsimile of her gallery, including its exterior plate-glass window. Installed in Goodman’s space, the facsimile gallery took on the decorous appearance of a window display, as though it were after-hours at the Marcel Broodthaers boutique, and we could do no more than windowshop. Included were some of Broodthaers’ “insincere” pieces fashioned from everyday objects with bricoleur inventiveness, such as a kitchen chair with a cushion of eggshells, finished with a spray of lilac paint (Chaise lilas avec oeufs, 1966). Broodthaers’ involvement with language was represented by several text-based works, among them a series of vacu-form plastic plates embossed with text and imagery—although the latter were installed in such a way as to defeat actual reading.

It might be said that presenting Broodthaers’ art within the framework of Marie-Puck Broodthaers’ boutiquelike gallery is a gesture compatible, in spirit, with Broodthaers’ late “Décor” installations. Indeed, the concept of “Décor” addressed precisely the inevitability of art’s co-optation by the culture industry. Broodthaers reasoned that once the art object relinquished its utopian idealism, it lost its privileged status. In the 1975 text “To be bien pensant . . . or not to be. To be blind.,” Broodthaers writes: “I doubt, in fact, that it is possible to give a serious definition of art, unless we examine the question in terms of a constant. I mean the transformation of art into merchandise. This process has speeded up nowadays to the point where artistic and commercial values have become superimposed.”

Broodthaers’ prophetic understanding of the growing hegemony of mass culture, and of the way aesthetic objects have been commodified as but another variant of luxury goods, prefigures much late-twentieth-century art. We see the blueprint of his logic in the critical underpinnings of postmodernism, which were brought into sharp focus, at least in New York, in the commodity and appropriation art of the ’80s, and are no less present in the ’90s, given both art’s willingness to use mass culture and our disposition to apply art-critical language to popular forms.

Any occasion to view Broodthaers’ work is cause for celebration. But if the daughter’s presentation of her father’s work is in the spirit of Broodthaers’ art, in the end Marie-Puck Broodthaers can do no more here than mirror the “Décors” her father developed a quarter-century ago. At most, her gesture leaves the viewer wondering how Broodthaers would have situated himself today. It seems entirely possible that he might have declared himself another sort of practitioner altogether, forsaking art (as he once did poetry) for something more appropriate to the digital age.

Jan Avgikos