Haim Steinbach

Haim Steinbach’s recent retrospective managed to be concise and at the same time emphasize his creative range and stature. The curators chose to omit the artist’s virtuoso early assemblages incorporating a wide variety of domestic materials, beginning instead with the more technically accomplished “shelf pieces”—deadpan displays of consumer kitsch and precious goods—for which the artist became known during the mid-’80s.

In Steinbach’s shelf pieces, the supports are rendered almost precious through the use of elegant plastic laminates, simultaneously evoking and transgressing Minimalist self-referentiality. Mass-produced goods of little aesthetic and monetary value are displayed alongside rare objects, antiques, and finds from ethnographic museums. In works such as supremely black n. 3, 1985, charm of tradition, 1985, ultra lite n. 1, 1987, sweetest taboo, 1987, and Untitled, 1990, consumer goods like sneakers or a box of Bold detergent share the same fate as ’70s lava lamps, contemporary design objects, early-twentieth-century marble urns, or Victorian wooden stools: they go from commodities to fetishes. The theater conceived by Steinbach for this transformation—after the shelves he began to use large, wood-veneered containers—highlights and calls into question the more widespread mechanisms of the attribution of value in everyday life.

Steinbach generally aims for harmony of size, color, material, and proportion in the construction of his ensembles. The works point, above all, however, to a particular social environment, a recognizable lifestyle. Steinbach’s sculpture manages to disturb the viewer because it becomes a staging of the everyday, the banal, the familiar, within which the unheimlichkeit—the uncanny of Freudian memory—powerfully emerges.

Steinbach’s most recent pieces have been marked by a deliberate transition to an environmental scale, becoming more complex as a result of the size of the components and the multiplicity of references evoked by each object or material. The first work that visitors encountered as they entered the museum was the trial, 1997, a large mound of stones next to scaffolding in the atrium at the entrance. This piece, which resembled a construction site, elicited an intense sense of disorientation. The exhibition concluded with a similar piece, a surreal arrangement of pebbles on metal shelving. These works, as well as the show’s installation in general, clearly alluded to the external space, which was easily visible from the interior of the museum’s iron-and-glass structure. The building, of course, was designed to contain and exhibit objects—much like a work by Steinbach.

Giorgio Verzotti

Translated from the Italian by Marguerite Shore.