Philippe Thomas

This review is born of an error. It should not refer to the exhibition of the artist Philippe Thomas (1951–95), because artists make works, and it seems that Thomas never made any. This is not a simple paradox. And yet, looking around the galleries of MACBA, we saw a series of things on the walls and on the floor that we were tempted to call art. Once again we might have been mistaken.

Thomas sought to erode the concept of authorship. In this sense, his work can be understood as a series of conceptual propositions that question the institutions belonging to the system of art. The sacralization of the signature within the history of the market is common knowledge; Thomas made its devaluation his artistic statement, an object of investigation. The space occupied by his work is less physical than discursive, although it occupies this space in a curious way. Thomas desires to encourage the spectator to be the reader and seems to affirm that the aesthetic of modernity cannot be only visual. It is this idea that takes priority—that in art we confront a collaborative project among various persons. Sujet à discrétion (Subject to discretion), 1985, for example, consists of three identical color photographs, each framed beneath glass, in which the same image of the sky and sea suggests three distinct meanings depending on who signs it. If it is an anonymous work, it might simply be a snapshot of the Mediterranean. If it is signed Philippe Thomas, one might consider it a translation of the interior emotions of the artist. If it is the owner who signs—Claire Burrus or Elisabeth Josipovici—the meaning changes yet again: Having appropriated the work, it is the collector herself who speaks through it.

The signatories of each artistic statement endorse it and press into the history of art. In this way artists multiply. But is this true or does it conform to a simple suspension of disbelief? Upon Thomas’s founding of the agency les ready-made appartiennent à tout le monde (readymades belong to everyone) in 1987, the Cable Gallery in New York was converted into a studio or warehouse; this occurred as well in the final stretch of the MACBA exhibition, so that some visitors did not dare pass through this area, assuming it to be a storeroom or perhaps some equipment for the installation of a show. In retrospect, Thomas prefigures the importance of the artist-curator, as in his exhibition “Feux pâles” (Pale fires), 1990–91, at the Musée d’Art Contemporain, Bordeaux, in which the firm’s products appeared alongside works from the history of art. One might say that Thomas revisits the fictitious heteronomies of Pessoa but with the coldness of someone who dissects his (in this case artistic) medium, and he grants symbolic value to all of its components. Thus emerges an interest in the spaces and objects that form the outskirts of art: gallery offices, lounges, plants and side tables (a reference to Broodthaers), posters of the exhibition. And despite the seriousness of his project, there is a bit of humor: les ready-made appartiennent à tout le monde. Une fiction qui fait l’unanimité (readymades belong to everyone: a story with unanimous support), 1988, shows, on the right, Thomas seated at a table with an open portfolio in front of one of the photographs from Sujet à discretion; on the left, against a black background, appear a series of quotations taken from magazines like Art Press, Artforum, Artscribe, and Flash Art—all with a tone of endorsement.

Juan Vicente Aliaga

Translated from Spanish by Michèle Faguet.