Douglas Huebler

A kinder, gentler Conceptualist: This is the honorific curators Mark Godfrey and Jenni Lomax attempt to bestow on Douglas Huebler—one they hope will elevate him from his current status as perhaps the most important overlooked figure in Conceptual art.The first large scale exhibition of Huebler’s work in Britain features thirty-five photo- and text-based pieces from the late ’60s and early ’70s and focuses, to quote Lomax, on the “humane and humorous vein” in Huebler’s work. The back cover of the accompanying catalogue boasts a photograph of the artist flanked by Robert Barry, Lawrence Weiner, and Joseph Kosuth. Shot on the occasion of Seth Siegelaub’s landmark show “January 5-31, 1969” it locates Huebler at the center of the Conceptual vanguard. With his name barely a footnote in current accounts of the movement, however, the question asserts itself. Why didn’t Huebler achieve lasting success on par with Weiner and Kosuth? His voluntary exile from New York might be a explanation. (Before moving to Valencia, Cahfornia, in the mid-’70s to teach at CalArts, where he remained until his death, in 1997, Huebler lived in Bradford, Massachusetts.) Or perhaps it has something to do with Huebler’s stylistic about-face in the mid-’80s,when he turned to figurative painting. In his catalogue essay Godfrey notes that of the four men in the picture, Huebler is the only one smiling.This, taken as a sign of artistic divergence, suggests another possible cause for his diminished reputation.

Godfrey has a point. Huebler’s aim in the series “Variable Piece #70 (In Process) Global,” 1971-, “to photographically document the existence of everyone alive,” is likely to elicit a chuckle. A number of Huebler’s works, like Variable Piece #99, Israel, July 1973, which undertakes to locate the visages of “our Biblical ancestors” in the foliage of Jerusalem’s streets, are unequivocally silly. Others are more subtly so; Duration Piece #5, New York, April 1969, for example, consists of ten nondescript black-and-white photos of Central Park and a text explaining that a picture was taken each time the artist heard a distinguishable bird call. This spirit of pseudoscientific experimentation epitomizes Huebler’s approach: The application of a discourse developed for the collection of empirical data and the verification of objective truths to situations that are by turns aleatory, outlandish, or simply mundane, accounts for much of his humor.

Godfrey and Lomax’s exhibition implies that Huebler’s obscurity is an effect of mismarketing. Indeed, aside from dematerialization, he doesn’t have much in common with Weiner and Kosuth. Vito Acconci, in fact, seems to be his closest partner in Conceptualist crime. Acconci’s projects from the early ’70s similarly recast the artwork as the enactment of a preplanned “experiment,” documented in black-and-white snapshots and explanatory texts. Like Huebler, Acconci often deployed this formula to absurdist ends, as in Step Piece, 1970, a work in which Acconci stepped on and off an eighteen-inch stool at the rate of thlrty repetitions a minute every morning for four discontinuous months.

By extricating Huebler from the limiting context of his initial critical reception and emphasizing his humorous side, Godfrey and Lomax allow his work to enter into new associations, both with contemporaries like Acconci or William Wegman and with more recent practitioners. (Godfrey suggests an affinity with Tom Friedman and Martin Creed.) The attempt to establish “the humane vein” in Huebler’s art, though, is less productive. Huebler the humanist is posited largely through the show’s emphasis on portraiture, a genre predicated on social interaction, most often a face-to-face encounter. Variable Piece #43, Brussels, March 1974, for example, grew out of an impromptu meeting with a group of Flemish schoolboys, who spotted Huebler with his camera and demanded that he take their picture. The boys jostle each other in their efforts to gain the artist’s attention, display gap-toothed smiles, and are generally adorable. Originally produced as a slide installation, the work was redone in 1997 in the form of four large-scale color photographs with text. Dominating an entire wall of one gallery, it epitomizes the curators’ desire to cast Huebler as an artist whose main goal was to create and record idealized, if fleeting, instances of human connection.

Huebler’s take on the human condition, however, may be more posthumanist than Godfrey and Lomax let on. Throughout, Huebler’s work is haunted by body-snatching doubles in the form of “look-alikes.” Variable Piece #70 (In Process) Global, November 1971, includes “at least one person who reminds the artist of someone he knows.” In Variable Piece #7, Limoges, France, December 1992, a five-year-old is asked to select her father’s doppelgänger in a neighborhood market. Variable Piece #135, Edinboro State College, 1974, awards one hundred dollars for the photo of two people—unrelated by any family tie—judged to resemble each other most closely. Huebler’s fascination with look-alikes subtly disrupts our sense of stable, autonomous subjectivities. Instead of a humanist account of individualism, his doubles and resemblances suggest an equivalence between language and image that Conceptualist doxa often asserted. In his work there is always some degree of mismatch between picture and caption such that one can never be seen as a transparent repetition of the other. Posed at the outset of the information age and the era we now call postmodern, these concerns feel remarkably prescient. Unfortunately, by not articulating—or even seeming to have noticed—this facet of Huebler’s work, Godfrey and Lomax missed an opportunity to put forward a more compelling case for the artist’s contemporary relevance.

Margaret Sundell is a New York–based critic.