David Hammons, Bliz-aard Ball Sale, 1983. Performance view, New York.

David Hammons, Bliz-aard Ball Sale, 1983. Performance view, New York.

“Work Ethic”

Curator Helen Molesworth’s “Work Ethic” ambitiously argues for a new approach to evaluating post–World War II artistic practice. Rather than organizing contemporary art around a focus on style or content, avant-garde secession, or medium-based investigation, the exhibition measures changing conditions of artistic labor since the 1950s. The rich array of work by nearly fifty artists demonstrates how they have adopted administrative capacities and managerial identities, and favored conceptual processes over manual production, enacting modernity’s paradigmatic shifts in labor. These include the waning of manual manufacturing and the rise of an information-based service economy, the further evolution of which is the recently coined “experience economy,” a designation of micromanaged zones of commerce that project ambience around products to increase profits. One danger in hooking art into these cycles is that determinist alignments may result, wherein artistic practice is seen to slavishly follow economic dictates. Molesworth’s argument avoids this reflectionism, instead locating transformations in labor as immanent to artistic practice. The result was a rare show of conceptual rigor and historical depth.

In four interconnected galleries, the exhibition proposed interrelated and historically overlapping categories—the artist as manager and worker, the artist as manager alone, the artist as “experience maker,” and finally, “Quitting Time,” where the artist opposes labor itself. One of Frank Stella’s black paintings from 1959 greeted visitors with the first sign of a growing divide between the managerial planning of an artwork and the laborious gestures of its monotonous construction. Even while conveying great visual power, Stella’s paintings of this time indicate a procedure drained of the spontaneous and expressive bravura celebrated earlier in New York School painting. Soon after, artists like Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt, and John Baldessari would even delegate the physical artmaking and merely send out fabrication directions to professional crafters or assistants. In the apotheosis of art’s automation, painting machines do the work, as with Jean Tinguely’s teetering mechanical devices from the ’50s and ’60s and Roxy Paine’s efficiently computerized systems capable of mass production (Paint Dipper, 1997).

For Molesworth, this rationalization signals not so much a “de-skilling” of artistic labor as the “re-skilling” of a new type of specialist equipped with theoretical competences and linguistic aptitudes. This insightful suggestion rendered visible connections between disparate practices. In some cases—among the show’s most provocative—the curatorial choices led to a critical consideration of conventional divisions of labor, as when Mierle Laderman Ukeles and Martha Rosler documented themselves cleaning house or doing the laundry. By rupturing the boundaries between stereotypically defined women’s work and artwork, they transvalued traditionally unpaid domestic labor as art, challenging its otherwise degraded status. The show also underlined how artists have recently returned to craft, whether to expand mediums through experimental processes or to reengage art as functional utility. Hope Ginsburg learned the ways of beekeeping, even mastering the art of the bee beard, which she donned in her video Bearded Lady, 1998–2000. And Hugh Pocock, surrounded by an audience on the exhibition’s opening night, drilled a well in the BMA’s sculpture garden to feed its water into the museum’s heating and cooling system. The spectacle announced contemporary society’s uneasy distance from manual labor, even while such activity humanizes anonymous forms of work. Pocock’s resulting Volume, 2003, presented as air inside the galleries, allowed visitors to breathe the results. In the witty precedent of David Hammons’s legendary Bliz-aard Ball Sale, 1983, for which the artist sold intricately formed snowballs on a Manhattan sidewalk, salesmanship joins craftsmanship as a form of both labor and artistic critique.

The artist as “experience maker”—the subject of the show’s third section—exchanged profit motives and passive consumption for the promise of interactivity, as in Yoko Ono’s notorious performance Cut Piece, 1964, in which the artist invited audience members onstage to scissor off parts of her clothing. Instead of luring consumers to buy within controlled, immersive environments, the goal of much of the included work was to cultivate the creative potential of the viewer. This sometimes led to contradictory results. Erwin Wurm’s One Minute Sculptures, 2000, encouraged visitors to amuse themselves on a large white platform strewn with everyday objects and directed them—with the help of instructions—toward seemingly unproductive ends, such as turning one’s body into a sculpture by taking up a provided felt-tip pen as a prop and “thinking of Spinoza.” While such ludic behavior may desire to flout the functionalist rationality of capital, as claimed in the substantive catalogue, the piece rather revealed play to be a further site of discipline that trained participants according to its set of rules, which were institutionally enforced (for instance, one was not allowed to write with the pen). When the artist manages the viewer’s experience, even play may fold into production—whether of obedient subjects or institutional authority.

Alternatives were offered in “Quitting Time,” the show’s final category, of which the exemplary work was Robert Barry’s Closed Gallery, 1969, represented by an announcement for its original exhibition stating that the gallery would be closed for the length of his show. Can art ever advance work’s stoppage, or do its attempts result only in further refinements of products and markets? Leaving this question to the viewer’s labor, “Work Ethic” succeeded in comprehending a significant field of recent artistic practice, casting an extremely diverse grouping of work within a unified but effectively complicated logic.

“Work Ethic” travels to the Des Moines Art Center, May 15–Aug. 1; Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, Ohio, Sept. 18–Jan. 2, 2005.

T.J. Demos teaches art history at the Maryland Institute College of Art.