Annandale-on-Hudson

View of “Haim Steinbach,” 2013.

View of “Haim Steinbach,” 2013.

Haim Steinbach

Hessel Museum of Art, Bard College

View of “Haim Steinbach,” 2013.

Like most artists, Haim Steinbach has been subject to the tyranny of the label, the easily identifiable category—a boon for critics, curators, and collectors (and for students cramming for art-history exams), but a practice that risks reducing our understanding of the artist to a few salient characteristics and a slot in a movement or historical period. For Steinbach, this has resulted in his being defined primarily through his signature shelf works of the 1980s, groupings of objects that helped position him alongside neo-geo artists such as Ashley Bickerton and Jeff Koons, whose work was driven by a fascination with the sheen and allure of the commodity. With its inclusion of a wide range of eighty-odd works by Steinbach, some dating back to the early 1970s, this show, curated by Tom Eccles and Johanna Burton, offered a broader and more nuanced view of the artist, making evident the affective and even outré dimensions of his practice.

The museum’s exhibition spaces were built out and partitioned by walls of partially finished sheetrock and metal framing, set at diagonals through existing doorways and galleries to form a mazelike compendium. Throughout, Steinbach’s own objects and installations were interspersed with works by other artists chosen by him from the museum’s collection. In Steinbach’s case, this gesture, which the museum has afforded to featured artists in the past, dovetailed with his long-standing practice of selecting and arranging objects in meaningful configurations. The exhibition helped illuminate how those techniques found their roots in earlier, lesser-known works in which he embraced similar strategies but presented them in more traditional, picturelike forms, as in paintings from the early ’70s that feature post-Minimalist arrangements of multicolored bars, for example, or, in a slightly later series, panels constructed out of shapes of inset linoleum.

Far from supporting the image of him as a cool, cerebral manipulator of shiny consumer goods, the consistent appearance in the exhibition of such materials as linoleum and other decorative surfacings like patterned wallpaper underscored how many of his works look like the products of an overeager interior decorator with questionable taste, let loose in a succession of thrift stores and down-market home-goods emporiums—hence the proliferation of knickknacks, gewgaws, tchotchkes, and trinkets of all sorts, perched on often crudely assembled shelves. The resulting configurations and jarring clashes of patterning, which extend through to the artist’s later work, began to align him in my mind less with the ’80s drive to appropriation and simulation and more with a queer, camp, or kitsch sensibility, whether the cultivated bad taste of John Waters or the lowbrow scavengings of Jim Shaw’s thrift-store paintings. In this light, among the memorable pieces was an early shelf work featuring a woman’s pump, covered in elbow macaroni and spray-painted gold. While some might see in it allusions to Yayoi Kusama, it made me think of a hastily assembled trophy for a drag contest at a neighborhood gay bar, at once shady and celebratory, ironic and poignant.

The affective dimension of Steinbach’s work was most strongly evoked by a room in the exhibition given over to a series of small black-and-white photographs of shelf pieces installed, in the early ’80s, in people’s homes. In these images, the artist’s constructions come off as awkward interlopers, never quite jibing with the furnishings around them. They represent intrusions of difference into spaces whose decorating schemes are meant to express the putatively closed systems of self or family. As much as they speak to taste and accumulation, then, they also serve as models for the vagaries of human relatedness. These pictures, like so much of Steinbach’s work, reflect on our desire to find meaning from and through the objects that surround us as we go about the messy business of living.

Michael Lobel