View of “Haim Steinbach,” 2017. From left: bluevelvet, 2017; Untitled (dog chew, mouse), 2017. Photo: Danilo Donzelli.

View of “Haim Steinbach,” 2017. From left: bluevelvet, 2017; Untitled (dog chew, mouse), 2017. Photo: Danilo Donzelli.

Haim Steinbach

View of “Haim Steinbach,” 2017. From left: bluevelvet, 2017; Untitled (dog chew, mouse), 2017. Photo: Danilo Donzelli.

Thirty years after his first solo show in Europe, held at Galleria Lia Rumma, American artist Haim Steinbach returned to the same gallery with “lemon yellow,” an exhibition conceived specifically for its site. The result was a reflection, through images, on relationships between artist, collector, art object, and exhibition space.

Since the late 1970s Steinbach has focused on the presentation of everyday objects. Developing an irreverent and disorienting practice, linked only in part to the example of the Duchampian readymade, or to the reconsideration of objects effected by Pop art and hyperrealism, Steinbach chooses, repositions, and thereby embellishes objects, activating a complex mechanism of associations and connections that reveals their anthropological and semantic abundance. His is a research not into the iconic nature or recognizability of specific objects, so much as into every object’s innate cultural energy and potential. The artist acts on the relationships of things with their contexts, but also with those between themselves, in order to reveal the density of content they convey.

The installation in Naples conjoined and integrated two distinct ways of working. Both aim at emphasizing the intrinsic meanings of the object in relation to its form and color and to the grammar of the exhibition space. First of all, Steinbach elaborated the gallery’s architecture, examining it as an object in itself, as something that occupies space. He did so by placing standard construction materials, such as metal studs and colored plasterboard panels, in relation to the existing walls, windows, and ceilings. Meanwhile, a second group of objects was presented in purpose-built containers. These were items selected at the artist’s request by a small group of collectors. Each collector was asked to choose a significant object, one capable of evoking an idea or feeling of color. The objects––a notary public’s seal; a toy locomotive; Joseph Beuys’s Capri-Batterie (Capri Battery), 1985, made from a lemon and a lightbulb of the same citrus hue; a yellow portable radio with a small Mickey Mouse figure on it; a soft black plastic dog toy––were installed along with another sculpture that the artist created for the occasion, Untitled (caterpillar), 2017.

Thus, collecting and exhibiting were presented as the terms of a ritual, their typical polarity completely subverted. In asking collectors to choose the objects to be highlighted in the show, Steinbach overturned the normal relationship between collector and object: Usually work is exhibited first, then collected, but here the steps were reversed. Similarly, by transforming the architecture, by adding walls made of metal studs, into an obstacle course that required navigating, the artist inverted our usual way of relating to gallery space. In a new manner, Steinbach reconfirmed his longtime strategy of using minimal and elementary interventions that reveal without shouting, that surprise without disturbing, in an atmosphere of precise surreality, not unlike that of a film by Federico Fellini, whom Steinbach explicitly cited on one of the gallery walls in an inscription legible only in a mirror. Cinematic references abounded elsewhere, as well: Each of the colorful plasterboard panels was named after a film—for instance, Blue Velvet or Yellow Submarine—whose title evoked the artwork’s hue.

Francesca Pola

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.