Liz Magor - I Have Wasted My Life - Andrew Kreps - May 21 - June 25, 2021
The Rules of Appropriation; Liz Magor, For Example
Contrary to the thesis of The Poet-Engineers, progress in the arts is conceptual, not technological. Linear perspective was an important technical innovation, but it also reflected a wider intellectual development from medieval scholasticism to Renaissance humanism, a value system that found beauty in analyzing life through a rational scientific lens and reawakened a spiritual attachment to the world of the living which, after the ascetic disavowal of the worldly in the Middle Ages, reconfigured the idea of the arts far more fundamentally than the invention of a mathematical system for conveying the illusion of depth; the key artistic consequence of the development of photography was not that it represented a new medium but that it intellectually freed painting from the compulsion to reproduce reality; in fact, the most important event of artistic progress in the 20th century consisted precisely in the negation of art's technical aspect, when Duchamp designated his Fountain as a work of art. In doing so, he decoupled the concept of art from the act of making by the means of appropriation, which is perhaps as yet the most (only?) significant historical expansion of art's methodology.
Fountain simultaneously introduces the purely conceptual and the appropriative to art, which upends the traditional idea of art as the creation of an object through the artist's craftsmanship. A piece of canvas becomes an artwork through the artist's application of paint, an act that creates qualities that did not exist on the canvas prior to the artist's intervention. As with Michelangelo's angel in the marble, the conventional role of the artist is to discover and convey affective sensations through the medium of the artwork, an instantiation of details to an object that turns inert material into something with emotional dynamism. Appropriation inverts this by using objects that possess their own details and qualities prior to the artist's engagement with them and turns the content of the work away from the object's qualities to the action the artist is responsible for, namely the designation of the object as an artwork. Fountain is not about the visual content of a urinal but the ramifications of calling a urinal art. Over the years more than a few art historians have attempted to invest visual meaning into the urinal, but such a line of reasoning is excessive inasmuch that one could have the same experience in a bathroom. The work's significance lies in its provocation, its challenge to our conception of art, and this interaction between the work and the idea of art in general is what transforms it from an object into an artwork. The popular misconception of Duchamp's readymades is that they opened the floodgates and turned all non-art objects into art, but if this were really true then all art galleries would be full of found objects and, more importantly, we would be satisfied with that. Our dissatisfaction at the idea as well as Duchamp's abandonment of the readymade and artmaking in general prove that without a justification to designate a non-art object as art, appropriation is not granted as an automatic means of artistic creation. Appropriated artworks only become artworks by means of the conceptual.
We seek to imply a broad concept of the conceptual, naturally. Conceptual artworks do not need to be coherently critical, as in the case of artists like Michael Asher or John Knight, or even necessarily intelligible. The term only implies the addition of qualities to an artwork by the artist's consideration and contextualization of the object and/or artwork. The consequence of this intellectual approach to a work, as opposed to the conventions of art as a craft, is that it negates the aesthetic dimensions of objects insofar that the artist is not responsible for them. They only become artworks when the artist's use of the objects lays claim to and accentuates qualities of those objects by placing them into the context instigated by the artist. These created contexts can be as simple as a sense of humor regarding objects, as with Fischli & Weiss casting replicas of mundane objects from their studio just because it's funny, or the persona of the artist in the case of Lutz Bacher, with her rigorously crafted aura of "Lutzness" that suffused her works no matter what form they took. In her case, a consideration of the gut-wrenching treatment her work has suffered in group shows since her passing makes it clear just how much of her effectiveness came from her own precisely personal and strategic sensibility, something other curators seem mostly incapable of reproducing. The application of her own aura to the work is essential because an appropriated object loses its own aura by appropriation. A traditionally crafted artwork consists of creating an object with its own aesthetic qualities and therefore an aura of its own. All objects have some degree of aura, but the appropriated object must be "activated" by the artist's recontextualization to become an artwork. In other words, an artist's appropriation of an object that does not go beyond the aesthetic qualities of the original object itself fails as an artwork because such an action leaves the object in its original context; this is the failure of Liz Magor's show at Andrew Kreps from earlier this year.
An artwork is fundamentally a record of the process of its making. The artist's idea is the content that the work expresses, the idea that spurs the creation (or designation) of the work or the sensibility that drives the application of a certain shade of paint in a certain way. That much of art lacks this intentionality, appropriative or otherwise, is something we will address later. Magor's work is sentimental and aesthetic, an affection for the domestic that recalls the appeal of antique stores and collecting trinkets, like a shelf of seashells at a beach house. Someone who goes to their beach house may take some pleasure in the repeated ritual of collecting seashells, carefully selecting each for its particular appeal, and is a perfectly reasonable hobby. Within an arts context, however, this practice seems questionable. What exactly is she doing aside from curating found objects, an activity not particularly different from running an antique store? Her practice of casting some of her objects seems to be a tacit acknowledgment of this lack of activity, that as the artist she has to do something to these objects, as well as rendering the work more saleable by preserving things that are fragile or perishable. But more crucial than the sheepish gesture of her castings is her reliance on the objects themselves as artworks. A table on top of a table is simply a pair of tables, a coat remains a coat, cast cardboard is still cardboard, a Barbie is a Barbie, etc. The works seek to operate through the qualities they have accumulated through their lives as objects before becoming artworks, which she fetishizes and leaves intact. This is the same as reading Fountain for its sculptural qualities which, again, is something one could do in a house or a store without any artistic context. These qualities are not only inert because they are not artistic; they also bring up the issue of repetition because this strategy of artmaking requires no action on the part of the artist. Like the beachcomber, one can find objects and appreciate them, but this is not artistic inspiration, it is curation. Lutz Bacher's tendency towards curation of objects worked because those objects reflected her own obscure sense that incorporated them within the context that she had crafted, but because Magor leaves her objects more or less as they were before becoming artworks she takes a secondary role to the things themselves. As a result, her work necessitates no idea on her part because she can simply rummage through the sorts of objects that she has made an aestheticized fetish of throughout her career and pluck out one that appeals to her. She simply collects things, which lacks the substance that qualifies a successful artwork.
This lack of idea is of course not limited to appropriative artworks. The struggle to imbue something of substance beneath the simple surfaces of an artwork, and moreover to do so repeatedly, is the eternal problem of being an artist. Art is the dream of unalienated labor, of an authentic, self-motivated desire to work, a perpetual immersion in the process of making. This dream is a simple sentiment intuitively grasped by most of the young people who want to go to art school instead of majoring in business, but its actual realization is complex. An artwork being a record of the process of its making is uncomplicated enough in a single instance; an artist has an idea for an artwork and executes it. The difficulties come as the artist develops a body of work and the infinity of possibilities that exist to the beginner disappear as the works develop a continuity through the sequential process of their production. After a painter has made a dozen, two dozen, a hundred paintings, their sense of freedom becomes necessarily curtailed in comparison to their approach before they made those paintings. Art is always posed as a tension between the stability and potential calcification of a repetitive practice versus the expansion of enjoyment, inspiration, and renewal which inherently becomes narrowed through the process of individuation. Most of the enjoyment of life revolves around this process of perpetuating an interest in things without getting tired of them: gardening, cooking, reading, sex, running, drinking wine, work (if you're lucky enough to like your job in the first place), jetskiing, etc., all of these things run the risk of becoming dull and rote without a perpetual internal process of ingenuity that allows one to reinvest their interest. The only difference between these things and making art is that art lacks any objective criteria for what makes it good or bad. A plant dies or flourishes, you win or lose a tennis match, a fine old wine is more complex than a bottle of Carlo Rossi, you have an orgasm or you don't, you burn calories without hurting yourself. Someone can of course prefer McDonald's to a Michelin star restaurant, but these things have general guidelines because most things in life serve a tangible purpose, unlike art, and the McDonald's lover is unlikely to have put work into developing their palate. Likewise the tangibility of productive activities means they can function successfully regardless of the subject's feeling towards the activity; hence alienated labor. By contrast, an artwork functions solely through this process of investment, which is why it's integral for an artist to love art. No amount of technique or interpretation can cover up a lack of enthusiasm because making art has no justification outside of the artist's expression of affect through the work. A painter who disinterestedly reproduces their style out of an obligation to make sales fails in a way that a chef that hates their job doesn't, because food can taste good whether or not it's made with love. One of the greatest mysteries of art is that Gerhard Richter has been making the same squeegee paintings for nearly 40 years and yet they're always incredible thanks to his working process that continues to function in spite of everything. The notion of a working process brings us back to the conceptual because, as was alluded to above regarding Duchamp's abandonment of art, one of conceptual art's greatest difficulties in comparison to traditional mediums is that of process, or simply of work.
The painter and the sculptor are craftspeople, the quality of their work derives from their ability to work within their medium. A conceptual or appropriative artist is left to rely on their ideas to continue producing work, which, while not a lesser or flawed approach to artmaking, does run into a simple problem with regards to the practicalities of an artistic practice. It takes no effort on our part to imagine a painter working steadily for decades, but such an image of labor from a conceptual artist is considerably more oblique. A good painter develops their sensibilities through years of work into something distinct and refined, a process of engaging and reengaging with painting repeatedly that manages to perpetuate and deepen itself. This is not something promised simply by years of work, the artist has to have some potential of talent to begin with which will always remain unidentifiable. All the same, there is a classical image of this idea of the artist who is obsessed with their work, with their art historical influences, the familiar development of their technique and style from their early to mid and late career, at least as an abstract archetype. What it is that defines a good conceptualist is considerably more elusive and intangible. The painter's sense for color, form, and weight are material sensitivities that are developed over time and grow out of an art historical lineage. The things that made the aforementioned conceptual artists, or Jef Geys, or Dan Graham, and so on, capable of fruitfully making a lifetime's worth of work without a direct connection to craft is difficult to define, and in most cases the sensibility is so personal that it makes the prospect of learning something from these artists nearly impossible to imagine. This is of course nothing new for artists, Lutz Bacher is an albatross around the neck of appropriators in the same way that Guston weighs on painters, and Courbet, and Delacroix, and Tintoretto, and Angelico... Perhaps the only novelty about the burden of conceptual forebears in comparison to that of painters is that the conceptualist has only 100 years of history to draw upon, and of that history only a small subset of artists in the minority against those working in the always more popular traditional mediums. In this sense many of the difficulties of conceptualism may come more from its relative novelty and lack of history to draw upon, but that does not mean those difficulties are any less real.
Beyond the problem of the abstraction of the art practice away from technique lies a simpler, more fundamental question: what does a conceptual artist do? Bluntly, an artist needs to keep working to perpetuate their engagement with their practice. An artist whose practice privileges ideas over work faces a challenge because ideas are not generated with the same regularity that one can produce drawings. If anything, the development of craft in conventional visual artists works as an antidote to the problem of coming up with ideas through the assembly of a formal substructure that allows for the generation of qualities through the artist's medium that remain inspired in spite of their formal repetition, as in the case of someone like Richter. Thought is a burden, a stoppage of the internal intuitive movement of creation, so in some sense art that relies on ideas involves a kind of straightjacketing of artistic creation per se. Idea-oriented work can function continually, as with Asher's critical site-specificity, Graham's intricate self-negations, or Bacher's continual instigations of the relationship between herself and objects, but often an idea-based artistic methodology can simply drift away from art. Duchamp, as we've already alluded to, managed only 20 readymades before his well-known withdrawal from the art world into chess, because each subsequent work was a recapitulation of the original idea. Outside of the offhand amusement of choosing objects and punning titles there is no difference between the fundamental act of calling a snow shovel or a urinal an artwork, so the process could not continue indefinitely. This is not to disparage Duchamp's legacy but only to point out that these dangers have existed since the beginning of conceptual art. Likewise, I've written similar sentiments elsewhere about artists who have produced good work before their practice deviated away from an interest in art into something else: Andrea Fraser's problematizing of her own subjectivity within the art world which she eventually gave up on in favor of activism and psychoanalysis, Cady Noland's bleak, confrontational sculptures that slowed their production until giving way entirely to acrimonious lawsuits with collectors, Cameron Rowland's gracefully political appropriations and legal interventions that have become by rote installations that occupy a space to justify the publication of his new research essay as the press release, since it's become clear that his interest in art is apparently nil and only justified by his career success, an uncomfortable tension I believe he shares with Fraser and Noland. Naturally I don't deign to judge these artists as if their loss of interest in art is some kind of moral failing, but I do judge their work. The shared element between all four artists seems to be that these conceptual artistic practices did not reintegrate into an engagement with art but rather to push away from it in a way that forced the artists to follow in kind. This is not, again, a criticism of conceptualism. If anything, the future of the arts lies in the ground set by this new artistic heritage, but its novelty carries even more risks and complications than aesthetically-grounded traditional arts.
To come back to Magor for a bit, the final and perhaps most pervasive problem of the "conceptual heritage" is that the contemporary approach to the appropriative is largely not conceptual but aesthetic, and as such represents not artistic progress but a sleight of hand that takes one step forward and two steps backwards in an attempt to create a loophole that sidesteps the inherent challenges of creating art. As we have seen, appropriation does not function aesthetically like a conventional artwork because the aesthetic qualities of those objects already exist outside of the arts context. Unless the artist's appropriation reconfigures the work, shifting it into something that operates differently from how it was before becoming an artwork, it does not accomplish anything. The unfortunate consequence of the inheritance of appropriation as a technique is that it has led to the conflation of appropriation and conceptualism into the presumption that all appropriation is inherently conceptual, and therefore a universally legitimate strategy. This leads directly to what I've referred to in the past as Sentimental Aesthetics, a trend, admittedly now in decline, of artists making work that largely consists of appropriations of imagery that they have a personal attachment to, presuming that their own emotional affiliation with imagery that they are not responsible for is sufficient justification for the work to succeed. This reduces art to curation of extra-artistic imagery, as with Magor and weathered vintage objects, or Alex Da Corte and cartoons, or a whole scene of artists in Ridgewood five to seven years ago who took turns making exhibitions fueled by nostalgia for various pop artifacts from their shared cultural upbringing. These works do not consist of an ongoing affiliation of the works to the artist, as in the case of Lutz's amorphous assertion of artist-as-withholding-identity, but rather of affiliation of the artist with the works, a clinging to the aesthetics of the appropriated objects in an attempt to cull a personal identity from that. The root of this issue, the affiliative gesture towards the object, is that the artist is creating nothing, risking nothing, asserting nothing. Their appropriation does not act out the artist's force of will to accomplish something with the work but instead to supplant themselves as artists with objects, to present the already-existing as a stand-in for their sensibility. This turns art from the dream of unalienated labor, of free creation, into the height of alienation, a substitution of identity for capitalism, asserting the prefabricated as a satisfying replacement for anything one can actually call artistic: sensibility, taste, engagement, risk, courage, even beauty. Art functions specifically as the putting in motion of a subjectively created system, and those systems cannot function if they operate without the artist's input, an endless grappling with one's internal criterion of whether their work succeeds or fails, which is always an ambiguous judgment grounded in uncertainty. An artist whose work does not risk failure cannot succeed, and the misuse of appropriation as a means of avoiding the artist's obligation to create something is to negate the position of the artist itself, a self-automated erasure of art's purpose as the articulation of qualities that did not already exist.