Upon first walking into the atrium outside the Marcel Broodthaers exhibition on view at MoMA earlier this year, you get a little sampling of the whole retrospective. Photographs of performances, charts in many languages with Broodthaers’ initials written in neat columns, and a projection of his name in a sans serif font allude to many of the movements and projects MoMA assembled in this retrospective. How surprising, then to find out this was not an ensemble brought together by thoughtful curators, but rather the whole installation in the atrium is actually a late work by Broodthaers himself! As egotistical as it may seem initially to create an homage to your past works and call it art (and artist with big egos do fit for the time period. Fellow Francophone Yves Klein comes to mind), this self invention reflects one of several threads the MoMA exhibitions traces from Broodthaers’ early career to the end of his short life.
You may ask yourself, “Who Is Broodthaers?” And I am sure you are not alone. Although one of the titans of late modern art in Europe, this is the first retrospective of his work mounted in the United States and the first exhibition of his works in recent years in the city as well. But now, the city has Broodthaers fever! Both Michael Werner Gallery and Paul Kasmin Gallery mounted exhibitions of his work, but without prior knowledge of his work, it’s hard to be sure what you are looking at. The MoMA retrospective is a comprehensive introduction to Broodthaers and his work, and provides the context need to appreciate the works on view at Michael Werner and Paul Kasmin. However, it fails to give a critical context around Broodthaers and his contemporaries. The major touchstones of his life’s works and impact are present, such as his origins as a poet and interest in the written word, his creative use of readymade objects, his idiosyncratic institutional critique, and his interrogation of narrative and autobiography.
The exhibition answers the question of “Who is Broodthaers?” by portraying Broodthaers as a poet who never truly gives up the written word. Marcel got his artistic start as an aspiring poet in Brussels in the 50s, making ends meet with a carer in photojournalism. The room has his early poetry collection and some of his photographs published in newspapers at the time, capturing post-war Brussels. The room, however, is dominated by his first film, in which Broodthaers filmed in an exhibition of German artist Kurt Schwitters after hours at a local museum. The film captures bits and pieces of Schwitters’s assemblages as Marcel’s flashlight selectively illuminates portions of the works in the exhibition, punctuated by Broodthaers reciting his own poetry. Schwitters is one of a few other artists mentioned in the entire exhibition, and with good reason. Schwitters’s use of found refuse as the medium of choice reflects Broodthaers’ continued use of readymade objects throughout his artistic career.
In the same manner Broodthaers attempts to create the same synthesis between reality and poetry with his exhibition, Le Corbeau et Le Renard at the Wide White Space Gallery, Antwerp in 1968. The MoMA exhibition recreates the experience of the original exhibition; the paintings, walls, and the projection screen in one room all have the text from this fable by La Fontaine, conveniently not translated from French to English. He was interested in making poetry a visual experience, where the words encompass the entire field of vision, losing their linear and sequential nature and becoming a field of forms. The following room of the exhibition shows that Broodthaers’ next exhibition continued to experiment with the visual forms of poetry and language with his panels of the poem Un coup de dés jamai n’abolira le hasard by Mallarmé (A throw of the dice will never abolish chance). These finely polished and minimalist metal plates had dark bands where the text in the book of poetry contained words, as if the CIA redacted the entire book word for word. Here, one can “see” the object, and guess at which plate is the title page and to the length of each poem, but one can not “read” these plates without the words.
The exhibition explains that Broodthaers is exploring the visual possibilities of poetry and highlighting the experimental formatting of his poetry on the page. But the text of the exhibition and it’s audioguide do not connect Le Corbeau et Le Renard to this room, or to the previous works in the exhibition. In a more cerebral manner Broodthaers challenges hierarchies of art and life by inextricably unifying them: a world of real everyday objects such as books (Un coup de…), and everyday spaces such as a nearly empty room (Le Corbeau et Le Renard). In a rush to comprehensively show all of Broodthaers’s movements and stages they’ve properly explore the elements that unify his practice from period to period, and therefore stop short of providing any truly critical insight.
To turn back to the use of found materials mentioned in the film of Schwitters’s exhibition above: examples of their implementation are legion in his works and in this retrospective. Marcel Broodthaers cleverly incorporates his own poetry as a readymade material into one of his first sculptures. At his first exhibition as a visual artist Broodthaers created a sculpture out of plaster and unsold copies of his poetry book, Pense-Bete. Although this early piece in which Broodthaers explores the self-mythologizing that creates and obfuscates his legacy, this room early in the exhibition is mostly concerned with explaining and enumerating the symbols of Belgian nationality he employed early in his career. Mussels and frites (french fries) are both common foods eaten in Belgium. The audio guide belabors the point that the French word for mussel (moule) is also the French word for a mold or a casting. More important than this word play, however, is the fact that Broodthaers uses the shells of these mussels and eggs as readymade objects with other found items such as newspapers, bones, dutch ovens and newspapers to explore the tension between nation and individual.
Take, for example, Untitled (Triptych) (1964), which is in this room. Three vertical panels are painted monochromatically to make the Belgian flag – black, yellow, and red – from left to right. Each panel has a grid of eggshells corresponding to the color of the panel in neat rows and columns. If the eggs are a readymade that can symbolize the individual, the egg as an embryo and reference to the source of life and birth, then Broodthaers shows the individual confined and defined by his nationality. To take it one step further and look at it in context with Foucalt, a philosopher whose theories are incredibly pertinent to Broodthaers work but is strikingly absent from the exhibition completely, the individual is limited and controlled by the powers of the nation state here represented by the Belgian flag.
It is surprising, therefore that his contemporaries in Francophone Europe, the Nouveau Realiste, are never mentioned or alluded to by the exhibition in this room. Pense-Béte and Broodthaers’s castings of plates of frites reminds one of Spoerris messy snare-pictures, and the series of Broodthaers’s large canvases completely covered by mussels shells have the same imposing mono-chromaticism as Yves Klein’s blue canvases. Le Probléme noir en Belgique reminds me of Niki de Saint Paile’s shooting paintings. It is as if the someone shot the eggs on the canvas and they oozed black, dripping over the newspaper. Broodthaers shares their interest in the intersection of the quotidian and the lofty ideas and practice of art; his works of readymade materials bridge the realms of art with reality.
One phrase that is repeatedly used in the audioguide is, “[Broodthaers] raised questions” usually followed by a few paltry examples such as “What is the role of the museum? How do museums categorize art?” It was incredibly frustrating to find that the next section of the exhibition covering his complex project Musée d’Art Moderne, Les Aigles (which ran from 1968 to 1972 at various locations) introduced these questions to the listener, but made no attempt to elaborate or provide an answer. Any artist worth her salt makes art that raises questions, and critical attempts to answer those questions define and reveal the genius of their works. Broodthaers Musée projects certainly raised these questions; more importantly they made some revealing assertions. Take Projection sur Caisse, 1968 for example. A carousel slide projector runs through several slides of different paintings projected onto the crate. The constant shuffle between images on the same crate suggests interchangeability, implying that anything could be in that crate. It is a reversal of the visitor’s usual experience in the museum, which is a personal interaction with the physical object that he or she may only see copies or representations of outside the museum. Broodthaers makes the art immaterial as only brief snapshot on the projector, replacing it with an object of the work’s administration. Broodthaers cleverly debases any romantic notions we may have about the goals of the museum. He answers the audioguide’s question, “what is the role of museum?” with a flat, unsentimental reply – the museum’s role is to preserve, hang, and transport art; an administrative institution for art and nothing more. This may be overstating the point, but it emphasizes the wit and institutional critique behind Broodthaers’s work and strips the romantic sheen off of the institution.
The “Department of Publicity” is the only section of the Musée project on view in it’s entirety. Here Broodthaers’ “museum” takes the museum’s responsibility for administration of art ad absurdum. The work is a room made of wooden walls and ceiling with framed images of eagles taken from nearly any scrap of paper, advertisement, or post card that he must have found with an image of an eagle. The strange parade of ephemera continues inside a dark room where two slide projectors shuffle through even more images of eagles, as if presenting a portfolio of all the different advertisements the publicity office has placed for the museum. Although the audioguide and text does not mention Schwitters after the first room, this presentation of ephemera takes Schwitters’s Merz to a new level of process. Where Schwitters collected refuse indiscriminately to create his Merz collages, Broodthaers as the director of his museum sorts through the refuse to make his collection of eagles with little regard to the quality, importance, or value of that obtained. Is he mocking his contemporaries in Minimalist movement and their focus on process and declarations of objectivity? I think so, but the organizers of the show say nothing on the matter either way.
Although I thoroughly enjoyed the works in the show, I think my observations above about the works in the show revealed that I felt there was much to be desired. That is not to say that the curators did not give any deep thought to the exhibition. On the contrary, “The Moment of Broodthaers? A Conversation”, published in the Winter 2016 issue of October reveals the passion and attention lavished upon the exhibition by its curators. Manuel Borja-Villel tells those at the roundtable, “The exhibition will be a retrospective in the literal sense of the word. It aims to present the work historically – and a great effort has been made to correct errors and misunderstandings in this respect – from the viewpoint of the present.” He continues, “Here it is important to bear in mind that the artist himself have us keys to his own historicization.”1 The strongest example of that is the entrance to the exhibition mentioned above and the audioguide has several excerpts of Broodthaers talking about his own work, but neither address how the artist’s self-mythologizing is a conscious strategy in creating his artwork and in creating the character of Broodthaers the artist.
The conversation published in October is a deep and thoughtful dialogue among educated peers about Broodthaers’ relationships to his contemporaries, his work’s relationship to melancholy and nostalgia, and the tricky position his artworks occupy as commodities. Unfortunately, none of that translates to a truly critical guide for the visitor to the exhibition. While walking through the exhibition the works can all feel very gimmicky — with a room full of palm fronds and another room with a carpet made of sand — if there is no direction or critical context given other than the assertion that the works “raise questions” without fleshing out the implications of those questions or the stakes involved in the issues Broodthaers’ works address. Part of me despaired that maybe this was a failing of all retrospectives, that they fail to provide the uninitiated with anything more than a superficial survey of one’s work. Looking back to the Frank Stella exhibition at the Whitney earlier this year, however, quickly disabused me of that worry. That exhibition only had pieces from Stella’s long career and with helpful wall text was able to illuminate the development of Stella’s style and his changing concerns throughout the decades. The MoMA curators sure were able to “show” us much of Broodthaers’ artistic output with a well curated show of important works, but they were not able to “tell” us enough about his important impact upon Western art in the last half of the 20th century.
The curators were, however, able to allow some of Broodthaers’ work to speak for itself, and I feel Broodthaers got the last laugh. The last room of the show has a short film, Analyse d’une peinture, from 1973. The film’s first shot establishes the object of its focus, a simple painting of a sailboat in the water off the coast. The following shots are details of the boat, the water, the coast, and the works frame, in no discernible logic of sequence. The subsequent shots are focus in great detail on the painting, at a clear perpendicular angle to the surface of the canvas and the frame. They reminded me of many of the condition reports I’ve seen at work, recording the little imperfections of the art object. The viewer could say that he has seen and knows this painting very well due to the detail in which the film records the painting, but is this really the case? Like an anecdote, this short film reflects in miniature Broodthaers’ tireless focus on how institutional structures exert passive control on us, especially in the arts. If you consider the film a reproduction of the painting, recorded in film rather than on canvas, the filmmaker still controls our experience and therefore influences our interpretation of the object. Maybe there is a detail the film does not focus on that would alter how the viewer feels or interprets the work. The film limits and finalizes our experience of the work due to its limits as a copy and as a record of something not immediately at hand, even though it presents itself as clinical and impartial. The film is a sobering reminder in our contemporary world, where with the internet and increasing connectivity we feel as if we have access to more of the world and its experiences than we’ve ever had before. As much as we control images and media, they controls us too.
Thomas Baldwin is an editor-at-large for Things Created By People and currently does not follow a single person on Instagram.
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