Still Life: Ecologies of the Modern Imagination at the Art Museum [1 ed.] 9780226713922

How do you keep the cracks in Starry Night from spreading? How do you prevent artworks made of hugs or candies from disa

489 102 12MB

English Pages 424 [426] Year 2020

Report DMCA / Copyright


Polecaj historie

Still Life: Ecologies of the Modern Imagination at the Art Museum [1 ed.]

Table of contents :
Introduction: Toward an Ecology of Modern Categories
Part 1: Ecologies of Care
Introduction: Caring for the Same
1.1 The Modern Object of Care
1.2 The Elusive Object of Contemporary Art
1.3 The Modern Subject of Care
Part 2: Ecologies of Containment
Introduction: The Aesthetics of Containment
2.1 Containing Eternity
2.2 Eternity on the Move
Part 3: Ecologies of Imagination
Introduction: Into the White
3.1 The Interior Space of Art
3.2 Exhibitions as Material Acts of Imagination
Part 4: Ecologies of the Digital
4.1 The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Fragility
Conclusion: The Cracks of the Modern Imagination

Citation preview

Still Life

Still Life

Ecologies of the Modern Imagination at the Art Museum Fernando Domínguez Rubio

The University of Chicago Press Chicago and London

The University of Chicago Press, Chicago 60637 The University of Chicago Press, Ltd., London © 2020 by The University of Chicago All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations in critical articles and reviews. For more information, contact the University of Chicago Press, 1427 E. 60th St., Chicago, IL 60637. Published 2020 Printed in the United States of America 29 28 27 26 25 24 23 22 21 20

1 2 3 4 5

ISBN-13: 978-0-226-71392-2 (cloth) ISBN-13: 978-0-226-71408-0 (paper) ISBN-13: 978-0-226-71411-0 (e-book) DOI: Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Names: Domínguez Rubio, Fernando, author. Title: Still life : ecologies of the modern imagination at the art museum / Fernando Domínguez Rubio. Description: Chicago ; London : The University of Chicago Press, 2020. | Includes bibliographical references and index. Identifiers: LCCN 2020001533 | ISBN 9780226713922 (cloth) | ISBN 9780226714080 (paperback) | ISBN 9780226714110 (ebook) Subjects: LCSH: Museum of Modern Art (New York, N.Y.) | Art museums— Collection management—New York (State)—New York. | Art museums— New York (State)—New York—Employees. | Art museums— Exhibitions—New York (State)—New York. Classification: LCC N620.M9 D66 2020 | DDC 708.147/1—dc23 LC record available at ∞ This paper meets the requirements of ANSI/NISO Z39.48-1992 (Permanence of Paper).

Time is always there, gnawing at us and corroding all our best intentions and all our most beautiful thoughts. Robert Smithson Clean your desk, wash the dishes, clean the floor, wash your clothes, wash your toes, change the baby’s diaper, finish the report, correct the typos, mend the fence, keep the customer happy, throw out the stinking garbage, watch out don’t put things in your nose, what shall I wear, I have no sox, pay your bills, don’t litter, save string, wash your hair, change the sheets, go to the store, I’m out of perfume, say it again— he doesn’t understand, seal it again— it leaks, go to work, this art is dusty, clear the table, call him again, flush the toilet, stay young. Mierle Laderman Ukeles


Introduction Toward an Ecology of Modern Categories 1 Part 1

Ecologies of Care

Introduction Chapter 1.1 Chapter 1.2 Chapter 1.3 Part 2

Caring for the Same 31 The Modern Object of Care 50 The Elusive Object of Contemporary Art 84 The Modern Subject of Care 116

Ecologies of Containment

Introduction The Aesthetics of Containment 147 Chapter 2.1 Containing Eternity 156 Chapter 2.2 Eternity on the Move 182 Part 3

Ecologies of Imagination

Introduction Into the White 215 Chapter 3.1 The Interior Space of Art 225 Chapter 3.2 Exhibitions as Material Acts of Imagination 258 Part 4

Ecologies of the Digital

Chapter 4.1

The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Fragility 301

Conclusion The Cracks of the Modern Imagination 325 Acknowledgments 337 Notes 341 Bibliography 363 Index 389


Looking at Van Gogh’s Starry Night at the Museum of Modern Art.


Of Objects, Things, Cracks, and Slowly Unfolding Disasters This book is an empirical exploration of what it takes to produce and sustain the categories through which we build, describe, and organize the worlds that we dream and inhabit, and the ceaseless labor required to prevent their collapse. It does so by focusing on one of the central categories of the modern imagination, the category of art, exploring the very particular ecology through which this category is made possible and is sustained in practice at one place: the Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA). Through this exploration this book ultimately aims to show the massive amount of technology, infrastructure, and labor that is required to make possible that fragile and rather idiosyncratic form of imagining and inhabiting the world that we have come to describe as “modern.” But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s start right in the midst of the modern commonsense. And no better place for that than inside one of the main exhibition rooms at MoMA, in front of an artwork that is by now such an indisputable part of that modern commonsense that it has acquired the status of a cliché: Van Gogh’s The Starry Night. Since the eighteenth century, most of the histories, philosophies, sociologies, and anthropologies that have emerged to make sense of the peculiar objects we call “artworks” have approached them from the perspective of the spectator. This is a perspective in which we start with an artwork that is already out there, a fait accompli, waiting to be experienced and interpreted, and then proceed to explain it by asking questions about its author (her biography, her intentions), about the meaning this object carries (its symbolism and formal composition), the position it occupies in art history (its influences and style), or about its relation to the sociohistorical context in which it was created. In this book I approach these objects from a different perspective. I want to explore how something can be rendered legible, imaginable, and effective as an art object— and how it can be sustained as such. This turns out




The physical labor of meaning.

to be a difficult task because, contrary to how they appear when we look at them from a distance, art objects are fragile and tentative realities: they are temporary achievements. To explain what I mean by this, we need to abandon the distance from which we normally relate to these objects and get much closer to them. So let me invite you to take a few imaginary steps toward this painting and lean closely into it. As we get closer to the canvas, we can access an order of reality that is usually frequented only by art conservators and the occasional art histo-

Toward an Ecology of Modern Categories


rian (see fig. 2). This proximity allows us to appreciate something often lost in the distance: the physical labor, the thousands upon thousands of obsessive brushstrokes that went into transforming meaningless chunks of paint into the kinds of forms that make meaning, emotion, and imagination possible. But this proximity reveals something more. What seemed from afar to be a flat surface turns out to be a viscous, lumpy orography. This orography reveals something that is as evident as it is frequently overlooked in most narratives about art, which is that paintings are not just objects of meaning but physical knots made of seeds, minerals, wood, or cotton. But we are still not close enough. Actually, we are still very far away. If we keep getting closer, and closer, something remarkable happens. There, right at the edge of the human eye’s vision, we can begin to see the contours of a different kind of order (see fig. 3). We can now see that those perfectly legible forms populating the canvas were just an optical effect, a trompe l’oeil, created by distance. All of a sudden, we find ourselves operating in an order made of blurred, messy, and ambiguous forms, without clear boundaries or identities; an order in which lumps of colors are intertwined, in which there is not a single straight line, no simple division, no clear beginnings or ends, and in which forms are plagued with interruptions, losses, and absences. In this order, the questions that we may pose do not enjoy the same clear-cut answers that were possible when we were looking from a distance, as it is no longer clear what belongs to what. Is, for example, this patch of blurred paint something that has been there all along, or is it something that has happened recently? Did Van Gogh paint it, or is it damage? Perhaps an accident? Is it meaningful or meaningless? Is it art or just dirt? But this proximity reveals even more. If you look closely, you will also see that the canvas is lacerated by cracks. This may not seem surprising. After all, cracks are ubiquitous, even expected, in almost any object, including art objects. Yet despite their pervasiveness, cracks have rarely featured in narratives about art or, for that matter, in much of modern social thought. The attention has normally been directed to study and interpret the forms and meanings that populate surfaces, not the cracks that interrupt them— and on those rare occasions when cracks have been noted, they have been glossed over as nuisances, or as interruptions that need to be fixed. If we dwell on these cracks for a moment, if we think from them rather than over them, we will see that they are much more than nuisances or interruptions. Thinking from cracks can help us to remember some important (if banal) truths that are often forgotten under the surfaces from which we have normally been invited to think. For example, they help




The ambivalent, messy, and cracked surfaces of meaning.

us to remember that objects are not given once and for all but are fragile and temporal realities. They help us to remember that the physical knot Van Gogh created back in the summer of 1889 is slowly, but relentlessly, coming undone— and that consequently when we look at Starry Night, we are not looking at a completed object made in June 1889 but at a particular moment of a slow event that is still taking place as it unfolds through organic and inorganic processes. In short, what these cracks help us to remember is that we are not simply looking at an art object but at a thing. The idea that Starry Night is not just an “object” but also a “thing” may sound odd. After all, “object” and “thing” are terms we typically use interchangeably. Here, however, I will argue that things and objects are are not only different but also discrepant realities.1 Things are lumps of stuff, material processes that unfold over time, while objects are the positions to which those lumps of stuff are assigned to participate in different regimes of practice and value. What this means is that, in order for some-thing to be recognized and count as a particular kind of object— say, an artwork or a chair— its material components have to be able to occupy, and remain within, a given “object-position.” For example, the lump of seeds, minerals, cotton, and oil that is Starry Night needs to remain within a specific object-position for it to remain legible and functional as an art object, just as a chair is a chair only so as long as the lump of wood it is made of retains the specific object-position that makes it legible and functional as such. Crucially, if the materials that make up Starry Night or the chair veer too far away from their designated object-position, they will eventually cease

Toward an Ecology of Modern Categories


to be legible and functional as an artwork or a chair and will become something else, like junk, a ruin, or a vestige of a bygone object. We can now better see why objects and things are different: objects exist within positions that allow them to perform functions, realize purposes, and carry meanings and values. Things, on the other hand, are functionless, purposeless, meaningless, and valueless material processes. Objects decay, wear down, break, malfunction, and have to be constantly mended and retrofitted to prevent their collapse. Things simply happen. They take place, blindly, aimlessly, and relentlessly: they are a pure material becoming that unfolds without any intention, plan, or goal. What follows from this is that, contrary to what is often assumed, the identity of some-thing as an object is not a property that somehow inheres to its materiality and is given once and for all. The identity of some-thing as an object has to be achieved. Or differently put: things are not objects; they have to be made into objects. This is not easy because, as it happens, objects and things are parting ways all the time, thus creating a discrepancy between them. This discrepancy can occur in two different fashions. The first is when objects part ways with things. This is what the sociologist Terry McDonnell (2016) has called “cultural entropy,” which is the process by which the meaning of objects changes and disintegrates as they are used and reinterpreted. This type of discrepancy, which has been profusely analyzed by social scientists and historians, usually happens as a result of changing conceptions about a given category of objects and the kinds of things that can be included in it.2 When this happens, things that were once considered members of a given category of objects cease to be considered part of it. Think, for example, of those things that were once considered to be gods and are now considered to be simple art objects. Or those things that you bought when they were cool and are now embarrassments in the back of your closet. Or think, as we will do later in this book, of those things that were once considered crucial artworks and now lie forgotten in the storage of museums. The cracks in Starry Night reveal the second way in which the discrepancy between things and objects can happen. This is the discrepancy that emerges when things part ways from objects, which results from what I call the “relentlessness of things.” By this, I mean the process whereby things, as ongoing physical and chemical processes, veer away from the object-positions to which we assign them and create, in so doing, a divergence between what they are as things and the kind of objects they are supposed to be.



This type of discrepancy has received much less attention, maybe because of the subtle and quiet ways in which it usually unfolds in our midst. It is the offspring of that blind and nameless movement that, as Pablo Neruda wrote in his Ode to Broken Things, is not made by “my hands or yours” but goes on grinding up glass, wearing out clothes making fragments breaking down forms

This movement is what lies behind the silent revolutions without ideology or cause that conspire every day against our dreams of order, destabilizing all of our categories, meanings, and distinctions, and creating, as a result, that unconquerable discrepancy between desire and reality, between (what we call) “order” and (what we call) “disorder.” The effects of these silent revolutions are everywhere. They are evident in that implacable movement that slowly but surely undoes your house, inch by inch, causing that worn-out blind to suddenly fall off its window in an empty room, or that old wooden door to quietly outgrow its frame. They are also painfully evident in that relentless movement that quietly draws the wrinkles on your skin and undoes your body from within, day by day. Or in that irreversible movement that undoes the physical fabric of your memories by devouring once-distinct faces in an old photograph until they become indiscernible. And they are evident in the cracks lacerating Starry Night. Together, they remind us every day that despite our best intentions, we do not live in a world where there is perfect identity between objects and things, but one in which objects— as well as the categories, meanings, relations, functions, boundaries, and forms of imagination that we thread through them— are being constantly undermined, displaced, and undone by the aimless but relentless rebellion of things. They remind us that we live in a world in which the identity between objects and things is always fragile and breaks down over time, and in which the discrepancy between objects and things is an ineliminable fact of life, as integral to it as breathing and as certain as death. If we step back from the cracks to regain our original distance from the canvas and look around the rest of the artworks in the exhibition room, we can now see what was hidden in plain sight all along: that a museum is not a collection of objects but a collection of slowly unfolding disasters. Because it is not just Van Gogh’s Starry Night. Every single object in

Toward an Ecology of Modern Categories


these rooms is slowly inching toward its own disappearance, on its way to becoming something else. We can now see that the supposed stability of these objects is an effect generated by a very specific perspective and scale. If we could place a time-lapse camera in the exhibition room and fast-forward the footage, we would not see objects suspended in a seemingly eternal pause but sculptures and paintings endlessly changing and moving, contracting and expanding, losing some forms and colors while gaining others. We would see an unceasing morphogenetic process where there are no beginnings or ends, and no separation between decay and growth. We would see a process in which the fall of an object is just the beginning of a new one in a relentless transformation that is not guided by any intention, ideology, or purpose but by other less storied figures, like oxidization, microbes, crystalline formations, moss, corrosion, light, or air. And as all this happens, as the order of things relentlessly colonizes the order of objects, we would see all the modern boundaries and categories that have been laboriously built into the surfaces of the world coming slowly but implacably undone. One by one. Until it is no longer possible to tell what belongs to “nature” and what to “culture,” what was made by a “subject” and what was made by an “object,” what is “art” and what is “dirt,” what is “meaningful” and what is “meaningless,” what is “essence” and what is “accident,” or what is “past” and what is “present.” But this is not what you see when you enter a museum of art. What you see is the exact opposite. Instead of life unfolding, you see life stilled. Instead of change and transformation, you see stability and permanence. Instead of the movement of things, you see the infinite pause of objects. You do not see the undifferentiation of boundaries or the collapse of categories. What you see is the difference between culture and nature, between subject and object, between the past and the present. But how is this possible? How is it possible to produce and sustain the differences and boundaries between these categories? How, in short, is it possible to maintain that which we call “art” amidst the relentlessness of things? This book addresses these questions. The basic premise upon which this book rests is that if we are to answer these questions, we cannot study our modern system of categories as if they were mere abstractions that we willfully impose upon the world— simple mirrors of ourselves, as the constructivists and postmodernists would have it. Nor can we study them as if they were mere figures of the world that we just need to recognize or reveal— simple mirrors of nature, as the positivists would have it. Instead, I argue that categories— like that of the art object— must be



understood, and therefore studied, as ecological forms, which have to be built, achieved, and sustained in and through the world, that is, in and through the order of things. What this means is that when we talk about the difference between categories like nature or culture, subject or object, we are not talking about a difference that exists in our minds or in the world but about a difference that has to be built and sustained within the world. Because, as we will see, categories are as much made (and unmade) in and through air, light, minerals, chemical reactions, and climatic conditions as they are in and through ideas, symbols, cognitive schemes, and intentions. Or differently put, producing and sustaining these categories is never just a question of producing and sustaining mental schemas, disciplines, ideologies, or epistemes; it is first and foremost a question of producing and sustaining an ecology. “Ecology,” as I will use it here, refers to the material, atmospheric, semiotic, and imagined conditions in and through which something— be it a category, a body, a rock, or a god— exists, subsists, and becomes. Let me call this ever-evolving sum of conditions, processes, and relations the “ecological nexus,” and let me define an ecological approach as the study of this nexus. If we are to study the ecological nexuses through which categories exist, we need to pay attention to different concerns and questions than those set by the two main traditional approaches to the study of categories, which we can call the “genealogical” and the “logical.” The genealogical approach, which can be traced back to Friedrich Nietzsche’s archaeology of morals, Arthur Oncken Lovejoy’s history of ideas, or Karl Mannheim’s sociology of knowledge, has been primarily concerned with what Michel Foucault (2008, 19)— arguably the most astute and accomplished genealogist— once referred to as the mystery of how something that did not exist comes to exist, by which he meant how categories like art, culture, or the subject, came into being (see also Hacking 2004). The logical approach can be traced back to the likes of Émile Durkheim and Ferdinand de Saussure and has been mainly concerned with the study of how categories relate to each other to shape what, depending on the discipline and period, have been variously called “mentalities,” “Weltanschauung,” “ideologies,” “epistemologies,” “culture,” “mental structures,” “cosmologies” or, lately, even “ontologies.” The ecological approach I develop here differs from the genealogical and logical approaches in two main ways. The first is that rather than focusing on the study of logics, that is, on how categories are supposed to relate to each other, an ecological inquiry is concerned with exploring what it takes to make those categories pos-

Toward an Ecology of Modern Categories


sible in the world. In other words, an ecological inquiry is not so much concerned with what, pace Deleuze (1990), we could call the “logic of sense” as it is with the labor of sense. This builds directly on approaches like the early pragmatist tradition of William James and the intellectual tradition developed over the last decades in cultural sociology by Howard Becker (1982), Harvey Molotch (2003), and Chandra Mukerji (1997), or in science and technology studies by authors like Annemarie Mol (2002), Susan Leigh Star and Geoffrey Bowker (1999), or Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison (2007). The second difference is that rather than focusing on solving the genealogical mystery of how categories come into being, an ecological inquiry focuses on solving the mystery of how those categories are kept into being. Or differently put: an ecological inquiry shifts the focus from the worlds through which certain categories come into being to the worlds required to keep them alive, help them endure, and make them powerful. Because as the Greek root of the word “category” reminds us, a kate¯goria is an accusation, a charge, which, like any other accusation, is moot unless it can be supported. Those categories that do not have worlds to support them, which as it happens is most of them, are as important and consequential as an unread book— which explains, among other things, the sheer inconsequence of most of the categories developed in academic books like this one. Thus, the central question around which the ecological inquiry I develop in this book revolves is the one formulated by the artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles in her 1969 Manifesto for Maintenance Art: “After the revolution, who’s going to pick up the garbage on Monday morning?”(in Phillips et al. 2016, 46). Which is a way of asking: After our dreams of order have been accomplished and our categories rule the world, who is going to prevent those categories and the worlds we imagine and inhabit through them from collapsing? Who is going to take care of the cracks that will accumulate in them? Who has the power to decide which categories, and which worlds, are worth caring for? And, crucially, who has the resources to care for them? What follows is an empirical exploration of what it takes to produce and sustain one particular category, the modern category of the art object. As will become apparent in the following pages, making possible and sustaining the ecological nexus within which that cracking physical knot we call Starry Night can remain legible and imaginable as an artwork turns out to be an exceedingly complex and resource-intensive task involving a vast array of technologies, infrastructures, and labor. I will explore how



this is done by focusing on one of the most powerful machines developed to produce and sustain this ecological nexus: the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

MoMA: The Museum of the Modern Imagination The Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA) is a rather idiosyncratic museum. The museum first opened its doors in 1929, in a rented six-room suite in the Heckscher Building on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 57th Street, thanks to the vision and audacity of three women: Mary Quinn Sullivan, Abby Rockefeller, and Lillie Bliss. Ever since its founding, the story of MoMA has been one of vertigo. MoMA went from being what Fortune magazine described in 1938 as a “provocative spectacle of the thickest pillars of conservative society upholding a distinctly radical artistic cabal” (in Robson 1988, 90) to become, in a little over two decades, the most powerful museum of modern art in the world. MoMA’s vertiginous rise to preeminence was anything but serendipitous. The museum was born at the convergence of capitalism and war, the main historical forces that shaped the twentieth-century monster. The transmogrification of a small boutique experiment into the foremost museum of modern art was propelled by American financial and real estate capitalism— which has driven the unrelenting expansion of MoMA’s collection since its foundation— as well as by the ravages of Nazism and World War II, which brought a massive influx of European artists to the US and created the necessary asymmetry of power and wealth that enabled the young MoMA to extract art from a broken Europe. The combination of these forces explains how MoMA went from having 1 artwork in 1929 (Aristide Maillol’s sculpture Ile-de-France) to having 2,590 in 1940, 12,000 in 1960, and 52,000 in 1980. Today, only ninety years after its founding, MoMA owns the largest and (arguably) most important collection of modern and contemporary art in the world, comprising more than 200,000 artworks by over 10,000 artists, a library with more than 300,000 books and exhibition catalogues, and over 40,000 files of ephemera about individual artists and groups. MoMA is also one the wealthiest art institutions in the world, with an operating annual budget of more than $200 million and an endowment of more than $1 billion. The museum attracts today more than 3 million souls per year and employs close to 1,000 employees across 28 departments, including 8 curatorial departments. MoMA has become an insatiable juggernaut razing

Toward an Ecology of Modern Categories


everything in its way in the name of art and modernity. It has expanded six times from the five-story townhome it moved to in 1932 (after relocating from its temporary abode in the Heckscher Building), taking over almost an entire city block. As I write these lines, the museum is well advanced in its seventh expansion, the second in fifteen years. But MoMA’s importance is not simply to be measured by the cold force of numbers. The idiosyncratic importance of this museum lies in the intangible. It is possible to state, without fear of exaggeration, that MoMA was the museum of the twentieth century. Not only was it the most important and powerful museum of modern art in the twentieth century, but it also offered a perfect museification of the (Western) twentieth century, encapsulating the myopias, utopias, and dystopias that defined what Eric Hobsbawm (1996) has called “the age of extremes.” MoMA has been central to defining how modern art has been narrated and imagined over the twentieth century. Under the aegis of its founding director, Alfred Barr Jr.— who was just twenty-seven when he was appointed to the position— MoMA became something else than just another museum showing art; it wanted to be a machine that could make possible a new way of thinking about what art could (and should) be. Barr wanted to revolutionize the museum by moving it from being a memory device concerned with bringing the past into the present to an exploratory device concerned with bringing the future into the present by testing the possible forms of the à venir. As Barr himself put it: “The Museum of Modern Art is a laboratory: in its experiments the public is invited to participate” (1939, 15). This experimental and exploratory nature of the museum is the essence of Barr’s famous 1933 torpedo diagram, which he presented to the board of trustees to define his vision of the new museum as a machine moving full throttle away from the past into the future.3 The birth of MoMA not only changed the direction of the dominant narrative about what museums were and could be; it also changed the scope of that narrative. One of Barr’s main impetuses was to undo the strict separation between high and low art that had dominated the modern aesthetic regime of art. Building on the idea of Gesamtkunstwerk— the total work of art— that Gropius and Moholy-Nagy had developed in the Bauhaus during the 1920s, Barr sought to create a new form of aesthetic commonsense by designing a museum that could contain a total aesthetic register of the present, including not only the products of the traditional beaux arts like painting and sculpture but also, for the first time, the products of aesthetic practices that had been hitherto considered external to “proper art,” like film, photography, design, and architecture.



Today it is simply impossible to imagine the category of art without understanding how MoMA has imagined it and cared for it. Perhaps MoMA’s most revolutionary and enduring contribution to the modern commonsense has been the institutionalization, standardization, and popularization of the white room, which, as I will argue later in this book (see part 3), has become the central aesthetic technology through which art is encountered, experienced, imagined, produced, and narrated. Under Barr’s directorship, MoMA weaponized the white room to produce a very particular style of imagining and narrating art, that of modernism. Much as Auguste Comte had conceived the evolution of society in his The Course of Positive Philosophy or James George Frazer had conceived the evolution of religion in The Golden Bough, Barr’s modernism conceived the history of art as one of necessary, logical, and cumulative stages, moving from lessevolved forms that indefectibly culminated in the more-evolved European and North American art of the present.4 By the late 1950s and early 1960s, MoMA was the most powerful church preaching the secular gospel of modernism in the world. It had an almost unrivaled capacity to anoint artistic movements into the canon of the universal history of art and, through sleight-of-hand, pass off its particular modernist version of art history as the history of art itself. A great deal of the thinking about art that has taken place ever since— including, belatedly, MoMA’s own thinking and practice since the mid-1990s— has consisted in dismantling the hegemonic modernist commonsense that MoMA helped to build and revealing the fallacious conflation of the history of modern art with the history of (Euro-American) modernism. This brief but wildly intense history explains the rather paradoxical position that MoMA occupies in today’s art world. It is an institution that is as much admired for the revolutionary role it once played in popularizing the European avant-garde and bringing it into the fold of the modern commonsense as it is reviled for reducing the history of modern and contemporary art to a history of Euro-American navel-gazing. It is an institution that is as much praised for having shattered the established commonsense of art and making possible a radically novel institutional and aesthetic vocabulary as it is scolded for having abandoned its original revolutionary pulse in favor of a new and paralyzing hegemonic commonsense. It is an institution that is as much celebrated for its peerless capacity to propagate modern and contemporary art among wide audiences as it is criticized for squandering that capacity in a tiring exercise of self-repetition that has reduced art to a trite capitalist spectacle. It is an institution, in sum, that seems to be caught in a trap of its own making, condemned by its own

Toward an Ecology of Modern Categories


success to being judged against the very parameters that it once helped to define and can no longer meet. MoMA, too, has cracks.5 The story I want to tell is not about MoMA’s institutional vicissitudes, or about the shifting narratives the museum has produced over the years, but the story of how the category of art object is done and sustained at MoMA.6 In order to tell this particular story, we will need to approach MoMA in a way that differs greatly from how museums have been typically studied.

The Museum as an Aesthetic Machine Museums are one of the most studied institutions of modernity. Over the last two centuries they have been endlessly commented on and dissected by philosophers, poets, artists, curators, historians, and social scientists of all stripes. The result is a daunting ocean of ink that can take a lifetime (or two) to navigate. Fortunately, it is a navigable ocean, since it is organized around the rhythmic repetition of a couple of dominant currents. One of these currents is critique. Critique has been, and remains, the dominant form of thinking about the museum. Ever since 1796, when Quatremère de Quincy described the Louvre as a place that killed art in order to make history, museums have been one of the favorite punching bags of modern thought. Marinetti compared them to cemeteries, Valéry to tombs of dead visions, Adorno to mausoleums, Robert Smithson to a collection of voids, while authors in the post-Foucauldian tradition have described them as technologies of power that work as disciplinary mechanisms and ideological reproduction (T. Bennett 1995; Hooper-Greenhill 1992) or as machines of deceit (Dagognet 1993). The second current, which stems from this critical approach, is organized around what has been called “the politics of display” and focuses on the underlying narratives and ideologies that organize museum exhibitions and how they normalize and naturalize different “ways of seeing,” “forms of knowledge,” or “systems of classification” (Karp 2007; Alpers 1991; Macdonald 2006; Karp and Lavine 1991; Stocking 1985; Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 1998). These approaches have raised crucial questions about the purported neutrality of museum representations and narratives. They have made it possible to explore the role that museums play in producing what Carol Duncan (1995) has called “civilizing rituals,” as well as the narrative inclusions and erasures through which many of the central categories of the modern imagination— e.g., nature, nation, art, subject, race, or history— have been woven into the modern commonsense. Moreover,



these approaches have enjoyed what is arguably the rarest and most precious distinction that any form of social thought can enjoy: their critiques have been heeded by the object of critique. For example, approaches like the “new museology” (Vergo 2006) and the “new institutionalism” (Kolb and Flückiger 2014) have led to more self-reflective museum practices. But for all of their virtues, these approaches provide a reductive understanding of the museum and the aesthetic labor that takes place in it. This is so for two reasons. The first is that these approaches suffer from what we could call a “proscenic bias,” that common maladie afflicting a great deal of modern social thought, which consists in understanding social life through its visible surfaces— its prosceniums— while ignoring what lies behind them. This has meant that the study of museums has been almost entirely confined to the study of what happens in their visible surface: the exhibition rooms. In turn, this has led to an understanding of the museum that synecdochically reduces it to the exhibition room, and to a mode of thinking about the museum that simply reproduces the point of view of the spectator, for whom the exhibition room is both the beginning and the ending point of the experience.7 Yet, as we will see in this book, museums are much more than exhibition rooms. At MoMA, for example, exhibition rooms currently make up roughly about 15 percent of the total space.8 However, that remaining 85 percent has rarely been a focus of attention— in fact, it is almost as though it did not exist at all. The paradoxical result is that while museums are indeed one of the most studied modern institutions, they remain one of the most underexplored institutions of modernity. Reading the literature, one could easily forget that, in addition to exhibition rooms, museums include massive storage spaces, conservation laboratories, machine rooms, restaurants and cafés, workshops, loading docks and transport infrastructures, educational and research spaces, offices, and more. It is simply not possible to understand the museum without understanding what goes on in those vast and largely uncharted geographies that lie behind the prosceniums that have normally captured our attention. The second reason that the focus on exhibition rooms and the politics of display is insufficient is that it has led scholars and critics to analyze museums almost exclusively in terms of the exhibitionary practices through which they categorize, represent, and display artworks. As a result, for the last two centuries we have two parallel narratives about art, one created by art historians and critics concerned with how artists produce art, and the other by museologists concerned with how museums display

Toward an Ecology of Modern Categories


art.9 Because of this division of intellectual labor, the museum has for the most part been understood as a “physical space” where art is displayed, a mere container of art. But as we will see in this book, museums are much more than a space for art. Museums are machines for art, much as a house, as Le Corbusier ([1923] 1985, 107) wrote, is not just a place for living but a machine for living in. What this means is that museums are not just a means for the display of art; they are aesthetic machines whereby a specific way of imagining, narrating, and practicing art becomes possible— in much the same way that an abacus is not simply a means of representing mathematical operations but is the very technology whereby a specific way of thinking mathematically becomes possible. Crucially, making art possible in these aesthetic machines requires more than just displaying artworks in the exhibition room. As the sociologist Howard Becker (1982) showed us a while ago, making art possible is a collective activity involving the coordination of many different actors, practices, and knowledges. This much will become evident in the following pages as we explore how conservators, registrars, curators, preparators, couriers, and guards, among others, organize the particular choreography of bodies, things, and spaces through which we come to encounter, experience, and imagine some-things as art. But, as we will also see, making art possible requires much more than networks of cooperation between people. It requires x-ray radiography, infrared reflectography, organic chemistry, and materials science to prevent artworks from collapsing. It also requires taming biological life and controlling organic and inorganic processes, as well as killing bugs and insects. Making art possible requires creating and managing massive storage rooms and a vast atmospheric infrastructure to quarantine artworks so that they can live forever. It requires the work of registrars, preparators, and couriers to coordinate the equally massive physical and legal infrastructure to allow artworks to move in and out of exhibition rooms. It requires creating interior spaces that can support the claims of neutrality, authenticity, authorship, and chronology that have come to define the modern imagination of art. It requires controlling smells, shadows, and sound in those spaces. In short, making art possible requires an ecology. The aim of this book is to explore how specifically this ecology is produced and sustained in practice at MoMA. Needless to say, museums are not the only space where art is done. Art is also done, and done differently, by artists in studios, community centers, and collective practices, on streets and in digital spaces. Art is also done



by gallerists and collectors. It is done at art fairs, auctions, biennials. It is done in art magazines and academic journals and books. Art is also done beyond the institutional confines of the art world: in postcards, fridge magnets, T-shirts, underwear, posters, souvenirs, coffee mugs, and screensavers, and through pop culture in music, TV shows, films, or documentaries. The museum is just a piece in the much larger ecology of the art world. Thus, it is important to remember that when I talk about museums in this book, I am only talking about one of the aesthetic machines that populate the art world. And it is also important to remember that how the category of art is done in the museum is not necessarily the same as how it is done in other spaces. Here it is important to remember that a great deal of artmaking practices since the 1960s have emerged precisely as attempts to move art beyond the museum, especially beyond canonical museums like MoMA. If we take this into account, trying to study how the category of art is done by focusing on a museum like MoMA may seem a hopelessly reductive and anachronistic endeavor. And yet, just as it is important to remember that the museum is not the only place where art is done, it is also important to remember that the proliferation of all these forms and ways of doing art has not decentered or diminished the position that the museum occupies in the modern aesthetic regime of art, or the central role that it plays in how the category of art is narrated and imagined. Au contraire! Despite the fact that the death of the art museum, like that of God, has been announced over and over again. Despite the fact that every artistic movement worth its salt has declared the museum obsolete, just as every critic and social theorist worth her salt has mounted a final and devastating critique against the museum. Despite the fact that the museum has been declared a pointless institution in the age of digital and photographic reproduction. Despite all this, the death of the museum, like that of God, is still to come. The museum is not only alive and kicking but has become one of the most invasive species of modernity, proliferating well beyond its original European-American habitat. In fact, the promiscuous multiplication of images in the age of mass consumption and digital reproduction has done little to dent the importance of the museum. If anything, it has only served to intensify the fetishistic desire for the auratic encounter with the original artwork that the museum promises. (Yes, Benjamin got it exactly backward.) Likewise, the endless artistic revolt against the museum, far from decentering or undermining it, has only served to reinscribe its centrality. As the art critic Boris Groys (2013) has noted, every single one of these artis-

Toward an Ecology of Modern Categories


tic revolts needs the museum to establish the contours of the art through which they exist. This is not because the museum prescribes what their art should be but because it establishes what their art can no longer be. For that is the basic principle of modern art: art can only be that which is not already. Indeed, a great deal of the history of modern art can be read as the repetition of a circular movement by which artists seek to create a difference beyond or against the museum, which the museum then absorbs, pacifies, and institutionalizes, and which thus becomes the very condition of possibility for the next difference to arise. But the centrality of the museum does not lie only in this negative relation: if the museum is still central today, it is because it remains internal to the process of how art itself has been imagined and practiced. A great deal of modern and contemporary art exists through a parasitical relation with the museum, since the artificial operations and relations created by the museum are the very conditions that make that art possible and intelligible. Thus, it is possible to say that if the museum remains central today it is because a large part of modern and contemporary art is made either for or against it and therefore cannot be understood without the museum. The museum is also important because it is the machine that makes possible that most fragile and elusive of forms: permanence. The museum is the machine making it possible that paintings made of seeds and plastics, sculptures made of wax and latex, performances made of hugs, installations made of candies, photographs made of gelatin, or videos made of digital code, do not become undone by the blind relentlessness of things. Of course, the museum cannot stop the movement of things: that would entail stopping the chemical and mechanical processes through which life itself unfolds. But the museum can at least create the conditions of a deferral that allows the image of permanence and, through it, the mirage of a victory over things. The production of this deferral is, I will argue, the most important aesthetic labor that the museum has to perform. Crucially, the museum cannot produce just any form of deferral, because not all forms of keeping these objects alive are equally valid. The museum needs to generate a very particular kind of deferral, one that can sustain the set of distinctions and categories that organize the modern aesthetic regime of art. This means that the museum has to generate a deferral that allows these objects to exist and persist without undoing the categories of authenticity, originality, authorship, or chronological time, upon which the modern aesthetic regime of art is organized— a task that turns out to be particularly difficult because none of these modern categories exist, let alone persist, in the wild. Modernity has to be artificially



built into the world, engineered, and tirelessly maintained, through a very particular ecological nexus. But how do we study this ecological nexus?

Ecology as a Method of Description and Imagination The study of how the ecological nexus is done at MoMA is going to require us to bring into view perspectives, elements, spaces, actors, and forms of labor that have either been absent or have played a very peripheral role in most of the thinking about art, or, for that matter, in much of social thought. In order to bring all of these variables into view, we will need to develop an ecological inquiry organized around a particular method of description. This will require us to adopt three fundamental methodological displacements. Bringing things in The first methodological displacement required to study how the ecological nexus is made at MoMA is to make space for things in our description. Much of modern social thought has tended to consider objects and to forget things. These object-centric approaches have examined how objects are used, classified, and interpreted (e.g., Appadurai 1986; Bourdieu 1984; Foucault 1994) and, more recently, what they do (e.g., Gell 1998). One of the problems with such approaches is that objects normally appear in them as if they were some sort of irreducible fundamental, and as though they were self-evident and given. However, objects are anything but selfevident or given. If they were, there would certainly be no point in having almost a thousand people employed at MoMA, including engineers, scientists, conservators, registrars, and preparators, whose jobs exist precisely because objects are not something that is given but something that has to be achieved. Studying how objects are achieved has been one of the central focuses of the field of science and technology studies (Pickering 1995; Latour 1987; Law 2002). These approaches have been enormously helpful in de-essentializing objects and illuminating the “sociotechnical” networks through which they are produced. However, they still fall short of the kind of inquiry we need to understand how the ecological nexus is produced and sustained at MoMA. The reason for this is that these approaches have been typically concerned with explaining how objects are produced, and not so much with what happens afterward, when those objects start to deteriorate, malfunction, or fall into disrepair. What tends to be missing in all of these object-centric approaches is an

Toward an Ecology of Modern Categories


account of the fact that the objects they describe are fragile and temporal realities that are always being outgrown, betrayed and transformed by the constant unfolding of things. Thus, while these approaches have certainly been useful in understanding the role that objects are supposed to play in producing and reproducing different social relations, narratives, logics, networks, epistemes, ontologies, or cultures, they are not very useful for explaining what happens to those social relations, narratives, logics, networks, epistemes, ontologies, or cultures when the identity they presume between things and objects starts to break apart. Nor can they explain the kind of processes and negotiations that are required to prevent this from happening or the kind of new orders and possibilities that these processes and negotiations open up. The ecological approach I develop here begins by taking seriously the seemingly banal fact that things are constantly falling out of place. Taking this fact seriously, I argue, opens up an entirely different approach, one that takes temporality, fragility, and change as the starting points of inquiry. Crucially, taking such an approach does not mean that we should abandon objects and embrace the old Heraclitan idea of panta rhei to gleefully proclaim that “all is process!” Nor does it mean that we should dissolve objects into some sort of pan-relationalism where every-thing is just a node in seemingly endless “networks” or “assemblages” (e.g., J. Bennett 2009; Latour 2005b). Just as it is important to avoid the fetishization of objects, it is important to avoid the fetishization of relations, networks, and processes that has taken place over the last decades in much contemporary social thought and has ended up constituting relations, networks, and process as some sort of mythical arche to which all reality can be reduced.10 The focus of an ecological investigation is not processes and relations but the material, atmospheric, semiotic, and imagined conditions— the ecological nexus— whereby certain things come to be differentiated and identified as particular kinds of objects, and the amount of work that is required to maintain, or change, this particular form of identity and differentiation over time. Or differently put: the aim of an ecological inquiry is not to “reveal” that what seems to be an object, like Van Gogh’s Starry Night, is “really” just process or a sum of relations but to understand the conditions that allow some processes and relations to be sustained in such a way that they can be individuated, and rendered legible, as a particular kind of object: an “art object.” An ecological inquiry, therefore, must develop a method of description that pays as much attention to the processes and relations that generate



and sustain the objects through which we organize our lives as to the different forms of containment that interrupt those processes and relations. Throughout this book, this interplay between process and containment, movement and stillness, returns as a key to understanding the labor that takes place in the museum to prevent (or at least defer) the collapse of objects. As we will see, this interplay is at the heart of the conservators’ endless effort to preserve the status of things as original and authentic art objects (part 1). It is also what drives the need for massive storage infrastructures to contain things so that they can be fixed in time as aesthetically and economically valuable objects (part 2) and what motivates the equally massive effort to contain these things in exhibition rooms where they can be encountered, experienced, and imagined as true, authentic, and timeless objects (part 3). In what follows, therefore, rather than starting the study of art from the point of view of “objects” (i.e., positions) or from that of “things” (i.e., material processes), I will be starting from that particular in-between space where things and objects are not aligned, where dreams begin to collapse, where reality escapes desire, where the difference between what is and what ought to be is born. Thus, the main questions that will guide my inquiry are these: Under what conditions can some-thing come to be differentiated and count as a particular kind of object? Under what conditions does some-thing cease to count as an object and become something else? How are those conditions produced and maintained over time? And what or who has the power to create and maintain those conditions? If we are to answer any of these questions, we need to bring into our description not only things but also the world in which they exist and unfold. Bringing the World In I do not know if you have noticed, but it rarely, if ever, rains in social theory; nor is it ever cold, hot, humid, or dry. In the stories that social theorists tell, there are very few clouds, atmospheres, or plateaus— except for figurative ones— and hardly any talk about organic and mechanical processes like alkalization or oxidation. The absence of these elements may be traced to the original sin committed by early modern thinkers who, in their attempt to bring the world into their discussions of social, political, and moral forms, ended up creating crude causal explanations leading to even cruder simplifications. Think, for example, of authors like Bodin, Machiavelli, and Rousseau striving to link political forms to geographical forms, or Montesquieu’s crude effort

Toward an Ecology of Modern Categories


to link climate to forms of political liberty.11 This early modern thinking about the “natural environment” was at the heart of the determinist models that proliferated over much of the nineteenth century, linking environments to morality and virtue: from the miasmic theories relating “foul air” to moral degradation and criminality, to social Darwinist theories linking climates and environments to racial capacities, which in turn paved the way for the eugenics movement and racist colonial discourses about the uncivilized and idle other. This original sin ultimately led to the expulsion of these elements from the confines of social thought, charged with being part of advancing determinist, backward, and racist model ways of thinking. This expulsion led to the further entrenchment of the bifurcation that, as Whitehead (1920) pointed out, has characterized much of modern social thought, which has separated nature from the social and the cultural and has treated them as if they were two different registers of reality. The result of this bifurcation is that much of social thought over the twentieth century was characterized by a forgetfulness of the world. The assumption has been that the study of elements (e.g., air, light, temperature, or humidity), and of mechanical and chemical processes, (e.g., corrosion, oxidization, carbonization, crystallization, or photosynthesis), is something that pertains to climatologists, biologists or chemists, not to sociologists or anthropologists (much less art historians!), who are concerned with studying social and cultural artifacts, such as meanings, social relations, power, or discourses.12 Of course, no (sane) sociologist, anthropologist, or art historian would deny that air, temperature, and oxidization are important. They are simply not seen as relevant factors to explain how relations, fields, structures, or systems of meanings take place, since these are seen as unfolding on a logic of their own, what is called a “cultural” or “social” logic. Hence, for example, Clifford Geertz’s famous definition of man as “an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun” (1973, 5). The implausibility of this form of explanation has become painfully evident over the last decades, as the world has begun to disrupt the modern fantasy that it can be factored out of our discussion and reduced to the position of a constant, stable, and relatively harmless background environment. A minuscule 0.8°C uptick in the average temperature of the world over the last century has been enough to force us to remember how illusory (and dangerous) it is to think of our cultural and social worlds as if they were outside or independent from the world. All of a sudden, it not only rains in social theory, but it pours. There is now an urgency to create (or remember) vocabularies and models that



help us to redeploy the world into social theory and understand its relationship with social and cultural worlds. Some have proposed thinking of this relationship in terms of “loops” and “feedbacks” à la Bateson (1972) or Maturana and Varela (1980). Others think in terms of “metabolisms,” like the neo-Marxist approaches of urban political ecology (e.g., Heynen, Kaika, and Swyngedouw 2006), while others, like those authors working in and around the social studies of sciences tradition, have proposed thinking in terms of “human-nonhuman networks” (e.g., Latour 2004), “nature-cultures” (e.g., Haraway 2008), or “inter-species relations” (e.g., Tsing 2017). The ecological thinking this book proposes builds on these approaches but aims to push them further. My argument is that if we want to understand the ecological nexus through which a category, like that of art, exists and subsists, we need to give up on that modern idea that describes the environment as something that is “outside.” An ecological inquiry can only begin with the recognition that there is no outside. That is, with the recognition that we do not work “with,” “over,” or “upon” these natural elements and processes— we work inside them. What this means is that if we need to pay attention to air, light, or temperature, or processes like oxidization and crystallization, this is not because they belong to an “outside environment” affecting our “social” and “cultural” worlds through some sort of “loop,” “relation”, “metabolism,” “feedback” or “hyphen” but because they are a crucial part of the ecological nexus through which the meanings, forms, relations, or categories that give form to those “social” and “cultural” worlds become possible and acquire their reality, durability, and power. Thus, and contrary to what is often argued (e.g., Kohn 2015), we cannot discount these elements in our explanations simply because they are inorganic elements without the capacity to think or act and therefore without the ability to participate in the production of meaning, forms, or categories. We cannot discount them because elements like air, light, and temperature, or processes like oxidization and crystallization, are as integral to the making (and unmaking) of meanings, forms, and categories as any self endowed with the capacity to think or act. Actually, they may be more so, because, much to our regret, the participation of these elements in the making (and unmaking) of those meanings, forms, and categories is not an option but an unavoidable fate. Understanding these elements and their movements, therefore, is as necessary to explaining the life and death of cultural and social forms as understanding water is necessary to explaining the life and death of fish. This is particularly evident in the museum. One of the main missions of

Toward an Ecology of Modern Categories


the museum is precisely to generate the rather peculiar atmospheric conditions within which the meanings, forms, relations, or categories that organize the modern imagination of art can survive. Because, as we are going to see, modern categories such as object, subject, authenticity, originality, or chronologies, cannot survive au naturel. They require creating and maintaining a very specific kind of environment, filled with a very specific form of light, a very specific type of air, and a very specific range of temperature and humidity. Because, as it turns out, modernity only runs within a very specific environment. But how is all this work of producing and maintaining these environments done? And more importantly, who does this work? And how is it done? Bringing the Mundane In One of the assumptions underlining much of the study of categories has been to treat them is if they were problems of thought. Thus, if we want to understand a category, like that of art, we need to pay attention to what the great “men [sic] of ideas,” like philosophers, artists, critics, art historians, curators, and social scientists, have thought and written about a particular category. Although such an approach allows us to tease out how (certain) people think, it is sorely insufficient to illuminate how categories are actually done. The reason for this is that categories are not simply abstract forms produced in our minds; they are ecological forms that have to be built and maintained into the world every single day. And as such, categories are never just problems of thought but problems of practice. What this means is that a great deal of the work required to produce and sustain categories does not take place at the level of metaphysics of the highfalutin type but at the level of what might be called “mundane metaphysics.” If we are to understand how the categories arise out of this mundane metaphysical labor, we need to take three different but tightly connected methodological steps. The first is to shift from an exegesis of categories to an ethnography of categories. This entails a shift from an inquiry solely based on interpreting the writings of “men [sic] of ideas” to one that also pays attention to what the historian Carlo Ginzburg (1992) called “microhistory,” or what the ethnomethodological tradition has called “the routine” (Garfinkel 1964), which is that level of reality populated by seemingly minor acts of mundane metaphysical labor that build categories and boundaries into the world. Because, after all, it is someone’s ordinary 9-to-5 job to separate



nature from culture, to establish the boundaries between subjects and objects, to define what is intentionality, or what is essence and what is accident, or what is past and what is present. Without this mundane metaphysical labor, all these boundaries and categories would simply fall apart. The second methodological shift required is an attention to the banal, to those things that, as Susan Leigh Star once put it, are “mundane to the point of boredom” (1999, 377). What this means is that in addition to paying attention to the big-ticket items that typically take the leading role in our descriptions— e.g., institutional narratives and discourses, social structures, cultural values, markets— we are going to also pay attention to the unremarkable minutiae that are typically glossed over because they are too boring or trite to be taken into account. As we are going to see, if we want to understand how the category of art is done in the museum, we need to pay as much attention to things like door sizes, glass types, airconditioning systems, dust, insects, truck suspension systems, or cotton swabs as we do to curatorial discourses, power relations in the art world, or institutional structures within the museum. Studying these elements requires creating a form of description that not only follows the kind of symmetry between persons and things that authors like Michel Callon (1986) have advocated but also adopts a symmetry of scale. The simple methodological recipe I follow in this book is that everything matters, no matter how small, trivial or banal, unless proven otherwise. The third shift, which results from the above, is that we cannot start our inquiry into the museum as has been customary: in the exhibition room, where order is already achieved, where things have been subsumed under categories ready to be experienced by publics and interpreted by art critics, historians, and social scientists. If we want to explore how the category of art is done, we will need to explore that invisible and largely neglected geography lying beyond the exhibition room: spaces like the conservation lab, the storage facility, or the machine room. And we will need to explore the actors and forms of labor that populate those spaces and that have been left out of the main narratives of art because they have been considered to be without political, aesthetic, or historical value, like the labor of conservators, preparators, engineers, registrars, exhibition designers, art guards, couriers, or cleaners— because, as we will see, without them that particular modern form of imagination that we have come to call “art” would be literally unimaginable. This is why, in the story that follows, the exhibition room will not be our point of departure but our point of arrival. We will begin backstage and slowly work our way to the exhibition room, exploring, as we move

Toward an Ecology of Modern Categories


on, the different forms of aesthetic labor, forms of knowledge, actors, discourses, technologies, climatic variables, and architectures that compose the ecological nexus through which art is done and sustained at MoMA. In order to make the itinerary as simple as possible, I have divided the book into four relatively self-contained parts, each with its own introduction and empirical chapters. Each part is focused on a particular form of aesthetic labor through which the ecological nexus is done at MoMA and on the different actors, technologies, and spaces that make it possible. I have stacked the parts of the book in a Russian-doll structure, meaning that each part is contained within the following one but can also be detached and read on its own. The first part, entitled “Ecologies of Care,” focuses on the peculiar type of aesthetic labor that prevents artworks from becoming undone. As I will show, this care work requires two distinct sets of tasks: first, mending, adjusting, tweaking, and modifying artworks so that they can remain legible and effective “working objects” capable of generating the kind of aesthetic work they are supposed to perform; second, mending, adjusting, tweaking, and modifying artists so they can remain legible and effective “working subjects” capable of generating the kind of aesthetic work they are supposed to perform. In the second part, “Ecologies of Containment,” we will travel to the museum storage. As we will see, storages are among the most crucial spaces determining how the category of art is narrated and imagined today. Storages are crucial technologies of containment that make possible the temporal and spatial scales within which art moves today; they also define the uneven geographies of circulation and exchange shaping how art is narrated, where it is narrated, and, more importantly, by whom it is narrated. In the third part, “Ecologies of Imagination,” we will return to the main proscenium where the modern drama of art has been publicly performed over the last two centuries: the exhibition room. Here we will explore the work required to produce the forms of encountering, relating, experiencing, and imagining objects that have come to define the modern imagination of art. Our journey will conclude with “Ecologies of the Digital,” where I will explore how the incorporation of digital technologies wreaks havoc on the museum ecology by creating a new type of object, a digital art object, that requires the development of a new ecological nexus. I will show how this new nexus involves a massive transformation of the institutional structures and logics that museums have traditionally used to produce the categories organizing the modern aesthetic regime of art.



This exploration of the museum and its underworlds is not simply meant to provide a “behind the scenes” account of how a museum works. The impetus of this project, and the call to think ecologically, is to explore what it takes to produce and sustain a particular form of imagination, the modern imagination, in practice. I want to do so by narrating the B-side of the modern imagination to reclaim the importance of those spaces orphaned by dominant narratives and the absent voices and forms of labor that operate in them. Because, as I hope to show, far from being testimonial or ancillary to the main modern show that takes place on the surface, these spaces are crucial to understanding the categories that populate the prosceniums of social life and how they acquire their form, power, and efficacy, as well as their role in determining the presences and absences that shape how we imagine ourselves (and others). Needless to say, museums are not the only place in which the modern imagination is done. Nor do museums offer the only way in which the modern imagination is built into the world. Modernity is a project that has been imagined, described, and enacted in multiple ways and in multiple sites.13 Exploring a museum like MoMA is simply meant to offer an example of how one particular form of modern imagination, that of art, is done at one particular place. In this sense, I should emphasize that MoMA does not offer a generalizable or exemplary model of how museums work. How the ecological nexus is done at MoMA is not necessarily how it is done at other large museums, like the Centre Pompidou, the Tate Modern, or the Museo Reina Sofía, let alone how it is done in small museums like the Museo de Arte Abstracto Español in Cuenca. MoMA is just one museum. At the same time, MoMA is not just any museum. It is extraordinarily powerful, and power is essential to how the category of art is done, narrated, and imagined. Not everybody can afford the machines required to defeat oblivion and create the kind of deferral that can sustain the image of permanence, not least because there are actually few categories that are as resource-intensive (and as unsustainable) as the modern category of the art object. This is precisely why it is important to understand art from the perspective of an ecological nexus: exploring how that nexus is produced, where it is produced, and who has the capacity to produce it and maintain it will allow us to understand the uneven geographies of power that define the particular interplay between memory and oblivion, between presence and absence, between centers and peripheries, through which the category of art is done, narrated, and imagined today. I hope this exploration contributes to our understanding of the costs, labor, and resources required to build into the world a division between

Toward an Ecology of Modern Categories


subjects and objects, cultures and natures, or past and present— and how unsustainable this modern form of imagination is. Because, as we are going to see, even in the museum, even in one of the most powerful machines ever built to make this particular form of modern imagination possible, modernity remains a fragile and elusive achievement. Finally, I also hope that in showing this, this book can be an invitation to think about fragility and vulnerability not as a problem but as the inherent condition of the worlds we dream and inhabit. For that is, I will argue, what thinking ecologically ultimately means: to acknowledge our fragility and vulnerability.

Part 1 Ecologies of Care


The conservation lab at the Museum of Modern Art.


An Ethnographer on the Verge of an Aesthetic Breakdown If I had to pick the most enduring memory of the research leading to this book, it would be— undoubtedly— the first time I entered the main conservation lab at MoMA. It was a typically dull and shivery January morning in New York. One of the conservators of the museum had invited me to tour the main conservation facility located on the ninth floor of the museum’s west tower on 53rd Street. The visit was particularly thrilling because, as is true for most of us, my interaction with artworks had been up to that point entirely restricted to the highly regimented encounters one is allowed to have with them in the context of the museum or the art gallery— spaces that, after years of subtle but effective indoctrination, had managed to instill in me the particular “habitus” (to use Pierre Bourdieu’s felicitous term) of relating to artworks as objects to be looked at from a peculiar form of distance: a distance that, as an 1880 label in Oxford’s Bodleian Library put it, enables you to “touch what you like with the eyes, but do not see with the fingers.” As an exemplarily obedient modern subject, I had come to accept this peculiar form of distance as just another fact of modern etiquette. Not unlike the way I have accepted the idea that one is not supposed to talk to strangers in an elevator, I have also accepted the idea that art spaces are to be treated as “sites of exception” in which we are supposed to suspend our otherwise promiscuous relationship with things and accept the paradoxical form of distance that emerges when something is seemingly at hand but remains forever withdrawn from us— the paradox that enables even the most banal of things to acquire the mystery of presence that Benjamin called the “aura.” Perhaps this explains the inevitable blend of mistrust and awkwardness I have always felt upon encountering one of those contemporary artworks that attempt to subvert this logic of separation and invite us to approach them, touch them, or even interact with them— a mistrust that emerges from never really knowing whether the invitation is entirely sincere or is


Part 1 Introduction

just a simulacrum, a trap, or a joke to be made at our expense. I must say such mistrust is not entirely unjustified, since more often than not the attempt to restore a “normal” relationship with these objects ends up triggering the forbidding presence of a security guard who gently but firmly reminds you to be careful with the object you are so fondly manipulating because, after all, it is still an art object. Entering the Conservation Department was memorable because, for the first time, I was entering into a space in which that particular form of distance I had learned to inhabit was suspended. The room I was entering was not one of those carefully curated spaces designed to produce choreographed encounters between bodies and artworks that one finds in museums and galleries. Nor did it have the air of secular transcendence that typically fills those spaces. Instead, the room had the unmistakable air of ordinariness that you would expect to find in any workspace on a Wednesday morning. At the same time, there was little that was ordinary about this room. While I was supposed to be inside MoMA, that is, inside a museum of art, the room was filled with all sorts of objects that you do not typically expect to encounter in an art space. There were huge fume-extraction tubes snaking down from the ceiling, x-ray spectrometers, data loggers, zoom microscopes, syringes, tweezers, headband magnifiers, strobe lights, and dozens of cabinets filled with intimidating-looking liquids with even more intimidating names. This, I thought, was the sort of technological mirabilia one would expect to see in a scientific lab dealing with cell cultures or electromagnetic waves, but not precisely the kind of stuff one would expect to find in a space dealing with aesthetics. It took me a few moments to realize that, amidst all this technological paraphernalia, there were in fact artworks in the room. But unlike in the art spaces I had learned to navigate, artworks were not drastically excised and quarantined from their surroundings. Instead, they were scattered around, enjoying what seemed to be a perfectly peaceful coexistence alongside more mundane objects like pens, chairs, computers, desks, and the occasional coffee mug. I still remember my sense of bewilderment when I saw one of Magritte’s paintings (a real Magritte painting!) casually lying on a table among other artifacts and notes, much the way your morning newspaper sits on your breakfast table alongside a half-empty cereal bowl. Or when I spotted the chaotic exuberance of de Kooning’s Woman— which I had only been able to see from behind crowd-control stanchions— sitting idly on a modest wooden easel placed between a workbench and a wall of cabinets filled with all sorts of utensils. Or when I chanced upon four mini-

Caring for the Same


canvases of what seemed to be variations of Yves Klein’s signature blue sitting atop those very same cabinets. Or when I saw on top of a table three basketballs presenting slightly different degrees of discoloration— which, I surmised, probably had something to do with the ineffable Jeff Koons. The result of this rather unusual view was that for a few moments— which felt like a few eternities— I simply could not move. This paralysis was not due to the fact that I was suddenly overtaken by the kind of aesthetic rapture that, if we are to believe Romantics à la Edmund Burke, one (supposedly) experiences upon encountering these auratic objects and that (apparently) results in the mind becoming “so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other” ([1757] 2015, 47). Much to my regret, my paralysis seemed to find its origin in a much more prosaic but equally powerful sentiment: confusion. For there I was, in a space where the fourth wall that had been so laboriously erected over the last three centuries— and which I had learned to “see” and respect— was gone, leaving artworks in a position I had never seen them in before. The very same objects I had learned to experience as unapproachable and untouchable were now unceremoniously lying on tables, or leaning idly against walls in a way that threw their very artness into question. For the first time, they did not appear to be extraordinary and distant but seemed ordinary and mundane . . . like things among things. The unexpected mundanity and ordinariness of these artworks was not simply anticlimactic but deeply disconcerting. I did not have any available cultural script telling me how to behave in such a room, what kinds of interactions, if any, with these objects were appropriate in this context, or what kind of physical distance I should keep from them. In the absence of the usual signposts, such as wall labels, stanchions, or museum guards, it was not even clear how to distinguish what was art and what was not, or what was touchable and what untouchable. I still remember how my initial sense of bewilderment morphed into something closer to what we often call “horror” when I saw some people engaged in the sacrilegious act of touching (!) the untouchable surfaces of some of these art objects. What made this room so disorienting was that the modern imaginary line separating “art” from “life” was unnervingly blurred, if not entirely absent. As I moved along, I felt as though I were traversing an aesthetic minefield in which I could accidentally touch and damage an invaluable— or worse, extremely expensive!— art object. Not an unlikely possibility, especially if we bear in mind that a significant part of art since the beginning of the twentieth century has been purposefully construed as an attempt to elide any tangible difference between art objects and merely quotidian


Part 1 Introduction

ones. How, then, was I supposed to know if the Yves Klein mini-canvases I saw on top of those cabinets were actual artworks or “just” preparatory sketches, forgeries, or maybe even “ex-artworks”? How was I supposed to know which of the three basketballs on the table was “art”? All of them? None? Or whether any of the artifacts sitting on the workbenches were mundane objects or components of some art installation? Fortunately, what seemed to be the beginning of an aesthetically induced panic attack was averted upon realizing that some charitable soul, mindful of the disconcerting implosion of categories taking place in the room, had sought to restore some intelligibility by placing small labels here and there reading “Art Below.” At least, I thought with some relief, the good old Western border between art and life was secured. (Besides, it was also comforting to know that I was not the only one needing assistance to make sense of this weird space. You know what they say: two in distress makes sorrow less.) While these visual aids helped to restore some legibility to the room, they did not entirely succeed in dissolving my anxiety. The room remained an egregiously confounding space in which everything seemed to be out of place, creating unexpected juxtapositions that defied some of the most


Where is art? Making the boundary between categories visible.

Caring for the Same


basic categories and distinctions I had learned to inhabit over the years. This was a space, for example, in which the modern boundary separating art and life, ordinary things from extraordinary objects, seemed to be inoperative. At the same time, art and science, two registers of activity that have long been described as not only different but antagonistic, here seemed to enjoy a peaceful cohabitation. The bewildering result was a space in which Magritte’s oneiric musings were sitting right next to acid detection strips; a space in which scribbled notes about organic chemistry and polymer structures could be found in the same folder containing copies of Picasso’s love letters; or in which conversations freely wove terms like “Fluxus,” “alkalization,” “meaning,” “off-gassing,” and “intentionality” within the same breath. And no one raised an eyebrow.

Of Absences and Erasures The confusion I experienced on that winter morning can be understood as the result of an encounter with an absence. Conservation labs like the one I visited at MoMA have long belonged to that register of orphaned spaces relegated to the background of official histories and deserted by the master narratives of art. Thus, although there is plenty written about what goes on in exhibition rooms, art galleries, auction houses, art fairs, biennials, and artists’ studios, you will be hardpressed to find much about conservation labs and the kind of work that takes place in them. It is as though these spaces did not exist, as though they did not have narratives and histories of their own, or as though those histories and narratives were irrelevant.1 This absence has to do in part with the relatively recent history of conservation and its weak institutionalization as a professional field. Although the practices we now group under the label of conservation are almost as old as the process of image-making itself, conservation only developed as a recognizable professional field in the mid-nineteenth century.2 Prior to this, the work of conservation was typically done by craftsmen or by the artists themselves, either as part of the contract to maintain the artworks they produced or as a way of making a living by working as “hired hands” to conserve the collections of kings, noblemen, and the clergy.3 Only in the second half of the eighteenth century did the figure of the conservator and that of the artist begin to differentiate as princely and royal collections began to be transformed into large public and national collections— a development accelerated by the emergence of the first museums and, of course, Napoleonic war lootings. The need to care for those


Part 1 Introduction

new collections gradually led to the professionalization of conservation and the creation of the first permanent institutional positions devoted to conservation, as in 1797, when Pietro Edwards was appointed Director of the Restoration of the Public Pictures of Venice and charged with taking care of the art confiscated by Napoleon after his Italy campaign. However, it was not until well into the nineteenth century, and especially between the 1850s and 1870s, that the professionalization of the discipline began in earnest thanks to the unlikely marriage between art and the nascent field of organic chemistry. This union allowed conservation to demonstrate that it was a bona fide scientific practice, rather than a mere form of craftsmanship for failed artists or an esoteric, and dubious, practice developed by self-proclaimed experts. This marriage between conservation and chemistry formed the basis for what later became known as “technical art history,” which transformed art, for the first time, into a sui generis scientific object of study. The emergence of this new form of inquiry created what has been the central promise of conservation ever since: that aesthetic problems can be solved through scientific analysis, by transforming questions about authorship, authenticity, and meaning into questions about polymers, solvents, dilutants, or halogenation.4 Despite this promising nineteenth-century marriage, conservation has suffered from a weak process of institutionalization. Part of this has to do with the liminal position that conservation occupies within the modern institutional division of intellectual labor. Caught between science and art, conservation has found it difficult to carve out an institutional space within modern university systems organized around an uncompromising separation between humanities and science divisions. There are pragmatic reasons as well, not least that conservation is extremely expensive. The cost of creating and running a conservation lab is beyond the reach of most museum budgets, which results in museums having to subcontract conservation work to external labs and private practices. Even in those museums that have the means, conservation labs are relatively new additions. MoMA, for example, operated without a conservation department for almost three decades after its creation. It was only in 1958, after a devastating fire destroyed several masterpieces, including two recently acquired Monet Water Lilies, that MoMA decided to establish a conservation laboratory . . . in the basement.5 However, the absence of conservation labs and practices from the modern narrative of art cannot be simply explained as a by-product of the relative novelty of the field or its weak institutionalization. This absence must be understood as part of a larger history of erasures.

Caring for the Same


Conservation belongs to a register of practices that has traditionally not enjoyed much consideration in Western thought. These are the practices of maintenance and repair that constitute the bulk of what I call here “the arts of care,” which have been traditionally dismissed for being reproductive, mechanical, and dull, if not alienating, degrading, and unworthy. The roots of this dismissal can be tracked back to the mythical origins of Western thought, and in particular to that age-old distinction that lies at its very heart, which separates creative labor (i.e., labor that produces the new) from reproductive labor (i.e., labor that produces the same). This distinction has adopted multiple forms throughout the Western tradition, from the Greeks’ aristocratic contempt for what they considered inferior physical and mechanical forms of labor (technê) to the medieval scholastic division between the artes liberalis and artes mechanicae to contemporary distinctions between blue-collar and white-collar workers, or between manual and cognitive labor.6 The results of this distinction are well-known. We have an almost endless supply of philosophies, sociologies, anthropologies, and histories focused on disentangling the mystery of how the new comes about, from eighteenth-century philosophies about imagination to twentieth-century theories of “difference” or contemporary neoliberal discourses on innovation. However, we have almost no recognizable philosophy, sociology, anthropology, or history focusing on those other forms of labor that create the same. This has led to myopic historical narratives in which attention and value are only given to those who produce difference and not to those who “just” produce the same. It is not surprising, therefore, that most modern theories and narratives of social and political change are told from the perspective of those who are in charge of imagining and producing the new— e.g., artists, politicians, philosophers, scientists, or architects— since they have been considered the only ones capable of producing political, economic, or social value. Meanwhile, the ordinary labor of the “others of creation”— e.g., housekeepers, cleaners, plumbers, care workers, mechanics, or conservators— has been deemed irrelevant, since it plays a “merely” reproductive role and therefore lacks any creative (and with it political, economic, or social) value. Only in the last few decades has the neglect of the arts of care begun to change. Starting in the 1960s, thanks to the insurgence of feminist thought, scholars began to question the traditional boundaries between production and reproduction that had been used to justify the exclusion of the arts of care from social thought. This feminist insurgence grew initially around the discussion of domestic labor by Marxist feminist authors like Silvia


Part 1 Introduction

Federici (1975) and Angela Davis (1981). Their impetus was to bring to the fore forms of labor which, like women’s domestic labor, had been disdained for being “invisible, repetitive, exhausting, unproductive, uncreative” (Davis 1981, 222) and rethink these as sites of creative difference and social, economic, and political value. This attention to the labor of care was then extended beyond the domestic sphere, most notably by anthropologists, sociologists, and science and technology scholars studying health (e.g., Mol, Moser, and Pols 2015) and by political philosophers who have taken up care as an alternative ethical foundation to the autonomous abstract individual of liberal philosophy (e.g., Gilligan 2016; Tronto 1993). Over the last decade or so, a new wave of scholars has continued this expansion by including in these arts of care all those routine acts of maintenance and repair that sustain our lives on a daily basis, from the maintenance work required to sustain infrastructures and techno-scientific systems (e.g., Denis and Pontille 2014; Graham and Thrift 2007; Jackson 2004; Mattern 2018; Russell and Vinsel 2018) to the constant work of care required to maintain the relations, bodies, and affects through which our lives take place (e.g., Bellacasa 2017; Martin, Myers, and Viseu 2015; Murphy 2015). Taken together, these approaches have begun to rescue these arts of care from the periphery to which they had been condemned and to place them right at the center of the study of how we weave, maintain, and repair the material, symbolic, and affective orders that we inhabit. But if any field of activity has been impervious to these debates, it has been art. This is not a coincidence. Perhaps more than any other activity, art has based its identity on the erasure of this particular register of labor. The very constitution of the modern category of art was the result of a centuries-long battle to detach the work of the artist from the merely mechanic and reproductive labor that (presumably) characterizes the work of the craftsman.7 The argument being that art is the product of one, and only one, type of creative labor, the individual labor of “the inventive genius,” as Diderot called it (in 2011, 84), a type of labor that is capable of producing objects that are located not only beyond reproductive labor but beyond reproduction itself. For that is what an artwork is: the new, difference itself. One of the main results of this particular understanding is that, over the last two centuries, the narration of art has been construed almost exclusively from the point of view of artistic labor and how the new is created. Hence the unending debates between those, like the formalists (e.g., Clive Bell, Clement Greenberg), who understand the new as the result of internal developments within art, and those others who see the new as a more or less direct effect of particular social, economic, institutional, and

Caring for the Same


political forces in which this creative labor takes place, such as Marxist theorists (e.g., György Lukács, Theodor Adorno, T. J. Clark) feminist art historians (e.g., Mary Garrard, Lucy Lippard), and the proponents of the different sociologies of art (e.g., Arnold Hauser, Pierre Bourdieu). While this focus on artistic labor and the production of the new is, of course, indispensable, it can only offer a very partial, and therefore insufficient, narrative of art. The most that these approaches can offer is an explanation of how artworks come into being, but not of how these artworks keep into being after they are produced. This missing part is particularly important because, as already mentioned, artworks are not just “objects” made of the intentions and meanings imagined by artists; they are also “things” made of paper, oil, stone, wood, or bronze, which have to be continually done and redone, both materially and discursively, to be kept alive. However, exceptions aside— e.g., Mierle Laderman Ukeles’s work on maintenance art— the reflection on the ongoing labor of care, maintenance, and repair required to keep art alive has been almost entirely absent from the main narratives about art told by historians, philosophers, critics, and social scientists. This is not to say that conservation work has been deemed unimportant. Everybody (more or less) knows what conservation is, and everybody would readily acknowledge that conservation is essential to keep art alive. And yet it is a practice that has ultimately been deemed inconsequential since it does not introduce any significant difference into the narrative of art: it just produces “the same.” Hence the paradoxical position in which conservation, like most arts of care, finds itself, being considered at once essential and inconsequential. One of MoMA’s conservators perfectly captured this paradox after a frustrating meeting, when he sullenly complained to me that while everybody in the museum knew the conservators, and everybody needed them, nobody ultimately cared about them and their work because they were seen as “art janitors.” One of the most visible effects of this lack of care is that conservation rarely surfaces in the main narratives about art, except, perhaps, to add a colorful anecdote about some curious “technical” detail. Conservation is primarily narrated by conservators and for conservators; it is almost always told as though it were a parallel history unfolding in the background of the history of art, with its own chronology, milestones, and hagiographies.8 This division of narrative labor has perpetuated the myth that the history of the new and its creators is different from, and can be told outside of, the history of the same and its creators. My aim in this first part of the


Part 1 Introduction

book is to undo this separation by showing how much the work of care shapes the material and symbolic surface of that sui generis modern form of imagination that we call “art.” To do so, I will first need to show why the dichotomy between the creative work of the artist and the “merely” reproductive work of the conservator is a false one, which derives from a refusal to think seriously about the labor of maintenance and repair. Once we do this, it will become evident that the work of the conservator, like any other work of care, far from being a merely reproductive form of labor, is a creative one. But what, exactly, is it that this work of maintenance and repair “creates”? And why is it important? To answer these two questions I need to do a brief “technical” stop to introduce and define some of the key terms that will accompany us throughout this book.

Mimeographic Labor as Creative Labor As I will define it here, creative labor is any form of labor that participates in the description of some-thing as a particular kind of object. Maintenance and repair are examples of a particular kind of creative labor that I call “mimeographic labor.” Unlike “neographic” labor, which is aimed at creating new descriptions, relations, or categories, mimeographic labor is aimed at sustaining and negotiating existing ones. In what follows I will call “neographic” those forms of labor aimed at creating the new and “mimeographic” all those other forms of labor devoted to creating sameness. I emphasize “create” because it is often assumed that sameness is what is given and the new what needs to be created. This, however, is far from being the case. Sameness is always as created as the new. Moreover, sameness is not just created; it is a most fragile creation, as it has to be continually achieved and maintained. This is, in fact, what the etymology of the words “maintenance” and “repair” reminds us. “Repair” refers to the work required to bring something forth (paro) again (re-), that is, to the ongoing work of regenerating something to keep it alive. “Maintain” refers to the work required to stretch (tenein) the life of something with our hands (manu), that is, to the work required to artificially extend the life of something beyond its own natural propensity. If we follow this etymological reasoning, we can then say that the work of maintenance and repair can be defined as the mimeographic work of creating sameness by constantly regenerating and extending the life of something as a particular kind of object.9

Caring for the Same


Now, if these etymological gymnastics do not convince you— and they should not— let me ask you to engage in a simple exercise of imaginative subtraction and think about how the world around you would look without this mimeographic work of maintenance and repair. Imagine, for example, what would happen to your home without the daily toil of housework that you need to put in, day in and day out, to keep it habitable— or if you have small children, functional. Or imagine what would happen to the streets and buildings of your city without the routine work of maintenance workers, groundskeepers, garbage collectors, or road workers. Or what would happen to your computer, your car, or any of your devices without the ongoing work of fixing, cleaning, and upgrading them. What would happen is that your home, your street, and all those devices would slowly become undone, heaving, cracking, oxidizing, and breaking apart, as if devoured by an invisible predator. The physical fabric of their identity would be redescribed until it would no longer be possible to claim that these objects are what they were, and you would be forced to find new names for them, like “junk,” “waste,” “ruins,” or maybe even “heritage.” The mimeographic work of maintenance and repair is the kind of mundane metaphysical labor that prevents this sort of redescription from happening. It is mundane because it is as quotidian, routine, and as necessary as breathing. And it is metaphysical because it is the kind of labor that prevents identities and categories from becoming undone. It is, in other words, the labor that makes it possible to sustain the identity of some-thing as a particular kind of object: to keep your house as a house, your street as a street, or your cell phone as a cell phone. One of the idiosyncrasies of this mimeographic labor is that the work of creating the same is never finished. The relentlessness of things means that they are constantly veering away from the object-positions in which we place them, and we are condemned to be ceaselessly engaged in this mimeographic labor of maintenance and repair. This is why a great deal of our daily toil— and our budgets!— is spent in the Sisyphean work of mending, repairing, adjusting, tweaking, or modifying things so that they can remain legible and effective “working objects” capable of generating the kind of functional or semiotic work they are supposed to perform. Were it not for this work, those meaningful objects that furnish our lives, as well as the systems of meanings, value, and temporalities that are generated through them, would simply collapse in front of our eyes. With this in mind, we can now point to three different, but deeply interrelated, ways in which the mimeographic work of maintenance and repair is creative.


Part 1 Introduction

First, this mimeographic labor is what creates sameness out of the difference and change created by the relentlessness of things. This is why it is important not to see maintenance and repair as a set of exceptional or episodic practices taking place when the normal state of affairs breaks down but as the kind of labor that creates and sustains any “normal” state of affairs in the first place. Second, mimeographic labor is what enables us to artificially build duration into the world. It is the labor that makes it possible for some-thing to remain within a given object-position beyond its natural propensity. It is what enables a liquid like bitumen (a.k.a. asphalt) to work as a (more or less) stable road for a few years, and what enables a piece of paper to keep its identity as an art object for several hundreds of years. Third, and perhaps most importantly, this mimeographic labor is creative because maintenance and repair are rarely, if ever, purely reproductive activities. As Deleuze (1994) reminded us, there is no repetition without difference. Maintenance and repair rarely result in a perfect identity because they operate through substitutions, additions, subtractions, and adjustments, which leave scars, a difference, behind them. This is why, if you look around, what you see is not a world made of perfect surfaces and immaculate objects but one made of scarred surfaces, retrofitted identities, and stitched-up objects. In other words, you do not see a world of perfect objects but one of working objects— objects that, although not exactly the same as they used to be, are similar enough to keep functioning as if they were the same. This is why I have described mimeographic labor as the work of creating sameness and not as the work of creating identity. If we put together these three different aspects, we can then describe mimeographic labor as the kind of mundane metaphysical labor that allows us to create sameness and duration by negotiating the unnegotiable relentlessness of things and sustaining the kinds of working objects that allow us to weave the material fabric of the categories and symbolic orders we dream and inhabit. With this in mind, we can begin to understand why mimeographic labor is such a contested site of politics and power. For one, there is never a self-evident definition of what is the same. There are always competing versions about what counts as the same or how it should be maintained, or about what constitutes an adequate repair and what is enough to constitute a “working object.” Sameness is always a site of struggle, forever trapped in that contested in-between space that lies between identity and difference, between continuity and change, between order and disorder.

Caring for the Same


Moreover, not all forms of creating sameness are the same. Each form of mimeographic labor entails a different way of establishing and negotiating the boundaries between what deserves to be taken care of and what can be left to rot. Each form of mimeographic labor entails a particular definition of which differences can be tolerated and which must be eliminated. In short, each form of mimeographic labor entails a specific regime of worth, and with it a specific way of creating and negotiating the inclusions and exclusions through which the boundaries of the same are established and fixed. The need to study this labor of maintenance and repair does not arise out of a romantic belief that these forms of labor can have some sort of redemptive value, or that they offer a better ethical or political model than forms of labor that create the new. These activities are not repositories of a form of creativity that needs to be redeemed from oblivion and be recognized as better, truer, or higher. We must not forget that as Duclos and Sánchez Criado (2019) rightly point out, the romanticization of mimeographic labor risks reducing our ethical or political horizons to questions of palliation and reproduction that can exclude the possibility of radical transformation. Moreover, we must not forget that there is usually little to romanticize in mimeographic labor, which is often thankless, burdensome, and tedious, not to mention precarious and low-paid. Thus, if we should study mimeographic labor, this is not because it is “good,” or because it is “better” or “more creative” than neographic labor but because it is as important as neographic labor— because it is one of the key forms of labor through which the social, political, and ethical orders we inhabit are produced, negotiated, and maintained. Or differently put: if we need to study mimeographic labor, it is because no social, political, or symbolic order can be fully described, let alone understood, without attending to the forms of duration and sameness that this form of labor builds into those orders. This leads us to the next question: What kind of sameness does the mimeographic work of conservation need to produce in the case of art? And how is it done?

Keeping Art as Art Broadly defined, conservation can be defined as the mimeographic labor required to keep art as art. To be more specific, it is the labor required to keep the description of some-thing as a working art object. But what, exactly, is a “working” art object?


Part 1 Introduction

In order to answer this question, we must begin by noting that one of the defining features of the modern aesthetic regime of art is that it operates within an extremely narrow “regime of objecthood,” that is, within a very narrow definition of what can work as an art object. This may sound strange, not least because one of the most common criticisms leveled against modern and contemporary art is that any-thing, from a simple bicycle wheel to sweat, shoeboxes, or (pace Manzoni) shit, can be considered art. But while it is true that (almost) any-thing can be art, not every-thing can be an art object. In order for some-thing to be considered a working art object, it has to be and, crucially, remain legible as the original, unique, and authentic representation of the artist’s intention. This is what defines the modern category of the art object, the idea that the relation between author’s intention and material form is inviolable. This relation cannot be substituted, altered, or defaced: the artwork must be and remain true to its author. If this is not the case— if the bond between intention and material form is broken or significantly altered— the status of that thing as an authentic and original art object can be compromised, or even lost. Take, for example, the case of Joseph Beuys’s sculpture Felt Suit (1970), a sculpture made of an actual felt suit, which in 1989 suffered a moth infestation while stored at the Tate Modern. The extent of the physical damage was such that it raised the question of whether the suit could still be seen as an adequate material expression of the artist’s intention or was effectively dead as an art object. Although the Tate spent several years trying to restore the link between intention and material form, in 1995 curators and conservators at the museum finally declared that the bond was beyond repair: the Felt Suit had to be pronounced “dead.” Therefore, the suit was deaccessioned (and thus removed) from the category of art objects and was relocated to the category of archival objects, where it now enjoys a second life as a valuable record of a deceased art object. When we talk about “art objects,” therefore, we are not talking about a particular type of thing. We are talking about a particular type of relation between things and a particular kind of subject: an artist. The goal of the mimeographic labor of conservation is to maintain the integrity of this relationship by making sure the artwork offers a faithful representation of the artist’s intent— or at the very least rhymes with it. This notion that an artwork must remain true to the artist who created it may seem perfectly obvious to us, since it has become natural for us to see those objects as externalized parts of the artist’s self. It is also normal for us to accept that this endows the objects that we call “artworks” with a

Caring for the Same


special status, so much so that we agree that they must be protected with special kinds of rights, like moral rights, to prevent anyone from disturbing the subjectivity they embody. We consider artworks to be so special and unique that we see any change in them, however small, not just as a form of vandalism but as a crime— and not just against their authors but also against “humanity.”10 All these assumptions have become such taken-for-granted parts of the modern commonsense that it is easy to forget how exuberant they are, or that no other society outside the narrow precincts of Western modernity has produced this peculiar set of assumptions. Indeed, as the German historian Hans Belting (1996) has reminded us, even within the Western tradition, “the era of art” is a relatively recent episode, whose rudiments started to be laid down in the fifteenth century but only came to be fully formed toward the end of the eighteenth century. What this means is that, contrary to the established modern narrative, art is not part of the human form but a (rather peculiar) form of imagining the human. It is a modern eccentricity, much like union strikes, Kleenex, human rights, or junk food. When we talk about art, therefore, we are neither talking about a universal human capacity nor about a particular type of object, a particular kind of practice, or a particular type of institution. We are talking about a specific aesthetic regime: the modern aesthetic regime of art. As I will define it here, this is a particular way of producing form, meaning, and imagination that crystallized in the second half of the eighteenth century around a set of practices, actors (artists), institutions (museums, academies), and objects (artworks) and a very idiosyncratic system of differences (subject/object, nature/culture, past/present) and categories (e.g., artworks, artists, authorship, intentions, chronologies, authenticity).11 This matters for our discussion because each form of mimeographic labor has to be understood within the specific regime of objecthood that each aesthetic regime specifies. This explains, for example, why until the late eighteenth century the idea of authorial intent did not play a significant role in mimeographic labor. Things circulated in regimes of objecthood in which intent, or the idea of “true to its author,” did not play a significant role. In fact, many of the objects circulating in antiquity and throughout the Middle Ages did not even have the figure of a creator attached to them, like the diopete´¯ s in the Greek tradition, which were images fallen from the heavens. Other objects had nonhuman creators, like the acheiropoieta of early Christianity, which were images made by a divine agency.12 Preserving objects in these aesthetic regimes did not necessarily entail preserving things but instead preserving archetypes or forms through the


Part 1 Introduction

production of copies that were considered equivalents of their originals. Preserving a work like, say, Picasso’s Demoiselles would not necessarily have entailed preserving the original 1907 canvas, as it does today, but simply replicating it. Moreover, this replication did not necessarily try to achieve a perfect identity. The same form allowed for differences and variation. In the Greek and Roman traditions, for example, the practice of copying was seen as an opportunity to express the individual agency of the copyist, who could insert variations without breaking the original archetype. Similarly, throughout the Middle Ages, the process of maintaining and repairing paintings and sculptures often implied a process of modifying, redoing, and “modernizing” these objects to bring them up to date with current taste or, in the case of religious images, to adapt their iconography to changes in the theological discourse so that they could keep “working” as theological objects.13 Even with the advent of the Renaissance, which created the embryo of the modern vocabulary of authorship by linking the artwork’s form to the author’s self through the notion of maniera, mimeographic labor did not necessarily imply respecting the author’s intent or preserving “the same.” In fact, up until the 1850s, it was common to repair broken or maimed ancient sculptures following the logic of spolia, which consisted in reusing remnants from previous works to replace missing parts, or by fabricating new parts, which did not have to coincide with the original. This is how the Laocoön got a new outstretched right arm that it kept for four hundred years, an addition that was not intended to be a simple replacement of the missing original but a way of enhancing it by adding grazie to the sculpture. And this is how, thanks to Eugène Viollet-le-Duc’s famous “interpretative restoration,” Notre Dame got its (now burnt) spire and many of its grotesques in the mid-nineteenth century. Similarly, preserving paintings over this period usually involved trimming and modifying them to match changing conceptions of morality— fig leaves, for example, have been coming and going for centuries as standards of indecency shifted. It was also common to use preservation as an opportunity to alter paintings to satisfy the personal taste of their owners, or to adapt them to fit into narratives about power and the nation.14 It was only with the emergence of the modern aesthetic regime of art, in the second half of the eighteenth century, that the notion of the artist’s intent acquired its current sacrosanct status. The timing was not coincidental. The rise of this aesthetic regime was part and parcel of the great modern transformation that, beginning in the mid-sixteenth century, began to establish the secular framework of the individual subject as the

Caring for the Same


foundation of the modern political and moral order. It is within this context that activities like painting and sculpture, which up to that point had been seen as part of the family of decorative arts, began to acquire an entirely different dimension as part of a new category of practice, which came to be known as the beaux arts, anchored in the human faculty of imagination. Because art was anchored in this faculty, it was not seen as just another type of human practice, like economy, politics, or science, but as the quintessential human practice— both in the sense of being considered a uniquely human capacity and in the sense of being considered the capacity that is most paradigmatic and revelatory of our humanity. It is art, so the modern story goes, that creates the possibility of a purely human space of signification where the human subject can fully develop the potentiality of her creative and imaginative powers to express herself and realize her capacity for self-description. Hence the idea of art as a necessary condition for the moral development, education, and fulfillment of the human soul, as the place where the change and transformation of the human form can be, if not accomplished, at least imagined. This transformation gave rise to an exuberant new category of objects: the modern art object. What defines this object is that it is seen as a unique realization and expression, and thus a material extension, of the artist’s self. This is precisely what distinguishes the modern idea of authorship from previous models of authorship that have been at work in the Western tradition since antiquity.15 Whereas in those aesthetic regimes objects could be separated from their authors to be copied, changed, or improved, in the modern aesthetic regime the art object, as a unique expression of the self, becomes an inalienable possession of the artist: it belongs to the artist and cannot be separated from her. This inalienability is what endows the artwork with the peculiar in-between ontological status it enjoys in the modern cosmology: as an object that is more than a thing but less than a person. This status began to be formally codified in the first copyright systems of the eighteenth century, which instituted legal punishments that acknowledged artworks as inalienable extensions of the self and prevented any change that could deface its sacred relationship with the self.16 The process culminated in the revised Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works of 1928, which formalized a new type of rights, moral rights, that legally anchored this inalienability by asserting that “author shall have the right to claim authorship of the work and to object to any distortion, modification of, or other derogatory action in relation to the said work, which would be prejudicial to the author’s honor or reputation” (World International Property Organization 1928, art. 6b)


Part 1 Introduction

The emergence of this peculiar type of object in the late eighteenth century transformed the nature of mimeographic labor. Since that point, conservation has been aimed at sustaining the particular relation between the artwork and “authorial intent” that makes this new type of object possible. The result is that, today, authorial intent is not simply an abstract concept discussed in philosophical treatises but the day-to-day analytic through which conservators organize and judge their mimeographic practice. Crucially, and contrary to what is often assumed, preserving this relation between the artwork and authorial intent does not necessarily entail preserving things. Sometimes it involves letting go of things. This is the case in many instances of contemporary art, like process art, land art, performance, or installations. Interestingly, these kinds of objects are sometimes the easiest to preserve, since their preservation does not imply fighting against the relentlessness of things but just letting it unfold. For example, preserving one of Robert Rauschenberg’s Elemental Paintings, which were made out of dirt and mold and were intended as organic portrayals of decay and change, means letting these organic processes happen. The emergence of this new kind of object changed not only the goal of conservation’s mimeographic work but also its form, that is, how this mimeographic labor has to take place. The modern conservator is not only tasked with making sure that the artwork remains true to the artist but also with doing this work invisibly. Much like a magic trick that only works as long as it is not revealed, the mimeographic work of conservation is only effective as long as it remains unseen. If this mimeographic labor becomes visible, it can call into question the status of the artwork as an expression of the author’s creative labor and intent. Most modern conservation polemics have emerged when mimeographic labor has become visible and has raised the question about whether the “repaired” artwork can still be considered the same that the author created, or whether conservators have ended up creating a different object.17 To become properly invisible, the mimeographic work of the conservator must proceed in the exact opposite direction from that of the artist’s labor: whereas the artist has to work toward difference and the new, the conservator always must work toward sameness and identity. The worst thing that can happen to an artist is that she is accused of not creating anything new, that is, of merely mimicking or copying and, therefore, of not being a real author. Conversely, the worst thing that can happen to a conservator is that she ends up producing something new and, as a result, is accused of being a defacer, a vandal, a usurper. Or, even worse: an author! The difference that the conservator makes must remain invisible. If

Caring for the Same


producing sameness is a difficult task, producing it as though nothing had been produced constitutes an immense challenge. Becoming invisible demands crafting a paradoxical form of creative agency, what we could call an “authorless agency,” whose possibility rests on the delicate balance between being able to create something (e.g., a difference in the form of sameness) without being recognized as its author. To achieve this, the conservator has to somehow superimpose her layer of labor on top of the artist’s in such a way that it cannot be recognized. The great conservator is the one who vanishes behind her work without a visible trace, thus leaving intact the mirage of the artwork as a pristine expression of the artist’s creative agency. Her success is her invisibility— something that helps to explain why the history of conservation is, by and large, a history of nameless differences.18 The chapters that follow explore how this mimeographic work is done at MoMA, and how, as a result, artworks can remain legible as the authentic and original expressions of their creators. This requires two different but intimately intertwined operations. First, it requires producing and maintaining a very particular kind of object, a working art object. And second, it requires producing and sustaining a very particular kind of subject, a working subject. The first two chapters of this part describe how the museum produces and sustains working art objects— both “docile objects,” which are the artworks that lend themselves more easily to this mimeographic labor, and “unruly objects,” which are those that are not so easily transformed into working art objects, like some contemporary performances, happenings, or installations.19 In the third and last chapter of this part, I focus on the mimeographic labor required to produce and sustain a particular kind of working subject: the artist.


To Care, or Not to Care, That Is the Question This chapter explores how the mimeographic work of care, the work of creating the same, is done focusing on one particular artwork: Jackson Pollock’s One: Number 31. One was painted in 1950, at the height of Pollock’s short but intense career, and barely six years before he died driving drunk in his convertible with one of his lovers. Today, One is considered one of the best examples of Pollock’s signature “allover” technique— which consisted in pouring, dripping, and splashing paint while walking all over the canvas. It is also considered one of the undisputed masterpieces not only of Abstract Expressionism but of modern art. It has been hailed as “a contemporary vision of the ‘sublime’ of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries” (Rubin 2012, 124), and celebrated as an “astonishing fea[t] of pictorial invention” (Frank 1983, 72), one that ushered painting into a new age in which, as the critic Michael Fried wrote in 1965, “the different elements in the painting— most important, line and color, could be made, for the first time in Western painting, to function as wholly autonomous pictorial elements” (in Fried 1998, 224, my emphasis). In sum, today One is considered to be one of those paintings that we should all care about. And yet One is also a painting that was bought for just $1,500 and was initially derided, together with the rest of Pollock’s allovers, as “unmeaning chaos,” “wallpapers,” or “necktie designs” produced through a method that was described as “drooling” by a painter who was nicknamed in 1956 by Time magazine “Jack the Dripper” (in Frank 1983, 7, 75). The question, then, is how this painting moved from being seen as unmeaning chaos or decorative wallpaper to become a contemporary vision of the sublime and a feat of astonishing invention. In other words, how is it that One became an indisputable object of care? To answer these questions, we must begin by remembering something that is as obvious as it is important not to forget: no-thing is (or becomes) an object of care by itself. Things have to be made into objects of care.

The Modern Object of Care


Jackson Pollock, One: Number 31, 1950. © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY. © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. 6

Making something into an object of care is difficult, because care is not just an abstract ethical commitment. Care is a form of labor. And it is a form of labor that is particularly onerous, costly, and time-consuming, because things not only have to be made into an object of care, they also have to be sustained as objects of care. Something is only an object of care as long as it is cared for. This is what makes care such an intensive form of labor, and why it is often described as a burden. Care is the constant, endless labor required to prevent something from becoming neglected. Without that constant and endless labor, care is just a word, an empty word. The intensity of this labor creates the main paradox that any form of care has to face: while demand for care is always infinite— everything requires care— our capacity to care is always hopelessly finite. We simply cannot afford to care for everything. As a matter of fact, very few people and institutions can afford to care. And not every-thing that becomes an object of care can be cared for to the same extent. Moreover, very few people and institutions can afford to care. This is why care is never innocent, and why we should avoid romanticizing it. Because care is not, as it is often assumed, the other of neglect: care and neglect always go together. Care produces neglect. Because, whether we like it or not, caring for some-thing is always done at the expense of some-thing else, so when we decide to care for some-thing we are, wittingly or unwittingly, also deciding the contours of our neglect. Care always forces us to make pragmatic, ethical, and political choices, to decide which objects, bodies, identities, and memories are


Chapter 1.1

worthy of care and which must be let go. For that is what care ultimately is: the difference between memory and oblivion, between the valued and the valueless, between “what is entitled to time,” as Emil Cioran (1970, xi) once put it, and what is expelled from it.1 Paying attention to care, therefore, is critical because it helps us to understand how value is unevenly distributed around different objects, bodies, and identities to inscribe some in presence and relegate others to absence. This is why we should always ask about care: Who has the capacity to care? What do they care about? And what does this care neglect? These questions are particularly important in the case of art. Art has become so intimately woven into the material fabric through which modernity narrates itself that it has been transformed into a very particular type of object of care, one whose infinite demand for care must always be met. The artwork is that object that cannot be abandoned, that we cannot let go of under any circumstance. We consider these objects to be so special and unique that their loss is seen as a tragedy— so much so that we assume as perfectly normal the existence of a collective moral obligation to care for them and prevent their disappearance. If you think that I am exaggerating, just think about what happens during war, when artworks are cared for and protected to the same extent as human life itself, and their loss is mourned just like human deaths.2 The modern museum is nothing else than the institutional expression created to meet the infinite demand for care that the artwork demands. But museums can only care for very few artworks: those that are deemed worthy of care because they are considered to be indispensable in the construction of certain narratives, identities, and imaginaries. Jackson Pollock’s One: Number 31 is one of those artworks. To analyze One as an object of care involves two separate tasks. First, it involves understanding how this painting became an object of care, which will require us to explore how One came to occupy a unique position at the intersection of different aesthetic, social, and political systems of value. And second, it involves understanding the mimeographic work required to sustain this painting as an object of care, something that will take us to explore the fifteen-month conservation intervention that MoMA undertook in 2012.

Becoming an Object of Care To understand how Pollock’s One became an object of care, we must first understand the rather particular narrative of modernism that Alfred Barr

The Modern Object of Care


had been developing at MoMA since its inception. In this narrative, modernism began around the 1890s, when Daumier, Degas, and especially Manet liberated themselves from the tyrannical yoke of representation that had dominated art since the Renaissance. For Barr, this liberation marked the beginning of modern art, since for the first time it became possible to think of color, form, and perspective beyond the task of mimicking reality, ars simia naturae. The development of modern art over the twentieth century was, according to Barr, the exploration of the formal possibilities opened up by this Impressionist rupture. Movements like Constructivism, Futurism, Suprematism, Cubism, Surrealism, or Dadaism were, in Barr’s view, the logical result of art’s struggle to create a new formal language in which reality was no longer origin or destiny. For Barr, as a formalist, this struggle had little to do with external social, political, or cultural factors: it was the result of art’s inner logic and formal problems. This idea of modern art— as the conquest of form as an autonomous space of expression— was graphically expressed in Barr’s famous genealogical tree, which represented the evolution of art not as a development of “national schools” but as an autonomous development unfolding in an abstract space of formal relations between styles.3 Barr’s main mission over his three-decade tenure at MoMA, first as its director and then as its chief curator, was to collect, exhibit, and systematize the main episodes that, in his mind, composed this modern search for pure form. He did so until 1968, when he finally stepped down as MoMA’s chief curator and the baton was passed to the mercurial William Rubin, who had joined the museum two years earlier as a curator in the Painting and Sculpture Department. Rubin was an ardent devotee of Barr’s formalist faith. As he wrote in his memoirs, the main mission he set for himself upon being appointed chief curator was to pick up the narration of modern art where Barr had left off (Rubin 2012, 123– 36). This meant, first and foremost, collecting Abstract Expressionism, which Rubin saw as the next logical step in the teleology of modernism that Barr had created at MoMA— Barr had been somewhat reluctant to systematically collect Abstract Expressionist works, as he was unsure sure about the movement’s position and value in the overall narrative of modernism.4 This is where Jackson Pollock and One enter the stage. For Rubin, Pollock dissipated any doubts about the position or importance of Abstract Expressionism in the lineage of modern art; Pollock’s allovers represented the final dénouement of the modernist abdication of


Chapter 1.1

mimesis and figuration. In a 1967 series of articles published in Artforum, unambiguously titled “Jackson Pollock and the Modern Tradition,” Rubin argued that Pollock should not be seen as some “meteor” coming “from virtually nowhere” but as the last and most accomplished expression of that formal search initiated by “Impressionism, Cubism and Surrealism” and what Rubin somewhat flippantly called the “Expressionist Picasso” (in Varnedoe and Karmel 1999, 120– 21). This attempt to construe Abstract Expressionism as the culmination of the European avant-garde by critics like Rubin and most especially Clement Greenberg, the cheerleader in chief of Abstract Expressionism, was critical in the transformation of Pollock’s works into objects of care.5 This narrative was particularly important in a context in which it was still not clear why museums, galleries, critics, and collectors should care about these artworks, especially outside New York. Pollock’s One was particularly important in cementing this narrative. According to Rubin, One was the first truly modernist monument, a painting “of an almost apocalyptic intensity in the celerity of its improvisation” (2012, 124). In its utter abstraction, One represented the final moment of that search initiated by the Impressionists, the moment in which painting had finally located the image outside the domain of representation and abandoned the pretense to be anything else than painting. It was the moment, in short, in which painting could be finally revealed and enjoyed for it was: pure form. The peculiar position of One in this formal narrative of modernism explains why, as Rubin put it in his memoirs, acquiring this painting became his “dominant concern” right after taking up Barr’s position (2012, 123). MoMA could not claim to narrate the history of modern art without one of the paintings that had brought the search for form to its logical conclusion. Here it is important to note that Pollock was not, by any means, unique or the first in this push toward formal abstraction. There had been other artists who had prefigured, or even executed, the very same a-representational gesture, including women like Joan Mitchell, Janet Sobel, Corinne Michelle West, or Lee Krasner. Pollock himself recognized this much. He acknowledged, for example, the impact that Janet Sobel’s paintings had had on him when he saw them in Peggy Guggenheim’s 1945 exhibition The Women, two years before he finally abandoned representation and started his allovers. However, this kind of influence was not the one that critics like Rubin, Greenberg, or the rest of the critical establishment cared much about. For them, Sobel was a “primitive” painter who, as Greenberg put it, “was, and still is, a

Janet Sobel, Untitled, c. 1946. This is two years before Pollock “invented” splashing and pouring in his allovers. © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY.



Chapter 1.1

housewife living in Brooklyn” (1971, 218). If Pollock’s allovers were to be transformed into proper objects of care, they had to be placed as a direct descendant of the great European avant-garde and its (male) heroes, not as paintings that could have somehow been influenced by a woman, much less by some Brooklyn housewife.6 Moreover, this push toward formal abstraction was by no means unique to Abstract Expressionism. Artists in Europe and Latin America had been using other vocabularies of abstraction to undo representation from the 1920s, like the concrete art of Theo Van Doesburg or Atanasio Soldati, or movements like Arte Madí and Arte Concreto-Invención in Argentina and Uruguay, or the Grupo Ruptura and Grupo Frente in Brazil, to name just a few. However, Rubin, like most other American critics at the time, did not care much about these other trajectories of modernism and the role they played in the movement toward formalist abstraction. To understand why, we need to examine how the particular formalist modernist narrative that people like Barr, Rubin, and Greenberg had been promoting became intimately intertwined with a second, much larger and more powerful, political narrative, that of “America” in the context of Cold War politics. Caring for America For Rubin, Abstract Expressionism did not simply offer a culminating chapter in the narrative of modernism; it was also the first genuinely American chapter of that narrative. A painting like One was particularly important because it proved that, at long last, the United States of America was capable of distilling the same kind of masterpiece that up to that point— and for some “mysterious” reason— seemed to have been only within the reach of a handful of white European men. As Greenberg wrote in 1952, Pollock was the living proof that “we have at last produced the best painter of a whole generation” (1971, 153). He was, in other words, the first American art genius in painting. The mythology of Pollock as the first American art genius was well cemented even before his death. In 1949 he appeared in Time magazine under the headline “Is He the Greatest Living Painter in the United States?” This appearance transformed Pollock into a celebrity: an American-bred artist in cowboy boots, rebelling against old European standards, as influenced by American Indian art and the vastness of the American West as by the European avant-gardes and Jungian analysis. This image of the American genius was further engraved into the public imaginary in 1951 through

The Modern Object of Care


the mesmerizingly powerful photographs that Hans Namuth published in ARTnews and the color film he created capturing Pollock’s artistic process. The images and the film became the iconic representation of Pollock, capturing him in the rapture of creation, cigarette dangling from his lip, filled with the masculine bravado of a Hollywood star, unafraid to push into uncharted territory beyond the conventions of the old European art. Pollock’s drip paintings were the irrefutable proof that “the new”— the ultimate value of modern art— had finally moved shores, confirming that New York was the new Paris, and the United States could finally make a legitimate claim to being the true throne of the avant-garde. It is within this context that we can understand why acquiring a painting like One became so crucial for Rubin. Having One did not simply offer the opportunity to narrate the culmination of modernism; it also offered the possibility of narrating that culmination as part of a national narrative that announced what the critics at the time were already describing as an American Renaissance.7 Barr himself had very early on recognized the strategic need for MoMA to develop a national narrative. In a 1933 internal memo, titled “The Problem of our American Collection,” Barr argued that “for politico-artistic reasons it might be poor strategy to abandon our American permanent collection at this time of rising nationalism and raising money” (Wilson 2009, 100, my emphasis). However, during the 1930s and 1940s, Barr had struggled to acquire American art, which he deemed of rather poor quality, and MoMA became the target of intense criticism from American artists who denounced its European focus. Hence the importance of Abstract Expressionism, which provided the first all-American art style that could compete with the European tradition. Crucially, this kind of national narrative was not only important for MoMA. The unrestrained cult of individual freedom and subjective expression underlining Abstract Expressionism fit perfectly into the larger Cold War narrative of a buoyant postwar America protecting individual creativity against the looming threat of Communism.8 No wonder, then, that what Nelson Rockefeller described as “free-enterprise painting” became such an object of care for the CIA. Throughout the 1950s, the CIA used its cultural arm— the Congress for Cultural Freedom— to support MoMA’s acquisitions of Abstract Expressionism and to organize three exhibitions of these paintings that traveled across Europe as part of its strategy to create what the critic Max Kozloff (1973, 44) called a form of “benevolent propaganda for foreign intelligentsia.”9 The unique position of One at the crossroads of these aesthetic and political narratives explains Rubin’s urgent desire not only to acquire it but,


Chapter 1.1

as he said, to “put [it] to work” as soon as possible (2012, 125)—something that he did the very year after its purchase. Putting One to Work In 1969, Rubin organized a massive exhibition, The New American Painting and Sculpture: The First Generation, comprising 157 works and featuring One as the museum’s new crown jewel. Rubin made his intentions unambiguously clear in the press release. The main aim of the exhibition, he wrote, was to “rescu[e] American art from its heretofore provincial situation and plac[e] it at the center of the modern tradition” (in MoMA 1969). What Rubin did not write in the press release, although he did in his memoirs, was that the other main goal for the exhibition was to encourage hesitant collectors to care about Abstract Expressionist artworks as investment objects (2012, 125). For, as Rubin knew all too well, transforming something into an object of care is never solely a matter of creating aesthetic or political narratives; it is also a matter of money and capital. By organizing a landmark exhibition, Rubin hoped to signal to collectors that MoMA was now officially writing Abstract Expressionism into the institutional narrative of modern art, and therefore transforming it into a central object of care.10 However, instituting something as an object of care requires more than a seducing exhibition. It requires an ongoing work of insistence and repetition to prevent that object from receding into oblivion. That is one of the fundamental missions of the museum: to insist and repeat until the objects in their displays are engraved into individual and collective memories. This is why One has been on display almost uninterruptedly ever since it was acquired in 1969, diligently serving as one of the anchors of the very particular narrative of modern art that MoMA has been telling, over and over again, for the past fifty years— a narrative telling us that we should care about One because it illustrates the precise moment when the angel of history finally turned her back on Europe and descended into New York. Crucially, the mobilization of artworks in this logic of insistence and repetition always comes at a cost— because, we should remember, artworks are not just objects but also things. This means that when we talk about One we are not simply talking about a “contemporary vision of the ‘sublime’”; we are also talking about a piece of woven cotton fabric covered in house paint. This is important to remember because, contrary to what is often assumed, museums, while indeed excellent for displaying contemporary visions of the sublime, are actually not that convenient for

The Modern Object of Care


displaying things made of house paint and cotton. Indeed, being on display is damaging for most artworks, which is why they typically can only be exhibited for a few months at a time, and why they have to be taken to storage facilities to “rest” and avoid further damage— something that we will explore in great detail in parts 2 and 3. However, this kind of rest is not always a possibility for artworks like One. Because One is no ordinary artwork. It is an artwork that must be permanently on display, as it is one of the central artworks through which MoMA weaves its master narrative of modernism. Museums like MoMA have built a massive technological infrastructure of care to sustain this kind of uninterrupted presence while making sure that these objects remain still. Unfortunately, this massive infrastructure of care can only work as an imperfect stabilizer. For things, qua material processes, can be slowed down, but they can never be fully contained within any given object-position. Which means that, despite this massive effort to contain them, artworks continue unfolding, altering their form, until one day, the discrepancy between the thing that we see and the object it once was becomes all too evident. For One this moment arrived in 1998, in the context of a massive retrospective exhibition of Pollock’s work. This was the first time since its arrival at MoMA that One was exhibited alongside other Pollocks of the same period, and the comparison did not turn out to be too flattering for One. While the other canvases still preserved some of their original freshness, it was clear that MoMA’s uninterrupted mobilization of One had taken its toll. Yellowing and accumulated dirt had reduced the vibrancy and power of its surface. This is not unusual: most artworks are yellowed and have lost their original vibrancy and are nonetheless considered perfectly working objects. But One is no ordinary object. One is one of those very few objects in which even a small variance deserves all the time, resources, and labor that care demands. However, creating the time for care can be an enormously difficult task in a museum like MoMA. A conservation intervention in a large artwork like One requires months of intensive research followed by months of meticulous execution. In a museum constantly swept up in the short-term needs of the unending carousel of exhibitions, time is in short supply. Which explains why it was only in July 2012, fourteen years later, that Jim Coddington, then head of MoMA’s Conservation Department, finally managed to create the conditions where the time for care could be possible, by freeing up some time from his schedule and finding resources to fund a one-year position for another conservator, Jennifer Hickey, to


Chapter 1.1

help him on the mimeographic of labor of bringing One back to its former splendor. To see how this was done, we need to abandon the world of objects and move into that of things.

From Objects to Things One was painted with alkyd enamel, a synthetic resin-based paint created by the car industry in the early 1920s as an alternative to the more expensive natural pigments that had been common until then. Artists began adopting these new industrial paints around the 1930s, partly for practical reasons— they were cheaper and more readily available than natural paints— and partly because these industrial paints fitted the critical narratives about the need to erase the difference between art and life through the use of “vulgar” materials. Such was the case of David Alfaros Siqueiros’s Experimental Workshop, where Pollock witnessed in 1936 the first instance of the dripping technique, which Siqueiros called “controlled accidents,” that he would later use for his allovers. Artists’ adoption of these synthetic paints not only implied a radical break with what had been the main medium of painting for five hundred years— oil— but also implied a reconfiguration of the inner structure of paintings qua things. Enamel had been engineered to satisfy the needs of the mass-produced objects of consumer capitalism and had properties that made it very different from traditional paints. For example, unlike traditional oils, which can take up to a century to dry, synthetic enamels were engineered to dry in just a few hours, at most days. Moreover, these enamel paints were designed to be applied to firm surfaces— such as house walls or car chassis— rather than to supple supports like cotton canvas. Crucially, and unlike most fine-arts paints, enamel paints were not designed to remain flexible after drying. Hence it is not surprising that some of these enamel-based paintings, including some Pollocks, have experienced cracking and paint loss even within the first decades of their lives. 11 The adoption of industrial paints transformed paintings into a new kind of object, one that was unpredictable and potentially unstable. With this in mind, we can understand why the first thing conservators wanted to establish about One was how well the enamel was holding up, especially given the fact that this painting had been subjected to forty years of uninterrupted exposure to light and atmospheric pollution while on display. Fortunately, the results of this initial survey showed that while there was indeed some cracking, grime, and yellowing, it did not appear to

The Modern Object of Care


involve the kind of paint loss and structural problems that had been observed in other Pollocks. Overall, the results were what you would expect for a sixty-year-old painting with more than four decades of uninterrupted service as part of the museum’s permanent collection. But not all the results turned out as expected. Alongside the usual cracking, yellowing, and grime, conservators stumbled upon three anomalies that had not been detected up to that point and turned out to be as intriguing as they were potentially consequential. The first anomaly was a series of passages made of short and meticulous brushstrokes distributed across the canvas, which seemed to be directly at odds with Pollock’s free-flowing style. The second anomaly was a series of isolated pink drops found at the bottom of the canvas, which did not coincide with the color palette of the rest of the painting, an inconsistency that was uncharacteristic of Pollock. The third anomaly was a series of brown drips forming what seemed to be a carefully arranged pattern, something that also contrasted with the typically unpredictable forms resulting from Pollock’s splashing and dripping. And if all of this was not enough of a mystery, these three anomalous passages were not interlaced with the rest of forms in the canvas. They were sitting on top of it . . . as though someone had added them after the painting was done. These anomalies transformed what conservators had expected to be a routine cleaning operation into a much more complicated project, not least because the passages raised a number of intriguing questions about their status and about the nature of Pollock’s creative process. For example: Were these passages a by-product of Pollock’s unorthodox painting method? Were they additions, or maybe even corrections that Pollock had made later because he was dissatisfied with the final result? Could they be repairs made by Pollock after he detected some early cracking? Or could it be that Pollock had not painted them at all and they had been added by someone else, like a conservator? And if the latter was the case: Was this overpaint licit or illicit? In the end, these questions boiled down to a simple one: Were these passages art or something else? Answering this question was critical to determine the kind of mimeographic labor that conservators had to perform. Typically, this scope of this labor would be established by determining whether these passages can be attributed to artist labor and intention. If the answer is yes, it would mean that they are art, and consequently the labor of conservators would be restricted to cleaning the artwork of dirt and yellowing while leaving


Chapter 1.1

these passages as they are. But if the answer is no, that is, if these passages were not made by Pollock, it would mean they are illicit additions that must be removed. Unfortunately for conservators, in the case of One the question of attribution is far more complex. For One is not an ordinary intentional object. Indeed, if we are to believe Pollock’s own words, the whole point of doing allovers like One was precisely to move away from traditional intentional objects by breaking with orthodox painting methods and relinquishing intentional control over the painting process. As Pollock stated just two months before his death, he did not rely on a preconceived plan when painting (in Karmel 2000, 22). By this Pollock did not simply mean mobilizing the unconscious as a source of inspiration while retaining control of the painting process and the creation of form, as the Dadaists and Surrealists had done a generation earlier, but letting the unconscious— together with serendipity and gravity— dictate the generation of the aesthetic form itself. Therein has been thought to reside the idiosyncrasy of his allovers: the fact that aesthetic form emerges in them through the surrendering of intention. “When I am in my painting,” Pollock famously wrote in a 1947 artist statement, when he began his drip paintings, “I am not aware of what I am doing. It is only after a sort of ‘get acquainted’ period that I see what I have been about” (in Karmel 2000, 18). This unconscious automatism presented an interesting riddle for the kind of mimeographic labor that conservators had to perform. For, again, if we are to believe Pollock, these allovers were not records of Pollock’s intention but records of what we could awkwardly call his “unintended intention.” They were, in other words, aesthetic forms that Pollock intended to be unintended. The problem that conservators had to solve, therefore, was not how to keep One true to the artist’s intention but how to keep it true to his “unintended intention.” Which raised a curious question: How could conservators establish whether something in the canvas was an unintended accident, some kind of dirt, or one of Pollock’s intendedly unintended forms?

Specifying Pollock’s Intent The first prerequisite for any kind of mimeographic intervention is to describe the boundaries of the object of care. This description involves what I call “specification,” by which I mean the process of describing the boundaries that allow us to create the metaphysical cuts through which we build and sustain categories in the world.

The Modern Object of Care


Collective aesthetic judgment: curators and conservators discussing Pollock’s One. © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY.


In the case of art conservation, this task typically involves establishing what needs to be cared for and what can be removed or just ignored by specifying the boundaries that separate art from nature, the meaningful from the meaningless, the valuable from the valueless, or the authentic from the inauthentic. As one can imagine, this work of specification is delicate and must be exercised with great caution— no one wants to alter an authentic and important piece of art. This is why this work is done through collective judgment. In the case of MoMA, this collective judgment takes place within a specific institutional framework defined around a very particular division of aesthetic labor and decision-making. On the one hand, we have conservators, who specify these boundaries through technology and scientific evidence (e.g., infrared spectroscopy). On the other, we have curators, who specify boundaries through art-historical evidence (e.g., artist letters). While the process is typically collaborative, it also includes a peculiar hierarchization of knowledge. For example, science does not necessarily have the last word in this collective work of specification, as it does in so many other fields of activity. Scientific evidence legitimates conservators to produce judgments about the material aspects of artworks, but it does


Chapter 1.1

not entitle them to make judgments about their meaning. A conservator is entitled to say, for example, that a painting shows a significant loss of its green hue due to an undue exposure to light, but she is not entitled to assess whether or how such loss affects the meaning of the artwork. Only curators are formally entitled to make those judgments, as they are the only legitimate interpreters of aesthetic meaning within the museum. Furthermore, any conservation decision, like removing the yellowed varnish of an old painting, is first submitted to the aesthetic judgment of curators, who have the ultimate authority to decide whether the proposed conservation treatment compromises the intended meaning of the artwork and its overall aesthetic integrity. This collective process and division of labor was created around One to specify the status of the three mysterious passages. The problem, however, was that conservators and curators did not have much to go on in determining that status and specifying the metaphysical cuts required to describe the boundaries of the art object. The only certainty they had was that whatever these passages were, they had been done before the arrival of One at the museum in 1969, since there was no record of any treatment since. The solution was to look as closely as possible at the artwork itself to see whether it could reveal some material clue that could help conservators and curators to establish the origin and nature of these passages. This required gaining an intimate knowledge of the artwork both qua object and qua thing. Building intimacy with the artwork qua object often begins well before the artwork comes to the conservation lab. It requires studying the artwork in the most minute detail, exploring how, when, and why it was produced, researching the artist, her career and influences, her published writings and unpublished notes, and all the details about her art-making process. In the case of One, Jim Coddington devoted many of the years between 1998, when One was first diagnosed as “in need of repair,” and 2012, when it finally came to the conservation lab, to building this kind of intimate knowledge of Pollock’s work. After conservators have gathered all available knowledge about the artist and the materials and techniques she used, they can begin to explore the artwork qua thing. This exploration includes paying careful attention to every crack, crease, brushstroke, and color, looking for details that may help reconstruct the genealogy of aesthetic form and provide clues about where to make the pertinent metaphysical cuts. Learning how to see and make sense of all these cracks, colors, and forms requires a specific way of seeing. As John Berger (1990) reminded

The Modern Object of Care


us long ago, each way of seeing requires a long learning process. In the case of conservators, this involves the years of scientific study required to get a professional conservation degree, followed by years of practice in building an intimate relation with things. This is why conservators often talk about the need to develop a conservator’s eye to be able to discern the minutest of differences between two seemingly identical brushstrokes, or to identify the barely perceptible traces of habits and anxieties that reveal the unmistakable maniera of a particular artist. I still remember when, in my very first walk in a museum with a conservator, she kept pointing at details of paintings while telling me, “See? That is what I mean.” But I did not see anything. To my eyes, she was drawing imaginary lines of difference where I saw only the same. It was not just my stubborn myopia, albeit admittedly that probably had something to with it. It was simply that my eye was (and unfortunately still is) untrained to see how a conservator sees. Traditionally, it is through this kind of intimate exploration of the artwork qua thing that conservators can begin to reconstruct the link between the artwork and the artist and understand what needs to stay and what needs to be removed. Much as forensic examiners use the tiniest pieces of physical evidence to reconstruct how the crime took place and infer the motives behind it, conservators search for any physical detail in the canvas, from the length and direction of cracks to subtle differences between two seemingly identical colors, to reconstruct the scene of the artistic crime and infer the motives that led to its creation (see fig. 9). Unfortunately for conservators, this process of inference and reconstruction was not possible in a painting like One, since the bond between aesthetic form and the artist’s hand was not the usual one. The splashing and dripping through which form was generated in these allovers meant that there was no direct or necessary connection between the resulting physical form and subjectivity. The forms on the canvas were as much a record of the elemental laws of gravity and physics as of Pollock’s hand. But if this was the case, how could conservators recompose the link between One and Pollock enough to generate the kind of evidence they needed to specify the nature of the three suspicious passages? Facing these difficult questions, conservators decided that Muhammad must go to the mountain. If evidence could not be inferred from the scene of the artistic crime, they would have to provoke that evidence by re-creating the scene of the artistic crime. The re-creation took place in preparation for the 1998 Pollock retrospective at MoMA— so, long before One was brought to the lab in 2012. Jim Coddington teamed up with another noted conservator, Carol Mancusi-


Chapter 1.1

Ungaro, to develop what might be called a “natural aesthetic experiment.” The experiment consisted in re-creating Pollock’s artistic process in hopes of replicating the randomness that had originally acted as the generative principle behind Pollock’s creation of aesthetic form. To achieve this effect, Coddington and Mancusi-Ungaro placed canvases on the floor and then, with the guidance of Namuth’s videos and photographs, replicated Pollock’s movements, using the same brushes, colors, and paints he had used. The results of this natural aesthetic experiment enabled conservators to elaborate a number of hypotheses about Pollock’s artistic process. The

Example of conservation annotations: reconstructing the scene of the aesthetic crime.


The Modern Object of Care


most important one was that, contrary to established scholarly wisdom— and contrary to Pollock’s very own statements— it was impossible to produce the kind of form we see in Pollock’s allovers through a pure surrendering of intention to unconscious automatism and chance. There was, the conservators argued, a greater level of intentionality behind these allovers than had been thought. In producing these unintended forms, not only had Pollock meticulously chosen the enamel paints and the tools used for dripping and splashing, but he had also controlled the resulting lines and textures by carefully combining and modifying the different degrees of viscosity, flexibility, and drying speeds of these paints. In other words, the experiment showed that the apparent chaos of the canvas was the result neither of a purely intentional action nor of a purely unintentional one, but rather the result of a carefully controlled “staged” chaos.12 This natural aesthetic experiment enabled conservators to specify the nature of the bond between Pollock and these paintings. Unfortunately, it did not help much in specifying the nature of the three strange passages that had been detected or what to do with them. If anything, the experiment added more questions, because their hypothesis suggested that some of those uncharacteristically intentional passages could in fact be part of Pollock’s artistic practice. So, were they then art? Answering this question required going even deeper— something conservators could do in 2012, when One finally came to the conservation lab. Of Drips and Drops and Metaphysical Cuts Let’s begin with the pink drops found toward the bottom of the canvas. The physical examination revealed that their strangeness resided not merely in their color but also in their particular morphology. Unlike the rest of the drips found in One, these pink drips did not seem to have originated by being splashed onto the canvas; they seemed to be the kind of pristine form that emerges on its own as a result of the natural combination of weight and gravity. One possibility to explain this, conservators hypothesized, was that they could have landed there by accident, much like the fly that ended up trapped in One, or the cigarette butts and other debris found in other Pollock canvases. This would mean that, although unintended, the drops could be seen as a legitimate part of the painting, since part of Pollock’s intention was to allow these unintended forms. If this was the case, these pink drops should be seen as art and should therefore be kept in the painting.


Chapter 1.1

However, it was also possible that these pink drops were not drops after all but “stains,” which could have formed at some point after completion, for example, while the painting was held in someone’s apartment— not an entirely uncommon occurrence. Or it could be that a sloppy conservator accidentally created them while working on the canvas— a much rarer occurrence, but still possible. In either of these two cases, the pink drops would not belong to the original description of One; consequently, they would not be art and would need to be removed. The solution to the pink drop quandary came when Jennifer Hickey, the conservator working with Jim Coddington, located a series of photographs showing One leaning in the studio while Pollock was painting Number 27, a painting containing an abundance of the same type of pink. Conservators then concluded that the most plausible hypothesis was that a few drops of pink accidentally landed on One while Pollock was painting (splashing) Number 27. This meant that these drops were not sensu stricto part of the description of One, since they landed by accident after the painting was done. However, since it was an accident generated by the artist, and not by a conservator or by someone else, the conservators reasoned that they should be granted the same status as the other debris found in Pollocks, like the fly or cigarette butts. So that’s how the first metaphysical cut was established: the pink drops were art and therefore should stay just as they were. The next mystery concerned the nature of the brown drips that conservators had detected on several parts of the canvas. The idiosyncrasy of these brown drips was that, unlike the pink drops, they did not appear to be random but were sitting next to each other in a way that seemed to form a discernible pattern. Additionally, they all moved downward, finishing in a subtle swell. This particular pattern was a clear indication that these brown drips could not have been made while Pollock was splashing the painting on the floor but must had been added later, when the painting was set up to dry in an upright position. This hypothesis was supported by Namuth’s famous photographs, which showed how Pollock placed paintings against the walls as part of their drying process. What this meant, conservators hypothesized, was that Pollock must had added these brown drips himself after the paintings were finished and were left to dry. In other words, these were not forms emerging out of Pollock’s unconscious but rather “subtle but important edits,” as Jim Coddington described them, which the artist had added to finish or balance the composition after looking at and reflecting on the finished allover. The specification of these brown drips as intentional forms allowed

The Modern Object of Care


conservators to create a second metaphysical cut: these drops were art, and consequently had to be left as they were. Now, arguing that these drops were intentional edits had far-reaching consequences, since it called into question established narratives about Pollock and his allovers. If these were truly intentional edits, it meant that the narrative of Pollock as the painter of the unconscious was at best incomplete and at worst misleading— and so were Pollock’s own self-descriptions about losing himself in the painting and not knowing what he was doing. The last remaining mystery, once the status of the pink and brown drops was settled, was to determine the origin of the strangely meticulous brushstrokes found throughout the canvas. Like the brown drops, these passages seemed to exhibit a level of intentionality that was at odds with the rest of the canvas. In this case, however, the trained eye of the conservators made them suspect that they were not the result of the neographic labor of the artist but of the mimeographic labor of a conservator. This suspicion led conservators to take a few physical samples from these passages to perform a material analysis to determine their chemical composition. The analyses revealed that these passages contained polyvinyl acetate, or PVA, a colorless adhesive commonly used by conservators to seal cracks. While the presence of PVA was a good indication that these passages had not been made by Pollock, that possibility could not be discarded. Although unlikely, it was possible that Pollock had tried to repair early cracking in the enamel, or to cover some damaged areas, as he had done in 1951 after one of his drip paintings, Number 7, was vandalized during an exhibition at the Betty Parsons Gallery in New York (see Krueger 1997). And it was also possible that a conservator had added the passages under Pollock’s supervision and approval, something that is not entirely unusual. Unfortunately, the material analysis of these passages did not offer any information about which of these possibilities was the correct one, and consequently whether these passages were art or something else. Conservators had to search for other evidence, which they found in the “artwork files.” These are the files where the museum stores all the information pertaining to an artwork, from photographs and correspondence generated around it to exhibition information or conservation interventions. It was through this research that Jennifer Hickey found correspondence alluding to a conservation campaign that had taken place at some point in the mid-1960s. Unfortunately, the correspondence did not clarify what the intervention was or whether it was related to the same PVA passages. Coddington and Hickey searched for photographs that could provide visual


Chapter 1.1

evidence about when this treatment had been done and what it had consisted of. Most of the photographs they found were concerned with portraying One as an object of meaning and not as a thing, which means they were taken from a distance and did not reveal the kind of material detail that conservators needed. Besides, almost all of them were black-andwhite photographs, not exactly the best medium to discern minute color differences. Pondering about how to solve this problem, Jim Coddington thought about reaching out to one of his early mentors, Charles Rhyne, an art historian at Reed College. Rhyne had always had a keen interest in artworks not just as objects of meaning but also as things. This interest led him to amass hundreds of color pictures focusing on material details of different artworks. Propitiously for MoMA’s conservators, One happened to be one of them. Rhyne had taken numerous pictures of the painting in 1962 when One visited Reed College as part of the traveling exhibition The Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Ben Heller. Rhyne’s detailed color pictures made it unequivocally clear that the suspicious PVA passages were entirely absent in 1962. This could only mean that the passages had been added between 1962 and 1969, when the painting entered the museum; consequently, they could have been neither painted nor approved by Pollock, who had died in 1956. Conservators finally had the objective evidence they were looking for to specify the aesthetic nature of these passages. The inescapable conclusion was they were not art but “overpaint” added by a conservator at a later date without Pollock’s knowledge or approval. They were illicit and had to be removed. But why, you may ask, does this all matter? Why should we care about whether these three tiny and almost indiscernible passages are art or something else? Why should we care if they stay or leave? Or why should we care if Pollock painted them unconsciously, consciously, or as some sort of combination of the two? After all, no one really cares about whether there is a tiny blob of pink paint in one of Janet Sobel’s drip paintings (which, we should remember, preceded Pollock’s), or whether they were unconscious, semiconscious, or conscious. So why, then, should we care about these seemingly minute differences in Pollock’s case and not in others? The answer to this question is that what is stake in the surface of Pollock’s One is more than the fate of a few drips and drops. If we need to care about any tiny variation on the surface of this 2.7 m × 5.3 m piece of cotton, it is because this surface has been instituted into one of the central elements of that particular narrative that we have come to call “modern art.” It is this 2.7 m × 5.3 m piece of cotton, and not another, that has

The Modern Object of Care


become what Michel Callon (1986) called “an obligatory passage point.” As such, it has become one of the key battlegrounds where that narrative is negotiated. The centrality of One in the hegemonic narrative of modern art explains why, although most conservation projects run as anonymous and silent operations in the background of public life, the findings of this one were elevated to a matter of public concern. The project was covered everywhere, from art-specialized publications, like ARTnews and Phaidon, to generalist magazines and major newspapers around the world, like Forbes, Libération, Huffington Post, El País, and the New York Times. The narrative was invariably the same: a central mystery of modern art had been solved. It was now finally possible to know the truth about Pollock’s creative process and, thanks to it, the true boundaries of one of modernism’s central objects of care. Alas! The most important operation was yet to be done: because now it was necessary to build those boundaries into the world. To see how this is done, we need to go even deeper into the realm of things, into the mineral and chemical levels where these boundaries are actually negotiated.

Ambiguous Matter There is a simple and unavoidable truth that, sooner or later, all conservators must reckon with: the artwork that the conservator faces is never the same that the artist produced. The artwork before the conservator is one in which original colors and forms have faded, morphed, or even disappeared, and in which the relentlessness of things has transformed its once pristine surface into one filled with dirt and cracks. This is an artwork in which things that were not originally present, like dust, fungi, bacteria, varnish, or overpaint, have now become an integral part of it, creating new and unexpected material alliances, configurations, and forms. This is an artwork in which all these elements have become so intimately intertwined that it is no longer possible to trace a clear boundary between beginnings and ends, between what is meaningful and what is meaningless, what is past and what is present, what is original and what is added. It is an artwork, in other words, that is organized not around clear boundaries and forms but around ambiguous matter. The main task of the conservator is to disambiguate this ambiguous matter by respecifying the material boundaries through which these chunks of matter can remain legible as an authentic and original art object. In the case of One, this process entailed a double task. First, conservators needed to


Chapter 1.1

10 The artwork as a complex and evolving object: cross-section of Gerrit van Honthorst’s The Triumph of the Winter Queen: Allegory of the Just (1636), showing different layers of paint, varnish, and restorations accumulated over time. Photo courtesy of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts Conservation Department.

respecify the old modern boundary between artificialia and naturalia, that is, between culture and nature, by disentangling those forms now inhabiting the surface that were the result of meaningless “natural” processes— e.g., dirt, chemical changes, bacteria, or fungi— from those that resulted from meaningful human action. The second boundary they had to specify was internal to culture itself. They needed to distinguish which of those forms emerging from meaningful human action were the result of Pollock’s (legitimate) neographic labor and which were the result of the (possibly illegitimate) mimeographic labor of the conservator. A UV and x-ray examination revealed that the entanglement between Pollock and the conservator went deeper than initially thought. The conservator had not restricted his action to covering up the cracks that had appeared in the original painting; he had also covered significant parts of Pollock’s original enamel paint. In other words, he had not limited his work to merely maintaining and repairing the same but had created something else, a difference, by covering up Pollock’s work. And, in so doing, he had committed the ultimate sin a conservator can commit: he had exceeded the boundaries of mimeographic labor and had entered into the sacred domain of neographic labor reserved for artists. For conservators

The Modern Object of Care


at MoMA this meant one thing: the overpaint the conservator had added not only could but should be removed, along with the grime and dirt that had accumulated over the years, to bring back One to Pollock’s original form— or at least as close as possible to it. Yet, as often happens in conservation, this was easier said than done. The ambiguous matter created by the material entanglement of the different elements at this mineral level means that any attempt at removing “inauthentic” labor can also remove “authentic” labor and result in unwanted changes to aesthetic form, or even irreparable damage. It is at this mineral level where metaphysical problems become chemical problems. Specifying these boundaries ultimately depends on finding a chemical solvent that can break down molecular chains and disentangle those chunks of inauthentic, meaningless, or illegitimate matter from authentic, meaningful, and legitimate matter. In a way, we could say that solvents work as “metaphysical enforcers” that allow conservators to disambiguate matter and respecify the object’s pristine boundaries. Now, finding the right solvent can be a very complicated endeavor, not least because each solvent has a different way of interacting and breaking those molecular chains, and consequently of establishing how the artwork ends up looking. This is why conservators have to run several mock tests before any intervention takes place in order to calibrate the aesthetic effects on the artwork, establishing how it will look after the application and also how it will age— a process that can take days, weeks, or even longer, depending on the aging properties of the solvent. Finding the right solvent in the case of One was particularly challenging. The bewildering mesh of tightly interwoven lines and forms that make up this painting meant that attempts to disentangle inauthentic and meaningless matter could easily end up affecting, or even erasing, authentic and meaningful matter. The challenge was such that conservators had to fly in a solvents expert, the University of Delaware’s Professor Richard Wolbers, who in the 1980s had introduced a solvent-based gel that can be used where traditional solvents cannot and that also gives conservators more control over the cleaning process. With Wolbers’s help, conservators finally settled on a solvent. Unfortunately for curators, disentangling authentic and inauthentic matter cannot be done by simply pouring solvent onto the painting and waiting for it to magically respecify the object’s original boundaries. The solvent can only be allowed to interact with those inauthentic materials that need to be removed or cleaned. If the solvent touches authentic materials it can


Chapter 1.1

alter them, sometimes irreversibly. Moreover, it is never possible to have full control over the transformations that the solvent will create, since it is never possible to know how deep the solvent will go into the painted layer and what kind of chemical alliances and boundaries it will help create or undo. This is why the application of the solvent must be done manually, one millimeter at a time, using only cotton swabs, rubber soot sponges, and the pulse of the conservator’s hand. Here is where we enter the realm of manual metaphysics. On Cotton Swabs and Manual Metaphysics One of the most beautiful and enduring memories of my time in the conservation lab at MoMA is that of the almost motionless silhouette of a conservator cut against the towering urban landscape of midtown Manhattan, sitting for hours and hours on end, day after day, week after week, in front of the same painting, working on an impossibly small detail, while weaving a lattice of endless repetitions with a cotton swab in her hand . . . Back and forth Back and forth Back and forth

The simple nature of this repetitive movement should not deceive us. It is through these endless repetitions that sameness is gradually built, one minuscule stroke at a time, by deleting the distance that separates the thing that One is now from the object it is supposed to be. Every one of these tiny strokes is a small leap in the void, without the safety net of hard facts or conclusive evidence. All the hard evidence produced through chemical analysis, x-rays, and UV light is not translated into the canvas. There are no signposts telling the conservator where exactly Pollock ends and the conservator who altered the painting begins, or where exactly the boundary between culture and nature, or between art and dirt, lies. Thus, when conservators found some wood chips after removing an initial layer of grime, there was nothing telling them whether these wood chips were like the cigarette butts or paint caps found in other Pollocks or were just dirt. Were they art? Should they keep them or remove them? These are not idle questions. Unlike the art historian, the social scientist, or the art critic, the conservator does not have the luxury of dwelling on scholastic doubt. As one of the conservators once told me, conservation is the place where “postmodern doubt hits the rock.” There is no possible innocent move here, no spaces of neutrality, and no possible equidistance.

The Modern Object of Care


11 Jennifer Hickey’s hand working on One. © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY.

Nor is there any place to hide. Each of these tiny movements passes an aesthetic judgment. Action and inaction are equally important. Deciding to leave something is as consequential as removing it. Conservators decided to keep the wood chips. And with that decision, on they went . . . Back and forth Back and forth Back and forth

It is through these endless manual judgments that metaphysical boundaries between what is meaningful and what is not, what is art and what is not, are built into the world. Millimeter by millimeter. But how can these boundaries be built in a space where there is no possible recourse to final certainties and hard facts? The answer to this question lies beyond what can be captured by any scientific or formalized body of knowledge. It is an answer that cannot be codified, because it relies on that form of practical knowledge that can only be acquired through those forms of intimate, embodied, tactile, and sensuous experience that exist beyond the reach of science. Being able to access (and generate) this kind of knowledge requires what conservators often refer to as “learning a material.” By this they do


Chapter 1.1

not simply mean learning about the mechanical and chemical properties of a given material, although they do this during their formal training. Learning a material requires becoming fluent in the language of things, being able to converse with them. They have to learn, for example, how enamel reacts, how it moves, or how it responds to pressure. They also have to learn how to listen to materials, not figuratively but literally. They have to listen to the almost indiscernible crepitation of the solvent as it erases and dissolves the paint layer to understand how it is affecting the surface as they carry on . . . Back and forth Back and forth Back and forth

Here is where the conservator’s hand becomes crucial. Because, as Henri Focillon reminded us in his 1934 essay Éloge de la main, the hand is not a mere appendix: it is a true “organ of knowledge” (in 1992, 166). It is the hand that enables the conservator to acquire the kind of tactile knowledge that emerges from learning to feel things. It is the hand that enables the conservator to learn how it feels when the cotton swab is stripping away a portion of varnish or dirt, as opposed to how it feels when it strips away a layer of paint. This is why conservators constantly talk about the importance of having “the right hand.” Not all hands are the same. Hands are not our mirrors. If they were, we would all be great at art, sports, or crafts. But most of us suck at them, because, as Focillon also told us (1992, 157), hands are not servants obediently followings our designs. Hands are almost like “living things” with whom we have to learn how to live and work. This is why the conservator, like the artist, has to patiently train her hands and learn how to work with them. But this training is very different. Unlike the artist’s hand, which is a hand that asserts itself through the difference it creates, the conservator’s hand has to conceal itself within the difference it creates. It is a hand that must learn how to perform the impossible acrobatics of undoing itself in every single brushstroke it creates to build a working image of the same. For it is only through this act of disappearance that the modern figures of the author, of authenticity, of originality can be sustained, one stroke at a time . . . Back and forth Back and forth Back and forth

The Modern Object of Care


What makes the mimeographic labor of the conservator’s hand difficult is that, like any other creative labor, it resists codification. There is no way of knowing how much pressure the conservator should apply, how short or long her movements should be. For it is never just a question of deciding what to leave and what to delete; it is also a question of to what extent something can be deleted or left. The aim of this mimeographic labor is to bring the artwork back to its original state— or something that looks like it— but there is nothing telling the conservator when that state has been finally achieved. The process of removing dirt and overpaint is not like an archaeological excavation, in which we know we have to stop digging because we have finally hit the solid certainty of an object buried underneath. The only thing the conservator finds after removing paint is more paint, and underneath it still more paint . . . until she hits the bare canvas. So how can she know when to stop because she has finally “arrived” at the original object? When is enough enough? Whenever I asked these questions to a conservator— and I asked them many times— I always received the same answer, which consisted of a half-smile accompanied by the same kind of forgiving look we usually reserve for children who ask some delightfully preposterous question. The answer is that there is no answer. There cannot be an answer because the boundaries that the conservator is to specify, those between art and nature, between the authentic and the inauthentic, are not there waiting to be discovered. These are boundaries that have to be built into the world, sculpted, quite literally, stroke by stroke . . . Back and forth Back and forth Back and forth

The absence of certainties in this mimeographic work is one of the reasons why conservation ends up every now and then wrapped in public controversies. As the conservator cleans, she is willy-nilly intervening in the aesthetic fabric of the artwork, modulating colors, brightness, and textures. Whether the conservator likes it or not, cleaning is painting. Or to be more precise: painting in reverse. Ironically, most cleaning controversies do not arise because there has been too little cleaning but because there has been too much. For when the conservator removes dirt, cracks, or overpaint, she is at the same time removing the physical traces and scars of time certifying that what you are seeing is an actual fragment of a bygone time, that it is “the real thing” rather than a contemporary replica or a fake. In eliminating these traces,


Chapter 1.1

the conservator can end up creating an object that looks so new that it appears to have no history. This is precisely what made the recent cleanings of Leonardo’s The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne, or the Sistine Chapel, to name only two, so controversial: the conservators cleaned so much that it raised the question of whether they had restored the original objects or had ended up creating entirely new ones. The mimeographic labor of the conservator is always caught in the tension between restoring and remaking, between generating the same and generating the new. This is why patina, the respectable name given to dirt, has become such an important and controversial subject of debate. Excessive patina can bury the artwork under a layer of distortion. Failing to remove this layer can compromise the status of an object. But removing it can paradoxically be equally compromising. Cleaning too much can also kill the object. The artwork can appear too new, too pristine, and belie its statuts as a historical artifact. The cleaned artwork has to support the chronological imagination of time through which modern art is narrated, which means that it has to sustain, rather than collapse, the distinction between the present and the past. As Jennifer Hickey told me, the point of their intervention on One was not only to recover the “original”; they also needed to be “true to the age” of the artwork. One must remain legible as an artwork painted by Pollock in 1950. It cannot appear to be a contemporary object produced anew in 2012. The conservator has to calibrate what particular interplay of leaving and erasing makes this particular form of chronological imagination possible. This is why many cleaning interventions leave some dirt, cracks, or discoloration. But, of course, there is no way of knowing where the perfect balance between leaving and erasing resides. This is precisely the problem that conservators and curators working on One had to confront when their cleaning exposed cracks that a conservator had covered in 1962. What to do with them? Should they cover them? Or should they leave them exposed as scars of time?13 The answer to these questions depends on the particular kind of object that needs to be achieved. When the cracks were covered in 1962, One was still an object circulating as a commodity in the contemporary art market. Visible cracks in a twelve-year-old painting were a liability since they could damage its salability and price. They had to be covered so that One could circulate as a “working object” in the art market. The museum, however, operates within a different regime of objecthood, that is, within a different set of parameters as to what counts as a working object. The museum is not necessarily concerned with the salability of the artwork but with its authenticity and originality.14

The Modern Object of Care


This is why, after some debate, conservators and curators finally settled on the Solomonic decision of leaving smaller cracks exposed (since these could give a sense of time without interfering with the meaning of the artwork) while covering the bigger ones with watercolor (see fig. 12). And on they went . . . Back and forth Back and forth Back and forth

. . . until one day, after fifteen months of sculpting, millimeter by millimeter, all these boundaries, conservators finally decided, with the approval of curators, that their mimeographic work was done. One had been returned to its original splendor. But we should not mistake this return with a return of the same. No conservator is under the illusion that this mimeographic work produces identity. They know, better than anyone else, that identity is irrecoverable, that the original is forever lost. They know because they work with things, and they know that things never go backward, only forward. Relentlessly. Thus, despite what is often assumed, the mimeographic labor of maintenance and repair is never about “bringing back,” “restoring,” or “recovering” an object. It is about re-generating an object, that is, about bringing forth an object again, and again. Or differently put: it is not about returning to the original object but about creating a new working image of the original. It is not about creating an identity but about creating the semblance of an identity, sameness. In short, it is about creating a working object, an object that while not exactly the same can still be said to remain true to its author.

Why Care about Care? The Difference of the Same In this chapter we have delved into the kind of labor required to turn something into an object of care and to sustain it as such. This has led us to explore in detail the kind of mimeographic labor conservators perform. But we still have not answered the questions of why we should we care about this work of care, why it should be included in our descriptions, or why it matters to understand how the category of art is done. One of the most obvious answers to these questions is that mimeographic labor is critical to making possible the ecological nexus through which the particular type of objects that we call “artworks” exist and subsist. It does so by shaping what we see, how we get to see it, and for how


Chapter 1.1

12 Scars of meaning: mimeography does not create perfect identity but sameness. © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY.

long we get to see it. This is evident in the case of Pollock’s One. Because when you see One at MoMA, you are not seeing simply the result of Pollock’s creative (neographic) labor but also the result of the creative (mimeographic) labor of conservators like Jim Coddington and Jennifer Hickey. Without this mimeographic labor One would look different. Thus, if you want to understand how One exists today in the particular way it does, you not only need to understand how Pollock created it, but you also have to understand how and why it has been cared for and sustained in a particular way. In this sense, this mimeographic labor is as important as neographic labor for understanding the nexus through which a particular object, like One, exists over time. Crucially, saying that mimeographic labor is as important as neographic labor does not mean that mimeographic labor is the same as neographic labor. Nor does it mean that the mimeographic work of conservators is equivalent to that of the artist, or that conservators should be rescued from the doldrums of historical neglect and be recognized as proper “authors” or “artists.” Conservators are neither authors nor artists. Nor do they have any inclination to become such. Nothing is as absurd and outrageous to conservators as the claim that they could (or should) be considered as “authors” of the artworks they work with. Such a suggestion is taken not as a compliment but as an accusation, because it means that they have not done their work properly. Every single conservator I spoke with over the course of this project genuinely believed in the invisibility of her mimeographic labor as an unshakable ethical commitment.

The Modern Object of Care


It is precisely the fact that mimeographic labor is not like neographic labor that makes it important. Because what mimeographic labor shows us is that creative labor is not necessarily exclusive to the production of the new and, most importantly, that the new is not the only difference that matters. If mimeographic labor is important, it is because it creates a different type of difference: the difference of the same. This is a difference that is often not recognized as such, since it takes the form of a “simple” repetition, of merely creating the same. And yet the difference created by the creation of the same is as important and powerful as the difference produced creating the new, if not more so. It is the difference that mimeographic labor introduces that makes it possible to sustain the physical fabric of the categories that populate the worlds that we dream and inhabit. Categories like art or history are as much the result of the differences produced by the work of mimeographers as they are of the differences produced by the neographic labor of creators. If you do not believe this, just try to imagine, for example, the mythical narrative of “the West” without the work of the copyist, the scribe, or the medieval amanuensis, who together built and sustained the bridge between the Renaissance and the ancient world. Or try to imagine art without the work of conservators. Forms and categories are not transmitted automatically by the power of minds, myth, or destiny. There is no Heideggerian Geschick of being, no mythical self-propelled sending of being; there is only the silent work of mimeographers, stealing from oblivion the physical fragments through which we build, imagine, and give form to categories like art, history, Zeitgeist, the past, or the Western tradition. This takes us to the most crucial reason we need to pay attention to this mimeographic work: not all forms of creating the same are the same. Producing “the same” under the logic of the modern aesthetic regime of art, which defines the same by reference to the author’s intention and demands the total invisibility of the mimeographic labor of the conservator, is different from producing “the same” under the logic of the medieval scriptorium, where the mimeographer in charge of reproducing the sacred word could attain recognition through calligraphy and decoration. And it is different yet again from producing “the same” under the logic of kintsugi, the Japanese art of repair, which reclaims the beauty of a crack as part of the identity of the object qua thing, rather than trying to return to some mythical original identity. Each of these logics of mimeographic labor entails different forms of distributing value, different logics of erasure and identity, and different ways of acknowledging or forgetting the labor that creates the same. Conservators, like most other mimeographers, are reluctant metaphysicians, but they are metaphysicians nonetheless. They are silent weavers


Chapter 1.1

that build sameness into the physical fabric of meaning, memory, and identity. Crucially, the boundaries that are negotiated through mimeographic labor are never settled once and for all. What this labor achieves is a temporary closure that allows One to remain a working object for some time. Because the same, just like the new, is never achieved or accomplished. It has to be endlessly created. The result of the mimeographic labor invested in an artwork like One is not a “restored” or “achieved” object. Because there is no such a thing as a still object. There is no point at which an artwork is finally done or finished, because artworks, like any-thing else, exist in a permanent state of becoming. After One is installed back in the galleries, it will begin to unfold again. Relentlessly. The enamel will continue to crack, the colors will continue to fade, and slowly but surely, all the boundaries built, millimeter by millimeter, by our conservators will begin to ebb away. And then, one day, One will have to be repaired again. And then again. And again after that. And if the last two centuries of art history have taught us anything, it is that it is very unlikely that it will be rebuilt in the same way. Because artworks do not merely change as things; they also change as objects. Artworks are subjected to an endless process of interpretation about their meaning, as well as about their position within larger narratives, institutional contexts, and historical moments. As a result, ideas about what constitutes a “working” art object, or about the transformations that can or cannot be tolerated, are always subject to change. What this means is that the object that mimeographic labor has to achieve is always a moving target. Conservators are fully aware of this. They know that their mimeographic work can never “settle” objects once and for all: the most they can aspire to is to create tentative objects. This is precisely why the main precept of modern conservation, in addition to being true to the artist’s intent, is that every intervention must be reversible so that future conservators can undo prior interventions and create the kind of object that meets the demands of their time for a properly working object. It may also be that there will be no future conservation, since it is possible that the future will develop other narratives about art in which One will no longer play a significant role. And then One will cease to be an object of care and will become yet another reminder of how fragile the position of “indisputable masterpieces” is. The work of conservators, like that of any other mimeographers, is thus constantly caught up in between objects and things, in between what something is and what it ought to be, constantly doing and redoing things so that they can fit into our ever-changing definitions of what counts as a

The Modern Object of Care


working object, what counts as the same, and what counts as a difference that needs to be repaired. It is this ceaseless mimeographic labor that maintains the invisible differences through which value and meaning are woven and rewoven into the fabric of the world. This brings us to a last, but crucial, point, which is that sameness is a luxury that very few can afford. Few museums have MoMA’s capacity to mobilize months of resources to care for tiny differences in just one painting. This is important to remember because the category of art, like any other category, is told from the point of view of the objects that remain, the objects that are cared for, and by those who have the capacity to care for them. This is why conservation is so important: because what is at stake in these mimeographic interventions is not simply the “preservation” of objects but the production of the objects through which narratives are told. This is particularly evident when dealing with artworks that are more fragile and elusive than One. And as it turns out, these are the majority of artworks that compose contemporary art today. So let’s turn our attention to them.


Of Elusive Objects Yves Klein’s Le Vide was made in 1958, just eight years after Pollock’s One. But the distance separating these two artworks is more than merely temporal. It is the distance separating two aesthetic logics: that of modernism, which has in One one of its culminations, and the incipient logic of contemporary art, which has in Le Vide one of its precursors. Le Vide is a perfect exemplification of one of the main leitmotifs of the contemporary art world since the 1960s: the negation of the modernist art object as the point of reference of artistic practice. It is a negation that Le Vide takes to its logical limit by turning the very absence of this modernist art object into the work of art. Much of the history of contemporary art can be seen as a long corridor of negative mirrors seeking to invert the central tenets of modernism. Thus, if modernism was built around the exaltation of the unique artwork, contemporary artists have endeavored to produce artworks that are not only multiple and endlessly replicable— such as Andy Warhol’s reproductions or Joseph Beuys’s multiples— but ephemeral and self-canceling, like the evanescent sculptures of Eva Hesse or Anya Gallaccio, or the performances and happenings of Marta Minujín, Allan Kaprow, and Ana Mendieta. Moreover, if modernism was built around an unmitigated devotion for the figure of the individual artist, contemporary artists have developed art collectives, relational and socially engaged artworks based on collaboratory and participatory forms of artistic production— like the works of Tania Bruguera, Rick Lowe, or collectives like Fluxus or the Guerrilla Girls. And last, but not least, if modernism was premised upon the idea of the museum as the unstated institutional horizon of the artwork, contemporary artists have created art forms that operate beyond the confines of the museum, from the land art of Robert Smithson or Walter De Maria to the site-specific artworks of Adrian Piper or Gordon Matta-Clark, or the mail art of Ray Johnson or Edgardo Antonio Vigo, to name a few. The rejection of the canonical modernist art object as the inevitable

The Elusive Object of Contemporary Art


13 Yves Klein, “Empty” room dedicated to the “Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility,” Museum Haus Lange, Krefeld, January 1961. Photo courtesy of the Yves Klein Foundation.

point of reference of artistic practice means that art today is no longer bound to the traditional forms of objecthood that once gave it its identity. Art has now exploded along a million lines of flight, disrupting the totalizing narratives and certainties that were built around the idea of the modernist art object and leaving contemporary critics, historians, and


Chapter 1.2

curators in a helpless search for what exactly is “contemporary art” amidst a plethora of new aesthetic forms, from ephemeral performances, collective happenings, and body art to multimedia installations, guerrilla-type interventions, net art, or sound art.1 The question that emerges for us is: What does it mean to care for these types of contemporary art objects? Or to be more specific: What does the mimeographic work of keeping the same mean in the context of artworks that are self-canceling, changing, multiple, or collective? How can conservators and curators sustain modern boundaries between original and copy, between past and present, between subject and object, between content and context, when dealing with artworks that have been explicitly created to undo those boundaries? To begin answering these questions, let’s take a relatively uncomplicated contemporary artwork, Félix González-Torres’s “Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in L.A.), produced in 1991. The work consisted of a 175-pound pile of colorful candies placed in the corner of an exhibition room, which were meant to represent the weight of González-Torres’s partner, who died of AIDS earlier that year.

14 Félix González-Torres, Untitled, 1991. Photo by Mark Mauno. Licensed under CC BY 2.0.

The Elusive Object of Contemporary Art


Untitled is an exemplary case of the type of contemporary artwork that has emerged out of the impetus to negate the canonical modernist art object. In this case, this negation takes the form of a “relational artwork” that breaks the traditional fourth wall separating audiences from artworks by inviting visitors to take candies from the pile and eat them. The result is a playful and ironical artwork that replaces the sacrosanct, passive, untouchable, and unique modernist art object with a vulgar, endlessly replenishable, sweet, and edible anti-monument. Now let’s imagine for a moment that you are in charge of caring for this artwork. The first question you would need to ask yourself is: What must be done to keep this artwork alive? This question would inevitably lead to a more pragmatic one: What, exactly, do you need to take care of? And this pragmatic question would, in turn, lead to a metaphysical one: Where, exactly, do the boundaries of the object of care lie? One of the dominant narratives about contemporary art is that it has entailed a radical process of dematerialization and that, as a result, art is no longer about making objects but about making concepts, relations, actions, experiences, interventions, events, or projects.2 But one of the first things you would realize when you start thinking about how to care for these types of artworks, rather than just writing about them, is that contemporary art has not undergone any such process of dematerialization. Contemporary artworks like Untitled remain every bit as material as one of Rodin’s stone sculptures. What we have witnessed with the emergence of artworks like Untitled is not a dematerialization of the art object but a reformulation of the material organization of the art object. Or to be more precise: what we have witnessed is a change in the kind of relationship between objects and things that had defined the notion of the artwork up until modernism. In contemporary artworks, the relationship between objects and things does not need to be unique and necessary— as it was in modernist art— but can now also be multiple and contingent. Thus, what distinguishes GonzálezTorres’s Untitled from an artwork like Pollock’s One is that while the latter exists (and can only exist) in one canvas, Untitled can exist through many different candies, just as an opera can exist through multiple physical configurations, or the body of Christ can exist through multiple wafers.3 What all this means for you, as the imagined conservator of this artwork, is that you do not need to use the same candies that González-Torres originally used in 1991 to have a working Untitled, just as you do not need to use the same bodies to produce one of Simone Forti’s dance performances, or just as performing Rirkrit Tiravanija’s 1992 Untitled (Free/Still),


Chapter 1.2

which involved inviting people to eat curry, does not involve (thankfully) eating the same curry that was originally cooked in 1992. Now, the fact that the relationship between these artworks and the things through which they come to exist can now be multiple or ephemeral does not make these artworks any less material. For you still need candies, curry, and bodies to produce the concepts, relations, actions, experiences, interventions, or events that these contemporary artworks seek to create. There is always a point at which concepts become form— unless, of course, you are willing to believe Robert Barry’s claim that he could transmit artworks telepathically. If you are in charge of caring for an artwork like Untitled, of keeping it alive, this material multiplicity raises an important practical question: What does it mean to keep “the same” artwork out of this material multiplicity? What can count as a proper and authentic repetition? Because the material plurality of these artworks does not entail an ontological plurality. Although the artwork may exist through multiple materials, the artwork must remain one and the same. But what does this mean in this context? This question takes us to another central tenet in the narrative about contemporary art: that it represents an aesthetic revolution, a rupture, that has subverted and undone the ontological foundations of the modern aesthetic regime of art. Nicolas Bourriaud, for example, describes the emergence of relational art as an “upheaval of the aesthetic, cultural and political goals introduced by modern art” (in T. Smith 2009, 262). Contemporary art, so the narrative goes, produces multiple, collective, open-ended, and replicable artworks that are no longer beholden to the traditional ideas of individual authorship, uniqueness, authenticity, permanence or property that organized the conceptual and institutional apparatus of modernist art (see, for example, Jackson 2011; Kester 2011; N. Thompson 2012). But here again, as soon you start having to care for these artworks, you realize that if the emergence of contemporary art was intended as a revolution that would undo modern art, it has failed miserably. Because although contemporary artworks may have indeed broken with modernist art, they have most certainly not broken with modernity. Despite the celebratory narrative (and aesthetics) of rupture, most contemporary artworks continue to operate within the exact same regimes of objecthood, authorship, and property that have organized the modern aesthetic regime of art since the nineteenth century. For example, even though contemporary artworks may exist through different material combinations, the fundamental relationship of identity between the artist and the art object remains immutable and unaltered. In other words, artworks must remain true to their

The Elusive Object of Contemporary Art


author. This is why you cannot use lollypops, or candies of a single color, or a different total weight of candies, for “Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in L.A.), or why, as we shall see in a few pages, performers cannot wear shoes as they perform Simone Forti’s Huddle, or why you cannot transform one of Tania Bruguera’s or one of Thomas Hirschhorn’s collaborative and socially engaged artworks into your own individual project. The fact that these artworks are open-ended, relational, or collaborative does not mean that you can break the umbilical cord that links them to their authors. If you do not believe me, the next time you see one of Félix González-Torres’s piles of candies, try to kick them or jump over them instead of just picking one candy; or try to interrupt a performance to do your own thing; or try to claim a socially engaged artwork as yours, and you will see how swiftly the illusion of open-ended participation, collaboration, and relationality vanishes before your eyes.4 Of course, this does not mean that nothing has changed with the emergence of contemporary art. But this change has not resulted, as is often argued, in a rupture with the modern aesthetic regime. Contemporary art has not erased the figures that organize the modern aesthetic regime of art; it has simply rendered them elusive. Or to be more specific: what defines contemporary art is not that it has produced artworks that operate beyond the modern figures of individual authorship, uniqueness, authenticity, permanence, or property but the fact those figures have now to be drawn and specified through elusive objects. What all this means in practical terms for you, as the imaginary caretaker of this artwork, is that if you are to keep this artwork alive you must ensure that it remains legible as an authentic representation of GonzálezTorres’s intention. This, needless to say, does not mean that you must produce the exact same material configuration González-Torres displayed in 1991. That would be as absurd as it is impossible. And yet this does not mean that you can make any material configuration you please. There is always a point beyond which what you are doing will no longer be recognizable as González-Torres’s Untitled and will become something else. Thus, the key question that you must answer is: Where, exactly, is that point? Can you, for example, place the candies anywhere you like? Or in any form you please? Can you use any type of wrapped hard candy? Any flavor? Do you need to create a specific color pattern? And more fundamentally: How can you know which of these questions is stupid and which is essential to determining which, among the potentially infinite configurations in which a 175-pound pile of candies can be displayed, can count as “Felix GonzalezTorres’s Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.)” and not as something else?


Chapter 1.2

These are some of the conundrums that conservators and curators must solve if they are to specify the boundaries separating the authentic from the inauthentic, the meaningful from the meaningless, or the essential from the contingent in these elusive objects. One could possibly argue that this is no different from the problem that conservators and curators face when they deal with a modernist artwork like Pollock’s One and must establish whether a brushstroke is intentional or accidental, or whether a patch of color is art or just dirt. But there is a significant difference here. In the case of modernist objects, the boundaries of the art object typically coincide with the boundaries of the thing that contains it. It is possible to know, for example, that Pollock’s One ends where the painting containing and supporting it ends. This kind of certainty is absent in the case of contemporary art objects. Unlike canonical modernist objects, these elusive objects operate in a tenuous ontology without clear beginnings or ends. There is no self-evident boundary that can tell us where an object like Untitled (Portrait of Ross) begins or ends. Moreover, it is not possible to specify that boundary by resorting to the kind of material excavation that we have seen in the case of Pollock’s One. There is not much use in sending conservators to unwrap all the candies in the pile or to perform an x-ray or chemical analysis in hopes of finding some material clue that establishes where exactly Untitled ends. The boundaries of these elusive objects have to be specified differently, and as a result they need a different form of mimeographic labor. As we saw in the previous chapter, mimeographic labor has been typically organized around the attempt to prevent that which is present from becoming absent— i.e., trying to prevent Pollock’s One from fading into meaningless matter. This strategy cannot work in the case of elusive objects. It would be simply absurd to attempt to preserve the mud of Kazuo Shiraga’s Challenging Mud, the curry offered to participants in Tiravanija’s Untitled (Free/Still) or the candies of González-Torres’s Untitled. In these artworks, mimeographic labor needs to work by bringing into presence that which is already absent— e.g., by creating again the particular configuration of relations between artists, audiences, candies, mud, or curry that made these now-absent artworks possible. In other words, mimeographic labor here is not concerned with preserving stuff so that it can remain the same but with creating a repetition that can generate the image of a return of the same. This is precisely what makes these elusive objects such fragile beings, because they have to be constantly reinscribed into presence, constantly repeated, to be kept alive. And this is what makes mimeographic labor all the more important for these elusive objects, since the repetition

The Elusive Object of Contemporary Art


it brings about is how these elusive artworks can overcome their absence and be woven into presence. Let us now explore exactly how this is done.

Describing the Artwork (and Its Constituency) To study how mimeographic labor works in the case of these elusive objects, we must begin with the moment of acquisition, since it is there where the museum must create the first official description of the art object and specify its boundaries before it can be formally accessioned into the collection. Producing this description and specification can be quite a complex affair, not least because when an artwork comes to the museum it never does so by itself. It always comes as a part of what is called in museum parlance a “constituency.” An artwork’s constituency involves a number of elements. These may include the physical components that typically accompany artworks (e.g., a painting’s frame, or the props used in installations or performances), documents describing what the artwork is and how it works (e.g., installation instructions, artists’ notes, photographs), and those documents establishing who the art belongs, and has belonged, to (e.g., contracts). These components are not merely external elements providing “support” or “context”: they are internal to the very description of the artwork. They make it possible to specify the particular relationships of property, authorship, and authenticity whereby the artwork acquires its boundaries and identity. For example, artists’ notes, correspondence, or photographs are crucial to establishing an artwork’s date of creation and thus to locating it in time and in the larger narrative of art. These components are also crucial to reconstructing the personal and historical “contexts” in which the artwork was created and thus to interpreting its meaning. Components like contracts specify the relations of authorship and property linking artworks to persons, establishing property rights as well as the custodial history of the artwork, so that the artwork’s particular biography can be verified. Finally, components like display and assemblage instructions are critical to stabilizing the artwork’s identity by providing standards and criteria for authentic repetition. What an artwork is, therefore, is inseparable from its constituency. This has several important practical implications. The first is that maintaining a working art object not only requires caring for and preserving the artwork but also caring for and preserving the components of its constituencies. The second implication is that describing all these components and spec-


Chapter 1.2

ifying their function and value is critical to demarcating the boundaries and identity of the art object. When an artwork arrives at the museum, the first task is to specify which components have aesthetic value (what is the art “proper”), which have functional value (what is “just” a prop), which have research value (like letters or notes), and which have legal value (like contracts). Specifying the identities of these components and describing the relations that bind them together falls to the lot of registrars, conservators, archivists, and curators. How they do this work depends, first and foremost, on the relative docility or unruliness of the artwork. Traditional modernist artworks, like paintings or standalone sculptures, are relatively docile objects whose constituencies typically comprise a few easily demarcated components. For example, the constituency of a painting may simply include the canvas, the frame, and a collection of documents (e.g., contracts, photographs, or artist’s notes); the first two elements can be easily classified as the art and a “dedicated component” that must accompany it, and the rest can be uncontroversially defined as archival and legal material. Description and specification become much more difficult when dealing with more unruly objects of contemporary art, whose constituencies can comprise dozens, sometimes hundreds, of elements. This is the problem that archivist Julia Pelta Feldman and assistant curator Gretchen Wagner faced when they were tasked with describing the massive Fluxus collection that Gilbert and Lila Silverman donated to MoMA in 2008. This collection extended over almost 60 linear meters of storage and comprised more than four hundred boxes filled with thousands upon thousands of notes, contracts, drafts, props, artifacts, and artworks that the Silvermans had been collecting since 1977 with the help of Jon Hendricks, their personal curator. The task that Feldman and Wagner faced was seemingly straightforward: they had to specify what kinds of objects the things included in the gift were, so that the museum could determine their “final deposit”— i.e., where to put them. More precisely, they had to specify which of these things were “art objects” to be housed in the Department of Prints and Illustrated Books, which were “documentation” to be housed in the museum archives, and which were “publications” to be housed in the museum library. This work was complicated not only by the gargantuan size of the constituency they had to describe but also by the elusive nature of Fluxus’s aesthetic production. Emerging in the 1960s as a crossover between Dadaism and Situationism, Fluxus brought to life a playful form of aesthetic

The Elusive Object of Contemporary Art


anarchism designed to wreak havoc on the conventions of modernist art. It did so through a panoply of festive, ludic, and ironical aesthetic forms such as Fluxfests— collective festivals involving street performances, music, and happenings; “event scores,” which consisted of instructions for generating absurd, humorous, and irreverent actions like dancing in front of a puddle or blowing soap bubbles out of musical instruments; or the famous Fluxkits, which were small suitcases filled with games, puzzles, films, and event scores. The Silvermans’ gift to MoMA was a treasure trove of material vestiges left behind by Fluxus activities: street posters publicizing Fluxfests and happenings, artifacts and props generated for these events, Fluxkits, artists’ personal letters, notes, photographs, and more. To add to the complexity, Feldman and Wagner discovered that most of these components did not accommodate any single object identity. Take, for example, an event score printed on a small card, like the one for Piece for a Small Puddle. Is this a documentary record of the artwork? Is it perhaps the artwork itself? Could it be both? Maybe neither? Typically, the best way of answering these questions is to ask the artists themselves, which is what Wagner and Feldman did on a number of occasions. However, this strategy faced two difficulties. First, the sheer number of objects in the Silvermans’ collection would have required organizing dozens of interviews or artist visits to the museum. Second, many of the items had belonged to George Maciunas, one of the founding figures of Fluxus, who had died of cancer in 1978, when he was just forty-seven, or to other artists who had passed away. What this ultimately meant was that it was up to Feldman and Wagner to specify what kind of objects these things were, in particular, which of them were “art” and which were “documents.” This raised an additional challenge, which had to do with the fact that archivists and curators are two very different creatures of modernity, working with different logics of description and different understandings of what counts as an object and how an object’s boundaries can, or should, be specified. For archivists, description is not only a technical term but a codified practice. “Archival description,” as it is known, “consists in analyzing, organizing, and recording details about the formal elements of a record or collection of records, such as creator, title, dates, extent, and contents, to facilitate the work’s identification, management, and understanding” (Pearce-Moses 2005, 25). Arising as it did from the development of the modern bureaucratic state in the mid-nineteenth century, modern archival practice is grounded in the twin principles of upholding the “phys-


Chapter 1.2

ical and moral defense of the record,” which asserts the duty to uphold the physical and intellectual integrity of the archive, and the respect des fonds, which asserts the need to keep archival records according to the logic of the administration, organization, individual, or entity by which they were created.5 The application of these two principles means that for archivists an archival object is not necessary a unique thing but a collection of things held together by relations. Following this logic, a folder containing multiple documents is described as a single “archival object.” Furthermore, for an archivist preserving the integrity of an archival object requires preserving all the components as well as the “organic” relations that bind them together: preserving the integrity of the folder qua archival object requires preserving all the documents found in it as well as the original relations in which they were found (e.g., the order in which they were placed). Removing an individual document from the folder, or altering the documents’ order, would break the integrity of the archival object. The logic that curators use for describing and specifying objects is rather different. Curators work within the regime of objecthood defined by modern aesthetics, which focuses on linking artifacts to individual persons to define the relations of authenticity, authorship, chronology, and intellectual property that identify each object as a unique self-contained unit of meaning and value. In practice, this means that a curator facing the same folder as the archivist would be more inclined to assess the value, meaning, and provenance of each individual document. This is why the records of archival collections are normally comprised of objects containing multiple things, whereas in art collections each artwork is catalogued with a unique record number and treated as an individual object. These divergent logics of description often lead to descriptive struggles, which emerge when what is at stake is not just different interpretations of a given object but different (sometimes mutually exclusive) descriptions of what the object is. What defines these struggles, therefore, is that they entail not merely an interpretative struggle but an ontological one. The process of describing and specifying the Fluxus collection was fraught with such descriptive struggles. One revolved around what to do with a group of letters that had been sent together with a drawing attached to each one, initially described as “correspondence with drawings.” The descriptive struggle revolved around what kind of objects these were. Should they be described as “art objects” and thus be formally inducted into MoMA’s art collection, or should they be described as “archival objects” and be sent to the archive?

The Elusive Object of Contemporary Art


Curators argued that while it was true that this “correspondence with drawings” could not be considered mail art, a recognizable art category associated with a very specific set of practices, the drawings could be seen as unique art objects with aesthetic value in their own right. Hence, the curators argued, the drawings should be detached from the letters and placed in the museum’s art collection under curatorial oversight. Archivists differed. For them, these drawings were not unique and separable objects but organic components of a single archival object. Severing the link between the letters and the drawings would undo the original archival object and create a partial and incomplete object. This would also destroy precious contextual information that could help illuminate the identity and meaning of this object, since the drawing could not be fully understood without the context of the letter in which it was sent. This descriptive struggle created a dilemma since these archival and curatorial descriptions were not just divergent but incommensurable. They represented two irreconcilable ways of specifying the metaphysical cuts required to define the boundaries of these objects. The curatorial description would separate the letters from the drawings, thus killing the archival objects; the archival description would leave these objects as they were found, thus trapping the art objects. No compromise was possible, since the objects resulting from each description were mutually exclusive. And yet a compromise had to be reached. Because, at the end of the day, things cannot be left without an object identity. They must be something. And they must be placed somewhere. As Julia Feldman told me: “We cannot let things float. We do not have the luxury of allowing the difficulty to remain unresolved.” Finding a solution required creating an interdisciplinary group of curators, conservators, archivists, and librarians. The need for this type of collective decision-making has become especially acute with the emergence of elusive objects and their complex constituencies. This process is not new. Describing and specifying modernist art objects also requires a collective decision-making process, as we have seen in our exploration of Pollock’s One. However, in these cases, the process typically requires just curators and conservators. The complex constituencies of the elusive objects of contemporary art require much wider collectives. Archivists, librarians, even AV technicians are now routinely brought into these discussions since many of the elements of these constituencies are under their custody. The result is that many museums today are instituting interdisciplinary working groups to deal with the problems created by the elusive objects of contemporary art. Of course, the broadening of the collective


Chapter 1.2

decision-making process does not necessarily mean that this is a level playing field. In the museum, as elsewhere in life, the capacity to describe is never distributed equally. At MoMA, the power to describe ultimately belongs to the curators— for example, “correspondence with drawings” was ultimately described following curatorial criteria. Still, the process is far from a matter of simply following what the curator says. The interdisciplinary working group considering the Fluxus collection spent three full years describing and redescribing a set of thirty to fifty object categories before they finally settled on specifying what was art and what was not. Even today, ten years after receiving the Fluxus collection, the museum is still processing those components that were deemed art, since each one must be individually described to be accessioned into the collection. The work required to resolve these descriptive struggles is another example of the mundane metaphysical labor required to generate the system of differences that sustain the categories through which we organize, imagine, and narrate our worlds. For that is what is ultimately at stake here. Each of these small descriptive struggles builds the boundaries through which things acquire their object identities and are inserted into the logics of circulation and valuation that will ultimately determine how they become present (or absent) in the narrative of art history. Because, as one can imagine, being described as an art object and placed in the museum’s art collection is quite different from being described as a mere sketch and placed in the study collection— something that we will explore in more detail when we discuss the unequal fates of two Picasso guitars (see pp. 285–91). The case of Fluxus illustrates one set of difficulties that this work of describing and specifying boundaries faces when dealing with the complex constituencies of elusive contemporary art objects. But, as it happens, very often these elusive objects are challenging not because they have too many components to describe but because they have too few. This is the case of performances and installations, where the artwork and its components are often already gone. How can the museum describe something that is gone? How can absences be recovered? The answer is by provoking presence.

Provoking Presence The problem of absence has become a central issue for museums over the last few decades, especially as they have begun to collect art that was explicitly created to defy the mimeographic logic of the museum, such as

The Elusive Object of Contemporary Art


self-canceling artworks (e.g., performances or happenings) or artworks that sought to elude the institutional space of the museum altogether (e.g., land art, mail art, or socially engaged art). These are today some of the most precious, and certainly the most fragile, objects of contemporary art. However, many, especially those produced in the 1960s and 1970s, are now dangling on the verge of oblivion, precariously hanging on to presence through a handful of photographs, blurry videos, and fragmentary personal memories dispersed in museums, personal archives, specialized art journals, and low-circulation academic books. Art museums face the daunting challenge of creating forms of repetition that can provoke these artworks into presence. The most common strategy has been to collect the constituencies left behind by these artworks— photographs, posters, magazines, and other documents— and mobilize them to work as surrogates for the absent artwork. So, for example, a museum might use a photograph of Valie Export’s Action Pants: Genital Panic as a surrogate for the actual happening that took place in 1969 when the artist walked through the rows of seated spectators in an art-film cinema in Munich wearing crotchless pants that exposed her genitalia at the level of the spectators’ faces (see figure 15). In this way, even if the original artwork is gone, these surrogates can act as “working equivalents” that generate what the art historian Amelia Jones (1997) calls a “presence in absentia.” For museums, the creation of these surrogates has been an effective means of incorporating artworks that were born to defy the museum. However, the multiplication and circulation of these of surrogates has led to other effects. One of them has been the blurring of the modernist boundary between the document and the artwork. This blurring has reconfigured the practical and ontological status of the document within the art world, which has gone from a mere “archival component” of the artwork’s constituency to an equivalent of the artwork. One of the most palpable results of this transformation is that it is increasingly common to see documents that were once confined to museum archives invading exhibition rooms, displayed not merely alongside artworks but in lieu of them. As a matter of fact, it is now common to see art exhibitions made entirely of surrogates, as in the case of Staging Action: Performance in Photography since 1960, which opened at MoMA in January 2011 and consisted exclusively of photographs of bygone performances. There are limitations to this strategy of using surrogates to provoke a working presence of a bygone artwork. For one, the boundary between the document and the artwork can only be blurred so far. One of the reasons for this is that documents are always inherently partial and incomplete,


Chapter 1.2

15 Valie Export, Action Pants: Genital Panic, 1969. Photography by Peter Hassman. © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/ Art Resource, NY. © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/Bildrecht, Vienna.

since no document can ever contain the totality of that which it purports to register. If it did, it would not be a document but the event itself. The inherent incompleteness of documents means that the museum can never be entirely sure about the relationship between documents and the artworks they claim to contain. It is not clear to what extent these documents can be seen as truthful surrogates of the original rather than just a duplicitous ersatz. Because, as historians have long reminded us, not all documents are necessarily testimonies, and not all are testimonies are necessarily true. In the words of the great French historian Jacques Le Goff, a document is simply “that which remains” (1992, xvii). A document is just a trace, and we can never be sure what exactly it is a trace of. This is a particularly critical problem for museums, given the tenuous nature of the traces through which many of these art objects exist today.

The Elusive Object of Contemporary Art


The problem of incompleteness is compounded by another one, which has to do with the kind of presence these documents can provoke. For not every form of documentation produces the same kind of presence. Different pictures, videos, or written descriptions of the same performance will bring it back into presence in different ways. Just think, for example, of the difference between seeing Valie Export’s Action Pants as a blackand-white picture, as a video, or as a written description. Moreover, many documents, like the photographs of these performances, were made as artworks in their own right, which thus creates the strange effect of having an artwork contained within and narrated by another artwork. Valie Export’s Action Pants is a case in point, since the photographs were taken by Peter Hassmann in a different location after the original performance took place. Documents, therefore, are always caught up in a paradoxical ontological position, since they are more than records but less than artworks. They are necessary to summon the presence of an artwork, but they are insufficient to fully contain it. Their mere existence reveals the absence of the artwork. The question for the museum, then, is: Which of these documents can be said to provoke an authentic presence, an authentic repetition, and which of them create a betrayal? These surrogates are effective ways of provoking presence through mental images of the artwork— e.g., a photograph can evoke the original performance in the mind of a viewer. However, they are unable to re-create the atmospheres, experiences, emotions, and relations through which those artworks came into being. The absence of these elements may be irrelevant in performances that were conceived from the beginning as staged images to be consumed by a (passive) audience at a later point— think, for example, of Chris Burden’s 1974 Trans-Fixed, which consisted in the artist being crucified on a Volkswagen Beetle for two minutes and was created to exist as a photograph right from the beginning. In other cases, however, it is precisely that which is necessarily absent, that which irremediably escapes the document, that constitutes the essence of the artwork. This is the case, for example, of those performances seeking to provoke a specific type of experience or emotion through the construction of a relation with an audience. In these cases, the documents cannot operate as working surrogates of the event, since the most they can offer is an index of emotions and experiences, not the emotions and experiences themselves. Consider Abramovic´ and Ulay’s famous Imponderabilia (1977), which involved the two, completely nude, facing each other in a doorway, forcing the visitors who wished to enter the gallery to squeeze between them. A picture or a video may help us to imagine the


Chapter 1.2

kind of awkwardness those visitors must have felt, but it cannot make us feel that awkwardness in our own bodies, much as a picture of a roller coaster can never be a substitute for the vertigo of being in one. In cases like these, the kind of presence that surrogates can provoke is, at best, an ironical one, since rather than creating a presence that overcomes the absence of the original artwork, they create a presence that simply reinscribes the original as absence. The fundamental incompleteness of these provoked presences has sparked increasing criticism from artists, critics, and scholars, who have accused museums of devaluing and betraying these artworks through the creation of deceiving doppelgängers.6 In response, museums have followed, especially since the late 1990s, a different mimeographic strategy: abandoning surrogates and mental evocations in favor of reenacting these absent artworks to provoke a repetition in the flesh. To see how this is done, I will focus on two the most emblematic types of elusive artworks, conceptual art and performance, which have created two of the thorniest challenges for the mimeographic work of the museum: how to repeat a concept and how to repeat an action. I will do so by examining two specific cases, the reenactment of David Lamelas’s Office of Information about the Vietnam War at Three Levels: The Visual Image, Text and Audio (which involves repeating a concept) and that of Simone Forti’s Huddle (which involves repeating an action).

How to Repeat a Concept David Lamelas’s Office began its life as a conceptual artwork in the 1968 Venice Biennale. It originally consisted of a booth with a glass front resembling a shop window, within which there were two desks, a chair, a telex machine, a tape recorder, a microphone, and two headphones. In this space, a female secretary picked up real-time news reports about the Vietnam War from the telex machine. She then stuck these reports (produced by the Italian news agency ANSA) on a wall and read them aloud to the visitors in Italian, French, Spanish, and English through a telephone system attached to the glass wall. The Office was intended to be a meditation on the increasingly mediated nature of politics in mass communication societies. It laid bare the communicative process whereby the most powerful informational event of the time, the Vietnam War, was being transformed into a media object by transforming it, in turn, into an object of aesthetic spectacle. The life of the Office was, like the life of most performances, extremely

The Elusive Object of Contemporary Art


16 David Lamelas’s Office of Information about the Vietnam War at Three Levels: The Visual Image, Text and Audio, as installed in 1968 at the Venice Biennale. © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY.

brief. After the Office was dismantled it was never shown again, thus beginning the slow march toward the periphery of memory that most performances travel. The only trace left behind was the official photograph made by the Biennale, which for more than forty years provided the fragile bridge separating the Office from oblivion. Then, in 2012, Sabine Breitwieser, then chief curator of the Department of Media and Performance at MoMA, acquired the Office, together with four other “installation-performances” that Lamelas made in 1969 right after his stint at the Biennale. The question here is: How is it that a group of artworks that had not been exhibited in almost forty years became, all of a sudden, objects of care for a museum like MoMA? To answer this question, we need to remember something we discussed in the case of Pollock’s One, which is that if we are to understand how something is transformed into an object of care, we need to understand the position it occupies at the intersection of institutional power structures and aesthetic, political, and historical narratives. In the case of the Office, its transformation into an object of care in 2012 had to do with the impetus of MoMA’s Department of Media and Perfor-


Chapter 1.2

mance, which had been founded just three years earlier, in 2009, with the mandate of recovering the memory of media and performance art, especially from the 1960s, that MoMA, like most museums, had not been acquiring because it was deemed uncollectable. However, and despite this new institutional impetus, transforming these objects into objects of care was not easy. As Martin Hartung— one of the assistant curators working with Breitwieser— put it to me, it was challenging to convince an acquisition committee to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a group of artworks that had been reduced to a few photographs, some original tapes, and some digital transfers. Yet this was the case with the Lamelas pieces Breitwieser wanted to acquire. Luckily for Lamelas, there was another institutional change playing in his favor. By the 2010s MoMA was on a mission to acquire Latin American art, finally bowing to the critiques of artists, critics, and scholars who had for decades denounced the exclusively Euro-American version of modern and contemporary art that MoMA had been promoting since its inception. This shift, combined with targeted support from wealthy Latin American donors, most notably Patricia Phelps de Cisneros, resulted in the creation of a fund entirely devoted to acquiring Latin American art. An artwork like the Office was a perfect fit for this new narrative project, since it showed how some of the most celebrated ideas of Euro-American conceptual artists had been prefigured by Latin American artists; for example, the Office’s use of the news and media as an artistic object preceded by a year Hans Haacke’s much-lauded News (1969), which has often been credited as the originator of such a move. The Office also offered another important narrative possibility for MoMA: this object did not simply narrate Latin American conceptual art but was also part of the narrative of the 1968 Venice Biennale, a Biennale that occupies a special place in the master Euro-American narrative of contemporary art for having been interrupted by the political upheaval of that year. The Office, therefore, was a perfect narrative object for MoMA, offering the opportunity to kill two birds with the same artwork: to include Latin American art into its narrative (and thus appease critics) while at the same time allowing the museum to own a fragment of one of the central episodes in its master narrative of contemporary art. The position of the Office at the intersection of these narratives and institutional developments helped Breitwieser convince the acquisition committee to acquire Lamelas’s artworks. It did not harm the case that Lamelas also decided to offer the Office as a gift, so that MoMA only had to cover the cost of the other acquisitions. To make the deal even sweeter,

The Elusive Object of Contemporary Art


Lamelas made the Office a unique gift by granting MoMA exclusive rights over the artwork, which meant no other institution could reinstall it without asking MoMA’s permission and paying a fee. So not only was the Office free, it could potentially bring some profit to the museum. There was just one tiny problem: this gift consisted of exactly nothing. It was, as Martin Hartung put it, “pure air.” Not a single tape, video, or prop survived from the original Office. The only things MoMA had received were the rights to reproduce the Office and a copy of the official photograph of the installation in the Venice Biennale. MoMA, in short, had acquired an absence. The question the curators faced was: How could they make that absent artwork present again? And how could they do it on the basis of just one photograph? The curators’ first task was to generate a working description of the artwork. The photograph provided a very limited description of the Office, showing it empty and static, when the whole purpose of this work had been to show how information moves through the interaction between information technologies, the performer, and the audience. Breitwieser and Hartung interviewed Lamelas in hopes of eliciting a full description of the artwork from his memory. But, alas, almost forty years after the original performance at the Biennale, the Office that existed in Lamelas’s memory was irredeemably incomplete. Lamelas did not remember many of the details about the display settings, the physical layout, the components that he had used, or even the languages used by the performer to read the news. As Hartung put it, the interview made it clear that many parts of the Office were “literally in oblivion.” This incompleteness prompted Hartung to do additional research in an attempt to fill the gaps and generate a more complete description. With the help of Francesca Valentini, an Italian doctoral student who had assisted Hartung during her internship at MoMA, he was able to locate a series of photographs of the Office made by the Italian photographer Ugo Mulas. The advantage of these newly rediscovered images was that, unlike the official photograph, they showed the Office in full action, thus giving a better sense of how it was used and functioned. However, the photographs did not provide a sufficient description, because, as Hartung told me, this was not a simple installation but a performative installation, and it was difficult to see how that performance actually worked in practice. To solve this, Hartung traveled to the Biennale archives to gather information about how the Office was originally displayed. Then he traveled to the Olivetti Archive in Rome to gather information about the original furniture and technologies used. And finally, he traveled to ANSA, the Italian news


Chapter 1.2

agency, to obtain the telexes originally transmitted while the Office was exhibited at the Bienniale. Then, a year later, in 2013, Stuart Comer, who had replaced Breitwieser as the chief curator of the Department of Media and Performance, decided to include the Office in an upcoming show, Transmissions: Art in Eastern Europe and Latin America, 1960– 1980, intended to portray the political connections among artists in Latin America and Eastern Europe. The problem that Comer faced in exhibiting the Office was, of course, that there was no-thing to be exhibited, except the photograph from the Venice Biennale, the Ugo Mulas photographs unearthed by Hartung and Valentini, and the original telex transmissions from the ANSA archives. Comer and his team decided to use these elements to reenact the Office through a reconstruction of the original installation. This reconstruction required a massive amount of mimeographic labor. It took the museum almost three years of collective work involving more than twenty-three museum staff, including curators, conservators, registrars, art handlers, exhibition designers, and external contractors. The main challenge they faced was that all of the original components of the Office were gone. Curators were able to find some duplicates online, including an original Olivetti typewriter, which they bought on eBay for €300. Everything else was built from scratch. Using the recovered photographs, contractors built replicas of every single piece of furniture in the Office, from the chairs and desks to the phone handsets attached to the glass. They replicated every detail, from the color of the chairs and desks (especially difficult since they had only black-and-white photographs and Lamelas’s faulty memory) to the exact shape of the phone handsets, which had to be remade several times. All, of course, with the authorization of the artist, who had to greenlight every color or shape to make sure that these replicated objects adequately represented his intent. The result of this mimeographic labor was an almost exact repetition of the Office, which was unveiled to the public in 2015 as part of the Transmissions exhibition. I say “almost” because there was one very significant difference. The new Office did not include a live feed of news like the original one; instead, it simply played the original transcripts on a loop. The result, while not exactly the same concept as the original, could nonetheless sustain a working image of an identity. Which is what matters in the end. The reconstruction of the Office illustrates the massive amount of mimeographic labor, time, and resources required to recompose a description of these elusive and tenuous objects and generate the kind of working equivalence through which they can be reinscribed into presence. This,

The Elusive Object of Contemporary Art


17 David Lamelas’s Office of Information about the Vietnam War at Three Levels: The Visual Image, Text and Audio, as installed at the Museum of Modern Art in 2015. Photograph by Thomas Griesel. © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY.

however, is not the end of this mimeographic work, because the aim is not simply to bring something back into being but to keep it in being. To achieve this, the museum needs to generate something more than a oneoff repetition; it needs to create a repeatable repetition. That is, it needs to create the kind of repetition that allows an object to be integrated into the exhibitionary logic through which artworks circulate and acquire (aesthetic and economic) value in the art world. Generating this kind of repeatable object requires three additional operations. First, it requires fixing the description of this object so that it can remain (more or less) the same through these repetitions. This requires a meticulous process of documentation, normally done by conservators and registrars, which entails specifying every single detail of the regenerated object: recording its dimensions, cataloguing every component, describing each of the steps involved in installing and uninstalling it, and storing every document and communication associated with it, from emails and contracts to notes and reports, as well as every single component of its constituency. This documentation has become one of the most precious elements of the constituencies of these elusive objects, since it contains


Chapter 1.2

the description that make it possible to specify the boundaries through which these objects can exist and be repeated over time.7 Second, it requires erasing any trace of the collective mimeographic work through which this regenerated object has been produced, so that the artwork can be presented as the work of the artist rather than a version made by the museum— i.e., the Office has to appear as Lamelas’s Office, not as MoMA’s version of the Office. This erasure is particularly ironical in this case, since it was actually MoMA’s curators who decided to reconstruct the Office by replicating the original. Lamelas was quite blasé about the form of the installation as long as it was possible to read it as an equivalent of the original concept. He told curators, for example, that he was perfectly happy with expressing the original concept through an installation involving contemporary technologies and using a real-time newsfeed about some current political event. But even if the artwork is not entirely the product of the artist’s creative labor, it needs to be presented as such to comply with the ideas of authorship and authenticity that guide the modern aesthetic regime of art. This brings us to the third operation required to turn these reenacted objects into truly working objects, which is that they have to sustain the particular set of differences that organize the categories through which the museum builds its narratives. In this case, for example, because it would be exhibited as part of an exhibition dealing with a particular episode of the contemporary art world from 1960 to 1980, the Office had to be able to sustain the difference between the past and present, rather than collapsing it. Narrating that specific moment in art history required not just an authentic object but an original one. Redoing the Office using new technologies, as Lamelas suggested, would have preserved the original concept, but it would have generated an object that would have been read as contemporary (a 2015 object). In other words, it would have created an anachronism. Instead, curators needed an object that could produce the illusion of historical depth. And that required hiding the newness of the re-created Office by using original materials that could create the mirage of seeing the original 1968 artwork. In the case of Lamelas’s Office, all of these operations were possible because curators and conservators were able to reconstruct a physical constituency that brought the artwork back into presence, and did so while upholding the relations of authenticity, temporality, and originality that organize the modern aesthetic regime of art. But what happens when there is no physical constituency to be reconstructed? How can the museum draw these figures of authenticity, temporality, or originality when there is no-thing to draw with?

The Elusive Object of Contemporary Art


These are the questions that the museum had to address in 2015, when curators decided to acquire Simone Forti’s Dance Constructions.

How to Repeat a Hug Forti’s Dance Constructions, originally performed in 1960 at the Reuben Gallery in New York, were a seminal moment in performance art. The Constructions, which created what Forti called “sculpture made by people,” were organized around a series of “rule games” that sought to explore that liminal space in which movement and dance are not fully distinguishable by blurring the lines between sculpture and performance, things and bodies. In some of the constructions, like Platforms, this exploration involved bodies and physical props. Others, like Huddle, existed as sculptures made of living flesh, unfolding through the motion of bodies. In 1963 Forti described Huddle in her contribution to the collective artist volume An Anthology of Chance Operations as follows: A group of seven or eight people stand together in a very close huddle. One member of the group climbs up the mass of people and then down again becoming once more a part of the mass. Immediately another is climbing. The movement must be constant but not hurried. (in La Monte 1963, n.p.)

Performances like Huddle are some of the lightest and most elusive of objects. They exist only momentarily through a barely traceable configuration of relations unfolding through the movements of bodies in space. As such, they are also one of the most challenging objects to keep alive, since they require not simply re-creating some material configuration but re-creating the particular set of bodily movements and relations through which they come into being. Finding a way to do this was the key problem that curators and conservators faced when Huddle was accessioned into the museum collection in 2015. The first step to accession it was, as always, to produce a description of the object. In this case this meant describing the relations and movements through which what we call Huddle comes into being. This was particularly problematic since Huddle, like many other performances, is not codified around a strict script or set of formal notations, relying instead on general indications and rules that are taught in person and transmitted body-to-body by the artist or a designated instructor. The absence of a formal notation system is not coincidental. For Forti, as for many other artists of the time (e.g., Merce Cunningham, Yvonne Rainer), this absence was a way to rebel against the suffocating formal strictures of traditional dance. For curators and conservators in charge of acquiring Huddle, the


Chapter 1.2

18 Simone Forti’s Huddle. March 7– 8, 2009. Photograph by Yi-Chun Wu. © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY.

absence of any notations introduced a profound uncertainty: How could they be sure that what they were reenacting was Huddle and not something else? How could they know where the boundaries of Huddle lie? Curators first tried to answer this question by eliciting an object description from Forti herself, just as they did with Lamelas. Over the course of two years, one of MoMA’s assistant curators, Jenny Schlenzka, interviewed Forti multiple times, gathering dozens of personal sketches, artist’s statements, photographs, and videos, in an attempt to generate an authorapproved script that the museum could use to fix a description of Huddle and serve as the basis for its reenactment. The good news for curators and conservators was that Forti, unlike Lamelas, had a very detailed account of Huddle— nothing strange if we bear in mind that she had been performing it for over fifty years, as well as teaching instructors how to perform it. However, it soon became evident that this descriptive effort was insufficient. No matter how many pictures or videos they accumulated, and no matter how detailed and precise the collected drawings and the instructions were, there was always a point at which those words had to become flesh, at which drawings and photographs had to become movement. There was a point, in short, at which representation had to become practice. And

The Elusive Object of Contemporary Art


as Wittgenstein reminded us long ago, the abyss between representation and practice is such that it can only be bridged with a leap into the void. It is here, in this particular abyss that separates words and practice, where the mimeographic work of Athena Christa Holbrook, one of MoMA’s collection specialists, became important. In January 2016, just a month after the acquisition of the Dance Constructions had been formalized, Holbrook was sent to the Netherlands with a deceptively simple mission: to document how Simone Forti taught Huddle. But, as Holbrook told me, she soon realized that describing Huddle was not just a matter of noting down instructions; it required something else. It required “learning to see” how boundaries are rendered evident, specified, negotiated, and settled in practice. In a way, this is not that different from the process of training the eye that conservators need to undergo to clean a painting like Pollock’s One. We could say that if the mimeographic labor of cleaning Pollock’s One requires learning to see the difference between seemingly identical brushstrokes, Holbrook’s work consisted of learning to see the minute variations introduced into seemingly identical iterations of a performance like Huddle. There is, however, a very significant difference. Unlike a painting, an object like Huddle has to be redone every time, and each of these redoings allows some degree of variation and improvisation, which means that its boundaries are always unsettled by the introduction of difference. Yet not every difference is valid. There are boundaries beyond which Huddle cannot go and still preserve its identity. Holbrook’s work of specification consisted in learning to see the fragile interplay between difference and identity, between variation and stability, by identifying which elements were essential and thus invariable (e.g., silence is required) and which were flexible (e.g., the duration of Huddle is ten minutes or whatever time it takes for everybody to have a chance to be on the top of the huddle). More importantly, she had to learn to see and specify which differences could be introduced (e.g., which bodily variations introduced by the performers were accepted) and which break the artwork (e.g., no one can come down head-first from the top of the Huddle). The hesitations and cross-outs in Holbrook’s notes bear witness to the difficulty of specifying the boundaries of an object like Huddle. But at least they helped to diminish the yawning gap between words and practice. Unfortunately, this alone is not enough to keep a fragile object like Huddle alive. Reading instructions, no matter how detailed, can never teach you how to perform Huddle, for the same reason that, as Deleuze wrote (1994, 23), reading instructions about how to swim can never teach you to swim. You can only learn how to perform an object by performing


Chapter 1.2

it, much as you can only learn to swim by swimming. And, as Holbrook discovered, it was only when she was invited into the performance, when she was able to inhabit Huddle from within and see it not with her eyes but with her own body, that the tenuous configuration of movements that describe the artwork became evident for her. As she wrote in an article reflecting on this, becoming a performer meant that her experiences became documentation and her own body a living repository of the institutional memory of the museum, a fleshy archive (Holbrook 2018). It is the body, and only the body, that is able to perform the mimeographic work of repairing the separation between words and practice and providing the bridge that allows a work like Huddle to be brought into presence. This is why Forti ultimately agreed to sell her Dance Constructions to MoMA. She knew all too well that these fragile and elusive objects could only be kept alive by reperforming them through body-to-body transmission. For decades, her body had been the main instrument of transmission by teaching a small group of instructors how to bridge the gap between words and practice. But now, at eighty-two, Parkinson’s was slowly taking possession of her body, threatening to undo the living fleshy bridge through which these artworks had been kept alive. She knew that the only possibility for sustaining those artworks was to train other bodies to provide the bridge. MoMA had the resources to build that bridge. It soon became evident, however, that keeping this bridge alive required generating a different ecology, a different oikos, that could ensure the repetition of this artwork. MoMA partnered with a dance organization, Danspace Project, to develop a new infrastructure that could house these fragile objects and keep them alive through, among other things, the creation of research residencies, and writing workshops in which Forti, or her designated trainers, can train future teachers and performers on how to sustain the fragile and elusive bridge between words and bodies through which these artworks come to life.8

Of Absences and Repetitions In this chapter I have explored the elusive objects that have come to populate the art world as a result of the demise of modernism and the rise of contemporary art. I have argued that while these objects exist within the very same system of boundaries and differences that have organized the modern aesthetic regime of art since its inception, they have rendered those boundaries more uncertain and fragile. As we have seen, the emergence of these precarious and elusive objects has forced a redescription of

The Elusive Object of Contemporary Art


the mimeographic labor of care. Keeping these elusive objects alive is no longer a question of trying to prevent that which is already present from becoming absent but one of trying to reinscribe into presence that which is already absent. In other words, it is no longer a question of maintaining and repairing a presence but a question of provoking a presence. This kind of mimeographic labor is difficult for two reasons. The first is that as these elusive objects recede away, they become residual beings, murmurs, with the most tenuous link to presence: a few lines in a low-circulation academic book or, if they are lucky, a few photographs, a video, or some documents. The challenge here is not simply that it is difficult to reconstruct a description of these bygone objects through these elements but the fact that objects that exist as an event, a concept, or a hug can often not be fully captured by the words, images, and memories that they leave behind, no matter how dense or rich they are. A second difficulty is that this reconstruction has to take a very specific form: it has to be a repetition of the same. Allan Kaprow— one of the precursors of performance art— once argued that the very attempt at repetition is ludicrous because performances can never be re-created. “The past can only be created (not recreated),” as he put it (in Conwell 2012, 202). What he neglected to add is that creating the past has to take the form of a re-creation if it is to be accepted as past— which is probably why Kaprow himself provided detailed instructions and scores for the reenactment of the performances he has sold to museums. This double bind between creation and re-creation is precisely the challenge of mimeographic labor. Mimeographic labor cannot create anything new, not a different object, not even an interpretation of one. It has to re-create a (seemingly) perfect repetition, a return of the same— or at least something that works and looks like the same.9 Over the last few decades there has been an intense debate around the status of these repetitions: Even if it is possible to repeat or re-create these elusive objects, is it desirable? For some, reinserting these artworks into presence is necessarily a betrayal, no matter how faithful they are. As the performance scholar Peggy Phelan (1993, 146) famously wrote, “Performance’s only life is in the present. Performance cannot be saved, recorded, documented, or otherwise participate in the circulation of representations of representations: once it does so, it becomes something other than performance. To the degree that performance attempts to enter the economy of reproduction it betrays and lessens the promise of its own ontology.” For critics who, like Phelan, write about these elusive objects but do not


Chapter 1.2

depend on their survival for their livelihoods, this radical commitment to the purity and authenticity of the original is a relatively harmless feat of rhetorical critique— even if their careers are built on writing into presence those very performances whose effacement they encourage. However, for the artists whose selves, memories, and labor are linked to these artworks, and whose livelihoods depend on the artworks’ survival, the ephemerality and fragility of these elusive objects becomes a more difficult problem and a more consequential ethical commitment. It can be relatively easy to embrace ephemerality as long as it is just a performance of ephemerality— or as long as it affects someone else. It becomes more difficult when one has to see one’s work and life erased into oblivion. Of course, difficult does not mean impossible. There are, to be sure, many artists who have developed their work and careers by locating themselves outside this mimeographic logic and fully embracing the fragility and ephemerality of the elusive objects they create. There are even those who have fully detached themselves from their artworks, or have actively worked to destroy them.10 But this always comes at a price. Circulating outside the logic of mimeography is done at the risk of self-erasure and, often, condemning oneself to economic precarity. No wonder, then, that many artists who once created these kinds of elusive objects as a way of rebelling against the museum are now coming to those very same museums in search of help to care for them, after realizing that while art can indeed be done in the wild, it can never survive there.11 For many artists, though, the desire to keep artworks alive through repetition is not a matter of legacy or ego but one of economic survival. Inserting those fragile and ephemeral artworks into the logic of repetition, and obtaining rights over those repetitions, gives them a much-needed economic boost amidst a precarious existence. For their part, big museums like MoMA are discovering that those artworks that were once meant to be a revolt against them, and that were feared to be inassimilable into their collections, are ideal business opportunities. The fact that many of these artworks are not tied to a specific set of unique things, and that they can be reproduced through videos and photographs, has opened the space to commodify them ad nauseam through the creation of editions and the control of reproduction and display rights. Thus, while Pollock could only sell a painting like One once, Christian Marclay could sell his 2010 art installation The Clock six times— five to museums at $467,500 each, and one to a hedge fund manager for an undisclosed amount.12 The growth of commercial art galleries, auction houses, art fairs, and biennials that we have witnessed over the last decades has not taken place

The Elusive Object of Contemporary Art


despite the emergence of these elusive contemporary artworks but because of them. Ironically, then, those very artworks that were created against the institutional and commercial apparatus of contemporary art have ended up paving the way for the exponential growth of that very apparatus. In fact, reenactments of performances and installations, and document-based exhibition of elusive artworks, have become effective strategies to boost attendance and are now regular features of most museums’ programs. The institutionalization of these elusive objects is such that the extension plans of museums, including that of MoMA, regularly include spaces devoted to them. The incorporation of elusive artworks into the logic of museums reveals a point about mimeographic labor that, while present for any type of artwork, becomes perhaps more salient in these artworks. Reviving artworks through mimeographic labor is not only a result of a deep attachment to the modern fetish of the original but also a way to revive their aesthetic and economic value. After all, the discovery of the forgotten artist is one of the bestselling narratives in the art world. The vast number of half-forgotten elusive objects produced since the 1960s offers museums countless opportunities to produce and exploit these narratives of rediscovery. This is one of the reasons why many artists’ estates enter into the game of repetition and reenactment, even against the intention of the artist they represent— think, for example, of the case of Robert Smithson or Gordon Matta-Clark. A critical point here is that these mimeographic operations do not simply rescue artworks from oblivion; they also inscribe them into copyright regimes that fix their boundaries and identities. This is exactly what we have seen with Lamelas’s Office and Forti’s Dance Constructions. The mimeographic operation through which MoMA has recovered them has also allowed the museum to fix their identities, secure ownership over them, and dictate how and when they will be repeated, who can repeat them, and at what cost. For example, the museum has loaned out Forti’s Huddle four times in less than two years, earning handsome loan fees each time. Every time that this artwork is loaned to another museum, the loan takes place under strict conditions specified by MoMA, which, in addition to the customary loan fee, include the fees for the labor of the designated teacher to train performers, a supervision of the final performance, and control over any recordings or images made of the performance. This quest to build and sustain authentic elusive objects is not within the reach of most museums, as it is an extremely labor- and resourceintensive project. Each of the projects that we have examined in this chapter— Fluxus, Office, and Huddle— took several years to complete.


Chapter 1.2

The challenge is not merely that enormous resources are required to bring these works back from death (or near-death) but that enormous resources are also required to keep them in the realm of the living. This is precisely what makes keeping alive an artwork like Forti’s Dance Constructions so complex and expensive: it is not just a question of making a one-off repetition; it requires developing an ecological nexus that allows the kind of ongoing repetition through which these artworks can remain present (and valuable). Of course, the museum is not the only place where such mimeographic labor takes place. The last few decades have witnessed the emergence of a wide ecology of community-led efforts, artist-run organizations, small public and private institutions, and scholars invested in keeping these elusive objects and their memories alive. New mimeographic practices are emerging based on the development of anti-hegemonic archives, alternative documenting practices, or the writings of academics and critics focused on subaltern and peripheral narratives. Such practices have become critical sites from which to map the cartography of oblivion left behind by the hegemonic narratives of powerful institutions like MoMA and to repopulate our narratives and imaginaries with other objects of care.13 But just as it is critical to acknowledge the importance of these sites, it is crucial not to romanticize them. The objects and memories that these sites can create are often fragile, and the mimeographic practices they produce are challenged in securing the kind of institutional continuity, economic resources, infrastructures, and communities of practice that caring for objects requires. This explains why many of these archives end up being abandoned, or even donated to large institutions— a recent example being Getty’s acquisition of the archive of Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE), the longest-running contemporary artists’ space in Los Angeles. The fact remains that not every institution has the capacity to provide the kind of mimeographic labor, time, and resources required to keep these elusive objects alive. Even those that have the resources, like MoMA, have to be very careful about which objects they care about. Out of the thousands upon thousands of performances and installations that populate the recent past of contemporary art, only a handful have been selected to be reenacted. For every Fluxus box opened at MoMA, there are countless boxes that will remain unopened and untold, and for every Forti that is reenacted, there are countless performances that will not be seen again. This is why care and mimeography always need to be thought as questions of power. Because it is those who have the capacity to care that ulti-

The Elusive Object of Contemporary Art


mately define what is entitled to time and what parts of life deserve to be stilled and repeated, as well as the conditions and logics under which this stilling and repetition can take place. And in so doing, they define the boundaries between presence and absence through which memory and oblivion acquire their form.


From Artworks to Artwords So far in this book, we have seen the kind of mimeographic labor that goes into keeping some-thing alive as an artwork. We have explored what is required to describe some-thing as an art object, and the ceaseless interventions needed to specify and build into the world the metaphysical boundaries separating the necessary from the contingent, the authentic from the inauthentic, the meaningful from the meaningless, dirt from art, or the past from the present. But this attention to the object is only half of the mimeographic labor needed to keep some-thing as a properly working artwork. Because what makes something an artwork is not some quality that exists within an object but a relation between a particular type of object and a particular type of subject— an artist. For some-thing to be considered a working artwork, it is not enough to simply keep an object alive; it has to be kept alive in such a way that it can remain legible as the original, unique, and authentic representation of the artist’s intention. Creating such legibility entails figuring out not only the boundaries of the art object but also the boundaries of its subject, the artist. The first obvious difficulty the museum faces is that a subject, like an object, is not some sort of self-evident entity waiting out there to be known and collected. A subject is a particular way of imagining and describing a self, just as an object is a particular way of imagining and describing a thing. The challenge the museum faces here is that it needs to describe a very particular subject form. Specifically, it needs one of those clearly defined, coherent, and accountable subjects that economists, sociologists, and philosophers use to run their models. It is through that type of subject that the museum can establish the kinds of metaphysical cuts required to specify the boundary separating what is authentic and meaningful and needs to be cared for from what is inauthentic and valueless and can be let go of. Unfortunately for museums, finding one of these clearly defined subjects in real life is as rare as finding a yeti in the Bahamas. The reason for this is simple: we are not transparent and well-defined selves. We are

The Modern Subject of Care


19 Francis Bacon, Three Studies for a Self-Portrait, 1979– 1980. © The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource, NY. © The Estate of Francis Bacon/DACS, London/ARS, NY 2019.

viscous and messy selves, often unable to provide a coherent narrative for our actions. This viscosity and messiness explains why we are constantly surprising (and betraying) ourselves, or why we find it extraordinarily difficult, and at times painful, to make sense of ourselves as more or less coherent subjects. Artists, who also happen to be humans, suffer from these very same ills. This is precisely what Bacon’s disfigured selfportraits represent— that endless, often anxious, quest of the self in search of a subject. This complex, murky, and messy nature of the self is particularly problematic for the museum, which, like any other good modern institution, does not have much use (or tolerance) for uncertainty or messiness. A messy self leaves the museum in an unworkable state of suspension and indecision. The museum cannot operate with an artist’s hesitations, vacillations, doubts, ambivalences, or contradictions, much as modern bureaucracy cannot operate with Bartleby’s “I prefer not to,” or the juridical system cannot deal with Meursault’s inscrutable silences. The museum needs to somehow distill a working subject out of artists’ viscous and messy selves. But how, exactly, can the museum do this? The answer is intention, which has become the central idiom through which the museum describes the artist as a subject.1 In fact, describing and specifying the “artist’s intent,” as it is commonly referred to in the dayto-day talk of the museum, has become one of the central problems any museum has to tackle and resolve. This leads us to another question: How does the museum describe and specify intention in practice? The previous two chapters have already outlined some of the ways in which this is done. In the case of modernist artworks, such as Pollock’s One, we saw how conservators and curators inferred the boundaries of


Chapter 1.3

the artist and his intention through a material excavation of the artwork. Yet, as we saw, the kinds of subjects that result from these material excavations are always incomplete and tentative, precariously stitched together by hypotheses, interpretations, and guesses (see pp. 62–79). Distilling a working description of a subject is even more difficult in the case of contemporary art, where it is not possible to perform this material excavation of intent. Conservators will find no clues to the artist’s intent from x-raying the candies of Félix González-Torres’s Untitled or the bodies of the performers of one of Forti’s Constructions. So what, then, is left for the museum to use to figure out the artist’s intent? Here is where words come into play. Words have long been believed to be, together with actions, the main form through which the self externalizes itself and becomes known to others. It is through words that the self produces a narrative about itself— about the kind of subject (she thinks) she is, and about the reasons and intentions that (she thinks) lie behind her actions.2 This relationship between words and the self is the reason why artists’ artwords— i.e., those words that artists produce about their selves and their artworks— have become such precious and coveted currencies in the art world. Artwords are believed to offer a rare insight into the oft-unstated intentions shaping an artwork’s form and meaning. Unfortunately, they have also been exceedingly rare. Up until the twentieth century, artists mostly stuck to the business of creating artworks and did not venture into the domain of artwords. As a matter of fact, it was a common belief that artists should stay as far away as possible from artwords; hence Matisse’s amiable claim that “a painter ought to have his tongue cut out” (in Flam 1995, 2). The scarcity of artist’s artwords has forced art historians, critics, and museum workers dealing with pre-twentieth-century art to work like gold panners— sieving private diaries, scavenging through correspondence, love letters, and notes, or recomposing artists’ utterances from secondhand accounts— in search of the verbal nugget that could throw some light on the author’s subjectivity and intentions.3 Artists’ artwords began to become less scarce at the turn of the twentieth century as a result of two different developments. The first had its roots in the revolt against academic art in the 1850s spearheaded by Courbet and the participants in the Salon des Refusés. The rupture with academic art meant that artists operating outside established conventions and norms had to create their own narratives to justify and legitimate the aesthetic

The Modern Subject of Care


value of their work. This need to justify their art gave rise to a new vehicle of aesthetic discourse: the art manifesto. The emergence of the art manifesto transformed the artist from a mere creator of artworks to a creator of artwords and, through them, as the bearer of a new type of aesthetic discourse: the artist discourse. By the 1930s the production of artwords had become an almost indispensable tool for any new artistic movement worth its salt to articulate and justify its aesthetic and political goals, something that led to the proliferation of art manifestos. By the 1960s this initial proliferation of artists’ artwords morphed into a veritable deluge with the arrival of conceptual art, which changed art-making from a practice of making meaning through things into one of making meaning through discourses about things. Artwords gained even greater status as a result, which has led to a radical inflation of artists’ discourses ever since. Today it is almost impossible to find an artwork that is not accompanied by artwords. In fact, a great deal of contemporary art has made the production of artwords the focal, sometimes the only, point of art-making, thus turning the very production of artwords into a spectacle in which, as Robert Smithson (himself a consummate producer of artwords) wrote in 1968, the artist “intoxicates himself in dizzying syntaxes, seeking odd intersections of meaning” (in Smithson 1996, 78). The second development has to do with the emergence and proliferation of recording technologies over the twentieth century, which made it possible to record and circulate artists’ artwords both in the form of spoken words (through audiovisual recordings made for documentaries, television, and radio) and in the form of written words (thanks to livres d’artistes, art magazines, academic journals, self-published zines, and, more recently, online publications). These new developments have created a new ecosystem of vehicles for the production and circulation of artists’ artwords.4 The combination of these two developments means that, unlike their counterparts from just over a century ago, artists today are not known merely through their artworks but also through a dense web of artwords dispersed through writings and recordings. Crucially, the production of these artwords is not optional. It is virtually impossible to participate, let alone triumph, in the art world without producing artwords. Artists not only have to produce art; they are constantly asked to write about the art they produce— in artists’ statements accompanying their artworks, in essays publicizing their art, and in grants to fund that art, as well as in their CVs, résumés, and websites. As a result of this, the last decades have witnessed the creation of a new set of technologies designed to capture, col-


Chapter 1.3

lect, and organize artists’ artwords. Examples are the artist archives that began to proliferate over the late 1960s, which have now transformed the artist into an object of collection in its own right (see Vaknin, Stuckey, and Lane 2013), or the now ubiquitous artist-writings anthologies— which have become an indispensable companion to analyze any artist’s oeuvre, as well as an increasingly powerful way to “fix” the canonical discourse of art through selections of “must-read” texts.5 One might think that this sudden wealth of artists’ artwords, together with the ability to collect them, has solved the problem of knowing artists’ intent. Unfortunately this is far from being the case. If the hermeneutic tradition has taught us anything, it is that more words rarely lead to fewer interpretations. Words breed interpretations— and often, as Eco (1992) reminded us, overinterpretations. And this is exactly what has happened in the case of art. Artists’ artwords have become the sites of endless exegetical battles about what the artist “really” meant and what her “true” intentions were. Indeed, one of the most critical tasks that those caring for contemporary artworks face is precisely how to draw relations between artworks and the spiraling web of artwords that surrounds them. Collecting and caring for artwords has become a critical activity in the contemporary art world. This context of proliferating artwords and competing interpretations begins to explain why museums have felt the need to create their own technologies to describe artists and their intent. Unlike descriptions of artists taking place elsewhere in or around the art world, museum descriptions have a very specific function: these are descriptions intended to be attached and stored alongside the art object. Their function is to ensure that the artworks in the museum’s possession are indeed faithful and authentic representations of the artist’s intent. To produce this kind of description, the museum needs to render the artist as a particular kind of subject: a clear, unambiguous, and legible subject that allows the museum to specify the metaphysical cuts needed to describe the boundaries, forms of authorship, ownership, and truth that organize the modern art object. Unfortunately for the museum, these types of clear, unambiguous, and legible subjects do not tend to occur naturally, which means that the museum needs to provoke them into being. Following Fabian Muniesa (2015), I talk here about provocation as a form of explicitation through which something is rendered real and legible, and thus exposed to consideration and intervention. And this, as we are going to see, is exactly what the provocation of the subject form “artist” that takes place in the museum tries to achieve. In what follows I will explore the different technologies through which

The Modern Subject of Care


the museum provokes subjective intention and, through it, negotiates, specifies, and settles the boundaries of both the artist and the artwork. Let’s start with some of the most basic of these technologies of provocation: contracts and questionnaires.

Provoking Intention 1: Contracts and Questionnaires as Technologies of Description One of the most traditional technologies museums employ to describe artists is acquisition contracts. Broadly defined, these are legal tools that allow the transfer of the “bundle of rights” associated with each artwork, typically including the rights to distribute, display, reproduce, and modify the artwork. Acquisition contracts are also technologies designed to provoke and capture artists’ artwords. They do so by requiring artists to generate a legally binding description of the artwork, detailing all of the components of its constituency and specifying which will be transferred to the museum as part of the acquisition, as well as which kinds of rights will be surrendered over each of them. These object descriptions are crucial, since they provide the museum with a legal basis for fixing the boundaries of the artwork and detaching it from its creator— a crucial operation in establishing ownership as well as authenticity. These contracts work quite well with the more docile objects, like paintings and sculptures, since their boundaries and components are easy to describe and specify. In the case of a painting, for example, a contract needs only to describe one or two components (a canvas, maybe a frame) and stipulate the transfer of rights associated to them. Things get more complicated when dealing with the elusive objects of contemporary art, which often involve constituencies with many components, editions, or iterations.6 The complexity of their constituencies and the elusiveness of their boundaries often means that it is very difficult to specify what exactly needs to be acquired, or what rights are being transferred over what. As we have seen, in the cases of the acquisition of Lamelas’s Office and Forti’s Constructions, acquisition contracts were simply too rudimentary to offer a working description of the boundaries of the art object, much less of the artist’s intentions. Here is where another technology of description, the so-called artist questionnaire, comes into play. These questionnaires are typically sent alongside contracts as part of the acquisition process. Their main function is to complete the artists’ description of the artworks initiated by the


Chapter 1.3

contracts. These questionnaires ask artists to provide very specific details about their artworks, including their physical dimensions, the number of editions they comprise, the instructions required for their installation, and their provenance and exhibition history. These questionnaires also ask artists to specify the kind of value assigned to every single component (e.g., whether it has functional or aesthetic value), as well as the kind of actions the museum is authorized to perform in case that component malfunctions or breaks down. Last but not least, these questionnaires include the crucial “artist’s statement,” in which the artist is asked to describe the artwork and its meaning, thereby provoking a narrative of the artist’s intent in her own words. Taken together, acquisition contracts and artists’ questionnaires are designed to serve two functions. First, as technologies of description, they provoke the artist into rendering her intentions describable and specifiable in a way that can be (legally) captured and registered by the museum. Second, they also work as mechanisms of authorization. Museum workers are now authorized to use these provoked descriptions to perform the metaphysical labor of specifying the boundaries of these artworks and their constituencies, since they can claim that they are merely following what the artist said. As one can imagine, the success of these operations of description and authorization is not guaranteed. Whether these technologies manage to produce a useable description of the artist’s intention depends on the relative docility or unruliness of the artists, that is, on the degree to which the artist is willing to render herself describable in the terms required by the museum. Docile artists would be those who render their intentions describable and capturable in these contracts and questionnaires, which can then be used to produce clear and detailed specifications about the boundaries of a given artwork and the value and function of its constituents. Unfortunately for museums, most artists tend to be somewhat unruly. One reason is that artists, like most of us, often see filling out questionnaires and contracts as an irksome bureaucratic procedure. Thus, it is not surprising that many of these questionnaires and contracts are left incomplete and offer only fragmentary and disconnected descriptions of the artworks and the intent behind them. Another reason is that artists, unlike most of us, see the process of filling out administrative paperwork as a good place to express their artistic selves. Sometimes this leads to playful responses, like Duchamp answering the question about the significance of his 3 Standard Stoppages by saying that it was just “a joke about the meter” (in Molderings 2010, 83). Other times, this impulse

20 Provoking and specifying intent. Part of MoMA artist’s questionnaire for media-based art.


Chapter 1.3

can lead to perplexingly abstruse descriptions, like Hans Richter (in Umland, Sudhalter, and Gerson 2008, 259) explaining his use of grisaille tones in one of his artworks as an attempt to “control the most elementary form relationship (if that what I was using could still be called ‘form’).” Go figure. All of this is relatively harmless in the case of more traditional modernist artworks, since the museum is not entirely dependent on the artist’s description of her own intent to establish the boundaries of an object. After all, you do not need Pollock to tell you what One consists of since it is obvious where the canvas begins and ends, and material analysis can be used to belie the artist’s own artwords. But an incomplete questionnaire can become problematic with the elusive objects of contemporary art, since the museum really depends on the descriptions provided by the artist about her intent to make sense of the tenuous boundaries that specify these artworks. For example, curators and conservators do need Simone Forti’s artwords to know what Huddle consists of or where it begins and ends. And what they need to know cannot be captured by any contract or questionnaire, no matter how detailed or sophisticated. This is why another technology, the artist interview, has become so crucial for museums.

Provoking Intention 2: The Artist Interview Interviewing artists is a long-established practice in the art world, used in art journals, newspapers, documentaries, or museums’ oral histories. But in museums the practice of interviewing began to acquire a different status in the early 1990s. The timing was not coincidental. This was the moment when museums began to realize that the existing tools to capture and describe artistic intent— e.g., traditional conservation work, acquisition contracts, and questionnaires— were insufficient to deal with the increasingly complex and elusive nature of many contemporary artworks. Accordingly, the last two decades have witnessed a veritable interview fever. Curators and critics have adopted the artist interview as a method to capture artists’ biographies. At the same time, interviews have shifted from being a casual way of collecting artwords and began to be institutionalized as an integral part of the mimeographic labor required to keep artworks alive. Museums and other professional art associations now routinely run interview methods workshops to train curators, conservators, and other art professionals, while conservators have now integrated interviewing as an integral part of their method and practice.7

The Modern Subject of Care


The premise behind the institutionalization of interviews seems at first glance commonsensical. Rather than asking curators or conservators to cobble together an interpretation based on questionnaires and contracts, or to infer intention through material excavations of the artwork, why not ask the artist herself? Certainly this seems much better than relying on tea-leaf interpretations of artists’ artwords gathered through secondary sources. As they say, it is always better to hear straight from the horse’s mouth. But if interviews have become so central for museums, this is not simply because they are a convenient way of recording artist’s artwords. It is also because they are believed to work as mere technologies of elicitation capable of revealing otherwise unobservable facts about the artist’s self, like intention. As one of the guides on how to do artist interviews puts it, these interviews allow museums “to gain in-depth understanding of the artist’s intent” by “explicat[ing] the choices that the artists made in his work and provid[ing] (more insight) into his working method” (Beerkens 2012, 14– 15). From this perspective, the artist interview holds out the promise of avoiding all the messy work of specification that we have seen in the previous two chapters by giving direct and unmediated access to the artist’s self and her intent. The problem with this promise is that, well, it is just a promise. If the now century-long discussion on interview methods in the social sciences has taught us anything, it is that interviews never ever work as technologies of elicitation. Because interviews are, and can only be, technologies of provocation. They never merely “retrieve” or “elicit” a subject that is already out there waiting to be disclosed; they work by provoking a subject into being. Further, the subject provoked is not just any kind of subject: it is a very specific type of subject, the storied and self-reflexive self.8 This provocative nature of the interview becomes particularly critical in the context of the museum, because, as mentioned, the museum needs to provoke a very specific subjective form, one that can legitimate and specify the sort of art object that serves the aesthetic regime of modern art. Provoking this subject form requires three different but tightly interrelated operations. First, these interviews have to provoke a true subject. That is, they have to make sure that the narrative they provoke is a true rendering of the artist’s self, intent, and work. Second, these interviews have to be able to attach those subject narratives to the artwork so that the museum can use them to specify the boundaries of the object as well as the relationships of authorship, property, and chronology it enacts. Finally, these interviews also need to be able to detach those subject narratives from the living artist’s self so that the artwork can be fixed. Let’s see how all of this is done.


Chapter 1.3

Provoking a True Artist Ever since the emergence of the interview methodology in the late nineteenth century, the main challenge that its proponents have faced is how to transform interviews from artificially provoked encounters producing what the anthropologist Sherry Ortner (2003, 16) has called “highly individualized, socially decontextualized talk” into an effective epistemological technology capable of generating legitimate truth-claims about the subject. Over the last century, there have been many different approaches to this problem. Some have turned to closed questionnaires, like the psychiatric interview, to try to secure an unbiased access to the self. Others have opted for generating dialogical encounters, like the free-talk method developed by Piaget to access underlying cognitive structures in children, or Freud’s psychoanalytic method of free association. Still others have tried interviews without questions, as in the case of oral history interviews, while others have assumed that truth does not emerge through dialogue, free association, or revelation but can only be elicited through confrontation, like the legal interviews and police interrogation methods designed to force subjects into “confessing” their truth. MoMA, like most museums, has adopted the type of interview method we could broadly term “the social scientific interview.” One of the traditional basic premises of the social scientific interview has been that it must be organized in such a way that it allows the subject to reveal herself in her own terms if it is to generate valid truth-claims about a subject. Thus, unlike other interview methodologies, which seek to produce truth-claims through active argumentation, interruption, or even confrontation, the social scientific interview is typically organized around a principle of “minimal intervention” and stresses that interviewers should be as neutral as possible.9 The guidelines, training workshops, and literature on how to conduct artist interviews that have emerged over the last decades follow this principle of minimal intervention to the letter. They emphasize, for example, that interviews must eliminate any form of interference that may pollute this process of self-revelation. Interviews, they say, should be done in a location that is conducive to this process of self-revelation, like the artist’s studio, or if this not possible in a neutral location. They recommend that interviews should be conducted by at least two people to counterbalance any possible subjective bias, and that the interviewers should not have personal relations to the artists, as this may be a source of epistemologi-

The Modern Subject of Care


cal pollution. As one set of guidelines argues, “Sometimes being a friend of the artist is advantageous, [but] too close a relationship might result in implicit ways of communication not necessarily understood by others” (INCCA 2002, 1). Needless to say, the proponents of the interview methodology for museums are far from being naïve positivists who believe that following all these steps will yield a totally neutral and uncontaminated process of self-revelation. They are perfectly aware of the social scientific literature showing that interviews can never be unmarked or neutral situations. They know that their position as interviewers is never that of a passive recorder of a narrative but that of a reluctant coproducer wittingly or unwittingly shaping the artist’s discourse through the questions they ask (or do not ask). They also know that the account ultimately produced depends on the relative positions the interviewer and the interviewee occupy within the art world’s hierarchy of power. It matters, for example, whether the interviewer is a conservator, who is typically regarded as a mere “art technician” without much power, or a curator, who is seen as more of an equal to the artist thanks to her position as the museum’s gatekeeper. It also matters whether the artist is well-known and established or a young artist at the beginning of her career. And, of course, it matters under whose institutional auspices these interviews take place; it is not the same to do an interview for a local community museum as to do one for MoMA or another powerful institution. If we take all of this into account, the inescapable conclusion is that the narratives provoked by these interviews are inherently contingent. Different interviews will inevitably provoke different narratives from an artist about her intentions and her artworks. Which is, incidentally, why one of the artists interviewed by MoMA requested to be interviewed three times: he knew that he would inevitably say different things about himself and his art. (It would be interesting to know why he thought that three interviews would solve the problem, rather than two, four, or fifty-six). The question for the museum is: What kind of truth-value can be attached to these contingently produced narratives? It is not just that the inherently contingent nature of these narratives is an obstacle to provoking a truthful narrative about the artist’s intentions but also that interviews never deal with actual actions and intentions, only with narrativized memories of those actions and intentions. One of the most basic assumptions on which the epistemological legitimacy of the social scientific interview rests is that actions and intentions can be adequately captured by words and narratives— that is, that the


Chapter 1.3

words provoked in these interviews can be taken as a valid description of the actions and the intentions behind them. This assumption has often led social scientists to conflate accounts of actions and intentions with the actions and intentions themselves.10 The museum interview shows us that such conflation is not possible. For one, our memories are too fragile. Like the rest of us, artists commonly misremember why they did something, or cannot remember at all what they did— as we saw in the case of David Lamelas, who did not remember most of the details of the original Office at the 1968 Biennale (see p. 103). Moreover, one should always exercise caution when conflating accounts of actions and intentions with the actions and intentions themselves because the narratives provoked in interviews can be intentionally exaggerated, self-interested, or just plainly false. Many of us lie and exaggerate in order to curate our public personas, and artists are no exception. Remember, for example, how we saw Pollock giving misleading accounts about his practice in different interviews in a way that helped him craft a particular artistic persona (see pp. 62–71). As one of the conservators in charge of artist interviews at MoMA told me, an additional difficulty with interviews is that sometimes artists do not have much to say, or what they end up saying is not particularly interesting or useful. This, the conservator told me, is completely understandable, since, as she put it, “we are asking [the artists] to have a discourse about their artworks. But they are not novelists, poets, or philosophers! They are artists.” As she reflected, the demand seemed unfair because “that is not necessarily what they are good at.” The conservator’s remark touches on one of the important tensions at work in these interviews: these provocations force artists to translate artworks into artwords. In other words, they force the artist to translate something that usually takes place in the order of bodies, things, and practices into the order of language, that is, into the order of explanations, descriptions, and justifications. Interviews assume that it is actually possible to translate actions into words. But this is not necessarily the case. Sometimes the absence of words is precisely what made the artwork both possible and necessary. In such cases, trying to artificially provoke a discourse around the artwork may make about as much sense as asking a football player at the end of a match how he made that sublimely beautiful play— which typically provokes a response along the lines of “I don’t know. I just took the ball and hit it.” Sometimes, however, the problem of bridging the distance between the order of saying and that of doing arises not from inarticulacy but from its

The Modern Subject of Care


opposite: the artist talks too much. As artistic discourse has proliferated, the inflationary effects have become particularly evident in museum interviews. Artists often use these interviews as what, following Goffman (1956), we could call “theaters of self-presentation”: opportunities to stage their carefully crafted artistic personas and insert themselves into the wider narrative of art by building discursive references that can link them up to other artists, periods, movements, and styles. This highlights another crucial aspect of interviews: they always entail an exchange not just between an interviewer and an interviewee but among interview, interviewee, and an imagined audience. Artists modulate their artistic personas depending on who they take this imagined audience to be. Thus, when artists do interviews with curators for oral histories or symposiums, which are typically thought of as public-facing documents, they are not simply telling a story about themselves so the interviewer knows about it. They are telling the story about the artistic persona they would like to be seen as for the museum, and through it, for an imagined posterity. On these occasions, artists use interviews strategically to locate their artistic selves within the wider context of art history and explain their artworks as nodes in a causal network of influences, inspirations, and dialogues with other artists. Artists tend to offer very different kinds of narratives about their creative practices and the reasons behind them in interviews with conservators, which usually result in internal museum documents not available to the public. In these interviews, artists often describe their artworks as emerging from the dialectic of artistic practice itself, through responses to specific material and technical problems and opportunities, rather than as the product of external artistic factors such as influences or styles. As a result, the museum sometimes finds itself with two (or more!) different causal accounts of the reasons and intentions behind a particular artwork. While these accounts may not be contradictory, they are not necessarily coherent. This incoherence can be particularly problematic when trying to use these provoked accounts to specify the boundaries of an artwork or decide how it should be preserved. This problem takes us to the next operation that these interviews have to perform. Interviews must not only provoke a subject form to which the museum can attach truth-value; that subject form must also be able to work as an effective principle of intelligibility for the mimeographic and narrative work the museum needs to perform. This requires attaching artwords to the artwork that can be used to specify its boundaries and meaning.


Chapter 1.3

Provoking Attachment How the work of provoking attachment takes place depends on the relative docility or unruliness of the interviewee. The more docile the interviewee, the easier it is to provoke artwords that can be attached to the artwork. Take, for example, the following case, in which conservators asked an artist about some marks they found on a blackboard that was part of an artwork. Were these marks intentional— in which case they had to be preserved as part of the artwork’s description— or they were damage that had to be removed? Conservator: Now, what about the finishing of the surface of the blackboard. There are some very specific marks on it. Artist: No, no; they’re not specific. They’re a series of ghosts, almost random marks on it. They could have been, there again, I think, five or six different blackboards, editions, five or six or something. And they’re all marginally different. I mean, I would be delivered a fresh blackboard, and then I would work on it with chalk and with fixative. Conservator: Okay. Artist: And if it gets battered about, so much the better. Conservator: Okay. Artist: And it won’t [inaudible]. It’s not as if there’s a very careful drawing on top. And [inaudible] a lot of my work, I’m not so precious about how it gets, it’s quite flexible.

This exchange is a good example of an interview provoking artwords that render the artist’s intention describable and specifiable in a way that can be attached to the artwork. As a result of this provoked exchange, conservators can now specify that the artist meant to make those marks part of the artwork’s description. Moreover, now they also know the kind of mimeographic work this artwork requires: caring for this artwork means, paradoxically, not caring too much about it (“if it gets battered about, so much the better”). Last but not least, the artwords provoked in this interview can now be mobilized by conservators and curators to justify their future interventions (or noninterventions) in the artwork. Something quite handy to fend off polemics (and lawsuits!). Unfortunately, this work of provocation, specification, and justification is not always so straightforward. Artistic practice, like any other practice, rarely proceeds in a clean and linear fashion. Happenstance, unconscious choices, mistakes, or half-baked decisions, as well as nondecisions, regrets, corrections, or hesitations, are at least as important as intentions, reasons, and conscious decisions in shaping artistic practice. One only needs

The Modern Subject of Care


to think about the famous pentimenti lying behind the visible surfaces of paintings as the ghosts of those artworks that could have been but never were. If we take this into account, it is easier to understand why exchanges like the following are so frequently repeated in any artist interview: Interview: Okay. . . . So, as far as the kind of specific aspects of this MoMA installation that’s up now, are there any aspects of it that you consider essential to this work, like, aesthetically or conceptually? Artist: Um, um, no. I’m not going to lie. I’ve never thought about it.

“I don’t know,” “I haven’t thought about it,” and variants thereof are some of the most recurrent answers in artist interviews. In the context of some social scientific interviews, these answers are not necessarily problematic. Indeed, they are typically treated as valuable data, since a critical part of the interviewer’s job consists in explaining how those hesitations and absences are, in fact, “symptoms,” “evidence,” or “effects” of, say, suppressed unconscious drives, false consciousness, ideology, or some underlying cultural schema or habitus. In the case of the museum interview, however, “I don’t know” is never a good enough answer. Such hesitations are problematic because the museum needs legible and accountable subjects to specify the metaphysical cuts that separate what is meaningful and valuable from what is meaningless and valueless. So when artists fall back on “I don’t know”— and it happens all the time— the job of the interviewers is to translate those messy and hesitant subjects into working subjects by provoking a legible and actionable account of intention. One of the most common and effective methods is creating counterfactuals that can render the artist’s intention describable and capturable. Here is an example: Conservator: So, let’s say, in the future, if we had those giant sheets of LED screens and you could plaster the whole wall, is that different than having a projector? Would that be more desirable to you or less desirable? Artist: Wonderful. Sold. [laughter] The output is just an output [ . . . ] It’s just an image on a wall, on a surface, whatever. Whether it’s a projector or a huge LCD screen or some beautiful lens, then it doesn’t matter, really, does it? What matters is the interaction between, you know, the person, the participant, and, you know, what they see on the screen [ . . . ] Conservator: Would you tell us a little bit about that criteria, because future curators at MoMA will be interested. I mean, it would be very interesting to hear you say the piece is independent of the installation equipment, in your mind. Artist: Yes, I think so, yeah.


Chapter 1.3

This is an illustration of how the creation of a counterfactual— the idea of “projecting the artwork in giant sheets against a huge wall”— makes it possible to provoke a working description of the artist’s intention and, through it, a working description of the boundaries and identity of the artwork. Thanks to this counterfactual, conservators now know that this artwork was about creating a particular form of interaction with the audience and that its meaning was not tied to any specific equipment: “The output is just an output.” Accordingly, conservators now also know that their mimeographic labor should be focused on preserving those interactions, more than on preserving a particular kind of equipment. A particularly interesting detail about this excerpt is that while the artist’s initial response might suggest that the focus on output over equipment was a foregone conclusion, the conservator nonetheless felt the need to insist on his provocation: “it would be very interesting to hear you say the piece is independent of the installation equipment” (my emphasis). By provoking the artist to make her intent as explicit as possible, the conservator leaves the least possible room for future interpretations about what the boundaries and meaning of this artwork are or what kind of mimeographic work it requires. The effort is successful; the artist’s final “Yes, I think so, yeah,” even if hesitantly expressed, are the artwords the museum needs to attach to the artwork. The use of such counterfactuals is a good illustration of why interviews are never mechanisms of elicitation but of provocation. These counterfactuals do not simply unearth a set of intentions that were already there; they help to describe, specify, and ultimately fix what those intentions are. The provocative nature of the interview is evident in the following excerpt, which deals with an artwork consisting of two big flat screens facing each other, creating a corridor for visitors to walk through. Thinking about possible ways of installing it, the conservator proposed the following counterfactual to the artist: Conservator: Could [the screens] ever be freestanding, so people could walk behind them? Artist: So the screen, if it’s freestanding, it would be visible from the other side, as well? Conservator: That’s right. Artist: That’s fine. The rear projection, both sides, that could be really beautiful, because you don’t generate any shadows off the audience, but you need double space, maybe more, three times, maybe.

This excerpt shows intention being provoked, negotiated, and settled. In this particular case, the artist had not even thought about the possibility

The Modern Subject of Care


of installing screens as freestanding elements. It was only through the provocation of the interview that this configuration became a possibility and the artist accepted it as a part of future iterations of the artwork. This is not trivial, because it implies an actual redescription of the artwork and its boundaries to include this freestanding configuration as part of its identity. Needless to say, should the artwork ever be installed following this freestanding configuration, it will not take long before the penetrating critic, curator, or art historian du jour interprets the double view it affords as part of the artist’s critical engagement with, say, Hegelian dialectics, or as a cunning reference to some other artwork playing with the idea of double vision, like Duchamp’s Large Glass. This takes us to a crucial point, which has to do with the type of subject narrative that needs to be attached to these artworks. For not all subject narratives are equally valid, even if they come directly from the artist. The following long excerpt of an interview for the museum’s oral history project provides an especially rich example. Here, one of MoMA’s chief curators, Christophe Cherix, and the artist Ed Ruscha discussed the origin of some of his imagery: CC: There’s this painting I think you do maybe the following year or the same

year, of a bird looking at some kind of, what seems to be a glass of milk on the side, and the title, like “Is It Milk or Plaster?” or something. [Laughing] ED: Yeah. Yeah, well, and I guess I saw a glass of milk as some kind of symbol of purity, without thinking too much about it. It became . . . Maybe I liked the physical characteristics of a glass, a clean glass filled with milk, and it had some connotations to it that I wanted to utilize. And so it came out of the sky, I guess you might say, and I, at the same time, didn’t want to think too much about it, so I was not tortured over my creation here. I got onto a theme, and in a procedure that wouldn’t allow too much concentration or too much justification, and so I wanted the thing to be spontaneous, and more or less official at the same time. Emphatic, I guess, is maybe what I want to say. And so that, I find, still goes through with all my work, no matter what I do, is have— sometimes there’s little oddities that I welcome. And then it just goes from the next, and then I’ll do something like this and forget about it. CC: But what’s interesting, that if you are not tortured by it, a lot of people are for you; because that relationship between the glass of milk and the small fires, was a lot discussed in the last forty years, at least, and someone who thought a lot about it is someone who worked here for a very long time, was Head of the Library, Clive Philpott. ER: Oh, yeah.


Chapter 1.3

CC: And Clive had great love and interest for your books, and he’s really one of



the main scholars who made us understand how important they were, not only in relation to your work but to a broader scene, as well. And I talked to Clive last week, and I said, “Do you have any, any unanswered question from Ed, you know, that maybe I could ask him for you?” And he said, “Oh, in fact, one of the questions I have that”— he saw your show at the Jeu de Paume, which has most of your photography show, and he said in that show you had photograph of Various Small Fires, and instead of putting a glass of milk on the sign you put, I think, a photograph of a potato. Oh. [Laughing] So how did that . . . ? Yeah, the . . . Can the potato play the same role as the glass of milk, or is something that you thought at the time, or is it something that you . . . ? Well, that choice, I think, maybe was the curator, Margit Rowell, and she may have decided to do that, and I liked it when it finally happened. But exhibits of books are different than the books themselves, and so the exhibit takes on more or less a life of its own, and things can change, so perhaps that potato that I took a photograph of could be thought of as a, almost like a metaphor for the milk. [Laughing] For the milk, yeah. Yeah. Mm-hmm. This kind of relationship is, I think is very interesting. If we go further in the years, you published Some Los Angeles Apartments, Real Estate Opportunities, and there’s one book that’s always been one of my favorites of mine, Nine Swimming Pools, and that’s a book where there is no disruptive element— no, there is one; it’s a broken glass.

This excerpt condenses two of the main operations that these interviews perform in trying to turn a messy subject into a working subject that can be attached to the artwork. The first is what we could call an “operation of rationalization,” which consists in trying to redescribe an embodied, tacit, unconscious form of action as one guided by choices, intentions, and reasons. This operation is exemplified in the curator’s insistence on attaching a reason, an intention, or a meaning to the operations of artistic practice, despite the artist’s assertion that in his practice he did not think much and just let himself be surprised by “little oddities.” The curator, however, insists that there must be a reason why Ruscha chose a glass of milk or a potato, or an intentional connection between the glass and small fires. He seems incapable of considering the possibility that a potato may just be a potato, and a glass of milk may just be a glass of milk. In other

The Modern Subject of Care


words, the curator seems incapable of accepting the idea that there might actually have been no reason, intention, or ulterior meaning behind these artworks, that they could have been created by happenstance, randomness, and serendipity. Cherix’s insistence on locatable subjective causes is not accidental: the museum needs intentions, reasons, and choices. The museum needs them because once they are attached to the artwork, it is possible to specify what the artwork is, what it means, and what the museum can (and cannot) do with it. The passage further reveals that these interviews work not only by attaching reasons and intentions to the artwork but also by deciding whose reasons and intentions can be attached to it. In this case, this becomes evident when Cherix, in his quest to establish an intentional link between the artwork and the artist, asks Ruscha why he replaced the milk with a potato. The artist replies that this was in fact not his decision; the idea came from Margit Rowell, the curator of the show. Revealingly, Cherix is entirely uninterested in understanding Rowell’s reasons for making the switch. The important element here is to attach the artwork to the artist. Hence, ignoring Rowell altogether, Cherix continues his unwavering quest to establish the invisible intentional thread connecting all these artworks into a coherent narrative about the evolution of Ruscha’s art: “If we go further in the years . . .” The answer must lie somewhere around there. However, producing a truly working subject requires something more than attaching reasons and intentions that render the individual artist’s self (and by extension the artwork) legible. It also requires rendering that individual artist’s self (and by extension the artwork) legible in terms of styles, influences, chronologies, etc., so that she can be attached to the wider narrative of art. The following excerpt, featuring an exchange between Kathy Halbreich, MoMA’s associate director, and the artist Bruce Nauman, is a good example of how this type of attachment is done: KH: Was there also any relationship, maybe unconscious, maybe conscious, to

Man Ray’s Wrapped Sewing Machine? Some people have suggested that. BN: I’m trying to remember. Yeah; Man Ray had a large show at the Los Ange-

les County Museum. And I know a friend of mine and I went down there to see the show. But I think— I don’t know the dates on that show. It might have been after this. I’m pretty sure it was after this. But seeing that show did help me quite a bit, let me kind of not worry about having a way of going about making work; because he just did whatever he did, and he did all kinds of stuff. ...


Chapter 1.3

KH: Okay, let’s talk about, this is Art Makeup Number One White, Number Two

Pink, Number Three Green, Number Four Black. And again, like the layers in the earlier piece, many of your works, to me, sort of have a mask-like urgency. I mean, this drawing, Face Mask, from ’81, just another example of masks coming up. We see them in Clowns, later. Talk a little bit about Art Makeup and where it came from. Was it about painting? BN: Well, the first version of this was a film, and it was black and white. And I only used black and white makeup. And it was also in the ’60s, and so there was a lot of, the racial tensions that existed around the civil rights and stuff was really important. So it was a comment on that, in a sense, because I put on one color and then, or, the black and the white, and it just comes out grey. So it was, my thinking at the time, it was kind of connected to that. So when I got the color video— this was a video, right? KH: No, it was 16 millimeter film transferred to video. BN: Okay, so I did have some color film. Then it becomes a comment on the comment, because it’s several different colors. KH: A comment on which comment? BN: And again, the coming out grey; because it comes out grey again. KH: Is that about a lack of certainty in the world? BN: [pause] I don’t think I was that clear in my own mind about how, what that. It was more about, well, if you can do two colors, you can do four colors. [laughing] And see what happens. So.

What is interesting about this excerpt is not so much what the curator asked in her quest to find reasons for the relationship between Nauman, his artworks, and the wider context in which he was operating but what she did not ask. For example, she did not ask about the cognitive process of weighing pros and cons that led Nauman to do these artworks, as any good rational-choice theorist would surely do. Nor did she ask about Nauman’s childhood, or about his relationship with his mother and father, as any good psychoanalyst would surely do. Neither did she ask about Nauman’s beliefs or try to tease out his relation to larger social, cultural, or political structures, as any good sociologist, anthropologist, or oral historian would most definitely do. She is not asking any of these questions because she is operating within a framework that assumes that what moves this particular type of subject, an artist, is artistic reasons. The unspoken assumption underlining all of her questioning is that if we are to understand an artist, the relevant variables and causes are to be found within the realm of art, specifically in how this artist comes from or reacts to other artists, styles, or artworks.

The Modern Subject of Care


The ideal end result of these interviews is to provoke the connecting tissue through which the artist can be attached to a well-defined set of intentions and generate enough narrative thread to weave the artist into the web of styles, influences, and chronologies through which the modern narrative of art is told. Unfortunately for museums, the kinds of subjects provoked through this process of attachment are very fragile. The reason for this is that we are not only viscous and messy selves. We are also changing and voluble selves, constantly growing apart from our former selves, so much so it is sometimes difficult to reconcile those past selves with our current self, or even to recognize them at all. Needless to say, artists are not immune to these processes of self-distancing and estrangement. If you reread the interview excerpts we have seen so far in this chapter, you will notice that they rarely take the form of unequivocal and clear-cut assertions. Most of the responses are precariously cobbled together with “maybes,” “perhaps,” “I guesses” or “I believes” that tentatively try to reconstruct a narrative of their former selves and their motives. Sometimes the distance between the artist and her former self becomes so great that she no longer feels able to comment on her past artworks. In one interview, when an artist was asked about whether a particular component of one of his previous artworks should be considered as an aesthetic component or a mere functional component, the artist simply replied by saying: “I don’t know anymore.” The fragile and voluble nature of this relation is particularly problematic for the museum. The museum cannot afford to keep changing the boundaries of an artwork as the artist changes her mind over time. The museum needs a fixed relation between the artist, her former self, and the artwork to be able to describe and stabilize the property and intellectual rights, as well as to organize the kind of mimeographic labor that an artwork requires. Here is where the work of provoking detachment comes into play. Provoking Detachment Provoking detachment requires severing the artwork from the artist’s unfolding self so that the artwork can be fixed. This, however, raises a number of practical questions: When is it legitimate to detach an artwork from the artist? Which artist’s self should the artwork be true to? The self that created it? The artist’s current self? To both? Or maybe to neither? MoMA, like most other museums, operates under the premise that the artwork should be true to the self that created it. This is why interviews almost invariably take the form of reconstructions of the artist’s self that


Chapter 1.3

produced the artwork. This is also why artists’ interviews have now been institutionalized as part of the museum acquisition process. By getting as close as possible to that moment of creation, museums hope to avoid having to deal with the fragmentary or misleading memories that emerge when the distance from the moment of creation grows too wide.11 However, this seemingly commonsensical idea that a self will produce truer accounts the closer she is to the actions she narrates soon runs into difficulties. As we all know from personal experience, proximity to an action does not necessarily guarantee better or truer accounts. Sometimes, we need time, detachment, and reflection to make sense of our actions. Other times, we are entirely confident about why we did something and only later come to realize that those initial rationalizations were selfdelusion. Such considerations turn out to be particularly important when negotiating how and when to detach artworks from artists. One difficulty is that many artists, especially young artists, have often not thought about how their recently produced artworks should be fixed or preserved for posterity. As an interviewer told me, “They are typically more concerned about what they are doing next and not so much about what they did last.” A related difficulty is that it is often the case that such questions emerge later in the artist’s career, when the artist begins to think about her whole oeuvre and her legacy. One of these young artists once told me that doing one of these interviews at MoMA was a strange process because “they were forcing me to raise questions about my artwork that I had not asked myself or that I was not even interested in asking.” Another difficulty in these interviews is that when artists are asked about how their artworks should be fixed or stabilized for posterity, it is not uncommon that they reply something along the lines of “I don’t care much about that.” This should not come as a surprise, since a good deal of art production since the 1960s has been about producing uncompromisingly elusive and self-canceling artworks explicitly designed to resist that question. However, it is often the case that as time goes by and death ceases to be an implausible abstraction, many of these artists tend to dulcify the iconoclastic positions of their former selves, as they realize how their artworks, and the difference that they sought to create through them, are gradually being erased from memory. One artist told me, reflecting on the radically ephemeral art created by her younger self, that she now realized that, unlike some of her generational peers, she had a price to pay: “Now I don’t have much in museums. Nobody will remember my work.” When this kind of fear of oblivion, of one’s life work having been in vain,

The Modern Subject of Care


settles in, many artists start to care about how their artworks will outlive them. After all, nobody wants to suffer that second and final death that occurs when we vanish from memory and join the ranks of those “who have existed not,” as Thomas Hardy put it. If you remember, this fear was what led Simone Forti to accept MoMA’s proposition to acquire her work. As the certainty of death accumulated in her body, she began to realize that she needed to detach her artworks from herself so that these fragile objects could exist beyond her. However, the difficulty the museum faces when trying to detach artworks from artists does not simply reside in deciding when this detachment should take place— i.e., a former artist’s self or current artist’s self— but also in establishing where it should, or could, be done. This becomes evident when dealing with artworks that do not have clear boundaries for the artists themselves. This was precisely the case with Marianne Vierø’s Indoor Gardening, an installation comprising painted and unpainted sculptural elements made of natural, synthetic, and industrial materials. Indoor Gardening had been exhibited several times, each time adopting a different configuration of elements and layouts. Conservators and curators need to know whether there was a final version or whether all of these iterations were equally valid. As Vierø explained in the artist’s interview, there was no “final” version. Nor were they all versions of the same artwork. Each new iteration was a way of allowing her to figure out what the artwork was. The iterations, in other words, were the artwork in the making. Unfortunately for artists like Vierø, the museum cannot afford this kind of open-ended relation between subjects and objects. The museum cannot let artists continually change and update artworks according to their evolving selves, because the result would be a perennially unsettled object that would not only render mimeographic labor almost impossible— How could curators and conservators know what to preserve in an artwork without a fixed identity?— but also useless in narrating the artist’s evolution, since such artwork would not be a reflection of the artist’s early work but a moving reflection of the artist’s current self. Of course, MoMA curators and conservators cannot decide on their own how to detach the artwork from the artist to fix it. For example, they cannot decide for themselves which particular form of Indoor Gardening needs to be detached and fixed. If they did, the resulting object would no longer be seen as Vierø’s original work but as MoMA’s work, which would contravene the basic commandment of the modern aesthetic regime of art: the artwork shall remain true to its author. Although modern command-


Chapter 1.3

ments are not the only thing at stake here: curators and conservators cannot make this kind of decision because, thanks to moral rights, the artist always has the capacity to sue the museum by claiming that it has distorted her original artwork, something that has become increasingly common in contemporary art. The challenge for the museum, therefore, is to provoke a form of detachment that makes it possible to separate the artwork from the artist while at the same allowing the artwork to remain an authentic representation of the artist’s intent. Interviews enable the museum to solve this problem by generating (and fixing) a legitimate description of the artist’s self and her intent that can later be mobilized against the claims of the artist’s living self. A good example of how this is done is the following interview excerpt from 2012, in which Vito Acconci was interviewed by one of MoMA’s curators about his Peeling House (1981). In the excerpt Acconci recounts an interview he had done with conservators a year earlier, when the artwork was acquired by MoMA and installed in one of the museum galleries. VA: And there was a sign saying, you couldn’t sit on the seats, sit on the stools.

And I questioned this because I said, you know, “This is what the piece is.” And they brought up some really interesting things. They said that a lot of the materials that you used, especially in the maybe ’70s and ’80s were materials that were fragile, fabric for example. . . . And they said that if people used this piece, the fabric is going to wear out. And my immediately retort was, “Well, buy it again.” You know? They said, “Well, some fabric that you can get [ . . . ]” JW: It was pink— You had lamé and you had camo and— VA: Yeah. And they said, “Well,” you know, “fabric you might be able to get in the ’70s, you can’t get in the 2010s.” JW: I actually have— This was a show that Linda Shearer curated at MoMA in which The Peeling House was shown, and I have a memo here that she wrote to one of the staffers. I’d like to read you part of that— VA: Yeah, please. JW: — it concerns what you said. It’s referring to the Peeling House. And it’s by Linda Shearer. “Now that the work has been accepted, we should meet at some point to go over the modifications that would be made for the installation in the collection galleries. While it was originally conceived of as a participatory piece, it will be necessary to alter it for actual exhibition.” And she says she talked about this with— “I have discussed this with Vito Acconci.” VA: I’m sure. I’m sure she did. I have to admit, I wish in retrospect [Laughing] I hadn’t allowed museums to buy this stuff.

The Modern Subject of Care


This excerpt provides a good example of the power of interviews to detach the artwork from the living artist. It shows how Acconci has to come to terms with the fact that his artwork was no longer his— it now belongs to an earlier Acconci that had been recorded and archived by the museum. The Acconci in this interview can no longer claim the magic card of the artist’s intention to force a change in the artwork, because that card had been given away by the former Acconci, who had authorized the museum to make all those changes. Acconci’s dispossession allows the museum to finally fix the relationship between the artist and the artwork, since the artwork now exists beyond what the current Acconci thinks or says— a dispossession that Acconci concedes in the last line when he jokingly regrets the decisions of his former self to sell artworks to the museum. Thanks to the interview, the fates of the artwork and artist are now detached.

The Artist as a Working Subject The kind of mimeographic labor that contracts, artist questionnaires, and interviews perform is not very different from the mimeographic labor that is done over the artwork. Indeed, much in the same way that conservators use cotton swabs to disambiguate the messy surface of the canvas and specify the boundaries of a particular kind of object (the artwork), the contracts, questionnaires, and interviews are used to disambiguate the messy surface of the self to specify the boundaries of a particular kind of subject (the artist). Like the interventions that take place over the object, the interventions made over the self cannot result in anything different or new. All the provocations created by these questionnaires, contracts, and interviews must be seen as merely resurfacing the true self that lies buried under memories, hesitations, and contradictions, much in the same way that the cleaning of a painting must be seen as merely resurfacing a true object lying under the grime. However, like the work of creating a perfect working object, this quest to create a perfect working subject can never be finally completed. One reason for this is that, much as the mimeographic labor on a canvas can never achieve a fully pristine object, the mimeographic technologies we have explored in this chapter can never achieve a fully pristine subject. If you look closer at the interviews in this chapter you will see that their surfaces are also riddled with cracks in the form of gaps, question marks, inaudible words, absences, and untranscribable crosstalk, not to mention the contradictions, the misunderstandings, or the losses caused by failing memories. Everybody who works in a museum is perfectly aware of these cracks,


Chapter 1.3

yet their task is to get as close as they can to this perfect subject. This explains the massive amount of resources and labor being invested in developing new and better ways to capture the artist’s self, from creating new interview protocols to recording them on film rather than audiotape to better capture nonverbal gestures. Museums need this technology if they are to provoke an artist that can be mobilized to specify and justify the relations of attribution, authenticity, and authorship through which meaning, value, or property rights are distributed in the modern aesthetic regime of art. It is this need to provoke a working subject that drives the ceaseless interventions to disambiguate ambiguity, to fill silences, to clarify doubts, to find reasons behind actions, intentions behind words, causes behind accidents, and meaning behind serendipity. But no matter how hard the museum tries, this work can never reach a closure, because the artist, like the artwork, is never still. All the work we have seen in this chapter of provoking and specifying the boundaries of the artist will be redone as curators, conservators, critics, scholars, and art magazines continue to create new interpretations about the artist and her artwords. Artists, like their artworks, are never settled; they are continually drawn and redrawn, until they are forgotten. But until then, the museum has to endeavor to transform the messy self into the kind of subject that can be used to specify clear and distinct boundaries around the artwork. Sometimes, this work pays off by producing relatively clear-cut working subjects. Other times, however, this modern quest for working subjects can result in comical failure. To illustrate this, let me finish with what is my favorite passage of the eight years of research for this book. It is a long but entertaining excerpt from a 2012 interview, where Leah Dickerman, then curator of MoMA’s Painting and Sculpture Department, and Anny Aviram, one of MoMA’s painting conservators, are trying to figure out the intent of the artist James Rosenquist in his 1962 Marilyn Monroe, I. LD: How did you do it? Did you make a collage first?

I’m not sure. In this case, I’m not sure. That’s an easy answer, I don’t know, I’m not sure. LD: Perfectly fair. JR: [Laughing] LD: So . . . JR: Anyway, I still like it, and it even looks good . . . [...] AA: Can you tell us a little bit about the writing and the [spray can?] that is [scope?]. JR:

The Modern Subject of Care JR: AA: JR: AA: JR: AA: JR: AA: JR: LD: JR: LD: JR: AA: JR: AA: JR: AA: JR: AA: JR: AA: JR: AA: JR: AA: JR: AA: JR: AA: JR: AA: JR:


Yeah, yeah, yeah, that’s really like skywriting in the air. It’s like writing in the air, I forget what it says. Coke. Coca-Cola or something like that. Does that have to do with being also an iconic thing at the time, like Coke? Or . . . Yeah, cocaine you mean? No, Coca-Cola. No, no, no, I just . . . Coca-Cola. I don’t know why I did it, it was just I saw some skywriting advertisement. Kaboom. Yep. And the metallic paint, were you already using that before, or was this one of the first times? Oh yeah. Because, you know, metallic paint has two colors. Yeah. It’s bright and shiny, or it’s dead. That’s it. And now, can you tell us . . . You’re talking too much about it. [Laughing] What? Can you tell us a little bit about how you painted the left side of the painting versus the right side? Because what I did, I stood behind me and I painted like this on the left side, then I went like this, and I painted the right side. [Laughing] No. What are you talking about? The reason I’m asking you is because it seems to us that the paint on the right side is thicker, and then we have all of this cracking only on this side. There’s cracking? The cracking on here, on the right side. Oh, right, there’s cracks, son of a gun. A lot of cracks, on this side— That’s . . . — And none on the left side. And, we also noticed that there is . . . I thought I never had any cracks in my work. No? Except if kids punched it. Well, there is a little damage like that here. Because, listen, I did this painting called Silver Skies, it’s in the Chrysler Museum. Holy cow! Kids have obviously used it as a punching bag. I tried




Chapter 1.3

to buy it back, I said, “Please, let me buy it back, because I’m going to fix it!” They wouldn’t sell it to me. I wanted to buy it cheap. [Laughing] See, that’s— you know, it could be. This is very interesting. Why is that? Here, on the top, and the silver paint. And if you look at the other side, there’s barely any . . . Yeah, perfect, perfect. There are minor cracks, but nothing like this side. So, this has to do with the ground that you applied, that you . . . No, no, no, darling, that’s always one ground on the whole thing. But this side looks like there’s a . . . Look at it, it’s all beat to hell. Different thickness of paint. Probably is, I probably painted it twice to make it more better. And do you see that maybe that the layer underneath was drying faster than the one on top, or is there anything that you can recall you might have added that might have caused . . . That cracking up there? Yeah, uh-huh. This. Right. This, on the silver paint. I can’t answer that.

Not even Ionesco could have penned such a delightfully absurd exchange to expose the illusion that interviews are effective methods to produce meaning and communication, or to generate coherent narratives about the self.

Part 2 Ecologies of Containment


Outside view of QNS, MoMA’s main storage facility.

INTRODUCTION: THE AESTHETICS OF CONTAINMENT You’re the only story that I never told You’re my dirty little secret, wanna keep you so PJ Harvey

Art’s Dirty Secret When we think about art and its spaces, the images that probably come to mind are the museum room, the art gallery, the art fair, the public square, the street, maybe even the screen. Rarely do we think about warehouses. And yet if there is a space of art par excellence, that is the storage warehouse. This is not gratuitous hyperbole. It is an easily demonstrable fact. Storage is where most art lives. What is on view in galleries, museums, or art fairs represents a teeny-weeny fraction of art. In most large museums, the art on view rarely represents more than 5– 10 percent of the collection, and in some cases, like the Berlinische Galerie, it can be as low as 2 percent. In the case of MoMA it is 3– 4 percent. As I write these lines, only 38 of the museum’s 1,241 works by Picasso are on view, and only 1 of the museum’s 82 works by Kara Walker. But at least Walker and Picasso have something on view! The vast majority of artists in the collection have nothing. Moreover, many of the artworks in storage have never been exhibited. In fact, with the exception of the selected few permanently on view, like Pollock’s One, most artworks are lucky to get displayed once or twice for a couple of months every decade or so. Storage, not display, is the normal state of art. And yet you will be hardpressed to find any discussion about the role of storage in art. As Ann Temkin, MoMA’s chief curator of painting and sculpture, once wrote in Artforum, storage remains “the dirty little secret of the art world” (2010). This neglect of storage is not accidental. Much of the thinking about art, like much of modern social thought, has been about surfaces. As a result, the discussion about art has focused on the public prosceniums where the drama of art is publicly represented: the museum exhibition room, the gallery, the art fair, or the street. Hence the endless debates about “the politics of display” that have saturated much of the discussion about art over the last century. The result is that while we can enjoy discussions about every conceivable detail about the visible lives of artworks and the politics of their display, we do not know much about the “politics of stor-


Part 2 Introduction

age” or how the invisible lives of artworks shape their visible lives. On those rare occasions when storage surfaces as part of the conversation, it is summarily glossed over as a purely technical and dull topic. After all, who needs to talk about boxes and crates when we can talk about the “optical unconscious,” “contemporaneity,” or the “partitioning of the sensible”? In fairness, much of modern social thought has been equally neglectful (and disdainful) of storage. In part, this is because storage is, admittedly, not a particularly exciting object of study. Few researchers thrill to the prospect of studying boxes, crates, and containers in uninviting and mostly unpeopled back rooms, warehouses, or basements— even though, as I hope to convince you, these boring spaces play a critical role in the ecologies we inhabit. A more substantive reason behind the neglect of storage is that most modern social thought has centered on the trinity of production, exchange, and consumption as the key to understanding how meaning, value, and relations are created. Storage has rarely been believed to play any significant role in these processes. The assumption has been that what is important to understand is not storage itself but the stuff that is stored: how it was produced, and how it acquires meaning and value as it circulates and is exchanged and consumed. Accordingly, most narratives have gravitated toward the places where production, exchange, and consumption take place— like factories, markets, or ritual exchanges— and not to storage, which has been assumed to be some sort of terra nullius where stuff ends up after it has exhausted its social life. If you think about it, this neglect of storage is particularly striking. The increasingly unwieldy material surplus generated by the endless cycle of what Thorstein Veblen famously called “conspicuous consumption” has made the problem of storing (and disposing of) stuff critical in the organization of (affluent) contemporary capitalist societies. In fact, the need for storage can be seen as one of the most important vectors in the transformation of contemporary built environments and lives. The contemporary home has been adapted to deal with stuff bulging in drawers, wardrobes, attics, or garages or under our beds. Western cities now are populated by vast self-storage facilities to absorb the surplus of those domestic spaces, and by still vaster warehouses to store the goods participating in the global supply chain. As if this material abundance were not enough, the rise of digital technologies since the late 1990s, far from eliminating the problem of storage, has only deepened our dependence on it through the myriad of hard drives, memory cards, servers, and massive datacenters containing our personal data and memories.1 And yet, despite the growing ubiquity of storages, they remain one of the

The Aesthetics of Containment


most underexplored phenomena of contemporary social life. We are blessed with an overabundance of extremely sophisticated economic, sociological, historical, and anthropological theories of production, exchange, and consumption, yet we barely have the rudiments of a theory of storage.2 The aim of this part will be to offer an invitation for thinking about the politics of storage. Storage as Technologies of Containment The first step we need to take to study storages is to move away from the idea that they are just spaces where we stock stuff. Storages are technologies of containment. But what, exactly, is containment? As the science and technology studies scholars Javier Lezaun, Fabian Muniesa, and Signe Vikkelsø have written, “To contain something is to have it handled ‘inside’ a clearly demarcated space, but also to hold it stationary, or in a manageable scale and duration, to prevent it from overflowing” (2013, 280). Building on this definition, we can then say that storages are technologies that produce insides in the world. These insides are critical to organizing our relations with things, since they enable us to suspend them in an in-between state where they are neither fully present nor entirely absent, neither entirely here nor entirely gone. The in-between spaces that storage creates are crucial to negotiating and sustaining the physical fabric of meaning and value. For example, it is thanks to storages that we create that in-between position between using and discarding that allows us to sustain our attachments to those things that hold our memories (and ourselves) together. Think, for example, about those things we want to remove from the daily drama of use but, for one reason or another, cannot part ways with, like that old shirt that we outgrew long ago but cannot get rid of because it contains the memory of a bygone self. Crucially, storages are also critical to undoing those very same attachments. Putting things out of sight in storage enables us to slowly build emotional distance from those things that hold us captive in the memories and selves that they contain.3 Most crucially for our argument, storages are powerful temporal and spatial technologies. As temporal technologies, storages allow us to build into the world the pauses, ruptures, accelerations, and slowdowns through which we produce and sustain the linearities, cycles, and repetitions that give time its form. They do so by allowing us to manipulate how things relate to time. Consider, for example, how storages allow us to slow things down and create the sense of temporal depth through which we build images of permanence (think about embalming or reliquaries), the past (as we


Part 2 Introduction

do in museum storages), or the future (as we do in seed vaults). Storages also allow us to speed things up to create the compressed temporalities that feed the insatiable thirst of capitalist production: from the massive greenhouse infrastructure developed by the contemporary agro-industry to speed up natural processes; to the no less massive datacenters fueling millisecond algorithmic trading that drives contemporary financial capitalism; to the even more massive network of warehouses feeding the justin-time production models of online retailers. Last but not least, think also of how storages allow us to create the repetitions we use to fold time into cycles and create rituals and tradition— as we do when we store seasonal decorations or clothing. Storages are equally important and powerful as spatial technologies. It is thanks to the insides and in-betweens they generate that things can be spatially scaled up and participate in extended networks of circulation and exchange. Try to imagine trade systems in the ancient world without the clay amphora, contemporary trade without the modern shipping container, or the global food chain without the cold storage infrastructure that slows down the natural rotting of food. Crucially, storages are not just neutral means allowing those circuits of movement and exchange to happen: they actively specify their spatial form, extension, and speed— e.g., a trade system developed around amphoras will operate differently than one organized around climate-controlled storage containers. What all of the above means is that, contrary to what has often been assumed, storages are not something that is “outside” or “after” the circuits of production, circulation, exchange, and consumption through which things acquire meaning and value. Storages are inside those circuits. More specifically, storages are the technologies of containment that generate, specify, and sustain the temporal and spatial scales through which those circuits take place. Thus, if we need to focus on storage, it is not just out of curiosity about what happens to things after they are removed from circulation, exchange, and consumption. We do it to understand one of the key technologies mediating, specifying, and sustaining the forms of production, circulation, and exchange through which some-thing becomes (or ceases to be) a particular type of object as it moves over time and space. This process, as we are about to see, is particularly evident in art museum storages.

Containing Art The conventional understanding of a museum storage might be an inverted image of the exhibition room: a forlorn dusty space full of cobwebs,

The Aesthetics of Containment


containing artworks condemned to oblivion. This, however, could not be further removed from reality. Museum storages are not simply a negative space of memory whose only value resides in offering a vision of the forgotten, the excluded, and the unvalued. Indeed, if we are to understand museum storages, the first thing we need to do is to move away from a simplistic opposition between the exhibition as the place of memory and storage as the site of neglect. Instead, we need to think of museum storages as in-between spaces containing all those artworks caught between presence and absence, between remembrance and oblivion. This includes all those artworks that are not fully remembered but are not entirely forgotten, like those fallen masterpieces anxiously waiting for their turn to be “rediscovered” by “history” (or, more likely, the market), or those artworks living in the strange historical penumbra that surrounds something that has been forgotten by almost everyone but a dwindling cadre of historians, critics, and curators. Storages also contain those artworks that, while still vividly remembered, cannot be on display, either because there is simply not enough space or because they have become too fragile. And they also contain those artworks that came as gifts the museum could not turn down and now cannot get rid of.4 If we take all this into account, we could then say that while the exhibition room is a space containing active narratives about art, storage rooms contain all those other narratives that are no longer active, as well as those that could have existed and those that may one day exist. This is precisely what makes storages such important sites in the negotiation of the everelusive boundaries separating remembrance and oblivion, presence and absence, which define the narrative of art. These are storages that are unlike any other because they have been burdened with a most peculiar task: containing the present. For one, they must contend with the fragility of the aesthetic judgment through which they are populated. When curators in a contemporary art museum decide to acquire a new artwork, they do not have the safety net provided by centuries of accumulated consensus; nor do they have the ability to cloak their judgments in rhetorical devices like “history” or “time.” The only thing available for them is the shifting ground provided by their own judgments, the current consensus in the art world, and the particular narrative strategy of the museum they collect for (and the politics of its board), as well as, of course, the art market, which plays a decisive role in establishing which artworks are valuable and, most crucially, which ones are affordable. If the history of art teaches us anything, it is that the judgments made


Part 2 Introduction

on this shifting ground are not particularly lasting. Very few things in this life are as volatile and fragile as aesthetic judgments. There is no way of knowing whether today’s “masterpieces” will be become tomorrow’s forgotten storage, just as there is no way of knowing whether today’s forgotten storage will become tomorrow’s “masterpieces.” The only true certainty when judging and collecting art is that there is no certainty. Part of the reason for this is that, despite the centuries-long attempt of philosophers, historians, and curators to convince us otherwise, aesthetic judgment is not some sort of exceptional type of judgment stemming from a special “insight” or “intuition” that enables us (or more specifically, the Enlightened among us) to “recognize” art. The sad reality is that aesthetic judgment is more akin to the kind of leap of faith one takes when gambling or betting. And as in any game of chance, winning bets are far outnumbered by failed ones. This is why Alfred Barr wisely settled for a 10 percent “success rate” when choosing the art of the present (in Temkin 2010)— a percentage that sounds about right, if not a bit high. The curators in a museum like MoMA acquire hundreds of new artworks per year, the vast majority of which are lucky to be exhibited once or twice. If we take this into account, one could say that what museum storages offer is not so much a living record of the history of art but a living record of the history of curatorial hubris. The particular paradox facing the contemporary art museum is that while curators know that most of the artworks collected today will not pass the test of time, they nonetheless cannot stop collecting them. It is much worse not to collect an artwork that may end up being an age-defining one than it is to collect an artwork that will be forgotten. A museum cannot afford to let other collectors or museums snatch up those artworks, especially when they are still affordable. If they wait until those artworks have garnered consensus as an invaluable part of the narrative of art, it may well be too late, not least because “invaluable” typically translates in the art world as “extremely expensive.” The museum, therefore, must make the bet, even knowing that it will lose at least nine times out of ten. The history of art is the name we give to the history of those successful bets, or at any rate the bets that were made successful by the powerful curators and institutions collecting them— like Pollock’s One (see chapter 1.1). Another reason that the storage of contemporary art museums is so unique is their radical incompleteness. Those art museums whose task is to contain the past can at least work with a horizon of completeness: after all, there are only so many Leonardos that have survived and can be collected (fifteen, to be exact). However, those museums that, like MoMA,

The Aesthetics of Containment


are tasked with containing the present face a horizon that is inherently incomplete, since every new artwork renders these storages wanting.5 The result is a relentless race against the present that is expressed in an unquenchable “will to collect.” In the case of MoMA, this will to collect has propelled astronomical growth: the collection has gone from about 40,000 artworks in 1970 to more than 200,000 today, which yields the astonishing average of more than 3,000 new artworks per year. This phenomenal growth raises a number of practical problems— the most pressing being that, as it turns out, the task of containing the present takes up space. A lot of space. After all, all those artworks have to be put somewhere. The insatiable will to collect that defines the contemporary art museum, and the subsequent insatiable need for space required to support this imperative, have transformed contemporary art museums into a predatory urban species, constantly needing to grow and make space for their ever-expanding collections.6 But no expansion can ever be enough, since the pace of collecting will always outstrip the expansion of the exhibition space. Storage is the only way of absorbing the material excess generated by this impossible attempt to contain the present. The result is that there is now a huge but mostly invisible geography of heavily secured warehouses in nondescript areas that runs parallel to the visible art geography of museums, art galleries, fairs, and biennials. This invisible geography of art grows faster than its visible counterpart. MoMA is a case in point. The museum went from having just one storage space in 1962 to having a network of fourteen distributed across the city by the late 1990s. The growth of the collection, together with the increasingly unmanageable costs of this network of spaces, led MoMA to consolidate most of its storage into two buildings, one in Queens and another in rural Pennsylvania specifically devoted to films. The two buildings were initially projected as solving the museum’s storage woes for the next twenty years. That estimate has been cut in half given MoMA’s insatiable will to collect. Of course, museums can (and do) prune their storages. As Thomas Messer, the late director of the Guggenheim, graphically put it: “A museum, no more than an individual, cannot constantly ingest without occasionally excreting” (in Besterman 1992, 40). This excretion is formally known as “deaccessioning,” which is how museums get rid of artworks by donating or selling them. However, getting rid of art is much thornier than acquiring it. In many European countries, legislation has established art as an eternal object of care. I do not mean this metaphorically: museums are legally prohibited


Part 2 Introduction

from deaccessioning anything and are forced to keep every single artwork in their collections ad aeternam.7 In the United States, where the market is king, deaccessioning is a private affair. Museums can opt to deaccession those artworks that they now consider to be lapses in judgment, or those that are valuable enough to be sold to raise money for other (more important) acquisitions. MoMA, for example, has deaccessioned thousands of works, including several Cézannes, Kandinskys, and Matisses, to raise funds. A large storage can be a good hedge against financial shortfalls, or even a source of profit. For example, in the 2017 fiscal year, MoMA obtained $27.38 million in deaccessioning proceeds, up from $17.23 million in the previous year. It is not surprising that some museum directors, including MoMA’s Glenn Lowry, have become increasingly intent on propagating the idea of deaccessioning storages en masse to mitigate the “huge capital cost they entail” (in Rosenbaum 2018). Even if it is legally easier to deaccession art in the United States, it is always a delicate affair. For one, a museum could inadvertently get rid of the “wrong” artwork— a very present risk, since zombie artworks coming back to life as masterpieces is one of the central leitmotifs of art history. Additionally, disposing of an artwork passes a grave judgment on its value. When a museum, especially an important museum like MoMA, deaccessions an artwork, it is saying that the artwork does not merit its care since it is not important “enough” and can be seen as a dispensable footnote in the history of art. Such a harsh judgment, as the Association of Art Museum Directors put it, must always be passed “with great thoughtfulness, care, and prudence” and should be restricted to exceptional moments to raise funds for acquisitions of other art. Those members of the association that do not follow the guidelines, by, for example, deaccessioning to raise money for other needs, are sanctioned with censure, suspension, or even expulsion (AAMD 2011, 9, 18). The pace of acquisition and the difficulty of deaccessioning have left contemporary art museums perpetually in need of more storage space. The problem here is that museums do not simply need more space to put stuff away; they need a particular kind of space: one that is capable of containing and sustaining the description of this stored stuff as working art objects. This is not an easy thing to create. Because, as we all know, when we pick up something that has been left in storage for a while, we rarely get the same thing that we left there. Chances are that whatever it was has crumbled, faded, or rusted, and that its surface is now brimming with new forms of life. This is not necessarily a problem when we are dealing with the changes that your old chair has undergone while in storage,

The Aesthetics of Containment


since nobody (except perhaps for you) cares much about the fate of that chair. But those changes can be a problem, and a huge one, when dealing with artworks, because artworks have become collective objects of care, where even the minutest change is of vast importance to many people, institutions, and discourses. Think what would happen if MoMA were to announce that all of its 1,200 Picassos are now lost because they crumbled and were eaten by bugs— which, by the way, happened to Joseph Beuys’s ill-fated Felt Suit at the Tate (see p. 44). The mission of the museum storage is to work as a gigantic mimeographic machine that creates the kind of containment that prevents this type of change from happening by sustaining the form of objecthood on which the modern aesthetic regime of art, and the art market, are predicated. This part of the book describes how this is achieved in practice. I will do this in two chapters. In the first, I will explore how storages work as temporal machines generating the kind of containment that allows artworks to remain (more or less) the same across time and move as “eternal objects.” In the second chapter, I will explore how storages work as spatial machines generating the kind of containment that allows artworks to remain (more or less) the same as they move across space and become “global objects.” As I hope to show, we need to study storage not just to “complete” or “supplement” the story of art and its surfaces with a story about its backstage. We need to study storage because it is not possible to separate how art is narrated, represented, and imagined in those surfaces from how art is stored. Art is as much defined by the artworks we do not see as by those we do. Understanding the politics of storage is key to revealing the uneven geographies of power that define how art is narrated, where it is narrated, and, more importantly, by whom.


Storages as Time Machines MoMA’s main storage facility is located in Long Island City in Queens, about 5 kilometers east of the main building on 53rd Street, or just a twentyfive-minute ride on the express 7 train. When arriving at QNS, as the facility is known in the museum, we are not greeted by the typical surroundings we find when visiting major art museums. There are no grand boulevards, leafy avenues, or expansive urban parks; no porticoed entrances or marble staircases; and certainly no state-of-the-art architectural stravaganza. Just a nondescript industrial zone of characterless warehouses, a deli, a pawnshop, and the thick but welcoming smell of overfried oil from a nearby diner. Nothing suggests that this bit of unmemorable urban space contains a significant chunk of the modern and contemporary art made over the last two centuries. The story of how this nondescript corner of Queens became home to one of the most precious art troves in the world is part of that larger story of urban gentrification, labor offshoring, and deindustrialization that has been so intimately linked to the development of contemporary art since the late twentieth century. In the particular case of QNS, this story began in the mid-1990s, when Manhattan’s increasingly exorbitant real estate prices began to transform the island into what the geographer David Harvey (2008, 38) aptly described as the largest gated community in the world. Unbridled real estate speculation, coupled with MoMA’s growing difficulties moving artworks across fourteen different storage spaces, led the museum to look for alternatives in the less expensive outer boroughs. Neoliberalism, then at full throttle thanks to NAFTA and post-Reagan labor deregulations, had transformed former industrial areas into the type of “frontier spaces” that, as the geographer Neil Smith (2005) pointed out, have fed the growth of contemporary art over the last decades. In one such frontier space on Long Island was the warehouse located at 45-20 33rd Street, which had been home to the iconic Swingline staple manufacturer from the 1940s until 1998, when the factory moved its oper-

Containing Eternity


ation to Nogales, Mexico, in search of cheaper labor costs. A year later, in 1999, MoMA acquired the 15,000 m2 building to use it as its main storage to consolidate all those artworks dispersed across Manhattan. However, this old staple factory presented a challenge, and not a particularly modest one: MoMA had to transform a building that had been designed to produce staples into one that could produce time. And not any form of time— it had to produce eternity. For that is ultimately the mission of any museum storage: to transform objects that would otherwise last for a few days, months, or years into eternal objects that can last forever— or as close to it as possible. Crucially, eternity— like any other temporal form— is not an abstract, let alone an a priori, category; it is an ecological form that has to be built and sustained in the world from the ground up. Now, eternity can be built in many ways. For example, these artworks could be allowed to evolve at their own thingly pace and be replaced by copies when they slipped away from intelligibility, as has been done, and continues to be done, by countless aesthetic regimes operating outside the modern aesthetic regime of art— think, for example, on the Ise Jingu shrine, which has been rebuilt every twenty years for the last 1,300 years (e.g., Adams 1998), or of the production replicas in antiquity (e.g., Nagel and Wood 2010). Eternity could also be produced by following the Japanese tradition of kintsugi, which, as we saw earlier, extends the life of objects by incorporating loss and change rather than trying to suppress them. Or it could be done by following the example of the Malangan effigies, which produce eternity by being destroyed in ritual events that try to fix the image of those objects in the minds of those participating in their destruction (Küchler 1988). However, none of these modes of producing eternity would work for museums, because museums must produce an eternity that allows objects to be contained within the linear and chronological time that organizes the modern aesthetic regime of art. Such an eternity requires transforming things into still objects that can be “frozen” and anchored to one date— the date when they were created— to remain authentic (e.g., Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon must remain forever anchored to 1907). If this is not the case, as when the excess of conservation produces a new object that elides its original date (see pp. 77–79), or when the absence of conservation renders the original date illegible, the artwork can see its position compromised. The paradox here is that in order for some-thing to be eternal in this particular way, it would need to exist in time while being unaffected by time. As far as we know, this is only within the reach of immortal beings


Chapter 2.1

like gods, angels, valkyrs, vampires, or zombies, but is beyond the reach of ordinary beings that are part of the biophysical environment— which, as it happens, is pretty much everything else, including artworks. Rendering artworks still and eternal in this particular way would require suspending the second law of thermodynamics, something that has been proven to be impossible so far— unless you believe in Maxwell’s demons. Entropy is the law of life. But if entropy cannot be eliminated, it can at least be slowed down. In other words, while it may not be possible to fully “freeze” artworks so that they can be anchored to a date, it is possible to contain their movement to make the passage of time as unrecognizable as possible. This can be done by transforming artworks into what taxidermists call “fluid specimens”— i.e., specimens that while not fully fixed can achieve an eternal-like appearance by creating the image of a pause, of a stilled object. Thus, even if eternity is, sensu stricto, out of reach, it is possible to create a working image of timelessness that can sustain the idea that the object in front of us does not belong to the present but is something forever suspended in a moment of the past. There is only one small problem here. Building and, most importantly, sustaining this type of eternity is neither easy nor cheap— even if it is just a pretend eternity— as it requires a form of stilling things that can only be achieved through a very radical form of containment. To explore how this radical form of containment is done, we need to expand our exploration and foreground a series of atmospheric elements— air, temperature, humidity, and light— that have so far been lurking in the background of our narrative. Because, as we are going to see, eternity, like any other ecological form, does not take place in the void. It requires a very specific atmospheric configuration. Let’s see why this is the case.

The Atmospheres of Eternity Art objects are delicate beings that require peculiar conditions to survive. Much as an exotic flower can only survive within very specific climatic conditions, this most exotic modern variety of objects can only survive within a very specific range of temperature, humidity, air, and light. Take, for example, the case of oil paintings, which are actually one of the sturdier specimens of art objects. In order to keep these artworks alive and more or less stable, temperature must be kept between 18°C and 24°C, while humidity levels must be kept between 40% and 55%. Any change in these conditions, however slight, can trigger mechanical and chemical processes that cause major redescriptions of an art object, or even undo it

Containing Eternity


entirely. For example, relative humidity (RH) above 60% can lead to the growth of organic materials such as mold, while humidity under 25% can leave materials dry and brittle. Similarly, exposing artworks to warm temperatures (>24°C) accelerates their deterioration by increasing their chemical activity and weakening their structural properties, while cold temperatures (especially