In an interview with Sabine Breitwieser, the director of the Museum der Moderne and the co-curator of this survey show, Andrea Fraser says she became an artist for a range of reasons, “many of them in conflict.” It is these conflicts that have fueled Fraser’s engagement with what is called institutional critique over the past 30 years, during which time she’s researched, analyzed, and made visible—in alternately unsettling and humorous performances—the inescapable social, economic, historical, and even emotional and sexual contexts that frame a work of art.
The retrospective, which was organized chronologically, opened with early pieces, from the mid-1980s. These included works in which museum wall texts and images were manipulated to look and read like advertisements. For instance, in Four Posters: Figure in Front of a Mantel (1984), a gift-shop poster of Balthus’s Nude Before a Mirror from the Metropolitan Museum proclaims: “Some details are decorative…but the whole is totally twentieth century.”
These are followed by no fewer than five versions of Fraser’s groundbreaking 1991 performance piece May I Help You? in which an actor, posing as a gallery staff member, delivers an erratic monologue to unsuspecting visitors. The script, created from a variety of sources—among them a published interview with gallerist Betty Parsons and Langston Hughes’s 1933 story collection The Ways of White Folks—skips from condescension to bathos and back.
In more recent works, Fraser goes to extremes of self-instrumentalization in order to perform the very power structures she criticizes, most notoriously in Untitled (2003), a film showing her bedding an anonymous art collector. But even as she raises her art’s personal and political stakes, Fraser also argues for a reflexive criticism—from which her own work is not exempt—lest the work of institutional critique end up merely replicating existing hierarchies. Is a creative life worth it under these conditions? Fraser’s answer is yes.
A version of this story originally appeared in the September 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 92.