In 1989, a portrait of a sickly Donald Trump was on view at the Dia Art Foundation in New York. Shown as part of Martha Rosler’s three-space project If You Lived Here…, the portrait, which was painted by Andrew Castrucci, showed Trump with grey-green skin and a long face.
“Of all the works in that show, the one I wanted to own was that painting,” Rosler told artist Andrea Bowers on Tuesday night at a talk at the Dia Art Foundation’s current Chelsea space. “Everybody knew that he was a sleazy braggart, and that his buildings were totally vile. But enough about him.”
The rest of the talk, which focused on If You Lived Here…, followed like this—free-wheeling, political, and fascinating. Some of that is explained by the fact that Bowers and Rosler are friends. Bowers told the audience they met through Nancy Buchanan, a Los Angeles–based artist who has created a strong network of feminists. (Bowers is also based in Los Angeles; Rosler lives in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.)
Bowers had been invited by Dia to go through its archives and pick out a show to discuss. “It wasn’t even a question,” Bowers said, of her choice, Rosler’s If You Lived Here…, a project that focused on homelessness and real estate in New York, and the many issues that impacted both of those issues. The piece “educates, activates, and organizes—everything I hope my work can do,” Bowers said.
For the talk, Rosler had created a very, very long PowerPoint, and images continued to go by over the course of the 90-minute talk. Asked early on how many slides there were, Rosler responded, “Uh, I plead the Fifth.”
“When I look at this piece, it fulfills all the categories for socially engaged work,” Bowers told Rosler. “How did you decide to move into this direction as an artist?”
“Common sense?” Rosler said, with mock hesitation.
“Oh, come on, Martha,” Bowers chided her.
Rosler explained that she had taken her cues from the collective Group Material, who had previously shown political projects at Dia. “I wasn’t interested in high art/low art,” Rosler explained. “I was interested in non-art.”
At the urging of the experimental choreographer Yvonne Rainer, Rosler decided to take on an activist subject for her Dia show. “At that time, New York, which really didn’t have a problem of large numbers of homeless people visibly everywhere, was actually [having] a major issue,” Rosler said. “Everybody could see all these evicted people living wherever they could, in cardboard boxes and so on.” But, she added, no one was talking about the “grotesque othering.”
She went on to explain, “At some point, I had to confront the fact that having a show about homelessness was a middle-class act.” And so, rather than making her own work for the show, Rosler organized several exhibitions of art by local artists. “I thought, ‘I don’t have to be the genius here,’ ” Rosler said. “I can actually, following the model of Group Material, get work I’ve seen elsewhere. I don’t even have to make the show, because the issue is not me—it’s artists responding to this issue.” She added later that she was the shows’ organizer, not their curator. “Curators are trained,” she noted.
“I would assume, dealing with this, there were some ethical dilemmas you ran into,” Bowers suggested.
“Like what?” Rosler asked.
“Ethical decisions are some of the hardest ones you have to make,” Bowers said, “and I’m always struggling, ethically . . . Should I not worry about those [decisions]?”
“Of course you should. There just shouldn’t be a miasma of guilt and fear over everything,” Rosler confidently told her.
Rosler clearly wasn’t worried about offending anyone, least of all the city of New York, which had told her that she couldn’t allow any homeless guests to sleep in the gallery. And it seems that, in retrospect, the media didn’t know what to do with the shows. No New York critics reviewed the project, although it later traveled to Europe, in slightly modified form, and was reviewed there.
“It’s not nice to talk about entitlement,” Rosler said, offering a reason for why the show wasn’t covered by the New York press. “It’s just not nice.”
The afterlife of If You Lived Here…, however, has been much more visible than the response at the time. Last year, at the short-lived New Foundation in Seattle, Rosler re-staged one and a half of the shows in a new project called If You Lived Here Still. (The foundation closed before the others were realized, but one of the shows wound up going to Mitchell-Innes & Nash in New York.)
Rosler said that she still faces some pushback on the project. During the ’90s, she was invited to do a talk about If You Lived Here… at the Modern Art Oxford in England. “It made no sense, to me,” Rosler said. “First of all, I’m just an amateur!” In the middle of that talk, the museum director asked her to stop talking about the project because it didn’t seem to be her work. After what Rosler called a “ ‘Let her speak! Let her speak!’ moment,” she was allowed to conclude her presentation at Modern Art. “Yuck!” she said, thinking out loud about it. “I love it.”