The exhibition “WHY PICTURES NOW,” a survey of Louise Lawler’s work from the 1970s to the present, opens at the Museum of Modern Art in New York this week. Leah Pires writes on the artist in our June/July issue. We looked in our archives and found “In and Out of Place,” an article that artist Andrea Fraser wrote in 1985, while a student in the Whitney Independent Study Program. Fraser, who subsequently became known for her own contributions to institutional critique, discusses the challenges to received notions about the display and circulation of art posed by Lawler’s photographs, installations, and curatorial activities. “Her objective is not so much to uncover hidden ideological agendas,” Fraser writes, “but to disrupt the institutional boundaries which determine and separate the discrete identities of artist and art work from an apparatus which supposedly merely supplements them.” Read the full article below. —Eds.
Situating her practice at the margins, in the production, elaboration and critique of art’s institutional frame, Louise Lawler simultaneously reveals the place of art in a market economy and moves towards a repositioning of the artist within it.
In 1980 Louise Lawler asked three art critics to collaborate with her on the production of a matchbook by submitting short texts to be printed on its cover. The critics––all of whom are involved in critical analysis not simply of works of art, but of the institutional apparatus in which they might circulate––apparently thought matchbooks too vulgar a format for their texts. Perhaps resisting the impropriety of being presented by rather than presenting the artist, they opted to preserve their proper place of publication, their proper function. Consequently, this particular matchbook was never realized.
Produced for specific contexts, distributed at galleries and at cultural events, Lawler’s matchbooks do not remain in their place of origin, but are continually placed replaced, displaced. While only one aspect of her practice, they are characteristic of much of her work. For Lawler consistently challenges the proprieties both of place (the divisions of art-world labor that assign artists, dealers and critics proper places and functions) and of objects (the ideological mechanisms which establish the authorship and ownership of art). Although she frequently collaborates with other artists, for Lawler production is always a collective endeavor: it isn’t simply artists who produce esthetic signification and value, but an often anonymous contingent of collectors, viewers, museum and gallery workers––and ultimately the cultural apparatus in which these positions are delineated.
I will generalize and say that Lawler operates primarily from three different yet interdependent positions within this apparatus: that of an artist who exhibits in galleries and museums; that of a publicist/museum-worker who produces the kind of material which usually supplements cultural objects and events; and that of an art consultant/curator who arranges works by other artists (for example, her 1984 show at the Wadsworth Atheneum’s Matrix gallery in Hartford, “A Selection of Objects from the Collections of the Wadsworth Atheneum, Sol LeWitt and Louise Lawler”).
For an artist to write reviews, curate exhibitions or run a gallery is a contemporary art-world commonplace. But these occupations are usually regarded as secondary; the artist is identified primarily as a producer of a body of works, which other activities only supplement. By abdicating this privileged place of artistic identity, Lawler manages to escape institutional definitions of artistic activity as an autonomous esthetic exploration. Her objective is not so much to uncover hidden ideological agendas, but to disrupt the institutional boundaries which determine and separate the discrete identities of artist and art work from an apparatus which supposedly merely supplements them.
Lawler transforms the seemingly irrelevant plethora of supplements––captions which name, proper names which identify, invitations which advertise (to a select community), installation photos which document, catalogues which historicize, “arrangements” which position, critical texts which function in most of these capacities––into the objects of an art practice. Her use of these formats constitutes a double displacement: she brings the often invisible, marginal supports of art into the gallery and situates her own practice at the margins, in the production, elaboration and critique of the frame.
Engagement with the institutional determination and acculturation of art can be traced back to the historical avant-gardes––Duchamp, Dada and Surrealism on one hand, the Soviet avant-garde on the other. Lawler’s work has a more immediate relationship, however, with the post-studio practices of the ’70s, particularly the work of Michael Asher, Marcel Broodthaers, Daniel Buren and Hans Haacke. While very different, all these artist engage(d) in institutional critique, ranging from Asher’s and Buren’s situational constructions (or deconstructions) of architectural frame-works in galleries and museums, to Broodthaers’s directorship of a fictional museum, to Haacke’s documentation of high art’s corporate affiliations.
But Lawler can also be differentiated from these artists, for rather than situate institutional power in a centralized building (such as a museum) or a powerful elite which can be named, she locates it instead in a systematized set of presentational procedures which name, situate, centralize. Unlike Asher’s constructions of exhibition spaces, which critically contemplate the frame but continue to function within it as sculpture, Lawler’s work is often conceived as a functional insert into a network of supports which is exterior to the gallery. 1 Unlike Broodthaers, Lawler doesn’t occupy even fictional positions of institutional authority, but works instead to dissipate all such concentrations of power. Unlike Haccke’s, Lawler’s relationship with corporate and market structures is one of ironic collaboration, simultaneously revealing the place of high art in a market economy and moving towards a repositioning of the artist within it.
In both her early installations and her later “arrangements” of pictures, Lawler selects and presents work by other artists as well as her own. Her main contribution to a 1978 group show at Artists Space was the installation of a painting of a race horse borrowed from the New York Racing Association. Placed high on windows in a wall dividing two galleries, the painting was flanked by two theatrical spotlights directed not at the painting but at the viewer, thereby interfering with the painting’s visibility and, at night, projecting viewer’s shadows onto the façade of the Citibank across the street (a Burden-like strategy of connecting the inside and outside of an exhibition space).
While her Artists Space installation is in many ways reminiscent of post-studio meditations on institutional context, on this occasion Lawler also dealt more productively with the frame, presenting the gallery rather than being passively presented by it. Instead of supplying the catalogue with the customary reproductions of her work, she designed an Artists Space logo which was printed on the catalogue’s cover and also distributed as a poster around lower Manhattan.
Two subsequent shows in Los Angeles accomplished a similar reversal of presentational positions. For a 1979 nine-person show in a loft in an abandoned department store, Lawler did another installation employing theatrical lights, again not directed at a picture she had painted of the exhibition’s invitation––a gray, hard-edge Roman numeral nine in the New York School masking-tape tradition. Blue and pink gels and a tree-branch silhouette template on the lights emphasized the theatricality of the presentation. (A similar lighting scheme was used in a 1984 show at the Diane Brown gallery in New York, “For Presentation and Display: Ideal Settings,” done in collaboration with Allan McCollum. Bathing 100 Hydrocal sculpture-bases in the idyllic atmosphere of corporate never-never land, the subdued but dramatic lighting indexed the commodity showcase.)
In her 1981 one-woman, one-evening show in L.A., “Louise Lawler––Jancar/Kuhlenschmit, Jancar Kuhlenschmit Gallery,” Lawler presented the gallery more explicitly, spelling out its name on the wall in individual postcard-size photographs of dramatically lit three-dimensional letters. She also directed the dealers to stand behind the reception desk (since they could not sit down in the tiny office) and show interested visitors other Lawler photographs contained in a small black box.
Lawler’s literalization and reversal of presentational positions was also apparent in the first room of her 1982 exhibition at Metro Pictures in New York, where she presented an “arrangement” of works by gallery artists (Sherman, Simmons, Welling, Goldstein, Longo). Despite its somewhat unconventional hanging, Lawler’s “arrangement” might have been mistaken for another anonymous group show of the Metro stable. But upon realizing (or remembering) that this was a “one-woman” show, viewers were confronted with an ambiguity of occupation, a shift in position which illuminated the role of the often unnamed “arrangers” in the exhibition and exchange of art. (Photographs documenting the “arrangement” of art in museums, homes and offices were exhibited in the gallery’s main space.) Lawler’s “arrangement” also ironically revealed the economic subtext of the Metro artists’ esthetic of appropriation: her “arrangement” was for sale at the combined price of all the individual works plus 10 percent for Lawler (the fee customarily charged by art consultants).
Because it continues to function within a traditional gallery context, the reversal Lawler’s installations enact is primarily symbolic: the artist-institution relationship is contemplated, questioned, but remains intact. However, her matchbooks and invitations (like her Artists Space poster and catalogue cover) come closer to subverting mechanisms of institutional presentation and to constituting a counter-practice. Inasmuch as they do not depend upon an exhibition for distribution and do not even claim the status of art objects, in these works Lawler manages to resist the tendency of many contemporary artists to parody or criticize but nevertheless conform to the traditional position of artists in exchange relations.
One of Lawler’s matchbooks was inspired by the media hype surrounding a 1982 lecture by Julian Schnabel in Los Angeles. Occupying the position of “publicist” unbeknownst to the lecture’s sponsors, Lawler printed matchbooks with the event’s title and distributed them at the auditorium. Using a publicity tool against itself, she encapsulated the exaggerated spectacle of “An Evening with Julian Schnabel” in a disposable souvenir.
For the 1983 “Borrowed Time” exhibition, a group show at Baskerville + Watson in New York, Lawler produced a matchbook which advertised the show with a quote which emphasizes the relation of esthetic to economic value: “Every time I hear the word culture I take out my checkbook.––Jack Palance.” 2 The immediate effect of such matchbooks is one of vulgarization: by employing a format usually used to promote restaurants and driving schools, Lawler amplifies polite art-market mechanisms into travesties of consumer culture.
Unlike matchbooks, which are made available to a general audience invitations are distributed on the basis of mailing lists which consolidate a small art audience into an even smaller circle of cultural initiates for whose patronage a specific desire is expressed. The series of invitations to private, “salon-type” exhibitions Lawler organized with Sherrie Levine under the title “A Picture is No Substitute for Anything” (1981–82) called attention to this function, as did the 1981 event “Louise Lawler and Sherrie Levine invite you to the studio of Dimitri Merinoff…” (a Russian émigré figurative expressionist whose New York studio had been kept intact since his death). At times, however, Lawler displaces the kind of privileged reception which such private events imply; for example, in her invitation to a performance of Swan Lake by the New York City Ballet, the “readymade” spectacle Lawler appropriated remained a thoroughly public event. (In the lower right-hand corner, where one would expect to read “RSVP,” Lawler specified instead “Tickets to be purchased at the box office.”)
Excerpts from a Letter to the Participating Artists by the Director of Documenta 7, R. H. Fuchs, Edited and Published by Louise Lawler (1982) situated the artist as invitee rather than inviter. Not invited to participate in Documenta 7, Lawler reprinted the inflated, romantic, heroicizing rhetoric of the curator’s letter to invited artists as tiny raised green type at the top of two sheets of stationary and an envelope, sold at Fashion Moda’s art stand outside the galleries at Kassel. In Lawler’s ironic commodification, the curatorial address was displaced (literally) to the margins, where it became little more than an institutional letterhead, an authorizing corporate-like logo disguised as esthetic rhetoric.
If Lawler’s Documenta stationary reduces high-art discourse to a supplement of institutions and the market, her gift certificate for the Leo Castelli gallery, “authorized” and exhibited there in a 1983 group show, reduces the art work itself to a similar status. Although it was printed in a limited edition (of 500), the certificate’s value isn’t contingent upon its singularity (or lack thereof) or the presence of the artist’s signature, but on the amount for which it is purchased and for which it could be used towards the purchase of a Warhol or a Rauschenberg. As Jean Baudrillard formulates in “The Art Auction,” the value of an art object is produced not by the artist, but by the collector in his or her “sumptuary expenditure” or “economic sacrifice” for art. “Good investment’ and “love of art” engage in mutual rationalization: wealth is legitimized in its dissipation for the sake of esthetic quality, while economic sacrifice pays homage to the transcendental value of high art. 3
The collection and presentation of art has always been a display of social and economic standing before it is an exhibition of esthetic value. Lawler’s photographs documenting “Arrangements of Pictures” in private, corporate and museum collections demonstrate the social uses to which art is put after it leaves the artist’s studio. These “installation” photographs have been exhibited in galleries and museums, where the documentation of art objects is substituted for the objects themselves; they have also been published, both as independent photo-features and as subtly sardonic illustrations for critical texts. 4
In Lawler’s photographs of private collections, art is represented simply as one object among many in a chaos of accumulation: in the domestic interior, art––whether “tastefully” arranged or indifferently juxtaposed––is assimilated into a backdrop of decorative commodities. Arranged by Mr. and Mrs. Burton Tremaine, New York, 1984 is more than a picture of a picture hanging over the couch: Lawler includes the television set in front of a Robert Delaunay, next to a Lichtenstein sculpture head used as a lamp base on the coffee table. And in Pollock and Tureen, also 1984, the artist’s last painting (or at least its bottom edge––which is all Lawler photographed) is little more than apocalyptic wallpaper behind an antique china dish.
Lawler’s photographs of corporate collections document how art is used to express relative position in the corporate hierarchy: if large paintings and sculpture in the reception area establish a corporation’s desired public image, in Arranged by Donald Marron, Susan Brundage, Cheryl Bishop at Paine Webber, Inc., two Lichtenstein silkscreens establish the position of office workers (who are quite oblivious to the presence of “art”). As the black uniformed guard in Longo, Stella, Hunt at Paine Webber Mitchell Hutchins somehow seems part of the corporate collection, the artists’ names in the title mimic the name of the Wall Street brokerage firm.
Even after art objects are withdrawn from exchange, the legacy of privileged expenditure is never severed form their pedigree. 5 In museums, the labels which supplement every object always begin with the author and end by citing its previous owner; in establishing art’s value, these two genealogies are inseparable. Such informational labels are often the subject of Lawler’s “Arrangements of Pictures” in museum collections, raising the question of whether institutional authority and an exclusive caste of collectors aren’t actually the primary exhibits.
Establishing authorship, ownership, pedigree and, ultimately, value, such museum labels are the most conspicuous instance of the institutional exhibition of proper names. Yet even in these titles there is an ambiguity: Is the object “proper” to the artist or the collector? In the captions for her own photographs, Lawler extends this ambiguous poly-ownership to include an indefinite list of curators, art consultants, museum and office workers, etc. At the same time, she often withdraws or displaces her own name: for example, in a 1980 group show at Castelli Graphics, in which, as usual, artists’ names were Lettraset on the wall next to their works, Lawler’s own photograph of a text by another author was accompanied by the attribution “anonymous.”
Lawler’s work often involves an interference with the proper name. In her Patriarchal Roll Call, for example, she plays with the artists’ names, turning them into bird calls. Recorded in 1983, Lawler’s bird calls are based only on male artists’ names, calling attention to the fact that the proper name is always a patronymic (the name of the father); they also parody the viewer’s desire to recognize, in a work of art, not a gesture or a style, but the name “itself,” here disguised as a call of the wild.
Signifying the essentialist yet imaginary identity of a unified ego, the proper name establishes the subject as such, in language, under the law. Through the proper name, individuals are inscribed within power relations and come to identify with and be identified by positions therein. The conventional organization of art practices around a signature––everything which allows a work of art to be identified as a “Pollock” or a “Warhol,” etc.––institutes the proper name as interior to the art object; thus, artists are locked in a structure of institutionalized subjectivity. And the institutional exhibition of proper names, designating the authors and owners of objects, defines that subjectivity in terms of consumption and ownership.
Because Lawler’s work isn’t reducible to a single theme, mode of production or place of functioning, it often seems anonymous, or at least difficult to identify without a caption. Her January 1985 slide show at Metro Pictures––Slides by Night: Now That We Have Your Attention What Are We Going to Say?––confronted the institutionally organized desire to recognize a unified subject in an artist’s work. It also addressed the demands placed on production by the gallery’s new space. Rather than exhibiting prints of her “Arrangements of Pictures” (as in her previous show at Metro), Lawler supplied the walls with the enormous images the gallery’s vast space seems to require––but immaterial ones (slides) projected on the gallery’s back wall and visible only after the gallery hours from the street.
The program began with slot-machine signs––plums, oranges, cherries, apples, baseballs and bells––in random combinations of three until…jackpot! The “payoffs” were pictures from a plaster-cast museum, copies of classical sculpture in various states of storage, decomposition, restoration (Augustus of Primaporta in a plastic bag). These images faded into one another in slow dissolves, finally giving way to another random exchange of one-arm-bandit signs and another jackpot––this time Lawler’s own “Arrangements of Pictures” in homes, museums and corporate offices.
Thus, Lawler included her own production within the same structure of indifferent accumulation which her “Arrangements of Pictures” document, perhaps in order to refuse the audience what it is looking for in an artist’s work––a lasting identity which seems to transcend (but which is actually constructed by) the arbitrary exchange and circulation of esthetic signs. The fact that Lawler included her own work does not mean that she has finally acquiesced to the market or passively accepted its mechanisms (and her own place within them). By representing her own photographs in slide form, she symbolically withdraws them from market exchange. Once again, her position is double: that of a producer of images, and that of one who actively organizes not simply their presentation, but perhaps a new chain, a counter-discourse in which they are only elements.
I began this essay with Lawler’s unrealized “critical” matchbook in order to introduce at the start, a certain self-consciousness about my own critical project of presenting the work of an artist who engages in a critique of institutional presentation. Lawler’s practice implicates art criticism as well, especially monographic art criticism, which often functions retroactively to inscribe unruly objects within an institutionally acceptable position, to recover from heterogeneous practice a unified ego––the subject of a signature.
However, Lawler’s work suggests a strategy of resistance, of functioning differently within an institution which reduces difference to a sign, ripe for consumption. As long as artists continue to subscribe to traditional modes of production and places of functioning––whether or not they engage in critique, appropriation or the uncovering of hidden agendas––esthetic signification will continue to be locked on an order of institutionalized subjectivity and legitimizing consumption. If Lawler manages to escape both marginalization and incorporation, it is because, whatever position she may occupy, she is always also somewhere/something else.
1. This remark applies primarily to Asher’s work of the ‘70s (documented in Michael Asher, Writings 1973–1983 on Works 1969–1979, Halifax and Los Angeles, 1983). His more recent production, like Lawler’s, treats the institution as a set of social relations (a notion that is only implicit in his earlier work) rather than as architecture. This shift may be a response to the expansion of the information industry and the service sector of the economy, which has resulted in a further ideological effacement of productive labor. If symbolic intervention in the conditions of material production is characteristic of modernist art, Lawler and Asher engage with the institutional services and informational mechanisms which position and define cultural production.
2. This statement originates with Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels, who said, “Every time I hear the word culture I reach for my gun.” Palance read the line, rewritten by Godard, in the film Contempt.
3. Jean Baudrillard, “The Art Auction,” in For a critique of the Political Economy of the Sign (St. Louis, 1981).
4. Lawler’s photographs of Mondrian were juxtaposed with those of Sherrie Levine and published in Wedge 1 under the title “A Picture Is No Substitute For Anything.” A series of the “Arrangements of Pictures” appeared in October 26. Lawler’s photographs were also used to illustrate Douglas Crimp’s “The Art of Exhibition,” October 30. Most recently, Lawler acted as photo-editor for the New Museum’s anthology Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation, a position which offered yet another format for her “work.”
5. As Baudrillard writes, “We have seen that the true value of the painting is its genealogical value (its ‘birth’: the signature and the aura of its successive transaction: its pedigree). Just as the cycle of successive gifts in primitive societies charges the object with more and more value, so the painting circulates from inheritor to inheritor as a title of nobility, being charged with prestige throughout its history” (pp. 120–21).