Some of the most essential and exciting artworks of the past century have mined the bathroom. There are, of course, the more literal cases—Marcel Duchamp’s urinal, Fountain (1917), Claes Oldenburg’s Soft Toilet (1961), and Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Still #2 (1977), in which she poses for herself in a mirror above a sink. And then there are the works that draw on the bathroom in a more expanded sense, like Piero Manzoni’s self-explanatory Artist’s Shit (1961) and David Hammons’s Pissed Off (1981), which involved the storied artist turning a Richard Serra into his own personal lavatory. (One could go on at length about artworks involving bodily matter, from Warhol to Serrano to Koh, but let’s leave it at that for now.)
Curiously, though, the phenomenon of the bathroom as a site of actual art exhibitions remains somewhat under-explored, despite the fact it has been used inventively by artists and curators with some frequency in recent years.
The most famous example of late is undoubtedly Dan Colen’s 2006 outing, organized by Gagosian director Sam Orlofsky, in the restrooms of the gallery’s West 24th Street location in New York, a show titled “Potty Mouth Potty War” that featured six paintings priced between $10,000 to $12,000. They “sold immediately” as Carol Vogel reported in a 2010 New York Times profile of Colen. And thus a legend was born. (The article was headlined “A Wild Trip From Bathroom to Gallery.”)
Using the Colen example, one can begin to sketch out some of ways in which the bathroom art space functions.
In one sense, a commercial gallery’s bathrooms operate like private viewing rooms—they are most certainly off limits to the general public, reserved only for worthy clients. (I will pause here to thank the one very generous Chelsea gallery I am aware of with a semi-public restroom, open at least to those in the know.) Opening that place to art viewers, whether the public or even the collector, presents a rare form of enticement, an invitation to see behind the curtain. It holds the appeal of a private club or a speakeasy.
In his current show at the New Release gallery in New York’s Chinatown, Jesse Edwards has placed an especially pornographic painting in the space’s very tiny bathroom, hidden from the eyes of any prudish visitors and, one can imagine, the NYPD vice squad of days gone by. (The work depicts a rather crowded orgy.) Intriguingly, a few of Edwards’s paintings appropriate cartoon imagery, like some of Colen’s work, so one suspects he may be aware of that other artist’s earlier bathroom play. If the hidden bathroom painting is a touch corny, so be it: the bathroom is a highly charged, highly specific space—it colors any work shown there, but because of its marginal status in the context of a larger institution, it typically reads as an addendum, a playful footnote to a larger affair.
Bathrooms are, of course, almost always secreted away from public spaces. They are privy to our most basic bodily functions, and bound up with issues of shame, pleasure, and privacy. In other words, it is the exact opposite, the antipode, of the white cube, which in contrast seeks to deny the outside world, creating a central space for supposedly pure aesthetic contemplation, and many artists have fruitfully toyed with its existence as a fraught, charged space.
In his 2010 and 2013 exhibitions at the late-lamented Clifton Benevento gallery in New York, the oblique-thinking sculptor Michael E. Smith masterfully used the bathroom as a space of potent psychic discomfort, placing objects there (a kind of dried out, rotting piece resembling fabric on the edge of the tub in the first instance, a number of pipes on its side in the second) that alluded, respectively, to vanished bodies or unseen networks of pipes.
And with his typically expressionist flourish, Bjarne Melgaard in 2012 turned a bathroom at the tony Upper East Side gallery Luxembourg & Dayan into something resembling the lair of a serial killer or stalker, replete with scrawled notes, drawings, prescription drug bottles, and at least one knife. (It actually had a basis in reality, but it’s a bit too baroque a backstory to explicate here.) It was both overwrought and frankly a bit terrifying. The same goes for Mac Adams’s 1978 installation The Bathroom, which scatters makeup, a blonde wig, and bits of clothing around the place, as if some manic character has disappeared into its bathtub, filled with luscious bubbles.
At the risk of sounding absurdly fanciful, one might argue that, in some instances, the bathroom art show functions as a form of institutional critique, a reminder that, as Taro Gome put it in her 1977 early-childhood classic, Everybody Poops. (Even celebrated artists. Even the most high-powered art dealers.)
Maurizio Cattelan certainly used the format to deliver some very on-the-nose critique last year, when he installed his much-discussed all-gold toilet at the Guggenheim Museum. Titled America, it was a gleefully obvious indictment of wealth inequality in the United States and the art world.
And yet, the golden toilet was a remarkable, sturdy object, quite pleasant and fun to use, if I do say so myself, and it highlighted the little-discussed fact that bathrooms really can be wonderful spaces for viewing art, since they provide a measure of quiet and isolation from crowded galleries and museums. “Presentness is grace,” Michael Fried wrote, but it has rarely felt to me quite as full of grace as when I have been alone in a bathroom with an artwork.
However, we should concede that the bathroom show is often less a curatorial or artistic choice than a logistical imperative, because there is no other real estate to spare. One thinks of the Dependent fairs in New York 2011 and 2012, where exhibitors cleverly used the toilets and showers in their hotel rooms as vital locations for art displays, as well as Gracie Mansion, the East Village art dealer who started her gallery in her bathroom. (Thank you to artist Betty Tompkins for the reminder.) And there is the case of Andreas Angelidakis, who took over an entire apartment earlier this year in Athens for Documenta 14, transmuting the domestic space into a lo-fi psychogeographical tour of Athens. Angelidakis bathed the bathroom in neon light—of course the bathroom had to be part of it!
That was also absolutely the case in Asad Raza’s 2015 “Home Show,” which featured a contribution from Sophia Al Maria that involved a hunk of her hair being stuck into the bathtub’s drain and Raza each day shoving a list of his desires down the tub, sending his urges into the unknown network that sits just beyond, always out of sight of the bathroom, always working.
I am only beginning to scratch the surface of linoleum floors, of ceramic toilet bowls, of shower glass. Defending Duchamp’s Fountain in 1917, the writer Beatrice Wood wrote that “the only works of art America has given are her plumbing and her bridges.” One hundred years later, plumbing, that easily forgotten technical wonder, continues to inspire. One waits expectantly, anticipating the next innovation in the field.