In the 1960s, artist Haim Steinbach made a pilgrimage to the Bazar de l’Hôtel de Ville, the Paris hardware store where decades earlier Marcel Duchamp had purchased his readymade Bottle Rack (1914). But by the time Steinbach got there, the store was selling only red plastic bottle-drying racks instead of unpolished metal ones. Nevertheless, Steinbach bought two of them. He later told this anecdote to the late Walter Hopps, celebrated curator of Duchamp’s first museum retrospective, who responded, “If you ever make a work with these, let me know.” In 1989, Steinbach created fresh, a triangular Formica shelf topped with the plastic bottle racks, a wooden paddle, and a snow shovel. Hopps, who was then the director of the Menil Collection in Houston, swiftly acquired the piece for the museum.
That scuplture is now the basis for the Menil’s show “fresh: Haim Steinbach and Objects from the Permanent Collection” (through August 31), which Steinbach curated —or, as he puts it, “arranged.” Since the 1970s, Steinbach’s work has explored the art of the display, expressed through his well-known sculptures in which he arranges found objects (such as action figures, dog toys, kitchenware, cleaning products, knickknacks, and so on) on shelves.
“Curators don’t use the term display,” Steinbach said at his Brooklyn studio, as he looked over his extensive notes and floor plan for the show. But both the word and the concept of display have guided much of his decision-making for the exhibition.
Diving into the museum’s archives, Steinbach pulled out items ranging from African tribal figures to John Chamberlain sculptures to ancient Greek vases to objects left in storage such as plastic crates and a metal suitcase. The exhibition is divided into six sections that explore the nature of sculpture, including a bedroom-style room outfitted with René Magritte curtains, a bed, an Adam McEwen jug, and two Fiji Water bottles. That configuration was inspired by Steinbach’s visit to Houston last July, when he stayed at a hip hotel with the upscale brand of bottled water in the rooms. While there, Steinbach placed two of the bottles facing each other on his hotel bed and took a picture. “It made me think of Brancusi’s The Kiss,” he says.
Another part of the show will fall under the theme of frames, with selections from the museum’s massive collection of antique picture frames placed alongside a variety of artworks. As Steinbach went over his documents to describe this room to ARTnews, he made a new discovery. “Look at this!” the artist said, pointing to his photograph of the collection. Among the stockpile of gilded and wooden frames hung a small photo of that very same frame-storage room. “I need to get that,” he decided.
A version of this story originally appeared in the Summer 2014 issue of ARTnews on page 23 under the title “Steinbach’s Shelfies.”