Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 20, 2004
Helen Molesworth Work Ethic Exh. cat. Baltimore and University Park: Baltimore Museum of Art in association with Pennsylvania State University Press, 2002. 248 pp.; 114 color ills. $29.95 (0271023341)
Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore, Md., October 12, 2003–January 4, 2004; Des Moines Art Center, Des Moines, Iowa, May 15–August 1, 2004; Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, Ohio, September 18, 2004–January 2, 2005
Hi Red Center. Ochanomizu Drop (Dropping Event), 1964. Performance documentation of event held at Ikenobo Kaikan Hall, Tokyo. Black-and-white photographs. Dimensions variable. Photograph: Minoru Hirata. Collection Akasegawa Genpei. Courtesy Nagoya City Art Museum.

The advertising poster for the exhibition Work Ethic includes the text “Artists. Hard at work or hardly working? You decide” above a photograph documenting the Hi Red Center’s Ochanomizu Drop (Dropping Event) of 1964, which consisted of dropping clothes and objects from a rooftop, their retrieval and placement in a suitcase that was subsequently stowed in a public locker, ending with the sending of its key to an individual chosen randomly from the telephone book. At one level, the poster points to the type of provocation one might expect from the exhibition itself, presumably that it will challenge one’s understanding about the nature of art production, but the ad also hints at the show’s potential failings, in that the exhibition is heavily dependent upon documentation (photographs, videos, written descriptions) rather than actual “events” or art objects, and that many of the included works were intended to bypass the museum or gallery altogether, hence challenging their very placement in this type of venue. It also seems appropriate to ask what type of “work” the exhibition is doing and how it contributes to scholarship regarding art from the 1960s to the present.

Work Ethic was organized by Helen Molesworth, formerly curator of contemporary art at the Baltimore Museum of Art and currently chief curator of exhibitions at the Wexner Center for the Arts. The catalogue that accompanies the exhibition includes essays by Molesworth, Darsie Alexander, Chris Gilbert, and Miwon Kwon. As the main building of the Wexner is undergoing renovation, Work Ethic was housed in the center’s temporary galleries at the refurbished Belmont building in downtown Columbus. The warehouse atmosphere of the Belmont, with walls painted to match the gray and muted yellow colors of the catalogue binding, provided a somewhat less traditional setting than a typical museum and, arguably, one more appropriate to the works themselves.

The premise of the show considers various developments in art from the 1960s onward in a larger historical context, specifically the shift in the United States from a manufacturing to a service economy, and its effect upon artistic practices and the understanding of legitimate artistic labor. The exhibition and catalogue are both separated into four categories: “The Artist as Manager and Worker,” “The Artist as Manager,” “The Artist as Experience Maker,” and “Quitting Time: The Artist Tries Not to Work.” The nearly eighty art objects and/or documents are placed among the sections and serve to reinforce the overall notion that various artists responded to sociocultural and economic changes by adapting their practices to reflect a diminishing emphasis on the “art object” in favor of concepts and ideas or, simply, experiences.

Like the 1996 exhibition at the Centre Georges Pompidou, L’Informe: mode d’emploi (Formless: A User’s Guide), organized by Yve-Alain Bois and Rosalind Krauss, which presented a revised understanding of twentieth-century modernist art using Georges Bataille’s notion of l’informe and categories such as “Base Materialism,” “Horizontality,” “Pulse,” and “Entropy,” Molesworth’s Work Ethic also attempts a revision of sorts. The show gathers together works (or documents of events) that typically fall under a variety of labels (including Conceptual, Process, Feminist, and Performance art) in order to reveal a unifying principle not previously understood, specifically the notion that language and activities more commonly associated with “work” were beginning to replace those expected of art and that had served to legitimate artistic practice in the past. Works such as Robert Morris’s Box with the Sound of its Own Making of 1961 reveal an emphasis on process rather than finished product, as well as an emerging de-emphasis on technical skill in favor of concept. Another goal of Work Ethic is to defend works that often confound viewers (leading to reactions such as “Why is that art?” or “My kid could do that”) by placing them within a larger context in which the definition of work itself was expanded to include management of others, and intellectual labor as opposed to simply the fabrication of products.

Many of the artists included in Work Ethic are well known to even the casual student of art history: Donald Judd, Richard Serra, Allan Kaprow, Robert Rauschenberg, Frank Stella, Bruce Nauman, Eleanor Antin, Andy Warhol, Vito Acconci, and members of Fluxus. Others are somewhat lesser known but contribute works appropriate to the category, such as Erwin Wurm’s One Minute Sculptures (1997) in the “Artist as Experience Maker” section, which features various objects on a platform to be held by viewers per the instructions on the wall, or Tehching Hsieh’s One Year Performance (Time Piece) (1980–81) in the “Artist as Manager and Worker” section, which consists of records of the artist punching a time clock every hour on the hour for one year straight.

Although Molesworth states in her catalogue essay that the exhibition is experimental, in that it is not about a movement, is not monographic, nor is it a “theme show about a common trend” (20), it is difficult to see how it escapes the latter definition, since the period of interest (the 1960s to the present) is carefully edited to conform successfully to the categories while sidestepping the issue of how the larger economic and historical contexts managed to influence some but not other artists in the American and European art world, as well as why certain features of an artist’s oeuvre might conform to the exhibition’s theme, while others may disrupt the thesis entirely. Finally, the most troubling, or perhaps invigorating, aspect of Work Ethic is the question raised by the nature of the works themselves: If one is in possession of the catalogue, with its ample documentation and/or descriptions of the works, is it necessary to actually view the exhibition? If yes, then what is it about the works that proves compelling in the museum setting? Is it appropriate for a “conceptual” piece to be objectified or a performance piece to be rendered silent and two-dimensional? If the answer is no, then have the works succeeded in proving the museum obsolete? Has the show managed to reveal an important lesson while simultaneously extinguishing its raison d’être? You decide.

Wendy Koenig
Assistant Professor of Art History, Art Department, Middle Tennessee State University