The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art recently reopened after a massive expansion of the gallery space. There have been endless opening parties, special days for members, numerous anticipatory articles in the local paper and hordes of visitors on opening day.
One of the headline grabbing events was the exhibit of a pair of eyeglasses. Pictures were taken, viewers commenting to each other about the importance of this seminal work, or should I say temporary seminal work? The eyeglass installation turned out to be the work of two visiting teenagers who thought most of the work they’d seen made little sense, and they bet they could make something equally interesting. They experimented by placing several objects on the floor, watching viewer response. Within minutes of the eyeglasses being placed underneath a wall label explaining the theme of the gallery people were crowding around and snapping pictures.
It’s all context as we learned years ago.
In the early 1900s the artist Marcel Duchamp exhibited a series of sculptures that he called Readymades. Some were signed with the fake name of R. Mutt. Duchamp employed generic manufactured objects such as the urinal and bottle rack seen above. There is no evidence of the artist’s hand in the work, no alteration to the thing itself. Rather, it was the artist’s intent and the context for the work that transformed it from an anonymous functional object into a work of art.
An unknown writer (probably Duchamp himself) editorialized about the work this way: “Whether Mr Mutt with his own hands made the fountain or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an ordinary article of life, and placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view – created a new thought for that object.”
A revolutionary act at the time and one that has influenced generations of artists.
Empty Shoe Box by the artist Gabriel Orozco is just that, an empty shoebox. Exhibited at the Tate Modern as part of a major exhibition of Orozco’s work, it is the child of Duchamp’s readymades – and the twin of the work by those teenagers in San Francisco. Writing in The Guardian Patrick Kingsley presented his encounter with the humble box. I encourage you to follow this link and read the full article.
Is art an idea or a thing? Jessica Morgan, the exhibition curator for the Orozco exhibit at the Tate, says Orozco “uses boxes like this one to store his projects in. So he thought of the box as a thing that contained ideas. And that’s still his perspective on the piece: it’s a shoebox you can fill with ideas.” Sounds to me like a good description of art, regardless of its form.