Art, wrote Marcel Broodthaers, “hangs on our bourgeois walls as a sign of power.” The Belgian conceptualist also understood that art was just another consumable item, part of a world “devoted to advertisements, overproduction, and horoscopes.” So in 1964 he gave up his career as a poet and turned to the task of making something that might resist co-optation. To wake up a passive audience, he dug deeply into philosophical issues surrounding the culture of display, most notably in museums, and through an eccentric body of work relentlessly pursued those questions until his death in 1976.
His self-styled mandate was not as idealistic as it sounds—Broodthaers also said he hoped to profit from his art (he didn’t)—and the poetry never disappeared completely. He was a quiet crusader who trafficked not in bombast but in wordplay. Inspired by René Magritte (he’d met the Surrealist in Brussels as a teenager) and Marcel Duchamp, he has been described as their artistic heir. In recent years, Broodthaers has himself become something of a muse to a number of young artists. But there’s more to his diverse output—which includes films, installations, photographs, and even a fictitious museum in his apartment—than a catalog of influences.
If his 1975 installation Décor: A Conquest, now on view at Michael Werner, seems familiar, it’s probably not because you’ve seen it before (this is its New York debut and first appearance anywhere since 1999). The artist’s methods—art made through selection rather than creation; a focus on contextual specificity, to name just two—are now common enough to be taken for granted. But the depth and sophistication of Broodthaers’s ideas about the often-buried interplay between brutality, art, and culture has been harder to duplicate.
This two-part work, originally presented as the inaugural show at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London in 1975, was conceived as one of the artist’s Décors—large-scale exhibitions-within-exhibitions that riffed on museological conventions through displays of accumulated objects. In the spirit of Duchamp, he asked the show’s curator to begin selecting items for him, and the two became partners in an ad hoc exercise of hunting and gathering. One room of the installation, which represents the 19th century, is furnished with pairs of red velvet chairs, silver candelabra, and “Waterloo-style” cannons, as well as a huge, truly menacing stuffed python and a small grove of potted palm trees, all set on squares of artificial grass. This faux salon/saloon also features barrels of ale and gin and a tabletop card game played by a plastic crab and lobster. A single pistol rests on a low platform near the entrance. Theatrical lights illuminate the scenario and underscore the artificiality of this dead-silent “historical” tableau.
The second, 20th-century room is a sparser, more efficient version of what came before. A hundred years later, it’s clear that any delusions of bourgeois grandeur have been traded for modern convenience and better guns. Rows of automatic rifles are lined up along the tops of display cases that hold numerous handguns and instructions on how to use them. In the center of the room is a set of patio furniture with a blue-and-white-striped umbrella and matching fringed cushions. A spare umbrella rests in one corner, and on the table, a jigsaw puzzle depicting the Battle of Waterloo is nearly complete. Like the overabundance of weapons, the banality is meant to be oppressive.
Was it because of the guns that a security guard closely monitored me the entire time I was there? I asked, and it turns out the guns are all fakes. Like most of the elements here, they were borrowed from a movie prop house for the ICA show (for this version, the gallery was able to get many of the original items back). In fact, all of this was a film set (which is what décor means in French) for The Battle of Waterloo, which Broodthaers made during the course of the 1975 show. The film alternates between shots inside the museum, a parade of royal guardsman in their iconic red and black outside its walls, and scenes of an actress working on the jigsaw puzzle. The Battle of Waterloo (which White Columns will screen at Anthology Film Archives on September 4, along with other films by the artist) and Décor: A Conquest are not incidental to one another, each serving to reference the other and to reinforce the multiple symbolic associations (between film and installation, decoration and art, viewer and void, and warfare with everything else) of what would be Broodthaers’s last major project.
In the end, the work delivers the victory promised by its title, although there’s no clear winner in this battle between art and violence. You can’t, the artist seems to say, have one without the other. I’d wager the real victor is Broodthaers, who claims the gallery as his territory and, with it, the viewer: He won’t let you forget that you can’t keep war out of the living room.