In the beginning, Belgian artist
Marcel Broodthaers (1924–76) struggled to rewrite the world through poetry. Alas, man cannot live on poem alone, so in 1964, at the age of forty, he declared himself an artist. Over the following twelve years of his
relatively short career (he died of liver disease at the age of 52), he created a
labyrinthine body of work that continues to defy and confuse what we think we know about art and its productions.
Was it cynical for a man who’d spent time in the Belgian Resistance and the Communist Party to abandon poetry and seek his fortune in the plastic arts? No, but it was something of a hustle — or at the very least, a means to an end. “I, too, wondered whether I could not sell something and succeed in life,” he wrote in the artist’s statement of his first show. “Finally the idea of inventing something insincere crossed my mind and I set to work straight away.” Insincerity as an artistic pursuit? From the start, it was clear his teeth were sharp and at the ready. Neither knowing nor caring much about craft, Broodthaers was after something else from art-making: a discourse of resistance.
His earliest works were created in the updraft of Surrealism’s psycho-semiotic blasts; for him, a moving image was also a poem was also a sculpture was also a painting. For one of his first sculptural works, Broodthaers stuck a stack of unsold copies of his own book Pense-Bête (Memory Aid) (1964) alongside a pair of oversize, pearly-pink baubles in a blob of plaster. It’s a kind of object-manifesto for a poet-turned-artist, a visual articulation of the dueling economies of words and things. Just glue them together — marry them as one — however inelegant the result.
Broodthaers would always make use of found objects. Eggshells and mussel shells were two of his favorite materials, cheap to buy and charged with meaning. If eggs spoke to origins, even to the totality of the world itself, mussels stood for something very specific: Belgian nationalism via the traditional meal of moules-frites. Triomphe de Moule I (Triumph of Mussel I) (1965) is a pot piled so high with mussel shells that its lid has been lifted off the rim. Entwining identity and gluttony is a political stab; throughout Broodthaers’s life and work he railed against his country’s shameful colonial history in Africa. For Fémur d’Homme Belge (Femur of a
Belgian Man) (1964–5), the artist painted
a human thighbone black, yellow, and red, the colors of the Belgian flag — a morbidly funny dig at flag-waving.
For the first half of MoMA’s exhibition, Broodthaers remains a bit mysterious, elusive, and his work may even seem a little, well, lacking: Aren’t these emblems a little flat-footed? How sharp are these critical swipes, really? Are his works of art art enough? But these questions are prompted in large part by Broodthaers’s particular brilliance — which in turn is what makes it no small challenge to contain him inside a major museum. Much like James Lee Byars (whose 2014 retrospective MoMA P.S.1 handled beautifully), he belongs to that category of slippery artists whose overwhelming contributions are difficult to capture through their objects and ephemera, which invariably point to a radical life force, now gone. Since his death, Broodthaers has become a precious object from which historians have spun reams of theory, but this exhibition reminds us that the artist was neither so precious nor overly serious.
Impassioned, yes; he refused to repeat
himself, insisting on creating something different at every turn. But he was also a gas, bringing a great deal of levity to art.
You’ll see his humor very clearly in
the two-minute film La Pluie (Projet Pour un Texte) (The Rain [Project for a Text]) (1969). Broodthaers sits at a desk in a garden outside, dips a pen into a bottle of ink, and begins to write something on paper. (We don’t get a good look at the words — the action’s our focus.) Suddenly, water pours down from the sky, drenching the artist while washing away his words,
puddles forming on the page where a text would otherwise be. Futility — an inevitable outcome when recording the life of the mind — has never seemed so funny.
In 1968, Broodthaers founded his handily titled Musée d’Art Moderne, Départment des Aigles (Museum of Modern Art, Department of Eagles), for which he served — though performed is perhaps the better verb — as curator. Laying the foundations for an art practice that would later be called “institutional critique,” he spent the next four years thinking about the function of the museum in the history and reception
of art. He produced twelve different iterations of his museum, each investigating
different eras, themes, and forms as well
as institutional roles such as publicity. These rooms of the retrospective are where Broodthaers really comes alive, taking shape as his museum-inside-the-museum drills a rabbit hole into which the stuff installed here — from postcards to magazine clippings to slideshows to potted palms — starts to tumble.
Tucked into two rooms at the end of the exhibition is Décor: A Conquest by Marcel Broodthaers, an installation from 1975 for which he staged spaces dedicated to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. They’re odd, these assortments of things from other eras — eerie, even. Astroturf, cannons, and a taxidermied python?
Machine guns and patio furniture? His targets — colonialism, violence — are clear, but what gives these spaces their uncanny aura? At this moment in his evolution, Broodthaers wished “to restore the object to its real function and not transform an object into a work of art”: a con, or perhaps a last wink, from an artist who in the end discovered that sometimes, there’s nothing more artful than allowing the stuff of the world to just speak for itself.
‘Marcel Broodthaers: A Retrospective’
The Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53rd Street
Through May 15