MARCEL BROODTHAERS (1924-1976) may be the best known artist you haven't seen. Frequently referenced in essays and reviews as a precursor to a bevy of contemporary artists, from Richard Prince and Rachel Harrison to Philippe Parreno and Tino Sehgal, the influential Belgian often appears in historical group shows in proximity to Marcel Duchamp, as in "The Original Copy: Photography of Sculpture, 1839 to Today," at the Museum of Modern Art through Nov. 1 [see A.i.A., Oct. '10]. Broodthaers's institutional critiques, appropriations, discordant images and texts, mixed medium installations'which he called "decors" or "designed spaces"'and, to a lesser extent, films are beloved by art critics and historians (an entire issue of October was devoted to him in 1987). Yet no New York museum has ever mounted a comprehensive Broodthaers survey. In fact, only once was he given a full-dress exhibition in the U.S.: "Marcel Broodthaers," organized by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis in 1989, which traveled to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, and the Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh. (A further stint at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels was canceled, but that museum mounted its own retrospective in 2001.) So there was cause for celebration this season as both Marian Goodman and Michael Werner galleries in New York presented important samplings of the remarkable output of Broodthaers's last dozen years, before his career was cut short by his early death in Cologne.
The exhibition at Goodman, which closed Oct. 16, was both ambitious and personal. Marian Goodman, who began her career in art as a publisher of editions (by Lichtenstein, Newman and Guston, for example), was introduced to Broodthaers in London in 1974 by the British artist Richard Hamilton. She saw in Broodthaers a "great humanist with an extraordinary poetic reach, an exceptional avant-garde mind and great wit," as she said in a recent conversation. Eager to find a New York gallery to take him on, she was met with indifference. So she decided to move beyond prints and launch her own gallery on 57th Street, which opened in 1977 with a posthumous Broodthaers exhibition containing an enigmatic collection of objects, among them a hula hoop, a pair of sandals, a book and a stiff collar. (The artist had died the previous year after a lifelong battle with hepatitis contracted when he was in his late teens, shortly after the Nazi occupation of Belgium.) "Meeting him was a life-changing event," Goodman says. "It led me to start a gallery despite having little experience. Because of him I just did it."
The installation at Goodman of Section Cinéma, a work never before seen in the U.S., was an almost exact reconstruction of Broodthaers's 1972 reinstallation of the same name, which was one section of his multipart, multisite magnum opus, "Musée d'Art Moderne, Département des Aigles" (Museum of Modern Art, Department of Eagles), 1968-72. The first section of Broodthaers's "alternative museum," Section XIXème siecle (19th Century Section), opened on Sept. 17, 1968, in his house on Rue de la Pépinière, in Brussels. Broodthaers premiered Section Cinema in 1971 in the basement of a house in Düsseldorf once occupied by Goethe. He then "closed" it, having sold portions, but re-created it with changes the following year. As at Goodman, the 1972 installation consisted of two rooms, one screening brief films, including a short starring Charlie Chaplin and a travelogue promo for the city of Brussels'both appropriated'and Broodthaers's own film, Un Voyage à Waterloo. Some of the films were projected directly onto a wall, others onto a tacked- up world map. In the other room was a photograph of an "ensemble of objects" (Broodthaers's description of the items, 12 in all, which had been sold at the 1971 iteration'among them a clock, a calendar and an accordion case), each stenciled with a designation: "fig. 1," "fig. 2" and so forth. He also painted 10 of these same numerical inscriptions on the projection wall in the first room, thus initiating an interaction between them and the projected images. Chaplin, for example, would be "fig. 1" or "fig. 2" as his image played over those pre-painted designations. In the "Musée d'Art Moderne," words, images and objects occupied a level playing field.
Broodthaers, whose first and, arguably, most long-lived calling was as a poet, preserved a lasting interest in words, including the physical properties of letters, which he called their "architecture." Writing in a 1968 "interview with himself," he said he was "interested in finding a harmony among the three elements'f'riting (poetry), object (something three-dimensional), and image (film)." He also confessed he was attempting "to deny as far as possible meaning to the word as well as to the image." Though influenced by American Pop art (he acknowledged George Segal and Claes Oldenburg), his closest kin were Stéphane Mallarmé and René Magritte. In the world of experimental film (though he denied being a filmmaker at all: "For me film is simply an extension of language" ), it is perhaps Hollis Frampton (in his 1970 film Zorns Lemma) and Michael Snow (in the language-based So This Is, 1982) who most closely share Broodthaers's sensibility, making letters and words, in effect, the leading actors in these films.
MICHAEL WERNER HAS an even longer history with Broodthaers than does Goodman, dating back to the artist's years in Düsseldorf and Cologne. In 1971, at the dealer's gallery in Cologne, Werner presented an exhibition of 40 drawings by Broodthaers relating to cinema, as well as his filmic homage to his friend Magritte, La Pipe (Magritte), 1969. On Sept. 4, 2007, Werner's gallery in New York, in conjunction with White Columns, presented a dozen Broodthaers films at Anthology Film Archives. Even so, with Goodman's six, New York audiences will have had exposure to just 18 of his more than 60 films. They are not available on DVD, although the artist's widow, Maria Gilissen, who holds the rights, suggests that there will be greater access to them in the future.
Several important paintings, constructions and an installation are on view at Werner through Nov. 13, providing a perfect dialogue with Broodthaers's one-of-a-kind Section Cinéma and shedding light on his many other activities. Dites Partout Que Je L'Ai Dit (Say Everywhere That I Have Said It), 1974, is a concise unit, comprising a stuffed parrot, a framed photograph of a drawing of a parrot from a book, a framed collage of Broodthaers's own writings, and an audiotape of the artist reading one of his poems in French. (Translation: "Me I say I me I say I / the King of Mussels me You say You," etc.) Hearing his voice echo through the gallery is at once haunting, melancholic and touching'as was the case at last year's installation of the piece at New York's Peter Freeman gallery, in which a live parrot occupied a cage in the space. Parrots and eagles as symbols, on the one hand, of language, repetition and/or power, and on the other, of muteness and doom, appear frequently in Broodthaers's work. Just across the room from this grouping is the artist's Panneau de Moules (Mussel Panel), 1968, a framed wall construction of hundreds of mussel shells. Always desperately poor, Broodthaers was given the shells by a restaurateur near his apartment in Brussels. "Four forms are necessary for me," he wrote in 1966, "mussel, egg, the pot which I already feel capable of filling. And the Heart'T What attaches me still to the heart is respect for certain values. Rimbaud. Especially Arthur Rimbaud, the model of revolt."
As if to confound future acolytes who might wish to entrap him in an entirely conceptual framework, Broodthaers created the Ab-Ex-inspired painting MB MB MB (1968), also on view, featuring allover repetitions of his initials, along with a large, vigorously gestural pink and white splash close to the bottom-center of the canvas. Among the remaining eight works at Werner are two vacuum-formed plastic paintings Broodthaers conceived and had fabricated in the late '60s. A process used in commercial sign-making, the vacuum suction raises the image on the surface to offer an additional visual punch. One painting features a pipe with smoke (a recurring motif with which he paid homage to Magritte), the other a set of doors announcing "The Museum of Modern Art, Department of Eagles.'
Broodthaers often referred to his artworks as 'rebuses,'representations of words in images. Like Gide and Rabelais, two of the authors whose books he took with him to what was to be his final hospital stay, Broodthaers was a radically innovative wordsmith, spinning his tales with films, collages, paintings, 'decors'and even a Museum of Modern Art.