Why curators can't get enough of Marcel Broodthaers
The Art Newspaper
Gareth Harris
16 June 2015

The late Belgian poet and conceptual artist is due to get his first US retrospective since 1989 at MoMA next year

The late museum director and critic Michael Rush wrote in 2010 that Marcel Broodthaers (1924-76) “may be the best known artist you haven’t seen”, citing the late Belgian’s influence on a “bevy of contemporary artists, from Richard Prince and Rachel Harrison to Philippe Parreno and Tino Sehgal”.

Broodthaers made his reputation by creating ambitious mixed-media installations that he called “décors”. He also exhibited found objects such as palm trees (Ne dites pas que je ne l’ai pas dit—Le Perroquet, 1974) and mussel shells (Grande Casserole de Moules, 1966), experimented with verbal-visual puns and questioned the commodification of art, decades before Modern and contemporary art began to be sold for hundreds of millions of dollars.

Rush was reviewing, for Art in America, parallel shows held at the Marian Goodman Gallery (B16) and Michael Werner Gallery (B9); both represent the artist's estate. Goodman, who met Broodthaers in London through the British artist Richard Hamilton in 1974, decided to open her own gallery on 57th Street in 1977 and launched with a posthumous Broodthaers show. “Meeting him was a life-changing experience,” Goodman told Rush. “It led me to start a gallery despite having little experience. Because of him, I just did it.” Goodman has brought a 1972 diptych by the artist to Art Basel.

Michael Werner, meanwhile, is bringing Quatre Cadres Rouges, Homard et Crabe (London) (1974-75) and Panneau de Moules (1968) to Art Basel. “Broodthaers took poetry and turned it into visual art,” says Gordon Veneklasen, the co-owner of the gallery. “He really was very special. The only reason he is not a household name is because of the language barrier and the fact that he communicated in French.”

Rush lamented the fact that no museum in New York has ever mounted a comprehensive Broodthaers survey (the only US retrospective held so far was organised by the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, in 1989; it travelled to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, and the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh).

This, however, is about to be remedied. A retrospective of works by Broodthaers is due to open at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York next year (14 February-15 May 2016), co-organised by Christophe Cherix, the institution’s chief curator of prints and illustrated books. The show is planned to travel to the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid and the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein Westfalen in Düsseldorf.

MoMA's long-awaited overview is fuelling a Broodthaers revival. The artist’s installation A Winter Garden II (1974) is included in the main exhibition, All the World’s Futures, at this year’s Venice Biennale (until 22 November). Meanwhile, Martin Germann, the senior curator at SMAK (the Municipal Museum for Contemporary Art) in Ghent, says that the museum is working with the artist’s wife, Maria Gilissen Broodthaers, to create a permanent space called the “Broodthaerskabinet” for the institution’s Broodthaers collection. SMAK owns several works by the artist, including Miroir d’Époque Regency (1973).

The Fridericianum museum in Kassel is marking the 60th anniversary of Documenta, which was founded in the German city in 1955, with a series of shows including a survey dedicated to Broodthaers, whose work was shown in four Documenta exhibitions (editions five, six, seven and ten).

The survey (17 July-11 October) features Broodthaers’s first piece, Le Pense-Bête (1964). Made when he was 40 years old, it consists of the artist’s final volume of poems embedded in plaster. The installations Un Jardin d’Hiver II (1974) and Salle Blanche (1975) are also included, along with five sections of Musée d’Art Moderne—Département des Aigles (1968-72).

This work, a fictional museum founded in Broodthaers’s home in Brussels in 1968, is also the centrepiece of an exhibition at Monnaie de Paris (until 5 July). The installation, presented in its most complete form to date, initially consisted of 12 sections encompassing prints, films, signage, drawings and photography. They were later shown in European locations including the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf.

The sprawling, seminal work was Broodthaers’s subversive take on the role of bureaucratic, cumbersome institutions. According to MoMA, “his museum represents a pioneering effort to dispute traditional museum practices by appropriating and altering them”.

In a 1974 interview with the poet and critic Freddy de Vree, Broodthaers explained how the concept came about. Shortly after the student protests in Paris in 1968, he invited colleagues, collectors and fellow artists to his studio to discuss “what was wrong in Belgium from an artistic point of view”—but there were only three chairs in his workshop. “I had the idea of calling a well-known transport company and asking to borrow some crates so that these people could sit down,” Broodthaers said. “These boxes arrived and I arranged them in quite a special way, precisely as one would arrange a work of art. And I said to myself: ‘But basically, this is what a museum is.’ This concerns the notion of a museum.”

The eagle (aigle) was the emblem of this semi-fictional institution. One part—La Section des Figures, L’Aigle de l’Oligocène à nos Jours (the eagle from the oligocene to the present)—consists of around 500 paintings, sculptures, objects and coins in the form of eagles. In Paris, it has been recreated for the first time for 43 years, featuring original items lent by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid, among other institutions.

Broodthaers was especially known for his irreverent take on capitalism. In a 1968 letter, in which he announced the opening of the Musée d’Art Moderne—Département des Aigles, Broodthaers said: “Don’t feel sold before you have been bought.” A turning point came in 1970, when the imaginary “museum” was put up for sale due to bankruptcy (the sale, part of the “Financial Section” of the installation, was announced on the cover of the Cologne Art Fair catalogue in 1971; it failed to find a buyer).

“From the early days of his career as an artist, Broodthaers drew a clear parallel between the work of art and its financial worth. He maintained that art had become part of the economy,” says Chiara Parisi, the exhibition’s co-curator. She adds that, in the early 1970s, Broodthaers was already exploring the increasing predominance of marketing, publicity and merchandising in culture and the arts.

Maria Gilissen Broodthaers, who also co-organised the Paris show, tells us that her husband “foresaw the monetary crises we face today… he had to safeguard important values, and that is why young people today recognise the red line running through his work”.

The artist produced a large number of gold ingots, each weighing one kilogram and stamped with an eagle symbol, for the “Financial Section”. These came with a contract and a handwritten letter from the “curator”—Broodthaers—to prevent fraud. Their price was calculated by doubling the market value of the gold, with the surcharge representing the bar’s worth.

The Vietnamese artist Danh Vo owns one of these ingots, which is included in the Paris show. Danh, who also collects Modern art, is particularly interested in Broodthaers’s “décors” and how the Belgian artist used gold as a transformative substance. Other contemporary artists who are keen on the late Belgian include Shahryar Nashat and Uri Aran, who have been awarded commissions by the Walker Art Center to make a series of Broodthaers-inspired films.

Broodthaers himself was heavily influenced by René Magritte (the Surrealist artist gave him a copy of the French poet Stéphane Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés amais n’abolira le Hasard, 1897). “I have been reading, in the typed minutes of the 1947 meetings of the Belgian Revolutionary Surrealists, the ideological to-ing and fro-ing between Broodthaers and Magritte. These were his roots,” says the British artist Tacita Dean. “I see his work as critiquing the museum more than the market, and it sustains because he created a new form and appearance that has its own visual aesthetic and poetic resonance.”

The late Michael Stanley, the former director of Modern Art Oxford, who co-organised a show of Broodthaers’s work at the Milton Keynes Gallery in 2008, eloquently explained why the artist has endured. “[There is] a grounding in poetry and language in his work, coupled with an adept handling of form and material, often addressed with effortless wit and a lightness of touch,” he said.