Poet, Printer, Prankster: Marcel Broodthaers in Retrospect
David Carrier
7 April 2016

Marcel Broodthaers (1924-76) was a late starter, only becoming a visual artist when he was 40, having spent 20 years trying to make a living as a poet. And he died relatively young, on his 52nd birthday. But as demonstrated by three concurrent shows — at Paul Kasmin, Michael Werner, and the Museum of Modern Art — he was highly productive during a short period. An additional show at Alden Projects displays exhibition invitations, posters, letters, and other similar materials.

There are 200 works, on view at his MoMA survey, including books of poetry and photographs, works made before Broodthaers formally entered the visual arts. His transition can also be seen there, when he turned the unsold copies of his last volume of poetry into the sculpture Pense-Bête (“Memory aid,” 1964), his first artwork, for his first solo exhibition. Once he turned to making art, he created a number of sculptures, which recycle mussels and eggshells, his signature materials. They are ordinary, used-up organic forms. Mussels are often served in Belgian restaurants and he thought of them as poetic. Mussel shells, he wrote, are hulls, two conjoined complete forms. And eggs, of course, are symbols of life and fecundity.

He put eggshells on furniture in Armoire blanche et table blanche (“White cabinet and white table,” 1965), on painted canvas in Untitled (Triptych) (1965-66), and in a box labeled as containing exhibition invitations, in Je retrouve à la matière, je retrouve la tradition des primitifs, peinture à l’oeuf, peinture à l’oeuf (“I return to matter, I rediscover the tradition of the primitives, painting with egg, painting with egg,” 1966). Cooked mussels are found piled in a pot in Grande casserole de moules (“Large casserole of mussels,” 1966) and displayed in crates in Parc àmoules (“Tray of mussels,” 1966).

In 1968, announcing that he was no longer an artist, Broodthaers appointed himself director of his own museum: Musée d’Art Moderne, Départment des Aigles (“Museum of Modern Art, Department of Eagles”), an installation project that began in his home and was later restaged at documenta and at the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf. MoMA displays documentation — announcements, films, slide shows and also objects — generated by that career. One finds postcards of paintings, maps of the museum, photographs of the exhibitions, slide shows and display cases.Untitled (General with cigar) (1970), features a found thrift-shop painting of General Philippe Pétain (treasonous Chief of State in Vichy France) with a cigar stuck in his mouth, part of Broodthaers’s recurring interest in smoking and its prohibition as poetic and bureaucratic propositions.

Four years later, in 1972, Broodthaers announced that he again was an artist, and hired a sign painter to print words on canvas, and on the walls and ceiling of a gallery. He made Série en language française (Series de neuf peintures sur un sujet littéraire) (“Series in the French language, Series of nine paintings on a literary subject,” 1972), which includes “Andre Gide smoking,” “Paul Valery smoking,” and so on. And, written in English, he produced nine painted canvases, Série anglaise (“English series,” 1972): a set of prints featuring the names and birth and death dates of English luminaries such as Edgar Allan Poe, Lewis Carroll, James Joyce, and others.

Starting in 1974, he recycled his earlier work, employing old-fashioned displays with palm trees, carpets and 19th-century display cases, in exhibitions that he documented on film, calling them “Décors,” which can be translated as “installations” as well as “film sets.”

The gallery shows provide a valuable supplement to the MoMA exhibition. Uptown, “Marcel Broodthaers: Écriture,” at Michael Werner, focuses on his writing, one of his major concerns, and includes collages, drawings, films, collage, sculptures and one of his décors, Dites Partout Que Je L’Ai Dit (“Say Everywhere What I Have Said,” 1974). In Chelsea, Paul Kasmin presents paintings on plastic and Broodthaers’s books, along with the reconstruction of another décor, Ne dites pas que je ne l’ai pas it- Le Perroquet (“Don’t Say I Didn’t Say So — The Parrot,” 1974), a recording of him reciting his poem “Moi Je Dis Mois Je Dis Je…“

Starting with Hegel, and extended by Marx and, more recently, by any number of Marxist critics, the idea that history (and art) proceeds by critical negation has become received opinion among many leftists. This is how T. J. Clark understands Impressionism and Abstract Expressionism, and how Theodor W. Adorno described Modernist music. And it is how Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, who contributes to a catalogue produced for the MoMA retrospective, understands Broodthaers.
By now, however, it should be apparent that art-as-critique has become a ritual, just another artistic tradition. Our museums (and art galleries) embrace their most distinguished critics. Just as the once-feared “death of painting” has yielded an ongoing tradition of painting, so the deconstructive art of Broodthaers has become part-and-parcel of both the gallery system and the public art museum, though he certainly aimed to upend this dialectical narrative by such acts as the destruction and/or reuse of his own previous work. Duchamp showed that any banal artifact might become a readymade; Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons demonstrated that a replica of a commercial product might become art. Hans Haacke made commercial art critiquing the commercial gallery system, and Broodthaers (among others) revealed that anti-art might itself be the subject of display and commerce.

I suspect that some leftists are frustrated by this situation. I’m fascinated with the ways that our culture honors and supports its critics. The narrative of the Hegelian dialectic, which is the conceptual basis for this process of negation, has come to a standstill, which isn’t to say that the history of art has ended, as Hegel feared-and-hoped, but only that the seemingly radical pursuit of negating gestures, having become an end in itself, is a source of objects which are as aesthetically delectable as any Modernist masterpieces. Broodthaers critiques the art world from within, and so leaves its practice, to which he contributed, more firmly in place. In his catalogue essay, Buchloh argues that Broodthaers disputes “the false and preposterous claims that artistic practices could engender radical political or cultural transformations.” That, I think, is not quite correct. In fact, the present apotheosis of Broodthaers as an artist is a radical cultural transformation, just not the liberatory one that people of the arts so often talk of in vague and longing terms. Indeed, in a marvelous posthumous revelation of the reach of Broodthaers’s idea, MoMA is publishing a limited-edition facsimile of his book Atlas (1975). The deluxe version, which contains a supplement, the uncut press sheet included by Broodthaers in the original publication, is sold exclusively at MoMA stores.