Total Service Artists

Poster designed by Martin Kippenberger for the group show “Broken Neon,” 1987, offset lithograph, 33 by 23¼ inches; from the portfolio “Good Regression Needs No Excuses.” © Estate of Martin Kippenberger, Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne. 



“What is art?” hasn’t been an interesting question for a long time, but the query “What is it that artists do?” might be. We know that artists make art, but what about all the other things they do as artists? I’m not thinking here of the many artists who operate in expanded fields, artists whose creative process might involve running large workshops, consulting with scientists or designating some daily transaction as a work of art. What I have in mind, rather, is someone like the late Martin Kippenberger, who presented himself in a strikingly prescient way as a “total service” artist. I borrow the term from Diedrich Diederichsen, who, in his introduction to Uwe Koch’s 2003 catalogue raisonné of Kippenberger’s books, identified the German artist’s “total service concept, according to which none of the procedures connected with the production and sale of the visual arts—invitations, opening, party, food, meetings with art collectors, studio visits, the artist’s clothing and the clothing of his associates, posters and other PR/advertising methods and finally catalogues—could be left up to professionals or to routine.” 

Of course, over the last half century—since Fluxus, let’s say—many artists have assumed responsibility for all manner of ancillary “procedures,” sometimes explicitly claiming them as art: Dick Higgins (artist as publisher), George Maciunas (artist as landlord), Marcel Broodthaers (artist as curator), Joseph Beuys (artist as lecturer), Lynda Benglis (artist as advertiser), Jeff Koons (ditto). Then there are hyper-entrepreneurial artists who want to do (and have) it all, albeit with extensive outsourcing: Andy Warhol, Takashi Murakami, Damien Hirst. Do-it-yourself tendencies shouldn’t surprise us, since from its beginnings modern art has involved the pursuit of autonomy (from tradition, from society, from patronage, from limiting styles), a refusal to cede control to anyone other than the artist. Further, by taking on such everyday, seemingly “noncreative” activities, artists have contributed to another quintessentially modernist project, the demystification of art. [pq]Do-it-yourself tendencies shouldn’t surprise us, since from its beginnings modern art has involved the pursuit of autonomy, a refusal to cede control to anyone other than the artist. [/pq]

Among the jobs that total service artists are tasked with, one of the most important is that of being their own historian or critic. This can take various forms, including interpretive commentary, corrective letters to editors or archival research into the history of a local art scene. It can even involve crafting imaginary scenarios of how one’s work might be received by major institutions. Usually, artists become their own historians because no one else is paying attention to their work or because the people who do are doing so badly. A pioneer in this practice was Italian artist Guglielmo Achille Cavellini (1914-1990), who coined the term autostoricizzazione, or “self-historicization,” in the early 1970s.

Today, by choice or necessity, more and more artists have adopted the total service model, but when they pursue “total service” and “self-historicization” they must confront issues and ambiguities that weren’t a concern for Kippenberger or Cavellini. They have to ask themselves: does embracing “total service” represent an expansion of autonomy and mark a further step in the demystification process, or does it simply reflect the increasingly vulnerable status of every worker in the post-Fordist economy, what philosopher Paolo Virno refers to as “precarity”? Like workers everywhere, and especially in the U.S., artists are expected to assume more risk and more responsibility than before. Just as employers in the larger economy provide fewer and fewer benefits, and technology allows businesses to shift more labor to their customers, so do galleries reduce the services they offer, compelling artists to take on many functions they traditionally provided, such as promotion and archiving. There’s a certain irony to this situation, since the artist has been seen as a model for the freelance/adjunct/outsourced worker, and also for the multitasking, jack-of-all-trades employee. Noting that artists originally acquired a special status in capitalist society[pq]Does embracing “total service” represent an expansion of autonomy and mark a further step in the demystification process, or does it simply reflect the increasingly vulnerable status of every worker in the post-Fordist economy?[/pq] because they “refused to follow the specialization required by other professions,” Hito Steyerl has warned that “the example of the artist as creative polymath now serves as a role model (or excuse) to legitimate the universalization of professional dilettantism and overexertion in order to save money on specialized labor.”1  

In this article I will look at eight artists whose work involves some aspect of total service or self-historicization; I will also touch on the role of several artist-run exhibition spaces on New York’s Lower East Side. Each of the artists I discuss inhabits a specific situation, acts in response to specific conditions. For Cavellini, it was, in part, the challenge of being perceived as a collector rather than an artist, and perhaps also living in a country with an underdeveloped infrastructure for modern and contemporary art. Kippenberger, at the outset of his career, needed to distinguish himself from other Berlin artists still wallowing in stoned ’70s subjectivity, and then labored under an increasing sense that he didn’t have much time on this earth. Mark Flood has emerged in a city (Houston) where the only avenue to having a contemporary art context was to create it yourself. Jomar Statkun’s interactive approach to a gallery show is influenced by his experiences as part of the art collective This Red Door. Looking for an alternative to the dandyism and negation embraced by some other painters of her generation, R.H. Quaytman finds herself affected by the particulars of her family history. David Diao offers his own career as a test case for how artists can get written out of art history and write themselves back into it. Adrian Piper felt the urgency of wanting to “set a minimum standard of respectful treatment of the work of African-American women artists, below which no critical review would dare to sink.”2 Loren Munk is inspired to bring recognition to the forgotten and marginalized artists of New York, and, as a self-described college dropout, to pursue what he calls a “self-directed educational program.” As will be seen, these artists are not linked by style or medium. What they share, rather, are certain ways of being in the world—and being against it.


Martin Kippenberger: 

No Time to Wait

As with all of Kippenberger’s sprawling oeuvre, his catalogues, posters and invitations seem to mock the very ambition they are created to serve, signaling the importance of the exhibition and the artist at the same time they parody the entire apparatus of art-career building. This parody is unavoidable because, first of all, Kippenberger knew very well that it was he who was producing them and not any institution with the power to confer legitimacy, and secondly, because pursuing legitimacy (even self-created legitimacy) without irony would have undermined his stance as a satirist, a hooligan, a paragon of disobedience. Kippenberger’s avoidance of “professionals” didn’t necessarily mean that he did everything himself. Even his exhibition posters, perhaps the most visible of his “total service” items, could be produced with relatively minimal input from the artist himself. One of Kippenberger’s assistants, Johannes Wohnseifer, has recalled how Kippenberger would telephone him with only the most general instructions for a poster, leaving him to work out the details with the printer.3 In fact, one of Kippenberger’s most valuable talents was a knack for getting people to produce exactly what he needed for his work, whether it was having someone assemble a sculpture or write a text for one of his catalogues or artist’s books. 

As with so many of Kippenberger’s publications, the Happy End of Franz Kafka’s “Amerika” volumes were authored by a network of friends. “Anything someone else could do better,” Susanne Kippenberger explains in her biography of her brother, “Martin didn’t have to do himself, he simply assimilated the other person’s work into his own oeuvre. The exception: he never asked real art critics to write for him. He said he couldn’t stand ‘art-history German.’”4 This refusal to commission critics or art historians to write his catalogue texts was one of the ways in which Kippenberger carved out an independent space, a kind of self-proclaimed Autonomous Republic of Kippenberger in which he didn’t have to do anyone else’s bidding, didn’t have to wait for anyone’s permission or approval.

In many ways he operated more like a businessman than a traditional studio-based artist; he also looked like one. Artist Heimo Zobernig recalls that Kippenberger “dressed and behaved like a gallerist or a businessman would,” adding that he, Zobernig, “loved the business camouflage.”5 But, crucially, there was a degree of anarchy and failure built into Kippenberger’s business model. In his early days in Berlin he used an inheritance to launch Kippenberger’s Büro, through which, as dealer Gisela Capitain remembers, “he wanted to redefine himself as an entertainer or consultant.”6 But after a few years, seemingly by design, the Büro was bankrupt (though much fun had been had in the meantime). Some people believe that Kippenberger created his “office” as a flagrant riposte to the Galerie am Moritzplatz, a cooperative gallery of young Neo-Expressionist painters whose work and attitude Kippenberger despised. Perversely, his stance grafted punk’s surly anti-hippie attitude to the yuppie embrace of symbols of money and privilege. [pq]This refusal to commission critics or art historians to write his catalogue texts was one of the ways in which Kippenberger carved out a kind of self-proclaimed Autonomous Republic of Kippenberger in which he didn’t have to do anyone else’s bidding.[/pq]

Susanne Kippenberger observes that 

Martin was always caught in the same cycle. Since he wanted to produce so much art, realize all his ideas, and put together so many exhibitions, catalogs, posters, parties and postcards, he needed huge sums of money. But since art was his only way to earn that money, he always had to make more and more to finance his countless projects. “It’s no fun at all to make art when you have no money,” he said, and added in the same breath that it was also no fun when you had too much money—he was afraid of becoming rich, well-fed, and sluggish.7

Pervading this ouroboros of production and expenditure, this constant phobia of stasis, was a sense of mortality: Kippenberger’s manic cycle of show-making and all its trappings was driven in no small part by his wanting to have and to enjoy a big-time art career right away. He worried—rightly, as it turned out—that he wasn’t destined to live to an old age. He told a German travel magazine in 1988, “I don’t have time to wait eight years until I’m hanging in the Ludwig Museum.”8 Rather than plod dutifully along until the day when he would be honored with monographs and retrospectives by the official art world, Kippenberger (who died at 44) more or less said, “I can do it faster myself.” 


Mark Flood: 

Alternatives to Patronage

At first glance the temporary shows Mark Flood has been mounting over the last few years might seem like updated versions of “Freeze,” the famous 1988 warehouse exhibition in London that Damien Hirst organized to promote his and his friends’ art. (Although Houston is Flood’s main base, he has studios in several locations around the U.S.) The strategy has been used frequently before and since: young artists find a cheap or, better yet, free space, fill it with art, do some canny PR, and hope that the art world flocks to the show. Flood’s projects, however, are far more complex and contradictory, which should be no surprise from an artist whose paintings veer from the exquisitely decorative to the emphatically rude.

From July to December 2014, leading up to and during Art Basel Miami Beach, Flood turned his storefront studio in Miami’s South Beach neighborhood into a gallery. Dubbing it Mark Flood Resents, he filled the space with work by young artists from Houston, many of whom traveled to Miami for the show at his expense. At the same time in New York, he mounted a similar project, occupying a small space on 22nd Street in Chelsea next door to Zach Feuer, his New York gallery. In an interview on the website Hyperallergic, Flood explained how the gallery grew out of his insatiable collecting: “I was always sending collectors and dealers to check out the studios of artists I thought were great. But often, there wasn’t much art to see, because I’d already bought it all! Occasionally, it got pretty ugly, with the collectors cursing me and the dealers trying to insult me by saying I was a dealer too. I tried being generous, leaving a few morsels behind as I consumed everything in my path like a cloud of locusts, but I’m just too selfish. So I decided to have a gallery in Chelsea where I could show people what art I was buying, and let them do the math, and the hunt, on their own.”9 

A more ambitious entrepreneurial project of Flood’s in 2014 was the Insider Art Fair. For a week in May, it occupied the entire second floor of the former Dia building in Chelsea, a space many people might know as the site of the annual Independent Art Fair, where a select group of international galleries present work. Rather than imitate a standard art fair, Flood modeled his enterprise on a cheap brothel. The floor was divided into small spaces, some featuring a mattress on the floor and one or more of Flood’s paintings on the walls. Lighting was practically nonexistent and for opening night Flood, who loves nothing better than to shatter decorum, hired a group of strippers to perform. An information booth displayed stacks of fake paper currency and a supply of the Insider Art Fair catalogue. Priced at $100 a copy, this 188-page catalogue intersperses raunchy texts satirizing shifty dealers and “asshole collectors” with countless images of Flood’s paintings, many photographed casually in his studio or outdoors in someone’s backyard. Perhaps the most interesting part of the catalogue comes at the end in the form of 35 pages of writing from Flood’s iPhone. He shares his studio to-do lists, anti-art-world rants (sometimes in the form of poems), movie scenarios, aphorisms and, finally, his detailed plans for the Insider Art Fair itself. Still more of Flood’s writings can be found in Clerk Fluid, a 576-page self-published tome from 2009 that brings together his columns from the Texas-based online art magazine Glasstire and “unpublished, unfinished and unedited drafts dumped straight out of Clark Flood’s hard drive.” (Flood constantly assumes aliases, and sometimes sends assistants to his openings rather than going himself.)

Flood began writing about art in the 1990s, long before his opulent “lace” paintings and terse, stenciled text canvases drew the attention of dealers and collectors. Under a female pseudonym, he published exhibition reviews in the Houston Press, an alternative weekly. At the time, as Flood told me during a visit to his Houston studio earlier this year, he felt that there was “no context” for his art in Houston, so he set about creating one. Even then, he was keen on flaunting the rules; all his Houston Press reviews, he says, were written in advance of him actually seeing the shows.[pq]Flood wants young artists to be able to support themselves by selling their art, rather than waste their time filling out grant applications and running after museum curators.[/pq]

One could see the support that Flood has given to young Houston artists in recent years—employing them as studio assistants, buying their work and showing it in his pop-up galleries—as a continuation of context-building, but it’s also motivated by his deep dislike of nonprofits. He wants young artists to be able to support themselves by selling their art, rather than waste their time filling out grant applications and running after museum curators. For Flood, nonprofit art institutions are self-perpetuating bureaucracies that use artists “to justify their existence, to maintain their funding, to keep their salaries.”10 They also encourage bland, safe art and, especially outside of major art centers, delude young artists into believing that getting a grant or being included in some mediocre show will help their careers. Although Flood often expresses contempt for the art market, and likes to quote the observation attributed to Duchamp that “critics, dealers and collectors are only so many lice on the back of artists,” he seems to find it much more palatable than the nonprofit world. His aim with his pop-up galleries and extensive collecting, he told me, is to find an alternative to the kind of patronage that forces young artists to beg for money.

One of Flood’s mottos is “don’t give info.”11 Artists, he believes, should resist all requests for explanations of their work and biographical background. He doesn’t like, and doesn’t provide, the press releases, résumés and artist statements that artists are usually expected to furnish. “When they ask me for the info, I can’t do it. It fucks up the work.” Flood’s refusal to engage in the mediatization of his work seems at odds with the “total service” model until you realize that he’s not against communicating with the public, he just wants to do it on his own terms (see the 576 pages of Clerk Fluid). 

For all his caustic taunting of the art world (his text paintings often sport phrases like “whore museums” and “another painting”), Flood, like Kippenberger, sincerely enjoys many aspects of having an art career and wonders why other artists don’t get more involved with activities like designing magazine ads. “I want to make great ads,” he told me during our conversation. [pq]It’s not enough to make a work,” Flood reminded me, “you have to place it into a field of meaning.[/pq]“I can’t believe that other artists don’t make ads.” Ultimately, however, Flood’s motivation for devoting so much time, thought, energy and money to activities that are not directly connected to making paintings may be as much indebted to a central tenet of postmodernism as to his crusade against exploitative patronage. “It’s not enough to make a work,” he reminded me, “you have to place it into a field of meaning.”12 



The Gallery as Work of Art

In her 2009 book High Price: Art Between the Market and Celebrity Culture, Isabelle Graw describes an art market that was dominated, until the 1990s, by what she calls “the Dealer-Critic system,” borrowing a term from art historians Harrison and Cynthia White. One feature of this system, says Graw, was that it “bypassed” the artist, who was “supposed to be responsible only for artistic concerns in a narrow sense, while everything else—production of meaning, marketing—is dealt with by the critic and the dealer.”13 In the 1990s, Graw argues, this system “ceased to function” and was replaced by the “dealer-collector system,” in which the role of the critic was taken over by collectors. At the same time we have witnessed what Graw describes as the “end of the fixed-profile gallery system.” In an art world where few galleries provide the inventory, archiving, bookkeeping and PR services that even moderately successful artists once expected from their dealers, artists, says Graw, are “finding themselves obliged to take care of their own business, as well as administrative functions formerly delegated to galleries.”14 While not everyone will agree with Graw’s terminology and characterizations (art historian George Baker, for instance, insists that there was no dealer-critic system, only a “dealer-artist” system15), few would disagree with her underlying point that the job description of artist has greatly expanded in recent decades, and that this change parallels and is connected to changes in the larger economy.

As artists found themselves taking on more “functions formerly delegated to galleries,” it was inevitable that the professional boundaries between artist and dealer began to blur. This was what seemed to be happening in the early 2000s with a group of galleries on New York’s Lower East Side, such as Reena Spaulings, Orchard and Canada, that were created by practicing artists and the occasional critic or art historian. (I’m thinking of John Kelsey, co-owner of Reena Spaulings, and Rhea Anastas, a member of the Orchard gallery collective.) Of course, there has been a long history of artist-run galleries in New York, going back to the 1950s when East 10th Street was thronging with spaces such as Brata Gallery (founded by a group that included Nicholas Krushenick, George Sugarman and Ed Clark) and flourishing in the 1970s with spaces such as A.I.R. and 55 Mercer.[pq]The job description of artist has greatly expanded in recent decades, and this change parallels and is connected to changes in the larger economy.[/pq]

Historically, the primary function of a cooperative gallery is to provide exhibition opportunities for artists who don’t have dealer representation. While this may have been accomplished by Reena Spaulings or Orchard, which have introduced any number of newcomers, there was a conceptual aspect to the L.E.S. galleries that distinguished them from earlier artist-run galleries. It’s also important to note that Orchard and Reena Spaulings were founded as explicitly commercial enterprises, rather than nonprofits in the tradition of most alternative spaces. Transposing the idea of institutional critique into the commercial arena, Reena Spaulings and Orchard wanted to challenge the gallery system at the same time they hoped to make money from being a part of it. 

Often this has involved foregrounding the apparatus of mounting exhibitions, as with a 2005 show at Reena Spaulings by Merlin Carpenter. The British artist required the gallerists to make abstract paintings, which he then overpainted with extracts from the gallery’s press coverage, producing 32 canvases that were exhibited stacked against a wall. The press release described the show as a “portrait of the gallery as a young artist.” Reena Spaulings is, of course, more than a gallery: it is also the nom de plume for a shifting collective of artists who have produced artworks, fashion designs and a novel, implying that the time for the partitioning of cultural roles has passed. Kelsey (who has said he prefers to call himself a “hack” rather a “critic” because, as the cofounder—with artist Emily Sundblad—of Reena Spaulings, he is “someone who both writes for and advertises” in art magazines) argues that the “productive modes” of artists “are now interchangeable with those of other ‘creatives.’”16

While the Lower East Side is now dense with galleries, including many that are well funded and pursue market success without apology or nuance, and certainly without appeals to Theodor Adorno or Virno, the neighborhood can still occasionally be the site of exhibitions that seek to underscore the mechanisms of the gallery system. Consider, for instance, Jomar Statkun’s 2014 solo show at Garis & Hahn on the Bowery. As the show began, Statkun, a New York-based artist who is also a founder of the nomadic collective This Red Door, deposited every artwork from his studio in the gallery’s basement, leaving the main ground-floor space empty. Over the course of the month-long show Statkun organized weekly “decorations” that gradually filled up the main space. Visitors to the gallery were invited to descend to the basement where they could pull paintings out of the racks to examine them. Throughout the show, according to the press release, the artist was “available to discuss the work, pricing options and possible installation of the work into the exhibition.” He worked as art handler, curator, dealer and artist, not privileging one task over any other. In the dealer role—donning a suit jacket for discussions with prospective buyers and referring to “the artist” in the third person—he set prices according to his feelings about people. He’d choose an absurdly high amount for those who flaunted their power as collectors (and usually didn’t make a purchase), and a more reasonable price for friends and acquaintances (who often did buy). One of his most interesting encounters, he says, was with a class from Hunter College.

When I asked Statkun why he felt it important to be involved with what happened to his paintings after he made them, he explained by comparing an artwork to an infant. “As your child comes into being, it’s a baby, innocent and new to the world. It’s in your hands to make the decisions on how to allow it to grow and learn.[pq]While the Lower East Side is now dense with galleries, including many that pursue market success without nuance, the neighborhood can still occasionally be the site of exhibitions that seek to underscore the mechanisms of the gallery system.[/pq] . . . You are in charge of its handling, curation, dealings, babysitters, etc.”17 More recently, Statkun told me that the Garis & Hahn show “put to rest a lot of the curiosities I still had about what my role might be” in the commercial gallery system. Spending a month as his own gallerist left him wanting, more than anything else, to create “more and different systems.”18 Even the most extreme forms of “total service,” Statkun seems to conclude, can’t seriously disturb the art market’s structure. For now, he has immersed himself more fully in the activities of This Red Door, setting up temporary venues for performances and public interactions in various cities (most recently Hamburg and Amsterdam). 


R.H. Quaytman: 

Claiming All Your Own Problems

One of the artists most deeply involved with the L.E.S. artist-run gallery scene of the 2000s is R.H. Quaytman, who was the director of Orchard gallery for its three years of operation, from 2005 to 2008. Quaytman, who is known for paintings that combine matter-of-fact materiality with densely layered references to personal and public histories, points to the country’s rightward shift post-9/11 as important to the birth of spaces like Orchard. In 2010, she recalled to Steel Stillman in an Art in America interview that:

Orchard was a direct response to the reelection of George W. Bush and to the strong feeling, among the people I knew, that there was a real disconnect between the booming art market and the political disaster we were in. Another impetus was the death in 2003 of Colin de Land, who’d run the gallery American Fine Arts. Though I hadn’t shown there, many of my friends had, and we all felt its loss. So we decided to open our own gallery, and to run it as a collective. I’d been without gallery representation since 2001, so I was happy to be engaging with people and ideas, and showing my work in a context that I’d chosen.19

Like many artists who turn to some form of self-historicization, Quaytman did so at a moment when she felt marginalized. As she recounts in “Allegorical Decoys,” a long autobiographical essay that began in 2006 as a slide lecture, “after 9/11 I was emboldened to leave the gallery that had represented me for two years, because it seemed disassociated from my context and ideas. For the next two years I worked without having any exhibitions.”20 On her own, Quaytman could, as she puts it, “claim all the problems of being my own art historian, my own collector, and my own kind of painter.”21 It was during this period that she developed her distinctive approach to painting, combining elements of reductivist abstraction, photography and installation. As it evolved, Quaytman’s work seemed to revel in its own marginalization, declining any obvious strategies of seduction and never easily disclosing its intentions. [pq]Like many artists who turn to some form of self-historicization, Quaytman did so at a moment when she felt marginalized.[/pq]She also turned away from a definition of art embraced by many of her contemporaries: “an abject, sullen pop-culture filter, with painting as pure spectacle, devoid of authenticity,” a dandyish stance in which, as she eloquently puts it, “the cry for a lost patriarch reverberates a little too loudly.”22 

After two years of isolation, Quaytman helped found Orchard. In a recent phone conversation she recalled how creating and operating a gallery with a group of other artists was “empowering, like knowing HTML.”23 At Orchard, she was able to add another job to the list of “problems” she was claiming as her own. This new role was crystallized in a three-person exhibition she organized at Orchard. For this show, Quaytman presented some of her paintings in storage racks. As she explained to Stillman, “I felt I needed to acknowledge—within the structure of the pieces themselves—the fact that I would be showing my own works, becoming, in effect, my own dealer.” 24 In addition, the storage racks reminded her of the trauma of dealing with countless unsold paintings and sculptures left behind by her father and stepfather, both artists, after their deaths. (She remained without a gallery until 2007, when she began showing with Miguel Abreu, a commercial gallery also on Orchard Street. A solo exhibition of her work is on view there Oct. 7-Nov. 15.) 

If Quaytman seems less engaged with total self-sufficiency than she was a decade ago, this may be a by-product of her receiving substantial mainstream attention (she now shows at the venerable Gladstone Gallery and will have a midcareer survey at the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles in Fall 2016). It may not be so urgent to act as your own dealer, historian and collector once your work is embraced by “real” galleries, critics and collectors. And yet, her paintings remain true to the principles and conditions that she set forth at the beginning of her career, when her work was being, as she puts it, “shaped by a relative disengagement from the gallery system in ways that could not have happened had my career been more commercially ‘successful.’”25 In 2015, as in 2005, Quaytman insists on the primacy of the rapport between her art and its exhibition sites. She still generates new work from the “scaffolding” of her own past, still displays “heightened sensitivity to the issue of an artwork’s fate” and still seeks to “maintain and simultaneously disrupt painting’s absolute presence.”26 


David Diao: 

Confession and Theory

In the mid-1990s, David Diao created a series of paintings that dealt with his own history (real and imagined), canvases on which he painted enlarged versions of Museum of Modern Art exhibition announcements and invitations with small but significant alternations. In one 40-by-60-inch work, using cutout vinyl letters on a monochrome acrylic ground, Diao presented a text that read: “The Board of Trustees of the Museum of Modern Art requests the pleasure of your company at the opening of the exhibition David Diao: 25 years of his art on Tuesday, August 7 from nine o’clock until midnight.” Diao had never been given a show at MoMA, nor did he even have any work in the museum’s collection; the 25-year survey was completely fictional. The work’s layout, however, was closely based on an actual MoMA invitation for a 1939 Picasso show—Diao simply substituted his name for Picasso’s.

In another painting in this series, Diao, who was born in China, introduced the theme of racial stereotypes into fictional MoMA announcements: Slanted MoMA (1995) breaks up the fake exhibition title “David Diao 25 Years of his Art” into a pair of schematic faces, one smiling, one frowning, both featuring the “slanting eyes” of countless Asian caricatures.

The MoMA paintings were not Diao’s first venture into self-historicization. Throughout the first half of the 1990s, nearly all of Diao’s work focused on his own career. In Résumé (1991), details of his exhibition history, organized by year, span three large panels. For Plus and Minus (both 1991), he silk-screened pages from art magazines discussing his work, the pros and the cons, onto two large paintings he had made in the late 1970s. The most elaborate and challenging of the works during this period is probably Synecdoche (1993), a print with five separately framed sheets that overall measures 7 feet square. To create Synecdoche, Diao reproduced an essay by art historian Benjamin Buchloh from a Gerhard Richter exhibition catalogue, but placed color photocopies of his own paintings over the reproductions of Richter’s works and, in red ink, crossed out every instance of Richter’s name in the text and wrote in his own.[pq]What might seem at first glance like an act of crude defacement by a frustrated artist unable to tolerate a rival’s enormous success is actually a considered statement about precedent and influence. [/pq]

What might seem at first glance like an act of crude defacement by a frustrated artist unable to tolerate a rival’s enormous success is actually a considered statement about precedent and influence. Reading Buchloh’s essay, it struck Diao that what it said about Richter’s abstractions could also be applied to the squeegee paintings that he was making in the late 1960s and early 1970s, some five years before Richter began making paintings using a similar process. Diao also reflected on the fact that Richter may have seen one of his paintings in a 1973 show at the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf that both men were included in. (Other observers have also speculated that Richter may owe an unacknowledged debt to New York painters, in particular Jack Whitten.)

In his essay for “David Diao: Front to Back,” a 2014 show at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum (Diao’s first museum show in the U.S.), curator Richard Klein teases out the implications of Synecdoche

In the ensuing years [after 1973] Richter moved towards a conceptual form of gestural abstraction in which the mark, while superficially “emotive,” was really about the mark standing in for all marks; in other words, a synecdoche of painterly expression. This position had been arrived at in the early 1970s by Diao, a situation that led to his abandoning all allusions to the gestural mark in his work and clearing the way for his monochrome, text-based paintings of the 1980s.27

Like any engaging autobiographer, Diao doesn’t stint on episodes of failure and personal humiliation. In his painting Home Again (2013), he tracks the performance at auction of his painting Barnett Newman, The Paintings in Scale (1991) as it dramatically underperforms at a Christie’s Hong Kong auction and is eventually bought back by Diao himself (hence the title, Home Again). If we can commiserate over the inglorious fate of Barnett Newman, The Paintings in Scale, which is one of Diao’s many non-autobiographical paintings that brilliantly appropriate the history of 20th-century modernism, we can also savor the irony that the painting charting its market woes was, itself, included in the 2014 Whitney Biennial. In a recent conversation in his Tribeca studio, Diao remarked to me that it was precisely because his career has had so many “ups and downs” that it can provide viable content for paintings like Home Again or Résumé: “if it had all been just up and up, like, say, Brice Marden’s, the paintings wouldn’t be as interesting.”28 

From Art & Language to Wade Guyton, the history of so-called conceptual painting is filled with examples of tautological maneuvers, with paintings that comment on their own status as vehicles of meaning, as objects of commerce, as works of art tout court. What makes the autobiographical part of Diao’s oeuvre so distinctive, and exemplary, is how he uses his own life and career with such candor. He is at once a confessional painter and a theoretical painter; he can also be a comic one, as when he incorporates a photo of bare-chested martial arts legend Bruce Lee into one of his fictional exhibition announcement[pq]From Art & Language to Wade Guyton, the history of so-called conceptual painting is filled with examples of tautological maneuvers, with paintings that comment on their own status as vehicles of meaning, as objects of commerce, as works of art tout court.[/pq] paintings, or in a diagrammatic canvas assigns himself a plot near Jackson Pollock’s in the famed Springs Cemetery. At times his work can take on the irreverence and self-mockery of a stand-up comic’s. In fact, it doesn’t seem too far-fetched to think of Diao as the Jon Stewart of the art world, delivering difficult truths not with “fake news” but via brilliantly conceived, subversively humorous “fake” paintings. 


Guglielmo Achille Cavellini: 

An Exasperated Symbol

It was in the early 1970s, long before Diao began concocting fictional shows for himself at MoMA or Quaytman became her own art historian, that Guglielmo Achille Cavellini turned to self-historicization to correct the misperception that he was a collector rather than an artist. The confusion was understandable. In the 1950s, Cavellini assembled at his home in the northern Italian city of Brescia such a substantial collection of postwar European art, especially of informel painting, that it was exhibited in museums in Italy, Switzerland and Germany. So when he began making art himself in the early 1960s (he had attended art school in the late 1940s before going to work in his family’s import-export business), almost no one took him seriously, dismissing his efforts as those of a wealthy dilettante. “It was an absolute necessity that I manage to destroy the preconceived idea of ‘Cavellini the collector who paints,’ and thus I made the only decision possible—to do everything on my own.”29 If critics and art historians wouldn’t write about him, he would write about himself; if his art (as opposed to his collection) was ignored by museums, he would propose an alternate universe where he would be celebrated around the globe.

Accordingly, in 1971 he created his “Manifesti per il centenario” (Centenary Posters), each of which advertises an exhibition titled “Cavellini 1914-2014” at an important art museum. Working first in collage, and then with acrylic paint and canvases treated with photo emulsion, Cavellini created convincing-looking posters for “Cavellini 1914-2014” at the Tate in London, the Nationalgalerie in Berlin, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Whitney Museum and MoMA in New York, among other prominent museums. Each poster features a different font and design style, as well as an image of one of Cavellini’s works; he obviously took pleasure in concocting these counterfactual posters, though the joke might seem to be at his own expense. (Alas, 2014 came and went without a Cavellini retrospective at any of the museums featured in “Manifesti per il centenario,” but Lynch Tham gallery in New York did mark his centenary with a solo show.)

The year 1971 also saw the appearance of “25 Books for Cavellini,” a series of elegantly designed, self-published volumes about him purportedly written by the likes of Charles Baudelaire, Karl Marx and Dante Alighieri. Cavellini continued this project in 1973 with Page from the Encyclopedia, a typeset page that convincingly imitates the look and prose style of an official encyclopedia entry, even to the point of giving its source (“De l’Encylopédie Universelle, volume IX, page 233”) with Borgesian precision. In its account of his life until 1973, the text is fairly factual, but as it extends into the future Cavellini introduces increasingly exaggerated claims that culminate with him meeting Mao Zedong, being awarded the Nobel Prize and making stupendous scientific discoveries well into the 21st century.[pq]Cavellini explained in 1977, “I wore a suit on which I had carefully and minutely written my life history, and I meant it to be an exasperated symbol of the megalomania and presumption that are awash in the art world.”[/pq]

In writing extravagantly about himself, Cavellini seems to have found the perfect vehicle for self-historicization. Throughout the rest of his life, he inscribed extracts from and variations on this fake encyclopedia text onto all manner of supports, including underwear, neckties, skirts, shirts, the bodies of naked models and, most famously, a suit that he often wore during his travels and public appearances. As he explained in 1977, “I wore a suit on which I had carefully and minutely written my life history, and I meant it to be an exasperated symbol of the megalomania and presumption that are awash in the art world.”30 He also immersed himself in mail art, which provided him with a means of distributing his work and name outside of the gallery system. 

Paradox runs through all of Cavellini’s work: the centenary retrospectives may have been fictions but the artworks he made about them were real; the suit emblazoned with the encyclopedia entry may have been intended to satirize artistic megalomania, but Cavellini wore it to as many art-world events as possible, and worked hard to bring attention to himself. Despite these constant efforts at self-publicity, Cavellini was wise enough to know that autostoricizzazione was probably not going to produce immediate results. In a self-published 1976 memoir-diary he confessed, “I have the intuition that my work as an artist will only be appreciated after my death.”31 While Cavellini’s art is still far from receiving the kind of recognition he hoped for, his experiments in self-historization make him look like a true prophet.  


Adrian Piper: 

A Necessary Task 

I have no doubt that most artists who have Wikipedia entries devoted to themselves periodically check them and make additions and corrections. I’m also aware of artists who initiate their own Wikipedia pages, shamelessly fudging the line between work of reference and self-promotion. But I don’t know of any artist who has taken such a proactive approach to Wikipedia as Adrian Piper. On her website you can find a lengthy account of her career that, a text on the site explains, has been “removed” from Wikipedia and “reconstructed here at Adrian Piper’s request in September 2013.” The original entry, continues the text,

falsely claimed to offer biographical information about Adrian Piper, when in fact it had been replaced, post-publication, with its editors’ marginal comments, criticisms and to-do lists. As this practice is substandard with respect both to the traditional purpose of an encyclopedia and to academically acceptable editorial standards, Adrian Piper repeatedly requested deletion of the article. Three Wikipedia members refused to post these observations at the relevant discussion page. In December 2013, the article was again replaced by a new one, which apparently had not been fact-checked and contained numerous factual errors.32

It was in 1987, following a review in the New York Times of a retrospective of her work at the Alternative Museum in New York, that Piper began to publicly engage writers whom she felt misrepresented her and her work. As she explained in a 2001 letter to the Times, which had just published Ken Johnson’s review of another retrospective (this time at the New Museum):

I made the decision at that time [1987] to communicate to the community of art critics that I would not tolerate rampant factual misrepresentation of my work. I replied in writing to each such review with a list of factual corrections and/or factual assertions made by the critic for which no factual basis had been supplied. For about three years, I wrote a lot of letters. It was a very depressing and demoralizing task. But I felt it was important to try to set a minimum standard of respectful treatment of the work of African American women artists, below which no critical review would dare to sink. At the time I was the first and only African American woman artist given serious and sustained recognition by the mainstream art world. So I recognized the necessity of this task as part of the price of breaking new ground.33

Piper is hardly the first artist to talk back to her critics—think of Clyfford Still and Barnett Newman, for instance, both of whom vigorously defended their work from what they saw as unacceptable misreadings.[pq]”I felt it was important to try to set a minimum standard of respectful treatment of the work of African American women artists, below which no critical review would dare to sink.”[/pq] What distinguishes Piper is the seamless quality of her art and her self-defense. Her dialogic and discursive art, from the early Calling Cards and street performances to later works such as Cornered (1988), addresses many of the same issues as her letters to editors and critics. It’s also possible to connect her letters to critics with her extensive philosophical writings, insofar as both are concerned with accuracy and truth, and with precise use of language. 

Piper has also, I must note, raised objections about how her work has been interpreted in the pages of Art in America. She wrote a long letter to the editor (see A.i.A., Jan. 2002) arguing that in a November 2001 A.i.A. article on her work titled “Blacks, Whites and Other Mythic Beings,” the author Eleanor Heartney had imposed “special requirements” on her as a black artist, while in previous writings she had taken “‘white’ artists on their own terms.” Piper still is prepared to take critics to task, including a lambast on her website of Art in America for posting Heartney’s article on its website “with its original and racist snipes and factual errors intact” on the occasion of Piper receiving the Golden Lion Award from the Venice Biennale in 2015. It was perhaps out of frustration with such “snipes” and “errors” that in 2002 Piper founded the Adrian Piper Research Archive, which she describes as “a personal and public resource for students, scholars, curators, collectors, writers, and members of the general public who have a constructive curiosity or scholarly or professional interest in her work and life.”34

Although undaunted in defending her work against perceived distortions, Piper has recently announced that she has ceased to give interviews or talks about her art. Pointing out that she has “already said more on this topic than any sane person could possibly want to read or hear,” the artist goes on to describe her realization that her “pronouncements” about her art were getting in the way of viewers’ “unmediated” and “concrete” experience of her work. “Instead of inquiring into the nature and implications of the object I had made, much writing that was supposedly about my work was in fact about reporting on the inner states the writer took me to be expressing by having made those pronouncements. Art criticism was replaced by biography—not the field I signed up for.”36

With a refreshing, even shocking, modesty, Piper writes: “I don’t think what I have to say about my work is all that interesting” and that she “would much rather hear what other people think about the work itself (not about me; about the work).”35 Does this statement mean that we are now free to ignore Piper’s voluminous commentaries on her own work? Is it a rejection of the model of the self-interpreting artist, which she has so vigorously embodied for many decades? Or might it be the recognition of an artist now in her 70s that the work must eventually pass beyond her control? Whether or not Piper’s recent vow of silence leads to a more unmediated experience of her work, and to less emphasis on biography, the history of her “pronouncements” can never be withdrawn. It is, whether she wishes it or not, inextricably part of her oeuvre.[pq]Whether or not Piper’s recent vow of silence leads to a more unmediated experience of her work, and to less emphasis on biography, the history of her “pronouncements” can never be withdrawn.[/pq]

Yet Piper’s situation, it’s important to note, is different from that of artists such as Cavellini or Diao, who turned to self-historicization in part because they felt not enough people were paying attention to them. By contrast, Piper acknowledges that she has enjoyed “serious and sustained recognition by the mainstream art world” (though she has also alluded to a period of neglect in the 1970s): she has been compelled to write her own history not because no one else was writing it but because they were writing it wrong.


Loren Munk: 

Mapping the Margins

In October 2006, Loren Munk presented an exhibition called “Greater Williamsburg: We Are Our Own Art History” at Dam Stuhltrager Gallery in Brooklyn (now relocated to Berlin). Via paintings by Munk and ephemera he had collected, the show sought to document the existence between 1985 and 2006 of more than 140 art galleries and alternative spaces in Williamsburg and to name the artists who showed in them. He also invited any Williamsburg artist who had not been mentioned to contribute documentation, which was incorporated into a kind of expanding bulletin-board collage. As Munk explained in a manifesto he wrote for the show, he wished “to honor, however humbly, those on the margins, the disenfranchised and those who have previously achieved notoriety, but through the machinations of current historical and marketplace practices have been erased.”37

The paintings in this heartfelt, polemical exhibition memorialized the mostly vanished landmarks of the Williamsburg art scene through a cartographic style that Munk started using in the mid-1990s. Since then, the sole subject of his paintings has been the history of art, mostly in New York, presented in the form of densely annotated maps. Drawing on an ever-growing trove of data (mostly in the form of lists matching names to addresses) in Munk’s computer, each painting depicts the street plan of a particular neighborhood surrounded by countless text bubbles indicating where various artists lived and worked, and the locations of art galleries, as in An Attempted Documentation of Williamsburg, 1981-2008 (2008-2011) or The East Village 1979-1989 (2011-13). On occasion, he tackles the entire city.

As well as being fascinating and, often, groundbreaking chapters in a refreshingly inclusive account of recent art history, Munk’s canvases are visually intense paintings. Unlike conventional maps or flow charts that prize easy legibility, his canvases overwhelm the viewer with their insanely tangled compositions—New York Times critic Roberta Smith likened Ascension (New York Becomes the Center of the Art World), 2005-08, to “a telephone switchboard run amok.”38 They also revel in the materiality of their medium, thanks to a discordant palette and thickly applied paint. It’s no surprise to learn that Alfred Jensen is one of Munk’s biggest influences. Like Jensen, Munk makes paintings in which the content and form, the finely articulated system and its diagramming, are impossible to separate. [pq]Don’t conclude from Munk’s insistence on the handmade aspect of painting that he is a technophobe. [/pq]

But don’t conclude from Munk’s insistence on the handmade aspect of painting that he is a technophobe. In fact, he has been an early adopter of social media as a field for art commentary. Since 2006, under the pseudonym of James Kalm, Munk has been posting videos on YouTube in which he walks through museum and gallery shows with a small handheld camera, recording not only the art but also his spontaneous verbal reactions to it. (Prior to launching his YouTube videos, Munk published extensive art criticism in NY Arts Magazine and the Brooklyn Rail.) Behind their casual camera work and off-the-cuff commentary, Kalm’s videos represent, I think, an ongoing challenge to the practice of art criticism. More than 40 years after John Berger’s film-essay “Ways of Seeing,” some 20 years after the pioneering cable-TV show “Gallery Beat,” and at a time when many more people know how to make eye-catching videos than know how to craft solid paragraphs of critical prose, it’s nothing short of astounding that there hasn’t been a proliferation of (what shall we call it?) video criticism.

Munk seems to have understood his YouTube project, which he started not long after YouTube’s 2005 launch, as video criticism from the start. In 2007, he wrote in the Brooklyn Rail: “Finally, just as art styles are rapidly changing to keep pace with new media and technology, criticism is undergoing a fundamental shift as its venues migrate. Those who can’t adapt will end up as sun bleached bones along the cultural highway.”39 One reason that more critics, and periodicals, haven’t embraced video criticism may be the difficulty of getting paid for it. Munk attributes the longevity of his YouTube project partly to the fact that he has never expected to make any money that way. He approaches it like an (old-fashioned) artist, not like an entrepreneur. It is, in fact, an extension of his art.[pq]This self-appointed archivist provides us not incidentally with some telling data about art-world inequality.[/pq]

The predominant note of Munk’s paintings and his YouTube videos is one of celebration: he clearly loves art and its history, paying extravagant, meticulous tribute to all the artists who have lived and worked in New York, whether they are famous or forgotten. But also embedded in his work, and sometimes not very far below the surface, is a stern critique of the status quo, whether it is the failure of curators and historians to do the kind of spadework he requires of himself or the unwillingness of critics to experiment with formats other than the printed (or posted) word. This self-appointed archivist provides us not incidentally with some telling data about art-world inequality.

As I stand before Munk’s paintings, marveling at their density of hard-won information, luxuriating in their retinal exuberance, maybe checking his notations against my own memory, possibly feeling a little ancient as I realize just how many years I’ve been pounding these streets myself, I think about how Munk’s transgressing the borders between painter and art historian, between artist and critic, is yet one more sign of the ongoing breakdown of age-old, outmoded divisions of cultural labor.


1. Hito Steyerl, “Art as Occupation: Claims for an Autonomy of Life,” e-flux Journal #30, December 2011. Steyerl credits Peter Bürger for making the connection between art’s status and nonspecialization.


3. Kippenberger and Friends, Josephine von Perfall, ed., Berlin, Distanz, 2013, p. 169.

4. Susanne Kippenberger, Martin Kippenberger, The Artist and His Families, J & L Books, 2011, p. 185.

5. Kippenberger and Friends, p. 186.

6. Ibid., p. 43.

7. Susanne Kippenberger, p. 159.

8. Ibid., p. 257.

9. Hyperallergic, “My Own Career Bores Me,” interview with Samuel Jablon, Jan. 9, 2015.

10. Mark Flood/Clark Flood, Clerk Fluid, 2009, p. 227.

11. Ibid., p. 518.

12. Conversation with Mark Flood, Houston, April 2015.  

13. Isabelle Graw, High Price: Art Between the Market and Celebrity Culture, Berlin, Sternberg Press, 2009, p. 122.

14. Ibid., p. 121.

15. See Canvases and Careers Today, Isabelle Graw and Daniel Birnbaum, eds., Berlin, Sternberg Press, 2008, p. 19.

16.  John Kelsey, “The Hack,” in Canvases and Careers Today, Isabelle Graw and Daniel Birnbaum, eds., p. 66.

17. Raphael Rubinstein, “Playing the Game: An Interview with Jomar Statkun,”, Jan. 17, 2014.

18. E-mail to the author, Aug. 16, 2015.

19. “In the Studio with Steel Stillman,” Art in America, June/July 2010, pp. 90-91.

20. R.H. Quaytman, Allegorical Decoys, Gent, Mer Paper Kunsthalle, 2008, pp. 22-23.

21. “R.H. Quaytman interview by Paulina Pobocha,”, 2010.

22. R.H. Quaytman, Allegorical Decoys, p. 10.

23. Conversation with R.H. Quaytman, July 20, 2015.

24. A.i.A., June/July 2010, p. 92 

25.  R.H. Quaytman, Allegorical Decoys, p. 11.

26. Ibid., p. 11 and p. 9.

27.  Richard Klein, “David Diao: Front to Back,” exhibition brochure, Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, Ridgefield, Conn., 2014.

28. Conversation with David Diao, July 7,  2015.

29. Artist’s statement in entry for Cavellini in Contemporary Artists, Colin Naylor and Genesis P-Orridge, eds., London, New York, St. James Press, St. Martin’s Press, 1977, p. 178.

30. Ibid.

31. Guglielmo Achille Cavellini, 1946-1976: In the Jungle of Art, trans. Henry Martin, 1976, p. 64.


33.  Ibid.

34. Ibid.

35. Ibid.

36. Ibid.

37. Loren Munk, “History by Exclusion,” 2006,

38. Roberta Smith, “Loren Munk,” New York Times, Sept. 29, 2011.

39. James Kalm (Loren Munk), “Critical Writings,” Brooklyn Rail, May 2007.