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RE-PRESENTING LOUISE LAWLER:
THE EARLY WORK, 1978-1985
MARIOLA V. ALVAREZ
A THESIS PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE SCHOOL
OF THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT
OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DEGREE OF
MASTER OF ARTS
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
Mariola V. Alvarez
To my parents.
I would like to acknowledge Alexander Alberro for his continuing guidance
through the years, his encouragement during my writing process, and his intelligence,
both tireless and nuanced, which serves as an exemplary model of scholarship. I would
also like to thank both Eric Segal and Susan Hegeman for their perspicacious suggestions
on my thesis and for their formative seminars. I am grateful to the rest of the faculty,
especially Melissa Hyde, staff and graduate students at the School of Art and Art History
whom I had the pleasure of working with and knowing.
My friends deserve endless gratitude for always pushing me to be better than I am
and for voluntarily accepting the position of editor. They influence me in every way.
Finally, I thank my family for making all of this possible.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
A C K N O W L E D G M E N T S ................................................................................................. iv
LIST OF FIGURES ......... ......................... ...... ........ ............ vi
A B S T R A C T .......................................... .................................................. v iii
1 IN TRODU CTION ................................................. ...... .................
2 CRITIQUE OF THE INSTITUTION...................................... ......................... 4
A N etw ork of Positions .......................................................... ............... .............. 4
"A rt about A rt" ..................... ...... ................................ ........ ... ...... .... 12
A rt as a Souvenir of C culture .......................................................................... .. .... 17
3 SELECTION, PRESENTATION AND DISPLAY ..................................................28
"A n O pen E conom y of Signs"......................................................... .....................28
On Display: The Spectacle of Art.................................................... ..................33
M etaorders ........................... ... ........................................... .. ...... 36
A Picture Is N o Substitute for Anything................................... ...................... 39
4 THE CONSTRUCTION OF AN EMBODIED SUBJECT.......................................49
Sexuality in the Field of V ision ..................................................... ...................49
The Institutional and the Everyday.................................... .......................... ......... 52
P rivilege of the Sen ses............ ...................................... ................ .. .... .... .. 58
The D esiring Subject .................. ................................... .................. 62
W hat Is the Institution? ....................................................... .. ............ 65
5 C O N C L U SIO N .......... ......................................................................... ........ .... .. 69
L IST O F R EFER EN CE S ............................................................................ ..............86
B IO G R A PH IC A L SK E TCH ..................................................................... ..................90
LIST OF FIGURES
1 Louise Lawler, "An Arrangement of Pictures," Metro Pictures Gallery,
N ew Y ork 19 82 .................................................... ................ 7 1
2 Louise Lawler, Arranged by DonaldMarron, Susan Brundage, Cheryl Bishop
at Paine Webber, Inc., 1982, cibachrom e ..................................... .................72
3 Louise Lawler, Arranged by Mera and Donald Rubell, 1982, cibachrome............73
4 Louise Lawler, Pollock and Tureen, Arranged by Mr. And Mrs. Burton
Tremaine, Connecticut, 1984, cibachrome.................................... ............... 74
5 Louise Lawler, Arranged by Claire Vincent at the Metropolitan Museum of
Art, New York City, 1982, cibachrome ............ ............................. ............... 75
6 Louise Lawler, (Allan McCollum and Other Artists) Lemon, 1981, cibachrome ....76
7 Louise Lawler, (Holzer, Nadin and Other Artists) Baby Blue, 1981, cibachrome ..76
8 Louise Lawler, (Roy Lichtenstein and Other Artists) Black, 1982, cibachrome......77
9 Louise Lawler, (Jenny Holzer and Other Artists) Kelly Green, 1982, cibachrome .77
10 Louise Lawler, (Andy Warhol and Other Artists) Tulip, 1982, cibachrome............78
11 Louise Lawler and Allan McCollum "For Presentation and Display: Ideal
Settings," Diane Brown Gallery, New York City, 1984 .......................................79
12 Louise Lawler, Group Exhibition, Artists Space, New York City, 1978.................80
13 Louise Lawler, Objects, "Slides by Night: Now That We Have Your Attention
What Are We Going to Say?," Metro Pictures Gallery, New York City, 1985.......81
14 Louise Lawler, "Slides by Night: Now That We Have Your Attention What
Are We Going to Say?," Metro Pictures Gallery, New York City, 1985 ................82
15 Louise Lawler, "Slides by Night: Now That We Have Your Attention What
Are We Going to Say?," Metro Pictures Gallery, New York City, 1985 ................83
16 Louise Lawler, Statue Before Painting, Perseus n i/h the Head of Medusa,
C anova, 1982, cibachrom e ......... ................. .......................................................84
17 Louise Lawler, Sappho and Patriarch, 1984, cibachrome............... .......... 85
Abstract of Thesis Presented to the Graduate School
of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree of Master of Arts
RE-PRESENTING LOUISE LAWLER: THE EARLY WORK, 1978-1985
Mariola V. Alvarez
Chair: Alexander Alberro
Major Department: Art and Art History
This thesis examines the early work (1978-1985) of American artist Louise Lawler.
In the late seventies artists in the United States produced art that responded to the
breakdown of the modernist paradigm, often directly countering or continuing the project
begun by the "Minimalist" artists. Lawler's practice, in many ways, prolongs and
expands many of the issues foregrounded by the Minimalist movement: the role of the
artist, the interdependence of the exhibition site and the art object, and the
phenomenological relationship of the subject and object. Artists practicing "institutional
critique," including Lawler, challenged the traditional model of art, yet, whereas the
Minimalists focused on the physical structure of the exhibition site, institutional critique
artists contested the ideological frame. Institutional critique took as its object the blurring
of high art and everyday life or mass culture, in a sense resuming the call of the historical
Lawler distinguishes herself from other post-conceptual artists with a praxis that
accentuates the spaces complementary to the museum/gallery site-the collector's home,
the corporate office, the auction house, the art journal, the studio-thus fashioning a
boundless, open model of value and meaning for art. The artworld is presented as an
active network of positions, sites, and frames. This fluid configuration echoes within
Lawler's own practice, which cannot be limited to one medium. Rather the artworks and
installation merge to create meaning in concert. As a result, the imbrication of content
and formal structure continually calls attention to the power of presentation and display,
and thus contests the autonomous object of modernist art.
Lawler sharpens her focus on the presentation and display of objects by inscribing
or interpellating the viewer within the work. Often, she accomplishes this action through
the use of text that includes questions and shifters directly addressing the viewer and thus
confronting her/him with a different frame of interpretation. The viewer is made
conscious of her/his own "subject-ness"-effected by and constituted through art.
Louise Lawler takes photographs of art objects-objects in museums, collectors'
homes, and places of business. The photographs give prominence to the objects and their
placement within a hierarchy of presentation and display. The pictures of the
museum/gallery complex index the museological support of an art object while the
pictures of artworks in private spaces trace the spaces and the mobility of power relations
in the art world, "tracking" the object beyond the museum site. Signification is thus
shown to be entirely dependent on context, to be fully contingent and arbitrary. It shifts-
even slips and slides-in concert with the surrounding constellation of cultural signifiers.
Lawler's photographs address this problematic directly, and nowhere more so than in the
artist's 1982 exhibition, "An Arrangement of Pictures," at Metro Pictures Gallery in New
York City. My paper will focus on this particular exhibition as a framing device to
explore the work of an artist who problematizes all frames. Such a framing device, of
course, will itself be theorized as arbitrary-what Stuart Hall has defined as an "arbitrary
closure"-underpinned by the hypothesis that knowledge is not possible without such an
arbitrary closure.1 This early exhibition presents, in crystallized form, many currents and
1 Stuart Hall, "Cultural Studies and its Theoretical Legacies," Cultural Studies, ed., Lawrence Grossberg,
Cary Nelson, Paula A. Treichler (New York: Routledge, 1992), 278. "I don't believe knowledge is closed,
but I do believe that politics is impossible without what I have called 'the arbitrary closure'; without what
Homi Bhabha called social agency as an arbitrary closure. That is to say, I don't understand a practice
which aims to make a difference in the world, which doesn't have some points of difference or distinction
which it has to stake out, which really matter. It is a question of positionalities. Now, it is true that those
positionalities are never final, they're never absolute. They can't be translated intact from one conjuncture
to another; they cannot be depended on to remain in the same place."
themes that continue to preoccupy Lawler today, most significantly the power of display
and the construction of an embodied viewing subject.
Lawler's photographs comment on the institution of art-a self-reflexivity at once
thoroughly contingent yet grounded in the historical moment of what Hal Foster terms
the "neo-avant-garde."2 As a result, the images exist in relationship to the changing
scene of art in the post-sixties period-post-"Modernist Painting," post-Pop, post-
Minimalism, post-Conceptualism-but also grapple with the historical lessons learned
from these previous art movements, and deal a death knell to any narrative of an avant-
garde. Chapter 2 of the thesis addresses these issues and questions the value of imposing
the avant-garde model on the work of Lawler, or any artist producing art in the
Taking a cue from earlier artists practicing "institutional critique" Lawler shifts
away from a conception of art as centralized in the museum to a discursive model in
which art circulates beyond the walls of the museum/gallery complex. As a result, this
borderless circulation affects, conditionally, the meaning and value accrued or lost by the
object. Lawler presents art as an expanded field that in many ways corresponds to the
service industry of capitalism. Her many shifting roles (curator, dealer, designer,
publicist) and sinuous output (photographs, posters, invitations, matchbooks) accentuate
the marketing and selling of art, rather than its supposedly transcendental quality.
Chapter 3 concentrates on the aesthetic selection necessary to the presentation of art and
the display of objects. In her works, Lawler plays with the contingency of meaning
affected by the position of the artwork-within its context, in juxtaposition with other
2 Hal Foster, The Return of the Real (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1996).
non-art objects, and in relationship with other artworks. The values assigned to these
works through their presentation, return the viewer's attention to the economic interests
of the artworld.
The representation of the paradigmatic shift from production to consumption also
locates Lawler's work within questions arising out of feminism: the values associated
with the construction of woman as consumer against man as producer, and the intimate
weaving of the public, personal, and political. Lawler turns her lens on the construction
of the subject through representation and the pleasure afforded this viewer in the act of
looking. This investigation of vision does not create a non-visual art practice, but rather
demonstrates the ways that society's visual presentations allude to a certain power, as
evidenced in Lawler's attempt to unearth the hidden, "naturalized," and tacit patriarchal
foundations of art history. Lawler's work has often been examined solely within the
framework of institutional critique to the detriment of recognizing the space she opens up
for questions of visuality, desire and subjectivity. Chapter 4 of the thesis attempts to
foreground this still unexplored, and very significant, aspect of Lawler's artistic practice.
CRITIQUE OF THE INSTITUTION
The historian employs words, narrative, analysis. The photographer's solution is
in the viewfinder: where to place the edge of the picture, what to exclude, from
what point of view to show the relations among the included details. Both seek a
balance between "reproduction and construction, between passive surrender to
the facts and active reshaping of them into a coherent picture or story. Ordering
facts into meaning, data into history, moreover, is not an idle exercise but a
political act, a matter ofjudgment and choice about the emerging shape of the
present and future. It may be less obvious in the making of a photograph than in
the writing of a history, but it is equally true: the viewfinder is apolitical
instrument, a tool for making a past suitable for the future.
A Network of Positions
"An Arrangement of Pictures" consisted of three parts corresponding to the
physical space of the gallery. Upon entering the exhibition, the viewer encountered
works made not by Lawler, but by the other artists represented by Metro Pictures,
including Jack Goldstein, Robert Longo, Cindy Sherman, Laurie Simmons, and James
Welling. In the central area of the gallery, Lawler installed her own photographs of
artworks found in an array of places, including the collector's private home, the corporate
office, and the museum. The final group featured Lawler's photographs of her own
arrangements of other artists' artworks.
The first part of the exhibition was characteristic of Lawler's work in the marked
absence of an authorial figure (Figure 1). Expecting to see a one-woman show, the
viewer instead found recognizable works by other Metro Pictures artists and Lawler's
1 Alan Trachtenberg, Reading American Photographs: Images as History Matthew Brady to Walker Evans
(New York: Hill and Wang, 1989), xiv.
imprint located only on the wall label that read "Arranged by Louise Lawler." The wall
label called into question the position of "artist." As Andrea Fraser points out about this
exhibition in one of the more trenchant texts on Lawler: "viewers were confronted with
an ambiguity of occupation, a shift in position which illuminated the role of the often
unnamed 'arrangers' in the exhibition and exchange of art."2 With one motion, Lawler
both placed the role of the "artist" in crisis and foregrounded the "secondary" roles of
curators and dealers. As such, she hailed art production as a network of positions and
practitioners-as a large-scale production-rather than as the work of a single artist-creator.
This point of view would have been unimaginable without the precedent of the many
artistic practices of the 1960s that relied on external aid in the production of art-whether
that was the aid of a "factory" of assistants or of metalworkers in a factory-throwing into
question the traditional role of the artist as guarantor of authenticity. The production of
mechanical screen prints (Warhol) or serial metal boxes (Judd) distanced, more than ever
before in the modern era, the artist's subjectivity from his practice. Lawler, too, evacuates
authorial/authoritative claims from her work, articulating in turn what Hal Foster has
described as "the division of labor that produces the hierarchical functions and generic
forms of art."3 As "An Arrangement of Pictures" makes clear, she remains absent even in
the exposition of the work. By vacating the position of "artist," Lawler dialectically
highlights that notion's primary significance to the institution of art.
2 Andrea Fraser, "In and Out of Place," Art in America (June 1985), 125. I am highly indebted to Fraser's
intelligent essay for elucidating many powerful arguments of Lawler's work, which have influenced my
3 Hal Foster, Recodings: Art, Spectacle, Cultural Politics (New York: The New Press, 1999), 106.
For her exhibition "Home/Museum Arranged for Living and Viewing," held at the
Wadsworth Atheneum's Matrix Gallery in 1984, Lawler played a seven-minute
audiotape, Birdcalls. This humorous audiotape features a litany of names of male artists
recited by Lawler. Fraser interprets Birdcalls as an exploration of the way the proper
name tends to unify the subject it designates: "Signifying the essential yet imaginary
identity of a unified ego, the proper name establishes the subject as such, in language,
under the law."4 Additionally, the proper name of the artist serves as his signature,
uniting his works while erasing difference. This enables the viewer/collector to consume
sameness through authenticity. According to the artist, the origin of the Birdcalls project
began in the early 1970s when she was one of several women installing artworks for one
of the Hudson River pier projects. All of the artists featured in these shows were male.
While walking home in the evenings from work on this project, she and another female
friend would speak gibberish to each other in loud voices to ward away danger. The
gibberish eventually became the proper names of a litany of contemporary artists. The
process was initiated by the name "Willoughby, Willoughby" Sharp, the "impresario" of
the specific Hudson River pier project on which Lawler and her friend worked.5 Lawler
continued to add names to this piece until 1982, including those of the Neo-Expressionist
"masters" of the 1980s: Enzo Cucchi, Francesco Clemente and Julian Schnabel.
Lawler dodges name recognition as much as she does interviews, avoiding the
tendency of both practices to render the "speaking" subject, the authorial "I," transparent
and whole. On those rare occasions when she has granted interviews, she has
4 Fraser, 127.
5 Douglas Crimp, "Prominence Given, Authority Taken: An Interview with Louise Lawler by Douglas
Crimp," Louise Lawler: An Arrangement ofPictures (New York: Assouline, 2000), unpaginated.
consistently expressed her discomfort with the potential collapse of work and artist that
might ensue. As she put it in an interview with Martha Buskirk in 1994: "And this points
to one reason why I resist interviews: they foreground the artist-tell too much about
what wouldn't be known when confronting the work. In rereading and trying to rework
my responses, I find I am always backing up, wondering why I responded as I did, and
filling in."6 What this comment makes apparent is not only reluctance to "foreground" the
artist over the work, but also a resistance to the construction of a centered subject of
authority, to the author defined by Foucault as "a field of conceptual or theoretical
coherence."7 This marks a significant shift from the subject position of the conceptual
artist/scholar who occupied the role of both artist and critic. Key aspects of the written
texts of, for instance, Dan Graham, Robert Smithson, Mel Bochner, Martha Rosler and
Allan Sekula, were considered coterminous with the visual works produced by these
artists. The practice of the artist/scholar, through twists and turns, is traceable back to
what came to be called the Minimalist movement. I am thinking here in particular of
Donald Judd and Robert Morris's writings, which had a dual function of defining and
producing the terrain of Minimalism while also justifying their own practices within that
Mary Kelly, in her perspicacious essay, "Re-viewing Modernist Criticism,"
addresses the crisis of artistic authorship posed in the wake of Minimalism, in which the
object becomes "no more than a prop without the intervention of the actor/artist and his
6 Martha Buskirk, "Interviews with Sherrie Levine, Louise Lawler, and Fred Wilson" October 70 (Fall
7Michel Foucault, "What is an Author?" (1979), The Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow (New York:
Pantheon, 1984), 111.
script."8 Kelly specifically indicts the body of the artist in performance art of the late
1960s and early 1970s. Performance artists relied on visual documentation to remain in
circulation beyond the actual performances they enacted. Authenticity in art passes from
the markings on a canvas to the "real" body performing art. As Kelly put it: "In
performance work it is no longer a question of investing the object with an artistic
presence: the artist is present and creative subjectivity is given as the effect of an
essential self-possession, that is, of the artist's body and his inherent right of disposition
over it."9 In this way, the artist and her/his body became the autonomous artwork, and the
corporeal became the signature. This is not to imply that Lawler's practice carried over
into Performance art, or that she presented her body as a source of authenticity. On the
contrary, Lawler's "authority" has often been evacuated or displaced from her work. In
its place is a work that demands the viewer's active participation.10 Meaning is not
located in the place of the artist, but in the readings made by the viewer, and in the
recognition of the art object as contiguous to its context, within a system of fluctuating
meanings and value. By experimenting with various media and installation designs, and
8 Mary Kelly, "Re-viewing Modernist Criticism," inArt After Modernism: R, ri,,lik,,i Representation, ed.
Brian Wallis (New York: The New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1984), 87-103.
9 Ibid., 95.
101 borrow here from Griselda Pollock's feminist model of art history, which requires a new kind of
reading by the viewer and critic. (Although she references the medium of painting, her words can be
applied to all art forms.) "In the traditional model, the artwork is a transparent screen through which you
have only to look to see the artist as a psychologically coherent subject originating the meanings the work
so perfectly reflects. The critical feminist model relies on the metaphor of reading rather than mirror-
gazing. What we see on even the most figuratively illusionistic paintings are signs, for art is a semiotic
practice. The notion of reading in art renders the graphic marks and painted surfaces of art opaque, dense,
recalcitrant; they never directly offer up meaning but have to be deciphered, processed and argued over."
Pollock, DirttreCn in,. the Canon: Feminist Desire and the ;;, r,, i ofArt's Histories (London: Routledge,
always selecting an art form specific to the historical condition and contextual frame,
Lawler also avoids the trap of a signature style.
Lawler's work accentuates positions of power beyond the solitary artist-creator.
These would include the roles of curators, dealers, collectors and others who are active in
determining the value of art. In the instance of the exhibition "An Arrangement of
Pictures," the gallery was foregrounded as a locus for the centralization of meaning. This
was especially fitting since the artists represented by Metro Pictures at the time were
considered to be crucially concerned with critiquing "representation," a perception
thrown into high relief by the "Pictures" exhibition, curated by Douglas Crimp at Artists
Space in 1977. By highlighting the gallery's overdetermining role, Lawler's own public
identity disappears into the apparatus, into the presentation/exhibition mechanism. In
turn, the role of Metro Pictures, or any other like gallery, in promoting a particular
"brand" of artists, is demonstrated.11 The fact that this maneuver took place in the early
1980s is not without significance. The network of galleries that comprised the New York
scene exploded in the late 1970s, which prompted the need for a greater degree of
differentiation. Galleries began to take on distinct identities, produced by slick marketing
techniques and the overplay of "hype." Artists associated themselves with particular
galleries such as Metro Pictures, Mary Boone Gallery or Pace Wildenstein Gallery to
gain greater recognizability and marketability.
11 The history of Metro Pictures stems from the gallery Artists Space, a thriving site for the emergence of
new artists in New York, including the "Pictures" exhibition, as well as the site of Lawler's first New York
exhibition in 1978, discussed in chapter 3. Helene Winer and Janelle Reiring opened Metro Pictures in
1980. Both women came to the venture with rich experience in gallery administration; Winer had been
director of Artists Space for the previous five years and Reiring had worked with Leo Castelli for five
These changes mark a dramatic shift from the function of alternative spaces in New
York in the early seventies. For example, in December 1969 Holly Solomon opened 98
Greene Street as a communal space where artists could show their work and interact with
each other. 98 Greene Street, unlike Metro Pictures or the Mary Boone Gallery, did not
function as a commercial gallery, but as a performance space, where artists could enact
plays, screen films and videotapes, and install paintings, photographs, sculpture and text-
based works. Decentered spaces for art such as 98 Greene Street became much more
difficult to maintain with the transition from alternative sites to a codified gallery system.
What also became difficult to maintain in this process was a sense of artistic community,
as well as the belief that artists were producing work in dialogue with their peers.
Increasingly, the dialogue shifted to one in which gallery owners and collectors played a
central role.12 Lawler alluded to this shift with her suggestion that the works exhibited in
the "An Arrangement of Pictures" show could be sold for the combined price of each
individual work with an additional 10 percent fee for herself. The latter was to be
channeled directly to her. As such, Lawler underscored the economic interests and
dealings of gallery owners and collectors, and re-emphasized the multiple non-aesthetic
dimensions of art.
By exhibiting the work of other Metro Pictures artists as part of her own solo
exhibition, Lawler alluded to the overdetermining role of institutional forces on the
12 In the book The Art Dealers Janelle Reiring comments on the state of the New York art market just four
years after the opening of Metro Pictures and the rapid transformations affecting the scene. "Artists are in a
very strong position today vis- -vis dealers, which is a major change-and a healthy one-in the New
York art market. Before the arrival of so many new galleries, there were many good artists without dealer
representation. Now the galleries are competing for them. New artists are given shows just to see if they'll
catch on, so it's no longer possible to stand back and follow an artist's development before acting: the
luxury we had of watching our artists for several years before opening Metro Pictures is a thing of the
past." Laura De Coppet and Alan Jones, The Art Dealers (New York: Charles N. Potter, Inc./Publishers,
subject position of the individual artist. As the large, complex network that produces
value for art came to be accentuated and the gendered discourses of art came to be
problematized, the function of power in the art world was shown to consist of a multiple
network of positions rather than a one-to-one relationship. Michel Foucault described
this dynamic succinctly in The History of Sexuality (1976): "Power is not something that
is acquired, seized, or shared, something that one holds on to or allows to slip away;
power is exercised from innumerable points, in the interplay of nonegalitarian and mobile
relations."13 Where Foucault describes the interplay of power between human relations
within discourses and institutions, Lawler focuses on how power is enacted in the local
context of the artworld through the manipulation of objects-their collection, display,
attribution, commodification-and how these relationships produce meaning and value.
Lawler demonstrates the discourse of power most acutely in her photographs of
artworks in spaces such as museums, private homes, and corporate offices. Such works
formed the second section of "An Arrangement of Pictures." These photographs critique
the aesthetic object as defined through the rhetoric of modernism. The deconstruction of
the ostensibly autonomous artwork has preoccupied artists since the 1960s. Practitioners
of what variously came to be called "institutional critique" or critical postmodernism in
the 1970s and 1980s deconstructed the institutional frames and challenged the
conventional modes by which Western culture determines and grants value to art. Hence
the discrete object was revealed to be fully dependent on its presentational site for its
various meanings. Institutional critique is a practice that emerged with Minimalism,
although subsequent artistic movements shifted Minimalism's concern with physical sites
13 Michel Foucault, The History ofSexuality, Volume I: An Introduction (New York: Vintage Books, 1990),
to open an exploration of the role of context and discourse on the production of artworks.
As Miwon Kwon has argued, institutional critique, an extension of the phenomenological
model associated with Minimalism, revealed the museum/gallery space as "an
institutional disguise, a normative exhibition convention serving an ideological function.
. that actively disassociate[s] the space of art from the outer world, furthering the
institution's idealist imperative of rendering itself and its hierarchization of values
'objective,' 'disinterested,' and 'true'."14 Practitioners of institutional critique directly
clashed with the modernist paradigm of the art critic Clement Greenberg and his
followers that called for the pursuit of a fully autonomous, "pure" art. By contrast, artists
critical of the institutional framework of culture questioned the unspoken values and
practices that overdetermined high art. As such, thrown into crisis were not just the self-
referential properties of a specific medium or the phenomenological relationship vis-a-vis
the object and subject, but also the very basis of high culture in the late twentieth-century.
The high modernist notion of the object as self-contained and separate from culture, from
"the outer world," could no longer be taken for granted. Lawler's photographs attest to
the daily mingling of high art and everyday cultural objects.
"Art about Art"
In A Singular Modernity (2002), Fredric Jameson argues for the bifurcation of
modernism into high and late modes.15 This division is both philosophical and
chronological, the latter designated by the post Second World War period in Europe and
14 Miwon Kwon, "One Place after Another," October 80 (Spring 1997), 88. Kwon follows the trajectory of
site-specific art from the late 1960s and early 1970s to its current manifestation in a globalized world where
the artist is a nomadic curator, ethnographer and bureaucrat.
15 Fredric Jameson, A Singular Modernity, Essays on the Ontology of the Present (London: Verso Books,
America. Philosophically, Jameson posits "autoreferentiality or self-designation" as a
key element of modernism. High modernist art created forms that had no prior existence
or standard of measurement. Modernist artists named these forms, and, more
significantly, established their own criteria of use and value, often investing these forms
with mythic and specialized meanings, but still holding them in tension with mass
cultural forces. "The purely aesthetic," in turn, is thereby indissolublyy linked to the
requirement that it be ultimately impure."16 Thus, according to Jameson, the aesthetic
cannot be fully divided from its own referent; it cannot be fully autonomous. Aesthetic
autonomy is an essential characteristic of what Jameson refers to as the ideology of
modernism; yet once it has in fact become a characteristic, a systematic concept of
modernism, a new form of modernism emerges: late modernism. The concept of
"ideology" becomes the hinge on which high modernism turns into late modernism,
indicating "a belated product" not located within the modern movement itself." Jameson
posits this mode of modernism as a distinctly American product of the Cold War. He
tracks a shift in history when utopian desires were deflated and consumerism replaced
productivity. In response to these transformations, modernism becomes a programmatic
system of replication.
To describe this recalibrated modernism, Jameson addresses the works of authors
in the circle of New Criticism, as well as the critical writings of Greenberg. For
Greenberg, aesthetic autonomy was based on principles that were both anti-bourgeois and
apolitical. This point of view allowed him to construct a transhistorical narrative for the
16 Ibid., 160.
1 Ibid., 197.
arts in the legacy of German idealism. Furthermore, according to Greenberg the narrative
of abstraction dispensed with "content" as the terrain of politics and ideological
referentiality, and thus allowed the move toward an autonomy of medium/technique.
Greenberg thereby continued the high modernists' ability to revise the past to fit the
present by tracing a history of modernist art beginning with Manet that valued "flatness"
above all other elements. This shifted the definition of modernism into a pursuit of the
autonomy of the medium, and eliminated from the critical dimension of modernism any
social, let alone political dimensions. Jameson argues for a constellation within the arts,
including literature, centered on an autonomy of medium, with each acting as a model for
the other in their opposition to culture. Rather than Greenberg's kitsch, Jameson defines
culture as "the true enemy of art."18 Culture divides or mediates everyday life from art. It
is not a separation of the aesthetic from non-aesthetic; culture acts spatially with the
potential to transform life into art or art into life. For the modernists, life degraded art,
and though they recognized their own aesthetic production as cultural, they purified the
aesthetic of the cultural.
Jameson thus points to the adoption of key high modernist concepts by late
modernists, but shows how these concepts are now unified and collectively renewed with
a definitive self-consciousness that was previously absent. He also stresses the
significance of the emergence of a "full-blown ideology of modernism that differentiates
the practices of the late modern from modernism proper."19 In many ways, the distinction
between high and late modernism hinges on these practices. The high modernists knew
18 Ibid., 177.
19 Ibid., 197.
that what they were doing was new and allowed it to come from a space of innovative
exploration. The late modernists, by contrast, established a practice rooted in an ideology
already enacted earlier in the century. Late modernist practice cemented modernism into
a codified rhetoric that then fueled a reflexivity more concerned with "the status of the
artist as modernist," with an "art about art," than with an art "about representation
Many of the artists practicing institutional critique make "art about art." Following
the example of Pop Art, Lawler, along with various other artists in the eighties, took up
what Greenberg deemed to be detritus-namely content-and (re)asserted its value to the
story of art. In the process, the critical modernism of the historical avant-garde that
sought to fuse advanced art with everyday life in order to transform the latter in a
progressive direction was summoned. Andreas Huyssen in "The Search for Tradition:
Avantgarde and Postmodernism in the 1970s" (1981) called for a distinction between the
two formations, the avant-garde and modernism, which are often conflated in the
literature.21 Drawing on the writings of Peter Burger, Huyssen defines avant-garde as the
work produced by early twentieth-century artists in the spirit of revolution. The aim of
this work, according to Huyssen, was to integrate art and life, and in turn "to undermine,
attack, and transform the bourgeois 'institution art'."22 By contrast, modernism is defined
as that art praxis founded on an autonomy and purity of the art object separate from mass
culture. For Huyssen, the writings of Greenberg and the artworks of the Abstract
21 Andreas Huyssen, "The Search for Tradition: Avantgarde and Postmodernism in the 1970s," After the
Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press,
22 Ibid., 167.
Expressionist movement epitomize this notion of modernism. Huyssen believes that the
tradition of the avant-garde was revitalized by the Pop art movement, and by the artistic
movements that followed, but only as an endgame: "The American postmodernist
avant-garde, therefore, is not only the endgame of avantgardism. It also represents the
fragmentation and the decline of the avant-garde as a genuinely critical and adversary
culture."23 With the transformations brought on by the culture industry, the landscape of
art had been completely transformed, as the line that formerly separated high art from
mass culture was erased. Advanced, critical art thereby lost whatever potential it
formerly had to counter and ultimately transform society.
The term "subversive complicity" was coined in the late 1980s to address the
practice of"Simulationism" by artists such as Jeff Koons, Haim Steinbach, Philip Taaffe,
and Meyer Vaisman. Alison Pearlman and other writers have also applied this term to
the work of artists practicing not only Simulationism but also Appropriation. Pearlman
specifically cites the work of Barbara Kruger to illustrate subversion by seduction.
Kruger, she argues "seduc[es] the viewer on the basis of the ingrained appeal of an
appropriated image and then subvert[s] the viewer's expectations just when the viewer
was most attentive to the work."24 Pearlman goes on to distinguish this strategy, which
she sees as rooted in contemporary media strategies such as advertising, from an avant-
garde approach that utilizes "the revolutionary rhetoric of sudden overthrow, protest, and
refusal."25 Whereas postmodern artists sought to engage politically with the art world,
23 Ibid., 170.
24 Alison Pearlman, Unpackaging Art of the 1980s (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2003), 99.
locally, and with the "outer world" at large, the realm of culture is no longer distinct from
that of art or any other for that matter because capital has colonized all areas of existence.
The changing relationship of mass culture and high art is one of the defining
characteristics of the shift from modernism to postmodernism. Rather than presenting
alternative modes of experience, postmodern artists work critically within the confines of
Art as a Souvenir of Culture
Lawler's photographs of art objects within the spaces of collectors' homes and
offices negotiate this complicity and present contested juxtapositions such as the art
object and the everyday object, avant-garde and kitsch, high art and mass culture. Unlike
Pop art's insertion of everyday images into the frame of high art, Lawler photographs the
living and breathing juxtapositions and contradictions of high art and mass culture. As
such, she interrogates the position of art outside the common spaces of exhibition,
questioning the value associated with those spaces, while also presenting the power of
display.26 These quotidian spaces complement the symbolic value of the museum/gallery
complex in the determination of the value and meaning of art. Lawler's photographs
open up a number of multifaceted questions about the role of the collector/consumer
within the "institution" of art, the role of the objet d'art as economic currency, and the
role of space as transformative of an artwork's value. In these ways, Lawler's pictures
26 argue here for a re-assessment of the value of spaces that display art, i.e. the collector's home, outside
the museum complex. The museum as a site of power has been richly excavated in many texts, naming just
a few, which have been useful to my studies: Tony Bennett, The Birth of the Museum (London: Routledge),
Daniel Buren, 5 Texts (New York: The John Weber Gallery and London: The Jack Wendler Gallery, 1973),
Douglas Crimp, On the Museum's Ruins (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1993), Carol
Duncan, Civilizing Rituals: Inside Public Art Museums (London: Routledge, 1995), Hans Haacke, Hans
Haacke: Unfinished Business (New York: The New Museum of Contemporary Art and Cambridge,
Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1986), Brian O'Doherty, Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the
Gallery Space (Santa Monica, California: The Lapis Press, 1976).
straddle both the discipline of art and sociology, and are conducive to readings not unlike
those pursued by cultural studies. Evoking Jameson's definition of culture as the space
of mediation between art and everyday life, Lawler considers artworks as material and
symbolic tools employed by their owners in their full contradiction-as objects that at
once indicate status and distinction and locate their owners within a popular cultural
system. Thus art objects both separate the collector and enmesh her/him further in
The relationship of the collector to the artwork shifted in the 1980s. One of the
most important theorists of this transition was Jean Baudrillard who argued for the
primacy of sign value in contemporary art.28 In particular, Baudrillard tracked the way in
which practices of collecting increased the sign value of the collector/consumer.
Baudrillard traced the move in the postwar period away from traditional (Marxist)
notions of the commodity, with its links to use value, toward the circulation of objects
within a system of sign exchange value. His theories on the political economy of the sign
were developed in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and coincided with the increased
importance of the auction house within the field of contemporary art. While auction
houses had been operative for most of the twentieth-century, Baudrillard showed that
27 In addition to Jameson's notion of culture, I am also deploying the term "culture" as understood by
cultural studies, which does not have one singular definition, but includes culture as defined by Paul Willis:
"the very material of our daily lives, the bricks and mortar of our most commonplace understandings" or
culture "both as a way of life-encompassing ideas, attitudes, languages, practices, institutions, and
structures of power-and a whole range of cultural practices: artistic forms, texts, canons, architecture,
mass-produced commodities, and so forth." Cary Nelson, Paula A. Treichler, and Lawrence Grossberg,
"Introduction," Cultural Studies, 4-5.
28 Two of the more significant essays about art and signification for my purposes written by Jean
Baudrillard in the late sixties and early seventies include "Gesture and Signature: The Semiurgy of
Contemporary Art" and "The Art Auction: Sign Exchange and Sumptuary Value." These essays were later
collected into a book, For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign (St. Louis, Missouri: Telos Press
Ltd., 1981), 102-11 and 112-122.
never before had these institutions played such an important role in establishing the price
of contemporary art. Dealers began to use the auction house to make the prices of
contemporary art public and thus to stabilize them, establishing relatively firm sets of
value that could be applied as a barometer for exchange. Together with the publicity
machine, Baudrillard argued, the auction house could also be used to endow the collector
with a public sign value. Reluctant to invest cash because of the recession and the
declining value of the US dollar in the global market, collectors in the seventies
increasingly bought art works as currency, functioning as sumptuary expenditures that
could be traded and sold for increasing amounts of money.29 In 1980, John Russell of The
New York Times reported on "the breakdown of confidence in every alternative mode of
investment, whereby the work of art functions primarily as an ostentatious form of
travelers check ... In times of crisis great art is an immediately recognizable and rapidly
negotiable form of wealth."30 The practice of purchasing art as speculation, as an
investment, and not purely for personal pleasure (or even noble obligation noted by
Foster), becomes supreme. Art thus becomes a souvenir of the experience of culture.31
29 Irving Sandler, Art of the Postmodern Era: From the Late 1960s to the Early 1990s (New York: Icon
Editions, 1996), 426. "The art-market buildup in America had begun after the recession of 1974-75.
Exacerbated by an oil crisis and the tremendous inflation it triggered, the slump gave rise to a new kind of
thinking about investment in art. Many Americans panicked as they saw their cash reserves dwindle. This
caused them to acquire solid assets, such as real estate, precious gems-and art. People began to think of
works of art not just as luxury items but as tangible properties."
30 John Russell, "What Price Art? Today's Auction Boom Mixes Smart Money and Pounding Hearts," The
New York Times (May 31, 1980), 14. Russell goes on to write: "The auction boom also has to do with the
instability of all other forms of investment. There are still plenty of people in the world who have more
money than they know what to do with. They don't want to own stock. They got burned in silver. Their
general situation is such that they have to leave town in a hurry. So what are they to do? They buy art. Art
gets their names in the papers as persons of substance. Art looks nice on the wall. You can take art almost
anywhere, and great art has never yet not gone up in price."
31 Hal Foster, writing in 1985, comments in the "Introduction" to his book, Recodings, on the role of art to
collectors. "In effect, the bourgeoisie abandoned its own avant-garde artists and cultural experts (whose
competence is now often dismissed if it does not fit the political agenda). Though federal governments
may offer token support, art (at least in the United States) is today the plaything of (corporate) patrons
Lawler's photographs illustrate the emergence of a culture "rooted in the belief that
possession is the key to authenticity."32 For instance, the photograph, Arranged by
Donald Marron, Susan Brundage, Cheryl Bishop at Paine Webber, Inc., 1982 (Figure 2),
exhibited in the "An Arrangement of Pictures" show, depicts two men working in the
office of Paine Webber. Behind them, three works by Roy Lichtenstein hang on the wall.
The photograph functions on two levels. First, it presents documentary information of
the increasingly widespread phenomenon whereby investment companies and banks
established programs promoting the value of art as economic currency.33 Lawler's
photograph alludes to the fact that Paine Webber was a financial advisory company, and
accentuates the easy blending of art and money accomplished by the company.
On a second level, however, Lawler summons the characteristic humor of
Lichtenstein's works by framing the photograph to encompass the paintings in their
entirety. The top painting represents a woman who sings: "The melody haunts my
reverie...." The painting below it features a chiseled-faced man being punched. The
whose relation to culture is less one of noble obligation than of overt manipulation-of art as a sign of
power, prestige, publicity." Recodings, 4. Though it may be worthwhile to ask when, if ever, art functioned
purely as pleasure. Rosalind Krauss makes the connection between the Benjaminian collector and the new
tastemakers when she writes, "But even as the true collector performs this ritual of liberating the objects in
his collection, the consumer debases that gesture by giving it its commodity form, since the consumer's
collecting consists in nothing more than 'packaged' memories in the form of souvenirs." Rosalind Krauss,
"Louise Lawler: Souvenir Memories," Louise Lawler -A Spot on the Wall, exhibition catalogue, (Kdln,
Germany: Oktagon, 1998), 38.
32 Nicolaus Mills, "The Culture of Triumph and the Spirit of the Times," Culture in an Age of Money: The
Legacy of the 1980s in America, ed. N. Mills (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1990), 26.
33 Marylin Bender wrote that in 1985 Citibank hired three art historians to be part of the Art Advisory
Service, a group that counseled the bank's clients "on the maintenance and acquisition of collections,
including representing them at auction sales" in her article, "Sotheby's and a Few Big Banks Are Lending
Money on Art as Never Before. But There's a Risk in Using Calder as Collateral." The New York Times
(February 3, 1985), 1, 26. Already by 1979, Sotheby's and Citibank had entered into an agreement in
which Sotheby's advised the bank on its purchases of art and antiques. In a conflict of interest Sotheby's
acted "both as the seller and as the advisor to potential buyers of the goods the auction house or its
competitorsdealers and other auctioneers-sell." Rita Reif, "Sotheby's To Advise Citibank," The New
York Times (September 20, 1979), C22.
word "POW!" designates the impact while the cartoon bubble reads, "Sweet dreams,
baby!" The sharp humor and kitschy-cartoon style of the paintings looms large within
the frame of Lawler' s photograph, but at the same time the two men ignore the paintings
in favor of their business dealings. As a result, Lichtenstein's paintings-their meanings
and histories-literally function as backdrops to this otherwise unexceptional office scene.
The photograph thereby raises the question of value-the value of the works to those who
purchase them. Are the artworks in question solely objects of consumption, functioning
as commodity sign forms? What new value do they accrue to the consumer that is
distinct from their own history? Baudrillard writes that a "sign object is neither given nor
exchanged," it is manipulated by the subject causing difference.34 The art object-bought
and sold by the artist, collector, dealer, auction house-enters a system of contingent and
variable value whereby it is codified as a sign. Within this context, the art object only
acquires value from the other signs within the system.35 In the case of the Lichtenstein
paintings, for instance, the value is located primarily in their signature style; it is the
name of the artist and what that artist signifies that endows these paintings with value.
Another example from "An Arrangement of Pictures" is a photograph of a
collector's domestic space, Arranged by Mera and DonaldRubell, 1982 (Figure 3).
Captured within the frame are various artworks, including a painting by Robert Longo
and a sculpture by Deborah Butterfield, along with common living room furniture: a
couch, coffee table, chairs, and light fixtures. The angle of the photograph emphasizes
34 Baudrillard, "The Ideological Genesis of Needs," For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, 65.
"The sign object is neither given nor exchanged: it is appropriated, withheld and manipulated by individual
subjects as a sign, that is, as coded difference."
35 Baudrillard shows how this is similar to the function of myths according to Levi-Strauss. Ibid., 66.
the cluttered space of the room. The shallow perspectival depth throws all of the objects
in the room into close proximity. Taken in itself, this detail marks a significant break
from the distance allotted artworks within a museum/gallery site. The couch acts as the
organizing element of the room, once again rendering the artworks as backdrops to the
living space of the collector. Lawler makes the unusual but obviously deliberate choice
of selecting the photograph that features a dog, presumably the Rubell's pet, walking
through the image. The movement of the animal renders him out of focus. The position
of the blurred dog echoes the Butterfield horse directly behind it. The dog throws the
sculpted horse into crisis, blurring its sign function and accentuating its opacity. The
horse stands in fluctuating relation to the various signs of the room-the paintings behind
it that unite it under the category "art," the couch in front of it that transforms it into
interior decor, and the dog that points to an external referent in the game of
Traversing all of these photographs, then, is the recurring question of the
relationship between art and life, or art and lived experience. This question is
foregrounded by the removal of the artwork from the isolated white cube, contemplating
it now within the context of everyday, non-art objects (and living animals!) in a
collector's working and living space. The photographs thus summon the discourse of the
historical avant-garde outlined above by Huyssen, and question what happens to that
discourse in this context. In addition, the photographs connect mass culture to the
domains of the domestic and the decorative, two categories traditionally severed from
critical modernist discourse, but revitalized by feminist debates of the 1970s and 80s.
Lawler's photographs of arrangements within the domestic order call into question
what happens to an artwork when it is domesticated. What happens to its meaning and
value? Just as the Lichtenstein paintings were turned into corporate backdrops, Lawler's
Pollock and Tureen, Arranged by Mr. and Mrs. Burton Tremaine, Connecticut, 1984
(Figure 4), blurs a work by Pollock and a ceramic soup tureen, playing the drips and
swirls of Pollock's paintings against the decorative form of the tureen. Helen
Molesworth poses this challenging question of the photograph: "Do Pollocks and
Warhols really lose their intellectual, critical, and radical credentials when they are seen
to be decorative-or worse yet, when they are seen to be like things such as objets
d'art?"36 Or, positioned another way, is the domestic sphere traditionally aligned with the
feminine, the threatened Other to the modernist, masculine space of production? Is
Lawler recording the contemporary shift from a society of production to one of
consumption by marking the domestic within her photographs?37
With Pollock and Tureen, then, the domestic and decorative are presented as
concepts already existing within art history but debased as the "other modern(ism),"
much like the figure of the sexed woman within modernist literature and art. Yet Lawler
36 Helen Molesworth, "Louise Lawler at Skarstedt Fine Arts, NY," Documents 15 (Spring/Summer 1999),
37 One could also include the department store as an Other to the modernist space of production
fictionalized in Emile Zola's novel, Au bonheur des dames. James Meyer cites Greenberg's dislike of the
exhibition "Good Design" held as a collaborative effort between the Museum of Moder Art and the
Chicago Merchandise Mart annually from 1949 until 1955. The exhibition-cum-department store
encouraged the public to purchase the latest in modern design. This "blurring of art and interior d6cor"
transformed MoMA into a Christmastime shopping mall, and granted commodity objects the "aesthetic
version of a Good Housekeeping seal," as noted by Mary Anne Staniszewski in her book The Power of
Display: A History ofExhibition Installations at the Museum of Modern Art (Cambridge, Massachusetts:
The MIT Press, 2001), 176. James Meyer, Minimalism (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press),
is also re-presenting the domestic, the collector, as a site of power within the institution
of art redefining both the value and meaning of art, and therefore complicating the
(un)easy binary of private/public. This further destabilizes the siteless modernist object,
as well as the position of the artist as autonomous genius. By photographing these
spaces, Lawler returns the privatized works back into public discourse, calling attention
to the powerful role of the individual collector as another node within the "nonegalitarian
and mobile relations" of power. Lawler's practice must be placed within the historical
trajectory of the feminist movement that spread across the U.S. in the sixties and
seventies chanting the slogan "the personal is political," a call to interrogate the two
domains of public and private believed unfairly polarized and unequally privileged. Her
photographs question whether or in what ways the personal is always political. How
does the private space of the collector affect the work of art? To repeat Molesworth's
question, does an artwork lose its credentials when it shifts into the private sphere?
The affected object returns to the public sphere now within the photographic frame
with a new set of questions or challenges. Pushing Molesworth's question further, one
might ask whether or not art, created within "postmodernism," confronted by its own
inevitable commodification, might adequately be examined and valued by the same, even
radical, criteria that championed the strategies of the now-defunct avant-garde? Hal
Foster in "Subversive Signs"(1982) recognized a new model of political art demonstrated
by Lawler, Allan McCollum, Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holzer and others, which "extends
beyond conditions of production and exhibition."38 But he also places these artists in
opposition to other artists practicing institutional critique who firmly sought the abolition
38 Foster, "Subversive Signs," Recodings, 103.
of the status quo in art.39 Yet Foster's language betrays his position as a critical modernist
who continues to promote art as having a subversive potential, able to exist outside the
system. As such, he criticizes Lawler for operating within the system, and posits Lawler
(and McCollum) as an "ironic collaborator" of art's "market apparatus."40
Rosalind Krauss, on the other hand, characterizes Lawler's "style" as "tender
neutrality" and Lawler's approach to her subjects as non-judgmental, meditative, and
dispassionate.41 Situating Lawler's strategy within a context fully pervaded by the
spectacle, a context in which the postmodern artist has accepted the commodification of
all aspects of life, Krauss comments on the absence of outrage, a response utterly
distinctive of the avant-garde. The word neutral also finds its way into a short essay on
Lawler by Johannes Meinhardt: "Her photographs are neutral: they neither denounce nor
criticize, nor do they take a stand with regard to the situation."42 Documentary is
deployed to describe a practice believed to be absent of commentary or deliberate use of
the camera. This word choice by both authors is interesting, and somewhat hollow,
because in many ways it recalls the rhetoric of modernism, what Kwon distinguished as
"objective, disinterested, and true."43 But what it reveals is a value system no longer
39 Foster includes the following quote from Daniel Buren in the footnotes to the essay, Recodings, 221: "the
ambition, not of fitting in more or less adequately with the game, nor even of contradicting it, but of
abolishing its rules by playing with them, and playing another game, on another or the same ground, as a
dissident." Buren, Reboundings, trans. Philippe Hunt (Bruusels: Daled & Gevaert, 1977), 73.
40 Ibid., 106. "Like a dye in the bloodstream, the work of these artists does delineate the circulation system
of art, but it also operates within its terms. If artists like Buren and Asher may become guardians of the
demystified myths of the art museum, then artists like Lawler and McCollum may indeed serve as 'ironic
collaborators' of its market apparatus."
41 Krauss, 35.
42 Johannes Meinhardt, "The Sites of Art: Photographing the In-Between," Louise Lawler: An Arrangement
43 Kwon, "One Place after Another," 88.
concretized but now completely contingent, and the absence of a way to discuss works
produced within the spectacle-both complicit and critical. Lawler's practice challenges
any traditional notions and values of inside/outside, public/private, and political/critical.
In "Living with Contradictions: Critical Practices in the Age of Supply-Side
Aesthetics," Abigail Solomon-Godeau investigates the binary of political and critical in
Lawler's works.44 Written in the late 1980s her essay points to the appropriation of
postmodernism by the media and its employment as a stylistic tool. Solomon-Godeau's
text echoes many of the propositions made by Lawler in her own work. Though Lawler
does not write in defense of her work, nor grant interviews as a tool to further elaborate
its meaning, the work itself questions and critiques the institution of art, and works
toward a redefinition of the institution. Lawler's practice maps the ambivalent, not
ambiguous, position of the postmodern artist-a position that I would argue is shared by
Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer-to the culture at large and to the possible space of
contestation that an artist can occupy i/hin culture.45 Solomon-Godeau calls for new
ways to evaluate critical art practices in a system without an oppositional outside, a
system in which "the market is 'behind' nothing, it is in everything."46 The critic and the
artist must explore contradictions and contingencies to produce a space of contestation
44 Abigail Solomon-Godeau, "Living with Contradictions: Critical Practices in the Age of Supply-Side
Aesthetics," Photography at the Dock: Essays on Photographic History, Institutions and Practices
(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991), 124-148. The essay was written in 1987.
45 I make a distinction here between "ambivalent" as "simultaneous and contradictory attitudes or feelings
(as attraction and repulsion) toward an object, person, or action" versus "ambiguous" as "doubtful or
uncertain especially from obscurity or indistinctness."
46 Victor Burgin, "The End of Art Theory," The End ofArt Theory: Criticism and Postmodernity (London:
Macmillan, 1986), 174; as cited in Solomon-Godeau, 145. "In contemporary capitalism, in the society of
the simulacrum, the market is 'behind' nothing, it is in everything. It is thus that in a society where the
commodification of art has progressed apace with the aestheticisation of the commodity, there has evolved
a universal rhetoric of the aesthetic in which commerce and inspiration, profit and poetry, may rapturously
within the institution, while realizing one's complicity with that same system. In this
way the word "collaboration" appends a supplementary definition, one that refuses to
limit itself only to intentional, voluntary practices. Lawler's comment on art operates
within this multivalent matrix.
Art is part and parcel of a cumulative and collective enterprise viewed as seen fit by
the prevailing culture. A work of art is produced by many different things. It isn't
just the result of an unencumbered creative act. It's always the case that what is
allowed to be seen and understood is part of what produces the work. And art is
always a collaboration with what came before you and what comes after you.47
Lawler has collaborated with various artists throughout her career, including,
Barbara Kruger, Sherrie Levine, Sol LeWitt and Allan McCollum. Furthermore, her
photographs of arrangements can also be seen as collaborations with an art history
preceding her and concurrent with her. The next chapter analyzes these collaborations
and the ways they unfold into a discourse of power through the acts of selection and
47 Crimp, "Prominence Given, Authority Taken: An interview with Louise Lawler by Douglas Crimp,"
SELECTION, PRESENTATION AND DISPLAY
"An Open Economy of Signs"
Lawler's photographs are not snapshots; they are carefully composed. They signify
through the process of captured juxtapositions, croppings and displacements. The forms
of the photographs echo the enframed content. The viewer thus encounters dense,
multivalent works. The subject matter of the photographs often point to hierarchical
divisions within the institution of art. Lawler re-presents these divisions through the
formal techniques of decentering and repositioning. For example, a photograph in the
second section of "An Arrangement of Pictures," Arranged by Claire Vincent at the
Metropolitan Museum ofArt, New York City, 1982 (Figure 5), displaces the sculptural
object, a marble representation of the Imperial Prince and his dog by the artist Jean-
Baptiste Carpeaux, to the margins of the frame. The accompanying didactics, including
the descriptive label and interpretive text, fill the center of the picture. The composition,
as much as the visual subject, refers to the hierarchical importance of the artist's name to
the institution of art granted primary position on a wall label. The usually overlooked
supplementary material of the museum apparatus now replaces the art object in
significance. By presenting the written text more prominently than the art object proper,
Lawler calls attention to the use within museum practice of the text as a frame mediating
the viewer's knowledge of the object. Such "mechanisms of legitimacy" thread the
viewer through the apparatus of the exhibition, justifying the object, albeit on a
This exercise repeats throughout Lawler's photographic practice. Her photographs
re-position the spectator's view of artworks, carefully directing attention to the objects,
traditions, and hierarchies that need to be asserted, challenged and sometimes inverted.
Lawler's images are not mimetic reflections of particular settings, but rather conscious
productions of new relationships that have hitherto been overlooked. And although
Lawler does not manipulate the found situations or scenes she photographs, her choices
are located in the meticulous process of selection that drives her practice.
This point is executed effectively in the last group of photographs exhibited in "An
Arrangement of Pictures," which featured Lawler's arrangements of artworks. The
photographs document multiple arrangements of works by different artists, including
Jenny Holzer, Sherrie Levine, Roy Lichtenstein, Allan McCollum, Peter Nadin and Andy
Warhol (Figures 6-10). With this installation Lawler positions herself as designer,
arranger, and photographer. These photographs point to the act of selection necessary to
exhibit, collect and even produce art. The works foreground the viewer/collector's
inexplicable gravitational pull towards an object as determined by aesthetic choices. Set
against different colored backgrounds and thrown into a series of relationships with other
artworks, the supposedly autonomous object loses any inherent essence given it by
modernist rhetoric. In turn, the power of aesthetic selection is spotlighted as a
determining influence on meaning. The production of meaning is literalized not only
through the relationships of the works to each other, but also through the actual design of
1 Therese Lichtenstein, "Louise Lawler," Arts Magazine (February 1983), 5.
their presentation. The alternating colored backgrounds, along with the secondary order
of matting and size, affect the visual reading of the images. This is most readily seen in
the contrast between two arrangements of copies of Eliot Porter photographs by Levine in
(Roy Lichtenstein and Other Artists) Black (Figure 8) and (Jenny Holzer and Other
Artists) Kelly Green (Figure 9). The mat sizes of these works are noticeably enlarged
from Black to Kelly Green. The colored backgrounds indirectly reference the infamous
"white cube" of modern art while also implicating the supplementary design elements of
an exhibition. Lawler also links this arrangement to the display of objects meant for sale,
or what is known as "product shots." Like a window in a retail shop, each photo-
arrangement becomes a stage on which to rehearse the display of objects.
Lawler consistently demonstrates a concern for the contiguous relationship,
exploring the variable results of juxtapositions like a curator. The words, "contiguous"
and "contingent," summon many of the issues at the heart of Lawler's practice. They
imply that the production of the artwork is dependent on the movement of the object
through various sites. All the locations and relationships outside the studio affect the
discrete object. Lawler's practice is fundamentally mobile, articulating the reciprocal
power of the object and its context. John C. Welchman, addressing the issue of the
"frame" in modern art history, declares the practice of "institutional critique" to be so
thoroughly contextual that it becomes "a kind of social formalism."2 Although a model
of contextualism is axiomatic to Lawler's practice, it is a model of contextualism with
dissolvable walls, borders, and margins. Rather than naming a particular site that
centralizes meaning, signification circulates through multiple sites. As a result, the art
2 John C. Welchman, "In and around the 'Second Frame'," The Rhetoric of the Frame: Essays on the
Boundaries of the Artwork, ed. Paul Duro (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 220-221.
object both undergoes and exercises power in its mobility.3 Kate Linker describes this
model of context as "boundless: its margins are always eroded by the artwork's
displacement and reinscription in other contexts, by a rhythm of decontextualization and
recontextualization that forms the proper historicityy' of the work." She calls this "an
open economy of signs."4 Lawler plays the abstract nature of the sign against its concrete
forms, unfolding the contingencies of value as a set of dynamic, mobile
In addition, the works from Lawler's arrangements depend on each other for
meaning within a historical genealogy. At a time when the practice of history was
quickly being buried, Lawler recognized the role played by the history of art in the
formulation of contemporary art. Rather than irony, the works function through
collaboration as a recognition of the artist's relationship to her own history ("And art is
always a collaboration with what came before you and what comes after you"), instead of
a juxtaposition by violence.5 The inclusion of Warhol and Lichtenstein in Lawler's
3 This idea is indebted to Michel Foucault. Po\ c i is employed and exercised through a net-like
organization. And not only do individuals circulate between its threads; they are always in the positions of
simultaneously undergoing and exercising this power." Foucault, "Two Lectures, Power/Knowledge:
Selected Interviews and Other Ti i,,i 1972-1977 (New York: Random House, 1980), 98.
4 Kate Linker, "Rites of Exchange," Artforum (November 1986), 99.
5 I reference several strains of art production in the 1980s and their relation to models of history. One strain
is represented by David Salle's work. David Salle, in conversation with Robert Rosenblum, responds to
Rosenblum's assertion that his practice of appropriating imagery is one of "collision," "unnerving contrast"
by stating: "He [the poet Paul Muldoon] was actually citing Dr. Johnson, who described metaphysical
poetry as heterogeneous subjects yoked together through violence. That's my church; sign me up." "David
Salle talks to Robert Rosenblum," Artforum (March 2003), 75. Hal Foster's essays from the 1980s (and
collected later in the book Recodings) are probably the most incisive and critical account of this model of
history. Foster writes in "Against Pluralism," 17: "Our new art tends to assume historical forms-out of
context and reified. Parodic or straight, these quotations plead for the importance, even the traditional
status, of the new art. In certain quarters this is seen as a 'return to history'; but it is in fact a profoundly
ahistorical enterprise, and the result is often 'aesthetic pleasure as false consciousness, or vice versa'.... To
see other periods as mirrors of our own is to turn history into narcissism; to see other styles as open to our
own is to turn history into a dream. But such is the dream of the pluralist: he seems to sleepwalk in the
arrangements contrasts the use of historical styles sampled by her contemporaries David
Salle and Julian Schnabel and their stylistic pastiche. Lawler traces the roots of current
art practices of appropriation and text-based art to Pop art. Disavowing the myth of
originality, Lawler grounds the use of appropriated imagery culled from mass culture as
directly indebted to the history of Pop art. In contrast to an anxiety of influence, Lawler's
art continually re-inscribes itself within its own history, neither destroying its
predecessors nor using history artificially as a stylistic tool.
With these arrangements Lawler employs the dialectic of decoration within
modernist discourse already mapped out in her photographs of arrangements of other
people's collections. Her interest in the juxtaposition of art and decoration seeks to
unearth and explore the hidden, repressed history of the decorative within modernism,
which in many ways functions as the Other to modernism. Mary Anne Staniszewski
narrates the evolution of exhibition design at the Museum of Modem Art in her book, The
Power of Display. Relevant for my interests is her research on Alfred H. Barr, the
leading curator and developer of modern art in the United States. Staniszewski details
Barr's shift away from an exhibition design that treated paintings as room decor. This
was especially crucial in MoMA's first building from 1929 to 1932, a townhouse on Fifth
Avenue. As Staniszewski shows, the exhibition of art had to distinguish itself from
interior decoration, perhaps because of its architectural determination as a once
domesticated space: "In Barr's 'modem' installations, works of art were treated not as
decorative elements within an overpowering architecture but as elements within an
exhibition whose aesthetic dimension took precedence over architectural and site-specific
associations."6 Exhibition design was transformed from the traditional "skied"
installation of the nineteenth-century salon, or the dense, tiered arrangement of artworks,
into an ordered system that accentuated the discrete artwork. This was accomplished by
allotting the work plenty of space on the wall and hanging it at eye level. As a result, the
viewer's sense of control and autonomy within that apparatus was also re-affirmed.
Staniszewski usefully emphasizes the power of installation design in the production of
art's meaning, and like Lawler, points to the whole installation in which the artwork is
only one element. Both foreground the position of installation as productive of the
work's signification for the viewer. A work of art in a museum or gallery setting is rarely
seen on its own. Instead the work is placed within an ideologically constructed design,
which in turn constructs a viewer through its seamless display.
On Display: The Spectacle of Art
The subject of Louise Lawler's collaboration with Allan McCollum, "For
Presentation and Display: Ideal Settings," at the Diane Brown Gallery in New York City
in 1984 were the elements of exhibition design (Figure 11). The installation showcased a
hundred black hydrocal objects used as both pedestals for artworks and for the display of
commercial articles such as jewelry. The pedestals were arranged in set patterns and
bathed in a glowing blue light. A floating image of "$200.00" doubled as both the price
of the work and the artwork itself. The image of the price activated the gallery as a site
of commercial exchange. The gallery was foregrounded as "a miniature market place of
6 Staniszewski, 66. See note 39.
specialized goods," which traded aesthetics and culture for capital. The lighting display
accentuated further the spectacle of art within capitalism and the use of aura to sell art.
The blue light and the monumentality of the empty bases create a solemn aura vital to the
success of the work. Kate Linker in her incisive review of the exhibition points to the
concept of ideal settings. These settings, which include the gallery and the museum, are
invested in perpetuating the aura of an art object in order to sustain the validity and
economic value of that object. "These 'ideal settings'-putatively the optimum arenas
for the presentation of art-are also the loci of idealism; the primacy accorded to the base
(as to the frame) phrases the terms of art's transcendence, of its detachment from the
The function of the base, like the frame of a painting, is to demarcate the artwork
from its surroundings, both immediate (the ground) and larger (the "external world").
The base severs the artwork from its place-a point articulated by Rosalind Krauss in her
seminal essay, "Sculpture in the Expanded Field."9 The fetishization of the base allows
the work its mobility, its sitelessness, but also its entombment in the museum. Lawler
and McCollum highlight these functions of the base and its fetishization in modern art
practice, further accentuated by the hovering price tag.
By using the supplements of exhibition design, lighting and pedestals, as the central
elements of their installation, Lawler and McCollum emphasize the power of
7 Therese Lichtenstein, "Louise Lawler/Alan McCollum," Arts Magazine (December 1984), 34.
8 Kate Linker, "Allan McCollum/Louise Lawler," Artforum (January 1985), 87.
9 Rosalind Krauss, "Sculpture in the Expanded Field," The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture,
ed. Hal Foster (Seattle, Washington: Bay Press, 1983), 35.
"presentation and display" to the circulation and distribution of art. Through the
theatrical staging the otherwise ordinary hydrocal bases were consumed as "art." Rather
than just transforming the everyday object into fine art, as in the Duchampian model, the
artists tellingly point to the act of display within a nexus of aesthetic and commercial
exchange, in this case the gallery: "It is through display that material products become
objects of contemplation and enter the cycle of consumption."10 The exhibition de-
naturalizes the idealist hermetic space of the museum/gallery by actively displaying the
price of the work and the presentational tools employed to sell objects. The economic
aspect of display is quite literally put on display.
The press release for the exhibition written by Lawler and McCollum
acknowledges their attempt "to engage and include the spectator within the space of what
is virtually a three-dimensional advertisement."11 Beauty acts as a seductive tool for the
commodification of artworks and sets them into a parallel discourse of advertisement and
publicity. Throughout her work Lawler recognizes the value of beauty to the display of
art and uses it in another way discussed at the end of the chapter. Beauty returns to art
after the dematerialization of the conceptual object as an instrument of seduction and
subversion. The viewer is compelled by the design or aesthetics of the work, only to find
herself/himself faced not with transcendence but the commodification of culture.
Appropriating the strategy of advertisement, Lawler and McCollum, in effect, put the
spectacle of culture up for display.
10 Linker, "Allan McCollum/Louise Lawler," 87.
1 Dan Cameron, "Four Installations: Francesc Torres, Mierle Ukeles, Louise Lawler/Allan McCollum and
Todt," Arts Magazine (December 1984), 70.
Lawler's collaboration with McCollum is an example of her installation practice
sans photography, but she also gives prominence to this practice within her exhibition of
photographs. Lawler's attention to the order of things reverberates beyond the frame of a
single print. Meaning is also constructed through the actual installation of her
photographs, such as in the "An Arrangement of Pictures" exhibition. Therese
Lichtenstein, in her review of the exhibition, recognized the parallel movement between
the viewer moving through the space of the gallery and the displayed hierarchies, "from a
'first order' arrangement of actual works"-the installation of Metro Pictures artists-"to
the 'second order' photographic arrangements." She continues: "The multiple levels of
representation that Lawler explores through her arrangements and photographs of
arrangements are examined as formally analogous structures."12 Lichtenstein points out
the specific installation of three works in the second section of the exhibition representing
arrangements of art in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art
that are located near the margin of the wall. One of the photographs is the image of the
Carpeaux object from the Metropolitan Museum of Art discussed above. Displaced to
the edges of the photographic frame, the sculptural group is further marginalized by its
position on the wall of the gallery. Yet, this reiteration centers Lawler's project of
selection and installation. The hierarchical orders are re-arranged, and the supplementary
support of installation design is foregrounded.
12 Lichtenstein, "Louise Lawler," 5.
Lawler's work forms a metaorder where the work exists between photography and
installation. The doubling of frames-objects and their boundless contexts-serves as a
mise en abime: the art object is continually re-inscribed within its system, and with each
context seems to almost fade. The exhibition system engages in the construction of
mobile meanings and values determined by multiple forces of intervention. Linker
succinctly describes Lawler's rhetorical use of mise en abime, or "the process of
historical reinterpretation and contextual dissolve," as both "abyssal and telescopic."13
Abyssal locates no single origin for the meaning of the artwork, instead the artwork
continually opens, unfolds backwards, sideways in history. Telescopic, on the other
hand, characterizes the act of magnification performed by Lawler's works, demonstrated
in the focus on secondary materials and hierarchical divisions, which otherwise appear
The mobility of the object is echoed by the fluidity of Lawler's artistic practice.
She refuses to be anchored to any one single medium. Even in the exhibition of her
photographs, she occupies a nebulous inter-space of photography and installation art.
The collaborations with other artists seek to avoid the glorification of the traditional
artist-creator as singular. Additionally, her artistic practice also includes the production
of matchbooks equipped with clever witticisms to disrupt the supposedly transcendental
experience of art. For example, matchbooks were produced for a group show in 1983 at
Baskerville + Watson Gallery in New York City. The matchbooks publicized the title of
the exhibition, "Borrowed Time," along with a line taken from Jean-Luc Godard's
13 Linker, "Rites of Exchange," 99.
Contempt: "Every time I hear the word culture I take out my checkbook."14 The
matchbooks act as vehicles for the circulation of art and for an exploration of the
contingent values accrued through that movement. Other materials employed by Lawler
include gift certificates, stationery and invitations, all categorized as supplementary but
necessary to the survival of the institution of art.
The invitation as an art form constitutes a significant part of Lawler's collaboration
with the artist Sherrie Levine. The works of the two artists came together under the title
A Picture Is No Substitute for Anything (1981-82), taken from a conversation between
Carl Andre and Hollis Frampton in the early 1960s.15 Lawler and Levine's project is
significant not only for the various works produced but also for its collaborative aspect
and for its location outside of the framework of any gallery system. Three of their works
took the form of invitations. Lawler and Levine created and distributed invitations for
each other's exhibitions, single-night exhibitions in mostly non-art locations. This act
trumped even the system of alternative art spaces burgeoning in New York since the
seventies. This moment also marks the transition for both artists into the official gallery
system; they were both invited to join the roster at Metro Pictures Gallery in 1982.
Levine compared their freedom during this period to "Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney
putting on a show in the backyard." She continues, "We made all the decisions-what to
show, where, when, what the announcement should look like, who the invitees would be.
14 Of course, this line was already a transformation of the infamous quip made by Hitler's culture minister
in the early 1940s: "Every time I hear the word culture I reach for my revolver." This reference opens up
further questions about the relationship of culture and politics, art and private property, culture and
15 Carl Andre and Hollis Frampton engaged in a series of conversations in 1962-63, which were later
published in the book 12 Dialogues: 1962-1963, ed. Benjamin H. D. Buchloh (Halifax: The Press of the
Nova Scotia College of Art and Design and New York University Press, 1980).
We didn't have to ask anyone's permission."16 The unrestricted structure allowed the
artists to remain outside of the museum/gallery system, or more aptly, to manipulate that
system to present their own work in a self-determined environment.
Another invitation distributed by the artists announced a salon-like engagement at
the Union Square studio of the deceased Russian artist Dmitri Merinoff. His widow
preserved the studio intact following his death. With this invitation Lawler and Levine
seized another artist's work as their own. Yet, rather than the usual appropriation of the
finished object, it was the site of artistic creation that was displayed as the art object. The
artists presented the experience of creating art, though one rooted in the traditional
painting studio as opposed to the dark room. The experience of culture also replaced the
art object in the invitations to a performance of the ballet Swan Lake. Each artist sent out
invitations to a night of Swan Lake at Lincoln Center with the requirement that tickets be
purchased at the box office. These invites, more than the others, revealed an intended
group of receivers, their economic bracket, and by extension, the audience that patronizes
the arts. Both the event of a ballet and its location at Lincoln Center evoke a particular
class of people, socially and economically. This invitation literalized the concept of
buying the experience of art and all its connotations. Similar to Lawler's collaboration
with McCollum, the art object becomes the abstracted spectacle of culture.
A Picture Is No Substitute for Anything
Lawler and Levine also collaborated on a project for Wedge magazine, a small
cultural journal founded by Phil Mariani and Brian Wallis. The spread featured
16 "Sherrie Levine talks to Howard Singerman," Artforum (April 2003), 190.
juxtapositions of "Mondrians"-Levine's painted reproductions and Lawler's
photographic reproductions of Piet Mondrian paintings and signature canvas shapes.
With this project Lawler and Levine framed their artwork within the circulation of an art
journal, following such art historical precursors as Mel Bochner and Robert Smithson's
The Domain of the Great Bear in the magazine Art Voices (Fall 1966) and Dan Graham's
Homes for America project in Arts Magazine (December 1966-January 1967). Along
with the studio (Merinoff), the gallery, the museum, the collector's home and office, the
art object is also threaded through the print media, acknowledging that every write-up in
a feature article or exhibition review grants the artist attention and prominence within the
system of art.
The reproduction of paintings by Mondrian circulates within the much-discussed
practice of appropriation current at the time. Artists practicing and critics writing about
appropriation art found theoretical support in Roland Barthes's concept of the "ready-
formed dictionary:" "this immense dictionary from which he [the author] draws a writing
that can know no halt: life never does more than imitate the book, and the book itself is
only a tissue of signs, an imitation that is lost, infinitely deferred.""17 Douglas Crimp in
"The Photographic Activity of Postmodernism" (1980) borrows directly from Barthes's
idea of the "infinitely deferred" to discuss a young group of photographers-peers of
Lawler-who subvert the modernist notion of originality while foregrounding the
inherent multiplicity of the medium of photography:
A group of young artists working with photography have addressed photography's
claims to originality, showing those claims for the fiction they are, showing
photography to be always a representation, always-already-seen. Their images are
17 Roland Barthes, "The Death of the Author" (1968), Image, Music, Text, ed. Stephen Heath (New York:
Hill and Wang, 1977), 147.
purloined, confiscated, appropriated, stolen. In their work, the original cannot be
located, is always deferred; even the self that might have generated an original is
shown to be itself a copy.1
Photography proved for many critics the medium par excellence to reveal art history's
inextricable dependence on the genius of originality since it relies intrinsically on
multiples, a mechanical hand and, significantly, the representation of an exterior world as
already represented and thus absent, "an imitation that is lost, infinitely deferred."
Levine was at the forefront of this discussion with her re-photographs of works by
famous art photographers such as Walker Evans, Edward Weston and Eliot Porter.
Lawler, on the other hand, did not often find her way into the critical texts defining the
practice of appropriation. The reason for this absence may have been that in contrast to
Richard Prince or Cindy Sherman, Lawler did not directly borrow the "look" of the
images of advertisement or film, instead she used the terms of these media to engage or
point to the way the apparatus functions. Lawler's subtle, though astute, depiction of the
circulation of the market actually hindered her circulation in that market when compared
to her peers.
In the Wedge spread each artist featured her work on alternating pages. Levine's
pages are photographic reproductions of actual paintings she made by mimicking the
abstract works that characterize Mondrian's career. By contrast, Lawler's pages in
Wedge do not remain as thoroughly consistent. Her first photograph represents an
oblique angle of a square Mondrian painting hung on a wall with an emphasis on the
painting's frame and shadow on the wall. Her next image replicates this angle, though
the crop of the print echoes the diamond-shape of Mondrian's paintings and frames. The
18 Douglas Crimp, "The Photographic Activity of Postmodernism," On the Museum 's Ruins, with
photographs by Louise Lawler (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2000), 118.
third photo reproduces two Mondrian paintings side-by-side on exhibition, one square-
shaped and the other diamond-shaped. This is followed by a diamond-shaped photograph
of an exhibition space with various works on the wall and a sculpture under a glass case.
Lastly, Lawler photographs Pablo Picasso's infamous Demoiselles d'Avignon but crops it
to concentrate on the central female figure. The photograph is bounded again within a
Lawler's photographs in Wedge represent the prominence of the frame in her
practice. The frame of an artwork distinguishes what surrounds it: other artworks, the
support wall, and the "outer world." The larger frame of the exhibition space, the media
and the history of art contain the work, but also generate the work as art. Heuristically,
the works of both Lawler and Levine continue the act of doubling introduced earlier with
Lawler's attention to her own installations. The artists double the paintings of Mondrian,
and they replicate each other in their choice of Mondrian as the subject of their
collaboration. Levine stated the following about her own artistic practice, which can be
extended to this joint effort.
I wanted to make a picture which contradicted itself. I wanted to put a picture on
top of a picture so that there are times when both pictures disappear and other times
when they're both manifest; that vibration is basically what the work's about for
me-that space in the middle where there's no picture, rather an emptiness, an
By doubling the artist Mondrian, Lawler and Levine make him "manifest." They
re-enunciate his name within the canon and force him into alliance with their own
project. Yet they also challenge the spectator's relationship to his works, or more so, the
relationship to copies of his works. As a departure from Benjamin's utopian belief in the
19 Molly Nesbit, "Bright Light, Big City: The '80s Without Walls," Artforum (April 2003), 248.
liberating quality of photographic reproductions, Lawler and Levine do not necessarily
celebrate the copy. Rather they present it as a vehicle of mediation. Situated within an
image-saturated society, the copy is the circulated image, the picture with which we have
an intimacy. However this picture is also already emptied out-by the "original," the
"ready-formed dictionary," the object external to the image, and ad infinitum.
How does this relate to their collaborative title, A Picture Is No Substitutefor
Anything? A picture cannot substitute the external object that it represents. Lawler and
Levine's reproductions of "original" Mondrians do not replace them, or even lessen their
value-a value continually confirmed within a capitalist economy of private property. In
turn, the same question applies to the "original" Mondrians. They too do not substitute
for anything. Despite their abstract character, the paintings do not supersede the idealism
or the absolute they attempt to restore. Read another way, "a picture is no substitute for
anything" unravels the fiction that one has access to "anything"- to a real external to the
image. A picture is just a picture, however it also serves in a productive capacity,
generating representations that mediate the world for people, constructing a shared
history, and connecting people to each other. A picture serves as an object of discourse.
The word "poignant," with its multiple definitions-"pointed, sharp, focused, affecting
and moving"-is integral to the description of Lawler's works, and one to which I will
return again.20 The last two dimensions of the word-affecting and moving- express
Lawler and Levine's Wedge project. I would argue that Lawler and Levine reproduce
20 Crimp, "Prominence Given, Authority Taken: An interview with Louise Lawler by Douglas Crimp,"
Mondrian with critical affection, not adolescent rebellion, and cloak their address to
images, copies, pictures, and reproductions with deep attachment.
This collaborative project and Lawler's practice as a whole parallel Craig Owens's
discussion of "reduplication."21 Owens borrows from linguistics the concept of repetition
and its production of signs. For instance, rather than calling a repeated syllable-the "pa"
in the word "papa"-an imitation, or "a wild sound," it forms a code and thus signifies.
Owens argues for a corresponding notion in the production of a photographic language.
The repeated syllable becomes the duplicabilityy of the photographic print":
"Photographs are but one link in a potentially endless chain of reduplication; themselves
duplicates (of both their objects and, in a sense, their negatives), they are also subject to
further duplication, either through the procedures of printing or as objects of still other
photographs."22 The spread in Wedge serves as a mise en abime for photography's
endless multiplications just as the title A Picture Is No Substitutefor Anything does for
the practice of picture-making in a general sense.
Owens invokes Robert Smithson's images and written texts to debunk the classical
relationship of object and representation. In "The Monuments of Passaic" (1967),
Smithson describes the view of a bridge as "an over-exposed picture," and he aligns it
with "photographing a photograph," and "walking on an enormous photograph."23 For
21 Craig Owens, "Photography en abyme," Beyond ,' ..... -,r,. Representation, Power, and Culture, ed. S.
Bryson, B. Kruger, L. Tillman, and J. Weinstock (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), 16-30.
The essay was first published in October 5 (Summer 1978), 73-88.
22 Ibid., 26.
23 Robert Smithson, "The Monuments of Passaic," Artforum (December 1967). Also of interest to note is
the participation of Robert Smithson in the group exhibition "Earth Art," which took place on the college
campus of Cornell University, February 11-March 16, 1969. Lawler was a student at Cornell at the time,
and aided in the installation of the exhibition. It would be fruitful to think about the influence, if any, on
Smithson the photograph is not a substitute for the "real" out there. Instead, Owens
writes, "the real assumes the contingency traditionally ascribed to the copy; the landscape
appeared to him, not as Nature, but as a 'particular kind of heliotypy."'24
This is interesting to think about in relation to Lawler's photographs, which I have
already described as "abyssal" and manifest in form as mise en abime. Smithson
comments on the absence of a real, and the "image-ability" of the world around us. The
sites that Lawler photographs can be described as also just this, a photograph waiting to
be photographed. Lawler points to the collector's home as a space organized to be
looked at, to be featured, and therefore further organized within her viewfinder. The
same can be repeated about the museum, and the extended life it gathers through the
circulation of installation shots. Similarly, Lawler and McCollum in their collaboration
strove to create the gallery space as a "three-dimensional advertisement," a walk-in
picture. Owens's endless reduplication, specifically the excess repetition signified by the
prefix "re-," manifests itself in Lawler's works. Photographing the object as image,
Lawler repeats this utterance through the meticulous installation of the works, adding to
the works' signification. Furthermore, since Lawler's works function as art, they too will
be photographed, reproduced, and circulated, ad infinitum, thus fulfilling the action so
fundamental to Lawler's practice.
The word "poignant," presented above, also stands in opposition to a "certain
dryness" that could enfold Lawler's work and its reception.25 Lawler's photographs resist
Lawler's work of Smithson's notions of the site and non-site, as well as the earth artists' interest in art as a
system and not the production of singular objects.
24 Owens, 27.
25 Crimp, "Prominence Given, Authority Taken: An interview with Louise Lawler by Douglas Crimp,"
unpaginated. Crimp prefaces the discussion of the word "poignant" with these words: "It's true that the
conceptual art's aesthetic of the "dumb document," exemplified by the work of artists
such as Ed Ruscha, Dan Graham, Robert Smithson, Joseph Kosuth, Christine Kozlov and
Douglas Huebler.26 In contrast to conceptual art's snapshots taken with an instamatic
camera, Lawler's photographs are formally composed and shot with a medium format
camera. This adds a rich texture and varied aesthetic to her work absent from the
amateur, anti-aesthetic style practiced by her contemporaries, Levine, Prince and
Sherman. Lawler's photographs cannot be evaluated within these same terms. They are
not anti-aesthetic, but actually quite beautiful. Beauty returns neither to stabilize the
image, nor throw the work into a retrograde discourse of beauty as the qualifier for "art."
In this case, beauty facilitates the transformation of picture into precious art object. As I
have argued, Lawler's work functions through successive transformations. With her
camera, she returns the object to picture, enfolding the object in its representation. The
copy, though, adheres to the codes, not of the anti-aesthetic, but of art photography.
Consciously imitating the codes of art photography-beauty as its highest value-Lawler
unravels them as constructions and thus manipulates them to transform, once again, the
easiest things to say about your photographs are of a programmatic nature-that they're about the work's
framing conditions, about the commodity structure of the art world and so forth. And this produces a
certain dryness, a reduction of the work to its function as institutional critique. While these things may be
true and accurate about your work, they don't capture something else that's crucial." Throughout this
paper I am trying to uncover, point out, circumscribe this "something else."
26 Melanie S. Marifio, "Dumb Documents: Uses of Photography in American Conceptual Art: 1959-1969,"
Dissertation, Cornell University, 2002. "If Conceptual photography was not pictorial-it was artless-neither
was it purely instrumental-it was not only a vehicle for the reproduction and dissemination of art but a
form of art in itself. Nominating as their subject matter the trivial and insignificant, the "least event,"
conveyed aptly by the flat-footed composition and careless techniques of snapshot photography, the
Conceptual document, simply put, was confoundingly dumb in appearance and purpose. Renouncing
virtually all marks of artistic craft and skill and foregrounding the values of the unaesthetic and the useless,
these works cultivated a zero-degree style of facticity pushed to the point of banality, inaugurating a
practice which, following Douglas Huebler, I am calling "dumb."
image into a precious object.27 This object now is characterized by its multiplicity, its
"image-ability." Similar to Barthes's ideas about "myth," Lawler de-mythifies the art
object with her viewfinder and then returns it to the system re-coded with new
parameters, questions, and contradictions. The deconstruction of the precious object of
art occurs through its re-presentation, its reduplication. The object is de-naturalized, and
in the process the spectator becomes aware of her/his position. The precious object lures
the viewer into the picture, but also stutters any easy positionality. With her
photographic installations, she consistently draws a circle around her work by
emphasizing the process of selection within the frame and then re-affirming that selection
in her meticulous presentations. Thus the viewer cannot limit her/his reading of the work
to the single print but rather is prompted to recognize the meaning generated by the
relationships of the works to each other and through their presentation. In this way,
Lawler relies on an embodied viewer in the heuristic process. Looking and knowing are
not denied or completely jettisoned. Lawler recognizes her work as a visual practice,
albeit one that requires a body in movement. In "An Arrangement of Pictures" the
viewer moves through the hierarchical orders described above-from "original" to
copy-and within hierarchies-object and supplement. In "Presentation and Display"
the spectator walks into a tableau. Movement governs the viewer's interpretation of the
work, an echo of the object's fluidity through borderless contexts and dissolvable walls.
But who is this body? With the Swan Lake invitations Lawler began to investigate the
class status of art patrons. In the next chapter I explore the gendered and sexed subject
27 This discussion of art photography is indebted to Abigail Solomon-Godeau's text on art photography in
"Photography After Art Photography," ArtAfter Modernism, 75-85. Additionally her discussion of James
Welling's photographic work influenced my readings of Lawler, "Playing in the Field of the Image,"
Photography at the Dock, 86-102.
constituted in and through representations of art and Lawler's stake in exposing art
history's patriarchal traditions. The elision of looking and reading, seeing and knowing,
is de-stabilized, and as a result these unconscious practices become conscious.
THE CONSTRUCTION OF AN EMBODIED SUBJECT
But Lawler can also be differentiated from these artists, for rather than situate
institutional power in a centralized building (such as a museum) or a powerful elite
which can be named, she locates it instead in a systemized set ofpresentational
procedures which name, situate, centralize.
Sexuality in the Field of Vision
In 1984, Kate Linker and Jane Weinstock curated an exhibition at the New
Museum of Contemporary Art entitled "Difference: On Representation and Sexuality."
The exhibition tapped into the contemporary interest, shared by art historians, art makers,
and cultural theorists, in psychoanalysis and its implications for representation. Jacques
Lacan's formulations of sexual difference as dependent on the visual field were of
primary concern. The curators selected works of art that engaged with the "terrain
triangulated by the terms sexuality, meaning, and language."2 An essay by Jacqueline
Rose, who had already played a crucial role in providing a methodology for reading art
and film through the lens of psychoanalysis, was featured in the catalogue.3 Rose's essay
employs Sigmund Freud's text on Leonardo da Vinci as a point of departure for art
historical studies of sexual difference. She begins with Freud's complaints about a
1 Fraser, 124.
2 Kate Linker, Fonl\ .id" Difference: On Representation and Sexuality, exhibition catalogue, (New York:
The New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1984), 5.
3 The two most influential publications by Rose are Feminine Sexuality. Jacques Lacan and the ecole
freudienne (1982), co-authored with Juliet Mitchell, and Sexuality in the Field of Vision (1986). The title
of the latter book and the essay written for the "Difference" exhibition share the same title. Jacqueline
Rose, "Sexuality in the Field of Vision," Difference: On Representation and Sexuality, 31-33, reprinted in
Sexuality in the Field of Vision (London: Verso, 1986), 225-233. My citations are from the reprint.
particular drawing, purportedly by Leonardo (only part of which can be attributed to
him), of a man and woman copulating. Rose expands on a footnote by Freud that
ascribes the failure of the drawing to the problem of sexuality and representation, using it
as an introduction to her own thoughts about the drawing: "The uncertain sexual identity
muddles the plane of the image so that the spectator does not know where she or he
stands in relationship to the picture. A confusion at the level of sexuality brings with it a
disturbance of the visual field."4 Rose situates sexual difference not in what is seen, but
in the subjectivity of the viewer, "in the relationship between what is looked at and the
developing sexual knowledge of the child."5 The moment when the boy and girl discover
difference through the visual discovery of each other's biological make-up epitomizes
According to Rose, art represents the process of looking and the delayed act of
becoming inherent to psychoanalytic notions of sexual difference. Insofar as it
highlights "moments of disturbed visual representation," art can unhinge the dialogic
relationship of looking and knowing. Rose argues that the unconscious and its
accompanying desires disrupt individual identity. Desire leads to "fantasy," which often
involves a "staging," or a narrative moment, such as when the boy and girl discover the
distinctiveness of each other's genitals. What emerges from this moment is a
materialization in the visual field and its subsequent fracture. The fantasy reveals the
individual's apriori conception, the stabilization of her/his own identity. Art draws on
these fantasies and critically re-circulates them. As such, they are established as sites of
4 Ibid., 226.
5 Ibid., 227.
revision of the un/fixed nature of sexuality. Crucial to the connection Rose establishes
between psychoanalysis and art production is this repetition of the fantasy or "staged
event": "The encounter between psychoanalysis and artistic practice is therefore staged,
but only insofar as that staging has already taken place. It is an encounter which draws
its strength from that repetition, working like a memory trace of something we have been
through before."6 Rose thus diverts attention away from questions of originality or
authenticity within the context of art, directing it instead to the way art circulates in an
already formed system. But she shows that sometimes art circulates in that system in an
unseen or buried manner. This is especially true with "repetition": "repetition as
insistence, that is, as the constant pressure of something hidden but not forgotten."
This idea of "repetition as insistence" leads Rose to focus on the prominence that
Lacan's texts place on language, and on the idea of meaning as constructed from the
interconnectedness of language, rather than from discrete units. The field of language
produces meaning through the relationship of signs: "its truth belongs to that movement
and not to some prior reference existing outside its domain."8 Rose emphasizes what she
sees as the intricate relationship between language and sexual difference. Both are shown
to exercise power through their ability to control and generate normative behavior. They
are also posited as sharing the ability to shift and undo all psychic and ideological
practices. Rose criticizes literary or artistic practices that adopt psychoanalytic theory but
do not account for the centrality of sexuality. She targets the modernist discourse of
6 Ibid., 228.
purity, as well as postmodernism's employment of allegory. In lieu of these texts, she
insists on an artistic practice that accounts for both what is seen and the visual field in
which the object is seen-the chain that constructs meaning. Solomon-Godeau, in
"Reconstructing Documentary" (1986), argues that "the problem confronting any
genuinely radical cultural production is not simply a matter of transforming existing
forms through the insertion of some new politicized content or subject matter, but rather
to intervene on the level of the forms themselves, to disrupt what the forms put in place."9
Indeed, art informed by feminism demands more than an ideological scrutiny of the
image and what its signifier conveys. It demands an interrogation of how the artwork
creates meaning within a field of vision divided by sexuality, as well as how it
contributes to the continual fixing and unfixing of sexual identity.
The Institutional and the Everyday
The central themes articulated in Craig Owens's "The Discourse of Others:
Feminists and Postmodernism" (1983) overlap with Rose's text in many ways.10 Owens
calls for a re-view of feminism and postmodernism, and for an account of the ways in
which the parallel critiques of patriarchy and representation mounted by these two
formations intersect and enhance each other. At the same time, he refuses to collapse
feminism and postmodernism, challenging the disavowal of sexuality in both modernism
and postmodernism. "The Discourse of Others" openly criticizes art critics and
philosophers who turn a "blind eye" to gender in their writings. Owens singles out
Benjamin H. D. Buchloh's "Allegorical Procedures: Appropriation and Montage in
9 Solomon-Godeau, "Reconstructing Documentary" (1986), Photography at the Dock, 189.
10 Craig Owens, "The Discourse of Others: Feminists and Postmodernism," The Anti-Aesthetic, 57-77.
Contemporary Art" (1982), which chronicles the allegorical trope within contemporary
art practice and identifies it as an offspring of the Dada movement.1 Whereas Buchloh
argues that contemporary feminist artists are the inheritors of this lineage, Owens
opposes this "distinctly male genealogy" and criticizes the absence of any mention of
gender. Owens insists that the artworks be read through the filter of sexual difference,
and not just through the political ideology of mass culture.
Parallel to Rose's thesis, Owens throws into crisis Buchloh's consistent but
unconscious use of words aligned with vision, such as "transparent," "observable," and
"unveil," and asks the important question: "But what does it mean to claim that these
artists render the invisible visible, especially in a culture in which visibility is always on
the side of the male, invisibility on the side of the female?"12 This question challenges
vision, not just as an index of sexual difference, but also as an indicator of mastery and
consequently masculinity. There is a pervasive tension in Lawler's work that tightens
and pulls around the problematic of vision and presents objects as administrators of
patriarchal values. Lawler's artistic practice as a whole remains unstable. She challenges
the viewers of her work, placing them in the position of critical reader through her refusal
of traditional materialization, displacement of the visual objects, and problematization of
visual pleasure in art. But before I explore this dimension of Lawler's work let us look
more closely at Buchloh's evaluation of Lawler's place in art history.
In "Allegorical Procedures" Buchloh employs Lawler's exhibition at Artists Space
from 1978 as a linch-pin between a largely male artworld and the increased presence of
1 Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, "Allegorical Procedures: Appropriation and Montage in Contemporary Art,"
Artforum (September 1982), 43-56.
12 Owens, 72.
female artists.13 Buchloh locates Lawler as "following" or continuing the "situational
esthetics" of Michael Asher, Marcel Broodthaers, Daniel Buren, Dan Graham, Hans
Haacke, and Lawrence Weiner. In the mid-sixties and early seventies, according to
Buchloh, these artists explored the institutional framework problematized by the
Duchampian readymade, and placed the very structure of the object under scrutiny. But
Buchloh also associates Lawler with a group of artists that sought to probe "the
ideological discourses outside of that framework [the institutions of Modernism]...where
the languages of television, advertising, and photography, and the ideology of 'everyday'
life, were subjected to formal and linguistic operations."14 Along with Lawler, this group
included Dara Bimbaum, Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, Sherrie Levine, and Martha
Rosler. The placement of Lawler's work between, and yet among, these diverse groups
of artists resonates to this day, as it continues to occupy both institutional and "everyday"
sites. Lawler mobilizes both the structures of art and the media to explore how art is
read, and how this reading contributes to art's value. At the same time there are
differences between her practice and the practices of those with whom she is grouped.
Significantly, Lawler's engagement with the construction of the subject in art, a gendered
and sexed subject, is missing from the work of the male artists that immediately
"precede" her. Yet Lawler's work is also distinct from that of contemporary female
artists insofar as it appropriates the strategies of the media while not completely
appropriating its "look."
13 Buchloh, 48. To be fair, Buchloh pairs the Lawler exhibition with Michael Asher's 1979 exhibition at the
Art Institute of Chicago as the prefiguration of "contemporary allegorical investigations," but only goes on
to describe the Lawler exhibition.
14 Ibid., 48.
Buchloh cites a group exhibition in 1978 in which Lawler took part (Figure 12).
The exhibition, staged at Artists Space, also featured the work of Adrian Piper, Cindy
Sherman and Christopher D'Arcangelo. Lawler installed a site-specific piece in the
gallery and served as the graphic designer for the exhibition. Her designs included the
cover of the catalogue and an advertising poster. For the installation, Lawler
appropriated a painting of a racehorse borrowed from the New York Aqueduct Race
Track. The painting, made in 1824, was hung on a wall that contained both windows and
a door into the neighboring room. Yet, contrary to common exhibition practice, the
painting was positioned over the windows, rather than on the white wall. Two theatrical
spotlights were placed above the canvas. The lights did not simply present the pictorial
object; instead, one was directed at the viewer while the other highlighted the room. The
viewer's ability to see the painting was thus obstructed. At the same time, the spotlight
cast shadows of the gallery space and of the visitors to the exhibition onto the facade of
the building across the street. As such, Lawler's installation was fully self-reflexive,
employing the central elements of the exhibition as the subject of the work. Using lights
as the main focus of the installation, Lawler features the supplementary "elements of an
exhibition" as the exhibition itself.
To further situate Lawler's practice within its history, and draw contrasts, it is
beneficial to compare this installation with a similar exhibition by Daniel Buren, "Within
and Beyond the Frame," staged at the John Weber Gallery in New York in 1973.15 Both
installations punctuate the exhibition space with the exterior space of the street, while
also, in effect, presenting the "frame" of the gallery. Constructed in situ Buren's
15 I relied on Guy Lelong's description of Buren's exhibition to draw comparisons to Lawler's work. Guy
Lelong, Daniel Buren, trans. David Radzinowicz (Paris, France: Flammarion, 2002), 51-61.
exhibition featured nineteen striped black and white pieces of fabric that hung both inside
and outside the gallery space. The fabric was stretched along a cable with nine pieces in
the interior of the gallery, nine on the exterior stretching across the street, and one piece
located centrally between the inside and outside. In its construction, Buren threw into
question the symbolic frame of the gallery, while also emphasizing the gallery's material
space. Buren designed the fabric pieces to echo elements of the gallery, such as the size
of the windows, the space between the windows and the depth of the room. Additionally,
the arrangement re-affirmed the complementary non-space outside the gallery. The
expanse of the street determined the number of fabric pieces in the show.
Utilizing his signature elements of prefabricated striped cloths and the actual body
of the site, Buren highlighted the dependent relationship between the internal and
external space of the art institution. In addition, his work served to advertise both the
individual exhibition and the larger gallery space, which lacked any nominative street
sign. Buren's art in the seventies called attention to the role of the museum/gallery as the
frame empowering art. This move deflected significance away from the autonomous
object of art to which modernism gave primary value. In its place, the space of exhibition
is highlighted and recognized as a determinant of art's aesthetic, economic and mystical
status.16 In "Within and Beyond the Frame" the spectator is prompted to reflect on the
relationship of the work to the architectural and institutional surround rather than isolate,
or "contemplate," the work of art separately from its support. Furthermore, the sanctity
of the interior functions to preserve and protect the art object, which is in striking contrast
to the same object located outside and left to be weathered by the natural elements.
16 Daniel Buren, "The Function of the Museum," 5 Texts (New York: The Jack Weber Gallery, 1973), 58-
Lawler's installation from 1978 plays with similar notions of frames-
interior/exterior-and also diminishes the visual impact of the actual object. Not only the
location but also the very make-up of the work of art is thrown into question. The work
might be located in the appropriated painting, or it might be made up of the theatrical
light arrangement.17 Pushing beyond Buren's emphasis on the architectural space of the
museum/gallery as a material and symbolic container, Lawler highlights the spectator's
role as yet another site of power by literally inscribing the body of the spectator into the
work in the form of shadows. But Lawler's emphasis on the corporeal as a contrast to the
disembodiment of modernism still generates a non-gendered and non-sexed body.
Throughout her work, whether it be in the medium of photography, the practice of
installations, or the production of layout and graphic design, Lawler addresses the
subjective in the production and reception of art. She marks the gendered and sexed
subject, while simultaneously distancing herself from and critiquing the masculine cult of
the artist-creator as Romantic hero, exemplified by contemporary figures such as Joseph
Beuys and Julian Schnabel. But Lawler also separates her work from that of other artists
who practice institutional critique. "Rather than situate institutional power in a
centralized building (such as a museum) or a powerful elite which can be named,"
Andrea Fraser has written about her work, Lawler "locates it instead in a systematized set
of presentational procedures which name, situate, centralize."18 Indeed, Lawler has
consistently refused to allow her work to be reduced to simplified, non-ambiguous
1 Foster, in "Subversive Signs," Recodings, 105, suggests that Lawler's use of the racehorse painting might
be intended to invoke the idea of galleries as "stables": "Are not art world and racetrack alike based on a
closed system of training and grooming, of handicapping and betting, of investment, competition and
auction? After all we do call galleries 'stables'."
18 Fraser, 124.
meanings. She has done this by ensuring that the mobility of her artwork, whether
original or copy, functions like a trace.
Privilege of the Senses
For her first solo exhibition "A Movie Will Be Shown Without the Picture" at the
Aero Theatre in Santa Monica, California, in 1979, Lawler "screened" the film The
Misfits (1961). Her interest in this film came primarily from the emotional aura that was
caused by the death of the three main actors-Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable, and
Montgomery Clift-in the years following the completion of the film. Lawler continued
this project in New York throughout the years, each time "showing" a different film.19
Lawler has discussed this work with Douglas Crimp:
I was interested in what it's like being part of an audience for something, whether
you're alone looking at a book, in a gallery surrounded by other people looking at
the same picture as you, or in that particularly passive situation of sitting in the
dark, eyes glued to the screen, allowing yourself to laugh more when others do. It
was important to me that everything proceeds normally, but there would be a single
difference, which was announced: "A movie will be shown without the picture."
You weren't told what the movie was.20
Lawler pursues the experience of art outside the body of the artist, in this case, the
experience of being part of an audience. Authority is displaced from the artist to the
audience in a Barthesian manner. As a result, the viewer relates foremost to the
experience of a group. But it is an experience marked by a visuality that has been
inexplicably removed. The reading of this exhibition is multifarious, dependent not on
the singularity of the artist but on that of each person in the audience. Lawler disrupts the
film-going experience in a Brechtian manner to confront the spectator with her/his
19 Other films shown included The Hustler and What's Opera, Doc?.
20 Crimp, "Prominence Given, Authority Taken: An interview with Louise Lawler by Douglas Crimp,"
dependence on the mastery of vision when attendant to film-going, and by extension an
art exhibition. Taking Jean-Luc Godard's practice of rupturing the synchronization of the
visual image with the soundtrack to one of its logical conclusions, Lawler completely
jettisons the visual image. The spectator is now offered the experience of the film only
through the aural track. As such, Lawler challenges the normative dialogic relationship
between seeing and knowing by turning the "viewer" into the "listener." Here the
influence of writers such as Luce Irigaray on Lawler's artistic practice is evident.21
Irigaray's writings have sought to reinscribe the "feminine" into the phallocentric model
of psychoanalysis. The feminine has taken the form of the maternal in many instances of
her work, with the female body functioning as metaphor. Relevant to Lawler's art
practice is Irigaray's commentary on the relationship between the visual and the
Investment in the look is not privileged in women as in men. More than other
senses, the eye objectifies and masters. It sets at a distance, and maintains a
distance. In our culture the predominance of the look over smell, taste, touch, and
hearing has brought about an impoverishment of bodily relations. The moment the
look dominates, the body loses its materiality.22
In Lawler's "A Movie Will Be Shown Without the Picture," the viewer sits in a
dark theater marked by the absence of any overdetermining fixed line of vision. She or
he is left only to listen and to feel the discomfort that results from that absence. Hence
the viewer becomes doubly aware of other bodies besides her/his own, as the
21 Sherrie Levine, a peer and collaborator of Lawler, has commented on the influence of continental theory
in "Sherrie Levine talks to Howard Singerman," 191. "After the "Pictures" show in 1977, I began reading
Continental theory, which the writers I knew were reading. I was never particularly interested in analytic
philosophy, but this stuff really spoke to me, especially the psychoanalytic theory. The new feminists
wanted to trouble the idea of the primacy of the visual over the other senses. They were interested in
pleasure and humor." Time and space do not allow me to examine Lawler's work through her use of
humor as a strategy to dislocate the spectator, especially in the texts accompanying her photographs.
22 Luce Irigaray quoted in Owens, "The Discourse of Others," 70.
"impoverishment of bodily relations" to which Irigaray refers is accentuated. Yet with
the screening of The Misfits, the first of the films featured in "A Movie Will Be Shown,"
a number of factors have to be considered. First, The Misfits was a movie that was
already made, already seen, and thus already encoded with its own history-a history
encompassing not only the film's stars but also its screenwriter, Arthur Miller. The
viewer brings to a cult film such as The Misfits an array of associations, producing an
experience of sameness with difference-an experience similar to what Jacqueline Rose
described above as "an encounter which draws its strength from that repetition, working
like a memory trace of something we have been through before." A shadow of images
materializes through the experience of "watching" something not there but already seen.
Owens reads Lawler's choice of The Misfits through the body of Marilyn Monroe.
The latter functions as an archetypal site of male desire and therefore its absence-"a
movie will be shown without the picture"-serves to disavow pleasure: "a pleasure that
has been linked with the masculine perversions voyeurism and scopophilia."24 Lawler
displaces the scopic object of Marilyn Monroe, or what Laura Mulvey has described as
the "to-be-looked-at-ness" of women.25 On the other hand, Monroe also became famous
through the use of her voice. Her contrived, soft, uncertain, breathy voice further added
to her status as "the archetypal image of feminine desirability." Though Lawler
"destroyed" the pleasure accorded the scopic image, another pleasure emerges from
24 Owens, 73.
25 Laura Mulvey, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," Art After Modernism, 361-373. Reprinted from
Screen 16, no. 3 (Autumn 1975). It is interesting to note that Lawler, who worked as photo editor forArt
After Modernism (along with Wallis), paired the first page of Mulvey's essay with a still of Marilyn
Monroe from How to Marry a Millionaire.
Monroe's voice, complicating the terms "image," "pleasure," and "desire" as derived
singularly from vision.
Amelia Jones, in "Postfeminism, Feminist Pleasures, and Embodied Theories of
Art"(1993), replies directly to Mulvey's renowned essay, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative
Cinema" (1975).26 Jones criticizes Mulvey's theorization of pleasure as manifested in the
objectification of woman in narrative cinema and the desire for pleasure's destruction
through the analysis, or problematization, of woman as scopic object. In place of this
view, Jones responds with a theorization of an embodied subject, which does not separate
"embodied pleasure from so-called theory."27 Jones's text is useful for two reasons. First,
it addresses the type of embodiment engaged by Lawler in "A Movie Will be Shown
Without a Picture" through the complication of pleasure derived from Marilyn Monroe's
voice, not only her spectral image. Second, Jones accuses Mulvey of continuing to
circulate within a masculine modernist discourse that is proscriptive of pleasure at the
expense of the female subject. In overlooking the question of female pleasure, critical
texts that privilege so-called postfeminist art for its refusal of the desiring "male gaze,"
have maintained both late modernism's general refusal of pleasure and the Mulveyan
focus on male pleasure (and its prohibition) at the expense of accounting for the
possibility of desiring female viewers and artists.28 Jones's arguments provide another
feminist lens through which to read Lawler's works, especially since her works do not
focus on images of women. Such a lens accentuates the way that Lawler explores the
26 Amelia Jones, "Postfeminism, Feminist Pleasures, and Embodied Theories of Art," The Art ofArt
History: A Critical, rii.. -,, ed. Donald Preziosi (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 383-395.
27 Jones, 393.
28 Jones, 394.
construction of the subject, not only in terms of gender, but also in terms of sexuality, by
evoking the desired object.
The Desiring Subject
Desire is not a word often used in reviews or essays about Lawler's work, neither
in relation to the luxurious objects or settings shown in the collector's home nor in the
provocative artworks captured in her photographs. For instance in the review of Lawler's
1985 exhibition "Slides by Night: Now That We Have Your Attention What Are We
Going to Say?" at Metro Pictures, Jeanne Silverthorne does not reference the erotic
nature of the nude statues included in the slide presentation.29 Although she comments on
the "domination" inferred by the photographs of the classical sculptures, Silverthorne
does not apply a feminist analysis to the exhibition. Andrea Fraser discusses the
exhibition in terms of Lawler's ability to evade her prescribed role as "artist," "a lasting
identity which seems to transcend ...the arbitrary exchange and circulation of esthetic
signs," but she misses the potential for a different kind of reading.30
"Slides by Night" featured a slide presentation available for viewing at night
through the window of the closed gallery. Lawler alternated slides of fruits, baseballs
and bells with her own photographs of art objects in an evocation of the slot machine.31
When the slot machine signs matched up for a jackpot, a photograph of a classical
sculpture would be shown as the "payoff." Lawler took the photographs at a plaster-cast
museum where copies of classical sculptures were manufactured. Silverthorne rightly
29 Jeanne Silverthorne, "Louise Lawler," Artforum (April 1985), 89.
30 Fraser, 128.
31 Silverthorne, 89. "Images of revolving fruit-as in a slot machine-capture the gambler's fever of art
speculation and form the work's only reference to money, albeit indirectly."
associates the presentation of the exhibition with window-shopping. As I have argued,
Lawler often employs this tactic in her presentation of art objects as if for sale, or
contained within an advertisement. This approach engages the object in a discussion of
the commodification of art, but also in the strategies of desire necessary to the circulation
of objects within the market.
The installation recalls yet another site-the peep show. When a copy of the
Barberini Faun (Objects, 1984) pops up as the "payoff," Lawler involves the viewer, not
assumed to be a male heterosexual viewer, in an "art" peep show underscored by the
closed gallery and voyeuristic night viewing (Figure 13). Legs splayed open, genitals
exposed, the Hellenistic sculpture resists a stabilization of sexuality expressed in the
relationship, established by Rose, between what is seen and the sexual knowledge of the
seer. What does it mean to be a man looking at this work? How does the work constitute
the female gaze and her pleasure? How does this work assert a viewing subject? Must
the viewer remain within a heterosexual and masculine system of vision, which
proscriptively constructs a heterosexual female subject and a homosexual male subject?
Crimp, in the introduction to On the Museum's Ruins, recalls his earlier writings on the
photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe from 1982, which at the time he believed to be a
false appropriation of style.32 In retrospect, Crimp realizes that Mapplethorpe's
photographs in effect challenge sexual difference by "troubling" the viewing male
32 Crimp, "Photographs at the End of Modernism," On the Museum's Ruins, 2-31. The essay in which he
discussed Mapplethorpe is "Appropriating Appropriation," Image Scavengers: Photography (Philadelphia:
Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, 1982). Reprinted in On the Museum's Ruins,
What is occluded by the institution's emphasis on the subject behind representation
is more than the historical, institutional structures that fabricate the creating
subject; what is also, crucially, occluded is the gendered, sexually oriented, and
otherwise designated subject effected by, constituted in representation through,
As photo editor for Crimp's book, Lawler chose the Barberini Faun along with
other photographs/slides from "Slides by Night" to accompany the essays. This group of
photographs features duplicates of classical male sculptures, often in disrepair, broken or
packaged (a play on castration?). In one instance an unidentified photograph depicts two
plaster-cast statues holding what appear to be phallic stand-ins (Figure 14). In the copy
of Donatello's David, the figure grasps the top of his now broken sword, which bulges
like a male penis. Another photograph represents a male nude statue, similar to the great
dying warrior of Greek art, unusually placed facing an air vent (Figure 15). Lawler joins
the photograph with the text: "Did you see your parent of the opposite sex naked? A
chance occurrence or was there no effort to avoid being nude in your presence?" Lawler
utilizes the text to further disrupt what the spectator sees. The spectator becomes an
active reader, a participant in the work through the montage of visual image and text and
the use of a shifter ("you"). The combined picture and text "reposition the viewer" before
a traditionally classical statue. As Lawler puts it: "...I'm alluding to things that make
you comfortable and uncomfortable. Something is what you expect, but then not quite,
so where do I leave you?"34
These photographs, both from On the Museum's Ruins and "Slides by Night,"
engage with the construction of the spectator's sexuality and gender "effected by,
33 Ibid., 25.
34 Crimp, "Prominence Given, Authority Taken: An interview with Louise Lawler by Douglas Crimp,"
constituted in representation," while also making visible the invisible, or the sublimated
narrative of sexuality in artistic discourses. Many of the sculptures represented are
Greco-Roman in origin, including copies ofAugustus ofPrimaporta and Laocoon. Art
historians often characterize Greek and Roman art as highly rational and value it for its
order and scientific rendering of the human anatomy. The Greco-Roman artist
conformed the body to a mathematically derived system in search of an ideal. It was a
controlled body. The refusal of pleasure is deployed as a weapon of control against "the
chaotic and unpredictable pleasures of the erotically engaged body."35 The practice of art
history, or at least traditional, canonically-taught art history, acts upon the body in a
similar way. Jones employs the writings of Pierre Bourdieu to further extend this
As sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has written of the psychic motivations encouraging
this refusal of pleasure in discourses of 'high' culture, 'the object which "insists on
being enjoyed"...neutralizes both ethical resistance and aesthetic neutralization; it
annihilates the distancing power of suspending immediate, animal attachment to the
sensible and refusing submission to the pure affect... [Only] pure pleasure-ascetic,
empty pleasure which implies the renunciation of pleasure-...is predisposed to
become a symbol of moral excellence and the work of art a test of ethical
What Is the Institution?
In the essay, "Sexual Difference: Both Sides of the Camera," Solomon-Godeau
recognizes the art museum as a phallocentric institution, and uses a photograph by
Lawler, Statue Before Painting, Perseus in ith the Head of Medusa, Canova, 1982 (Figure
35 Jones, 393.
36 Pierre Bourdieu quoted in Jones, 393 taken from Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the
Judgment of Taste, trans. Richard Nice (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1984), 489,
16), to exemplify this point.37 Interestingly, she is one of the few writers, along with the
critic/curator Kate Linker, to link Lawler's work with sexuality. Lawler's photograph
first appeared in October magazine in 1983, within a portfolio of her photographs,
gathered under the title "An Arrangement of Pictures." The photograph represents the
grand staircase in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City that leads to the
galleries containing "Paintings," visible in the background. A classical statue of Perseus
made by the Neo-Classical artist Antonio Canova occupies the foreground of the work.
The content and formal composition overlap in the photograph to disclose the hidden
hierarchies of museums. Perseus, a mythological hero, killed Medusa by avoiding her
fatal gaze. The story of Medusa serves as a common trope in psychoanalysis for
castration and fetishism. In this regard, it is of interest that Perseus killed Medusa by
using his shield as a mirror device, rather than looking directly at her. The built-in
references to the power of the gaze, and the lack that results from castration, return us to
the moment when the boy and girl discover their difference-the narrative moment
deployed by Rose. The formal cropping of the photograph's frame also reinforces this
reading. Perseus stands to the right of the frame, cropped at the pelvis so that all that is
visible are his legs, genitals, and the hand gripping the mighty sword that decapitated
Medusa. Beyond the statue, and to the left, is a beautiful long view of the arched
entrance to the painting gallery, accentuated by the Greco-Roman Corinthian columns
that flank the grand staircase. Both the title, Statue Before Painting, Perseus in ith the
37 Solomon-Godeau, "Sexual Difference: Both Sides of the Camera," Photography at the Dock, 256-280.
This essay accompanies an exhibition of the same name curated by Solomon-Godeau in 1987. The
photograph made by Lawler was included in the exhibition.
Head of Medusa, Canova, and the represented installation implicate the hierarchy of
painting and sculpture, as well of man and woman.38
In controlling the photographic crop-what the viewer will see-she also gives
prominence to the patriarchal values enshrined in the predominantly all-male
preserve of the art museum. Finally, in giving prominence to Perseus's sex organ
and sword, guardian of a painting collection that in many respects incarnates the
masterful gaze of the male subject, Lawler gives prominence to the hidden lines
between phallus, fetish and painting.39
Museum installations dialectically repress the sexual discourses surrounding art and
generate the patriarchal values that sustain the institution and the social relations between
In the photograph Sappho and Patriarch, 1984 (Figure 17), Lawler sets her
viewfinder on two sculptures within an exhibition space. A bust of a male figure sits in
the background, stern and authoritative. A female figure stands in the foreground; she
gazes down with her garment sloping dejectedly off her shoulder. She holds a lyre and
garland. Though "Sappho" is given prominence in the frame-the foreground-she
remains shadowed, literally and figuratively, by the male bust. The male bust is well lit
and clearly visible, while Sappho lingers in partial obscurity. Lawler's caption adds
another dimension to the image: "Is it the work, the location, or the stereotype that is the
institution?" With this text Lawler questions the meaning of the word "institution," in
this case, the art museum. Is an institution marked only by its physical place, by what it
houses, or is an institution its discourses? Evoking the epigraph by Fraser, is an
institution a name-the Metropolitan Museum of Art-situated in a particular building in
38 Solomon-Godeau credits Rosalyn Deutsche with this point in "Sexual Difference: Both Sides of the
Camera," 280. "As Rosalyn Deutsche has pointed out, both the title and the museum architecture Lawler
has pictured not only implicate the current heroization of painting, but conjure a shade of another
hierarchization-statue before painting, as in ladies before gentlemen."
39 Ibid., 280.
a distinct location, centralized around the collection of art? Or is it a "systematized set of
presentational procedures"-the way the art is organized, classified, made to appear
natural-thus sustaining, and continually engendering patriarchal values?
The caption, with its question form, opens a space for the viewer: "Is it the work,
the location, or the stereotype that is the institution?" The question is neither didactic nor
conclusive. Lawler's question prompts the viewer to assume the roles of both a reader
and a subject. The reader must recognize the photograph not as a mirror image, but as a
critical text-a text that simultaneously acts upon the viewer. The reader seeks out the
signification within the frame while also situating herself within the same
exhibition/display system-looking at Lawler's photographs within a museum, gallery,
journal, or art book. The work thus acts as a type of intervention into the site of art. The
art institution subjects the viewer but also constructs her. In this way, Lawler's art
attempts to generate a more critically aware art viewer, as well as a subject who is
gendered and sexed.
Artists in the late 1960S, 70S and 80s practiced what came to be called
"institutional critique." They took up the self-critical project of modernism and applied it
to the institution of art in an attempt to deconstruct the various discourses that name art.
Louise Lawler produces art that uses the institution of art as both target and weapon. Her
photographs and presentational procedures aim to index the discourses that construct
meaning and value in art. Her rigorous examination of the art object complements her
documentation of the museum/gallery as a multivalent node of power, the rise of the
conspicuous collector, and the viewer-subject constructed in and through visual
representations. Lawler's works point to the institution of art not just as a material
construction but also as an ideological mechanism, which operates through the circulation
of vital supplementary materials and presentational positions. Lawler does not target one
medium, but rather the whole institution of art, utilizing whatever medium, material, or
object, including photographs, matchbooks, and invitations, to intervene directly in the
particular site of exhibition, both material and discursive.
In this thesis I have situated the early work of Lawler within the art historical
context of institutional critique and its relationship to modernism as defined by the
writings of art critic Clement Greenberg. I examined Lawler's artistic strategies,
specifically her attention to the power of presentation and display as instruments in the
definition and production of meaning and value for the artwork and viewer. And lastly, I
imposed a feminist reading on the work. I theorized the construction of the viewer-
subject through questions of desire and sexuality, which ultimately are employed by the
"status quo" proscriptively for its own promotion and maintenance. The writings of
Michel Foucault on the dynamics of power inflect my readings of Lawler's practice
throughout my thesis. In his texts, Foucault argues for the deployment of power as
discursive with "a net-like organization." Rather than power enacted in human relations,
Lawler interrogates the manipulation of the art object in the local context of the artworld.
Using her camera to re-present works of art in exhibition spaces, both public and
private, Lawler positions the space and the apparatus of display as the frame
overdetermining the viewer's interpretation of the art. She displaces herself as "artist" in
order to underscore the marginal systems that actively shape the discourses of art.
Lawler's art allows the viewer to consider the ways in which art is presented, housed and
sold in an attempt to unsettle her/his perceptions and ideas of art. As a result, the project
of art is activated as a thoroughly critical practice of production and interpretation.
Figure 1. Louise Lawler, "An Arrangement of Pictures," Metro Pictures Gallery, New
Figure 2. Louise Lawler, Arranged by Donald Marron, Susan Brundage, Cheryl Bishop
at Paine Webber, Inc., 1982, cibachrome
Figure 3. Louise Lawler, Arranged by Mera and DonaldRubell, 1982, cibachrome
Figure 4. Louise Lawler, Pollock and Tureen, Arranged by Mr. AndMrs. Burton
Tremaine, Connecticut, 1984, cibachrome
Figure 5. Louise Lawler, Arranged by Claire Vincent at the Metropolitan Museum of
Art, New York City, 1982, cibachrome
WINNE AND OWIEU AME Y~nDO
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PIr TO DMIAIL, PARAuW
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Figure 6. Louise Lawler, (Allan McCollum and Other Artists) Lemon, 1981,
.... ... r u m y
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::"i:e..v: ... :' .
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NH]~~~~~~~rs Jara uriii :[ :::' .. "' -..* ,,",::" ,' :.
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Figure 7. Louise Lawler, (Holzer, Nadin and Other Artists) Baby Blue, 1981,
Figure 8. Louise Lawler, (Roy Lichtenstein and Other Artists) Black, 1982,
Figure 9. Louise Lawler, (Jenny Holzer and Other Artists) Kelly Green, 1982,
Figure 10. Louise Lawler, (Andy Warhol and Other Artists) Tulip, 1982,
Figure 11. Louise Lawler and Allan McCollum "For Presentation and Display: Ideal
Settings," Diane Brown Gallery, New York City, 1984
Figure 12. Louise Lawler, Group Exhibition, Artists Space, New York City, 1978
Figure 13. Louise Lawler, Objects, "Slides by Night: Now That We Have Your
Attention What Are We Going to Say?," Metro Pictures Gallery, New York
Figure 14. Louise Lawler, "Slides by Night: Now That We Have Your Attention What
Are We Going to Say?," Metro Pictures Gallery, New York City, 1985
Figure 15. Louise Lawler, "Slides by Night: Now That We Have Your Attention What
Are We Going to Say?," Metro Pictures Gallery, New York City, 1985
Figure 16. Louise Lawler, Statue Before Painting, Perseus in ih the Head of Medusa,
Canova, 1982, cibachrome
Is it the work, the location or the stereotype that is the institution?
Figure 17. Louise Lawler, Sappho and Patriarch, 1984, cibachrome
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Mariola V. Alvarez received both her bachelor's and master's degree in art history
from the University of Florida. She plans to begin her doctoral studies in the fall of 2005
and will continue to study and research the art of the modern period with a special
emphasis on the history of postmodern and feminist art.