OK, here's what I think of Marcel Broodthaers. I think.
To be honest, Broodthaers is not an artist I have spent much time considering. I know his work is wide-ranging and complex, but I'm not that familiar with it. As I never found its surface aspects very appealing, I've never been inclined to explore it in detail. By that I mean I don't really like the way it looks.
The association of Broodthaers's works with the recent trend of commodity art has also put me off. His resuscitation seems to ride somewhat on the coattails of that movement which—like much Pop Art—doesn't appeal to me especially, since I don't find the reduction of the art object to its economic value or position to be very interesting. Broodthaers is sometimes linked with the related, more overtly "political" tendency toward "museological" practices—those that focus on, or attempt to deconstruct, the conditions of the public presentation of artwork, usually in more privileged and powerful institutional sites like the museum. All of this leaves me cold.
I find it extremely interesting, however, that Broodthaers' pieces look so different from the kind of works to which they are usually compared. His works are unruly and provisional in a way that pop, commodity, and museological works rarely are. Visually, they remind me quite a bit of the neosurrealist junk assemblages associated with the Beat movement—works that are often overtly nostalgic and interiorized. This is where my respect for Broodthaers hits home, because his work is obviously not like that; and its difficult to figure precisely what it is. I find myself feeling stupid in the presence of his work, because I've been suckered by it. Hokey and obvious it may be, but I fall for its superficial museological ordering. It’s a kind of negative seduction. My attempts to stick Broodthaers's art into simple historical categories collapse because his systems are just too weird to tie down, and his intentions too convoluted to ascertain immediately. Then I feel guilty for wanting his work to look better. It looks just right for the confusing job it does, I guess.
Before I even knew they were linked, I felt a kinship between Broodthaers and René Magritte—and also, the early Jim Dine. Both are artists who have made works I respect very much. I like how in their works surface meaning wrestles with whatever other meaning there is. I like how object and language, the material and the mental, intertwine and become confused. This tension is overtly cruel. Magritte is cold, socialized, and mean. Dine is garish, cheap, and obvious. These are compliments. Broodthaers, though, is more devious. His work looks sentimental and heartfelt, all the while proclaiming its insincerity. Yet its true insincerity lies in the possibility that Broodthaers really is sentimental and heartfelt. He strikes me as a contrary artist—one who wants to have his cake and eat it, too. He desires to be sincere and insincere at the same time. I find that admirable.
There is a great tension between the "useful" and the "poetic" in Broodthaers’ work. I very much like his plastic signs. They have a straightforward cleanliness that is denied by both what they convey and the inconsistency of their design elements. The painted, vacuum-formed plastic signs he made for his Musee d'Art Moderne project (1968-1975) are a good example. What’s with the weird blobby border surrounding the central text in the sign for the Département des Aigles (1968) that includes the names David, lngres, Wiertz, and Courbet? Most of these signs refuse to adhere to any standard design logic. They are quite perverse, but in a very refined way. And, unlike much of his work, they really look good too.
Yet probably my favorite works of Broodthaers are the mussel shell pieces, like Grande Casserole des Moules (1966), where the shells heap up beyond the confines of their cooking pots and the lids sit on top. In one way, I like them simply because they are exotic. Unlike the eggshells, which he also uses, mussel shells are not common in America. The pieces, then, already stand in opposition to the "international style" of much pop, minimalist, and conceptual work. I'm glad about that. The mussel works strike me as overtly regional, yet Broodthaers plays simple games with them. While he wrote poems about mussels revealing the complex symbologies he invested in them, the works can be seen simply as arenas of overabundant materials—places where there's too much stuff. Such pieces are therefore regional and universal, complex and dumbly simple, bland and mysterious, all at once. I find myself hating them, but they continue to intrigue me. What more could you ask of an artwork?
I just changed my mind, I prefer the plastic signs.
First published in Marcel Broodthaers: Correspondences. Zürich: Hauser & Wirth and New York: David Zwirner Gallery, 1995.
Reprinted without permission.