"Of all the frames, envelopes, and limits — usually not perceived and certainly never questioned — which enclose and constitute the work of art (picture frame, niche, pedestal, palace, church, gallery, museum, art history, economics, power, etc.) there is one rarely even mentioned today that remains of primary importance: the artist’s studio." This remark, penned in 1971 by the French Conceptualist Daniel Buren, throws new light on that complex refuge, the studio. For if the atelier has been both the site and the subject of representation, the space of world making, then an undercurrent in recent art provides a new address both to what Svetlana Alpers has called the "forward, probing lean" of traditional studio practices — that is, their future-oriented creative tilt — and to the static framing of their results by the museum.
A project at the Whitney Museum in New York this past fall posed an extraordinary meditation on the studio’s fecundity, while preserving some of its antic, mutable poetics. Corin Hewitts Seed Stage, in the museum’s lobby-level gallery, presented viewers with an unusual reconfiguration of the relation between the studio artist and the space of display. The central volume of the gallery was taken up with a large white structure, a functionalist shack roughly twice as long as it was wide; the pristine exterior walls of this studio left only a narrow corridor around the gallery’s perimeter for visitors to circulate in. The corners of the studio had been cut away to leave shoulder-width gaps through which the interior could be seen. Inside what might be thought of as the architectural "core" of the project the artist carried on his daily activities, eating, reading, cooking, moving objects about, storing them or retrieving them, arranging and photographing them in a kind of continuous puttering. He also tended boxes of worm-filled compost, grew vegetables from the seeds of those he’d eaten, or returned leavings (fruit skins as well as photographs) to the boxes of mulch. These activities in turn yielded photographs of maquettes made with foodstuffs and modeling putty and anything else at hand. The latter images, at least those that survive, serve as the documentary residue of the piece itself. Scattered around the periphery of the gallery, the photographs functioned as "seeds," inasmuch as while they emerged as the "fruit" of the labors taking place inside the studio they were often as not returned to that space to be rephotographed, or bottled, or mulched and, by implication, to serve as the visual ground for new elements.
The studio itself was capped by a frieze of color swatches while the walls and floor of the space were tinted gray. A large three-dimensional color wheel made of modeling putty provided the material from which copies of food were made; both palette and storage dump, this object testified to the mutabililty of materials — nothing went unused, everything provided fodder. "I keep remaking things and eating things," Hewitt explained during an interview. "Before I cook a squash I make a sculpture of it out of Plasticine and then I eat the squash and I’m left with the sculpture, which I then boil down and reuse by putting it back on my color wheel, so that my color wheel keeps getting fed."
On weekends, the artist was visually accessible to viewers through the slits cut at each corner of his studio, each of which provided a limited if wide-angled view onto the set. The slit "was a solution to finding an image-based relationship to a physical space," Hewitt explains. This understanding of the studio-laboratory through photography renders the chamber itself as a camera, that is, a small room with a limited view. "I’m trying to create a language of photography where it can be redigested very quickly," says Hewitt, "so photographs that now go up come back in and you never know as a viewer how long they’ve been there, how long they will be there, what order they were taken in, only that they have a relation to the site."
Indeed, Hewitt conceived of Seed Stage in quasi-theatrical terms. The rectangular enclosure contained about 10 feet of workshop space, at the end of which was a kitchen counter that also marked the beginning of the "stage," the elevated platform under, behind, and in front of which various activities take place. Underneath the stage was a root cellar and water system while above, a set of rolling shelves with canned and dried goods. As with nearly every dimension of the Whitney installation, these built elements were generated through a form of retooling, taking the Breuer profile of the Whitney’s building, mutating it at the scalar and planar levels, and rendering it horizontally (as flooring-stage) and vertically (as shelving).
The performed dimension of Seed Stage most immediately seems to reward notions of solitary artistic mystery and the inaccessibility of the creative impulse. But while Hewitt is interested in the work of Caspar David Friedrich (among many others), rather than arguing for a return to the romantic model of the isolated artist, his work throws that notion into the tub along with significant doses of Kurt Schwitterss Merzbau. If anything, he distills an alternative, possibly even a dialectical way of thinking about the artist’s material working space. "I want it to be a sense of agency both in the perception of what’s happening but also in the action that’s being taken," he says. Seed Stage is, then, a place of productive and perceptual mobility, addressed to "the very open relational possibilities between things, but also to the limits of reproduction and the anxieties of reproduction."
This evocation of limits and anxieties, as well as the recasting of the artist in terms of agency rather than pure creativity, is emblematic of a major sea change in the conception of what takes place in an artist’s studio. Where Gustave Courbets 1855 painting The Artist’s Studio showed, as the painter put it, "the whole world coming to me to be painted," a little over a hundred years later Courbet’s equation between the world and its representation was revisited and thoroughly transformed in several signal pieces of what would come to be known as institutional critique. Perhaps most influential among these is Marcel Broodthaerss 1968 staging, in his Brussels apartment, of his Musée d’Art Moderne, Départment des Aigles, Section XIXe Siècle, an extended tongue-in-cheek display of art-packing crates, postcards, museum signage, all inaugurated by a press conference; Broodthaers duplicated the same apartment from memory in plywood inscribed with words in place of objects in 1975, in La salle blanche, restaging this "museum fiction" at a one-to-one scale. (La salle blanche ultimately became the template for, among many other contemporary projects, Rirkrit Tiravanijas various restaged live-work spaces.) The Belgian was not alone in this recon-ception of the studio. In 1962 the Swiss artist Daniel Spoerri produced his Topographie anécdotée du hasard, a meticulous documentation of all the elements to be found on a table in room 13 of the Hotel Carcassonne in Paris, where he was then staying. Like Broodthaers, he revisited and revised this project, in 1964 on a visit to New York, when he opened his room at the Chelsea Hotel to gallerygoers, who would find therein the clutter of everyday living alongside various of his signature "snare pictures" and assemblages. The conceptualist Edward Krasinski, whose signature mark of standard blue adhesive tape placed at a height of 130 centimeters elided Constructivism and Surrealism, worked on converting his Warsaw studio into a complex and living artwork from 1988 until his death in 2004, circumnavigating the entirety of its space (save one small room) with the blue tape. This act combined the order of high end and even metaphysical geometric abstraction with the clutter of the everyday, from leftovers to sentimental tchotchkes to other works-in-progress. Like Spoerri’s seaming of the lived, including leftover meals, and the displayed, or Broodthaers’s various "domestications" of the museum, Krasinski’s procedure also linked his studio to his exhibitions by literally taping them together, via the blue tape strip of "length unknown," as he put it, in a continuous line since the 1960s, when he first adopted the mark. His studio, on the 11th floor of an Iron Curtain-era apartment block, has been preserved as the Avant-Garde Institute.
While the dominant legacy of these conceptual projects has been the "poststudio" explorations of artists like Renee Greene or Andrea Fraser that take up the museum as a discursive site, or that, as with the ateliers of Olafur Eliasson or Erik van Lieshout, reconceive a studio practice in terms more akin to a think tank or design workshop, another direction, which is gaining momentum of late, is to exploit the studio as a generative space. These new and mostly process-based projects (such as Corin Hewitt’s) address with pointed obliquity the private exertions, the obscurity, and the sheer doggedness of creative work that those poststudio works have tended to skirt. Jean Silverthornes 1999 installation at the Whitney Altria, The Studio Stripped Bare, Again, presented a cast-rubber one-to-one rendering of her studio space. In a show currently on view at the SculptureCenter in Queens, New York, artist Melanie Gilligans Prison for Objects, a two-person performance that takes place between the scrap heap of a fictional artist’s workspace and a fictional art critic’s laptop, asks directly and metaphorically about the dynamic of creative reproduction.
Installation is one way of bringing the studio into the museum, but large-screen projection and photography tend to be the mediums of choice. The ecology of the studio has been a topos in several stunning video projects. Bruce Naumans Mapping the Studio I (Fat Chance, John Cage) (2000), an immersive four-screen projection of surveillance video of his rural studio in New Mexico, in which the nighttime predation of his studio cat, along with fleeting views of scurrying mice, perversely reiterates that "primordial" sense of things "being experienced" — in this case, the experience being the very tension of attention. Gillian Wearings work with the vagrants who pass their days outside, and sometimes in, her working space, has yielded a number of monumental and desperate works, most importantly the rather horrifying large-screen triptych projection Drunk (2000), as well as a pendant photographic series. Hilary Lloyds Studio (2007), takes up where Wearing’s oddly wrenching critique of expressionism leaves off in exploring the stray marks left behind by the unknown abstract painter who had previously inhabited her working space. This wall-scale video diptych literally tracks the creative residue of the absent artist, using the remnants of his process as visual scaffolding while its exhaustive documentation of these expressive marks unravels the very premise of video documentary.
As spectacular as these projects are, and as voyeuristic their initial propositions, the surveillance strategies on which they rest present the promise of a lapse into chaos — hence the need for the apparatus of discipline and control. The creepy banality of their fascination with the potentially disobedient other merely heightens, of course, our awareness of our own attractions to, filiations with, and rejections of disorder. Bringing these private and obsessive work spaces into the museum, if anything, poses a dysfunctional collaboration with the audience: we are voyeurs rather than relational participants, and the studio, whether the artist’s or that of a fictional persona, is a generative but fundamentally opaque site. And yet — Courbet was right, somehow — we are implicated within it.
This makes for an interesting set of tensile gray areas, as the viewer’s position oscillates between identification with and rejection of both artist and object. This is one of the most compelling issues raised by Corin Hewitt’s project: Which fruit to eat, the luscious one made of Plasticine or the juicy organic one? Each time a lump of colored putty is returned to its color wheel, the base color moves more toward gray. Yet Hewitt demurs that his project is abjectly entropic: "Very few things to me seem abject." The operative term more rightly would be composting, the most alchemically poetic of biointensive processes. Indeed, the gray of Seed Stages interior was derived from a vast mixology of annual colors (Martha Stewart pinks; Ralph Lauren beiges) "composted" into a "fertile gray" while other elements are pigmented in tonal ranges rather than in extremes. "I tried to get rid of polarities," Hewitt explains. "I was interested in the ways that grays and browns can be ‘compost.’"Seed Stage then is an environment that curves back on itself, from the integration of the Whitney’s Breuer profile to the absorption of photographic subject matter. Perhaps this notion of the studio as fragile ecosystem is one that encompasses the viewer also, so that, when encountering a work that closely approximates an artist’s studio, he or she becomes activated by the creative process.
"Perception is a choice," says Hewitt.
"Studio Visit" originally appeared in the March 2009 issue of Modern Painters. For a complete list of articles from this issue available on ARTINFO, see Modern Painters' March 2009 Table of Contents.