In 1993 seven Cooper Union undergraduates, all members of the collective Art Club 2000, applied to work at Gap, with no success. So, lacking the benefit of employee access to company wares, they were forced to ingloriously Dumpster dive behind the company’s then-new East Village store (since closed) to collect ephemera for their first exhibition, “Commingle,” at the American Fine Arts, Co. that summer. They found all sorts of things: employee evaluations, interoffice memos, clothing, cash, paper and wrapping supplies, and a William Gibson novel, all of which were incorporated into the show. As a condition for giving the undergraduates their first exhibition, the gallery’s director, Colin de Land, became their unofficial mentor, orchestrator, and sometime collaborator. He required that they meet with him weekly to discuss art and politics in preparation for their debut, which he hoped would be “something that was interesting or visually compelling, something that might confuse or dismay; something not retrograde; something that would examine the condition of its own production; to make visible or obvious that which is latent in culture.”
Initially going by the name the Secret Art Club until officially adopting the Art Club 2000 moniker in 1994, the collective held intense question-and-answer sessions with de Land. This amounted to a high-stakes, real-life extension of their formal education under Hans Haacke and Mark Dion, and spurred a critical, if coolly ambivalent practice, from 1992 to 1999 (when the collective disbanded), that focused on corporate conflations of art, money, and consumerism.
At the time, Gap’s popularity was ascendant. The company’s omnipresent television advertisements featured young models and celebrities dressed in clean, crisp staples like khakis and pocket T-shirts, singing and dancing in front of simple, white backgrounds. Taking advantage of its “back to basics” success, Gap opened more than 4,000 stores across the globe. If the 19th century’s power structures were centered exclusively on nation-states and imperial forces, the 20th century’s belonged to more diffuse agents of capital, corporations key among them. Their advertising and marketing strategies monetized not only commodities but also subjectivities, and in the 1990s this happened in full force. As theorists Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri have claimed, corporations “produce needs, social relations, bodies and minds—which is to say, they produce producers.” Gap was, and in some ways still is, a quintessential multinational organization, and for the young collective it came to define the idea that “nothing escapes money,” as Hardt and Negri simply concluded.
For that first exhibition, not only did Art Club 2000 present its eclectic trash finds, but they also installed Gap lighting fixtures, stenciled gallery walls with appropriated corporate jargon, and created a series of blasé, trademark group self-portraits, often featuring collective members in matching Gap outfits. In Untitled (Donut Shop), 1992–93, they’re sitting nonchalantly at a café counter, while for Untitled (Wooster St./Gap Vampires), 1992–93, they’re standing in the middle of a SoHo street at night, imposingly massed together with black tank tops and crossed arms. Perhaps most memorably, though, Untitled (Conran’s 1), 1992–93, pictures the artists lounging like tired, overeager young consumers in a luxury furniture store, stretching out on couches and leaning over chairs. An absurd number of dark blue Gap shopping bags sit conspicuously between the couches, tables, and sofas.
The photographs featuring the collective’s crew in identical uniforms literalize Gap’s all-encompassing and wide-ranging style: Race and gender differences between group members are tempered by the company’s homogenizing fashions. While Gap’s ad campaign at the time, “Individuals of Style,” promoted the brand’s self-expressive, idiosyncratic potential, more often than not it made everyone look the same in “back to basics” polos and jeans, with the ubiquitous square Gap logo. Art Club 2000 replicated this logo for an Artforum advertisement for the “Commingle” show. Featuring de Land disguised by shadows and smoking a cigarette, the spread featured the logo prominently in the bottom right corner—when the group wanted to “do” Gap, it did it well.
I would know. Unlike members of Art Club 2000, I was actually hired to work for the company at a suburban mall in Atlanta during my high school years. So all this cuts very close. I became, as embarrassing as it is to admit, a devoted acolyte of the brand, falling for it hard. I pinned discarded visual displays to my wall and memorized the television ads by heart. When prompted by my manager, I even danced a version of Gap’s Juliette Lewis holiday TV spot for visiting executives, like some sort of corporate, super-gay circus performer.
For its mimickry, Art Club 2000 was threatened with litigation by the company, which member Patterson Beckwith claimed energized the collective; the artists thought it gave their efforts real efficacy, though such suggestions of critical purpose are suspect. Art Club 2000 members shared a post-Pop attitude with other New York City–based artists—namely Bernadette Corporation. Members of that collective also participated in American Fine Arts, Co. exhibitions, holding their subject matter at arm’s length and resisting any polemical judgment calls about the economy around them. Such ambivalence stems in part from Art Club’s self-deprecating spirit, as artist Jackie McAllister has noted, but also from the fact that its members never saw any alternative to the market. After 1968, when anticapitalist strategies failed spectacularly, there was in the art world a growing acceptance of the market’s dominance, even an embrace of it. Andy Warhol led the way, and the appropriation artists of the ’80s and ’90s, such as Jeff Koons, Richard Prince, and Cindy Sherman, presented popular culture as is, if not completely glorified. In Sherman’s self-portraits of a woman stuck in plotless cinematic conventions, we can see a contemporary subject, fully formed by movies, the media, and fashion.
After the neoliberal economic policies of the 1990s let capitalism flourish unfettered, Art Club 2000 dove headfirst into that decade’s consumer apogee, making very legible the dictum that if you can’t fight it, you might as well join it—or, as in my case, take a job at Gap and sing the market’s praises.
In an interview at the time with Grand Royal magazine, collective member Daniel McDonald asserted, “I don’t actually object to Gap, but I’m interested and concerned with the omnipresence of Gap and how invisible they are. Even though they’re everywhere and you always see the stores, there’s a kind of invisibility to Gap,” he declared. “You can wear the Gap brand without really noticing you’re wearing it. I’m not really against what they’re doing. I think it’s part of the development of a sort of total, end-all capitalism.”
New York City itself—which at this time was becoming increasingly globalized and corporatized—became the epitome of this “end-all” market influence. With its sheer quantity of advertising and resultant intense corporate influence, Times Square perhaps best embodied the shift from real life to an existence preprogrammed for consumption, becoming the charged setting for Untitled (Times Square/Gap Grunge 1), 1992–93. It features the members of Art Club 2000 in coordinated Gap denim shorts, vests, and bandannas, the lights from nearby 42nd Street billboards glinting in their uniform black sunglasses—porous shields, if ever there were ones. No longer autonomous subjects, the members of the group became totally conditioned to the market even in their antiestablishment grunge posturing.
The use of Times Square was prescient. The area later became synonymous with Rudy Giuliani’s quality-of-life cleansing campaign during his 1994–2001 term as mayor of New York, when he forfeited the intrinsic seediness and crime of the square for a more sanitized commercial landmark. The mayor also instigated heavy-handed crime prevention measures, in which a zero-tolerance policy toward minor infractions—such as jaywalking or subway fare evasion—was part of a larger effort to clamp down on crime and make the city more business friendly. “What is a cop?” became an open-ended inquiry for Art Club 2000 members. The question, often arising in their conversations, instigated one of the group’s last exhibitions in 1998, “Night of the Living Dead Author,” which presented two rows of life-size identical cardboard policemen cutouts that confronted viewers at American Fine Arts, Co. As if marching forward from the wall behind them (which separated the front gallery from the back), the cops overlapped slightly as they progressed, their orange eyes matching the eerie glow emanating from a partially obscured LED display. Each “cop” wore a sash emblazoned with “Punishing Enforcer of a Progressive Regime,” a nod to the business-friendly interests of the city.
Tying big business specifically to art world figures, the gallery’s backroom prominently featured two black leather ottomans, on loan from the Castelli gallery. These Mies van der Rohe–designed pieces were bathed in the light of an orange LED display that closely resembled one of Jenny Holzer’s scrolling text works. It continually looped writing by Art Club 2000 member Craig Wadlin, offering biting commentary on commercially established artists in lines such as this:
“Mariko Mori’s practice of modeling herself on heroines from manga and anime…Vanessa Beecroft’s signature presentation of uniformly stripped young women in the vein of fashion…and Matthew Barney’s Nike romanticism of sports and mythology…without so much as a wee bit of criticism of these forms or industries…. A vast number of artists build careers around a particular facet of an already determined culture…(i.e., fashion, film, advertising, television, music, science, history, politics)….These artists seem to side with the death of authorship by attaching themselves to some meaningful source…but mean only to reclaim the spoils of authorship…by creating an identity inseparable from their work…continuing to supply the system without attempting to change it.”
Like the exhibition’s title, Wadlin makes reference to Roland Barthes’s seminal essay “The Death of the Author,” which claims that a text must be freed from the biases of any authority figure, since “text is a tissue of quotations” that can never be owned, determined, or otherwise authored. Since many of the artists cited by Wadlin made inherently appropriative work—grabbing this and that from fashion, advertising, or other consumer conventions—the collective found the subsequent authorship of, and profit from, such appropriations dubious and the lack of criticism of the market offensive. Though to be fair, the collective issued a caveat to its claims, as the rolling screen also decried the “simplistic misunderstanding of theory by Art Club 2000.”
Indeed, this tongue-in-cheek self-deprecation somewhat pulled the rug out from under the complaints—not to mention the fact that the collective was doing things similar to the art stars whom members were railing against. Again, we see them toe the line between complicity and critique with good-humored candor.
Perhaps this is why one of the group’s Gap ads is the featured publicity shot for the New Museum’s current group exhibition centering on that pivotal decade, “NYC 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star.” Taking its subtitle from a Sonic Youth album, the show strives to triangulate a time when, on the heels of the 1980s art market depression, the value of art skyrocketed, taking the members of the underground with it.
In the end, members of Art Club 2000 reveal themselves as acutely sensitive to the wayward effects of an expanding economy, though they don’t offer any solutions. Moreover, they suggest there aren’t any, a position still relevant to today’s economic climate, and one very much of interest to artists like Liz Magic Laser, Claire Fontaine (who flatly claimed in an interview that “Guy Debord is dead”), and numerous others. Though its members were never commercially successful, perhaps Art Club 2000’s real purchasing power was its self-aware stance. The collective may not have been able to fight the system, but at least its members knew that they were a part of it (as we all are), whether they liked it or not.
This article appears in the April 2013 issue of Modern Painters.