Give Up and Laugh About It

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The other day I had accidentally hit the strikethrough function in Microsoft Word and so as I was typing my carefully chosen words, they were simultaneously being crossed out. “Okay, I get it,” I said to my MacBook, irritated that my machine was mocking my toil.

Two of this summer’s group shows addressed the sense of futility I felt: Cancelled, Erased & Removed, at Sean Kelly Gallery, included works spanning 1960-2008 that took as their subject paradoxical instances when the opposing forces of making and unmaking, growing and disintegrating, presenting and concealing are inseparable. Meanwhile, a distinctive vein of humor in Marion Goodman Gallery’s Deep Comedy, which covered 1970-2008, was the absurdity of meaningless gestures.

The historical cornerstone of Cancelled, Erased & Removed was Robert Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning (1953), in which the artist took an eraser to a drawing that the Abstract Expressionist Willem de Kooning had given him—thus the obliteration of one work gave birth to another. Knowing Rauschenberg’s plans, however, de Kooning challenged the younger artist by giving him the most heavily marked drawing he had, and indeed, Rauschenberg was not able to entirely rid the paper of its original image; faint traces of ink and crayon remain.

Fast forward half a century: in Mike Bidlo’s suite of 16 Erased de Kooning drawings (2005), one of which was up at Sean Kelly, Bidlo meticulously copied de Kooning’s drawings of women, photographed the replicas, erased his own work and then attached the photographed drawings to the backs of the their “originals.”

Rauschenberg’s act was art historically Oedipal: overtly hostile to Abstract Expressionism, the transformation of de Kooning’s dark drawing—via painstaking labor—to an essentially blank page signaled a revolt against AbsEx’s emphasis on universal expression, and the celebration of the unique painterly mark spilling forth from the tortured artist-genius.

Bidlo’s work is focused around a different, if related, set of issues—primarily the implications of appropriation. There are of course many ways to read this work, but one aspect of its meaning is that through its excess, Bidlo’s reprise pushes Rauschenberg’s gesture into the realm of the absurd. To spend endless hours mimicking the work of one artist (de Kooning) and to then un-do that work by mimicking the work of another artist (Rauschenberg) and to save the record of the original effort in a place where no one can see it (on the back of the erased drawing), is a colossal act of deadpan self-effacement.

Enter Deep Comedy. Curated by the artist Dan Graham with independent curator Silvia Chivaratanond, this exhibition brought together work that critiques social, political and artistic institutions through formal and conceptual strategies involving play and an inclination toward the absurd.

One of the strands within the show featured works that represented great amounts of energy being expended on pointless or fruitless activities, epitomized perhaps by Allen Ruppersberg’s Honey, I rearranged the collection (The Red and the Black) (2002). This poster-size silkscreened image of a fancy domestic interior is covered in Post-It Notes that offer desperate, funny, and poignant explanations of the work’s title: “Honey I rearranged the collection to separate works which seem to be about ideas from those which are truly splendid”; “Honey I rearranged the collection because that is all there is left to talk about”; “Honey I rearranged the collection but everything remained the same only more so.”

Humor is subjective, of course, but within the genre there is a lineage predicated on reaching too high, undertaking Sisyphusian tasks, and other acts that will most likely be wastes of energy ending in failure. When, against all odds, the underdog triumphs, we feel good; when he doesn’t, we’re supposed to think it’s funny. Lucy in the candy factory; Charlie Brown with his football; Corky St. Clair waiting for Guffman. What is it that’s so funny about futility?


  1. Dquiles says:

    Scattered thoughts:

    An expenditure of energy toward a futile cause is reminiscent of Robert Smithson’s interest in entropy, and might be attributed to his long shadow over contemporary art. Smithson was fascinated by systems that gradually lost energy over time, driveling away into oblivion.

    Some of the work Smithson produced with this idea was in fact quite humorous (this is an issue rarely discussed with conceptual art in general, and it seems that Graham’s small show might be an attempt to bring humor more to the fore). His slide show presentation Hotel Palenque, which lampoons the art history lecture by treating vacation photos of a dilapidated motel in Mexico as documentation of a Maya temple, is particularly funny; on the original audio from the performance that played at the Whitney retrospective, the audience could be heard laughing heartily.

    I would be interested in thinking about artists such as Hanne Darboven, who similarly made a point of repetitive labor toward no apparent end, but whose work is most definitely not funny. Wherein do the differences lie between “the absurd” and “the obsessive” or “insane?”

    In a more recent example, Lan Tuazon showed a work at the “Summer Mixtape” show at Exit Art that consisted of months of labor. The artist solicited friends to send mp3′s of their favorite love songs, chose 365 of them, and gradually compiled snippets of lyrics into a single, vastly footnoted text that even broke sub-genres of the love song down (and color-coded them). The end result was hilarious and familiar, the excess of labor standing in for love itself (be it of another person, or just good love songs).

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  2. Emily says:

    Yes, I think Smithson is a key figure in all this. That’s a great point about the audible laughter in the live recording–also a bit of a testament to the way art history can dry out art (speaking of which, I agree that in this show Graham/Chivaratonand are taking on the predominant conception of conceptual art as humor-less).

    Interesting question about what makes repetitive behavior funny or not–to take it way back, why is Sisyphus funny and Tantalus not? Probably because we empathize with Tantalus’ perpetual longing for the grapes (or Tuazon’s lovesong medley), whereas with Sisyphus, it’s more like “dude, give up already. Who cares about the rock?” So I guess I’m saying that I think the motivation for repeating (the end product/result) is important…but certainly so is the attitude toward the repetitive behavior (the process) –is it done in earnest, with ironic distance, etc?…those are my initial thoughts anyway…

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