The work of Marcel Broodthaers balances erudite postmodernism and a straightforwardness so literal that it borders on humorous. A “failed” poet, Broodthaers wholeheartedly embraced the contradictions embedded in the phrase “art object,” musing in a well-known introduction to his own exhibition catalogue:
I, too, wondered whether I could not sell something and succeed in life. For some time I had been no good at anything. I am forty years old… Finally the idea of inventing something insincere finally crossed my mind and I set to work straightaway. At the end of three months I showed what I had produced to Philippe Edouard Toussaint, the owner of the Galerie St Laurent. “But it is art” he said “and I will willingly exhibit all of it.” “Agreed” I replied. If I sell something, he takes 30%. It seems these are the usual conditions, some galleries take 75%. What is it? In fact it is objects.
Broodthaers was, by his own admission, sincerely involved in producing something insincere, something blatantly commodifiable. There’s a similarity in this attitude to Pop, but Broodthaers explored slightly different, if tangential, themes: language, institutional power, and politics, as opposed to Pop’s consumerism, mass production, and kitsch-as-high-art.
The conquest of space, Atlas for the use of artists and the military, currently on view in the Broodthaers retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, is a tiny book, measuring a diminutive 1 5/8 x 1 1/8 x 3/8 inches. Atlas demonstrates Broodthaers’s ability to explore serious political themes through a humorous, even ridiculous, interaction between viewer and object. The book’s title recognizes the political history of the European atlas, while simultaneously suggesting a premise that reads as either implausible or disturbing — that artists and the military might have similar colonization goals. While Atlas does, in fact, contain images of countries and continents, they are one to a page and therefore doubly useless — almost too small to see and totally lacking in spatial context. The book is wholly unsuitable for its stated purpose and makes a fool of readers, as human fingers are too large and too clumsy to be able to turn its pages with ease. Broodthaers is at his playful best here, turning viewers who think they “get” the joke into part of the joke — is Atlas a conceptual artwork, or is it really just a tiny, cute object?
Marcel Broodthaers: A Retrospective continues at the Museum of Modern Art (11 W 53rd Street, Midtown West, Manhattan) through May 15.
A limited edition of The Conquest Of Space: Atlas For The Use of Artists and The Military is available in the MoMA Store.