ST. LOUIS — “Burn this book after you read it,” implores the inside flap of Grapefruit, Yoko Ono’s 1964 collection of 150 prompts aiming to blur the boundary between artist and reader, imagination and reality. Across from the stately colophon, an ink doodle of a blank box flirts below an invitation to “write your own” synopsis, with “name, weight, sex, colour” scribbled in lower-case letters. On the black-and-white cover, Ono looks at us over her bare shoulder, whose rounded form visually mimics the volume’s title. With her untamed mane and oversized aviators, the conceptual artist seems to dare us to partake in something wild and delicious.
It is with such fruitful irreverence that visitors are invited to step into the first gallery of the Pulitzer Arts Foundation this summer, or rather, step onto a scrap of black canvas conspicuously placed before the service desk. On the opening night of Assembly Required, Ono’s “Painting to Be Stepped On” (1960–61/2022) remained pristine, a sign that the overwhelming pedestrian instinct in an art museum is to proceed with care and caution. A few months later, the fabric was frayed at the edges, scuffed with competing treads of sneaker soles en route to see an installation of typewritten index cards from Grapefruit a few yards away. In other words, the “painting” was complete.
Curated by Stephanie Weissberg and spanning six decades and eight artists of diverse backgrounds, Assembly Required starts from the premise that direct public engagement — that which, in her 1958 The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt called “action” — is fundamental to transforming society. Sounds heady? This, like the show’s organization, would be by felicitous design. Dotting the main gallery wall, the geometric garments of German artist Franz Erhard Walther’s 1960s series First Work Set visually pop in crimson, mustard, eggplant, and taupe. On a gray carpet below — which uncannily matches the concrete museum floor — we are invited to don some of the whimsical clothes, but only if a friend, or stranger, is keen to join. Down the stairs, the wire-mesh door of Brazilian artist Hélio Oiticica’s “Penetrável Macaléia,” from 1978, peeks out of a “penetrable,” a human-sized box inspired by Rio de Janeiro’s favelas. In keeping with the show’s spirit, it is open for curious viewers to enter. Outside, overlooking a monumental Richard Serra sculpture (part of the Pulitzer’s permanent collection), the 36 red-orange wooden cubes that comprise Pakistani-British artist Rasheed Araeen’s Zero to Infinity (1968/2002) are precariously stacked like giant Jenga blocks; forming a stable structure demands some level of collaboration among the parts.
As its colorful, interactive artworks enliven the solemn minimalist space, the show breathes an idealism that could buoy a dour cynic. But beyond the late-20th century modernist quixoticism, a more exigent set of questions surfaces from the visual and spatial conversations that reverberate across the space: Why, in an era that privileges individual hustle over communal bonds, are we so afraid of the act of play — on our own, and especially with others? How much does a museum space prohibit real play, and can it ever be a democratic, even radical, place?
Devoting at least one gallery to each of its eight artists to immerse viewers in each playscape, as it were, the exhibition prioritizes spontaneous connection building — both conceptual and social — over art historical or theoretical didacticism. Iranian-American artist Siah Armajani’s Alfred Whitehead Reading Room (2013) resembles a life-sized kids’ playhouse — that is, if such confines were lined with bookshelves holding the published works of Alfred North Whitehead. Inside the wooden, yellow-roofed hut, a metropolis of perfectly sharpened pencils sprouts from a chest-high desk, beckoning to be used for annotation — or illustration — in the philosopher’s books. Skimming through the amusing, and occasionally profane, figures hand drawn on the pages of Whitehead’s 1927 Symbolism: Its Meaning and Effect, I felt emboldened to contribute my own zany musings, with the hope that a future reader would stumble upon it.
In two of the lower-level galleries, the red, yellow, and blue sculptural objects of Brazilian contemporaries Lygia Clark and Lygia Pape are arranged on white tables and shelves, practically begging to be handled. Like fellow Neo-Concrete artist Hélio Oiticica, Clark and Pape prized democratic modes of art making that call upon viewers not only to engage, but to create. In this exhibition’s version of Clark’s “Caminhando,” originally from 1980, a pair of scissors and piled sheets of paper are meant to be multiplied into a continuous Möbius strip; a delicate mountain of chained loops quickly ascends after each group visit. On the other side of the room, Pape’s Book of Creation — originally from 1959-60, but remade for the Pulitzer — leans against a wall, where its square, hand-crafted pages can be picked up, manipulated, and reassembled to create a new narrative. Both Clark’s and Pape’s works suggest that it is high time to strap on a colorful mask and play with someone you don’t know — or don’t know well enough.
Featured in the final gallery is perhaps the most seemingly optimistic — and ambiguous — artwork. When Faith Moves Mountains, a 2002-3 performance piece organized and recorded by Belgian artist Francis Alÿs is projected on a screen. In it, 500 student volunteers literally shovel out sections of a sand dune outside Lima, Peru. On the one hand, the fact that the sweating mass of young people made a four-inch dent in the sand seems to suggest that real change is possible via collective labor; on the other (aching) hand, the nature of sand is to shift with the wind from day to day: any movement forward may be in vain.
“Sleep two walls away from each other,” reads the first line Ono’s “Wall Piece I” (1963), part of the Grapefruit series. “Whisper to each other.” During a time in which so many of us have been forced to eat, sleep, and dream from many walls away, gathering to look at art with other people can feel downright utopian — a throwback to halcyon days in which unsanitized hands might join in protest or performance. Now that it’s somewhat safer to broach the six-foot border, our “assembly” might be even more necessary — if not to transform the world then simply to hold onto what it means to be human.
Assembly Required continues at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation (3716 Washington Boulevard, St. Louis, Missouri) through July 31. The exhibition was curated by Stephanie Weissberg.