Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 4, 2023
Claire Grace Art Demonstration: Group Material and the 1980s Cambridge, MA: October Books, 2022. 432 pp.; 29 color ills.; 84 b/w ills. Paper $40.00 (9780262543521)

In the 1980s, New York City was marked by a series of crises including the AIDS epidemic, gentrification, crumbling infrastructure, and the ascent of neoliberal politicians whose attacks social welfare made the compound emergency faced by residents of the city all the more dire. This complex of social and economic devastation emerged with renewed skepticism about the artist’s capacity to disturb prevailing power structures alongside an interrogation of the role of art making in relation to more conventional types of activism. As Gran Fury put it in a 1988 poster advertising The Kitchen’s winter performance program, when it came to combatting the AIDS epidemic, “ART IS NOT ENOUGH.” In her new monograph on Group Material, the first to focus entirely on the collective, Claire Grace provides an illuminating account of how one group of artists negotiated this question of whether a politicized aesthetic remained viable at the end of the twentieth century. In doing so, her book joins the work of scholars such as Claire Bishop, Miwon Kwon, and others in breaking down the relationships and fault lines that emerge between artistic form and political intervention in supposedly “social” and “participatory” practices in the 1980s and 1990s.

Grace positions the collective’s curatorial tactics and its attention to active, public forms of reception (the subway, billboards, public facades) as a genealogical inflection point, growing out of earlier movements such as the Soviet avant-garde yet anticipating the “social turn” of the 1990s whose protagonists generally downplayed the value of aesthetics altogether. Highlighting Group Material’s sustained belief in the material consequences of spectatorship and viewing, Grace surveys a select group of exhibitions to illuminate their simultaneous positioning of the aesthetic as “a technique of demonstration” and “the reason to demonstrate” (312). In doing so, she manages to reorganize the critical terrain encompassing 1980s artistic production, one that has rested all too comfortably on a reified boundary between poststructuralist theories of representation—along with the Pictures generation they became associated with—and artists who dismissed this brand of political thought as cynical nihilism. In the latter group, artists such as Conrad Atkinson and Hans Haacke focused instead on mapping the material relationships between artistic production and the world at large. Bridging this gap between semiotic and structural analysis, between a politics of the image and politics full stop, Group Material formulated a critical approach Grace describes as “materialist postmodernism” (28). In so far as “materialist postmodernism” balances aesthetic and activist concerns, Art Demonstration is another example of its bilateral focus. Grace fluidly moves back and forth between the political organizations the collective collaborated with and its imbrication within the 1980s art world, mirroring Group Material’s practice at the level of historical methodology.

Even while Grace stresses Group Material’s commitment to fomenting a politicized viewership and breaking down the gulf between art and life, she successfully avoids the pitfalls of romantic overestimation. Across each chapter, the author balances the collective’s aspirations against the stultifying realities of political life in the 1980s, one in which the ideals of democracy, avant-garde rupture and the outsmarting of capital seemed increasingly improbable, even fantastical. Indeed, Art Demonstration shows that much of Group Material’s most significant work was accomplished through showcasing the urgent demise of these sorts of critical ambitions, strategically modeling the political imaginary’s steady erosion.

Grace’s first test case is Group Material’s contribution to the 1985 Whitney Biennial, Americana. In this chapter, she makes the case for exhibition making as the crucial strategy underlying the collective’s overall practice, describing how the group’s “critical recontextualization” of artworks in relation to readymade commercial products articulates the inscription of cultural signs within much larger systems of production, distribution and reception (44). Grace argues that Group Material updates Pictures generation tactics of appropriation into three-dimensions, formulating an agitational phenomenology that rescripts minimalism’s self-aware viewer by creating political tableaux in which moving, sensing and looking are translated as acts of ideological positioning. More didactic than Marcel Broodthaers’s parafictional museums but nevertheless invested in artistic habits of looking and staging, Grace establishes Group Material’s exhibition interiors, or “expanded montages,” as the collective’s aesthetic backbone (99). In doing so, she provides an important throughline between late modernist sculpture and installation art at the end of the twentieth century, drawing out the nascent political possibilities of site reflexivity through the lens of Group Material’s installations. Furthermore, she bypasses the denigration of commodity sculpture in the 1980s, situating Group Material’s (mis)use of commercial objects as part of their decidedly leftist and anticapitalist project.

Grace’s second chapter moves on to the chronological tactics of Group Material’s timeline installations. Providing a detailed description of Timeline: The Chroncile of U.S. Intervention in Latin and Central America (1984) as well as the group’s more widely known AIDS Timeline (first made in 1989), Grace frames Group Material’s approach to the past as a “parallax view” composed of historical research and contemporary (artistic) responses (153). In this way, the collective is able to support multiple historical modalities, maintaining a relatively conventional chronological frame that is purposefully fractured into contingent issues and affective responses raised by the artists invited to participate. These “hypertext armature[s] for the production, storage and distribution of data” never settle into authoritative historical narratives, instead opening up neocolonial and epidemiological crises riddled by misinformation, editorializing and obfuscation to the friction of competing perspectives (169). Grace’s characterization of the timelines as a methodological proposal, and specifically a Foucauldian one, once again renders the collective’s work as an installation-based translation of appropriation art. Breaking out of the confines of the photographic frame so often used by Sherrie Levine or Cindy Sherman, however, Grace showcases how Group Material spatializes appropriation to match the scale of its site of display.

Chapters three and four shift from installations shown in museums and galleries to focus on Group Material’s interventions into public display formats and their interrogations of publicness more generally. Grace turns first to the collective’s 1983 project Subculture for which contributing artists displayed work in the overhead advertising spaces of New York City subway cars. Grace describes the ambivalence of the accepted works, which were constrained by the bureaucratic oversight and the infrastructure of the subway cars even as many works indicted the negligence of the Metropolitan Transit Association (MTA). Citing the transitive nature of the subway system and the expressivity of much of the painting involved, Grace argues for the project’s criticality, framing its ever-moving, subjective inscriptions of resistance as devices that open up the possibility of inculcating subcultural opposition. Her framing of the installation’s painting makes an important contribution to the discourse on 1980s neo-expressionism, insisting—alongside writers like Isabelle Graw—on the medium’s ability to function within conceptual projects.

Somewhat surprisingly, Grace stops short of reading Subculture as a baroque orchestration of its titular subject’s dissolution. Subculture remains in her analysis a shimmering potentiality gestured towards by Group Material’s project, an argument that ultimately softens our focus on the institutional framing of the exhibition by the MTA. Grace certainly addresses this context and argues for the persistent possibility of subversion; however, the manner in which the exhibition itself allegorizes the metabolization of subcultural forms—which she certainly considers—was the more clearly articulated and intriguing aspect of the chapter. With the author’s subsequent discussion of Group Material’s Da Zi Bao project, however, the collective’s capacity to model the decline of public speech and community is brilliantly foregrounded. Describing the collective’s purposeful mistranslation of the Chinese dazibao posters—public forms of democratic protest and propaganda—as definitively authored, often physically inaccessible and systematized art objects, Group Material successfully “signaled the disjunction, even incommensurability, between the political frameworks they cite and the dominate culture of their time and location” (312). Democracy is subsequently rendered a “vanishing point” rather than the promised result of the group’s project, an absented potentiality beyond the scope of the politically possible (313). Grace’s analysis carves out new ground for a critical attitude situated somewhere in between ironic detachment and self-righteous piety, one attached to political participation but unafraid of tracing its contemporary attenuation.

In addition to the book’s important complications of 1980s artistic discourses, on a very granular level Grace’s book offers a remarkably detailed account of some of Group Material’s most well-known installations from the period. The collective’s material dispersion and the works by other artists they incorporate are in each chapter dutifully spelled out along with their composition in space, making for a text in which the politically attuned phenomenology she describes is ultimately legible for the reader. Art Demonstration is also an essential resource for histories of exhibitions and installation art. On one hand, it focuses on a collective that productively conflates these aesthetic categories. On the other, Grace’s book narrates the installation frame as a mechanism for engaging habits of artistic and informational reception rather than as a metonym for relational aesthetics and participatory practice. The great value of Grace’s text is this persistent return to questions of formal specificity, of how to tackle the compositional maneuvers of constructing an entire room or intervening into public space. It is in those decisions one associates with art, she shows, that one arrives at the particular nature of Group Material’s demonstration.

Blake Oetting
PhD candidate, New York University