Legendary Artists Present Works Finished “By Proxy”

When French artist Marcel Duchamp took an old urinal, scrawled his nom de plume across the basin, and presented it upside down on a pedestal for a 1917 Paris gallery exhibition, he forever changed the landscape of modern art. Marking an evolution in his invention of the so-called “readymade,” an “art object” comprised of found or manufactured parts, the gesture wryly dethroned the industry’s long-held belief in the primacy of an artist’s hand, and opened the door for more complex and nuanced discussions of the meaning of authorship. Nearly one century later, a new exhibition at James Cohan Gallery takes as its subject the idea of the proxy—here encompassing any tools and techniques that contribute to the completion of an “artwork” but are not orchestrated by the artist.

Uniting sculptures, paintings, photographs, and installations by 13 artists who “do less and make more happen,” from Jon Rafman and Oliver Laric to John Cage, Alighiero e Boetti, Sol LeWitt and Duchamp himself, the show explores various conceptual legacies of the readymade, including ideas of collaboration and delegation, chance’s role in creative production, and the use of industrially fabricated items and materials.

Titled “By Proxy,” the show is anchored by one of Duchamp’s more intriguing readymades, With Hidden Noise (1916), which he produced by sandwiching a ball of twine between two brass plates—and asking his friend and patron Walter Arensberg to put a small item in the cavity, so that it rattles when shaken. Although Duchamp conceived the idea for the work, he is by no means exclusively responsible the finished product: he didn’t even know what makes the noise that ushers from it.

Other works on view take off from here: Boetti outsourced the stitching of his vibrant world Mappe to Afghani women, embracing unpredictable outcomes by allowing them to choose their own colors. Belgian artist Francis Alÿs, based in Mexico City, has periodically asked local sign painters to copy his paintings on small canvases; their interpretations are exhibited in the gallery alongside his, revealing personal flourishes and divergences as well as similarities, and positing the idea of the “original” author as curiously irrelevant.

Taken altogether, the recent and historic works featured in “By Proxy” constitute a fascinating survey of appropriation—a subject of particular relevance for a contemporary world culture defined by incessant re-tweeting and cultural sampling.  

—Emily Nathan

By Proxy” is on view at James Cohan Gallery, Nov. 20, 2014–Jan. 17, 2015.

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