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Art and the Institution

Art viewing, for the most part, takes place in museums, galleries, auction houses, and private collections—these are considered the "institutions" of the art world. Art has had a long and evolving relationship with the institutions in which it is exhibited. 

The earliest museums date back to the Italian Renaissance, though private collections date back even further. Many of the world’s most iconic museums, such as the British Museum in London, the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, and the Louvre in Paris, opened in the late-18th century. Around this time, national academies became major authorities on style and taste, which eventually led to confrontations between artists and these institutions. Edouard Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass (Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe), now considered a masterpiece, was rejected from the 1863 Paris salon. Some have argued that the history of modern art has been defined by conflict between convention and subversion ever since. In the 1960s, Conceptual Art’s focus on ideas over style proved to be a key tactic for art that sought to provoke critique. As an example, Joseph Kosuth’s dictionary definition photographs show us that what lies inside the frame is just one possible way of looking at the world.

A current exhibition at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, called “Take It or Leave It: Institution, Image, Ideology” is revisiting the history of Institutional Critique, which is historically associated with a group of artists beginning in the 1960s who directly challenged the settings in which their work was exhibited. Among the most commonly mentioned names are Marcel BroodthaersDaniel Buren, and Hans Haacke. Their works were certainly transgressive. In Musée d’Art Moderne (1968), Broodthaers collected readymade and fabricated objects in a room and labeled each with the words “This is not a work of art.” Buren challenged the notion of institutional space and authorship by pasting prefabricated stripe paintings in the outdoor spaces of Paris–this has been seen as a predecessor to Street Art. Haacke has worked in the vein of institutional critique for decades; in 1993, his Venice Biennale installation Germania provoked visitors to consider the ties between the country’s national pavillion and its Nazi past.

In keeping with the spirit of critique, “Take It or Leave It” suggests that we not place the concept of Institutional Critique too neatly inside a box, that is, to think of it not as a defined style with only one history but instead as a way of practicing art with many histories leading up to the present. To this end, the exhibition presents a diverse body of work that ties Institutional Critique as much to Conceptual Art as it does to other practices such as Appropriation and the political struggles surrounding Feminismrace, and sexual identity.

For instance, Mary Kelly’s expansive work Post-Partum Document (1973-79), which consists of 165 pieces, rigorously documents the first six years of the artist’s son’s life. The work’s systematic idea and execution take their cue from the cerebral tendencies of Conceptual Art. However, Kelly inserts an intensely emotional element into her process that is visible in the final result. Her work shows us that despite the scientific appearance of museum displays, including those of Conceptual Art, it is impossible to write off the psychological qualities of objects, memories, and space.

Since the early 1990s, Fred Wilson’s work has investigated the back-histories of museum acquisition and display. A provocative series of close-up photographs of dolls pulled from museum displays highlights the shifting value systems of art institutions as well as the politics of putting race up on view.

Visitors to the Hammer will be treated to a monumental installation by the late artist Mike Kelley, the subject of an acclaimed recent retrospective the MoMA PS1 in New York. Craft Morphology Flow Chart (1991) consists of 114 handmade dolls spread out over tables, bringing to mind a morgue as much as a museum. The somewhat grotesque display of the toys is at the same time a display of a vast number of childhood memories and affections. Scientific categorization is used here for a powerful emotional effect.

The possibilities for Institutional Critique are extensive and continue to be so as the art world evolves. Louise Lawler’s photographs give us a glimpse of the life of art objects outside their public display settings, for instance, in the homes of private collectors, or in Bulbs (2005-06) a deinstalled Felix Gonzalez-Torres sculpture. Other examples on Artsy include paintings from Merlin Carpenter’s life-like reproduction of the Tate Modern’s café in a gallery space, and stills from Liz Magic Laser’s series of focus groups in the 2013 Armory Show art fair. 

-Ian Erickson-Kery, Contributor on The Art Genome Project