Illegitimate BusinessFebruary 14, 2012
For at least two decades now there has been an ongoing interest in art’s sideshows. One of the earliest manifestations was Deep Storage, the 1998 Munich exhibition organized by the Haus der Kunst and Siemens Kulturprogramm, which included forty artists whose works touched on issues surrounding archives and storage. Over the past decade, Kate Fowle has curated several iterations of her project the backroom, which displayed artists’ research materials. For many years, the late Steven Leiber collected ephemera, including press releases and exhibition announcements among many other items. Leiber argued that these things were as much a part of the meaning and value of an exhibition as the actual artwork.
One can find parallel research, exhibition, and collection practices that focus on the acquisition of art objects created by famous artists but obtained outside the conventional distribution system. In San Francisco, for instance, the collectors Larry Banka and Judith Gordon have amassed works by about one hundred artists—ranging from a stuffed animal by Jeff Koons to a necktie by Yayoi Kusama—that were made as multiples, either to benefit not-for-profit organizations or as entrepreneurial ventures.
The new San Francisco gallery Will Brown, located in the space formerly occupied by the now defunct Triple Base, takes up this theme for its first exhibition. The exhibition is a collaboration among the artist-curators Zachary Royer Scholz, Brion Nuda Rosch, and David Kasprzak. There is no person named Will Brown; the name, in the spirit of the gallery’s programs, was appropriated from various sources. Will Brown presents Illegitimate Business, an exhibition of sixteen works obtained by shady or shadowy means by anonymous collectors, appropriately displayed in its speakeasy-like basement space, accessible only through a trap door in the floor of the gallery.
Each object is accompanied by a text from its collector, explaining how the item was obtained. This is a storyteller’s delight, and most of us have such stories. At UC Davis, where I work, one often hears about how the original Slant Step disappeared from the first show it inspired, and how those in possession of the object make it available from time to time, as most recently for Constance Lewallen’s A Rose Has No Teeth: Bruce Nauman in the 1960s at the UC Berkeley Art Museum. In another story, Nauman’s UC Davis studio mate for decades saved Nauman’s discarded drawings from the floor of their studio, drawings that would eventually finance his healthcare during his final years of illness.
The first object on view in Illegitimate Business is a cookie jar in the form of the Aunt Jemima character. Its owner rented an apartment that had been occupied by the artist Carrie Mae Weems; the jar was a prop made by Weems for a photograph and was left behind when she moved. This example describes one of the more legitimate strategies for acquisition in the show. Others are more underhanded: a teaching assistant borrowed videos from an art-school library and made copies for himself; an anonymous collector used the bathroom at a funky Mission gallery and took a couple of Chris Johanson drawings stored there; an art handler pocketed Kara Walker’s installation sketches rather than throwing them away. The show is a litany of art world opportunity crimes: objects borrowed but never returned; gallery employees’ revenge for low pay, digital prints made from vintage photo misprints saved by passersby; long-term loans that were somehow forgotten.
These are, by and large, charming stories of human frailty, of succumbing to minor temptations and the love of art. This public exhibition somehow brings closure to the private acts portrayed; it’s the opposite of the (probably apocryphal) Van Gogh sitting in a vault in Japan. On the other hand, the curators gently point to the reality of commerce’s effect on human relations and the politics of art distribution systems. Not far removed are the acts of those who smashed the kiosk of the San Francisco Arts Commission’s Art on Market Street program to grab a work by Margaret Kilgallen or Jason Jagel, depriving thousands of a public pleasure for their private satisfaction.