Shaver’s Razor: Social Values,Visual Glory,and Ordinary Objects
by Jean-Philippe Antoine translated by Anna Moschovakis
“The whisky bears a grudge against the decanter.” - Samuel Beckett
The works of Nancy Shaver carry a paradoxical experience: How to reconcile their enormous materialinvestment in objects—either ready-made, in her works from the 1980s; or, since, constructed ad hoc—with the emphasis ultimately placed on the act of looking? How do the critical dimensions of this act of looking and the scrupulous de-hierarchization of received values that it infers connect up with an apology for visuality that bets everything on its political and ethical efficacy— and wins?
To explore these paradoxes, let us begin with the works Shaver made at the beginning of her career: photographic representations of ordinary objects.1 (fig. 1, Nancy Shaver, Monamock Speedway, 1973). These images, ruled by frontality and axial composition—the simple rules of “good photography,” in the vernacular sense of the expression2—bring together two interests that will never be refuted. The first concerns “ordinary” objects, especially those which, because of considerations of class, are generally excluded from artistic representation.3 When she photographs children’s T-shirts, Shaver declares the dignitiy of lives that are struck invisible as much by the dominant artistic culture with its class contempt,4 as by the dominated themselves. For them, the received logic of portraiture aside, sucha shot is a waste of the film. But by photographing these things according to the “classical” rulesof vernacular photography, Shaver also affirms, for the dominators as well as for the dominated, the democratic conception of an art open to everyone and everything. This “art without the artist”5 challenges, in effect, the criteria of professionalization in the field, and the type of materials and content considered to have a right to belong to artistic activity.6
The operations of selection and reframing established in these early works would soon shift and take off in new directions, influenced in part by Shaver’s encounter with Walker Evans, whose course at Yale she audited while her husband at the time, Haim Steinbach, was pursuing his studies there. Rather than overturning a body of photographic work that was already quite accomplished, 7 the time spent with Evans had the effect of reconstituting Shaver’s activity onto two new and distinct planes.
The first is an intensive practice of reading, tending especially toward works of fiction.8 The books read, in addition to the ample food for thought they provided, hatch the phrases and verbal fragments that make their way into later works.
The second is the quest for old objects and scraps of metal, scavenged in shops, flea markets or elsewhere. On top of her outings with Evans, with whom she shared an intense interest in ordinary objects and interiors,9 Shaver would often visit New Haven’s junk shops and antiques stores. She furnished the apartment she shared with Steinbach:
I would go every Sunday and look and look and look, and buy furniture and other objects. Our apartment became probably the most beautiful interior I’ve lived in, and from that I learned, for the first time, that taste, or visuality, can trump money. From then on, having that kind of heightened visual understanding became a huge part of my identity.10
These domestic, social activities led to Shaver’s abandonment of the camera. The new worksemployed some of the same moves that characterized the earlier works but extended their use,while removing the technological aspect from the gestures. Transposing the activities of homefurnishing and the arranging of objects—typically discounted as feminine and relegated to thedomestic sphere—into the public domain of the art exhibition, Shaver would for the next decadebuild her work almost exclusively around the installation of objects.
The resulting works are compositions, on the wall and/or on the floor, of human fabrications(nothing natural here) that have been salvaged, recuperated, or bought in junk shops. Words and phrases, snippets of conversations overheard or read, may be added as well, typed anonymously onto white paper,11 sometimes accompanied by drawings made by the artist. The majority of the found objects are boxed or reframed,12 often in glazed frames built specially for each piece, then painted or repainted. Framings and reframings punctuate—like quotation marks or parentheses—the “conversations between things”13 that these installations create. They visually signal the work of fabricating a circumstantial space in which they participate.
The Argument, a piece from 1987, comprises six elements arranged on a wall (fig 4). In the center, the largest and thickest of three black, mass-produced frames encircles a paper bag bearing the logo of Grand Union, a major U.S. grocery chain.14 On it is a geometric composition of advertisements noting the convenient low prices. Arranged diagonally in several directions from this central element are plastic bas-reliefs of Chianti bottles and kitchen décor items available in discount shops. Directly above the bottle on the right, the smallest one, a chromolithograph portrays two small birds perched on a branch, pecking at berries. The openwork frame that surrounds the image is in copper-tinted wood. The black frames positioned on both sides of the Chianti bottles complete the piece. Each one protects a sheet of letter-writing paper with a typed inscrption: on the left, a fragment of conversation,the brevety of which makes its contextualization impossible—“You said that you”—and on the right, a list of domestic spaces: “front porch, back porch/kitchen/dining room/living room/bedroom.” With the concision of a real-estate listing, the list inventories the minimal array of rooms expected of a rural or suburban North American home. Taken as a whole, the piece offers a directory of circumstantial objects, while at the same time providing a starting point for fiction.15
The Argument foregrounds the role of framing in the construction of Shaver’s assemblages. Other pieces demonstrate further an economy of gesture. A work from 1991 (fig. 5) displays at eye level an enameled metal coffeepot the color of red lead, and a porcelain planter in the form of a reclining persian cat—light blue except for the ribbon, the nails, the eyes, and the inside of the ears, all gold. The objects, lined up horizontally, float a few centimeters away from the wall, to which they are attached by an invisible peg. This conjoined floating, and the complimentarity of the colors establish a “conversation betwen things” that is both corroborated and complicated by the orientation of the coffee pot’s spout toward the head of the cat, whose sideways glance transfixes the viewer’s gaze.
The call to the Roman household gods in the piece’s title—Lares and Penates—underscores the animism, the anthropomorphism (as much Dickens as Disney) governing the juxtaposition of the coffee pot and the planter, both of which are promoted to the status of domestic divinities. The coffee pot, an object that cannot move on its own, is a Lare, a spirit confined to a place it can’t abandon. The cat is a Penate, a divine presence that travels with its family to reconstitute the domestic space wherever they go.16 For all that, the coffee pot never stops being itself, nor the planter.
Other object works upset the protocols— selection, then installation of found objects,sometimes in frames—that govern their production by more directly stimulating the perception of visuality. Here, the operation of reframing tweaks to the point of annihilating the distinction between found object and “artistic” work. The Birth of Venus (1989) (fig. 6) offers an example of this hybridization. The porcelain statue depicts a white horse reared on its hind legs above high grass or reeds—possibly a mare, as indicated by the eye and delicate eyebrow painted on its head, and the red-rimmed lips carved intoits muzzle. The statuette—new, made in China— is nested inside a white laquer frame. The whole
thing has been irregularly repainted, in a matte ultramarine, by Shaver, from the bottom to abouttwo-thirds of the way up. Evocative of the intense, deep (IKB) blue adopted by Yves Klein, and in sharp contrast to the gleaming white it invades, this monochrome, matte mass echoes the rising motion of the statuette.
Here again, the title serves to orient the effect of the repainting: it declares the color blue as (ultra)marine, the animal as feminine and mythologic, her movement as the emergence of the tide, and, finally, the white as celestial. Elsewhere, evidence of the artist’s hand serves as an invitation to leave the logic of a purely installation-based work and the late orthodoxies of the readymade.Shaver employs a logic of intensification of visuality that rests on a whole Matissian swath of Modernity. Turned blue, rendered matte and monochrome up to its neck, the statuette loses its exclusive status as a found object, for the sake of the new visual glory provided not only by thesimple “graphic details of presentation” but also the “physique picturale” inscribed on and aroundits surface.17
In the works Shaver completed during this time, the visual glory obtained by this “physique picturale” is held in tension with the ascetic concision of the installation, where fragments of a fictional story—always a tale of defeat—are offered up for viewing. The region inhabited by both its “visuality,” understood differently from how theories of art have developed the term. What it names is the specifically visual power of artifacts, the kind that grows and increases the object’s value as soon as we stop denying or minimizing its history. This power handily absorbs significant entropic trans- formation and deterioration vis-à-vis the model, in favor of considering the aspect of the thing or group of things now being looked at. It entails an aesthetic indifferentiation impossible to confuse withDuchamps’ “visual indifference,”18 for, even if it, too, destroys hierarchies of taste, it continues tofound itself on the act of looking.
In the fabrication of object works, Shaver found both a stable modus operandi and the promiseof public recognition. However, over the course of the 1990s, the artist stopped relying on thescavenged objects that were quickly becoming her trademark in the art world. Her activitiesbroke off into two parallel branches. While her work as an “artist” swerved toward sculpture,drawings, and assemblages made by hand,19 she also entered the business of selling some of theobjects that she had, to that point, accumulated exclusively for their use as material for her workand/or as décor for her domestic life.
To dismantle the hybrid character of object works; to turn toward assemblages on the one hand (a sculptural tradition affirmed since the beginning of the 20th century, and well integrated into the circuits of contemporary art)20—as if, by resisting the recent posterity of readymades, to resurrect a sculptural craft, minimal though it might be; and on the other hand, to return used items to their status as secondhand goods instead of forcing their integration with objects in art galleries and museums: all this would appear to be a regression. But that is far from the case, as would be demonstrated as much by Shaver’s fabrications as by her new foray into the selling of goods.
What the “sculptures” Shaver has made over the last decade and a half bring into play is, essentially,the de-definition of genres—a notion recently popularized by the works of other artists,including, for example, Rachel Harrison.21
Assembled from blocks of wood or cardboard packaging (e.g., cracker boxes, primed and painted); erected like walls, closets or desks, sometimes furnished with shelves; hung on the wall or freestanding; equipped with casters that emphasize their mobility—these artifacts vaguely evoke, with their mass and contours, objects borrowed from the worlds of home décor and the workplace: blackboards, refrigerators, lamps, shelves, mobile electric generators, compressors, dollies and handtrucks. The surfaces are in conversation with Matisse as well as with the decorative patterns of fabric samples, from which they borrow, when not incorporating them as is. The non-functionality, the dense ornamentation of surfaces, make parodies of the objects they evoke, turning them into elements of décor while continuing to recall—albeit from a distance— their original, effortful tasks.
The generic word “fabrication” provides a fairly precise account of these constructions. If there is sculpture,22 it is an act of bricolage that begins with common, inexpensive elements. More than with the canonical craft of the sculptor— carving and modeling, or, in the 20th century, cutting and soldering metal—the gestures it entails (cutting planks and sheets of wood, drilling holes, screwing, bolting, pegging, cutting fabric and cardboard) call to mind the work of house construction (putting up walls, priming them, painting them) and carpentry (hanging shelves, consoles, closets), manual labor, and housekeeeping. The basic unit of many of these fabrications is standard con-struction 2x4s, full of irregularities, that are covered in fabric—plain or patterned, sometimes painted and repainted. Significantly, their fabrication entails repetitive tasks, ordinary and hardly virtuosic: saw the posts, staple or glue on pieces of pre-selected and cut fabric; paint them using matte acrylics thatalso conjure the world of decoration, as much or more than they do painting as “art”; finally, compose these accumulations into a sequence of decorative surfaces—often mobile, in more recent works—and endowed with an appreciable material heft.
The Walker (2008-2010) (fig. 7) stacks two “trunks” made from wood blocks one atop the other. Their irregular surface is painted in opaque battleship gray, with the exception of large areas in which an ultramarine blue wash pierces their mass with what could pass for irregular windows, as if a twilit sky is made visible through holes left by missing bricks. The lowest and largest of the two “trunks” has been mounted on office furniture casters, lending the ensemble the shape of a loaded dolly. On top of all this sit two other boxes: rectangles painted lemon-yellow, white and black cover the first, sturdy cardboard box (packaging for an Isamu Noguchi paper lantern). On top of it sits a second, floppier cardboard box. The name of the product that it contains or contained— store bags 23—is clearly legible on its surface. The rest of the print on the box is partly 7 covered by a swath of Scottish fabric, whose colors— ochre yellow, black, and white—match the graphic design of the box, as well as that of the yellow-and-black construction-site tape affixed to its lower edge by the artist; the diagonal parallel lines of the tape disrupt the static geometry of the tartan plaid.
A guardrail, made from metal silo hoops, rims the perimeter of the dolly. Anchored in the lowest trunk, it forms a front and side bumper before rising, bending and re-bending to sketch the outline of a sort of handle that might be used for steering. Around it, a black, heavy-duty appliance cord has been wrapped like ivy. Considered along with the title, the combination of these elements transforms the dolly into a walking prosthesis, the pile of trunks into a generator. The functions their materiality evokes belong to the structures of common life in its most accessible, least visible aspects. The Walker is no less about forcing the coexistence of spheres of diverse activity— home, domesticity, masculine and feminine work, woodworking, carpentry, electricity, transportation, construction, household shopping— with an undifferentiated element of décor than it is a refusal to bow down to divisions of labor and specialized economies. And it does so by way of its ornamental charm.
Gilding the Lily, a work from 2009-2010 (fg. 8a, 8b), makes the most explicit declaration of this approach. Its two vertical units are part interior wall, part dividing screen. From the formerit borrows its hollow depth; from the latter, mobility in space. The pair of casters attached tothe units’ front sides allows them to be moved by tilting them. The heavy iron plates attached tothe base of their back sides—the plates’ original function was as ties on train tracks—maintainsthe units in a fixed and upright position.
This piece plays forcefully with the formal contrasts between surface and ornament on the one hand, and mass and depth on the other, that inform so many of Shaver’s sculptures. Viewed head-on, these two upright elements look like fragments of painted brick wall, bordered by one or two lengths of blond wood. On the front side of each, an abstract decorative composition reminiscent of the papier collés of late Matisse. From the back, the viewer is allowed a glimpse of the painted wall’s interior. Piercing through the sheet of plywood that serves as a base are the wooden pegs that attach to the wood blocks to form the wall’s front.
Close to the top of the right unit, a torn piece of white canvas-backed paper is draped over a metal rod, like in a closet. The shape of the cutout echoes the leafy motif painted on the front. Lower down, a plank covered with masonite is set vertically, waiting. In the lowest part, a canvas mounted on a frame: a small abstract composition, in a style evocative of the mid- to late 1950s.
In the left unit, a second cutout of painted canvas-backed paper suspended from a second metal rod, next to a dangling length of fat electrical cable. A second small abstract canvas is placed at the base of the wall.
“Gilding the lily,” the expression after which the piece is titled, heralds a major preoccupation of Shaver’s work: the relationship between visual glory (or beauty) on the one hand, and ornamental desire on the other. It’s a common expression borrowed, in essence, from Shakespeare24—it means to unnecessarily pretty something up, to artificially adorn a thing that does not require it, being already sufficient unto itself. It means, therefore, not to see the visual power manifestly contained in objects as they are, and to claim to be providing the “ideal” supplement that will give them the perfectionthey don’t as yet possess.
The anti-ornamental “modernist” judgment hidden in this expression begs the question of its usage here. Is it about condemning the painted decoration on the “section of wall” as superfluous, for the sake of the “hidden” volume that is revealed by the object’s rear view? Is it,on the contrary, an ironic assertion of the visible surface of the sculpture, once the viewer stops detaching it from the volume that supports it, now entirely on view?25 “Gilding the lily” also refers, humorously, to the process of the piece’s production, which included the recycling of destroyed elements of Shaver’s first large sculptures from the mid-1990s, her “fridges” figures. Sawed through, these figures have provided the armature for several recent pieces; they, in turn, recuperate—by way of “embellishment”—objects otherwise destined for the trash.
If their wholly constructed character didn’t distinguish the two so much, one might draw a connection between these fabrications and the architectural samplings of Gordon Matta-Clark in his series Bronx Floors. The units share with Matta-Clark’s aggressively indexed objects an interest in exposing structures, materials, and gestures of habitation, which do not negate the different procedures of their construction. The decorative, which for Matta-Clark is confined to a literally residual dimension, is,here, an immediate and integral part of the project. If Gilding the Lily stops short of referring directly, via traces, to the stories of the defeated that have been deposited there, it stakes out a power emancipated from the criteria of class that governs, and thereby limits, the apprehension of its visuality; and it does so without compromising its own methods. It exhibits its strategies of embellishment, the singularities that develop as a result, and, finally, the ideals of life that inform it. In fact, once divorced from the norms of taste that they reject—consciously or not—these singularities reveal the real history, stripped of hierarchies, to which the sculpture belongs.
“When art is only one of several possible functions a situation may have, it loses its privileged status and becomes, so to speak, a lowercase attribute.”26 - Allan Kaprow
It’s this “real history,” conceptualized as a place for the development of visuality, that is caught in a different form by Henry, the storefront Shaver opened in 1999 in Hudson,27 after several years of itinerant, cooperative retail trade (fig.10, Nancy Shaver in front of Henry, Summer 2004).28 In opening her store and its collection of objects to the public, Shaver was not renouncing object works. Rather, she was resituating what was at stake. This new activity offered a kind of restitution to the scavenged and collected secondhand objects, but without “readymaking” them by inserting them into the [High] Art circuit, with the symbolic dominion and financial over-valuation such insertion would entail. (fig.11, Henry, Summer 2004). Because the retail value of the exhibited objects at Henry remainsindependent of the arrangements they form, the “conversations between things” that these arrangements create function solely to intensify the experience of looking. They establish visuality,but at a remove from the commercial transactions they otherwise court, since the goal of this“exhibition” is the sale of the objects themselves. But the sale of the objects, in turn, causes theirdispersion to new interiors and completely new constellations—an effect of redistribution sufficientlysalient to have inspired the publication of a book about it in 2010. Henry at Home photographicallydocuments the fate of certain objects bought at the store, now installed in the homes of their new owners. (fig. 12, Henry at Home, p.9)29
A site for experimentation on the conditions of elaborating visuality, both in view of and at a distance from the narrow field of art, Henry is simultaneously a “forum for the visual sensations” of the shoppers who visit30 it and a laboratory for the artist’s work.
This double status raises anew the Duchampian question of a work-making that would bypass art, understood in its narrow sense. “Can one make works that are not ‘art’?” asked Duchamp, before adding into the mix: “To be subjected to the interrogation of storefronts. / The standards of the storefront. / The storefront proves the existence of an outside world.”31 To select objects and install them in a space in order to construct from them a detailed place—that is what all public exhibition does, whether its destination be manifestly commercial (boutiques and storefronts), designed for being looked at (galleries and museums), or, again, the dissemination of information (the same thing?). These procedures, retroactively adopted from readymades by artists who have chosen to work directly with things rather than with their representations, govern the installations presented at Henry, with two related singularities:
1. The modes of formal association that determine their arrangements regularly turn local,small agglomerations of objects into equivalents of the artist’s previous works—works that raised, in their way, in the space of the art gallery, the question of a coefficient of art that resides in the pure arrangements of objects. (fig. 13, In Metal and Glass, 1988).32 The clusters and temporary affiliations that one comes to appreciate during a visit to Henry reiterate this interrogation, this time in the space, detached from any “special” definition of art, of an antiques store.33(fig. 14,15, 16, 17, Views of Henry, details 2004-2011). Storefronts and art galleries share the major role of display in the commercialization of the goods they sell, and a sizable margin of indeterminacy as to price. But the non-participation of an item in the art circuit—understood in its narrow sense—distinguishes spaces of the first kind from those of the second.
2. The arrangements in Henry encounter a limit: the act of sale. The removal of individual artifacts from the constellations to which they belong leads to a frequent restructuring of the décor, the site, of the store. (fig. 17, 18, Views of Henry,2007 and 2004). If the installations made here are not works of art—or are works of art that are not “art”—it is, in part, because of this possibility of detaching a thing to purchase it, of destroying one of the store’s many formal constructions; it’s also because the price points are those of an antiques store, not of artworks bought in galleries. The experience of visuality Henry offers is thus conditioned at the same time by the act of looking that materializes in the store—“the eye” Shaver’s arrangements and rearrangements create34— and by the commercial activity that takes place there. Imposing their aleatory rhythm on the reorganization of the décor, they keep it from coalescing into a completed work, as “art-like” as any phase on the way may be. The continual process of installation that can turn the space of the store into a “forum for visual sensations,” perpetually put into question by the sale of the objects it contains, is more significant than any of the distinct and varied views any single visit might provide. (fig. 19, 20, Henry, view Summer 2011).
It is not easy to separate, a priori, the object works from the ephemeral constellations thatmay be glimpsed in the store—even if the rarified site of the art gallery or museum could neverbe confused with the dense and cluttered space of an antiques store. In these conditions, it’s theprice and the mode of sale that must affirm a distinction that would be difficult to make by looks alone, and potentially condemned to fluctuate. It is this distinction, along with the modes of establishing value that it delineates, that is put in question by Retail, the 2007 exhibition of Shaver’s work at Feature Gallery in New York City.35
In the main room of the gallery (fig. 21,) Retail, general view, Feature Gallery, New York, 2007), the white walls were hung with what could most easily be identified as works of art— boxes covered in blocks of color, assemblages of painted or fabric-covered wood blocks—under the generic title “Assortments.” Not far from these pieces were others set on the floor, some on mobile supports. A few of these, also assembled from blocks of wood, or painted or fabric-covered boxes, were posed on top of silver-toned structures resembling boutique shelves, counters or low tables. Others proffered antiques, placed alone or in a group on these same pedestals and tables, or placed on the floor. Several of the scavenged objects were placed on top of the mobile sculptures, transforming them into display stands, on a level with the tables and silver cubes.
From the battered object placed on the floor to the assortments wholly fabricated bythe artist, passing through the composition of vintage ties in a block or the placement of a pairof Turkish slippers atop a low, wheeled sculpture (First Trunk, 2003) (fig. 22), Retail confrontedthe visitor with a range of heterogeneous objects, combined in a confounding variety of “objectsituations.” The exhibition created what I will call, reappropriating a category that has fallen out of use, a veritable novelty shop.36
The commercial value of the objects was, in principle, clearly set. Those that came from Henry were sold at their retail price. Hudson, the proprietor of the gallery, had set the prices of the works coming from the studio.37 But this synthesis of binaries was risky on several accounts. The first was the conjoining, in the same physical, commercial space, of objects, the display of which made their differences in status indecipherable. Two adjacent pieces each combined a sculpture in the form of a trunk made from blocks of wood covered in fabric, and an accessory meant to be worn on the feet. So why is the pair of Turkish slippers placed on First Trunk not a part of the work, as is revealed by a glance at the price list? Why, on the other hand, does the white stocking placed on the top of Flat Goods belong to it? (fig. 23, Flat Goods) Nothing in their aspect suggests a difference in status between these fabrications, and here we enter the heart of the vertigo created by this exhibition. The visual continuum established between the antiques and the assortments effectively destroysthe hierarchy between objects for consumption or everyday uses, and that very special kind ofmerchandise: the work of art.
On the one hand, a strong de-hierarchizing of the exhibit’s compositional elements is at work here—as proclaimed by the impossibility of visually differentiating between Flat Goods and First Trunk. Shaver’s insistence on the inherent power of visuality, on its potential to destroy accepted hierarchies and to reinvent value, is Utopian in character.38 But the setting of prices at all indicates the limits of this power, and, at the same time, its efficacy. If visual experience does not have the power to differentiate between Flat Goods and the temporary arrangement of slipper and First Trunk, a glance at the price list will re-establish the difference—or, more accurately, will establish it in the first place. The available information returns the slippers to the realm of vintage goods ($100), and First Trunk to it status of pedestal de luxe ($1500).39 It confirms, on the other hand, the membership of the single whitestocking to the domain of art, as an integral part of Flat Goods, a piece whose monetary value($25,000) is more than 15 times that of First Trunk and the slippers combined ($1500 + $100= $1600).
Despite this limit, the insistence Shaver places on this operation of visual de-hierarchizationand re-differenciation by price makes the provocative—and, at the end of the day, radical—character of her endeavor. Because it stages a confrontation—without reconciliation—betweentwo worlds that like to ignore their reciprocal relationship (second-hand merchandise, worksof art), Retail’s novelty shop further complicates the “operative conversion”40 that, since the lastthird of the 20th century, underlies the effectiveness of so many works called “art” and, concurrently,of the exhibition system that makes them possible. The refusal to artificially empower this conversation—accomplished by detaching it from the monetary and commercial operations thatnormally accompany its socialization—rescues it from its status as a cliché of the “contemporary”and a motivator of hyper-valuation, and restores its proper value.
Covered Chair (2004) (fig. 24), a work included in Retail, plainly reveals this complication and the games of value that it brings with it. The piece combines a drawing, painted in black ink on a long piece of raw silk, and a rocking chair from the early 1950s, on the back of which the painted fabric is displayed.
The drawing, with its triangular mesh pattern on a beige surface, evokes Polynesian barkcloth, and more generally an abstract decorative impulse that appears in numerous cultures, fromJapan to Peru. The rocking chair dates back to the eighteenth century as part of North Americanvernacular design. This particular chair, built from metal tubing set on two parallel wooden rockers, its seat and back covered in black leather, possesses neither the traditional form of the rocking-chair (established during the nineteenth century) nor the modernist aero-dynamism of the version Charles and Ray Eames introduced in 1950. Forgetting the fixation of modern industry on the kitch reprisal of erstwhile forms, reviving instead the spirit that had presided over its original invention, these anonymous creators placed an ordinary chair on top of rockers: they made use of a contemporary model.
The object, bought by Shaver, was at first one of the pieces of furniture exhibited at Henry. But its anonymous provenance and idiosyncracy rendered it unsellable, and it quickly wound upin the studio of the artist, who after long months finally added, carefully folded over its back, thepiece of silk on which she had painted the geometric decorations.
The radical simplicity of Covered Chair evokes Duchamp’s “assisted readymades,” in particular the insistence on the objectness of the snow shovel in In Advance of the Broken Arm. But it differs on several important points.
Seven years before the invention of the Duchampian shovel, Matisse gave painting a task: to become “an art of equilibrium, of purity, of tranquility, without troubling or worrisome subject, that would, for any cerebral worker, for the businessman as much as the literary scholar, for example, be a soothing, calming agent for the mind, something like a good chair that relieves his physical fatigue.”41
Covered Chair isn’t far from accomplishing this task and understanding it as sculpture, in a sense that is both literal and humorous. Draped on the back of the chair, the painted cloth provides a sort of analog visual comfort, but it also serves as a protective covering for the backrest. And for the moment that we remove the piece of fabric, it becomes possible to sit and rock in a chair that has been returned to its status as a salvaged object, and to its primitive function.
This reciprocal convertability of the functional object into work of art, and—just as important— of the art object into functional object, accounts for the exemplary nature of Covered Chair. It reveals the dispersions and conversions that are possible between these two domains, according to the different ways of looking they entail. Some works by Haim Steinbach exhibit objects procured from Henry (fig. 25. Haim Steinbach, Mr. Peanut, 2008), reappraising their value through exhibiting them in the “narrow” context of art. The fact that the chair in Covered Chair once belonged to the antiques circuit—as opposed to the new objects, sold at set prices in 24 23 25 large stores, used by Duchamp—now reveals its necessity. The marks of use on the chair, which are beginning to ruin it, imply a singular history. The fact that it was discov- ered at a flea market tells us that it has been devalued. In fact, far from being set in advance, its sale price was the object of unpredictable negotiations—like those of the work of art in which it will eventually participate.
Final point: If the piece of painted fabric acts vis-a-vis the chair like a “graphic detail ofpresentation,” the assistance allotted this “assisted readymade” involves no linguistic supplement(apart from its very literal title). It consists, on the contrary, in inscribing a non-linguistic pattern: a pure decoration. This inscription of the decorative in place of the linguistic element is what makes the worth of Covered Chair, and it’s what constitutes the singularity of Shaver’s oeuvre. She allows the ornamental the portion of visual glory and of pure joy that it deserves—that is to say, a power that it has never stopped exercising, despite the “modern” censorship to which it has so often been subjected and the class contempt that, consciously or not, motivates it.
1 [I started taking pictures of junk on the ground and onthe street, framing things very simply: just one thing in the middle of the frame. (…) During a residency at the McDowell Colony, in a pique of frustration, I threw my sweater on the floor and took a picture of it.That image eventually became the basis for a series of photographs of children’s t-shirts, each one centered in the camera’s frame and shot in black and white on tweedish carpet backgrounds.] Unpublished excerpt of an interview with Nancy Shaver conducted by Steel Stillman (2009), partially published in Henry at Home, Soberscove Press, Chicago, 2010, p. 58-67. The conception of the photograph outlined here joins Gerhard Richter’s encomium of the family photo: “The composition is right when the most important person is placed in the middle. That’s all.” See Klaus Honnef, Gerhard Richter, Biennale de Venise, Venise, 1972, p. 15.
2 See Pierre Bourdieu (dir.), Un art moyen. Sur les usages sociaux de la photographie, Minuit, Paris, 1965, p. 115-120.
3 As Bourdieu has written in his analysis of photography as popular culture, “not all of existence is worthy of photographic consecration and behind every photograph, we should be able to locate a judgment of importance, a decision of an individual, and through it, a
clue to the value legitimated by the group.” P. Bourdieu, op. cit., p. 294.
4 This contempt will concede when necessary a kitsch value to such products, thus visually strengthening the judgments that previously condemned them to invisibility.
5 I am borrowing the expression from a question posed by Pierre Bourdieu: “Can an art without artist still be an art?” See id., op. cit., p. 114.
6 This will toward equanimity controls the protocol used in these photographs. [I wanted the background to visuallybe equal to the t-shirts. I did not want anything but the background and the shirts. No sense of space or light. It took me a long time to find the right material. I finally did. This black and white carpet, which looks like TV static.] Nancy Shaver, conference, Terra Foundation for American Art, Giverny, 27 June, 2011.
7 [Evans loved my pictures but the other students didn’t know what to make of them.] Stillman, excerpt from the unpublished interview cited above.
8 [In his classes, Evans rarely talked about students’ work—all he talked about was literature, about Flaubert, or Baudelaire, or whomever. I decided I had to read these people, and started on a program to educate myself in literature, reading voraciously for four or five years.] Henry at Home, p. 59.
9 [We’d go out once a week. I would have preferred to goto flea markets but he liked more natural settings, likethe beach, where he could find things worn by time. He had a huge pair of bolt cutters and he’d steal signs and I’d help. It was fun to find things and give them to him. We had the same kind of eye and became friends.] Ibid.
10 [I would go every Sunday and look and look and look, and buy furniture and other objects. Our apartment became probably the most beautiful interior I’ve lived in, and from that I learned, for the first time, that taste, or visuality, can trump money. From then on, having that kind of heightened visual understanding became a huge part of my identity.] Ibid., p. 60.
11 They ally themselves with the cards containing typed fragments of dialogue and phrases used in Yvonne Rainer’s early films—such as Film about a Woman who (1974).
12 Some of Shaver’s photographic works already implied this type of reframing: a first shot from an Instamatic (the reigning consumer camera in the 60s and 70s, and for this reason the favorite camera of artists such as Robert Smithson and Dan Graham) would then be re-photographed in 35 mm.
13 I am borrowing this expression from Joseph Beuys, who used it to speak about drawing.
14 Grand Union is also the name that was given, a posteriori, to the very first American flag.
15 The title of the assemblage—The Argument— influences the reply “You said that”. A fragment of a larger recrimination, though indeterminate, it also applies as well to the potentially turbulent relationship between the triangle of decorative elements—the chromolithograph and the bottles—with the fragments of language aligned horizontally in the three frames.
17 I am borrowing these two expressions from Marcel Duchamp. The first he used to characterize the invention of the assisted readymades (“Sometimes I would add a graphic detail of presentation: I called this, to satisfy my penchant for alliteration, ‘ready-made- aidé’”); the second belongs to the text about Matisse that Duchamp wrote for the Catalogue of the “Société Anonyme.” See Marcel Duchamp, Duchamp du Signe, collected and published by Michel Sanouillet, Flammiron, Paris, 1975, p. 191, 206.
18 See ibid., “A propos des readymades”, p. 191.
19 During the same period Robert Gober, another person close to Shaver, also made—meticulously and by hand—objects that were ostensibly made with the help of machines and on an industrial scale, thus “reversing” Duchamp’s initial gesture. With each of these artists, the return to hand-work constitutes less an attack against the readymades than a reference to their possible legacy, and to the unusual nature of that initial gesture.
20 See the classic catalogue of William C. Seitz’ work, The Art of Assemblage, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1961.
21 This indifferentiation forbids, for example, the separation of the small compositions that hang on the wall from the “folding screens”, partitions, “fridges” or dollies set on the floor. All of them are both paintings and sculptures. (And this non-definition also affects the
titles of the works). Figure n° 5 (1994)).
22 For the last decade, Nancy Shaver has taught in the department of Sculpture at the Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts at Bard College.
23 Transparent plastic garbage bags.
24 “To gild refined gold, to paint the lily .... is wasteful and ridiculous...” William Shakespeare, King John, act 4, scene 2.
25 “What do you love about enamel paint over cruddy surfaces? — I love the bubble-gumness of surface that covers a pure form.” Nancy Shaver, 01.02.03,
26 Allan Kaprow, “The Education of the Un-Artist, Part I”, Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life, University of California Press, Berkeley-Los Angeles, 2003, p. 105
27 This town, two hours north of New York, on the banks of its eponymous river, is now a popular summer haven with a booming antiques business boasting more than a dozen antiques stores. Nancy Shaver’s store has taken the name of Henry Hudson, the first European explorer to sail up the Hudson river at the dawn of the seventeenth century, so, in this sense, its “inventor.”
28 On this subject, see Donald Kuspit, “The Appropriation of Marginal Art in the 1980s”, American Art, Vol.5, No. 1/2 (Winter - Spring, 1991), pp. 132-141.
29 Henry at Home presents several dozen photos of interiors decorated using objects bought at Henry. The photos were solicited by the artist from her regular clients. See Nancy Shaver, Henry at Home, Soberscove Press, Chicago, 2010, and the website of the store :
30 “A forum for visual sensation”, Nancy Shaver, conference citation. “Funky!”, declares the poet John Ashbery during a visit to Henry during the summer of 2009. See Michael Glover, “John Ashbery Goes to the Movies”, PN Review 200, vol. 37, n° 6, June-July 2011,
31 Marcel Duchamp, “Indefinitely”, op. cit., p. 105-106. We can cite here, as a displaced response to Duchamp’s questioning of art, the slogan adopted by Sister Corita Kent for the department of art of the Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles, where she exercised her talents: “We have no art, we do everything as well as we can.” See Julie Ault, Come Alive! The Spirited Art of Sister Corita, Four Corner Books, London, 2006, p. 47.
32 The formulation Marcel Broodthaers gave for the “Duchamp method” in the catalog for his exhibition at Kunsthalle in Dusseldorf in 1972 might serve to sum up this process: “Whether it’s a urinal signed R. Mutt (1917) or an objet trouvé, any object can be elevated to
the status of art. The artist defines this object in such a way that its future resides only in the museum.” Marcel Broodthaers, “Méthode”, Der Adler vom Oligozän bis heute, Städtische Kunsthalle, Düsseldorf, 1972, n. p.
33 Or conversely they bring the customer back to the awareness, too easily censored by the exacerbated deployment of the exhibition value here manifested, that the art gallery is also, and above all, a store in which merchandise is sold.
34 The constellations presented in Henry, and the profit Shaver earns when she sells objects that comprise them, depend on the eye bestowed on these same objects during their purchase by the artist, an eye that is rematerialized, in turn, for the customer by way of their installation in the store.
35 Some of these remarks refer to explanations given in “Nancy Shaver : Retail. Invention, valeur, art”, Marges, 11, winter 2010-2011, p. 11-28.
36 Novelty shops emerged in the nineteenth century along with the rise of fashion—which explains its link to the proliferation of invention. My anachronistic use of the word sidesteps the fact that these stores are also the origin of fixed-pricing.
37 The bifurcation between antique objects and works is reflected in the price list, divided, with the artist’s blessing, between “Retail, sculpture” and “Henry, Objects.” The silver-colored furnishings, built ad hoc, were also offered for sale.
38 [If I have a socialist streak, it would be that beauty and visuality belong to anyone, and on any level it’s a source of comfort to people.] Jean-Philippe Antoine, “A Conversation with Nancy Shaver in Jefferson, April 22, 2009”, unpublished manuscript
39 See also Shaver, conversation with the author, June 2009 : [The price of First Trunk reflects the idea of bargains... perhaps also objects of the artists affection... First Trunk was part of an investigation which took place a number of years ago, had never been exhibited, and was seemingly a dead end. By using it as a support for the slippers, I realized a useful ending for it. I priced it in relationship to my own interest in it and its visual usefulness to me, personally. Its importance to what I considered “the long run” of my own work.]
40 Michel Gauthier uses the term “operative conversion” to refer to the “promotion to the rank of art of an object that was not originally intended to have that status.” See, for example, id. “Bertrand Lavier : être et ne pas être”, Retour d’y voir, Mamco/revue 1/2, Les
Presses du réel, Dijon, 2008, p. 149, or less recently, “Matières grises”, Conséquences, 5, winter-spring 1985, pp. 21-39, especially pp. 30-31.
41 Henri Matisse, “Notes d’un peintre”, La Grande Revue, 1908, reprinted in id., Écrits et propos sur l’art, Hermann, Paris, 1972, p. 50. Dominique Fourcade, editor of the latter volume, cites the “interesting variant” published by Florent Fels in his Propos d’artistes (Paris,
La Renaissance du Livre, 1925): “I am working to create an art that would be for the spectator, whatever his social condition may be, a sort of calming agent for the mind, a respite, an pleasant certitude, which gives peace and tranquility.” (My emphasis.)