14.02 - 15.05.2016
Museum of Modern Art, New York City

By Wendy Vogel

Marcel Broodthaers: A Retrospective


The story of postwar American art is the story of nation building. The heroic, iconoclastic canvases of Abstract Expressionism—secretly backed by the CIA as a display of soft power during the Cold War, and openly championed by institutions such as New York’s Museum of Modern Art[1]—represented a rupture with the European avant-garde. These radical innovations, according to many historians, effectively shifted the cultural center from war-torn Paris to New York. The succeeding generation of Pop artists trumpeted the global victory of American capitalism, even as they critiqued it. Minimalism and Conceptualism, less saleable and more politically charged, emerged in the era of widespread unpopular sentiment toward the Vietnam War. From the 1980s onward, the New York-centric hot art market has expanded alongside the U.S.’s “democratizing” global military interventions. As a result, American museumgoers are less familiar, and perhaps less open, to certain strands of post-1950 European art.


The curators of the Museum of Modern Art’s traveling retrospective of Marcel Broodthaers (1924–1976) were thus tasked with a challenge. How could they make this survey of the Francophone Belgian artist’s work—the first comprehensive presentation in New York—legible, even accessible, to an American audience?[2] The curators (MoMA’s Christophe Cherix and the Reina Sofía’s Manuel Borja-Villel) chose to position the work against the narrative of American cultural imperialism. In this context, Broodthaers’s oeuvre speaks powerfully as a rebuke of Europe’s colonialist endeavors.


There are two understandings of Brussels’s native son. One reduces Broodthaers to a poet-turned-artist who dabbles in puns—a dandyish reading that could be lost in translation (literally) to non-Francophone audiences. The other is of a pioneering institutional critique artist who established his own museum of modern art—a difficult type of work to translate in a traditional white cube. The MoMA show accounts for both of these narratives, while positing a third interpretation: Broodthaers as a political artist, skewering culture as an arm of nationalist violence.


This anticolonial attitude, as well as Broodthaers’s signature cleverness, is evident from the beginning of the show. L’Entrée de l’exposition (Entry to the exhibition, 1974), one of Broodthaers’s final installations, occupies the foyer opposite the escalators. The installation includes six framed photographs of Broodthaers’s early works, displayed underneath a cursive vinyl text bearing the words “L’Entrée de l’exposition.” Additional elements function as framing devices that suggest the cultural pillaging of museum operations and the variability of financial value. These include potted tropical plants—a 19th-century staging device in palm courts, indicative of non-Western land conquests—and Broodthaers’s famous Museum-Museum prints, from 1972. Beneath the word “Museum,” this pair of works features images of gold kilobars captioned, respectively, with names of famous artists and names of food and commodities. The final row of gold bars in each image are captioned “imitation and copy.” Complementing this stage set-like installation is MoMA’s official wall text for the exhibition. It is placed adjacent to Broodthaers’s “entry” vinyl, and includes a quote from the artist himself, written in 1975. Broodthaers’s statement, reflecting on his practice, has an unsubtle, anti-American bitterness: “I discovered nothing, nothing, not even America. I choose to consider Art useless labor, apolitical, and scarcely moral.”[3]


The small first gallery marks a contrast to this tropical debut. Painted a deep black, the room is organized around a projection of Broodthaers’s Surrealist-inspired first film La clef de l’horloge, Poème cinématographique en l’honneur de Kurt Schwitters (The key to the clock, cinematic poem in honor of Kurt Schwitters, 1957.) The seven-and-a-half-minute 16mm film was shot after hours at a Palais des Beaux-Arts retrospective of Schwitters in 1956. It depicts, in a succession of close-ups, the mechanisms of Schwitters’s installations, such as ropes and wheels—a filmic language that emulates Schwitters’s collagist techniques. Surrounding the film, a selection of Broodthaers’s poetry books, art journalism and film abstracts are encased in handsome vitrines. Only fragments of text are translated into English, in wall vinyl above the vitrines themselves. The attention of the Anglophone audience is directed upward, away from the text. Language, throughout the exhibition, is subordinated to objects—a common museum strategy, but jarring in a context of a poet-artist.


Broodthaers’s turn from poetry to art comprises the exhibition’s second chapter. At the age of 40, Broodthaers proclaimed himself a visual artist. The Duchampian move reflects Broodthaers’s association with the Surrealists as a young political radical in the 1940s. His first exhibition, Moi aussi, je me suis demandé si je ne pouvais pas vendre quelque chose et réussir dans la vie (I, too, wondered whether I couldn’t sell something and succeed in life), took place in 1964 at Brussels’s Galerie Saint Laurent. The fliers for the show, printed across multiple magazine advertisements, offer a kind of commercialist manifesto (again, only partially translated) about Broodthaers’s intention to get rich off of making something “insincere.”


The trio of works Broodthaers exhibited reflects a degree of passion, if not complete sincerity. There’s Pense-Bête (Memory aid, 1964), his famous entombing of his own poetry book in plaster. There’s Le problème noir en Belgique (The black problem in Belgium, 1963–64), an assemblage including a Le Soir colonialist frontpage report (“Il faut sauver le Congo” [We must save the Congo]), smeared with eggshells and tar-like black paint. And finally, there’s Pour un haut devenir du comportement artistique (“For a lofty future of the artistic comportment,” 1964), in which he defaced an anti-Pop art screed. The book, which gives the piece its title, is nailed to a panel, and covered with plaster and egg.


This gallery also serves as the introduction of Broodthaers’s signature iconography that symbolized Belgium in its glory, its industry, and its everyday texture. The artist developed a tight vocabulary around a limited number of elements: mussels (“moules,” which in French means both mussels and sculptural molds), fries, eggshells (a symbol of life and fragility), black pots, and coal. With a strong culinary influence, the forms evoke the idea of terroir, which evokes strong nationalist connotations. In this presentation of Broodthaers’s best-known works, real-life mussels and eggshells decorate canvases, explode out of pots, and became tightly packed into cabinets in various compositions. They bear the stripes of the Belgian flag, or are left bare. Like a poetic alphabet, these limited forms seemed, for Broodthaers, to inspire endless imaginative permutations.


Surrealism and Pop art’s influence on Broodthaers becomes the focus of the next few galleries. A friend of Magritte, Broodthaers created several works that riffed on the older Belgian’s uncanny sensibility. La Caméra qui regarde (The watching camera, 1966), for instance, features glass jars containing cosmetic ad images of a woman’s eye on top of a tripod. The composition effectively reverses the direction and gender of the (colonizing) gaze. Surrealism takes a darker turn in two works featuring femurs of a Belgian man and French woman, painted with the countries of their countries. In the ‘60s, Broodthaers also experimented with photo-printable canvas. The medium spurred a series of text and photo experiments that, in Warholian fashion, played on the idea of the original image vs. a copy. It was an idea that proved rich throughout his career.


Poetry—language as form—equally remained a preoccupation for Broodthaers. In 1968, his exhibition at Antwerp’s Wide White Space Gallery featured a number of works playing with the language of Jean de la Fontaine’s fable “Le Corbeau et Le Renard” (The crow and the fox). Broodthaers projected a film of handwritten observations and everyday objects against a screen printed with lines of text from the fable, producing an “exercise in reading” that was nonetheless nearly impossible to read. One year later, he made an artist’s book that was totally illegible. Un coup de dés n’abolira le hasard transformed Mallarmé’s poem, famous for its inventive layout that truncated lines, into a purely visual object. Broodthaers’s work faithfully reproduced the design of Mallarmé’s poem, but substituted black lines for words.


Was this appropriative piece one of Broodthaers’s most radical anti-art gestures? The MoMA show makes it seem that way. After this installation, the exhibition turns to the Musée d’Art Moderne, Département des Aigles (Museum of Modern Art, Department of Eagles, 1968–72), for which Broodthaers relinquished art for four years. During that time, he acted as director of this self-made museum. The professional rupture, of course, had an aura of déjà vu. Broodthaers left poetry for art in 1964, sensing its potential as a strategy for political critique through representation. When he exhausted his vocabulary built on the symbols of national heritage, he turned to the museum a place to critique the embodiment of cultural authority.


It would be easy to overwhelm visitors with the scope of the Musée d’Art Moderne project, which was presented in 12 “sections” and traveled to seven European cities. MoMA’s selections are remarkably well-edited, allowing visitors to linger in front of objects without feeling cramped or pushed along by the crowd. What the exhibition gains in floorspace, however, it once again loses in contextual richness. The show includes such key pieces as Broodthaers’s letters as a museum director (again, only short fragments are translated), his Projection sur caisse (Projection on crate, 1968)—slides of famous paintings projected on an art crate, and his multimedia Section Publicité du Musée d’Art Moderne… (Publicity section of the Museum of Modern Art…, 1972), first shown at Documenta 5. The Section Publicité, presented in its original room-size configuration, is an immersive visual cacophony of photocollages, projections and empty frames. Repeated ad nauseum are images of labels declaring “this is not a work of art” and the motif of an eagle. Seeing these images over and over again makes one feel as though surfing a wave of emotive signification. When images of an eagle are multiplied, they elicit fear in the face of military might and national pride. They are the avatar for empire, and all its worst traits. Once one hits a saturation point viewing these images, however, they are emptied of all meaning, restored to a baseline where they become humorous. One gets the feeling that Broodthaers intended for all his installations to feel just this overwhelming, and funny.


After 1972, Broodthaers had finished fetishizing the aesthetic of the fine art museum—he even staged his own museum’s bankruptcy. From there, he returned to object making, though not with his own hands. Two principles governed this final phase of his work: the return to language as form, and the consideration of objects as functional elements. Broodthaers produced many exhibitions recontextualizing his own work at the time, as well as films such as Analyse d’une peinture (Analysis of a painting, 1973). The three-minute color film, like his 1957 Schwitters film, comprises a series of static shots of an artwork. The camera zooms in on a section of a thrift store painting of a French boat at sea until its details dissolve into nothing. The treasures of national culture, Broodthaers seems to say, are still just material—so much stuff in an overstuffed world.


Décor: A Conquest by Marcel Broodthaers, 1975, hammers home the idea of culture as a branch of the military-industrial-leisure complex. This installation, presented in the final gallery, plays on the French definition of “décor” as both film set and decoration. It contains mirror-image rooms representing the 19th and 20th centuries. On the 19th-century side, striped parasols and a picnic table are set alongside a collection of guns and a puzzle of the Battle of Waterloo (fought just outside Brussels). The 20th-century side displays its own artifacts of war and its spoils: barrels stamped with the words “gin” and “rum,” a Hollywood Western poster, a cannon and oversize snake statue. In an America all too familiar with the staging of images and the consequences of racially charged gun violence, Broodthaers’s work is injected with new meaning.


[1] Frances Stonor Saunders, “Modern art was CIA ‘weapon’,” The Independent, October 21, 1995. Accessible via http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/modern-art-was-cia-weapon-1578808.html.

[2] The exhibition will travel after its MoMA debut to the Museo Nacional Centro de Reina Sofía, Madrid, in October 2016, and Kunsthalle Nordrhein-Westfalen (KNW), Düsseldorf, in 2017.

[3] The original text was published in French on the occasion of Broodthaers’s fourth retrospective, at the Museum of Modern Art Oxford in 1975. It reads as follows: “Je n’ai rien, rien découvert, meme pas l’Amérique. Je fais le choix de considerer l’Art comme un travail inutile, apolitique et peu moral. Une ignoble inspiration me poussant, je ne cacherai pas que si les torts sont de mon côté, j’en éprouverai une sorte de jouissance. Jouissance coupable puisqu’elle dépendrait des victims—ceux qui ont cru que j’avais raison.” Translated by Zuba, it was published in Catherine David, ed., Marcel Broodthaers (Paris: Galerie nationale du Jeu de Paume, 1991), 268.