Marcel Broodthaers: The

Complete Editions

at the Arts Club of Chicago, through January 5

Buzz Spector

at Roy Boyd Gallery, through

January 30

By Mark Swartz

Though a lot of poets probably think they could rule the world, they also know that if somebody did hand them the keys they’d lock them inside with the engine running or they’d forget to check the oil or they’d drive right into a ditch. Marcel Broodthaers was a Belgian surrealist poet who by 1964 had grown bored with writing and decided to try his hand at conquering the world, or at least organizing it. To accomplish this goal he took the logical step of abandoning poetry and taking up art. Unfortunately, he never got much further than publishing a book so tiny it would fit in the palm of your hand, La conquete de l’espace: atlas a l’usage des artistes et des militaires (“The Conquest of Space: Atlas for the Use of Artists and the Military”).

Broodthaers spent much of his 12 years as an artist curating a traveling museum he called Musee d’Art Moderne, Departement des Aigles (Museum of Modern Art, Department of Eagles). Here he assembled representations of eagles from currency, field guides, and other likely and unlikely places. As the project went on it grew so unwieldy that eventually it wrecked his elaborate system of labels and cross-references to his favorite works of French literature. And the Eagle Museum pieces on display at the Arts Club make it perfectly clear that, as a curator, Broodthaers was a great poet. He must have been like a kid filling out tax forms for the first time: attempts at logic and rigor get sidelined by an uncontrollable imagination and a short attention span. Correspondance-Briefwechsel, a small color offset print, shows six images of eagles apparently taken from comics and children’s books. A picture of Mickey Mouse following a sign pointing to an eagle’s nest is labeled figure 12, and there are two “figure 1″s, one of which shows a golden eagle carrying a collie in its talons. I wish I could see the whole Eagle Museum at once, because it must have been a real mess.

The Arts Club show, which includes 25 prints and additional Broodthaers work, gave me some trouble. The individual parts were attractive, and the manner of display–especially the large vitrine lent to the Arts Club by the Field Museum and thoughtfully stocked with objects Broodthaers made–was in keeping with what I knew of the artist’s ideals. But overall the exhibit didn’t immediately offer much to a novice, other than the inadequate feeling undereducated Americans know too well: because of all the text, language skills were essential, as was some knowledge of Belgium’s cultural identity. I was further puzzled by the large potted palms whose leaves had to be pushed aside in order for the wall labels to be read, until I was informed that they were the artist’s idea. When he changed his career late in life, he worried that not many people would turn up for his shows, so he brought the plants in to fill the rooms. His well-intentioned if not entirely genuine amateurism grew on me, and I began to feel comfortable ignoring the precise cultural referents and concentrating on the cracks in his “systematic” groupings.

Broodthaers died 20 years ago this month; coincidentally, Vingt ans apres (“Twenty Years Later”) is the name of the Alexandre Dumas novel (a sequel to The Three Musketeers) Broodthaers usurped by wrapping a band of pink paper around a copy of it inscribed with the word “Broodthaers.” Ten years ago critic Benjamin Buchloh remarked that Broodthaers’s work “appears to be confronted with the alternatives of oblivion or academic exhumation.” But the times seem to have caught up with the poet-artist’s half-serious semiotics and archival monkeyshines: contemporary artists are keeping his ideas in play.

It would be going too far to say that Broodthaers alone is responsible for all the artists now concerned with issues of historiography or preoccupied with the relationship of image and text. But it’s heartening that his reputation is in good shape and that his art, though sometimes obscure, hasn’t fallen into obscurity, because his willingness to look ridiculous while attempting the impossible is preferable to the attitude of artists who really do think they rule the world.

Doug Huston is one artist carrying on the honorable Broodthaers tradition. His work Vast gives the title to the group exhibit at N.A.M.E. showing through January 13, an exploration of the contemporary uses of landscape (a theme also taken up in Randolph Street Gallery’s recent “Pure Hinterland”). Huston’s Vast is is a paperback western that looks like a typical piece of professional hackwork until one realizes that every few sentences are followed by a superscript numeral. Although Vast reads like an ordinary novel, it’s entirely composed of other paperback westerns. Each fragment of text, right down to the copy on the back cover, is taken from the published works of Louis L’Amour et al and footnoted. Although Huston doesn’t explicitly acknowledge Broodthaers, Vast translates the spirit of Vingt ans apres into an American idiom–and it took considerably more old-fashioned American toil to realize. Huston must feel something for the cowboy life, albeit in an armchair sort of way, to have spent so much time poring over the literature, just as the Belgian saw piracy as comparable to his own artistic appropriations: he identified with pirates and took pride in his country’s distinction in that area, as a “publishing pirate” in the days before international copyright (Belgium was notorious for its cheap editions of French novels).

Last fall Holly Greenberg showed works at the Workshop Print Gallery that joined a silhouetted image (an iron, a pair of high-heeled slippers) to a word that contradicted the image (“Butch,” “Grandpa”), suggesting a feminist variation on a trick notoriously played by Rene Magritte, who paired a woman’s shoe with the words la lune (“the moon”). But Magritte’s friend Broodthaers played the trick more elaborately: he captioned a picture of a cow “Maserati.” Greenberg’s visual style also strongly recalls Broodthaers’s atlas.

Buzz Spector, too, relishes what he perceives as “intensely experienced discontinuities between our words and our world.” In an exhibit at Roy Boyd through January 30 he gives a Walker Art Center/Rizzoli catalog of Broodthaers’s work the full treatment, covering every page in gesso and methodically ripping the pages–something he does to great effect with all kinds of books. Spector’s engagement with Broodthaers goes at least as far back as his 1983 History of Europe, a work not included in this retrospective. Here Spector inverted Broodthaers’s very first artistic effort: he sank copies of his last book of poetry into plaster, symbolically sinking his career. In History of Europe Spector made plaster appear to bubble out of a history book, demonstrating how art could grow out of a text.

Like Broodthaers, Spector shows an affinity for unspectacular objects from the era of modernist glory in Europe: he’s arranged old picture postcards so that their horizons line up, or grouped them by subject matter or into oblique rebuses. It means something different, however, something more morbid coming from a Jewish American artist born a generation later and still poking at the same ashes Broodthaers prodded. Perhaps Spector believes, as many contemporary thinkers do, that the Holocaust was the unforeseen culmination of the modernist program, and he’s searching every last postcard for evidence.

Spector pays homage to many of the same writers and artists Broodthaers cited, but in such a way as to demonstrate a different sensibility. Where Broodthaers cultivated clutter, Spector celebrates white space: the emptiness around the words of a Stephane Mallarme poem, the almost pure white of a Kasimir Malevich painting, the unendurable silence of John Cage’s 4’33”. Joining the tradition of negation, Spector produces a book full of blank pages with only one word, “Mallarme,” on the spine. Another of his books, Malevich, is blank except for one page distinguished by a square of gold leaf. Spector invokes the power and mystery of books not for their poetic content but for their poetic value as objects, as if all books were relics of a bygone era. He’s fighting for the same world Broodthaers fought for, but now it’s a vanished world, and Spector cannot pretend otherwise.