A triptych illustration of stanley brown's face, with orange, green, and blue backgrounds. The artist is balding and wears glasses.
The artist inveighed against any and all interpretation and documentation of his life and art. Credit: Kaitlin Kostus for Chicago Reader

I don’t understand. stanley brouwn steps? 
Oh, another place!
He walks. . . . He appears in places and walks maybe, and he’s video-ing while he walks?stanley brouwn steps! [Laughs, whispers.] 
What? [Laughs.]
Where’s he going to appear? [Laughs.]

So flowed a conversation between two seven-year-olds who sat next to me on a bench nestled in the Art Institute’s second-floor contemporary galleries in early May to watch stanley brouwn’s 1989 video steps. Their conversation was more forgiving than the intermittent grumbling in the artist’s monographic exhibition a floor below. “I guess that’s significant . . . to somebody,” commented one museumgoer to the air after circling the show’s two rooms.

Such public distrust is a risk curators Ann Goldstein and Jordan Carter were willing to take in honoring the ethos of the late artist, who inveighed against any and all interpretation and documentation of his life and art. The show includes none of the usual texts typically expected of a major museum exhibition; no official description or images of the exhibition exist online. Guards enforce strict “no photography” notices, and both curators have refused interviews with the press. “What is this show that nobody is supposed to talk about . . . ?” wrote Jori Finkel in a recent review. “I could surely find out, though perhaps the more meaningful question . . . is whether I should.”

In a single paragraph published in Art in America, Carter described the exhibition’s curatorial secrecy as uncompromising in its defense of stanley brouwn’s intentions, “ensuring an unmitigated experience . . . between the visitor and the work.” The result is an exhibition that places a greater burden than usual on the unsuspecting public, confronted with work sans explanation. 

There’s one exception: “stanley brouwn” includes a short wall-mounted introductory text stylized in the artist’s signature all-lowercase Helvetica type, noting that the artist, a pioneering figure of European conceptual art in the 1960s, was interested in the measurement of space, volume, and distance, elaborated through iterations of regional, historical, and fabricated standards of length. One series is mentioned by name, the relatively well-known this way brouwn (1961-1964), directions drawn by passersby to point the way to another location scribbled in idiosyncratic and inscrutable shorthand on sheets of paper later stamped with the title this way brouwn

Most works on display are likewise barely there: thin, precise penciled lengths of arcane measurements on long sheets of white paper, a Judd-like plain wood room lit by a single exposed light bulb, and gray metal file cabinets filled with cards tallying daily step counts and making cryptic calculations. It’s exactly the kind of art that draws the most skepticism—part of the point for brouwn, who was firmly in dialogue with conceptual artists of his time and fond of iterative works produced by instructions, specification, measurements, or random chance. 

In practice, some exhibition-goers are mystified, others are incredulous. “Too much math,” announced a zealous teenager traveling in a pack of five, after glancing at 10 km 1:5000 (1976), a long length of paper with a faintly drawn line measuring out, presumably, a 10 km distance at one-to-5,000 scale. But critics are only the most vocal, and for me, the quiet exhibition allowed a hallucinatory expansiveness to accompany brouwn’s obsessive exploration of distance and notation. Delightfully little is necessary for a mark to become a scale, to activate spatial imagination. 

In brouwn’s architectural model in 1:100 scale with plan, a simple set of drawn rectangles becomes a plan and elevation, and a stack of plain wood beams implies a clean-lined pavilion. A sheet of paper 1 x 1 pikhalebi (abyssinia) (2005) invokes measurements used in eras and places far away, practical tools reduced to the realm of obsolescence and imagination. The serious, unchanging veneer of the “standard” measurement is reduced to a play of smoke and mirrors, a silly facade built on a crumbling tower of bygone certainties. The artist chooses standards with a fantastical Calvino-ish feel: the defunct Bulgarian arschin, the forearm-length Viking ell, and the ancient Egyptian royal cubit. 

He measures the world against himself, too. Along with various demarcations of lengths extrapolated from the artist’s own body, brouwn meticulously logged his steps per day, notated in black type on plain index cards. There is an unsettling absurdity in reducing a life to measurements. The lack of curatorial explanation creates a productive ahistoricity that brings brouwn’s work close to contemporary anxieties. Who hasn’t tracked steps, by choice or by Health-app default? We are now adrift in a sea of often forcibly-gathered biometric data, and brouwn’s bespoke tracking feels both quaint and prescient. 

Official curatorial interpretation can create positive freedom, adding to the understanding of an artwork by widening the breadth of ideas brought into dialogue—or negative freedom—restricting the imagination by imposing a “correct” reading with the backing of nebulous institutional authority. 

The exhibition’s unassuming biographical note hints at readings that could be clarified by additional text. The artist’s obsession with distance is often read through his life: critics and curators argue that the artist, who was born and grew up in Dutch-occupied Suriname, would have read the “standard” measurement of a foot or centimeter as a loaded colonial tool, usurping and replacing indigenous methods of description. In this way, measurement is the most powerful and insidious vehicle for the Western colonial project, invested in theft through the demarcation of borders, territories, and properties, and continuing to format our understanding of space and distance. In the context of his emigration from Paramaribo, Suriname, to Amsterdam, brouwn’s step logs, maps, and measurements are a way to make sense of unfamiliar terrain that rejects “sensibility” for the authority of the artist’s own racialized body. 

Other important interpretations are more or less impossible to access within the bounds of the exhibition. Recent scholarship on brouwn identifies the characteristic light brown wood used in many sculptures as okoume, an African hardwood found in the Congo, Gabon, and equatorial Guinea—countries colonized by Belgium, France, and Spain, respectively. Curator Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung notes that brouwn’s titular measurements are sometimes inaccurate, a fact he reads, with other technical observations, as “a subtle but powerful presence that . . . functions within a larger narrative of abstraction common in african expressions.”  

Omitting curatorial mediation, of course, does not mean that the exhibition is unmediated. Instead, the cultural texts through which the artwork is read are limited to that which viewers are already equipped with—an invisible miasma of experiences and assumptions, many already filtered through the assumed rules of possibility that accompany any collection of objects called “an exhibition.” The museum is not neutral. 

The incredulous visitor to “stanley brouwn, consciously or not, senses this fact. The exhibition is charged with a sparkling and unusual sense of absence that telescopes the artist’s meditations on measurements and meanings outwards, through the structure of the exhibition and the institutional trappings around it. Underneath all the mumbled “I don’t get it” and “needs more explanation,” the exhibition troubles the surface of the intelligible, as brouwn did—a provocation that succeeds as you exit the show wondering what exactly it is that you were supposed to see.

“stanley brouwn”
Through 7/31: Mon 11 AM-5 PM, Thu 11 AM-8 PM, Fri-Sun 11 AM-5 PM, Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan, artic.edu/exhibitions, adults $32 ($40 Fast Pass, $27 Illinois residents, $20 Chicago residents), seniors 65+, students, and teens 14-17 $26 ($34 Fast Pass, $21 Illinois residents, $14 Chicago residents), children under 14 free

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