The year is 1978 and two young New York artists (one British, the other American) are supporting themselves by doing construction work. An artist friend hires them to install walls and a ceiling in her 912-square foot loft. They are happy to be earning money, but they approach the project not simply as a construction job. When the work of hanging, spackling, sanding and painting is finished, they distribute a typewritten announcement that reads, “The product of nine days work may be seen on January 23rd and 30th, 1978, between 3:00 and 6:00pm, at 407 Greenwich Street, N.Y.C., 3rd floor, front.” As if describing a work of art, they specify the materials used: “Celatex [sic], Drywall, Lath, Nails” They further explain: “We have joined together to execute functional construction and to alter or refurbish existing structures as a means of surviving in a capitalist economy.” Following this conceptual statement are their addresses and a phone number where they can be “contacted to execute future works.”
As the British member of the duo later recalls, “When you’re doing construction, the mark of the hand is meant to disappear entirely. If it’s a good job, the marks you make are invisible … it began to strike me how beautiful things like the sanding of a floor were—the texture of the pine and how it changes when you put down the finisher, how beautiful the spackling mud could be when you applied it to the sheetrock.”
After several more such actions around the city, the American artist is invited to be in a four-person group show at a respected alternative space. Although he agrees to participate, he insists that all references to him be eliminated in any promotional material connected to the exhibition. Accordingly, blank spaces are left on the invitation card and press release where his name would have appeared and there are four blank pages in the accompanying catalogue. In apparent disregard of this stipulation, the curator of the exhibition names him (inadvertently?) in her introductory catalogue note. His sole contribution to the show are four texts (originally written for the catalogue) that he affixes to walls of the space. In them he seeks to draw attention to the institution’s underlying economic and ideological realities.
While it will eventually be recognized as an early and trenchant example of institutional critique, his act of auto-erasure will forever be overshadowed by another far more extreme gesture of self-disappearance that occurs some six months after the exhibition closes when, depressed about a relationship and troubled by no one really knows what other demons, he commits suicide in his Lower East Side apartment. He is 24.
( , Peter Nadin, Louise Lawler, Janelle Reiring)