I remember the first time I saw a work by Marcel Broodthaers. It was also the first time I had heard of him. I had just begun working as an exhibitions installer at the Harvard University Art Museums and we were installing Extreme Connoisseurship, a show curated by Linda Norden from, if I recall correctly, the Fogg’s collection of contemporary art. It featured works by Bas Jan Ader, Bruce Nauman, Bill Viola, William Tuttle, Rudolf Stingel, Barbara Kruger and Marcel Broodthaers, among others. The piece (or pieces) by Broodthaers in the show was A Voyage on the North Sea. This took the form of a slideshow projected onto a gallery wall and a film can containing the film of the same name in a vitrine.
It was a relatively easy show to install, at least for me. I didn’t have to work out the various media formats or deal with keystoning the videos. I just painted the walls, hung paintings and handled the objects. What was a lot harder, though, was for me to understand most of the show. I would watch Broodthaers’ slides automatically cycle through close-ups of a flea-market sailboat picture and just shake my head. It didn’t make any sense. It made me angry. I thought that all you had to do to understand art was to look at it and it would give up its secrets. That was it. Everything you needed to know was right there, in the work. If it wasn’t, it was bad — pure and simple. Yet, Broodthaers failed that test. It made me feel stupid and the museum was legitimizing it. Clearly, the museum had been fooled.
The thing was, though, that I would find myself looking at the slideshow and disregarding the other works in the show. The film canister, too, with its label depicting the sailboat painting had an attractive quality and got a good bit of my attention when I would walk the galleries looking for places on the wall that needed touch-ups. So, it had that, but I wasn’t going to concede to the work and get out a book on Broodthaers or read the wall label. I figured that it might be appealing visually, but in terms of meaning, it didn’t hold anything for me, because it relied on outside forces for explanation. I didn’t need that, nobody did.
Over the years, Broodthaers stuck with me, still stunned by the complexity and exacting calibrations of his work. I began to get a sense of how single works were part of a larger whole, made up of concurrences among not only other works, but also ephemera such as announcements, posters and open letters. I could pick up threads that ran the course of his career (which famously started in his 40’s) such as the use of animal metaphors and symbols, the use of language spatially or the composition of images to create linguistic meanings.
The fact that the work required the viewer to go outside the artwork to find other resources for understanding, as well as (if not most importantly) required that the system (or location) of presentation contributed to the meaning of the work made sense to me. It changed the trajectory of my thinking and started to give form to my interests as an artist. Broodthaers insistence upon creating visually compelling works as vehicles for the content of the work seemed not only appropriate, but crucial.
Recently, a friend who’s installed quite a bit of Broodthaers’ work asked me what it was that I liked about his work. He honestly couldn’t understand it, though he liked work that had similar effects and interests. To be honest, I didn’t have a good answer for him. There are days when I look at that work and I still feel stupid, maybe even stupider than I did back in 2001 and I still don’t get it all. Maybe, that’s why. That the fact that I can’t cleanly and quickly categorize the work and move on, keeps me engaged and helps me to grow and change. It’s the same reason that I watch Mean Streets every few weeks. There’s enough that I love to keep me happy and enough that I want to understand that keeps me confused.