Germano Celant in Haim Steinbach: Object and Display, 2015
An Existential Building Site
In the mid-1970s, Haim Steinbach realized that objects in and of themselves may be considered a material for art, not in the sense of Marcel Duchamp’s readymade but rather within the commonly shared social ritual of collecting, arranging, and presenting them. This means that the activities we share in and around objects are embodied in them and that choosing, moving, and placing them are psychological, cognitive, and performative forms of speaking. In this respect, artists ranging from Eadweard Muybridge to Yves Klein and Jean-Luc Godard, as well as Yvonne Rainer, Joan Jonas, and Nancy Shaver, had significance in Steinbach’s early thinking about objects. Steinbach’s practice also involves exploring how specific artifacts of the world and in various societies differ for cultural and historical reasons. It is parallel to an anthropological approach that takes into consideration the conditions and meanings of cultural patterns, as well as the artistic and visual experience of things. With this realization, and with the first works in which Steinbach began to place everyday objects on a shelf, a relationship was established between his work and the analytic practice of artists such as Bernd and Hilla Becher, Joseph Kosuth, Piero Manzoni, On Kawara, and Robert Smithson, who, beginning in the 1960s with their investigations of typologies, linguistic structures, gravity, time, and geologic material, initiated a reflection on the idea and nature of art. They adopted new approaches, often using photography, written texts, and unconventional materials such as rocks and air as a means of acquiring an awareness of and perspective on basic issues of artistic research. Working on “resemblances” between things photographed, words and their definitions, or minerals such as salt and their contexts, they conceived of “families” that, in accordance with Ludwig Wittgenstein’s interpretation, reveal connections on both philosophical and physical levels. Steinbach ventured into this same territory, turning his attention to the universal world of objects, a landscape where design, both conceptual and visual, shapes physical things. This approach is reflective of object-subject relations, and also of the postindustrial and global community that has been affected by mechanical reproduction: “By 1984 I was selecting objects that I found, that were given to me, or that I bought at department stores, supermarkets, and antique stores. In each group of items, a certain relationship of function, projection, or narrative was underscored. … Every object has both a function and a language, and we bestow on it formal activities of design, fashion, decoration, and packaging. I am interested in how objects are conceived and fashioned, in their look and appeal as well as their libidinal, sociological, and anthropological codifications.”1
Steinbach’s strategy of exploration is based on the collective and shared exchange of things, traditional or popular, whose relationship within a group tends to reveal cultural functions and manners of human expression, belief, and tastes. As these things move, their exchange exposes the different forms and elaborations that the mind and the hand, as well as systems of manufacturing, are capable of generating. Steinbach is interested in compiling an ethnological inventory of all kinds of artifacts. By acquiring or borrowing them, he develops a structure for a comparative exploration of the identities, representations, and functions of things from various societies and places. The plurality of his anthropological “portraits” represents a variety of situations with their own uses and customs. The portraits expose how differences can become complementary in their structural correspondences, and yet at times appear competitive and in conflict.
It is instructive to consider an earlier moment, in which Steinbach had already begun thinking about objects. In 1970, he realized Blue Painting with Four Shapes #3. He layered a stretched canvas with many coats of gesso, which were sanded down to achieve a perfectly smooth surface. He covered the canvas with brown paint thickened with stand oil and, attaching a hairpin to a wooden stick, scratched shapes in the wet paint. When it was dry, he painted the space around the brown shapes with a coat of cerulean blue. This engagement with the painter’s canvas recalls Lucio Fontana’s approach of slicing the canvas with a razor-sharp knife.
A year later, employing the grid, Steinbach drew same-size rectangles on the canvas. The space around them was layered with gesso and sprayed over with black paint, resulting in Painting with Rectangles. A series of related paintings consisting of the lining, stacking, and abutting of rectangles followed.
The idea of arrangement came about with the use of a standard roll of masking tape. Same-length strips of tape were cut and taped at right angles to the edges of a square canvas. They were placed at regular intervals, one after the other, around the perimeter. As such, they marked or measured the periphery of the object. Next, several coats of dark brown paint were sprayed over the surface. Once dry, the pieces of tape were lifted and each bar painted with a color, resulting in Brown Painting with Bars, 1973.
What interested Steinbach was the positioning of the figure in physical space, and so he arranged the bars like pieces on a game board. This reference to plans, systems, and permutations recalls Carl Andre and Sol LeWitt’s manner of rendering space with objects. The painting was treated as an object; in 1976, the canvas was replaced by a twenty-four-by-twenty-four-inch wood-composite panel that took the title Particle Board with Black Shapes. Using black oil stick, Steinbach rubbed onto the surface autonomous geometric shapes that ranged from triangle to square to rectangle. He gave a concrete, gravitational weight to the geometric figures.
In the series Linopanel with Inlaid Triangles, 1976, the work underwent a semiotic redistribution, with the introduction of linoleum flooring material: “One day in the mid-1970s I was standing on an imitation-ceramic ornamental linoleum floor, when it occurred to me I was actually standing on a painting. Soon after, I was collecting various pieces of linoleum and gluing them to a two-by-two-foot particle board panel and mounting them on the wall. The wall became the primary place for me to present physical, already existing objects.”2
The intervention was one of disorientation, typical of the practice of Duchamp, whereby the selected thing was inscribed in another situation and thereby made visible. In fact, the disorientation encouraged one to look at the material or the remnant, not only as a poetic image but as a doubling of reality in a physical and cultural sense. It also became clear that since 1975 Steinbach had been working with the concept of “appropriation.” In other words, he was taking existing materials and presenting them on a different plane. Presentation is the act of putting up front, thereby inviting a response, making the gaze a nomadic act. The nomad moves in the space of the real, visually feeding off things found in the surroundings.
Evidence of the transition from the poetic to the phenomenological and the ontological, which entailed a change in the role of the author, now transformed into a translator and arranger, recalled the circulation of objects: “It is mostly about looking at things in and out of context. … It is not only about selecting and arranging objects of my own choice, but presenting those chosen by others. As such, I work as a kind of arbitrator or interlocutor.”3 This became obvious in Untitled (baseball player, Snoopy, locomotive), 1975, which consisted of a wooden shelf made of two strips of standard one-by-two-inch lumber stock. It was a most direct transition from the two- to the three-dimensional, on which now rested three green plastic toys. The effect was a resemblance, through material and color, but also an ambiguous collision between different figural entities that ended up acting on a ledge. What seemed to matter were juxtapositions of chance encounters; the three figures—baseball player, train engine, and Snoopy—were lined up, waiting to be discovered. They suggested multiple relationships offering a weave of significances.
In a faculty exhibition at the Johnson Museum at Cornell University in 1979, Steinbach chose a passage between the main gallery and the elevators, in a corner framed by cement columns and partitions, to realize Display #5. One wall of the installation consisted of sections of wallpaper, a shelf with a green plastic ball and a terra-cotta copy of a pre-Columbian dog, a red shirt on a hanger, and a sculpture by Herbert Ferber from the museum’s collection placed on a white pedestal. Another wall set in an alcove was layered with a schematic design of pieces of wallpaper resembling a portal. Piled on the floor in the corner was a mound of seashells. Here the circle was closed between artifact and product, nature and sculpture, painting and architecture, art and everyday thing. Together the elements formed a single totality that marked the identity of a place and a group.
In Display #7, also in 1979, at Artists Space in New York, Steinbach chose the small reception room to present objects. He built a tall minimal box, painted it white, then centered it against the wall and placed a 1950s kettle on top. Two potted plants were placed on the floor on each side. On the opposite side of the room, two walls meeting in a corner were covered with strips of wallpaper. They supported wooden shelves held by metal brackets. A majolica pitcher, a wooden Chinese statuette of a fisherman, pheasant feathers in a vase, a child’s lunch box, and other artifacts were placed on top. The arrangements consisted of things belonging to Steinbach as well as those loaned to him by friends and relatives. They were industrially produced, natural, or handmade. Rather than eschewing social and cultural reality, the artist incorporated it, allowing the materials a life of their own. In fact, this display enunciated the coordinates of Steinbach’s future linguistic process, from the use of architecture to the wall, shelf, and objects. It was focused on the problem of the possible transit between “autonomous” and “heteronomous” art.4
At Artists Space, Steinbach set into play self and collectivity as they pertained to identity, memory, and intersubjectivity: “In 1979, I had a studio above Artists Space, and when stopping by the gallery, I would often see a woman dressed in 1950s outfits sitting at the reception desk. When making my work Display #7, I painted the white, box-like desk blue. I chose that room because it was the thoroughfare between the other spaces. There was a door that opened to the director’s office, and a doorway leading to the biggest exhibition space. There was also an elliptical window behind the desk that I very much liked, so I hung a small watercolor landscape next to it. I also placed a portable cassette player on the desk, which played fragments of pop songs and more offbeat music on a loop. And in a way of talking back to the cassette player, I hid a reel-to-reel tape deck inside the minimal white box. It played a recorded passage from Franz Schubert’s Moment Musical No. 3 in F Minor, a piece I heard a neighbor playing over and over again when I was a child in Tel Aviv.”5
Since Pop art, the difference between art’s autonomy and its being part of the transcultural art world has vanished. In the representations of the everyday from Richard Hamilton to Roy Lichtenstein to Andy Warhol, the functional kettle or the natural plant, the antique vase or the reproduction, the toy or the globe, has been transformed into sign or image. However, Steinbach’s objects are resolutely palpable. They occupy real physical space; you can both touch and lift them. It follows that the work is essentially about presentation, and about seeing what is physically present in front of one’s own eyes. The connotative aspect of the object prevails over the denotative. A language of display emerges in which the satisfaction of looking, that is, taking pleasure in physical traits of any kind, is left open to the viewer. Everyone projects him- or herself, investing the thing with his or her own desire.
The idea of the linguistic transfer of physical and psychic movements between an environment and the things contained in it has been central to Steinbach’s art since the mid-1970s, when he began gluing mass-produced linoleum flooring material onto particleboard. With this move, any element in the surroundings became fair game. If the floor took on the identity of material object, so did the wall. The motion that is put forth between the strips of wallpaper and the artifacts on shelves—or between walls, windows, and items on display—is an attempt to make the factuality of emotional and libidinal relations emerge into visual consciousness. The work’s scansion extends the connections and suggests a phraseology in which the parts can proceed in a metonymic play or simply by resemblance, opposition, or difference.
Yet before bringing about the linguistic transfer between object and object and context, before introducing the display, it is important to study the given site: the floor, walls, doors, etc. By generating a process of “setting in motion,” the environment—the museum or gallery—passes from a formless state to a structured space. The perceived immutability of the institution goes through a change of identity when becoming part of the display. Here the architecture undergoes a shift because Steinbach detaches it from its traditional representation. His intervention has the characteristic of changing the constitution of both the items and their location.
The identification with the background exists in historical projections that, as early as Kazimir Malevich and his installation of Black Square—placed in a corner between ceiling and walls in the Last Futurist Exhibition of Paintings 0.10 in Petrograd in 1915—set in motion a relationship between painting and architecture that continued with Ivan Puni in the exhibit Der Sturm in Berlin in 1921 and was realized in El Lissitzky’s Demonstration Room, a movable arrangement for presenting artworks at the International Exhibition of Art in Dresden in 1926. With Steinbach, the association of painting and painting, object and object, marked by the edge of the frame or by the perimeter of the room, takes on a significance that is analogical and historical, thematic and environmental. The relationship between the contents of the space establishes a thread of commonality or opposition between the cultural and natural elements, as well as the social and the architectonic, which end up mirroring each other.
In June 1980, Steinbach showed Display #10—Changing Displays at Fashion Moda in the South Bronx. The space, a not-for-profit storefront in a run-down neighborhood of New York City, had been conceived and directed by Stefan Eins. “Stefan came by my studio and handed me the keys to his space. To get to the South Bronx from Manhattan, I took the 5 train, which was covered with graffiti. Gathering things I found on the street or purchasing others in thrift stores nearby, I arranged them in the window, on the floor, and on the walls. At some point I began building shelves made of fragments and scraps from household pieces lying around. The setting changed daily and friends (Steel Stillman, Nancy Shaver, Cindy Tower, Joe John, Wayne Hardy Salazar, Shelly Silver, Robert Gober, John Schabel, Johanna Boyce, Julia Wachtel, Zou Zou [Elisabeth Lebovici], Jill Savage [Schecter], Justen Ladda, and others) came by and pitched in on occasion. Fashion Moda became a neighborhood hangout as well as a sort of art scene for Lower Manhattan artists. Locals drifted in and out during the day. Across the street was a methadone clinic, and addicts would come in and engage with the work. One day I hung a shirt up on the wall, and a guy walked in from the street and exchanged his shirt with mine.”6
The dissolution of hierarchical structure left room for a perspective where what mattered was the circulation of the materials in relation to a set place that, with its various referents, from the kitchen to the museum, from the dining room to the gallery, inspired new connections. In the various places, in fact, the object on display underwent a semantic redistribution, due to its position in each space. This is why, in 1981, the artist began to photograph his shelves—on occasion with the assistance of artist Steel Stillman—in various homes. The photographs depicted the variable territories of the imagination in which the work took on a role, as if it were an actor onstage. From 1981 to 1983 he photographed Shelf Arrangement for Camille’s Family Living Room in Little Italy, N.Y.C., 1981, Shelf Arrangement for Audrey and Dick’s Cardroom, Hampton Bays, New York, 1981, and Shelf Arrangement for Helene, Sydney, Amy and Eric’s Playroom, New Rochelle, New York, 1982, where the intervention of the shelf, constructed with pieces of furniture, plastic housewares, and tree branches, pushed the object to traverse interpretive categories, putting forth a kind of action that recalled a typical Surrealist operation; André Breton called it the “poetic consciousness of objects.”7
The enactment of dislocation between situations produced energy and interpretive tension around the object, so that every photograph shot by Steinbach became a spark that set alight the possibility for a new identity. It was a germination of meanings organized with regard to the layout and decor of the home, or according to what the place gave to the object or the object to the place. This germination in turn led to a movement of contingencies where what mattered was how this interplay disclosed the private subjectivities of a domestic space.
In 1936, Walker Evans photographed the interiors of the homes of sharecroppers in Alabama, which included views of their sparse personal belongings on mantelpieces and shelves. In 1981, Sherrie Levine produced a series of photographs titled After Walker Evans. Her pictures rephotographed and repeated Evans’s photographs. Reflecting on Levine’s take on the domestic scenes captured by Evans, Steinbach has said: “I was first introduced to Walker Evans’s art around 1968 by Nancy Shaver. So when Sherrie and I got to know each other around 1981, her relation to the work of Evans struck a chord. I had just been involved with photographing my shelves and objects in people’s homes, and I realized that Sherrie and I were both touching on related ideas.”8
For the 1982 exhibition Invitational at the Bell Gallery, List Art Center, Brown University, in which Laurie Anderson, Scott Burton, Wolfgang Laib, and Martin Puryear also participated, the artist installed Display #16–red cross, a work laid out on three walls with wallpaper that he designed with a pattern based on the front page of the New York Post. It was a grid of faces of the alleged plotters intent on killing Ronald Reagan. A low ledge protruding from the long frontal wall held a family of three small knitted snowmen. High on the wall to the left, a long shelf carried a collection of pre-Columbian pottery from the List Art Center. To the right, a tall wall had a ledge at the top. Placed along its length were various household products: Rolodex, box of tissues, salt container branded “Red Cross,” mug branded “Brown University,” Halloween Spider-Man container, and other items. Mounted on the same wall, at a lower level, was an intricate handcrafted shelf made of driftwood and fragmented furniture parts. A can of hair spray from a barbershop with a silhouette of a man’s head with a pompadour haircut sat on top. The work played out a network of associations that revealed how the media generates narratives that seem to attach themselves to objects, or how language is transferred from letter to word to image to object, as well as the reverse. It laid out a timely atmosphere, implying a cultural and domestic vulnerability.
The complex installation of Display #16–red cross signaled an artistic choice that called into question the tradition of authorship. Steinbach explored ideas of repetition and reproduction as well as location, class, and time. He aimed to bring out the different manners of existing and appearing, in both their interrelationships and their surroundings: “The object always interacts with its context and vice versa. It may be anything, and the context may be a vase, a page, a landscape, a building, culture, the place, etc. Value is placed on the context, for example the home, the house of worship, the museum, the book. The object and the context constantly shift positions.”9
At Documenta IX in Kassel, in 1992, Steinbach presented Display #31—An Offering: Collectibles of Jan Hoet. A year prior to the exhibition, Hoet, the director and chief curator of Documenta, had invited Steinbach to Museum van Hedendaagse Kunst in Ghent, Belgium, where Hoet was the director. Having discovered Hoet’s extensive personal collection of knickknacks, weights, ceramics, tin boxes, photographs, toys, and plates on shelves in his office, Steinbach proposed to bring it to the show. He designed a circular pinewood shelving structure to hold the various items, with each ascending level diminishing in circumference. He thus exposed the perceptual and cognitive field of Hoet’s personal sensibility for things, as an indirect and subtle reflection on his intellectual and intuitive predilections in selecting artists for Documenta IX.
An Offering was installed on the second floor of the Neue Galerie, the town’s museum. On the same floor, Steinbach produced another work, Display #30—Black Forest wall, 1992, a reconstruction of the side of a generic barn wall from Germany’s Black Forest. The wall obstructed the wide opening of a large space at the entrance, becoming a visual and physical barrier that redirected the museum visitors. In that space there was a display of works acquired by the museum from previous Documentas. At the center was a spiral sculpture by Mario Merz constructed of rocks, glass, and branches. It was surrounded by a collection of paintings by Gerhard Richter, Georg Baselitz, and Mimmo Paladino, among others.
The cultural consecration of the object is a product of the museum display, whereby it is possible to place items of elite standing in line with a museological construction of history. That model of the museum of art and its forms of display, its historical structures of categorization and classification, had been established in the nineteenth century. In that period, when exchange was still relatively localized, shopping meant going to the neighborhood grocer, butcher, or tailor for food and goods. However, in the twenty-first century, after the advent of the supermarket, the department store, the mall, and now the Internet, the physical and psychological structures of exchange have significantly changed.
Today, the global desire for access to art is radicalizing the museum. The expanded possibility for consumption in the twenty-first century is nearly universal. Globalization is also radicalizing structures of exchange, and it indicates that an older model of display no longer makes sense. A more current criterion would question previous doctrines of hierarchical discretion, including the very formation of the museum with its transcendental concepts. Steinbach’s display paradigm suggests a more inclusive approach toward things in today’s world, one that would incorporate the components of the museum landscape into his collections. The image of the expanded object is a reflection of a contemporary consciousness that depicts the private as well as the public person.
Steinbach’s once again the world is flat, at the CCS Bard Hessel Museum in Annandale-on-Hudson in 2013, and at the Serpentine Gallery, London, and the Kunsthalle Zürich in 2014, began with a core set of his works from 1972 to the present. The exhibition undertook different modes of display as it conceived the varying participation of “others,” in collaboration with the artist himself: others who loaned objects, handmade or mass-produced, artifacts, paintings, sculptures, models, drawings, and photographs, which were integrated into the various exhibition landscapes and displays.
Among Steinbach’s key works are earlier “Displays” such as Display #7, 1979, and Display #31—An Offering: Collectibles of Jan Hoet, both of which remained fixtures in each rendition of the exhibition and comprised various things contributed by other people. At the CCS Bard Hessel Museum, Steinbach integrated selections from the Marieluise Hessel Collection—a collection focused mostly on 1960s and 1970s art—into the exhibition. Also at Bard, he reconstructed Display #67—Influx: Objects for People, 2005, which was initially shown at the University of California’s Berkeley Art Museum. It consists of a freestanding wall of prefabricated metal shelving units and includes a collection of odds and ends from his studio, some of which originated in artist Nancy Shaver’s store, Henry, in Hudson, New York. The store is a treasure trove of regional craft, folk art, and common functional utensils of different periods. Steinbach invited Shaver to curate the Influx display and to bring whatever else she wished to add to the mix, which in the end also included a group of artists’ works, objets d’art, from the Hessel collection.
At the Serpentine Gallery, in Display #79B—Salt and Pepper Shakers, 2014, borrowed pairs of salt and pepper shakers were distributed throughout the space, amassed through an open call made to people in and around London. In addition, some artworks and antiques came from various public and private collections: nineteenth- and twentieth-century dollhouses and game boards from the Children’s Museum at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, a Henry Moore sculpture from the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester, and an 1867 Daniel Maclise painting from the Manchester City Galleries. Also exhibited was a selection of contemporary artworks and furniture from the collections of Maja Hoffmann and Poju and Anita Zabludowicz.
On a visit to the Museum Rietberg in Zurich, Steinbach took interest in the traditional Swiss carnival masks. Afterward, several masks of the same genre were loaned by the Historisches und Völkerkundemuseum St. Gallen and shown in the exhibition at Kunsthalle Zürich. Also, the Constructivist drawing collection of Ellen and Michael Ringier, which occupied the walls of their home’s library for fifteen years, was reinstalled at the Kunsthalle according to the architectural framework of the original setting. A painting of a young woman in a field of flowers by Ferdinand Hodler from the Kunsthaus Zürich hung to the side on one wall, while Display #31—An Offering: Collectibles of Jan Hoet stood in the center of the space.
This concept of inclusiveness and participation had long been an important aspect of Steinbach’s practice. In 2000, at the Neuer Berliner Kunstverein, Berlin, and at the Haus der Kunst, Munich, Steinbach produced Display #59—North East South West. Visiting the homes of residents in East and West Berlin as well as in Munich, he interviewed men, women, and children, inviting them to discuss a group of objects that appeared somewhere in their home. The interviews were videotaped and, along with the respective items, brought to the exhibition. A scaffolding structure weaved throughout the exhibition space, occupying it from floor to ceiling. The collectibles of the participants were placed on glass shelves at various locations on the scaffolding. Each video interview appeared on its own monitor and was presented on a white pedestal along the periphery of the installation. Adopting a similar approach in 2000 at the Biennale de Lyon, Steinbach presented Display #58—49 Contacts, a maze of scaffolding erected at eye level and topped with glass panels that supported pots and pans loaned from households and restaurants of a range of cuisines, including French, North African, and others.
The request for a contribution from an “other” encourages the idea that artistic authorship is not limited in absolute conventional terms, but requires a diffuse and generalized participation that activates a situation, including acting outside a system solely based on privilege and distance. Confronting participation in terms of inclusiveness signifies declaring an awareness of one’s own limits, which are incomplete and therefore local rather than universal. Each individual completes his or her own existence and being, building forms of communication for carrying out his or her own awareness: an operation of anthropopoiesis.10
And since every form of identity-related expression is intrinsic to a culture and a belief system, Steinbach explores its various boundaries and connections, defining the indispensable nature of the specific associations he makes between his perspective and that of others, as well as of the contexts he has traversed—from the United States to England and Switzerland, specifically in various rural and urban centers, at Annandale-on-Hudson and in London and Zurich—with their societal, cultural, and museological memories. The choice of objects to present in his displays represents a dialectic of contingencies: the unreality of the imagination that becomes reality, and the reality that produces the unreality of the imagination.11 In the hundreds of things that the artist has chosen, from salt and pepper shakers to vases, from picture frames to prints and photographs, from wooden masks to puppets, from kettles to instruments, from cookie jars to ashtrays, hung on the wall or placed on shelves, in cupboards and racks, the two modalities—real and imaginary—are set in motion. Moreover, each of these objects evokes a sensibility and an idea. Behind them there lies something indefinable that suggests a private and personal territory, primitive or cultivated, which provides a background for their existence. Therefore, by selecting and exposing them, Steinbach journeys through the places that indicate a given background, be it a country, a home, a school, a flea market, or a museum.
But what is the private place of the home, or the institution of the museum? And what is its banal or transcendent concreteness? If it exists, is it possible to evoke it, as Steinbach has done, by incorporating the subjectivities of acquaintances, friends, strangers, collectors, and lenders? Clearly it can be done, by associating points in their landscape of choices and attachments, revealing potentialities and desires, and making inaccessible individuations accessible.
The libidinal investment relates not only to the object of the institution but also to the subject—the common person, the artist, the gallerist, the collector, the museum director or curator, the art historian, or the critic—who reinvents the image of the artifact, increasing its value in his or her own terms. Hence on the occasion of his 2013 exhibition at the CCS Bard Hessel Museum of Art, one of the defining features of the exhibition was the dialogue between the works of the artist and those of the Marieluise Hessel Collection. The totality was a coming and going from one to the other, a dialectical movement that was established because of the fusion in the installation. This was emphasized, first of all, with the introduction of wall structures, constructed of steel studs and drywall, which inscribed a function analogous to the shelves, to the degree that they invoked the construction, in terms of each specific element and material that was combined to make the whole. Also, these walls recalled the interior wall supports Steinbach adopted in 1978, which appeared as autonomous and independent units in 1983, in Display #17—Social Conquest, done in collaboration with Julia Wachtel, at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center Mall. It was a construction that by 1986 became a freestanding wall, in a work titled announcing something, which took center stage in the exhibition Damaged Goods at the New Museum in New York. It was followed in 1988 with the work Display #23—Adirondack tableau in the exhibition The New Urban Landscape at New York’s World Financial Center. By 1995, this practice was transformed into a scaffolding structure for Display #37—Untitled (wheelbarrow, bricks) in the exhibition Fuori Uso in Pescara, and then into a catwalk structure framed in aluminum ladders, Display #38—Strenesse Group, fashion show, 1995, in Milan. Finally, it came to constitute an enormous shelving structure, Display #45—Mothers, Daughters, Children (with “37 Stories about Leaving Home,” by Shelly Silver), at the 1997 Venice Biennale.
The use of wall and industrial-shelving-system interventions or the construction of scaffoldings is part of the process of the conceptualization of the distribution of space as well as all that is contained in it. Adding walls and traversing others, Steinbach declares the value of the shelf to be the architectural support, through which it becomes possible to organize, arrange, and narrate with things. He takes possession of a space in order to first of all affirm its existence; its “void” as presence is not different from the physicality of the objects. And just as the shelf has been the platform for his selection of things, he turns the space into a tableau of architectural display. Therefore, in his exhibition once again the world is flat, he restructured each of the three exhibition spaces. He measured distances, volumes, and surfaces to transform the space into a total display. A comparison of his various floor plans for the different museums reveals how the artist organized orientations and routes in relation to the architectural and geographic context.
The situation was no longer one of narrative, but of multiple shifting narratives. For Steinbach, the idea of the game board has been a guide since he began putting into play the concept of “Display.” Architecture—a floor plan, an apartment, a building—is already an institutional entity. As with clothing, it not only serves a function but is an intellectual and expressive statement. To play out such articulation through a sequence of deconstructive and reconstructive activities becomes a reflexive practice: play, plan, structure, grid, distribution, circulation, divisions, arrangement, placement, partitions, entries, barriers, stairs, exits, indoors, outdoors, boundaries, scale, eye level, position, movement, repetition, permutation, sections, squares, modular, algorithm, pieces, dominoes, Clue, chess, hopscotch.
Adopting the thing and making it his own, the artist pays homage to it and at the same time articulates its beauty and the way it behaves among other things, as an object of nature or design. He wants to verify its degree of seduction and persuasion, of delight and repulsion, giving it a fresh purpose by arranging it on a stage in order to respond to the sacred ritual of showing and seeing. The artistic territory seems to expel any and all romantic or heroic manifestations and entrust itself to the community of a structure and an object. The pre-chosen path is that of the appropriation of the material and vital elements that make up everyday reality. The orientation is inclusive in nature and incorporates in the work the greatest quantity of things and information, of corporeal and mass-media traces, with an open and unbiased attitude. It is like a Situationist operation, where the presence of art has a statute that includes object as much as subject.