Unmonumental: Junk Sculpture in The 21st Century

April 24th, 2008 by roblog · 1 Comment

The following material made up the basis for a presentation given to the Spore Collective in April 2008:

Unmonumental: Junk Sculpture In The 21st Century




In December of 2007, the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York City opened the doors of its new location, in the Bowery district of lower Manhattan. The museum relocated to this gritty Chinese restaurant supply district from its previous home in SoHo in a deliberate attempt to distance itself from an art scene that has become increasingly reliant on gentrification and established artistic celebrity. Therefore, for the inaugural exhibition at its new home, the museum staged “Unmonumental: The Object In the Twenty-First Century,” a three part exhibition incorporating more than eighty works by thirty international artists, mostly “mid-career” and under forty years of age.1


The common thread of the exhibition is junk art, a sharp contrast to the polished, monumental crowd-pleaser exhibitions that have become the standard museum fare of major national galleries. Essentially, the goal of the exhibition is to define low tech assemblage sculpture, with its raggedy looks and unconservability, as the most dynamic form of contemporary art today, fighting the otherwise dominant forces of market absorption and pop cultural monumentality by its very nature.2

Of course, Unmonumental is not the first ever exhibition of junk-sculpture. The medium has been around as an accepted artistic practice for close to a century. The following is a brief, and no where near comprehensive, look at the history of junk assemblage:

A Brief History Of Junk Sculpture:



Junk art arguably began with Marcel Duchamp and the Dada movement, who deliberately brought “readymades” (itself an importance practice in Unmonumental) and the objects of real life into the art realm in an attempt to blur the lines between art and life. Often described as an attempt to destroy art, Dada assemblage is better thought of as an attempt to change the role of the artists. In the words of Duchamp “I never tried to destroy art for anyone but myself”3


Junk art thrived through the surrealist movement, thanks to such artists as Man Ray and Meret Oppenheim. Its best known practitioner was the American artist Joseph Cornell, whose homemade boxes full of junk-store bric-a-brac have come to define the medium. His constructions were complex odes to beautiful ideals, especially birds and Hollywood starlets, and took on the distinctive feel of manic folk construction.4


In the nineteen sixties, Junk art took center stage in the attempt to overthrow the formalist dominance of Abstract Expressionism and Color Field painting on the New York Avant Garde. Junk art, then, is no stranger to this role of other that it finds itself in during Unmonumental–it was forged in such an environment with Dada, and has been put to the role multiple times in the past. In this period, Robert Rauschenberg, a major influence in the Unmonumental exhibition, pushed junk assemblage to the limits of its structural, aesthetic and conservable integrity.5 Rauschenberg, along with his close contemporary Jasper Johns, is often classified as Neo-Dada, a nod to the Duchampian roots of the medium. 6


Since Raushenberg, assemblage art has gone in a vast array of directions, and it would be ingeniune to pretend to cover them all here. But to sample one of the best known works of the politically charged counter-art scene of the 1970s, here is Betty Saar’s 1972 work the Liberation of Aunt Jemima, which appropriates folk imagery into a junk assemblage in an attempt to change the meaning of dominant cultural iconography through this physical manipulation.





This brings us the Unmonumental itself. In general, the goal of the show has seen both critical acclaim and immediate influence: Peter Schjeldahl describes, bluntly: “At issue is a restoration of studio romance (the artist in what-the-hell action) after a spate of market sex (the artist as deluxe fabricator)”.7 This years Whitney Biennial soon echoed the same theme, but lacked the gauntlet-throwing impact, which the New Yorker described “If it were a sound, it would be the muttering of a cast awaiting the inexplicably delayed rise of a curtain.”8



These works come in sharp contrast to the current standard, which involves large scale, fantastically expensive commissioned works from celebrity-artists. For example, both Jeff Koons and Cai Guo Qiang have solo exhibitions on display this spring that reflect the exact method of exhibition Unmonumental is reacting to.


For all of the excitement it has generated, the exhibition is not without criticism. First of all, for all its groundbreaking attitude, the exhibition is inexplicably western-centric, fielding the majority of its artists from the United States and Europe. The feeble defense by the curators–that this results from more material waste in these locations–is undermined by the emphasis on African junk art at last years Venice Biennale.9 Meanwhile, head New Yorker critic Peter Schjeldalh decried what he felt was a conservative perspective on assemblage: “Most of the works are neat and clean. You could take them home, and, in the case of powerful congeries of this and that by Isa Genzken, you might want to.”10



The impact of Unmonumental and junk assemblage is evident in the exhibitions currently on view in New York. A smattering of junk shows include:

Nayland Blake at Matthew Marks gallery. Blake is another established artist working in the Unmonumental mode: his sculptures are mostly “made up of humble materials gathered on his daily walks, and taken together they constitute a diary of his obsessions and sensibility.” Blake incorporates his own biases and aesthetics as an automatic system with which to govern his work, which frequently inverts issues of race and sexuality.11


In a slightly more disturbing bent, Jeffrey Dietch selected artist couple Tim Noble and Sue Webster to set up a single work in his Projects Gallery: Polymorphous Perverse, a moving, breathing, pulsing Toy-Story-esque horror show of junk assemblage.



One of the Mid Career artists on display at Unmonumental was Tom Burr, whose exhibition Addict-Love (title taken from a Frank O’Hara poem) showed concurrently at the Sculpture Center in Queens. Burr limits assemblage sculpture to its barest elements: an arrangement of props, lights and specific functional forms to suggest the cleanliness of his modernist background coupled with the very anti-modernist nature of the media themselves.



In the basement of the same building, a second exhibition, In Practice Projects shows an alternative side to the junk sculpture medium. If Unmonumental was notable for sticking only to mid-career artists, In Practice Projects is laudable for its focus on emerging artists. Most of the work was extremely bizarre, fitting into the catacomb-like basement of the building in a much less polite way than the white-cube viewer oriented work of the New Museum’s exhibition. For instance, Agathe Snow’s installation “THE ASSHOLE OF NYC! THE BEST JOB IN THE UNIVERSE (AN ATTEMPT AT CONVERSATION)” includes a string marked PULL, setting all the hanging vacuums into abrupt, engine roaring motion when yanked.12 In Practice Projects seemed, to a great degree, infused with the sort of excitement we’ve achieved with the Spirit of the Spore! I could definitely see our collective creating this sort of installation exhibition.

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1 response so far ↓

  • Justin // Nov 5th 2008 at 2:42 am

    Great stuff,very Big City feel to Unmonumental. Am into junk sculpture too,live in coastal South Africs,very different feel to the local junk art !