Arman's Vitrines: The Spectacle and the Display
Written for the 2015 MIA & ACTC Symposium
Analyzing a constellation of artists in Nice, France, during the late 1950s and early 1960s-- such as Arman, Yves Klein, Martial Raysse, and Ben Vautier as well as Claes Oldenburg in New York at the same time-- it becomes apparent that the art of the time is interested in a dialogue about consumer culture and the impact that consumers have on the art market, as well as the post-war conventions of art gallery display especially the gallery window. Arman’s accumulation pieces, however, suggest not only a commentary on institutional conventions of artistic display, but also suggest a commentary on other types of conventional uses of the vitrine as a way to display and categorize objects. Arman’s work with vitrines brings up the convention of displaying artifacts within an anthropological or natural history museum, which can be compared with a display model in a store and can further be compared with an art object in a fine art museum. His work also suggests correlations among the vitrine, the storefront, and the gallery window. This triangulation leads viewers of Arman’s work to understand how collectable and recycled objects function as ‘unusable, yet sellable.’ This is best seen in the two to three years when the French New Realists invaded the New York 1962 New Realists exhibition out of Sidney Janis Gallery pointing to their contradictory mechanisms of display.
As a way of first understanding how Arman’s accumulations function within the context of art, we must first analyze what the accumulations contain. Some of Arman’s accumulation pieces are behind plexiglass, some are encased within polyester resin, and some are simply within wood boxes. The Arman in the MIA’s collection is within polyester resin, which gives the piece an impenetrable, melted together look. This method of displaying the contained objects becomes important later. For now, we must analyze what is contained within the polyester. Jan van der Marck notes that “Arman favors man-made and mass-produced objects that possess a strong formal identity, [and] are readily identifiable in terms of both use and human history” (21). The collection of mass produced objects encased within all of Arman’s vitrines is where we get the discussion on consumer culture. The polyester surrounding the paint tubes in this piece makes it impossible to imagine accessing the paint tubes within. Van der Marck also compares Arman’s accumulations to the way in which an entomologist would study the classification of butterflies. If we take the analogy of entomology even further: the grid-like way in which Arman displays the objects contained within his accumulation pieces are reminiscent of the scientific categorization of taxonomy. This becomes important to Arman’s work because the artificial labels that make one animal species different from another in taxonomy are similar to the artificial boundaries of art and object that Arman plays with—which is to say, he works with artificial ‘master’ categories of what makes something art and what makes something object.
This differs from Martial Raysse’s vitrines in that, while both artists put objects in vitrines, the newness of Raysse’s objects gives the sense that these objects could still be used as objects if only taken out of their container. The manner in which Arman’s pieces work, as opposed to Raysse’s, is similar to the idea of how one might view certain collectable antiques on display. The collectable antiques that Arman’s work is concerned with contain a similar aspect to that of high art, in that they are no longer to be used, but to be kept only for their display or collectable value. This brings across the idea of the recycled object in Arman’s art. The collectable antiques are re-sold and recycled as objects-- no longer for the reason they were sold in the first place. Emmelyn Butterfield-Rosen says that Arman takes the “already sold or soiled in to this envelope of the ‘for sale’” (68) by placing the already consumed objects into a display format like that of a gallery, where the art can exist within the art market. This, then, is not only a commentary on consumer culture, but also the use of art and its function within the culture of consumption.
Another way of thinking about Arman’s works, in the same vein of the ‘unusable yet sellable,’ is that of the department store model. Often times, a department store window will have a display model of an object they have for sale within the store- but the model itself is non-functioning. Now, we return to the point about display I started with earlier: the way in which the consumable, for sale, object is displayed tells us about the collectable art object. Benjamin Buchloh also discusses this aspect within Arman’s work as a dialogue of the “fetishization and domination by consumption” (Buchloh, 270). We can compare this, then, to the eleven blue monochrome paintings of Yves Klein’s exhibition in 1957-- which are almost exactly the same, but which he claimed had different prices. Despite the fact that this difference in prices was a retroactive fiction, the discussion about how both the art consumer and display of the artwork-- note that Klein’s works are displayed at different heights and in slightly different manners-- creates differential value.
Arman’s pieces contain objects post-use and these objects are inaccessible due to the enclosures in which they are contained. Thus, the pieces do not have value as objects themselves; rather the way in which they are displayed is what creates value. Extending this idea of the display creating value in Arman’s work, we can then compare and contrast Arman’s use of the vitrine—as a method of display-- to other artists’ use of the vitrine. In the two to three years in which Arman and Yves Klein were working, they never fully found an end point to their implicit conversation about display, but in the years following artists took their lead and found new ways to analyze the vitrine in display. For example, if we take Joeseph Beuys’ Auschwitz Demonstration (1956- 1964) --which, in its most literal form, is objects placed behind glass vitrines-- and compare it to Arman’s works we find that there is a commonality between the two. Buchloh calls this the “Aesthetic of Archival Accumulation” (Buchloh et al, 496) but I would call this holding memory. The memory being held is one of an attachment to certain objects over others within a collection. Buchloh adds, “some objects in Arman’s warehouse are more prone to interpretive projection than others” (Buchloh, 274). Buchloh defines interpretive projection, in this particular case, as how the viewer interacts with the objects that are on display in vitrines, in a way that is similar to viewer participation. He explains that the viewer projects his or her own ideas onto the objects contained. The objects hold the viewer’s memories, but also hold the memories of whoever consumed the objects before Arman’s use of the objects.
This aspect of interpretive projection could also hold true of the objects of the Auschwitz Demonstration. Beuys’ piece is not about display in the way that Arman’s is, but about the collection of objects holding memory of a horrible event in history. However, Arman’s pieces are about the ways in which museums, galleries, department stores and other institutions display objects in the same way as Beuys’ piece does-- as a way of holding memory of different events, after the consumer’s use of these objects. The objects in both Beuys’ and Arman’s vitrines function the way an artifact does in an anthropological museum: by displaying objects behind a see-through wall, taking them out of their original context and usage, and placing value upon the objects outside of their use as commodities. Anthropological museums also categorize all objects as the same, such as in Broodthaer’s Museum of Modern Art, Department of Eagles (1968) where the only thing that the objects in his fictitious museum held in common was the symbol of the eagle. Arman’s accumulations are all connected by an organizing category in this same way; whether connected by paint tubes, clocks, cameras, or simply garbage. Even in his earlier vitrines that were not limited to one specific object, the symbolic category that the many objects represented is what they had in common.
In this way, Arman’s pieces describe not only the memory of the past, but also the way in which museums and institutions collect and display objects as all inherently identical. It is also a commentary on the way in which institutions do not display everything within their collection. This choice of ‘what to show’ is just as arbitrary as the borders between categories of different art mediums and time periods. Thus, Arman’s accumulation pieces function as a whole object- the display and the contained. They create a commentary on consumer culture in an age of mass production and the accumulation of objects.
Buchloh, Benjamin H. D. Neo-avantgarde and Culture Industry: Essays on European and American Art from 1955 to 1975. Cambridge: MIT, 2000. Print.
-- and Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois, and David Joselit. Art since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism. 2nd ed. New York City: Thames & Hudson, 2011. Print.
Butterfield-Rosen, Emmelyn. "La Vitrine/ L'éponge: The École De Nice and the ‘Hygiene of Vision’" New Realisms: 1957-1962- Object Strategies Between Readymade and Spectacle. Cambridge, MA: MIT. 65-75. Print.
Van Der Marck, Jan. Arman. New York City: Abbeville, 1984. Print.