Braco Dimitrijević and New York in the 1980s: Influences and Coincidences

Cornelia Lauf

Let’s dispense with the kind of language one would normally expect to find in an artist’s monograph. The reason that I am writing about Braco Dimitrijević has little to do with our respective roles as art historian and artist. We will use model “B” in the kind of conversations Braco himself has suggested would be a real way to conduct a dialogue. Model “A” is official talk. Model “B” is the truth.(1) Let’s apply the logic of Braco’s way of making art to the discipline of art history. Let’s reject theoretical verbiage and philosophical posturing, and try to say something that Mr. Tihomir Simčić or my grandmother would understand. Anyway, if you want the Real History, No Mistakes about Braco Dimitrijević, you could do no better than to go to the least and, at the same time, most objective source, the words of his wife, Nena. In the 1995 exhibition catalogue, a monograph on the artist, Nena writes one of the most perceptive and gracious articles I have read about a living artist. If you would like to find out more about Braco Dimitrijević, in vivid historic detail, you might look at the two catalogues I consulted, the red one, from the Museum of Modern Art, Vienna (1994), or the black one, from the Hessisches Landesmuseum, Darmstadt (1995). Either one will give you a good idea of how smart Braco was as a young boy, and show that Braco recycles his early history as an artwork, like Joseph Beuys, that he greatly loved his father, and that he has managed to work with a lot of establishment places while remaining skillfully outside of the institution. The reason this essay has come about is because I ran into Braco in Bologna and we reminisced about old times (coming in a minute), and decided that the entire art world is based on good feelings. I had discussed this with art historian Gabriele Guercio a couple of weeks ago. Gabriele calls it “resonances.” Well, you either have them or you don’t. When I met Braco in the late 1980s, I was fully married to a conceptual artist named Joseph Kosuth. But this did not mean that I was naturally friendly with all conceptually-oriented artists. On the contrary. There was a kind of Feinschmecker cult of WHICH artists to include and Mel Bochner and Bernar (no “d”) Venet were definitely not on that list. Braco was. Braco had two shows with Nicole Klagsbrun, who always seemed very scattered and unfocussed but had really good gallery sense, and when she was in partnership with the mad but gifted Clarissa Dalrymple, whose name alone is cinematic, the two of them ran one of the best art galleries downtown. At that time, the center of the universe. The reason why the gallery was so good, besides the fact it was run by Klagsbrun and Dalrymple, was the artists. Clegg & Guttmann, Philippe Thomas. I think those women showed many of the best artists from the mid-80s. Parallel to the show at Nicole Klagsbrun, Braco had an exhibition at the Pat Hearn Gallery entitled “Early Works 1968 -1976,” which was part of the gallery’s series of retrospectives, along with those of Dan Flavin and Chuck Close. Braco was an integral part of that very interesting melting pot, where Koons, so early in his career, was already being critiqued for being part of the very system he mocked. I am sure that Braco’s portraiture was seen by Thomas Ruff and the big-face photography movement, because Ruff showed with 303 Gallery, which was also located downtown, East Village, until its transfer to SoHo (and then Chelsea). Oliviero Toscani would not have produced the Benetton Face had it not been for the vision of those Casual Passers-by, on facades of buildings and museums from Zagreb to Paris to Rome. Braco has had an influence on many artists who became significant. Perhaps the most important thing that he did was show that the notion of medium is irrelevant, and that even marble could become conceptual. He influenced Sherrie Levine, for example. And Louise Lawler, who frequented Sperone and Weber, in the time when Dimitrijević did a show with Daniel Buren at Sperone in 1975. Haim Steinbach has spoken about the importance of Dimitrijević. Interestingly, unlike the influence of someone such as Picasso, whose work gave rise to legions of imitators, Dimitrijević’s work has been internalized by artists, and spawned parallel rather than second-rate careers. In his book Braco Dimitrijević: Transmemorials, Michel Gautier has written that Duchamp made “quelque chose” important in art, while Braco made “quelqu’un” important in art. Perhaps he was even more successful than Joseph Beuys (“everyone is an artist”) in democratizing art and finding mechanisms to absorb real life into the artistic process. Braco was one of the first consciously “post-modern” artists, or more precisely the first post-historical artist. His theoretical book Tractatus Post Historicus from 1976 in which he coined the term and gave the definition of post-history, predated academic usage by some ten years. Its first appearance in the United States occurred in the use of architectural citations, posed by critics such as Charles Jencks, and evident in the work of Michael Graves, Robert Stem, Memphis, or Leon Krier. Much later, at end of 1980, Arthur Danto started employing the notion of post-history in his writings. Bucking this model, Dimitrijević came from Eastern Europe, and yet was equally at home in London, Paris, or New York. Stylistically, he started in the late 1960s as an archetypal conceptual artist using photography, certificates, text, but very early he sensed a trap of conceptual academism. By the early 1970s, without changing his artistic discourse and without abandoning photography, he started making monuments, bronze busts and memorial plaques. In other words, he started ironically using Beaux-Arts heaviness and skills in conceptual art, whenever he judged a context to be appropriate for it. With this aesthetic pluralism—that is, a simultaneous use of various art and non-art techniques—he emphasized even more the importance of the concept in his art. Braco Dimitrijević’s most significant area of influence may have been art-historical. His analysis of art world systems, and relentless probing of the limits of institutions led to the idea of “institutional critique” and the anthropological interest that surfaced in the writings of many art historians (and artists) since the 1980S. There were clearly precedents in the 1960S. But by using masterpiece artworks, and taking the questioning of art taxonomies from the sphere of language to the sphere of the art object itself, Dimitrijević worked in the context and “field” in a way that many of the language-based conceptual artists alluded to only through words. Dimitrijević forced institutions or municipalities to change the very nature of their thinking about of art. I myself was captivated by the idea that one could re-hang a masterpiece. This was different from choosing an industrially produced ready made, and isolating it from its supermarket context. Dimitrijević’s gesture involved entering the curatorial world, working with curators and museum directors, and treating the whole academic or institutional apparatus as a theater. In 1988, I mounted an exhibition called Natura Naturata, which dealt with the theme of the still life, and for which I asked a large number of artists, including Claes Oldenburg, Roy Lichtenstein, Haim Steinbach, Clegg & Guttmann, Sarah Charlesworth, Braco Dimitrijević, to make or lend works. My idea was to choose artists who used ready-mades and then install these works in my own composition—a salon setting in which fine pieces of Rococo furniture and even a flower arrangement by New York’s best florist were supposed to function on an equal footing with the artworks. Basically, I was trying to take the lessons of someone like Dimitrijević or Broodthaers, and apply them to their own work. I wanted to make a Dimitrijević too! This certainly colored my intellectual participation in shows such as Joseph Kosuth’s Wittgenstein, Play of the Unsayable (Palais des Beaux-Arts), or Play of the Unmentionable at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. No doubt, Broodthaers’ Département des Aigles was also important. But the delicate whimsy in Dimitrijević and his decision to produce shifts of meaning, rather than physical residue, are unmatched. On March 11, 1990, Lithuania gained its independence. On March 11, 2004, bombs exploded in Madrid, killing hundreds and hundreds of people. Braco Dimitrijević had made a work almost thirty years earlier, in which the 11th of March, an arbitrary date, was turned into an anti-monumental monument. Many political commentators today seem surprised at the anonymity of current terrorism, and by the homespun simplicity of its weapons. They note with alarm the burgeoning trend of microterrorism, against which traditional armies are ineffective. They realize that 21st-century information networks, whether telephone, Internet or radio-based, are the weapons that must be disabled first. A brief glance at art networks, and artistic communication since the 1960s, might have predicted the state of the world today. Networks via the mail, and worldwide lists were being established almost forty years ago by artists. Rather than investing in heavy metals (bronze, for example), artists increasingly turned to simple materials: instructions, certificates, and inexpensive fabrication as artwork. The trend was toward anonymity. Art could take the form of magazines, telephone calls, stamps, assemblages, musical scores, writing, record albums, or conversations. It could show up in a solitary walk by Richard Long, in a score by George Brecht, in a certificate by Gordon-Matta Clark. In billboards, radio presentations, environmental modulation, and even the manipulation of light. Since the nineteenth century, art has been separate from political life. This is not to say that artists are not political. Or that their works do not have a political content. But politicians use art as a decorative element, ultimately, or to express their own power over culture. They do not craft the entire imagery of politics—as Jacques-Louis David or Gian Lorenzo Bernini or Peter Paul Rubens might have done—with the use of art. If instead, there was the recognition that “art speaks with the speed of light,” as Dimitrijević has said, one could utilize its power to much greater advantage. According to Dimitrijević, an artist is primarily someone who acts in public space. An important innovation of his work is total awareness of the public context and establishing a new type of relation to both the street and the museum. Dimitrijević has always played brilliantly with photography and its limitations. Even today, his works have lost none of their radicalism. Take the recent exhibition in Rome, where he displayed the enormous pictures of some “casual passers-by” on the facade. The organizers of the Roman photo festival quickly hung up two big signs next-door advertising the festival, and making it clear that Braco’s work was art. Or at least photography. In his brilliant series of lectures in 1963 entitled “Art and Anarchy,” Edgar Wind delineated how art moved from the center to the margins of society. “Art has been displaced from the center of our life not just by applied science, but above all by its own centrifugal force. For most of a century most of Western art has been produced and enjoyed on the assumption that the experience of art will be more intense if it pulls the spectator away from his ordinary habits and preoccupations.” He notes that the more artists are removed from society, they more they seem haunted by “a desire to mimic scientific procedures; often they seem to act in their studios as if they were in a laboratory, performing a series of controlled experiments.” With the worldwide proliferation of “institutes” of contemporary art, it is clear that Wind’s diagnosis continues to apply. The work of Braco Dimitrijević poetically exchanges genius for the commonplace. And vice versa. Unfettered by pedantry, and resistant to the very bureaucracies he has worked with for thirty years, Dimitrijević’s work goes a long way towards reestablishing art in its rightful political, social, and cultural context. The museum has been Dimitrijević’s medium, the frame of art his subject, and the real world, his studio.

  • This is a reference to Braco Dimitrijević’s 1974 work Interview – Interview.