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The anonymous donor: on Christopher D’Arcangelo via a curatorial problematic


Following his third arrest, Christopher D’Arcangelo’s father Allan D’Arcangelo, a prominent painter at the time, asked him, ‘Why are you going after the art institutions? You should be going after the banks. They’re the real criminals.’ With this preface in mind, it could be said that the two distinctly separate practices of Christopher D’Arcangelo, and the subsequent demands they state, could be read through an equation of the following kind:


Between 1975 and 1979 Christopher D’Arcangelo enacted a series of solo interventions within an institutional frame. In the earlier part of this five-year period, he claimed an obtrusive position of hyper-visibility whereby the interventions almost always resulted in very public arrests. In 1975 and 1976 he undertook a consecutive series of unauthorised interventions at the Guggenheim Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, The Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, all New York, as well as at the Louvre in Paris and the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena. On one particular occasion D’Arcangelo handcuffed himself to the doors of the Whitney Museum, preventing the flow of traffic both in and out of the museum’s entrance; the handcuffs perhaps acting as an allegory for control that would later become realised in his arrest and temporary imprisonment. In a similar manner, he again infiltrated a state museum when he ‘vandalised’ a painting in the Norton Simon Museum by spray painting his notorious statement atop the plexi-glass that protected the painting’s surface: ‘When I state that I am an anarchist, I must also state that I am not an anarchist to be in keeping with (----) idea of anarchism.’1 The act of doing so did not directly deface the painting itself, but instead revealed the measures through which the institution quite literally reframed the artistic work. As Annie Ochmanek noted:

The panels, used to protect the collection’s paintings from defacement and natural decay, ‘fundamentally altered’ each work, D’Arcangelo claimed, by imposing on their surfaces a ‘reflection of the viewer, the room, other paintings, and the museum. Now in the frame we have … a painting not painted by an artist but painted by the museum. This situation clearly shows one of the many problems existing in the structure of the artwork and raised the question: What is vandalism?’^2

For the latter half of this five-year period, D’Arcangelo shifted the framework of visibility to one more concerned with a position of anonymity. In 1978, when he was invited to be in a group exhibition at Rosa Esman Gallery, he proposed that his allocated space be instead redistributed and opened up to any members of the public. When this was rejected by a fellow artist in the show, and his invitation subsequently relinquished, he arrived at the opening and distributed a flyer that read ‘What does it mean to be invited? What does it mean to be uninvited?’ In a similar removal of the self, for a show at Artist Space also in 1978, D’Arcangelo erased his name from the invite as well as all other material circulating outside the gallery, left the pages allocated to him in the accompanying publication blank, and pasted the four texts which would have filled the pages on the gallery wall as his anonymous contribution to the exhibition. If these two opposing elements of visibility within his practice were to be read with continuity, it could be argued that the act of removing himself from the record — while still managing to occupy the space allocated to him — prompts a kind of filling in. D’Arcangelo moves beyond the individuation of the artist figure and toward the larger institutional question: who is allowed to participate and under what conditions? It could therefore be concluded that in his earlier works he poses this question, and in his latter works he removes himself with the provocation that the space this provides might be where the answers could be filled in.

+ B

Between 1978 and 1979 D’Arcangelo produced a series of collaborative works with Peter Nadin within an institutional frame. The two generated a practice that saw them undertake contractual maintenance on artists’ lofts, other homes and gallery spaces. The work was often only viewable after the completion of restoration and only alluded to via a flyer distributed by the artists, which linguistically claimed its existence by naming the work’s duration and material form (compound, drywall, wood, nails, paint). As the flyer stated, ‘the work shown in this space is a response to the existing conditions and/or work previously shown within the space’, and that D’Arcangelo and Nadin ‘have joined together to execute functional constructions and to alter or refurbish existing structures as a means of surviving in a capitalist economy’.3 In making materially clear questions around the performance of artistic labour, D’Arcangelo and Nadin directly bridge the separation between art and life through locating them within the same reproductive struggle for remuneration. Consequently, the conditions of their artistic labour become the same conditions of reproductive labour, revealing the inherently reproductive nature of artistic work. Through doing so, the two address the frame of artistic work as the contextualising factor that separates artwork from ‘real’ work, therefore calling the art institution directly to account in the exploitation of labour rights.

In comparison to D’Arcangelo’s solo work, it is important to reflect on the simultaneous claim to (in)visibility in both. While on the one hand his solo work deals with this concept in relation to subjectivity — putting his body in the way of Whitney visitors, or removing any claims to authority that his subjecthood might produce, as noted in the removal of his name from promotional material– his collaborative work with Peter Nadin questions the invisibility of artistic labour and artistic work itself. Their work together addresses the institutional conditions of artistic production in its own right; the artist figure again momentarily set aside in a quest to more clearly display these exploitative conditions.

= C

In her book Artist at Work: Proximity of Art and Capitalism, Bojana Kunst writes:

If we wish to delve deeper into the topical closeness of art and capitalism, we therefore need to focus on visibility, an important characteristic of today’s artistic work. The vanishing dividing line between artistic work and work itself needs to be rethought; in many artistic practices, the phenomenon is connected to the disappearing line between life and art.4

She continues to claim that while the disappearing line between art and life may have had its moment throughout modernism, it now stands as a rather routine way of intensifying exploitation. She insists that a reinstatement of the border between art and life, or art and work, is what is needed, as it is from this delineation that art’s relationship to work can be problematised. It is here where the curatorial paradox of thinking through D’Arcangelo in 2017 might reveal itself. From the perspective of the 1970s, this dissolution of the art/life border was partly important in debasing the assumption that artistic critique wasn’t real critique, and that it instead sat separately from any political sphere, producing discourse for art’s sake only. The sentiment expressed in Allan D’Arcangelo’s question to his son, as quoted at the beginning of this article, is symptomatic of this assumption. Yet, if we are to consider the work of D’Arcangelo in 2017 through Kunst’s claim for a reinstatement of this border, how are we to curatorially proceed? If we were to accept her proposition, it would seem that thinking through D’Arcangelo’s work now is irrelevant at best, unhelpful at worst. Not only this, but the very materiality of his work requests quite fervently that it avoid exhibition.

It is here where a reassessment of the position of the curator in the frame of things could enable a reading of D’Arcangelo’s work as being lobbyist. And furthermore, that instead of exhibition, the best way to honour this work and its historical significance — so it is to remain visible — is institutional reform. This realisation would also honour his desires for anonymity. And if we are to be both specific and propositional: a reform, for example, that equalises the slippage between artistic labour and remuneration within the structure of the art institution. For the most significant thing that I have taken from his practice so far is the awareness that an art institution is both simultaneously a cultural institution and a workplace. The awareness of this dual nature of the art institution could reveal an administrative infrastructure to concurrently think through in relation to locating contractual power.

In a work I recently developed for course requirements at the Dutch Art Institute, I asked the director of the institution to perform a scripted introductory address that dealt primarily with questions of compliance. While this work may differ in intent from the argument laid out here in relation to D’Arcangelo, it stands personally as an example of working with a proximal relation to administered power. Even so, I wouldn’t claim this work to be lobbyist — I will be the first to agree that it retrospectively lacked intent. Because if an artwork is to be lobbyist, it is first and foremost reliant on a formal address to the institution in question; a call to account of the Whitney, as in the case of D’Arcangelo, for example. It secondly requires the belief that the art institution is a legislative body; that has a direct relationship to politics within the network of institutional power, that is. From this position, a demand can be waged. Therefore, it could be framed that the artwork-as-lobby’s political potential exists in materialising an opposition to politics — to the administration of ‘daily practices within which order is created’.5 It is in identifying these instances and formulating a direct response and demand, as in the case of the lobby, that such critique becomes political; and that subsequently has as its aim, a desire to amend the process of doing politics. For, if we are to think of the museum as a workplace, and the curator as existing within a structure of management, it is in this acknowledgement of a claim to power where the art institution’s legislative potential can also find its feet.

The task of the curator would then be to not exhibit D’Arcangelo’s work, but to institute its demands. This is not to forget the materiality of an artwork, or the subversive potential of the aesthetic, but instead to engage directly with a practice that materialises itself as being visibly invisible, and which contradictorily offers a very tangible demand through this material reality. A possible curatorial reading of this work — given the distance of time between its initial exhibition and the possibility of it now — could enact this critique, rather than represent it. This could be done while simultaneously considering the artistic and administrative sides to the curator’s job description; their interplay being crucial in the performative play between instituting and legislating.6

I recently received an email from a teacher about a key South American filmmaker from the Third Cinema movement. On a recent trip to Buenos Aires, a local had told her that said filmmaker was still alive, and now active as a senator. Expressing her surprise, she enquired, ‘he’s a politician now?’ To which the response was immediate: ‘but he has always been a politician’. Acting now in a fitting response to Allan D’Arcangelo’s question, Christopher D’Acangelo’s dual use of occupation — both in relation to space and in the sense of a profession — shows the paradoxically transgressive nature of the institution of art, and the exploitation faced through not claiming a proximal and specific relation to it. It could be said, then, that Christopher D’Arcangelo’s anonymous donation to the field of art shows that such political aims can still be an aesthetic request.

1. Annie Ochmanek, ‘Forcible Remove’, Art Forum, January 2012, p. 91.

3. Christopher D’Arcangelo and Peter Nadin, 30 Days Work, 1978.
4. Bojana Kunst, Artist at Work: Proximity to Art and Capitalism, Zero Books, Winchester, 2015, p. 137.
5. Ibid., p. 15.
6. In his paper, ‘Putting Policy into Performance Studies?’, Brandon Woolf asks for ‘a more productive permeability between policy and critique’. He continues, ‘We should begin to think the possibility of a politics which might take the form of an administrative program, and so too think also of a type of cultural studies that will aim to produce knowledge that can assist in the development of such programs.’ Brandon Woolf, ‘Putting Policy into Performance Studies?’, in Gigi Argyropoulou, Hypatia Vourloumis (eds.) Performance Research 20.4: On Institutions. Routledge, Oxford, 2015, p. 106.

Filed under Article Isabelle Sully