Company Man, On Thinking of readymades belong to everyone® at Greene Naftali, New York
It has become commonplace to observe that the rise of the collector over the last thirty years has diminished the relative power of artists, critics, and curators, while reinforcing the ever-increasing consolidation of private property and social inequality. The new collectors financialize works of art, storing them away from view in freeports, negating the subjective and affective investment traditionally associated with patronage and collecting. An alternate history to this dispiriting contemporary reality was put forth in the exhibition Thinking of readymades belong to everyone® at Greene Naftali, which presented the work of an art agency founded by the French neo-conceptual artist Philippe Thomas in 1987. The agency operated according to a deceptively simple premise: clients received authorship of works of art produced by the agency in return for their financial endorsement. Thomas thereby erased his name from his works while at the same time subsuming his principals into a larger fictional scenario, one that paradoxically challenged the reduction of art to an asset class by corporatizing its production. The anonymity that this produced, combined with his untimely death and the dizzying contradictions of his practice, has severely curtailed his audience in the United States. In his first comprehensive exhibition in New York since the 1980s, works that may have come off as mannered or cynical in isolation together suggest a significant reinterpretation of the readymade, one that conflates ownership with authorship in order to challenge the alienating effects of private property.
Thomas’s neo-conceptual projects of the late 1970s and early 1980s—AB, Ligne Générale, and Information Fiction Publicité—explored the materiality of language, the discursivity of the author function, and the desubjectifying effects of mass culture. readymades belong to everyone® extended this research with the development of what Thomas termed “fictionalism”—a use of heteronyms, surrogates, and performative language to create a virtual reality, or to highlight the fictions underlying naturalized reality effects. The double movement of this de- and reconstitution of authorship was laid out in a lecture/performance at Beaubourg in 1987 titled “Philippe Thomas décline son identité,” in which he rejected his identity while giving it quasi-grammatical declension, tying the themes of his previous work to the fictionality of authorship and incorporating staged audience questions. These ideas were developed later that year in the first exhibition of readymades belong to everyone® at Cable Gallery in New York, from which many of the works on view at Greene Naftali originated. Visitors encountered Thomas sitting behind a desk surrounded by plants that evoked the atmosphere of a 1980s publicity office or a Broodthaers Décor, as well as advertisements for the agency and works waiting anonymously for their prospective authors. The poster advertising, advertising (1988), which shows a stack of books on Warhol, Beuys, Broodthaers, Duchamp, and others, declares the artistic lineage and discursive framework that prospective buyer/authors will enter into. The text “art history in search of characters…” precedes the hard sell pitch:
With us, you will find all the facilities you need to have your name defini-tively linked with a work of art, a work that will have been waiting only for you and your signature to be called into being. As the work’s sole and absolute author, you will find yourself among the greatest names in the catalogs and programs of all the best museums, galleries and private collections […]history is in the making: be part of the story!
With this fiction established, the works that Thomas offered his characters were mostly empty and exchangeable, summoning a potentiality that mirrored that of the author he had displaced. Sujet à discrétion (1985), which preceded the agency and acts as a kind of Rosetta stone for its practice, consists of three framed color photographs of the Mediterranean, identical except for their title cards which read “ANONYME, la mer en méditerranée (vue générale) multiple,” “PHILIPPE THOMAS, autoportrait (vue de l’esprit) multiple,” and “CLAIRE BURRUS autoportrait (vue de l’esprit) pièce unique.” The raised horizon line of these ostensibly subjectless photographs presents the vantage of an elevated spectator, summoning the famous closing shot of Godard’s Le Mépris where the warring perspectives of Odysseus, Fritz Lang, Paul, Godard, and the viewer finally converge in a single frame—a natural expanse inescapably pervaded by history and myth. In the system set out by the photographs and their title cards, authorship is multiple and transferrable, except for the collector/author (Claire Burrus) who’s work is the only one marked “pièce unique.” Inasmuch as Godard’s multiplicity of perspectives is constrained in the end by a single camera frame, Thomas withdraws his work from the ultimate fiction of radical open-endedness and desubjectification. Thomas may be multiple, but for Burrus the act of purchase bestows and constrains authorship, establishing a tension between exchange and individuation that is continued in a series of barcode paintings nicely installed at Greene Naftali on the adjacent wall. Painted in different color combinations and numbered according to their author/collectors, these canvases give pithy expression to Thomas’s notion of the capitalist subject: exchangeable yet encoded with a specificity that is perpetuated through consumption. Here the utopian exchangeability of Buren’s readymade stripes meets its negation in the commodity and the bare life of the tattooed camp number.
These works demonstrate a compelling command of aesthetic and philosophical problems, yet they invite questions regarding the sincerity and commitment of Thomas’s project. Can the authorship that he so painstakingly displaced really be bought and sold like any other barcoded commodity? Is this merely another cynical attempt to make the petrified relations dance at a time of political economic retrenchment? While this note is clearly struck, a counterpoint is found in the assertion that “readymades belong to everyone” which hints at communal author/ownership of art production. In this slogan, Thomas’s fictionalism undermines the fiction of the individual, echoing Foucault’s gravamen that only the author function curtails the “free manipulation, the free composition, decomposition, and recomposition of fiction.” In a world of runaway signification, discursive accountability—not the death of the author—rescues language from ideology. The trademark at the end of the agency title restores a note of capitalist realism and highlights the paradox, subsequently explored by Reena Spaulings, Bernadette Corporation, Art Club 2000, Claire Fontaine, and others, of collective practice under the regime of private property.
Thinking of… (1993), a photograph which supplies the title of the exhibition, depicts a group of author/collector/heteronyms assembled in the Piazza San Marco in Venice, collectively thinking, according to the title, of participants in Thomas’s project not depicted in the photograph. This gathering materializes and pays tribute to a group that can be seen as Thomas’s co-authors, lending credence to Benjamin’s whimsical assertion that writing books is the most praiseworthy way of collecting them. Thomas has reversed his terms once again, collecting his collectors for a group portrait of a practice extended across social and cognitive networks. Today, as then, it would be difficult to consider this haute bourgeois white gathering as a coming community of emancipatory subjects. However Thinking of… charts a social relation that is all the more poignant for its scarcity in our fiercely hierarchical art world. Where today could one find such an assembly of artists, dealers, collectors, and critics subjugating their highly curated identities to the apparatus of a conceptual art practice? As both antecedent and counter-history, this photograph maps a field of contradictions to be intensified by subsequent authors.