‘Hello. Again.’ announces the wall piece that greets viewers entering this excellent and substantial Haim Steinbach exhibition, and, like the show’s title (‘once again the world is flat’), it suggests a discerning kind of re-encounter. This is relevant not just in terms of the show’s retrospective ambitions, presenting as it does pieces from the past 40 years and spanning the length of Steinbach’s career, but also in relation to the determining mechanism of this artist’s work. As the show’s co-curator Johanna Burton notes in one of the catalogue essays, Steinbach’s work has often been discussed vis-à-vis commodity culture, an assessment that seems to rely heavily on his triangular, sleekly Pop-y shelf pieces from the 1980s – works that are nearly as emblematic of that go-go decade as Jeff Koons’s pristine vitrines. But what gets lost in that reading, and what this show professes to highlight (surely helped by Burton and her co-curator Tom Eccles’s inclusion of only two of those iconic plastic-laminated shelves), is Steinbach’s interest in making the viewer re-encounter the homely, idiosyncratic readymade through its insertion alongside other objects into often large-scale spatial arrangements. Rather than fetishizing the desirability of the mass-produced, Steinbach’s work as it emerges in this show creates a sort of textured system, one whose formalist aspirations remain in productive tension with its sensual tactility.
When Viktor Shklovsky famously wrote in his essay ‘Art as Technique’ (1917) that art should serve to decontextualize familiar objects in order to make us live more conscious, less routine lives, he suggested a path by which to perceive and analyze art works as formal arrangements of movable parts. But though Shklovsky noted that ‘art is a way to experience the artfulness of an object: the object is not important’, the attention to the object’s tangibility in his call on art to reawaken us by once again making ‘the stone stony’ cannot be ignored. Similarly, Steinbach’s interest in a formal structure arising among a variety of objects, alongside his attention to the particular sensuality of these very objects, is a defining push-and-pull in his work.
This simultaneity exists first and foremost on the level of discrete pieces, such as the lovely Shelf with Noodle Shoe (1981). The succinct title already suggests the non-hierarchical elements that form it (note the use of the equalizing ‘with’ rather than the stratifying ‘on’) – a woman’s shoe paved with dry instant noodles, displayed on a shelf-cum-pedestal. The conceptual improbability of the arrangement here, with its cartoonish nod to Surrealism, is at first what seems most at stake – the inapt placement of noodles on shoe made even stranger by the similarly irrelevant placement of shoe on shelf. But what then makes us extend our looking even further is the heft and texture of the piece: its thingness. The fact that the structure is made to cohere via a crude golden spray-paint job, for instance; or the semi-DIY, fully post-utilitarian composition of the bric-à-brac whatnot/shelf; not to mention the curlicued noodles, reminiscent of a 1920s showgirl’s marcelled hair.
The structural rhythms in Steinbach’s historical pieces are sharply expanded in this show by the decision to include works, selected by the artist, from the museum’s Marieluise Hessel Collection, in larger installations (that the artist calls ‘Displays’) and which variously include wallpaper, shelving units and sheetrock walls. In Display #82 (2013), for instance, the gallery is divided by a wall, on which hangs the work Shelf With Ajax (1981), the readymade cleaning product placed on a gnarly wood and plastic mantel. Accompanying this shelf piece, however, are other works that interact productively with it. In a piece from Mexican photographer Manuel Álvarez Bravo (Un Pez Que IIaman Sierra, A Fish Called Sierra, 1942), a young woman holds out a large fish, as if presenting it to the viewer. The woman’s shelf-like pose enhances the fish’s displayed objectness; a tactility which, in turn, engages with the heavy ceramic presence of Rosemarie Trockel’s floor-based silver Pot (2006). Another sizeable arrangement of storage scaffolding (Display #86, 2013) makes brilliant bedfellows out of, among many other works, a jailbait-esque Larry Clark portrait of a bare-chested teen (Jonathan Velasquez, 2003), and a punnily named Rachel Harrison gooey-bust-on-chair piece, Pink Stool (2005). The whole thing feels fresh, extending itself far beyond a mere exercise in tasteful interior bricolage. The Harrison and Clark pieces are obviously quite different, but their side-by-side placement emphasizes their shared treatment of the human body as a half-enticing, half-grotesque meat puppet.
In the show’s final gallery hang several black and white photographs that Steinbach took in the early 1980s, capturing the installation of some of the shelf pieces presented in the exhibition in the homes of friends and collectors. Here is, once again, Shelf With Ajax, but this time mounted in a Woodstock living room (1981), a hanging plant abutting it; here, also, in a playroom in New Rochelle, is Shelf with Noodle Shoe, hung next to the family piano and various sports trophies. The turn from the museum to the private sphere in these photographs does nothing to weaken Steinbach’s work. Rather, the everyday materiality of the objects these images portray suggests its very richness – both structural and sculptural.