Sneaking into a system, flirting with it then hacking its power structures and undermining its legal guidelines are strategies favoured by artist Jill Magid. As she writes on her website: ‘to enter a system, I locate the loophole. […] If my subject is made of clay, I will work in clay. […] What is considered banal or cliché might be hiding something.’ She has infiltrated police work for Lincoln Ocean Victor Eddy (2006–07) and video surveillance of public places for Evidence Locker (2004). But for her first solo exhibition in Switzerland, titled Homage, she ventured into art history – specifically, into Josef Albers’ iconic series Homage to the Square (1950–76).
In this group of works – by the time of his death, Albers had created more than a thousand of them – the artist used a reduced geometric compositional scheme as a basis for testing the interplay of individual colours. On their backs, Albers wrote meticulous notes about their technical details, such as the works’ dimensions and the oil paints that were applied unmixed. Taking this information, Magid has created 12 paintings of her own in accordance with Albers’ parameters. Her titles, such as Homage to the Square, 1963, After Josef Albers (2014), refer directly to the works’ templates. In a second series – exhibition catalogues hung on the wall, open to show the same works framed by Magid – another layer of representation is added. These pieces are hung like the paintings, suggesting equivalence, but direct comparison with the painted duplicates – which diverge in some ways from the originals despite their identical colouring – is avoided through the precise arrangement of the works spread over two rooms.
Magid’s appropriation-based approach may initially come across as a tribute – a literal homage – but she situates this within a larger, far more complicated context: in the ongoing project The Barragán Archives, which she began in 2012, Magid explores the reception of Luis Barragán (1902–88), a pioneer of Mexican modernist architecture. Barragán and Albers shared a common admiration, as attested by the presence of an Homage to the Square painting in photographs of the interior of Barragán’s home in Mexico City. Despite the widespread myth to the contrary, this is not an actual painting by Albers, rather a department store reproduction. (As the Albers Foundation in Connecticut confirmed to me, this did not bother him.)
This anecdote about the reproduction-Albers and an exhibition of 12 original Albers squares at Casa Barragán in 2007, form the source material for Magid’s Homage. A framed reproduction of a photograph of an interior from the 2007 catalogue serves as a link in the exhibition’s content, as a visual bridge to the exhibition’s second part. Through the video Tracing Albers’ Chair (2014) and two chairs entitled Butaca Chair, After Josef Albers, After Luis Barragán, After Clara Porset (2014), the artist heralds the next phase of her project, also expanding the Albers-Barragán pairing to include the designer Clara Porset (1932–81): each of the three figures (four if Magid’s reproduction is included) produced a version of the traditional Butaca Chair.
Acting as a fellow player, Magid insinuates herself into spaces where fact blurs with myth, where attribution remains vague and where authorship collides with ownership. The Barragán Archives project raises questions about mechanisms of control and exclusion with regard to privatization and valorization, as well as issues of intellectual property rights. Barragán’s private estate has remained in Mexico, while his professional archives and copyright are administered by the Barragán Foundation in Basel which has close ties to the Vitra design company. These archives are not only geographically separated from his architectural manifestations, but also largely inaccessible to the public thanks to the restrictive management of his estate. The foundation denied access and refused to loan items to Magid hence the recourse to reproductions. What ultimately gives this exhibition its peculiar charm is its formal rigour: the placement of works in complex contexts, the deflating of its subjects‘ auras and the dizzying way these themes branch out.
Translated by Jane Yager