Previously the longest I’d ever spent on deciding whether or not to pull a zipper was around thirty seconds and it had to do with how cold it really was. This was until I saw Nelson Leirner’s 1967 composition Homenagem a Fontana II (Homage to Fontana II) at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. I was there with my siblings and my mom as well as some aunts, uncles and cousins. It’s an artistic family and no reunion would be complete without a trip to the local modern art spot. I usually go see art on my own because the way I behave around art tends to weird people out. It started during a trip to the Met while I was in New York with the staff of my high school paper. I found myself staring at one of Robert Motherwell’s Elegy to the Spanish Republic canvasses for an hour. One of the best collections of modern art in the world could not pull me away from that one painting, I peered into it and thought and thought, all of it rooted in Motherwell’s abstract figurations. So now when I go to art museums, I walk around until I find something that captures me and then I stand there looking like a heavy-handed performance piece about how little time Americans spend looking at art. This leaves me with little to contribute to the “What pieces did you like?” conversation afterward.
On the Walker trip I took long looks at pieces by some of my favorites Jeff Wall and Jasper Johns before settling on the Leirner and a zipper-induced panic attack.
I would call it a painting except that if the category of ‘painting’ means anything, then this one doesn’t fall under it. Homage is made of pieces of fabric stretched and zippered together in two (visible) layers. The picture does not do justice to the colors of the fabric which are at the same time vibrant and worn. What got me to pause at first was the name of the piece. I’m a big fan of the Argentinian painter Lucio Fontana who was known for taking his (almost) completed paintings and slashing the canvasses with knives. He was involved with the spatialist movement and saw the slashes as opening up the work to another dimension of space. But what has always intrigued me – as it did in Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning Drawing – was the process of destruction as creation. That erasure and cutting could be as productive creatively as drawing or sculpting is one of the more imaginative parts of modern art. This is also where I run into problems with my friends who don’t see erasing and painting as similarly valid techniques.
Leirner takes the cosmically implicated creation-destruction dialectic and comes up with … zippers! Play dominates in Homage, every move of a zipper is destructive and creative at the same time, doing away with a previous incarnation and inventing a new one. This picture is only one form of Homage, as the work itself cannot possibly be captured. The purpose is the play, the joyful creative destruction that can be performed over and over with different results. The viewer becomes not just an interpreter, but a co-producer. At least, conceptually.
Nelson Leirner was actively involved in a continuous project to challenge the way in which the art world grants critical and commercial value to objects. In São Paulo, Brazil, in 1967, he presented the exhibition Mass Production of Painting–Pictures at Cost Price, which featured a series of multiple paintings titled Homage to Fontana. The artist insisted that the works, composed of colored fabrics and zippers, be sold for no more than the cost of materials. At the same time, he alluded to the contemporaneous success of Italian artist Lucio Fontana, celebrated for his ruptured, sliced, and perforated canvases. Originally, Leirner invited the audience to use the zippers and thereby join him in the creation of multiple formal configurations, turning the romantic gesture of the solitary artist into a participatory and reversible one.
The romantic and false gesture of the solitary artist. Leirner begs the question that if art has value because of its meaning and the meaning is read by the viewers, then why should it cost more than its raw materials? But if all production is social, then why would only art work this way? He prods at market systems of distribution with zippers and fabric. It’s a conceptually fascinating work – the exact type I get stuck to. And yet, there’s something horrific about the last sentence in the museum description. When we hear or see the word ‘originally’ we expect it to be contrasted with something that happened later to change the situation from this original position. I doubt Leirner decided one day that the concept of his piece was bullshit and that no one should be allowed to touch it any more. It could happen, but I think that might be worth including in the description. Instead, the present-contrast is contained in the statement below the description: Please do not touch. What happened is that Leirner lost and his work costs a bunch of money and it’s in a museum and the people would ruin it with their grubby little hands if they were allowed to be co-creators.
The description is then a grotesque mockery of art’s revolutionary potential. What was supposed to be threatening becomes a conceptual curiosity for tourists. “Look honey, zippers!” As Leirner “succeeds” as an artist by museum inclusion, he fails as a theorist whose purpose is not to think about the world but to change it. I stood transfixed, getting angrier and angrier. When I decided this was something I wanted to write about, I pulled out my phone to take a picture. I got the one of the description card but when I backed up to take a picture of the work itself I got a tap on the shoulder from the museum employee who told me that taking photos of the art was not permitted. In my daze I had forgotten that behind every masterpiece is a museum cop.
I stood in front of the work for 45 minutes deciding whether or not I was going to pull a zipper. I’m pretty sure it was the context – family trip – that kept me from doing it and getting kicked out. That said, it was a human failing not to experience the piece as the artist intended and as I desired. I understand the argument that if everyone played with the piece, it would hasten its destruction, but that is the only way this current work could exist. What the Walker has up is a disgusting destruction of Homage. As with as destruction there is creation, but what’s produced here is a gloating reminder that an individualist conception of production has triumphed. They might as well have burned it, recorded it on video, and shown it on a sexy LCD flat-screen. But such things are no longer done.
So this is how America deals with degenerate art. That’s what Homage is, by questioning the assignment of value according to markets and singular production, Leirner calls into question the dominant ideology. The revolutionary potential must be halted, but burning art receives too much attention these days. Perhaps the canonization of Robert Mapplethorpe was the final demonstration that a culture-war jihad on artists wasn’t a great tactic for preserving the status quo. Putting the art in a museum, where it can be watched, is more reflective of American forms of social control. We interact with art in places where we are meant to feel uncomfortable. We keep our voices down preventing discussion and debate. We consciously move from piece to piece, nodding in appreciation, always careful not to get too close.
I stood there getting more and more anxious at the violence I saw on that wall. And then I felt silly for taking the piece so seriously, which did not help. I stepped outside for a cigarette in the snow with my brother who suggested tagging the bathrooms or dumping a pile of scrap metal in the hall. I feel like the second one must have been tried already. But he’s right to say that if art can be revolutionary, then the museum as it exists much change. Leirner is right, art is a social production and it belongs to all of us, certainly art like his. Next time I’m in Minneapolis, I’ll take a small step for the destruction of the museum by pulling a zipper and getting myself kicked out.