One of the seminal stories in the history of art is that of Marcel Duchamp, a French artist who, in 1913, took a bicycle wheel, mounted it on a stool, and called it art. “Readymades” was the term Duchamp later coined for the everyday objects — bottle racks, shovels, even urinals — that he would find, sometimes alter or reposition, sign, and display. The implications of his actions were huge: Art did not require the artist to physically create something, and accordingly, just about anything could be art.
Haim Steinbach, 68, is the subject of a series of exhibitions running through the current season at Hunter College’s Artist’s Institute, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. He works with everyday objects: stuffed animals, dog chew toys, shoes, children’s toys, cereal boxes, dishes. He selects objects, builds shelves on which to display them and arranges them in mysterious yet resonant groupings, often involving repetition — two pairs of sneakers accompany a deer-themed lamp; two circular door mats and two “Caution” floor signs are lined up with a dog chew toy; five dog chew toys sit alongside a plastic mini cauldron and a metal-and-wood cart core. Steinbach has been building these displays since the late 1970s. Before that, he was making paintings, but as early as 1970 he was gradually moving away from the illusionistic space of the canvas toward what he calls “the object question.”
“I’m at the cusp of moving into doing something like that,” he recalled on a recent afternoon at his home and studio in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn, placing himself back in his own 1970s mindset. “But what allows me to do something like that is that I remember that Duchamp took the bicycle wheel and he stuck it on a shelf. Now, a bicycle wheel wouldn’t necessarily be put on a shelf; it wouldn’t be stuck upside-down. This is something else. But I say: ‘Well, what if you just take the stool, you take away the bicycle wheel and put a cup of coffee on it, you know? Why wouldn’t that be art? It’s the next logical move, no? Somebody had a cup of coffee, they were in the studio, they put it down on the stool and there it is! Lo and behold, that’s a work of art!’”
Steinbach, however, wasn’t simply aping Duchamp or restating old ideas. For Steinbach, there have always been two parts to the equation: That a cup of coffee might be a work of art disrupts not only the notion of what art is, but also of what a cup of coffee is.
And for him, the latter is the more interesting inquiry. In other words, Steinbach is concerned more with the value of objects than with the value of so-called art.
“What is an object?” he mused. “How do we apprehend an object? How do we live with an object in the same space, and which space does it belong to? How do we relate to it depending on the space in which it’s being put, the context?”