These Objects Are Closer Than They Appear

At 68, Haim Steinbach Is Still Redefining Our Art

Object Lessons: Hunter College’s Artist’s Institute is currently hosting an exhibition of Haim Steinbach’s work.
Courtesy of Hunter College
Object Lessons: Hunter College’s Artist’s Institute is currently hosting an exhibition of Haim Steinbach’s work.

By Jillian Steinhauer

Published January 30, 2013, issue of February 01, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

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?”


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • Employees complained that the food they received to end the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan was not enough (no non-kosher food is allowed in the plant). The next day, they were dismissed.
  • Why are peace activists getting beat up in Tel Aviv? http://jd.fo/s4YsG
  • Backstreet's...not back.
  • Before there was 'Homeland,' there was 'Prisoners of War.' And before there was Claire Danes, there was Adi Ezroni. Share this with 'Homeland' fans!
  • BREAKING: Was an Israeli soldier just kidnapped in Gaza? Hamas' military wing says yes.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.