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Steinbach finally got his big chance in 1979, when he was given a solo exhibition at Artists Space, an alternative, not-for-profit gallery in SoHo that helped shape the Downtown art scene of the time. At that breakthrough show, he was already exhibiting object displays. In essence, he showed up in the art world fully formed.
“Doing that show basically meant, on the one hand, putting a foot through the door, or recognition for something that I suppose was pretty radical, and at the same time knowing that I cannot make a living on this kind of work,” he said. “Conceptually and practically, I hit a brick wall, but I had nowhere else to go. It makes me think of Sartre’s play ‘No Exit.’ I had no exit.”
In the decades that followed, Steinbach achieved a fair measure of recognition and success. But he also struggled, especially when compared with someone like Jeff Koons, who surfaced in the art world around the same time and quickly became a superstar. Despite vast differences in tone and presentation, Steinbach’s work was lumped together with Koons’s simply because both men used everyday objects in their art. Critics labeled it “commodity critique” and moved on.
As the years passed, the art world gradually came around to the idea of objects and object display. The Museum of Modern Art, for instance, began a series called “Artist’s Choice” in 1989, for which the institution invites artists to dig through its collection and curate an exhibition; the results usually involve groupings of disparate objects and a breaking down of traditional categorical hierarchies, concepts that underpin Steinbach’s practice.
It’s been a slow process, though, and sometimes it seems like the art world is only just catching up to him now. He’s suffered a lack of recognition along the way — “This is just an old story repeated again,” he said — but happily, something like a Steinbach revival seems afoot. In fall 2011 he had his first exhibition at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, garnering strong reviews; in the fall of 2012 and part of this winter, he has been in the spotlight at the Artist’s Institute and this coming summer he will be featured in a solo exhibition at Bard College.
It could be that, more than ever before, the art world is letting go of the paradigm of art as a standalone illusion and embracing the intrusion of everyday life. It could be that we live in a post-commodity world, where we accept that objects have both commercial and cultural values. It could be that after years of teaching, Steinbach’s influence is finally coming through in the work of younger artists, many of whom may have been his students. Jaskey sees a parallel between Steinbach’s process of bringing together disparate objects and the Google Image search/Tumblr/Pinterest culture of today.
“I think this is a really strong relationship to younger artists, even our generation’s culture, the Internet, because that’s all about association,” she said. “One reading of [Steinbach’s work] is, it’s about a finding and a presenting,” which resonates with today’s remix culture because it involves “showing other people what we found. The meaning is not in what we made, but in what we put together.”
Jillian Steinhauer is a senior editor of the art blog Hyperallergic and a freelance writer living in Brooklyn.