Marcel Broodthaers Works and Collected Writings

Reviewed by Zac Dempster
B's grave
RONALD REAGAN: Marcel nothing is free you know.
MARCEL BROODTHAERS: I am always in support of the act of writing. No matter how banal.

We’re accustomed to dining on egg shells, thigh bones and casseroles of shellacked mussels—signs of poverty and irony idealizing the Belgian artist Marcel Broodthaers’s daily bread. His was a two-sided discovery: in a world where writer and audience were finding themselves increasingly out of sync, no one writes to be read, but on the contrary, ersatz imitations sell. His scruples dashed, Broodthaers made sculptures late in life that could be best described as surreal objects or European Pop art. Mimicking the art fashions of the day, he tasked himself with building up a cache of these acceptable products accompanied by a halfwit persona to launch his career from the ash of unpopular prose.
Like Denis Diderot in the eighteenth century, he lived in an era free from the anxiety or responsibility of aesthetic discernment, no doubt finding it hard to be a pauper while there are so many wealthy idiots you can live on. Similarly both were rebels and broke, without a penny to leave their daughters—who in Diderot’s case needed a dowry. He, however, had a stack of books leftover from his research for the Encyclopédie and was friendly with a collector who liked Western trinkets. Catherine the Great, as luck would have it, was in the market to buy (according to P.N. Furbank in Diderot: A Critical Biography, 2011). After the ink dried, he threw a few celebratory parties and died.
In the early aughts I stole a lot. Books, music, food, wine, mass transit, and college. The last was a bigger haul than the rest, but not because I didn’t hand over thousands of dollars, probably I have in one way or another, but because auditing gave me access to fields of knowledge with none of the institutional strings attached. Where most in my position accumulated accreditation, debt, and professional contacts, I lurked in the shadows.
In 2000 I moved from my hometown to Boston, on advice from an English professor at the University of Toledo, a staunch Poundian, to start attending courses at Boston University. A year latter I was taking Stanley Rosen’s class on Thus Spoke Zarathustra, where we seldom made it through more than three pages per class. Our main endeavor was impregnating every sentence in the book with references, engendering in me the insight that there are books which can never be finished. So thorough was Rosen’s commitment to reading, that at eleven AM on the 11th of September, 2001 he dismissed the idea of canceling our class, reasoning that Nietzsche had envisioned clashes in the West throughout the twentieth century, with literal blood in the street, where the tolls would take place and who was unwritten, but we should continue to read.
Another joie de vivre course was taught by the British poet Geoffrey Hill, who took special care to narrate in crawling slowness Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley’s martyrdom. The two were tried and convicted for heresy at Oxford’s church in 1855, and were shortly after burned on the stake not six hundred feet from Trinity College. The proximity to Hill’s alma mater and the role of the academy in the executions gave the class’s topics a reflexive edge. He’d continue about William Tyndale and how he was strangled and his body set on fire for the role he played translating The New Testament. These sufferers, Hill felt, opened the gate to self-styled hallucinators like William Blake, to whom, “we are all coexistent with God; members of the Divine body, and partakers of the Divine nature… He is the only God…. And so am I and so are you…” By distancing himself from a god fraught with discipline, reading and ritual, he and his kind of consumer poets, instead became the inventors of selves, egos unchained and set loose to falsify depictions of the world in their image.
That same year I’d cross over to Harvard where I had a seminar on Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project taught by the literary critic Barbara Johnson, who calmly described the lengths to which she expected us not to seek out the content of our readings, instead picture a desert with no roads or buildings, just dunes, except for the remains of an animal: the text. The work done by vultures and maggots had so thoroughly scattered and stripped the meat that we were unable to decipher the species, and the abrasion of wind and sand wrested all sinew and gristle away, burying everything except the desiccated notion of our belief that the uniqueness of life ever stood. Her gift was the surface of a bone, almost too bright to look at in a cramped basement classroom in Boylston Hall with its optimistically marigold painted walls.
I discovered Marcel Broodthaers through a tip from a friend in 2006, who, knowing I was looking for more critical artists, suggested that I would probably like her former professor Hans Haacke. So while going through a stack of monographs and essays on Haacke I came across Benjamin Buchloh’s Neo-Avantgarde and Culture Industry. Which is where I saw Broodthaers’s work in the essay, “Marcel Broodthaers: Open Letters, Industrial Poem.”
While still in his twenties Marcel Broodthaers was given the 1914 Gallimard edition (rather than the original magazine format) of Un Coup by his fellow countryman René Magritte. By nature, a book’s fonts are less indicative of magazine content on the fly. This, perhaps, posed the seeds of an alienated relation to the poem for the young artist. The 1969 work by Broodthaers that came out of it, a kind of parody of the form with the text transformed into black lines emptied of meaning and artfully arranged on the page, propagates his misunderstanding of medium: what he produced, ultimately, was a book of a poem made in the format of a magazine.
Below I followed a simple schema to talk about aspects of the Collected Writings, though by no means complete, I found that a scattered interpretation of passages a more honest approach than writing copy or presenting a screen of academic tautology.

If art, amidst all this, comes up as an item of discussion, these letters should certainly be presented as information sheets. Indeed, this is what it has come to; it’s the artist’s signature that largely makes the work of art—[on the work or on a certificate]. Therefore in the case of this exhibition, an information sheet to be purely and unequivocally informative, can only bear a copy of a signature.


One can never say too much about the index. By its nature it is the promise for continuity or wandering lost among a crowd of unfamiliars. Parading through the streets with whips, self-flagellating, to the sound of an eerie drum could be the vision most appropriate, if the reader grew up in a mountainous region. I’ve been told that in New Mexico the locals practice praising Christ in the direct fashion of imitation, the experience of suffering.


Or perhaps there is something more plebeian about answering to the simplicity of an occupation, someone needs to account for the title on payday, checks with dollar amounts can’t have the recipient left blank. Something in that regard would throw a wrench into paying out ratios of value, estimating what an overall product is worth, balancing books and looking toward the future and how to continue with said ratio. It could be said that all artists have to be paid, which would only be half true, the art must get the other half. It must have a set value so that when it is exchanged for an amount, that a lessening portion may go to the artist and an enlarging amount must go to the object. (Of course it could function contrarily, or in an absolute balanced fashion, but this would certainly only occur in one transaction, and what is under discussion here is multiple exchanges, over time. Show me the artist who made one work, and only one, and that single work has been worth X, and remains worth X.)


1973, 383-387


Dear Wagner,


What is there to say about the Wagner letter? Marcel Broodthaers wrote it to Beuys pretending to be Offenbach addressing Wagner. The circumstances behind the letter are cloudy. I read it originally under the presumption that it dealt with misgivings Broodthaers felt for Beuys’s participation in an exhibition at the Guggenheim after Haacke’s real estate show was canceled. But lately I read Broodthaers himself participated in the show. Were there further intrigues that I am unaware of? For instance was there a curator who favored Beuys over Broodthaers somewhere along the line? I understand disliking Beuys, but under what context was it possible for Broodthaers to mock Beuys? Could he really expect to injure his art/political opponent with these open letters, veiled in humor and historical wit? The deeper truth is obvious, that Beuys was an opportunistic willful German artist whose abilities were recognized by those who favor blood and soil taste, but in the arena of art spectatorship how on earth does Broodthaers imagine that his cave of hermetic slams publicly displayed will enliven his position? Perhaps he’s a goldfish and the water is stale because his master hasn’t stirred the aquarium with a fork.




A green cube. A blue sphere. A white pyramid. A black cylinder.// Like dreams we cant remember. They are swimming elsewhere/ in a world where Shark, Knife, Cook are synonyms.


One of the plastic signs he had made strikes me as a riff on Rimbaud’s poem Voyelles. I remember a convoluted explanation for these works by Buchloh, the way in which they are supposed to function in negation. But when I’ve seen them they are quite innocuous, hanging in MoMA or at exhibitions or museums in Europe. It’s not that I do not like them, or their kind of withdrawal that occurs, a self-conscious awareness of inadequacies. That words, or letters, or figures can be substituted for one or another is an amazing discovery. In fact we can witness it perennially by the rehanging of these works. I remember Broodthaers said some where that he may be the simpleton for imagining that anyone would take a plaque and see it as a picture. More and more I accept the joke was on him.


Overall the style of clean substitutions for atrocity and depth is exactly the menu du jour. I am thinking of the numerous art fairs with their airy stalls varying in degree of intelligence and charmy sentiment, coupled with in-the-know ambience, composing private emotions for how a house should be decorated, or an institution, which are basically the same money, and board memberships. Why not buy a plague?




take hold of the whole “Mallarmean project”/…remake in a new tone/   that is faithful (…we find newness/ in the tone in which a person says/ something)—Necessary remark/ for it’s a matter of demonstrating creatively/ (through avant-garde art) the/ historical value of the project—about finding,/ the point from which you need to position/ yourself in order to classify artistic/ monuments


For years I have been bothered by this type of tactical onward-christian-soldier approach—I’m really much more of a William Burroughs apomorphine type. I’ll take a second and copy down a couple selections from Leo Bersani’s 2011 book The Death of Stephane Mallarme . I believe they clarify my point.


That, precisely, is what modern man demands: to see himself, mediocre in a mirror”(Mallarmé). Mallarmé explains his contemporaries’ taste for novels by their wish to recognize themselves in the stories they read; even ‘the need to act’ …


…we have very little idea of what Mallaremé actually said at his legendary Tuesday-evening receptions at 87 rue de Rome. What he seems to have done with an undefinable brilliance during these evenings—and this is perhaps not irrelevant to the way Mallarmé planned for the Book’s [le Livre] performance—was to position himself for receiving, and to solicit a touchingly devout attention for messages never delivered… Disciples came to the rue de Rome in order to justify their thinking of themselves as disciples; but they were treated as if that justification were be found nowhere except in the sociability created by their mistaken notion that Mallarmé had something to say to them.


I don’t exactly find this way of socializing comforting, having spent countless non-productive hours at bars with Michael Krebber, a Cologne artist from the good old boy tables of Kippenberger, Polke, and Broodthaers. The rampant networking that took place in front of the master and to his flanks was nothing if not an ingratiating routine of matching similitudes and wit. Of course there is the possibility of risking nothing, but then why show up in the first place? The rudimentary truth of the salon is the liquidation therein. Arrive, get a buzz, act naturally, and ascend the social ladder—if you can carve out a little territory, a theme perhaps like Mallarmé, Valery, or Broodthaers all the better, if not there is always the urinals. The stories about East Berlin, before the wall came down—how the workers gathered in parks to while away the hours with beer and conversation—are false.


1973, C351


The presentation of an exhibition depends on the opinion the official exhibitor has of art… As an artist, that means with a signification as scarcely determined and as poorly defined, my actions being confined merely to the margins of social behavior. It is easily obvious that I wanted to neutralize the use-value of the symbol of the Eagle and reduce it to the degree of zero in order to introduce critical dimensions into the history and use of this symbol.


Indeed, however by ‘73,which is more clichéd: the nationalist symbol of an eagle, or a set of Marxist terms circulating in the context of the art world, or the demoralized state of an artist?


1973, 370-371


Each object, represented here, takes its place in series corresponding to themes “the artist signature”, “the photographic painting”, “the comic object”, “the absent object”, “painting”, “cinema”…


My first inclination is to read seriality into a display of like images indexed with single titles. Then I move on to see if I can discover themes, elements that pull together to make small units. If a few of these assemble I begin to look at how they speak with one another. I set the object or the page down or walk away and return. I look again and I notice there is an overall form which is the design. My first impressions are often that I am out of my league, and that what I am seeing has been made by a mind more capable of grasping elements in reality than I am. I have shown up and offered my observation and if whatever I am looking at doesn’t immediately strike me as infantile, I allow a little bit of a transmission to occur. Ideas perhaps are formed this way. Via gentle give and take. Then I am in a position to judge. Here I start to see that a number of the elements may be having a conversation with one another. As it stands today there is no noticeable difference between a retrospective and Tumblr—except of course when your job is on the line as a curator.


1974, 413-419


A spatial object?

I took a bundle of fifty copies of a book called Pense-Bête and half-embedded them in plaster…. Suddenly I had a real audience, on that level where it is a matter of space and conquest.


It is unlikely that there are any levels where space and conquest are not from some perspective applicable. Poetry does not float about on the wind. Certainly in Broodthaers’s transition from being a published writer to a plastic artist there was no essential difference. That he spoke openly about the worth of an art via his signature was neither new nor interesting, it seems to me that any genuinely good forger has done equally as well. That he began selling could be noted, but we’d have to chalk it up to a market so disillusioned with aesthetic taste that it can embrace ridicule. As well inviting the category of criticism into bed with you has been a mainstay of retaining power since the beginning of arranged marriages.


At what moment does one start making indifferent art?

From the moment that one is less of an artist, when the necessity of making puts down its roots in memory alone. I believe my exhibitions depended and still depend on memories of a period when I assumed the creative situation in a heroic and solitary manner.


That fantasy of making art has undeniably yielded a creative industry rich with the meaningful pretense of other times and lands. A whiff of excitement goes a long way in a field of distraction. It would be hard for me to concretely determine whether any contemporary work of art, detached from its venue and publicity, is ironic or romantic.




The Pig///These precious morsels/ Chops hams head/ porcelain scarf/ ears on the snout of the counter…


The poem reminds me, again, of Rimbaud when in a letter he said, “Je est un autre,” I is another, displacing himself into an inanimate perspective. As well the tone of remorseless violence of Lautreamont or the German Nazi sympathizer Gottfried Benn. The pink rectangles are evenly scattered across the page.


1967, C180


The mind of objects—I try to communicate thought to objects in the following manner… I remove the object from it usual context, I place it in another…


1969, 236-239
M ––> “poetry is the source”…

Therefore the word of the idea—inextricably linked to the Being—turns out to be at the origins of modern space notions and the Visual Arts and Music…  

A throw of the dice


Here lies a version of the money-form with Mallarmé as the guest of honor. Although in Marx’s version money is not an all productive center with which to expand, but carries specific limitations which serve the interests of Capital. Broodthaers, by illustratively championing general equivalence, makes the mistake of placing consciousness in form. Placing the cart before the horse.


I received the crates and installed them here in actually quite a special way, in fact if they themselves were works of art. And then I said to myself: but actually that’s it, that’s the museum.

Continuing with my lazy inclusion of long Bersani quotes,


But the perfect certainty of a successfully achieved self-consciousness—’la concience de soi’—is a mind emptily ‘occupied.’ The symmetrical deductions which abolish all real places are simultaneously ‘places’ and logical movements…. But language can express the obsoleteness of distinctions which support its structures only by feigning, as it were, an ignorance of its own resistance to the blurring of ontological boundaries. Thus the logical inconceivability of thought as a mode of exteriority is masked by a normalizing but wholly strange syntactical congruence of outside and inside.


I’d say that hits the nail on the head. What becomes more questionable is the way in which the unique experience of presence at exhibitions functions entirely on the above stated principle of arrangement.


1974, 413-419


Do you still value any objects?

Yes, a few. They are the poetic ones, that is to say they are the guilty in the sense of “art as language” and innocent in the sense of language as art… I’ve made two useful objects. I wish I had been able to do other pieces as satisfying to me as these. But I distrusted the genre. The portrait[Général au cgigare] and the thighbone seem to have the strength to make a dent in the falsity inherent in culture. With the thighbone, nationality and the structure of the human being are united. The soldier is not far behind.




… I have attempted to articulate differently objects and paintings realized at various times between 1964 and this year, in order to form the rooms in a “décor” spirit. That is to say reinstating the object or painting with its real use.


These last works, the Décor series, exacting with hollowed out signifiers, comes the closest to language. I saw the XIXth Century Room and XXth Century Room installed at Michael Werner gallery, the Un Jardin d`Hiver Hamburger Bahnhof, and the Salle blanche at the Pompidou. In exhibiting the room where the works have been placed, hung, decorated nothing more than the presence of the viewer interrupts the propriety of the name Broodthaers. So mimetic are the figures populating the installations that a mouse with a heartbeat accidentally wandering into the space causes alarm. What then is the real use? Located in art businesses the reification is consummate, and the next frontier of kitsch meets its maker.


* * *


When a book and a head collide and a hollow sound is heard, must it always have come from the book?
–Georg Christoph Lichtenberg


This euphoric bowing out of engagement inevitably sours into a period of resentful myopia that develops while standing longingly in the vacated space where language once was. Identity rolls back. Thus is Ivan Ilich’s meaning when he decries “the alphabetization of silence.” This “has brought about the new loneliness of the ‘I’, and of an analytic we. We is now one line in a text brought into being by communication. Not the silence before words but the absence of messages in a chaos whose noises precedes the establishment of an interactive pattern.” In this way we make of visuality and cadence a flash in our long night of subjective insecurity.
Birgit Pelzer, Gloria Moure (Ed.), Marcel Broodthaers: Works and Collected Writings (Ediciones Poligrafa, 2013)