The Jewish Museum is Just Giving It Away!

Felix Gonzalez-Torres, "Untitled" (USA Today), 1990. | All photos by the author.
Installed at the Jewish Museum as part of Take Me (I'm Yours).

The Jewish Museum is currently exhibiting a box of tissues. It is an artwork by Haim Steinbach, and the box, displayed on a stand repurposed from a drum set, is open and fully functional: Visitors are invited, encouraged even, to take a tissue and, as the wall label suggests, “to use—or keep—it as needed or desired.” These generic tissues are just one extreme end of the spectrum of diverse works of art visitors can collect and take home from the thoughtful show Take Me (I’m Yours), currently on view and running through early February 2017. The museum provides plastic bags to carry your loot.

Haim Steinbach, Untitled (Tissues), 2016

The prospect of not just being able to touch, but to take artwork home from a museum is the self-consciously titillating focus of this show, but after navigating this complex array of projects by more than 40 artists, it is clear that the show is investigating something much more profound than simply the breaking of common museum rules. These projects address vital artistic, social and political issues and the process of visitors collecting the work as they move through the galleries fluctuates from playful to investigative to somber.

The conceptual godfather of take-away art is Felix Gonzalez-Torres, represented in the Jewish Museum show by “Untitled” (USA Today), 1990, an unlimited edition of hard candies in red, blue and silver wrappers spread on the floor of a gallery in a wide band across the room. The curators of Take Me (I’m Yours)—Jens Hoffmann and Kelly Taxter of the Jewish Museum and Hans Ulrich Obrist, artistic director of London’s Serpentine Galleries, where he and artist Christian Boltanski organized a smaller show with the same name and several overlapping artists in 1995—clearly acknowledge his inspiration and frame to the show as a kind of homage to Gonzalez-Torres.

Curating and shopping have a lot in common.

Gonzalez-Torres is a case study of why this show is about more than just free stuff and unusual museum behavior. Museum visitors each taking a piece of candy slowly, steadily deplete the pile, evoking the weight loss and physical wasting away often caused by AIDS, the disease that killed both Gonzalez-Torres and his partner in the 1990s. As the museum periodically replenishes the candy, the emotional impact of the work grows complex—the sweetness of the sugar feels ironic in light of the epidemic, but also can seem hopeful and a respite; replacing the taken candies and restoring the work to its original robustness is an optimistic metaphor, but as the process repeats and becomes cyclical, it can begin to feel futile. The artist manages to make taking a simple piece of candy into an artistically and emotionally fraught experience.

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Throughout the exhibition, thematic wall texts put the artwork in context and create an intellectual framework for the show. These include concepts like charity, markets, the digital age, “property is theft,” originality, and one-click shopping. What is more, the title of the show is inherited from Obrist and Boltanski’s original iteration 20 years ago, and it is as remarkable now as it must have been then: “Take Me (I’m Yours)” implies an erotic dynamic between the museum visitor and the commodity-cum-collectable art object. What comes across is that the curators are guiding visitors through an exploration of the processes of curating, and they are cleverly and mischievously blurring the difference between curating and shopping.

Andrea Bowers at the Jewish Museum
Andrea Bowers, Political Ribbons
(Click to enlarge.)

At first, walking through Take Me (I’m Yours) can feel like browsing in a store. There is a rush of acquisitiveness and the frisson of a great bargain—everything in the show is free (except Yoko Ono’s Air Dispensers, 1971–2016, which are quarter-operated gum ball machines dispensing plastic capsules containing air). The more engaged visitors become, though, paying attention to the content of the works diminishes the feeling of shopping and the process shifts from browsing to evaluating, considering, understanding. Andrea Bowers’ Political Ribbons, 2016, are some of the most aesthetically pleasing works in the show: brightly colored, shiny, seductive. Close inspection reveals that each is printed with a pointedly political slogan: “Ban Assault Weapons Now” or “Deport Hate” or “Trans-Inclusive Feminism Always,” for example. Visitors choosing a Bowers ribbon, taking a Gonzalez-Torres candy, blowing their noses on Steinbach’s tissues are literally curating personal art collections.

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There are some lighter projects in the show, not especially challenging, such as Alex Israel’s lapel pins in the form of his own profile (completely delightful and even artistically resonant, but hardly deep). However, most of the work in the show does have a point to make, an idea to develop, a political provocation. Despite some misguided critics who see the whole show as a frothy and “nonthreatening,” there is some artwork with quite high stakes and incisive critiques. Sondra Perry’s Netherrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr 1.0.2, 2016, is an unsettling video positing a connection between a Windows PC’s fatal system error “blue screen of death” and the “blue code of silence” among police officers who have killed African-American women. The element of this work that visitors can take home is a standard sheet of blue paper identifying the video clips and listing the names and ages of the dead women. Daniel Joseph Martinez’ (America) Adopt a Refugee, 2016, is a metallic plastic emergency blanket folded in a plastic bag with a quote from Emma Lazarus’s poem from the Statue of Liberty. The wall label explains, “(America) Adopt a Refugee is both an artwork and an opportunity: you are invited to pass this object on to someone in need.” That is not an empty sentiment at this moment in world history.

Other artworks on offer include printed images, plaster casts of disposable coffee lids, t-shirts and two separate buildable paper models, all with something to convey about identity or society or consumption or economics or art or politics. You’ll come away with a bag full of stuff you’ve selected, every item part of a larger cultural context and further transformed by having been collected by someone who has engaged with evaluating and making decisions about art.