The Belgian poet-turned-artist Marcel Broodthaers (1924-76) is the subject of an exhibition opening this month at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMa) in New York. The show includes around 200 sculptures, films, photographs, poems and works in other media for Broodthaers’s first New York retrospective. The museum will also focus on one of his most famous works, Musée d’Art Moderne, Département des Aigles, a fictitious museum Broodthaers founded in 1968.
“For a curator, his work is extraordinary,” says Christophe Cherix, who co-organised the show with Manuel Borja-Villel, the director of Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid, where the show travels in October. “Broodthaers redefines what an exhibition or museum can be. All those things that seem marginal to art practice – curation, the format of the exhibition – become central in his work.
Three takes on Broodthaers
Here’s a guy who just decided to make his own museum, which is exactly what we all do today on the internet. Every blog is just someone making their own museum. Broodthaers did it because he could – he didn’t ask permission. And I think this attitude emerges from poetry because in poetry you don’t need to ask permission. No one really cares, unlike in visual art or architecture where things cost a lot of money. Poetry functions in the same way Broodthaers did. He understood the economy of language. He kept it taut and conceptual.
My friends and I do a lot of thinking about museums and their responsibilities and political agendas. We found Broodthaers after studying with [historians] like Craig Owens, Douglas Crimp and Benjamin Buchloch, who brought Broodthaers to us in the 1980s. For me, his museum constructions mix a complex political agenda with undeniable humour, which is really important. It’s a critique that had a lot of careful parody. Broodthaers picked up the baton of Surrealism, which seems like a long-past movement. But he reinvigorated it. He identified with the Surrealist interest in Museums as uncanny places.
What drew me to Broodthaers originally was the total impenetrability of the work. The other thing was personal. He has an obsession with language that I share and I couldn’t resist that. For a long time he was understood as a forefather of Institutional Critique, but that has short-circuited some of his more powerful work. It points to how difficult it is for anyone to contend with his legacy. He’s not a bureaucrat, not a museum director, not a poet, not a trained painter. He complicated authorship - he’s very slippery. In a way, that’s probably his clearest legacy.