scrubbing clean, scrubbing out

Last week, Martin Kippenberger’s $1.1 million installation, Wenn’s anfaengt durch die Decke zu tropfen (When It Starts Dripping From the Ceiling) was scrubbed clean by a janitor in Dortmund, Germany, reportedly by accident. But I keep wishing it had been intentional. Then we’d have none of this patronizing tone towards cleaners who ought to know or be trained better, nor any of this tired chat about cryptic, aloof and inaccessible contemporary art. Instead imagine “anti-80s artist strikes back, posing as jannie” or “In response to Kippenberger’s Street Lamps for Drunks, inebriated cleaning woman creates Brillo Pads for Dicks”.

Moreover, it got me thinking about the role of labor in the lives of creatives, and particularly cleaning. I’ve known artists to clean houses through and after school, and curators who keep arguably ‘custodial’ day jobs. Indeed, even this week I was reminded by Roberta Smith in this NYT article that Maurizio Cattelan’s mother was a cleaning lady, and he’s recently been doing some scrubbing out of his own too.

In his most recent exhibition on view at the Guggenheim, Maurizio has presented one piece consisting of every work he produced in his 21 year career as an artist (that is, minus 2 that the owners refused to loan) strung up gallows-style in the rotunda. He’s titled it “All”.

I always thought the rotunda was begging to be used for some sort of, er, dramatic ending, but I hadn’t envisioned it quite like this. I give him kudos for the gall – dangling the objects of your career as a collection of mish-mashed knick-knacks, out of context, out of reach, and at times out of view takes guts, and a dark, humorous bird-flipping attitude that I admire. And as if that wasn’t enough, he goes one step further, following in the footsteps of rockstars, announcing he’s retiring.

We’ve seen how well it works for publicity in the music industry ( to name just a few: Jay-Z, Destiny’s Child, and my personal favorite – Cher in 2003 calling Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, J-Lo, and Jessica Simpson “little hos” on her farewell tour), and know how great it is for launching second careers in the athletic arena ( um, Michael Jordan and Roger Clemens).

But I’ve been racking my brain to come up with other visual artists who have publicly retired, and so far haven’t come up with much. Abramović and Ulay? Doesn’t really work, that was a partnership not a career ender. Damien Hirst and returning to painting? Arguably a career-ender, but no retirement. Steven Soderbergh? That works! But it is specific to films….. others?

Seems like Cattelan might be the lonely leader amongst artists for retirement. And for one obsessed with failure, Maurizio may have found yet another way to fail harder and better than others.

Just be careful, when Maurizio’s work starts dripping from the ceiling, we can’t be sure what puddles will form, or who will be scrubbing them out.

  1. Does Duchamp count? Maybe not, since I don’t think he formally announced his transition to chess.

    Seth Siegelaub similarly stopped working (curating and dealing) suddenly, but again I’m not sure it was announced.

    Kevin Bewersdorf might be a good one, though the best description I can find quickly of his self-erasure performance/freakout/whatever is in this regrettable series of words Joanne McNeil put together ( ).

  2. Vito Acconci gave up on his art practice to become an architect (‘scuse my lack of links). He still sells his older work and has galleries, but hasn’t made any “art” in decades. He’s been heard to say that the only reason why he still sells art is to fund Acconci Studios.

    Bruce Nauman had a brief period where he moved to the desert and quit being an artist, but I think that was intended to be brief.

    So, yeah, Acconci the architect: (

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