Category Archives: Week 12

Selling the Wind at the Hirshhorn

By Adey Zegeye, Dina El-Saharty, and Jordan Moeny


As you go up the escalators to enter the Hirshhorn’s exhibit “Brand New: Art and Commodity in the 80s,” you are greeted with three copies of Haim Steinbach’s billboard-like piece “On Vend du Vent” that are plastered across the wall. A rough translation of the French vinyl words is “we sell air”, which can be naively interpreted as meaning that everything and anything can be marketed and sold, including the air that is around us. Steinbach’s piece is at first impressive, due to the largeness and boldness of the letters’ font, and debuts the exhibit with excitement, enticement, and intrigue for visitors. This impression reflects the mood of the beginning of the 80s at the time, particularly in New York, when advertisement was on the rise and ads and billboards were seen as a source of inspiration — something that one looks up to.

“On Vend Du Vent” is a first look at the themes of the exhibit: branding, commodification, the transformation of the every day into Art. While Steinbach’s work is grand in scale, another piece deep inside the exhibit provides a smaller, more subtle look at the themes: Peter Halley’s “Copies Simulated.” Peter Halley is a New York Based artist, writer, and teacher who contributed to the conceptualist art movement of the 1980s. This piece was a response to French sociologist Jean Baudrillard’s essay “Simulations” published in 1983. Baudrillard posited that the over-saturation of images (signs and symbols) presented to us have replaced what we view as reality (there is no difference between the copy and the original). At the time (the 1980s), art was reflecting these ideas in that artists were creating works that resembled commodities (to bring attention to consumer culture), resulting in a lack of distinction between art and commodity.

In Halley’s piece, the image itself is a copy of (reflection) reality, because the background serves as a mirror. The work itself is a framed black mirror with the words “copies simulated” printed in white. This piece asks the question: what is real? Is it the image you see in the mirror (a copy) or is it you, the viewer looking at the image? According to the description text, Baudrillard’s theory influenced many other artists of the decade as well. Along with Halley, Alan Belcher, Mark Stahl, and Jennifer Bolande were featured under this category of simulation art. All of them were responding to the conversation about the relationship between the object and the image referenced by Baudrillard. The description states, “Halley hints at a world in which, not only are the images and objects we encounter copies of reality, but those copies are represented to us through constructed images.” The simulation of “reality” shown in the reflection is mediated through the Halley’s constructed image.

The mirrored effect of the work added an interesting layer to the reception of the work by viewers. Many museum-goers took a selfie using their camera phone (another black mirror) — it is notable that you can’t take a picture of the artwork (head on) without being a part of the reflection. In the image being constructed by the phone, the reality of what is seen has now changed to add the additional people within the gallery space, the person taking the photo, and the other artworks in the background. In the context of the present day (as opposed to the 80s) this idea of the art itself as a simulation is accompanied by the idea of an additional layer of reality: the reflection shown through the camera phone lens, which adds to the current conversations around social media and art. As we continue to add layers of mediation, the question “what is real?” continues to have new meanings and new answers.

This idea of copy and simulation is in the structure of the exhibit itself. The unique nature of the Hirshhorn building is that repetition and circularity are quite literally built into the space. Though the exhibit is chronologically arranged, as you walk around the full circumference of the building each room takes you closer to where you were in the beginning. The design of the various rooms, too, echoes the themes of the exhibit. While the first several rooms are quite close to the “white cube” approach to a gallery space, at several points you turn a corner to find that everything has been inverted: the walls are a deep dark gray, the space much narrower, the space drawing you close instead of giving you (and the artworks) room to breath. It is not a rejection of the white cube, but a reinterpretation: like the pieces within, it is both familiar and unfamiliar.

The other artworks carry on these themes. Visitors walk through the exhibit and many pieces seem at a first glance to be “cool” and “fun,” but as you get closer to the pieces, an eerie and disturbing mood sets in. Pieces hold a darker underside: Joan Wallace’s pool ladder-turned-hangman’s trapdoor, or Jenny Holzer’s incredibly Instagrammable handbills that, upon closer examination, shout “hot, flaming, nasty things” at the reader.

The exhibit highlights consumer culture in America, particularly the ubiquity of billboards and advertising and the rise of commodification. Anything and everything in 80s America can be and is considered a commodity: from laundry detergents and furniture to individuals through self-branding. The pieces are arranged to critique and highlight the dark side of consumer and TV culture. For example, the TV culture room — consisting of a dozen televisions that display looping footage of news, logos, and products — hypnotizes viewers due to the absence of light, and then proceeds to sedate them as the audio simulates a broken record (repeating certain words, the overlap of audio). The room becomes a commentary on the consumption of television, and how media and  television inculcate consumer behavior among viewers.  The penultimate gallery then shows that television not only turns its audience into consumers but into apathetic consumers: a small television set, on which is printed the words “PEOPLE WITH AIDS”, running footage of professional figure skaters performing a dramatic and emotional routine to Dalida’s “Je Suis Malade.” Although the performance at first demands a reaction from consumers, when played in repetition, it ultimately desensitizes the viewers.

By the end of the exhibit, the light sense of humor has faded and the dark undertones have settled: advertisements, television, commodities are everywhere you look. The circular space mimics an endless loop: consumers cannot break the loop until they’ve consumed all advertisements, all billboards, all texts, and all pictures. The exhibit ends up overwhelming visitors. In the end, you are right where you started, farewelled with the greeting sign “on vend du vent” once again, which now takes on a different meaning: that everything that is marketed and sold — and the satisfaction that derives from its consumption — is ultimately fleeting, temporary, and short-lived.


Galleries and Artworks Referenced

AIDS and Political Activism Gallery, Brand New: Art and Commodity in the 1980s, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C. Feb. 18 – May. 13, 2018.

Brand New: Art and Commodity in the 1980s, Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, D.C. Feb. 18 – May. 13, 2018.

Copies Simulated Gallery, Brand New: Art and Commodity in the 1980s, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C. Feb. 18 – May. 13, 2018.

Haim Steinbach – On Vend du Vent, 1988. Text in matte black latex paint, or vinyl letters applied onto the wall., Exhibit Entrance, Brand New: Art and Commodity in the 1980s, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C. Feb. 18 – May. 13, 2018.

Peter Halley – Copies Simulated, 1984. Kodalith (photosensitive Mylar print). Copies Simulated Gallery, Brand New: Art and Commodity in the 1980s, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C. Feb. 18 – May. 13, 2018.

TV Culture Gallery, Brand New: Art and Commodity in the 1980s, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C. Feb. 18 – May. 13, 2018.

Hirshhorn Museum visit: Art and Commodity in the 1980s

Group : Josh, Lei and Yang

He Kills Me by Donald Moffett

What do the terms “the 1980’s” and “art and commodity” mean in the context of the artworld?

Like every decade, a lot happened in the 1980’s in every sphere– social, cultural, and political– that influences how we think about the decade when looking back today. Some of the most defining elements of the decade include:

  • The presidency of Ronald Reagan lasted almost the entire decade.
  • The Cold War concluded in this decade, yet remained fiery at many moments.
  • The AIDS epidemic broke out and gathered mainstream attention.
  • People were worried about whether 1984 by George Orwell would come true and totalitarianism would emerge.
  • Michael Jackson and Madonna ruled everything.
  • Magic Johnson and Larry Bird brought a racially charged rivalry to the NBA.

The artworld can reflect the 1980’s by tapping into any of these defining elements and more. We saw this in the exhibit at many moments: I feel like one of the most explicit instances of this trend was He Kills Me by Donald Moffett (1987). This piece consists of Ronald Reagan’s face aligned several times next to pictures of a vortex and the caption “He Kills Me.” This setup connects us to the ‘80s immediately; we are looking at the decade’s dominant political figure, and receiving commentary on one of its signature crises. The message here is that this was a deadly epidemic that the AIDS epidemic was a deadly one which the government did little to resolve, and may even have aggravated. Such a statement makes this piece a strong example of the artworld and the 1980’s interfaced.

I think of a “commodity” as something that is widely available and sold at a base value. So, the exhibit’s theme of “art and commodity” can be seen in its dominant theme of consumerism. Having artwork made out of painted pasta, TV sets, living room furniture, etc. reflects the theme of making art, and by turn spinning social commentary, out of commonly sold and purchased items. AIDS, although obviously a disease and not a commercial product,  can perhaps be interpreted as a “commodity” in the sense that it was widely circulated during these years and affected its victims indiscriminately (despite the myth that this was a “gay plague” which no straight person had to fear).

This website about the exhibit supports this interpretation: For the first time, art and commodity conflated, with everyday objects such as vacuum cleaners, clocks, tires and drums becoming contingent channels for storytelling rather than stand-alone works.” I’ve definitely seen a lot of such artwork at many modern art museums (“Next time I come here, I’m gonna bring my garden tools, I’ll make a lot of money,” my dad joked at one such exhibit we visited together). But to have such artwork made by a collection from artists who were active in the ‘80s (many of them within the East Village in New York City, an area often associated with the ‘80s AIDS plague) really creates a genuine liaison to that decade and generation.

In order to “interpret the reception context” of Donald Moffett and He Kills Me, I suppose we would need more historical information as to how they were received or imitated in the long run. What kind of scholarship exists about Moffett and his catalogue, this piece in particular? Have any contemporary artists cited them as chief influences? That would allow us to assess the cultural and academic response to the work on display in this current Hirshhorn museum exhibit. I would also like to compare this work to the many other pieces inspired by the 1980’s AIDS epidemic, so as to get how other artists have responded to that plague in similar or different ways than Moffett did.


Silence = Death: Confronting the AIDS epidemic in 1980s 

ACT UP(Gran Fury), SILENCE = DEATH, 1987.








Today, 30 years into the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the vast majority of young Americans today  might view the AIDS crisis—when deeply entrenched homophobia and government neglect contributed to the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans—as remote and foreign. Most of them have never known a world in which being HIV positive was not a chronic but manageable medical condition. Many of them also grew up in the midst of advances for the mainstream gay rights movement that seemed impossible a generation ago.

From the beginning of the 1980’s, the AIDS epidemic became an increasingly present phenomenon, entering the work of many American artists in various ways and changing the art world greatly. Artists at that time created artworks are in response to the AIDS crisis and the ensuing stigmatization of LGBT community. Some artists and visual provocateurs who experienced the AIDS epidemic from the first hand were closely connected to advocacy group ACT-UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) to fight this disease in the form of political art and activism.

An ACT UP protest rally in front of the Manhattan Municipal Building in 1989. The group’s logo—a pink triangle with the words “Silence = Death”—is visible on the sign at right. Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library

Gran Fury was a groups of artists and their SILENCE = DEATH graphic defined the AIDS/HIV activist movement in the 1980s and early 1990s. At the very first glimpse, this two-color neon sign which consists of a right side up pink triangle  on a black background with the text “SILENCE = DEATH” is very eye-catching. To be honest, the work of art do reminds me of dark side of the moon album cover of Pink Floyd , which was released in 1973 and has became an visual icon for Pink Floyd itself.

The Dark Side of the Moon, Pink Floyd

I think in a similar way, Gran Fury used the power of graphic design and advertisements : the slogan “SILENCE = DEATH” and big triangle, to increase understanding and compassion towards the disease sufferers and ire towards the disease itself. They also used a myriad ways of public expressions such as t-shirts, posters, stickers, banners, billboards, and video to get the message through. AIDS epidemic hit like a nuclear blast and Gran Fury’s advertisements were blasted all over too. The emergence of AIDS have transformed contemporary art in a way of bringing art closer to politics and real life, changing the dominant self-reflexive art practice.

Act-Up Activists at the gay rights demonstration on Capitol Hill. (Photo by Brooks Kraft LLC/Sygma via Getty Images)

I shop therefore I am : The invasion of consumerism 

Barbara Kruger , 1987

The theme of this exhibition is called Brand New: Art and Commodity in the 1980s, where i felt like Barbara Kruger’s artwork “I shop therefore I AM” really match the topic and has delivered many different meaning to the audience. A postmodern art which reflected the society’s condition that in favor of materialism and the rising consumption.

The artist Barbara Kruger herself is well-known for her photo-based images overlaid with blocks of text in a signature color scheme of black, white, and red.  Her practice of culling and editing found photographs and of pairing them with phrases in provocative ways was informed by her interest in feminism and critical theory.  I think she started the trend which is still ongoing today, where the influence of mass media toward people’s daily life, the effect of brief and powerful slogan that reflected people’s thinking in the given context.

The photolithography and screenprint technique that Barbara used is the way of expression that could be duplicated and printed in many different formats including book, magazine, and compact disc covers to matchbooks, coffee mugs, and shopping bags” which brought art to a wider range of audiences.

This artwork specifically, expressed the message of the consumerism in the 80s. In fact, the phenomenon of consumerism does not just immerse in the 80s, but still is leading the society today, in 2018. Thirty years till now, her artwork gives representation to material consumption and make people reflect and examine the society. It can be seen as the word that challenges the notion of consumption as the meaning at the 1980s, as well as a challenge for the audience perception. It is definitely a simple artwork with its main highlight of the words. I like this work since Barbara is open a new insight into the form of art that present to the public, it can be closely addressed with people’s daily life and straightforward to make you reexamine yourself. Ironically, the artwork was printed onto thousands of shopping bags, t-shirts, and other products of consumption which is really interesting to think about. Yes, consumerism is invading our lives, unstopping. 



Brand New or Appropriated From The Reality of American/Art History?

Walking into the Hirshhorn, I was quite a bit skeptical to the kinds of artworks I would encounter. I prefer the National Gallery’s Vermeer paintings to post-post (post?) modern works housed in the hollowed cylindrical gallery. Yet I left amazing and surprised at how moving the pieces of artworks I saw were- they either took up the entire floor like Bradford’s Murals, or just one wall like Barbara Kruger’s “I Shop Therefore I Am.” Taking a closer look at Bradford’s Murals reveals the socio-political drive behind Hirshhorn’s exhibitions. Bradford is a Los Angeles–based artist whose work combines socio-political issues such as race, class, and gender, with art history. One such work is Pickett’s Charge, an eight-piece mural that wraps around the entire third floor of the museum. The abstract murals are his response to to the political and cultural climate during the civil war, where the resulting work “weaves past and present, illusion and abstraction, inviting visitors to reconsider how narratives about American history are shaped and contested.” (Hirshhorn Musem) Indeed I started to reconsider how Americans responded to socio-political turmoil, and such a question reminded me of Aaron Douglas’ From Slavery Through Reconstructionduring the Harlem Renaissance (1934). He used a combination of silhouettes and circular light to reveal a mural with graphically incisive motifs and the dynamic incorporation of such influences as African sculpture, jazz music, dance, and abstract geometric forms. I believe both murals embody what David Hockey accomplishes in Irvine’s From Studying Interfaces to Making Interfaces; their now “meta-museum” visualization on a “great wall”. They are all taking aspects of political and social culture and visualizing it through different mediums with a large view in a human-scaled room, providing “a different kind of interface to relationships and developments in historical periods that can be taken in through one view” (Irvine, p. 11). I felt like I was living in the middle of Pickett’s Charge, with the mere grandeur of the murals overwhelming the entirety of the floor- you feel as if there is no separation between you and the mural, you are one entity. The gap between painting and person has closed where there isn’t even room for an interface- the person standing in front of the painting is the interface.

Aaron Douglas: From Slavery Through Reconstruction during the Harlem Renaissance (1934)

Douglas Crimp notices that in the contemporary era, “the criterion for determining the order of aesthetic objects in the museum throughout the era of modernism—the ‘self-evident’ quality of masterpieces—has been broken, and as a result ‘anything goes.’” (50). Crimp describes how our ways to understand the museum are changed as contemporary artworks claim their spaces in museums. In the era of modernism, whether an artwork could enter into the exhibition hall of a museum depends on its quality, or its masterfulness. In the contemporary world of art, however, the situation totally changes. The “‘self-evident’ quality of masterpieces” is no longer the only criterion for determining whether an artwork could be put into a museum. Painters not only focus on the content of the paintings, but also revolutionize with the medium and other aspects of the form of the paintings. Moreover, contemporary art expands beyond traditional forms of art such as paintings and sculptures to other forms of arts, including articles of everyday use, furniture, craftwork, etc.  Interestingly, all of these changes are reflected by museums that exhibit modern and contemporary art.

One of the best examples to illustrate the museum’s change is the “BRAND NEW: Art & Commodity in the 1980s” exhibition in the Hirshhorn Museum. This is an exhibition of artworks, but those exhibits are simultaneously the objects that we would see and might use in our everyday life.


The left-hand exhibit exemplifies how contemporary art annuls the boundary of high art and daily life. The cleanser that we use in our daily life is made into an object of art and is put into the museum on display. Likewise, the second picture shows how the artist recognizes the wooden tool as an object of art. Both objects manifest how the definition of art and artwork is democratized: the ordinary objects could become art as well. As a result, museums that display contemporary become a place where “anything goes.” By including objects such as sofa, telephone, radio, the “BRAND NEW” exhibition showcase how anything could become art. The broken boundary between high art and popular culture is manifest in the museum’s exhibition of contemporary art. This also shows how the museum is changed in its interface with contemporary art.

Continuing in the pop art tradition of appropriating and referencing the commercial reality of the time, a group of Canadian artists called General Idea “created works that both critiqued consumerism and mimicked painting” (Hirshhorn Wall Text). Having a background knowledge of Andy Warhol’s art was not enough to interpret meanings, values and the dialogue associated with this group. I recognize pasta – the elbow-shaped kind – and I recognized the Marlboro package colors and shapes, but the “meanings, values and ideas are not observable in the artworks themselves” (Irvine, 2018, p.1). The longer wall text provides further explanation: “In a series called Pasta Paintings, the group appropriated famous logos of multinational companies and freed them from all written information, turning them into abstract geometric compositions. The surfaces were adorned with pasta giving the canvases a sculptural quality. Sans titre (Marlboro) is a play on the iconic Marlboro cigarette box” (Hirshhorn Wall Text).

General Idea
Artist collective, active 1967-1994
Sans titre (Marlboro), from the series Pasta Paintings
Acrylic Paint and dried pasta on canvas

This painting stood out to me the most throughout our visit to Hirshhorn. However, their website lacks information on this particular piece, promoting me to search elsewhere. (It may have been there, but I could not find it via search, which could be a constraint of their site). I went to the museum listed on the wall text, Mudam Luxembourg’s website for more information and it read: 

“The very slight display of conditioning through abstract publicity signs evoking concrete allusions in us, the viewers, even without words and in an automatic way, while simultaneously denigrating the pure beauty of emblems we see every day without noticing – is difficult to take seriously. Because, instead of dabs of pointillist colour applied to the surface of the painting, we find noodles. Little round noodles of hard buckwheat. And with that, all the experimental attempts to breathe life back into the picture plane, be it the Cubist’s sand, Anselm Kiefer’s straw or Julian Schnabel’s china cups, are drowned in hilarity. (…) By removing the writing from the emblems of brands, the brands themselves disappear. G.I. thus continue their appropriation strategy: by monopolizing the found object, they remove its content and give it new meaning. (…) The ‘empty’ emblems remain Untitled, while filled to the brim with the history of painting.” Stephan Trescher 

Mudam Luxembourg’s site provided clarity, context, dialogic information, and ideas to further research, but who was Stephan Trescher? Without a link or any further referencing information to him, I searched to find out he is an art history scholar. Museum website creators must struggle with wanting to provide enough information to be credible, authentic, and reputable sources on the artworks, while also encouraging visitors to visit the museum in person.

Layers of context are not visible in the artworks themselves even though we “feel” something much different when we see the artwork in person versus seeing its digital representation. Seeing the art in person, you do have the advantage of seeing size, medium used, and reading the text associated with the artwork; however, the same can be seen online if the interface has taken each of these into account. So why do we consider the Museum the only “real” place we can interpret meaning from artwork? Because we have been socialized to believe that art exists inside of the walls of a museum, but also because technology has not been used to create a visualization that emulates the experience in the museum.

Meaning relations that allow for a work to be intelligible and interpretable are already in place, waiting to be discovered, they are not in us or in the artworks themselves (Irvine, 2018). The task at hand is to make an interface that helps its user discover these meanings. In my opinion, the problem with looking at the works online is that the learning process is lacking desirable difficulty. The information is right in front of you online and the power of searching for information is overwhelming. To truly learn, the process needs to require more time to make make meaning.

Crimp, Douglas. “On the Museum’s Ruins.” October, vol. 13, 1980, pp. 41–57.

Irvine, Martin. From Studying Interfaces to Making Interfaces.

Adriana Sensenbrenner, Yinghan Guo, and Catherine Boardman