“I doubt, in fact, that it is possible to give a serious definition of art.”
Over the course of 12 extraordinary years, Marcel Broodthaers developed a distinctive body of work characterized by irreverence, wit, introspection, and skepticism. Born in 1924 in Brussels, Broodthaers worked primarily as a poet until the age of 40. In 1964, he announced his entry into the visual arts by transforming the unsold copies of his last volume of poetry, Pense-Bête (Memory aid) (1964), into a sculpture for his first solo exhibition. Built on motifs that he had first used in poetic verse, his early artworks, such as Armoire blanche et table blanche (White Cabinet and White Table) (1965), did not represent his turn away from poetry but rather his effort to give it material form.
In 1968, Broodthaers announced that he was no longer an artist and appointed himself director of his own museum, which he called the Musée d’Art Moderne, Département des Aigles (Museum of Modern Art, Department of Eagles). Conceived in the midst of the 1968 student protests, his project provided a richly layered commentary on the role of art and the function of the museum in society. With the help of industrial craftspeople, he made thin, vacuum-formed plastic signs, such as Le Drapeau noir, tirage illimité (The Black Flag, Unlimited Edition) (1968), whose text and imagery—including the black flag of the student protest movement, references to René Magritte and Marcel Duchamp, and the eagle motif that became the emblem of his museum—provided a snapshot of his concerns at this moment.
In the final years of his life, until his untimely death in 1976, Broodthaers organized immersive large-scale displays in which examples of his past works were shown with new works and borrowed objects. Devising updated presentations for works made throughout his career, he subverted the traditional chronology of a museum retrospective and demonstrated how objects can take on various meanings in different display contexts. During his short yet prolific period as an artist, he radically rethought conventional approaches to poetry, film, books, and exhibition practice itself, proving enormously influential to future generations of artists.
Note: Opening quote is from Avgikos, Jan. “Jan Avgikos on Marcel Broodthaers,” January 1998. https://www.artforum.com/print/reviews/199801/marcel-broodthaers-51974.
Francesca Wilmott, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Drawings and Prints, 2016