Joshua Decter
Writer, curator, art historian.

‘ Being Cristina Garrido’
Contribution to the catalogue of the exhibition Cristina Garrido. The Origin of Forms. Ed. Museo Centro de Arte Dos de Mayo - CA2M (2024).

How is art historicized? How are art histories made? Such questions are not only intrinsic to the work of art historians but are also crucial for artists, as it would be difficult to find an artistwho does not desire to be inscribed within art history. Even artists who critique the institution of art history have a desire to be art-historicized. This is completely understandable, for there really is no art without art histories (along with exhibition, institutional, market, social, economic, and other histories). In a sense, every new artwork is also a demand for an expanded and revised art history. While it might sound trite, art histories are made every day. In the contemporary situation, the functions of the gallery system, the auction system, the non-profit public museum sector, the private museum sector, and social media have become increasingly blurred in terms of how art histories are produced, and how artists are valorized and legitimized. All these sectors play a role in the historicizing of the present, for better and for worse.

Artists have developed various strategies and tactics to insert themselves, so to speak, into art histories. Sherrie Levine’s works of the early 1980s—for example, her 1981 After Walker Evans, comprising a re-photograph of one of Evans’ classic 1930s portraits of people impacted by the Great Depression in rural America—are not only a wry conceptual rethinking of what constitutes artistic originality in relation to the logic of photographic reproduction and the reproducibility of the (art) commodity, but also a clever way of inscribing herself—as an emerging woman artist— into the traditionally male-dominated systems of art and art history. So now, when we think of Walker Evans, we also think of Sherrie Levine, and vice-versa. Clearly, there was a political dimensio to Levine’s act of (re)photographic appropriation, and a critique of the exclusionary aspects of canonical Western art history. One could make an analogous argument in relation to Louise Lawler’ works of the 1980s, wherein she developed a post-documentary photographic practice to reveal how artworks are presented in the various contexts that constitute the art system: art gallery, private collection, auction house, o  ce, museum. By offering views into spheres wherein art, capital, aesthetics, lifestyle, and power intermingle, Lawler was also inscribing herself—at once symbolically and literally—into those milieus. A Lawler exhibition was also a display of her art world at that moment.

In the 2020s, it is unusual to fi nd younger artists who are actively engaged with the histories and genres of institutional critique. This might be because there is a general assumption that the key questions asked by various artists engaged in methods of institutional critique commencing in the 1960s have largely been answered and that there is no more work to be done for this type of art—that the types of issues raised by institutional critique are no longer relevant since we have already moved on to other issues, such as structural racism and the climate crisis, among other matters. However, I think this reflects a misunderstanding of how institutional critique—as an idea, as an ethos, as a practice— operates in the world. A clear eye will see that attempts to redress problems such as racial injustice and environmental crisis do intersect with—and have been aided by—aspects of institutional  critique. There has always been an interconnection between art-as-activism/activism-as-art and aspects of institutional critique: the Guerilla Girls group is evidence of this. One could also propose that Nan Goldin’s activism regarding the Sackler family’s patronage of museums can be related to institutional critique, particularly in relation to Hans Haacke’s work from the 1970s and 1980s, which investigated the economic, social, and ideological systems of art patronage. Haacke demonstrated how artworks circulate as unique commodity objects through the art world’s economies of acquisition, and how the artwork-as-commodity is also the material embodiment of that system. In a sense, Haacke offered what might be described as a social art history of art, wherein there is a critical exposition of how art is valorized. I would also propose that the expression “museums are not neutral” is an outgrowth from the critical analysis of institutional systems of art that artists—as well as some art historians, critics, and theorists—have articulated since the 1960s. My point is that the economic, social, ideological, fi nancial, and aesthetic infrastructures of the art worlds—thought of as an operating system—are still ripe for critical analysis. Cristina Garrido understands this.

My connection with institutional critique goes all the way back to 1984, when I attended the Whitney Independent Study Program in New York City and met Andrea Fraser, who was also attending the program that year. She was in the early stages of developing her work, and there were various discussions regarding how art might function as a critique of its own systems. Along with the Frankfurt School and psychoanalytic theory (e.g., Lacan via Althusser), the ideas of Pierre Bourdieu were also considered that year and were of particular interest to Fraser. Fast forward to 1990, when I began to think about the limits—and inherent contradictions— of institutional critique, particularly in terms of how the critical interventions were contingent upon an invitation/commission from a museum. In other words, museums outsourced critique to the artist, and the artist obliged with a critical intervention, thereby setting into motion a sort of institutional circularity—an industry of critique, so to speak. Perhaps I was worried about the genrefication of institutional critique, likely because I still clung to the notion that such practices could somehow resist being denatured by the institutional systems of art. For me, such paradoxes never completely vitiated the critical power of this art but did indicate that we would need to be intellectually honest and acknowledge those contradictions.

What is intriguing about Garrido is that she is engaged in lines of inquiry and methods of analysis related to the work of precursor artists such as Haacke and Fraser, while also expanding the territory of post-institutional critique as an operating system that can be updated to analyze contemporary conditions. For example, her 2017 Best Booths offers a biting commentary on the extent to which art fairs may have begun to challenge museums as a primary site for the valorization of art. People flock to art fairs to be immersed in the glamour and spectacle of art’s intersection with shopping and entertainment culture. The primary objective of an art fair booth is to sell art, and secondarily, to function as an advertisement for the art gallery. We also understand that upperechelon galleries do sell works in advance to VIP collectors even before the art fairs open and that in those instances the booth serves a more symbolic function. Of course, some galleries “curate” (so to speak) their booths better than others, and then there is always the tricky issue of the quality of the art merchandise. The art fair is also a site wherein art histories are made and remade, because markets always infl uence the making of art histories, as well as what museums collect. Using a type of digital photo-collage technique, in Best Booths Garrido takes images of what had been determined to be the best art fair booths at a particular event and inserts those images into museological settings. For example, Marian Goodman Gallery’s award-winning booth for FIAC 2016 is grafted—de-/re-contextualized—into a MoMA space. In a somewhat tongue-in-cheek way, Garrido’s photo-collage works signify the emergence of a new art form: i.e., the art fair booth as a type of meta-installation art. To me, these works point to longstanding interpenetrations between the gallery system and the museum system and how curating has migrated into the realm of the art fair, perhaps as an attempt to add credibility or intellectual luster to the relative banality of art commerce. Indeed, more and more not-for-profi t-sector museum curators have been migrating into the for-profi t gallery sector. Best Booths reminds us that there is a seamless integration of curation and fi nancialization performed in art fairs (and in art galleries).

Best Booths – Marian Goodman, FIAC 2016 / MoMA (2017)

In the 1980s, Andrea Fraser sought a way to combine her interests in critical analysis, psychoanalysis, Bourdieu, and performance, and created the fi ctional character of “Jane Castleton”—a museum docent who would tell a different story about museums than publics were accustomed to. In a 1990 interview with me (republished in my 2014 book Art Is a Problem, as well as within Fraser’s 2019 book Andrea Fraser: Collected Interviews, 1990–2018), the artist discussed her well-known 1989 project for the Philadelphia Museum Museum Highlights: A Gallery Talk:

What I wanted to do in my gallery talk at the Philadelphia Museum was to construct a history of the way that art museums were instituted as the repositories of certain desires, specifically in terms of the museum’s status as a
 public institution. I wanted to consider the establishment of the fi rst museums in the US in the context of the privatization of public provision in bourgeois philanthropy and turn-of-the-century urban reform movements aimed at regulating the poor into a dependent and dependable work force. Museums were, and are, part of an organization of the public sphere aimed at taking hold of and defining the interests, culture, pleasure, daily practices, and highest aspirations of a public. Why do people go to museums? What does the museum promise? In the words of a Philadelphia Museum publication: happiness, ideal beauty, liberation from the struggles imposed by material needs. How can one make good the museum’s promise? A docent might know. She is the museum’s representative. As a volunteer she represents both the class interests embodied in the museum and its philanthropic purpose: the public good. She is in identification with the board of trustees

In what might be a tip of the hat to Fraser’s docent tours, Garrido’s Booth Exhibitions Are the Institutions of Our Time comprises a performance at ARCOmadrid in 2020, wherein the artist provides fair visitors with a narrative about the historical, architectural, and ideological conditions of ARCO. In the video that documents her performance, Garrido slyly remarks that “it is a great space for the exhibition of booths.” By referring to booths rather than artworks, she alludes to the previously discussed Best Booths, humorously implying that the work of institutional analysis has migrated from the site of the museum to the site of the art fair. Perhaps Garrido is also offering a lament about this state of affairs, wherein more and more artists seem to be producing art fair-specific art.

Booth Exhibitions Are the Institutions of Our Time (2020)

In Colored, from 2022, Garrido colorized black-and-white photographs that document canonical historical, conceptual, performance, and site-specifi c works by artists such as Marina Abramovic & Ulay, Gordon Matta-Clark, Bas Jan Ader, Carolee Schneemann, and Yoko Ono, among others. The original photographs function as the record of transitory and ephemeral art as archival evidence. In certain cases, there was already a deliberate blurring of the lines between photographic document and photo artwork, and many if not all of the pictures have entered museum collections. For instance, Garrido colorized canonical Matta-Clark’s Splitting (the first example of his “anarchitecture”), which is a document of the artist’s site-specific cutting in half of a house in New Jersey.

Colorizing these images that we have typically experienced in black and white has the effect of making them feel at once more contemporary and yet more remote. Sort of like the experience of watching old movies that have been colorized—something is not quite right. We might say that the gesture of colorizing these art historical icons dislocates the images from normative art historical time. For Garrido, colorizing the images is a way to signify her own history as a painter, which has the collateral effect of reaestheticizing these re-reproduced, readymade art-photographic materials. What we have here is the work of art history in the age of colorized mechanical reproducibility. In conceptual terms, it is as if Garrido were making art After Sherrie Levine, and thereby inscribing herself into art history, while at the same time remaking art history, as Levine did with After Walker Evans.

[Colored] Gordon Matta-Clark, Splitting (2022)

In 2016, I gave a talk at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Texas, titled “Art is the gateway drug for art.” It was an attempt to offer a humorous introduction to my Art Is a Problem book. I can still recall the audience’s nervous laughter as I began to speak (tongue firmly in my cheek):

First art seduces us with its claims of beauty, utility, everydayness and potential huuuuge returns on investment, followed by the romance and heat of a new relationship with art, then the gradual emergence of a mature partnership of mutually reinforcing happiness and responsibility in relation to art, the inevitable boredom with art and minor acrimony and squabbles that seem counterintuitive at fi rst and then become ritualized, multiple attempts to break up with art, dalliances with other loves, such as architecture and cinema, and various reconciliations with art—all of which is indicative, on clinical terms, of a spiral into a hopeless cycle of inconsolable art-addiction. I point the fi nger of blame at my late parents for this predicament, who dragged me to museums as a child.’

Why do I bring this up? Because it seems that my experiences—and I would assume the experiences of some others who found their way into the art worlds—have some a  nity with the life events informing Garrido’s exhibition The Origin of Forms. In this project, she stages an exposition of her historical-ideological-social construction as an artist, while also rethinking how the institutionalized canon of Western art history has been assembled. Given that the art worldm has been focusing quite a bit on art that ostensibly transmits the “identity” of the artist (whether in terms of race, gender, cultural milieu, indigenous status, etc.), it is refreshing to see how Garrido instead scrutinizes how she became an artist in the fi rst place. It is as if she were asking: what is the identity of the social status of the artist? One might say that she is even offering a meta-narrative of how her “identity” as an artist was constructed, beginning within the socioeconomic habitus of her family. In a sense, the show is the origin story of Garrido’s formation, and we might also say that she is curating her trajectory as an artist while also playing around with self-canonization. Garrido has assembled various artifacts that operate as visual and material evidence of her artistic inculcation, so to speak, from a young age. We see examples of her parents’ paintings, along with Garrido’s childhood drawings. A 1:1 scale model of the floor of her Madrid basement studio—purchased by her father when Garrido was attending art school in 2007—is a reminder to art publics that economic and class privileges can underpin the development of artists, which is echoed in the Masters of Western Painting (2023) wallpaper element of the show. It is refreshing to see an artist be so forthright about how real estate is a crucial factor in how she—and other artists—survive (or don’t) in major urban centers of culture.

Garrido’s installation includes a 1992 video of her as a young girl in the Musée d’Orsay, while visiting Paris with her father. During that same trip, Garrido’s father took snapshots of her standing in the proximity of various art masterpieces, and a selection of those pictures is presented in a vitrine, alluding to the tropes of researchbased art. Based upon her expressions in some of these snapshots, it is unclear if little Cristina was enjoying the experience of being posed with artworks in museums or if she might have preferred to be toy shopping. Indeed, the exhibition commences with a large-scale blow-up of a shot of the young Garrido standing in front of Renoir’s Etude. Torse, effet de soleil, a gesture that slyly invokes the way in which some institutions utilize artists’ portraits as part of their didactic materials. To a certain extent, Garrido is the main subject (matter) of her show, and perhaps also the central object. There is a refreshing vulnerability here, a willingness to display—literally and figuratively—those aspects of her family history that have contributed to her becoming an artist, yet in a manner that is considerably more analytical than sentimental. One might characterize the exhibition as family-friendly post-institutional critique.

Installation view of the exhibition Cristina Garrido. The Origin of Forms. Museo Centro de Arte Dos de Mayo - CA2M (Móstoles, 2023). Image: Roberto Ruiz.

Garrido’s large-scale childhood-era image might also be read as a preamble for Masters of Western Painting, a wallpaper work featuring biographical information on one hundred canonical artists, commencing in the fourteenth century, which covers two walls of the museum space. Each bio entry—beginning with Giotto and ending with Jean-Michel Basquiat—includes the race/ethnicity of the artist (mostly white males), the artist’s astrological sign (if known), and information on the artist’s family, economic class, social networks, and related details. Garrido’s interest is in locating certain common denominators amongst these artists from different historical periods to perhaps better understand how various economic, social, and familial factors helped to facilitate their artistic careers (beyond skill and talent), and by extension, to see how such patterns—real and imagined—might resonate with her own narrative trajectory as an artist. The biographical text entries operate as a backdrop, literally and figuratively, for Garrido’s self-inquiry. We are delivered data about the inclusions and exclusions of canonical Western art history—a discursive institution that has undergone significant revision, deconstruction, and expansion during the late twentieth and twenty-fi rst centuries thanks to artists such as Garrido.

Installed, salon-style, on the wallpaper, are a constellation of hybrid works comprising poster reproductions of paintings from museum shops that have been painted over almost in their entirety, except for textual elements that refer to biographical information about the artists. For example, in Masters of Western Painting – Jackson Pollock, Lucifer, we discern fragments of the MoMA poster that reproduces the Pollock painting as it emerges into the pictorial foreground from behind the black monochrome, forming the words “Robó comida para sobrevivir” [He stole food to survive]. Likewise, in Masters of Western Painting – Mary Cassatt, Mother and Child, traces of the Cassatt painting seep through from underneath a blue monochrome, forming the sentence “Decidió que el matrimonio sería incompatible con su carrera” [She decided that marriage would be incompatible with her career].

Perhaps one of the most honest, and dare I say ethical, questions that an artist can ask—in public—is “What are the various conditions and factors that led me to become an artist?” The question may seem superfl uous, and yet I think it is rather pertinent in our era of art’s hyperfinancialization and hyperpoliticization, when so much is expected from artists. By sharing with us the story of her family, re ecting upon her class position, and offering evidence of her early exposures to art—while at the same time questioning how broader art histories, canons, markets, careers, artistic identities, and art as a form of power are constructed—Garrido stages a post-feminist scenography of her subject formation as an artist.