What do you say to a guy who’s most frequently described as the artist who “radically redefined the status of the object in art”? I don’t usually get nervous about biography points like this, but I made an exception for Haim Steinbach. Unlike a lot of art, there’s no answer key to his angular shelves and arrangement of objects – and that can make a viewer nervous. Certainly, it affected me; it took two anxiety-filled weeks just produce a 700-word review on his show at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery last month, and I still worry about whether I got it right.
Steinbach himself, though, isn’t quite so intimidating. Now 67, the New York-based artist seems just as interested in the door hinge next to him as he might be about any given conversation. He’s obsessed with objects in the world around him. Recently, we talked about how that intense focus informs his work and thinking.
STEINBACH ON HIERARCHICAL PERCEPTION:
All objects are mysteries. They have things to reveal that we do not tap into because we usually decide what they are beforehand. This is the way we feel confident and in control of the world. But the idea of non-hierarchy basically allows me to take in anything I want to and ask myself, “What are my possibilities here for some remarkable experiences and enjoyments and appreciation and ideas?” It doesn't matter then if it's a Brancusi at MoMA or a Titian at the Met or a plug in the wall.
I did make a protoype for a gate valve – a very important fixture that is essential to life and survival but, as with all objects that are designed, it also has an aesthetic value. All objects are beautiful to look at, and if you fix your attention, you may discover that they're as fascinating as any artwork. Like, this is a sculpture [gestures at a door hinge]. It's a relief sculpture that comes out of the wall. We ignore it because we know it's a hinge on the door, and that's all it is, but it's such a remarkable object. It casts a beautiful shadow, this beautiful parallelogram. It's as beautiful as this guy over there, The Creature (points to artwork.). It's just another creature.
STEINBACH ON SHELVES
There was an evolution with [my earlier prefabricated] shelves, because if you're buying a pair of brackets in the department or hardware store, attach them to the wall and place a board on top, well, you have a shelf and it has a presence. It has an identity. So the shelf itself is a frame. What happened is that at a certain point, I began to make my own hand made shelves for the objects, and was saying to myself, “Even the shelf with the brackets on the wall is like a new sculpture.”
I began by making a bricolage shelf, because I didn't want to make something fancy or over work it. I would just try to find different scraps of materials; pieces of wood, even branches. It became really a relief sculpture of sorts, but it also had its horizontal platform on top.
Some of the shelves I made were imitating a Minimal Judd kind of thing. But they were all kind of semi rough and fast. They used to be like sketches”¦.[Later], I came up with the triangular wedge shelf. I tried to construct something using a table saw and that may be built by anyone having the skill. I wanted to make something that functions like a device, as for instance a musical instrument, and that structures the way that objects are placed as a means of measuring, ordering, seeing and reflecting on the relation of objects.
STEINBACH ON EBAY
HS: eBay is this collective of non-hierarchy where you can access anything you want at any time. You're not going to be more prejudiced and say, “I'm not going to look for this because that's low. It's low art. It's not important, it's not worth my time. I'm going to go to the Artnet, and look at great art. I'm going to look at this, because I have values and standards. Why waste an hour looking for all kinds of stupid stuff on eBay?” But what if you let yourself just go for a few hours and look at the stupid stuff that shows up there? What do you make out of that? What do you find? What do you learn?
HS: I know artists who are constantly on eBay collecting images for their work. I do very little of that. I'm on eBay all the time: I'm on it when I walk down the street and bump into a rock on the ground. I look at it and I say, “What is it? Why is it here? What kind of rock is it?” There's this instant awareness when you hit something, you realize that you're living in a picture world – eBay and the computer is already in your mind, and you're ahead.
PJ: You know, a while back I asked an artist friend how he looks when he's searching for material on the web. And he said [paraphrasing], “When you read a newspaper, you're looking at the column of the text. If you're browsing in a context, in an art context, you're looking at everything. You're not just looking at the object. You're looking at how everything is placed in the browser. You're looking at everything in the screen.” And I wonder whether there's some similarity between that process and the process of walking down the street and looking at everything and looking at it without hierarchical concerns. They sound sort of similar to me.
HS: Well, here's the difference. To preserve ourselves, it's our nature to look at things with hierarchical concerns, whether those are based on belief and religion, or on language that we brought, or on whether we are literate or illiterate. The tools that we have control the way that we engage the world. We all have internal restrictions that are already part of us, and they make us focus on certain things in a world where you can see everything.
STEINBACH ON THE INTERNET
The Internet of course is a venue that we didn't have back in the 60s. We now live in a world where we are seeing much more and having many more open doors than in the past. We have access to all of this information and it really has our minds going at a much greater speed. There are many more things taken in and spat out. It's a kind of democratization, you could say. This is a great liberation, it allows people to have unexpected opportunities to communicate.. But it also brings problems with it. For me, there's something important about encountering an object or an event in real time, in real space.
STEINBACH ON BEING CONDITIONED
A child's toy is not just a toy — it's a device. It's not just a cylindrical kind of pyramid with beautiful colors and sections. It is a device through which the child is internalizing a system that we invented. The toy talks about geometry and measurements before it's explained in a geometry class. We are not growing in the jungle, under banana leaves. We are growing in geometrical homes, and relating to those kinds of spaces, which are reflecting themselves in those toys.