Group Material

by Jonathan Griffin

Arroz con Mango (What a Mess)

Frustrated by what they saw as the conservatism of the flourishing art market at the start of the 1980s, a group of New York artists chose to work collaboratively on projects ‘dedicated to social communication and political change’. Despite numerous arguments, resignations and changes of direction over their 16-year history, Group Material made a body of work that continues to be influential and inspirational for a younger generation of artists and curators.

‘I’d like to be honest. I was significantly hurt by last week’s meeting; the subsequent depression was exacerbated by what I interpret as some other members’ feelings that I was personally responsible for problems in the group.’ So begins a letter dated July 22 1980 to Group Material from their founding member, Timothy Rollins. It was only ten months previously that Rollins and a bunch of friends or friends of friends – most recent graduates from New York’s School of Visual Arts – decided to establish a collaborative practice that would reassess art’s potential to effect social and political change. In September 1980 the group had fourteen members; a year later, it had depleted to three.

At the outset, Group Material took the decision to establish itself as a not-for-profit corporation, in order to be eligible for government funding. This necessitated at least a semblance of formality: a bank account and a telephone answering service were set up, minutes taken at meetings and, despite its fierce resistance to a hierarchy of any kind, official positions allocated within the group. While this bureaucracy may have been unpopular with the artists, it leaves us with a fascinating archive of material, much of which is included in a new book published by Four Corners Books titled Show and Tell: A Chronicle of Group Material.

A non-hierarchical, open and democratic structure did not come without its problems. Continues Rollins in his letter: ‘I think the “uncomradely” behaviour evident in meetings and (I’m certain) in private conversation about Group members is pathetic and incredible at this early point, among persons who are supposed to be friends.’ Amongst his complaints were the unequal intellectual and creative contributions made by different members, lateness to meetings or non-attendance, and the predominance of snide criticism over actual production.

While the group was strongly opposed to the architecture of what they saw as the institutionalized art mainstream – which, we must remember, had taken a peculiarly conservative turn at the start of the 1980s – they were nevertheless determined to find a space they could use as a headquarters and gallery. In New York’s largely Hispanic East Village they rented a small shop, which they renovated and painted grey and red (anything but white). The inaugural show, featuring politically-based art by the group’s members and other influential figures, was deliberately inclusive towards its locale: all written material was provided in Spanish as well as English, furniture was borrowed or donated, and at the opening a neighbour cooked fish fritters.

A subsequent exhibition took this approach a stage further, consisting entirely of artworks lent by locals, from wedding photographs to a collection of Pez candy dispensers. The show, initially called ‘The People’s Choice’, was later subtitled ‘Arroz con Mango’, a Cuban expression roughly translated as ‘what a mess’. In a contemporary review in Artforum, Thomas Lawson wrote that for Group Material ‘the idea behind each show is considered more important that any of the pieces in it’. This was a position that the group adopted in order to resist their work being co-opted by the (thriving) art market, as had happened with so much other political art. One important precedent for their activities – the organization Colab’s 1980 ‘Times Square Show’ – an energetic display of DIY art and graffiti in a former brothel – had resulted in rapid commercial success for some of its participants, including Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kenny Scharf and Keith Haring. Nevertheless, when Hannah Alderfer resigned from Group Material in 1981, she complained that she felt the group had become ‘a springboard for individual art careers into commercial galleries’.

It is understandable that artists might yearn for a more autonomous outlet for their creative voice. By subsuming themselves within an authorial whole, members not only risked their individual perspectives going unrepresented, but also, as with ‘The People’s Choice’, that the end result would lack aesthetic or conceptual coherence. Although it prioritised diversity, seen from a distance, the documentation of many of Group Material’s projects ironically looks somewhat homogenous: jumbles of artefacts, documents and images fixed, salon-style, to coloured gallery walls. It is only in details that the incongruity and friction reveals itself. In his essay in ‘Show and Tell…’, former member Doug Ashford emphasises the importance of the group’s in-fighting in forming their aesthetic, writing that ‘it is only logical our disagreement with the world would inspire dissent among ourselves.’ ‘Dissensus’, he says, ‘is an emotional invention of great beauty.’

Beautiful or not, dissensus proved a destructive force on Group Material and after the departure of various members due to ‘irreconcilable differences over ideological priorities and personality clashes’ and ‘a desire to focus on … individual art practices’, only Rollins, Julie Ault and Lundy McLaughlin remained. They distributed a flyer titled ‘CAUTION! ALTERNATIVE SPACE!’, which largely blamed the group’s disintegration on the struggles of maintaining their former premises. ‘The notion of alternative space is not only politically phony and aesthetically naïve – it can also be diabolical.’ From this point onwards, Group Material was a peripatetic organisation, accepting invitations from institutions, and using existing structures such as billboards, advertisements on mass transit, or even shopping bags as sites for their work.

Soon joined by fourth member Doug Ashford, it was in this lighter, more agile form that the group made some of its most iconic work. For their ‘M5’ project (1981–2) they invited twenty-nine artists to design (often politically incendiary) posters for New York buses, a strategy they repeated a year later on the subway. Another poster project, ‘DA ZI BAOS’ (1982), provided a form the group reused in the future. The title referred to the posters traditionally placed in Chinese public spaces featuring hand-written texts, often of a propagandist or dissenting nature. Group Material invited a range of individuals and organizations, from a homeless person and a receptionist to the New York State Division of Substance Abuse, to make statements on topical subjects. While lines of influence can be traced from ‘DA ZI BAOS’ to more recent works by artists such as Gillian Wearing, Annika Eriksson, Phil Collins or Harrell Fletcher, Group Material’s approach distinguishes itself by its politicized and impersonal presentation: alternating red and yellow posters with heavy capital letters, roughly pasted at night onto empty hoardings. One cannot help the paradoxical impression that Group Material were increasingly interested not so much in people themselves as in abstracted, theoretical notions of ‘the personal’ or ‘the social’.

The group’s invitation to participate in the 1987 incarnation of Documenta marked a turning point, moving away from direct activism towards a more removed, even ironic, position of criticality. Their contribution, ‘The Castle’, referred to Franz Kafka’s visualization of the power to which we supplicate ourselves without ever gaining access. Their press release stated: ‘This is our offering to the castle’ … ‘visual objects that dress in the vestments of power in order to perhaps gain an audience to power, an audience with The Castle.’ In a round space they assembled art works and shop-bought objects (mixed, without distinction) that evoked a sense of hierarchy or status, whether a pot of Master Blend Coffee or a sculpture by Haim Steinbach. The exhibition succeeded because it paid attention to the aesthetics of the objects selected, acknowledging what Jacques Rancière has pointed out, that aesthetics and politics are inextricably intertwined, and that one cannot be chosen in favour of the other.

Very soon after this exhibition, the group began to work with their most well-known member, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, and concurrently Rollins saw an opportunity to depart in order to devote more time to a group of South Bronx students calling themselves the ‘Kids of Survival’. Tim Rollins and K.O.S., as they continue to be known, quickly found immediate success in the art market, a position that would have been antithetical for Group Material. Gonzalez-Torres also made commercially successful solo work alongside his involvement with the group – work which endures in its singularity of vision in a way that Group Material’s projects never could, nor attempted to.

Instead, Group Material’s achievement was epitomised in perhaps their most well known work, ‘AIDS Timeline’ (1989–91). Counting Whitney Houston, Tylenol, Oscar Wilde and Dick Cheney amongst its credited contributors, it was an eclectic chronology of art and cultural ephemera surrounding the AIDS epidemic. Crucially, the work brought to light the U.S. government’s failure to confront the problem, and the culture of avoidance and ignorance that surrounded the disease. While it was significant for the group that it brought the debate into art museums, there developed a creeping sense of unease at the eagerness of institutions to work with Group Material. Around the same time, Group Material were invited by the Corcoran Gallery in Washington D.C. to develop a project about censorship, following outrage at the gallery’s decision to cancel an Andres Serrano exhibition. Realising that a Group Material project was in danger of becoming an institutional band-aid, they declined the invitation.

As Gonzalez-Torres increasingly succumbed to AIDS-related illnesses, the group was joined by German painters Jochen Klein and Thomas Eggerer. However, when Gonzalez-Torres died in 1996, it was felt that it was time to bring the group to a close. It had been a rocky road, over sixteen years of dissent, argument, frustration and compromise. Despite this, Group Material never lost sight of their ambition, set out in a 1981 manifesto, to ‘explode the assumptions that dictate what art is, who art is for and what an art exhibition can be.’

First published: Mousse, issue 23, March 2010