Digging back into “Deep Storage”

This project started as an essay by one author and evolved into an exhibition organized by five curators plus a battery of support. Now it is documented by a catalogue with essay contributions by fifteen authors. And still we cannot possibly presume to have wrapped up our topic: storage and archiving as imagery, metaphor or process in contemporary art. For at every turn DEEP STORAGE: Arsenale der Erinnerung falls subject to itself: a package overwhelmed by its own contents, which strains against the very processes of containment it seeks to represent. Beginning with the process of selection, for some the notion of storage conjures memory (things saved become souvenirs), for others history (things saved become information). And yet for others, storage is a provocative spectacle of material culture that hails the virtual as an ideal form of relief from the everyday problem of what to do with all this stuff. In short, the idea of storage cannot be easily contained. The arsenal threatens to explode, even before a single artist has been chosen.

Rather than attempt to streamline, the topic here serves as an empty drawer or attic, a data-space, into which many diverse notions of storage have been delivered. Of course there were criteria. Every box needs walls. All of the works in this exhibition involve materials or processes associated with keeping art over time. These papers and packages conjure three sites: the storeroom/museum, the archive/library and the artist’s studio, an intersection of both. The studio is the place where art is not only made, but stored and documented. As the works in DEEP STORAGE seem to prepare themselves to be remembered or forgotten, one of the larger themes that emerges is the construction of history itself. This art raises questions about preservation, and produces some startlingly mundane and imaginative proofs of what history might actually consist of.

The exhibition’s particular circumstances, organized as a German-American exchange, prompted a reflection on these points of national origin. Instituting Kunst Geschichte as a formal and philosophical discipline (not just an aristocratic act of connoisseurship), Germany is the cradle of art historical practice. America is the place where Conceptualism first turned documentation into a new art form. Here, a small group of historic works stretch the show’s play of images and ideas beyond the present to early modern models of storage and archiving. The main body of the show begins in the 1960s to focus on art of the 1990s, where several computer-based works extend the issues of DEEP STORAGE into the twenty-first century.

The results will read like an assemblage. Unlike a thematic show whose elements all riff off and return to an encompassing framework, this one constantly refers outside itself. The following essay, for example, includes a number of important artists whose work is not represented in the exhibition. This suggests that storage is a potentially endless topic and allows that this curatorial project is by no means definitive.


Deep Storage

If the gallery is the museum’s public face, the storerooms are its private parts – the place where art is collated, concealed, and kept from view. Of the museum collection’s obscure bulk, only a tiny proportion ever makes it into the light of exhibition. To visit the storeroom, where objects dwell cut off from critical aura, is to contemplate art in a state’ of temporal remission. Paintings hang in row upon graceless row, on rack after regimented rack. Sculptures mill about like excess baggage. In that other great repository, the museum archive, dead documents lie in a state of suspended insignificance. Ironically, the storeroom stirs with signs of life. The skin of the unwrapped package, the spectacle of an unopened container or closed file can be an arousing suggestion of unknown possibilities, with contents made desirable precisely through their inaccessibility. When artists deploy this imagery the results are “deep storage”: work which both anticipates its own future condition and reflects on past, often accumulative, aspects of the artists’ visual practice.

Precedents for this art, as with so many others, lie stowed in a suitcase. Marcel Duchamp casually dismissed his project of the Boîtes-en-valise as mere financial enterprise – “small business, I assure you”1– an attempt to drum up a little cash. More recent valuations acknowledge the Boîtes as the first critique of museum practice: it “parodies the museum as an enclosed space for displaying art…mocks [its] archival activity…[and] satirically suggests that the artist is a travelling salesman whose concerns are as promotional as they are aesthetic.”2 But the project seems to have been more self-consciously motivated than either claim recognizes.

It was 1938; the war was encroaching, and Duchamp’s art had already proved vulnerable to accident. The Large Glass was cracked in transit between Brooklyn and Katherine Dreier’s home in 1926, though this was not revealed until the crate was opened several years later. What better place to preserve the past than a museum? And so Duchamp devised one small enough to fit into a suitcase. He commissioned printers and light manufacturers throughout Paris to make 320 copies of miniature versions of each of his artworks, customized a briefcase to store and display them, hastily packed the rest of his bags and came to America.3 The task of assembling and editioning the Valises stretched beyond Duchamp’s death in 1964. In the end the project was not only autobiographical, a life-long summation, but anticipatory as well. As an artwork designed to be unpacked, the viewing of the Valises carries the same sense of expectation and event as the opening of a crate.

The crate is, of course, a carapace and a coffin. In an increasingly international art world, works are routinely sealed up into protective bins and cartons to be jetted off to exhibitions and salesrooms all over the world. Entering the collection or returned to the studio, they are consigned to storage in this same secreted state, sometimes never to be opened again. Over time, the crate supplants its contents as the object under consideration, the thing which is monitored, moved, and maintained.

Accelerating this eventuality are Richard Artschwager’s recent crate sculptures: empty wooden boxes that deviate only slightly from true art shipping form. An unlikely corner, sly angle, or jog in the silhouette embody the gestalt of Artschwager’s furniture-like sculptures and, resting in their chamfered frames, his sculptural paintings. Collectively, these funereal objects transform the gallery into a crypt, subjecting the history of Artschwager’s achievements to the crudest form of encapsulation. They adjudicate the roughest assessment of art as so much cultural furniture.

Haunting the storage spaces of galleries, museums and auction houses, Louise Lawler photographs the object-inmates as they move from racks and rooms, wheel past conservation studios, pause in corridors, wearily stand on view, step up to auction blocks and shuffle back into the storeroom. A dormant pall hangs over these transactions, making the bustle of the marketplace and the dynamism of history into equally mythic properties. To watch the digital counters affixed to Ashley Bickerton’s sculptures, set during the ago-go 1980s and ticking away the seconds of a presumably ever-increasing worth, today seems only wistful.

The sense of loss which is intrinsic to these critiques depends on a consensus on what’s at stake. (You cannot mourn what you don’t care for.) To this extent, the crate becomes a figurative presence. René Magritte made light of this potential in his pastiches of David’s Madame de Recamier and Manet’s Le Balcon, in which the subjects of the original paintings are encrypted into craftily customized coffins. Artschwager’s self-reflexive crates confront the viewer with the immediate presence of totems. With their plain pine facades, they recall something Magritte once wrote about trees:

“Pushed from the earth toward the sun, a tree is an image of certain happiness. To perceive this image, we must be immobile like a tree. When we are moving, it is the tree that becomes a spectator. It is witness, equally, in the shape of chairs, tables and doors to the more or less agitated spectacle of our life. The tree having become a coffin, disappears into the earth. And it is transformed into fire, it vanishes into air.”4

Marcel Broodthaers brings this imagery of identification to its most intimate disclosure, writing of a “deep storage”-style installation he created for his own Musée d’Art Moderne, Département des Aigles, Section XIXème Siècle, located in his Brussels apartment: “My crates are empty. We are on the brink of the abyss. Proof: when I’m not here, there’s nobody.”5

Other artists seem more resigned to the ephemeral nature of representation. Rirkrit Tiravanija, for example, makes works as temporal as campsites. For one installation, he moved the contents of 303 gallery’s store room out into its exhibition space. In the now-emptied back room, he set up a small stove to cook and serve meals to itinerant gallery-goers. During his absences, dishes and pans indicated the artist’s imminent return. In the meantime, the space afforded by Untitled (Free) (1992) generously envisioned a world without storage problems.

In many cases, the storage of fine art has become practically an art in its own right: crates and conservation measures sometimes seem more elaborate than the very works they are designed to protect. Captivated by its symbols, labels, and materials, as well as the mysterious forms it engenders, Martin Kippenberger has cultivated the beauty of fine arts handling. It’s a far-ranging aesthetic. Bins of the artist’s own canvases, shown as if jettisoned from the warehouse, are as romantic as ruined temples. The crates Kippenberger exhibits alongside his sculptures are so intricately absurd that, in the manner of the best gothic art, they defy common sense. Striped cardboard boxes exhibited like Donald Judd wall-sculptures are smooth minimalist icons. And a series of mummified works, wrapped in Kippenberger’s own customized packing tape, becomes archeological treasure, mysterious fetishes of some marginal sect.

Taking this Egyptian preoccupation one step further, Jason Rhoades fashioned an entire installation of his artworks and possession as if entombed in a suburban family garage. While Kippenberger elevates wrappers to the status of artworks, Rhoades intimates that it’s all – art and sepulcher alike – so much trash. With Suitcase with Past Financial Endeavors (1993), a shabby version of Duchamp’s Valise, Rhoades conjures up a comic image in which the suitcase takes advantage of the first-class luxury of the contemporary art circuit. Packed meticulously by professional handlers, fawned over by devoted registrars, expensively insured and gingerly installed like a relic in a vitrine, this slacker suitcase filled with rolls of cellophane tape, magic markers, balled-up aluminum foil, chocolate “shitty pops” and vials of “wee-wee” will travel from gallery, to museum, to collection, taking an occasional time-out to relax in climate-controlled store rooms, a Beverly Hillbilly come to high-culture.6

Occasionally an artist is invited to infiltrate the sanctum santorum. Museum exhibitions that feature artists as curators seem to have made their debut in 1970 with Andy Warhol’s “Raid the Icebox” at the Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design.7 David Bourdon describes Warhol’s tour of the vaults:

Warhol wanted the entire shoe collection. Did he mean the cabinet as well? “Oh yes, just like that.” But what about the doors? Would he allow people to open and close them? “Spectator participation,” Warhol murmured… One of the biggest surprises for Warhol was finding one of his own works…sharing a rack with two Charles Hawthornes and one Zoltan Sepeschy. “Doesn’t it make you sad to see all these forgotten artists?” Robbins asked Warhol. “…uh…”8

A work’s fate once it leaves the studio domain can prove the source of some anxiety. Contemplating the unknown, Franz Erhard Walther took precautions against the possible mishandling of his First Work Series (1963-69). This multi-faceted sculpture consists of a suite of “before” drawings, the realized fabric sculptures, “after” photographs documenting these in performative use, and a sturdy shelving-unit for storing the entire ensemble. Altogether the piece serves as both museum and archive: a pragmatic minimalist structure that attempts to control its own physical and interpretive destinies. On a similar hermetic note are On Kawara’s date paintings, which come housed in their own cardboard boxes. Inside the lid of each box is affixed a newspaper page for the day in question situating the day’s work in a world of external events.

Reifying a stored work’s existence through a paper-trail of photographs, sales records, loan forms, and letters is the archive. The archive was also Walter Benjamin’s great unfinished project: an attempt to organize the tidal waves of an ensuing modernity into a cohesive architecture of information and imagery. The inherent futility of this attempt, as each fragile structure slips beneath the crushing weight of the next oncoming wave, makes for an appropriately unstable paradigm in an age of mechanical reproduction that is itself giving way to the juggernaut of the information superhighway.

For artists working from mediated imagery, as opposed to first-hand experience, archives are invaluable studio references. Eugène Atget, whose work was once primarily purchased by other artists and engravers as reference tools, referred to himself not as a photographer, but as an archivist. (Duchamp decided to give up painting to become a freelance librarian at the Bibliothèque Sainte-Genevèive in Paris.)9 Among Joseph Cornell’s papers are neatly titled dossiers – whose subjects include “Claire Bloom,” “Clouds,” “Patty Duke,” “Peter Engels,” “Marilyn Monroe” and “Photography” – which he referred to and culled from for his collage. Likewise, Karen Kilimnik collects information on everything from “Andy Warhol” to “Waterbabies” as possible fodder for her scatter-style, collage drawings and installations. For both artists, personal obsessions sustain collecting impulses that give way to assemblage by way of the archive. For the collaborative team of Kate Ericson and Mel Ziegler, whose perfume Etês-vous servi? (1992) reproduces the scent of the National Archives in Paris, the repository is its own obsession.

Working in an undefined interstice between archivist and artist, collector and curator, Douglas Blau maintains a vast accumulation of film stills, postcards, photographs, and magazine clippings, for use in his picture shows: installations of cycles of uniformly framed images lined up in neat rows on the wall. This format results in a deceptively simple narrative. It’s easy enough to read one image at a time (in both pictures someone is holding a book), or in a sweeping panoramic view (moving from pictures of individuals to pictures of groups). But it would be as impossible to reconstruct this idiosyncratic flow of information entirely as it would be to reconstruct a given film frame by frame, or a painting brush-stroke by brush-stroke. Thrown back on the curatorial project as a whole, Blau’s selections suggest that every exhibition should, to some degree, be read as a fiction that reflects an author’s predilections and is composed of what’s at hand and what someone remembered to dig out of storage.

Sometimes the collecting impulse overwhelms the archival process. Instead of throwing things away, Warhol crammed his unopened mail and other casually-acquired ephemera into cardboard boxes, which he stowed in his home and studio. Currently being opened and catalogued at The Andy Warhol Museum, the Time Capsules’ contents would seem a historian’s dream – a post-marked paper backdrop to the famous artist’s daily life. Except that the staggering volume of the capsules reveals Warhol’s revenge, drowning the speculator in details of little or no importance.

The artist’s life is a grand archive, in which every discarded receipt, marginal note, or studio scrap might some day be deemed tremendously significant. Besides Warhol, consider the Robert Mapplethorpe and Jackson Pollock/Lee Krasner Foundations, dedicated to compounding interest in their subjects daily through the availability and upkeep of archives. These archives spawn those other great testaments of worth, catalogues raisonnés, such as the giant tome just published in conjunction with the Bruce Nauman exhibition. Jockeying for control of the raw material are institutions like The Getty, which offers to pay living artists large sums of money for their dead papers. While these activities maintain and minister to a flourishing art market, with studios run like small businesses in the larger economy, the resultant accumulations of documents are also telling memory banks, demonstrating the ways in which historic figures are valued.

The issue looms measurably in Meg Cranston’s Who’s Who by Size, University of California Sample (1993). These blank stelae portray the relative importance of a panoply of cultural figures, from Emily Dickinson to Mohammed Ali, according to the number of inches of shelf space they occupy within the stacks of the library at the University of California. With individual merit counting for little – Nikola Tesla is dwarfed by Thomas Edison, despite his substantial contribution to engineering – it’s the adage of the art review come true: when it comes to securing a place in history, perhaps it’s not so much what gets written as the number of inches racked up in print.

When Sarah Seager approached the Smithsonian Institute’s Archives of American Art with Excuse My Dust (1992-93), she implicitly challenged the archival system of inclusion. Her donation of found correspondence written or received by the former archivist of the Huntington Library, was subtitled, Why do we circulate all these papers when everyone says it will make no difference? It tells of “…the archivist’s coming to terms with his wife’s nearly fatal bout of pneumonia” and in itself, serves no more or less a purpose than documenting a fragment of a facet of a otherwise untold story. However, housed in the Archives of American Art under “The Sarah Seager Papers”, they speak of a historical process that only selectively chooses its evidence from a vast arena of information, while the rest falls away into an ocean of insignificance.10

Anxiety and dust provoke the archiving impulse. In the museum – the mausoleum most artists still aim to enter through their work – the recesses of the storeroom simultaneously beckon and bar access to history. Art that assumes the storeroom’s cladding and demeanor displays a desire to repose within the museum’s collection. At the same time, these works also elude the museum’s authority by inventing alternative systems of self-containment outside its ordination. These systems might be seen as individual struggles against time, or as simply autobiographical.

The process of storing is always one of mirroring and self-evaluation. Whether that self is a cultural body, squirrelish individual, or Citizen Kane, “you are what you keep.” When these dual modes of internal and external assessment intersect in an art of impenetrable closure or inexhaustible accumulation, they attain an ongoing afterlife within deep storage.


  1. Marcel Duchamp quoted in Calvin Tomkins, The Bride and the Bachelors (New York: The Viking Press, 1965), p. 60.
  2. Exhib. cat. essay, Jackie McAllister and Benjamin Weil, “The Museum under Analysis,” The Desire of the Museum (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1989), p. 10.
  3. The task of assembling and editioning the Boîtes-en-valise multiples progressed at a rate of about 30 per year and involved a whole history of hired hands, including at one point, Joseph Cornell.
  4. Magritte quoted in Harry Torczyner, Magritte: Ideas and Images (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1977), p. 109.
  5. Marcel Broodthaers’ open letter (dated 29 September 1968) quoted in Birgit Pelzer, ‘Recourse to the letter’, Broodthaers: Writing, Interviews, Photographs, Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, ed. (Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1988), p. 170. The installation of an arrangement of crates and postcards of 19th century paintings, placed under the sign of the eagle, remained in place for exactly one year. Broodthaers’ open letter documents the opening and activities of the museum on “official” letterhead, comprising its ‘Section Littérature.”
  6. In the last two items of Rhoades’s listed here, Duchamp’s Chocolate Grinder and Urinal are certainly evoked.
  7. The show was part of a series conceived by John and Dominique de Menil, “who wanted to bring out into the open some of the unfamiliar and often unsuspected treasures moldering in museum basements, inaccessible to the general public.” cf. exhib. cat. essay by David Bourdon, “Andy’s Dish,” Raid the Icebox 1 with Andy Warhol (Providence: Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, 1970), p. 17.
  8. Ibid., pp. 17 &24. Bourdon continues, “Back in his office, Robbins informed the curator of the costume collection that Warhol wanted to borrow the entire shoe collection. ‘Well, you don’t want it all,’ she told Warhol in a rather disciplinarian tone, ‘because there’s some duplication.’ Warhol raised his eyebrows and blinked.”
  9. It is also interesting to note that, employed as an archivist by the Bibliothèque Nationale, Georges Bataille hid Walter Benjamin’s manuscripts there during the war. The papers were only recently discovered and now form part of the Bataille archive.
  10. In a letter dated September 14, 1992, the artist describes: “These letters were recently sent to my mother by a woman who found them in the basement of a Santa Cruz home. How my letters turned up in Santa Cruz remains a mystery, but it is in this unusual manner that I have become the custodian of the correspondence.” c.f., Sarah Seager, Excuse My Dust, ed. Cornelia Lauf, Gent: Imschoot, Uitgevers, 1994.