Mierle Laderman Ukeles

Grazer Kunstverein, Graz, Austria

Maintenance-Art_Dusting-a-Baffle,-1969_CMYK.jpg

Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Dusting an Artwork from: Private Performances of Personal Maintenance as Art, 1970–3, Schwarzweiß-Fotographie

Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Dusting an Artwork from: Private Performances of Personal Maintenance as Art, 1970–3, black and white photograph

Krist Gruijthuijsen, the new artistic director of Grazer Kunstverein, wants to make some changes. In a mission statement, he says that from now on, the Kunstverein will see itself as an ‘agency’ for the production of art-related commonality or simply as a meeting place, meaning it is willing to break with traditional institutional structures. Fittingly, Gruijthuijsen’s debut exhibition, Maintenance Art Works 1969–1980, was the first major show in Europe of New York artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles, a pioneer of feminist Institutional Critique. This position was already clear in her Manifesto for Maintenance Art (1969), a text that acted as a prologue to this chronological solo show and that highlights the artist’s distinctive place within the avant-garde of conceptual art: ‘everything I say is Art is Art. Everything I do is Art is Art’, she notes under the heading ‘Art’, in the often-tautological style of the time (Joseph Kosuth, for example, labelled his conceptual work after 1966 ‘art as idea as idea’).

But instead of engaging in ritualized language games and actions, or embarking on the presumably enjoyable (because otherwise it would be unbearable) processing of self-imposed tasks and then continuing for decades as an artistic-maniac form of killing time (like Hanne Darboven, On Kawara or Roman Opałka), Ukeles resorted to activities that are part of ordinary everyday routine. In Maintenance Art: Personal Time Studies: Log (1973), she made meticulous notes of everything she did in a typical day. In her account, housework is treated the same way as activities considered artistic in a narrower sense. Expanding on this programme, Ukeles subsequently realized many performances based on cleaning and scrubbing at various art spaces, making portraits of the night workers at the Whitney Museum and asking them to consider their work as art for one hour. Her best-known project was Touch Sanitation (1977–80), commissioned by Creative Time, New York, for which she shook hands with over 8,500 New York sanitation workers, telling each one: ‘thank you for keeping New York City alive’.

Ukeles’ genius lies in the way she responded to the avant-garde pressure to innovate. Instead she used actions which, in themselves, are at odds with development and revolution – readable instead as measures for maintaining the ordinary everyday status quo. ‘If urinals and soup cans can be art, why not an ordinary activity like sweeping?’, asked critic David Bourdon in his review of a Ukeles show that appeared in Village Voice in 4 October 1976 and which has since become part of the documentation. Admittedly, Bourdon made his comment at a time when Andy Warhol, the younger of the two superstars he refers to, had already paid a literary tribute to housework. It is almost as if the penultimate chapter of The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again) (1975) was based on a telephone call with Ukeles, in which she explained the most pressing problems involved in cleaning. True to her principles, Ukeles took something that Warhol immortalized as anecdote, as an essentially dispensable phone call, and turned it into her main work.

Translated by Nicholas Grindell

Issue 10

First published in Issue 10

Jun – Aug 2013

Most Read

Forensic Architecture, Naeem Mohaiemen, Charlotte Prodger and Luke Willis Thompson are this year’s nominees
It’s the first statue of a woman placed in Parliament Square, marking the centenary of women’s right to vote
In further news: New York art project fights mass incarceration with house music; Marcia Hafif passes away at 89
From a preview of Konrad Fischer’s new space, to Simon Fujiwara’s thought-provoking commentary on gender bias
The Chinese dissident artist has justified posing with politician Alice Weidel, who has branded immigrants ‘illiterate’
‘I could be the President of the United States, and still half the people in the room would question my authority’
From Linder at the Women’s Library to rare paintings by Serge Charchoune, the exhibitions to see outside of the main...
The argument that ancestral connection offers a natural grasp of the complex histories and aesthetics of African art is...
Ahead of the 52nd edition of Art Cologne, your guide to the best shows to see in the city
‘I'm interested in the voice as author, as witness, as conduit, as ventriloquist’ – the artist speaks...
In further news: a report shows significant class divide in the arts; and Helen Cammock wins Max Mara art prize
A genre more associated with painting, an interest in the environment grounds a number of recent artists’ films 
A new report suggests that women, people from working-class backgrounds and BAME workers all face significant...
The divisive director out after less than six months by mutual consent
In further news: Gillian Ayres (1930-2018); Met appoints Max Hollein as director; Cannes announces official selection
With miart in town, the best art to see across the city – from ghostly apparitions to the many performances across the...
From Grave of the Fireflies to The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, the visionary director grounded fantasy with...
In further news: art dealer and Warhol friend killed in Trump Tower fire; UK arts organizations’s gender pay gap...
Emin threatened ‘to punch her lights out’, she claimed in a recent interview
As the Man Booker Prize debates whether to nix US writers, the ‘homogenized future’ some novelists fear for British...
‘Very often, the answer to why not would be: because you’re a girl’ – for this series, writer Fran Lebowitz speaks...
The artist is also planning a glass fountain of herself spouting her own blood
‘The difficulties are those which remain invisible’: for a new series, writer and curator Andrianna Campbell speaks...
With ‘David Bowie Is’ at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, Glenn Adamson on the evolution of the music video – a genre Bowie...
Under a metahistorical guise, the filmmaking duo enact hidden tyrannies of the contemporary age
The area’s development boom isn’t just in luxury property – the art scene is determined to keep its place too
In further news: Laura Owens’s 356 Mission space closes; John Baldessari guest-stars in The Simpsons
With his fourth plinth commission unveiled in London, the artist talks archaeological magic tricks and ...
When dealing with abuse in the art industry, is it possible to separate the noun ‘work’ from the verb?

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

January - February 2018

frieze magazine

March 2018

frieze magazine

April 2018