On March 9, 1978 Thomas Gainsborough’s painting “Conversation in a Park” lay on the floor of the Louvre, while the wall where it used to hang stood bare. Its journey from wall to floor was instigated by Christopher D’Arcangelo, an American artist known for his contributions to Institutional Critique of the art world and anarchist sensibilities.
Anarchism Without Adjectives: On The Work of Christopher D’Arcangelo (1975-1979) is the first attempt at creating “a posthumous exhibition or coherent analysis” of the artist’s work, according to its curators, Dean Inkster and Sébastien Pluot. Displayed at the Leonard & Bina Ellen Art Gallery at Concordia University, the exhibition features texts and visual archives that document D’Arcangelo’s life and work. D’Arcangelo himself chronicled his work through visual and written documents, which were donated by Cathy Weiner – the artist’s girlfriend from 1974 to 1979 – and the D’Arcangelo Family Partnership to the Fales Library at New York University. The Anarchism Without Adjectives collection has travelled to several venues in New York City, Spain, and Belgium before arriving in Montreal last Tuesday.
D’Arcangelo became notorious in the 1970s for his confrontational performances intended to question the institution of art. Focusing his critique on the curatorial process and the way art is viewed, D’Arcangelo constantly deconstructed the museum as a space, as seen in his action at the Louvre. He gained some notoriety in 1975 when he chained himself to the door of the Whitney Museum during its biennial exhibition and remained there for about an hour as visitors walked past.
The exhibition dwells heavily in the past via second-hand accounts to tell D’Arcangelo’s story. Recorded interviews with art historians and other artists – including the likes of Lawrence Weiner and Benjamin Buchloh – give attendants a broad grasp of the introspective critique of his art. Throughout the space, one also gains a sense of his network of collaborators, including big name artists like Louise Lawler and Cindy Sherman, with whom he participated in a display at Artists Space in New York City. Although the D’Arcangelo oeuvre did not fall into complete oblivion, his work was largely ignored in comparison to these artists.
Anarchism Without Adjectives, therefore, is a display that evokes the ethos of his work. In the video installation “Yours in Solidarity,” Nicoline van Harskamp creates “a global network of anarchists in the 1970s by displaying mail correspondence between them and making a video re-enacting the text in the letters. The piece helps to call to mind the political climate informing D’Arcangelo’s work.
D’Arcangelo’s unwavering commitment to this critique of art shaped the form of his work to the fleeting and immaterial, making it especially challenging to document and construct his legacy. Because the exhibition achieves the goal of conjuring his anarchist spirit and political determination, it is crucial to question the way in which it is set up. In spite of explicitly engaging with a critique of art, the fact remains that this is an exhibition displayed in the traditional space of a gallery. In this sense, as his work is materialized, its uncommodifiable character is destroyed, making it readily accessible for the comfortable consumption of gallery attendants.
To be sure, the exhibition displays original works that serve a different political function than D’Arcangelo’s, and are not to be examined under the same light. But to keep his legacy alive, and commit to the intention of the exhibition, it is crucial to call into question the way this exhibition is displayed. Anarchism Without Adjectives lack the immediate, ephemeral, and communal aspects of his work. Many have drawn parallels between his work and Occupy Wall Street, which is perhaps a useful analogy as both are manifestations of radical non-conformism, something not found in a gallery at Concordia.
Anarchism Without Adjectives will be running until October 26 at the Leonard & Bina Ellen Art Gallery, Room LB-165, J.W. McConnell Library Building, 55 Maisonneuve.