When artists collaborate - The Third Hand: Collaboration in Art from Conceptualism to Postmodernism - Book Review

In The Third Hand: Collaboration in Art from Conceptualism to Postmodernism, the Australian artist and critic Charles Green explores collaborative artistic practice with a focus on the late 1960s and early '70s. It's a timely topic since plural authorship continues full bore. Pragmatically, collaboration may facilitate projects of baffling complexity, such as the ephemeral installations of Christo and Jeanne-Claude, which would daunt a single author. It is also an essential critical tool for some artists, calling into question traditional notions like self-expression and subjectivity.

Green proposes to investigate joint work "through a very selective history of artistic collaborations after 1968--specifically those that involved unorthodox models of authorship." He conveys well the richness and variety of '70s art works linked to Conceptualism and reminds us that even recent art history was far more complicated than we may now remember. He makes impressive claims for collaboration, calling it "a crucial element from modernist to postmodern art" and asserting "the suddenly compelling relevance of alternative 1970s art practices to 1990s conceptualist agendas." In fact, though, Green doesn't do much to prove this part of his case, since he chiefly considers '70s Conceptualism, not '80s and '90s postmodernism. Instead he attempts to construct a new "model of authorship" that involves a "third artist," a phantom figure allegedly generated when artists set about working jointly; hence the book's title. Green is sensitive and acute on the intricacies of that not-me/not-you and the unexpected ways in which it can propel art works.

The author considers Joseph Kosuth; Ian Burn, Mel Ramsden and Art & Language; the Boyle Family; Anne and Patrick Poirier; Helen Mayer and Newton Harrison; Christo and Jeanne-Claude; Gilbert & George; and Ulay and Marina Abramovic. Some artists are covered in detail, others peremptorily or only inasmuch as they serve Green's agenda. His discussion of Gilbert & George treats 1969-73, the period of the Singing Sculpture; he ignores the ensuing 25 years of their consequential photographic work. Yet he follows several of his subjects into the late '80s. He strays widely from collaboration--examining issues of regionalism and recounting Australian culture skirmishes--and at moments the book reads like a compilation of previously published texts. His claim to a de-centered art history is undermined by his choice of artists, who, excepting the Poiriers, are anglophone or have shown in Australia. One regrets that Bernd and Hilla Becher only appear in an aside. The Bechers' collaboration predates those Green chose, and their influential work dwarfs many of the oeuvres he considers.

Green tends to be anecdotal rather than analytical when describing the concrete processes of collaborative work, and his writing seldom helps the reader "see" the pieces he discusses. He patronizes Donald Judd's criticism, calling it "hyperpedantic" and "highly moralistic." Yet in his early '60s reviews, Judd had the rare capacity to render precisely what he saw and to elucidate the relation between the making of a work and its meaning. Green could take a lesson.

The author seems more interested in couples, or nuclear families, than in collectives, which makes sense in terms of his "third artist" but tends to misrepresent the full range of collaborative practice. As a rule, collectives are shorter-lived than collaborating couples, but this doesn't reduce their appositeness to Green's study. Nevertheless, Green has the merit of addressing an issue often left aside by critical writing: the manner in which plural authorship opens up potentialities, affecting both art works and the ways we may read them.

The Third Hand begins with Joseph Kosuth's pieces "made around 1970, in relation to one type of artistic collaboration--the delegation of manufacture--because this delegation was crucial to the often-debated integrity of his early work and necessary to his defeat of painting." Although Kosuth involved others in the realization of his schemes, calling his projects "collaborations" is problematic: they are uniquely credited to his name, resemble his contemporaneous work and evidence his singular handling of language. And it's a kangaroo-sized leap to claim that, with his texts anonymously placed in Australian newspapers, Kosuth "had succeeded in producing a work that was not art." Despite Kosuth's extensive use of studio assistants for his large-scale installations, Green says little about employees, a gray area of collaboration. (Interestingly, many of Kosuth's former assistants are now themselves recognized artists.) Issues of delegation of manufacture go way back in Western art history, and dubbing Kosuth a precursor of collaborative art is a stretch.

The Third Hand: Collaboration in Art from Conceptualism to Postmodernism, by Charles Green, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2001; 248 pages, $68.95 hardcover, $24.95 paper.


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