Did Gustave Flaubert really say, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi”? So it’s said, though I’ve never been able to track down the source. Still, Tennessee Williams must have believed it, to some degree at least, since he took over the formulation himself: “Blanche DuBois, c’est moi.” But then that, too, is one of those untraceable quotations. Maybe this kind of identification between author and character is just a sort of urban legend. Or maybe, on the contrary, it’s so inevitable that it ought to go without saying: An artist can’t create anything without putting something of him- or herself into it.
Not so much the imagery but the title of Daniel Joseph Martinez’s recent exhibition at the Roberts & Tilton gallery (newly renamed Roberts Projects) in Culver City, California, led me to wonder about that sense of identification between a male artist and his female subject that Flaubert and Williams are supposed to exemplify—although in the case of Martinez, the subject is not fictional but a historical personage. The exhibition was called “I am Ulrike Meinhof or (someone once told me time is a flat circle).” Leaving aside for a moment the show’s more obviously riddling subtitle, what could Martinez mean by his “Ulrike Meinhof, c’est moi”? It would be wise not to answer too quickly: Martinez has a history of hanging his work on blunt first-person statements that get more ambiguous the closer you look at them. One of them has kept me pondering for almost 25 years.
Like a lot of people on the East Coast, I had my first encounter with Martinez’s work at the 1993 Whitney Biennial. His contribution included a piece that had another of what I now realize are his typically cumbersome (and partly self-contradictory) titles: Museum Tags: Second Movement (Overture); or, Overture Con Claque (Overture With Hired Audience Members). This was an example of what had been dubbed “institutional critique,” though artists had been doing things that could be plausibly categorized as such since at least the late 1960s—art that takes the operations of the art world, including aspects that are generally overlooked or taken for granted, not just as subject matter but as raw material. For example, Michael Asher, one of Martinez’s teachers at CalArts and generally counted among the pioneers of this kind of work, contributed to a later Whitney Biennial, that of 2010, by playing with the museum’s working hours, proposing that it be kept open 24 hours a day for a week. (Pleading budgetary constraints, the museum agreed to do it for three days rather than seven.)
Martinez’s intervention in 1993 was a little more confrontational, albeit easier to put into practice, than his erstwhile teacher’s 17 years later. He commandeered those little tags you’re supposed to wear in the museum to show you’ve paid your admission; but instead of bearing the museum’s name or logo, some were printed with the legend i can’t imagine ever wanting to be white, while the rest bore fragments of that sentence: i can’t; imagine; ever wanting; to be; white. It was hard not to be taken aback by the statement. Was it somehow anti-white? Or just—as one critic thought—one of those not-uncommon “exercises in self-gratification and self-promotion ostensibly designed to push social buttons”?