Picture this: you’ve been dragged to an art museum by a relative, employer, or Tinder date who, for whatever reason, opted out of seeing Booksmart like a normal person (he wanted to “get to know you,” apparently. Disgusting!). You are physically uncomfortable and needlessly far from the bar you’ve learned is mere floors above you and your companion. Then, like a dead body dropping from the rafters, a question lobs to your side of the court, one that makes your blood run colder than the Moscow Mule you’re currently forgoing in a feeble attempt at appearing worldly.
“What do you think of this one?”
With a shaft of ice vivisecting your heart, you survey the ground in front of you—since you’ve been scrolling through memes on your phone with abandon for the past forty-five minutes, the actual art in the room comes as something of a shock.
And worse, reader?
It’s on the floor.
But...why? Why couldn’t they just hang it on the wall like regular art? It's not as if its sitting. It's not even leaning. It's, like... lying down. As you cast your eye around the gallery, a horrible realization slowly dawns upon your sweat-flecked brow. Some of the other art?
For Christ's sake... it’s also on the floor.
What monsters did this? Are these sculptures in trouble? And most importantly... how on earth do you respond?
Here at Artspace, we understand how vital it is to avoid a total psychotic break in front of a hot, important, or elderly person, and have thus compiled a list of historically bolstered reasons why some of the art you’ve come across of late might not necessarily, uh, rise to the occasion. (I refuse to apologize for that pun.)
Join us on a journey through six examples of work that has fallen and can’t get up. (I also refuse to apologize for this pun.)
But first! Before we delve into the real nitty gritty, let’s put you on game with a quick theory lesson:
A Little Background for Why Some Art Has to be on the Floor:
Legendary art critic Rosalind Krauss’s 1997 essay “Horizonality” explores the ways in which the orientation of art work uses the force of gravity as an active rather than passive modality. This kind of spatial mapping enacts a relationship not just with the gestalt sculptural body, but with the perceptual apparatus of the viewer, who is assumed to be standing, attentive, and looking downward. Krauss’s “horizonality” also touches on a axis-based methodology of making, like the theatrical drip technique championed by Jackson Pollock. Both perspectives place “horizonality” in opposition to hierarchical structures and serial process. This “resistance” posture, a visual politic of refusal, has found many different permutations throughout the decades. In the ‘60s, the era of “die-ins” and second-wave feminist antagonism, 'art on the floor' referenced organic matter, fluid boundaries, and the poetic reversal of civil disobedience. During the AIDS crisis, 'art on the floor' reflected the vulnerability, tenderness, and aching loss associated with the marginalized bodies of those affected by the illness and subsequent medical negligence espoused by the American government. Today, 'art on the floor' transmits simultaneous narratives of defeat and resilience. In a world defined by precarity, economic upheaval, and abyssal injustice, it makes sense that artists feel... tired. But the presence of artistic production in spite of fatigue lends “art on the floor” its peculiar brand of stolid, stunning strength.
Let's trot out some examples, shall we?
Some Examples of Art that Happens to be on the Floor
What It Looks Like: Oh my god, is that tape? That can’t be tape, can it? Is tape usually that gross?
Why It’s Actually Good: Donovan has found fame with her agglomeration-based installations, wherein she transforms large quantities of mass-produced items like drinking straws or straight pins into impactful sculptural forms. These intricate pieces subvert viewer bias through material exploration, slyly problematizing expectations of aesthetic value and relational architecture. Nebulous is created from artfully woven pieces of “invisible” tape, a play on the fugitive properties of light in the curated space. Simultaneously suggesting and evading corporeality, Nebulous stays true to its title while also questioning the implications of taxonomical definition itself.
“Untitled” Portrait of Ross, 1991
What It Looks Like: Christmas for your dentist.
Why It’s Actually Good: Cuban-born artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres created work that married interventionist economy with beauty to heartbreaking, meditative ends. “Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) is an allegorical representation of the artist’s partner, Ross Laycock, who died from AIDS-related complications in 1991. The installation, which consists of 175 pounds of candy, references Ross’s ideal body weight; viewers are encouraged to take a piece of candy with them, a process that parallels the slow, debilitating course of his sickness. Torres stipulated that the pile should be perpetually replenished, metaphorically granting his partner eternal life in the process.
Black Flag, 2002
What It Looks Like: An atomic bomb went off in your grandmother’s sewing kit.
Why It’s Actually Good: Named for the iconic post-punk band, feminist artist Polly Apfelbaum’s sprawling floor piece “Black Flag” is a formal wonder, a partially improvisational coagulation of thousands of fabric shapes laid piece by piece on the gallery hardwood. By cutting along the contours of dye spilled over synthetic crushed velvet, Apfelbaum creates a blueprint for new, experimental topographies, blurring the lines between drawing, collage, and painting. Her deeply procedural approach to “Black Flag” requires acknowledgement of its malleability; each iteration will necessarily deviate from its former arrangement, inviting the viewer into a bittersweet tension between monumentality and fragility. This tension affords the work its real content, hovering somewhere to the post-punk left of ritual.
What It Looks Like: ...Did the clown from It throw up in here? Is there a janitorial staff we should speak to?
Why It’s Actually Good: This large-scale spill marked the beginning of feminist sculptor Lynda Benglis’ experimentation with liquid rubber latex, effectively heralding the start of “art on the floor” as a viable fusion of painting and sculpture. Determined entirely by location and organic flow, Contraband glistens insidiously with poured DayGlo pigments, an allusion to the toxic oil slicks skimming the bayou water near the artist’s childhood home in Louisiana. By removing her work from the confines of traditional presentation and reducing its raison d’etre to the primary properties of its material antecedent, paint, Benglis both elevated and mocked the hyper-masculine fetishization endemic to the storied genre, drawing further attention to its exclusionary legacy in art spaces while drawing parallels with ecological preservation and the female body.
Descent into Limbo, 1992
What It Looks Like: Um, the portal to hell? That’s gonna be a no from me.
Why It’s Actually Good: While Mr. Kapoor has recently gained some notoriety for patenting the blackest black pigment on the market, Vanta-black (rude), he is best known for large-scale abstract public sculptures that investigate the metaphysical shorthand of perceived space, troubling notions of monolithic color, shape, or form (like that giant bean outside the Art Institute of Chicago!). Descent into Limbo consists of a hole drilled into the floor of a concrete cube. The hole, while only eight feet deep, appears bottomless due to its light-absorbing paint job in the aforementioned Vantablack, a nod to its source material, Christ’s surprisingly little-discussed visit to hell in the days between his crucifixion and resurrection to released damned souls. In a darkly amusing turn of events, a 60-year old man actually fell into the hole and injured himself last year at the Sarralves art museum in Porto, Portugal. This clumsy manifestation of the trenchant, predatory anxiety central to our shared contemporary condition speaks obliquely to the looming threat of international terror and military surveillance.
Glasses on the Ground by... Some Guy, TBH
What It Looks Like: Some guy dropped their glasses on the ground and folks mistook it for art.
Why It’s Actually Good: Psych! That’s exactly what happened! Some teenagers placed a pair of glasses on the floor of the San Francisco Museum of Art, documented the public response to their prank (which was, hysterically, wholly enrapt by this alleged ‘installation'), and took the evidence to Twitter, where it was shared over 40,000 times.
Moral of the story?
Art on the floor works, my friends. Don't hate. Recalibrate.
Hopefully that little romp through art history will help you acclimate to the fact that some art, despite everyone's most valiant efforts, sometimes ends up on the floor.
Still, in case, you're still feeling stuck on how exactly to discuss the aforementioned art on the floor, here are some canned responses that will make you sound alive, awake, alert, and super enthusiastic.
- "Wow, I love the way this piece interacts with the space. It's such a declarative gesture!"
- "The eco-feminist implications of the piece are really making me think about the way I treat my urban neighborhood and immediate community. How do you think that squares with the colonialist legacy of this institution?"
- "...I wouldn't try to step in that, if I were you."
- "Wow, the girl who wrote that 101 piece about 'art on the floor' is so funny and gorgeous; she really deserves seven free Moscow Mules. What's her Venmo?"
Go forth and art, kids. And remember... look where you're walking.