I came across William Powhida’s work in Art Lies No. 59/Fall 2008. His series of text paintings critiques the power structures of art institutions and their privileged position as arbiters of aesthetic value in the market, while mocking his own desire to be part of that system. Powhida also makes fun of the games and sometimes grandiose notions inherent in the drive toward art world fame. In one of those works, Conditional Painting, he sets forth the criteria which must be met before his painting may be deemed a work of art. He is playing on the same conceptual turf that Robert Morris occupied with Document (1963), a legally notarized letter in which he negated – by mere declaration – all aesthetic value of Litanies, a work he had completed for Philip Johnson and for which he had not yet been paid.
Text from the painting
Dear Museum Types,
This is not a work of art. While it may look like a painting, I assure you it is not. This is a conditional painting that will remain incomplete until certain conditions are met. If these conditions, which I shall propose here, are indeed fulfilled then this will be more than ART. It will be a MAJOR work of staggering implications. If they aren’t met, I retain the right to deny that the object is complete.
The resolution of this painting is contingent on my inclusion in (A) a major museum show, (B) the Venice Bienniale, (C) Documenta, or (D) OK the Whitney Bienniale.* Once I am selected to be in a PRESTIGIOUS institution then this painting will be ‘finished’…by a FAMOUS artist, not merely an art fair sellout. Becoming an institutionally recognized artist will make ALL of my work valuable, but will ONLY complete this painting.
While the recognition is important it doesn’t guarantee continued success. What WILL be remembered is the conditional painting. It is an HISTORIC act that will finally elevate the extremely important role of the curator to producer of meaning. Just imagine the looks of stunned AWE on the faces of museum/biennial/bienniale/Documenta visitors realizing the implications of the PRESENCE of the COMPLETED work of art. It is a beautiful thought.
The only missing party here is a collector (museum) brave enough to purchase an incomplete, conditional painting. Again, I deny that this is ‘art’ until the above conditions are met. The thoughtful person or institution might consider the POTENTIAL value, cultural or otherwise, of this rad BRILLIANT idea. This isn’t my concern, money or recognition. NO, my concern is purely about FINISHING my art. I will wait until I am DEAD which will really increase the value of the object. Please, before everything comes crashing down, help me. I must finish this one.
* The biennial cannot suck.
** This doesn’t indicate a finished work. It is a facsimile of a signature. I will leave an authentication with my estate.
From the Museum of Modern Art Website
Each of the twenty–seven keys in Litanies is inscribed with a word from a text by artist Marcel Duchamp (American, born France. 1887–1968), whose emphasis on the ideas presented by a work of art rather than its aesthetic appearance informed much Conceptual art of the 1960s. When Litanies was purchased by architect Philip Johnson, Morris did not receive payment in a timely fashion. He createdDocument in response. The typed and notarized text serves to negate the “aesthetic quality and content of the original work,” which is presented as “Exhibit A” in frontal and profile views. Johnson then purchased Document, thereby accepting the loss of the value of his first acquisition.
Robert Morris: Document. 1963. Typed and notarized statement on paper and sheet of lead mounted in imitation leather mat, 17 5/8 x 23 3/4″ (44.8 x 60.4 cm). Gift of Philip Johnson. © 2008 Robert Morris / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.