Essays

Introduction: Take It or Leave It

Johanna Burton and Anne Ellegood

Take It or Leave It: Institution, Image, Ideology opts for an unusual curatorial methodology, adopting certain standards of exhibition practice at the same time that it challenges them, arguing that accepted categories, genres, and conventions of telling a narrative through artworks can be approached otherwise. Take It or Leave It is a historical show focusing on a period in the recent past that nonetheless also includes work made much more recently. It resists what Barbara Kruger has called "decadism" in favor of acknowledging that history is fluid, fugitive, and not easily defined, continuously pushing up against the present moment. Moreover, the exhibition does not trace one overarching premise—one school of thought, movement of art production, or generation of artists—but maps instead, as would a Venn diagram, two overlapping impulses commonly held apart.

We originally set out to organize an exhibition about appropriation but found ourselves committed to specific artists—while not to others—who would typically be aligned with the strategy. We had to ask ourselves: "Why Sherrie Levine and not Richard Prince?" "Why Gretchen Bender and not Jeff Koons?" The answer was that, for us, artists like Levine and Bender have deliberately and steadfastly embraced a "critical" practice—work that is, at its core, committed to challenging the dominant culture and creating a space for debate—while those like Prince and Koons did not do so consistently over time, up to and including their most recent work (although individual works by both artists might arguably be described as such).

When compiling our ideal checklist, we realized that many of the artists we were drawn to were associated less with appropriation proper and more with what has come to be known as institutional critique. Indeed, we began to see that artists for whom the appropriative gesture had become a primary tactic shared numerous impulses and convictions with artists considered to operate within the mandates of institutional critique. We began to identify a group of artists for whom, as we saw it, both appropriation and institutional critique were criteria (whether the artists themselves always feel an allegiance to these terms is another matter). Both descriptors, we realized, have been heavily debated, and works associated with them are often held up as case studies that show the capacities but also the limitations of criticality in contemporary art. Appropriation—cursorily defined as the decontextualization and recontextualization of existing cultural material—was first understood to radically lift the veil of images and idioms, allowing viewers to recognize their own place in a constructed representational field. When understood primarily as a formal operation, however, appropriation could be argued to work as much toward obfuscation as toward revelation. Indeed, and as is evidenced hyperbolically by the saturation of our environment with media today, images "liberated" from their original settings can also instill cultural amnesia, with so many signs unmoored from context, floating free. To that end, while appropriation has arguably become in some sense merely stylistic within the larger culture as well as in artistic practices, we wanted to evaluate the period in which it held enormous radical potential and to argue that it is far from depleted as a strategy today.

Likewise, "institutional critique" has come to be identified almost exclusively with those artists who specifically take up the systems, protocols, hierarchies, and roles of the constellation of institutions that constitute the art world: museums of every ilk, galleries, auction houses, artists' studios, the art market, art criticism, and even art pedagogy. While the artists allied with this understanding of institutional critique were certainly central to our thinking, we recognized that those dedicated to appropriation as a strategy—to borrowing forms and images in order to reveal how they operate within our culture—were making similar calls for changes to the structures and definitions of art. Moreover, all the artists whose work compelled us were pointing to inextricable links between art institutions and the various other organizational bodies that make up our society. To separate the art institution from other aspects of our daily experience—be it education or medicine, marriage or war, parenting or advertising—would be to reinscribe arbitrary and false divisions between art and its contexts, between our aesthetic lives and our everyday lives.

Thus we determined that one of the primary goals of Take It or Leave It would be to emphasize this expanded (even unwieldy) notion of institutional critique and to explore a broader range of critical practices, all of which can be said to plumb in some way variants of the "institution." To include the work of some artists who have not generally been associated with institutional critique per se through its lens is to insist that their work be evaluated not only for its profound commitment to criticality and to bringing largely suppressed (or repressed) aspects of our society into public view but also for the ways in which it then insists that the institutions of art contend with these matters. How can we not consider the vitriol and dark humor of artists like Mike Kelley, Paul McCarthy, Sue Williams, and David Wojnarowicz as a type of institutional critique? What other descriptors would better suit their genuinely transgressive work? While expanding the purview of institutional critique to accommodate such practices, we are not suggesting that every pointedly political work should be understood as such. The works included in the show are, we believe, actively and visibly engaged with considering the contours of the institution, which—as is made clear by the term's etymological links to concepts of disposition, arrangement, instruction, and education—both produces and is produced by social structures.1

It should be noted that there are important omissions from the show. Group Material, for instance, occupies a significant place within the context that we circumscribe. In conversations with the extant members, however, it became clear that "re-creating" the group's site- and time-specific work ran counter to its efficacy and impulse. The artist Gregg Bordowitz is also crucial to this discussion, but his work does not appear in the gallery setting because of the fundamental challenges posed by his practice to the conventional framing of art; therefore, his practice is foregrounded both in the public programs presented in conjunction with the exhibition and in the catalogue accompanying it. David Hammons, for his part, opted not to participate, and we chose not to borrow around an artist or to represent him in a context that he did not identify with. Other artists could easily have been included, and we anticipate questions around selection, cognizant that our list is driven not only by historical but also by subjective criteria. Our aim was not an inclusive survey of a period, and our presentation is not meant to be the final word; it is instead meant to frame a debate, to ask provocative, open-ended questions.

Take It or Leave It begins its examination of the realm of institutional critique not with the figures most commonly identified as the primary progenitors of this genre: Michael Asher, Marcel Broodthaers, Daniel Buren, and Hans Haacke. Their contributions to institutional critique are undeniably vital, as evidenced by the amount of critical analysis of the topic already in circulation. Indeed, it was the existing scholarship on this group of artists that, in part, influenced our decision not to root our analysis within this (notably all-male) lineage and to begin instead with an equally influential and relevant starting point that has nevertheless been insufficiently explored in the critical and art historical discourse around institutional critique: feminism. To this end, we selected three significant women artists of a slightly earlier generation than the rest of the artists in the exhibition—they began showing their work in the 1960s—who have been deeply influential to younger artists and have radically altered the landscape of artistic practice in terms of how both appropriation and the systematic deconstruction of our culture's institutions can be foregrounded. These artists—Mary Kelly, Adrian Piper, and Martha Rosler—have arguably been similarly influential among later artists who took up institutional critique, but they have been considered within this context less frequently than those male artists who are generally discussed as foundational. Take It or Leave It does not seek to dismiss the vital role that works by these male artists have played—certainly, most if not all artists included in this show have proclaimed at one time or another their indebtedness to figures like Haacke and Asher—but rather to suggest that there is more than one avenue of influence to be examined when investigating any history of art.

Foreground, from left to right: Jimmie Durham, "Bedia's Stirring Wheel," 1985, Zoe Leonard, "Survey," 2012, Jimmie Durham, "Coyote/Trickster," 1991, and Cady Noland, "Frame Device," 1989; left wall, from left to right: Sherrie Levine, "After Edward Curtis: 1–5," 2005, and John Miller, "Untitled," 1986; rear wall: Haim Steinbach, "Backyard Story," 1997; right wall, from left to right: Sue Williams, "Spiritual America," 1992, and John Miller, "Untitled," 1990. Installation view at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles
Foreground, from left to right: Jimmie Durham, Bedia's Stirring Wheel, 1985, Zoe Leonard, Survey, 2012, Jimmie Durham, Coyote/Trickster, 1991, and Cady Noland, Frame Device, 1989; left wall, from left to right: Sherrie Levine, After Edward Curtis: 1–5, 2005, and John Miller, Untitled, 1986; rear wall: Haim Steinbach, Backyard Story, 1997; right wall, from left to right: Sue Williams, Spiritual America, 1992, and John Miller, Untitled, 1990. Installation view at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles

In her 2005 essay "From the Critique of Institutions to an Institution of Critique," Andrea Fraser argued for the continued relevance of strategies of institutional critique, noting that our conception of the institution must necessarily be broadened, understood to be constituted within a wider social field. Fraser takes issue with the notion that the sole focus of institutional critique has been the established institutions of art, as well as the idea that the artist is antagonistic to those institutions (she argues for a much more complex ambivalence). Indeed, when she asks, "What are institutional critique's urgent stakes in the present?" she homes in on the very question that has driven much of the curatorial impulse of Take It or Leave It and, further, that led to our decision to present work made over the course of an artist's career, including recent work, whenever possible.2

The exhibition also resists what Hal Foster has described as historicism's totalizing of time and adherence to continuity—its tendency toward a narrative of "great men and masterworks"3—to point to sustained practices by artists over time that are in some sense cumulative, exploring art within its cultural context and remaining committed through time to a set of strategies and operations, continuing all the while to pose questions about the meaning and the potential of art. Daniel Buren, an early practitioner of the critique of institutions, acknowledged that artists have long accepted the exhibition format, and the museum, as "self-evident." Since the advent of public museums during the nineteenth century, these formats have remained in place with few alternatives. He writes: "We can once again declare that the Museum makes its 'mark,' imposes its 'frame' (physical and moral) on everything that is exhibited in it, in a deep and indelible way. It does this all the more easily since everything that the Museum shows is only considered and produced in view of being set in it."4 Buren's declaration that the museum is not a priori the "natural" place for art but instead a historical entity, what he calls "a frame" socially constructed for a specific purpose and to engender specific meanings, is underscored in the works of artists of later generations. Of course, his criticisms of the museum are well known—at one point he called it an "asylum"—yet he recognized that the museum had become the sacrosanct site for art, a site he wished not to tear down but to push forward, if by exerting internal pressure. What he called for was work taking into account this context rather than masquerading as self-sufficient and self-referential, arguing that "art for art's sake" serves only to perpetuate an idealistic illusion of art as eternal and apolitical.

In the 1960s Buren, along with Hans Haacke and Michael Asher most notably, expanded the institutions under consideration to include a constellation of other components of the art world, from the artist's studio to the corporate sponsorship that helps pay for the mounting of an exhibition. Artists like Fraser, Rosler, and others have expanded this circle even further to include the sites of production, distribution, and reception of art, such as the corporate office and the collector's home; the studio and the fabricator's atelier; sites of art discourse like art magazines, catalogues, symposia, and artists' talks; and sites of pedagogy, including studio art, art history, and curatorial studies programs. As if in reply to Buren, Fraser argues that artists, through their critiques of the limitations and biases of institutions, have been the driving force behind the museum's expanded purview, its progress (however insufficient) toward showing more women artists, artists of color, and gay artists, for example, and toward supporting works in all mediums. We witness artists' direct participation in the goal of increasing diversity in museums in the work of many in Take It or Leave It, including Nayland Blake, Jimmie Durham, Robert Gober, Renée Green, Barbara Kruger, Louise Lawler, Zoe Leonard, Glenn Ligon, Sue Williams, Fred Wilson, and of course the early feminists. Kelly, Piper, and Rosler played a large and crucial role in bringing gender, race, and sexuality into discussions about the fundamental nature of art and its social function. Feminism in the art world resulted in a much larger presence for women artists in the 1970s and 1980s, and the "Pictures" generation—those who arrived on the New York City art scene in the late 1970s (many from California Institute of the Arts or Buffalo State College) and experimented radically with using borrowed images—may be the first group of artists associated with a particular movement in which there are as many (or more) high-profile women as there are men. Indeed, where historically there has been room for only the rare "extraordinary woman," the late 1970s saw an art context dominated by women, many of whom made work designed to draw attention to, transform, and in some cases upend the canon. Felix Gonzalez-Torres summarized the overarching position of the works presented in Take It or Leave It when he said, "aesthetics are politics."5 Art reflects social and cultural values. It is inevitably inflected with social ideology and, moreover, can be a site where ideology is deconstructed and evaluated. Art can be a site that motivates change.

Another important basis for Take It or Leave It's methodology of tracing critical impulses over time stems from our desire to mine unexpected parallels between artists. Just as we believed that it was important to mark a connection between early feminist practices in the United States and the subsequent utilization of appropriation and institutional critique by later generations of artists, the exhibition also seeks to call attention to what we might call "horizontal genealogies," in which the artists look to their peers and find influence, identify prompts asking for response, and see their work as being part of an actively discursive community of artists and thinkers. However limiting, or easily misunderstood, terms like appropriation and institutional critique may be, Take It or Leave It seeks to revive the debates they have fostered in order, on the one hand, to offer more concise, albeit hopefully more nuanced, definitions of these terms and also, on the other hand, to try to keep them alive in the present as critical, productive terms. To conclude by reiterating our goal, the exhibition is historical in the traditional sense of delving deeply into a particular period. And yet by choosing to include recent work as well, we are arguing not only for how the artists featured here have maintained their commitment to these modes of working but also for how these types of practices continue to be generative and highly relevant today. Take It or Leave It looks backward insofar as it aims to look forward. At its most speculative, the exhibition asks us to imagine the new forms that appropriation and institutional critique have taken today and might take in the future, and we hope it instills a desire for critique to remain a cornerstone of American art.


  • Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd ed., s.v. “institution.”
  • Andrea Fraser, “From the Critique of Institutions to an Institution of Critique,” Artforum 44 (September 2005): 278.
  • Hal Foster, “Re: Post,” in Art after Modernism: Rethinking Representation, ed. Brian Wallis (New York: New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1984), 191.
  • Daniel Buren, “The Function of the Museum,” in Theories of Contemporary Art, ed. Richard Hertz (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1985), 190.
  • Felix Gonzalez-Torres, in Robert Storr, “Interview with Felix Gonzalez-Torres,” Art Press (January 1995): 22–24, http://www.queerculturalcenter.org/Pages/FelixGT/FelixInterv.html
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Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd ed., s.v. “institution.”

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Andrea Fraser, “From the Critique of Institutions to an Institution of Critique,” Artforum 44 (September 2005): 278.

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Hal Foster, “Re: Post,” in Art after Modernism: Rethinking Representation, ed. Brian Wallis (New York: New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1984), 191.

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Daniel Buren, “The Function of the Museum,” in Theories of Contemporary Art, ed. Richard Hertz (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1985), 190.

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Felix Gonzalez-Torres, in Robert Storr, “Interview with Felix Gonzalez-Torres,” Art Press (January 1995): 22–24, http://www.queerculturalcenter.org/Pages/FelixGT/FelixInterv.html

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Burton, Johanna, and Anne Ellegood. "Introduction: Take It or Leave It." Take It or Leave It: Institution, Image, Ideology Digital Archive. Los Angeles: Hammer Museum, 2017. https://​hammer.ucla.edu/​take-it-or-leave-it/​essays/​introduction-take-it-or-leave-it/​.