Earlier this fall, Ann Temkin, the chief curator at the Museum of Modern Art’s department of painting and sculpture, was working on the checklist for the upcoming Gabriel Orozco retrospective (opening Dec. 13) when it occurred to her that one of the pieces she wanted to include in the exhibition might no longer exist.
The work in question was Yogurt Caps, which Mr. Orozco, the Mexican conceptual artist, had installed at the Marian Goodman Gallery in 1994 as part of his first solo show in the United States. The installation was a provocative one, consisting as it did of nothing more than four clear, blue-rimmed Dannon lids, each attached to one of four walls of an otherwise empty room in the gallery.
“We had a little panic, my colleague Paulina Pobocha and I, because suddenly we had this flash, like maybe they don’t have those yogurt caps at Marian Goodman’s anymore,” Ms. Temkin said at a MoMA press breakfast earlier this fall. She added later: “I was curious if they had just been thrown out at the end of the exhibition.”
The idea of it was upsetting, as Ms. Temkin really, really wanted Yogurt Caps in her show. Though the piece “obviously involved no craft on the part of the artist, no hours of apparent labor, and no decisions that would have seemingly been considered aesthetic choices,” the curator said, it was nevertheless an important work: one that got people to contemplate their relationship to the gallery walls and the nature of empty space. “It was an astoundingly audacious move, to just nail those yogurt lids onto the four walls of the main gallery and call it a show,” Ms. Temkin said. “In many cases people walked into the exhibition and didn’t even know that anything was there at all!”
Critics at the time were divided: a review in Art in America called the show “yet another tedious effort to wed neo-conceptualism to commodity critique”; Frieze went with “disarming articulation of emptiness.” As Ms. Temkin put it: “There was some appreciative commentary, but I’m sure on a head-count basis there was a lot more head-scratching than ooh-ing and aah-ing.”
The panic over the yogurt caps was swiftly allayed when Ms. Pobocha, the MoMA curatorial assistant who is working on the show with Ms. Temkin, called the gallery director and confirmed that the lids were indeed safe and sound and in their possession.
Or, well, they basically were.
The truth was that the original set of lids—the four that were used in the Marian Goodman show—were sold long ago to a private collector. What the gallery had on hand instead was a set of exhibition copies—decoy lids, you might say—that Mr. Orozco had purchased and put into storage just in case a need for them ever arose.
As discussed in last week’s Observer, the use of exhibition copies in museums has lately been the subject of energetic debate among curators, conservators, art historians and others in the art world. A colloquium on this subject was held at the Tate Modern in 2007, and more recently, a committee devoted to rigorously exploring it was formed at the Whitney Museum of American Art. The central questions under discussion concern the circumstances under which it is ethically and legally acceptable to create exhibition copies; the proper way to label them when they are displayed before the public; and the art-historical ramifications of their use for concepts like authenticity and originality.
In interviews, neither Ms. Temkin nor Ms. Pobocha seemed terribly concerned about walking into that mess of uncertainties.
“I don’t remember if we ever thought they were the originals or not, or if that question ever came up,” said Ms. Pobocha last month. “It was never really talked about in [those] terms.”
Which is to say, if you’ve seen one blue Dannon yogurt lid, you’ve seen ’em all! What does it matter if those in the MoMA show aren’t the same ones that Mr. Orozco used when he first mounted the piece 15 years ago?
“The importance of the work, I think, lies in the gesture more than it does in the actual artifact,” Ms. Pobocha said.
Goodman Gallery director Andrew Richards, who has worked with Mr. Orozco for many years, agreed. “It’s not so much the object that matters in this instance—it’s the idea.”
Fair enough! Except that the principal motivation behind using the exhibition copies instead of the originals, at least according to Mr. Richards and Ms. Pobocha, is that because the lids are so small and delicate, they could get damaged or even stolen in the course of the exhibition.
“You can’t just lift a painting off the wall and walk out of the museum with it. These are just much more fragile in that sense,” Ms. Pobocha said. “I’m not saying anyone’s going to steal them, but they could, if they wanted to. Also, if you think about how crowded MoMA gets on Friday nights, one of them could easily just be knocked off the wall and stepped on.”
As far as the regular viewing public is concerned, in other words, all yogurt lids are the same. But when it comes to the collector who paid good money for the original set, distinctions must be made. Such are the contradictions one must tolerate when monetizing conceptual art.
Most of the objects in the MoMA show will be originals. Ms. Pobocha said one other exhibition copy might be used: an empty shoebox that was first shown in Venice more than a decade ago.
“It could potentially get kicked around,” she said.