Off the Shelf: Haim Steinbach Returns

The Eighties Neo-Geo star is back with a new gallery and, maybe, a new audience

Just two months earlier he had had a successful two-artist show with Jay Gorney, an ascendant East Village dealer who had recently opened his own space, and two months before that he had presented some of his earlier triangular shelves at the Cable Gallery, run by Clarissa Dalrymple (now an independent curator) and Nicole Klagsbrun (who now runs an eponymous gallery in Chelsea). “It was just moving too fast,” Mr. Steinbach continued.

Mr. Steinbach negotiated to show jointly with Sonnabend and Jay Gorney, a rare partnership afforded only the most desired artists, since such agreements mean that the galleries have to divide their take on the sale of a work, usually half of the sale price. “I remember going to his studio and saying, ‘Where do I sign up?’” Mr. Gorney, now a director at the Mitchell-Innes & Nash gallery, told The Observer. “They were so succinct and perfect and economical. They are extraordinary works of art.”

Almost immediately, Mr. Steinbach was lumped in with the dubiously named “Neo-Geo” movement, and his name was mentioned frequently alongside those of Jeff Koons, Ashley Bickerton and Peter Halley. “Some of the new work … comments—ironically and not—on the rampant consumerization of American life,” New York Times art critic Grace Glueck wrote in a 1987 article on Neo-Geo that placed Mr. Koons and Mr. Steinbach side by side.

“I didn’t have a huge success, but I found my economical independence,” Mr. Steinbach said of his emergence in the mid-’80s. “I could have assistants and cover my expenses, but I hardly made any extra money beyond that.”

And yet, it was the best he would do—at least for a while. In the early 1990s, the economy slipped into recession and the art market collapsed. “There was a big backlash beginning against the ’80s, and I think my work was a candidate to be the best victim of that backlash,” Mr. Steinbach said. “You can always go, ‘This bullshit artist is putting objects on shelves.’ It’s not as easy to say that about a framed painting. It became very hard to make a living.”

Even in today’s pluralistic and permissive contemporary art world, it would be hard to understate just how radical Mr. Steinbach’s practice is. Like many artists, he has taken Marcel Duchamp and his famous readymades—common objects like a urinal and a snow shovel that the artist transformed into sculptures through his signature—as his inspiration. But few artists have followed Duchamp’s logic as completely and wholeheartedly as Mr. Steinbach. (Mr. Koons, by contrast, typically shifts the scale or medium of the objects he appropriates, enlarging his balloon dog to epic proportions and rendering it in immaculate steel.)

How, The Observer wondered, does Mr. Steinbach choose his objects and their arrangements?

“The most important thing is seeing things every day,” he explained. “You see something and then you say, ‘Stop. Look.’”

This recently happened during a visit to a Target store in San Diego.

“I was looking at the shelves,” said Mr. Steinbach, “and on a lower shelf there were these Buddha sculptures, and next to them were these frogs. It looked like a ceramic container, but when you lifted the head, it went, ‘Ribbit, ribbit.’ It was actually a paper basket, like for a bathroom. I was interested, but at the same time, I thought, ‘You know, this is just kind of awful.’ Then I thought, ‘Why is it awful? Someone would love it. It’s actually beautiful.’”