In 1965, the artist Haim Steinbach, then 21, took a hiatus from his studies at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute and went to Paris for a year. One day, walking through the city, he saw something strange.
“There was a big window, and there was art—well, it didn’t look like art, but there were these paintings, of a washing machine and other products,” Mr. Steinbach, now 67, told The Observer. “I was interested in Surrealism and the Cubists. An illustration of a washing machine? That’s bullshit.”
Mr. Steinbach had, as it turned out, happened upon the gallery of Ileana Sonnabend, the ex-wife of eminent New York dealer Leo Castelli, and was looking at work by Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. First he was angry. Then he was transfixed. “It presented the obvious,” he said, “and yet it wasn’t obvious at all.”
The same could be said of Mr. Steinbach’s audacious work, which often comprises nothing more than found objects—lava lamps, dog chew toys, basketball sneakers, mop buckets, Froot Loops boxes, rocks, plastic busts of Spider-Man, coffee mugs—sitting on triangular shelves or in boxes.
“It’s about how objects can talk to each other,” Mr. Steinbach explained. “How one can make something happen that’s bigger than the things sitting next to each other.” At their best, his arrangements ooze feeling. They can look sinister or comforting, disorienting or familiar. His pieces may be the perfect symbols of a society rife with rampant consumerism. But they may also achieve more than simple critique, teasing uncanny qualities out of quotidian objects.
And his career tells a story well-suited to our times: one of big dreams stymied, at least temporarily, by a major recession.
Mr. Steinbach was sitting in the living room of his Greenpoint studio, about a block from the East River, when we spoke last week. He was wearing a short-sleeve shirt, blue shorts, angular tortoise-shell glasses and black slip-on shoes, and he looked relaxed. Work was almost complete on the pieces for his show at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, which opens Sept. 8. It is his first show there since joining the gallery last year, and his first show in New York since 2007.
“I was being pursued pretty aggressively by some people,” Mr. Steinbach said quickly, with a faint Israeli accent. (His parents fled Nazi Germany for the Land of Israel, where he was born, and then left for the U.S. when he was 13.) “Tanya came and we did a studio visit,” he said. “She understood my work. She has watched it for a long time.”
For the past 25 years, Mr. Steinbach has shown in New York with—perhaps aptly—the Sonnabend Gallery, which opened on the Upper East Side in 1970 and is now representing him with Bonakdar. “Knock, knock, Ileana Sonnabend wants to come in my studio,” Mr. Steinbach said, recalling the day in March 1986, when the well-respected gallerist, who died in 2007, paid a visit to his Greenpoint space. “She bought a piece right off the wall.”
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.’”
He paused for a minute, and then the pitch of his voice rose. “And then I realized it has the most perfect form, and someone designed it, and it’s not that awful, and it’s funny. It has big eyes. They were $40 each, and I decided, I’m going to buy two. I don’t know if I’ll ever use them. I’m going to have more inventory, more stuff to store, and it could sit there for years and I may never use it. But some compulsion made me get it.”
In deciding on the particular pairings of his objects, he said that he asks himself, “How do I feel about it? Why do I feel what I feel about it? Should I feel something else about it? Who would love it? Who would hate it? You go back and forth. You don’t know how it’s going to fall.”
The show at Tanya Bonakdar comes about just as interest in Mr. Steinbach’s work is informing many of today’s most talked-about young artists. “The influence is profound and too often not acknowledged,” the art critic Bruce Hainley told The Observer in an e-mail, citing sculptors like Rachel Harrison and arrangers of found objects like Darren Bader. (New York Times critic Roberta Smith recently named Mr. Steinbach an influence on Josephine Meckseper, and his work has appeared over the years juxtaposed with a younger generation, in group shows like 1999’s “Free Coke” at New York’s Greene Naftali Gallery, where he appeared alongside Ms. Meckseper, Gareth James, Ricci Albenda and Adam McEwen.)
For Mr. Hainley, Mr. Steinbach’s work is also about far more than commodities: “Haim Steinbach always, crucially, scrambles how an object is ever made personal, and there is a gorgeous but exacting syntax to everything on any of his shelves,” he said.
“I drooled a lot,” Darren Bader, the artist, age 33, told the The Observer, recounting his reaction to Mr. Steinbach’s last show at Sonnabend, in 2007. “He remains somehow very conscious of the value of objects outside of their aesthetic qualities and the hindrances of aesthetic approaches, or that charade.”
How will Mr. Steinbach’s work look at a gallery associated less with artists of his generation and more with younger artists like Olafur Eliasson, Sarah Sze and Erneso Neto? He isn’t the only artist making such a move—84-year-old painter Alex Katz switched in the spring from the Pace Gallery, his longtime dealer, to younger downtown impresario Gavin Brown, whose stable is much younger than Pace’s, and Ashley Bickerton, 52, departed Sonnabend for Lehmann Maupin a few years ago.
Pressed about why he had picked Ms. Bonakdar over his other suitors, Mr. Steinbach explained, “You can have a major dealer wanting to work with you, and they can have major artists you want to be in company with, but you need to stop and think: this dealer may not really be connecting with your work.” He paused. “They just see you as an object among objects.”
Discussing his latest works, Mr. Steinbach presents an approach to the production and interpretation of his art that could come across as blasé, but instead seems to suggest a peculiar openness and generosity. “It could be loved, it could be criticized, it could be mocked, it could be embraced,” he said, describing the potential reactions to his pairings. It sounded as if he would be equally pleased with each reaction.
Clarification: This article has been updated to reflect that Sonnabend Gallery is continuing to represent Haim Steinbach, in conjunction with Tanya Bonakdar Gallery.