At MoMA, Andrea Fraser on a Life Spent Addressing ‘Factories of Edification and of Taste’

'I thought, if I’m going to have to sell it, I might as well <em>really sell it</em>.'

“When I moved to New York at 16, as Sabine mentioned, I encountered the great museums of New York—the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan, the Whitney, the Guggenheim,” the artist Andrea Fraser told a crowd at MoMA last night. “I found them absolutely terrifying. I found them incredibly intimidating, with their overwhelming legitimacy, their overwhelming authority.”

Clad in a black pantsuit, Ms. Fraser, who will participate in the 2012 Whitney Biennial in March, was standing at a podium in one of the museum’s basement theaters, and she had just been introduced by the museum’s media and performance curator, Sabine Breitwieser. There was a sold-out crowd to hear her lecture about her work inside one of the institutions she has spent her career prodding and critiquing with a verve matched by very few artists.

First up was a video clip from her 1989 tour of the Philadelphia Museum, Museum Highlights, in which she gives a grandiose, energetic tour of the museum, praising its artwork in bombastic terms and quoting from the a museum publication from 1922: “We have come to understand that, to rob people of things of the spirit and to supply them with higher wages as a substitute is not good policy, good economics, or good patriotism.”

Startlingly, in person, more than two decades later, Ms. Fraser is not so different from that vigorous tour guide—that exponent of what she called “class drag.” She speaks in confident, measured sentences, almost never hesitating, a corporate presenter par excellence.

Visiting Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao about a decade ago, she told the crowd, she picked up an audio guide. “I started doubling over laughing,” she said. Later, she returned with a secret cameraman and shot a film, Little Frank and His Carp. She stars in a short lime-green dress, wandering the museum’s soaring atrium, audio guide to her ear.

“In the great museums of previous ages, rooms are linked from one to another, and you must visit them all, one after another,” a haughty male voice intones over the video. “Sometimes it can feel as if there is no escape.” Not so at the airy Guggenheim Bilbao, he explains. The space is also filled with curving stone blocks. “Go right up to it,” he says, as the artist follows his orders. “Rub your hand over them. … Feel how smooth it is.” She lifts her dress, begins stroking herself. A small audience of men watches her from behind. And then the film ends. She told the crowd at MoMA, “The museum here is telling you… we’re not like those museums that institutional critics have attacked as factories of edification and of taste, as prisons of culture, and so forth. … No. This museum is a free space.”

Around the time she made the film, her museum commissions had dwindled, and she said that she realized she was going to need to work with the market again, where the art world’s attention was focused. Her voice broke and she appeared to choke up. “It felt like, for me, that I was betraying something that I stood for during much of the 1990s—developing an alternative to the market model and the commodity form. And then that emotion disappeared and she immediately became confident. “I thought, if I’m going to have to sell it, I might as well really sell it.”

This led to what is undoubtedly her most infamous piece, Untitled (2003), a video in which she has sex with in a hotel room with a collector, who as it happened, had purchased Little Frank. Her New York gallerist, Friedrich Petzel, arranged the deal. The work is an edition of five, and the first one was given to the collector. “There were four more to sell, and when it came to selling those I had my breakdown with this piece,” she said.

Ms. Fraser explained that she realized at the time, because of the state of her prices, that if she sold the works, others would potentially be able to make more money on the video in the future. She began choking up again, about to break into tears. The room was silent. “That price that was put on this piece was a price stamped on my head or my ass.”

She continued, and the emotion vanished. “In the reception of the piece in the press there was this pornographic, this real prurient interest”—her voice rose—“to know what the collector paid, and I decided not to release that information. I’m able to admit now that decision had a lot to do with shame… knowing that however outrageous the numbers that were circulating in association with the piece might seem to none-art audiences, I knew very well that the painter having the next show at my gallery was selling works for much, much, much more than that.”

Though Ms. Fraser said she considered retiring after Untitled, she has continued making work, though only infrequently. For her 2009 show at Petzel, she exhibited Projection (2008), videos in which she reenacts herself in therapy, the script transcribed from videotapes of her sessions. She plays both doctor and patient, in separate videos. Introducing a portion of the latter she offered, “It’s only me playing myself.”

In the question section, no one asked Ms. Fraser about her apparent discomposure, though one woman in the audience thanked her for sharing her feelings about esteem being tied to prices. “You left that hotel room, and you could not fuck yourself into a Richard Phillips painting,” the woman said. “You couldn’t make something that was ever going to have that kind of value, and yet you were playing in that arena.”

“With profound ambivalence,” Ms. Fraser cut in.

At the end of the evening, Ms. Breitweiser thanked everyone for coming and turned to Ms. Fraser. “Sometimes we’re not sure if you’re performing, or if it’s you,” she said warmly. “But we’ll keep it open.”

The escalators to the first floor were undergoing renovations, so, to exit, the audience had to walk through MoMA’s basement hallways to its elevators—a rare, perfectly timed peek behind the scenes of the institution. On the elevator there was an advertisement to become  a member of the museum. “Belong to something uplifting,” it read.

At MoMA, Andrea Fraser on a Life Spent Addressing ‘Factories of Edification and of Taste’