On a recent sunny Saturday afternoon, a group of young volunteers set up a white tent in front of the entrance to the Museum of Modern Art and began taking donations. “No food, no toxic waste,” said one of them, a woman. “And no weapons.”
Stuffed into cardboard boxes, the day’s haul included a bubble-wrapped acoustic guitar; various pieces of stereo equipment; books, including a guide to making paper airplanes; and a My Little Pony Ponyville Teapot Palace—not bad, considering this was only the third of six public drop-offs (over three weekends) for artist Martha Rosler’s “Meta-Monumental Garage Sale,” an artwork-cum-actual garage sale that will take place in the museum’s atrium for two weeks in November. In the meantime, Ms. Rosler and Sabine Breitwieser, MoMA’s chief curator of media and performance, have been taking donations from museum staff and trustees. “We got a porcelain artichoke,” said Ms. Breitwieser.
Think you’ll get that gem for a steal? You might, but it depends on your bargaining skills. You’ll have to contend with Ms. Rosler, who will be there every day personally selling off the items, and fighting for every penny. Not for herself—as with her past garage sales, all proceeds will go to a local charity, which in MoMA’s case has not yet been finalized.
“We got there right away,” Sarah Aibel, curator of the Sender Collection, told The Observer about a similar garage sale Ms. Rosler conducted at Basel, Switzerland’s Museum of Cultural History in June 2010 as part of the annual Art Basel fair. “Which is how I ended up getting the most coveted thing: a fantastic drawing of a tooth.”
Like many items, it was irrationally priced—in this case somewhat expensive at 100 Swiss francs (roughly $100). Ms. Aibel haggled, but Ms. Rosler wouldn’t budge. It was too early in the sale, and besides, another customer was interested who was sure to pay top dollar, being a dentist.
So she’s tough. How tough? We called Jens Hoffmann, director of the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts in San Francisco. He’s the curator of Art Parcours, the section of Art Basel in which the project appeared. “She was really tough,” he said, adding that he was surprised by how fully she inhabited the role of the hawkish seller, taking on the persona of a single mother in a challenging economy. “She had that urgency in her voice and her gestures and the way she was really hard-bargaining.”
Selling secondhand underwear (yes, there was secondhand underwear), old postcards, wind-up toys and a functional motorcycle a stone’s throw from the world’s most prominent modern art fair, where collectors were shelling out millions for paintings by Picasso and Warhol, was pretty subversive, but it wasn’t the first time Ms. Rosler had set up shop. Back in 1973, when she was still a student, she held the Monumental Garage Sale in the art gallery of the University of California-San Diego, and set up a second one four years later. It fit right in with her own work—since the ’60s, she’d been using photography, performance, video and installation art to question notions of power and value—but at the time, she said in 2010 in a panel discussion with Mr. Hoffmann at Art Basel, “it was not acceptable, fun or amusing to anybody to have a garage sale in an art gallery.”
It would be two decades before the next Rosler garage sale popped up, in 1999, at the behest of Ms. Breitwieser, who was then curator at the Generali Foundation in Vienna. After that, it quickly gained traction, traveling to Rotterdam, Barcelona, Lyon and New York, where Ms. Rosler presented it as part of her retrospective at the New Museum in 2000.
“The garage sale has progressed from being regarded as a nasty piece of business that has no place in any space of art to just the sort of event that a post-Pop, postmodern, irony-filled art world craves,” Ms. Rosler said over email from Moscow.
Evidently. Artist Rob Pruitt has staged flea markets at Frieze Art Fair in London in 2007, at the Ace Hotel in New York in 2010, and just last week in Paris, selling things like Mark Ronson’s sneakers and a camouflage suit by Stephen Sprouse from the Estate of Andy Warhol.
“The format is about a communication with the people,” Ms. Breitwieser explained, comparing it to a 1992 piece by Rirkrit Tiravanija, Untitled 1992 (Free), in which the artist transformed 303 Gallery into a pop-up kitchen and served Thai curry to visitors. “In this case, it’s negotiating the value of this piece that she puts up for sale.”
And as with any garage sale, the advantage goes to the early birds. “People who showed up at first were almost hunting,” said Ms. Aibel. “Like you’d imagine [dealer] Ira Spanierman was when he bought a Raphael for like $50 and then sold it for like $50 million 10 years later.” She was joking, of course. One thing these items are not are Martha Rosler artworks—you won’t be able to flip them for a profit in two years at Philips de Pury & Co. (Ms. Aibel still has her tooth drawing, with Ms. Rosler’s price sticker clinging to the front.)
“She’s very keen on the idea that these not be perceived like that,” said Ms. Breitwieser of the garage sale goods, which have included a piano, televisions and a car. “What [visitors] buy is not a piece of Martha Rosler. They participate in an environment installation and performance by Martha Rosler and they facilitate the first cycling of these objects, but they don’t buy an art object.”
In fact, those objects, far from being part of the art market, have become a comment on it. “The piece seems like a critique of the art market in some way,” said Mr. Hoffmann. “I don’t think Martha thought about that when she did this in ’73, because the art market at that point wasn’t as developed and omnipresent as it is today.”
MoMA’s “Meta-Monumental Garage Sale,” which the museum is doing in part to celebrate its acquisition, earlier this year, of a group of artworks by Ms. Rosler, will be the biggest Garage Sale yet. “MoMA’s atrium space, the sacred core of the temple of art,” Ms. Rosler said, “is the polar opposite of a suburban or small town lawn or garage, much as the garage might be seen as the temple of suburban status and mobility.” Forget the rickety tables and racks that held the 4,000 items in Basel. “We’re thinking in bins at the moment,” said Ms. Breitwieser.
”It is the antithesis of cosmopolitanism,” said Ms. Rosler, who is expecting big crowds, and lots of peckish people to wheel and deal with. “How can the metaphoric dimension not be hopping when the sale is at MoMA?”