Institutional Critique

The relationship between art and its institutions has been an unsteady one for quite some time. We could argue that this criticism of the art institution and its standards was happening with the Impressionists in the late 19th century, which included the introduction of new styles and ideas, though quickly declined in group shows and exhibitions, for example: the Paris Salon. When this happened, a new standard in the consideration of what art is worthy to be shown was created through the Salon des Refusés. This criticism and rejection from the institutions and academies were based on the lack of acceptance towards new ideas and styles, but eventually the world accepted them more. At the same time, as the world progressed with new civil and artistic freedom, this allowed for more criticism to be directed towards the art institutions through the use of contemporary art. Artists like Michael Asher, Daniel Buren, Marcel Broodthaers, and Hans Haacke began to expose the ideologies and power structures that controlled circulation, exhibition and discussion of art, and the questioning of the authority in galleries, museums, private collections, and publications. Artists used different methods to project their criticism of the art institutions, but possibly the most engaging one was within the artists’ use of place.
The use of place specifically for institutional critique can be effective in a number of ways: site-specificity, physical engagement of the viewer/audience, and context, to name a few. But in many ways, the viewer is the key element to the use of place in art. In works like Fluxus or Happenings events, the audience is often part of the completion of the pieces, but in institutional critique, artists like Haacke, Buren and Asher depended on their spectators to “complete the work, but instead of being directed toward discrete art objects or performing subjects, spectators were expected to account for the entire institutional context within which they found themselves viewing art—visiting a museum or gallery or encountering artworks in the public space.” Basically, the viewer had to become part of the art and take in the environment as well as the architectural limitations and funding patterns of the institution, which all is important when considering the decisions taken by the institution could all be influenced by individual politics and phycological ideas within the institution. Often, the museum or gallery is used as the place which can provide a strong context, because it can either be an alliance to the work or it can be a source of critique from outside. The fact that the artwork is inside the museum creates a question as to whether the work, while criticizing the institution, is still a legitimate criticism since the art institution allowed for it to be displayed, or how possibly the taking down of the piece in the gallery or museum and what that means and how that differs from the display of the art specifically not in an established art institution. Within the gallery or museum walls the artist can work with just the building itself, uncovering the background scenes of the art institution to the spectators, which is a literal way of using the institutional foundation, which will be seen within works in this exhibition.
Overall the artwork’s site or placement is important in the cultural framework that these institutions of art have defined. An art piece often has to fit within the parameters of the doorways and exhibition space, thus not allowing for complete artistic freedom, whatever the artwork is, it needs to be able to be brought in and displayed in the way that the structure physically allows. In addition, those in charge of the art institutions are those who get to select what is able to go in and what stays out. So, if art institutions are the main source of art exposure, it can be said that the institutions are the people that decide what art and messages are acceptable. With this knowledge, artists therefore have gone to lengths in demonstrating and arguing that it might not be the most fair idea, especially to artists that do not get exposure from established institutions. Does the fact that the art is within a museum or gallery mean that the work is any better than something found on the street or does it just mean that the institution has preferences that may be different or influenced by politics, psychology, or just personal taste? And how can an audience know? These are just a few of the questions that institutional critique, through the use of place, has been able to bring up.
Institutional critique is still happening today, and while it seems to be more accepted and invited within the institutions, it’s now more important than ever to general culture itself. Museums and galleries create contexts for the viewers, which means that they have the responsibility of packaging a variety of meaning and representations for diverse sets of people. Also, seemingly being open to these criticisms from artists, museums are creating to some degree, insider artists and practices. The bottom line is that, regardless of the changes within the art institutions themselves, at the end of the day, according to the art institutions and those in charge, art is art only when a specialist decides that it is so, thus, art becomes art only through its reception and context, aesthetics and criticism, but not taking into consideration its history or transformation into opinion and the different standards of evaluation within each different institution. Artists have developed pieces that question this decision making of the institutions and, through the use of place, have made it easier for the viewer to decide for themselves what their opinion of the art is, whether it’s by being a part of it, being on it, altering it, or living through it. In summary, institutional critique through the use of place ultimately involves the spectator, who could be anyone, and allowing them to not be as influenced by the institution that the art’s standards has to be contained within.


Joe Sola’s Studio Visit is a video piece of collected clips from when he invited collectors, curators, and critics to his LA studio to talk about his art. He would talk with them for a while, as they sat in a chair, and then suddenly dash and crash out his studio window onto some cardboard boxes below. The guests would then, usually scream, and rush towards the window and look down, only to find that Sola was okay and laying eight feet below. He trained with a stuntman for months to make sure he wouldn’t get hurt and he did this 22 times.
Studio Visit demonstrates and changes the dynamics of the art collectors, critics and curators. Usually, the guests to the studio are in control of the artist, since they are deciding whether or not they are going to be taking his work, so by literally jumping out of the window and creating a really exhilarating moment for the guests, one that probably has never happened before for them during a studio visit, Sola is more in control than the visitors by keeping their attention through the rest of the time.
Place is specific to this piece because it’s in Sola’s studio. Knowing that when the guests come in they are looking to possibly purchase the work and make decisions that can affect the artist’s future, it’s important to note this when we see that Sola later steals the spotlight, which is uncommon. After jumping out is when Sola has an upper hand to his visitors since he surprises all of them and most likely will keep their attention for the rest of the visit. Studio Visit, in summary, contrasts the way that the collectors, critics and curators have the control on the situation when they come and visit an artist’s studio and points out how it may be as ridiculous as Sola jumping out of his window.


Olafur Eliasson’s Riverbed is a whole wing of a gallery that is converted into a riverbed. It has white walls, dirt, moss, sticks, mud and water flowing through the whole wing. Eliasson takes from site-specific installation inspiration and really blurs the lines between the natural world and the manmade world.
This work emphasizes a few things: what is art? who can make art? and an emphasis of the institutional infrastructure itself. Riverbed challenges the idea of art, considering that it’s a recreation of the Danish coast within a wing in an American museum. The visitor could go to the Danish coast and while they are not considered art in their natural habitat, they are considered art within the gallery/museum space. Also, through time and as more visitors come along to view the work, the scene changes in every step that is taken within the Riverbed. So, while Eliasson constructed and planned the layout and materials of Riverbed, when the viewers interacted with the piece, it is constantly changed and altered by someone other than the artist.
The structure of the institution itself is emphasized with the juxtaposition of the natural elements in Eliasson’s piece. Combining the white walls with the greenery and water from the Danish nature, Eliasson emphasizes not just the natural elements, but the white walls as well. Within the contrast of the work itself, and the ability to explore the Riverbed itself, the visitor is aware of the organization of the wing itself. Had this nature been on the outside of the institution, the size could’ve been limitless, like how nature intends, but within the walls of the museum there are limitations and unnatural aspects to placing these natural elements within the walls. The natural aspect can be compared with expression in art. Within the limitations of an institution, the art might not be able to demonstrate its full potential, meaning, or context.  

Mel Bochner’s Measurement Room depicts the measurements of a doorframe and room within a gallery, using tape and Letraset on the wall. Bochner’s work is a literal and visual representation of the parameters set within a structure, such as a gallery, and how these things are measured out beforehand so that the artist knows either what scale to work on for the space specifically, or if the desired piece actually fits within the designated space. The way that Bochner would label the space was like “insisting on the material fact of the gallery walls as ‘framing’ devices by notating the walls’ dimensions directly on them.” His idea of the gallery and museum walls are regarded as framing to the work, and display the specificity and restrictions of working in that manner.
While Measurement Room is literal in its demonstration of the measurement, the idea goes beyond the framing of an institution but art in general, especially when dealing with containment. In a 1969 interview Bochner mentions that the “real subject of [the Measurement Room] is boundaries—the perceptual boundaries of thought,” and he also questions “how much of [the work] is visible, how much is filled by the viewer, how much of it doesn’t need to be filled in—how much of it can exist without any physicality?” . In here, Bochner is referring to the physical constraints of not only the structure the pieces are placed in, but also the container of the artwork itself. How much of it is constructed by the viewer, how much is taken away, and how much is not even physically there? The physical aspect of the pieces and its surroundings are as important as the context and the actual work itself, which is why the art institution is such an important factor that is analyzed and discussed within works of art.  

Daniel Buren’s Peinture-Sculpture was a piece made specifically for the Guggenheim museum, measuring 66 x 32 ft, hanging from the ceiling of the Guggenheim in New York and dividing the rotunda and views to the other artwork within. It was only up for one day before it was taken down. Peinture-Scultpture was a controversial piece because it specifically addressed the building’s architecture and obscured the open-ness of the structure of the Guggenheim. Some artists were upset about this and eventually his piece was taken down due to its effect on other artists and the museum itself.
Despite its simple stripes and physical form, Buren’s Peinture-Sculpture is an ironic and complex piece. The large banner-like structure takes a lot of physical space within the center of the Guggenheim and takes charge of what the visitors see and what they do not see, depending on where they decide to stand, which is much like how the art institutions pick and are in charge of what is chosen to be seen in the galleries or museums and what is not. In addition, it shows Buren working within the architectural parameters of the Guggenheim, though freely, still within a scale that fit within the Guggeheim. However, even by staying within these measurements, Buren’s work was taken down and rejected, showing even more of how, in a way, the art institutions are very difficult to please and do not truly allow freedom for the artist. Buren was very aware of his effect on the museum, and said in 1973, “Any work presented within the museum, if it does not explicitly examine the influence of that framework upon itself, falls into the illusion of self-sufficiency—or idealism.” Buren stays true to this idea and through his work allows for the viewer, who may not be familiar with the difficulties of dealing the art institutions, to physically experience the problems and conflicts between artist and institution.


Mel Bochner, “Interview with Mel Bochner,” Interview by Elayne Varian, Documents, V. 20, 1969: 4–8 Joshua Decter, Art is a Problem. Zurich: JRP Ringier, 2012. Miwon Kwon, One Place After Another: Site Specific Art and Locational Identity. Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2002. Kynaston McShine, The Museum as Muse: Artists Reflect, (New York: HN Abrams, 1999). Carolina A. Miranda, “Biting the Hand that Feeds Them,” ArtNews, December 6, 2011, http:// (accessed February 29, 2016) Nina Möntmann, ed., Art and Its Institutions. London: Black Dog Publishing, 2006 Kirsi Peltomäki, “Affect and Spectatorial Agency: Viewing Institutional Critique in the 1970s,” Art Journal, 66 (2007): 36–51 Sadia Quddus, “Olafur Eliasson Creates an Indoor Riverbed at Danish Museum,” Arch Daily, August 22, 2014, (accessed February 28, 2016)

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