Since moving into its $858 million ice palace in 2005, no space in the renovated Museum of Modern Art in New York has caused more consternation than its massive atrium on the second floor. Grossly overscaled, the atrium has dwarfed almost every work of art that has appeared there. Monet's water lilies looked like wallpaper, Barnett Newman’s three-ton Broken Obelisk like a child’s plaything. It really only works as a party space, which, given the frequency of MoMA cocktail events and corporate shindigs, may have been the point.
For two weeks in November, though, the artist Martha Rosler—a pioneer in everything from photomontages to performance art, and one of the most august figures of the first generation of feminist artists in America—finally figured out how to tame this behemoth of a gallery. Rosler’s Meta-Monumental Garage Sale, on view until last Friday, filled the whole of the atrium with an overwhelming array of clothing, housewares, and tchotchkes—all for sale. It was a tremendous event, and it did feel like a suitably big deal for a major artist whom the museums neglected for too long. And yet it was a sadly belated event as well: less a statement about the fluidity of value than a testament to our current economic and artistic sclerosis.
At Rosler’s garage sale a massive American flag hung from the top of the atrium, near two smaller rainbow protest banners, left over from the Republican National Convention in 2004. On the atrium’s oversized walls there was clothing of all types, from bras and panties to T-shirts with anti-war or feminist slogans. If those didn’t appeal, there was Rosler’s record collection, including such enduring favorites as Burl Ives’s greatest hits and the cast album from the musical Kismet. I found a VHS box set of Titanic, a busted Macintosh Classic, stuffed animals of Ernie and SpongeBob SquarePants, a copy of the tell-all book Confessions of a Video Vixen, and a yellowing diploma from the University of Michigan. You could even take home a washing machine, though good luck getting it on the subway.
“Everything clean, nothing guaranteed,” warned a sign at the entrance, and indeed MoMA had to fumigate Rosler’s 14,000 items before the show, lest any critters escape to wreak havoc on Starry Night or Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. It still smelled a bit musty, though, and much of the merchandise had seen better days. The big-ticket item was a thirty-year-old black Mercedes station wagon—no engine, and the upholstery was frayed to bits. At $4,000 (cash only), it wasn’t exactly priced to move, and elsewhere Rosler seemed to have set her prices egregiously high, perhaps in order to keep the installation from shrinking too quickly as bargain-hunting museumgoers rushed in. So a goofy lifesize cardboard cutout of a Buckingham Palace guard ran $318. A Dr. Seuss-style striped stovepipe hat, which must have cost pennies to make in a Chinese factory, was priced at $22. But make an offer! Rosler, on site every day of the sale, expects you to haggle, and believe me when I say she drove a very hard bargain: I ended up going home empty-handed.
Rosler mounted her first Monumental Garage Sale in 1973, while a graduate student at the University of California at San Diego. (Documentation of that and subsequent sales was scattered throughout MoMA’s atrium.) Critically, she held it not in a garage but in a gallery. By moving the archetypical American means of exchange into the white cube, Rosler drew attention to a problem at the heart of both art and economics: how we assign value to objects, and how social considerations can make belongings with no inherent worth into things of desire.
Filling the gallery with unwanted junk—a strategy first utilized by the French artist Arman in his 1960 installation Le Plein, and since used by artists from Thomas Hirschorn to Christoph Büchel—may highlight the absurdities of American consumerism, or may suggest that the expensive stuff that usually fills the gallery is only so much junk as well. And yet, the informal exchanges of the garage sale, with their face-to-face relationships between buyer and seller (more often than not women), imply that economic activity mustn’t always be alienating. Rosler, not just a committed feminist but an unsparing critic of the logic of the art market, uses the garage sale as a counterbalance to more hierarchical economic relations: sometimes you’ll be taken for a sucker, but other times you’ll get a deal.
The so-called “relational” turn in contemporary art of the mid-1990s, in which artists sought to produce social encounters in the space of the gallery, made Rosler’s garage sales into an almost legendary first specimen. And so they came back. In the last decade, her garage sales have taken place in museums in London, Dublin, Rotterdam, Stockholm, Berlin and elsewhere.
Something had changed, however, by the time that the affair reached MoMA in its largest iteration yet (hence the Meta- prefix). In 1973, alternative modes of economic exchange still held a degree of promise. The Bretton Woods system had collapsed, the oil crisis was in full swing, and intellectuals and artists were waging a pitiless critique of capitalist modes of exchange—think of Jean-Luc Godard’s Tout va bien, where supermarket shoppers descend into bacchic madness after students start shouting “Everything is free!”
But in the last four years, we have lived through an economic upheaval greater by far than anything seen in the 1970s, and yet, pace the activists of Occupy Wall Street with whom Rosler frequently chats on her Facebook page, the fundamentals of economic exchange have never seemed more set in stone. There is no system but this one: some welcome tinkering around the edges—a little regulatory reform here, a consumer financial protection bureau there—doesn’t change the structures of power or the terms of our economic relationships. This is especially clear in the art world, where the impact of the financial crisis has been negligible to invisible: the market has grown flexible enough to accommodate critiques far more direct than this one (think of Elmgreen and Dragset’s Prada Marfa, a bogus luxury goods emporium next to America’s holiest collection of minimal art), with no appreciable impact on the power of market actors or the value of their assets.
And so Rosler’s Meta-Monumental Garage Sale, with its knick-knacks and hand-me-downs occupying the temple of modernism, feels woefully anticlimactic, even at this awesome scale. In 2012, neither our economic system nor the art world seems even slightly susceptible to change, and Rosler’s garage sale—through no fault of the artist’s—has been diminished into just another form of feel-good consumption, complete with a museum-assigned hashtag so that you can show off your haul online. The relationship between buyer and seller is gone, and rummaging at MoMA last week felt, more than anything, like paying extra for free-trade coffee or the allegedly organic bananas as Wal-Mart: a consumerist indulgence that has no real salutary effect, and whose economic benefits accrue principally to the people who are already running the show. It’s wonderful that MoMA has opened its doors to an artist as perceptive and generous as Rosler, for whom this must have seemed like a long-awaited victory lap. But it was hard to see the shoppers in that giant atrium, smartphones all aglow, and not conclude that this latest garage sale had become a spectacle of its own economic impuissance.
Jason Farago is a writer and art critic based in New York.