Group Material and the 1980s
432 pp., 7 x 9 in, 29 color illus., 84 b&w illus.
- Published: May 24, 2022
A study of Group Material, the influential but underexamined New York–based artist collective, investigating a series of key works.
Key predecessor of contemporary art's most radical activist gestures, the 1980s collective Group Material seized upon the temporary exhibition as a prime mode of intervention. Projects sited on walls, subways, and billboards targeted some of the most sensitive political conflicts of the era, from U.S. military interventions in Latin America to the AIDS crisis. In Art Demonstration, Claire Grace examines Group Material's New York–based collaboration across a decade that saw a wave of renewed interest in art as a domain of political mobilization. As Grace argues here, Group Material's art was never just a means to an end; looking itself held urgency.
Grace distinguishes between two types of Group Material projects: room-scale interiors featuring distinctive wall treatments, soundtracks, and boundary-crossing arrangements of objects, and works in spaces usually reserved for advertising. Grace analyzes the group's practice in both categories, examining such well-known projects as AIDS Timeline (1989) and Democracy (1988–1989) and lesser-known works including Subculture (1983) and The Castle (1987). Grace shows that the politics running through Group Material's practice ultimately resides in the artists' particular recourse to the exhibition form. With that bearing, Group Material's work insisted on the material in the face of postmodern theory's privileging of the discursive, and redistributed authorship within protean and pivotally diverse collective structures, testing in so doing the ever fragile contours of democratic participation as art became a commodity for speculative investment.
“With scholarly rigor and theoretical sophistication, Claire Grace places the activities of the artist-collective Group Material within the political and aesthetic debates of the 1980s. But Art Demonstration is not just about the past. Grace highlights the collective's commitment to the practice of democracy in its radical sense—as a form of society in which the governed assume the right to question power publicly. Group Material's goal of making exhibitions that activate spectators and create a public sphere of democratic contestation could not be more relevant today, when art is dominated by market values and the United States teeters on the brink of fascism.”
Rosalyn Deutsche, Term Professor, Barnard College
“While Group Material are widely referenced by artists and curators as an influence, little is known about their rich and complex exhibitions, which remain hard to summarize and analyze from installation shots. This book fills an important historiographic gap, offering a detailed account of these shows that will be useful to anyone teaching the history of exhibitions, especially the history of artist-curated exhibitions. Grace's detailed elaboration of these installations, and her contextualization of them through a discussion of the wider stakes of perception and participation in the 1980s, is accomplished and elegant.”
Claire Bishop, Professor, PhD Program in Art History, CUNY Graduate Center