Ukeles’s art elevates the role of ‘service’ over ‘creativity’ and ‘self-expression’.
a. Directing attention away from parade horses to the sanmen who followed them encapsulates the uniqueness of Ukeles’ art practice. This artist is known for diverting attention away from the spectacle and focusing it upon the workers who were overlooked. She recalls that this professional course required her to reassess the careers of the three heroes who originally inspired her: Jackson Pollock, Marcel Duchamp, and Mark Rothko. “By having a child she (Ukeles) became a maintenance worker, one who supports, who enables another, one who puts another first, not herself, nor her emotions first, nor her creative needs first, but the living wondrous and utterly dependent baby, first… Shocked, she looked around. Jackson, Marcel, and Mark didn’t change diapers…”28
Ukeles’s art elevates the role of ‘service’ over ‘creativity’ and ‘self-expression’. Select one painting by Jackson Pollock or Mark Rothko, and one sculpture by Marcel Duchamp. Explain how each of these works of art conveys a vision of an ‘artist’ who would not change diapers or clean up after a parade.
b. Ukeles elaborates on her critique of the esteemed representatives of 20th century vanguard art and the environmental and economic values they uphold when she recalls, “This is 1968, there was no valuing of ‘maintenance’ in Western Culture. The trajectory was: make something new, always move forward. Capitalism is like that. The people who were taking care and keeping the wheels of society turning were mute, and I didn’t like it! I felt when I was watching Richard Serra do these very simple things like throwing the lead, or Judd building things — the language of Process Art and Minimalism, which I felt very in tune with — I felt like “what are they doing?” They are lifting industrial processes and forgetting about the whole culture that they come out of. So Serra was this steel worker without the work, without the workers. And Judd was this carpenter without workers. They didn’t have workers, they didn’t have people, they had objects — or they had results. And I felt that they were falling into the same trap as the rest of this damn culture, which couldn’t see the whole structures or cultures of workers that made the kind of work that invented these processes and refined them.”29
These sentiments are apparent in Ukeles engagement with outdoor sculptures. They are absent from Richard Serra‚Äôs and Donald Judd’s visions of public. Tilted Arc, a public artwork by the Serra, is a monumental metal sculpture, installed in Federal Plaza, New York city in 1981. It is huge, about as large as the controversy it provoked. Fifteen large concrete boxes comprise an equally acclaimed outdoor sculpture created by Judd for the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas during the same period.
In contrast, Ukeles expands the application of this art form by applying it to our culture’s waste practices. She explains, “I am talking about the whole picture: recycling facilities, transfer stations, trucks, landfills, receptacles, water treatment plants, rivers. They will be the giant clocks and thermometers of our age that tell the time and the health of the air, the earth, and the water. They will be utterly ambitious — our public cathedrals. For if we are to survive, they will be our symbols for survival.”30
Discuss the cultural role of public art as it is conveyed by Ukeles, by Serra’s Tilted Arc, and by Judd’s fifteen concrete boxes.
c. Earthworks are included in Ukeles’s indictments of art. “I felt that the classical American earthworks that I loved had an unfortunate un-public aspect about them, since they were in isolated places and available only to a few who could afford the trip. For the rest of us, there were only the pictures. Almost all of these works are/were on private land. In New York City there were huge tracts of public land on municipal landfills; weird, yes, but land that the public actually owned and could make a claim on, land that you could take a subway or bus to, available to all.”31
Walter de Maria’s Lightning Field provides a classic example of Ukeles’s critique of Earthworks. Compare the characteristics of ‘high art’ manifest by the medium, process, and design of Lightning Field to the ‘low art’ characteristics of Touch Sanitation.
28 Mierle Laderman Ukeles, “Twentyfive Years Later”, Mierle Laderman Ukeles/ MATRIX 137, Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut 1998 p 9
29 Manifesto for Maintenance: A Conversation With Mierle Laderman Ukeles by Bartholomew Ryan, Art in America 3/20/09
31 MIERLE LADERMAN UKELES Leftovers: It’s About Time for Fresh Kills Cabinet Magazine ISSUE 6 SPRING 2002
Donald Judd, Concrete Boxes, 1981-1984