‘I have just followed the footprints left in the artistic sands by René Magritte and Marcel Duchamp. Faithfully in spite of the winds that I blow. I, too, am an apostle of silence’ (M. Broodthaers).
Executed in 1968, Les Frites stems from a critical period in Marcel Broodthaers’ ground-breaking practice. Presenting a bowl of French fries split across four photographic panels, the work bears witness to Broodthaers’ conceptual response to the languages of Pop Art and Nouveau Réalisme, both of which drew inspiration from common household and commercial items. Having started life as a poet, Broodthaers turned to art in 1963, developing a witty, subversive visual language that combined the Surrealist overtones of René Magritte with the deadpan, object-based aesthetic of Marcel Duchamp. In 1966, he was sought out by the gallerist Anny De Decker, and held his pivotal exhibition Moules Oeufs Frites Pots Charbon at her Antwerp gallery Wide White Space that same year. While his American Pop contemporaries were incorporating the emblems of mass consumerism into the realm of high art, Broodthaers assembled found materials such as mussels, eggshells and French fries that that spoke of simplicity and poverty in the face of big business, mass production and cultural homogeneity. At the exhibition opening, De Decker arranged for packets of fries to be offered to guests from a barrow in the street. The present work revisits the subject in a medium that Broodthaers was beginning to explore during this period: photographs projected and printed onto canvas, using a small negative to artificially heighten the image’s chromatic contrast. Posing as paintings yet devoid of all traces of the artist’s hand, the grainy quality of these images emphasise the mechanical nature of their reproduction, subversively referencing the screen printing techniques espoused by artists such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein during this period.
The late 1960s was a breakthrough moment for conceptual art in Europe and America, witnessing the rise of artists such as Joseph Kosuth, Sol LeWitt, On Kawara and Bruce Nauman. Broodthaers, who had his first retrospective at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in 1967, was a pioneer in this world. As Les Frites demonstrates, he was fascinated by the relationship between subjects and their pictorial reproduction, and in 1968 set up his own fictional ‘Museum of Modern Art’ consisting of postcards of paintings and packing cases in his house in Brussels. With a highly literate, critical and frequently humorous approach, Broodthaers played with ideas of authorship, originality and the role of the art institution. Rebelliously ignoring the restrictive, Modernist boundaries among artistic disciplines and media, he forged his own distinctive path as a visual artist, poet, filmmaker, and photographer, realizing an impressive range of site-specific installations and intermedia works, from films to slide projections and sculptures. Working outside the establishment within the experimental enclave of Brussels, Broodthaers took the Belgian Surrealist tradition into new conceptual territory. Though he remained at the fringes of the art world in his life time, he has since come to be recognized as one of the most influential artists of the last century.