Articles and Features

The Checklist, Vol. 5: Andrea Fraser’s Untitled at Friedrich Petzel Gallery, New York, 2004

Exhibitions from the past via facts that cannot change: artwork, space, audience, a moment in time. Featured this month: Andrea Fraser's 2004 'Untitled'.
Andrea Fraser, Still from Untitled, 2003. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York © Andrea Fraser

William Pym, portrait

William Pym, The Checklist, Volume 5

Art history, like world history, looks different depending on where you’re standing and what matters to you. The monolithic western canon has been chiseled into a prism, absorbing and reflecting new narratives and new histories. This is a good thing. Fashion, a sexy blur, drives the conversation about contemporary art in culture, and consensus is rare and temporary. This is a fine thing. Money and the art market tie us in knots and cloud our judgement, because the latter is easily manipulated by the former. This is a bad thing. Mush all these factors together, and a solid art history seems both more elusive and more necessary than ever. This column, The Checklist, looks at an exhibition from the past via facts that cannot change: artwork, space, audience, a moment in time. The goal is to cut through the noise, and to remember that art is a gift.

Andrea Fraser
Friedrich Petzel Gallery
New York
June 10 – July 30, 2004

Institutional critique, a movement of the activist 1960s revamped for the capitalist bog of the 1980s, is a type of art about itself, about its mechanisms and its politics and the places its power is located. Despite its fierce drive, however, institutional critique tended toward academia, and visual art does should not just be for people who read academic papers. Andrea Fraser’s works, beginning in the late 1980s, is a singular contribution to the genre, because they are accessible to everybody. You feel them. Fraser’s solo video performances — largely scripted but performed very much in the moment, typically to an audience — commanded space and the attention of others by addressing culture, sometimes literally. 1989’s Museum Highlights: A Gallery Tour has Fraser leading a tour of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, carrying an audience to consider the institution in surreal leaps. Andrea Fraser performs, overall, from within the institution, pulling viewers into it to consider it. This month’s checklist is about the artist’s exhibition Untitled at the Friedrich Petzel gallery in New York in the summer of 2004, an exhibition that will likely be remembered by art history.

In December 2019, T magazine published a very long article entitled, neatly, Have We Finally Caught Up With Andrea Fraser? It made a great case for the 54-year-old artist. American culture, in the later Trump years, was disintegrating into chaos; Fraser’s performances, in which she often appears as a succession of characters, have long show the ways that reality and morality can become fungible the further you slide into corruption and greed. Society and culture is a slippery slope when power is involved. Inaugural Speech (1997), for example, is a 30-minute talk made at the opening ceremony of inSITE97, an art festival taking place in San Diego and Tijuana that was publicly sponsored by both the US and Mexican governments. Fraser’s monologue began with the artist giving thanks as herself; she then introduces a curator and performs as them; then as a politician; then as a corporate sponsor. Through the course of the monologues, Fraser’s characters take the conversation away from art and into politics, to self-interest, to influence. Information degrades and becomes surreal. The politician talks about real estate. The corporate sponsor talks about taking over the world with his product. The guts of the institution are on display — a world of money, power and control, plain and simple. The actual corporate sponsor for inSITE97 was Anheuser-Busch, by the way, a massive beer distributor on both sides of the border, with no shortage of lobbying interests. In this extraordinary work, Fraser delivered her work straight to the people and groups it was targeting. Inaugural Speech was — it merits saying — a brave thing to perform. She backed up her rage, disappointment and cynicism about the mechanisms of power by performing it back to the powerful, keeping the flame.

In 2004, in a quiet late-season slot at the Friedrich Petzel gallery in New York’s then-buzzing Chelsea neighbourhood, Fraser presented an exhibition comprising two works, Donat Postpone Joy, or Collecting Can Be Fun (1993), a conceptual ‘portrait’ in the form of a heavily redacted 27-page interview with an art collector, and Untitled (2003), a 60-minute video shown on a 30-inch-or-so cube display monitor on a pedestal against a wall, in which a fixed camera documents the totality of a sexual encounter in uninflected detail.

Untitled, per the press release, is a commissioned work by a collector, who appears in the film with the artist. Fraser initiated this project, and the collector paid $20,000. “Untitled is a continuation of Fraser’s twenty-year examination of the relationships between artists and their patrons,” said that press release, elegantly. The collector owns the first edition of the video, of an edition of 5. The footage is unedited, with existing lighting, and no sound. It depicts a long, varied sex session, start to finish.

However many people saw Untitled in those hot June weeks, everyone had to have something to say about it. The New York Times’ Holland Cotter was pretty grumpy about the work in his review, saying “a porn film is just a porn film”. A fizzy profile by Guy Trebay for The Way We Live Now in the Times magazine seemed enthusiastic to discuss Fraser’s oeuvre, what it is and where it comes from, but it got a little snagged on the idea of prostitution, at which point he started chasing metaphors and talking about Indecent Proposal. Jerry Saltz dug into it in a diaristic, rather profound Artnet review, but he too got caught up in the act, so to speak.

Sex was clearly a problem in 2004, in that it was impossible to have a full conversation about it. People got stuck on the sex. There wasn’t really anywhere to put Untitled at the time. It is an artwork that returns to art discourse with reliable regularity, getting discovered by art students, micro-generation after micro-generation, and appearing in (typically European) museum shows. Untitled was not, however, resolved, because there was no platform to discuss it when it was made. Criticism was shy and coy and leery and judgemental in 2004 because sex work —sex in general! — was difficult to discuss in American adult culture. Untitled was ahead of its time. We know this now, but it turns out that culture did have to catch up with Andrea Fraser.

In 2022, today, there is a language about sex, which means there will eventually be a true discourse about it. The ICA in London is currently showing a large group exhibition, Decriminalised Futures, demanding the full liberation of sex work. This is radical for a government-funded institution. We are able to talk about things like this in 2022 because we have that language, and as the conversation has gone further in discussing our desires and our bodies we have learned about systemic denial of power and agency to women and women’s bodies. To have that power and agency, as Fraser does in Untitled, is triumphant, because she has control. Her choice to do the piece is the point of this piece; it’s as simple as that. From her lectures in art museums to her speeches in front of dignitaries, Andrea Fraser demands the restoration of power to the powerless, and demands rights and accountability. Untitled is an artwork about a woman’s control over her body.