Work—the title and the content—unpacks the meaning of one of the most saturated signifiers in 21st-century American English. Work, like other fundamental concepts such as property, is almost impossible to define despite—and perhaps because of—a common-sense feeling that we know what it is. Work is the organizing principle of our lives: whether we have it or are looking to get it, it is fundamental to our existence. But while we might think about the specific work we are doing, work, as an abstract or ideological category, goes largely unquestioned. Artist Suzanne Goldenberg has given it the consideration it deserves through a subtle, visual exposition composed of wire, wood, and textile sculpture that manages to address the historical, political, and linguistic density of its subject without foreclosing on the possibility of interpretation.

Suzanne Goldenberg, Note to Self, # 1,4,7, 2015. Ink and thread on linen, 12 × 12 inches.
Courtesy Gallery Molly Krom.

The show’s title makes a crucial distinction. The difference between work and  Work is acceptance and recapitulation on one hand, and refusal on the other—but a refusal of labor that, unlike words such as leisure, slacking, or shirking does not designate its avoidance. Striking the word is an aggressive disavowal, a gesture towards a mode of being that is not organized around profitable production and the alienation it entails. It also plays on the work of art—a form of work that can be easily dismissed as non-work and, for this very reason, has placed artistic and creative production at the center of neoliberal discourses of labor. As sociologist Andrew Ross has pointed out, artists provide the ideal type of worker for an economy of precarity because artists “choose” to sacrifice stability for the sake of doing what they love. Work, importantly, refuses to hide the labor that went into its production and thus participate in the obfuscation that is central to both Marx’s concept of commodity fetishism and, later, to the construction of spectacle in the Debordian sense. The production that is perversely hidden from view by the same social order that demands our constant participation in surplus production and consumption, is explicitly displayed by the two large empty looms that anchor Goldenberg’s show (Plain Rain is Divine, 7 feet 5 inches x 2 feet and Your highness, 8 feet x 5 feet 3 inches).

Work, Marx and Engels write in The German Ideology, is what constitutes our species being. Human beings make things:

Men can be distinguished from animals by consciousness, by religion or anything else you like. They themselves begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence […] producing their means of subsistence men are indirectly producing their actual material life.

They are not suggesting that we are human simply because we provide ourselves with food and shelter:

This mode of production must not be considered simply as being the reproduction of the physical existence of the individuals. Rather it is a definite form of activity […] a definite form of expressing their life, a definite mode of life on their part. As individuals express their life, so they are. What they are, therefore, coincides with their production, both with what they produce and with how they produce. The nature of individuals thus depends on the material conditions determining their production.

The historical dimension of the show is unavoidable. Textiles were at the heart of the industrial revolution; looms were the guts of Blake’s dark satanic mills; coats and linen the example chosen by Marx to explain the commodity fetish; and the Lowell mill girls some of the most well-known actors in the history of American labor unrest.

Because they are the tools of production rather than the finished product, the looms draw our attention to the material structure of work in its most exploitative form—evoking the notoriously wretched conditions of textile production as well as the industry that catalyzed modern industrial capitalism. They perform a similar action as the title: undressed and untended, they refuse their own purpose, bringing to mind a work stoppage.

Or again, a form of work that refuses a profit motive. Striking the word “work” takes on another, related meaning here: whether or not something works. The looms, converted to aesthetic objects, metonymically suggest the breakdown of productive systems—machines and economies that are not working. Or at least not working how they are supposed to. Work that does not work is as close to a definition of art as one might come. Think of Duchamp’s readymades: useful, industrially produced objects rendered “useless” by their recontexualization as art.

The work of art making is also under consideration here. The exhibition far exceeds a reductive art-against-capitalism polemic in its complexity. It also addresses the problem of a gendered division of labor and the consequent disparity in valuation that is reproduced in the ostensibly hermetic “world” of art’s making, display, and consumption. The relation between production and individuation suggested by Marx is perhaps clearest when one considers socialization and sex; a show that is largely composed of textile-based work—women’s work—demands attention to this as well.

In direct conversation with the looms are several squares of ink-stained and hand-embroidered linen (Note to Self #1, 4, 7 & Note to Self #23, 12˝ × 12˝). The small, freestanding yarn and ceramic sculptures—sensual and far more materially dense than the other work in the show—are, like the looms, the broken beginnings of production (Tangible Joys (Frid), 9˝ × 8˝ × 7˝ Arbitrary Mutiny, 5˝ × 12˝ × 4˝ & Fixed Hours 4˝ × 10˝ × 3˝). Easily read as either misshapen yarn balls or collapsed looms they suggest more malfunction—industrial saboteurs and housewives on strike.

I considered, for a moment, leaving any acknowledgement of the relationship between women and fabric out of this review. The very mention of it seemed to risk marginalization. But Goldenberg has been working with fabric, yarn, and string for years, she identifies as a woman and a feminist, and my impulse to valorize her work by suppressing its relation to these other non-industrial, traditionally female economies was, I realized, questionable at best.

In terms of a re-imagination of work, its history, and its possibilities, the re-integration of women’s work into this larger narrative of industrial labor is probably the show’s greatest intellectual contribution. Rarely do we get to see such decidedly domestic materials (yarn, fabric, thread) brought into dialogue with production at an industrial scale (looms, rounds of nails for a nail gun)—a discursive lacuna that, upon consideration, appears absolutely absurd. Women have played a crucial role in every aspect of capitalist production. As free labor in the home they have reproduced the population of workers by literally making more of them as well as feeding and sustaining those that already exist. As extra-domestic workers themselves, they have provided a whole population of cheap labor. And women’s work, like artistic and creative labor, serves the ideological function of justifying unwaged labor as a labor of love.

The most basic definition of feminist art might simply be one of redefinition and re-purposing of tropes and materials. Art historian Tamar Garb writes that,

Women artists, since at least the early 1970s, have redefined the terms and conditions of making art. Appropriating subjects, inverting stereotypes, and undermining assumptions, women have sought to redefine the erotic, the maternal, the feminine, the political and the personal through an exploration of the very materials of which art is made.

Goldenberg’s work does this, but the subject of the show, work, offers a way of thinking about feminist art production that avoids ghettoizing its makers and its products, situating gender and sexuality within a system of production and politics that is not exclusively female. Abandoning the identitarian politics of bodies and desire, Goldenberg instead adopts a Marxist approach to feminist subjectivity—one that takes seriously the idea that human beings are beings that make things; that what we produce and the systems of production within which that work is distributed and given meaning is at the center of our subjectivity; and that this subjectivity, as a social relation, cannot be hemmed in by discourses of the body and sexuality but must remake its entire productive world.


R. H. Lossin