Fruit and Other Things: Depicting Absence Through Rejected Art
The work of interdisciplinary artists Lenka Clayton and Jon Rubin engages the public and challenges the conventions of the art world. In 2018, Clayton and Rubin created a 23-week performance in the Forum Gallery of Carnegie Museum of Art. They hired calligraphers to paint the titles of 10,632 rejected works of art submitted between 1896 and 1931 to Carnegie International exhibitions. The paintings of these titles were then hung in the same gallery, breathing new life into these early 20th-century works. As the team created new paintings, the previous ones were made available for museum-goers to take home. Those lucky enough to get a painting were encouraged to send photos of the work in its new environment. In this way, Clayton and Rubin created a newfound appreciation for these once-forgotten paintings and, if in name only, included them in an exhibition that turned them down—some more than 100 years ago.
In an interview with Storyboard, the artists discuss the conception and implementation of Fruit and Other Things, and the future of its unique recreations.
What first excited you about this project and how do you think it relates to the concept of infinite lives?
Jon Rubin: When developing the project we were drawn to this impossible act of depicting absence. We felt that visualizing even some absence starts to point to all absence. The 10,632 rejected titles we painted are just a small percentage of the ones that were rejected from the entire history of the International, and an even smaller percentage of the number rejected through the history of the museum, and an even smaller percentage of the number rejected by all museums during the same period of time. For us, the rejected titles function as stand-ins, not just for the paintings themselves, but for all the ones that will continue to come after.
We really like how, without an image, each title evokes infinite interpretations. Take, for example, the title that the project is named after, Fruit and Other Things, it could be a bowl of oranges and two sports cars; a single pineapple and a group of surly teenagers; apples and grapes with a pile of unpaid bills; you get the point. We liked the endless possibility each title initiates, as no two people will imagine the same exact thing, no matter what the title might be.
Lenka Clayton: It’s exciting to think that the archive of rejections has been dormant, patiently waiting since 1931 when the last rejected painting was registered in loopy handwriting, and the International moved to the more contemporary model of curators travelling all over the planet choosing work. As soon as the titles were re-exposed to the world, they woke up. This is one tiny segment of one museum in the world. Thrilling to imagine the millions of other untold stories still waiting.
What were the most unexpected things you encountered in conceiving or producing the work?
LC: The existence of the archive itself was extraordinary to us. We, as all artists, are very used to the idea and experience of rejection. We have both dreamed up many projects that have gone unfunded and unrealized. Of course, we know that this is a shared experience, but finding this extensive, methodical historic document that makes visible the vastness of a usually invisible experience was remarkable.
We spent a lot of time thinking about how to make each work as valuable as possible, hence the decisions to have each one hand-painted, to be a unique work, and to come with a signed certificate of authenticity. They are free to take, and often when things are given away for free they have a short life. There are famous stories that haunted us of trash cans outside museums being filled with Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s beautiful given-away prints (external link) for example. So, we absolutely didn’t anticipate the line! The queue of museum visitors forms naturally by the giveaway table we designed to fill up with paintings but that is almost always empty. We’ve observed people waiting in line for three hours to get a painting. For us, this impromptu human sculpture, snaking unexpectedly through our carefully planned installation, was a wonderful new component of the work that we couldn’t have imagined. Also, the conversations and negotiations in the line as people try to position themselves to get their favorite painting are unexpected things that have become a really important part of the work for us.
There’s a special resonance when artists revive the work of other artists, especially those who didn’t succeed initially. What drew you to this endeavor?
JR: The International was originally set up so that Andrew Carnegie could accumulate the “Old Masters of tomorrow” from around the world (meaning mostly the US and Europe) to build the collection for his museum. In recent history it’s been quite rare for artists based in Pittsburgh to be included in the International. So, we decided we would use our inclusion in the exhibition as a kind of loophole in the history and future of it—holding open the backdoor of the theater, allowing in thousands of artists that were left out of the show while also giving the paintings away for free to thousands of visitors, 80% or more who are from Pittsburgh, to become collectors of this International work.
In painting just the titles, we are less reviving the specific works of the original artists than collaborating with the decisions they made when naming their work. From 1896 to 1931, which is the time period these works are taken from, the title, Untitled, just didn’t exist, so we were left with an amazing trove of descriptions of what artists during that time felt was worth paying attention to. I would imagine the list of rejected titles was not substantially different than those accepted. I doubt a painting was rejected just because it was called A September Cloud or The Mysterious Sea, but I could be wrong.
At the same time, you’re creating a new community of collectors by giving away the paintings. How does this reflect on the nature of collecting in the art world today?
LC: Being an art collector is something that doesn’t occur to most of us as a financially viable activity, even for those of us who spend our whole lives making art. As well as making 10,632 paintings, Fruit and Other Things makes 10,632 art collectors. We wanted to manifest the absent history of every rejected painting and reinsert it back into life. Connecting each individual work with a collector—who takes up responsibility to care for, display, and in some cases even research it—is one way to ensure the work lives on.
Our work uses the usual constructs of the art system, but also pokes holes in those constructs in order to alter the function of paintings and the role of collector. Everyone who sees the exhibition is allowed to leave the museum with a work of art. One remarkable moment of Fruit and Other Things was when the security guards had to be trained (or un-trained) in order to allow museum visitors to leave the building carrying paintings under their arms.
The 2018 Carnegie International has come to an end, but in many ways, Fruit and Other Things is just maturing (to use an organic metaphor). What do you envision as the future of this project? What are your fondest hopes for it?
JR: Everyone who took a painting home was asked to send in documentation of where it ends up in their home or place of work. Through this process a second, highly public archive (external link) is being created of all of the rejected titles that had previously been hidden in a filing cabinet. In many ways Fruit and Other Things really begins when the Carnegie International ends. The work is now on long-term exhibition in the thousands of homes of the collectors, who as a group collectively own the singular work of art. In many ways we view the short five months of the exhibition as the studio production time of the work, and the life the works have in the homes of the collectors as the primary public exhibition.
LC: Our fondest hopes for the project have already been met and exceeded. Every day we receive images and stories from new collectors, sharing their experiences of the work, the connections they have made between their lives and the title they happened to receive, and their shared daily experiences of living with their work. In the corridors of my son’s school hang paintings that the kids imagined and made based on titles they saw during a class trip to our work in the museum. Yesterday we received an email from a man who spent a year and a half visiting the museum each week with his 95-year-old mother. He sent a photograph of his mother with a painting he brought to her when she was too weak to go with him anymore. The way the paintings have walked out the door of the museum and straight into 10,632 other worlds is endlessly beautiful to us, and it keeps unfolding.