A barter economy is often viewed as a utopian idea—it’s something you find at Burning Man rather than at a gallery or store because it subverts our expectations of the market when we’re asked to quantify what our time and efforts are worth without falling back on hard currency. In the art world, the idea of bartering has become increasingly difficult to envision, as pieces by famous or even rising artists seem predestined to an exclusive group of collectors and institutions with considerable coffers. However, there are instances throughout modern history of artists upending this system, from Picasso allegedly trading art for meals to residents of the Chelsea Hotel offering Stanley Bard paintings as rent.
Two years ago, Lauren Jones and Alix Janta started Art Barter in London as a response to the hermetic art market, and last December, NP Contemporary Art Center hosted a stateside version of Art Barter on the Lower East Side, where each piece was stripped of the artist’s name and assigned a bidding number. Participants in the exchange offered items like three days in a Catskills farmhouse, Spanish lessons, or your weight in organic chocolate.
Now Cabinet is co-hosting An Exchange with Sol LeWitt (through March 6), curated by Regine Basha, which is the counterpart to an exhibition at MASS MoCA in North Adams, Massachusetts. LeWitt was a committed barterer throughout his life, trading with established and unkown artists alike. In a 1977 interview LeWitt said, “The artist is seen like a producer of commodities, like a factory that turns out refrigerators.” His response to the commercialism of the modern art world was to support the creation of art regardless of background qualifications. With this in mind, Basha conducted an open call for pieces that support an exchange of ideas with the deceased artist. She received over a thousand submissions, and around 200 are now on view at Cabinet, from hatched chocolate bars inspired by LeWitt’s line drawings to Manuel Sosa’s glass bottle filled with strips of instructions. The highlight is Steve Roden‘s playable 7″ record based on LeWitt’s Three-Part Variations series. Roden mapped out the design on the neck of his guitar and recorded the patterns he found through this process. A handwritten note above the record player explains his approach: “I tried to follow the notes with my voice. Sometimes I hit it and sometimes I didn’t.” The noise marks a welcome addition to the quiet exhibition space. When the record was through, a friend wandered over to Kristin Nyce’s interactive piece and began pressing buttons on the multi-sided noisemaker, which is painted a stark white. It bleeped a combination of notes and complemented the skipped hisses of the needle as it reached the end of the record. A few feet away, there was a postcard from 1979 addressed to Gorav Dordevic, a Yugoslav artist who was planning an artists’ strike at the time. LeWitt’s brief, but earnest advice made tangible the idea that, under the right conditions, art can be revolutionary. He wrote: “I will support you and your strike if you show me how it would work.”
This exhibition shows that participating in more open systems of exchange lessens the gap between artists, audiences and collectors, especially when viewers and collectors become creators themselves. Trade deflates the ego and changes the game by creating a space for all who are interested to take a chance on the unknown. It might not be popular or even feasible to think of regularly bartering for art in these times, but it’s worth considering, if only to honor LeWitt’s legacy.
(images: Alicia Bonilla-Puig; Jackie McAllister, photo by Jaime Permuth; courtesy Cabinet)