Conceptually or Personally Driven? An Analysis of Mierle Laderman Ukeles’s Maintenance Art Performances – Emily Draicchio

OCTOBER 31, 2019

            Mierle Laderman Ukeles (1939- age 79) is best known for her ‎Maintenance Art Manifesto published in 1967. In her manifesto, Ukeles interrogates the boundaries of art and life as well as public and private by using conceptual art as one of her fundamental strategies (Jackson 78 & Philips 169). Ukeles divides human labour into to two categories; maintenance and development. Maintenance is the realm of human activities that keep things going, those who pick up the garbage after the revolution, and development is concerned with individualized creations and progress. As such, maintenance reflects the “back half of life” and the invisible human efforts that keep society functioning (Keller 2). However, Ukeles strategically transforms maintenance into art through museum performances for she states that “everything I do is art is art” (Ukeles, Manifesto 123).  The execution of maintenance art is discussed in the second part of her manifesto in which she describes her proposal for an exhibition called ‘CARE’ that includes three parts; personal, general, and earth maintenance. This essay will focus on the personal maintenance section of the exhibition, which was executed four years prior to her manifesto and with four performances at the Wadsworth Atheneum; two will be discussed below. Through these performances, Ukeles engages with conceptualism by interrogating what qualifies as art and by exploring the abstract ideas of the interdependence between public and private spheres. However, Ukeles often negotiates specific categorization for she does not follow strict definitions of art “movements.” As a result, this essay argues that Ukeles complicates the common understanding of conceptual art as a rejection of the “emotional/intuitive process of art-making” by injecting her performances with the personal, and of “dematerialization” for using her body (Lippard 48). Therefore, an analysis of Washing, Tracks, Maintenance: Inside and Outside [fig.2] will demonstrate how Ukeles was conceptually driven and self-reflexive, while simultaneously challenging the conventions of conceptual art by also being personally driven.

The realization of Ukeles’s CARE exhibition began in 1973 at the Wadsworth Atheneum where she performed the first part of her proposal, personal maintenance. The personal maintenance aspect of Ukeles’s exhibition, or ‘Maintenance Art Performance’, was best accomplished in Washing Inside and Outside. The two washing pieces are often associated with the beginning of Ukeles’s conceptualism and institutional critique “as they reckoned with her status as wife and mother” and “articulate the tension between public and private realms” (Jackson 81). Ukeles had completed three maintenance performances prior to Washing Inside and Outside on Thursday and Friday.  On Sunday July 22nd, Ukeles returned to Wadsworth and completed Washing Inside and Outside, a “much simpler maintenance performance” (Ukeles, Shwartz Interview 286). She described the performance as “more personal, less systematically institutional” reflecting on her position as an artist, woman, wife and mother (Ukeles, Shwartz Interview 286). She first began outside by cleaning the main steps to the Wadsworth Atheneum in the morning and then proceeded to clean the inside of the Avery Court in the afternoon. Both washing performances took four hours and included the use of water, stone and diapers; reflecting on her dual role as mother and artist. In an interview with Alexandra Shwartz, Ukeles described that children would often join her, even though not prompted to, while adults would watch and occasionally walk on the area she had just cleaned; Ukeles would subsequently go and wipe out their tracks (286). At the end of both performances, Ukeles stamped ‘Maintenance Art’ and dated the diapers she had used to clean the interior and exterior of the museum. The performance was recorded through photographs taken by her husband since the Wadsworth Atheneum kept no records of Ukeles’s performances (Molesworth, House 95).

Due to the nature of her performance in a museum, Washing Inside and Outside can initially be read as confronting the binarism of public versus private and life versus art. Ukeles’s was realizing, through her washing performances, the key concept in her manifesto in which maintenance and art are brought into a “provocative affiliation” to address larger ideas of feminism and public institution (Philips 171).  While negotiating her position as a conceptual artist, Ukeles was simultaneously negotiating her position as a wife, mother, and artist for she transformed the immaterial labour of being a parent into creative production (Putnam 62). This begs the question as to whether Ukeles’s two washing performances are conceptually or personally driven? And whether it is appropriate for Ukeles to be labelled a conceptual artist?

Before discussing how Ukeles both conforms and complicates the understanding of conceptual art through Washing Inside and Outside, it is pertinent to provide a clear definition of conceptualism. Conceptual art is rather complex and consists of diverse practices that do not necessarily form a “single, unified artistic discourse and theory” (Alberro xvii). However, by looking at multiple definitions put forth by crucial conceptual theorist, it is possibly to convey five main guidelines. Firstly, conceptual art challenges the viewer’s intuition for they are encouraged to think about “what they see rather than simply weighing the formal or emotive impact” (Lippard 3). Visual perception is perceived as inadequate and instead you are invited to rethink the role of the artist and the art object. Simply put, conceptual art is self-reflexive, it is an “inquiry into the foundations of the concept ‘art’” (Kosuth 171).  

Secondly, conceptual art is a rejection of traditional artistic media, such as painting and sculpture, in favour of expressions, such as performances and photography. Lucy Lippard and John Chandler refer to this as the “dematerialization of art, especially of art as object, and if it continues to prevail, it may result in the object’s becoming wholly obsolete” (Lippard 31). Lippard and Chandler emphasize the rejection of material objects for two reasons; to avoid commercialization and to stress the third aspect of conceptual art, the idea.

Art as idea was first presented by Sol LeWitt who stated that “in conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work” (LeWitt 12). This underscores that the process and preliminary planning made prior are of primary importance, while the outcome is of secondary importance. Therefore, works of art are located on a level of ideas rather than objects in which the artist serves as thinker rather than object-maker. Continuing with LeWitt, the forth quality of conceptual art enforces that it is not “illustrative of theories […] and it is usually free from the dependence on the skill of the artist as a craftsman” (LeWitt 12), highlighting that conceptual art is made to convey meaning rather than depict a scene, person or event. Conceptual art is thus intuitive and concerned with mental processes, simple ideas, and logic. Conceptualism is best achieved when “the idea becomes a machine that makes the art” (LeWitt 12).  

Lastly, conceptual art is concerned with the transmission of information that functions by blurring the expressionistic qualities of conceptual art, such as photography and video art, with documentation.  According to Alexander Alberro, conceptual art is concerned with an “increased emphasis on the possibilities of publicness and distribution” (Alberro xvii). Conceptual art must therefore show information as plastic, easily communicated, and administrative. This refers to Benjamin H. D. Buchloh’s theory “aesthetics of administration” in which he appropriates conceptual art with bureaucratic forms (Buchloh 133). Conceptual art acts as a “metaphor of a performance of daily bureaucratic tasks”, which effectively eradicates the artist’s “imaginary and bodily experience, physical substance and the space of memory” (Buchloh 140). The information transmitted through conceptual art is thus communicated like an office catalogue. In most instances, the catalogue is in the form of guidelines about how the work was realized. With regards to Ukeles, the catalogue would include the second part of her manifesto and the photographs of Washing Inside and Outside. As such, a conceptual artist is understood as “emotionally dry” (LeWitt 13), disembodied, de-subjectivized and de-personalized in which their art is a rejection of the “emotional/intuitive process of art-making” (Lippard 48). In a broad definition, conceptual art is self-reflexive; it questions what it means to qualify as art through dematerialization, art as idea, and the communication of said idea in a systematic way.

            To discuss Ukeles’s position as a conceptual artist, it is pertinent to address how she deviates from its general understanding, but also how she uses certain aspects of conceptualism strategically in Washing Inside and Outside. To begin, we will address how she aligns her two washing performances with conceptual art. Firstly, Ukeles engages with self-reflexivity by interrogating what qualifies as art and provoking viewers to think critically. The two washing performances are often misread in terms of the strategies they employ, where the domestic/maintenance content is considered equivalent to their meaning. Yet, on the level of conceptualism, Ukeles engages with art’s investigation of its own meaning (Molesworth, House 81). Ukeles’s performances utilize conventionally considered degraded content, specifically cleaning, to permit an engagement with questions of value and institutional critique on the conditions of everyday life and art. She forces viewers to question if cleaning can be considered art, which underscores her self-reflexivity (Molesworth, House 82).  As such, Washing Inside and Outside follows the notion that “the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work” (LeWitt 12). Specifically, Ukeles stages domestic labour in the museum to establish maintenance as a subject for debate; is it art (Molesworth, Cleaning 117)?

The two washing performances also reject traditional artist media in favor of expression in performance art and thus refuse commodification. You did not have to pay to attend the two performances nor did it exist as an object to be sold since they were “physical, very task-oriented work” that were not theatrical and “barely left a trace” (Renjilian 94). Additionally, they were not repeated nor were the photos sold. Instead, following aesthetics of administration, Ukeles’s husband took photographs to document the performance and communicate her ideas that were not reliant on illustrative art and instead challenged formalist aesthetic strategies (Gagnon 3). Therefore, Ukeles performances promote how conceptual art should convey and communicate information. This was completed through photographs and her CARE proposal. For example, the photographs were not art objects, but were used to disseminate her performances “as a tool to document an ephemeral situation” (Gagnon 3), and thus communicate her idea of maintenance labour as art, which was further discussed in the CARE proposal section of her manifesto.

Lastly, Ukeles also established guidelines to perform Washing Inside and Outside in her manifesto which reflects conceptual art’s innovations as semantic rather than illustrative (Schellekens Encyclopedia). The three-part exhibition of her CARE proposal was not part of c. 7,500, the 1973 exhibition of female conceptual artists curated by Lippard, where Ukeles submitted a photographic series titled Maintenance Art Tasks (Ukeles, Shwartz Interview 285). Instead, Lippard encouraged Ukeles to complete her maintenance art performances as independent from the larger exhibition. As such, they contacted Wadsworth who accepted her personal maintenance proposal. The guidelines were described in her manifesto as:

“I will live in the museum as I customarily do at home with my husband and my baby, for the duration of the exhibition  […] and do all these things as public Art activities: I will sweep and wax the floors, dust everything, wash the walls (i.e. floor paintings) […] The exhibition area might look “empty” of art, but it will be maintained in full public view. My working will be the work.” (146).

The Wadsworth Atheneum presented Ukeles with the first opportunity to put her CARE proposal into practice. As such, her manifesto acted as a protocol to complete her washing performances and a means of communication “to conceptualise, imagine, and apprehend the work” (Gagnon 3).

            Although it appears that Ukeles was strictly a conceptual artist, especially for her contribution to Lippard’s exhibition, she also complicated the general understanding of the “movement” (Butler 60). To begin, Ukeles deviates from conceptual art for enforcing an “emotional/intuitive process of art-making” (Lippard 48), which could be considered autobiographical. For example, although the guidelines to perform Washing Inside and Outside in her manifesto enforce the notion that “the idea becomes a machine that makes the art”, it also presents her idea as personally driven (LeWitt 12). In an interview with Tom Finkelpearl, Ukeles states that she wrote Maintenance Art Manifesto in response to a personal experience. After her teacher said that she could no longer be an artist when becoming a mother, Ukeles states that “the fury turned into an illumination, and, in one sitting, I wrote a manifesto” (Ukeles, Finkelpearl Interview 8). Therefore, her two washing performances were not objective but emotionally driven; like On Kawara’s Date Paintings series which were neutral but also “quasi diaristic” (Weiss 26).

Furthermore, the two washing performances are the enactment of the “Part One: Personal” section of the CARE exhibition proposal where she metaphorically and literally stages her objective drive as an artist, woman, wife, and mother. She does “a hell of a lot of washing” but “also I do Art” (Ukeles, Manifesto 124). Therefore, Ukeles complicates conceptual art for not being disembodied nor unemotional. Instead, Washing Inside and Outside, as claimed by Ukeles herself, was “more personal [and] less systematically institutional” (Ukeles, Shwartz Interview 286). Additionally, by using her body to perform the maintenance art, Ukeles’s challenged the notion of dematerialization that is pertinent to conceptual art.  Although Miwon Kwon argued that Ukeles performance was “not based on a physical permanence of that relationship but rather on the recognition of its unfixed impermanence” (Kwon 91), suggesting her performance was dematerialized, it is important to ask how? Is Ukeles’s action of crouching and scrubbing not material (Jackson 92)? How are gestures and the body not material? The body can thus be representative of Ukeles failing to create art that “emphasizes the thinking process almost exclusively” (Lippard 46). Ukeles uses embodied maintenance practices rather than commodity objects, a rejection of traditional media that aligns her with conceptualism, but her performance is not obsolete nor impersonal (Giordano 20).

The act of using her body was also vital to the idea of Washing Inside and Outside. Ukeles shifted the focus on the artist’s body to interactions between the public. Her body was integral to the action taking place but “was not the central focus” (Renjilian 47). As a female artist using conceptual strategies, Ukeles’s washing performances employs her body to express female labor as a performance, as opposed to Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece (1965). Ono’s performance was affective and visually impactful, whereas there was nothing special in Ukeles’s performance. Her action of cleaning the floor was repetitive, meticulous and completed “exactly as it would be done in her own home” (Ukeles, Manifesto 123). As such, the menial domestic tasks associated with women’s work are brought to a level of aesthetic contemplation, which further prompts viewers to question if it is art.

However, for Ukeles to make connections between aesthetic practice and social imperatives that informed it, “it was necessary to move outside the abstract, self-reflexive, and disembodied investigations that had dominated Conceptual art” (Wark 49). By deviating from conceptualism’s central premises, Ukeles used her body strategical to further communicate her idea that “the work of maintenance is neither exclusively public nor private” (Molesworth, House 87). By using her body, she also raises questions about art, work, right and privilege (Phillips 177). Ukeles stages the invisible labour, that is required for the public sphere to function, in the museum to establish maintenance labour as a subject for discussion. Therefore, Ukeles performance makes visible to the public that which is traditional excluded from the museum space. The action of washing the floor is reflective of “work as analytic proposition” since it is de-skilled while also maintaining abstraction (Molesworth, Cleaning 118). By renaming her cleaning activities from domestic labour to maintenance and then art, Ukeles makes the private public and in doing so articulates that the private sphere can rearticulate the public sphere (Molesworth, House 83). Ukeles’s washing performance uses her private body to perform a private activity in a public space that explores “the interpenetration between public and private” (Molesworth, Cleaning 120). Ukeles thus serves to bare the abstraction of conceptual art by interrogating the boundaries of public and private experiences.

However, when considering aesthetics of administration, it is interesting to note that Ukeles’s two performances were not completely systematic. Although bureaucratic in documenting her performances, they were subject to chance elements, such as people walking over the areas she had just cleaned. For example, Ukeles “hounded people as they walked on her cleaned site, immediately scrubbing away any trace of their footprints” (Philips 177), emphasizing a lack in the performance as systematic. Ukeles thus goes against the unemotional and disembodied conceptual artist for she fails to completely eradicate her “bodily experience […]and the space of memory” (Buchloh 140).

            In conclusion, Ukeles is not easy to classify nor label for she does not fit comfortably within conceptual art’s boundaries. Instead, she created her own genre of maintenance art that encompasses key aspects of conceptual art, where “the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work” (LeWitt 12), while intermingling it with feminist art, performance art and institutional critique. This essay has claimed that Ukeles challenged the limitation of conceptual art as a rejection of the “emotional/intuitive process of art-making” (Lippard 48) for she was personally driven. Moreover, she used her body to further complicate the notion of dematerialization in conceptual art. Therefore, by analysing the two performances, Washing Inside and Outside, while supplementing with evidence from Maintenance Art Manifesto, it is clear that Ukeles’s works were a means of bringing theoretical questions of public and private and art and life to the fore by re-contextualizing art via labour (Molesworth, Cleaning 114). Ukeles’s performances are thus conceptually driven for they act as a conduit of ideas, regarding the porosity between public and private, to enter discussion (Molesworth, Cleaning 121). The two washing performances were self-reflexive for they interrogated labour as art, administrative for their meticulous repetition, informative via documentation in photographs and her manifesto’s to-do list quality and avoided commodification for rejecting traditional artistic media.

This seemingly perfect alignment with conceptualism was directly complicated by Ukeles for she underscores that materialist systems are required to sustain dematerialized forms; “Conceptual and Process Art especially claim pure development and change, yet employ almost purely maintenance processes” (Ukeles, Manifesto 123), reflecting her complication of immateriality. As such, while working on the threshold of the museum, Ukeles was challenging the notion of artistic practice as purely visual and as purely immaterial by making maintenance embodied art. She was rethinking artistic mediums while re-ordering relationships between mothers, artists and maintenance staff. Ukeles’s was thus both conceptually and personally driven, but only in alignment with the notion that the “personal is political” (Ukeles, Manifesto 123). Her washing performances underscore the larger connections between personal experience and social and political structures (Molesworth, Cleaning 117). As such, Ukeles’s performance of Washing Inside and Outside was not about the emotions she felt as she worked or her body, but rather that the invisible labor that ran the museum was now in full view, “conceptually suggesting that the artist’s job could be productive and sustaining to its culture” (Liss 46). Overall, Ukeles’s maintenance art performances and the movement of conceptual art are “in a continuing dialogue, sometimes a conversation, sometimes an argument” (Ward 36).


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