- The Ideas, Identity and Art of Daniel Spoerri: Contingencies and Encounters of an ‘Artistic Animator’ by Leda Cempellin
I suspect that Daniel Spoerri is not a household name among readers of Modernism/modernity. This is a shame because he was an artist especially attuned to the sorts of interdisciplinarity this journal takes as its core concern. He began his career as a dancer, then turned to poetry, and then to object production. And in almost every instance, the work he produced was itself multidisciplinary: his poems are visual, his sculptures literary. But Spoerri is known almost exclusively within art-historical circles, and even there his reception has been limited to but a single body of work, his so-called “tableaux-pièges” (snare-pictures), in which the remains of a meal—dirtied dinner plates, emptied glasses, used stemware, napkins, and a tablecloth—are glued to the table’s surface then hung horizontally on the wall. Indeed, for the bulk of his career, Spoerri has been known only as “that guy who hangs tables on the wall.”
As the first English-language monograph on Spoerri’s long and varied career, Leda Cempellin’s new book should go a long way toward drawing Spoerri out of the margins of art history. Her book offers a richly detailed account of an artist who, on account of his multidisciplinarity, has for decades eluded scholarly consideration. He was born Daniel Isaac Feinstein, in Romania, in 1930. His father, a Jew who had converted to Christianity, was arrested and murdered by the Nazis in 1941. His mother, Lydia Spoerri, a Christian, was a Swiss citizen and she was able to emigrate with her son a year later. Cempellin doesn’t linger long on Spoerri’s childhood, but she does propose that Spoerri’s absent father, as well as the geographical disruption and trauma of his childhood years, played a role in the artist’s lifelong engagement with memory, movement, and death.
Cempellin’s book is cleverly structured. Rather than frame Spoerri’s career within the confines of his renowned tableaux-pièges, the book focuses its attention on the artist’s insistently [End Page 202] collaborative process. As the subtitle suggests, Spoerri emerges from these pages as an “artistic animator” rather than an “artist,” by which Cempellin means that Spoerri’s career was devoted to working with others and to helping others make and distribute their own work. As Cempellin asserts early on in the book: “There is not a single artistic venture in which Spoerri acted completely alone” (2). The challenge, then, is how to properly track the career of an artist for whom the work of others is inextricably woven into its fabric. Cempellin takes on the challenge by providing details not only of Spoerri’s work, but of the many artists and writers with whom he collaborated. The story of his collaborations begins with his editorial work on the short-lived but historically significant journal, Material (1958–60). Material was the first international collection of concrete poetry, and while it managed a limited distribution, it played a significant role in bringing about one of the most widely distributed and influential anthologies of concrete poetry, An Anthology of Concrete Poetry, edited by Spoerri’s good friend, Emmett Williams and published by Dick Higgins’s Something Else Press.
Higgins, a Fluxus artist, also published Spoerri’s justly revered text An Anecdoted Topography of Chance, perhaps the only other work by Spoerri to have achieved a level of widespread recognition matching that of his tableaux-pièges. The Topo, as it was known in Fluxus circles, is a model of the artist’s collaborative process. The book began modestly enough, as a textual supplement to a 1962 exhibition of Spoerri’s recent work. An inventory of all eighty items on his kitchen table on the afternoon of October 17, 1961, the catalog also included brief anecdotes, recollections triggered by the mundane objects on the table. Soon after its publication, Williams began to translate it from...