More than 30 years have passed since the fall of 1979, when the newly formed Group Material first convened on Manhattan’s Lower East Side as a collective of young artists, designers, educators, and writers; some were recent graduates of the School of Visual Arts, classmates and friends of friends joined by the same socio-academic ties that still bind New York City’s downtown art scene. Eleven members strong at its founding, Group Material experienced a series of compositional shifts over the next 15-odd years: Its changing cast featured Julie Ault, Tim Rollins, Felix Gonzalez Torres, and Doug Ashford, among many others, all practitioners whose work lent a strong sense of individuality to their collaborative efforts. Group Material was not a faceless entity, after all. It was a cross-disciplinary force whose forays into art, politics, exhibition-making, and museum culture remain highly influential.
Setting up shop in a storefront space on East 13th Street in Manhattan (the cost of which was split equally at $45 per month, per member), Group Material’s distinctly Marxist political leanings were manifested in projects that func tioned as evidence-based social commentaries. Money was tight, but the sense of urgency was palpable, and so the group did what it could with what it had. Highly self-aware of its relationship to the still-developing Lower East Side, Group Material remained mindful of its neighbors while developing Inaugural Exhibition. “[Our] first show will determine our initial outreach, make clear who we see as our audience, and to what kind of public we are committed,” claim notes on the project from August 1980, excerpted in Show and Tell: A Chronicle of Group Material, a visual and textual account of the group’s earliest days, edited by Ault and published last Spring by Four Corners Books. In “Budgets,” a particularly sharp piece from the exhibit, graphic designer Liliana Dones posted on the gallery walls ten pieces of paper enumerating the personal budgets of her fellow members—a humorous, yet pointed gesture. Within a year, the space had been abandoned for a more itinerant practice that engaged various sites throughout the city and beyond.
Printed ephemera played various roles in Group Material’s history. In order to meet the guidelines for incorporation in New York State, an act that would enable the group to apply for sorely needed government funding, its members were forced to prove their collective existence by creating and preserving a paper trail of procedures, proposals, budgets, and other bureaucratic minutiae. Maintaining such rigid organizational boundaries, if only in writing, seemed counter-intuitive to their shared commitment to open structures and dispersed labor within the group. Yet, in doing so, they formed an uncommonly precise record of their earliest forays—a set of documents that has become indispensable to those seeking to reconstruct that history and understand the group’s
A very specific visual language emerged from this obsessive documentation, part of a larger graphic sensibility that formed the public face of Group Material. As a cohort of conscientious young people committed to engaging with their marginalized neighborhood, Group Material meant serious business. By appropriating the look, feel, and even material means of the very bureaucratic apparatuses they grappled with, the group forged a graphic identity now readily associated with socially and politically engaged art practices. Some of this couldn’t be helped: The manual typewriter used to record minutes during the group’s first meetings lent a particular sense of gravity to the most banal accounts. Equally serviceable, the Xerox machine and bulk-mailing system sufficed as the means for reproducing and disseminating text-heavy exhibition announcements, event invitations, and press releases.
The group confronted these material constraints with conviction. Notes from a meeting in July 1980 recount a heated debate over what color to paint the gallery space, with members’ various positions carefully recorded; minutes from the following month recall the insistence that didactic materials be placed in the gallery as a means of contextualizing the first exhibition for a general audience. Other conflicts are recounted more vividly: A debate over the use of an image of a woman deemed sexist by some members for the announcement card for Facere/Fascis (May 2 through June 4, 1981) resulted in Hannah Alderfer, who usually designed most of the group’s printed ephemera, refusing to work on the project altogether. Dones stepped in, rendering the image into a mock magazine cover by spinning the show’s themes—fashion, class, Fascist discourse— into media-friendly headlines emblazoned across a searing red background.
Soon enough, Group Material began working on a larger-scale public installation, where its graphic sensibility informed message-driven projects such as Da Zi Baos (1982), a series of posters based on the Chinese “Big Character posters,” or Dazibaos, which are used to espouse political positions and are posted on “democracy walls” as a means of publicizing social issues and engendering debate. The group polled passersby in Union Square on current events and posted their candid comments in a series of handmade posters. Public grants allowed for more elaborate interventions such as “Subculture” (1983), a series of placards on the New York City subway, and “Inserts” (1988), an advertising supplement to The New York Times; both enlisted the work of other artists in initiatives whose themes, at times overtly political in nature, forced heated discussion.
Group Material’s most powerful projects employed an innate understanding of the way information functions in the public realm, forming incisive critiques of various institutions while operating from the gallery space. “AIDS Timeline,”
installed at the Berkeley Art Museum MATRIX Gallery at the University of California, Berkeley in 1989 (and chronicled at length in Show and Tell by Sabrina Locks) was, and remains, a tactical masterpiece. Displaying artworks alongside a trove of research into the various industries whose policies and procedures impacted the then-ten-year epidemic, members Doug Ashford, Julie Ault, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, and Karen Ramspacher, along with the art historian Richard Meyer, then a graduate student in Berkeley’s art history department, merged political activism and art-making to form a loose and associative, yet literal, taxonomy of a disease that galvanized the political landscape. The piece was recreated at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford (1990) and again at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, for the 1991 Whitney Biennial, where its inclusion marked a newfound willingness on the part of American art institutions to engage with the epidemic.
By claiming the gallery, the printed page, and the street as sites where art and politics are translated through a distinctly graphic language, Group Material engaged the culture industry—and one another—in rigorous intellectual debate. To this very day, nearly 15 years after the group disbanded in 1996, its former members exhibit a sense of inclusiveness about their work. During the question-and-answer session at a symposium on Group Material held last October at New York City’s Artists Space, an audience member asked how, given recent cultural shifts, young people might continue making socially and politically engaged work. Tim Rollins answered, simply: “It’s up to you,” suggesting that the possibilities are as wide-reaching as his own practice, which straddles the commercial art market and public education system with the same determination that marked Group Material’s undertakings. The group’s demonstrated openness in sharing that conversation with others is a testament to the enduring nature of their practice, which has since informed the practice of countless artists, activists, curators, and designers.
As a critic, Sarah has written for publications including Frieze, Artforum, Art in America, Red Hook Journal (Bard College), Mousse, Print, Paper Monument, and Rhizome, amongst other websites, blogs, and print publications. While her interests are manifold, much of her published writing has considered the social mediation of art institutions and publications through digital media.
First launched as an art school thesis project and now long offline, her blog, Forward Retreat (2000-2008), was part of the early cohort of American art blogs that bore initial influence on then-emerging digital publishing practices in the arts. Sarah's recent work is supported by a 2016 Creative Capital|Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant.
— A series of essays on the visual culture of motherhood
— A collection of short stories
— "@Artist: Performing the Digital Self," an ongoing project awarded support by the 2016 Creative Capital | Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant Program