By Leah Samuelson
I’d like to invite you to visit the empty corner of a room in the New Modern collection at the Art Institute of Chicago and imagine a colorful wooden walking stick propped there on end, with no alarms or ropes around it. The stick, or barre as André Cadere called it, used to be there, but is now in museum storage. I first saw it in its corner display while shopping in the New Modern.
“Shopping” is what I call walking around an exhibition with every intention of identifying (but with no intention of stealing) the one work that won’t stop calling to me—compelling me to imagine my life with the artwork living in my home. Shopping requires me to choose among the goodliest of goods. This particular artwork appealed to me, against my usual aesthetic will, only because it was naked in the corner, looking incidental and innocent, lacking all warning decals for viewers to keep a distance—instead, baiting strangers to approach and assume postures of inelegant curiosity.
I eventually learned that though Cadere made these painted barres as art, they were deemed a non-fit in his contemporary minimalist art scene, and the barre I saw at the Art Institute looked more like a forgotten umbrella than a choice purchase of my museum shopping. I didn’t want to like it, but it was just so available. I had never heard of André Cadere; I had to ask Ebony, the woman working vicinity security, if the barre was real art, and why it wasn’t guarded by motion sensors. She didn’t know, but said it was a popular co-subject of selfies. It’s a poignant coincidence that Cadere’s barre disappeared from view after I selected it as the object of study for this blog post because when Cadere made and paraded his barres around pubs and galleries in Paris and Berlin in the 1970s, they never stood still—they were seldom exhibited and were frequently thrown out of art shows (with Cadere attached).
So I picked a loser. Or I was picked by a loser, as often happens when possibilities hidden in plain view invite us to be authentically awake. The barres are performative and were made to attract the wrong kind of attention from the right kind of people in the art establishment. Cadere made his barres to hold as he walked, like an urban shepherd or a pedestrian Don Quixote. He had a transformation in mind for critics and curators, but his message was contained in the form and function of his artworks—each of which were unnecessarily documented with handmade index cards recording barres’ peerage and important dates, accredited by no one. To my eye, Cadere’s works resemble other artists’ works from the 1970s—bright, striped, schematized, reductionist, not good with the sofa in the den.
But in most reports I can find about André Cadere, he was one shade shy of despised. He was an émigré from Poland, from Portugal, from Romania, and he died in Paris in his forties of cancer, leaving 180 painted barres as his largest legacy.
Maybe it was unforgivable that he considered the barres paintings and that they were designed to travel and be deposited on gallery windowsills. Maybe a man with a staff conjured up all-too- unsavory associations with a rambling man, a man with authority, or a man with a message. Gallery directors could be infuriated by his uninvited arrival if he bore a long barre, usually ejecting it from the premises only to find Cadere sometimes packing a concealed, smaller barre in his jacket as a back-up. (A similar teensy insult emerges from the top of Charlie Chaplin’s overalls in his last silent film Modern Times, as Chaplin splashes his arresting officers with a small oilcan. The event is as surprising as it is inflammatory because Chaplin had just squirted his way past everyone from the CEO to the janitor of his factory workplace with a [now confiscated] oversized oilcan.) If Cadere’s barres weren’t tools, weren’t scepters, weren’t paintings, weren’t marketable, and weren’t requested, perhaps that made them a nuisance within striking distance of all social strata.
Cadere seems to have willingly embodied the rejection of his work as part of his artist shtick. He was after all nick-named the Stick Man. Like a true reformer, Cadere professed stakeholder status in the art world he challenged, and sought enfranchised representation—but always with the requisite cost of his outsider station appended. The power of the self-marginalizing protestor reminded me of the Christ when described as “he who became a curse for us.” Within days of encountering the Art Institute’s Cadere acquisition, this paradox spiraled its way into my musings and I began to see Cadere-type scenes when I least expected them. In a book at work, I saw sacred icons of a dirty John the Baptist holding a staff. I encountered a man on the Green Line who sat with a wooden walking stick, possessing it princely as a scepter. At the YMCA pool, I swam headlong into a “beep” in the deep? Without my glasses I could barely make out the tiny tiles covering the pool basin that spelled something at the end of the lane. Why would the pool say “beep”? Shoving my nose up against the tiles I saw the letter ‘D’ with two chipped shingles in its hump, changing its form and forming an unexpected message in a familiar place.
The art world is one of deep reflection on and for the human story. If you go to the Art Institute on the right day, you might see a striped staff leaning in the corner. No alarms will sound if you get too close, but be ready for a noisy signifier. Cadere’s barres change the way we see inside and outside the art museum.
Leah Samuelson is a muralist and mosaicist who works with arts for social change at Wheaton College. She loves art museums AND this quote from Guy Debord in Report on the Construction of Situations (1957): “That which changes our way of seeing the streets is more important than that which changes our way of seeing a painting.”
She hopes art can change the streets.