On her book Immaterial: Rules in Contemporary Art

Cover Interview of

In a nutshell

Contemporary art seems chaotic. Works can be made out of materials ranging from sugar to ladders to lard. Parts may be intentionally hidden from the audience, objects allowed to deteriorate, and the audience permitted to add or remove things or even damage the objects on display. Sometimes there is no persistent object at all: the work may involve human activity, or temporary objects that are replaced between exhibitions. Contemporary art takes unpredictable forms and often flouts the expectation that artistic creativity involves skilled fabrication of a persistent object.

Some find this proliferation of forms and situations exciting – you never know what you’ll find around the bend. For others it is frustrating. Both kinds of audience members, those who welcome the chaos and those averse to it, may be missing key elements of meaning. This is because contemporary art involves a medium that is not always easy to detect when we encounter the work: rules.

With traditional paintings and sculptures, the rules were conventional, built in. The artist fabricated a durable object to be displayed for our enjoyment. Museums strived to conserve these objects in close to their original state. We knew what to expect, what to do, and what not to do: look at the work, admire it, don’t touch it.

Contemporary artists have been playing with these conventional rules: replacing them with new, custom rules that apply to specific artworks or groups of works. These rules are carefully articulated to achieve specific effects. Just as a painter makes choices about how to apply paint to achieve particular visual effects, contemporary artists make choices about rules to provide particular experiences – in both cases, there are implications for the work’s meanings. Paul Ramírez Jonas invites us to tack a note on to the cork pedestal of a riderless horse, subverting the typical use of monuments to convey the unitary message of the state. Adrian Piper invites us to register our commitments, bridging the separation between art and the rest of life. Babak Golkar offers pottery to muffle our screams.

In a context of so many custom rules opening up new possibilities, the choice to use the conventional rule – don’t touch the work – gains new significance as a consciously selected option rather than a default. Janine Antoni doesn’t allow us to touch the chocolate works she has sculpted through licking and gnawing, because she aims for viewers to empathize with her experience:

“My work comes out of a deep sense of loneliness and frustration that we cannot truly ever know each other. I try to enter my objects, leaving traces of my interaction on their surface for others to discover. To understand my objects is to empathize with what I have gone through to bring them into the world.”

To bite the chocolate ourselves – as audience members have sometimes done, necessitating repairs – would be to abandon empathy and instead impose ourselves into Antoni’s experience.

The book is designed to give readers the tools to recognize how rules are used as a creative medium in contemporary art and to understand how rules contribute to what the artwork expresses.

May 17, 2023

The wide angle

During an early professional experience writing about artworks for a large public art museum, I had access to files containing fascinating correspondence between artists and the museum. I found diagrams, instructions, and even negotiations about how the objects should be displayed and treated over time, and about whether and how members of the public should be permitted to engage with the objects in some way. I could see that artists were very intentional in articulating rules for their works, even in the face of resistance from the museum, because these rules allowed them to construct a specific kind of experience for the audience and thereby convey expressive content.

I went on to study the archives of several institutions and interviewed artists, curators, and conservators about how contemporary artworks are collected, conserved, and displayed. I was able to confirm that artworks involving custom rules are widespread, and museums have developed practices to ensure that they gather enough information about the rules.

Sometimes these rules challenge the museum’s standard practices. When the Philadelphia Museum of Art decided to acquire Zoe Leonard’s work Strange Fruit, she initially participated in seeking a conservation strategy for the fruit peels. But eventually she realized that suspending natural processes would interfere with meanings related to mortality and grief. She indicated that the objects should be allowed to deteriorate, subverting the usual practice of conservation. Museums continue to grapple with how to accommodate works with challenging rules in their institutional frameworks, and this sometimes highlights power structures – and struggles – in the art world and beyond.

This book is responsive to the real practices and experiences of artists and museum professionals. It also delves into some real-world complications: what if the communications from the artist aren’t easy to interpret, or change over time? How can we pin down the rules if they seem to be slippery, in flux? And what should we say about situations where museums or audience members decide to violate the rules?

May 17, 2023

A close-up

In the first chapter, I delve into examples to show how rules affect an artwork’s meanings. In 1991, Felix Gonzalez-Torres created a work called “Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in L.A.). To display it, the museum installs a pile of colorful wrapped hard candies with an “ideal weight” of 175 pounds. There is a rule that viewers are allowed to take candies from the pile, and the museum replenishes the pile periodically. Ross, who was Gonzalez-Torres’s lover, died of AIDS. The ideal weight, 175 pounds, is connected to the weight of a healthy adult man, one who is not wasting away due to illness. Since the work is presented as a portrait of Ross, and since the audience is invited to take and consume the candies, the work supports meanings having to do with overcoming the taboos associated with AIDS: eating the candy puts us in physical contact with this representation of Ross. The rule that we can eat the candy suggests positive qualities of Ross like being sweet, lighthearted, and generous.

Displaying this work also gets the museum to do things museums don’t do very often: it lets us walk away with part of the artwork, and it gives us a simple pleasure, something sweet to eat right there in the gallery. If the work had a different rule – the candies are piled up right there, but we’re not allowed to touch them, just like we’re not allowed to touch the other works – the work couldn’t express the same things. It might seem more cynical, highlighting the arbitrary separation museums impose between audience members and the artwork rather than intervening in this separation.

Sigalit Landau’s Barbed Salt Lamps were made by creating structures out of barbed wire and repeatedly dunking them into the Dead Sea until they were encrusted with salt. Landau, who is Israeli, has designed a rule to address the works’ fragility: as pieces of salt drop off, the objects should continue to be displayed without repair. This rule is available as a source of meaning, just as the unique materials are: they are listed on the wall label as “barbed wire and Dead Sea salt” to reveal both the nature of the materials and their regional connection. In the context of Israel and Palestine, barbed wire suggests separation of populations, restriction of movement, and denial of opportunity. Salt from the Dead Sea, a popular tourist destination renowned for its curative powers, is used to conceal the barbed wire, creating a luxurious-looking item we might expect to see in an affluent home. But the brutal underlying structure is destined to be revealed over time, creating a suggestive metaphor for the political situation in the region.

There are also a lot of great pictures in the book, so I hope some readers might just thumb through, find an image that intrigues them, and drop in right there to find out what the artwork is all about.

May 17, 2023


I wrote this book out of a persistent fascination and perplexity about a group of artworks that use a different set of resources than earlier visual artworks. The physical differences are obvious: many of these works include everyday objects and non-art materials. But even more striking, I eventually found, is that artists are using rules as a technology to set up opportunities and experiences that can be quite surprising and powerful. I’ve tried to take the audience on a tour of the machine room of artistic production to see background processes that profoundly shape our experience.

Fundamentally, I hope this will make encounters with art richer and more fun. Once we know the role rules are playing, we know how to look for the opportunities a work might present to us. And once we know what the opportunities are, we can decide whether to pursue them, and what it means that the artist has chosen to offer these opportunities rather than different ones.

Even when the rule itself is silly or obvious, thinking about it can open into some deep territory. You could watch a video of children cutting adults’ hair and find it mildly amusing. But what if the opportunity to let a kid cut your hair is directly open to you? Suddenly, you have to ask yourself a lot of questions: am I open to being this vulnerable? How much trust am I willing to place in people who are rarely trusted? How much is my identity tied up in how I am seen? Can I reframe incompetence as avant-garde?

I hope this book puts people in a position to ask more questions, to look into possibilities beyond what is visible on the surface, and to ask what meanings are created when an artwork is made out of rules rather than just out of physical stuff.

May 17, 2023
Sherri Irvin Immaterial: Rules in Contemporary Art Oxford University Press 288 pages, 9 3/16 x 6 1/8 inches ISBN 9780199688210

Sherri Irvin is Presidential Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of Oklahoma. She is editor of Body Aesthetics (Oxford, 2016) and author of Immaterial: Rules in Contemporary Art (Oxford, 2022), which is featured in her Rorotoko interview. In addition to contemporary art, she works on aesthetic issues of embodiment, especially as they intersect with well-being and justice.

Cover Interview of
May 17, 2023