Concrete comedy, a term of my invention, is the comedy of actions and objects – of doing rather than saying. Where conventional histories define comedy in verbal, narrative and, usually, make-believe terms, concrete comedy is carried out in the theaters of the real world. Emerging during the first decades of the twentieth-century, a comedy of gestures and things gradually found expression in every area of public life – visual art, fashion, architecture, politics, sports, pop music, film, television – to form a history which previously had gone unrecognized.
368 pages, 300 b/w photographs. Published by Pork Salad Press, 2011.
DR on Concrete Comedy in “500 Words,” Artforum.com, August 2011
“Concrete comedy” is a term I coined in the late 1980s or early ’90s to describe the comedy of doing rather than saying – the comedy of things and gestures. It’s a broad class of comedy, a sensibility that’s manifested in lots of disciplines, and it includes some objects that appear in galleries or museums. We’ve grown accustomed to gallery-sited objects or installations that aspire to perform comedically but, believe me, when I started exhibiting that kind of work in New York in 1984 and ‘85, it was definitely odd-man-out. New York art at that time was neo-expressionist, Pictures Generation–derived, deconstructive-slash-critical, or Dia high-serious. Comedy in art was performed – think Mike Smith or William Wegman – but it definitely wasn’t integrated into objects that hung on the wall or stood on the floor. There was a hole, and I started filling it.
In 1988 Christian Nagel, who knew my comedic bent, turned me on to the work of the German comedian Karl Valentin. Celebrated for his film and stage comedy, Valentin also made comic objects, producing them from 1915 through the 1930s. They were a revelation and made me realize that my instincts were more in a comedic than an artistic tradition. Finding out about Valentin derailed my “art” career – ask any of my ex-gallerists! – because from that point on I really put comedy first. I stopped thinking through an art framework and instead dug into the idea of the comic object, which work occupied me for more than a decade.
Valentin was clever enough to realize that his objects needed their own context, and he created one: The Valentin Panoptikum, housed originally in the basement of the Hotel Wagner in Munich. I too felt the need to make a context that naturalized my instincts, so I started researching the history of materialist comedy. Valentin’s context creation involved a physical space, whereas mine became a book that pulled together an alternative history of modern comedy, the research and writing of which took me ten years. Last year, Jacob Fabricius volunteered to publish it, and this past spring we completed production. It’s a completely different take on comedy — not a history of, in curator-speak, “artists who use humor in their work,” but a history of comedy that has taken material form. It’s the first of its kind. The world will never be the same!
Since the early twentieth century, concrete comedy has shown up in every area of material culture and public theater — art, fashion, politics, sports, advertising, pop music, architecture, film, and TV – it’s in every aspect of public life. Sometimes it announces itself – Maurizio Cattelan’s sculpture of a raised middle finger, sited in front of the Milano bourse, comes to mind – and sometimes it’s super subtle. Harold Koda, curator at the Met’s Costume Institute, educated me about the sly wit of Coco Chanel who, for instance, made a few design changes to maid’s uniforms and sold the result to wealthy women. These two examples give you some idea of materialist comedy’s range. There are hundreds more; as a basic human invention comedy accepts the imprint of an infinite variety of sensibilities.
Concrete comedy is a hallmark of the modern sensibility. It begins with Valentin, the first person to consistently create objects of comic intent, and with Marcel Duchamp, who was the first to thematize the question of the artist’s seriousness, and then it spreads. Warhol during his deadpan ’60s phase, Andy Kaufman, Martin Kippenberger — all can be regarded as concrete comedians. Something caused comedy to expand beyond merely verbal wit, and the innovation held. Why? We can only speculate. Perhaps a concrete comedy that engages the theaters of the real world felt more empowering than did just speaking funny lines. Comedy is always about a relation to power. There’s always a jester and always a king, even if the “king” now takes the form of mass media, capitalism, and the other ruling abstractions of our time. And the jester always represents a threat, because the jester, in accepting his role, has announced his intention not to seek the throne. He’s playing another game, and that makes him dangerous.
Evans, Thomas, “An Interview with David Robbins about Concrete Comedy,” Artbook.com, 2011
Bad At Sports, “Interview with David Robbins,” Episode #82, March 25, 2007
Estep, Jan, “Do You Consider This a Career? A Conversation with David Robbins,” New Art Examiner, pp. 26-31, October 1998
Wilford, Dennis, “On Concrete Comedy: David Robbins Interviewed by his landlord Dennis Wilford,” 1991, published in Foundation Papers from the Archives of The Institute for Advanced Comedic Behavior, 1992
Crone, Cameron, Concrete Comedy book review, in The Art Book Review, January 15, 2014
O’Reilly, Sally, Concrete Comedy book review, in Art Review, p. 142, March 2012
Cernuschi, Stefano, Concrete Comedy book review, in Mousse 31, p. 126, November/December 2011
Trezzi, Nicola, Concrete Comedy book review, in Flash Art, p. 48, November/December 2011
Maine, Stephen, “12 Notable Books of 2011,” Art in America, December 28, 2011
Vaillant, Alexis, “Best of 2011,” in Frieze, December 2011
Torp, Marianne, in the Nordic art journal Kunstkritikk, December 21, 2011
Schumacher, Mary Louise, “David Robbins Gets Serious About Funny Art,” in The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, September 26, 2011
Lillemose, Jacob in Kunstkritik, December 9, 2011