Isabelle Graw

The Gallerist’s Hat On John Knight’s „JK, a work in situ, Art Basel“ and the structural transformation of the art world

It was in the 1990s, Isabelle Graw asserts, that the art world emerged as a global industry: with blue-chip galleries erecting additional venues in other cities, even continents; with every commercial art center making way for its suite of art fairs and gallery weekends, and in turn calibrating to the event-driven cycles and celebrity culture that such environments engender. Offering some refuge from this were various “programm­galerien“ such as American Fine Arts in New York. Run by Colin de Land, AFA managed to engage the market directly (it was de Land after all, who helped found the Armory Show) even while understanding the gallery as a space of debate, an apparatus fundamentally involved in, and frequently implicated by, the content of the art it presented.

Ever cultivating the edges of Institutional Critique, AFA artist John Knight saw not just the gallery but the very body of his dealer as a key “site” for staging a work, creating for de Land a gallerist cap that was to be worn for the duration of Art Basel 1992. In this essay, Graw examines Knight’s implementation of this simple accessory as a highly effective symbol of structural change.

1. A legend and its consequences

Dissolving the barriers between art and its social environment has released a tide of legends. [1] As art has reached out more and more confidently into the social sphere, a development widely discussed in terms of the “social turn,” the art world has become fertile ground for mythmaking via the stories and confabulations that spring up around works of art that outline the conditions of their social entanglements. Consider the piece I want to discuss here: John Knight’s baseball cap (“JK, a work in situ, Art Basel,” 1992). In the standard version, the story is this: In 1992, the New York-based gallery owner Colin de Land, who died in 2003, asked the artist John Knight to make a piece for de Land to present in his booth reserved for his gallery, American Fine Arts Co., at Art Basel. [2] Knight gave him a white cap, a fine specimen of the kind of baseball cap de Land liked to wear anyway, as numerous photographs show. [3] But where other caps feature the logo or name of a sports team, this one featured a patch with Knight’s initials, JK, as a black ligature, recalling the artist’s well-known earlier wood reliefs (“Project for documenta 7,” 1981), where the reduction to his joined initials seemed to take the idea of the signature style piece at its word. The new work strictly stipulated that de Land was to wear the branded cap “for the duration of the fair” – an experimental setup to which the gallerist supposedly consented. [4] The story is not just anecdotal embellishment; it is an integral part of the work of art and must be taken into account in any attempt to make sense of the piece. Contemplating the cap in isolation, as an aesthetic object, we would not really grasp what is at stake in it. Then again, the framing narrative is the stuff of legend, and so although we have to take it seriously, we cannot accept it at face value. [5] The cap’s meaning may be implicit in the artist’s directives as well as his telling of its story, but that story needs to be decoded, set in context, and interpreted.

For example, Knight’s instruction to the gallerist to wear the cap “for the duration of the fair” draws a link to working conditions in the art world, where work and leisure traditionally coincide, as is especially obvious during art fairs. The gallery representative’s work is far from done when the exhibition halls close for the night: experience has it that the nightly dinners and parties are where the crucial contacts are made and informal deals are struck. [6] By putting a cap on his gallerist’s head for the duration of the fair, Knight effectively ensures that de Land will be on duty and working on his behalf day and night. In what amounts to a constant profession of loyalty to the artist, the gallerist publicizes Knight’s brand even when he is ostensibly championing other artists from his program. So the cap piece reserves a special status for Knight, setting him apart from his colleagues represented by the same gallery. His name, we might say, hovers above everything. In that sense, the piece also reflects the fact that, in the world of auctions and art fairs, works circulate primarily as names – a Warhol, a Koons, a Knight – a practice that turns them into quasi-subjects.

2. The gallerist as living artist

So Knight, by producing this instruction, got his gallerist Colin de Land to wear the artist’s hat. De Land, as they say, “wore many hats”; he inhabited multiple professional identities at once. Or rather, the cap made him out to be an artist-gallerist, a type he embodied anyway: Most of the obituaries emphasized that he was an artist at heart who unexpectedly found himself cast in the role of gallery operator. [7] So it was the part of the dealer that he performed, as numerous recollections of his carefully staged appearances underscore. [8] De Land was obviously the ideal accomplice for Knight’s project, an eager performer who often presented his own art pseudonymously (one of his alter egos was called John Dogg). On the other hand, Knight’s work depends on such a partner in art, especially since its existence presupposes his cooperation: The moment the gallerist takes the cap off, it ceases to be a work of art. [9]

The piece thus also highlights (and perhaps overstates) the gallerist’s distinctive contribution to the genesis of art: It rides on his actions. De Land, for his part, was a dealer who was eagerly interested in undermining the traditional division of labor. He worked closely with his artists and was substantially involved in numerous ­collaborative ventures (Bernadette Corporation, Art Club 2000) and projects (the journal ACME). In the 1990s, de Land’s play with different identities might still be read as a productive rejection of the rigid categories and role models of the art world, but today’s new economy with its emphasis on flexibility, mobility, and multitasking casts it in a different light. Knight’s cap piece, I think, hints at the pitfalls of what I have described as the “expanded professional profile.” [10] After all, it is not a celebration of the artist-dealer type. Far from it: It exposes the conflicts of interest, tensions, and contradictions the simultaneity of multiple professional identities give rise to, which today’s art world generally prefers to sweep under the rug. [11] The cap indeed identifies de Land as the artist’s proxy and perhaps even as an artist in his own right – especially since the initials JK point to Knight as the true owner, suggesting that the piece of apparel, like a contact relic, was imbued with his spirit; [12] it exudes a sort of “contagious magic,” as the ethnologist James Frazer called it. But another aspect strikes me as more salient: de Land remains an artist solely by Knight’s grace. In this regard, there is a coercive aspect to the cap that brings the dark sides of the ideal of flexibility to mind. Indeed, if Knight’s piece distinguishes de Land as a “living work of art” (Timm Ulrichs), it simultaneously also demotes him to an accessory. [13] Where one might imagine the artist working to his gallerist’s specifications, say, by producing works for an art-fair stall, Knight inverts the conventional balance of power, harnessing the gallerist for his own scheme.

Colin de Land at Documenta 9, Kassel, 1992

The work thus reveals the implicit connection between two self-conceptions on the part of gallery owners that are traditionally regarded as antithetical: on the one hand, the gallerist who devotes himself body and soul to the service of his artists (Paul Durand-Ruel and Ambroise ­Vollard exemplify this type, which by now is largely historic); on the other hand, the jet-set gallery entrepreneur and limelight-hogging celebrity (think Thaddaeus Ropac, Vito Schnabel, Larry Gagosian). Today, the one self-image is often just a thin veil for the other: That is the lesson of the cap. It banks on the gallerist’s idealism, his willingness to do anything for his artists, while also flattering his narcissism and encouraging his penchant for grandstanding. [14]

3. Grand entrance

The cap alludes to the importance of role-play and showmanship in de Land’s career in particular, but also in the art world in general. Like artists, gallerists must be compelling in person, since they personally vouch for the art they promote. Hence the significant effort they – and especially the women among them – invest in a well-groomed and fashionable appearance. [15] Their look signals their refined taste and familiarity with contemporary style and the latest fashion. This lends added credibility not only to their own involvement, but also to the art they represent – credibility that is crucial given art’s perennial legitimacy deficit. So Knight’s cap hints at the fact that most gallerists getting ready to travel to an art fair devote considerable attention to their outfits – they prepare a suit of armor, as it were, composed of designer wear or bespoke suits, unless they go for a preppy look. One gallerist recently confided in me that one reason why she stocked up on expensive designer pieces from the latest collections before art fairs was that the clothes helped her feel more confident when interacting with well-heeled and expensively dressed collectors. It seems questionable that Knight’s baseball cap, a distinctly unpretentious article, ever passed muster as a fashion signal conferring credibility in matters of style and taste on the gallerist. Still, although the cap is manifestly not a designer piece, the mere fact that it was given to de Land by an artist makes it valuable.

As an accessory hallowed by contact with the artist, the cap moreover serves certain protective functions that bring the wearer’s body into play. It may help camouflage the fact that his hair has thinned, it shields his eyes when they are fatigued by all the art-fair hubbub, and it blocks the summer sun’s rays if he chooses to venture beyond the fairgrounds and into Basel. We might say that it highlights the significance of the gallerist’s body, his existence as a physical creature. And this body in turn sends certain signals: Is it riddled by nocturnal excess, or steeled by regular exercise? Does it show signs of aging, or has a cosmetic surgeon been brought in to stave them off? In my observation, the physical health of gallerists is a serious subject of art-fair chatter; their condition is a font of meaning, as their bodies convey subtexts that inflect the art they present. A metonymical relationship links the gallerist’s body and his or her art – that, too, is something Knight’s cap points to.

4. The cap as emblem

But I believe the cap’s significance extends even beyond such symbolism. At the deliberate risk of over-reading this piece, I will further suggest that it can be taken as emblematic of a structural change in the 1990s whose repercussions we have still not fully come to terms with: The transformation of a social sphere called the “art world” – with its readily comprehensible geographical structure and a limited number of members who operated independent small businesses – into a global corporate industry ruled by the celebrity principle. [16] This structural transformation, whose manifestations and consequences I have discussed in detail elsewhere, is not only embodied by the cap but gets somewhat satirized by it. It points to the fact that this transformation also entailed a new professional profile that gallerists must strive to live up to and comically exaggerates their tendency to do so. In an economy whose stated maxim is the accumulation of wealth, galleries find themselves under pressure to build empires  “expand or die” is supposedly the unofficial mantra in New York right now. [17] Gallery owners have to add branch showrooms in one emerging art-world center after another and keep moving to larger spaces as their artist rosters grow. They also feel compelled to participate in the art fairs, of which there are more every year – fairs, and not local showrooms, being where the money is, or so it is said. And given the ever-busier global art-world calendar, gallery owners must now spend a great deal of time traveling. They are well advised to attend openings of the artists they represent, especially the commercially successful ones, even in the most far-flung places, or they run the risk of being cut out of deals and having “their” artists leave them for a financially stronger competitor – yet however hard they try, such desertions are now a perfectly natural part of the business. Today’s gallerists can no longer assume that artists will be with them for decades: Flexibility, unpredictability, and deregulation rule their market like all others.

Colin de Land, however, had a reputation for defying precisely these mounting systemic pressures. He clung to the ideal that a gallery should represent a distinctive program, dedicating himself to a specific artistic formation sometimes known by the unfortunate moniker “context art,” and made sure his gallery functioned as a space of lively exchange and debate as well. [18] We know now that not even settings like de Land’s gallery are entirely exempt from the logic of the market; [19] still, it makes a difference whether the head of a gallery takes a genuine and sustained interest in his artists’ work and discusses it with them, as de Land did, or abandons any substantial aspiration in favor of the demands of a global business. The latter tendency is now palpably spreading from the VIPs heading the global mega-galleries down to the mid-market segment.

First edition of the Gramercy International Art Fair, Gramercy Park Hotel, New York, 1994

But we should not retrospectively idealize the model de Land stood for; his artists paid for it by foregoing the services of a professional gallery. [20] Similarly, to paint de Land as a leading underground figure is to gloss over the very complexities and internal contradictions that make him an interesting character, as Knight’s cap also intimates. De Land, after all, cofounded the Armory Show (then called the Gramercy International Art Fair) only two years later, which has since grown into one of the art market’s most profitable events. In this regard, too, the cap seems an allusion to de Land’s two-pronged strategy – he championed hard-to-sell “post-institutional-critique” art while also playing a leading role in making Chelsea the new epicenter of the art market. In retrospect, it seems that both developments took place concurrently in the 1990s: the emergence of art combining identity politics with sensitivity to context and institutional critique and the transformation of this social universe into a global corporate industry that gradually enforced economic criteria in all aspects of its life. Perhaps both processes were two sides of the same coin. Recent reconstructions of the 1990s often maintain that the decade saw the triumph of post-Fordist ideals such as teamwork, the culture of projects, communication, et cetera. [21] Arguments that operate with such figures of correlation often strike me as overly schematic, but be that as it may: The rise of project culture clearly paralleled, and perhaps provided cover for the metamorphosis of the art world into a luxury industry ruled by competition, business ­calculation, and economic necessities. [22] That, I believe, was the core trend of the 1990s.

5. Having your cake and eating it too

Finally, Knight’s cap is itself equivocal. On the one hand, it is, as the title emphasizes, a work in situ: it exists only on site, at Art Basel, and for as long as it is worn. There can obviously be no doubt concerning its conceptual-performative dimension: its unity is “distributed” in the sense of the term Peter Osborne has sketched, scattered across space and time and incapable of clear delimitation. [23] How would we define where the piece begins and ends? It consists of Knight’s instruction to de Land, but the gallerist’s body and the art fair setting are part of it as well. It is, with Osborne’s proverbial phrase, “anywhere or not at all.” At the same time, it is a prototype, an object that exists in an “edition of one,” which guarantees its uniqueness, the one property that is essential to the art market. By labeling it JK, Knight already excessively satisfies the market’s desire for an authorial creator – and the cap is not even for sale. With the radical limit on the edition size, he also ensures that the mass-manufactured merchandise turns into an original. The association with fashion and design is essential to the cap, which is in the end an object of utility, a piece of apparel that may be worn even as it lays claim to the status of an original work of art. [24] We are faced once more with the fact that art can very well have utility value and that such utility does not, as has often been averred, threaten its status as art. Conversely, opening the realm of art to life at large does not necessarily undermine its compatibility with the commodity form, [25] as artists like Jorge Pardo and Liam Gillick have richly demonstrated. Actually, the utility of Knight’s cap has a net positive effect on its value – if by value we mean not its price but the value it possesses as a commodity. This value is enhanced when the object is enriched with stories blending into legend about the gallerist’s body, the goings-on at the art fair, and the structural transformation of the art world. [26] The crucial insight at this point is one I have explained more fully elsewhere: The value of the art object, like value in general, implies human labor which is to say, living labor. But human labor consists of both material and immaterial work. It also consists of unproductive labor such as that produced by gallerists who are more like feudal knights than wage workers. Gallerists (and artists for that matter) are highly privileged agents and their labor is exploited for their own benefit. The more of this living labor or “aliveness” that enters into the work, the better for its value.

The same, I would argue, applies to Knight’s cap as well: As it is shared by several wearers, it soaks up their immaterial labor and their life stories, and it retains this content even when it is “off duty” – sitting, for example, on my desk as it is right now.

Translation: Gerrit Jackson


[1]On the power of legend in contemporary art, see Isabelle Graw, “Lebende Legende,” in: Denkfiguren: Für Anselm Haverkamp, ed. by Eva Horn/Michèle Lowrie, Berlin 2013, pp. 99–101.
[2]See John Knight, in: Colin de Land: American Fine Arts, ed. by Dennis Balk, New York 2008, p. 241.
[3]See the photographs of Colin de Land, ibid.
[5]Conceptual works based on immaterial labor and performative gestures are especially apt to become buried beneath legendary narratives. The return of legend in such art may be the price it pays for challenging the primacy of aesthetic experience.
[6]John Kelsey, “Dinner,” in: Texte zur Kunst, 66, 2007, pp. 45–46.
[7]See Judith Barry, in: Colin De Land, ed. by Dennis Balk, op. cit., p. 233.
[8]See Stephan Dillemuth, ibid., p. 237: “He saw his work as a gallerist as a kind of theatrical but also critical activity, and his gallery was the stage – his stage – from which it was possible to reflect upon all the other stages in New York.”
[9]John Knight planned a rerun of the piece with Alexander Schröder, who represents him in Berlin, during the local Gallery Weekend in 2014. The project fell through because Schröder did not consistently wear the cap and took it off on several occasions. Still, it brought out the advantages and disadvantages of this sort of reenactment: on the one hand, the historical conditions in which the cap piece was created no longer exist, and a reenactment cannot reflect this change of context. On the other hand, it can reveal a potentiality that allows the piece to speak to the present-day situation.
[10]On this issue see the section “Expanded Professional Profiles” in: Isabelle Graw, High Price: Art between the Market and Celebrity Culture, trans. Nicholas Grindell, Berlin/New York 2009, pp. 100–105.
[11]Consider, for example, the hybrid formation of Reena Spaulings, whose membership includes artists as well as gallerists.
[12]On relics see the section “Unterschiedliche Kategorien von Reliquien” in: Karl Heinz Kohl, Die Macht der Dinge: Geschichte und Theorie sakraler Objekte, Munich 2003, pp. 48–52.
[13]Unlike Ulrichs, who turned himself into a living work of art by sitting in a glass case that framed and presented him, Knight shows a keen appreciation for the fact that it is life that goes to work today. Whatever his gallerist does – whether he presents his own art, socializes, or communicates – will feed into the new economy as an exploitable resource.
[14]Incidentally, Maurizio Cattelan’s “Errotin le vrai lapin” (1995) and “A perfect day” (1999) function in very similar fashion: on the one hand, they require the gallerist to put up with less-than-kind treatment – the first ridicules him as a womanizer, the second immobilizes him (he is taped to the wall like a poster) and thus removes him from circulation in the art world; on the other hand, they confer the status of a work of art on him.
[15]See the section “The Celebrity Artist as a Target for Hostility (Julian Schnabel)” in: Graw, High Price, op. cit., pp. 95–100.
[16]See the chapter “The Triumphant Progress of Market Success,” ibid., pp. 18–79.
[17]See the press release to Stewart Uoo’s show at Galerie Daniel Buchholz, Berlin, spring 2014.
[18]See the accounts of the “contributors” in Colin de Land, ed. by Dennis Balk, op. cit., pp. 232–49.
[19]Especially since communication is now the “reigning productive force,” as Virno has aptly put it; see Paolo Virno, A Grammar of the Multitude, Los Angeles/New York 2004, p. 60.
[20]Merlin Carpenter, in: Colin de Land, ed. by Dennis Balk, pp. 235–36.
[21]See Lane Relyea, Your Everyday Art World, Cambridge, Mass. 2013.
[22]On this transformation in a wider perspective on society as a whole, see also Cornelia Koppetsch, Die Wiederkehr der Konformität: Streifzüge durch die gefährdete Mitte, Frankfurt/M. 2013, pp. 7–14.
[23]See Peter Osborne, Anywhere or Not at All: Philosophy of Contemporary Art, London 2013, pp. 20–123.
[24]Interestingly, Knight’s piece echoes the luxury goods industry down to the level of methodology, while that industry for its part takes inspiration from the ideal of artistic production: bags, for example, are manufactured using mass production methods, but in limited editions, and stamped with the brand name (say, Louis Vuitton) to lend them the aura of unique objects.
[25]See the section “External, Internal, and Self-Imposed Purposes,” in: Isabelle Graw, High Price, op. cit., pp. 126–30.
[26]This is not the place for a more extensive discussion of the intrinsic link between value and aliveness, which I have explored at length in Isabelle Graw, “The Value of the Art Commodity: Twelve theses on human labor, mimetic desire, and aliveness,” in: Texte zur Kunst, 88, 2012, pp. 30–58.