“I, too, wondered whether I could not sell something and succeed in life. For some time I had been no good at anything. I am forty years old. . .”
Thus began Marcel Broodthaers’ life as a visual artist in 1964, leaving behind an earlier career as a poet, bookseller, museum guide, and general intellectual provocateur of Brussels café society. His first known work of art was the entombment in plaster of fifty unsold copies of his book of poetry Pense-Bête.
Broodthaers died at age fifty-two in 1976 and therefore had only twelve years as a visual artist, but in it he created an astonishing number and variety of influential objects including some twenty artist books. Early in life he had come under the influence of the surrealists, especially fellow Belgian René Magritte who introduced him to Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés with its abstruse language and typographical innovations. It would later serve as the inspiration for one of his most enduring and influential books. Along with Michael Asher, Daniel Buren, and Hans Haack, he was a founding father of institutional critique, a small school of artists who made art that reflects critically on its own place in arts institutions both commercial and noncommercial.
The short span of his career as a visual artist makes more impressive the impact of his continuing influence. Since his death Broodthaers work has been shown at Documenta (1997, 1982) and the Venice Biennale (1980, 1978, 1976), and there have been major retrospectives at the Walker Art Center, the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles, and the Palais des Beaux Arts in Brussels. In 2012, he had solo shows at the Museo d’Arte Moderna de Bologna and at the Kunstmuseum Winterthur. In 2016 he had a major retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.