Research - Haim Steinbach - Forms of presentation, a shelf as artwork. / by Ally McGinn

Haim Steinbach (1985)  Supremely Black . Mixed Media. 78.7 x 167.6 x 33 cm

Haim Steinbach (1985) Supremely Black. Mixed Media. 78.7 x 167.6 x 33 cm

I'm writing about Steinbach because of the way he presents objects and shelves as art. The combination of shelf and object, of which the shelves are more traditionally artistic objects (they have been made for this purpose, the objects have not), questions forms of presentation and our understanding of objects based on the way they are presented to us.


Steinbach is considered a leading influence in post-modernist art, and has been credited with redefining the status of the object in art.

Many of his pieces are made of careful arrangements of mass-produced objects. His work is archival, although focussing on a small group of objects at a time. Steinbach’s work explores psychological, aesthetic, cultural, ritualistic and artistic aspects of collecting and arranging objects.

The objects he works with range from everyday, unwanted, extraordinary, artistic and ethnographic. His interventions with the objects highlight their identities, meanings, and associations.

The placement of them, and their nomination as art, are arguably the most important factor in the interpretation of his work. His placement of the objects alters their meaning and purpose, inviting the viewers to ask questions about the objects in front of them, as well as objects elsewhere.

When describing his work he said it is “about vernacular, which is a common form of language: things that we make, express and produce” and that it is “not only about selecting and arranging objects of my own choice, but also presenting the objects chosen by others”.

The inclusion of the decisions of others is something I find interesting and correlates with my practice.

For a piece in 1992, Documenta IX, he moved all the objects he found in the office of Jan Hoet, a curator. By moving everything he removed the element of choice and decision from himself.  He then reapplied both choice and decision on the placement and order of the objects.

Steinbach’s practice deals heavily with the notion of display, and he often builds structures for display, which he terms ‘framing devices.'

This idea is something I have begun to explore in the studio (notably with plinths and paintings as shelves) and want to explore further. The structures themselves are fascinating, as they speak about the nature of the objects that will are placed on them, as well as the gallery space itself.

Through the use of mass-produced objects Steinbach’s work speaks about the divide between high and low art. Unique versus multiple, personal versus universal. Steinbach echoes this in his choices of titles for his works, which are always ‘found objects’ themselves. Taken from various sources.  He often chooses statements that are idiomatic, allegorical, proverbial or axiomatic.

He presents the text as work in its own right, with formatting unchanged, Steinbach considers this an essential part of the work.



I was introduced to Steinbach’s work my Robin Marriner. The integration of idea into artwork that Steinbach's explores is extremely impressive. The art is the shelf for ideas and objects. The shelves themselves often inspire certain meanings (in the case of the red shelves) and arguably they are both artwork and vehicle for perception - which, it seems, is the point.

This idea has been extremely influential in my studio practice.



Haim Steinbach : Jaws (2017) [Exhibition]. White Cube, Mason’s Yard, London. 27 October 2017 - 20 January 2018.

Marriner, R. (2015) Making and the Contemporary. Bath Spa University. October-December 2015.

Haim Steinbach (2009)  Untitled (emergency sign, short glasses, dog chews).  Plastic laminated wood shelf, plastic emergency sign, 2 glass and metal shot glasses, 2 rubber dog chews. 125.7 x 222.3 x 68.6. 

Haim Steinbach (2009) Untitled (emergency sign, short glasses, dog chews). Plastic laminated wood shelf, plastic emergency sign, 2 glass and metal shot glasses, 2 rubber dog chews. 125.7 x 222.3 x 68.6.