Keeping care alive

Allie Tepper

“Maintenance is a drag; it takes all the fucking time,” says Mierle Laderman Ukeles in her Manifesto for Maintenance Art 1969!, presented prominently in the first room of the artist’s recent retrospective at the Queens Museum in New York. 

Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Touch Sanitation Performance,1979-80. Photograph of the artist performing “Handshake Ritual” with workers of New York City Department of Sanitation. Courtesy of artist and Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York.

The manifesto laid the groundwork for the artist’s five-decade career as a “maintenance artist,” an identity she invented for herself in her early thirties as a way to reconcile the labor of motherhood with her artistic career. The two have a history of working against one another: the housewife has no time for the studio, and the work one does in the home—the dishes, the diapers—has no parallel to the work of the avant-garde, though the latter could not exist without the former. “The sourball of every revolution,” she continues, “after the revolution, who’s going to pick up the garbage on Monday morning?”

In an act of resistance, Ukeles wrote a way out of the trap. Rather than bury or reject her identity as a mother and caretaker, she would present it publicly as part of her creative practice. Maintenance, she asserted with aplomb, is art; the unpaid or hardly paid work of housewives and custodians, while a drag, has inherent value. Ukeles wrote her manifesto on maintenance art as a proposal for an unrealized exhibition, titled CARE. The proposed exhibition was to take on the idea of maintenance art at three scales, all of which she would pursue in depth over the years: the personal, the general (also referred to as “society/the city”), and earth maintenance (“the planet”). Ukeles proposed accordingly, to live in a museum, taking care of it like her own house; to interview visitors about their own maintenance work (how they keep it going, how it relates to their sense of freedom); and to bring in materials in need of servicing such as polluted water and soil, which would be tended to and returned to the earth. CARE was never picked up by an institution (she shopped it around to the Whitney and the American Craft Museum), but Jack Burnham, then an editor at Artforum, published the manifesto in 1971. There, it caught the eye of the influential curator Lucy Lippard, who decided to include Ukeles in c. 7500 (1973), an exhibition of feminist conceptual art. The rest is history; maintenance art was catalyzed into its decades-long existence.

The retrospective at the Queens Museum, curated by Patricia C. Philips and Larissa Harris, is the first ever survey of Ukeles’ work and rigorously traces her complex trajectory as a maintenance artist via certified maintenance artworks, a plethora of archival material (sketches, proposals, writings, press clippings, and performance documentation), and a handful of live events–peace talks of sorts–led by the artist herself. Ukeles’ presence is felt so thickly throughout the museum, not just because we see her image repeated over and over again in documentation of her massive municipal projects, which would become her claim to fame, but because the very workers at the Queens Museum itself all know her directly. Parked outside the entryway to the museum every weekend is The Social Mirror (1983), a mirror-clad sanitation truck that earnestly beckons the public to see themselves in their trash. It’s a work of art that belongs to the NYC Department of Sanitation (DSNY), and is shown under the condition that a state worker drive it over and hang out for the day as part of their shift. The day I visited, a woman named Eileen was working, and she loved being there. Her first weekend on the job she hung out in the museum most of the day absorbing it all, but that day she sat in her truck, pleased to hold the space and engage on occasion with the public. Eileen had just seen Mierle. “She’s around!” she said, though I couldn’t find her. Rumors of the artists’ visits also spread around the docents and guards. It was clear that she had, in most cases, sought them out during her visits. They all were seen.

The exhibition follows a chronology of maintenance art that commences prior to its initial articulation in the ’69 manifesto, starting with her first artwork made when she was a student at Pratt, Bindings (1963-67), a series of soft, bulbous sculpture-paintings bound tightly with string. Bindings, which reference the body, caused controversy among the male faculty at Pratt, who deemed them “oversexed”— fuel, no doubt, for her feminist agenda. Sketches of Air Art (1967-69), exuberant inflatable sculptures that she proposed to append to the facades of city buildings, Ukeles’ early expressions of civic freedom, were also on view. Air Art is the work that Ukeles was struggling to make as a young mother, just prior to drafting her manifesto, and is presented alongside it. Like her baby, they also required maintenance, easily acquiring holes, and in constant need of repair.

The maintenance art itself began with Ukeles’ contribution to c. 7500, a low-budget traveling exhibition that became the first institutional platform for her practice. Ukeles submitted photographs of herself engaging in personal maintenance work around the house, private performances, usually done for her husband who held the camera. The photographs were assembled into two works for c.7500, which are on view: Maintenance Art Tasks, a photo album, and Dressing To Go Out / Undressing To Go In, a black-and-white series mounted on foam core, both of which she presented with an accompanying rag, because art objects require maintenance too. Ukeles also submitted Maintenance Art Questionnaires for museum visitors like those proposed for CARE, with self-addressed return envelopes; and Maintenance Art Tapes, recorded interviews conducted by Ukeles with individuals, including Lippard, on how maintenance manifests in their own lives. Ukeles is a skilled interlocutor, which we learn through the audio and video documentation that accumulates throughout the show, the kind who quickly gains the trust of her subjects. She speaks directly, with warmth and humor, and asks others questions that she’s already asked herself, building, through dialogue, a coalition.

Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Washing, Tracks, Maintenance (Outside), 1973. Performance on July 23, 1973 at Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, CT. Courtesy of artist and Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York.

Ukeles’ access to art institutions via c. 7500 ignited a signature tactic for the artist, of putting her body to work in museums themselves. She took it upon herself to contact the host institutions of c. 7500 directly to propose her first public performances, six of which responded favorably. One performance, The Keeping of the Keys (1973), at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, CT drew attention to the labor of the museum’s security guards, whose duties include opening and closing the doors to the galleries and administrative offices. Ukeles took charge of a few guards’ keys for a day, after being granted their permission, and as the documentation of the performance reveals, ran around the museum, raucously locking and unlocking the doors at whim, sometimes trapping visitors in the galleries. A handwritten sign, which she created for nearly all her public performances, indicated that the area was “being maintained as MAINTENANCE ART.” The need to validate maintenance work is at the core of Ukeles practice, made point-blank in this signage, and other related ephemera that she’d impress with a maintenance art seal (much of which is on view, alongside performance photographs). Two days after The Keeping of the Keys, Ukeles mopped and scrubbed down the front steps to the Wadsworth, and the floors of the atrium inside. Washing was part of Ukeles’ own personal repertoire of maintenance work, as well as a spiritual practice. It became a kind of public ritual: a year later she performed the action again, washing the sidewalk outside New York’s A.I.R. gallery, the first all-female cooperative gallery in the U.S. To demarcate a stage for the event, which could easily slip away unseen in the city, Ukeles pasted flyers on the sidewalk and gallery windows with text by the Jewish mystic and rabbi, Abraham Isaac Kook. An excerpt reads, “The face of the holy is not turned away from but towards the profane.”

After c. 7500, Ukeles was invited by participants in the Whitney ISP curatorial program to contribute to an exhibition Art < > World, staged at one of the museum’s former branches downtown at 55 Water Street. The site was a 53-floor corporate office building, a small area of which was rented by the Whitney. For Ukeles, whose work was becoming increasingly site-specific, the building created an opportunity to widen the scope of her performances. If she could work with the whole building, she could unhinge maintenance art slightly from arts institutions, a move that was necessary in order to more fully manifest the ethos of her practice. To attribute value to maintenance workers, a smudging of boundaries between art and the world was necessary, as the title of the show Art < >  World also seems to suggest. The goal for Ukeles was always to serve a general public, and most importantly, the maintenance workers themselves—to work with “whole systems,” as she has often said. To do so she needed to meet the workers where they were, often just beneath the museum’s nose, and infiltrate the institution accordingly, widening its doors. The result was a pivotal, durational performance, I Make Maintenance Art One Hour Every Day (1976), conducted over five weeks with three hundred of the Water Street building’s existing maintenance employees who cleaned, repaired, and provided security to the building. Each worker let Ukeles follow and take polaroids of them working for an hour of their normal day or evening shift, in consideration of their work as art. At the end of the hour she would ask the person directly if they would classify that hour as work or art, and then annotate the snapshot with their answer. At the Whitney, Ukeles added the photographs to a grid that grew each day, the full picture of which hangs as an iconic index at the Queens Museum. The awkward divide between the world of the museum and the rest of the building softened as Ukeles’ collaboration with the maintenance workers developed. The workers visited the museum to see their work on view, and the Whitney stayed open late one evening during the graveyard shift, to ensure all workers had an opportunity to stop by.

As the story goes, Art < > World was reviewed by David Bourdon of the Village Voice, who cheekily made a suggestion that the Department of Sanitation, which at the time was struggling in the midst of a financial crisis in New York, “turn its regular work into a conceptual performance,” and apply for a grant from the National Endowment of the Arts. Ukeles sent a clipping of the mention to the commissioner of the DSNY and he actually responded with an offer. Since then, for over forty years, Ukeles has been the official, unsalaried artist-in-residence at the DSNY. She still has an office on the grounds. The Queens Museum traces two seminal collaborations between the artist and the DSNY: her much-celebrated Touch Sanitation Performance (1979-80), and her ongoing engagement with Staten Island’s Fresh Kills, once the largest landfill in the world, which is currently being converted into a public park. When the park opens in 2036, Ukeles will have a permanent work on view.

Maintenance art found its greatest expression via the DSNY, a single agency through which the artist could pursue her primary concerns: feminism, labor, and ecology. With Touch Sanitation Performance, Ukeles traveled across every borough to shake the hand of every single sanitation worker in the city. “Thank you for keeping New York City alive,” she said 8,500 times, with each shake. It took Ukeles eleven months to complete Touch Sanitation Performance, and she did it via ten “sweeps” through each borough, showing up in her own monochrome uniform for roll-call each morning at the sanitation department headquarters. Touch Sanitation was a work of devotion, a thorough effort to undo the stigma around the people who touch our trash, our greatest earth-maintainers, by literally touching their hands and recording their stories. Ukeles found in the predominantly male sanitation community, workers who were “doing women’s work,” and thus unexpected feminist allies. Often she would follow the workers on their routes, and imitate the movements they did on the job in order to learn the particular choreographies of their labor, an action she called “Follow In Your Footsteps.”

Mierle Laderman Ukeles, “Romeo and Juliet Sequence” from Snow Workers’ Ballet, 2003. Performance on July 21, 2003 for the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale, Tokamachi, Niigata Prefecture, Japan. Courtesy of artist and Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York.

The deluge of documentation of Touch Sanitation, and of the two-part exhibition she herself organized to document it, breaks at the Queens Museum’s own Panorama of the City of New York, a 9,335 square feet model of the city. Ukeles altered the model with flickering LED lights, illuminating the many routes Ukeles made across the city during the performance. Also adjacent to the gallery featuring Touch Sanitation coverage, on the other side, is a room that screens the artists’ seven stunning Work Ballets (1983-2012), some of Ukeles’ most compelling work made in recent years, which build upon her interest in the choreographic. Ukeles collaborated with drivers of large municipal vehicles across the world through the highly formalized discipline of ballet in order to demonstrate the skill and grace with which they operate their trucks. A favorite is her 2012 Snow Workers Ballet, which she co-created with drivers of thirteen snow vehicles in Tokamachi, Japan. In one sequence two vehicles, cast as Romeo and Juliet, greeted each other lovingly, lifting their plows together in a kiss.

The last stop Ukeles made for Touch Sanitation Performance was the DSNY’s West 1 garage, located next to the department’s salt shed at Pier 52 along the Westside Highway in the Meatpacking District. It is a site that is currently being demolished and relocated downtown to a sleek $250 million building on Spring Street, for which aesthetics is a primary concern. The adjacent salt shed, which houses over 5,000 tons of salt to help clear the city’s streets has been designed by a local architecture firm to appear as a “singular sculptural object” that resembles the crystalline form of salt itself. The complex is beautiful, and thus now appears as a cultural institution, appropriately so, though it has always been one. Ukeles has been saying this for years. In a statement made in 1984, called “Why Sanitation Can Be Used As a Model For Public Art,” Ukeles writes that “Sanitation is the City’s first cultural system, not its displaced-housekeeper caste-system […] We’re in this together. Just as by law, we can’t ship our garbage OUT, but have to deal with it IN our common ‘home,’ manage it so it doesn’t destroy us, we, too, all together, have to work our individual freedom out without destroying each other.” [Ukeles’ emphasis]

The disappearing West 1 garage and salt shed happen to be in the sightline of the Whitney Museum’s first ever theater, in its new building on Gansevoort Street, which overlooks the Hudson River. During the last week of Ukeles’ retrospective this February, a performance artist named MPA lived for ten days at the Whitney in an enclosed, narrow space that exists between two windowpanes of this theater. (Full disclosure, I happen to work at the Whitney on performance, and assisted in organizing this programming). MPA lived there with two other women, also artists, who didn’t know each other well before entering, but together formed a kind of cooperative living system. They took care of the window space like a house, sweeping the floors, and washing the glass. They collected and lived among their own waste, which they composted at the performance’s conclusion; their urine, stored in mason jars, accumulated in the window like a wall. At climactic moments they performed together, as the individuals that they were, with a kind of free intensity, working out in real time how to coexist amongst one another’s disparate personalities and performance styles. An idea they were testing was how one might sustain life on a spacecraft, or another planet, a kind of test that is now common in both private and public space agencies as they prepare for our earth’s expiration. With the DSNY site as the backdrop, the whole thing felt like a kind of homage to Ukeles and to her unrealized show CARE, which the Whitney never took. It turns out that a lot of maintenance work is required in orbit too. Better that we take Ukeles’ lead, and maintain living on Earth as creative work.


Allie Tepper is a writer and independent curator based in New York, and currently a curatorial project assistant working in performance at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Previously, she was the assistant director of Triple Canopy and a studio manager for artist Cory Arcangel, and has worked at the Museum of Modern Art, among other institutions.