Opening: 08.03.2024, 18 h

Exhibition booklet (PDF)

“What I have tried to do is to create a fiction that steps out of the text, a fiction that operates outside of the framework within which fictions usually operate.”
– Philippe Thomas, 1995
Considering his extensive body of work, it is not surprising that Philippe Thomas (1951–1995) came to art by way of literature and philosophy. Influenced by the post-structuralist concepts that emerged in France during the 1960s and 1970s, the artist pursued questions that are still relevant today, such as the fluidity of identity, the deconstruction of authorship, systems of power, and the conditions under which meaning is created. Through writings, installation, performance, and photography, among others, Thomas has weaved reality into a carefully scripted fiction in which his name eventually disappeared into a network of relations and personas. Meticulously exploring concepts of visibility, legitimation, and authenticity, his practice can be read as a succession of chapters in which each piece is part of a larger ensemble and contributes to an expanded narrative. The clues, hints, and shifts that pervade his work form an invisible web of correspondences that consistently cast doubt on the accuracy of the facts presented. The centerpieces of the exhibition art history in search of characters…, are the activities of readymades belong to everyone®, an agency under a registered trademark Thomas founded in 1987. These are presented through the installation l’agence (1993) in Portikus’ main gallery, while the lower level is turned into a dedicated study room, featuring a selection of printed matter that provide an in-depth exploration of Thomas’s comprehensive oeuvre.

With a radical take on Marcel Duchamp’s objet trouvé and Société Anonyme Inc., and initiated during the boom of consumer culture and the art market, Thomas commented on the deeply ingrained art historical conventions of authorship, originality, and authenticity as well as the socio-political and economic landscape of capitalism. Readymades belong to everyone®’s first activity was a presentation at Cable Gallery in New York in 1987, followed by an iteration at the Paris-based Galerie Claire Burrus in 1988. Operating like a legitimate business, the agency adopted not only its visual vocabulary from the iconography of advertising companies but also its international reach and operation structures, such as promoting its services in newspapers to attract clients. The products the agency sold were artworks and their authorship: its portfolio consisted of predefined concepts that could be purchased by buyers who wished to lend their signature to the specific project. While Thomas’s own name mostly remained hidden from the agency’s activities, it was instead those of the people who could afford it that appeared in the spaces of galleries and museums. The activities of the agency critically highlighted the complex dependency between artists, institutions, and economic systems, while unfolding Thomas’s fiction into a network of real-life characters. After operating for six years, readymades belong to everyone® ceased its activities. With Thomas suffering from AIDS, the need to bring this important project to a close became apparent, as did his desire to return to writing.

At the invitation of the Musée d’art moderne et contemporain (MAMCO), readymades belong to everyone® conceived l’agence (the agency) in 1993, a retrospective work staging traces of its activities, which is now on view at Portikus. For the exhibition art history in search of characters…, the installation is being presented in the main exhibition space, whose size is almost identical to the gallery for which Thomas originally planned it. Following the initial presentation, the gallery is divided into two areas: the backstage and the showroom. While the first resembles a warehouse storage with shelves, stacked cardboard boxes, a pinboard, a pile of posters, ad campaigns, photographs as well as packing material, the latter is a white cube, in which a selection of works is displayed to highlight different aspects of Thomas’s fiction: the conditions of the agency’s operation, the factual production of artworks, and relationships created between individuals.

In tribute to Philippe Thomas’s meticulous interweaving of references that span from art history, literature, to film and philosophy, the lower gallery of Portikus is transformed into a study room in an effort to invite readers to do individual research on the artist. The selection of publications, scholarly essays, press clippings, as well as ephemera from previous exhibitions in which his work was included, has been carefully compiled by Portikus with the support of various institutions, galleries, archives, academics, colleagues, and the estate of the artist.

By disrupting the logic of classification, Thomas has profoundly challenged the methodologies of art criticism, museum collections, and archives. Over the past decade, increased interest in his enigmatic practice has shed new light on his conceptual work, encouraging a critical perspective on the very conditions under which art happens and exists. As we navigate through times in which institutions are increasingly being questioned and reevaluated and the influence of power and economies on artistic practices becomes ever more apparent, Thomas’s work prompts us to grapple with the fundamental question of what constitutes truth versus constructed reality.

The works of Philippe Thomas (b.1951 in Nice, France – d.1995 in Paris, France) address a number of core concerns, such as the status of artists, the art object, the museum as an institution and the role of the viewer. Recent solo exhibitions include MACRO, Rome (2022), Jan Mot, Brussels (2021, 2017, 2013); Greene Naftali, New York (2017); MAMCO, Geneva (2016, 2014); mfc-michèle didier, Paris (2014); Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, Barcelona (2000); and Le Magasin, Grenoble (2000). In 1992, his work was exhibited at documenta 9.

Curated by Liberty Adrien and Carina Bukuts

Poster design: HIT Studio
Installation views: Wolfgang Günzel

We would like to thank the Musée d’art moderne et contemporain de Genève (MAMCO) for the loan of l’agence (1993) by readymades belong to everyone®, Lionel Bovier, Claire Burrus, Daphné Charitos, Sophie Costes, Julien Fronsacq, Émeline Jaret, and Jan Mot.

art history in search of characters…is made possible by major support from Hessische Kulturstiftung and Städelschule Portikus e.V..