Mierle Laderman Ukeles is a conceptual and environmental artist working specifically with maintenance art. In fact, she created the genre herself. The invention made her a pioneer in both feminist conceptual art and environmental art. She went on to become an artist in residence at the New York City Department of Sanitation. Read on to learn how this fascinating artist became the creator of maintenance art.
How Did Mierle Laderman Ukeles Create Maintenance Art?
Mierle Laderman Ukeles is the daughter of a rabbi, born in Denver, Colorado in 1939 in a lower middle-class Jewish neighborhood. Growing up, she found the environment very constraining. So when it was time to go to college, Ukeles went to New York to study art at the Pratt Institute.
At the Pratt Institute, the young artist was taught by abstract expressionist painter Robert Richenburg who, Ukeles recalled in an interview with Artforum, taught her that art was all about freedom. This would become very important for her artistic formation. Unfortunately, these statements got Richenburg fired due to fears over the student movement that was spreading at the time. Shortly after, Ukeles left the college and went to study at Bernard instead. After this, she pursued an art course for her Master’s degree at NYU.
After graduating, Ukeles had what she would later call a huge crisis. She had a baby and had to become a maintenance worker. While she loved her child, she also found the new situation extremely boring. She thought to herself: I wasn’t made for this. I was made to think, to be free. Inspired by Marcel Duchamp’s thoughts on art, Ukeles decided that she could call maintenance work art too.
What Was The Maintenance Art Manifesto?
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Ukeles’ idea was based on two contrasting ideas, a Western notion of art is freedom and a non-Western notion of repetitive systems. Necessity, she said, can also be art, creating thereby one of the earliest frameworks for feminist conceptual art. Following this decision, she wrote a four-page manifesto stating:
Maintenance is a drag; it takes all the fucking time (lit.)
The mind boggles and chafes at the boredom. The culture confers lousy status on
maintenance jobs=minimum wages, housewives=no pay.
clean your desk, wash the dishes, clean the floor, wash your clothes, wash your toes, change the baby’s diaper, finish the report, correct the typos, mend the fence, keep the customer happy … say it again–he doesn’t understand, seal it again—it leaks, go to work, this art is dusty, clear the table, call him again, flush the toilet, stay young.
Everything I say is Art is Art. Everything I do is Art is Art. ‘We have no Art, we try to do everything well.’
The manifesto formed an exhibition proposal around the very frustration that Ukeles was feeling as an artist, maintenance worker, and mother. She called it the Maintenance Art Manifesto 1969! Proposal for an Exhibition CARE. The manifesto redefined public art, merging private and public through performance art.
Maintenance Art as a Feminist Work
The CARE exhibition proposal from 1969 consisted of three parts: a personal, a general, and an Earth Maintenance part. The personal part positioned her work as a mother, wife, and woman. Women were still expected to do all the housework, so the statement was very powerful. It placed her oeuvre as one of the first feminist artists. Two years after writing it, Ukeles got the manifesto published in Artforum. It has since inspired generations of women artists.
In the Maintenance Art manifesto, Ukeles explained the personal part by writing:
I will simply do these maintenance everyday things [washing, cleaning, renewing, supporting, preserving, etc.], and flush them up to consciousness, exhibit them, as Art. I will live in the museum as I customarily do at home with my husband and my baby … for the duration of the exhibition, and do all these things as public Art activities … The exhibition area might look ‘empty’ of art, but it will be maintained in full public view.
Maintenance Art and the Society’s Caretakers
At the time, the idea of making one’s work a piece of art was still very novel, despite Marcel Duchamp’s earlier introduction of ideas related to conceptual art. Life in the big city had everything to do with maintenance work. However, Ukeles argued, people had become quite unaware of it.
This idea of urban civic maintenance was expanded in the manifesto’s second part, the general part. This was supposed to be made up of interviews with different maintenance workers: mailmen, sanitation men, criminals, children, artists, movie stars, nurses, and doctors. By positioning maintenance work as a topic for artistic performance, Ukeles successfully brought attention to the low status of maintenance workers. Her early performances often included the maintenance of gallery and museum spaces. For the show curated by Lucy Lippard called c.7500 Ukeles performed a piece by cleaning the steps at the entrance to the museum.
Maintenance Art and the Environment
Mierle Laderman Ukeles’ inclusion of care for the environment in her maintenance manifesto was no surprise. In the 1960s, student movements turned into large-scale environmental movements that had a lasting impact on our understanding of the need for political action against the climate crisis.
For Ukeles, the need for Earth Maintenance was crucial. The artist was commissioned to help transform the Staten Island landfill into a park. She created a sculpture called Landing with the sculpted double pathway called Overlook placed above two earthworks titled Earth Bench and Earth Triangle. The piece offers two ways of reaching the Overlook viewpoint. One path leads to an unobstructed view of an urban park landscape that’s under construction and makes up the human-made aspect of the place. The other leads to what Ukeles calls an Ecological Theatre, showing its nature-made aspect.
Ukeles and the New York City Department of Sanitation
Having realized the potential of maintenance art, Ukeles began to explore the idea further. In the mid-1970s, amid a serious fiscal crisis in New York City, the artist spent one and a half years interviewing sanitation workers. At the time, thousands of sanitation workers were laid off as the Department of Sanitation was being privatized.
The media soon responded. A key article was written by David Bourdon for the Village Voice. Reviewing the piece I Make Maintenance Art One Hour Every Day that Ukeles’ made together with 300 sanitation workers, Bourdon jokingly suggested the New York City Department of Sanitation should apply for arts funding.
Ukeles sent the article to the Department of Sanitation commissioner who invited her to make a performance piece with all of the 10000 sanitation workers. So, Ukeles’ took on an official, studio-based yet unpaid position as the artist in residence at the Department of Sanitation. She holds the position to this day.
One of Ukeles’ earliest performance art projects at the department was Touch Sanitation, an eleven-month-long work that started in 1979. For this, Ukeles rode around on a DSNY truck across the city. She documented meeting over 8500 employees of the department, shaking their hands, and thanking them for keeping New York City alive. During the conversation, she also recorded the workers’ personal stories to make them feel visible.
The Most Famous Work of Maintenance Art: Flow City
Mierle Laderman Ukeles’ most famous maintenance artwork is Flow City from 1995. For this piece, she installed a public visitor center at a marine waste transfer station. Visitors could watch garbage being dumped onto barges in an attempt to refute the myth that garbage magically disappears.
The work had three parts, the first of which was the Passage Ramp consisting of a long corridor made of recyclables. The second called the Glass Bridge consisted of a clear-glass platform from which one could see the garbage being dumped. The third part, Media Flow Wall, provided information on waste disposal and the environmental issues of waste management. Flow City was later documented in a publication of the same name.
The Legacy of Mierle Laderman Ukeles’ Maintenance Art
Mierle Laderman Ukeles created a new genre of art. However, she had to wait for public recognition. During the 2000s, her work slowly moved from the art world into wider society. In 2017, she had her first retrospective titled Mierle Laderman Ukeles: Maintenance Art at the Queens Museum in New York. Two years later she was awarded the Francis J. Greenburger Award for under-recognized artists of extraordinary merit. In 2020, Ukeles’ work For —> Forever was displayed around New York billboards. The billboard signs read: Dear Service Worker, “Thank you for keeping NYC alive! For —> forever. This way, Mierle Laderman Ukeles, the creator of maintenance art, finally reached the masses.