Subverting the Object

The history of art values the material form of the work of art, so how do we view and exhibit work that does not comply with, or even challenges, this expectation? Each of the works included in this section subvert the artistic object by destroying its material form or by making immateriality a central characteristic of the work itself. As a result, rather than viewing the artwork as a commodity or finished product, these artists encourage us to consider artistic process as the primary content of the work of art. Demonstrative of the “ultra-conceptual” dematerialized art described by Lucy Lippard and John Chandler in 1968, these artists—from the Fluxus Movement of the 1960s to present day—explore art-making techniques untethered by classical definitions of art that set out to defy conventions of skill, value, and artistic achievement.


The works included in this section destroy consumer objects, such as in Erik van Lieshout’s Instruction (2002). In response to Robert Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning (1953), a student erased one of his own drawings that was of value to him. In Félix González-Torres’s Portrait of Ross in L.A. (1991), participants are invited to remove a piece of candy from a pile on the floor and to consider the subsequent diminishment of the pile (perpetually replenished by the museum), the ideal weight of which aligns with that of Ross, the artist’s lover. By subverting, destroying, or doing away with the material work of art, these works leverage new relationships to space and form that could not be accomplished by the traditional art object, while prompting larger questions about consumerism, transience, and the definition of art. 

Félix González-Torres

b. 1957, Guáimaro, Cuba; d. 1996, Miami, FL, USA

Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.), 1991

Candies individually wrapped in cellophane

Like many of Félix González-Torres’s works, Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) invites viewers to take away something—in this case, pieces of candy—until the work is depleted and replenished. In so doing, Gonzalez-Torres used simple actions and familiar objects to convey feelings of loss at once deeply personal and universally significant. The title of the work refers to González-Torres’s partner, Ross Laycock, who died of AIDS in 1991, the same year the work debuted. The ideal weight of the work, 175 pounds, is the average weight of an adult man. Although many of González-Torres’s contemporaries used more explicit methods to address the AIDS crisis, Gonzalez-Torres believed in the power of instructional works and everyday objects to engage and speak to others. The necessity of community engagement in Untitled works at once to blur the real author of the work and give audience members a personal reason for contemplating its themes. The work’s meaning is made in each individual’s action, slowly depleting it (or choosing not to)—thus prompting participants to think of their critical role in larger cycles of loss, pain, transience, and rebirth.

FSU student Carolyn Sizemore executed this work by Félix González-Torres in September 2020. Sizemore used photography to document their execution of the work.

Yoko Ono

b. 1933, Tokyo, Japan; currently works in New York, NY, USA

Painting to be Stepped On, 1961


In Painting to be Stepped On, Yoko Ono instructs audience members to step on a blank canvas placed on the floor. It debuted at her first solo show in 1961 and demonstrated many characteristics of Ono’s earliest work. Much of this work would influence the Fluxus movement, which attempted to challenge the preconceived notions of the art object. The work is open to anyone to engage and contribute to it and includes not only the product—in this case, the canvas—but the action itself as well. 

Participants are invited to step on, tread over, or otherwise mark a blank canvas on the ground, thus marring and destroying the actual object or “painting.” In many of Ono’s works, the participants are encouraged to manipulate or destroy the objects in question. Painting to be Stepped On is about power through manipulation. Firsthand, the viewers can see how subverting objects can create new unconventional artworks through means of destruction.

Two FSU students Carolyn Sizemore and Brenna Gilliam separately executed this work by Yoko Ono in October 2020. Both students had the help of their roommates, Rachel Ramsey, Logan Lysaght, and Martha Sizemore, to complete the executions. Sizemore and Gilliam both used photography to document their executions of the work.


Allan Kaprow

b. 1927, Atlantic City, NJ, USA; d. 2006, Encinitas, CA, USA

How to Make a Happening, 1966

Instructions, video

Happenings is a term coined by artist Allan Kaprow that redefined how we look at art. Kaprow was inspired by Abstract Expressionism and the movement’s emphasis on gesture and artistic process. In the late 1950s,  he started gaining interest in performance art that simulated events that happened in everyday life and encouraged audience involvement; these performances would have before not been deemed as what many would refer to as “art.” Calling these events “happenings,” and Kaprow came up with methods to describe what these events were and were not and how to create them, making his first in 1959. 

In his recorded LP, How to Make a Happening, Kaprow gives eleven rules on how one can make a happening. Some of these rules include abandoning accepted art forms (i.e. paintings, poetry, etc.), using real-life events in the natural world, using different locations, and not rehearsing it. Happenings challenged conventions of art-making in the 1960s. These occurrences allow for a new understanding of space and form that traditional artistic practice might overlook.


FSU student Skylar Alderson followed this instructions-based work by Allan Kaprow in October 2020. Alderson created her own Happening and documented her friend, Olivia Wesselman, executing her written instructions using videography. 

Robert Rauschenberg

b. 1925, Port Arthur, TX, USA; d. 1996, Captiva, FL, USA

Erased de Kooning Drawing, 1953

Paper, charcoal, eraser

In 1953, Robert Rauschenberg discovered art could be created by removing lines rather than making lines as in a traditional drawing. Rauschenberg decided he had to erase a significant drawing for his performance to matter, so he asked Willem de Kooning, a Dutch artist he admired, for one of his drawings to erase.

In 2020, an FSU student drew a charcoal portrait of Mike Adams, a friend of his, shortly after Adams’ death, and erased it in response to the tragedy of Adams being removed from the Earth. Rauschenberg’s techniques invite audiences to rethink the meaning of the object and its subject. Through the process of erasing an already drawn portrait, something new emerges from the remnants. 

FSU student Jeffrey Norman executed this work by Robert Rauschenberg in October 2020. Norman used photography to document his execution of the work and process of erasing his own drawing. 

Francis Alÿs

b. 1959, Antwerp, Belgium; currently works in Mexico City

Sometimes Making Something Leads to Nothing, 1997

Ice block, video

In his work, artist Francis Alÿs focuses on anthropological and geopolitical concerns. Originally an architect, in the 1980s he moved to Mexico City, at a time in which the city was facing social unrest. Alÿs often uses mundane and repetitive actions to stress his ideas and bring awareness to political, environmental, and social conflicts in a community. In this work, Sometimes Making Something Leads to Nothing, a videographer followed him as he painstakingly pushed a square block of ice throughout Mexico City for nine hours until it dissolved into a single puddle. 

Destruction is the base of this project. In 2020, a student at FSU froze water to make 15 pounds of ice to re-create Sometimes Making Something Leads to Nothing. As we watch the ice melt over the course of the performance, we are reminded of current political and social conflicts. In fact, destruction is the very thing that brings awareness. 

FSU student Emily Freed executed this performance work in October 2020. Freed used self-timer photography to document her execution. 

Eric van Lieshout

b. 1968, Deurne, Netherlands; currently works in Rotterdam, Netherlands

Instruction, 2002

Scissors, child’s shoes

Erik van Lieshout sets out to question contemporary socio-political issues in his practice. In his instruction work from 2002, he attempts to critique modern consumerism by destroying the objects’ material forms. By emphasizing the message behind an artwork as opposed to the physical object, Lieshout subverts a commodity object and asks us to question value in our own environment.   

Lieshout leaves straightforward instructions for the work: “Just Do It: Cut your Nikes and turn them into Nike Air.” An FSU senior used Lieshout’s instructions and cut up a pair of black, toddler sneakers, removing the shape of the Nike swoosh logo from the fabric, inverting Lieshout’s instruction. Lieshout’s playful idea about destroying an object is an attempt to redefine the object and satirically raise its value. Lieshout’s work also highlights the absurdity of an object’s value dictated by a brand’s logo. In destroying the object, the audience gains a new awareness of the commodity.

FSU student Jeffrey Norman executed this instructions-based work by Erik van Lieshout in October 2020. Norman used photography to document his execution of this work. 


Several projects executed in this online exhibition are from do it, a traveling exhibition conceived and curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist, and organized by Independent Curators International (ICI), New York. do it was enacted at FSU's Museum of Fine Arts in Tallahassee, FL in the fall of 2020, and the following instructions-based works are courtesy of the artist, FSU MoFA, and ICI: CCTV Spray (2012) by Ai WeiweiInstruction (2002) by Eric van LieshoutSculpture for Strolling (1995) by Michelangelo Pistoletto, and Instruction (1993) by Christian Boltanski.

© 2020 by the Students of Florida State University's Art History 3854, The Museum Object