Good Humor Man: on the “Ice Cream Social”

Hans-Ulrich Obrist

Robbins made a name for himself in the mid-1980s with a series of conceptual works that used the New York art world itself as material for comedy. His success garnered many invitations to exhibit in Europe. By removing himself from the New York art world, which overvalues the production of objects, Robbins could exercise other talents like writing and theater, and in so doing he reinvented his practice by creating new alternatives to existing “artistic rituals”.
Ice Cream Social best characterizes Robbins’s artistic “second life.” Initiated in 1993, the live event began – improbably enough – with the desire to make a dot painting and with a question: “How to exhibit an abstract painting, and to ‘program’ it so that it invites readings other than the ones traditionally attached to abstract art?” As Mark Baskin, Robbins’s alter ego in his Ice Cream Social novella (1998), intuits, “The painting ought to reference something public instead of private, something not so much inside people as between them.” Baskin ponders further: “‘Programming’ could be accomplished by inaugurating the painting into public life in a place apart from the usual haunts of art, since a memory of that novel, ‘inappropriate’ context would necessarily be built into the painting’s experience, and thus into the experience of encountering the painting afterwards.” And so he decided that the most “logical” place to exhibit his painting was a Baskin-Robbins ice cream parlor, and the most “appropriate” painting for this setting would be pink with brown dots, echoing the company’s standard decor.
Robbins threw a traditional social, replete with free ice cream, refreshments, and a few dozen guests, who mingled while Robbins recited a poem about gathering to the gathered. He subsequently recounted the event in his novella, published in collaboration with Purple Books in Paris and Feature Inc., his New York gallery. This book has since served as a matrix for new Ice Cream Socials staged in Chicago, London, and Des Moines, where the event drew over eight hundred people. Although these later incarnations included a mix of cast members and guests, they did not strictly adhere to a script. They remained parties. For Robbins, the Ice Cream Socials are to be understood not as conceptual artworks but as attempts to move beyond existing categories of cultural practice.
Throughout the decade-long history of Ice Cream Social, Robbins has progressively furthered his goal of operating within entertainment culture, extending “art context attitudes” and experimentation into the mainstream. Recently he even took Ice Cream Social a step further by writing a television script.
Robbins’ aims and methods have made him an important point of reference for artists of subsequent generations. The production process of Ice Cream Social – from the first dot painting and live event to the novella, TV series, and movie script – resonates with other multifarious projects such as Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle or Philippe Parreno and Pierre Huyghe’s AnnLee project, in that they all suggest radical new forms for the contemporary art exhibition. These artists resist the traditional temporal structure of exhibitions, instead proposing ongoing projects that constantly oscillate between process, object, structure, and exchange. The goal is to make art engage a more varied production, a broader context, a life cycle all its own.

Text published in the catalogue of the 3rd Biennial of Ceramics in Contemporary Art “Undisciplined”, Attese, Albisola (Italy), 2006. Courtesy Artforum.