Test your knowledge with a quiz
- Ukeles’s public action called attention to the “invisible” labor often performed by women and the working class. She created a political body of art that focused on important, but undervalued, tasks. In this particular series of actions at the Wadsworth Atheneum, she highlighted the labor of maintenance and cleaning that is necessary to cultural spaces like the museum, but goes unnoticed and is often underpaid and undervalued.
- In the 1960s and 1970s, institutional critique emerged as an artistic strategy that criticized the power structures and cultural hierarchies of spaces like the museum. Engaging with the inequities and injustices of how we think about maintenance work, Ukeles created a new area of art-making, which she called “Maintenance Art.” This included the repetitive, and often thankless work of cleaning and repair that is essential to the functioning of domestic and public spaces.
- In creating her manifesto and performing public actions, Ukeles moved away from the role of the artist as a maker of objects in favor of producing more conceptual projects. This built on the example of Marcel Duchamp, whose readymade sculptures were based on the idea of taking an existing object, changing the way we look at it, and recontextualizing it as art. By making it visible through performance and photography, Ukeles does the same for maintenance work, and in the process hopes to change the way we think about this type of labor.
Read more about Mierle Laderman Ukeles at the Wadsworth Atheneum of Art
Read Ukeles’s “Maintenance Manifesto” from 1969
Listen to Ukeles explain what influenced the development of Maintenance Art
Learn about Ukeles’s other artworks
Watch a video discussing the origins and ideas of performance art
Feeling skeptical? Watch “The Case for Conceptual Art” and decide what you think
Learn more about the social and political implications of women’s invisible labor
More to think about
In her work Touch Sanitation, Ukeles spent a year shaking the hand of every employee of the New York City Sanitation Department, meticulously documenting her process along the way. Can art be an action rather than an object? Do you see this project as art, and what are your reasons for your position?