RA Magazine Summer 2013
Issue Number: 119
Review and Comment: Show and tell
The rise of the curator and the globalisation of art are just two threads followed in a seminal book on the exhibitions that changed the course of modern art, writes Edmund Fawcett
The month-long art show ‘Dynamic Labyrinth’ offered, in the words of one critic, ‘simple fairground entertainments’ in a ‘friendly madhouse’. Its diverse materials came from junk shops, flea markets and the city zoo. There was a jukebox and a paddling pool. The public was invited to take part as an ‘active co-creator’, which meant, among other things, shooting at bags of coloured paint with an airgun. This was not a student degree show or a shoestring reprise of 1920s Dada in a two-room shop front, but a major exhibition at a great modern art museum, the Stedelijk in Amsterdam.
The date was August 1962, and ‘Dynamic Labyrinth’ marked a notable shift of institutional taste and power within the modern art world. Painting, especially the abstract expressionist kind, was making way for installation and performance. Gallery owners, museum directors and even their trustees began to embrace the artistic ‘street’. Certain art radicals such as the Situationists refused to be co-opted and pulled out of the Amsterdam show. But that only added to the excitement.
That exhibition is the first of 25 that Bruce Altshuler and the editors at Phaidon chronicle in Biennials and Beyond. Their new book forms the second part of an inspired record of influential shows of new art since the Salon des Refusés at Paris in 1863. The first volume ran from then to 1959. This second volume, which brings us up almost to the present, is equally splendid.
‘A New Spirit in Painting’ at the Royal Academy in 1981, which included works by Georg Baselitz (left), Balthus (far end) and Willem de Kooning (right). © The Artists/Courtesy Royal Academy of Arts, London.
As before, each chapter opens with a coloured half-sheet giving basic information: place of show, date, length of run, itinerary, curators, artists shown, number of works, attendance if known, catalogue title and related contemporary publications. There follows a selection of well-captioned photographs of the works on show and the layout, often with plans and relevant documents, together with curatorial statements of purpose and contemporary reviews.
The book can be browsed or read through as a continuous story. Part record, part celebration, part social history, it notes the big ‘firsts’ and major trends. Minimalism, for example, was introduced to a wide public at New York’s innovative Jewish Museum with ‘Primary Structures’ (1966), featuring, among others, Carl Andre, Dan Flavin, Sol Le Witt and Robert Morris. Conceptual art had its first international outing at Bern’s Kunsthalle in Harald Szeemann’s ‘When Attitudes Become Form’ (1969), which then travelled to London’s ICA. This path-breaking show – to be reprised in homage at this year’s Venice Biennale (see page 33) – elevated curator to creator and encouraged the now common belief that the idea and interpretation of a work mattered as much as, perhaps more than, the making of the work. Land art established itself in people’s minds as a valid new genre at several parks and sites across the Netherlands in the summer of 1971 in ‘Sonsbeek 71’, a show that included works by Richard Long RA and Robert Smithson.
Joseph Beuys installs Fat Corner for ‘When Attitudes Become Form’ in Bern in 1969. © Roy Lichtenstein Foundation, New York. On reaching the last show listed in this book, Okwui Enwezor’s ‘Documenta 11’ at Kassel, Germany, in 2002, readers will be bursting with thoughts and reactions of their own. There is, if anything, almost too much to respond to in an orderly way. But three threads in particular struck me. One was how much of the shape and character of the new art we have seen since 1970 was already present by then. Although video and digital camera did add the art of the moving image, what has followed in the five decades since, to judge from Biennials and Beyond, was as much geographic extension and improvisation on existing themes as breakthrough or innovation.
Since the early 1970s, the exhibiting of new art has gone global, with the eventual spread of well-attended biennials to more than 60 sites worldwide. That widening of geographic view also encouraged a breaking down of old categories. Notable here was ‘Magiciens de la Terre’ in Paris in 1989, which mixed together new western art and non-western art, folk art and high art as a single capacious enterprise. The disappearance of painting was lamented and its return applauded, many times. In the lead here was the RA’s ‘A New Spirit in Painting’ (1981), curated by Norman Rosenthal, which drew attention particularly to new German painters. As the thought grew that art had no particular look, so did the idea that art need not be found in museums. Another post-1970s development was, accordingly, the off-site show – art shown outside museums at sundry points in town or in people’s houses. Yet none of those developments really bore on the content of the new art displayed.
A second striking thing was the rise of the curator as showman. Back in 1975, the novelist and social observer Tom Wolfe suggested in The Painted Word that the art critic had replaced the painter as a driver of change in modern art. As regards what the public sees, a different lesson suggests itself. The taste-makers and trendsetters here are neither artists nor critics but professional curators or critics-turned-curator: for example, Germano Celant, Pontus Hultén, Lucy Lippard, Kynaston McShine, Norman Rosenthal and Harald Szeemann.
A third thread in this rich chronicle was critical acceptance. Reluctance to correct or reprove stands out in the reviews selected, although approval was not universal. McShine’s politically engaged show ‘Information’ at MoMA in 1970 drove Hilton Kramer in the New York Times to write, ‘What tripe, what an intellectual scandal!’ Another American critic, Harold Rosenberg, lamented, in the New Yorker that Szeeman’s ‘Documenta 5’ (1972) appeared to proclaim that ‘the artist is superfluous’. Neither reaction was typical, however. Biennials and Beyond more broadly records a half-century of mounting applause in which the ‘friendly madhouse’ became, in more than one sense, an institution.
- Biennials and Beyond: Exhibitions that made Art History: 1962-2002 by Bruce Altshuler et al, £59.95, Phaidon
- When Attitudes Become Form: Bern 1969/Venice 2013 Fondazione Prada, www.fondazioneprada.org, 1 June–3 November
© RA Magazine
Editorial enquiries: 020 7300 5820
Advertising rates and enquiries: 0207 300 5661
Magazine subscriptions: 0800 634 6341 (9.30am-5.00pm Mon-Fri)
Press office (for syndication of articles only): 0207 300 5615