"The Avant-Garde in Exhibition: New Art in the 20th Century" by Bruce Altshuler

The Avant-Garde in Exhibition: New Art in the 20th Century

The Avant-Garde in Exhibition: New Art in the 20th Century, by Bruce Altshuler

While there are countless art history books, the number of tomes dedicated to the history of exhibitions is much fewer. Thus Bruce Altshuler's analysis of avant-garde exhibitions in the 20th century is an invaluable resource, particularly in learning more about how the exhibitions developed, what they actually presented, and what happened to the participants afterwards. Altshuler begins with notable Parisian exhibitions of the Fauves in 1905 and Cubists in 1912, and includes the Armory exhibition in New York in 1913, the Nazi's infamous exhibition of Degenerate Art in 1937, and the minimalist sculpture show "Primary Structures" in New York in 1966 among others. But of particular interest to me was his final chapter, which focused on two exhibitions of conceptual art; "January 5-31, 1969" organized by New York dealer Seth Siegelaub and "When Attitudes Become Form: Works-Processes-Concepts-Situations-Information (Live in Your Head)," curated by uber-curator Harald Szeemann for the Kunsthalle Bern, Switzerland, also in 1969.

Szeemann's exhibition, as mentioned in some of my reviews below, has attained near-holy status in the history of modern curating. So Altshuler's examination proved especially enlightening, as I had previously only read a few sentences here and there without much detail about the actual show. A few installation photographs are reproduced along with information about specific artworks in the gallery and around Bern. Szeemann essentially gave the keys of the gallery to the artists, some of whom moved in for a bit to create work on site. This very loose approach to curating was new at that time and liberating, which paralleled the non-traditional forms of art being presented, such as Richard Serra's splashes of molten lead along the floor and wall, Michael Heizer's destroyed portion of a sidewalk near the museum, and a telephone that rang periodically with phone calls from artist Walter de Maria.

Here are some surprising things Altshuler mentioned that I didn't know about "When Attitudes Become Form": 

  1. The exhibition was sponsored by Philip Morris. Yes, Philip Morris Europe. Granted, it was 1969.
  2. It was only on view from March 22 to April 27. That seems just incredibly short for such a landmark exhibition. However, it did travel to another museum in Germany and then to the ICA in London.
  3. Szeemann exhibited artists and works that he'd seen before in various galleries, including all 9 of the artists presented in an exhibition in 1968 at Leo Castelli's gallery. I'd mistakenly assumed Szeemann "discovered" these artists and their work, but actually he culled them from various sources and then let them loose. 

Altshuler credits Siegelaub's exhibition (which is perhaps more groundbreaking than Szeemann's due to the dealer's insistence on texts, such as catalogues, being far more important than art objects) and Szeemann's as hallmarks of the rise of the curator as creator. He argues that previous attempts to subvert traditional exhibition formats arose from the efforts of the artists themselves and not the organizers. With this pair of 1969 exhibitions, the curators effect change in how art is presented and "framed," how viewers interact with art, and in how the manner and mode of presentation became part of the content presented (p. 236).

While it does seem that these exhibitions demonstrate and predict the "rise of the curator" I'm not sure if they actually reflect curatorial activity as content production. In the little I've learned about these shows, it seems as though the artists are still the driving creative force, and the curators are the presenters, promoters, editors, and enablers. Giving the artists free reign generates these exhibitions, the curators are more like benevolent guides. Which is very different than some of the curation-as-content ideas being floated about at the moment (a topic for a different post altogether). 

Nonetheless, Altshuler's book offers an essential grounding for any curator who is thinking about the profession at large and its contributions to culture over time. On a side note, I have to say yet again, how dismaying it is to read these historical accounts in which women play such a minimal role (see my review below of

A Brief History of Curating

). Sure, they are there but most often as dealers, collectors, or administrators, and only occasionally as artists. I would hope an analysis of exhibitions since the 1970s presents women as major players. Now who has written that book?