Exhibition History

Rewriting or Reaffirming the Canon? Critical Readings of Exhibition History


by Linda Boersma and Patrick van Rossem

In 2010, Afterall Publishers launched a series of exhibition histories wholly devoted to the study of landmark exhibitions.[1] The aim was to examine art in the context of its presentation in the public realm. In this way, research into art history shifted from the artistic production of one individual artist to the context of the presentation, and to the position, views, and convictions of the curator. In the introduction to the book, published in 2007 with its contextually pertinent title, Harald Szeemann: Individual Methodology, Florence Derieux stated: “It is now widely accepted that the art history of the second half of the twentieth century is no longer a history of artworks, but a history of exhibitions.”[2] Not everyone agrees with this, however. For example, art historian Julian Myers justifiably criticized this statement when he wrote that the history of art and exhibitions are inextricably linked.[3]

The fact that there is a great interest in exhibition history was discussed extensively by Myers in his text, “On the value of a history of exhibitions.” The number of publications about curating has grown exponentially since 2007, and in the enormous range of literature there have also been countless articles which are the result of historical research into exhibitions.[4] One book that is often quoted, also in the contributions to this issue of Stedelijk Studies, is Bruce Altshuler’s Biennials and Beyond: Exhibitions that Made Art History: 1962–2002, published in 2013.[5] The book provided an avid, “hungry” field with a much-needed summary of historically important exhibitions. As recently as 2011, Christian Rattemeyer wrote that there was an urgent need for an “accepted canon of important exhibitions even in the most general form.”[6] However, the publication of Biennials and Beyond also ignited a fear that writing a history of exhibitions would follow the same reasoning based on masterworks that was used in the works written on art history. As can be seen in many of the contributions to this issue, the fear exists that an excessively stringent canon of top exhibitions would be created. Another disadvantage of this exhibition mania is a phobia of artworks—Meyers even refers to “fetishization.”[7] Clearly, the question arises how a meaningful relationship can be created between object-focused art history and the new turn to exhibition history.

As part of the interest in exhibition history, the “remembering exhibition,” the term introduced by art historian Reesa Greenberg, has a special place.[8] In the past five years alone, remembering exhibitions have been organized in the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam reflecting on Bewogen Beweging (Moving Movement) (1961) and Op losse Schroeven. Situaties en Cryptostructuren, (Square Pegs in Round Holes, Situations and Cryptostructures) (1969), both part of the Recollections project (2010–2011); Arte Povera (1968) in different venues in Almalfi, Italy (2011); Live in your head. When Attitudes Become Form (1969), at Kunsthalle Bern and La Fondazione Prada Venice, 2013; Primary Structures: Younger American and British Sculptors (1966) at the Jewish Museum New York (with the title Other Primary Structures, also at the Jewish Museum New York in 2014). Furthermore, In search of 0.10 – The Last Futurist Exhibition of Painting opens at the Beyeler Foundation in Basel in October of this year, where the most famous exhibition of the Russian avant-garde will be brought back to life after a hundred years. These various remembering exhibitions assume very different forms, and the reasons why they have been organized are also quite diverse. They vary from an attempt at reconstruction (When Attitudes Become Form, Venice, 2013), which entails the impossible endeavor of providing the viewer with an authentic experience in the form of an archival documentation exhibition with the aim of updating our (own) past (Recollections), to a much more multifaceted or “corrected” image of the original, such as Jens Hoffman’s Other Primary Structures, which also included sculptures by artists working in the 1960s in Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and Africa, and which reexamined the exhibition of 1966 from a global point of view. As the revivals are often concerned with top exhibitions from a glorious past, the question about the motivation for this has been raised many times.[9]

Remembering exhibitions are undoubtedly also an exponent of the proliferation of contemporary art museums as “experience economy,”[10] with the need to relive history outside the history books, as witnessed by the popularity of living history: the reenactment of (artistic) performances and historical role play. This trend is part of what theater expert Erika Fischer-Lichte has called the “performative turn.” In her opinion, our culture no longer creates its self-image and an understanding of itself through text and artifact, but by means of cultural performances.[11] In her analysis of the “reenactment” phenomenon of artistic performances, curator Inke Arns suggests that reenactments give us access to the past by means of immersion, identification, and the forging of more personal and diversified links with aspects of that past. However, reducing the distance to the past is only the first step in what a reenactment should be. Arns justifiably indicates that a reenactment should, in fact, contain a profound reflection about the mediation of memory itself. The way in which we remember something—the concept and the form which we choose for this—should immediately make it clear that the reenactment is only an interpretation of a historical situation. Every attempt to get closer to the past and to reduce the distance to the past is, at the same time, or at least should be, a self-conscious mediated distancing from the present in relation to the original event. This takes us to the first point of criticism found in reviews and texts dealing with the phenomenon of the remembering exhibition. For example, the reenactment of Harald Szeemann’s exhibition, When Attitudes Become Form: Works – Concepts Situations – Processes – Information: Live in your head (Kunsthalle Bern, 1969) in Venice in 2013, was characterized by Fieke Konijn as a Botox version of the original.[12] After all, the reenactment took place at a different time, in a different location, and for different reasons. There proves to be a clear preference for remembering exhibitions that do not attempt to be a replica of an original exhibition, but which make contemporary statements about the past, or link the past to a contemporary issue. Reesa Greenberg characterizes this with the notion of the “riff”: “The riff uses an historic exhibition as a take-off point, often privileging a contemporary connection or interpretation.”[13]

In this issue of Stedelijk Studies, the preference for the “riff” is clear, both in the contribution of Francesco Spampianato (on the reenactment of The Times Square Show in 2014) and that of Jennifer McComas, (on the reenactment of Advancing American Art in 2012).[14] The added value of remembering exhibitions, as well as the appreciation for them, is not so much concerned with their celebrating function, but relates to the way in which they contribute to our knowledge about the past in relation to the present. They can provide an insight into the formation of a collection, and update the history of the collection by connecting social or artistic issues that have been identified earlier with corresponding contemporary problems. The fact that the attention to this is focused, above all, on exhibitions that are considered important is evident, although there are exceptions in this issue of Stedelijk Studies, which in particular concern exhibitions that are in the shadow of others considered to belong to the canon (Visual Aspects of Science, Stedelijk Museum), or exhibitions which are even considered to be less interesting (documenta 6). This is an important step, even if these are still exhibitions organized by people considered to be important (e.g., Willem Sandberg) in important institutions. It is also possible to criticize the fact that exhibitions organized in the second half of the twentieth century particularly attract attention. In this respect, Julian Myers indicates that this ignores the fact that there is a much lengthier history of exhibiting art. The lack of insight into this history undoubtedly has consequences for the nuances in writing and drawing up an exhibition history.[15] The enormous amount of attention devoted to group and especially thematic exhibitions is also justifiably criticized. For example, João Ribas wrote that the history of solo exhibitions appears to have been suppressed nowadays.[16]

Whether it is understood in the literature, or whether it has been explicitly stated, there is an awareness that a canon is built up by writing an exhibition history, and that this should therefore be done in a careful and critical way. The risk of a canon that is too stringent and exclusive, focusing on the reasoning based on masterworks and their value as examples, is always present. Moreover, Simon Sheikh stated that we should probably set the canon aside altogether, precisely because of its problematical character:

“Instead of trying to expand the canon, we should dispose of it altogether, through epistemology as well as what can be termed a conceptual history of art and curating, drawing upon diverse ideas such as those of Michel Foucault and Reinhart Koselleck, in which history is seen through ideas and concepts in terms of periodization, rather than events, individuals, and, in our case, specific objects.”[17]

After all, a canon is inevitably preoccupied with processes of inclusion and exclusion. Just as the history of art has listed collectors and patrons in a pantheon of great figures, a canon of canonical curators will be created in relation to that of the exhibition.[18] The authors of this issue are also aware of this. They are looking for those exhibitions which have been forgotten, which stand in the shadow of other, better-known exhibitions. They refer in advance to the danger of a canon, while so-called top exhibitions are embedded in broader historical contexts so that their exceptional character becomes relative. In fact, writing an exhibition history is a self-critical activity. This realization does open up perspectives and opportunities, possibly even for a history of ideas, such as that proposed by Simon Sheikh. When Bruce Altshuler wrote, “I recognize that my work has contributed to a process of canon formation,”[19] he realized, like so many others, that a canon is also a dynamic construction to which objects are added, or from which objects are removed. In any case, the authors in this issue open some of the doors—either a little way or wide open—to possible ways of dealing with the history of the exhibition of art in a critical way.

The second issue of Stedelijk Studies contains contributions which approach writing the history of exhibitions and the related issue of canon formation from different perspectives. The focus of these articles is diverse and the individual texts often highlight several dimensions of the theme. Three emphases can be discerned in the articles.

Firstly, there is an emphasis on remembering, in the form of critical reflections, both on exhibition histories and on the reenactment of historical exhibitions. Some authors focus on forgotten exhibitions for this purpose, while others concentrate on the reenactment of often important or even controversial exhibitions. In this respect, there has been a consistent choice for reenactments which are interpretations of the original exhibition, and in which an issue that was current at the time is linked to relevant, topical issues. For example, Francesco Spampinato describes how the restaging (in 2014 and 2012) of the exhibitions organized in 1980 by the New York collective Colab, The Real Estate Show and The Times Square Show, are interpretations which again position the issue of gentrification as central. The two original exhibitions not only entailed a shift from the conceptual to a more political and collective act, but were also already turning the other side of the issue of gentrification in cities into an important subject, even in the 1980s. In her turn, Jennifer McComas explores the reenactment of the controversial cultural diplomacy exhibition, Advancing American Art (1946) from 2012 to 2014 in different institutions, including the Indiana University Art Museum. McComas, herself the curator of the reenactment, focused in her exhibition on the political debate which ultimately led to the project being censured. In her text, this is also linked to later periods in which exhibitions and artistic projects encountered censure. The reenactment also attempted to banish the myth that American cultural diplomacy during the Cold War focused particularly on abstract expressionism. Advancing American Art comprised a diverse range of modern art, both abstract and figurative. This nuanced image of art from the United States, as well as the aims of the original exhibition, were proof for McComas that cultural diplomacy and art did not necessarily have to be enemies. This still applies today.

Both Flora Lysen and Stefano Collicelli Cagol focused on the exhibition history of the Stedeljik Museum Amsterdam under Willem Sandberg’s directorship. Both authors analyzed exhibitions which have been virtually forgotten, remaining in the shadow of the more well-known exhibitions Bewogen Beweging (Moving Movement) (1961) and Dylaby (1962). Cagol deals with The Vitality in Art and From Nature to Art, both dating from the 1960s. The article analyzes how Sandberg opted for the subject of vitality in great detail, and how he tried to abandon the classical categories of art history as the basic model for art exhibitions. An insight into these two exhibitions also proves to be important for a better understanding of the genesis of Bewogen Beweging and Dylaby. It takes a new look at the “masterpieces reasoning,” which is often the basis of exhibition history. In her text on Visual Aspects of Science (1962), Lysen describes how the choice for an exhibition on innovation in scientific imagery corresponds to Sandberg’s fascination for—but also his critical attitude towards—scientific progress. According to Sandberg, artists and designers could make these two aspects more accessible to a greater public. However, the criticism on exhibitions in the Netherlands blindly followed the scientific and technological optimism of the age. Once again, no questions were raised with regard to scientific and technological optimism in Visual Aspects of Science, just as the critics of Bewogen Beweging and Dylaby failed to consider any artistic questioning of the rapidly increasing automation. Ultimately, it becomes apparent that there are deeper links between the different exhibitions organized by Sandberg as well.

The second theme focuses explicitly on rewriting the exhibition canon, or the need to do so. Clemence Imbert examines how the Museum of Modern Art in New York created a stringent hierarchical and virtually unrevised canon with regard to graphic design in exhibitions such as Word and Image (1968) and The Modern Poster (1988). The standard appears to go back to MoMA’s director, Alfred J. Barr, who considered graphic art as an extension of modern painting. In this way, modernist, often aesthetic criteria were transferred and assessed as graphic design, while the social, cultural, and historical importance of the posters was often left out of consideration. Maria Bremer’s contribution raises the question of why certain exhibitions are considered to be important, while others are not. The introduction of new criteria produces a more nuanced exhibition history. Her text focuses on the celebrated documenta 5 (1972), curated by Harald Szeemann, and the following documenta 6 (1977), organized by Manfred Schnekenburger. While the former is considered groundbreaking because of its thematic perspective and Szeemann’s self-consciousness as a curator, the latter is often seen as being traditional and theoretically weak. Bremer, however, casts doubt on this characterization. Writing an exhibition history on the basis of criteria such as being new, controversial, etc., reveals a modernist evolutionary way of thinking. Bremer shifts the focus to reaffirmation as a leading principle of documenta 6, and she actually considers this as being consolidating, rather than traditional.

We find a third emphasis in those texts which deal wholly or partly with methodological points for attention in the construction of exhibition histories. Both Flora Lysen and Clemence Imbert argue for the use of a more diverse context of interpretation. Lysen refers to the links with exhibitions organized outside the fields of art and the museum, such as science fairs, world’s fairs, and so on. Imbert considers the aesthetic context of the evaluation of posters to be too limited. Maria Bremer places pertinent question marks next to the criteria which are used for the creation of an exhibition canon, and which are often rooted in the modernist debate. Bremer introduces notions such as reaffirmation and consolidation in this respect. Finally, Madeleine Kennedy asks whether the photographic documentation of exhibitions, which has an enormous impact on writing exhibition histories, might not distort our image of this history, rather than provide an accurate reflection. Some exhibitions, such as the extensively documented and canonical Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme (1938), were particularly suited to being recorded in photographs. The surrealists were able to extend the alienating character of their exhibition into the photographic medium. However, not all exhibitions can be represented by photographs so easily, and our understanding of many exhibitions which are undoubtedly also important has been distorted by this, or is even absent altogether. A photograph is a two-dimensional static image; an exhibition is a spatial situation, which must be explored in time. It is therefore necessary to be alert and subtle when writing these histories on the basis of photography.

The exhibition ZERO: Let Us Explore the Stars (on view at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam until November 8, 2015) encompasses living history, archival exhibition, and reenactments: a mixture of different exhibition strategies in which the direct and current relation between exhibition history as an art historical discipline and a curatorial practice has been achieved in an exciting way.