Daniel Birnbaum

  • View of “1938: Kunst, Künstler, Politik,” 2013–14. From left: Elfriede Lohse-Wächtler, Ausblick aus dem Nachtlokal (View from the Nightclub), 1930; Elfriede Lohse-Wächtler, Lissy, 1931; Elfriede Lohse-Wächtler, Eine Pflasterkolonne (II) (A Plaster Column [II]), 1931; Elfriede Lohse-Wächtler, In der Barkasse (In the Barge), 1930. Photo: Uwe Dettmar.

    “1938: Kunst, Künstler, Politik”

    TO SAY THAT YOU LOVE THE AVANT-GARDE was once proof that you were on the right side of history. That moment is now over, as evidenced by the impeccable timing of the well-researched exhibition “1938: Kunst, Künstler, Politik” (1938: Art, Artists, Politics) at the Jewish Museum in Frankfurt. Conceived by critic Julia Voss, implemented by curator Eva Atlan, and designed by artist Tobias Rehberger and his studio, the show underscored the complex and traumatic intersections of political and cultural prerogatives during one fateful year.

    That annus horribilis is catching up to us. The recent discovery

  • “Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster: Splendid Hotel”

    A luminous pavilion of glass and steel opened in 1887, Madrid’s technologically advanced Palacio de Cristal was capable of simulating equatorial climate conditions and was intended to showcase the exotic flora of the Philippines, a Spanish colony until 1898. In short, the structure—now owned by the Reina Sofía—already sounds like a work by Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, so it is no surprise that the French artist was drawn to the site. In characteristic form, she is offering few details in advance of her show, a site-specific intervention. But given that the

  • View of “Philippe Parreno: Anywhere, Anywhere, Out of the World,” 2013, Palais de Tokyo, Paris. Center: TV Channel, 2013. On-screen: Alien Seasons, 2002. Photo: Aurélien Mole.

    Daniel Birnbaum

    1 “DANCING AROUND THE BRIDE: CAGE, CUNNINGHAM, JOHNS, RAUSCHENBERG, AND DUCHAMP” (PHILADELPHIA MUSEUM OF ART; CURATED BY CARLOS BASUALDO WITH ERICA F. BATTLE) How many more projects about the influence of Marcel Duchamp can we take? Perhaps not many, but this unusually clever and elegant exhibition about chance, chess, collaboration, and performance, focusing on the circle of Johns, Rauschenberg, Cunningham, and Cage, breathed new life into a topic that already seemed exhausted. Curated in close dialogue with Philippe Parreno, the show managed to dodge all boring forms of pedagogy and succeeded

  • Amal Kenawy, Silence of the Lambs, 2009, video transferred to digital video, color, sound, 8 minutes 31 seconds.

    the 13th Istanbul Biennial

    THE THIRTEENTH INSTALLMENT of the Istanbul Biennial, curated by Fulya Erdemci, marked a shift in tone. This was an uncompromising exhibition about a world in which our shared spheres of collective freedom are rapidly shrinking. Gone were the warm conviviality and slightly naive hopes of relational aesthetics. Instead, a gloomier and perhaps more realistic atmosphere prevailed in works that relentlessly presented us with barriers and unsurpassable frontiers. Here, art was not expected to offer alternatives to such divided realities, even if Erdemci stressed the presence of social alchemies

  • View of Jeremy Deller’s “English Magic,” 2013, British pavilion, Venice. Foreground: I searched for form and land for years and years I roamed, 2013. Background: A Good Day for Cyclists, 2013. Photo: Cristano Corte.

    Daniel Birnbaum

    JUST WHAT IS GOING ON at the top of that little hill? There, on the far crest of the Giardini, is where the power triangle—the UK, Germany, France—have their pavilions. It seems Old Europe is hoping to revive itself, whether through rejuvenating infusions from more vigorous parts of the globe, or by means of a return to occult sources believed to still be vital. One of Europe’s most precious cultural crystal balls since 1895, the Venice Biennale this year is filled with esoteric visions. A humorless Swiss variety is clearly in dominance (e.g., Carl Jung’s Red Book), but thank God Jeremy

  • “When Attitudes Become Form: Bern 1969/Venice 2013”

    This summer, every young curator’s dream comes true: Instead of perusing that good old catalogue, in itself an art-world fetish of the highest caliber, everyone will be able to see the contents of Swiss curator Harald Szeemann’s most legendary exhibition in the flesh. “Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form” appeared at the Kunsthalle Bern in 1969 as Europe’s first major survey of Conceptual art. The local criticism was so ruthless that Szeemann decided to resign as the museum’s director, only to assume a new role (one that he is

  • Spread from Hilma af Klint’s sketchbook containing drawings of flowers, mosses, and lichen and their astral guidelines, 1919.


    The idea of a secret masterpiece seems ludicrous. Indeed, as Marcel Duchamp famously argued, a work of art needs to be known in order to be: Its existence depends on “the artist on the one hand, and on the other, the spectator who later becomes the posterity.” The viewer’s contribution, he maintained, is equal in importance to the artist’s, and in the long run perhaps even greater, because, as he put it elsewhere, “it is posterity that makes the masterpiece.” Now try to imagine a situation in which one of these elements is missing. It begins to sound like an art koan: What happens to a work

  • View of “The Small Utopia: Ars Multiplicata,” Fondazione Prada, Ca’ Corner della Regina, Venice. Foreground: Multiples of Marcel Duchamp’s Roue de Bicyclette (Bicycle Wheel), 1913/1964. Photo: Attilio Maranzano.

    Daniel Birnbaum

    1 “The Small Utopia: Ars Multiplicata” (Fondazione Prada, Venice; curated by Germano Celant) This exceptionally rich exploration of the art of multiplication—from Sonia Delaunay to Marcel Duchamp to Yoko Ono, and with more than six hundred works—held my attention and that of my easily bored friends for hours. The disappearance of the auratic original does not make fetishistic obsession obsolete. On the contrary: Some of these multiples are to kill for!

    2 Herbert Molderings, Die Nackte Wahrheit: Zum Spätwerk von Marcel Duchamp (The Naked Truth: The Late Works of Marcel Duchamp; Carl

  • View of “The Brain,” 2012, Kunsthalle Fridericianum, Kassel. Photo: Roman März.

    Documenta 13

    WHAT WOULD IT MEAN to think that things could have stories as troubled as those of people? Many of the objects in this year’s Documenta—among them engines, a beehive, a palette knife—had complex, sometimes difficult, stories to tell. Take the Korbinian, a German apple. Its origin arguably lies in 1923, when the Bavarian priest, activist, and apple lover Korbinian Aigner saw Adolf Hitler speaking in Munich. Aigner began to protest the Nazi regime, was arrested in the fall of 1939, and was subsequently moved to Dachau—where, unbelievably enough, he tended a small orchard between

  • Page from Artforum 22, no. 8 (April 1984). Jean-François Lyotard, “The Sublime and the Avant-Garde.” Shown: Caspar David Friedrich, Abend (Evening), 1824.

    Daniel Birnbaum on Jean-François Lyotard’s “The Sublime and the Avant-Garde”

    AT THE VERY PEAK OF HIS FAME in the mid-1980s, Jean-François Lyotard, one of Europe’s most prominent thinkers, staged an art-world intervention. He did so with essentially a few dense texts and one major exhibition. The essay “The Sublime and the Avant-Garde” appeared in the April 1984 issue of Artforum, with a contributor’s note mentioning that its author was at the time preparing “Les Immatériaux” (The Immaterials), a sprawling exhibition that would open a year later at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. This was the first Artforum article I ever read; to this day, it remains the one that has had

  • Atsuko Tanaka, Round on Sand, 1968, still from a color film in 16 mm, 9 minutes 42 seconds.

    Daniel Birnbaum

    1 “Atsuko Tanaka: The Art of Connecting” (Espai d’Art Contemporani de Castelló, Spain; curated by Jonathan Watkins, Mizuho Kato, Yuko Hasegawa, and Koichi Kawasaki) In 1968 Tanaka drew large circles in the sand near the shoreline as part of her performance Round on Sand. Art doesn’t get any simpler than this. Nor does it get more splendid. Ever since encountering photographs of Tanaka wearing her legendary Electric Dress, 1956, and then seeing the 1986 reconstruction of the dress itself, I have hoped to see more work by this key member of Gutai. The show’s drawings, paintings, and, most important,

  • View of “‘Untitled’ (Death by Gun),” 2011, Antrepo 3, Istanbul. Clockwise from left: Chris Burden, Shoot, 1971; Eddie Adams, Viet Cong Prisoner Being Escorted, Saigon, 1968; Eddie Adams, Street Execution of a Viet Cong Prisoner, Saigon, 1968; Eddie Adams, General Holstering Gun After Execution, Saigon, 1968; Roy Lichtenstein, The Gun in America (Time Magazine), 1968.

    the 12th Istanbul Biennial

    IF EVER THERE WAS a large-scale international exhibition where the curators were in control rather than the artists, the 2011 Istanbul Biennial was it. For those of us who tend to think that a show’s complexity should lie in the artworks assembled rather than in the framing device imposed by the curators (here, Jens Hoffmann and Adriano Pedrosa), this exhibition presented a challenge. That said, the show marked an interesting shift in the understanding of the biennial: Long treated as a site for unpredictable (and consequently not always successful) new productions, in Istanbul it became the