PRINT September 1963

Problems of “New Directions” Exhibitions

THE EXHIBITION “The Art of Assemblage” that was held at The Museum of Modern Art in the fall of 1961 and which subsequently traveled to the Dallas Museum of Contemporary Art (now, sad to say, defunct) and the San Francisco Museum of Art is now regarded as an event of some historical importance, and the term used in its title has entered the everyday vo­cabulary of the arts. But, though a majority of critical comment at the time was favorable, both in Europe and the United States, the most highly placed critics of the New York press were intensely disparaging. For a time, therefore, both the exhibition and the book that accompanied it were controversial.

When the theme was conceived, it was not at all devoted to launching a “new direction,” but to pre­senting recent work in an unorthodox, but well-estab­lished, medium, side-by-side with work done earlier in the century. It was the outcome of the quite unpretentious idea of surveying the history of collage. My initial research quickly demonstrated, however, that the principle underlying collage was more inclusive than the technique of pasting: it became clear that it embraced three-dimensional as well as two-dimen­sional works, much of the tradition of dada and sur­realist objects, “environments” large enough to be physically entered, and that most multiform of events, the “happening.” Disconcertingly, “collage” had also expanded to include an astonishing diversity of strange objects being currently produced (with seem­ingly independent motivations) in many countries. What originated as an historical exhibition, therefore, evolved by its own logic and the pressure of events into a survey of an international wave at its moment of breaking. Once the title had been decided upon it offered a valuable technical criterion—violated only in a few calculated instances—by which works could be included or excluded.

Defined in the most mechanical way, an “assem­blage” is a work created by fastening together frag­ments or objects not intended as art materials, and usually recognizable as such. Whether the object is flat or three-dimensional makes no difference. On a metaphysical rather than a technical level, however, the theme was extraordinarily rich, complex and prob­lematical. It was a history, up to the day the catalogue went to press, of what Roger Shattuck calls “the meth­od of juxtaposition”: a radical mode of esthetic organi­zation employed by an impressive line of avant-garde poets, novelists and composers, as well as painters, since the 1890’s. I was determined to allow the assem­blage concept to follow its inherent principles with total freedom, and to represent the assemblage tech­nique as diversely as possible, including works from as many schools, decades, countries and localities as time and museum space would allow.

New York, it is easy to forget, is capable of a super-umbrage quite on the scale of its apartment houses and traffic jams. Conveniently, most of the funda­mental criticisms leveled at “The Art of Assemblage” were concentrated in two reviews by the senior critic of The New York Times. His attack hinged on several points of considerable interest in the light of subse­quent developments.

In attempting to represent each direction assem­blage had taken, I naturally tried to find the best and most characteristic examples. To amputate any de­viation or mutation because it might annoy somebody, I thought, would be to falsify the phenomenon I was trying to represent. The inclusiveness that I felt to be a responsibility, however, was regarded by the critic as wanton license. He pronounced the exhibition vi­cious, first, of the “unselective enthusiasm with which the trivial and specious are presented in identifica­tion with the significant . . .” The bad works were never identified, but they were denounced as “cur­rent assemblages of trash that, if transformed, are transformed only into trash of a different kind, vicious rather than bland.” The fifty-year-old technique of assemblage was dismissed as “a secondary art form at best and a viciously prostituted one at worst,” and the entire manifestation was described as “a highly perfumed affair” that was “afflicted by fashionable bloat.” The objects on view were said to create “a bad odor where they hang on the third floor of 11 W. 53rd Street.” It was further suggested (if not flatly asserted) that my aim, somehow perverse and im­moral, was to pander to a reprehensible coterie rather than to enlighten or instruct the public.

In spite of its distaste, The New York Times seemed to enjoy the show tremendously in a guilt-ridden way, for it was also described as “a dazzler from start to finish,” in which “the best of the objects . . . look su­perb, and the worst are so receptive to theatrical light­ing that one is almost fooled into accepting them at face value and into forgetting that face is the only value they have.” Effective installation, that is to say, became an onerous offense.

It would have been permissible, the critic ruled, to survey even such a suspect technique more objective­ly—i.e., pointing out its inherent weakness and call­ing attention to the unsavoriness of the work by younger artists. In point of fact I made every effort to maintain my own variety of objectivity, trying to bring works and ideas together without placing a per­sonal stamp or prejudice on the total selection; trying to focus a pre-existing international phenomenon which would have existed, dispersively at least, if I had not. I am now convinced, however, that in art the disinterested observer does not exist. Intense observa­tion and thorough understanding of art works or movements are inseparable from some degree of involve­ment.

A final charge was directed against the Museum: to give floor space to such a display, it was held, was “very nearly a moral as well as an esthetic shortcom­ing in a museum exerting so powerful an educational force.”

If the questions raised by these criticisms can be stripped of journalistic harshness and exaggeration, they call attention to a Pandora’s box of problems that have arisen over the last few years as a result of the sweeping success of avant-garde art. Any curator pre­paring an exhibition that reflects, or can affect, a cur­rent trend will be subject to various pressures, espe­cially if his museum has a wide influence, that can range from salesmanship and persuasion to coercion. He is going to be the temporary darling of one coterie or another. But if his intention and modus operandi are thought through he must proceed as if this were not the case. It is easy to say that he should choose works on the basis of quality, and only quality, but we know from experience that the newer the direction the harder quality is to define, because truly original art seldom conforms to old rules. New beauty, history has demonstrated, often looks ugly to old eyes. We know that trail-blazing art is seldom articulated with the finesse of derivative and eclectic art. A curator or critic needs knowledge, sensibility and intelligence to evaluate the roughness of an original statement against beautifully rendered academicism, even if it has an avant-garde label.

And we are faced with a new problem. Polished work was once given precedence no matter how empty or secondhand it was; but now there is an opposite ten­dency to prefer crudity, ugliness, banality, sensation­alism and even repulsiveness to work that is beauti­ful, serious and well realized. Once I had a partial an­swer to the changing direction of art: always follow the artist; never try to manipulate the future. But now the artist’s leadership has become so intertwined with speculation, salesmanship, promotion schemes, Mondo Cane sensationalism and the insatiable appe­tite of the mass-cult and midcult press for Sunday­-supplement copy, that true vision is difficult to ex­tricate. As I have said elsewhere, avant-garde art, when it came into existence some one hundred years ago, was, precisely, alienated art: an art of committed in­novators and seers, cut off from acceptance by the philistinism of officials and the public. To have the demand for avant-garde art greater than the supply—the situation we have arrived at today—is laughable.

The speed with which attention now shifts to a new manifestation is evident in the pop art wave. In the book, “The Art of Assemblage,” the spreading use of flags, signs, billboards and other images drawn from commercial culture was pointed out. I feel now, as I did then, that this vast addition to the vocabulary of arts is of great interest, and for years I have been struck by the beauty of the collage of billboards, gaso­line stations and similar commercial heraldry which the American urban and suburban scene offers to eyes that are open. Yet we must take note that the concept of pop art—which as a concentrated phe­nomenon was born scarcely a year ago—has already become commonplace. In what was a matter of months a roster of artists, many of whom were previously un­known, were categorized, largely by dealer and peri­odical promotion, and have already been given a score of showings in major museums. Good or bad, pop art is no longer a “new direction.”

The curator who goes out of his way to stage a swing­ing avant-garde extravaganza should have a clear idea of what he is about. The presentation in museums of happenings such as Jean Tinguely’s self-disintegrating “Homage to New York” can be stimulating; in the in­stance mentioned, despite failures and alarms, it was brilliant and moving. The media of the arts must be permitted to evolve, and if such events are to be a permanent part of what we call “art,” perhaps muse­um architecture should be revised to accommodate them. Yet somewhere, it seems, a fair line can be drawn between the Establishment and the forces who enjoy themselves by storming it. For the first time, we have an anti-Establishment Establishment, and an art school or university sophomore may soon be able to register for Dada 201.

This historical flip became evident in certain ex­hibitions in which the director or his agent, rather than an artist or group of artists, invented a “new direction” and then ordered works to fit from a chosen group. Should a curator or a critic set out, using the devices of publicity and carefully fanned controversy, to establish himself as the public symbol of avant-gardism? Should he gather a stable of artists around him like a vaudeville troupe? If the life of art is to become “art biz,” we should at least know what is tak­ing place.

The installation of unorthodox works lies under si­milar considerations. Ideally, every exhibition should be installed by the man who conceives it, justifies it and explains it. We all know what installation can do to objects of every kind, for good or ill, truthfulness or falsification. Installation is an art—a self-effacing art—as interwoven with ideas as is selection or writ­ing. To treat art works as a collagist does old news­papers and bus tickets, in order to achieve a theatri­cal effect, is a violation of every work in the exhibition. The best installation may go unnoticed, because each work stands out in its essence. And the man who se­lects them should best know what that essence is.

Except for a detail here and there, needless to say, I was not in agreement with The New York Times’ ap­praisal of “The Art of Assemblage”; yet I am entirely in agreement with its contention that an exhibition director has a responsibility—or rather a series of responsibilities that are difficult to define with pre­cision, and hard to reconcile with each other. These responsibilities vary, moreover, with the type and pres­tige of the institution, the nature of its total program, the relationship of the curator to the exhibition and the atmosphere of the community. We all know towns, both large and small, in which almost any extremist bombshell would be a service to art. As the Dadas demonstrated, esthetic shock has the power to blast precious materials from the hard rock of philistinism. But philistines are becoming increasingly rare, and perhaps the few remaining examples should be pre­served and venerated.

In most progressive centers museums have gained a new and influential public who respond to what we call “new” quickly and sympathetically. Those who evaluate contemporary art moreover, face a rising tide of production and activity. The avant-garde cura­tor should do more than sample the current offerings of dealers on the inside track in Los Angeles, Chicago New York, Paris or Milan, like a buyer picking up the fall line. He has responsibilities to inner conviction, intellectual honesty, a concept of intrinsic achieve­ment in the arts, and to his own sensitivity. If he knows his community and meets his responsibility to himself, his responsibility to the public will probably take care of itself. He should think as independently as the artist, look deeply, and come to his own con­clusions. He should rise above limitations, prejudices, narcissism, trend-setting, affiliations and friendships. He should know whether he is the tool of a clique and when he is being softened up by a hard sell, what­ever he chooses to do about it.

To do these things he needs integrity, good will, idealism, intelligence and more beside. He needs—he needs absolutely—a faculty that so many among both the attackers and defenders of new art lack: an acute eye. In the first glimpse and the last, art is judged intuitively, whatever may take place between. Sensibility must continually be qualified by a set of intellectual, ethical and historical checks and bal­ances, but nothing can substitute for it. The more we can free our vision from distortion and adulteration, and use it in problematical situations, the more chance the meaningful original artist will have against the operator.

William C. Seitz

An article adapted by Mr. Seitz for Artforum from a paper delivered on May 27, 1963, before a meeting of the American Association of Museums held in Seattle.