PRINT January 1978

Inside Europe Outside Europe

THE ART INSTITUTE OF CHICAGO has treated us to the first comprehensive American exhibition of European art of this decade. Had the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam—to use just one example—waited this long to show its constituents what Americans are up to in the ’70s, we would have called it shocking. But, alas, the realities of the art world are such that there is a greater respect for American accomplishment, and a greater eagerness to show it, in Europe, than there is in the American art world for the work of our European colleagues. James Speyer and Ann Rorimer deserve credit for having mobilized their own facilities and resources as well as those of four other institutions to begin to redress a serious imbalance of exposure and to open up, we may hope, new lines of communication.

Two immediate questions prompted by “Europe in the Seventies” are whether it makes sense to treat Europe as a geographic entity and, if so, what sets European art apart from the art produced in our country. Neither question can be answered easily, but the Chicago exhibition goes a long way toward clarifying and demonstrating issues underlying our benign neglect of European art since the late ’60s.

Only against such a background of ignorance and deliberate lack of differentiation could a “mainstream” exhibition with no surprises for the seasoned European traveler be justified. At the same time, there is no better argument for the need of just such an exhibition than that offered by a concurrent show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in the same city. “A View of a Decade” samples works by 90 artists who, according to its organizers and apologists, have shaped the artistic contours of the past ten years. The only European artist in this exhibition is Jan Dibbets, and, although it is nowhere stated, the implicit assumption is that, as far as the cutting edge of art is concerned, the European contribution to this decade has been negligible and is, therefore, just as well ignored.

One measure of how this new European art is perceived by the museum-going public might be found in the response of leading newspaper critics. Though better informed than the public at large, those critics nonetheless suffer from biases that have been long in the making. Hilton Kramer, known to be unsympathetic to Conceptual art but very attentive to the painting and sculpture of lesser artists, felt that “Europe in the Seventies” “offers the mind little more than it offers the eye.”1 Franz Schulze, a defendant of regionalism and a fancier of the surreal, detected a “disdain of the formal symbolic object” and bemoaned a dearth of metaphorical implications.2 The two critics agree that they have seen it all before and that the common denominator for the work in this show is dullness, banality and visual impoverishment.

The only way to do justice to “Europe in the Seventies” (as European critics have done justice to American art) is to judge the works by these artists within the intellectual, social and economic conditions that shaped them. For instance, the understanding of new developments in painting in France since the mid-’60s requires a familiarity with Roland Barthes, just as a consideration of color field painting must take Clement Greenberg into account. Pop art would have been inaccessible to European observers without their empathy for our country’s popular culture and consumer orientation. Jean-Christophe Ammann claims, in his essay for the institute’s catalogue, that whoever finds access to Joseph Beuys can also experience and understand contemporary European art." While we haven’t bothered to probe the depth of Beuys’ remarkable oeuvre, European curators and art historians have contributed to their own—and our—understanding of Ad Reinhardt, Sol LeWitt, Andy Warhol and Claes Oldenburg.

Ideally, “Europe in the Seventies” should close an information gap and gain acceptance for European art in America equal to that enjoyed by American art in Europe. And it should point up similarities and differences between the works of Europeans and Americans of the same generation who share sensibilities and react to the same social forces. It ought to be understood that the artists featured in this exhibition do not continue postwar painting and sculpture traditions, nor do they reflect or imitate trends in American art over that same period of time. Very few of them could be termed painters or sculptors. As a group they show the most dramatic rejection of the conventional media ever observed in an art exhibition that purports to survey both a decade and a continent.

The first stirrings of that decade can be found in 1964 when Stanley Brouwn showed at René Block in Berlin, Paolini at La Salita in Rome, Richter at Parnass in Wuppertal and Broodthaers at St. Laurent in Brussels. Appropriately, it was also the year that Rauschenberg took Venice by storm. Pop art invaded Europe, Tachisme had one last fling at Documenta III (while kinetic art was flexing its muscles in the attic), the USSR dumped Khrushchev, France terminated the fighting in Algeria and the United States started bombing Vietnam. Esthetically those new beginnings were rooted in Fluxus (Brouwn, Richter), literary Symbolism and Surrealism (Broodthaers), and the heritage of Klein and Manzoni (Paolini). The American art world paid little attention to Europe in those years, only seeing its own success story reflected in British Pop and ignoring the underground ferment in Paris, Milan and Düsseldorf. We began revving up for a veritable cult of Marcel Duchamp just as Joseph Beuys performed his action “Too Much is Being Made of the Silence of Marcel Duchamp,” broadcast by German television on November 11, 1964.

A history of the artistic reception of the work of those artists who have come to dominate the European scene in the ’70s should help explain why, in 1978, work of almost unquestioned authority in Europe is still begging to gain acceptance on this side of the Atlantic.3 The young European artists’ eagerness to exhibit in New York in the late ’60s and the conceptual and/or documentary character of their work made it easy to show and equally easy to forget. Our modern and contemporary art museums were busy coping with difficult “art worker” personalities and escalating exhibition budgets. The ease with which the new European art traveled—in small packages or in its makers’ heads—produced sporadic exhibitions, but no major commitments. For a round-trip ticket and a per-diem allowance artists happily flew in to construct their works; alternately, fabricators could be paid to do so from the artists’ specifications. Ultimately, works did not need to be built as long as the idea was spelled out in the catalogue—the document almost preempted the exhibition.

And since, to quote Lawrence Weiner, “the decision as to condition rests with the receiver on the occasion of receivership,” it was easy for Kynaston McShine to compile his “international report on the activity of younger artists” at the Museum of Modern Art in the summer of 1970. This hastily assembled potpourri of propositions and documents, misleadingly entitled “Information” and accompanied by a cheaply printed collage of artists’ texts and photographs, lacked the vision and commitment of the European exhibitions which must have served as its inspiration. This show introduced Stanley Brouwn, Victor Burgin, Gilbert and George, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Hamish Fulton, Giulio Paolini and Klaus Rinke to the United States. Daniel Buren, Hanne Darboven, Jan Dibbets, Richard Long and Panamarenko had had limited previous exposure through the efforts of a few New York galleries with a European bent.

The next official accolade for European art was at the 1971 Guggenheim International Exhibition. With Darboven, Burgin, Long, Dibbets and Mario Merz showing their works alongside those of New York artists Andre, Flavin, Judd, LeWitt, Morris and Serra, the European cause was well served. But, unfortunately, that auspicious occasion was marred by Daniel Buren’s withdrawal from the exhibition—quite obviously the result of an unresolved European/American animosity and jockeying for position. The forced removal of what Buren opponents called “an intrusive-obtrusive drapery” was interpreted in France as a surrender to art-market forces and evidence of the Guggenheim’s unsuitability as a place of culture and a museum of avant-garde art.4 Winning his dialectic argument and proving his antimuseological point, Buren, it could be argued, had the last laugh.

In defense of the Guggenheim, it should be said that no other museum in New York paid heed to what was happening in Europe in the early ’70s. In the fall of 1972 it hosted a tripartite exhibition that acknowledged the vitality of three European art centers, Amsterdam, Paris and Düsseldorf. But the responsibility for individual selections originated with the Stedelijk Museum, the Centre National d’Art Contemporain and the Städtische Kunst-Halle, and financing was provided by the respective countries themselves—an indication of the prevailing attitude toward European art in America. Broodthaers, Le Gac and Visser received American exposure for the first time; the Bechers and Rinke had exhibitions, that same year, at Sonnabend and Reese Palley in New York.

“De Europa,” organized by John Weber in 1972 and including works by Anselmo, Buren, Darboven, Dibbets, Fulton, Long, Merz, Paolini and Zorio, among others, traveled as far as Seattle and filled the breach at a time when museums were generally indifferent to younger European artists. If one particular insensitivity can be singled out, it is that toward Europe’s most difficult—and, without much doubt, most important—artist of the ’60s, Joseph Beuys. Ronald Feldman introduced him to New York in January 1973 and he turned up in person a year later. Except for an exhibition of multiples, drawings and videotapes organized by Kirk de Gooyer at the University of California at Riverside in 1975, however, Beuys has been the prime victim of the American museum world’s myopic view of post-abstract developments in Europe.

To what degree does “Europe in the Seventies” reflect the art of that continent? To the same degree, and about as accurately, as most international exhibitions of this type articulate the attitudes of leading curators, advocating critics and activist dealers. This is not a conspiracy on the part of a few members of the international art community who impose their views and values on an unwitting public. It is a system with inevitably elitist and manipulative connotations, no different from—and, if anything, less cloaked and self-righteous than—the communication-cum-reward system of the Pittsburgh Internationals or the Sweeney-Sandberg-Lassaigne-type international juries. It also is the only one which works, considering that no one today can presume full access to, and understanding of, the artistic expressions of the dozen or so nations which together make up a European chorus.

This, then, leads to the questions of whether a dozen or so countries can truly speak for Europe as a whole and why some voices get muffled or remain unheard. In the case of “Europe in the Seventies,” Poland was not considered;5 Spain’s recent return to democracy has not yet spawned an indigenous generation of artists speaking with an international voice; Scandinavia—with the possible exceptions of Carl Frederick Reuterswärd, an artist of considerable accomplishment (represented in “Rosc”), and Anders Aberg, a Viking Red Grooms (shown at the “10e Biennale de Paris” as a long shot)—has not recently contributed to the international scene. The performance-oriented artists from Yugoslavia or any of the social democracies who are known in the West do not project identities strong enough to maintain themselves alongside those who were chosen for the Chicago exhibition.

Decisions regarding inclusion and exclusion of countries are ultimately less telling than those regarding individual artists and movements. Here the selective interpretation of significant creative endeavor, and not simply taste, comes into play. His past record of accomplishment, over a period much longer than the decade at issue, has predisposed the Institute’s curator toward a “mainstream” view of the art world, though this view is tempered by a genuine recognition of eccentric talent and a refusal to be dogmatic. “Europe in the Seventies” is no exception, although one could argue that it lacks the personal interpretation we have come to expect from A. James Speyer, who is as familiar with European art as the European colleagues he consulted.

Critical observations have a way of answering themselves. For instance, why is Beuys not included? Obviously, as much more than an “aspect of recent art,” he would have required a disproportionate share of the organizers’ resources and the audience’s attention. He could only have been done justice if allowed to participate in person and should, indeed, be kept waiting until an American museum is ready to exhibit his work in a major way.

Why has no allowance been made for the self-reflective painting exhibited widely in Europe in 1974–75 as Geplante Malerei, Peinture analytique or Fundamentele Schilderkunst? The issue of who should, and who should not, be considered as belonging in this category is extremely unclear (it plagued the organizers of Documenta 6 for three years). There is little doubt, however, that any survey of European art of the ’70s is the poorer for not including the paintings of Louis Cane, Claude Viallat, Daniel Dezeuze, Martin Barré, Marc Devade and Jacques Martinez of France; Alan Green and Alan Charlton of Great Britain; Gotthard Graubner, Raimund Girke, Uirich Erben and Palermo of Germany; Gianfranco Zappettini and Carlo Battaglia of Italy.

Body art and performance, practiced with great enthusiasm in the various European countries and available live or via photographs and videotapes, would have affected the space and presentation of the exhibition. Yet ruling it out unfortunately suggests either that it is not going on in Europe, or that its quality does not warrant presentation. Jannis Kounellis, Rebecca Horn, Bruce McLean and Gina Pane would have been welcome additions; and Gilbert and George, represented in the exhibition with four sets of 25 photo panels, would have been much more effective as living sculptures, seen in the flesh. Another artist whose pioneering contribution to body art could have been more convincingly extrapolated is Klaus Rinke. His work is ingeniously presented, but with nary a hint at its process orientation or its antecedents.

To throw a net over “Europe in the Seventies” and then sort one’s catch category by category is no easy task. For too long we have judged the new by what we know about the old: we have judged the European by American standards, and the art of any one period by preconceived common-denominator notions in which medium and attitude replaced style and form. That’s why critics lament that ideas are put ahead of crafted works, thus virtually eliminating the painted canvas; that European artists have a penchant for language games, psycho-drama, private mythology and political ideology, all of which are taboo or unsuitable to art in this country; that the ’70s are uniformly characterized by the use of photographs and a conceptualizing stance. Obviously, this is a broad and indiscriminate interpretation based on adversary attitudes. A much closer look is required to detect deviations from the norm, individual idiosyncrasies, and all the bugaboos that make a travesty of contemporary art categorization.

If there is one complaint about the present exhibition, which is remarkable for its homogeneous character, easy flow, smooth transitions and superb installation, it is the absence of shock, messiness or any privately indulged whim. Just as some of us are secretly tempted to throw a monkey wrench into a machinery that runs too smoothly to be real (or human), so it struck me that the exhibition was dangerously balanced and could have used a jolt or two. In this respect I sympathize with Rudi Fuchs, director of the Stedelijk Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, who wrote in the catalogue that the exhibition might have gained some bite by the inclusion of one or more painters from Central Europe—he mentions A. R. Penck from Dresden and I could add Georg Baselitz—whose contemporary variants of Expressionism challenge the concept of an international style and pose a threat to the artistic balance which has existed for some time.

Documenta 6 administered itself too large a dose of this Central European murkiness—particularly because of a disproportionate welcome extended to East German Surrealists. It cast a pall over a painting section already weak in its representation of mainstream tendencies; yet we glimpsed, whether we liked it or not, a different possible future. “Europe in the Seventies,” on the contrary, makes no such up-to-the-minute claims, and really reflects the state of the art world at the time of Documenta 5, with the addition of four artists overlooked (or not yet on the scene) in 1972.

Niele Toroni’s persistence as a dialectician of painting and the co-founder, with Buren, of the Groupe BMPT in 1966 was finally rewarded. Carel Visser had trouble struggling free from Dutch Constructivism and American Minimalism to find his own fluid and personal style of working with raw materials in simple configurations. Anne and Patrick Poirier embarked on their fictitious archaeological exploits in 1971 and had even more of a spellbinder on display at Documenta 6 (Nero’s Domus Aurea) than the Great Necropolis which fascinated viewers in Chicago. Chérif Defraoui, the fourth artist in Chicago not already represented in Documenta 5, is an unabashed eclectic whose work touches on personal history, the measurement of time and space, photo-narrative, memory structures and environment, in the most ingratiating ways.

Given that most artists in this exhibition are familiar, perhaps its most important function is to afford us the opportunity to ascertain who among them has the kind of authority we associate with a lasting contribution. The first (or last) artist to hit the visitor to “Europe in the Seventies” is Daniel Buren, in his usual subversive (of our expectations and art’s function to elevate) and subliminal (working just below the thresh hold of visibility) way. He covered the risers of the main staircase with green and white striped adhesive paper, lending a shimmer of color to the limestone gray stairwell that I perceived, in a preconscious way, as the aura created by indoor greenery. Equally persuasive and undiminished in their power were the paintings of Gerhard Richter—brilliant demonstrations of that artist’s inquiry into style and proof of his uncanny ability not only to make a style out of stylelessness, but to turn that exercise into his favorite subject.

Some works were right and in character but hardly moving, others came across as begging for their original context, for the presence of the artist or, at least, for some photographic and textual support. Marcel Broodthaers, an artist whose reputation has been on the rise since his death two years ago, but who is scarcely known here, was shown in Chicago with a work that has been seen twice before at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels in 1974. The Wintergarden (Un Jardin d’Hiver, the original title, reflects the artist’s tentativeness more accurately) seeks to articulate objects (from potted palms to folding chairs) and pictures (the framed or encased reproductions of animals) in transforming an exhibition gallery into pure decor.

Broodthaers doubles as museologist, reflecting on the museum’s function—usually ambiguous—and ambience—preferably, for him, the 19th century. A film made of the first Wintergarden became an integral part of the second version and should be seen in conjunction with the Chicago presentation. Just as Broodthaers raised telling elements of the bourgeois culture of a bygone era to the status of art, in a quasi-imitation of Duchamp, so he demoted, on other occasions—and particularly in his fabulous Musée d’Art Moderne Département des Aigles (1968–1972)—real works of art, by affixing a label “This is not a Work of Art” in a sly tribute to his compatriot Magritte.

The photographs by Bernd and Hilla Becher of Preparation Plants (1966–76) stand out as monuments of a Minimalist sensibility, simply the best of their type, and as textbook demonstrations of the tautological character of so much contemporary art. Eleven other artists in this exhibition use photography in one form or another, thus establishing the impression that the camera is the preferred tool of many, even most. Yet photographic excellence is seldom aimed at or obtained. The artist is not even, necessarily, the one who pulled the shutter, and the resulting image, instead of being the work of art, is no more than one of its ingredients. Those celebrants of the landscape, Richard Long, Hamish Fulton and Jan Dibbets, do not give us thrills beyond those experienced already by New York gallery-goers, although it should be noted that the nonphotographic part of Richard Long’s work—Stone Circle and California Wood Circle—looks as good as ever.

Victor Burgin continues in a sociological groove which tries to become poetry but ultimately fails: photo panels of city life are captioned by admen’s slogans in an ironic conjunction with quotations from Marx. Jean Le Gac’s ongoing saga of the painter—introspective, rambling, nostalgic and romantic—looks better all the time, investigating as it does the tenuous relationship between the self and the world, word and image, fiction and reality. Ger van Elk’s sardonic imagination zooms in on the artificiality of human behavior, the credibility of the image, equivalences and symmetries of representation.

Giovanni Anselmo, with ten carrousels projecting the word PARTICOLARE on ten different surfaces in an otherwise stark, empty gallery, has escalated a familiar modus operandi in terms of hardware only. Mario Merz has added Objet Cache-toi (an intriguing street-scrawl he came across during the May Revolution in Paris) in blue neon to his familiar broken glass and wire mesh igloo. The Italian conceptualist Giulio Paolini has been allowed to exhibit a 12-part drawing with famous artists’ signatures which serves his reputation badly. Gilberto Zorio created a martial image of a five-point crystal star, dangerously held up by metal javelins poked into the wall.

Two artists, finally, are intriguingly related through a similar reification of measurement and time: Hanne Darboven, who is generally well known, and Stanley Brouwn, who is only beginning to be known in New York. Whereas one can accept Brouwn’s adage “one forms as one goes,” the artist as a phenomenon of pedestrian locomotion passed off as formal creation is more interesting to behold than the meager documentation proving his step-by-step itinerary displayed under glass and filed in cabinets. Counting steps Brouwn is on safer ground than his colleague from Antwerp, Panamarenko, whose dead-serious tinkering with contraptions that won’t fly has given him the art world reputation of the Douanier Rousseau of aviation.

And what is so European about this exhibition? The introduction to the catalogue contains an intriguing and, to my mind, accurate observation: “Current European artists, for the most part, have been concerned with formulation, not with form.” In other words, these Europeans do not so much make art as reflect on it, by exploring and articulating its relation to reality, language, history and politics. Curiously, they are at greater liberty to do so because there is no real market in most European countries; the state can be relied upon to provide material subsistence, in one form or another, as well as incentives, commissions and rewards. This—and the artist’s general acceptance as an intellectual and free agent, in contrast to his role of superior producer within the capitalist system—lends a devil-may-care and bite-the-hand-that-feeds kind of spirit to many of the works in this exhibition.

Formalist and imagist objectives are forfeited in favor of investigative exercises; grasping the world as is seems more important to these artists than remaking it in a utopian fashion. They reflect solipsistically on man’s—and ironically on culture’s—condition and test the tenuous relationship between sign and signified, image and language. For some, art is a way of marking time and relating it to the human experience; for others it is a strategy to attack the soft underbelly of institutionalized culture or to call attention to life’s many discrepancies.

On the whole, Europeans employ different methods of esthetic signification.6 Theirs tend to be dialectical, historicist and linguistic, just as ours are positivist, pragmatic and formalist. Whereas recent American art has been extroverted and assertive, European art appears fragile and introspective. A comparison with the body politic is unavoidable: Europe is unsure where its future lies, and while its artists may not all be Cassandras, they cannot help but project deep moral uneasiness about the prospects of survival. Thumbing one’s nose at the world signals defiance to the semiologist, but does it not also, on a deeper level, signify desperation?

Jan van der Marck

“Europe in the Seventies: Aspects of Recent Art,” after its premiere showing at the Art Institute of Chicago from October 8 to November 27, 1977, will be seen at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., from March 18 to May 7; at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art from June 23 to August 6: at the Fort Worth Art Museum from September 24 to October 29: and at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati from December 1 to January 31, 1979.



1. The New York Times, Sunday, October 9, 1977.

2. Chicago Daily News, Panorama, October 8–9, 1977.

3. Deliberately excluded from consideration in this context are Nouveau Réalisme, British Pop, German Zero and Paris-based, Latin American GRAV.

4. Chroniques de l’art vivant (Paris), No. 19, April 1971, p. 7.

5. In “Rosc,” the famed Dublin exhibition held again this year and including 50 artists from Europe invited by three European curators, Tadeusz Kantor showed up strongly, as did Roman Opalka.

6. See also B.H.D. Buchloh in his supplementary catalogue essay “Formalism and Historicity.”