PRINT November 1999




To the Editor:
It is always educational to read reviews of an exhibition I have seen myself. I compare notes, further ruminate on the show, and more often than not discern the reviewers’ and my own biases of judgment. I read James Meyer’s review of “Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin, 1950s–1980s” [September Artforum] at the Queens Museum of Art with added interest. I am one of eleven section curators responsible, together with three organizers, for putting together this “confusing” (Meyer) show. An immediate revelation of Meyer’s position occurs in the first paragraph, when he narrowly stipulates a definition of Conceptualism as the “visual presentation of a linguistic idea.” If this were our definition as well, we would have organized a different show.

Definition was at issue from the outset. Or rather, it was the issue, as it should be for any serious revisionist project. In fact, the first question I asked the organizers when I heard of the project was: What do you mean by Conceptualism? The answer, in my paraphrase, was: art based on ideas rather than forms. I sensed that the organizers were taking a field researcher’s approach—gathering specimens on foreign soil that would fall into a broad category and figuring out a recognizable pattern from them, instead of beginning with a rigid guideline and collecting only those items that conform to it. The appointment of specialists in art in various localities reflects the organizers’ awareness of the importance of the local, which was demonstrated in the initial exhibition title, “Global Conceptualism/Local Contexts.” In this search, attention to local contexts is vital, because the specimens thus gathered often carry their contexts into a larger picture.

In organizing the Japanese section, I narrowly focused on institutional critique as my guiding principle, taking a position critical of the language-based understanding of Conceptual art long held in Japan. In theoretical terms, I found Mari Carmen Ramirez’s definition of Conceptualism, as a set of strategics against hegemonic discourses (my paraphrase), to be sound. I particularly appreciate her formulation's expansiveness in terms of medium.

Such background information may not matter to reviewers. However, if nothing else, “Global Conceptualism” has been an exercise in diversity and pluralism. Within the usual constraints (i.e., space limitations), the organizers gave the section curators a great deal of freedom to shape individual sections, from the most theoretical aspect (e.g., the definition of conceptualism) to the most practical (the ratio of artist-to-work, content of wall labels, etc.). (Writing here, I speak only for myself, not the entire curatorial team.)

“Did it work?” Meyer asks. I did not expect the exhibition to be flawless or free of criticism, given its scope and ambition—to explore Conceptualism’s global origins, to examine its social/cultural/political contexts, and last, but not least, to challenge the conventional understanding of Conceptualism, such as Meyer’s. I admit, some things worked, others didn’t. But where reviewers tend to see failures, I see successes.

A case in point is the North American section, which was the most difficult of all to curate in the show, precisely because of our familiarity with American Conceptual art and the role it played in both the global and local art scenes. Granted, it occupied a small room at the end of the first floor, followed by the passageway wall (Hans Haacke) and the video room. (On the opening night, I overheard that Lucy Lippard could not at first find the North American section; she later confirmed this at the exhibition-related symposium.) In a sense, the selection of work may not in fact reflect the origins as such of (North) American Conceptualism. Still, by choosing Joseph Kosuth’s dictionary definition panel, Sol LeWitt’s sentences on Conceptual art (in addition to his booklet), and Lawrence Weiner’s statement, section curator Peter Wollen pointed to a theoretical ground zero. To illustrate a more material implication of Conceptualism, Wollen installed, on the wall facing the iconic Kosuth, John Baldessari’s altarpiece-like Cremation Project, which represents the symbolic act of burning his paintings in 1970. If one thinks of the global ramifications of the writings by Kosuth, LeWitt, and Weiner (to which I would have added Kosuth’s “Art After Philosophy”), the inclusion of these texts is more significant and compelling than they may appear. (The two publications could have been highlighted to make the point clearer.) The axis of Kosuth/LeWitt/ Weiner/Baldessari was also extended to the video room, where the LA artist sings LeWitt's sentences. On the other hand, within the infamous small gallery, a space in-between—literally the walls between Kosuth and Baldessari—was occupied by works similarly notable (including publications by Seth Siegelaub and Lippard), less canonical, or, well, more Canadian. Does this deserve Meyer’s characterization as an “overzealous attempt to rewrite history”?

In general, the smallness of the North American section seems to have incited a strong (emotional) reaction from many reviewers and visitors. But then, how big is big enough? For me, born in an area of the margin (Osaka, Japan) but now living in the center, the exhibition as a whole was indeed a shocking sight, yet liberating—liberating to know I have room to speak in my own way. For that matter, every section, North America included, had its own space to speak in its own way. If the exhibition as a whole left the impression of being “pell-mell,” in Meyer’s phrase, each section, locale by locale, had its thesis, recounted its story—and more or less revealed its attendant contexts.

Whether the exhibition successfully presented the all-encompassing or coherent global picture that reviewers may have expected is another question. Certainly, an exhibition about a single aspect of Conceptualism (e.g., language, photography, performance) could have been more manageable to both reviewers and visitors. Yet if a cultural globalism can exist at all in any positive sense—vis-à-vis a globalism reduced to “buzzwords not just of the academy but of corporate culture as well,” as Meyer had it—the inclination for a tidy theory needs be kept in check. Unless we want to see global art solely in the kind of jazzy spectacle flourishing at the international biennials, localness with all its diversity and pluralism can be an antidote to the homogenization of globalized art.

—Reiko Tomii
New York

James Meyer replies:
Reiko Tomii claims that my review of “Global Conceptualism” reveals a “conventional” view of Conceptualism. This conservatism is purportedly suggested by my passing description of Conceptualism as the visual presentation of a linguistically formulated concept. As an antidote to this narrow construction, she offers a description of Conceptualism as an art “based on ideas rather than forms.” How is the notion of a language-based art in itself narrow? The inscription of writing into the visual field is a practice so wide-ranging and encompassing as to inform a narrative of twentieth-century art from Duchamp to Nauman and beyond. Most of the projects in “Global Conceptualism”—including every work in Tomii's section on Japanese art—incorporated text of some kind. So if the visual presentation of a linguistic idea is “a priori” a narrow notion (a claim I find illogical), then it follows that “Global Conceptualism” was a narrow show. It wasn’t: As the exhibition suggested, the uses of language in art are quite boundless.

Tomii draws a distinction between “ideas” and “forms,” and suggests that “Global Conceptualism” weighed the former over the latter. Let’s unpack that. If the show focused on “ideas,” how were these ideas construed (much less conveyed) apart from their representation, linguistic, photographic, bodily, or otherwise? How to extract an idea from the form that embodies it? Every artwork involves formal decisions, including the decision to reject formal decisions; even the most seemingly radical Conceptual work is the result of a formal choice. Hence, I do not see Tomii’s point.

Tomii offers the further claim that her curating favored institutional critique instead of a “language-based understanding of Conceptual Art.” Again, I fail to see the opposition. We need only recall that the work of Marcel Broodthaers, Hans Haacke, etc. is completely language-based, that institutional critique found in language a powerful tool for investigating a gallery system focused on the visual-art commodity. A number of Conceptual shows—from the LA Museum of Modern Art's “Information” (1970) to the Museum of Contemporary Art’s “Reconsidering the Object of Art” (1995)—and the work of Benjamin Buchloh have made plain the inextricable ties between language Conceptualism and institutional critique.

Tomii implies a resistance on my part to the show's embrace of “diversity and pluralism.” In fact, I wrote that “the standard story of Conceptualism, which leads from Johns, to LeWitt, to Kosuth, is ripe for revision, and the show offered ample evidence that” Conceptual practice was “not limited to North America and Europe.” This does not suggest a lack of interest in practices developed outside the West; on the contrary. My concern was that the “local knowledge” the exhibition provided was extremely selective. Tomii claims that “each section, locale by locale, had its thesis, recounted its story.” If only this were true: If only all the other sections had as ample a selection, and such informative labels, as Tomii’s. No doubt, the show's organization by a team of curators was bound to result in an uneven sample. But the obvious weakness of the North American and European sections seems odd, given the significance of these locales in Conceptualism's history. I’m sorry, but presenting statements by LeWitt, Weiner, or Kosuth rather than significant (or any) works by these artists—who draw a clear distinction between their theories and their art—does not establish a Conceptual “ground zero.” Including a few Baldessaris and no Ruschas (or anything else from Los Angeles) doesn't begin to explain the Southern Californian context, which remains one of the most active settings for Conceptualist practice. With so few works to see by these artists, I can’t agree that “the axis of Kosuth/LeWitt/Weiner/Baldessari” was illuminated; on the contrary, it was illegible.

The contexts of London, Paris, Rome, Brussels, and Amsterdam were no less a blur. This obfuscation of significant narratives of Conceptualism compromised the show’s laudable effort to think beyond these narratives. (So too the catalogue's utter lack of engagement with these narratives, whether Kosuth's notion of “Art-as-Idea-as-Idea,” LeWitt's theory of “Conceptual Art,” Rosalind Krauss's distinction between these models in her 1973 essay “Sense and Sensibility,” Lucy Lippard and John Chandler's proposal of the “dematerialized” art object, or the writings of Buchloh, to name a few.) That Lippard herself failed to locate the work she helped to introduce to the world thirty years ago is unfortunate and revealing.