PRINT February 2011


Exhibiting the New Art

Ger van Elk, Hanging Wall, 1968, bricks, metal structure, steel wire. Installation view, Op Losse Schroeven,” Stedelijk Museum cafeteria, Amsterdam, 1969.

Exhibiting the New Art: “Op Losse Schroeven” and “When Attitudes Become Form” 1969, by Christian Rattemeyer and other authors. London: Afterall Books, in association with the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna and the Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, the Netherlands, 2010. 280 pages. $28.

DANIEL BUREN ONCE REMARKED that an art object only fully becomes an artwork when it is exhibited and can create a relationship with the public. It follows that we should look at art not only by examining individual artworks, artistic careers, and movements but also by exploring the history of exhibitions. The growing interest in this subject on the part of scholars and critics is reflected in “Exhibition Histories”—a new series from Afterall Books that investigates landmark shows of the past fifty years—of which Exhibiting the New Art: “Op Losse Schroeven” and “When Attitudes Become Form” 1969 is the first installment.

There is surely a danger of redundancy in revisiting Harald Szeemann’s 1969 show at Kunsthalle Bern, “When Attitudes Become Form,” which must be one of the most talked-about exhibitions in history. That risk is sidestepped here through the show’s juxtaposition with the equally adventurous and innovative—but today almost forgotten—“Op Losse Schroeven” (an idiomatic Dutch expression translating literally as “On Loose Screws”; the official English rendering was “Situations and Cryptostructures”). This exhibition was curated by Wim Beeren and opened at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam a week before Szeemann’s show. It makes sense to discuss the two presentations together, as each, in different ways, brought together for the first time many of the new artistic currents of the 1960s, including Fluxus, performance art, Conceptual art, Land art, post-Minimalism, Pop art, and Arte Povera. Rattemeyer emphasizes the historical significance of both exhibitions, making it clear that “Op Losse Schroeven,” too, is worthy of our continued attention.

Op Losse Schroeven” featured work by such (now) household names as Carl Andre, Joseph Beuys, Jan Dibbets, Michael Heizer, Jannis Kounellis, Mario Merz, Bruce Nauman, Dennis Oppenheim, Richard Serra, Robert Smithson, and Lawrence Weiner. (Others, such as Ben d’Armagnac and Bruce McLean, have not received much attention since.) Although several artists were represented in both exhibitions—and neither featured more than one or two women—the curatorial approaches were vastly divergent: As Christian Rattemeyer writes in the comparative essay that anchors the book, Beeren was strongly influenced by the Deposito D’Arte Presente in Turin, Italy—a complex of studios, galleries, and storage spaces revolving around artists such as Giovanni Anselmo, Merz, and Michelangelo Pistoletto—while Szeemann was more closely aligned with the gallery world and inspired, in particular, by the 1968 exhibition “9 at Leo Castelli,” organized in New York by the artist Robert Morris.

The book includes floor plans of both shows, essays from the original catalogues, interviews with participating artists (including Dibbets, Ger van Elk, and Serra), and plenty of installation photographs. The images of “Op Losse Schroeven” convey an astonishing energy, a vivid sense of the show’s process-oriented nature. Szeemann included nearly twice as many artists in a smaller space, and the pictures of the far more densely installed “When Attitudes Become Form” convey its almost chaotic nature.

The critic Cor Blok wrote of both museums’ being caught in a “whirlpool of emerging possibilities” and of his hope that the resulting “confusion may . . . explode art and its attendant system.” In an essay on the exhibitions’ public reception, Dutch art historian Steven ten Thije points out that many reviews discussed the shows together. If anything, however, the contrast between Szeemann’s gregarious, ambitious, risk-taking style and Beeren’s more precise, analytic, academic approach is clearer now, as they seem to prefigure the two currently prevalent modes of curating today: creative and personal versus academic and scientific. Szeemann indisputably heralded the museum’s function as a social and interactive space. Beeren also broke with convention, if in what seems a less radical way: Recognizing the shifting display conditions demanded by the new art’s emphasis on process, site, and changing materiality, he installed works not only in the gallery spaces but also in the cafeteria, the hallways, the staircases, and the public spaces around the museum.

Why, then, was Beeren’s exhibition largely forgotten? There’s no doubt that Szeemann’s title was catchier, and it helped that a kind of mythology arose around his exhibition (for instance, it was during the show’s run that Buren—who did not officially participate—was arrested for wallpapering billboards in Bern with his signature stripes). Another factor is that while Beeren went on to have a successful career in the Dutch art world, Szeemann would become an internationally renowned, icon of curatorial progressiveness. Such vagaries of personal history are more profound than they seem: They point to the emergence of the curator as celebrity whose persona colors the reception of his or her exhibitions.

The gradual emancipation of curatorial practice from a subfield of art history to a field of research and study in its own right is a welcome development. I hope that the series will eventually examine shows that are less known or that took place outside established global art centers. That said, Exhibiting the New Art offers a valuable example of how to deal seriously with the legacy of some of the most important exhibitions of our time. The book brings us as close as we can get to experiencing these two groundbreaking shows today.

Jens Hoffmann is the Director of the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, San Francisco.