PRINT September 2013

Thomas Crow

View of “When Attitudes Become Form: Bern 1969/Venice 2013,” 2013, Fondazione Prada, Ca’ Corner della Regina, Venice. Foreground, from left: Gary B. Kuehn, Untitled, 1968; Gary B. Kuehn, Untitled (Wedge Piece), 1968; Walter De Maria, Art by Telephone, 1967; Alan Saret, Zinc Fire, 1968; Aldo Walker, Kleines Kreuz no.128 (Small Cross no.128), 1969; Reiner Ruthenbeck, Aschenhaufen III (Ash Heap III), 1968; Richard Tuttle, Canvas Dark Blue, 1967. Background, from left: Bill Bollinger, Pipe Piece, 1968; Eva Hesse, Augment, 1968; Reiner Ruthenbeck, Möbel I (Furniture I), 1968. Photo: Kate Lacey. © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

THE 2013 VENICE BIENNALE set the scene for two capital lessons in the history of art. In order of historical time, the first took place at the Palazzo Ducale, amid the usual hordes visiting the chambers of state, in an exhibition devoted to Édouard Manet. The show itself (“Manet: Return to Venice”) may have been no landmark, but it made real the most often repeated slide comparison in the teaching of art history: Side by side, in unprecedented juxtaposition, were Manet’s Olympia from the Musée d’Orsay in Paris and Titian’s Venus of Urbino from the Uffizi in Florence.

This was a meeting that the painter himself had only imagined, his key visit to Florence having taken place in 1857, six years in advance of his fashioning the quintessential modern-life homage to the very exemplar of the Renaissance nude. Was the concreteness of the pairing thus misplaced? Probably. Did it matter? No. Who could resist?

The same two questions and answers pertain equally to the other main history lesson on view in the city: the restaging of the legendary 1969 exhibition “Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form,” originally mounted at the Kunsthalle Bern by then director Harald Szeemann and now endowed with a second life by organizer Germano Celant under the auspices of the Fondazione Prada. Within the picturesque confines of the Ca’ Corner della Regina on the Grand Canal, and rather grandly rechristened “When Attitudes Become Form: Bern1969/Venice 2013,” Szeemann’s entire original installation has reappeared, complete down to facsimile reproductions of the Kusthalle Bern’s parquet floors, plaster walls, baseboards, and radiators.

Like Olympia’s confrontational silhouette, if for a more circumscribed constituency, “Attitudes” (subtitled “Works—Concepts—Processes—Situations—Information”) marks a watershed moment in the way art history is written and understood. Though the exhibition did include holdovers from the Pop and Minimalist tendencies that had dominated in the earlier years of the decade (principally Claes Oldenburg, Carl Andre, and Sol LeWitt), the Bern spaces gave pride of place to younger artists whose work Szeemann summarized as variously exemplifying form as “the extension of gesture.” He accorded to Richard Serra the show’s dramatic opening statement: Serra’s vulcanized-rubber-belt-and-neon wall sculpture (Belts, 1966–67)confronted visitors at eye level once they had mounted the stairs to the long, lateral entry hall, while the remains of a thrown-lead performance (Splash, 1969) gleamed dully along the length of the baseboard below. In an adjacent room, Joseph Beuys, something of an éminence grise to the entire cohort, answered with his signature fat (specifically margarine, one learns) packed in a parallel position at the bottom of the gallery wall (Fettecke [Fat Corner], 1969). Beuys’s obdurate stack of electrically heated felt sheets (Wärmeplastik [Hot Plastic], 1969)hunkered nearby, while Robert Morris dominated the next gallery over, where one of his mammoth cutout configurations of similar industrial fabric (Felt, 1967) slumped from wall to floor. Morris himself might have been regarded as elder statesman to the group of younger American artists occupying the main space of the exhibition: Keith Sonnier, Eva Hesse, Richard Tuttle, Alan Saret, and Walter De Maria, who have since taken their places in posterity’s first tier, shared the gallery with Gary Kuehn and Bill Bollinger, whose contributions easily hold their own and make a good claim to having been unfairly sidelined by history. Barry Flanagan’s sinuous length of hemp hawser (Two Space Rope Sculpture, 1967) snaked between the two zones.

Without mentioning the Arte Povera contingent, the West Coast figures, or the Conceptual artists, even this partial roll call is enough to establish the historical prescience of Szeemann’s roster. Not all these works are present in Venice: Serra’s opening fanfare and Beuys’s felt stack are among the missing—indicated by dotted lines on floors and walls, like the chalk outlines of corpses removed from a crime scene. Yet the crowded density of the installation works a distinctly greater magic than the Manet/Titian pairing. However easily it might be dismissed as an exercise in embalmed, theme-park nostalgia, Celant’s re-creation serves to immerse visitors in circumstances actual enough to unsettle preconceived ideas. Even if one were to ignore the feats of mimicry effected by his collaborators—the installation design’s masterminds, Rem Koolhaas and Thomas Demand—the experience of apprehending the works so assembled surpasses any bookish mental picture one might have conjured; nor could any number of single-artist surveys devoted to the participants offer analogous sense impressions of that moment.

Szeemann struggled at the time to put a name to whatever it was that he had assembled, just as historians and critics still struggle to summarize in words a constellation that nonetheless seems so intuitively coherent. His short catalogue introduction encapsulates the dilemma. When he attempts to stay within the boundaries of art, the radical core of the work dissolves into an open-ended list (the start of which might appear to contradict his own title): “the obvious opposition to form; the high degree of personal and emotional engagement; the pronouncement that certain objects are art, although they have not previously been identified as such; the shift of interest away from the result towards the artistic process; the use of mundane materials; the interaction of work and material; Mother Earth as medium, workplace, the desert as concept.”1

Robert Morris, Felt, 1967, 254 felt pieces. Installation view, Fondazione Prada, Ca’ Corner della Regina, Venice, 2013. Photo: Kate Lacey. © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

But Szeemann begins the essay in quite different territory, evoking a world far more capacious than networks of artists’ studios and museum exhibitions. After checking off precedents in Duchamp’s found materials, Pollock’s gestures, and the Happening’s synthesis of matter, action, and time, he quite suddenly asks his reader (as translated for the London iteration of the show) to consider the inevitability that “hippie philosophy, the rockers and the use of drugs should eventually affect the position of a younger generation of artists.” The weightier German compounds used in his original Bern text, “Hippietum” and “Rockerexistenz,” lend these countercultural references heightened status as conditions of life—from which, he posits, the art on view had emerged.

In an interview for Swiss television conducted during the installation—part of a documentary on “Attitudes” that Szeemann had himself arranged—the curator repeats the same points with greater emphasis. He declares to his interviewer, speaking in French, his desire to transmit via the exhibition a certain “prise de conscience” (awakening, or coming to awareness) born on the American West Coast: hippies, rockers, and drugs again, alongside Eastern thought and an “anti-société” (counterculture), all of which have formed, he maintains, an entire youth movement in need of new means of expression. States of mind heretofore diffused over this “plan existentiel” now assume—he gestures implicitly toward the contents of the exhibition—artistic “forme.”2

The centrality of such a claim to the “Attitudes” phenomenon will come, I think, as a surprise to those steeped in the received art history of the period, with its stress on the uninspiring pragmatics of basic materials in dull tones subjected to such entropic processes as subsiding, settling, propping, seeping, congealing, melting, evaporating, smoldering, and decaying—qualities that take their cogency from the idealism and visual seduction they are thought to deny. But the seeming oddity of the claim diminishes when one thinks of Celant’s own hand in naming and advancing the unapologetic program of the Arte Povera artists. For this group, the naked apprehension of things-in-themselves stood for knowledge unfiltered and undistorted by parents, priests, teachers, policemen, generals, and politicians. As the Parisian uprising of May 1968 echoed across Western Europe and back to an America already roiling with civil rights marches, racial rebellion, and antiwar protests, Arte Povera could present itself as the closest artistic cognate to that spirit. Certainly the Italian artists captured a quotient of the romantically anarchistic longing, the cult of direct experience and continual improvisation, embodied in the revolts.

Among the Arte Povera works that Szeemann chose for “Attitudes” was an early mock igloo by Mario Merz, which took up from Beuys’s wartime mythography the notion of a nomadic, primitive substratum recoverable from a corrupting modernity—one bare, dried sapling protruding through the ramshackle structure’s jagged panes of glass. The cultural guerrilla of the present would likewise need to travel light and use any material at hand. Merz put the political point succinctly in another entry: a rough open-worked box, surmounted by a length of window screening filled with congealed wax, over which he inscribed in a neon scrawl the words SIT-IN (Sit-in, 1968).

Neither Szeemann nor Celant mentions the Polish stage director and theatrical visionary Jerzy Grotowski, a countercultural legend of the period who adopted for his mission the term “Poor Theater.” Grotowski stripped away the machinery of his medium, not so much to expose artifice and liberate his audience from its mystifying effects as to invest all the instruments and power of dramatic illusion into the body of the actor, who could henceforth carry the theater in his person, like a mendicant pilgrim moving from one makeshift shelter to another. On that score, the Americans and Italians met on a good measure of common ground.

Sonnier, who appears in the Swiss documentary looking like a lost member of Country Joe and the Fish, supplied the exhibition’s surmounting title, “Live in Your Head,” with its manifest correlation to the Timothy Leary–style psychedelic exhortations of the period. The camera follows Sonnier as he creates a flocked rectangle over and under a latex sheet partly attached to the wall: Reenacted by the artist for Venice, the original piece (Flocked Wall, 1969)—existing as much in the act of making as in the evanescent final product—could only be transferred with great difficulty to the exhibition’s two further venues in 1969.

Keeping to that theme, the film features a long interview segment with the full-bearded Lawrence Weiner (taking swigs from a beer bottle), which manages to shift the dry logic of verbal stipulation (A 36˝ x 36˝ Removal to the Lathing or Support Wall of Plaster or Wallboard from a Wall, 1968) into the status of immaterial entity: a nearly Platonic form that transfigures its itinerant bearer and for which any physical manifestation (as one then sees Weiner chipping away at a wall in the stairwell) by definition fails to rise above what the artist terms mere “illustration.” All the better that the prosaic appearance of the material entity not compete with the invariant perfection of the mental one. On the side of the spectator, heightened perceptual acuity might transform the least prepossessing matter into a fascinating object of visual attention—that is, if one could really, REALLY see into that piece of felt.

View of “When Attitudes Become Form: Bern 1969/Venice 2013,” 2013, Fondazione Prada, Ca’ Corner della Regina, Venice. From left: Richard Serra, Shovel Plate Prop, 1969; Richard Serra, Close Pin Prop, 1969; Richard Serra, Sign Board Prop, 1969. Photo: Kate Lacey. © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

The perceived link between the “Attitudes” congregation of artists and the pull of the counterculture did not confine itself to a politically galvanized Europe. For one, Philip Leider, then editor of this magazine,has cited the American heart of Szeemann’s roster as a new center of gravity that superseded, at precisely this moment, the high-modernist commitments that had previously defined the Artforum agenda: “There was a scene happening, unexpected, unpredictable and unpredicted, but there and real,” Leider has recalled. “The scene was the emergence of a coherent group of very, very good artists at the core of which were Smithson, Serra, Heizer, Saret, Sonnier. . . . It was very exciting, and I couldn’t get any of the writers I cared about to get interested in it.”3 The character of this new art, especially its affinity to the landscapes of the western deserts, propelled him toward his own amazed discovery in 1970 of the radicalized, semiagrarian counterculture, rooted in his native Berkeley, as counterweight to the mandarin preoccupations of New York critics.

The art world, however, came regrettably late to the party where Hippietum and Rockerexistenz were concerned, only months, in fact, before loss of momentum and credibility set in with a vengeance—rock heroes dropping one after another, Weathermen, Manson, Altamont, PCP and heroin. Amid that wreckage, the continuing prestige of the art in question would need to be founded, as it turns out, on more drily academic premises. Despite the perceptual richness of the Fondazione Prada’s re-presentation of “Attitudes,” those forgotten threads of motivation remain elusive. The new catalogue—alongside the exhibition’s continual screening of contemporaneous documentaries about the show—comes to the rescue, at least up to a point. If the written contributions of no fewer than seventeen curators, critics, artists, and historians offer a predictably mixed bag, the catalogue’s most treasurable section consists of a 360-page cornucopia of photographs documenting the original exhibition from the initial installation stages to its opening. In his valuable essay, Christian Rattemeyer describes Szeemann enlisting both the Swiss television reporter Marlène Belilos and the famous art-world photographer Harry Shunk, flying the latter in from New York to work his customary magic in capturing, as Rattemeyer observes, “an intense atmosphere of artist-driven installation and collegial activity, sharply contrasting—or at least relativizing—the selective considerations Szeemann had done in advance.”4

Alongside Shunk, six other photographers collectively and systematically created a portrait of “Attitudes” in formation and in its first reception, for which parallels would be difficult to find. (In theVenice installation, these images are available on iPads in a side room on the ground floor.5) Some commentators grumble that this show has received disproportionate attention at the expense of prior and parallel undertakings involving the same broad grouping of artists. But that outcome arose from Szeemann’s exceptional regard for the place of his ephemeral project in historical memory, as he used his relatively ample funding from Philip Morris to ensure that the documentary record around the show would endure more vividly than all the rest. It is a testament to his success in this regard that the Venice remounting was even conceivable.

What this extensive documentation also allows—with some effort required on the part of the viewer—is a degree of access to the youthful energy of that moment as channeled by the thirty-five-year-old Swiss curator. One seeks in vain the original, romantically visionary main title—“Live in Your Head”—anywhere on the cover or in the front matter of the Fondazione Prada’s catalogue. Its subtitle, which emerged from Szeemann’s meeting with Philip Morris’s advertising and public relations firm Ruder Finn, has swept away its old hippie companion.6Nor is his original director’s introduction, with its ingenuous imprint of that moment, reproduced anywhere either. Does the chastened formula “When Attitudes Become Form: Bern 1969/Venice 2013” more truly represent the “lasting legacy” of Szeemann and his artists? It would be a shame if it did.

Thomas Crow is a contributing editor of Artforum.

View of “When Attitudes Become Form: Bern 1969/Venice 2013,” 2013, Fondazione Prada, Ca’ Corner della Regina, Venice. From left: Gilberto Zorio, Torce (Torches), 1969; Mario Merz, Acqua scivola (Igloo di vetro) (Water Slips Down [Glass Igloo]), 1969. Photo: Attilio Maranzano.


1. See Harald Szeemann, “Zur Austellung,” in Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form, Works—Concepts—Processes—Situations—Information, exh. cat., ed. Harald Szeemann (Bern, Switzerland: Kunsthalle Bern, 1969); reprinted in English as “About the Exhibition,” in Exhibiting the New Art: ‘Op Losse Schroeven’ and ‘When Attitudes Become Form’ 1969, ed. Christian Rattemeyer (London: Afterall, 2010), 192–93.

2. Marlène Belilos and André Gazut, Quand les attitudes deviennent forme, Geneva, Télévision Suisse Romande, first televised April 6, 1969.

3. Philip Leider, quoted in Amy Newman, “An Art World Figure Re-emerges, Unrepentant,” New York Times, September 3, 2000. For further discussion, see Thomas Crow, “Endless Summer” (on Leider’s “How I Spent My Summer Vacation”), Artforum, September 2012, 92–95.

4. Christian Rattemeyer, “Drama and Dynamism: How an Exhibition Came into Being,” in When Attitudes Become Form: Bern 1969/Venice 2013, exh. cat., ed. Germano Celant (Milan: Fondazione Prada, 2013), 480. Rattemeyer’s Exhibiting the New Art contains a wealth of important further information. A valuable counterhistory can be found in the recollections of Charles Harrison, organizer of the augmented reinstallation of Szeemann’s show at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London in 1969: See Harrison, Looking Back (London: Ridinghouse, 2011), 49–58, 153–77, and passim, published on the occasion of the exhibition “For Charles Harrison: When Attitudes Become Form,” at London’s Karsten Schubert gallery (January 13–March 4, 2011).

5. This body of photographic documents, along with the abundant written records, was deployed by Glenn Phillips and colleagues in the research library of the Getty Research Institute to provide a guide for the Venice exhibition’s curator, architectural designer, and visual consultant: See Phillips, “When ‘Attitudes’ Became History: The Harald Szeemann Archive,” in Celant, ed., Attitudes, 539–45. (Full disclosure: I was director of the Getty Research Institute from 2000 to 2007.) A selection of illuminating original documents from the Szeemann archive were included in display cases at the Venice exhibition.

6. See Szeemann’s diary, “How Does an Exhibition Come into Being?,” in Rattemeyer, ed., Exhibiting the New Art, 181.