“Master Works Of Conceptual Art”

Galerie Paul Maenz

The announcement of this exhibition was a surprise, since for this gallery’s opening show in new space the art world had expected an exhibition of the German and Italian painting on which it has so successfully focused in the last few years. Instead, we saw a reconstruction of the artistic situation of the ’70s, during the first period of the gallery’s activity: an ensemble of conceptual works of art, documenting one of the most important instances of radical change in art since 1945. The penetration of the visual arts by language and the process of the “dematerialization of the art object,” as Lucy Lippard called it, was exemplified in the presentation of works that may be considered basic models of the conceptual attitude. Thus we found Joseph Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs, 1965, Neon Electrical Light, 1965–66, and Floor—A Description, 1966; Art & Language’s Lexical Items, 1973; Robert Barry’s Four Squares, 1967, and Something Which is Very Near . . . , 1969; and wall pieces by Daniel Buren and Sol LeWitt. Through works by On Kawara (three “Date Paintings” from 1966) and Hanne Darboven (1.–31.1.1974), the topic of time as a synchronic and diachronic system of reference was brought into the exhibition, connecting the (past) historical situation with the present; and if the works of these artists are to be comprehended somewhat abstractly, supratemporally, fifteen paper printouts of daily news reports from 1969, shown by Hans Haacke, preserved their historical framework. An expansion into the question of geography was undertaken by Douglas Huebler’s Site Sculpture Project: Cape Cod Star Exchange, 1968, while Victor Burgin’s Narrative-Performative (New York Cultural Center Piece), 1971, called attention to some basic topics of conceptual art: the problem of “languages” in visual art, the relation between conception and appearance, and the function of context in constituting the meaning of a work.

The mounting of the show made good use of the new space, creating, through the tensions between the separate works, not just a reconstruction of a past situation in art but a dialogue extending into the present. At the same time, the relative esthetic unity of conceptual art became visible—the hermetic quality that permitted it, contrary to its own intentions, to quickly achieve “classical,” “final” formulations. Unanswered questions—probably unanswerable within the means dictated by conceptual-art intentions—were also clear.

Yet why hold this show now? In a foreword to the exhibition, Paul Maenz and Gerd de Vries remark, “‘Master Works of Conceptual Art’ aims to keep awake the memory of a decisive moment in modern art. . . . [I]t should demonstrate to younger viewers what went before this New Painting and created the firm basis from which the latter could spring into our immediate present.” The reference is important, for it shows this exhibition was not merely a bewildering token of a provocative, “anti-cyclical” attitude, but was intended to make a point about the current scene.

Wolfgang Max Faust

Translated from the German by Martha Humphreys.