“Open Systems”

“Open Systems: Rethinking Art c. 1970” was the latest installment in a string of exhibitions dealing with the ’60s and ’70s, many focused on Conceptual art: L’Art conceptuel, une perspective” (Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, 1989); “1965–1975: Reconsidering the Object of Art” (Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 1995); “Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin, 1950s–1980s” (Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 1999); and “Live in Your Head: Concept and Experiment in Britain, 1965–75” (Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, 2000). The first two were monumental surveys. “Global Conceptualism” challenged the Western slant of previous definitions of the phenomenon, and “Live in Your Head” focused on the English context. True to its title, “Open Systems” was a more open-ended effort, cutting a broad swath through the multifarious practices loosely associated with historical Conceptualism. The exhibition’s story goes something like this: 1. During the ’60s, artists started to make works employing cubes and other simple polyhedrons. 2. These artists, unlike the hard-core Minimalists, infused geometry with allusion (to politics, to subjectivity, to natural processes, etc.). 3. The organization of these forms, often in serial sequences, suggested an apposite syntax for examining society and its “systems.” 4. This synthesis of form and technique, of geometry and seriality, produced a new kind of installation, one that revealed the perceptual parameters of the white cube, as well as new kinds of performance. 5. Other artists, avoiding an overt politics, inflected repetition with “poetical” subject matter.

The show’s narrative followed to a point. The installation opened with an impressive array of boxes, juxtaposing Untitled, 1963, Donald Judd’s cadmium-red floor piece with its band of purple Plexiglas, one of the first exhibited examples of Minimalist work, with Hans Haacke’s Condensation Cube, 1963–65, where the Plexiglas box has become a vitrine of precipitation responsive to the gallery temperature—a climatological-museological “system.” The latter work pointed to Haacke’s masterpiece Shapolsky et al. . . . , 1971, a serial documentation of a “real-time social system” (the holdings of a Manhattan slumlord). Still other works—Andy Warhol’s Brillo, 1964, Eva Hesse’s Inside I, 1967, and Cildo Meireles’s Geographical Mutations: Frontier Rio–São Paolo, 1969—suggested the semantic potential of the cube (as the Dwan Gallery’s 1964 exhibition “Boxes” asserted at the time). In this highly successful installation, the Minimalist box was revealed to be one of many possible inflections of cubic form rather than the definitive articulation it is usually held to be.

Next came Mel Bochner’s brilliant Measurement: Room, 1969, where the leap from the cube-as-sculpture to white cube was clearly stated. In a previous work, Room-Block, 1966, Bochner envisioned a gallery filled up by a giant black cube. Measurement: Room reverses the conceit of that little-known drawing, substituting volume for mass, emptiness for fullness. Instead of looking at a cubic sculpture, the spectator walks into a cubic space—one whose “emptiness” is made visible through the application of Letraset tape, used here as a serial system of measurement. Further on in the exhibition, Dan Graham’s Public Space/Two Audiences, 1976, a mirror installation in which the spectator is perceptually split into two, and Hélio Oiticica’s Projeto Filtro—Para Vergara NY 1972, 1972/2005, a corridor with audio, video, and gustatorial elements, also convincingly bridged the show’s themes of geometry and installation.

Here the narrative started to unravel. The third gallery was filled with videos and photo documentations of performances. How do we move from cubes to performance, from sculpture to the body? Where does seriality come in? Both Martha Rosler and Joan Jonas employ serial structures in Semiotics of the Kitchen, 1975, and Vertical Roll, 1972. Yet the repetitious “real-time” formats of structuralist cinema and the video medium would seem more relevant inspirations than the box sculpture with which we began. Other works seemed even farther afield, such as photographs of Valie Export and Peter Weibel’s performance From the Portfolio of Doggedness, 1968, showing Export walking Weibel on a leash through the streets of Vienna, or Lygia Clark’s “Sensorial Objects,” 1966, which are neither cubic nor serial but idiosyncratic little works made of plastic bags, water, balls, and eye goggles. Marcel Broodthaers’s Un Jardin d’hiver, 1974, a “reconstruction” of a nineteenth-century winter garden, is unbelievably charming—but why was it here? Other inclusions exemplifying the show’s “poetical” tendency—such as Dimitrije Mangelos’s painted globes, laden with unbearable-lightness-of-being profundity—felt forced.

If the narrative of “Open Systems” was not altogether clear, that may have been the point (when the curator is as superb as Donna De Salvo, we assume it was). Definitions of Conceptual art are notoriously imprecise. In refusing to stick to one, “Open Systems” successfully captured the untidy spirit of the period it mapped. Still, its selection of mostly well-known works didn’t generate the sense of wonder I felt at LA MoCA’s seminal “Reconsidering the Object of Art,” which presented many of the same works, or at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s brilliant “Beyond Geometry: Experiments in Form 1940s to 1970s” (2004) or at the Whitechapel’s “Live in Your Head,” which overflowed with outrageous and arcane examples of British Conceptualism. A marvelous exception was Sanja Iveković’s Double-Life: Documents for Autobiography, 1959–75, a photo sequence of the artist in various poses presented next to magazine ads. An obvious comparison to Cindy Sherman’s “Untitled Film Stills” of the late ’70s collapses when we learn that many of Iveković’s extraordinary self-portraits predate the ads to which they are compared. Sherman’s project is consciously “performative.” Iveković’s work is also staged, yet more subtly mines the unconscious and ontological registers of performativity: Not only our gender, but the poses we assume, the way we sit or stand, our very bodies are social productions. Iveković is a true discovery, an artist about whom one wants to know more.

If “Open Systems” offered few surprises, its strategic importance cannot be underestimated. It was pointed out to me during my visit that such major Conceptualist works as Bochner’s Measurement: Room and Haacke’s Shapolosky et al. . . . have never been exhibited in London, much less at the Tate. Certainly the exhibition made a bizarre juxtaposition with the Frida Kahlo carnival down the hall, not to mention the museum shop, which was overstocked with cards, calendars, and all manner of doodads emblazoned with “Frida’s” hairy upper lip. (Did I see a Frida piñata? Must have been my imagination.) The only evidence of “Open Systems” was the catalogue. There were no postcards of Rosler brandishing a knife from Semiotics of the Kitchen, nor of Haacke’s documentation of Lower East Side and Harlem tenements. One was reminded why the strongest practices of the ’60s and ’70s remain fundamentally unassimilable, radical even, however familiar they have become.

James Meyer is an associate professor of art history at Emory University.