New York

“In & Out of Amsterdam”

MoMA - The Museum of Modern Art

GLOBALISM AND CONCEPTUALISM: It has become increasingly apparent that these two notions are indissolubly linked, but how? “In & Out of Amsterdam: Travels in Conceptual Art, 1960–1976” is only the most recent curatorial effort to examine this association, first proposed by the exhibition “Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin, 1950s–1980s,” overseen by Jane Farver at New York’s Queens Museum of Art in 1999. The Queens show tracked seemingly independent eruptions of a Conceptual tendency in discrete locales across the globe, contesting the Western orientation of previous surveys. Galleries were devoted to Latin-American Conceptualism, Eastern European Conceptualism, Japanese Conceptualism, and so on. The recent exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York proposed a very different schema, conceiving of “Conceptualism” as a transnational tendency, a network. During the 1960s and ’70s, it suggested, the art centers of North America and Western Europe were linked as never before. A democratization of air travel during this period, fostered by the jet engine, nurtured a new kind of practice. Artists abandoned the bohemian pleasures of the studio, shaping their activities in response to the new conditions of mobility. “The artists always traveled around with a bag that held everything,” recalled Adriaan van Ravesteijn, one of the founders of the Amsterdam gallery Art & Project, whose recent donation to MoMA (with his life partner, Geert van Beijeren) of the gallery’s extraordinary archive instigated the show. As Christophe Cherix, the museum’s curator of prints and illustrated books as well as the organizer of “In & Out of Amsterdam,” notes in the catalogue, Sol LeWitt visited five countries and thirteen cities in Europe in a single month in 1975. The artist who worked alone in his or her loft, who stayed more or less in the same city, was during these years supplanted by the artist-traveler. “It was like playing football—it went from stadium to stadium,” Lawrence Weiner recalls in an interview with Cherix. “And the interesting thing was that there was a whole system built into it.”

What was this system, this procession of champions from stadium to stadium? (Weiner’s gaming analogy seems entirely apt.) This was the question posed by “In & Out of Amsterdam.” Showcasing an aspect of MoMA’s collection that has heretofore been given short shrift, the exhibition was an attempt to reposition at the center of the Conceptual-art universe a museum that was once an important venue for Conceptualist practice. (Glenn Lowry, in the “Director’s Foreword” to the catalogue, states this agenda up front, invoking a comparison of “In & Out of Amsterdam” to Kynaston McShine’s landmark “Information” show at MoMA in 1970.) The initial impulse of “In & Out” was to exhibit an important gift. But, to Cherix’s credit, the exhibition wasn’t merely a collection show, a format to which museums have increasingly turned in these straitened times. By focusing on the history of a single art gallery and examining its practices closely, Cherix provided a fresh purchase on the history of Conceptualism. That is, the show demonstrated the benefits of an archival curatorial practice, and in this respect his project was utterly aligned with the archival turn in contemporary art history. Cherix is that rare bird: a contemporary curator who is equally and every bit a scholar, as his excellent exhibitions at the Cabinet des Estampes in Geneva of such figures as Robert Morris (1995), Mel Bochner (1997), and Carl Andre (2004) made abundantly clear. His challenge, in mounting a show elucidating the intricate history of a gallery devoted to antivisual endeavors and, moreover, one equally renowned for publishing the austere Art & Project Bulletin—as important a site of “display” as the gallery space—was to find a visually engaging mode of presentation. His solution: first, to exhibit the entire sequence of 156 Bulletins (and related projects) in the Prints and Illustrated Books galleries; and second, to limit the presentation of “realized” works to the practices of ten artists, a small sample of the eighty or so contributors to the Bulletin from its inaugural issue in 1968 through its final edition in 1989; this work was shown in the temporary-exhibition galleries.

These choices made for a focused show, but of course they came at a cost, as such decisions necessarily do. The unruly variety of the Conceptual field captured by “Global Conceptualism” and by “1965–1975: Reconsidering the Object of Art,” Ann Goldstein and Anne Rorimer’s magisterial 1995 survey at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, was curtailed. Works by artists less known than the ten selected were not featured, except via printed matter in the Bulletin (a “correct” presentation of these works, certainly). Furthermore, by narrowing the temporal parameters of the show to the period 1960–76, where the archive’s strengths lie, the show de-emphasized the gallery’s history during the late ’70s and ’80s, when, as Cherix notes, artists such as Sandro Chia and Enzo Cucchi showed there. (Art & Project lasted until 2001.) The occlusion of this chapter made for a rigorously Conceptual show, yet Art & Project’s embrace of studio-based forms in later years is intriguing. Why end the show in 1976? How did this sanctum sanctorum of Conceptualism come to exhibit neo-expressionist painting, the very practice that Benjamin H. D. Buchloh would denounce as “regressive,” a “return to order” after the disruptions of the ’60s? How did van Beijeren and van Ravesteijn perceive this about-face? Or did they not see the contradiction? These questions were left unanswered by the MoMA show.

As its title suggested, “In & Out of Amsterdam” foregrounded one theme above all: that of the artist-traveler. Many of the works presented may be seen as early manifestations of the “nomadic” Conceptualism launched by Duchamp’s Sculpture for Traveling, 1918, and Boîte-envalise, 1935–41, a tendency revived in the past decade by such artists as Francis Alÿs, Renée Green, Christian Philipp Müller, and Gabriel Orozco. (The resurgence of the “nomad” is emblematic of the “1960s return” in contemporary art and culture.) Stanley Brouwn’s Total Number of My Steps, 1972, proposed a twenty-one-city itinerary: Had it been executed, the work would have documented all the steps taken by the artist in each place, the recording of the experience thus overtaking the experience itself. Allen Ruppersberg’s Overnight, 1970, consists of forty-five self-addressed envelopes, each of which was to be mailed to Ruppersberg at a different Hilton hotel around the world. Charlotte Posenenske made four untitled Super 8 films of her travels in the southern and central Netherlands in 1968. Described by the artist as “amateurish and boring,” these works are anything but. Evocative of Warhol’s early films, Ruscha’s photo books, and Rothko’s abstractions, they are at once anti-road-movie movies, banal antidotes to Kerouacian ecstasy, and records of the ’60s artist’s astonishing mobility, the necessary condition of a then emergent poststudio system of production and display.

The most detailed adumbration of this system was Jan Dibbets’s Project for Art & Project 15, 1969. Like the research-based works of Hans Haacke, Dibbets’s project is both an artwork and an archival document, eschewing any distinction between these forms. Dibbets asked the Bulletin’s subscribers to return the right half of a mailer to the gallery. He then recorded the respondents’ locations on four maps. The first, of the city of Amsterdam, documents the gallery’s immediate environs. The second depicts its regional setting: The numerous vectors between Amsterdam and such cities as Rotterdam, Arnhem, The Hague, and Brussels establish the central importance of Belgium and the Netherlands (i.e., the museums, galleries, and collectors in these countries) in Conceptualism’s evolution.

On the third map, of continental Europe, lines reach from Amsterdam to London, Paris, Milan, Düsseldorf, Cologne, and Berlin. Other areas of Europe—Scandinavia, Iberia, Eastern Europe, and Russia—are unmarked. Either none of the journal’s approximately four hundred subscribers were from these locations or those who were didn’t bother to return the mailers. On Dibbets’s world map, the vectors reach primarily from Amsterdam to New York and Los Angeles. One of the MoMA show’s great contributions was to examine the Amsterdam/Los Angeles nexus, which included such figures as Ruppersberg, Bas Jan Ader, and Ger van Elk, as well as two artists not featured at MoMA, William Leavitt and Jack Goldstein, and Metro Pictures cofounder Helene Winer (then director of the Pomona College Art Gallery). The link between the Netherlands and California bypassed New York, as Phillip van den Bossche notes in his tantalizingly brief catalogue text, and thus represents a transcontinental link that does not conform to the “hub and spokes” model of globalism theorized as a configuration of “centers” and “peripheries.” Yet Dibbets’s map shows no vectors linking Amsterdam to much of the rest of the world. There are no lines to Canada, Mexico, or Latin America, nor to Africa, Asia, or Australia—an astonishing bit of evidence. If “Global Conceptualism” asserted that a Conceptual mode emerged concurrently, and more or less independently, in all these places, and if the checklist of works in the Art & Project donation—which includes artists from Japan, Czechoslovakia, Australia, Yemen, and elsewhere—implies that these far-flung Conceptualist scenes were indeed connected, then Dibbets’s research suggests a middle ground: that, beyond Western Europe and the two American art centers, linkages between the various scenes—where they existed at all—were at best weak. The full-blown cosmopolitanism we now take for granted, the growing participation of artists in transcontinental dialogues evidenced by such exhibitions as Documenta 11 in 2002, was still off in the future. The MoMA show pinpointed the eruption of a globalist turn in contemporary art that only came to be recognized during the 1990s—and that only now are we beginning to grasp.

James Meyer is a contributing editor of Artforum.