View of “Materializing ‘Six Years’: Lucy R. Lippard and the Emergence of Conceptual Art,” 2012. Top: Alice Adams, Big Aluminum, 1965.

View of “Materializing ‘Six Years’: Lucy R. Lippard and the Emergence of Conceptual Art,” 2012. Top: Alice Adams, Big Aluminum, 1965.

“Materializing ‘Six Years’: Lucy R. Lippard and the Emergence of Conceptual Art”

View of “Materializing ‘Six Years’: Lucy R. Lippard and the Emergence of Conceptual Art,” 2012. Top: Alice Adams, Big Aluminum, 1965.

AS ARTISTS OVER THE PAST DECADE have revisited earlier works of art—whether to interpret them anew, test their methods of production, or engage their liveness and mediation—curators have likewise revived landmark exhibitions to reassess their effects on the expansion of artistic and curatorial form. “Materializing ‘Six Years’: Lucy R. Lippard and the Emergence of Conceptual Art,” curated by Catherine Morris and Vincent Bonin at the Brooklyn Museum’s Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, examines the birth of Conceptualism using Lippard’s Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972 as a chronological structuring device. Devised as an exhibition in a book, Lippard’s legendary 1973 compendium gathered fragments of writings, photographs, quotes, and citations to survey Conceptualism’s manifold origins.

While paying homage to Six Years’ part-exhibition, part-bibliophilic abundance, Bonin and Morris’s show dislodges the original’s premium on dematerialization—with objects holding the floor, films suspended from the ceiling, and walls filled with art and ephemera. Lippard’s curatorial work is threaded throughout, represented by spare selections of installation images, archival materials, and works in situ (reconstructions and original objects) assembled in illuminating juxtapositions. Shots of her instructional project Groups, 1969–70, antiwar agitprop with the Art Workers’ Coalition, and seemingly empty fund-raiser for the latter, “Number 7” (1969), appear amid other important Conceptual projects prioritizing communications over installation, such as Seth Siegelaub’s 1968 Xerox Book and materials from the “Art by Telephone” exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, the following year. Occupying the heart of the show, Lippard’s “number” exhibitions, titled after the populations of their host cities (such as “2,972,453” in Buenos Aires in 1970), are remarkable for their administrative organization (artists often submitted instructions or completed questionnaires, from which art would be installed) and nonhierarchical catalogues made from index cards, through which essays, checklists, and artist contributions can be endlessly reshuffled.

Such curatorial comparisons amended anglophone narratives of Conceptualism that typically foreground its break with high-modernist formalism. Six Years’ eighty-three-word subtitle describes Conceptualism’s appearance across “the Americas, Europe, England, Australia, and Asia (with occasional political overtones),” an ambition partially realized in Lippard’s actual selections but judiciously mined in Bonin and Morris’s exhibition, which includes more ideological work by curators and artists such as Jorge Glusberg and Orders & Co. The show’s focus on Six Years affords it more coherence than earlier surveys of global Conceptualism, but as an exhibition composed of exhibitions, “Materializing ‘Six Years’” sometimes overlooks polemical distinctions therein. While Lippard included both the Artist Placement Group and Art & Language in her shows, for instance, she supported the “interruptive device” of the former’s infiltration of corporate bureaucracy but remained skeptical of the latter’s analytic Conceptualism and hermetic impenetrability. Lippard herself described curatorial duties in administrative language, a semantic shift adjacent to forms of work emerging in a postindustrial economy, albeit as an irrational, disorderly cousin. If modern curators “preserved” or “selected” art for acquisition or exhibition, relying on words steeped in connoisseurship, judgment, and legacy, Lippard would suspend such criteria through intentionally overwhelming “compilations.” This tendency is reiterated here, and consequently, the affinities and aversions of various positions pulse beneath the surface of the exhibition, remaining sketched rather than plumbed.

At its best, the exhibition elucidates reciprocal relays between curatorial strategies and artistic concerns. The curators include striking examples of Lippard’s own involvement in works of art, a reflexive imbrication that itself constitutes a mode of reception. In N. E. Thing Co.’s film Lucy Lippard Walking Towards True North, 1969, the camera trails Lippard into a forest, supplementing her written contributions to experimental expeditions by Canadian Conceptualists. Robert Barry featured both Lippard’s “number” catalogues and a review in a 1971 show, and Vito Acconci likewise dedicated a version of his iconic Following Piece, 1969, to her, reflecting Lippard’s own following of artists, many of whom she followed first. These works manifest overlaps between the endeavors of writing, making art, and producing exhibitions, kinships arising from Lippard’s own brand of aesthetic solidarity: her adoption of the processes esteemed by artists.

In knitting artistic and curatorial form, “Materializing ‘Six Years’” provides a rewarding glimpse of Conceptualism’s emergence, but with ambivalent consequences for its feminism. The show recognizes artists who enabled Conceptualism’s feminist interpretation, such as Lee Lozano, Adrian Piper, Mierle Laderman Ukeles, and lesser-known figures Athena Tacha and Ulrike Rosenbach. Moreover, it commendably presents the activity of redefining high art and urging its democratization as vital to feminism itself. But if the curators foreground Conceptualism’s international aspects from 1966 to 1972, their structure still fosters a North American provincialism in defining the movement’s feminist politics. Notably, by concluding with Lippard’s final “number” show of Conceptualism by women, “C. 7500” (1973), and tracking its US tour while excluding its reinstallation in London the following year, the exhibition forecloses Lippard’s engagement with British feminist socialism, important work on cross-coalitional organizing by Mary Kelly, Griselda Pollock, and Rozsika Parker, and the dispersion of Conceptualism itself into multiple feminisms. If the 1990s reception of Conceptual art now emphasizes evaluation of its curatorial projects, the heteronomous contradictions of that enterprise require new interpretive methods—a conversation that “Materializing ‘Six Years’” rightly initiates.

“Materializing ‘Six Years’: Lucy R. Lippard and the Emergence of Conceptual Art” is on view through Feb. 3, 2013.

Jeannine Tang is an art historian teaching at the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College.