View of “Seth Siegelaub: Beyond Conceptual Art,” 2015–16. Photo: Gert Jan van Rooij.

View of “Seth Siegelaub: Beyond Conceptual Art,” 2015–16. Photo: Gert Jan van Rooij.

Seth Siegelaub

View of “Seth Siegelaub: Beyond Conceptual Art,” 2015–16. Photo: Gert Jan van Rooij.

With more than a thousand objects, the colossal undertaking “Seth Siegelaub: Beyond Conceptual Art” fulfilled its title’s promise in an exhibition that traced not only Siegelaub’s early promotion and curatorial forays into one of the most prominent postwar art movements but also his later identities as publisher and textile researcher. A small forest of colorful, textile-based headdresses mounted on poles, followed by a reading table with radical classics, announced the eclectic purview, which continued with a vast array of display cases filled with fabric samples and associated rare books, more cases with exhibition catalogues and documents, facsimile pages pinned to low dividing walls, and even a few paintings by the likes of Lawrence Weiner and Robert Barry. The multifaceted overload at the Stedelijk evoked many recent projects by artists operating in the guise of archivist, researcher, or anthropologist (and there were works by Maria Eichhorn and Mario García Torres included in the mix). Curators Leontine Coelewij and Sara Martinetti, however, cut to the chase by focusing on the work of another curator as their exhibition’s subject.

Although Siegelaub did run a gallery for a couple of years in the mid-1960s, he quickly disavowed the responsibilities of a fixed location. The “book-as-exhibition”—a catalogue of idea-based art that was primary rather than secondary to any physical display—fit his priorities while also serving as an opportune vehicle for emergent forms of Conceptual art. Such examples as Weiner’s Statements and a multiartist publication known as the Xerox Book (both published by Siegelaub in 1968) are therefore ambiguous candidates for museum treatment. The exhibition as reading experience was a curious outcome of the effort to bring Siegelaub’s exploration of mobile, decentralized presentation alternatives into this institutional context.

One of Siegelaub’s better-known exhibitions was “January 5–31, 1969,” for which he rented a temporary space in New York City. At the Stedelijk it was reconstructed to scale: The reception area of the two-part office included a desk and seating area for catalogue sales, and the inner room displayed physical evidence of eight of the thirty-two works by Barry, Douglas Huebler, Joseph Kosuth, and Weiner that were published in the catalogue. It was amusing to note that Weiner’s A 36“ x 36” removal to the lathing or support of plaster or wallboard from a wall, 1968, was cut from a wall specially built by the museum for that purpose: The violation of architectural integrity applied to a simulated stand-in.

Declaring in 1969, “My gallery is the world now,” Siegelaub began focusing not only on the virtual space of the catalogue but also events, including a 1970 conference in Halifax, Nova Scotia, that was striking for the heated debate over cigarette-company sponsorship that broke out among the participants. Involvement with the Art Workers’ Coalition bore fruit in his 1971 collaboration with lawyer Robert Projansky on “The Artist’s Reserved Rights Transfer and Sale Agreement”—also explored in Eichhorn’s interview project. But a student response from the Halifax conference about the absence of women artists points to a major blind spot: Despite visionary aspects of his engagement with Conceptual art, Siegelaub mainly promoted work by a relatively small group of US-based white men, rather than the more diverse and international field of activities now associated with the rubric of Conceptualism.

Siegelaub largely turned away from the art world after 1972, transforming International General Editions (established in 1970 to distribute his earlier catalogues) into a publishing house focused on Marxism and mass media. This endeavor was buoyed by the popularity of How to Read Donald Duck: Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comic, a 1975 translation of Armand Mattelart and Ariel Dorfman’s anti-Disney pamphlet, published in Chile in 1971. A third major phase started in the 1980s, when Siegelaub turned to collecting and archiving samples of textiles reflecting a wide range of cultural conditions, as well as related publications, with these linked undertakings sustained by his activity as a book dealer. Plus there was his side interest in reading about physics, explored in an artist’s project by García Torres on time and causality.

As a mainly self-taught but thorough researcher and archivist, Siegelaub left behind a remarkably well-recorded legacy. With its admixture of originals, reconstructions, and a great many facsimiles, the exhibition stayed true to Siegelaub’s initial fascination with art as information. The result was an immense, stimulating, yet ultimately paradoxical museum display devoted to a curator and researcher known for his pioneering investigation of alternate distribution channels.

Martha Buskirk