View of “Seth Price: Social Synthetic,” 2017, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. Photo: Gert Jan van Rooij.

View of “Seth Price: Social Synthetic,” 2017, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. Photo: Gert Jan van Rooij.

Seth Price

View of “Seth Price: Social Synthetic,” 2017, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. Photo: Gert Jan van Rooij.

WHEN THE STEDELIJK MUSEUM in Amsterdam and the Museum Brandhorst in Munich decided to jointly organize “the first comprehensive retrospective of the work of Seth Price,” they brought up fundamental questions about the art world’s favorite form of hagiography. If retrospective exhibitions are, by definition, exercises in containment and summary, how can they deal with an artist as notoriously slippery as Price, who first received significant attention for a PDF calling for art’s “dispersion” beyond and outside the institutions of the art world? If Price used that early document to advocate for an “aesthetic program” that “does not function properly within the institutionalized art context,” can a museum exhibition be the proper lens through which to look back at his work?

For the first iteration of “Seth Price: Social Synthetic,” curators Beatrix Ruf and Achim Höchdorfer, together with the artist, sought to address this seeming incompatibility with a spatial layout that reflected the dizzyingly hyperlinked architecture of Price’s oeuvre. Fourteen galleries of the Stedelijk’s top floor were packed with often expansive works, including “sculpture, installation, 16-mm film, photography, drawing, painting, video, clothing and textiles, web design, music and sound, and poetry.” On the floor of one gallery, a lone flat-screen monitor emitted the televisual glow of COPYRIGHT 2006 SETH PRICE, 2006, a thirteen-minute video of appropriated news footage of the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan in 1981. A few rooms on, the same footage turned up again, only now screened on cheap portable media players and set to a lo-fi piano soundtrack (Digital Video Effect: “Chords,” 2007). Price’s signature materials and techniques recurred in relentlessly mutating constellations throughout the space. The transparent polyester film that was formed into a cylindrical sculpture bearing prehistoric horse drawings in Double Hunt,2006, reappeared elsewhere in scrunched-up tapestries carrying altered video stills of a jihadist beheading (“Hostage Video Still with Time Stamp,” 2005–). In another work (Addresses, 2006), Mylar ran across the walls of an entire room and continued into the next, now populated with darkened, pixelated reproductions of an older beheading image, Caravaggio’s David with the Head of Goliath.

Similarly plentiful were the so-called “Vacuum Forms,” 2004–2009, a series of polystyrene sheets that Price vacuum-molded to take on the shape of whatever object (knotted ropes, bomber jackets, casts of human body parts) he had placed underneath them. At the Stedelijk, these pieces took center stage. They filled immense vitrines, covered walls or leaned against them with a studied nonchalance that seemed to mock the presumably stratospheric prices once paid for them by their often anonymous lenders. Though Price has stopped producing such pieces, which risked overshadowing other aspects of his practice, the exhibition was not shy about making use of the undeniable visual allure of their dance in the uncanny valley. Of the more than 140 pieces on display, a small vacuum mold of what looks like a generic plastic mask (Untitled, 2008) was not only the first piece visitors encountered, but also the most hauntingly memorable one.

The curators’ decision to privilege diffusion over concentration extends to the show’s excellent catalogue. On the one hand, its contributors make no attempt to hide the fact that some of Price’s early followers were nonplussed when an artist who had once pioneered ways of evading the structural elitism of the art market eventually found considerable commercial success with almost conventionally beautiful sculptures and wall pieces. As Cory Arcangel quips in his short essay, “Seeing Seth’s work is always a massive WTF.” On the other hand, the essays are unanimous in their insistence that Price’s work is too complex and too clever for a notion as black-and-white as “selling out.”

Above all, however, the catalogue conveys a sense that no matter how many hours we spent at the Stedelijk, we still couldn’t come close to knowing the whole story, because the full range of Price’s interests and activities is impossible to grasp.Did we spend enough time on the iPads in the reading area studying Price’s algorithmic art-market data-gathering project, Organic Software, 2015? Do we know about the idiosyncratic collections of early video-game soundtracks and academic electronic music Price compiled in the 2000s? How about the four versions that preceded the most recent iteration of Price’s programmatic art-lecture video Redistribution, 2007–?

In the exhibition, as in the catalogue, the effort to do justice to the sprawling intricacy of Price’s oeuvre had two effects. First, it successfully presented Price as one of the most versatile artist-thinkers of the past two decades, not only in terms of how his work more than holds a candle to the sophistication of his much-quoted writing, but also with regard to his nimble use of an immense arsenal of materials and media. Second, it also made much ofPrice’s work appear intensely dated. If the same production techniques, materials, and even images crop up again and again in otherwise unrelated areas of Price’s work, this is because, for him, the artist’s task has not been to explain or even understand, but simply that of “packaging, producing, reframing, and distributing.” The emphatic sense of impartiality Price maintained even while appropriating imagery as charged as stills from the video of the 2002 beheading of the journalist Daniel Pearl links his early work to a time when an exclusive focus on the technologies of circulation made emotional or ethical reactions to images seem beside the point.

In our own historical moment, when no corner of the internet seems safe from the twin evils of Trumpist misinformation and meme-wielding white supremacists, such unfailingly neutral and detached approaches to digital-image production have begun to feel idealistic and insufficient. Price knows this, of course, as well as anyone. Regarding some of the most recent works in the retrospective—immense, close-up photographs of human skin, installed in light boxes—he has commented on how some raw materials cannot be “uncharged.” Perhaps reflecting on Price’s past work, the narrator of his 2015 novel, Fuck Seth Price, ruminates that it seemed “easy and even commonsensical” in the early 2000s to turn violence from a political problem into a media-theoretical one—something that operated primarily on the level of images. He then promptly admits that “in reality . . . all the same human pain persisted, lurking on the other side of the curtain. It hadn’t changed and it wasn’t going anywhere.” Price’s first midcareer retrospective leaves us to wonder what effect this new awareness will have on the next decades of his work.

“Seth Price: Social Synthetic” travels to the Museum Brandhorst, Munich, October 21, 2017–February 18, 2018.

Gregor Quack is an art historian based in Palo Alto, CA, and Berlin.