The Prehistory of Exhibition History

From Art Journal 76, no. 1 (Spring 2017)

grupa o.k.'s Critical Bibliography
grupa o.k.’s Critical Bibliography

Art history has long included studies of exhibitions as episodes or turning points within more expansive narratives. Such moments have opened art histories based in the studio, or among the members of a small, bohemian circle, to a larger social field that includes politics, audience, and market, before returning to the private or small-group interactions that have equally served to drive art’s internal means. In the last decade, though, this technique, once intrinsic to social histories of art, has gained a certain autonomy. More resolutely devoted to art’s public formations, the history of exhibitions has manifested in symposia and exchanges at institutions worldwide, a raft of recent publications, “remakes” of historically important exhibitions, new academic and para-academic journals, and, most recently, a flock of dissertations that have taken exhibitions and curating, rather than art and artists, as their primary focus. Similarly this output has generated a small and agonistic body of writing that reasons out the recent turn.

Why has there been such an explosion of interest in the history of exhibitions? The reasons for the burst of activity can be sketched out only provisionally in this context. We would point, among other things, to the growing importance of curators in the field of art and the innovations in exhibitionary form they produced over the course of the 1990s and early 2000s, which efforts demanded that the history of art consider them seriously. Similarly we might refer to the enlarged geographical and numerical scope of art’s worlds after 1989—one example of what Fredric Jameson has described as postmodernism’s “scandal of multiplicity . . . or in other words, the definitive appearance of the Other in multiple forms and as sheer quantity or number.”1 Attending to exhibitions, rather than to monographic studies of artists, allows historians to address this multiplicity directly. Another effect, though, has followed: under the pressure of this expanded field of communication, our confidence in the ontology of individual works of art seems to have faded, even disappeared.

These various conditions are interconnected, but the last point may be the most important in the context of this journal. Whereas previous generations of art historians took their primary task as legitimating new art within the diachronic story of modernism, however problematized, new art histories written by a generation of thinkers for whom the battles over modernism now seem rather distant, or exhausted, are more spatial and social in nature. These scholars see their task as describing the social worlds in which something known as art was produced and perceived. In these accounts the artwork can no longer be grasped as something “in itself,” but can be properly understood only as an element in an ensemble or scenario within which the artwork is the enigmatic (or catalytic) center. As the ontology of artworks has crumbled, the exhibition, as aggregate form, or a form-of-forms, has emerged as a vital object of study.

The bibliographic study below will reason out this development no further, considering instead artifacts from exhibition history’s longer durée. And though we were tempted to include favorite texts from art histories in a more classical mode—Thomas Crow’s chapter on the salon in Painters and Public Life (Yale University Press, 1985) or Ewa Lajer-Burcharth’s remarkable essay on Jacques-Louis David’s exhibition of The Sabine Women, 1799, in Necklines (Yale University Press, 1999)—we ultimately went a different way. Our fascination with the books compiled here, which include materials discernible as exhibition history and key artifacts of exhibition history, is in their difference from the prevailing forms of writing in the emergent field. One facet of this difference, the chauvinistic focus on Euro-American narratives in the older books, is not salutary but is informative. Other aspects, like the relative openness and experimentation of their form, are useful countermodels to a contemporary discourse somewhat waterlogged with its own self-importance. Despite being a partial list—one based in personal affinities and luck in dusty bookshops—it aims to wedge the present practice of exhibition history back into the diachronic story that it has contentiously replaced.

Algernon Graves, The Society of Artists of Great Britain, 1760–1791; The Free Society of Artists 1761–1783: A Complete Dictionary of Contributors and Their Work from the Foundation of the Societies to 1791 (London: George Bell and Sons, 1907)

This curious tome contains a comprehensive list of artists shown in the early exhibiting societies of eighteenth-century Great Britain, including every maker’s name, every object displayed, and the dates of exhibition. Through this registry we discover a surprising heterogeneity in both the offerings and their authors. Alongside paintings were shown engravings, architectural models, and miniatures; alongside male artists we find women, and together with the professors are craftsmen and amateurs. The volume also excerpts anecdotes and meeting minutes compiled by one Edward Edwards, a member of the society during the years 1766–72, as well as others detailing discussions about what to show, whether to charge an admission fee, and the nature of public judgement. The disagreements were intense and, despite the long historical distance, remain somewhat familiar concerns for today’s practitioners. On one side were democrats, arguing equality among artists and free admission for the public. On the other, as the architect John Gwynn recounted, was an elite disgusted by the “prostitution of the polite arts” and by watching “their works censured or approved by kitchen-maids and stable boys” (315). Guess which group later became the Royal Academy of Arts.

Ian Dunlop, The Shock of the New: Seven Historic Exhibitions of Modern Art (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1972)

We must admit to having long confused Ian Dunlop’s Shock of the New with the 1980 BBC documentary series by Robert Hughes that ganked its title. Nevertheless, Dunlop’s book now seems to us a secret model for later exhibition histories, many of which reproduce the critic’s Francophile selection, among other things. The book studies seven exhibitions: five French (from Salon des Refusés, 1863, to the International Surrealist Exhibition, 1938), one American (The Armory Show, 1913), and one German (Degenerate Art, 1937). Dunlop privileges examples that catalyzed ye olde avant-garde reaction formation and so focuses in particular on the sociopolitical context of each show. In addition to reproductions of key works, his evidence includes installation views, portraits of key figures, reproductions from accompanying publications, and press clippings. Later exhibition histories have followed Dunlop’s lead in this regard, knowingly or not, while also repeating his pioneering work’s central limitation. That is, works of art become one more detail in a beguiling whorl of discourse; they risk becoming incidental.

Katherine Dreier, George Heard Hamilton, Marcel Duchamp, Alexander Dorner, et al., Collection of the Société Anonyme: Museum of Modern Art, 1920 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1950)

This is a catalogue of the collection of the first museum of modern art in America, published on the occasion of its donation to Yale University—a bequest brokered by Marcel Duchamp toward the end of founding director Katherine Dreier’s life. The contents of the museum, driven along by the weird combination of Dreier’s theosophy and Duchamp’s mischief, amount to a peculiar, alternate-history version of the early twentieth century, including more women artists and so-called minor artists. The catalogue details the story of the Société, but the real gas is in the various entries on artists by the institution’s founders: Dreier (euphoric, cosmic) and Duchamp (kind, precise, and drily witty). These are joined by entries by the museum director Alexander Dorner and the art historian Hans Hildebrandt, as well as a few by Dreier’s frenemy Alfred Barr Jr., founding director of the Museum of Modern Art.

Alexander Dorner, The Way Beyond “Art” (New York: Wittenborn, Schultz, 1947)

Alexander Dorner, famous for his directorship of the Landesmuseum Hannover, made his mark by reorganizing that museum’s collections from a jumbled display organized according to the works’ owners, to one structured around historical “atmospheres.” These included iconic modernist rooms by El Lissitzky (Abstract Cabinet, 1927–28) and a planned room by László Moholy-Nagy (Room of the Present, 1930). The appearance of the latter was forestalled by the economic crash and the Nazi Party’s rise to power. Dorner’s historical model was an important influence on the early Museum of Modern Art, but today he comes up most often by way of this book, a favorite reference of that foremost chronicler of exhibitions, the curator Hans Ulrich Obrist. Yet the book is stranger than Obrist’s borrowed slogans suggest. It tracks a “biogenetic” development of art from the “magic reality” of cave painters, through the Romantics, to the “absolute necessity” of the abstract art of his present. Dorner argues that exhibitions realize this modernism especially well: the book resolves with a chapter on the Bauhaus designer Herbert Bayer, whose exhibitions and typography the author sees as the apotheosis of the integration of art into fast-moving currents of modern life.

Jermayne MacAgy: A Life Illustrated by an Exhibition (Houston: University of St. Thomas, 1968)

A remembrance of the curator, educator, and director Jermayne MacAgy, this little book compiles images of her exhibitions as well as her personal collection of artifacts, which included objects as disparate as abstract paintings, fetishes, banners, and pipe fittings. Contrasting the modernist “white cube” aesthetic then becoming a dominant mode, MacAgy’s exhibitions used dramatic lighting, scrims, decorative potted plants, and theatrical displays. Famously, she arranged freestanding suits of armor on a giant chessboard (Arms and Armor, Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco, 1953). The book’s introduction, by her friend and coconspirator Dominique de Menil, characterizes MacAgy in ways that now seem cliché: she was “a freak with a touch of genius” who possessed a “sixth sense that only madness or love can give” (11–12). Along with pronouncements of her diligent work ethic and brilliant intuition, her personality is a central feature. She was “a master of seduction” whose divisive nature won her both enemies and devotees (10). Assembled four decades before Harald Szeemann’s own catalogue raisonné in 2007—which is widely seen as the first such compilation of an exhibition maker’s production—this portrait of MacAgy is a seductive anomaly.

Margaret Hall, On Display: A Design Grammar for Museum Exhibitions (London: Lund Humphries, 1987)

We first spotted On Display on the office bookshelves of P!, the New York City gallery founded by Project Projects designer Prem Krishnamurthy, who referred to the volume as the holy grail of exhibition design. This primer on museum technics was written by the British Museum’s “Royal Designer for Industry” Margaret Hall, who was responsible for the 1972 exhibition Treasures of Tutankhamun, arguably the first blockbuster show in a contemporary mold. Regarded as a classic in the design field, the book is more or less unknown among art historians and curators. That should change. If scholars wish to consider exhibitions as a medium, we must reckon with their component parts and conventions. Curators, for their part, should grasp the wide range of possibilities that have served as the discipline’s common grammar over the last century and which extend well beyond the white cube. This is especially important in the moment of the ontological crisis mentioned above, in which artworks are increasingly shown as, or together with, artifacts of a wider culture.

Brian O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1976)

This slender volume rearranged our respective foundations so completely that it is difficult to recover just why. It must have something to do with the ongoing domination of the white cube itself, which still remains, rather bizarrely, the default means of signaling that the viewer is in the space of art. Brian O’Doherty’s precise scrutiny of this near-omnipresent mode of display—the result of a worldview in which the apparatus of exhibition was newly understood as itself the carrier of meaning—still retains disruptive power. The claim to a transcendent and hygienic way of seeing has a history, O’Doherty explains, and is not the only way art can be known.

Jean Clair and Harald Szeemann, eds., Bachelor Machines, exh. cat. (New York: Rizzoli International, 1975)

Harald Szeemann’s introduction to his best-ever exhibition is a weird one, spilling over in the final third into an enthralling, if abstruse, biographical theorization of his own practice. Having departed his directorship of the Kunsthalle Bern in 1969 under unhappy circumstances, he was writing as more or less a free agent—or unemployed, depending on how you look at it. Szeemann imagines this perplexing new condition through the Duchampian lens of the bachelor machine, a closed circuit of energy driven toward pleasure or destruction rather than function or reproduction. He furthermore pictures himself as a paradoxical institution called the Agency for Intellectual Guest Labor, and describes the agency’s workflow like so: “I have an idea. I hire myself to realize the idea. Since the decision is ultimately passed down to me by the agency, and because I am the agency, I accept the commission to carry out my idea” (11). Long seen as a blueprint for independent curators, Szeemann’s premise actually encompasses the peculiar psychology demanded of much precarious labor. It speaks too of the lifelong mindfuck that can result from identifying with one’s subject matter so completely.

AA Bronson and Peggy Gale, eds., Museums by Artists, exh. cat. (Toronto: Art Metropole, 1983)

This compilation, which accompanied an exhibition at the Toronto artist-run center Art Metropole, discusses the museum as “a preserver, a classifier, [and] a structure for remembering,” and by way of artists’ “attempts to distance, engage, alter and simulate [it] as an act of consciousness” (11, 7). It features certain likely suspects—the artists Daniel Buren, Marcel Broodthaers, Robert Filliou, and Claes Oldenburg, and the curators Harald Szeemann and Jean-Christophe Ammann—but matches them irreverently with less-known examples like the Canadian conceptual artist Garry Kennedy and the archive of the fictional Canadian novelist Cornelia Lumsden. Bronson’s essay is the book’s pinnacle. He whips madly through a personal history of the independent scene in Canada, describing galleries where he “first tasted blood” before resolving in a fugue state, drifting through “a long chain of dream palaces, of the museum, of history” (30, 36).

Rasheed Araeen, “Our Bauhaus, Others’ Mudhouse,” Third Text 6, Spring 1989 (Abingdon, UK: Taylor and Francis)

Magiciens de la Terre, 1989, curated by Jean-Hubert Martin and staged at the Centre Georges Pompidou and Parc de la Villette in Paris, is praised as the first truly inclusive global exhibition of art. But it is also faulted for its Western perspective and flawed framing concept, which cast Western and non-Western artists alike as “magicians of the earth.” Strikingly, the strongest critique of the exhibition came from one of its participants, the Pakistani-British sculptor, writer, and editor Rasheed Araeen. The journal he founded, Third Text, published an entire issue of responses to Magiciens. Araeen’s furious essay was its most forceful critique and is one of the greatest negative reviews ever written. Attacking the exhibition’s failure to justify the “togetherness of works that represent different historical formations,” he wrote, “it is claimed that all the works, irrespective of their cultural origin, are presented ‘on equal terms.’ But is this ‘equality’ not an illusion? How is this ‘equality’ achieved, if not by ignoring the differences of different works? . . . No wonder the common denominator here is a presumed ‘magic’ of all works that transcends socioeconomic determinants” (7–8). Araeen makes this criticism at the cusp between two paradigms: between an antagonistic politics of recognition derived from Hegel, and the illusions of equality that dominate today’s biennial culture. Only in a carnival, Araeen warns, is everyone equal.

grupa o.k. is Julian Myers and Joanna Szupinska. Myers is an associate professor in the Graduate Program in Curatorial Practice at the California College of the Arts, San Francisco, and senior editor of The Exhibitionist, a journal about exhibition making. Szupinska is the curator of exhibitions at the California Museum of Photography, part of the University of California, Riverside.

  1. Fredric Jameson, Valences of the Dialectic (London: Verso, 2009), 428.