Articles

Why Are There So Many Art Exhibition Revivals?

by Laura C. Mallonee on August 11, 2014

Installation view of Other Primary Structures (courtesy of the Jewish Museum)

Installation view, ‘Other Primary Structures’ at the Jewish Museum (courtesy of the Jewish Museum)

A big part of the art world is art history, and nowhere is that clearer than in the recent spate of exhibition revivals. Last year, the Prada Foundation reenacted the 1969 show When Attitudes Become Form, and this summer, three such re-creations have turned up in New York. At the Jewish Museum, Other Primary Structures revisited the institution’s 1966 exhibition that introduced America to Minimalism. At Paul Kasmin Gallery, Bloodflames Revisited returns to its namesake 1946 show at Hugo Gallery, which challenged the spatial constructs of the gallery’s walls, floor, and ceiling. And at Hauser & Wirth, The Photographic Object, 1970 recently reenacted the Museum of Modern Art’s landmark survey of photographers using sculpture in their practice.

Seeing bygone exhibitions in the flesh can be an exciting form of time travel to the iconic moments we read about in art history books. “Unlike a book that I can read many times or a movie that I can see again and again, an exhibition disappears once it is over,” Jens Hoffmann, who curated Other Primary Structures, told Hyperallergic. “Which means that a restaging can be incredibly important to give the audience a firsthand experience of seeing a historically important exhibition.”

"L.A. Series #7" (1969) by Darryl Curran, from A Photographic Object at Hauser & Wirth (courtesy Cherry and Martin, photo by Robert Wedemeyer)

Darryl Curran, “L.A. Series #7″ (1969), on view in ‘The Photographic Object, 1970′ at Hauser & Wirth (courtesy Cherry and Martin, photo by Robert Wedemeyer)

“Most of us in the art world, not to mention the general public, did not see these original shows and are curious about them,” added Olivier Renaud Clement, who curated The Photographic Object, 1970

Exhibition revivals are not, in fact, new. The infamous Armory Show of 1913 has enjoyed two significant restagings, one on its 50th anniversary in 1963 and another on its 100th anniversary last year. Hitler’s baffling “Degenerate Art” exhibition from 1937 has also been resurrected more than once: in 1991 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and at the Neue Galerie right now. 

But the trend has certainly grown, as the crop of recent shows — not to mention the bountiful literature emerging around past ones — makes clear. In 2009, The Exhibitionist journal for curators came out, with a focus on past shows. A year later, Afterall Books launched its Exhibition Histories series, intended to offer “critical analysis of exhibitions of contemporary art that have changed the way art is seen and made.” Other publications have surfaced as well, including the two volumes of Exhibitions that Made Art History.

Perhaps the greatest benefit of an exhibition revival is that it allows us to reevaluate history with a new and sometimes clearer perspective. The first museum survey of Minimalism focused exclusively on American and British sculptors, failing to acknowledge how the movement was developing in other parts of the world. Other Primary Structures offers a revisionist take on that original show, restaging it from a global perspective to include artists from Africa, Asia, and South America. Similarly, Clement’s exhibition at Hauser & Wirth included key substitutions that were made with the benefit of critical hindsight.

Though revivals and re-creations usually consider seminal shows, the form can also draw attention to overlooked or forgotten episodes in history, such as a racist human zoo from 1914 that two artists are have restaged in Norway. For the most part, however, more obscure or minor exhibitions tend to stay that way. As Hoffmann explained, “There are certainly many other shows I would like to see in person that have long disappeared, but trends are usually never interesting and not many museums have such iconic exhibitions as Primary Structures to look back to.” 

Installation view of Bloodflames Revisited (courtesy of the Paul Kasmin Gallery)

Installation view, ‘Bloodflames Revisited’ at Paul Kasmin Gallery (courtesy of Paul Kasmin Gallery)

But while these shows are informative — not to mention a boon to the market value of the works they feature — it’s easy to wonder what they say about the current artistic and curatorial landscape. Have curators simply run out of ideas? In March, New York Times art critic Roberta Smith wrote about a similar fad of “rescuing artists from the past,” noting that galleries today dredge up lost artists “once or twice a season, if not more.” Even outside the world of art, people seem to be recycling ideas, from books-turned-movies like The Giver to belated sequels like the upcoming Dumb and Dumber To. Sure, nothing under the sun is entirely new, but might these shows confirm the nagging, nostalgic suspicion that we live in less revolutionary times than our forebears?

Bui doesn’t think so. “Mining past sources for contemporary purposes can lead to inspiring ways to solve problems that have existed throughout exhibition-making,” he suggested. For instance, how do you encourage the viewer to let loose within a gallery space, which is still traditionally seen as serious and rigid? In his show at Paul Kasmin, Bui built upon Bloodflames‘ original conceit — the transformation of the gallery into an “endless” visual space — by activating the floor with a raised ramp underlaid by soft hay. When the show opened, gallery visitors didn’t know they could step on both surfaces, but once they realized, they experienced the show in a fresh and tactile way, he said.

“What we gain in the end from the past depends on how we mediate it,” Bui said. “I like what de Kooning once said of art history being like a bowl of soup. You stick your hand in it and find something for yourself. But each time you take something out you must put something else back.”

The Photographic Object, 1970 was on view at Hauser & Wirth (32 E 69th Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan) from June 26 through July 25.

Other Primary Structures was on view at the Jewish Museum (1109 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) in two parts: from March 14 through May 18 and May 25 through August 3.

Bloodflames Revisited continues at Paul Kasmin Gallery (293 Tenth Ave & 515 W 27th St, Chelsea, Manhattan) through August 15.

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  • shadopeeps

    It seems that curators have let their egos get too big, and they refuse to look at and accept new artists.

  • Federico

    Don’t underestimate the economic situation, less money to spend, less exhibitions from current artists, who often have to pay by themselves their exhibits, even in greater museums

  • http://www.roberthickerson.com Robert

    I have to say that I agree that being able to see these exhibitions in person provides an opportunity to re-evaluate the works and how they came to shape the art historical canon. However, I think there is some much needed discussion regarding the amount of art historical revival that is happening. Excluding Bloodflames Revisited, the exhibitions discussed within this article show work created prior to 1980, a time when much of the art created was propelling an idea that was deemed as “true” or “pure” art (to steal the idea of Arthur C. Danto, from his book “After the End of Art”). For example, minimalists created work because they thought that art should be scaled down to essential qualities and be non-illusionistic (to put it very simply). This was before the idea that anything could be art reached the majority of the art world, when art “should be” something and “should not be” something. Now anything goes. It is no longer possible to say something isn’t art if it is regarded as so (this doesn’t mean it is automatically good art, it can be shit – sometimes literally – but it is still art). Therefore reviving an exhibition is essentially safe, because it is not the work that is questioned but rather what the curator includes. This is fine when it comes to having an exhibition within a museum. I would even argue that this is the purpose of a museum show, to re-evaluate a pre-existing ideology. The problem arises when these exhibitions happen in galleries. Galleries are essentially shops, whose purpose is to sell work and create value for both the work and the artist by doing so. With more and more gallery spaces being devoted to museological shows, contemporary galleries are only furthering already established artists’ work instead of exhibiting new work and creating new value. But creating new value is a risk. When “Attitude Becomes Form” was first exhibited in 1969, in Bern, the Swiss public were outraged and protested the show (according to Barry Barker’s 2010 review of the 1969 show in Flash Art). While a protest is not likely to happen now, galleries don’t want a failure because it will hurt them financially. This fear of risk is limiting the art world to a finite number of artists, and harming the emergence of new art and ideas.

    • punktoad

      It is time to “re-evaluate the works and how they came to shape the art historical canon.”

  • http://blog.art.com/wiki Jermaine

    It’s similar to what Hollywood is doing: re-hashing old material because it’s “safer”.

  • Tommy Freeman

    A few years back, while reviewing the Regan Louie exhibition at SFMoMA, I chanced upon
    another show at the museum titled, “Primary Matters.” I hadn’t seen any press
    for the exhibition and the banners that lined the streets of San Francisco’s
    high profile thoroughfares were not adorned with exemplary images of the
    somewhat modest show, so I was unsure of what I might see but the title
    indicated that minimalism would most certainly be the focus. Maybe I was out of
    the loop or simply not paying enough attention to what was going on in the bay
    area at the time (I live in Los Angeles), but I was unaware that SFMoMA
    associate curator Tara McDowell had developed an examination of minimalism and
    its influence on art produced in the movement’s seemingly relentless wake. Drawn
    entirely from the museum’s collection, the 28 works on display spanned roughly
    four decades, but instead of functioning as a chronologic time line, the
    exhibition was arranged thematically so as to demonstrate how many later
    artists adopted, resonated with, or appropriated minimalist strategies. Here
    the work of minimalism’s usual suspects (Judd, Andre, Serra, etc.) was found
    commingling with Jenny Holzer’s and Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s, to name a few.
    Although the exhibition was well organized and I did enjoy seeing the various
    work in relative context, as I made my way from room to room I kept asking
    myself the same questions again and again: don’t we already know this; don’t we
    now—either intuitively or through conditioning—already accept minimalist sensibilities
    as relatively common visual rhetoric? Why minimalism now?

    A few months after the close of “Primary Matters,” New York’s Guggenheim opened
    “Singular Forms (Sometimes Repeated),” quickly followed by, “A minimal
    Future? Art as Object 1958-1968,” at MOCA in Los Angeles; on the heels of that
    came, “Beyond Geometry: Experiments in Form, 1940s-70s,” at LACMA, and
    then the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego opened a show called
    “Specific Objects,” which was similar in scope and scale to
    SFMoMA’s. This museological obsession with all things minimal also extends to
    the other side of the Atlantic as indicated by the first major museum
    retrospectives of Donald Judd at London’s Tate Modern and Dan
    Flavin at the National Gallery shortly after. Individually, these exhibitions
    distinguished themselves from one another by way of slightly varied curatorial
    impetuses (or by focusing on one artist), but considered collectively one
    senses their aim is to reinvestigate and revise and in so doing reestablish
    minimalism as the most influential art event of the twentieth century. My
    intent here is not to analyze whether or not these exhibitions found their
    mark, and I am certainly not about to offer a very belated reaction to
    minimalism as I have always appreciated the reluctantly defined movement for
    challenging and—to a large extent—redefining the identity of the art object
    thus splintering the modernist trajectory and opening a dialogue for
    conceptualism. Instead I am concerned with understanding the timing of these
    shows and why they have proliferated in the 2000’s.

    Reexamination, which is code for revision, is a favorite elucidation (or justification) from
    the curators who currently champion minimalism’s newfound glory. But I can’t
    think of any post-war art moment (or culmination of moments) that has been
    examined and reexamined, either in word or in deed, more than minimalism and/or
    its often-Oedipal first born, post-minimalism. There were early attempts to
    develop critical dialogues surrounding the dendritic effects of minimalism:
    most notably, “Live In Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form” (Kunsthalle Berne and ICA London, 1966) and “Software” (Jewish Museum, New York, 1970), but these exhibitions likely followed too closely the initial shock of minimalism to lend any perspective for pedestrian
    audiences. However, looking back now, the eighties would have been an apt
    moment for reconsideration as that decade found minimalism and conceptualism
    conspiring in the recontextualized appropriations of Steinbach, Koons, Levine
    and many others. There are likely many places on the retrospective time line
    when we might have welcomed a reexamination of minimalism but what has me
    perplexed is the fact that we are now nearly 50 years beyond minimalism’s
    shocking arrival and reexamining a topic that never really disappeared but
    instead lives on as each successive generation of artists finds mileage in
    minimalism or at least its rhetorical devices.

    It may not have faded away but minimalism never really became popular either. In
    1965, roughly one year before “Primary Structures” at New York’s Jewish Museum
    (the exhibition that gathered together American and British artists working
    with simplified geometric forms and who as a group would later be dubbed
    minimalists), The Who and The Rolling Stones released, “My Generation” and
    “Satisfaction” respectively. Similar to these songs but consumed by different
    audiences, the vapid and cold forms that comprised “Primary Structures” would
    soon come to represent the conditions of anomie that were burgeoning in both
    aesthetics and public life in the late sixties. The two bands and minimalism as
    a movement would find canonic acceptance within their own realms in short
    order, however The Who and The Stones would of course become rock legends. While
    the minimalists, although never considered anything less than integral to
    expanding the scope and agendas of art and art criticism, either moved to new
    approaches (Sol LeWitt, Bruce Nauman) or continued to produce the same work
    throughout the sixties and seventies with irascible obstinacy: at times to the point of parody (Judd).

    I am comparing minimalism to rock and roll from the same era as I suspect that
    the same nostalgia that drives baby boomers to stadium rock concerts is also
    being employed to drive them to the major museums and even local exhibition venues. Under the guise of reexamination, the earlier mentioned exhibitions that draw relationships
    between minimalist art and its progeny appease the desire for new critical
    discourse, but in this case also lessen the spirit of the original project.
    This begins to feel like critical overlay for critical overlay’s sake. I
    imagine the late Tony Smith or Dan Flavin would have been honored but
    disappointed with these exhibitions in that their work, which in its time was
    at the foremost intended to be inventive and challenging, now is represented as
    the common dialect for art production. I would rather these historic
    retrospectives been sold to me as what they are: a generation securing or affirming its
    position on the cultural timeline. I would still go to see the
    exhibitions but spend less time questioning the curatorial liabilities and more
    time appreciating the objects.

  • Tommy Freeman

    A few years back, while reviewing the Regan Louie exhibition at SFMoMA, I chanced upon
    another show at the museum titled, “Primary Matters.” I hadn’t seen any press
    for the exhibition and the banners that lined the streets of San Francisco’s
    high profile thoroughfares were not adorned with exemplary images of the
    somewhat modest show, so I was unsure of what I might see but the title
    indicated that minimalism would most certainly be the focus. Maybe I was out of
    the loop or simply not paying enough attention to what was going on in the bay
    area at the time (I live in Los Angeles), but I was unaware that SFMoMA
    associate curator Tara McDowell had developed an examination of minimalism and
    its influence on art produced in the movement’s seemingly relentless wake. Drawn
    entirely from the museum’s collection, the 28 works on display spanned roughly
    four decades, but instead of functioning as a chronologic time line, the
    exhibition was arranged thematically so as to demonstrate how many later
    artists adopted, resonated with, or appropriated minimalist strategies. Here
    the work of minimalism’s usual suspects (Judd, Andre, Serra, etc.) was found
    commingling with Jenny Holzer’s and Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s, to name a few.
    Although the exhibition was well organized and I did enjoy seeing the various
    work in relative context, as I made my way from room to room I kept asking
    myself the same questions again and again: don’t we already know this; don’t we
    now—either intuitively or through conditioning—already accept minimalist sensibilities
    as relatively common visual rhetoric? Why minimalism now?

    A few months after the close of “Primary Matters,” New York’s Guggenheim opened
    “Singular Forms (Sometimes Repeated),” quickly followed by, “A minimal
    Future? Art as Object 1958-1968,” at MOCA in Los Angeles; on the heels of that
    came, “Beyond Geometry: Experiments in Form, 1940s-70s,” at LACMA, and
    then the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego will open a show called
    “Specific Objects,” which will be similar in scope and scale to
    SFMoMA’s. This museological obsession with all things minimal also extends to
    the other side of the Atlantic as indicated by the first major museum
    retrospectives of Donald Judd at London’s Tate Modern and Dan
    Flavin at the National Gallery shortly after. Individually, these exhibitions
    distinguished themselves from one another by way of slightly varied curatorial
    impetuses (or by focusing on one artist), but considered collectively one
    senses their aim is to reinvestigate and revise and in so doing reestablish
    minimalism as the most influential art event of the twentieth century. My
    intent here is not to analyze whether or not these exhibitions found their
    mark, and I am certainly not about to offer a very belated reaction to
    minimalism as I have always appreciated the reluctantly defined movement for
    challenging and—to a large extent—redefining the identity of the art object
    thus splintering the modernist trajectory and opening a dialogue for
    conceptualism. Instead I am concerned with understanding the timing of these
    shows and why they proliferated in the 2000’s.

    Reexamination, which is code for revision, is a favorite elucidation (or justification) from
    the curators who currently champion minimalism’s newfound glory. But I can’t
    think of any post-war art moment (or culmination of moments) that has been
    examined and reexamined, either in word or in deed, more than minimalism and/or
    its often-Oedipal first born, post-minimalism. There were early attempts to
    develop critical dialogues surrounding the dendritic effects of minimalism:
    most notably, “Live In Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form” (Kunsthalle Berne and ICA London, 1966) and “Software” (Jewish Museum, New York, 1970), but these exhibitions likely followed too closely the initial shock of minimalism to lend any perspective for pedestrian
    audiences. However, looking back now, the eighties would have been an apt
    moment for reconsideration as that decade found minimalism and conceptualism
    conspiring in the recontextualized appropriations of Steinbach, Koons, Levine
    and many others. There are likely many places on the retrospective time line
    when we might have welcomed a reexamination of minimalism but what has me
    perplexed is the fact that we are now more than forty years beyond minimalism’s
    shocking arrival and reexamining a topic that never really disappeared but
    instead lives on as each successive generation of artists finds mileage in
    minimalism or at least its rhetorical devices.

    It may not have faded away but minimalism never really became popular either. In
    1965, roughly one year before “Primary Structures” at New York’s Jewish Museum
    (the exhibition that gathered together American and British artists working
    with simplified geometric forms and who as a group would later be dubbed
    minimalists), The Who and The Rolling Stones released, “My Generation” and
    “Satisfaction” respectively. Similar to these songs but consumed by different
    audiences, the vapid and cold forms that comprised “Primary Structures” would
    soon come to represent the conditions of anomie that were burgeoning in both
    aesthetics and public life in the late sixties. The two bands and minimalism as
    a collective movement would find canonic acceptance within their own realms in short
    order, however The Who and The Stones would of course become rock legends. While
    the minimalists, although never considered anything less than integral to
    expanding the scope and agendas of art and art criticism, either moved to new
    approaches (Sol LeWitt, Bruce Nauman) or continued to produce the same work
    throughout the sixties and seventies with irascible obstinacy: at times to the point of parody (Judd).

    I am comparing minimalism to rock and roll from the same era as I suspect that
    the same nostalgia that drives baby boomers to stadium rock concerts is also
    being employed to drive them to the major museums or local exhibition venues. Under the guise of reexamination, the earlier mentioned exhibitions that draw relationships
    between minimalist art and its progeny appease the desire for new critical
    discourse, but in this case also lessen the spirit of the original project.
    This begins to feel like critical overlay for critical overlay’s sake. I
    imagine the late Tony Smith or Dan Flavin would have been honored but
    disappointed with these exhibitions in that their work, which in its time was
    at the foremost intended to be inventive and challenging, now is represented as
    the common dialect for art production. I would rather these historic
    retrospectives been sold to me as what they are: a generation securing its
    position on the cultural timeline. I would have still go to see the
    exhibitions but spend less time questioning the curatorial liabilities and more
    time appreciating the objects.

  • Abstract Critical

    In the various strands of my work I am involved in the work of the recent past. I think the history of modernism has a lot to teach abstract painting & sculpture now – the articles we post on http://www.abstractcritical.com stem from this basic belief (though I can see why some artists regard the past as a dead-weight, and that as in Zombie Formalism the wrong lessons can be learnt). In the research I do for my straight art historical work I get particular pleasure (as I did last week in fact) from discovering images of old installations.

    But the re-staged exhibition is a very limited way of opening up the past, a near fatal misunderstanding. I saw the When Attitudes Become Form at Venice; the reconstruction of the outside (the bloody outside!, I still can’t believe it) of Schwitters’ Merz Barn at the Royal Aacdemy’s British Sculpture show; and, still up now, the Tate’s re-hang of the surviving Malevich paintings from the Zero Ten exhibition in which he announced Suprematism. In all three instances art is reduced to an artefact, caught in its historical moment – with the suggestion it can only be understood in that moment. The restaging does not allow “time travel to the iconic moments” (a phrase straight out a cheap tourist guide) but emphasises our distance from these objects, and from these moments. All three exhibitions made me aware that what I was looking at was fake, the mask inevitably slipped. The real ‘time-travel’ (I’m sorry) happens in our direct encounter with a work a art, something that, contrary to what many presumably unseeing art historians think, happens all the time, if you look hard enough, even if it is necessarily fraught with cultural misunderstanding, unconscious reevaluations etc, etc Restaging perhaps betrays a failure on the curators’ part to really engage with and understand (visually) the objects they are charged with displaying. Relying on a past, and presumably contingent and disputed arrangements of pictures and objects, avoids the difficulties of discovering the links which the works of art contain within themselves.

    Finally can I point out that the British sculptors who showed in Primary Structures were not Minimalists, nor did they look to minimalism (if they did it was later in their careers, and only for brief moments along with a variety of other sources). As far as I can see Minimalism was a US, in fact chiefly a New York phenomenon. It was a particular local instance of the much, much broader trend in abstract sculpture (and art in general) to reduction that moved through the whole of the twentieth century in a huge variety of contexts. I have not seen the exhibition, but the suggestion, which seems to be its premise, that all these artists were Minimalists is not a way of opening up the world (as the organisers seem to think) but one in which the world is seen through a US context. This is as limiting as the restaging itself.

    Sam Cornish

    • Tommy Freeman

      Nicely put, Sam.

  • Tommy Freeman

    Sorry for the “double post” earlier. I posted as a guest and then the thread asked me to post as myself.

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