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.”
“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.”
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.