BY David A. Greene in Reviews | 01 SEP 96
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Issue 26

1965-1975: Reconsidering the Object of Art

BY David A. Greene in Reviews | 01 SEP 96

Historicising conceptualism is an arduous task, and heretofore a largely untried one. This is due to the movement's slippery origins as a series of separate art events, spurred on by anything from politics to personal crises, as well as its current status as an unregulated yet monolithic pseudo-science. '1965-1975: Reconsidering the Object of Art' is an exhibition that tries. The expansive show of 55, mostly European and American, artists is curated by MoCA's Ann Goldstein and Anne Rorimer, and is housed in the museum's newly re-opened auxiliary exhibition space known as the Temporary Contemporary - a Frank Gehry-renovated warehouse semiotically appropriate for a celebration of high-culture, nuts-and-bolts intellectual tinkering. Arranged neither chronologically nor thematically, 'Reconsidering...' reveals its curatorial thrust instead through those branches of the proto-conceptual delta it chooses to follow. In general, it samples the pivotal moments in artists' thought when it was deemed that art could - or should - be something more than a pretty picture. While such epiphanies have transpired several times in Europe over the past century, the years of the show's title focus on a period in the US when a disillusion with Minimalism, political upheavals, and European theoretical influences spawned a restless new kind of art.

The show's title is also somewhat sly, implying that the artists included once reconsidered both the making of art objects and the aims of visual art itself. They did, of course, but what is so carefully avoided is a more accurate, albeit limiting, label: A Selected History of Conceptual Art. This is because the popular notion of conceptualism is universally derided by experts in the field, who, though they all have their preferred alternatives, agree that the term itself is a vulgarity which must be broken down into specific subsets and working principles to mean anything at all. To that end, the complexly flawed 'Reconsidering...' proffers an idiosyncratic reading of the genre's history even as it offers up wholesale one of the biggest myths of conceptualism's legacy - that there's no such thing as bad art.

The result is a text-intensive roller-coaster ride from famous to obscure, adventurous to tepid, and entertaining to dry. In keeping with its theme of experimentation, the show often relies on the earliest pieces of an artist's conceptual oeuvre, like floor sculptures by Mel Bochner and text paintings by John Baldessari. There are also several occasionally poignant post mortems of artists and sub-movements which didn't quite make it out of the 70s alive, figuratively (Art & Language) or literally (Bas Jan Ader). This tack results in some odd ironies, when one considers that many of the still-working artists in the show owe their mature success to more traditional themes and methods influenced by conceptualism's advances, while those who have passed on or who have become largely dormant (e.g. Robert Smithson, Michael Asher) would probably not have acquiesced to being summarised here by discrete, portable objects while in their feisty prime. Such are the pitfalls of historical exhibitions, which is why other seemingly avoidable contradictions in 'Reconsidering...' are more disturbing.

While it appears that a curatorial decision was made not to recreate performance or action-oriented artworks (displaying relics instead), we are still faced with Tom Marioni's The Act of Drinking Beer with Friends is the Highest Form of Art (1970), which remakes and transposes a piece by the San Francisco artist (involving the dispensing of libations to gallery-goers), and a city-wide resurrection of Daniel Buren's striped bus benches. Meanwhile, Vito Acconci's seminal early work, represented only by a wall of black and white photos and text, is stuck over in a dark corner by the toilets; nearby is a similar arrangement from Gilbert and George. That Acconci wasn't hauled out of retirement to masturbate under a ramp, nor the British duo asked to sing a song, yet Hans Haacke got to protest petulantly against the sponsorship of 'Reconsidering...' by tobacco giant Philip Morris (a typed petition is appended to Haacke's 1971 artwork, which nevertheless remains in the show) is at best unfair; at worst it implies curatorial favouritism in the service of history-making.

This revelation occurs only in retrospect, however, since no ostensible attempt is otherwise made to arrange the art and artist into a hierarchy, either with didactic labels or in the alphabetised catalogue. Everyone's contribution to the movement may be considered equal in the exhibition's official view, but this is accomplished in practice only by consciously restricting the works of some artists and puffing up those of others, who, left to their own devices, might prove feeble or historically minor. The popularly held tenet of conceptualism - that no one person's ideas can be considered better or more valid than another's (only more perfectly realised and rhetorically precise) - has been proven wrong, repeatedly, over the years by an alternative chestnut which dictates that artists are always better (and worse) than the movements which define them. This cycle is demonstrated through the unshakeably odd selection and arrangement of artwork in 'Reconsidering...'.

Beyond such petty intrigues, what surfaces in the exhibition is what's still fresh and what's still funny - a sense of humour being perhaps the greatest and most useful legacy of early conceptualism. Unlike activist art or theoretical illustration, this punning art is not tied to history - similar investigations were played out decades before by the Dadaists and Futurists, just as they are today in art schools. The common denominator is a desire to try things out, and to bite convention, intelligently, in the ass; William Wegman's video self-portraits, both with and without his late Wiemaraner, in which visual and verbal puns, media and social archetypes are literally tried on for size; James Coleman's Slide Piece (1972-73), a huge, dark room dominated by a snapshot of an unremarkable city street, accompanied by a bellowing, imperious voice going on - and on, and on - about the photo's chromatic and compositional minutiae; and Ed Ruscha's Chocolate Room (1970/95), a gallery wallpapered with deliciously aromatic screen prints. The contemporary date in Ruscha's case indicates that the work has not been refurbished, but diminished: the original, installed at the 1970 Venice Biennale, was reportedly infested with houseflies.

Throughout much of the show a youthful, almost naive intellectual energy is palpable, adding a warm nostalgic glow to rooms full of black and white text. This bright note is tempered, however, by the sombre realisation that radical art has for the most part gone the way of radical politics: The Establishment always wins, and dissenters inevitably succumb, die off, or retreat to the golden ghettos of academe. But despite the mangling of their work's intent and import by agenda-driven experts, some important artists have not faded away - and that may be one of the two greatest revelations in 'Reconsidering...'. The other is that with this historical exhibition, young artists and students are finally allowed to rebel against institutionalised conceptualism, until now the undead poster boy of avant-garde art education.