I am preparing an exhibition with the Herbert Foundation in Ghent, Unconcealment: Genuine Conceptualism, which will run from 20 June to November 2014. Unconcealment was the working title for the book I edited posthumously for my student Sophie Richard, Unconcealed: The International Network of Conceptual Artists 1967–77, Dealers, Exhibitions and Public Collections (2009). The title came from Martin Heidegger’s term Entborgenheit, meaning that to think is a constant and continual process of unconcealment, of digging down through half-truths.
I started my own process of Entborgenheit when Konrad Fischer came to Norwich in 1993 to select the third annual EASTinternational exhibition. We talked about the 1970s, when we drank and danced with Gilbert & George, and I asked him how he had been able to do what he did. We continued to talk until his death in 1996.
I consider conceptual art to have been a true avant-garde between 1967 and 1973. My definition of avant-garde is influenced by Donald Drew Egbert’s Social Radicalism and the Arts, Western Europe: a Cultural History from the French Revolution to 1968 (1970). Avant-garde movements are not stylistic. The connection between them is that they form in the aftermath of wars. Conceptual art was the first independent international art movement to evolve after the Second World War, in the midst of the Cold War. Nowhere was this period felt more intensely than in a divided East and West Germany. It was further intensified by the Vietnam War: a continuation of the USA’s Second World War battles with countries bordering the Pacific Ocean.
The radicalism of conceptual art has been successfully concealed by subsequent interests. The innovative primary art dealers of the late 1960s, whom I respect as being more influential at that time than their artists, have been written out of history. These dealers understood the connections between artists in different countries; they gave artists their first exhibitions outside of their native countries, networked them and included them in mixed-nationality exhibitions. I mean Konrad Fischer (Düsseldorf), Anny de Decker and Bernd Lohaus (Wide White Space, Antwerp), Heiner Friedrich (Munich/Cologne), Geert van Beijeren and Adriaan van Ravesteijn (Art & Project, Amsterdam), Nicholas Logsdail (Lisson Gallery, London), Gian Enzo Sperone (Turin), Ileana Sonnabend, Yvon Lambert (both Paris), Paul Maenz (Cologne) and Fernand Spillemaeckers (MTL, Brussels). In my introduction to Unconcealed …, I concentrated on an analysis of the sales of their artists’ work to museums. Since then I have been thinking about these primary dealers as the real intelligence behind Conceptual art.
Political geography is one way to look at the list of exhibitions Fischer prepared for his interview with Georg Jappe in Studio International February 1971. He gave his artists’ nationalities: eight German, 13 US, six British, one Dutch, one French, one Italian and one Belgian. The list is almost a reflection of the role those countries played in NATO at the time.
In the interview Fischer defined his job as repairing the damage of war: ‘To get artists over here, and to bring them into contact with those who live here. When I was an artist everything was so far away; Warhol, Lichtenstein and all those were unattainable great men. But when you know them, you can have a beer with them and get rid of your inferiority complex… Palermo and Richter, for example, two of the German artists who have exhibited with me, have now been to New York, and they felt at home there because they had already met artists like Andre and LeWitt over here.’1
The first mixed-nationality exhibition Fischer organised was Prospect 68. Internationale Vorschau auf die Kunst in den Galerien der Avantgarde (Prospect 68: International Preview of the Art in the Galleries of the Avant-garde) at Kunsthalle Dusseldorf, 20–29 September 1968. It was the first truly international exhibition of Conceptual art in Europe. Just a year previously the first edition of the Köln Kunstmarkt in 1967 was comprised entirely of German galleries. So why has Prospect 68 been so little discussed?
For Prospect 68, Fischer worked with Hans Strelow and invited 16 galleries from eight countries, ‘chosen by an independent committee’. The galleries selected the artists and paid all their own costs, transport and artists expenses. Prospect 68 offered the galleries cheaper access to the Kunstmarkt collectors. The galleries were: Apollinaire (Milan); Robert Fraser, John Kasmin and Axiom (Nigel Greenwood) (London); Bruno Bischofberger and Renée Ziegler (Zurich); Lambert, Sonnabend, Matthias Fels and Iris Clert (Paris); Virginia Dwan (New York); Galleria Del Naviglio (Milan/Venice); Sperone (Turin); Riekje Swart (Amsterdam); Wide White Space (Antwerp) and M. E. Thelen (Essen). The artists included among others: Giovanni Anselmo, Joseph Beuys, Alighiero Boetti, René Brô, Marcel Broodthaers, Pier Paolo Calzolari, Christo, Ad Dekkers, Walter de Maria, Gerald Laing, David Lamelas, John Latham, Bernd Lohaus, Mario Merz, Robert Morris, Bruce Nauman, Blinky Palermo, Panamarenko, Reiner Ruthenbeck, Bernar Venet and Gilberto Zorio.
Arnold Bode’s 4. documenta preceded Prospect 68 by only a few months. Of the 151 Documenta artists, five were connected to the Conceptual network: Andre (who had shows at Dwan and Konrad Fischer in 1967 and Heiner Friedrich in 1968); Donald Judd and Robert Morris (who showed with Alfred Schmela in 1964); Bruce Nauman, Sol LeWitt (who showed with Dwan in 1966/67 and Konrad Fischer and Bischofberger 1968). The five were all US Minimalist sculptors. Fischer did not travel to the USA until late 1968. His US contacts were through Kasper König who also worked for Pontus Hultén in Stockholm. To coincide with 4. documenta the directors of Wide White Space, Anny de Decker and Bernd Lohaus, organized a parallel exhibition for their European artists in two rooms at the Parkhotel Kassel. They showed Beuys, Christo, Manzoni, Panamarenko and Broodthaers.
In 1968 there were anti-US demonstrations at the 35th Venice Biennale and 4. documenta. And the political climate of the time was also mirrored at Prospect 68. Included in the show by Sonnabend was Mario Merz’s Giap’s Igloo (1968) that he made specially for the Dusseldorf exhibition. The neon lettering in Italian quotes the North Vietnamese General Võ Nguyên Giáp: ‘Se il nemico si concentra perde terreno se il nemico si disperde perde forza’ (‘If the enemy masses his forces, he loses ground. If he scatters, he loses force’). Documentation of the exhibition shows clearly that Prospect 68 brought together work that would dominate the following decades. Photographs show Harald Szeemann at the opening. Nigel Greenwood encouraged Charles Harrison to go.
Why then has Prospect 68 never been properly celebrated? The reason must be that it was an exhibition conceived by a dealer. The avoidance started early. I remember saying to Fischer that I had not been able to get to Dusseldorf for Prospect / Retrospect: Europa 1946–1976 and he replied: ‘It was not an exhibition for grown-ups. It was an exhibition for children.’ He was hurt. The organisers, Benjamin Buchloh and John Matheson produced a survey of ‘Europa 1946–1976’. In effect it served to conceal the work of Fischer and Strelow on Prospect 1968, 1969, 1971 and 1973.
A month after Prospect 68, Fischer went to the Arte Povera + Azioni Povere opening at the Arsenale in Amalfi.2 The multi-venue 2011 recreation in Italy did not mention the links to northern Europe that led to the international reception of Arte Povera. Researching Prospect 68, I found references in several places to Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form in Bern as 1968, instead of 1969 – even in artists’ CVs. Is it just a long time ago or is something else going on? It seems unfair that credit is still not being paid to the dealers who pulled all the threads together, not only for the artists, but also for all the curators, critics, theorists, bureaucrats, secondary dealers and money men who followed in their wake.
Harald Szeemann gave a lecture for the annual International Association of Curators of Contemporary Art (IKT) congress at the Lyon Biennale 2003 about When Attitudes Become Form. He talked about the ICA showing in London. I approached him in the bar afterwards and told him that I worked at the ICA on When Attitudes Become Form in August 1969. I said to Szeemann that I remembered he arrived on the evening of the opening just in time to make his speech at the glamorous event sponsored by Philip Morris cigarettes, and that the person who really installed the exhibition was Fischer, who, as a dealer, was not credited. Szeemann was embarrassed and his only reaction was ‘Ah, Konrad’. Szeemann’s comment also reflects the fact that though Fischer and Klaus Honnef would curate the ‘Idee/Idea’ section of his documenta 5 in 1972, it was given only a small part of the catalogue. It was that section, installed in the main rooms of the Fridericianum, which created the profound impact of documenta 5.
The first time I picked up an international phone call was in the ICA office during the installation of When Attitudes Become Form. It was from Germany, for Fischer. Charles Harrison who organized the show was busy teaching for Anthony Caro at St. Martin’s School of Art, and he was also assistant editor at Studio International. Fischer was staying with Harrison in Islington, where there was a party after the opening at the ICA. It was Fischer who enjoyed sharing the ICA gallery office with the installation team and myself. He worked morning to night every day. Fischer’s archive contains letters from early 1969 from Szeemann asking for contact addresses and phone numbers in New York, and letters from Charles Harrison asking for advice for the ICA showing. The boys who installed the show in London became the regular roadies for The Rolling Stones making When Attitudes Become Form at the ICA one of the great confluences of contemporary culture that are only made in heaven.
1 Studio International February 1971, pp. 68–71
2 See Lara Conte’s paper, From Arte Povera più azioni povere to When Attitudes Become Form. 1968–69. Mario Merz’s work in group shows and his first international connections (2011)