BY Matthieu Laurette in Profiles | 11 MAR 16
Featured in
Issue 178

I Remember

The artist Matthieu Laurette recalls his friendship with the curator, publisher and collector, Seth Siegelaub

BY Matthieu Laurette in Profiles | 11 MAR 16

Seth Siegelaub, 1969. Courtesy MoMA, New York, and Scala, Florence

I remember the first time I met Seth Siegelaub was in 2006 at a panel discussion moderated by frieze co-editor Jörg Heiser in a Vienna auction house. I remember we sat next to each other on vintage designer chairs that were due to be auctioned the next day. 

I remember that for me, as for so many others, Seth Siegelaub was a legend: the man who first put conceptual art on the map in the 1960s, redefining conventional definitions of what constitutes a gallerist, curator and publisher, with exhibitions such as ‘January 5–31, 1969; March 1969’ and ‘July, August, September 1969’. I remember he was also the man who decided to withdraw from the art world in 1972. I remember that, when we shook hands that day in Vienna, Seth Siegelaub wore cowboy boots and a very colourful paisley shirt. I remember thinking: ‘Wow, perhaps I missed a few chapters of conceptual art history!’ 

I remember that, immediately after the talk, I met Marja Bloem, Seth Siegelaub’s partner, who had been sitting in the audience with a big smile, snapping photographs.  

I remember that we spent the next three days together, going to dinners, parties and breakfasts.

I remember that Seth Siegelaub insisted I buy pumpkin-seed oil because, according to him, it was the one thing you had to buy in Vienna. 

I remember that, on our last morning together at breakfast, I confessed I hadn’t yet bought a bottle of pumpkin-seed oil and probably wouldn’t have time to do so before I went to the airport. 

I remember that Seth Siegelaub went immediately back to his room, came back with a bottle of pumpkin-seed oil he had bought to take back home with him, and gave it to me.

I remember that, a few weeks later, I received my first email from Seth Siegelaub and he asked: ‘Was the pumpkin-seed oil great or was it great? We brought back four bottles.’ He then added: ‘Hungary was wonderful. It’s true that you do not go hungry in Hungary, but food rather heavy […] Tomorrow we go away again; me to Istanbul for “work” to talk at a conference for a very long weekend and Marja to Libya for fun for about eleven days. Lucky her. Contact us if/when you get to Amsterdam, and we will do the same when we come to Paris.’

At the opening of 'Seth Siegelaub: Beyond Conceptual Art', I felt dizzy seeing — for the first time — almost all of his activities and products in one gallery.

I remember this email was the first in a series of many hilarious ones yet to come. I remember we met occasionally in Paris until I moved to Amsterdam a year later and then we met for dinners and birthdays and New Year celebrations.

I remember that, in 2008, when I did my project Artists’ Biopic Cinema – a multiplex film screening of artist biopics – Marja Bloem and Seth Siegelaub were the only people who watched every one of the 18 feature films I had selected. 

I remember that Marja Bloem and Seth Siegelaub both commented on how clichéd most of those movies were about art.

I remember that I once took a portrait of Seth Siegelaub standing in front of one of his quotes that was printed large on a wall at Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art in Rotterdam: ‘You have to understand what the curator does to understand in part what you are looking at in an exhibition.’

I remember that I did some public discussions with Seth Siegelaub and we decided to co-sign contracts each time stipulating: ‘There is an on-going discussion with Seth Siegelaub since 2006.’ 

I remember that frieze heard about this and asked us to discuss the legacy of conceptual art, the origins of curating and Seth Siegelaub’s last project, ‘How Art History is Made’, for the magazine’s April 2013 issue.

I remember that it was the first time I had ever dared to discuss certain things with Seth Siegelaub. 

I remember that the last time I saw Seth Siegelaub was in Amsterdam at the end of April in 2013. I remember we ate roast pork and drank nice wine after my opening at de Appel. I remember on 15 June 2013 at 6:47 pm I received an email saying: ‘Dear Friends, unexpectedly Seth died at 2:30 this afternoon here in Basel. I am devastated but it went very fast. Love, Marja.’

I remember that I gave a speech  at New York MoMA’s Memorial Tribute for Seth Siegelaub in New York on the 29 November 2013, in which all my sentences began with ‘I remember’ (which owes as much to Georges Perec as it does to Jo Brainard!). I remember that, afterwards, I took a selfie with Carl Andre and posted a group picture of Robert Barry, Joseph Kosuth, Lucy Lippard and Lawrence Weiner on Instagram. I remember I felt I had the four last heroes of conceptual art standing together in front of me. 

‘Seth Siegelaub: Beyond Conceptual Art’, installation view at Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, 2016. Courtesy Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; photograph: Gert Jan van Rooij

I remember that, at the opening of ‘Seth Siegelaub: Beyond Conceptual Art’ at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam late last year, I felt dizzy seeing – for the first time – almost all of Seth Siegelaub’s activities and products in one gallery. I remember all of the hand-woven textiles and non-Western fabrics that Seth Siegelaub had collected since the 1980s and the left-wing theory books he published in the 1970s, and the headdresses and head­gear from Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Oceania, some of which I had seen in his and Marja’s apartment; all of the documentation of the iconic exhibitions he had organized in the 1960s and early ’70s, including a life-size reconstruction of the ‘January Show’ and a sort of replica of his Madison showroom, and a section of the exhibition based on Seth Siegelaub and Robert Projansky artist’s contract, The Artist’s Reserved Rights Transfer and  Sale (1971), which was set up by Maria Eichhorn. 

I remember that most of Seth Siegelaub’s publications, whether art books from the 1960s or political texts published during his years in Paris from 1973–89, were either chained to the tables or in glass vitrines. I remember that this felt very alien to Seth Siegelaub’s thinking: but, fortunately, before he died, he had given permission to to make many of his publications available as free downloads.

I remember that I bought a reprint of Seth Siegelaub’s ‘book-as-exhibition’ Carl Andre, Robert Barry, Douglas Huebler, Joseph Kosuth, Sol LeWitt, Robert Morris, Lawrence Weiner AKA the Xerox Book (1969) at the Stedelijk Museum bookshop for €29 euros and also a vintage edition of the fourth reprint from 1991 of How to Read Donald Duck (1971) by Doorman & Mattelart for €10 euros.

I remember that, after returning to Paris, I wrote to the artist Mario Garcia-Torres: ‘Thanks again for the pink gin and tonic nightcap. I went back the day after to see the Siegelaub exhibition again and spent several  hours there: there are a lot of confusing things mixing reinterpretation / reproductions / original documents / scanned documents shown along / art works versus documentation / reproduction of original wall labels versus [Stedelijk Museum] exhibition labels / extended labels and wall text in rooms and sections where labels or wall texts are also works etc.’ I remember I spent the entire three hours and 18 minutes on the train from Amsterdam to Paris reading the 500-page exhibition catalogue, Seth Siegelaub: Beyond Conceptual Art. I remember that no train trip had ever gone by so quickly.

I remember that I couldn’t wait to return to Amsterdam so I could spend hours again in the exhibition looking at every detail of the thousands of catalogues, announcements, press releases, posters, art works, libraries, documents, art projects, photographs, notes, publications, contracts,  propaganda, archive, textiles, rugs, objects and material produced or amassed by Seth Siegelaub, unfolding in the museum like a rematerialized timeline of dematerialized art contradictions. I remember that, all the time I knew Seth Siegelaub, we hardly talked about his past or about art and I somehow felt that the man I knew was the one with the cowboy boots and the paisley shirt, not the one who stares out from black and white photographs in art books, nor the one described on the Seth Siegelaub Wikipedia page.

I remember that Seth Siegelaub always ended his emails with the words: ‘Until then or before.’

‘Seth Siegelaub: Beyond Conceptual Art’ is at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, the Netherlands, until 17 April 2016.

Matthieu Laurette is an artist who lives in Paris, France. His current projects and exhibitions include: 'Portrait de l'artiste en Alter' at Frac Haute Normandie, France (28 April - 4 September), Nuit Blanche in Monaco (29 April) and 'Tropicalize Me!', an ongoing research and exhibition project in Brazil, Mexico, and more widely in Latin America. In 2015, Laurette released Random (Demix), an artist's book published by Jannink Editions.