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Issue 121

Salon to Biennial: Exhibitions That Made Art History, Volume 1: 1863­–1959

Bruce Altshuler et al. (eds.) (Phaidon, London and New York, 2008)

BY Alex Farquharson in Culture Digest | 12 MAR 09

Work by Kasimir Malevich in the exhibition '0.10 - The Last Futurist Exhibition of Pictures', Petrograd, 1915. Courtesy: Charlotte Douglas.

Salon to Biennial: Exhibitions That Made Art History is an ambitious undertaking in two volumes, assembled by Bruce Altshuler and Phaidon. The first volume, a weighty cadmium red object, is now out. It joins other recent publishing projects that open the archives on key aspects of 20th-century exhibition history: notably The Power of Display (1999), by Mary Anne Staniszewski (on exhibition design at the Museum of Modern Art, New York), 50 Jahre/Years Documenta (2005) and the colossal catalogue raisonné of Harald Szeemann’s exhibitions published in 2004. Building on Phaidon’s ‘Themes and Movements’ series, Salon to Biennial is the most wide-ranging and mainstream of these publications. Volume One covers 24 exhibitions.

Altshuler’s The Avant-Garde in Exhibition: New Art in the 20th Century (1994), now sadly out of print, was ahead of this curve. The experience of the legendary exhibitions it covers was palpably re-invoked: readers could easily feel they were in the shoes of those who had actually witnessed them; the distancing effects of art history and museumification were made to fade away. That book ends in 1969, and a follow-up has been rumoured for some time; we can now expect the second volume of Salon to Biennial, which will begin with the 1960s, to redress this.

The aim of Salon to Biennial is to offer direct access to archives normally consulted by professionals only: the bulk of its material consists of installation shots, reproductions of catalogues and publicity material, statements by its organizers and several reviews (ranging from the sympathetic to the vituperative). Consequently, Altshuler’s words – consistently insightful and measured – are restricted to the essentials (some readers will wish Altshuler had given himself more interpretative licence). Beginning 42 years – but only three exhibitions – before The Avant-Garde in Exhibition, Salon to Biennial is essentially a 20th-century narrative whose way is paved by ‘Salon des Réfusés’, the Impressionists’ break with the official Salon in 1863. Volume One wisely leaves the reader on the brink of the 1960s, with ‘The New American Painting’ (1959) ­­– Abstract Expressionism’s (and New York’s) supposed triumph over Europe – acting as a cliff-hanger.

More often than not, exhibitions are selected for the central role they played in ushering in key avant-garde tendencies, even if the original circumstances were touchingly modest (we learn that ‘The First Brücke Exhibition’ was held in a Dresden lighting shop, for example). As Altshuler notes, a subtext to the survey is the primary role played by artists themselves in the organization of exhibitions, a phenomenon that diminishes with the increased institutionalization and commercialization of the avant-garde in the 1960s. Some exhibitions are selected for the impact they would have on the reception of modern art in a given country, such as ‘Manet and the Post-Impressionists’ in London (1910) or ‘The Armory Show’ in New York (1913). Others are included because of the spectacularly innovative way works were installed, notably the ‘Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme’ (1938) in Paris, or, by contrast, in the case of Alfred Barr’s ‘Cubism and Abstract Art’ (1936) at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, because it established the normative template for exhibitions of modern and contemporary art which survives to our day.

A survey like this inevitably brings to mind its omissions – my own would be the ‘Beethoven Exhibition’ at the Vienna Secession in 1902 – but given its range, the selection is resilient to this game. Salon to Biennial admirably returns its users to the contestations and precariousness of the front line of art history. Its virtue, as well as its limitation, is that the in-depth interpretative work on those archives is left for others to do elsewhere.