This exhibition devoted to Zurich photographer, publicist, artist and teacher Serge Stauffer (1929–89) adds Stauffer’s name to the list of formerly marginal figures who are periodically deemed worthy to annex to the mainstream art world. Serge Stauffer – Kunst als Forschung presents a nonconformist who explored the boundaries among teaching, theory and praxis. Stauffer was more than a local Zurich figure; his name is familiar to anyone in the German-speaking world with an interest in Marcel Duchamp. Before he selected and translated texts for the exhibition Dokumentation über Marcel Duchamp curated by Max Bill at Zurich’s Museum of Applied Arts in 1960, he was in close contact with the artist and was among the first to publish his notes and documents. In its layout and presentation of the material, the book of Duchamp’s writings that he co-edited with Theo Ruff in 1981, Marcel Duchamp. Die Schriften, is still among the most beautiful books ever published.
It is no surprise, then, that the contemporary art faculty at Zurich’s University of the Arts has been working for some time to make publicly accessible the estate of its former lecturer (Stauffer was dismissed in 1970). At first glance, and in spite of its chronological museum-style approach, this extensive show, including drawings, books, installations and all manner of other things, felt agreeably fresh. The first room focused on Stauffer’s beginnings as a young photographer and theorist – the title of the 21-year-old’s surrealist pen and ink drawing il arrivera toujours trop tard (he’ll always come too late, 1950) echoed the tone of the post-war years – and documented in letters, sketches and works on paper his friendships with Duchamp and the writer and graphic artist André Thomkins, two years Stauffer’s junior. In the next room, visitors were invited to participate, interacting with 216 cubical seats based on jardin public (public garden), a combination game developed by Stauffer in 1960. Stauffer’s own work, mainly autographs, photographic works and collages, was shown alongside works by others, including his wife Doris, whose das patriarchale panoptikum (the patriarchal panopticon, 1975) offered insights into disturbing miniature worlds in eight wooden boxes with spy holes. Others included contemporaries like Roman Signer, with Querschnitt durch einen Sandkegel (Cross-section of a sand cone, 1973), and filmmaker Georg Radanowicz, as well as Stauffer students like Ruedi Bechtler with his wooden stele Sensitizer (1975). The wealth of material on show was impressive, but unfortunately, the show did not sufficiently contextualize Stauffer’s often participatory works that were rooted in his artistic milieu.
In 1970, the rebellious spirit of 1968 reached Zurich and its academy of applied arts. Because of their unconventional teaching methods, Stauffer and fellow lecturers (including Hansjörg Mattmüller) were forced to leave, prompting them, in 1971, to found the F+F School of Art and Media Design as an alternative to conformist educational institutions. The school still exists today. Fluxus strategies and multimedia design were on the curriculum alongside courses on the women’s movement and men’s liberation. But the documents, objects, photographs, slides and films from these years in the exhibition were presented on plain wooden walls and hung close together without frames, in a seeming attempt to imitate the zeitgeist of the time, one that made them appear old-fashioned and distant. In their triviality, more recent works by Stauffer’s pupils and students from the F+F School, some made specially for the show, only made this distance more painfully evident. Questioning the value of art, as in the F+F project Fair Value (2010) with its contrasting of verbose art theorists and taciturn diagrams, does not necessarily add any artistic value. This came as no great surprise when the curators not only lacked Stauffer’s pronounced sense of passion and accuracy – the work descriptions were often incomplete and not always correct – but also imposed their museum format so strictly as to drive out his creative sense. In the age of institutionalized ‘artistic research’, Stauffer’s call for ‘art as research’, once intended as a polemical concept, becomes part of the hollow phraseology of the Bologna Process.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell