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|a royal flush special:
the avant-garde in exhibition
by Charlie Finch
Longtime director of the Isamu Noguchi Museum in Long Island City, i.e., Queens, New York, Bruce Altshuler has been a specialist at reconsidering the avant-garde movements of previous artistic eras.
Articles such as his recent reconsideration of the Nabis in Art in America typify Altshuler's admiration for groups of artists in history moving from powerlessness to power by pushing the culture 'til it screams "uncle."
Altshuler's enthusiasm culminates in an extraordinary book, The Avant-Garde in Exhibition: New Art in the 20th Century, just out in an expanded, oversized paperback edition from the University of California Press. (As we go to press, Altshuler has been appointed director of studies for Christie's education department.)
In the following interview, one can readily discern why SoHo sage Arthur Danto describes Bruce as "stimulating, informative and wise."
Finch: Let's begin with an empty gallery: Yves Klein's 1958 "Le Vide" show, in Paris.
Altshuler: At Galerie Iris Clert. Arman proposed filling the gallery with garbage as a counter exhibition! Iris initially said "no," but relented two years later. Klein's judo experts, who guarded him at the opening, were actually his judo students -- Klein himself earned his black belt in Japan many years before, and supported himself by teaching judo. The gallery was not really empty, so much as a continuation of the spirit of Klein's blue paintings.
Finch: Still it couldn't match the tumult over the Fauves, the first chapter in your book. Matisse was burned in effigy in Chicago!
Altshuler: At the 1905 Salon d'Automne, the Fauves were grouped in a single room, known as "La Cage Centrale" -- the Center Cage. The critic Vauxcelles, who was sympathetic, described himself as "Donatello amidst the Wild Beasts." The most controversial painting was Matisse's Woman with a Hat -- his wife actually owned a hat store -- it's bursting with color.
That's one purpose of the book, to show how paintings we now regard as classic were once revolutionary.
Finch: Things took a stranger turn with the Blaue Reiter exhibition (Munich, 1911).
Altshuler: It was organized by Kandinsky, as well as Franz Marc, who died in World War I. For them, the enemy was 19th-century materialism, which caused the great war -- they wanted to move into spiritualism.
Finch: Kandinsky's spiritualism later got him banned by the Suprematists.
Altshuler: His spiritualism led him to the Bauhaus, away from Russia to which he had returned in 1918 -- it caused problems with Malevich and others.
The last Futurist show, "0-10," in 1915 (Petrograd) may have featured a fistfight between Malevich and Tatlin, at the opening, though I've been unable to confirm it. Both artists were moving towards a reductive abstraction that was essentially about materials. They were very competitive with each other.
Finch: Malevich's White on White was mocked, wasn't it?
Altshuler: Rodchenko had painted Black on Black to mock Malevich, who wanted Rodchenko to betray Tatlin.
Finch: These artists took great political risks.
Altshuler: The Berlin Dadaists in 1920 were protesting politics directly -- the murder of Rosa Luxembourg, the chaos of the Weimar Republic. They are best known for developing collaborative photomontage, attacking the traditional way in which art is created, the model of the individual genius, working alone. They mocked a lot of classic work, as well.
The show produced one of the most famous group portraits, of the Berlin Dadaists -- in the center of the photo is something called "The Prussian Archangel," which was a stuffed figure of a German officer made by Rudolf Schlichter and John Heartfield with the face of a pig and a sign around its neck, saying "Hung by the Revolution."
There were political slogans on the wall, mocking Weimar for the misery in Germany. It's an installation that shouts out political aggressions.
Finch: I've often been called a vicious writer, but not as vicious as Andre Breton at the International Surrealist Exhibition (1938, in Paris), who wore a sign, saying that the people attending the show were "idiots."
Altshuler: That was at a Dada event in Paris, after Dada moved from Zurich. Picabia made the sign which essentially said, "in order to look at a work of art, you have to see it over and over again, you idiots" -- and the audience consisted of eminent figures in the art world at the time. It insulted the former avant-garde, who had become established, throwing the success back in their faces.
The central piece of the Surrealist Show was Hans Bellmer's La Poupée, the abused and disfigured doll -- also Dali's taxis filled with mannikins, one had the head of a shark, another a strange wig and eyeglasses, and Dali covered them with snails eating lettuce. It was even raining inside the taxi!
It was recreated at the 1939 New York World's Fair -- this was the beginning of an international crossing of objects on both sides of the Atlantic. A number of the Paris Surrealist objects had previously been in MoMA's "Fantastic Art: Dada and Surrealism," had been at the Burlington Galleries in London.
There was a lot of publicity, self-promotion and so many people at the opening that a riot ensued. As the show was opening, Nazi planes were bombing Valencia for Franco. Dali had become extremely conservative, and during the show the Surrealists ostracized him for his right-wing views.
Finch: Let's move closer to our own time -- the 1966 "Primary Structures" show at the Jewish Museum in New York.
Altshuler: The Jewish Museum, in the '50s and '60s, served as the radical "Kunsthalle" of the New York art scene. Kynaston McShine went to the Jewish Museum from MoMA, and later returned to MoMA -- he put together the show, which is now thought of as the first Minimal art exhibition, even though it included a lot of work by British students of Anthony Caro, who were not primarily reductive, the way Judd is. Their work was highly colored and form-filled.
The show also included work from the Park Place group, around Paula Cooper, later a pioneer dealer in SoHo and now Chelsea -- artists like David von Schlegell, Ronnie Bladen, Sal Romano, Peter Fourakis. These artists were creating Abstract Expressionistic impulses through sculptural means.
Finch: Many have forgotten Ronald Bladen's Three Elements -- why was it so controversial?
Altshuler: Because of its drama -- it was up in the MoMA garden for a long time -- it's three hard-edged elements at an angle. They made an edition of three -- at the time, the work was proclaimed as anti-commercial, no one would ever buy it -- of course, all three were bought by museums!
Finch: One strange anecdote you tell is that President Woodrow Wilson sent former President Teddy Roosevelt to the Armory Show (New York, 1913) to be his personal art critic!
Altshuler: Roosevelt was a friend of the muralist, "Sheriff" Bob Chandler. Teddy compared Wilhelm Lehmbruck's Kneeling Woman (now at MoMA) to a praying mantis. The Armory Show was organized by American Artists to promote American art -- but it had the opposite effect.
Walt Kuhn, a painter, was sent by the Armory Committee to Cologne in 1912, to observe the Sonderbund Exhibition, featuring 125 van Goghs, 25 Gauguins. He brought a lot of this work back and it became the focus of the Armory Show. Duchamp's own brothers begged him not to exhibit Nude Descending a Staircase, the most famous piece in the show, which later went on tour.
Matisse's Blue Nude was ridiculed -- the vice squad wrote a report saying the picture had "only four toes." Brancusi was ridiculed with the question, "Is it an egg or a woman?" ARTnews had a contest, challenging people to find the nude descending in Duchamp's picture, and the prize was won by someone who claimed it was a man, not a woman!
The organizers hired a publicist, published 50,000 catalogues, a set of promotional postcards, and by the end of the Armory Show, the place was jammed.
Finch: Let's discuss the 9th Street show (New York, 1951) featuring Jackson Pollock.
Altshuler: Philip Pavia organized the show out of the Club, which met on Wednesdays internally and on Fridays for public lectures. They met on 8th Street and found an empty storefront on 9th Street, and the artists organized theior own show, which led to conflicts! Leo Castelli, before he had his own gallery, was a member of the Club. He was one of the show's organizers. Castelli said, "I have hung the show 20 times. Everytime I hung it, an artist would come in and demand a change."
One of the things the book shows is a movement from artists organizing their own shows to shows put together by impresarios. As advanced art became more and more accepted, the artists themselves lost control over the way in which it was exhibited.
Finch: One impresario was Seth Siegelaub, who organized the 1969 office show, the first Conceptualist show.
Altshuler: Siegelaub introduced the idea of the catalogue as the exhibition. Robert Barry "exhibited" radio waves, Lawrence Weiner, whose work is about a set of directions, "showed" bleach poured on a carpet, in this abandoned office building. He also exhibited a 36 x 36 in. square of plaster removed from the wall.
Joseph Kosuth showed newspapers -- he would have dictionary definitions of abstract terms published, and then exhibit the newspapers. Douglas Huebler documented a road trip, every 50 miles. The Siegelaub show was a good closer for the book, because it's a point at which attitudes become form.
This was an anti-commercial show, but it was funded by Philip Morris Europe -- a harbinger of conditions today!
CHARLIE FINCH is the New York editor of Coagula Art Journal and has coauthored the forthcoming Most Art Sucks from Smart Art Press.