Exhibition curator Glenn Phillips speaks on the Fondazione Prada’s restaging Harald Szeemann's infamous 1969 show for Document's Fall/Winter 2013 issue.
Scandal is a dying art, particularly in art circles, where the word sounds about as credible as saying avant-garde or beautiful. Wondering, in part, “whether or how art can be political and disruptive today,” Miuccia Prada, together with Germano Celant, curator of the megabrand’s eponymous art foundation, has set out with her latest exhibition to recall a moment when art could scandalize and, it seems, raise a convincing fist to history. Prada’s exhibition team, which includes artist Thomas Demand, architect Rem Koolhaas and his firm OMA, has resurrected a now-mythic, once scandalous show that spanned but a few weeks in the spring of 1969 at the Kunsthalle in Bern, Germany: “Live in Your Head. When Attitudes Become Form,” conceived and organized by the equally mythic curator Harald Szeemann.
Key to this scandal’s reconstruction has been Glenn Phillips, project specialist and consulting curator in the Department of Architecture and Contemporary Art at the Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles, which has managed the prodigious Szeemann archive since 2011. Szeemann, who died in 2005, was not interested in the kind of art that is easy to buy and sell, or, for that matter, store, preserve and reinstall. The 1969 exhibition that he assembled in record time from a grab bag of the most novel rate paver, conceptual, process, performance and land art happening at the time, left a messy trail. Luckily for Phillips, who has focused on nontraditional media like video and digital art, the ephemeral work that emerged in the ’60s and ’70s is familiar ground where documentary evidence can outlast or even outshine the original work of art.
Out of sundry documents, letters, photos, scribbles and sketches, Prada’s newly minted show builds a moment outside of time, grafting a life-size replica of the Kunsthalle interiors as they were laid out by Szeemann inside the 18th-century salons of Ca’ Corner della Regina, the foundation’s temporary galleries in Venice. Like the chill that accompanies Demand’s fastidious yet featureless reconstructions, “When Attitudes Become Form: Bern 1969/Venice 2013,” spooks with the magnetism of a perfect wax dummy. That illusion requires a great deal of forensic skill, as Phillips testifies. For Document, he helps step us into the Prada Foundation’s latest cultural laboratory.
Alex de Looz: Why did the Prada foundation feel that now is the right time to revive this show?
Glenn Phillips: It happened 44 years ago and many people still talk about it, but almost no one actually saw it then—certainly fewer people saw it than said they saw it. [Many saw it when it traveled to the ICA, London, where Charles Harrison was the curator.] There are few left alive who saw it then and there. Germano Celant and Mrs. Prada talked about it, and the more they talked about it, the more enthusiastic they got. So they asked, Could you do it again? Could you actually redo it? It was a provocative idea. They researched how many of the works they could track down and reached out to the Getty because so much of the research material is here—photos, all the correspondence and the sketches too. But the portion of the archive where the exhibition material might be was not catalogued yet. I had to unpack boxes that weren’t ready to be unpacked. I had to drop everything. On day one it became clear how many discoveries we were going to make.
Alex: What did the archive reveal about the conventional history of the show?
Glenn: Things were different than we had thought, looking at the photos and the checklist, despite everything that’s been written about it. For example, if you shipped all the art works that appeared in the catalog checklist of 1969, you’d have the wrong show. There were so many mistakes because what ended up being installed was different from what had been printed in the catalog. There were things you thought in the end were not in the show, like William Wiley’s sculpture Wizdumb. We couldn’t find it anywhere, in any of the pictures. The associate curator at Prada, Mario Manetti, a couple weeks before the opening, made a discovery. Robert Morris had a piece where every day you add more oil rags and other flammable material to a pile in the gallery. Mario realized Wiley’s piece was in the middle of Robert Morris’ oil-soaked rags! Photos of that pile show all these people smoking around it. It’s crazy! Can you imagine asking an artist today to place his work in the middle of a pile of oil-soaked rags? The show kept getting more radical and we were constantly shocked at the things we were finding.
Alex: Is this restaging actually a different show?
Glenn: If you look at the title of the show, “Bern 1969/Venice 2013”: They wanted to acknowledge that the show is in both places at the same time. They wanted to acknowledge that you couldn’t bring 1969 back, even if you got every single artwork back in Bern. The times have changed. That’s why the decision was made to lay the Bern plan of the Kunsthalle on top of the Venetian palazzo and let the baroque walls burst through where they do. All of a sudden it’s Bern walls, Bern windows, Bern radiators, a crazy detailed reconstruction, and then a Venetian mural pokes through with all its architectural flourishes. It reminds us where we are and makes it contemporary. The scandal of the original show is long gone, so it’s good to have something else that can be a little provocative. Otherwise you are in the danger of walking into a dollhouse.
Alex: What do you think today’s audience sees in it?
Glenn: For curators, it’s like going to see the Mona Lisa for the first time. It’s that same strangeness of seeing something that you’ve only seen in pictures for the first time. “When Attitude Becomes Form” was a foundational show. It brought together European and American strands of post-minimalism and arte povera, also together with land and conceptual art. No one had put that explosion of activity, that amazing jumble, which was, in fact, happening right then, all together. Szeemann did the show so damn fast. He was flying around, seeing and selecting art, and that was key to the exhibition. It took everyone by surprise. You might have seen everything in New York, but you would not have known what was happening in Italy. And if you had been to Italy and New York, you probably didn’t know the Dutch component.
Alex: It sounds prescient of the Art Fair system that is displacing both museums and galleries today.
Glenn: It’s the model that every international curator has been trying to follow ever since: Who can be the best at being at everywhere at once and finding the best of wherever they go, and bringing it back to where they work? That’s what still happens now, just on a scale that never could have been imagined. Szeemann managed to do it best. By the end of his life he was taking 300 flights a year.
“It reminds us where we are and makes it contemporary. The scandal of the original show is long gone, so it’s good to have something else that can be a little provocative. Otherwise you are in the danger of walking into a dollhouse.”
Alex: What are you hoping the audience takes away?
Glenn: What struck me the most is that Prada, for the most part, was able to install the exhibit the original way: Sculptures are directly on the ground, not on pedestals or covered by Plexiglas. They are also pretty close to each other. That’s something that is a miracle. There’s a cap to the number of people that can be on the floor and there are copious guards and several are assigned to a work of art. But the immediacy is amazing. You don’t see work from that period displayed like this. We at the Getty are really proud to have been part of it.
Alex: How did the archive end up at the Getty?
Glenn: Nothing had been arranged after Szeemann died. It took a while before the family was ready to think about where this material would go. One of the most important research collections for 20th-century art anywhere in the world needed to go somewhere. There were a number of institutions that were interested. But part of the problem is that the archive is very large. It’s a kilometer long, laid out end to end. It stretches even the Getty, one of the largest research institutes in the world, to its limits, not just in terms of storage but also for the material and human resources required to catalog, conserve and manage the collection. The family weighed their options very carefully and they chose to sell it to the Getty.
Alex: How does something like this, which in a way has an unknown value, get a price tag?
Glenn: There’s no way with an archive this size that you could go page by page, or item by item, and come up with a value. The art market when dealing with individual works of art is one thing, but when dealing with research material, it’s about the legacy. The archive was the main thing Szeemann left his wife, so there had to be a monetary value placed on it, but the family’s concern was never about getting the highest possible price. They were interested to hear how we would treat it, how we would store it, how soon it would be available to researchers, how fast it could be cataloged, what other activities we could do with it. They were interested in what the ongoing commitment of the institution would be. The price in a way was a minor component. The bigger commitment for us, as an institution, was how to net the resources to care for the archive.
Alex: You’ve made the point that Szeemann somewhat prophetically blurred the distinction between the art object and everything else around it, the personal, curatorial, cultural and commercial footnotes that underlie any work of art. Do you have discussions about what in the archive might actually constitute art?
Glenn: We talk about it all the time and not just with the Szeemann archive but with all our research collections. We are always playing with the line of what is the archive and what is the work. Conceptual, installation or ephemeral practices, which are the type of archive that we tend to acquire, generate material that has an in-between status. We have archives for artists such as Robert Irwin, Allan Kaprow and Yvonne Rainer. If you walk through our permanent collection, what you see hanging on the wall from the ’60s and ’70s often is archival material standing in for the work itself. Dispersed and ephemeral practices are a priority for us.
“It was a special moment where digital technology was spreading fast enough that people were interested in it, but it was still difficult, strange or inaccessible enough to the large majority. What artists could do carried awe and fascination.”
Alex: In a way, “BitStreams” which you curated at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2001, was also about dispersion and ephemera, of the digital sort. At that point, art looked like it might become something entirely different. Why do you think that today, on the whole, that ambition has disappeared and art practices prefer the stability of nostalgia to technological innovation?
Glenn: You have to remember that at the end of the ’90s and particularly during the dot-com bubble, the Internet was very new. People had only had email for a few years or were just starting to get it. It’s become so pervasive that it’s hard to remember that about 15 years ago, it was very different. Access to processing power at the level of manipulating an image and making it look like reality was just coming into the hands of artists in an affordable way. Now computers are so much more powerful that anyone can do it. It was a special moment where digital technology was spreading fast enough that people were interested in it, but it was still difficult, strange or inaccessible enough to the large majority. What artists could do carried awe and fascination. Now it’s sort of amazing that artists are going on with other things. If you look over the middle of the 2000s, the focus fell on painting and sculpture in order to show objects. You see it happening in the ’80s and with the rise of pop art in the ’60s. There are market patterns that you start to see. Things come in waves. The period of WABF, the great dematerialization of art at the end of the ’60s and with the ’70s, coincided with the fact that the market was weak and the political situation tumultuous. Therefore you see artists at the time making provisional objects with very humble materials, never intended to last. That’s one of the amazing things about WABF. Actually so many of these works have survived. I don’t think the artists ever thought that they would.
Alex: You might say they programmed their work for obsolescence. Was Szeemann himself interested in technology, perhaps to the extent that he followed kinetic art?
Glenn: He did an exhibition called “Light and Movement” in 1965, where he was looking at kinetic art. There was a moment in the ’60s—forget about pop, minimalism and all these other things—to all the main curators and critics, to the international avant-garde, kinetic art was the most interesting thing out there. People are now starting to write dissertations about the history of kinetic art, which goes back to someone like Moholy-Nagy. Calder fits into this, too. That notion that you can take a high-modernist aesthetic and set it in motion and still have something that looks formally important and interesting … that’s what art was for a time. But then it shifts, in part because all the sculptures break; collectors realize they can’t keep them running; it’s a rudimentary technology and becomes completely outdated; it falls off the exhibition boards and gets forgotten.
Alex: How were the artists in WABF interested in the role of technology?
Glenn: In terms of materials, Eva Hesse is working with latex, which is brand-new; Bruce Nauman working with fiberglass, which is brand-new; Keith Sonnier working with neon, and that’s brand-new. It’s a little different, but if you look at the land art presence, where you have Michael Heizer busting up the plaza in front of the museum, there’s technological intention there just bringing out big machinery; or Gilberto Zorio’s Arc-Lamp, where every minute or so the giant sculpture shoots an electrical arc from one component to another and alarms everyone in the gallery; or Jan Dibbets, who ran a microphone to the outside of the building with a live feed into the gallery. They might not have been interested in computers, but they were very much uninterested in traditional materials and attracted to the technological new.
Alex: It doesn’t look like they were aiming for industrial polish, however. It’s all in a very do-it-yourself spirit. How was the show received?
Glenn: People thought it was trash, the worst show ever, until Szeemann did “Happening and Fluxus” a year later and then that was the worst show, until he did “Documenta V.” All of these are now seen as landmark shows. Even some of the most advanced critics at the time, who were supporting the avant-garde, couldn’t get on board. Everything is on the floor and some are barely 18 inches apart. You’ve never seen a show so crowded. There was nowhere to walk. Imagine for someone who is used to seeing nice paintings, you don’t know where to step, you don’t know what’s art; it was an affront. Heizer is smashing the plaza in front of the museum; Beuys is smearing marjoram in the corners; Richard Serra is splashing lead all over the walls; they are literally damaging the museum. It was so offensive. Reiner Ruthenbeck’s pile of black ash with little rods may have been the most offensive. The ash came from the city of Bern’s trash incinerator. It was worse than trash; trash of the trash. People from Bern were so angry about the show—it’s crazy. Now it looks gorgeous!