The Exhibition Age

“It is now widely accepted that the art history of the second half of the 20th century is no longer a history of artworks, but a history of exhibitions.” (Harald Szeemann, via Art History Newsletter)

I thought of this quotation as I plan a quick excursion to Los Angeles this weekend and realize I am most looking forward to this:

at MOCA.

And this:

(California Video at the Getty. Image from The Butterfly Net)

However, I am less interested in this:

(LACMA’s Broad Contemporary Art Museum)

The mixed reviews have clearly been influential, but I question whether it has more to do with Szeemann’s contention that art history has shifted over the last century and has become oriented around exhibitions rather than individual pieces.

In terms of individual works of art BCAM is supposedly among the best. Extraordinary pieces by Jeff Koons, Cindy Sherman, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, and many others are clearly things to be seen. Somehow, this is not my priority. The draw of a retrospective exhibition such as Allan Kaprow: Art as Life or a group show like California Video have more temporal implications, simultaneously having the potential to be more fleeting and more timely than a melange of independently noteworthy objects like those at BCAM. Likewise, most audiences hold curators accountable for the arrangement of works in a space, rather than simply the overall selection of works; it seems more forgivable to have a well executed and organized exhibition of lesser known artists than it does to have a poorly organized building full of work by some of the US’s greatest contemporary artists.

In contrast, we are currently in age where iTunes has encouraged a focus on singles instead of albums, and the ability to customize the Internet encourages a pick-and-choose process of information exchange over reading, for example, a single newspaper or magazine that has been put together consciously as a single whole. Gastropubs and small plates are all the rage in the culinary realm, rather than the “bel canto” 3-course meal selected by the chef. Yet I cannot help but agree with Szeemann. Whether it is a formal review, passing conversation, or quick blog perspective, most art conversation is in terms of exhibitions. This was a primary reason Roberta Smith faulted the BCAM in her review:

“I don’t mean to disparage the many impressive works of art here. They represent artists of some or much importance, among them Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Ellsworth Kelly, with a richness that will be both entertaining and informative to the general public. The problem is what they add up to. The ensemble conveys very little in the way of curatorial shape or imagination, or historical perspective.” (The New York Times, 15 Feb 08 )

Perhaps it is that context is also more privileged now than it was in the past. It is possible that the pre-photographic art Benjamin defined as “auratic” and suggested as being appreciated for its authenticity and original existence may require less context for viewing. I suspect it is more than this, but I may have more to say about this after visiting the Museum of Jurassic Technology this weekend as well, which I anticipate offering the most fascinating insight into authenticity of any of L.A.’s organizations.

Image from Wikipedia