Art, History, Exhibitions: Re-thinking Relationships

In 1981, American artist and writer Mary Kelly defiantly underlined how exhibitions have become primary tools for dissemination of art. Since the 1990s, following the establishment of curatorial studies, the proliferation of global biennials and the growing status of the curator, art historians have increasingly acknowledged this. In recent years the study of historical exhibitions has therefore gained traction as a legitimate avenue for art historical inquiry. This has developed in tandem with the practice of re-staging important historical exhibitions in museums. As Saloni Mathur posed in 2019, exhibitions are a crucial space where the canon can be diversified and questioned. At the same time, a canonical list of exhibitions is often repeated (e.g. Jean Hubert Martin’s Magiciens de la terre, Gerardo Mosquera’s The Third Habana Biennial and Rasheed Araeen’s The Other Story; all from 1989), leaving open the question of selection: why do exhibitions gain notoriety; why are others forgotten?

Many transhistorical and transnational group shows, biennials or collective experiments transgress the main two pillars of art history: linear chronology and nation-statist boundaries. Thus, this condition raises another question: What does it mean to state that art history is shaped by exhibitions in our current moment? We invite scholars of art, curators, museum professionals, and artists to speculate on the future directions of the discipline in its relationship to curatorial practices in past and present. Reflections on current historiographical challenges to the discipline from decolonial, feminist and queer angles and attention to heterogeneous curatorial experiments are expressly welcome.

Session Convenors:

Mehmet Berkay Sulek, University of Amsterdam

Julia Alting, University of Groningen


Angela Bartholomew, VU Amsterdam

Opening Salto: The Exhibition Opening as Artistic Medium

The opening of an art exhibition is laden with expectations. Typically hosted in the evening, with champagne flutes and platitudinous speeches, the opening can easily be dismissed as a promotional affair, more about socializing than contemplation. Yet the potential of the inaugural event, which often draws a crowd for a first glimpse of what has long been in preparation, is not lost on artists. There is much evidence, past and present, that artists are anything but impassive about the role that the opening may play in shaping perceptions of the exhibition, and in turn the art on view.

Among the better-known examples are the much-promoted opening of Yves Klein’s La spécialisation de la sensibilité à l’état matière première en sensibilité picturale stabilisée, better known as Le Vide (1958), or Graciela Carnevale’s incorporation of opening attendees into her Acción del encierro (Lock-up action) in Rosario, Argentina in 1968. Openings like these reflect the shifting nature of the art object towards ephemeral forms, with performance art and participatory events seen to generate (political) consciousness in the passive viewer. Offering diverse examples – from better known instances like artists initiatives in squatted industrial buildings in Amsterdam of the 1980s, to site-based projects enacted at the Tijuana/San Diego border for the INSITE biennial of the 1990s – this presentation will show how a sustained look at exhibition openings has the potential to contribute to the writing of alternative histories of art.

Bridget Hardiman, University of Saint Andrews

Photographing Surrealist Spaces: Denise Bellon and the 1938 and 1947 International Surrealist Exhibitions

Denise Bellon (1902-1999), a French photojournalist with close ties to the surrealist movement, photographed several French surrealist exhibitions during her career. Her work is an example of the role of photography and the photographer in the documentation of surrealist exhibition practices. In these images, Bellon not only depicts surrealist artists preparing for the exhibitions as individuals and in groups, but she also captures the labour of preparing for and constructing these exhibitions. Thus, these photographs reveal contributors who are not usually visible in the history of surrealism, such as mannequin couturiers or, even, exhibition photographers.

This paper will examine Bellon’s photographs of the International Surrealist Exhibitions of 1938 and 1947 as subjective records of surrealist artwork and exhibition spaces. It addresses how these surrealist exhibitions were recorded by Bellon, particularly through the medium of photography, and who is included as a result. It also examines these interwar and post-war surrealist exhibitions to discuss how certain exhibitions fit within in the global historiography of surrealism. Since Bellon captures the activities immediately surrounding these exhibitions, it is possible to broaden the examination of the French surrealist group at different moments in its lifecycle. A detailed review of Bellon’s exhibition photography can therefore enrich discussions of the legacy of surrealist exhibition practices, networks, and participants – while spotlighting Bellon herself as one of these contributors.

Analays Alvarez Hernandez, Université de Montréal

Domestic Exhibitions: Disrupting the Art History Canon from Havana, Once Again

In 1994, Cuban authorities banned artist Ezequiel Suarez from showcasing his solo exhibition “El frente Bauhaus” (The Bauhaus Front) at Galería 23 y 12, a state-owned art venue in Havana. As a result, Suarez and his partner, artist Sandra Ceballos, decided to host the exhibition at their home in El Vedado and declared back then: “Cada casa es una galería” (Every house is a gallery). This was the birth of Espacio Aglutinador, which became one of the only “apartment galleries” operating in Havana for nearly 20 years, hosting exhibitions on

a relatively permanent basis until many similar spaces emerged in the city over the last decade. In a country where private galleries are prohibited, apartment-galleries play a crucial role as counterparts to state-run cultural institutions, both locally and internationally. As every house has the potential to be transformed into a gallery, Cuban apartment-galleries seem to have the ability to disrupt the international art circuit––since they also participate in it. How do their exhibitions challenge established institutions’ models of exhibition and shape art history? In this paper,I will focus on a series of exhibitions held at different Havana-based appartement-galleries, such as Curators, Go Home (Espacio Aglutinador, 2008) and À quién pueda interesar (Espacio Aglutinador, 2018; Avecez Art Space, 2019). They offer a domestic exhibition model subverting most notably the interaction between the audience and the artists, as well as the relationship between the artworks and the space. Given that the 1989 Havana Biennale set a standard for many other biennales, it seems pertinent to explore the potential global impact of this new exhibition model, once again coming from this Caribbean island.

Oliver O’Donnell, Courtauld Institute of Art

Decolonizing the Armory Show of European Modernism: 1913 to today

How should we understand the complete absence of Black art from what is likely still the most canonical exhibition of European modernism in the history of the United States: the Armory Show, or International Exhibition of Modern Art, which took place in the 69th regiment armory in lower Manhattan in February and March, 1913? This absence would appear to be yet another manifestation of the structural racism that has so shaped the United States.  Moreover, the widespread impact of African sculptures on the European-style paintings displayed in that exhibition raises the self-evident question of the extent to which such pictures should be understood as expressions of colonial power dynamics, a reading that is given all the more weight in relation to the 14-year-long war in the Philippines—known as the Moro Rebellion—that the US was still then fighting. At the same time, however, the positive echoes of the Armory show within the art of the Harlem Renaissance complicates how the exhibition itself relates to what W.E.B. du Bois famously called “the problem of the twentieth century … the problem of the color line.”  And the enabling of the show by artists of the Ashcan school, which recent scholarship has been reinterpreting through shifting definitions of whiteness in the period, inflects how the exhibition resonated Euro-American immigrant identities as well.  In the wake of recent calls to decolonize the discipline, this paper takes up the case study of the 1913 Armory Show of European modernism through the lens of race, asking how we should understand the exhibition and its legacy after George Floyd.

Camila Maroja, Brandeis University

Ka’a Pûera: Comments on the incorporation of indigenous art into Brazilian art history

This month, the Fundação Bienal de São Paulo (São Paulo Biennial Foundation, FBSP) proudly announced the Brazilian curatorial project for the 2024 Biennale di Venezia. For the first time the country is exhibiting the work of indigenous artists, including Glicéria Tupinambá, curated by three indigenous art professionals, Arissana Pataxó, Denilson Baniwa and Gustavo Caboco Wapichana. The exhibition titled Ka’a Pûera: nós somos pássaros que andam (Ka’a Pûera: we are birds that walk) discusses issues of marginalization, deterritorialization, and violation of territorial rights, and invites reflection on concepts such as resistance and the shared essence of humans, birds, memory, and nature. To mark the occasion, Brazil’s geometric pavilion at the Giardini, which previously epitomized the country’s modernist tradition associated with abstract geometry, will be renamed Pavilhão Hãhãwpuá (an indigenous patxohã word meaning “ancestral territory”).

The exhibition Ka’a Pûera gives international visibility to the on-going incorporation of indigenous art in Brazilian art history and art market. This paper departs from an analysis of this upcoming exhibition, and also considers a series of exhibitions that have included indigenous art since the 1970s in order to map how cultural institutions, exhibitions, and the art market have shaped recent (Brazilian) art history and the way we view, examine, and discuss non-Western art.

Wei Sun, Heidelberg University / Ca’Foscari University of Venice

“Le Japon des Avant-Gardes: 1910–1970” and the Discursive Formation of Japanese Avant-Gardes in European Museums

Often seen as unconventional and sometimes anti-establishment, many avant-garde artists of Japanese origin were marginalized in the official narrative of Japanese art promoted by the government in overseas exhibitions. From the late 1970s onwards, European and American museums began to showcase modern and contemporary Japanese art. These exhibitions, often on a large scale, required significant resources, including materials, labor, knowledge, and relationships. They relied on financial and operational support from Japanese professionals. This created a dynamic of institutional negotiation between Western museums aiming for a “global” perspective on modern art and Japan, which sought to assert its cultural presence while remaining skeptical about its “avant-gardes.”

This paper focuses on the phenomenal “Le Japon des avant-gardes” exhibition (Paris, 1986), illustrating the discursive formation of Japanese avant-gardes within the Centre Pompidou, notwithstanding its relative obscurity in Japan. Despite its label practice of associating artists

with their nationality, this exhibition occurred in the age of rising identity politics. It provided an empirical ground for the critical global art exhibition “Magiciens de la Terre” in Centre Pompidou in 1989. While challenging the Western-centered concept of “avant-garde,” the display of Japanese avant-gardes has been questioned for its French nature. This paper explores how Japanese authorities became familiar with the idea of avant-garde art and promoted it abroad. Additionally, it delves into the discourse surrounding Japanese avant-garde in European museum exhibitions in the aurora of rising global contemporary and the role it played within the power structure connecting the art worlds of Europe, America, and Japan.

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