Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 16, 2015
Jens Hoffmann and Kynaston McShine Other Primary Structures Exh. cat. New York: The Jewish Museum, 2014. 116 pp.; 76 b/w ills. Paper $35.00 (9780300197334)
Exhibition schedule: The Jewish Museum, New York, March 14–August 3, 2014
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Installation view of Other Primary Structures at The Jewish Museum, New York. Noemí Escandell, Displacement (1967; constructed 2014). Painted wood. 200 3/4 x 169 x 12 in. (510 x 429 x 30.6 cm). Courtesy of the artist and Henrique Faria Fine Art, New York. © Noemí Escandell. Photo: Will Raggazino/SocialShutterbug.com.

In Other Primary Structures, Jens Hoffmann’s recent exhibition at the Jewish Museum, the presence of Primary Structures, a show organized by Kynaston McShine at the same museum in 1966, was felt through text and images. Most aggressively, photographic murals of installation views from the earlier exhibition pervaded the galleries. Larger-than-life-size, the images reached from floor to ceiling. In these period photographs, canonical works of Minimalism were pictured, including a Sol LeWitt untitled cube from 1966, Walter De Maria’s stainless steel Cage (1961–65), and Carl Andre’s long row of firebricks, Lever (1966), among others. Instead of being pasted directly onto the gallery walls, the murals were applied to temporary walls that were propped against the proper architecture at slight angles. The thickness of these walls and the way they leaned against the support of visible armature emphasized the impermanent nature of the display. The installation photographs loomed over actual artworks by Hélio Oiticica, Rasheed Araeen, Lee Ufan, and others, yet their presence was tempered by their black-and-white format, which clearly located the images in the past.

In his introductory wall text, Hoffmann presents Other Primary Structures as an act of historical revision. He explains that the reductive forms visible in much of the work of British and U.S. artists in the 1960s also prevailed in “other parts of the world.” Other Primary Structures is a hopeful reimagining of the 1966 exhibition, one that argues that the forms that so interested McShine were being put to equally innovative use by artists in Africa, Latin America, East Asia, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East. Hoffmann brings examples of such works to the Jewish Museum in 2014, the same site, significantly, as the 1966 show. McShine’s words provide a running subtext for Hoffmann’s exhibition. At the entrance, McShine and Hoffmann’s introductory texts face each other, the former relating spatially to an adjacent timeline juxtaposing cultural events worldwide during the 1960s. While McShine’s text focuses on the radicalness of artistic experimentation with industrial materials and architectural space in the art of his contemporaries, Hoffmann engages with the historical reassessment of the art of the 1960s, which he explains has been made possible by globalization. In his text, McShine celebrates the works in his exhibition—one credited for bringing together the British and U.S. artists who would soon after be named Minimalists—as evidence of the young artists’ forceful and creative reassessment of the rules and limits of sculpture, aesthetic experience, and modern materials. Hoffmann, in his introduction, states that he is expanding the roster of the original show by featuring artists outside the United States and the United Kingdom who were both participants in the original moment of innovation and, during a slightly later moment, were influenced by Minimalism. Although I applaud his effort to interrogate “center-periphery” relations, Hoffmann’s tactics ultimately reinscribe a model of globalism that too readily accepts history’s authority and treats artists from remote locales as discoveries to be incorporated into the New York art world.

Other Primary Structures was presented in two parts and filled four galleries of the Jewish Museum’s Beaux-Arts building. The first installment, which took place from March 14 to May 18, 2014, featured works dated from 1960 to 1967 by sixteen artists; the second, running from May 25 to August 3, 2014, showcased works from 1967 to 1970 by fourteen artists. The earlier grouping—which was dominated by Brazilians and Argentines working in Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires—demonstrated that artists far from Europe and the United States were devising extraordinarily interesting ways of activating objects while Donald Judd and Robert Morris were dismantling sculpture in New York City. The second installment included many artists who juxtaposed organic materials with industrial ones to question the myth of progress surrounding modernity. Although this second installation presented a more convincing rebuke of Judd et al., instead of supporting Hoffmann’s stated purpose of displaying the global “influence” of Primary Structures, it exposed the false pretense of Minimalism’s cohesion. The Argentine David Lamelas was the only artist to appear in both installments. His piece Situation of Four Aluminum Plates (1966/2014), a modular, flexible work consisting of four long rectangular panels of thin aluminum that migrate and morph, appeared as a comic reminder of the conditions of impermanence and mobility in which so many “Others” approach art making. Lamelas has long found great freedom and productivity in assuming an elusive in-between stance—he is difficult to locate geographically as an artist who, since his early twenties, has circulated among London, Los Angeles, Brussels, Berlin, and Buenos Aires. Situation of Four Aluminum Plates related beautifully to the museum’s architecture, requiring neither a pedestal nor hanging device; its aluminum panels rested directly on the wood floor and against the ornate oak molding of the gallery. The shiny panels also sagged under their own weight. In the first installment, they climbed a niche between two windows looking out onto Central Park; in the second, their imperfections presented a failed grid that set the tone for other artists’ investigations of the inadequacy of modern materials, such as Japanese artist Kishio Suga’s Diagonal Phase (1969/2012), a sheet of industrially milled plywood that, propped on a two-by-four, is held in place with natural stones.

Hoffmann’s first installment presented many works that differed from those of the canonical sort represented in the photographs of Primary Structures. Artworks by Brazilians—Active Object (ca. 1960) by Willys de Castro, Spatial Relief (ca. 1960) by Oiticica, three “Bichos” by Lygia Clark, assorted wood and marble reliefs by Sérgio de Camargo, and a 1961 Neo-Concrete object by Lygia Pape—invited viewers to lean in to examine subtle shifts in surface texture and color. Visitors could also manipulate objects, including exhibition copies of Clark’s “Bichos,” which were laid out on a table for handling. David Medalla, a Filipino artist who worked with a group of international artists gathered around his gallery and publication Signals in London between 1964 and 1966, was represented by one of the fantastical bubble machines he made during the 1960s. Kinetic, humorous, and playful, Medalla’s works use technology for absurd means. Two hanging pieces—Spear (ca. 1963–64) and Untitled (1965)—by the Polish artist Edward Krasiński conveyed a lyricism that contrasted with the works pictured in the black-and-white photographs nearby. Hanging within a group of suspended artworks—including a Gego and Oiticica—Krasiński’s linear pieces defy the logic of materials and instead use metal wire and wood to communicate ancient, mysterious languages derived paradoxically from both primitivism and vernacular modernity.

However, not all of the works in the first installment diverged from those by the Yanks and Brits featured in the photographs. Many of the Argentines in Hoffmann’s show appear fluent in an international language of Minimalism because of their global ambitions and their presence in New York during the mid-1960s, when Gallery Bonino had an outpost in the city and Alejandro Puente, two of whose “Structures” (1966) were included in the show, befriended LeWitt while visiting on a Guggenheim Fellowship. The dating of Noemí Escandell’s Displacement (1967/2014), a gigantic X-shaped piece that reaches from the floor to the twenty-foot ceiling, and Norberto Puzzolo’s Virtual Pyramid with Exterior and Interior View (1967/2014), also suggests that Other Primary Structures provided many artists with the opportunity to realize works that, during the 1960s, were either stalled at the planning stage or not preserved in collections.

The second installment offered a more direct critique of McShine’s show because it presented large works that engaged with space and materials in ways even more irreverent than those in the 1966 exhibition; artworks sat on the floor or climbed the walls—none required pedestals or tables. Located near the photo-blowup of Andre’s Lever, Yoshida Katsurō’s sculpture, a steel pipe stuffed with cotton entitled Cut-off (1969/2007), displayed the beauty of its construction, a crafty quality at odds with its industrial materials. Japanese artists’ attention to natural materials was also conveyed in Paper 2012–2 (1969/2012), a work in which Susama Koshimizu slipped a massive slab of granite into a perfectly sized large paper pouch, and in Nobuo Sekine’s black steel square and tube, whose tops are formed by large surfaces of water sitting in shallow troughs. The massive and materially rich works in this gallery not only held their own in relationship to the photomurals, but they also emphasized the difference between their own organic materiality and the mechanical surfaces of the absent works. (In addition to being pictured in photographs throughout the galleries, the artworks from Primary Structures were displayed in the last gallery as miniatures in an architectural model of the 1966 Jewish Museum.)

The art, the exhibition, and the curator, as well as the multiple claims being made for all parties’ participation in a both remote and proximate chain of historical events, appeared locked in a struggle in which institutionalism ultimately prevailed. By presenting his interrogation of Minimalism within the framework of McShine’s important exhibition, Hoffmann both distorts McShine and his artists’ enterprise and unduly limits how we encounter the “new” works presented in Other Primary Structures. I would argue for disbanding Minimalism instead of re-inscribing it. And yet it would be too facile to dismiss Hoffmann’s efforts outright. Revisionism requires such confrontations. While the compare and contrast exercises of the art history lecture hall make visible fascinating constants across time and space, they also elucidate how dramatically geographic differences impact artistic production. In this case, comparing and contrasting also illuminates how globalization too often functions as an inclusionary force conceived from a center to control and contain.

When Brazilian critic and curator Paulo Herkenhoff wrote an essay for one of the first displays of Oiticica and Clark in the United States in 2001, he pitted Minimalism and Brazilian Neo-Concretism against each other. He not only argued for legitimization but made a pointed critique of art historians’ complicity with the pro-industry, masculine, neocolonial affirmation of U.S. culture produced by the discourse of Minimalism. Marta Traba—the Argentine-born critic whose voice dominated the 1960s in Latin America—saw world domination and a subjugated role for art and artists generally in the centralization of a global art world in New York. Gender, sexuality, and capitalism have all, in the past several decades, been pointedly examined in the art of the 1960s, and these examinations continue to, with the converging interests in translocality and global art history, revise the field as I write. Since the late 1980s, when art by Others began to appear with more frequency in museums in the United States, exhibitions have spurred theses, articles, and books that seek to enact such revisions. And exhibitions, by all accounts, have proven powerful tools for breaking up canons. But in the revision process, it is necessary to attend to the complexity of the subject positions of Others, a term too loaded to be handled casually. Otherness conjures images of alterity, race, and power that are not accounted for by Hoffmann, who, when he uses the word, means, as he explains in his wall text, “marginalized” groups or simply “additional.”

There is also a great deal of evidence that McShine was keenly aware of the complexity of these issues. Hoffmann’s inclusion of McShine’s 1966 catalogue essay—as well as a transcript of a freewheeling conversation between Judd, Morris, Barbara Rose, and an unnamed man who was likely McShine—presents McShine’s enterprise as far more capacious, exploratory, and socially engaged. This stance is also suggested by the lesser-known, more whimsical works included in the 1966 exhibition, such as Robert Grosvenor’s Transoxiana (1965)—an inverted “V” hanging from the ceiling—and Ellsworth Kelly’s playfully floating Blue Disk (1963). There were also works that displayed the strong sociohistorical current that underlay a lot of art made during the mid-1960s in New York, including Peter Forakis’s JFK (1963), which memorialized Kennedy’s assassination with a large yet flimsy aluminum stele. Four years after mounting Primary Structures, McShine presented a robust display of his appreciation of politics and globalization in his exhibition Information at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. The show featured many Others, including several of the same artists in Hoffmann’s show.

By taking McShine’s 1966 exhibition as a point of departure, Hoffmann revealed one of the problems with the enterprise, conducted as it is from sites in the United States and Europe, but also, increasingly during the past decade, in Mexico, Argentina, and Brazil, of identifying a new set of figures that complicate and disrupt narratives such as Minimalism. This is one of the contradictions in the current discourse that Other Primary Structures brought to bear, and a problem that is not only rooted in globalization but in the very structure of dialectic argument. If we no longer ascribe to linear, chronological narratives for telling the histories of art, why is it necessary to demonstrate, as Hoffmann’s timeline and selection of artists do, that Oiticica and his Neo-Concrete peers in Rio de Janeiro were making such extraordinary works in parallel with Morris and Judd? Doesn’t this merely create a desire—and ultimately a demand that cannot be satisfied—to dig up more exceptional figures like Oiticica and Clark to perpetuate the scorekeeping? It is clear that Hoffmann brought Latin American, Eastern European, and other non-U.K., non-U.S. artists to the Jewish Museum—to the very same galleries as the canonical 1966 show—with the intent to disrupt its dominance. But the danger of corralling representations of otherness in his exhibition is that this strategy can have the opposite effect: that of measuring the value of otherness in terms defined by centers. As an experience, the exhibition highlighted the conflicts of this project. Encountering the mediated and real artworks while walking through this show, the photographs of the canonical pieces and the objects created by Others felt, in some moments, productive, engaging, even funny, and in others, domineering, intrusive, and unnecessary.

Harper Montgomery
Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Distinguished Lecturer of Modern and Contemporary Latin American Art, Department of Art and Art History, Hunter College

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.