The Formal and the Global

July 17, 2014

Other Primary Structures does not reconstruct an exhibition from the past, as did Germano Celant’s recent re-creation in Venice of When Attitudes Become Form.  But Jens Hoffmann’s fascinating show is part of the same cultural phenomenon, which focuses attention on the importance of historical exhibitions and the centrality of the curator.  And like such reconstructions, Other Primary Structures creates a kind of space.   But rather than a space of what was, it is a counterfactual space of what would have been if.  Here the “if” is the art world’s current global orientation, and the imagined counterfactual situation projects that perspective back to 1966.  The point is made clearly with the exhibition’s elegant scenography, in which works of the 60s from outside the U.S. and Great Britain are installed against huge installation photographs of the original show, inserting the Other into Primary Structures.

While this might seem a natural imaginative leap, there is a significant tension here other than that among works created in different contexts with varied intentions.  For this global viewpoint is part of a larger change in thinking, a change that broadened analytic concerns beyond formalism to include in a fundamental way the institutional, social and political circumstances within which art is produced and valued.  At the Jewish Museum we find works from elsewhere that are selected for their formal similarity to those that were in Primary Structures, displayed as additional examples of the “stylistic tendency” that curator Kynaston McShine saw in some North American and British sculpture of the mid-60s.  The problem is that taking such globalism as a unifying principal is to contradict the conceptual framework in which McShine’s unity of style was grounded.  This is not a logical contradiction, but one of mentality.  Perhaps another way to approach the point is to note that Hoffmann’s attention to exhibition history is part of a view of art that is a reaction to formalist thinking, while the connections made by Other Primary Structures are based on formal relationships.  Ironically, it was Kynaston McShine who moved to the global and away from the formal in his 1972 show of international conceptualism at the Museum of Modern Art, Information, with work that he presented as rooted in the worldwide political upheaval of the late 60s.