Other Primary Structures is Jens Hoffman’s inaugural exhibition as Deputy Director, Exhibitions and Public Programs at The Jewish Museum. Hoffman, a Costa Rican-born German, has organized a show that revisits the museum’s seminal 1966 exhibition Primary Structures, a “formative moment in art history.” The original exhibition curated by Kynaston McShine, featured younger American and British sculptors such as Donald Judd, Dan Flavin, Sol Lewitt, Anne Truitt, and Robert Morris. Others as the name suggests, goes back in time with today’s global perspective featuring artists rom Latin America, Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe—the others. Turns out that there were movements outside of the Western hemisphere also rejecting artistic theories of the past. What the Western world declared to be Minimalism, is no more than a global sentiment to be free from certain aesthetic values.
The 1966 Kynaston McShine curated exhibition was critically acclaimed for its breakthrough approach to this new geometric and formally reductive artistic practice. Visitors were treated to works shown in very untraditional formats—works hanging from the ceiling. McShine said of the sculptors, that they were ‘transforming contemporary esthetics.’ Indeed, it was a radical show for its time. Minimalism engaged new technologies, and advances in industrialism—the artist’s hand played a different role, perhaps a supporting one. The idea still came from the artist.
Other Primary Structures includes fantastic works from important artists from around the globe. The Pakistani born, Ex-Black Panther member, founder and editor of Third Text art journal, Rasheed Araeen is a London-based artist. The painted steel construction of his early works have a modular sensibility that found its influence from the artist’s training in Civil Engineering. With its crossed beams and lines, Sculpture No.1 Is a minimalist take on a solid structure. Yet it is merely a piece of a larger story, suggesting that its final destination is unknown, thereby making it subject to influence.
New York is hot for Brazil. Working with Carrara marble and, painted wood, the late Sergio Camargo (d 1990), is known for his Picasso-like reliefs. From Venezuela we have GEGO (d 1994), who as a young woman worked as a draftsman in several architectural firms and painting workshops in her native Germany. On the coast of Caracas she began making her three dimensional geometric and non-geometric structures. Without the foregrounding of a solid wall free of grainy photography, one could almost miss the piece. Her work could consume an entire room of that size. Sketch for Sculpture… is shown in partial, the original piece is something like 30+ feet long, meant to hang down a giant corridor at Banco Industrial de Venezuela.
Edward Krasinski’s (d 2004) wood and metal pieces inclusion in the exhibition make for a poignant edition. Apparently the works were found in the attic of a house he rented out. Take note of particles in motion that create Spear (wood and metal wire).
Others 1, Others 2
Let’s discuss the doll house. A replica of The Jewish Museum as it looked during Primary Structures, replete with tiny objects—Barbie doll-sized replicas of the original works by Judd, Flavin, Truitt, Bladen, and so on, is a masterpiece of nostalgic porn. Porn is addicting, and at first I was seduced by this miniature land of wonders. Like stepping into Walt’s studio of controlled little wonders I imagine, the doll house has its own room in the exhibition. I was released from the spell however, because I realized I would have preferred more works of art. Furthermore, the spirit of minimalism unfolds at an experiential level; the site specific nature of minimalism requires it to be experienced in the real, not in old photographs, or in miniaturized replicas.
But why in two parts? A younger artist and curator at the press preview remarked that the museum has missed an opportunity to lead new audiences to other works for consideration. The museum writes that Others 1 features work created before or simultaneous to the original exhibition, with a concentration of works from Latin America, and highlighting Pakistani artist Rasheed Araeen. And Others 2, will consist of works from the Mona-Ha school, and Sudanese artist Amir Nour, and Israeli artist Benny Efrat. Essentially it came down to scheduling, and available space. No matter, since the renovation in 1993 the layout has completely changed. Yet it is less about creating a similar vibe, let the works do that. However, is the point to see objects, or see the art and get a visual and experiential taste of history? Will those who see Part 1, also see Part 2? Will Others 2 audiences, wished they had experienced the playfulness of Lygia Clark’s reconstructed aluminum pieces? These are challenges The Jewish Museum is willing to take on. Instead of paying tribute to the artists in the show, they actually do them a disservice by displaying their work in a context that is so controlled by the legacy of the previous show. These artists are all about site specific work. Limiting the show to one floor which serves as a history lesson to the legacy of minimal art is offensive. If they truly believed the work is as important as the ’66 show they would have installed the museum in the same way they fetishize with the doll house.
The museum added a few layers, some might argue, in complexity. Others is set against a backdrop of giant wall size images of works from Primary Structures, so yes reading the exhibition text on the walls as you enter each room requires your focus—indeed, the wall text is either hyper-intellectual, or at the very least, dense. Speaking about the nature of spirituality in the everyday object is a challenge to the western dialogue, as it requires the utmost simplicity. I mean, I get it… the oneness of spirit, the simplicity of minimalism. I would argue that simplicity isn’t always ‘dumbing things down,’ it can also open things up! The layers of visual stimulation (the over-sized wall photos of Primary Structures) present the viewer with a host of comparisons, but also distraction.
A close reading of the text will inform the reader that Western white-male dominance is once again placed under the microscope, however, leaves itself vulnerable to the same criticism of dominance. Outside of the Western hemisphere, the work is considered something other than minimalism by name. Yet in the text, we are continually brought back to our Western perspective as the defining referential point: “Examining the influence of the original show on subsequent artists operating in a Minimalist spirit.” Others, may not be an attempt by Hoffman to blanket these works with his curatorial vision, yet in contemplation I am left with competing ideas. Jens Hoffman is attempting to challenge our perspective: What was going on in the rest of the World during this time of scientific and technological growth? And questioning what is defined as an art object. What can be said about this Universal reconsideration of shapes and forms? But what I want to know is, what could be the dialogue between Minimalism and say the Neo-Concretist art movement? This is a show about objects, but not specific enough. Something else that through me off, was seeing the work of neo-concrete artists (Lygia Clarke, and Lygia Pape) on pedestals. Are we both questioning and asserting dominance?
This could be my own wild imagination, but Hoffman writes “Other Primary Structures asks what might have been included in the original exhibition if the art world of the 1960s had been as global as it is today” a fun exercise, however, can a curator or an institution make that call? Does it leave out the artist in that decision making process? My guess is that the stalwart artists, who were truly engaged in the ideas presented in respective manifestos (unlike the highly individualistic practices today), would balk at the idea of being labeled with the practices of Minimalism—a rejection of the (at the time) very Western, Abstract Expressionism. I am certain all of this was considered, but it comes off as ‘walking into a show about Minimalism.’ It is a show about works from around the world that Minimalism is akin to.
Movements don’t happen by accident, they are the process of reconciliation, and we can’t differentiate art and culture. Art movements are one form of us as culture unifying. Art, at its highest, has always been this profound expression of the human perspective. And as we evolve, from the perspective of the human experience, it looks like us aligning certain beliefs. How we came to see perspective in art, as an example, eventually allowed us to see our truest relationships to religiosity. Assimilation, which is inevitable, recognizes similarities. What makes it healthy is creating dialogue between differing value systems. We live our own perspective, but we evolve when we live through learning other perspectives too. Did Other Primary Structures miss this opportunity?
Other Primary Structures is open at The Jewish Museum. The exhibition will happen in two parts. Others 1: March 14th — May 18th, 2014 and Others 2: May 25 — August 3, 2014.
The Jewish Museum is located at 1109 Fifth Avenue at 92nd Street.
Museum hours: Saturday—Tuesday 11am to 5:45pm; Thursday, 11am to 8pm; Friday, 11am to 4pm
Admission: $15 for adults, $12 for senior citizens, $7.50 for students, free for visitors under 18, and museum members.
Pay What You Wish on Thursdays from 5pm to 8pm and free on Saturdays.