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Installation view, Hiding in Plain Sight, Pace Gallery, New York, Jul 14 – Aug 20, 2021 © Pace Gallery

Essays

How a 1969 Group Exhibition Cultivated Community Among Artists

By Claire Selvin

“It takes a community, to a certain extent, to … redefine what conventional wisdom is, which is to say, a general sensibility around a thing or around a way to think,” artist Tony Lewis said in a recent roundtable conversation organized by Andria Hickey, senior director and curator at Pace, on the occasion of the group exhibition Hiding in Plain Sight. Co-moderated by Hickey and Key Jo Lee, director of academic affairs and associate curator of special projects at the Cleveland Museum of Art in Ohio, the conversation brought together four artists in the exhibition, which runs through August 20 in New York, to examine how their works complement and confront one another.

During the freewheeling discussion, which included Lewis, Torkwase Dyson, Rayyane Tabet, and Jessica Vaughn, participants discussed enactments of kinship between artists in group showings and the ways that such a format might forge unexpected connections and meanings. Along these lines, Tabet drew attention to the 1969 exhibition Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form, which was organized by the curator Harald Szeemann and presented at the Kunsthalle Bern in Switzerland.

“I keep going back to that show because I think when there’s a density, when you start layering these works on top of each other—maybe we’re grappling with certain sets of struggles but when they combine, they create something more than their additive process,” Tabet explained of his revisitation of Szeemann’s storied and controversial exhibition.

With Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form, Szeemann reimagined how an art exhibition might be produced and what kinds of exchanges it could foster. The exhibition included multifarious works and forms by 69 artists, with Claes Oldenburg, Bruce Nauman, Joseph Beuys, Richard Serra, Walter de Maria, Lawrence Weiner, Mario Merz, Eva Hesse, Jannis Kounellis, and other marquee names among them. Many of the artworks in the show were constructed within the institution itself, and some of them were structural interventions in and outside the building. Szeemann wrote that, with Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form, he sought to convey “the pronouncement that certain objects are art, although they have not previously been defined as such.”

The presentation looms large in art history not only for its focus on highly experimental, process-based works—which are now considered incipient examples of Conceptualism, Arte Povera, and other movements—but also for Szeemann’s unorthodox, hands-on collaborations with the artists in the development of the event. The presentation was considered so radical that Szeemann, director of the Kunsthalle Bern at the time, subsequently resigned from his position at helm of the institution. (Today, Szeemann is widely recognized as one of the most important curators of the 20th century—he curated some 200 exhibitions over the course of his career, including Documenta 5 in 1972 and two editions of the Venice Biennale.)

“I remember that a lot of the artists that were in that show I had appreciated as individuals because they came to me, art historically, as individuals,” Tabet said of Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form. “But when I saw that grouping, there was something beyond the individual importance of each of the practices that challenged even the practices themselves.”

It’s inventive exhibition-making of this kind that, as posited by participants in the Hiding in Plain Sight roundtable, might establish new kinds of community and affinity among artists. Dyson explained that group showings have the potential to establish “kinship in relationship to the environment, kinship in relationship to material, kinship in relationship to thinking differently.” In the tradition of shows like Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form, Hiding in Plain Sight seeks to address difficult subjects—namely, the ways that abstract and Minimalist forms can parse infrastructural systems’ complicated relationships to social and political issues—through various artistic voices and perspectives. Solo presentations often cannot create direct dialogues of this kind.

For Lewis, the group exhibition may be the most auspicious format for work engaged with complex histories. “I’m afraid to ask: is it weird to consider the group exhibition—or especially a show like this or like that—almost the best context for the work to exist in a certain extent?” he said. “I don’t know if that’s the case, but it feels like the most essential the work can be is in that kind of context.”

Essays — How a 1969 Group Exhibition Cultivated Community Among Artists, Aug 6, 2021