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“Biennials and Beyond — Exhibitions That Made Art History, 1962-2002”

Bruce Altshuler

Phaidon, $100

Anyone who has been a regular visitor to Seattle’s museums and galleries over the last few years knows that they have hosted some pretty remarkable exhibitions.

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Still, it comes as something of a pleasant surprise to discover that museums expert Bruce Altshuler lists an exhibition staged in Seattle as one of the 25 most important exhibitions to take place anywhere on the planet during the late 20th century. It was an exhibition “that made art history” according to the title of his huge doorstop of a book, “Biennials and Beyond — Exhibitions That Made Art History, 1962-2002.”

What also comes as a surprise, though, is the particular exhibition that Altshuler accords this honor. It isn’t an exhibition of any of Seattle’s best-known artists he is thinking of, or even a show curated by a Seattleite, or an event that had anything to do with the Northwest at all.

The show was called “557,087,” and it took place in the World’s Fair Pavilion at Seattle Center in 1969. It was sponsored by what was then called the Contemporary Art Council of Seattle Art Museum and organized and curated by New York-based critic and author Lucy Lippard.

Just the title in itself (the city’s population in the 1960 census) makes it obvious that nowhere more than in the art world, the past really is a foreign country where things are done very differently.

“557,087” is regarded by historians as the first large-scale showing of what is now called “conceptual art.” That term covers a broad stylistic terrain, but at its core — and this is where the name came from — this was an art in which the artist’s concept or idea was regarded as more important than any other aspect of their work. So much more important, in fact, that even the most basic, normal characteristics of art, such as color, shape, size and technique, for example, seemed to slip into insignificance.

Of the 69 artists who participated in the show, only Robert Ryman admitted to being anything so traditional as a painter — and he only used white paint. Instead, as the clearly nonplused critic of The Seattle Times, Don Duncan, put it, art had become “dirt trenches, shotgun blasts, logs floating in ponds and giant billboards covered in masking tape, among other things.” The public stayed away in droves.

We can now see much of conceptual art amounted to a dry dead-end in the desert that modernist art had become. It came about because, absurd though it might seem now, back in the middle decades of the last century many artists became obsessed with the modernity of modern art, and with “advancing” from the artistic positions of their predecessors. In their minds, this actually dictated what was possible for an artist at any particular moment. By the end of the 1960s, a number of influential artists — and curators, theorists and critics like Lippard, equally importantly — concluded the only legitimate subject for serious contemporary art was a philosophical study of art itself.

Ironically, at least some of them imagined that this rendered art more accessible. Lippard had chosen her title to suggest that everybody in the city could participate in the art she had selected. The unfortunate truth was that the distance between modern art and the public was greater than it ever had been. With hindsight it is obvious that many artists, several of whom were included in this show, very much enjoyed the “smarter than thou” game they could play with the bemused public.

Despite their pretensions, conceptualists were actually no less concerned with style than at any other time in the history of art. The difference wasn’t just that their style was consistently anti-esthetic, it was that it derived from the contents of the stationery cupboard rather than the art store. There was a particular fascination with index cards. In fact the catalog of “557,087” consisted of a pile of randomly ordered index cards. Some of them were dedicated to Lippard’s introductory essay, and many of the others carried artists’ instructions for making their art works: William Bollinger — one of the artists who Duncan picked out for particular ridicule — contributed a card reading “Large log (to be selected in Seattle), floating in a lake or bay.”

Thank God that by the 1980s, this notion that art could only be any one thing at any one time had been abandoned. Now art shows include all sorts of unpredictable things, and we don’t worry whether they are “relevant” or not. Still, the philosophical tradition that culminated in conceptual art is an important component of a contemporary artist’s bag of tricks. We look askance at it now, but the cul-de-sac that was “557,087” appears to have been a necessary detour on the journey to contemporary art’s wide open spaces. We don’t need to be embarrassed that it lay just off Broad Street.

Robert Ayers:

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