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Curating Contexts

Seth Siegelaub and the Place of Conceptual Art

Within only two years, between 1967 and 1969, Seth Siegelaub transitioned from being a traditional gallerist, dealing mainly with paintings, to a curator of some of the most innovative exhibitions of the second half of the twentieth century. The word “curator” was not widely used at the time, and Siegelaub never described himself as such during the period. Yet his practice effectively helped to establish the very idea of an independent curator as it developed in subsequent decades. In retrospect, Siegelaub was not only acknowledged and canonized as one of the pioneering figures in the emerging curatorial discourse; he also increasingly came to understand himself as such. Siegelaub initially came to prominence through his curatorial projects related to conceptual art in the late 1960s, which eventually shifted to more overtly political interests at least since The Artist’s Reserved Rights Transfer and Sale Agreement, which Siegelaub initiated in 1971.

To some, it seems that there is a sharp break—both theoretically and autobiographically—between Siegelaub the innovative curator (and dealer) of conceptual art and Siegelaub the political activist and Marxist publisher who does not focus on the intellectual subtleties of conceptual art but rather on the material conditions determining the art context. This essay wants to show how both impulses are already at play in Siegelaub’s early work by focusing on the idea of place that underwrites his discourse and practice—a theme that has as of yet been almost completely neglected in the literature on him, for reasons that might become evident in the course of this essay.

Title page of Seth Siegelaub (ed.) July, August, September 1969, exh. cat., (New York: Seth Siegelaub, 1969)

In Search of a Name

In a tape-recorded interview with Patricia Norvell from April 17, 1969, Siegelaub comments on the consequences that the recent changes in art making and exhibiting have for the relation between art and space. By the time the interview was conducted, in 1969, Siegelaub had been engaged since about two years with a variety of practices that went a long way in erasing the basic premises of what had until then been considered the purely visual arts. Among them were projects such as Robert Barry’s “Inert Gas Series,” where a measured volume of five inert gases—helium, argon, neon, xenon, and krypton—was released into the atmosphere of  Los Angeles, a gesture that insists, with almost comical obviousness, on the negation of art’s aesthetic objecthood or what Duchamp dubbed its “retinal” quality.

Hence it is more than understandable that Patricia Norvell would begin the interview with an avowal of ignorance: “I’m not clear on how to start this interview because I’m not clear on what you’ve been doing.” In trying to describe what he is in fact doing, Siegelaub responds with a noteworthy series of concepts: “What I’m about in a way,” he says, “is that, I sort of make available to artists, in a certain sense, certain situations in which they can make their art—certain conditions.” Only a couple of sentences later, he tries to describe this change of conditions more precisely: “What I have been doing specifically is doing exhibitions and organizing publications that make available to artists different types of environments—I won’t use the word ‘environments’—different types of opportunities for which they can make their art.” Note that the concept of “environment” is first introduced by Siegelaub as a more precise term for describing the production of a setting in which new art practices become possible. And yet, Siegelaub signals that he wishes to refrain from using it, as if there was something inadequate, insufficient, even intolerable about the word.

Douglas Huebler’s work in Siegelaub (ed.), July, August, September 1969, p. 10.

Whence this ambivalence? One can suspect that the source of this ambivalence in Siegelaub’s discourse concerns the question about conceptual art’s relation to physical space and embodiment. Only a couple of months after the interview, for instance, on November 2, 1969, Siegelaub organized a symposium with the title Art Without Space. Excerpts from this symposium were included in Lucy Lippard’s seminal anthology, Six Years: The dematerialization of the art object from 1966 to 1972, which canonized the notion of “dematerialization” as conceptual art’s paradigmatic operation. Apparently fully in keeping with this idiom, in the introduction to the symposium Siegelaub describes its theme as a form of art “whose primary existence in the world does to relate to space, to its exhibition in space, not its imposing things on the wall.” Here, Siegelaub seems to fully endorse the idea of dematerialization leading to the subtraction of physical space for the benefit of an ideational, dematerialized and abstract space. Yet it is immediately apparent that the situation is more complicated, as Lawrence Weiner and Douglas Huebler respond by declaring: “LW: I disagree wholeheartedly that there could ever be an art without space per se. […] Anything that exists has a certain space around it.—DH: I would agree altogether. Whatever you do involves space. I think the essential thing is that we are not concerned […] with the specific space wherein the so-called art-image exists. There doesn’t have to be a museum, gallery, or anything for what I do […]”

What is a space that surrounds an idea? What is the space of art if it’s not the institutional space of the gallery or museum? Apparently gesturing in the same direction, Siegelaub asserts in the interview with Norvell, conducted earlier that year, “I create an environment that has nothing to do with space. I’m not associated with space. I don’t have that load.”

So, what is a an environment that has nothing to do with space? This question is both clarified and further complicated if one takes into account that the term “environment” was strongly overdetermined due to its use as a technical term for the kind of site-specificity and interactivity that several artistic currents (and most visibly Allan Kaprow) in the 1960s introduced against the self-sufficiency of modernist works. Thus, for instance, an important exhibition with the title Environment – Situation – Spaces, was held at Martha Jackson Gallery and David Anderson Gallery (New York, 25 May–23 June 1961) where these terms were understood in spatial terms. This idea of an environmental site-specificity was originally conceived as denoting the physical attributes of the place where the art work was installed: the topography of a physical site. As Miwon Kwon puts it in One Place after Another: Site-specific Art and Locational Identity, her genealogy of site-specificity: “Whether inside the white cube or out in the Nevada desert, whether architectural or landscape-oriented, site-specific art initially took the site as an actual location, a tangible reality, its identity composed of a unique combination of physical elements: length, depth, height, texture […] distinctive topographical features and so forth.” This understanding of a site-specific environment was, in turn, attacked by conceptual artists who sought to question the insistence on a phenomenologically conceived materiality.

Seth Siegelaub, Mock-up draft of title page for Xerox Book, 1968, MoMA, New York, The Seth Siegelaub Papers, I.A.30 [Copyright MoMA, New York].

Clearly, in Siegelaub’s discourse, there seems to be such a questioning of art’s topographical site-specificity at work. Yet, this questioning is accompanied, from the beginning, by close attention to the material conditions of art making—the conditions that allow something to be perceived, judged and accepted as art. In his entire practice in the late 1960s, one can thus recognize a productive tension between two tendencies, which arguably crystallizes in his ambivalent use of the term “environment.” On the one hand, there is an embrace of the idiom of dematerialization, an understanding that equates the withdrawal from the visual with a privileging of a cognitive or linguistic content. And yet, even in this extension of space beyond a topographical understanding, Siegelaub never gave in to a completely ideational and dematerialized space. Thus, on the other hand, Siegelaub is from the very beginning interested in the material conditions of the production, distribution and reception of art, a tendency that grows even stronger the course of his development.

It is therefore not surprising that there is an interesting correspondence in Siegelaub’s discourse between the early use of the term of “environment” as a form of space not identical with a topographical one and another concept that becomes prominent in Siegelaub’s later discourse, “context.” Upon an invitation by Marion and Roswitha Fricke, Siegelaub organized a project that dealt with changes in the art world since the late 1960s. To this effect, he conducted interviews with all artists who were involved in five seminal conceptual exhibitions in 1969. The project bore the title The Context of Art/The Art of Context, and Siegelaub added a text to the catalogue in which he offered a theoretical account of his understanding of “context”: “[A]n analysis of the forces and interests behind this context—conscious and unconscious, real and imagined—would be an important point of departure for understanding a number of art world phenomena: where art ideas and movements come from; how value is created in the art world; relations of production and exploitation between the known and unknown, the powerful, less powerful and the powerless; the accumulation of artistic capital; aesthetic hegemony; among other subjects.”

It is revealing to compare this understanding of “context” with his earlier statements about “environment.” For “context” equally has a complex relation to a spatial vocabulary. Like “environment,” it is supposed to describe the space of art, the space wherein a work can be perceived as art or acquires the status of art. Yet, like “environment,” it is not identical with a purely topographical space. Thus, in using the categories “environment” and “context,” Siegelaub always seems to circle around an understanding of the exhibition situation that does not want to identify it with a purely physical space, yet without letting go of the material dimension altogether.

Lawrence Weiner’s work in Siegelaub (ed.), July, August, September 1969, p. 22.

Perhaps what the concepts “environment” and “context” thus adumbrate is a topological, as opposed to a topographical, understanding of art, if we understand by the latter an account according to which the art object can only be understood as something locatable in a neutral spatial matrix. In contradistinction to this, the topos that Siegelaub’s concepts seem to denote, one could say, is not a location in a homogenous topographical space. The topos they adumbrate is also discursive and institutional space, without, however, ever being entirely dissolved into an idealistic understanding of language. Rather, language itself presents itself here as an abundantly material phenomenon, enmeshed in the world, its conflicts and contradictions. Here, in this place, the physical site of the presentation of art is seen in contact with the discursive and cultural frameworks that constitute this place as such—a matrix of relations between a physical place and discursive effects; a space that is structured relationally and discursively.

Topological Games

It remains to be seen how this theory of topology, implicit in Siegelaub’s discourse, played out in the practice of his exhibition making. There is a temptation to turn the current on conceptual art that argues for the complete erasure of the visual and an unconditional substitution of the aesthetic object, located in space, through the linguistic utterance as a description for the entire field. And indeed, Seth Siegelaub’s idea of the catalogue as exhibition—realized for the first time with the so-called Xerox Book in 1968—could seem to correspond exactly to this current. Siegelaub asked each of the participating artists for a contribution of exactly 25 pages. Joseph Kosuth’s work in particular seems to align the exhibition with a full dissolution of the visual into language: the collapsing of the place of conceptual art into the book, the minimal, liminal unit of materialization as printed matter. For Kosuth’s work consisted of nothing but a linguistic description of the initial parameters of the project, hence as totally tautological and self-referential linguistic self-description (as the catalogue was eventually printed off-set, the actual material parameters ended up contradicting the self-referentiality of Kosuth’s contribution.) Moreover, Siegelaub’s influential elaboration of the relation between primary and secondary information could also be read to point in this direction of a collapsing of the visual into textuality (“information”). In an interview with Charles Harrison, published in Studio International in 1969, he put it thus: “[W]hen art concerns itself with things not germane to physical presence its intrinsic (communicative) value is not altered by its presentation in printed media. […] The catalogue can now act as primary information for the exhibition, as opposed to secondary information about art in magazines, catalogues, etc., and in some cases the ‘exhibition’ can be the ‘catalogue.’”

Yet this view is deceptive. A close examination of his actual curatorial practice yields a much more complex vision. This is perhaps most evident in another catalogue-as-exhibition, which Siegelaub organized later in the same year: the July, August, September, 1969 exhibition, which is slightly less well-known today but had an important immediate influence on advanced curatorial practices. This catalogue was trilingual and comprised some thirty pages. Serialized and standardized, it gives the same amount of pages to each of the eleven participating artists for the presentation of their works. The work themselves were not completely identified with their presentation in the catalogue, but the catalogue was, of course, also not conceived as simple documentation or secondary information.

In fact, each of the eleven works was presented in a different location. Thus the exhibition was insistent that the presentation of the art is not bound to one physical place. The works “documented” ranged from performances, such as Lawrence Weiner’s A Ball thrown into the American Falls Niagara Falls and Robert Barry’s Psychic Series, which consisted of “Everything in the unconscious perceived by the senses but not noted by the conscious mind during trips to Baltimore during the summer of 1967” to So LeWitt’s drawing in Konrad Fischer’s house in Düsseldorf, rendered on May 15, 1969 (carried out by the art worker Hans Hermann). In its resolute opposition to the identification of the exhibition situation with one particular site, Siegelaub’s practice stayed true to what he had said earlier that year to Patricia Norvell: “And I’ve just, in a sense, eliminated space. My gallery is the world now.”

Joseph Kosuth’s work in Seth Siegelaub / John W. Wendler (eds.), Carl Andre, Robert Barry, Douglas Huebler, Joseph Kosuth, Sol LeWitt, Robert Morris, Lawrence Weiner [=The “Xerox Book”], exh. cat. (New York: Seth Siegelaub & John Wendler, 1968)

That the exhibition is the world now is a seductive, but not the most precise description of conceptual art’s place but it gives us a hint for exploring the catalogue. Its first part—covering the bulk of the publication—consists of “documentations” of the works, which were provided by the artists themselves. The second part, “Specific Informations,” which comprises only three pages, states as briefly as possible where the “material” part of the works took place, or where it was installed and during which period it could be seen, if it was indeed on view. This information was also provided by the artists themselves. While this information was conventional for some works, others did not follow the expectation. In their indication of “specific information” Robert Barry, Douglas Huebler, Lawrence Weiner and Jan Dibbets destabilized even this element of the catalogue by differently employing the phrasing: “All the necessary specific information is contained in the work itself.”—Destabilizing, since this notion ambiguously refers back either to apparent “documentation” of the pieces in the first part (which already provided a documentation of sorts) or to ephermal event of the performances themselves.

To understand the organization of the work it is necessary at this juncture to relate them to the idea of environment and context discussed above, now understood as specifically topological strategies. For the double movement of bracketing the mythic aura of aesthetic experience and affirming a place of art no longer solely topographical is decisive for understanding the critical force of this project. Obviously the catalogue effects an undermining of the primacy of aesthetic experience and its correlate, the physically present object, as it relegates the spatially locatable work to something like a supplement to the texts and/or images presented in the catalogue. The actual artwork, the entire organization of the project tries to insist, does not to coincide with an aesthetic object. Yet, the set-up of the exhibition makes it equally clear that it does not endorse a naive view of complete immateriality, where the aesthetic dimensions would disappear altogether, abstracted and dissolved into linguistic operators.

What remained a tension in Siegelaub’s discourse between the idiom of dematerialization and an interest in the material conditions of art is here transformed through a topological praxis. The topos of this topology is neither the physical space where specific works are located, inasmuch as Siegelaub’s curatorial practice indeed negates the art work’s “object status,” if one understands by this that the object must be present in an institutional site, be it that of the gallery or the museum. Yet the place for conceptual art that Siegelaub’s practice outlines is neither the ideational space of immaterial and frictionless communication that has left the aesthetic register entirely behind; its not the utopia of an ideational, pure space where the artwork’s commodity status would be suspended once and for all.

Robert Smithson’s work in Siegelaub (ed.), July, August, September 1969, p. 20.

Rather, the topos of Siegelaub’s topological practice is a place that articulates and makes visible the discursive mechanisms that organize, structure and determine the placement and displacement of the art context. In this regard, it would be interesting to compare his approach with Marcel Broodthaers’ “museum fictions,” where the artist styled himself as the curator of a fictive museum in order to elucidate and ironize the institutional mechanism underwriting the art context. Siegelaub, however, appears to be both more optimistic and more modest, inasmuch as he does not aim at fictionalizing an entire institution, but rather explores topological environments outside of institutional spaces, without giving in to a fantasy of culturally unmediated art. On the contrary. The apparently anachronistic medium of the book reveals its paradigmatic importance in this regard, for the book appears as the interface between these different—material as well as virtual—spaces.

Siegelaub’s approach could thus be said to be a “topological game,” a form of “bringing together and articulating” the relation between an art object and the mechanisms of documentation, description and discursive framing that constitute it. This topological game should, however, not be understood as an operation limited to the field of conceptual art. Rather, by dislocating the primacy of aesthetic experience and putting the apparatus of documentation on the same plane as the artwork, the catalogue-as-exhibition shows—retrospectively as well as prospectively—that art never occurs in a neutral and homogenous space, but that its topos is always already a cultural and discursive one. Such are the stakes of curating as a topological game.

Malte Fabian Rauch is a writer based in Berlin. After studying in Hamburg, at UCL, London and at the New School in New York, he now writes his PhD at the University of the Arts, Berlin. Besides publications on various themes in contemporary art and critical theory, Malte Fabian Rauch is part of the editorial board of Reiner Schürmann Essays and Lecture Notes, published by diaphanes.