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The lost decades: why the past is back to stay

Collectors in search of the new are buying up work that hasn’t been seen for years

The original “When Attitudes Become Form” exhibition at the Kunsthalle Bern in 1969. © J. Paul Getty Trust

A group of sculptures by the Japanese artist Nobuo Sekine has been taken out of storage after more than 30 years and is on show this week at Unlimited. The works, made out of fibre reinforced plastic and collectively titled Phase of Nothingness—Black, toured Europe in 1978 and 1979, but have not been seen since then. Their display here, organised by the Los Angeles gallery Blum & Poe [U35 and 2.1/J18], takes place amid a revival of interest in the art of decades past. Works from the 1960s and 1970s that have been forgotten for decades are now going on show and pieces that have been lost or destroyed are being recreated.

There are two main reasons for this says Franco Fanelli, the contemporary art critic of our sister paper Il Giornale dell’Arte. First, the market has lost some confidence in untested, emerging artists and, second, collectors in search of the new are increasingly coming to realise that they can buy works made in the 1960s and 1970s which is “much more radical” than anything currently being made and often much cheaper as well.

“The [1960s] have never had a bigger presence, you can feel it in the air in a very strong way. With time and perspective the decade is seen as even more radical and more formative in terms of changing the terms in which art is considered,” says Michael Govan, thde director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and co-curator of “Prima Materia”, an exhibition at the Punta della Dogana in Venice drawn from the collection of French billionaire François Pinault, which juxtaposes work by artists of the Mono-ha (School of Things) movement by Nobuo Sekine and others with pieces by their Arte Povera contemporaries (until 31 December 2014). Although both groups of artists used similar materials drawn from nature at almost exactly the same time, the movements evolved independently of one another on opposite sides of the world.

The Punta della Dogana show includes Sekine’s 1969 Phase of Nothingness—Water, two lacquered steel tubs of different shapes which contain the same amount of water; Kishio Suga’s Gap of the Entrance to the Space, an installation of zinc plates and rocks from 1979, and Susumu Koshimizu’s Paper, 1969, which consists of an open paper cube containing a rock—works that were all lost after having been shown decades ago. They were recreated for exhibitions held last year at Blum & Poe, where they were seen and purchased by Pinault. A Mono-ha group show entitled “Requeim for the Sun” which opened at the Los Angeles gallery in February 2012 is described by the gallery co-owner Tim Blum as “one of the most successful…in our history”. As well as Pinault, buyers included the collectors Howard Rachofsky in Dallas (who is currently exhibiting these works in his newly-opened gallery, The Warehouse), Bernardo Paz in Brazil and the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi.

The re-emergence of Mono-ha in the West shows the influence that a well-timed gallery exhibition programme can have. However, much of the current resurgence of 1960s art has been led by curators and institutions, not least because the art being revived is often ephemeral and difficult to sell or collect. Historic performance pieces, which are relatively easy and cheap to re-stage, are everywhere today. A 2010 Marina Abramovic retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York included pieces spanning four decades and was the first time the artist’s works had been re-performed live by anyone else in a museum setting. Other seminal works have been restaged at art fairs (see sidebar), perhaps an incongruous setting for performances which were entirely detached from the market system when they were first made.

Tribute to the ephemeral

One of the most ambitious acts of reconstruction ever attempted is the exhibition currently on display at the Fondazione Prada in Venice. “When Attitudes become Form” is a near exact replica of a landmark show of conceptual and Arte Povera art first staged at the Kunsthalle Bern in 1969 by the curator Harald Szeemann and endlessly eulogised since then.

The show brought together around 140 works in paper, plaster, felt, rope, wax, and bricks by Joseph Beuys, Carl Andre, Jannis Kounellis, Alighiero Boetti, Eva Hesse, Richard Artschwager and many others, to chart the rise of a new kind of art which rejected traditional hierarchies. Nearly all the works from the original show have been obtained or reconstructed for the new incarnation of the exhibition (until 3 November) curated by Germano Celant. Using thousands of archive photographs, the architect Rem Koolhaas has re-created the walls, floors, and even radiators and electrical fittings of the Kunsthalle Bern and squeezed them into the frescoed 18th-century rooms of a palazzo on the Grand Canal.

The show encapsulates the spirit of an era when artists believed that anything was possible and they worked together to achieve the same aims, says Germano Celant. There were no inflated egos, “nobody wanted their own room, as often happens today. Everyone collaborated. Beuys would ask Sarkis to help him install his work, all the Italian artists helped each other out. That communal approach has disappeared.”

And looking back on the art 40 years later, “we understand that the true contribution to [history] was made by [shows like this] and not by the market”, says Germano Celant, who helped Szeemann install the Bern show in 1969 and gave a talk at the opening. “Our only challenge then was to display objects effectively in the space we had available. The works themselves had absolutely no economic value…they were bits of material left over from various places. Nobody thought of selling them and most of the artists didn’t want their work back after the show was finished.

“Only museums have collected this work over the years because they had the resources to store it.…the art market was mostly focused on paintings and sculptures. This continues today because the type of work on display here still does not have much of a market while more durable work by the same artists does very well at auction.” Despite this, the subsequent commodification of some of the work included in the 1969 show hindered Celant’s attempts at a comprehensive reconstruction of the exhibition. “There is a piece by Neil Jenney, who now shows with Gagosian Gallery [2.0/B15], that we haven’t been able to include. When he first made it, he was 21 years old and he walked into a shop on the Bowery and saw a pile of discarded and broken fluorescent tubes. He asked if he could take them and the shopkeeper said yes. This is the work that was shown in Bern. Reconstructing it today would have cost millions. We couldn’t afford it. It went against the spirit of the [1960s] which was about using every possible material freely and with impunity.”

The art of the remake

• In 2006 the Wrong Gallery, an initiative by the curators Massimiliano Gioni and Ali Subotnick and the artist Maurizio Cattelan, re-enacted a historic performance by Gino De Dominicis at Frieze in London. Titled Second solution of immortality: the universe is immobile, the work consists of a man with Down’s Syndrome sitting in a booth gazing at a stone, a sphere, and an imaginary cube. When it was first shown at the Venice Biennale in 1972 it was shut down within a few hours.

• Other notable re-enactions of performance works at fairs include Sean Kelly’s restaging of Marina Abramovic’s 1977 Imponderabilia at Art Basel last year. This consists of two naked people facing each other in a doorway; to enter Kelly’s booth visitors had to squeeze through the two performers. Imponderabilia had already been re-staged, along with several other historic performances, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York as part of the Abramovic retrospective in 2010.

• In 2009 the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Kunsthalle in Bern co-organised “Voids” an exhibition which examined the art of emptiness. It recreated historic installations in which artists had left the display space blank such as Yves Klein’s 1958 show at the Galerie Iris Clert in Paris where the public were presented with nothing more than freshly-painted white walls or the 1967 Air Conditioning Show assembled by the British artists’ collective Art & Language which displayed air-conditioned air in an empty gallery. Last year the Hayward Gallery in London hosted a show entitled “Invisible: art about the unseen” which included several historic works from the 1950s onwards.

Nobuo Sekine’s Phase of Nothingness—Water, 1969 (black works, in foreground), is on display at the Punta della Dogana
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19 Jun 13
14:39 CET


There is a logical reason these things have been long forgotten. Digging them up and grasping at importance seems more the dynamic of gallery owners than art lovers...

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