Alfred Barr’s celebrated diagram of modern art occupies a strange place in the new reference volume Salon to Biennial. A sourcebook that sets out to document 24 “exhibitions that made art history” from 1863 (the Salon des Refusés in Paris) to 1959 (“The New American Painting” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York), the book is packed with a great range of archival material: exhibition photographs, floor plans, invitations and other ephemera as well as selected catalogue prefaces, news clips and reviews.
It’s not surprising, then, that the chapter devoted to Barr’s “Cubism and Abstract Art” exhibition at MoMA in 1936 reproduces his famous branching diagram of avant-garde styles and movements as it appeared on the cover of the show’s catalogue, paired with an earlier draft that also lists individual artists. What is surprising is that the book as a whole serves to redeem Barr’s final chart as a meaningful, fruitful view of art history, as opposed to an expression of one man’s systematizing vision, which has been under critical assault for several decades now. For in its own way, this book also suggests that modern art history was not made by individual artists as much as by art movements—and the big group exhibitions that launched and defined them.
Assembled by Bruce Altshuler (director of the museum studies program at New York University) and several Phaidon editors (two key staff members are named in the acknowledgments but not on the title page), Salon to Biennial grew out of Altshuler’s 1994 book The Avant-Garde in Exhibition: New Art in the 20th Century. An important study of the making of certain influential exhibitions, that book had one major flaw: a limited number of color plates and tiny reproductions of sprawling exhibitions.
The new book, for which Altshuler wrote the introduction and chapter openers and provided historical guidance, covers many of the same shows, from indisputably famous exhibitions to a few more adventurous or far-flung examples like “The First Gutai Art Exhibition” in Tokyo in 1955. But this volume devotes substantially more space to archival materials and images. With over 400 pages and 500 illustrations, it will make a lively and highly visual classroom companion to established text-based anthologies like Herschel B. Chipp’s Theories of Modern Art, Charles Harrison and Paul Wood’s Art in Theory 1900-2000 and the ongoing Documents of Contemporary Art series from Whitechapel and MIT Press.
Expectations are also high for the second volume of Salon to Biennial, which is currently in the works. But the choices in that book, spanning the last 50 years, are sure to be more controversial. It is hard to imagine a room of art historians agreeing on the most important Documenta, Venice Biennale or Whitney Biennial, let alone on the two dozen most influential group exhibitions of the past half century.
As a reference tool, Salon to Biennial is beautifully conceived and designed. Each chapter starts with a brief overview of an exhibition, followed by several spreads of images and then various texts generated for or about the show. I especially like the book’s organizational apparatus, with bright orange, half-page inserts serving as handy chapter dividers. Printed on each divider is key exhibition information: title, dates, curator(s), itinerary, participating artists and, if known, attendance figures.