Are you researching the history of the modern art blockbuster? You can easily compare attendance stats from the 1913 Armory Show in New York (88,000) with figures from the pared-down version sent to the Art Institute of Chicago, which had about half the number of artworks but, at 188,000, more than twice the visitors. You can also see that the audience for the Third Reich’s “Degenerate Art” show in 1937 easily eclipsed those crowds, with attendance of about two million in Munich, only its first stop.
But along with offering specifics on particular shows, the book can also be read cover to cover for what it says about the evolution of the modern art exhibition. Through this particular lens, the legacy of any one artist proves inextricable from that of his or her associates. Picasso plays a rather minor role; Cubism plays a major one.
The first chapter examines the 1863 Salon des Refusés, which was famously created by Napoleon III after French artists decried the high percentage of works denied acceptance to the official exhibition of the Académie des Beaux-Arts that year. (Only 30 percent were admitted.) The show of rejects, as every beginning art history student learns, drew big crowds of gawkers to works like Manet’s painting Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe.
What is not quite as well known, perhaps, is the haste with which the Salon des Refusés was organized. Artists had only two weeks to decline inclusion before their works automatically went on view as rejects. Most entrants did manage to withdraw—but perhaps to their regret, since even Academy-sanctioned artists soon marveled at the public response. Documents included here, like a letter to the editor of Le Charivari signed by “one of those admitted,” do much to illustrate the immediate impact of the show. The correspondent complains that his painting is being neglected in a corner of the official Salon show, while crowds flock to the “rejected” exhibition. “Could you tell me whom I should approach in order to obtain my transfer,” he writes, “from the hell of those admitted to the heaven of those excluded?”
Another early chapter documents the 1884 Salon des Indépendants in Paris, complete with a facsimile of founding statutes that enumerate, among other things, membership fees (one franc to join, with one franc and 25 centimes in monthly dues). In his preface, Altshuler suggests that this Salon represents a turning point in exhibition practice—trading old-style red walls for gray and adopting neutral frames, in effect embarking on “the road toward the modernist white cube, whose stripped-down character and striving for neutrality also suggest an invitation to aesthetic autonomy.”
These early salons set the stage in another way, too, eliciting from critics the kind of fierce love-it-or-hate-it responses that would become a hallmark of avant-garde movements. At one extreme, the book provides many examples of urgent defenses of nonrepresentational art, often written by artists themselves. The chapter on the Armory Show, for instance, features a fascinating essay in which Alfred Stieglitz implores visitors, almost carnival-barker-style, to discover “stranger things than you ever dreamed were on land or sea.” The chapter on the “0.10” exhibition, 1915, in Petrograd includes a statement by Kasimir Malevich that dismisses realist painting as “a necktie on the starched shirt of a gentleman and a pink corset holding in the swollen stomach of a fat lady.”
What’s remarkable is how many of these statements invoke the same basic argument—the now familiar rationale that individualistic self-expression conveys a deeper reality than any slavish representation of the external world. As Stieglitz concludes his essay, “Finally, if you decide that you would rather that art stay dead, then go out with your Kodak and produce some faithful imitations. Good machine work is always preferable to indifferent hand-made products.”