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.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.”At the other extreme, the book is filled with anti-experimental rants, which typically use the rhetoric of decadence—images of social or physical decay—to question whether the art under discussion qualifies as art at all. A writer for L’Indépendance Belge in 1874 eviscerates Manet for “impressions” of landscapes that have “degenerated into fog and soot.” A letter to the London Morning Post from painter William Blake Richmond in 1910 denigrates Roger Fry’s selection of Post-Impressionist paintings at Grafton Galleries as “hysterical daubs” and “morbid excrescences,” concluding that they are “childish, not childlike!” And that’s not counting all of the Armory Show reviews comparing the exhibition hall to the psychiatric wards of Bellevue.
The book does a great service by gathering so many of these rants and raves in one place, vividly re-enacting the high-decibel debate that surrounded and fueled the development of modern art. At times, the level of hostility is nearly shocking. Do critics today even have that capacity for outrage? There’s also the perverse pleasure of reading venomous attacks on painters who are now household names by art critics who are rightfully forgotten, one notable exception being Theodore Roosevelt’s lengthy review of the Armory Show, which manages to be at once dismissive and thoughtful.
The abundance of newspaper clippings reprinted also helps us track a central theme in the rise of the avant-gardes. Over the course of these chapters, we see how various artists used publicity-seeking strategies and even courted media hostility as part of their projects. That is clearly the case in the Dada exhibitions, which were designed not just to épater la bourgeoisie but to become society (or anti-society) events, flashy enough to warrant ink in the daily papers. You can deduce from the chapter on the First International Dada Fair in Berlin in 1920 that the artists regarded the exhibition as a sort of riot, or riotous carnival, long before their critics did. Likewise, Salvador Dalí parked his Rainy Taxi—with live snails crawling on female mannequins inside the car—in the courtyard of the Galerie Beaux-Arts as bait for media coverage of the 1938 Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme.
Not incidentally, by this point in the story the photographs have improved dramatically in quality over those in the first chapters, where exhibition shots are few and far between. Photography gradually goes beyond documenting installations, serving instead as a surrogate for the artworks themselves in a way keenly familiar to today’s students of performance art, earthworks and other process-based expressions.
Take John Schiff’s 1942 images of Marcel Duchamp’s Sixteen Miles of String. The two shots reproduced here show paintings by Max Ernst, Yves Tanguy and others caught in the white twine that Duchamp had strung from floor to ceiling and through the chandeliers of a room in the Whitelaw Reid mansion in New York. At the time, we learn, critics variously described the installation as a labyrinth to explore, as “stout cobwebs” designed to obfuscate meaning and as a symbol of the tiring repetitiveness that afflicted the Surrealist movement. But it’s Schiff’s images, with the twine looking like a spray of white graffiti or an abstract light-drawing on the surface of the print, that are etched into our collective memory. In a book that unpacks the archive, there are moments whenthe archival becomes the art.
JORI FINKEL isan arts writer based in Los Angeles.