Show Time: The 50 Most Influential Exhibitions of Contemporary Art (D.A.P/Distributed Art Publishers, Inc.), a new book by Jens Hoffmann, attempts in 256 pages to provide a handy compendium of (as the author sees it) the most significant shows of the past quarter century. This is the period, Hoffmann observes, in which "the art world has become globalized, the international biennial has emerged as the ultimate exhibition format of our time, and the biennial curator [has become] an all-important arbiter of global art trends and tastes."
Deputy director of New York's Jewish Museum and visiting senior curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, Hoffmann has co-organized such blockbusters as the 9th Shanghai Biennial (2012-13), the 12th Istanbul Biennial (2011) and the first Berlin Biennial (1998), among his numerous biennial credits. (None of the shows he has been involved in are included in his book.) An apologist for the notion of curator-as-artist, Hoffmann shares an attitude that, along with market factors, has deeply affected the balance of art-world power in the period under scrutiny. "Curating has become a creative act in its own right," he states in the introduction, with no false modesty or trace of irony.
True to mega-group-show practice, Hoffmann organizes his choices into nine (sometimes arbitrary-seeming) thematic sections ("New Lands," "New Forms," "Tomorrow's Talents Today," etc.), each accompanied by a brief on its content, reception and impact; a complete list of curators and artists; and essential bibliography. Hoffmann's conceptual (if not chronological) point of departure is the landmark exhibition "Magiciens de la Terre," organized in 1989 by the Centre Georges Pompidou and La Grande Halle de la Vilette in Paris, which provoked a huge international response, both positive and negative. (Hinting at a future common complaint, some accused the show of privileging curatorial concept over quality and organizational rigor.)
One of the first big shows to accord status to previously marginalized cultures, "Magiciens" marks the early stages of what was at first a trickle and then a deluge of big, international shows in which a specific curatorial perspective shaped contemporaneous discourse and stimulated competitive curatorial ripostes, fueled by a heated market. (The latter is a factor little considered in this book, not even in a "talk" at the end with Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, Massimiliano Gioni, Hans Ulrich Obrist, Mary Jane Jacob, Maria Lind, Jessica Morgan and Adriano Pedrosa). As Hoffmann points out, this period also saw the establishment of international academic and professional programs designed specifically for curators, a decoupling of the field from traditional art history and a move toward a greater "theorization" and "conceptualization" of the field.
Show Time is useful enough, with its lists and bibliographies. Don't look for deep analysis, self-criticality or Asian shows, and the balance is tipped away from the U.S. toward European venues. Among Hoffmann's choices, both renowned and (as he puts it) "cult classics," are Manifesta 1-9 and Sculpture Projects Münster (among the selections considered in all their iterations); the 50th Venice Biennale (2003) and the 28th São Paulo Biennial (2008); Documentas 10, 11 and 13 (each with its own entry); the second Johannesburg Biennial of 1997; Damien Hirst's "Freeze" (1988), in London; "Sonsbeek" (1993, Arnhem, the Netherlands); "An Unruly History of the Readymade" at the Jumex Collection in Mexico City (2008-09); and "WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution" (2007, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles).
With such a partial sampling of the ever-proliferating group shows that crowd the landscape, demanding an entirely new professional class of competing auteurs, one can only expect more such books—perhaps more exhaustive ones—in the future.