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Introduction: Exhibiting the New Art

Installation view, When Attitudes Become Form, Kunsthalle Bern, 1969

In 2001, reflecting on the making of the exhibition ‘When Attitudes Become Form’, the curator Harald Szeemann referred to the late 1960s as a revolutionary moment in art: ‘after the first revolution in visual arts at the beginning of the [twentieth] century it was the second revolution, and it is still the last revolution’. 01 A few years later, the art historian Charles Harrison wrote in similar terms: ‘in the history of art it is sometimes possible to connect substantial changes of direction and priority to relatively specific moments in time. The period of the late 1960s was one such moment; to be more specific I would say the period from the summer of 1967, when Artforum published its special issue, until the spring of 1969, when the exhibition “When Attitudes Become Form (Works – Concepts – Processes – Situations – Information)” opened at the Kunsthalle in Bern.’ 02

Both commentators convey their realisation that this was a moment when artists were overturning the values and certainties of the previous decades – a period when paradigmatic shifts were occurring in the understanding of art’s defining characteristics and its institutional relationships. Indeed, writing at the time in his catalogue text for ‘When Attitudes Become Form’ and in the diary entries that describe the making of the exhibition, Szeemann refers repeatedly to ‘this new art’ and ‘the new artists’ in a way that drives home the recognition of profound change. 03 Similarly, Wim Beeren, writing in the catalogue of the exhibition ‘Op Losse Schroeven’, which was presented concurrently at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, observed that ‘the old concept of art’ was being ‘shaken and undermined’ and noted the development of a situation in which change was ‘a formative principle’. 04

This book investigates the histories of these two exhibitions that set out, with an unusual degree of self-consciousness, to exhibit the ‘new art’. Confronted with artistic attitudes that challenged established institutional assumptions and introduced unfamiliar forms and materials, the two curators, Wim Beeren in Amsterdam and Harald Szeemann in Bern, embarked on parallel paths to produce quite distinct accounts of the current situation. Crucially, each sought not only to select the artists and works he considered most characteristic of this moment, but also to find the means most appropriate to frame this work in an exhibition. Both also embraced the fact that, for many artists at the time, the gallery was becoming not only a space of presentation but also a space of production. Works of art were no longer necessarily finished artefacts to be transported from studio to exhibition space; they were now increasingly being made in situ, either directly by the artists or to their instructions. As Beeren observed, ‘one cannot draw up a contract beforehand. Instead, the artists must decide what to do with the rooms made available to them – and not before they are actually present and working in the space.’ 05

‘When Attitudes Become Form’ has acquired almost mythical status as the first major exhibition to bring together international developments in post-Minimalism, Arte Povera, Land art and Conceptual art, and to juxtapose the art then emerging in the US with contemporaneous developments in Western Europe. But it is also increasingly regarded as the cornerstone for an understanding of contemporary exhibition making, and it is the example most often cited to illustrate the curator’s transformation from scholarly art historian, or guardian of a collection, to artists’ co-worker, a figure completely engaged in the conception, production, presentation and dissemination of the art of his or her own time. Harald Szeemann is today internationally celebrated both as the first curator to work outside the traditional structure of the art institution as an ‘independent’ and as one of the first to exemplify the idea of the curator as auteur, and ‘When Attitudes Become Form’ owes some of its celebrity to the ways in which it heralded Szeemann’s moves in these directions.

Wim Beeren had less international visibility than Szeemann, but his trajectory as a curator was again profoundly affected by his engagement with the challenges presented by the developments of the late 1960s, and he too moved out of the museum as an immediate consequence of his encounter with the art and artists of this time. Perhaps partly due to Beeren’s lesser renown, ‘Op Losse Schroeven’ has a more limited historical reputation, and is understood mostly in terms of its relationship with the contemporary art history of the Netherlands. But, as this book shows, it represents an equally important departure, especially in terms of its assimilation of artists’ critical responses to the art institution – what might be understood as an early form of institutional critique – and its interest in works addressing specific sites, both within the museum and remote from it.

Exhibiting the New Art sets out to reveal the hidden processes – of research, conceptualisation, selection, administration, publication and dissemination – that formed ‘Op Losse Schroeven’ and ‘When Attitudes Become Form’. Through the comparison of these two exhibitions, we see how one history can illuminate another, making it possible to identify the challenges facing the curators and to discern the different ways in which each understood and interpreted the imperatives of his activity.

Christian Rattemeyer’s extensive study of these two exhibitions, begun over a decade ago, provides the backbone of the book. He approaches his subject with the experience of both an art historian and a curator, making evident, above all, his deep interest in the spatial choreography employed by curators to bring works of art into public consciousness. This choreography can be traced through the exceptional range of photographs that have been brought together in this publication and through the floor plans that indicate the placing of individual works within the galleries in Bern and Amsterdam. Taken together, floor plans and photographs enable the reader to undertake a virtual ‘walk through’ of the two exhibition installations, with extended captions that again result from Rattemeyer’s meticulous research.

The book also includes the diary account written by Harald Szeemann, which traces the evolution of ‘When Attitudes Become Form’ from Szeemann’s first meeting with Nina Kaiden of the public relations company Ruder & Finn, who would introduce him to Philip Morris, the company that provided sponsorship for the exhibition (a story investigated in this volume by Claudia Di Lecce). Paired with Szeemann’s diary, Steven ten Thije’s painstaking reconstruction of Wim Beeren’s preparations for ‘Op Losse Schroeven’ reveals the slower and more bureaucratic workings of a large-scale national museum and the deliberations of a trained art historian and museum curator attempting to analyse and codify the characteristics of a rapidly evolving new avant-garde. These two accounts make manifest the distinct character of the two shows – one developed swiftly, and with an intuitive confidence in the exhibition as a kind of improvisational theatre, the other more laborious in its planning, but nonetheless infused with the experimental spirit of the time.

Rattemeyer also points to the role of the artist and writer Piero Gilardi, whose advice influenced the development of both exhibitions, and he explores the very different ways in which Szeemann and Beeren responded to his advocacy of a new and politically radical approach to art and exhibition making. This little known history is further developed in Francesco Manacorda’s interview with Gilardi. Also included are contemporary appraisals by artists who showed work in both exhibitions – sometimes confirming, sometimes complicating each other’s accounts – and Steven ten Thije contributes an analysis of the response from the press in both Switzerland and the Netherlands. These aspects of the book in particular remind us of the tensions inherent in any historical investigation, but especially in one devoted to an ephemeral cultural form. As a historical entity the exhibition proves to be elusive, its status and meaning moderated by its immediate and subsequent reception – by the responses of press, public, market and academy. Elements of mythology quickly enter the narrative.

Several lines of research in this publication suggest other subjects to be investigated. What role did gallerists and dealers play in the making of each exhibition and in ensuring that works of art subsequently entered public and private collections? What do the touring versions of the two exhibitions (‘When Attitudes Become Form’ in London and Krefeld, ‘Op Losse Schroeven’ in Essen) tell us about the process-based nature of the new art and the challenges involved in exhibiting it in the absence of the artists who made it? These and other questions are left as avenues for further study.

Only recently has it become accepted that exhibition history is an essential part of art history, especially since the late 1960s, when artists’ engagement with space and site has become an essential part of their practice. This book builds on the pioneering work of such scholars as Walter Grasskamp and Bruce Altshuler, who first demonstrated the ways in which the study of exhibitions informs our understanding of art and of art history. Altshuler’s The Avant-Garde in Exhibition: New Art in the 20th Century (1994) identified ‘When Attitudes Become Form’ as a key episode in the evolution of the art landscape of the late 1960s and provided the first independent historical account of the making of the exhibition. Altshuler also suggested that Szeemann’s work, together with that of the New York-based gallerist Seth Siegelaub, ‘set the stage for the curatorial assumption of the artist’s creative mantle’. 06

Exhibiting the New Art looks at ‘When Attitudes Become Form’ in the company of its contemporary ‘Op Losse Schroeven’ and so contributes to a wider picture of the challenges facing curators in the late 1960s, making it possible to trace the ways in which their responses to the art of their time helped shape subsequent approaches to exhibition making. In the case of these two shows the story that emerges is not one of competition between artists and curators – not the proposition that curators gained power at artists’ expense – but an increased sense of engagement and collaboration between curators of contemporary art and the artists with whom they worked. More than anything else, these exhibitions challenged the traditional understanding of a curator’s role as being institutionally bound, at a distance from artists and rooted in an analytic relationship with art history. They marked the moment when curators began to work in close partnership with artists, joining with them in testing the institutional structures that hosted their endeavours.


  • Harald Szeemann, ‘“When Attitudes Become Form” and Other Exhibitions’, Royal College of Art, London, 25 January 2001, as part of the series of lectures by international curators organised by the Curating Contemporary Art department at the Royal College of Art.
  • Charles Harrison, ‘A Crisis of Modernism’, in Gill Perry and Paul Wood (ed.), Themes in Contemporary Art, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, in association with the Open University, 2004, p.58. The special issue of Artforum referred to in this passage included Michael Fried’s ‘Art and Objecthood’, Sol LeWitt’s ‘Paragraphs on Conceptual Art’, Robert Morris’s ‘Notes on Sculpture, Part 3’ and Robert Smithson’s ‘Towards the Development of an Air Terminal Site’, amongst other texts.
  • See Harald Szeemann in this volume, pp.173, 174, 178 and 192.
  • See Wim Beeren in this volume, pp.118–19.
  • Ibid., p.125.
  • Bruce Altshuler, ‘Dematerialization: The Voice of the Sixties’, The Avant-Garde in Exhibition: New Art in the 20th Century, New York: Abrams, 1994, p.236.