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Introduction: Exhibition, Design, Participation

Installation view, ‘an Exhibit', Institute of Contemporary Arts, 1957

‘an Exhibit’ is a way of accepting the limited conditions of an exhibition and overcoming them to make a drama of space that involves the spectator.01

Commenting in the mid-1950s on the frustrations of conventional exhibition- making for art, Lawrence Alloway suggests that the linear arrangement of discrete objects, each displayed for distanced contemplation, might need to be rethought. 02 His remarks, written in an English context, chime with contemporaneous articulations in, for example, Brazil and Japan. 03 His proposition in response is particular – a single abstract work of art that is also an entire exhibition, resembling ‘not only a maze but a hall of mirrors’, 04 presented first in Newcastle upon Tyne and then in London: ‘an Exhibit’ (1957).

Richard Hamilton and Victor Pasmore, the artists responsible for ‘an Exhibit’, involved Alloway as ‘the diarist of the project’. 05 He operated as its wordsmith, or – as Hamilton would later describe Alloway’s role to Dorothy Morland, long-time director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) – ‘as a kind of mouthpiece’. 06 His responsibility was not just to describe or promote the show, but to introduce words into its core. The collaboration that had originated between Hamilton and Pasmore, and which opened up to involve Alloway, drew in numerous others – including art students at King’s College in Newcastle, where both Hamilton and Pasmore were teaching, and Trinidadian musician George Browne in London. 07 Ultimately, it sought the participation of gallery visitors, and not simply as spectators completing the work by interpreting it; the work relied on them as a medium.

While collaboration and participation are at the heart of ‘an Exhibit’, as argued in the pages that follow, an equal emphasis is placed on design, enfolded into art. This is specifically inflected through Hamilton’s longstanding fascination with exhibition design in the commercial and industrial spheres, through Pasmore’s increasing engagement with public art, architecture and urban design and through Alloway’s gathering arguments for a continuum operating between fine art and popular culture. In the projects discussed in this book, design and invited participation are important features. 08 The focus lies on initiatives attributable to at least one of the three ‘projectors’ of ‘an Exhibit’ (to pick up a term used at the time for Hamilton, Pasmore and Alloway). 09 Yet this body of work should also be seen within a broader context that includes, for instance: the IX Triennale di Milano’s international display of decorative arts, industrial design and architecture in 1951; the House of Cards toy, a slotted deck of pictures or patterns designed in Los Angeles by Charles and Ray Eames in 1952; and contemporaneous product displays at Simpson’s of Piccadilly, the renowned London clothing store. Here, in this broader context, there is some scope to challenge the patriarchy otherwise palpably strong, and at risk of perpetuation through a focus on the triumvirate of Alloway, Hamilton and Pasmore.

In her detailed analysis of ‘an Exhibit’ and related projects, Elena Crippa maps out this broader context, clarifying the three protagonists’ positions within it. Her careful historical account raises questions for at least two powerful narratives in the field. First, it asks us to reconsider claims that it was left to a later generation of Conceptual artists to re-engage with the lived environment and to reconnect art with architecture (as influentially contended, for instance, by Benjamin Buchloh). 10  Second, we find a productive complication of attempts to discriminate between art offering physical involvement or interactivity, on the one hand, and art with a collective dimension, on the other (a distinction that Claire Bishop has notably maintained). 11 Implicitly addressing these two dominant theoretical positions, Crippa sets out what was, and is, at stake when navigating the tantalising environment crafted through art, design and words by Hamilton, Pasmore and Alloway.

Owen Hatherley and Martin Beck each then develop, in their respective contributions to this book, reflections on the architectural and social fundamentals of ‘an Exhibit’. Arguing that its anchor lay crucially in Newcastle, Hatherley relates the project to Pasmore’s ensuing architectural design work for Peterlee, a new town in the wider Tyne and Wear region. He also brings into focus Hamilton’s later work, and specifically uses two starkly politically charged gallery installations of the 1980s to galvanise our grasp of the distinct social moment of the 1950s. Hatherley finds in ‘an Exhibit’ the all-too-brief hope of post-War social housing projects in Britain.

Commissioned in conjunction with research into the numerous remakings of ‘an Exhibit’ since 1957, 12 Beck contends that the project may be successfully restaged, even in the face of many other failures in the field of exhibition re-creation. Turning to George Kubler’s understanding of the connectivity between forms – and foregrounding the desire underlying so many restagings – Beck suggests that ‘an Exhibit’ productively embodies Kubler’s notion of a ‘form problem’ in its unstable unification of abstraction and sociality.

This book suggests that we do not explore ‘an Exhibit’ alone, each on our own. Directed by the research principles of Afterall’s Exhibition Histories series, it suggests seeking companionship in those who visited it in Newcastle and London in 1957. With hindsight we might see a technological hyper- modernism in the pristine Perspex sheets of ‘an Exhibit’; moreover, we might think of the artistic invitation to visitor participation as akin to that diagnosed, just a dozen years later, as ‘cold’, ‘mechanical’ or ‘arbitrary’. 13 Yet this would be to both misconstrue and underestimate the modernism of the post-War British welfare state, which, while frugal, 14 was committedly collective. More broadly and yet specifically, to wander ‘an Exhibit’ in company is to directly influence each other’s aesthetic experience and – to quote Carole Pateman’s classic work of 1970, Participation and Democratic Theory – if ‘the scope of the term “political” is extended to cover spheres outside national government’, then ‘a participatory society’ becomes possible. 15

Asked in 1960 to articulate a role for abstract art in public life, Pasmore suggested ‘it could operate in alliance with the new architecture as a function of living’. 16 Here the functionality described makes art natural to life but also, through recourse to mathematical terminology, it emphasises the relation between variables or, for the present purposes, the lived connectivity between individuals, via the production and experience of art. We might add, through the lens of ‘an Exhibit’: by means of design, exhibition and participation.

But it is to Alloway that I want to turn for my conclusion, since, with his 1969 monograph on the Venice Biennale, he was a pioneer of exhibition histories, and this bears acknowledgement in a book series now dedicated to this field. In the opening to his publication, Alloway reflects on the nascent state of the field: ‘There are many studies of artists, schools of art, media and iconography, but not much has been written on the distribution of art.’ He notes that the means by which artists make ‘contact with an increasingly large public’ have been neglected. 17 If exhibitions, whatever their form – or indeed by definition – remain the means by which art convenes its constituencies, then the present book reconfirms the role of artists not only in exhibiting but also in rethinking and reimagining exhibitions. 18 Co-shaped by an author who would only later assume the title of curator (Alloway, joining Hamilton and Pasmore), ‘an Exhibit’ invites us into no less than ‘a drama of space’. The question remains: how will we act?


  • Lawrence Alloway, ‘an Exhibit: Richard Hamilton, Victor Pasmore, Lawrence Alloway’, Architectural Design, vol.27, no.8, August 1957, p.288.
  • In reviewing ‘an Exhibit’, David Sylvester suggested the countering tendency, towards making ‘the spectator’ of art into ‘a participant in the work’, was becoming increasingly characteristic of modern art. See D. Sylvester, ‘“an Exhibit”, Reviewed’ (1957), in this volume, pp.168–69.
  • The work of Jikken Kōbō and the Gutai group is indicative in Japan and that most famously associated with Hélio Oiticica and Lygia Clark is indicative in Brazil. In terms of internationalism we might note that, interviewed in the 1970s, Hamilton made comparison only with New York in order to assert, regarding the work of another European artist, historical precedence ‘anywhere in the world’. See ‘Richard Hamilton in conversation with Dorothy Morland, c.1976–78’, in this volume, pp.178–87.
  • L. Alloway, ‘an Exhibit’, op. cit.
  • Ibid.
  • ‘Richard Hamilton in conversation with Dorothy Morland, c.1976–78’, op. cit., p.183. Morland may be considered another significant figure in the genesis of ‘an Exhibit’, given her directorial role at the ICA; Alloway was her assistant director. A key figure in Newcastle was Lawrence Gowing, professor of fine art at King’s College.
  • See ‘“an Exhibit” Calypso’ (1957), in this volume, p.134.
  • The ‘related projects’ represented in the dedicated image section of this volume implicitly overlap with the archival texts given that Alloway’s primary medium was words. See L. Alloway, ‘The Spectator’s Intervention’ (1955), in this volume, p.170–72.
  • ‘Space Planes’, The Architects’ Journal, 20 June 1957, newspaper clipping, Hatton Gallery archive, Newcastle University.
  • See Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, ‘Conceptual Art 1962–1969: From the Aesthetic of Administration to the Critique of Institutions’, October, vol.55, Winter 1990, pp.105–43, in particular p.119.
  • See Claire Bishop, ‘Introduction / Viewers as Producers’, in C. Bishop (ed.), Participation, London and Cambridge, MA: Whitechapel Gallery and The MIT Press, 2006, p.10; and C. Bishop, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship, London and New York: Verso, 2012, see pp.1–2 and, for a productive counterexample to ‘an Exhibit’, pp.88–90.
  • See ‘“an Exhibit”, Re-exhibited, Re-worked’, in this volume, pp.216–25.
  • Guy Brett warns in London in 1969 that ‘the participation of the spectator’ is a phrase too often used without this actually being achieved, since spectators are merely ‘the passive recipient of some preconceived effect’ and/or ‘there is no potential for making relationships’. See Brett’s untitled contribution to G. Brett (ed.), Hélio Oiticica (exh. cat.), London: Whitechapel Art Gallery, 1969, n.p.; reproduced in G. Brett and Luciano Figueiredo (ed.), Oiticica in London, London: Tate Publishing, 2007, n.p.
  • To sidestep to cultural concerns, for instance, arts funding in the country was the lowest in Europe at the time. See Andrew Stephenson, ‘The Fruits of our Policies: Art Exhibitions and State Arts Patronage in a Transitional Age, 1945–59’, contribution to the conference ‘Exhibiting Contemporary Art in Post-War Britain, 1945–60’, Tate Britain, co-organised with the Paul Mellon Centre for British Art, London, 28–29 January 2016.
  • Carole Pateman, Participation and Democratic Theory, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970, p.106.
  • ‘Questions to Victor Pasmore by Leif Sjöberg, 1960’, in this volume, pp.174–77.
  • L. Alloway, The Venice Biennale 1895 –1968: from salon to goldfish bowl, London: Faber & Faber, 1969, p.14.
  • ‘an Exhibit’ is increasingly discussed in the context of exhibitions produced by ‘artists as curators’. See Elena Crippa’s contribution to ‘The Artist as Curator’ symposium at Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London, 10 November 2012, documentation available at as-curator_symposium-videos-online/ (last accessed on 8 March 2016); and Isabelle Moffat’s ‘Richard Hamilton and Victor Pasmore, “an Exhibit”, 1957’, her contribution to the first issue of the serial publication The Artist as Curator, organised by Elena Filipovic for Mousse Publishing (distributed with Mousse, no.42, February –March 2014; to be anthologised in a forthcoming book). In the first publication in Afterall’s Exhibition Histories series, the role of artist Piero Gilardi in the conceptualisation of exhibitions curated by Wim Beeren and Harald Szeemann is foregrounded; see Christian Rattemeyer et al., Exhibiting the New Art: ‘Op Losse Schroeven’ and ‘When Attitudes Become Form’ 1969, London: Afterall Books, 2010.
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