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‘Other Primary Structures’ at the Jewish Museum, Curated by Jens Hoffmann!

The art institution revisits and reenacts (sort of) a hit 1966 Minimalist and Conceptualist show—but why?

Jeremy Sigler
July 07, 2014

Let’s just say there are two kinds of curators. One is a caretaker for a public or private collection, entrusted to keep the art up on the walls, packed away safely, or shipped off on some boat somewhere. This is a “dependent” curator—i.e., dependent upon one’s parents for money.

There is another kind of curator who dreams up exhibitions, gathers works from all over the place, and presents “meaning” by “combining”—usually in borrowed temporary quarters. This curator-type is not so much a care-taker, but more a care-maker, using art to illustrate a point, as would a sixth-grader using “visual aids” in an “oral report.” This kind of curator is not “dependent” but “independent.”

There have been many independent curators over the years, but one of the most eager and active today in New York is Jens Hoffmann, who is using his high-profile ways to bring the Jewish Museum into a kind of big-budget renaissance. Hoffmann is certainly interested in cannonballing into the swimming pool of the art world and making as big a splash as, if not bigger than, his curator buddies at other museums around town, like the New Museum, the Whitney Museum, MoMA, or MoMA PS1. (Front-page news: MoCA hires curator Helen Molesworth!) How did this hot stove league of curatorial All-Stars come about? Well, of course it has always been this way, since way back when in Koln, Germany, or Zurich, Switzerland—when such places were reachable only with the help of a switchboard operator putting you through collect. That was when “museums” were properly called Kunsthalles and when folks like Kasper König and Harald Szeemann (two first-generation European independents) were putting themselves and their “Un”-profession on the map.

But I suspect that the phenomenon of today’s rockstar curator—like the “star-chitect”—has something to do with the amount of dough in circulation and with the overpopulation of “art-world professionals” in general. (I can hear fake English accents in a song in my head as I write this: “The-un-pra-fession-als!—beat, beat—The-un-pra-fession-als!” spat out by the all-girl punk band in Lou Adler’s 1982 cult classic Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains.

These days, graduate programs sell degrees in “curatorial studies.” And we all know that when money gets invested in higher education, there is generally a debt to be paid—hence, the “professional” high-paid CEO-curator is born. But this position is not so much to tend with devotion to a museum’s rare gems (as does the librarian, once similar to the curator in spirit) or stir up trouble among the post-picture SoHo era, as did Collins & Milazzo mounting inclusive group show after group show as if each were another “exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists,” 1917. Think R. Mutt.

But deeper into the deep end the curators continue to swim, and deeper into the art world’s pockets they continue to dig, becoming independent curators and dependent curators at the same time. Hybrids. Punk rockers in a bar mitzvah band. I’ve seen these kinds of musicians take out their nose ring, roll their hair up into a bun, and wear long-sleeved shirts to hide their ink, just for the night.

So, Jens Hoffmann, a one-time independent, you could say, has now found himself inside the Jewish Museum establishment making a notable effort to respect and at the same time harass its noteworthy place in the history of Art. I guess you could say he is doing a bit of dependent-minded, frumpy care-taking (tending to the museum’s past) and independent-minded star-curating (cannonballing into its future) at the same time.

The exhibition he has mounted at the Jewish Museum is a historically revisionist “take 2” on the truly vintage Primary Structures show that went down in 1966, organized by a man named Kynaston McShine. In retrospect, it is evident that Primary was, historically speaking, a home run!—a show that was sparked by a young curator’s genuine curiosity and accurate impressions but then shaped into a kind of A+ thesis paper. This thesis then became a defining marker of a time when Minimalism and Conceptualism were still in bed together. (Imagine Richard Artschwager and Walter De Maria and Douglas Huebler in one show, yuckin’ it up.) While they may resist fancy classifying jargon like Minimal Art or ABC-Art, they do seem to sit comfortably with “Primary Structures.” That was 1966.

Now for Hoffmann’s Other Primary Structures. In an effort to make a fashionable late entrance at the McShine after-party, Hoffmann has pulled out all the stops, doing all the things that curators generally like to do: build walls, design catalogs, send out press releases and invitations, write boring essays, produce crappy “exhibition works” or versions of works when the real ones can’t be pried loose from their owners. And of course erect accurately scaled architectural models of exhibition spaces and irresistible dollhouse-sized artworks that allow the curator to play around all day making strenuous efforts to rehearse the “hang.”

But perhaps the guilty pleasure I associate most with the curator’s art is eye-popping wall signage—often painted on directly or applied with decals—and catchy titles worthy of 10 wheat-pasted posters hung in a row. (My personal all-time favorite of these is from a design show that took place at MoMA way back when called Mutant Materials. I never saw the show but I call on the title all the time, “Whoa, check out that mutant material!”) Here, the wall-signage fetish, and in this case, Hoffmann’s fetish, I suppose, has led to a pretty distracting super-graphic that reveals more of an association to “Neo-Geo” than just its “Geo” forefather. So much has gone into this particular entry wall of the exhibition, that it goes beyond riffing on the show’s original 1966 design concept and just about steals the show.

Let me lay it on you: The curator stands in his big echo-chamber of a gallery and nervously watches the hydraulic lifts bring in the works. Then he takes off his blazer and rolls up the sleeves of his J. Crew oxford and drills his team of art handlers as they hustle to uncrate more art works and move them into and out of place, and as he stands in the middle of the swirling chaos that proceeds his happily perfected academic recital he is apt to get a rush. (Think of Martin Short in the 1991 comedy Father of the Bride, playing the hilariously perfectionistic wedding planner “Franke Eggelhoffer,” who cares far more about the masterpiece he has created than the bride and groom do.)

As exciting as all of this is, there is no doubt that the true moment of euphoria occurs when the union guys up on the scaffolding peel back the masking tape to reveal the clean edges of a sort of Albers-esque Bauhaus “P” (for Primary) on a cadmium red ground covering a giant museum wall, taken from the same family of fonts that Elektra Records used to package The Doors. (I recommend a show on just this subject next time around, seriously.)

There is also a second perfect Jens Hoffmann touch. Positioned near his “wall work” is a grandiose white model of the Jewish Museum with its beautiful façade facing out in one direction and with its backside open as a Barbie Playhouse, revealing the original guts of the “Primary” show in miniature. Charming! But also slyly undermining to the many intentionally alienating “structures” in the show.

Keep in mind that Walter De Maria wasn’t exactly a people lover. He and so many of the others in the original Primary Structures show were working at the time—and for their entire careers—with the notion of expansive boundary-less space (consider Judd’s eventual self-imposed exile in the border town of Marfa, Texas, or De Maria’s treks to the desert regions to make some of the most remote works ever executed on American soil.) Scale, to these artists, was intended to force the human body into direct physical and architectonic altercation. The impulse, let’s just say, was to jar the viewer out of the older, safer mode of comfortable window gazing and a manner of sizing things up from a secure, tasteful vantage.

In ’66, the “primary” goal was to work directly in the somewhat risky mode of big and improvised (not to mention industrialized, sterilized, and serialized).

As you can tell, this tacky model, this attraction, this crowed-stopper positioned right at eye level for the baby-stroller set, this Barbie Playhouse of all things doesn’t belong here! And the “miniature” of a “minimalist” show (as appealing as it might be in the work of Richard Pettibone) would gravely insult both a devout Minimalist and Conceptualist. But Hoffmann knows this. And as a gesture it well attests to his subversive mixology of otherness. Hoffmann, a card-carrying revisionist, hopes to take a new look at who was included and who may have been left out and worse, left behind. I think I’ll sell a bumper sticker out in front of the museum just to get in on the action as well as the irony. It will read:

No Artist Left Behind

I can’t say for sure what is going on at the Jewish Museum. Is it a genuine effort after a long pause to edit, revise, and clarify one of the great “essays” to have ever been composed for/by them. Or is Other Primary Structures a humungous PR campaign, worked out in the museum’s boardroom and director’s office to imply: “No Museum Left Behind”?

Consider the Ad Reinhardt show, which was also at the Jewish Museum in 1966, organized by Lucy Lippard. It is certainly just as historical as Primary, if not more. Let’s suppose that an Ad revisionist show was also in the cards and being discussed as a strategic means to an end. Oops, Zwirner got to it first! But, even with my obvious doubts about our museum and/or gallery world’s primary intentions, I guess I would have had far more enthusiasm, ultimately, for a Sturtevant-like (or Richard Pettibone-like) recreation of a Reinhardt show, because when push comes to shove I am compelled far more by the actions of individuals than by those of groups.

Here, below, is a quote I came up with from the second-generation Abstract Expressionist painter Jon Schueler, a maverick if there ever was one—who fled the New York School of the ’60s after a few successful shows at the Stable Gallery and Leo Castelli (in his first year), and even the Whitney Museum (with Mark Rothko) in order to paint the “Sound of Sleat” from a remote seaside fishing village in the highlands of Scotland:

You should hear [Clifford] Still on group shows: he thought if the man is making a statement with his work, than he’s an absolute idiot to send one painting into a god damn group show being put up by some sort of strange bureaucracy or museum or whatever it might be that said OK you send in your little painting and then we’ll judge if were gonna show it out of two thousand entries, and then we’ll hang them any which way so they make any kind of statement, and even blank each other out, and it all becomes wall decoration. Am I living for that? Hell no! So it’s better really not to show than show. Keep your paintings, you make a statement that’s sober and serious and you’re not involved in some sort of competition to see who has the most talent.

I am not saying that McShine’s show, or Hoffmann’s for that matter, could ever be compared to the sort of three-ring art circus being described in the above passage, but it certainly does touch on something.

And now I’d like to end by including a much longer passage of philosophical writing I discovered leafing through an old book I found on Jon Schueler’s bookshelf when I visited his studio after his death in 1992:

Why do some things stick? Others don’t. Some build careers that last and others just disappear. I wonder why? Did they do something so right that it just stayed right? Or does a wrongness undo a rightness? Some of the stuff we still know. But some stuff we no longer know. The stuff we know, we may be kind of bored of, and the stuff we don’t know may look new. If it looks new it may be interesting. Is it interesting because it looks new? Or is it interesting because it looks old? Are we interested because it is interesting? Or are we interested because we are bored of the other stuff we were once interested in? We are interested in not being bored. But I am bored of being interested. But maybe I am not bored of being interested, but bored of being bored. My godfather was a maverick. He was bored of being in a group. His goal was not to be either the one that is found interesting or the one that is not. The one that is right or the one that is wrong. He was interested in being himself. Ok, so maybe you can’t ever be yourself? Can you? Let’s say you can be yourself trying to be not too much like the selves that aren’t you. Ok, so that’s resolved. But my point is that my godfather discovered that there was a search. The maverick I am speaking of, did not want to be in the group. He wanted to feel like a person who was not a person in the group. He wanted to feel like a self. But in order to do this, he entered the search for his own “art” of self. In this art of self, in this stretch for birth, he decided to realize something. What? Perhaps it was this: that the only thing that mattered to him was his his next. His next day. Next is after next. He wrote a book once titled “To and To.” I guess that was what he was getting at. Next just is. Like “to” just is. Time may only appear sequential because appearance has taught us about a thing we call aging. If there is no sign of age, maybe there can be no sign of sequence. No sign of the after being placed in a sequence with a second and third, and so on and so forth. Ok, so we cleared this up. Now the maverick godfather stretching after another after has no need for a group because he knows that self happens in another arena. The group offers a kind of empiricism. But something is always going to be included and something is always going to be X-cluded. Empirical people that strive to arrive with a group are the people who want to arrive at a category. The self that is cramped, knows that it is not an example of anything and never will be. A style that does not want to be cramped. The self knows that it is only one thing: after. After will be different in some inevitable and possibly readable way. Reading this day-after-day difference is the job. Another job is making this day-after-day difference to be read. Two hats. Two jobs, for one man. It is a reflexive experience. This is called introspection. If the introspection—the reading and the making of the thing to be read—is the after-after-after, then the self “evolves,” “devolves,” or “revolves” or “resolves.” The real blast for the voyeur (this is you) is to witness this evo-devo-revo-reso-lution. Like watching a monkey turn to a man, and a man turn to a cyborg, and a cyborg turn to, I guess, it’ll be just data? I guess. I am not comfortable with this sequence. It would be more accurate to say that the monkey was the data all along, but that it took a few hundred years for this to play out. Like the stretch of birth. So let’s suppose we’re all mavericks. We’re all only others. And we’re all forced to demonstrate or illustrate a pattern in one man’s thinking. And that man is an other too. We become words (a pattern) in one man’s sentence—an empiricism of one man’s grammar. I say don’t get seduced by the idea of being written into history. A man might find that it is better to be written out, counted out, unnamed as a thinker of that particular tank. Leni Riefenstahl, for example. Or the man on my block who is a one hit wonder. I see him every few days walking by. His pop song is still around. For some reason it is still remembered. For some reason it is still played. It got here on its own and dragged him with it. He can’t live it down. Or live it up. It is a song that is so wrong that I feel his regret. It was like a murder in a past. The revisionist is a nostalgist with a chip on his shoulder. Maybe an anti-nostalgist who cannot except that some songs are here to stay and others were gone tomorrow. But there is a danger in looking for goners of tomorrows within the here to stays, of digging up the dead and looking into coffins of mavericks who never wanted to be used as words in a grammar to begin with.

Jeremy Sigler’s latest book of poetry, Goodbye Letter, was published by Hunters Point Press.