Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object is a book of art-based lists that was compiled by curator and critic Lucy Lippard between 1966 and 1972. Now that book is being transformed into an exhibition, opening September 14th at the Brooklyn Museum’s Sackler Center. The sheer amount of information contained in Six Years makes curating an exhibition about it a massive task. Lippard would file away any documentation related to conceptual art—its publications, exhibitions, and art projects—and then put that information into Six Years. If it happened, it’s in there.
I caught up with Catherine Morris, one of the exhibition’s curators, about how the idea for the exhibition came about, what to expect, and the importance of launching historical surveys today. From description alone, this exhibition sounds like a breath of fresh air from the spectacle-driven exhibitions that have lately dotted the museum landscape.
Corinna Kirsch: How did the idea for the exhibition come about? Was it something that you’ve had on your curatorial plate for years?
Catherine Morris: Oh, yes. He [Vincent Bonin] and I met years ago when I was working on an exhibition on a series of performances that happened in New York in 1966 called Nine Evenings. He helped a lot on that show, and we just became friends. We just started talking about Six Years, a book that has had such an enormous impact on so many people across generations. And in talking about that, we just started toying with the curatorial idea of, “How do you take a book like this—how would it even be possible—would it be possible to take a book like this and turn it into an exhibition?” So it was really kind of an intellectual exercise at first.
CK: Well, exercise, or game, it’s definitely in keeping with conceptual art.
CM: It’s like an art nerd discussion, right? We had many discussions previously when we’d been working on Nine Evenings, which was, as you know, a series of performances. Obviously [performance] has a much longer history about how you turn something like that into an exhibition. I definitely think it was part of the way we were thinking about emergent practices in the 60s.
Then what happened subsequently, we had found out that Lucy had said in an interview with Hans Ulrich-Obrist that she’d considered Six Years to be one of her best curatorial efforts.
CK: I was thinking about that essay as well, that’s in A Brief History of Curating (Documents). That essay, to me, is fascinating because she talks about how she doesn’t curate anymore—or just every so often—just because the art wasn’t there for her, and it had lost some of its political bite.
CM: That’s key. And it was her very clear attempt to also reconsider her role as a critic.
So, she was playing with ideas, as was Seth Siegelaub and a number of people: ideas of what it meant to be an artist, what it meant to make objects; what it meant to criticize, write, or critique objects; and also what it meant to curate or display those objects. Conceptual art started out largely as a sort of intellectual parlor game, in terms of artists trying to mess with the art world—in this day and age we would see this as political—but at that point was largely not considered that way. By the end of the period of the book, 1972, politics had fully entered into this dialogue and I think the ways artists incorporated it largely were formed by these experiments in conceptual thinking.
CK: Were you the person to get in touch with Lucy Lippard and say, “Hi, we’re putting on an exhibition about your book?”
CM: I did! Vincent and I had been talking about this show for a long time. He had been in my office in Chelsea. I was an independent curator then and he said, “Let’s just call her.” I had been in touch with her previously for a couple of other projects. I didn’t know her, but was in awe of her, as most people are.
I have to say, her first response was sort of like, “Eh. You know, I have all this work I’m doing now, I’m not so interested in talking about that.” I’ve gotten that response from a lot of people: “I’m still alive and still making work.” But then she came around to the idea and she has been very clear that, as far as she’s concerned, this is Vincent’s and my project. She is supporting it, and she is writing an essay for the catalog, which is lovely.
CK: How much of this is organized around certain nodes, like exhibitions? Obviously, artists aren’t starting points.
CM: We tried to follow the book. Literally, you will walk in and be in 1966, then you will be in 1967.
CK: What should people expect coming to an exhibition that’s based on a book? A lot of work discussed is no longer in existence.
CM: I was just having a conversation with Vincent last night. He was in town, we were going over the details for the floor plan. There’s a bunch of things that make it real difficult to put on a show like this, in terms of just physically how you do it. At the end of the day, one of the more ridiculous and, I think, conceptual art twists, to all of this, is how much space dematerialized art takes up. We have so much stuff!
CK: I don’t expect to see it cluttered—
CM: Oh, it’ll be cluttered! And the other thing to keep in mind with all this, when you read the title of the book, at this point, part of what Lucy was doing was marshaling together a whole bunch of stuff she was seeing. And a lot of that stuff got categorized [in the exhibition] in different ways: we have Land Art, we have Minimalism, we have painting, we have sculpture. So, it’s not the same show that Ann Goldstein or Paul Schimmel would have made about the retrospective examination of the importance of conceptual art. It’s really about the mess that was Lucy— “Look, I’m going to throw this wide net of what’s going that I see with my peers and the people I’m interested in thinking about.”
So, towards that end, the show will have a lot of conceptual art, a lot of publications, ephemera, documentation, film, and video, but also a lot of sculpture and even painting. That’s what I think is going to be kind of strange for the audience because our parameters are very straightforward. We’re using the book as a template, but what happens after that gets incredibly messy and complex.
CK: I like that. Now, is there a favorite artwork you were able to track down? Or something you never thought you would get, but someone said they had a particular Serra hiding in their closest? I’m sure there’s some Eva Hesses you don’t have…
CM: Yeah, we really wanted to get one of the Eva Hesse pieces that appeared in Eccentric Abstraction. We wanted to include her in the show in some way, but we weren’t able to because they’re too fragile. And the one of two that still exist, that appeared in that show, are too fragile to travel.
But then there’s individual pieces that I just love. I’m thrilled that we do have John Latham’s Art and Culture [the remnants of a chewed-up edition of Clement Greenberg’s Art and Culture] . At the other end of that spectrum we have the famous And Babies poster from the Art Workers’ Coalition. But what I really love is we end the show with the last of Lucy’s Numbers shows, and the last of Lucy’s Numbers shows did not appear in Six Years. They happened the same year Six Years was published, 1973, and that was called Circa 7,500, Lucy’s first feminist show.
CK: Your mention of Paul Schimmel reminds that what has come out of his recent dismissal from MoCA, is a debate over what we want from museum shows. Does, say, putting on a disco art exhibition, meet our standards for what we think museum programming should be or look like? What sort of position do you see for yourself, and the Sackler Center, relative to other city-wide institutions? It’s kind of funny to see a back-to-basics exhibition as being a brave move in light of recent spectacular exhibitions around the city.
CM: It’s also kind of crazy that the Brooklyn Museum has to bring it. The Brooklyn Museum really is at the forefront of a lot of these discussions about how you balance community and audience engagement with an art- and object-based museum. It’s an enormous issue across museums, across this country.
I was just at a contemporary curators conference in Boston a couple weeks ago and it’s very much on everybody’s mind. How do you find a balance in all this stuff? Where does it come into play, all of these seemingly contradictory impulses, desires, and mandates within an institution that serves multiple audiences? I think what’s being played out in MoCA is a particularly painful example of it, and has, unfortunately, all the kinds of plastic elements to really make it into a good versus evil drama.