A Missed Opportunity? Other Primary Structures

July 17, 2014

The Jewish Museum’s Other Primary Structures[1] is a provocative call to action that seeks to confront a “mythologized” exhibition of U.S. and British Minimalist sculpture by showing a new roster of international artists, many of whom used a pared-down sculptural language broadly linking them to the original influential exhibition, Primary Structures.  A rallying cry, the exhibition contends that “a remake, a reconsideration, a revolt—with all the problems such an effort raises—is a necessary experiment.”[2]  However, the problems raised—the most conspicuous of which is its continued “mythologizing” of the very project it seeks to revision—undermine the exhibition’s possibilities, thus materializing as a missed opportunity. 

The word materialize is used here intentionally, and directly relates to the material on display: the artworks.  Shouldn’t remaking an exhibition, reconsidering a historical period from a wider global perspective, and/or revolt against past historical constructions, at the very least be guided by the actual works of art created, and by the makers who were in the throes of molding their culture?  If we foreground inquiry in the ideas driving the creation of artworks—the adoptive use of reductive sculptural language as the primary means for expression—we gain access to a more expansive, intellectual space in which to consider the connections among artists working in very different contexts. 

Other Primary Structures, however, is less concerned with the actual objects included than with the original exhibition, imposing an unfortunate stranglehold on the present; at every turn we are confronted with huge, black-and-white blowup photographs of the 1966 exhibition.  Drained of all color and texture, the original artworks loom as dominating, ghostly, two-dimensional figures against which we view sculptures by a selection of mostly South American artists, including Sergio Camargo, Lygia Clark, Gego, Hélio Oiticia, and Alejandro Puente.  It is an uneven playing ground with no potential for dialogue, an imbalance further shown in several instances by artworks that do not represent an artist’s best contribution (a large wall relief by Camargo, for instance, would have better represented his ideas than the selection of tiny sculptures). A more expedient “remake” would offer a fluid exchange among equal peers. Though Other Primary Structures attempts to level the exhibition playing ground, it remains absorbed in the long-standing, dominant ways we’ve told art history.  In this way it misses the opportunity to advance a more provocative reconsideration of reductive sculpture of the 1960s.   


[1] Other Primary Structures was presented in two parts.  This consideration is based on the first, which presented work created from 1960 to 1967, largely focusing on South American artists. 

[2] All quotes are taken from the Jewish Museum’s website for the exhibition.