Co-authored by Gabriel Pérez-Barreiro
The groundbreaking 1966 exhibition Primary Structures at the Jewish Museum in New York presented contemporary sculpture by young American and British artists of the day. Organized by then-emerging curator Kynaston McShine, the show was propositional, catalyzing much thought and debate about the state of art—for better or worse, from a New York perspective. With this exhibition, McShine theorized about what he considered a new kind of art, one preoccupied with forms and processes drawn from or inspired by industry and technology. Soon after, this new art gained the label of Minimalism.
Artworks created by artists in Latin America, the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe at around the time Primary Structures was shown are being presented now, in 2014, in an exhibition organized by Jens Hoffmann at the Jewish Museum called Other Primary Structures. The curatorial premise underlying this exhibition is that dominant discourses of contemporary art history, such as the one that began with Primary Structures, have been created at the expense of the rich diversity of art created globally. The formal resemblance between the artworks of both the original exhibition and this new edition are apparent. Whether or not the artistic intents, aesthetic strategies, and contexts of production are similar or in dialogue in any way is one of many questions this provocative exhibition raises yet leaves unanswered.
Other Primary Structures appears to be an attempt at curatorial insertion or disruption into an existing artistic discourse rather than a historical re-enactment. The exhibition’s design is worth describing briefly, as it curatorially performs or stages this idea quite literally: the sculptures of the new edition have as backdrop photo-murals of black and white installation shots of the original exhibition.
Other Primary Structures raises a number of questions for debate: Does this kind of revisionist, curatorial exercise influence how we think about art history—and if so, in what ways beyond the fact that we ought to look beyond the so-called mainstreams? What is its impact, and for whom, and how could this be measured, if at all? Can one historical sensibility successfully inhabit the shell of another and, if so, what is gained or lost in the process? Does the inclusion of (mostly Brazilian) works from the Concrete and Neo-Concrete tradition create a false cognate with the North American tradition of Minimalism, which had little or no impact in Latin America during those decades?