Primary Structures and Minimalist Sculptures at MMK, Frankfurt

April 6, 2017

Recent exhibitions with a curatorial reference to famous blockbuster shows often suffer more losses than gains. The current one at Frankfurt’s MMK2Primary Structures. Meisterwerke der Minimal Art., apparently dedicated to the 1966 landmark exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York, is, unfortunately, no exception to the rule.

Entering the exhibition floor of the MMK2, one is immediately confronted by a partial reconstruction of Heiner Friedrich’s famous gallery in Munich in the year 1968. Friedrich played an important role in introducing minimal artists, including Carl Andre, to the German public. Inside this mise-en-scène, Carl Andre’s serial sequence of rusty steel plates 22 Steel Row runs from room to room. The reconstructed space surely provides a nice historical introduction at first glance, however, in actuality, the effect seems to distance one’s relationship to the object due to the reconstruction’s opening up of a multitude of additional, and quite frankly unnecessary, references: What exactly is on view? Is it really the work of art? Is it the carefully rebuilt gallery space? Or is this whole situation an attempt to revitalize a specific moment of the past because Andre originally created the plates for their presentation in Friedrich’s gallery? Confronted with the dominant presence of the display, one must ask oneself: Doesn’t this kind of spatial intermediation generate a boundary to the physical experience of the artwork, thereby undermining the very core of Minimalism? However, this ambiguity proves to be a first glimpse of what’s next to come.

Carl Andre - 22 Steel Row, 1968. Exhibition view MMK Museum für Moderne Kunst Frankfurt am Main. Photo by Axel Schneider

Lost in the Shuffle

The MMK2 colossal space of is jam-packed with heavyweights, proudly presenting its own collection. There is Walter De Maria, for example, whose work Cage is the only work on show that took part in the original Primary Structures of 1966. One can find Donald Judd’s famous Untitled (Eight Modular Unit V-Channel Piece) from 1967, as well as Richard Artschwager's resopal-soaked Untitled (1966) towards the back of the exhibition. It’s a long list of famous names. These pieces are complemented by works of artists who were significantly influenced by Minimalism such as Bruce Nauman, Ceal Floyer and many more. Thus far this amalgamation sounds like a pretty common curatorial approach with each work being a powerful position in itself, accompanied by the documentation of artistic interrelations. But, in this case, critical works become compromised by an overloaded presentation. Productive interrelations in this high density of objects remain scarce. The sensitivity of works, like Carl Andre's 35 Timber Line (shown for the first time due to its huge dimension), gets almost lost in the shuffle.

Consequently, the exhibition is strongest in those sections in which it allows the objects to develop their own radius of action. William Forsythe’s double-screen projection, Stellentstellen Films (2013), for example, shows two men lying on the floor with heavily interwoven bodies. Their movements are frozen with just a slight change of position every few seconds. A truly meditative setting in which the spectator can get a sense of the almost unbearable physical tension the actors are caught in. Just around the corner, one can find the digitally restored 16mm films by the Frankfurter minimal artist Peter Röhr. In his Film-Montagen I-III (1965), the narratives of advertisement cut-outs collapse under perpetual repetition. In its radical criticism of post-war mass society, it is probably one of the most surprising works on view.

Foreground: Carl Andre - 35 Timber Line, 1968. Exhibition view, MMK Museum für Moderne Kunst Frankfurt am Main. Photo by Axel Schneider

What is the Name-Dropping Good For?

Making reference to a huge name can be a legitimate way for a museum to attract high visitor numbers and has become almost a classic these days. To those more familiar with the MMK’s collection, this is an obvious refurbished performance of the museum’s impressive collection of Minimalism/Postminimalism art, and therefore, an opportunity to keep down the costs of the institution. But this overcrowding leads to uncertainty about the curatorial goal of the show. The artworks lose their original effect in a lack of clarity. The additional cross-reference of Heiner Friedrich’s reconstructed gallery remains somehow isolated, considering the fact that it is the only instance of a concrete spatial reconstruction in the exhibition. Is the spectator asked to reproduce some historical situations? Is the title of the exhibition substantially reasonable? Isn’t the point of view guided by a dissociation from the artwork itself? Inevitably the question of opposing referentiality arises at some points of the exhibition and causes further confusion. Indicating the connection to a canonical event can cause a stream of visitors, however, are such curatorial practices a contribution to critical thinking? Is the exhibition-format finally exhausted and therefore bound to self-referential redundancy? Or is the need for blockbuster events in today’s adoration of the spectacle so convincing that we are seriously considering to give up our sceptical eye for the sake of a simple fairground attraction? I ask: What is the name-dropping good for?

Primary Structures
MMK 2, Frankfurt
22.02. − 13.08.2017.

Foreground: Donald Judd - Untitled, 1967. Exhibition view, MMK Museum für Moderne Kunst Frankfurt am Main. Photo by Axel Schneider

Featured image: Foreground: Walter De Maria: 4-6-8 Series, 1966/1991, exhibition view MMK Museum für Moderne Kunst Frankfurt am Main, photo: Axel Schneider.

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