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How The Primary Structures Exhibition of 1966 Changed Course of Art History

  • Installation view of Other Primary Structures at The Jewish Museum, New York
February 17, 2019
A philosophy graduate interested in critical theory, politics and art. Alias of Jelena Martinović.

In 1966, the Jewish Museum hosted an exhibition which introduced a new emerging trend in sculpture, presented as “New Art”. Titled Primary Structures: Younger American and British Sculptors, the show presented works which shared general characteristics of scale, simplified geometry and smooth, often colorful, industrial surfaces. Kynaston McShine, who was the Curator of Painting and Sculpture at The Jewish Museum at the time, and who later became Curator of Exhibitions of The Museum of Modern Art, New York, did not attempt to categorize this new sculpture, but rather to examine the artists’ fresh approaches to form and material and more significantly their use of color.

The Primary Sculptures came to assume a prominent place in the history of exhibition making, as it introduced the public to artists who were unknown at the time, but soon became synonymous with a radically new approach to sculpture now known as Minimalism. It became the first American museum show to survey this new style of art.

Installation view of the exhibition Primary Structures
Installation view of the exhibition Primary Structures: Younger American and British Sculptors, April 27-June 12, 1966. The Jewish Museum, NY

The Primary Structure Exhibition at the Jewish Museum

Taking place at the Jewish Museum between April and June 1966, the Primary Structures exhibition included work by 42 artists. Among artists from Los Angeles and New York were Carl Andre, Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt, Walter De Maria, Robert Morris, Anne TruittJohn McCracken, Larry Bell, Robert Smithson, and Judy Gerowitz (now Judy Chicago), while Philip King, Michael Bolus, and David Annesley were among those selected from the U.K.

McShine attempted to provide an organizing principle for the diverse collection of works included in the exhibition by dividing the artists into two tendencies, which he presented as deriving from the work of Anthony Caro and Tony Smith.

The works in the show took abstract, geometric forms achieved via industrial fabrication techniques. The works were conceived and designed by the artists, but not necessarily made by them.

Introducing a new generation of artists, the showcase pushed the boundaries of painting and sculpture, consequently changing the course of contemporary art. While the exhibition is now heralded as the first major U.S. exhibition devoted to minimal art, the term “minimalism” was not mentioned in McShine’s catalog text for the show. Looking back at this seminal show seems as looking at the moment when the art world tipped into what we now know.

Installation view of the exhibition Primary Structures
Installation view of the exhibition Primary Structures: Younger American and British Sculptors, April 27-June 12, 1966. The Jewish Museum, NY

The Critical Response

This exhibition was a critical and media success as reported in Time and Newsweek and was soon followed by critical labels for the art included – “ABC art”, “reductive art” and “Minimalism”. In his 1966 review for ARTnews titled Young Masters of Understatement, John Ashbery argued that the movement looked backward as well as forward, noticing “the influence of Constructivist monuments like Malevitch’s architectural models, Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International, Schwitters’ Merzbild and the environmental sculptures of Kiesler and Moholy-Nagy.” He noted that the show made a brilliant case “for this hitherto diffuse and largely undocumented school.”[1]

During a forum on the New Sculpture conducted at the museum, in which McShine, Judd, Barbara Rose, Robert Morris and Mark Di Suvero participated, di Suvero described the exhibition as the key show of the decade.[2] He further added:

…my friend Donald Judd cannot qualify as an artist because he doesn’t do the work.

To this, Judd replied:

…The point is not whether one makes the work or not… I don’t see… why one technique is any more essentially art than another…

Critically acclaimed for its breakthrough approach to this new geometric and formally reductive artistic practice, which introduced an entirely new visual lexicon to Western art history, the Primary Structures exhibition also ushered in a new style of presenting ideas and objects in relation to space. But maybe, more importantly, it introduced a radical concept of an artist as “designer”, not necessarily as “maker”, where ideas and space that did not rely on the artist’s hand, but rather on the final result.

Kynaston McShine (center) at the opening of Primary Structures
Kynaston McShine (center) at the opening of Primary Structures: Younger American and British Sculptors, April 27-June 12, 1966. The Jewish Museum, NY

Other Primary Structures

In 2014, the Jewish Museum presented an exhibition Other Primary Structures, which revisited the premise of and built upon this seminal 1966 exhibition. Bringing together sculptures from the 1960s created by artists from Latin America, Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe, the museum reexamined an important moment in art history while taking a far more global perspective. The exhibition was divided into two parts: the first, titled Others 1, featured work created between 1960 and 1967, while Others 2 presented work created between 1967 and 1970. Featuring 25 international artists, the exhibition explored a range of manifestations of reduced and abstract geometric sculpture in the 1960s, highlighting the full global reach of this groundbreaking movement.

Organized by Jens Hoffmann, Deputy Director of Exhibitions and Programs, the show also explored the legacy of the historic 1966 exhibition through oversize archival installation images, a large-scale model of the original, and an extensive timeline. In this way, the museum encouraged a dialogue between works on view and the historic show which is now regarded as a landmark of exhibition history.

In the accompanying catalog, which is a replica of the original catalog enriched with a new companion volume that offers a global survey of early Minimalist sculpture during the 1960s and 1970s, Hoffmann explained that the history of exhibitions has become “a separate field of critical examination.” Through a very hands-on form of study, Other Primary Structures asked what might have been included in the 1966 show if the art world of the sixties had been as global as it is today.

  Editors’ Tip: Other Primary Structures by Jens Hoffmann and Kynaston McShine

Other Primary Structures is a long-overdue reintroduction of the accompanying catalogue to Primary Structures by Kynaston McShine, a classic, out-of-print text. This two-volume set includes a replica of the original catalogue, plus a new companion volume by Jens Hoffmann that offers a global survey of early Minimalist sculpture during the 1960s and 1970s, featuring important sculptors from Asia, Africa, Latin America, and Eastern Europe, and complementing the earlier catalogue’s focus on American and British artists. Beautifully designed, this publication comes enclosed in a clear jacket that pays homage to the original catalogue’s iconic cover. Other Primary Structures is invaluable for the study of modern art history and provides an authoritative survey of Minimalist sculpture in the 1960s.

References:

  1. Ashbery J. (2018) From the Archives: John Ashbery on ‘Primary Structures,’ in 1966, ARTnews
  2. Sampson Meyer, J. (2000) Minimalism: Art and Polemics in the Sixties, London. Phaidon

Featured image: Installation view of Other Primary Structures at The Jewish Museum, New York. Credit: David Heald: The Jewish Museum.