Frames and Documents: Conceptualist Practices
The curatorial text for Frames and Documents: Conceptualist Practices points to a distinction between Conceptual art as a historical movement and the broader, more varied and decentralized realm of conceptualist practices that continue to resonate in contemporary art. Displaying a diverse array of works from the Ella Fontanals-Cisneros collection, the exhibition eschews a canonical survey-style approach to conceptualism in favor of highlighting similarities in the practices of artists working over different times and locales.1 By dividing the works into two categories—“frames” and “documents”— curators Jesús Fuenmayor and Philippe Pirotte emphasize two dominant modes for examining conceptual art, yet many of the works defy such rigid cataloging.
Pavel Büchler, Blind Circles (Under Surveillance), 1978; seven black and white photographs (far right); 10 x 8 in. each; photographed by Oriol Tarridas; image courtesy CIFO.
A common difficulty in displaying conceptual art is that much of it exists solely through documentation. Frames and Documents addresses this issue in its curatorial structure. The “documents” section contains documentation of performance-based works, as well as discrete works that function as records. These include, for example, Pavel Büchler’s 1978 series of photographs, Blind Circles (Under Surveillance), for which the artist set long exposures to capture an hour of his blindly drawing a circle on the wall. The photographs thus record the whole unseen performance, but also exist as gestural drawing-like compositions on their own.
The curators dedicated the “frames” section to artists who question traditional artistic conventions through institutional critique. Nelson Leirner’s 1967 Homenagem a Fontana II (Homage to Fontana II) is a “frame.” Created to demystify Lucio Fontana’s famous slashes through canvases, Leirner’s work is made of colored canvases fastened with zippers that—when first exhibited—viewers could open and close themselves.
Cildo Meireles, Untitled (Project for "Corner"), 1967-1971; mixed media on paper (on left); and Nelson Leirner, Homenagem a Fontana II, 1967; canvas and zipper (on right); 71.5 x 50 in.; photographed by Oriol Tarridas; image courtesy CIFO.
Often the distinction between the two categories is clear-cut. Installation drawings for Lygia Pape’s delicate installation of gold thread, Tteia (1976-2004) and Victor Lucena’s Shock.M.L.2 (1977), an installation of painted wood and canvases playing on the idea of visual weight, reside among the “documents.” Turning the corner reveals that the actual works appear among the “frames.” At other times the separation seems more arbitrary. Louise Lawler’s Untitled (Perfume) (1988) is arguably a record of something—it’s a photograph, after all—yet since Lawler’s practice involves exposing the mechanisms of art institutions, it might appear more appropriate with the “frames.” Even Leirner’s homage to Fontana, which once undeniably existed as a participatory subversion of artistic conventions, seems relegated to artifacthood when placed in an institutional context and rendered untouchable.
Images from Bernd and Hilla Becher’s Winding Towers appear in both sections of the exhibition, and the same is true for series by Horacio Zabala, Eugenio Espinoza and others. By creating a deliberate dialogue between the sections and allowing the viewer to question the placement of the works, the exhibition is almost more successful at imbuing the works with a sense of unity rather than an over-arbitrary separation. Whether this is intentional or simply a result of the inherent difficulty of categorizing conceptual art, it’s effective.
- 1. The Ella Fontanals-Cisneros collection’s primary interest is in Latin American artists working outside of conventional frameworks. Alongside seminal conceptualists like Vito Acconci, Marina Abramović and Joseph Kosuth, the exhibition presents a strong showing of lesser-known international artists, from Latin America and elsewhere. The wall texts scattered throughout the gallery help to place many individual works in the context of their production, adding nuance to the exhibition’s comparisons.