On Intuition and Affinity: Timeless Aspects of Modern Art and the “Ahistorical” Exhibition

Pavel Pyś

Various research materials from René d’Harnoncourt Papers, REG 393, Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York, including installation view and floor plan of Timeless Aspects of Modern Art, 1948. Photo: Pavel S. Pyś.

Juxtaposing artworks and artifacts has become something of a recurrent tendency—even a trend. In 2013, for instance, the 55th Venice Biennale, curated by Massimiliano Gioni and titled The Encyclopedic Palace, opened not with art but with an architectural model by Marino Auriti; elsewhere visitors found the mineral collection of the French intellectual Roger Caillois and Carl Jung’s Liber Novus (1913–30), which records his visionary experiences after his break with Sigmund Freud. We find a similar impulse in contemporary artistic practices as well, like those of Carol Bove or Goshka Maçuga. Recent exhibitions such as The Keeper at the New Museum, New York, and The Artist’s Museum at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston (both 2016), have explored this development.

The practice reopens questions that were seemingly closed, or not yet addressed, a half century ago. What does it mean for non-art objects to be divorced from their original social or cultural context and put on view in a white cube? What formal or conceptual dimensions are heightened by this inclusion and juxtaposition, and at what cost? The readymade enabled an existing object to become an artwork via designation, brazenly casting aside its original social, cultural, and political connotations. Yet the act of exhibiting such objects, as well as the burgeoning field of exhibition histories, raises the necessary question of what happens to a non-art object when it’s not exactly made into an artwork, yet is subjected to an aesthetic context.

The exhibition Timeless Aspects of Modern Art, presented at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1948, might hold answers. Curated by René d’Harnoncourt, it is an under-recognized forerunner of the so-called “ahistorical exhibition” format, a term that describes a rejection of chronology in favor of curatorial intuitions and (usually formal) affinities among artworks. Drawing on key early twentieth-century exhibitions by modernist art historians such as Alfred H. Barr Jr., the theorist Debora Meijers considers the “ahistorical exhibition” as one that raises important questions about curatorial authorship and the role of taste in exhibition making. 11. Debora J. Meijers, “The Museum and the ‘Ahistorical’ Exhibition,” in Thinking about Exhibitions, ed. Bruce W. Ferguson, Reesa Greenberg, and Sandy Nairne (London: Routledge, 1996), 7-20.

The Austrian-born d’Harnoncourt studied philosophy and chemistry at the University of Graz, then spent much of the 1920s living in Mexico, collecting and dealing in pre-Columbian and contemporary Mexican art. He curated exhibitions of Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and Rufino Tamayo, as well as Mexican Arts (1930), a major show organized for the Mexican Ministry of Education that toured the United States. Upon moving to the United States in 1933, he directed the weekly NBC radio program Art in America and worked with the Indian Arts and Crafts Board, an agency within the Department of Interior.22. The Indian Arts and Crafts Board sought to promote the economic development of American Indians and Alaska Natives through the expansion of the Indian arts and crafts market.

Prior to joining MoMA in 1944, d’Harnoncourt curated Indian Art of the United States (1940) and advised Nelson Rockefeller as acting director, art section, of the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs, established to stimulate inter-American cooperation and counter German and Italian propaganda in South America. Succeeding Barr as MoMA’s second director in 1949, he brought an established professional network, a wealth of curatorial experience, with a focus on both Western Modernism and South American art, and a driving wish to familiarize and educate audiences at that point still new to modernist experimentation. At that time, MoMA was still developing its identity, and regularly staged not only exhibitions of contemporary art but also shows of graphic and applied design, and even art by children.

D’Harnoncourt’s Timeless Aspects stemmed from research that first led to Arts of the South Seas (1946), a MoMA survey he curated of artifacts from Australia, New Guinea, Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia, with regions mapped and grouped into areas of stylistic affinity: “natural forms simplified,” “natural forms geometricized,” and “natural forms exaggerated and distorted.”33. Mary Anne Staniszewski, The Power of Display: A History of Exhibition Installations at the Museum of Modern Art (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998), 111. Timeless Aspects marked MoMA’s twentieth anniversary and was intended by its curator to “answer the accusation that modern art is created in a historic vacuum; that it has no links to the past except in the imitation and distortion of certain details and that it, therefore, has lost its human and social content.”44. Timeless Aspects of Modern Art was followed by Modern Art in Your Life, an exhibition of contemporary art with examples of graphic and industrial design, architectural models, and advertising. Quote from d’Harnoncourt’s description of Timeless Aspects of Modern Art, René d’Harnoncourt Papers, REG 393, Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York. Inherently educational and public-facing in its aims, the exhibition sought to remind audiences “that such ‘modern’ means of expression as exaggeration, distortion, abstraction, etc., have been used by artists since the very beginning of civilization to express their ideas and emotions.”55. Ibid.

Grouped into four themes—“structure and abstraction,” “stylization and emotional content,” “volume and form,” and “fantastic and mysterious”66. René d’Harnoncourt Papers, IX.A.62, Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York.—the exhibition’s selection called upon modes such as “rhythmic movement” and “mathematical order,”77. René d’Harnoncourt Papers, REG 393, Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York. and on the artist’s or maker’s presumed emotional desires. Its temporal scope, reaching deep into the past, was no doubt indebted to Barr’s sweeping Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism (1936), which encompassed objects created between 1450 and 1936 and included artworks as well as comics, folk art, and art by children.

To prepare Timeless Aspects, d’Harnoncourt created his floor plan by meticulously sketching each object, studying its scale and formal properties, and searching for appropriate companion works that would open meaningful dialogues.88. For more on d’Harnoncourt’s drawings, see Michelle Elligott, “Modern Artifacts 4: Drawing Comparisons,” Esopus 10 (Spring 2008): http://www.esopus.org/contents/view/185. The resulting exhibition offered a novel viewing experience by contrasting recent works by, among others, Constantin Brançusi, Alberto Giacometti, Amedeo Modigliani, and Pablo Picasso with ancient Egyptian and Cycladic figures, twelfth-century Mayan ceramics, and nineteenth-century Sudanese carvings. At the entrance was a world map marking the origin of each piece, as well as a timeline stretching from 75,000 BC to 1948.

This was not the first time MoMA’s audiences experienced non-Western artifacts alongside contemporary artworks. A decade prior, Barr created similar juxtapositions in American Sources of Modern Art (1933) and Cubism and Abstract Art (1936), among other exhibitions. D’Harnoncourt was also indebted to his predecessor in terms of display methods, as Barr’s exhibitions shifted audience expectations from traditional salon-style staggered arrangements to simple and sparse groupings.99. Mary Anne Staniszewski, The Power of Display, 62. The theatricality of Timeless Aspects, however, departed from Barr’s examples. With its carefully composed vistas and dramatic lighting that isolated individual objects against brightly colored walls and flowing fabrics, Timeless Aspects was unprecedented at MoMA (though it recalled the innovative exhibition designs of Frederick Kiesler and Marcel Duchamp, both of whom had opened groundbreaking shows in New York in 1942). Timeless Aspects likewise stood in stark contrast to MoMA’s overtly pedagogical displays for We Like Modern Art (1940) and Understanding Modern Art (1941). 

While d’Harnoncourt fully acknowledged the subjective nature of Timeless Aspects,1010. “We fully realize that this exhibition is based in part on personal interpretation and do not present it as a dogmatic statement but as an invitation to the visitor to undertake his own explorations.” Exhibition brochure, René d’Harnoncourt Papers, IX.A.62, Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York. as his underpinning theoretical framework he most likely borrowed the notion of empathy and affinity from Robert Goldwater’s Primitivism in Modern Painting (1938), a book that proposed “affinity” as a means to “align cultural objects that look somewhat familiar but are wholly unrelated in indigenous function and meaning.”1111. Mary Anne Staniszewski, The Power of Display, 110. This questionable concept of “affinity” culminated in the controversy surrounding MoMA’s “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern (1984),1212. Curated by William Rubin and Kirk Varnedoe. which notoriously skirted issues of Western appropriation and colonialist histories.1313. For a recent reappraisal, see Clémentine Deliss, “Objets Actanciels / Agent Objects,” Exhibitionist 11 (2015), 14–21. 

For Meijers, it is exactly these ill-defined and personal notions of intuition and affinity that led to the so-called position of the “curator as auteur,” an arbiter of taste whose vision need not be fully explicated. This point cuts directly to the fundamental differences between artistic and curatorial practices, namely agency and authorship. Artists are afforded the license to pursue intuitive and poetic combinations of materials and objects, often with a looser degree of accountability toward history or discipline, as seen in the proliferation and rapturous reception of artist-curated exhibitions. Curators, on the other hand, are seen as gatekeepers of art history, whose exhibitions (however intuitive and exhilarating), should nonetheless conform to established modes of storytelling and display.
This latter point is especially evident in the conservatism of today’s exhibition designs, wherein curators largely avoid overemphasizing their own personalities. Modernist exhibition design is studied and revered, yet few contemporary exhibition makers would afford themselves statements as “personal” as Carlo Scarpa’s use of fabrics to diffuse light in gallery spaces,1414. For example in his designs for the 1953 exhibition of paintings by Antonello da Messina at Palazzo Zanca, Messina, Italy. or Franco Albini’s choice to make sculptures mobile through hydraulic lifting devices, as he did at the Museo di Sant’Agostino in Genoa.1515. Franco Albini oversaw the architectural renovation and masterplan for the collection display of Palazzo Bianco and Palazzo Rosso in Genova, which opened to the public in 1950. Today’s exhibition design pursues a language of “neutrality” that nonetheless still communicates a curator’s argument and aesthetic sensibility. By contrast, Timeless Aspects prioritized a highly aestheticized, embodied engagement with color, form, and texture over a didactic or explanatory learning experience.

While undeniably original, d’Harnoncourt’s exhibition nevertheless raises problematic questions about the ontological divide between artworks and non-art objects, and equally about the Western appropriation (and decontextualized display) of non-Western objects in exhibitions. The highly aestheticized display denuded the objects of cultural context: for instance a Gabonese reliquary figure hung high on a wall, divorced from the relics atop which it likely would have originally been placed. Elsewhere the shared characteristics between art and artifact were ill-defined; a “mysterious” tone somehow unified Alexander Calder’s Mobile (1945) and Colombian Chibcha gold ornaments (ca. 1400), and thus the latter were appreciated for their form, rather than understood as indicators of social class or markers of religious meaning. In such a scenario the non-art object is subjected to the autotelic logic of the modernist artwork: severed from tedious use value, it exists independently, on its own terms. Spotlit and sumptuously displayed, it is also purified of its acquisition history—most likely a troubling narrative of unethical and unequal exchange, or even outright looting.
For the scholar Mary Anne Staniszewski, such simple and autonomous exhibition display methods enforce the ideological arrogance of the liberal, detached Western viewer.1616. About Barr’s work, Staniszewski writes, “This aestheticized, autonomous, seemingly ‘neutral’ exhibition method [was] creating an extremely accommodating ideological apparatus for the reception of modernism in the United States, where the liberal democratic ideal of the autonomous, independent individual born to natural rights and free will is the foundation of the mythology of the American Dream.” Mary Anne Staniszewski, The Power of Display, 70. Not only do economic inequalities inform how these objects are viewed, but so too do Western definitions of aesthetics. Stripped of function, the many artifacts in Timeless Aspects of Modern Art were made to transcend use value toward the higher notion of “artwork,” or “work-being,” in Heidegger’s terms.1717. See Martin Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art,” in The Art of Art History: A Critical Anthology, ed. Donald Preziosi (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 284–95. Western signifying practices are, as Laymert Garcia Dos Santos points out, the result of a Western ontology that should be reconsidered in light of other existing systems that are rooted in indigenous mythologies and cosmologies, such as Amerindian Perspectivism.1818. Laymert Garcia Dos Santos, “How Global Art Transforms Ethnic Art,” in The Global Art World: Audiences, Markets and Museums, ed. Hans Belting and Andrea Buddensieg (Ostfildern, Germany: Hatje Cantz, 2009), 164–76.

Timeless Aspects followed a trio of deeply propagandistic wartime displays at MoMA,1919. These were Road to Victory (1942), Power in the Pacific (1943), and Airways to Peace (1945). and can be understood as one of a number of postwar exhibitions that celebrated unbridled cross-cultural generalizations. Of these, The Family of Man (1955) went furthest in seeking an “essential oneness of mankind throughout the world.”2020. Edward Steichen, Introduction: The Family of Man (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1955), n.p. Timeless Aspects shared with these exhibitions a naïve idealism that resulted in the leveling of vastly different cultural contexts in the name of a hazy and unclear humanism. Even if it glossed over politics and revealed the curator’s own set of ethnocentric aesthetic categories, it was clearly the result of d’Harnoncourt’s passion for international material culture, and for generating greater awareness and respect for ethnographic materials among American audiences.

Organized independently of d’Harnoncourt’s exhibition, in December 1948 London’s Institute of Contemporary Art opened 40,000 Years of Modern Art: A Comparison of Primitive and Modern, curated by Roland Penrose and Herbert Read. The ICA’s exhibition had an almost identical checklist, although a more traditional display, and similarly argued for a “universality of art” based on archetypal forms that are “buried deep in the unconscious.”2121. Herbert Read, “Introduction,” in 40,000 Years of Modern Art: A Comparison of Primitive and Modern, ed. Robert Melville and William George Archer (London: Institute of Contemporary Art, 1948), 6. In the wake of the war’s trauma and destruction, exhibitions such as Timeless Aspects, 40,000 Years of Modern Art, and The Family of Man each sought to uncover some redemptive and cathartic form of essential truth about the human condition and spirit—universalist values that blatantly jar with today’s heightened awareness of cultural specificity. The postwar period was also a time of rectifying the recent past—the 24th Venice Biennale (1948) and documenta 1 (1955) both expressly aimed to recuperate abstraction and canonize the vilified prewar modernist avant-garde.

What, then, to make of today’s return to such “intuitive” pairings of art and non-art objects? Does exhibition making entail some inarticulable level of intuition? What lessons have we learned since Timeless Aspects of Modern Art, and how different are today’s exhibitions that bridge artworks with non-art objects?
We have certainly become more overtly cognizant of the violence inherent in severing a culture’s material heritage in the service of Western aesthetics and spectatorship. The controversies surrounding MoMA’s “Primitivism” threw light on continuing colonialist attitudes, while Jean-Hubert Martin’s Magiciens de la Terre, held only a few years later,2222. At the Centre Georges Pompidou and Grand Halle, Parc de la Villette, Paris, 1989. remains a landmark exhibition for addressing still-contested questions surrounding Western/non-Western distinctions, and the divide between art and non-art objects. Arguably one result of these exhibitions has been a greater sensitivity and diligence in contextualizing non-art objects, especially those originating from outside the West. Dada Africa at Zurich’s Museum Rietberg (2016) explicitly acknowledged the immense influence of non-Western artifacts and material culture on the Dadaists, albeit with some inconsistency.2323. See Abigail Winograd, “Review: Dada Africa,” Frieze,no. 181 (September 2016): https://frieze.com/article/dada-africa. documenta 13 (2012) brought together past and present in a precisely concerted effort, for instance by including ancient Afghan Bactrian princess figures and warped proto-sculptural archaeological objects from the National Museum in Beirut that were damaged in the Lebanese Civil War. Seen alongside paintings by Giorgio Morandi and sculptures by Giuseppe Penone, they attested to the destruction and trauma left in the raging wake of history, but also the enduring possibility for survival.

And just as exhibitions can heighten particular facets of artworks, subjecting a non-art object to an aesthetic context can agitate specific questions. Take, for example, the failed proposal for documenta 13 by Argentinian artists Guillermo Faivovich and Nicolás Goldberg that would have relocated the colossal El Chaco meteorite from northern Argentina to Kassel, to become “a temporary point of reference and meditation on objecthood, time, and place.”2424. Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, ed., Documenta (13) Catalogue (Ostfildern, Germany: Hatje Cantz, 2012), 30. The artists’ plan—perhaps doomed from the beginning—met with resistance from the Moqoit indigenous community, who prohibited the loan on the grounds of their belief system and El Chaco’s cultural resonance—resistance that then itself became folded into the meteorite’s complex historiography (as well as further fuel for Faivovich and Goldberg’s collaboration). The case of El Chaco points to a rather different attitude to the non-art object today. Rather than finding itself in an “ahistorical” environment where time is suspended, the object or artwork (conjoined to its exhibitionary circumstance) drags around with it various histories and understandings—even its former exhibition contexts and/or bodies of scholarship.

As an object is forced over an ontological divide from non-art to artwork, it is necessary to consider how its meaning has shifted over time, as well as what place it occupies in a living network of human relationships. One could argue that the logic itself has of late been inverted, whereby an exhibition puts forward the artwork as artifact, rather than vice versa. Consider for example the showing of The Four Elements (1937) by Nazi favorite painter Adolf Ziegler in Histories in Conflict: Haus der Kunst and the Ideological Uses of Art, 1937–1955 (2012) at Haus der Kunst in Munich. Famously included in the inaugural exhibition of the Haus der Deutschen Kunst (House of German Art), Ziegler’s painting was presented to audiences in 2012 not as having any inherent aesthetic value, but expressly as a sobering reminder of the role that aesthetics played in supporting atrocious nationalism. As in the case of the Bactrian princess figures in documenta 13,the recent conflation of artwork and artifact posits both art and non-art objects as witnesses to human history—both valid in illustrating a curatorial thesis.

Pavel S. Pyś is Curator of Visual Arts at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.