The Exhibitions That Changed Art History

For his newest book, Bruce Altshuler selects the 25 most influential art shows from the last 40 years

Manuel Mendive’s Lifewas performed at the Second Havana Biennial in 1986.


What do “Primary Structures” in 1966, the “Times Square Show” in 1980, “Freeze” in 1988, and “Cities on the Move” in 1997 have in common? These are all exhibitions that have changed the course of contemporary art, at least according to Bruce Altshuler, the author of Biennials and Beyond: Exhibitions that Made Art History: 1962–2002 (Phaidon). A follow-up to his 2008 book Salon to Biennial: Exhibitions that Made Art History: 1863–1959, the new volume brings together a range of curatorial projects—all featuring contemporary art and all group shows.

“Given that it is almost impossible to choose 25 exhibitions in 40 years, you need some restraints,” says Altshuler, who also directs New York University’s museum-studies program. He’s fascinated with the way that exhibitions can either concretize a significant art movement, such as “New Realists” at Sidney Janis Gallery in 1962—which first brought recognition to Pop art—or offer an innovation in curatorial practice, as with Documenta 11, which held discussion platforms in a string of cities before culminating in a presentation of art objects in Kassel, Germany, in 2002.

One advantage of Biennials and Beyond over the first volume is the abundance of documentary and source materials: installation photographs, contemporaneous reviews, newspaper accounts, and catalogue essays. Some exhibitions are thought of entirely differently today than when they first were presented, like the 1993 Whitney Biennial, now known as the “Political Biennial” because it introduced so many socially engaged artists. One show, Moscow’s “Bulldozer Exhibition” in 1974, so called because it was plowed down by authorities, was hard to document at all. In every case, it was a challenge for Altshuler to pare down the information.

In the period of history covered by the earlier book, most of the significant exhibitions were curated by the artists themselves, starting with the Salon des Refusés in Paris in 1863. But since 1962, with expanding museum interest in contemporary art and the professionalization of curatorial practice, major exhibitions have been supported and produced by institutions. The hero of this latter story is Harald Szeemann, who practically invented the role of the independent curator, most notably with his show, “Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form,” held in Bern, Switzerland, in 1969. The book also makes it quite apparent that during the years covered the art world expanded to include movements from Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

Though he did not list any art fairs among his array of exhibitions, Altshuler notes that the fairs now have taken up several of the structural innovations of biennials: panels, commissioned projects, citywide venues, far-flung locales. “People were suffering from biennial fatigue, having to fly from one to the other to keep up—it was complete burnout,” he says. “Now, that feeling is directed at art fairs.”

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