With “In & Out of Amsterdam: Travels in Conceptual Art, 1960–1976,” the Museum of Modern Art trains its modernist lens on conceptual art as a historic phenomenon. Ten European and American artists are presented in view of their connections with the city of Amsterdam circa 1970. To focus the selection further, and to forestall criticism about the artists and works inevitably excluded, the subplot of “travel” is introduced.
Throughout the time period in question, Amsterdam was a point of both metaphorical and literal departure for many young artists of a conceptual bent: Jan Dibbets left for London, where he met Gilbert and George (whose first solo exhibition abroad was at Art & Project in March 1970); Bas Jan Ader and Ger van Elk would join the Los Angeles art scene, which included the likes of William Leavitt and Allen Ruppersberg. Much of the “travels,” then, invoive site as a place of physical movement, expenditure, and discovery. Ader recorded his nightly wanderings in the photographic series In Search of the Miraculous (One Night in Los Angeles) (1973). Ader’s last exhibition is reconstructed in its own gallery, complete with invitation card, suite of 18 black-and-white photographs with handwritten text, and 80 color slides documenting a performance by a student choir, singing a farewell sea shanties to the artist, at his invitation. The “search” would end when Ader was lost during a trans-Atlantic crossing, stamping his short career with the theme of failed journeys.
Conceptual art generally travels well, and mobility is built into the artists’ focus on alternative means of distribution. The postal system makes frequent appearance, as both enabler and regulator of physical connection: Gilbert & George’s Red Boxers, hand-printed postcards mailed to recipients over an eight-week period, are “postal sculptures” that turn their means of distribution into a medium. But it is the artist-made publication that shines here—no surprise perhaps, as the exhibition is organized by Prints and Illustrated Books curator Christophe Cherix. Among Ader’s works, for example, we have the tongue-in-cheek Landslide (1969), the art journal he produced with William Leavitt “in response to the pretentious art-writing of the time.” Issue 6 was reportedly a 15-cent McDonalds hamburger mailed out in a cardboard box. A complementary exhibition on the second floor print galleries, “In & Out of Amsterdam: Art & Project Bulletin, 1968–1989,” focuses on the artist book as a mobile multiple. This exhibition’s centerpiece is the full, 156-issue run of the Art & Project Bulletins, the publication produced by the eponymous Amsterdam gallery, where all ten artists exhibited at some point in their career.
The artists of “In & Out of Amsterdam” devised strategies to draw attention from the object and towards the context of the production of art. But material is irrepressible: the sheets of typewritten text, black-and-white photographs, drawings, and maps were no doubt deliberately chosen for their functionality and de-skilled look, and they are elegantly installed to reinforce formal affinities. Holes cut into Dieter Roth’s poster for the 1961 “Bewogen Bewegung” exhibition (meant to reveal the city walls beneath) echo the “portholes” of Lawrence Weiner’s commissioned window design (inspired by his Amsterdam houseboat). Both connect formally and conceptually to Weiner’s 1971 textual proposition In and Out, installed on the MoMA’s 53rd Street windows.
Paradoxically for an exhibition about geo-historic specificity, it’s questions of context that remain unanswered. Beyond the hallway of posters—for the 1966 Provo election; or the 1969 “BBK event” during which artists occupied the Rijksmuseum to call for “a greater role for artists in determining Dutch cultural policy”—there is precious little historical grounding. The wall texts and labels give little information about the prehistory or the preoccupations of Amsterdam’s developing art scene. Nor is there any real explanation for the motivations behind conceptual art, specific to the Netherlands or otherwise. Daniel Buren said in one of his Art & Project Bulletins, “The characteristic of the proposition is to reveal the ‘container’ in which it is sheltered.” Many of conceptual art’s central questions are challenges to the legacy of modernism, whose primary repository is the Museum of Modern Art. What remains in terms of crucial historical genealogies, of which “In & Out” is an important part, is the specific, and quite contingent, nature of that container.