Before us is an invitation card for the opening of an exhibition in April 1975. The artist is Bas Jan Ader and the exhibition, entitled In Search of the Miraculous, was a prelude to the action he would undertake three months later, in which he attempted a solo voyage across the Atlantic in a 12½-foot sailboat, a journey that would end with his death. Other exhibits before us are less loaded with history, but simply invigorating in their variety. Here is an invitation from 1981, advertising a Group Material “one-night exhibition and feast” called Eat This Show, an invite that is pasted onto a paper plate. Here are cards bearing the instantly recognisable photo-text works of Barbara Kruger, and the drawings of Raymond Pettibon. Some of these invites and notices are simply carriers of information, while others are deeply revealing of the projects of artists, or indeed come to stand in for those projects themselves: as demonstrated by the group of invitations by the English land artist Richard Long – where the card has an important indexical function as ‘evidence’ of a solitary walk.
The above exhibits are among the more than 200 invitations, posters and flyers that feature in Please Come to the Show, on display at the Exhibition Research Centre in Liverpool. All of the exhibits come from the Museum of Modern Art Library in New York, and the project has been organised by the Library’s Bibliographer, David Senior (whose previous exhibitions for the institution include one on the publishing activities of the Yugoslavian avant-garde, and another on contemporary artists’ magazines). Since it was founded the MoMA Library has kept files of printed ephemera, both on individual artists and on other subjects, and the exhibition draws on these resources. It includes invitations and notices for exhibitions, screenings, performances and other events, from the 1950s to the present, and for an exhibition aficionado it is one of the richest – and most nostalgic – experiences that you can have in a gallery this year.
Given that much of the material was sent to MoMA as unsolicited advertising – many of the exhibits feature stamps marking their receipt by the museum – it is natural that the collection should be weighted towards New York galleries. Other material has come from archives that have been absorbed into the Library, and the collection is rich in ephemera relating to the ‘alternative spaces’ scene that thrived in New York from the late 1970s to the early 1990s, since MoMA has received material from artists’ organisations from these times.
One of the exhibition’s strengths is its representation of political activities by New York artists in the 1980s, as evidenced for instance by the Real Estate Show, an exhibition organised by Colab, a collective of artists and activists, and which opened on New Year’s Eve 1979. A flyer for this project gives a great sense of immediacy, describing how the fifty participants had occupied an empty building to put on a show relating to the housing crisis in the city, only to have the exhibition shut down by the authorities the day after the opening.
Of course, Please Come to the Show stretches beyond New York, and beyond that city’s circuit of alternative spaces. There are a considerable number of exhibits from Los Angeles, as well as from London, Paris, Amsterdam and other European art centres. Indeed, traceable within the exhibition is a loose network of galleries and institutions that participated in the international art movements that emerged between the 1950s and the 1970s, in an era when the international contemporary art world contained a much smaller number of players than it does today. Moreover, while the project is presented in an archival manner, rather than an overtly curatorial one, one also senses that it constructs an exhibition history – both for New York and for the wider arena – that is supportive of a particular set of contemporary concerns.
In general, the project draws out a history of conceptual practice – reflecting the dominance of neo-conceptual work within the ‘critical’ art world of our own day – and gives considerable space to pioneers in this territory such as Dan Graham and, in England, Stephen Willats. In particular, the exhibition draws attention to networks of conceptual practice in New York, such as the one associated with Group Material, the ensemble that was active between 1979 and 1996. This collective, whose most famous member was Félix González-Torres, was notable for its adoption of a mixture of conceptual and activist strategies, and its various projects and connections help us to write an alternative history of New York art in the 1980s and 90s: one that is distinct from the usual market-driven narrative; and one that member Julie Ault has been assiduously re-presenting in recent years, notably through an exhibition this winter at Artists Space in SoHo.
Aside from speculating about its ‘meta-narratives’, one of the pleasures of this exhibition is observing the first exposures for what are now classic works and famous artists. For instance, the exhibition features a poster for a 1981 screening of Nan Goldin’s slide show, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, a work which in its final form would include photographs from as late as 1986. The poster features a drawing of Goldin as a shadow boxer – presumably attesting to her survivalist powers – and the evening presents the Ballad in a double bill with an early film by John Waters. Similarly interesting are a group of items relating to Gilbert and George, reminding us how, right from the start, their project extended to the crafting of a shared personal brand. The exhibition contains a group of the English duo’s invitation cards from the 1970s that, irrespective of the host institution, have clearly been styled by the artists: right down to the inclusion of a logo in the form of a regal crest.
Please Come to the Show has been staged with a simplicity that is, in the main, both effective and elegant. The exhibition is arranged into roughly chronological and thematic sections, and the majority of the exhibits are displayed on a long, Perspex-enclosed shelf that snakes its way around the gallery at the viewer’s eye-line. This display system works very well, although of course it only allows the viewer to see one side of an item. Captioning could have ameliorated the latter problem, but the organisers have chosen not to caption the exhibits: a decision that is understandable given how many are effectively self-captioned, but which can result in frustration. The result is an exhibition that works best for those with a good general knowledge of post-war art history, and that offers many tempting avenues for research. In this it is in keeping with the nature of its institutional host, the Exhibition Research Centre, a small institution founded in 2012 as a collaboration between Liverpool John Moores University and Tate Liverpool, and the only operation in Britain dedicated to exhibition studies.
As the exhibition moves towards the present, one cannot help but feel a certain falling off. There are some delights, such as an invitation card made by designer and artist Will Holder for De Appel in Amsterdam – a playful example of the kind of ‘conceptual design’ that has emerged in recent years, and whose other practitioners include figures such as Dexter Sinister, with whom Senior has worked in the past. In addition, some exhibits show that highly distinctive print is still emerging from the alternative spaces circuit, as evidenced by a simple but striking flyer issued in 2013 by Yale Union, the arts centre in Portland whose founders include artist Aaron Flint Jamison – another of the curator’s regular collaborators.
However, in general one feels that the professionalisation of the contemporary art world in the last twenty years has tended to flatten this culture of printed ephemera. Artist-led initiatives – whose urgent, improvised messages are at the heart of this exhibition – have slipped down the pole of cultural relevance. While galleries and institutions have turned to design and marketing companies to standardise and consolidate their graphic identities. Moreover, many organisations are now giving up printed cards and flyers altogether, replacing them with digital formats. Please Come to the Show therefore comes at a time when the lively culture that it reflects is starting to slip into history: into the realm of the library and the researcher; into its ‘archival’ phase.