The Curious Incident of the Artist in the Exhibition: Art and the Activations of the Art-Curator

Posted: August 27, 2014 in Uncategorized
Katrin von Maltzahn, Buchenbetrachter, 2000

Katrin von Maltzahn, Buchenbetrachter, 2000 (yes, the actual catalogue)

With ascendency of the idea of the theory of the death of the author, during the postmodern milieu, a idea came to hold sway in the art world that the location (and, therefore, “creation” and “activity”) of the artwork resided in the audiences unfolding of meaning in the artwork and not “placement” of meaning into the object of art by the artist. This theoretical position maintained that the artobject internal-to-itself was a quantity of brute material (“work” in Barthes terminology) after leaving the studio and only could be activated in its process as art-piece by engagement in the social as personified by spectator and public (“text” for Barthes). The conceptual stance of “participation theory” where the audience created the meaning of the work, conjoined with the idea of the death of the author where the textual/social “spoke through the creator” (both in Foucault and Barthes), dislodged the author as primary meaning constructor of the text and artwork. This theoretical ground was granted further strength in the conception of intersubjectivity which found meanings only validated in interactions of subjectivites (individuals) within the social which generated knowledge(s) as opposed to mere idiosyncratic beliefs (individual subjective systems without acceptance within the Social public sphere).

The brute artobject (now divested of meaning after leaving the studio) as “thing” could only be reactivated as a meaning producer within the social settings which the curator and exhibition space devised. As no meaning is present within (meaningless) brute matter, or is outside of the social context where meanings are decided upon, the curator would necessarily need to 1) select characteristics of the artpiece, 2) a system which related the “works” of art together, and, therefore, 3) a discourse which would place the artpieces in a meaning system. Where in participation theory the spectator (usually in this theory) was the embodiment of meaning actuator, in actuality the three tier system of the curator-as-producer came to be seen as being the mechanism and medium by which meaning was actually created within the artpiece and was in the providence of the curator almost solely . As the exhibition context is never neutral, and the indications of what to “see” are laid out in the relations of work detail the meaning(s) of the unspeaking raw artpiece in the exhibition (only certain characteristics of each artpiece is underlined in the exhibition and others are ignored), the curator must be aware of this art-function and recognize that they are primary to the meaning construction of the artobject.


This theory came to be dubbed the Curatorial Auteur Theory, as first propounded in “the exhibitionist” magazine and was discussed in relation to film theory by editor Jens Hoffman ( ). As Boris Groys, noting the theatrical foundations of the theory, argues for the point of the Curator as Art Substantiator :

“At least since the 1960s, artists have created installations in order to demonstrate their personal practices of selection. These installations, however, have been nothing other than exhibitions curated by artists, in which objects by others may be – and are – represented as well as objects by the artist.  . . .  In short, once the identification between creation and selection has been established, the roles of the artist and of the curator also became identical. A distinction between the (curated) exhibition and the (artistic) installation is still commonly made, but it is essentially obsolete.

“Today we can no longer speak of the authorial autonomy of the artist because he or she, from the beginning, is involved in collaborative, collective, institutionalized, productive practice (p. 94). Today (i.e. since Duchamp, the roles of the curator and the artist equivalent in that the ready-made equated the acts of creation and selection) authorship is no longer singular but a “multiple authorship“akin to that of a film, a theatrical production or a concert.”

(“Multiple Authorship“,Barbara Vanderlinden and Elena Filipovic (eds.), The Manifesta Decade: Debates on Contemporary Exhibitions and Biennials 2006)

Harald Szeemann, the curator of Documenta 5, center left with handup.

Harald Szeemann, the curator of Documenta 5 in 1972, is perhaps the prototypical auteur curator and is often referred to as the “first of the urcurators” (after this Documenta all curators names where highlighted regarding the show) going on to posit that ” curatorial function posits the curator as a visionary, and the exhibition as their medium.”            (Clair Bishop explores this role in “What is a Curator?”

Daniel Buren, finding this reassessment of the studio vs. the exhibition space interesting, reflected at the time of the Documenta V, that the relocation of the Curatorial function as Artproducer was groundbreaking. Buren noted at the time, regard Szeeman’s realignment of the creator function of the curator,: “Documenta is characteristic, in a way. As are almost all exhibitions. But it’s very visible here. Harald Szeeman is the artist who has created this enormous painting, which happens to be the exhibition itself.“)


Daniel Buren, Allegro Vivace 2011, Kunsthalle Baden-Baden

Interestingly enough many contemporary practioners of art, like Liam Gillick, concur with this notion of imbuing the curator with more recognition regarding the creation of the art piece. This distinction of curator and artist as meaning producer of the artwork, according to these artists, should be transcended as all binaries are artificial constraints on the meaning production of an artwork, which are a limiting device imposed on the social to limit the open interrogation of the entirety of meanings that are possible to the artwork. As Gillick notes regarding the artist and the curator, the studio and the exhibition space… “there is an assumed separation of roles here that does not exist in the most productive projects now and has not done for many years.”          (

Liam Gillick, Rescinded Production, 2008

Liam Gillick, Rescinded Production, 2008

 Hal Foster notes the problematic of the curator auteur model and links it to a narrowing down of alternative possibilities of meaning construction related to the singular discourse of the curatorial voice and the power replications of ideology reflected in institutions. As he notes: “the institution may overshadow the work that it otherwise highlights: it becomes the spectacle, it collects the cultural capital, and the director-curator becomes the star.”  ( ), as does Robert Storr who calls this inversion a Cultural Schizophrenia as lately as 2005 :

It is the dovetailing of Beuys’ cultural populism with perverse variants of Roland Barthes ‘Death of the Author’ discourse that has given rise to the present schizophrenic situation, where, it is said, art engenders itself within its sign system through the ‘agency’ of ‘producers’, but critics and curators increasingly expect to be acknowledged as unique creative thinkers, and honored with appropriate billing.

Hans Dieter Huber has termed this recalibration of the functioning of the production of the artobject from artist to curator a discursive event signified as “Semantic descent” for the artist within the curated show. “the artist’s stylistic autonomy has been confiscated and he has slipped a rung lower. The ‘semantic ascent’ of the curator accompanies the ‘semantic descent’ of the artist and his work.” (

robert morris letter

Robert Morris Letter to Harald Szeemann, 1972

Robert Morris, maybe the first to tackle the idea of curator as artist, was to directly confront the vision of Szeeman when he complained about being dismissed in the circulation of meaning construction of the artwork and therefore withdrew his pieces from the Documenta V show where they were meant to be exhibited . Due to what Morris saw as the usurpation of meanings which the artist may implant within the artpiece by the curator, who would be the source of definition what the artobject was, Morris emphatically stated in his letter of withdrawal: “I do not wish to have my work used to illustrate misguided sociological principles or outmoded art historical categories.”

John Baldessari

Also, in reaction to this regarding and placement of the Curator as art creator, John Baldessari went further in this critique of the direction of Curatorial Auteur Theory (which though initiated by Harald Szeemann’s Documenta 5 exhibition was now embraced by a slew of curators in the postmodernist milieu) and argued that the Curator As Artist Ideology was a means of positioning the artist themselves as mere brute material divesting them of agency and intention (meaning): “Curators seemingly want to be artists. Architects want to be artists. I don’t know if this is an unhealthy trend or not. What disturbs me is a growing tendency for artists to be used as art materials, like paint, canvas, etc. I am uneasy about being used as an ingredient for an exhibition recipe, i.e., to illustrate a curator’s thesis. A logical extreme of this point of view would be for me to be included in an exhibition entitled “Artists Over 6 Feet 6 Inches”, since I am 6’7”. Does this have anything to do with the work I do? It’s sandpapering the edges off of art to make it fit a recipe.”(

Eli Bornowsky, Untitled, 2008, gouache on paper

Eli Bornowsky, Untitled, 2008, gouache on paper

Even within the era of afterpostmodernism (as the question of where knowledge is created (individual or society) and how meaning is related to the brute material of the object still lingers large within the artworld) this question of curator as artist still haunts the abode of the exhibition. We can find evidence with examples such as Eli Bornowsky, who curated the exhibition, After Finitude (2013), which was meant to” “rather than having a theme or investigating ideas about exhibitions, institutions, or histories, I gave my responsibility to the experience of art in general, and to my artistic practice as an abstract painter in particular”.  This Exhibition, as critic Mariane Bourcheix-Laporte, notes “essentially boils down to an agenda of furthering his own practice, using the exhibition as an artistic medium.” The review “Interrogating the ‘Artist-Curator-as-Artist’ in After Finitude” can be read here:

The Curatorial Auteur Theory, though downgraded as problematic by the majority of practioners of art and most engaged curators,is one not so easily dismissed (in both its theortical formulation and thought-experiment aspects) as it plies and resonates at the unsettled core ideas about how we think of art. Art as a medium or critique of meaning and one which is both an immobile mere thing and unresolved place of the idea. One that engages both the individual and the society, but strives to give open flight in a society which curtails meanings to the “correct one”. Contemplating the relation of Artist/Curator, Studio/Exhibition, Object/Meaning requires that we see what multitudes of the functions of art entail (Beautiful/Distasteful, Thought/Thing, Provocative/Sublime, etc.) and how the objects of art disappear into the artless (and back again).

Robert Morris, House of Vetti II, 1983

Robert Morris, House of Vetti II, 1983

More of Curatorial Auteur Theory is explored in the book Paul O Neill The Culture of Curating and the Curating of Culture(s), and Anton Vidokle’s Art Without Artists? 2010 (


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