Richard Hamilton, “Man, Machine and Motion,” 1955/2012. Exhibition Reconstruction. Realized in collaboration with the Estate of Richard Hamilton. Installation view: “Ghosts in the Machine,” New Museum. Photo: Benoit Pailley
Lately, I have been enjoying traveling across time. There is always a strange pressure on curators of contemporary art: they are expected to travel to the most exotic corners of the world and know as much about artists in the Tierra del Fuego as they do about their neighbors in Brooklyn. This “Miles & More” curatorial method has become the norm in the last couple of decades. And while I am a fan of an expanded and more international landscape of contemporary art, I have also been trying to investigate the territory of history with the same fascination as others compulsively frequent the expanded latitudes of geography.
During the preparation for “Ghosts in the Machine”—the exhibition that recently opened at the New Museum, surveying the dangerous liaisons that tie art, technology, and humanity together—Gary Carrion-Murayari, Margot Norton, Megan Heuer, and I embarked on a journey across history. As though traveling on a time machine, we visited exhibitions that had been organized more than fifty years ago. By carefully researching catalogues, installation shots, and scant surviving film documentation, we immersed ourselves in a journey through the history of exhibition making.
We tend to forget too easily that exhibitions didn’t always look the same as they do today with their neutral white walls and isolated masterpieces. In fact, throughout the twentieth century, each new group of artists has introduced new modes of display: think of the Surrealists’ exhibitions or the Dadaists’ cabaret routines, to name just two of the most well-known examples.
In the course of the research for “Ghosts in the Machine” we tried to familiarize ourselves with different display strategies adopted by the artists included in the exhibition. At the center of “Ghosts in the Machine” is a reconstruction of Richard Hamilton’s “Man, Machine and Motion.” This ante-litteram environmental installation, first shown at the Hatton Gallery in Newcastle, UK, in 1955, composes a three-dimensional photo-essay that illustrates how technology establishes new spatial and optical experiences. Hamilton often stressed that important exhibitions are the ones that create a new sense of space; this is certainly true of his “Man, Machine and Motion.”
Many of the artists included in “Ghosts in the Machine” exhibited together in a series of shows in Zagreb beginning in 1961, which were organized under the label of “Nouvelle Tendance” [New Tendency]. Nouvelle Tendance brought together kinetic sculptors, optical painters, as well as members of numerous different groups such as ZERO, Gruppo N and Gruppo T, and Equipo 57. These Nouvelle Tendance artists researched different strategies to push painting beyond the confines of the canvas. In fact, in the exhibitions they organized, paintings were often hung on unusual supports and devices: Propped up in the center of the space, they rarely hung on walls, as if to stress their objectivity, their sculptural and physical presence, in an apparent refusal of the illusionistic qualities of traditional painting.
One of the exhibitions we studied more closely was “The Responsive Eye”—the survey of Optical art and perceptual abstraction organized by the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1965. This was the show that simultaneously consecrated and sentenced to death an entire movement. The exhibition became such a cultural phenomenon that it was even captured on film by a very young Brian De Palma. The film is now available online and is the ideal departure point for a trip across the history of exhibitions.